The Ethical Meat Eater

By, Jill O'Brien

A couple of months ago, I found myself in conversations that, well, sort of ticked me off. At least at first anyway.

The first conversation was with a non-profit that does a lot of good work in support of animals. They were looking for a place to have a fundraiser to help keep the black-footed ferret from going extinct. They were also looking for a caterer for the event, which they asked if I could do. Although I no longer cater, I do make exceptions for organizations that I believe in, and will offer my time and talent as my contribution. I’m a big fan of ferrets.

Our friend and sourcing partner’s buffalo ranch is located on the Conata Basin on the edge of the Badlands, where black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced. This ranch is managed for grassland health, ecosystem wholeness and bio-diversity.  With bison, prairie dog and ferret cohabitation on the prairie, it seemed like the perfect place. The ranch agreed to host the event, but I was uncertain if I’d be able to cater it with an unpredictable travel schedule ahead of me.

Black Footed Ferrets

I spoke with the organizer of the event to get some preliminary information: number of guests, facility location on the ranch, time, menu, etc. The only question she was able to answer at that time regarded the menu—it was to be all vegetarian. Before thinking and maybe because I instantly felt the irony in this, I said, “You’re not serving buffalo?”  She replied that members of her organization take an oath not to eat animals. “Oh,” I replied and then, not being able to stop my mouth from moving quickly enough, continued, “But if we didn’t eat some of the animals the population would get out of control and the land would become degraded and there wouldn’t be a healthy habitat for anything.” Gulp.  To which she responded, “I guess that’s one way of looking at it.”  We continued with a pleasant conversation and I told her I would get back to her.

The second conversation was with a friend who had just watched a fairly new documentary titled “What the Health.”  She asked if I had watched it and I had not, but inquired what it was about.  She explained that it was about going to a 100% vegan, plant-based diet. She went on to say, there were a lot of “expert” doctors that stood behind this idea.  The film suggested that eating animal by-products was like frying up cigarettes (which they do in the film) and eating meat is directly linked to all kinds of diseases. She added that the paleo dieters have it all wrong since our early ancestors were herbivores and frugivors (fruit eaters). “Really? How far back were these ancestors?” I asked.  

These kind of radical films make me crazy and a little worked up.  I fired off in rapid succession: “I don’t suppose they talked about the chemicals used to grow crops and the runoff into our rivers, lakes and oceans? Did they have a solution for what to do with the growing population of animals? Where would they go?  What would they eat? Have they ever seen what a handful of chickens can do to a yard or garden?”

While talking, I opened my laptop and did a quick Google search on the documentary. “Ah ha,” I said, “This film is being debunked by many other ‘experts.’” The film crew, actors and experts were all vegans and many were animal activists. My searches lead me to article after article of mostly bad reviews.  In short, most said that the film took it too far with outright false statements and unsupported scientific evidence. There was even a review by a vegan doctor stating, “As a vegan health professional, I am sometimes mortified to be associated with the junk science that permeates our community. And as an animal rights activist, I’m disheartened by advocacy efforts that can make us look scientifically illiterate, dishonest, and occasionally like a cult of conspiracy theorists.”

I would certainly agree that more fruits and vegetables should be included in our daily diet. I recently bought a juicer to incorporate more into mine. I have vegetarian and vegan friends whose reasoning and values I respect. Importantly, I developed a pretty mean black bean quinoa burger recipe.

Obviously, I am a meat eater, but like our customers, I try to be an ethical meat eater. I care passionately about our environment and the welfare of animals—domesticated and wild. I do not believe in confinement or cruelty and I would also prefer that mountain lions would never have to be shot. But that is not realistic.  In order to have them in our uncontrolled habitat, they have to be controlled.

Looking back on both conversations, I’m a little upset with myself because I could have handled both conversations better and not reacted in such a defensive manner. But I was also aggravated with the one-sided, narrow views.  Most of us are faced with hundreds of decisions every day and we do not need to have radical positions forced upon us to scare us or make us second guess facts or truths. In my opinion there is no room for radicalism, as it usually just produces a radical opposition. It can also have an impact on the ethical farmers or ranchers trying to improve our environment and produce healthy, good food.

