About Me

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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Sociologist and the Horse Wrangler

Though it's not a "vegan" thing to do, I love riding horses.  Once  a year, like clockwork, I ride a horse during my annual trip to scenic and largely unspoiled Central Oregon.  

I'm currently reading several books on animal rights and will blog about those later.  For now, the thought-provoking two-hour conversation I had with my trail guide is worthy of a post.

Rich, the trail guide, provided me insight into the worldview of somebody who a) works CLOSELY with animals daily (and has for his entire adult life) and b) is neither vegan nor vegetarian.  During the past 15 months, most of my conversations about veganism have been with other vegans, thus limiting my ability to explore veganism from any other perspective.  Riding with Rich brought me an opportunity to see the world through a different lens.

I was, of course, using a saddle and reins, both made of leather.  In a sense, not only was I sitting on top of a horse and expecting him (Bandana) to work for me, but I was indirectly sitting on top of a cow too.  The irony that an "almost vegan" was doing this (and thoroughly enjoying it) was not lost on me.

But that was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Rich is a late middle-aged, spurs-sporting, chaps-wearing, leathery-skinned, skinny, hardworking, scrappy ol' cowboy if there ever was one.  He would look absolutely out of place pretty much anywhere but where he works (in a modern stable and in the spacious protected forest abutting a popular Central Oregon family resort).  Still, he's personable, funny and honest.  When asked about his way of life, he readily admitted that he was a dying breed, that "we're [cowboys] going extinct". 

That made me a little sad.  I'm nothing if not proud of my Western heritage and the spirit of exploration, hard work, and connection to the land and animals that goes along with that. 

A brief aside:  my grandparents grew up in South Dakota on a family farm and moved to Oregon when my mother was four.  My grandfather then ran a cement-laying business.  During the war, when meat rationing was occuring, my grandmother raised rabbits for food; from what I've heard it wouldn't be a stretch to call it a type of factory farming, though on a much smaller scale.  From a purely economic perspective, it was a smart decision:  rabbits multiply quickly, grow quickly, and are rather easily handled.  While Grandpa was sent off to war, Grandma raised the kids AND managed the rabbit-raising business.  Her father did the slaughtering.  She delivered the meat to her customers.  When few families had neither jobs nor meat, her family had both. 

Grandpa always yearned to get back to farming -- what he called REAL farming, not the kind where you simply raised a ton of animals for everybody else to eat.  So, after retirement, he bought a teeny ranch in Eastern Oregon and happily raised his horses, his cow and his chickens there.  It was really nothing more than hobby for him, but he had the space and the income to have a decent, though simple, ranch.  He worked himself to the bone, literally, taking care of his land and his animals, but as everyone in the family says, he absolutely LOVED it.  I never remember him coming to our house (in the city) without his cowboy hat or his cowboy boots.  He knew his animals like he knew his children and he knew the name of every plant he came across.  And yet he was never formally educated.

Rich reminded me a lot of my grandfather -- lean, suntanned, horse-loving, and knowledgeable about the landscape and the creatures that share it. During the ride, I learned about ponderosa pines (they can weather forest fires and if left alone, have periodic fires to clear out the underbrush every 15-35 years).  I learned about sage rats and chipmunks (they'll eat anything -- including over peppered hamburger helper, something Rich learned when he accidentally poured an entire jar of pepper in his dinner and left it aside, only to find, a half hour later, about 30 sage rats happily gobbling it up).  I learned about elk, badgers, deer, wolverines, raccoons, eagles and hawks.  Rich told some scary tales of vacationing parents encouraging their kids to go pet the deer; as Rich said, some people just should never be allowed in a forest.  (Deer will indeed attack...they are WILD creatures, even if usually beautifully docile.)  

Rich knows his surroundings in a way that few modern, city-bred people do.  Though his perspectives on many things differ wildly from mine, I admire his relationship with his environment and with his horses.  He criticizes modern clear-cutting and intentional forest fires, as he sees these as ruining the environment.  He criticizes factory farming, for it's "not how animals are supposed to live".  If it were not for his hunting, he'd actually fit quite well into the vegan "let it live" mantra.  How ironic, huh?

