To be or not to be

I felt something soft under my foot and thought I’d stepped in dog shit. We were outside the door of Ottawa’s newest fancy donut joint, Maverick’s, where we planned to buy a ½ dozen of the pricey treats and bring them home to the children for all of us to enjoy. We’d spent the last 2 hours hiking in Gatineau Park, tromping up and down hills aglow in fall foliage – maples, aspens, birches, fanned out like a male turkey’s tail feather display. The bear warning signs had not deterred us.


Bears have been plentiful in the bush this fall. Cottagers have reported bears in greater numbers – and boldness – since late August. One poor lost black bear even wandered into Ottawa’s downtown Byward Market in early September. He probably smelled Lapointe’s Fish Market and the berries on display at the stalls and thought he’d hit the bear mother lode.

As we walked, my husband would occasionally let rip a loud whistle and I banged my metal water bottle on craggy Canadian Shield outcroppings hoping its gonging would keep the bears away. I needn’t have worried since the woods and trails were full of people enjoying nature’s annual dying foliage. (Have you ever wondered why people can’t go out in explosions of colour instead of fading into transparency?)



We never saw a bear or even bear scat. Mushrooms and fungus sprouted in profusion on trees and on the damp forest floor. Sawdust and fresh cut fallen trees from the recent tornado were scattered here and there but no bears.

Back in my urban element, safe on a flat concrete sidewalk, I was feeling relieved and well exercised having tromped 6.5 km over hill and dale and escaping unscathed. Poised on the threshold of donut nirvana, I anticipated my reward. That’s when I felt a soft velvety squish underfoot. I was certain that when I lifted my toe I’d find dog crap smooshed in the treads of my shoe. I cursed the dog owner who’d so discourteously left it on this busy spot and reached for the wall to steady myself as I hoisted my foot to survey the damage.


A vole, not shit, lay on the sidewalk, its hind leg twitched wildly. Its tail spasmed. My husband came up beside me as I smacked a hand over my mouth to smother a cry. “It’s dead,” he said. “No he isn’t,” I wailed as I watched it thrash. He gave it a whack with his foot to put it out of its misery as I sobbed in the entrance of the donut store.

All weekend, I thought about my reaction to this accidental death. I’ve been wondering how I could be so upset when I regularly eat meat without ever thinking about how animals raised for food are treated. It got me thinking in strange – for me – directions.

Yesterday, at the family Thanksgiving feast, I surveyed the array of food on the buffet table and I saw living creatures – a pig, a cow, and a gorgeous fanned feather-tail turkey. I filled my plate with bean salad, mashed potatoes and spicy Moroccan lentils, vegetarian options provided for my niece who has decided to take meat out of her diet. I was thankful for these choices yesterday and today I’m considering joining my niece in her vegetarian diet and let the creatures – like the bears – be.



30 thoughts on “To be or not to be

  1. I have multiple, totally inconsistent meat-eating guidelines. I don’t order meat when I’m out, because then I’m totally in charge of what I eat, and I can go without mea (unless it’s a Frosttop cheeseburger). I don’t ever eat chicken, because, well, I wrote a book about being nice to chickens. On the other hand, I eat whatever my husband (the cook) fixes for me, and one of my favorite dishes is his dry-rub ribs. You can’t be from Memphis and not eat BBQ. All of that aside, I’d be broken hearted if I’d smushed a vole. I dug one up in my yard once, curled like fetus in the ground, and that was bad enough. I probably shouldn’t have shared that ….


  2. Great post! I’ve been mostly vegetarian since I was in college (well over 20 years ago) because I find it hard to eat beings with faces. Being vegetarian is surprisingly easy when you embrace a global cuisine: Indian food, Mediterranean food, Morocco… it’s fun too cook and eat “around the world”. Living in an urban area with International grocery stores is helpful too.