For the most part, our historical diet has been based on what was available and the monetary and physical limitations of the time. Today some of us have choices and the opportunity to vote with our mouth, but not all. I’m not a scientist, but I know the discussion on how our food supply affects our personal and global health needs to continue. We must keep working on finding better solutions with our ever-growing population.  

Radical positions are not solutions. I would also never tell a consumer that if you are a vegan you are directly responsible for killing everything in a field except the chosen crop, destroying bio-diversity. Radical. I would, however, rephrase a Michael Pollen mantra along these lines: Eat food, not too much, mostly regenerative, organic, leafy green things AND a little sustainably-raised, 100%, humanely field-harvested protein!


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  • I am so glad I came across your article by accident when looking at Buffalo as an alternative to Cow Meat. Last night I watched “What the Health” on Netflix and was horrified. I ordered a vegetarian cookbook today; however, something inside me said “I don’t know about this.” I have been so confused lately about what to eat because I have “gut issues” and other health problems. You have great insight to the situation concerning our planet, and I agree 100 percent with your article. The replies to your article were also very interesting!

  • Jill,

    Every grazer species has the ability to control its own numbers … and without the crash and burn scenario so oft repeated …and live in ecological balance with the rest of the environment… without predators such as man, bears and wolves. It is called extended family social order. All grazers evolved this way, and to take it away, means symptomatic management … or should I call it mans manifest destiny superiority egos taking over any and all reasonable thought.
    Every extended grazer family has its home and territory to defend … against other species as well as populations of its own species. The structure is exactly like any indigenous hunter-gatherer society. And in defense of its own turf that family is part of species inner wars. Human wars control its own species numbers without other species “help” and it is the same with bison and partridges in a pear tree. I’m sure its nice to think “we” as superior species, have to control “numbers” but really we aren’t needed at all.

    bob jackson
  • Jill,
    Thank you for stating it so well. More importantly thank you to everyone at Wild Idea for ‘doing it right’.

    Pat O'Brien
  • Cheers to Bison meat … and Jill (~..~)

  • Thank you for being passionate and for taking a stand against polarization and extremism, Jill. It takes courage to post it not just on your blog, but Twitter, too. I hope that you don’t get trolled.

    I really believe that people are way too disconnected from the land and our food, and develop tunnel vision as a result. I think the more affluent we are, the more we can cocoon ourselves in our beliefs.

    A couple years ago at a remote village on Baffin IslandI asked an Inuit man about the bowhead whale hunt they were permitted to carry out. He assumed that I was an animal rights activist (Americans want to ban traditional hunting there), and hauled off on me. “We can’t grow vegetables here. What do you expect us to eat?” he yelled. The alternative for these people is food hauled in at high fuel cost and great expense by ship. Transportation and local fuel costs favor the worst processed food that isn’t too high priced and cooks quickly. Diabetes is a problem as a result, with few health care resources to help them.

    The Inuit at least have seals and whales to hunt: Low income families in America are just stuck with corporate-engineered mac and cheese.

    Closer to home, an activist protested the alternatives Elk Island National Park proposed to maintain healthy sizes for bison herds. He suggested bulls should be castrated instead of hunting or slaughtering. My horses were all gelded because stallions can be dangerous and very hard to manage. They benefited from anasthesia and ongoing after care impossible to give to grown bison bulls. And they don’t live in a herd where the natural social fabric includes sparring and breeding.

    We need to get more people away from the coffee shop and onto the land – farms, ranches, wildlife management areas- to understand the challenges we’re facing feeding a rapidly growing world healthy food while preserving nature. Just like internet trolling, it’s a lot easier to take a polarizing, extreme viewpoint when you are not standing on the ground talking to real people about the real world and real challenges.

    And with that, I’m going to heat up my wonderful leftover bison chuck roast, grill some vegetables, and enjoy a nutritious, hot meal on a windy, cold night- feeling privileged and blessed as I do.

    Monica Van der Vieren
  • Hi Brad. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to clarify for you. First , we do not shoot Mt. Lions.
    There have been some sighting on the ranch by others, but we have sadly never seen one , which seems a little unfair!
    Our ranch is predator friendly and we welcome, Mt. Lions. We would love to have wolves back and even bears would be super cool. We are hopeful that someday all of these prairie predators will return to assist in keeping the prairie balance.