My grandfather would talk about his animals as if they were people --the horse that wouldn't let a child ride her and the one that would ONLY let children ride him.  The horse that only let my grandfather ride her, but nobody else.  The cow that, Grandpa claimed, was so stubborn that she reminded him of his headstrong sister, so he named the cow after her. 

Rich talked about the horses we were riding in a similar way.  For example, he described Bandana as a strong-willed, smart horse who tests his riders  to "see if you're higher than him or if he is higher than you". Despite having just been grazing prior to the ride (I saw that), Bandana tried to eat the ENTIRE ride and without warning would just start off running.  I asked Rich if he'd put me, a mother of three, on Bandana rather than either of the two young women with us (my daughter one of them).  "Absolutely," he said.  "YOU can handle Bandana."

I can attest that Bandana tried my nerves, my abilities, and my patience the entire ride.  It was, a little bit, like riding one of my stubborn, impulsive children.  But I think I passed Bandana's "test".  And I kept telling Bandana he was a "good" horse.  It felt like the right thing to do, much like telling a trying child that you still think he's OK.

Many have argued, and I heartily agree, that as factory farms have replaced family farms, the kind of *knowing* relationship between people and domesticated animals has been largely lost.  And that is sad.  Whether you eat meat or not, it's hard not to see this is a type of loss. It's probably the case that one of the few places left where one can meet a "real" cowboy, and get some appreciation for their unique knowledge base, is, indeed, at a resort where one of the recreational activities offered is guided horseback rides led by somebody whose knowledge and skills are useless in virtually all other modern environments.

If you were to see Rich on the street, you'd probably think of him as a "hick".  He dresses like one:  old jeans, threadbare button-down shirt, chaps, cowboy boots and hat.  His skin tells me that despite a job that requires him to be outdoors in the Oregon desert, he doesn't use sunscreen.  His teeth aren't that great and I don't think he uses a comb all that often.  He appears neither worldly nor bookish, though of course I didn't actually quiz him on his hobbies.  I learned that he basically lives off the land by hunting and fishing; to make some money, he works as a trail guide.  I doubt very much he has decent health coverage.  He explained to me that he lives at the edge of a protected forest where his backyard is, essentially, something like 500,000 acres of forest. 

His view of the world is, understandably, WAY different from somebody who lives, for instance, in NYC or even in one of the "big" cities in Oregon, or, really, anybody whose livelihood does NOT depend on knowing how to get along with, or work with, large animals both in relatively protected spaces (stables) and in the wild (the trails).  That doesn't mean he's right about everything, but he does KNOW something -- like, for instance, how to interpret a horse's behavior, how to help a new rider feel comfortable on top of a 1000 pound animal, or how to tell if a bear has been in the area or when the fish are plentiful or spawning.  I enjoyed talking to him because his "type" is one that I rarely run into in my academic, city life.  And he has a type of knowledge that is essentially lost in our modern, computer-driven, internet-reliant, tied-to-the-desk, sit-down, inside, world. 

I specifically wanted to talk to Rich about his lifestyle and his knowledge.  Since we were riding horses, I (naively) thought maybe he had heard of the recent Bureau of Land Management "program" for dealing with wild horses.  He had not.  He asked about it and I told him, "Well, they're using helicopters to drive horses off the land.  The horses are run for 10 or 12 miles over rough terrain; the pregnant mares often abort their fetuses and the smaller horses die.  Those that survive are wounded, dangerously dehydrated, and end up in pens.  And they're doing this because they claim that the horses are overpopulated and that they need the land for cattle grazing."

"Well," he said, "that's kinda right."  He went on to say, that the horses ARE seriously overpopulated and that they are not a native species to the US and have no natural predators.  Those two latter claims do make sense to me (though it doesn't follow that they should then be herded by helicopters and placed in pens).  I do not believe his first claim at all. 

