Immersing myself in a craft that deals with death is a constant pot-stirrir, so to speak. I got involved with taxidermy in the first place to deal with the profound sadness I felt when seeing recently perished birds lay to waste on the sidewalk, and the disrespectful way their corpses were treated. I am compelled always to imagine myself in the place of any person or creature when faced with their situation; its my empathetic nature. So of course when I come across a pigeon laying dead on the sidewalk while busy pedestrians brush past it or absent-mindedly nudge it into the street where it will just be repeatedly run over for weeks until its essence is completely blended with the pavement, I imagine myself or some other person I love there, dead on the ground, being ignored until I or they decompose.
So I started with pigeons and city birds. Then I moved onto pheasant purchased from my local butcher. It occurred to me that I was closing the gap between “farm to table” which back then hadn’t become a buzz-term yet. I just knew that, along with being compelled to preserve these creatures, I had a nagging feeling in my gut telling me to develop a closer relationship with my food sources. All this meant at this time was actually knowing if the chicken on my plate was even chicken. Food was a bit of a mystery to me; I never picked up the cursory skills in the kitchen which would allow me to debone and butcher a chicken with confidence.
But it tasted so good with everything and was the perfect source of lean protein!
So I kept turning my brain off for the time being. Then I watched “Food, Inc.”. My husband and I swore off chicken and meat, unless it was “happy meat” meaning it was organic, purchased at Whole Foods, etc. This has kind of lasted, on and off, depending on how healthy our wallets are at the time, and then recently this nagging feeling clawed its way out of my stomach and into my frontal lobe. I cannot ignore it any longer.
My mind has been a swirling perfect storm lately of feeling disenfranchised at the cold and painful realisation that my government is a bloated, bizarre and antiquated machine which cares not an iota for me or my family . Commercials aren’t true. Magazines lie. Everything I see and read about anything is some sort of visual or emotional manipulation to sell me something or just fuck with me, and you too. The latest fiasco with the pink ammonia slime in ground meat is outrageous. Then there’s the nonsense with FDA & Monsanto vs. Whole Foods. That’s two headline-hogging recent events out of the millions \ of atrocious and irresponsible things going on behind the scenes with food distribution in the last twenty years.
And I’m not going to point fingers and say that there’s a bad guy because it’s so much larger than that. I don’t think “the man” wants me and you and everyone we know to eat poison and die. I just think the human race exploded like a popped kernel of corn and our population, along with its needs, have grown faster than the machine can keep up with. There are too many people to feed in the fashion the last couple generations have come to expect, and the only way mega purveyors have come up with to supply the demand is to prioritize quantity. They’ve lost sight of what nourishment really is, along with most of us. A steak is something that should be treated gloriously; it can be a warm, sensual, savory experience which, when obtained and consumed properly can nourish one’s entire being. A grace should be said, not necessarily to any god but to the actual cow whose life was taken to make this meat, and the workers at the slaughterhouse who do all the dirty things we can’t bear to think of when we buy our nice precut, seran-wrapped goodies at the market.
That’s what eating a steak should be like. But what its become is an anonymous substance which the general population happily shovels into their mouths with nary a thought of where it came from or what’s in it. This fact was grossly illuminated for me as I worked a gig on a cruise ship recently while reading Georgia Pellegrini’s “Girl Hunter” in my downtime. Absorbing her experiences of working in the food industry and deciding to make a change and source her own meat herself, against the backdrop of thousands of folks absent-mindedly shuffling down the buffet line three times a day piling their trays high with mystery meat was a surreal experience.
Surreal enough, in fact, to finally push me over the line and ban meat from my diet. I don’t really consume much to begin with except when I go out to eat so it’s not a huge change. And it’s not that I don’t like meat. I love the chemicals my brain releases when I bite into a wild boar taco or a juicy dripping burger. It’s carnal, its sexy, and it’s nourishment. But for the moment, until I can construct a way to be more responsible and involved in the steps taken to land this meat on my plate, I am staging my own personal protest against it. The exception to this, of course, is pheasants or rabbits I purchase from my trusted and ethical local butcher whom I know sources his animals properly, or any game meat from a hunter I trust.
And this is where my craft/career comes into play. As taxidermy gains more traction in this country as an art form, a byproduct is cheaply manufactured fur and feather products ( feather hair extensions, anyone?) available at any discount beauty supply store in any metropolis. There is an exploding demand for this stuff and folks who see dollar signs are too concerned with obtaining their stock to care about just how much of it they’re slaughtering and what conditions said stock is living in before getting dispatched.
My career has been making a slow and steady ascent up into the success stratosphere and as I continue to make my way and become more renowned for my calling, I feel the need to distinguish myself as an ethical and humane taxidermist. I’m constantly testing my moral waters and trying to figure out what my comfort level is, and it changes all the time. I mounted a fox that was sourced using traps and I’m not proud of it ( I also attempted to make a meal out of this fox so no part of it would be wasted) . At the time I thought it was OK to use the newer more humane technology but now I just don’t feel informed enough to make that call. I would need to be the person collecting the animal from the trap to see just how it feels to look this creature in the eye, to see it die.
Ms. Pellegrini touches on this throughout her book; the electrifying moment when she would “look her meat in the eye” before she killed it. And this is my point: I really am not trying to say that there is any right or wrong. I’d like to eliminate the black and white notion of good vs bad in my mind altogether. What I do want for myself, and for you and everyone you love, is to be aware. Think. Just think the next time you sink your teeth into that chicken sandwich, about the bird and where it came from. Was it genetically modified to have such large breasts it couldn’t walk? Does the burger pattie on your grill contain more pharmaceuticals than any of us might consume in a lifetime? If this is OK, fine, eat it. Just know. I think if we all took a little more time to connect with where our food comes from, the results would be resoundingly positive.
Am I claiming innocence and superiority? Far from it. I have NO ROOM to judge anyone and no intention to do so. I still eat my daily helping of yogurt and cottage cheese from cows I’ve never met. I put the little bit of faith I have left into the “organic” label on the container and hope that these cows aren’t a bunch of sad girls hooked up to a maze of tubes all day. I consume an insane amount of canned tuna and how do I know that just because I bought it at an organic shop it wasn’t sourced by unethical fishermen dropping anchor too close to some tiny pacific island, thus “stealing” all the fish form the locals who depend on that food source?
I eat fruit that has never (and will never -well, a heated planet could bring lemon trees to Philadelphia…) grown anywhere near my home and has to be sprayed with chemicals to preserve it for the journey across the country to my local grocer, and who knows how many low wage workers are exposed to these chemicals in the process. I still work jobs that require me to get on a plane that chokes birds with fumes when they’re not being chased off their natural migratory path by airport employees trying to prevent them from being sucked into jet engines. I wear leather boots. I’m still bewildered by (yet always thankful for) the phenomenon of indoor plumbing and probably use more water than I should. I am dependent on contact lenses that come from who knows where and the chemicals that go with them which I am sure have been tested on animals.
It’s overwhelming to think of all the ways in which my lifestyle is harmful to animals, but I have chosen not to be bogged down with guilt. Instead I am making each decision with thought and care, constantly thanking each and every animal or human who sacrificed to bring me the luxuries I’ve come to expect in my life, like my iPhone and a decent Manhattan. Because it’s only where and to whom I was born that separates me from them. And we’re all connected. I truly believe this with every fiber of my being.
This is a lengthy post and if you are still with me, I thank you. Hopefully something in here struck a chord with you and I invite you to comment on it. Please. If you agree or think I’m way off base, please let me know. Discussion can only bring more awareness and I can always use more of that.