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  3. Thoughtful post. If I had to actually kill an animal to feed myself, I would eat much less or maybe even no meat. (Yes, cowardly, I know!) As it is, I try to buy from local farmers that raise and harvest their animals ethically and humanely – free range, grass fed etc. The way it used to be done. I wonder why people select only certain meats to eat – why is fish OK but cow not? Is it because fish aren’t as cute and cuddly? And why are vegetables OK but animals are not? Plants and trees communicate with each other, just like animals do. When we tear up land to plant crops, we are disturbing/killing the creatures that already lived there – plants, animals, microbes even! So even vegetarians have blood on their hands. I guess the point for me is: we have to eat to live but we can choose to do so in an ethical and responsible way and to honour the food we are eating and not waste it.

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    • Every time we go to farmers’ markets we bring home pamphlets and cards from the various folks who raise happy cattle, pigs, and chickens and promise ourselves we’ll buy their meat. But then we remember we don’t have a big freezer, just the one attached to the fridge. Storage is definitely a problem. As someone else pointed out, changing your way of eating after a lifetime of doing something else takes a lot of planning. But I think its worth it.

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  4. I don’t eat much meat. I used to not eat meat. For years. There is a huge difference between hunting or preparing an animal for sustenance and accidental voleslaughter. 😦 I’m so sorry that happened to the vole, and to you. No matter how you eat, it’s nice to know your soft heart cares for animals.

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    • Generally, I like plants better than meat and recently discovered that portobello mushrooms have 8 grams of protein! Lately, every time I eat a piece of beef I swear it smells like manure. I’ll strive for less meat and more veg in the coming weeks and see if I can coax my spouse along.

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  5. I started many years ago by giving up all meat except that raised organically and humanely. I wasn’t eating a lot of meat any way , not since the mid 80’s when I gave up the husband….. From that stance I slowly gave away meat altogether. Except now and again when I seem to get low on some mineral or protein and crave something, then I share a store cooked free-range organic chicken with the pup. It’s an odd thing and seems to happen once every two months or so. The only thing I’m radical about is not supporting the farming factory growers of livestock – everything else is a process.

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  6. Another great post! I’m stuck on the fact that you ignored that bear sign. A friend once told me “birds are best viewed from a romantic distance,” and I think we can pretty much assume that’s true for bears as well! As for the meatless part, when someone snidely asks me when I stopped eating meat, I love saying, “1981.” Technically, that was red meat, but I’ve gradually phased out the rest of it, except for eggs and the occasionally buttery dessert. I, too, live with a “gleeful carnivore,” who grills a lot. Last week he grilled figs for me! So good.

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    • I didn’t want to ignore the sign but my outdoorsy man forged ahead and I didn’t want to be left behind, all alone, as bait for the bears.

      Grilled figs! I’ve only encountered figs in Newtons.


  7. I have similar feelings. It’s very hard to be the cook and go vegetarian when you have someone in the house who loves meat. And when you’ve cooked with meet your entire lifetime. But it can be done. I am not successful but I’m still trying.

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    • Its good to hear that you’re working on it, too, Dawn. My husband is agreeable to the occasional vegetarian meal but I’m pretty sure he’d balk at going 100% meatless. Maybe when I retire (not at all imminent, alas) we can work towards a 50-50 arrangement. Something to strive for at any rate.


  8. Susanne, I felt your pain and horror at the incident…I am almost there with you. Pretty actually took meat out of her diet several months ago – eats only fish and about to give that up and go totally vegetarian. I think I’m close, too. I struggle to rescue frogs in our pool skimmer every day but then eat meat. Go figure. I selectively worry about creatures. Hm. Contrarian.


  9. I totally understand your reaction. The idea of causing pain to any living creature upsets me terribly. Lately I’ve been flirting with veggie diets but have settled for now on what I called ‘selectarian’. Eating fish and a bit of poultry (can’t quite give up the animal protein) but no red meat unless the opportunity seems exceptional. I think any shift to more veg and less meat is a move in the right direction. Happy Thanksgiving!

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