He went on to claim that every year in Nevada, for instance, the younger wild horses are taken and trained "for programs such as these" (motioning to the horses we were on) but that you cannot do ANYTHING with the older ones -- "a ten year old wild horse will never be domesticated," he said.  I told him I didn't doubt that, but that shouldn't the wild horses just be left alone?  He reverted to the overpopulation theory and then opined that if only there were a bigger horse meat market, that would be one way to deal with them (kill them for meat). 

It was pretty darn obvious that his worldview was real different from mine.  And, on this particular issue, quite uninformed. 

After I challenged the idea that the horses were so overpopulated, since cattle vastly outnumber wild horses by something like 50 to 1, he said, "Well, the factory farms need to raise a lot of meat and it's far more efficient to do it their way than the old way."  He seemed to accept this as obvious (dumb city slicker me).  Rather than go with the full-blown animals rights perspective, I simply noted that free range is at least better for the animals, and then added that one of the primary reasons I eat a vegan diet is as a form of protest to factory farming.  He heartily agreed that free range is WAY better for animals, and that factory farming is cruel.  He then said that he prefers wild meat -- pheasant, grouse, duck, deer, elk.  Obviously, he hunts.

Did I say our worldviews differed?

He also went on to say that he's a carnivore not only because he likes meat but because he believes our bodies need it.

At this point, my daughter was turning around on her horse (she was in front of me) and shooting daggers at me, silently begging me to SHUT UP.

I totally avoided all the obvious rejoinders to the whole you-need-meat argument. 

We plodded along for a little while, and then he turned to me and asked, "Can you explain to me the difference between a vegetarian and a vegan?"  I did.  He nodded his head, surely thinking, "this chick is wack!" 

He then asked me what I do when vegan food isn't readily available.  I admitted that sometimes I will consume dairy, particularly in situations where not doing so results in having little to eat, or when a host has misunderstood what vegan means and has thoughtfully prepared a vegetarian meal.  He nodded his head, as if to say, 'that's reasonable'.   Of course, I don't *really* know what he was thinking.

I asked a lot about wildlife in the area -- I LOVE seeing wildlife, but of course had seen nothing wilder than deer during my week there.  He thought I was worried that we'd be attacked by a bear.  "Don't worry; that hardly ever happens and if it were to happen, I could handle it."  I assured him that wasn't actually what I was concerned about (and I didn't even ask what he would have done about it), but rather with whether or not the populations were healthy and not endangered.

He then took an unexpected turn (or was it expected?).  "Where are you from?"  he asked.  I said Oregon.  He then went on to criticize those "crazy Californians with their concerns about encroachment".  Presumably, if I had said I was from California, he would have refrained from this line of conversation. 

Why, I asked him, did he think their concerns with encroachment were crazy?  He said that the amount of land people use, compared to the amount available to animals, is minimal.  So we do not, he concluded, need to be so concerned about how much land we use -- the animals still have plenty.

Well, that is pretty much the opposite of everything I've ever heard about animals, people, and land.  But rather than argue with him, I took a different approach.  "Well," I said, "when you live out here, a good 40 minutes from the nearest city that isn't all that big to begin with, in a state that has more protected areas and more undeveloped areas than most other states, it's easy to think the animals have plenty of room.  But in California, the population is SO large and the sizes of the cities and suburbs so huge that they ARE using up their water resources, for instance, as well as the land that the animals need."

He nodded his head.  "Yes," he said, "that probably is true I guess.  Californians don't have as much space as we have here; they do have a lot of people and water problems.  Still, did you know that the cougar population is three times higher than it was 25 years ago?  They're no longer endangered!"

I told him I thought that was great.  He replied that he thought it signaled that they should be available to hunt again.  I should mention here that I have not done research to find out if he was actually *right*.  I went on to tell him that an increase in the cougar population is a good example of how a policy changed human behavior (hunting cougars) in order to benefit an animal one (cougars back to healthier population levels). 

It wasn't so much that I was necessarily right, as much as I found a way to get him to see the issue (human-animal-land relationship) in a way that KEPT HIM IN THE CONVERSATION.  This is a lesson that I feel most vegans could benefit from.

