Is that a cow or is that beef? A lesson in empathy.


piglet and mom

Whenever I am at the grocery with my 6-year-old son I take him to the meat department and point out the severed pieces of animals. Unlike some vegetarian or vegan kids, Zeke hasn’t easily made the connection that the hot dog he wants had a mommy, just like him. When I show him ribs, thighs, and other body parts I discuss their functions and use it as an opportunity to teach him that the animal was a living creature just like us; that bacon belonged to a pig who, given the chance, would have loved to play, sunbathe and cuddle with her babies the way Zeke and I cuddle.While other shoppers discuss which “cut” to buy, I explain to my son that the featherless chicken leg people refer to as a “drumstick” was used for walking, just as his legs are. I tell him that the ladder of ribs laid out in the glass case was designed to protect vulnerable lungs used for breathing and a heart- that with every beat-feeds the animal’s body with life. “You have the same parts,”I explain. I do my best not be gruesome or emotional in my explanation. The last thing I want to do is cause him nightmares.

5292506975_1004be1964_bJust a few days ago, while at the market we caught a glimpse into the meat locker, or “the morgue” as I call it. Draped from the meat hooks were bodies of beheaded cows.  Zeke was horrified and I casually told him, “That’s a cow.” Just then, the butcher peaked around the corner and, acting as though he was doing me a favor said, “Oh, that’s beef.” I corrected him and replied, “Right-a dead cow.” This was my lesson, DAMNIT. The butcher, like so many people, didn’t see his “beef” as a once living being having feelings like he has. He lacked empathy.

Children must be taught to have empathy for animals and not to use them as they see fit, which only instills a belief that they are superior to others. This superiority belief is rampant in our society. Cosmetic companies drip caustic substances into the eyes of rabbits to learn how our eyes would respond. Baby elephants are stolen from their mothers and forced to entertain our kids. Pharmaceutical companies test drugs meant for us on mice, and cows are repeatedly impregnated so they will produce milk for our consumption. If animals are similar to us in anatomical and physiological areas, wouldn’t it make sense that they also have feelings like we do?

By teaching children to consider other beings (animals and people) we foster curiosity and critical thinking; instilling reverence and a sense of responsibility, thereby raising awareness of the choices we make and their effect on others.

Following our mini-lesson at the grocery store, I caught Zeke petting our dog’s chest and running his fingers along each of his ribs (and then dressing him up as Santa).  My son still may ask for a hot dog next time he’s with his dad (he knows better than to do that with me!), but I know that by discussing the similarities between animals, including our shared ability to feel joy, fear, sadness, pain, and love, the seed has been planted and his capacity to feel empathy will only grow.  And by referring to the animal hanging in the grocery store meat locker as a cow, and not beef, it will become increasingly challenging for him to put her body between a sesame seed bun.


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