by Marsha Rakestraw

One of the mini-activities I do as part of a presentation I give on the lives and deaths of factory farmed animals is a survey.

As I flip through images of farmed animals on my PowerPoint — cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys — I ask the audience how many of them have eaten that species of animal before. Almost everyone raises a hand.

Then I show a picture of rabbits. Occasionally a hand will raise.

Insects (and I always emphasize “intentionally” here) — very few hands are raised.

Then I ask: What about dogs? Cats? Gorillas? Whales? By that time, people are pretty quiet and thoughtful … and a little disgusted.

I ask, “No one raised their hands for dogs, cats, gorillas or whales. Why is that?”

And then we launch into a brief discussion about how our food choices primarily come, not from a biological imperative, but from tradition, habit, and culture. I use junk food as a similar example: it’s not a biological imperative, but it’s something a lot of us consume because of tradition, habit, and culture.

If we look at the choices that we make and the beliefs that we hold, many of them probably haven’t stemmed from a source of careful, thoughtful, critical deliberation, but from what we’ve been told (by family, by society, by repetition) is normal and natural.

We often don’t even know why we make the choices that we make.

I’ll never forget an anecdote I was told that perfectly illustrates this unconscious, unquestioning decision making. One day a woman was preparing a ham for dinner. She cut off the ends of the ham before she put it in the pan to bake. Her daughter, who was watching, asked her why she cut off the ends. “I don’t know.” she replied. “That’s how my mother always did it.” The gist of the tale is that, when each preceding generation asks her mother why she did it that way, great-great-grandma, who started the tradition, did it because the ham was too long to fit into the pan she was using.

We drive to work, to run errands, to go to the corner store. We eat turkeys for Thanksgiving and pigs for Easter. We give lots of gifts wrapped in single-use paper during the holidays. We buy certain brands of products because that’s what our parents did.

We operate on automatic pilot, making our daily choices because of tradition, habit, and culture, without stopping to consider whether those choices — those habits — actually reflect our values and the kind of world that we want.

We can choose to nurture and support a just, compassionate, sustainable world for all by taking the time to rethink our traditions, our habits, and what we accept as a “normal” and “natural” part of society.

We can commit to choosing consciously and critically. We can pause before we cut off the ends of that ham and ask if what we’re about to do really reflects our values.