He did, however, then say something that I just chose to listen to, rather than challenge, even though there are about 100 ways to challenge it.  He said, "We humans encroach.  That's what we do. We ARE predators."  He then explained that the cougar population was up because the deer population was up and that was because of earlier restrictions on deer and cougar hunting.  I asked what the cougars' natural predators are.  He looked at me incredulously.

"Us!"  Dumb chick.  Us.

Well, I guess that makes sense.  Rarely have I thought of humans as predators (except in the negative sense that vegans would portray people as abusing and using and killing enslaved animals).  But if you consider relationships between animals AND the fact that people ARE animals, then doesn't it make sense, in a way, to think of us as predators -- dare I say even as natural predators?  Of course, at the extremes, it's very very ugly...certainly the predator argument could be used as an excuse for the worse possible "relationships" between people and animals. 

But his comment did get me thinking:  are we simply part of the prey-and-predator food chain and if so, is it so sensible to think that people should *not* eat meat? 

I'm not arguing for shooting cougar, and certainly not for forgoing veganism, just for considering the idea that arguably, veganism is a very UNNATURAL way for people to CHOOSE to live (not that that makes it wrong, mind you).

This cowboy, who in so many ways is an anathema of me, gave me some good things to think about.  In a nutshell, he made me consider the "nature" of human encroachment and the "nature" of humans as predators.  Of course, even if his simplistic portrayal of human nature has some truth to it, it's not a sufficient reason to forgo working against that very nature. 

Still, I enjoyed talking to him.

And I still like horseback riding.  A lot.


  1. This was so interesting and entertaining Elaine! Maybe chapter 3 in your novel ok? Absolutely listening to other points of view is the best way to understand and be understood. No doubt you both took away lots to think about as I did reading this.
    I think about the food chain/human predator part a lot too. By not eating animals we are making a choice that goes against our survival instinct and culture. That takes a huge change of mind, body, and spirit. I'm still in my first few months of vegetarianism and taking it all day by day. I appreciate having the support of your site. Glad you had a good vacation and enjoyed riding. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  2. Thank you, this was such an interesting read! It's also wonderful lesson about respect and finding value in differing perspectives, even when those views might be irritating or worse - seriously, there would have been several points in this conversation that I would have been very annoyed! We could all use more of this lesson.

    I am torn about the idea of veganism (or vegetarianism) as an "unnatural" choice per se. It does make sense that humans are predators and certainly it is the way we were able to survive and thrive, and so in that sense eating meat would be the "natural" thing to do. But we as a species have evolved to the point that it is no longer necessary to eat meat in order to provide what our bodies require. We have the know-how to provide these things in other ways. If you wanted to carry the same logic out in a different direction, you could argue that using/developing modern medicine is an unnatural choice we make as well. We are the only species which has the capacity to circumvent natural selection via things like viruses, plagues, etc. I'm certainly not saying that curing cancer or AIDS is something I'm against but it is, in a technical sense, rather "unnatural" for us to do.

    Also, we are so absurdly unethical and wasteful in food and material production now, particularly animal products - I don't think many of would agree that this is at all what nature intended. So maybe the natural thing to do is use our wonderfully-evolved brains to figure out how NOT to do that anymore (and maybe I'm just justifying my own choice here). Perhaps given our contemporary context, the idea of what really qualifies as "natural" has changed. A biologist might shoot me for saying so...thankfully, I don't know any. :)

  3. Thanks, Angela (and April) for your comments. Angela -- Your comment reminded me that I broke one of my own rules, namely, using "natural" as an excuse for anything. Many people put "natural" on a pedestal, forgetting how often we do NOT want what's natural in our lives (lice are a great example). As you point out, AIDS is "natural" too -- that doesn't mean we have to keep it. That said, we might *want* to keep somethings that are decidedly "unnatural" such as the choice to eat a vegan diet. :)

    I apologize for that. One could make an argument either way -- meat eating is as much a choice as is veganism or vegetarianism, no need to claim that any of the three are "natural"!

