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How a Sheep Named Wooly Baba Changed the Way I Perceived Lamb Chops

I learned a more compassionate world is just a meal away.

Zoe Weil at age 16 with her friend Wooly Baba

By Zoe Weil

I have many friends who adore their pets and regularly post photos of them on social media. Sometimes these same friends also post photos of their barbecues, or rather barbecued animals. My hunter and fisher friends often post selfies with the animals they’ve killed. They hold a fish dangling from a hook and smile unselfconsciously as the fish suffocates. Or they crouch behind the not-yet-cold bear they’ve shot, beaming with pride, with their beloved companion hunting dog by their side.

Our relationship with animals is full of contradictions—contradictions I understand well. I grew up an animal lover in New York City, stopping on the street for every dog I saw, begging for a dog of my own as a child, and sobbing during any movie where an animal suffered.

In high school, I befriended a sheep at the children’s zoo in Central Park. I named him Wooly Baba and visited him every week. Whenever I’d arrive and call his name, he’d come running up to me and lift his head for a neck scratch. I loved that sheep. I also loved lamb chops.

In fact, lamb chops were my favorite food. But one day, I could no longer pretend that there was some essential difference between Wooly Baba and the lamb chop on my plate. I considered becoming a vegetarian, but the truth was I didn’t want to give up the foods I liked, so I told myself that because the animals on my plate were already dead, I might as well eat them. I didn’t yet understand the laws of supply and demand. I didn’t realize that our dollar is our vote that says: “Good job. Do it again.”

Eventually, I came to understand that my choices had consequences and that when I allowed my desires to eclipse my values by eating animals, I was actively participating in the suffering of those I claimed to love.

My transformation from omnivore to pescatarian to vegetarian to vegan spanned eight years. I was a slow learner. Or rather, I was slow to commit to living more deeply aligned with my values. It’s true that in the 1970s and 80s, there wasn’t a lot of information on the abuses that occurred in modern farming, and few people had heard the word “vegan.” Back then, “substitutes” for meat, dairy, and eggs tasted pretty awful.

How different it is now. Many, if not most, people know that there is rampant cruelty in animal agriculture. It takes little time to learn that soy milk has basically the same amount of protein as cow’s milk but without antibiotic residues, pus, and the toxins that get carried up the food chain, nor to discover the terrible abuse perpetrated on dairy cows in typical factory farms. Many have become aware that fisheries are collapsing one after another as we trawl the oceans and net everything in the path, including the dolphins and turtles we are more inclined to love. And whereas it was once challenging to be vegan, now it’s easy.

I’ve heard so many reasons for not choosing a vegan diet, among them:

“I could never give up cheese and ice cream.”

“You can’t get enough protein on a vegan diet.”

“I have the wrong blood type.”

“We are omnivores, and it’s natural to eat animals. Other animals do so, so why shouldn’t we?”

I understand. I’m a CrossFitter, well aware of the protein needs associated with weight-lifting and high-intensity exercise. But the reality is that it’s almost impossible to become protein-deficient on a healthy vegan diet that meets one’s caloric needs, even if one is an athlete.

I also love the taste of meat, cheese, and eggs and know first-hand that it can be hard to give up the foods one loves, even if many of the plant-based alternatives now taste identical to those foods.

I have the same blood type that a naturopath claimed necessitated meat in one’s diet, but because there is no scientific evidence to support this claim, I have happily continued with my vegan diet for nearly 35 years, along with tens of millions of other vegans, and together our health and longevity provide quite a lot of counter-evidence that the blood type claim is bunk.

And I, too, recognize that non-human omnivores eat animals and that my body can digest meat as well as plants. That doesn’t mean I need to cause unnecessary suffering and death to animals just to please my taste buds.

As a humane educator—someone who teaches about the interconnected issues of animal protection, human rights, and environmental sustainability—I know that most people resist dietary changes even after they’ve learned that their food choices cause immense suffering, not to mention environmental damage. Such resistance can fade when we pay attention to, and educate ourselves about, the consequences of our actions.

When the inconsistencies between our values and actions become so stark; when the destruction animal agriculture is wreaking on the planet becomes so urgent; when delicious vegan options become so abundant; and when the desire to live more compassionately becomes so compelling, we can and do change.

I believe that one day, the vast majority of us will not eat slaughtered animals or force animals to produce milk and eggs for us. This day will come when enough people have shifted their diets, and food companies have shifted along with them, changing the food production system to meet the ever-growing demand for humane, sustainable, and equitably produced food. When this critical mass causes a systemic shift, the rest of the population will shift, too. We eat what we eat because that is what is served to us at our dinner tables as children, in school cafeterias, and in restaurants and convenience stores. If what’s served is different, we’ll naturally go along with our new and more humane diets.

How wonderful it would be to speed this change and not wait and look back regretfully wondering why we held on so tenaciously to cruel systems, petting our dog while feasting on bacon; filling our bird feeders while chowing down on chicken wings. We can build a more peaceful and healthy world right now, so let’s start eating for the future we want today. A more compassionate world is just a meal away.

Originally posted on Psychology Today on January 20


References

Ho, J. Soy vs. Cow’s Milk. Which is Better? HealthXchange.sg.

Sachi, S., Ferdous, J., Sikder, M. H., Hussani, S. M., (2019). Antibiotic residues in milk. Past, present, and future. National Library of Medicine.

Schadt, I., (2023). Health concerns about possible long-term effects of legally marketed milk and dairy from animals with intramammary infections. National Library of Medicine.

Newkey-Burden, C., (2017). Dairy is scary. The public are waking up to the darkest part of farming. The Guardian.

Schmerling M.D., R. (2022). Diet Not Working? Maybe it’s not your Type. Harvard Health Publishing.