    The shooting of Mt. Lions that I mention takes place is in the Black Hills National Forest, where there is a healthy population. X amount of licenses a year are issued by the Game & Fish department, based on lion populations. This is not anything we have control over. Those opposed to any Mt. Lions would be in an uproar if there were no controls. So – that is the compromise. Other states have regulations on lion populations based on similar data.

    Thanks again for allowing me to explain. jill

    jill / Wild Idea Buffalo Co.
  • I’ve been looking for a response like yours, Jill, to the wild assertions too many vegans and vegetarians make to assert that that to ever eat meat is an immoral act. I hope you followed up your conversation with the clueless vegan with this blog post—or an edited version at least! And if you do, please include the point made by Gary Kaiser over the irony " that a group of vegans would choose a bio-diverse buffalo ranch to save a ferret"!!

    Linda Clark
  • Can you elaborate on why mountain lions need to be shot please? I was in agreement with your post Jill, but that part worries me. I buy buffalo from you guys because, I had hoped/assumed that mountain lions would not be shot like they typically are when raising free range beef. Buffalo are a much more agile force than beef cattle and I can’t imagine that mountain lions can have a significant impact on a heard. Without predators, the prey become overpopulated and sometimes sicker, which is exactly why we need the black footed ferret to control the prairie dog population. I’ll pay more for meat that doesn’t involve the death of predators to raise it and preferably meat already adapted to its natural environment (including predators). I’m not saying you’ve lost a customer, I’m just hoping you can provide some justification.

  • As a conservationist and believer in environmental balancing, your points are well thought out and conveyed! Thank you!

    Nancy V
  • Found iit really ironic that a group of vegans would chose a bio-diverse buffalo ranch to save a ferret. Great article Jill and your responses were right on the money.

    Gary Kaiser
  • To Bob Watland: It IS illegal to throw away the meat of game animals! If “trophy hunters” keep and consume the meat from their game, there should be no objection. After all, the antlers are the totem to the hunt. I salute Wild Idea Buffalo and their efforts to save native prairie by raising bison in a natural way, promoting the entire ecosystem, and providing delicious and healthy bison meat. Sure beats soy beans!

    Mike Miller
  • Loved your comments, and introducing the Ferret to the Plains, I have always liked the Ferrets. I like the Buffalo meat, I won’t eat other red meat. I think there needs to be a balance in the taking of meat, no killing just for the sport of it or trophy hunting, but to hunt to eat, and no more I don’t think is bad. I don’t like it when someone kills an animal and take the head, horns, skin, etc. and then lets the rest lay there and rot, now thats a waste and should be illegal.We need some kind of balance.

    Bob Watland
  • Thank you for articulating this so well, Jill. It is a fact that most, if not all, important issues with which we are faced today are made up of layers of complexity. There is never an easy, absolute answer. Navigating complexity requires careful consideration of all of the causes and conditions that combine to affect everything we do. There is wisdom in your statement: “In my opinion there is no room for radicalism, as it usually just produces a radical opposition.” I am an animal rights advocate who grows organic vegetables in my back yard and has been carefully choosing the most healthy options for my family’s diet, which is predominantly plant-based. However, we eat modest portions of meat from animals who are humanely raised, without confinement. I feel at my best and am most healthy by eating like this, and am grateful to people like you who work hard to make decisions that benefit the short- and long-term health of an entire ecosystem: soil, plants, water, animals and humans. We need to be compassionate and smart stewards, who pay attention to science in our decision-making, but act out of a sense of humility that we will never know anything absolutely.

    Deni McHenry
  • I’m with you.., and a big fan of your products, and Michael Pollen???

    Holly hopper
  • Well said, Jill. Despite what some might say, it is possible to be environmentally conscious and eat meat. We try our best to eat seasonally—buying locally grown and produced foods. Two big exceptions are wild-caught salmon, which isn’t found much in Ohio, and bison, which only comes from Wild Idea.

    Chuck Beatty

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