    It's worth reminding everybody that domesticated animals are, by definition, NOT natural. I'll leave it to you all to debate whether or not they should exist....surely they would not, in their current form(s), were it not for human intervention (breeding, raising, domesticating, etc.).

  4. Don't apologize in the least! The choice to use natural/unnatural here is perfectly clear and fitting. I find the whole idea very thought-provoking and a great example of constructionism...where exactly is the line between what is (currently) considered natural or not? It's very fluid, and as your discussion with Rich shows, it is certainly dependent on wherever and however it is that we live. I think you make an excellent point about what we want to keep versus what we don't want to keep (ESPECIALLY lice!)

  5. Interesting read. Confused in a couple of places.

    Confusion 1 - do you disagree with the BLM claim that expanded horses populations are overgrazing land rented to cattle grazers or BLM claim that expanded horse populations are endangering native species, or that horses are not native to North America.

    Confusion 2 - I got the impression that you did not think of humans as "natural" predators. Is my impression accurate? If so what did you think we were, if not predators? Stewards?

    Confusion 3 - Not sure why you find riding horses enjoyable. I happen to love horseback riding, and do not think commanding an animal to bend to my will, go here, don't eat grass now, run now, slow down, is worthy of concern. I like the symbiotic nature of riding, makes me feel humble and free, particularly when galloping across a field. I somehow thought the Almost Vegan lens has a perspective that promotes moderation within a set of truths. Not sure how the enjoyment commanding an animal to behave a particular way fits into to that other than it does no harm to that particular animal.

  6. Teacher Man -- Regarding confusion #1. You actually didn't understand the BLM concern. The BLM *claims* that horses are overpopulated and independent researchers have found that a) they're not and b) the real agenda behind BLM's driving them off the land is that the cattle ranchers want MORE land for their cattle. (The horses aren't currently on "cattle" land; the ranchers WANT the horses' land.) Horses are a non-native species; that I totally agree with and can give you cites that support that if you don't believe me. Cattle are non-native too. Given the choice between letting a now wild population be free (particularly since it is NOT a very big one) and giving yet more land to cattle -- which contribute wildly to environmental disaster due to their numbers -- I choose letting the horses be free.

    Confusion #2: I actually think there is a very good argument for the idea that humans are natural predators. But we can make a choice that is more ethical for the environment and the animals by being far less of one!!! Particularly because of population growth, there's far too many of us and too few of everybody else (animals). WE have the power to change OUR ways so that THEY can live. So, yes, we're predators but YES we can also be stewards instead. However predator-like we've been in the past in order to get to where we are now is, arguably, no longer necessary, at least not to the extremes it's generally been taken.

    Confustion #3: From a strict vegan perspective, breaking a horse in order to make it ride-able is an example of changing that animal for OUR purposes (not the animal's interest). This will be covered more in the next blog, which will be strictly on animal rights as conceived by vegans. Vegans wouldn't ride horses because that is an example of using the animal for US rather than letting the animal live on his/her own terms. Complicated, and I will critique this in next post. For now, know that I feel there are important moral differences between animals used for food that involve killing, animals used for food that doesn't involve killing (though that isn't what happens in modern system...) and animals used for work (horses) or just pleasure (pets). I'd argue that the last category is perhaps the least morally objectionable, though we hardly, in modern society, "need" to ride horses or even use them for labor.

    But I do love riding. And I do love the gentle (usually) nature of being on the horse and slowly meandering along with a higher vantage point I rarely have. I like feeding them, petting them, grooming them, watching them. True. But not a vegan position. An "almost vegan" one. :)

  7. Quote:

    "are we simply part of the prey-and-predator food chain and if so, is it so sensible to think that people should *not* eat meat?

    I'm not arguing for shooting cougar, and certainly not for forgoing veganism, just for considering the idea that arguably, veganism is a very UNNATURAL way for people to CHOOSE to live (not that that makes it wrong, mind you)."

    Elaine, you said you thought this was a good argument, but it is actually a terrible, fallacious argument.

    I will concede that we are "natural" predators. Two problems immediately arise when using that premise to JUSTIFY any action at all.

    A) What is "natural" is entirely unclear; to wit, perhaps EMPATHY, not violence, is "natural". The point is that "natural" is an utterly vacuous concept.

    And, far more importantly, B) the fallacy in your argument is clear: nothing MORALLY relevant follows from whatever is "natural" or "instinctual". What is "natural" is merely an ongoing process of evolution by natural selection; the conceptual difference, therefore, between "natural" and "moral" could not be greater. As an example, sexual aggression to the point of rape is "natural" for males of our species, and males of our evolutionary ancestors. The same is true with violence and "out-grouping" (i.e. bigotry). However, it DOES NOT follow that rape, war, and racism are, therefore, MORALLY acceptable.

  8. Interesting post Elaine. For another perspective on wildhorses, check out this article in the most recent Friends of Animals Newsletter http://friendsofanimals.org/actionline/summer-2010/wild_horses.php. It is an interview with Ginger Kathrens, Executive Director of the Cloud Foundation.

  9. Gonepie -- Yeah, I read that. Nice interview.

    Alex -- Uh, I *did not* equate "natural" with "moral" and in fact, in the next to last paragraph I wrote "...even if his simplistic portrayal of human nature has some truth to it, it's not a sufficient reason to forgo working against that very nature".

    Your rather harsh words to me simply aren't warranted.

  10. @Elaine: But what did you intend, then, by this:

    "are we simply part of the prey-and-predator food chain and if so, is it so sensible to think that people should *not* eat meat?"

    Or this:

    "In a nutshell, he made me consider the "nature" of human encroachment and the "nature" of humans as predators."

    If you did not intend to suggest a POSSIBLE justificatory premise, then why did you say it? In other words, the question you posed -- "is it so sensible to think that people should *not* eat meat?" -- is an "ought" statement, "should", that is, is a MORAL concept. Therefore, my refutation of that kind of reasoning stands.

    If you intended "should" as a mere practical question -- NOT "should" but CAN people stop eating flesh -- then that is entirely different. But the cowboy you were speaking with, while he vacillated between different definitions of "should", clearly suggested that our "natural" predation justifies continuing to be predators. That is a moral argument, and I refuted it.

    I understand that you think we should be "working against that very nature". However, my point is that appeals to "nature" ARE NOT good arguments at all on any level.

  11. Alex -- Did you read through the comments and my responses to them? I addressed the "nature" thing above in an earlier response to somebody else. Biology does not determine morality -- I would never argue that! But neither is it totally irrelevant as to why so many people *do* eat meat and dairy...or even to thinking about why we have evolved to what we are (not that it's not worthy of change...)

  12. @Elaine: I am certainly not arguing that YOU argued that "biology determines morality", or "equating" "natural" with "moral", those would be closer to a naturalistic fallacy.

    What is implied in your comments about natural predation and whether or not it is "sensible" (your word) to "think people should not eat meat", is an is/ought problem, whereby an empirical statement like, "We are natural predators", is used to derive an evaluative claim like, "People should eat meat".

    If you did NOT mean to suggest that people have a REASONABLE premise when they appeal to our natural predation, then okay. But the final two or three paragraphs of your post, and the cowboy's use of the premise, really suggest that you did.

    Your final comment here clarifies things to an extent that you have changed the implication of some of your initial post.

  13. You really love to argue Alex.

  14. @Elaine: One of THE single most often argued positions against veganism is this kind of appeal to "nature". Besides being utterly illogical, the logical conclusions of that kind of reasoning are morally atrocious. And yet, people keep believing it, and feel quite confident in their position. Like the cowboy you were conversing with. My point is that we must NEVER allow "nature" to be used as a justification OR rationalization for any action.

  15. Alex -- This is THE point you bring up on my blog every so often. I GET your point. Though I "apologized" for my use of the world "natural" in the blog, I've re-read this thing now several times and I agree with Angela that actually, it makes total sense here. I really really really don't want to keep discussing this particular point in this particular blog -- there's so much else here!! I can't resist the pun -- you're beating a dead horse. :)


Politeness is always appreciated.