The street was mostly dirt with random spots of shade. It was straight as a ruler and countless inches longer. I walked it daily, my pet leashed to my side, tethered by responsibility and one-sided conversation. Then the road opened like a sprint, took a quick, deep breath, and headed for home. We chased it there as fast as our feet could take us.
There were late afternoons when I was charged with cleaning the pen, a 20 minute job that took a few hours straight as the boy flies; feedings twice a day; and great lengths gone to in hopes of building trust and the facade of friendship. Everyone but the lamb knew that it would die, and sometimes at night I would sneak outside, stand by the gate, and think about setting it loose upon the road forever. But I didn’t. Instead I would feed it a handful of hay and say the things of starlight and lies. I could feel my innocence fly just a little further away, and I wondered if it was worth it.
Months flipped like a calendar, a montage of life across various seasons, shoes and bare feet, sunsets, and the laughs we had. Then it was spring, or Arizona’s version of it, and I found myself at the county fair, dressed in brand new blue jeans and the green shades of 4-H in bloom. I would tend my sheep in a row of sheep, a flock of strangers divided by wire, some named as an afterthought and others that believed that somebody loved them. Their cries carried on the cool springtime air, stretching from the barnyard stench toward the glowing carnival lights always spinning, cotton candy sparkling in midway magic, and finally fading somewhere between hope and a Ferris wheel.
The sheep were judged, sold at auction, and gone in a moment. They wound up in trucks, placed on plates, and somewhere deep in the belly of a memory. I had money in my pocket and a few months to forget, then we did it all again.
It went on for years, each starting with a new pet that I adored and ending with a hundred bucks that felt more like a million. I went through moments of naive denial, a share of shame, and enough growing guilt that I finally faced my family and called it quits. It was time for greener pastures.
All in all, raising animals for slaughter seemed a terrible way to teach a message, and I went decades without ever eating a lamb but for one time when I didn’t realize it—a bite 30 years removed, and then it all came pouring back.
There had been a cow named Strawberry wandering free in our yard until she landed on the table. There had been chickens, ducks, pigeons, pigs, goats, and all manner of beast and fowl, every one of them eaten but the monkey, the ferret, the cats and dogs. We had to buy a bigger freezer.
When my wife and I decided to become vegetarians it was a fairly easy decision despite both of us growing up in homes where meat was a matter of course, every course. I honestly don’t know why it didn’t happened sooner.
The facts about vegetarianism are obvious: it is better for our health and it provides a brighter future for the planet, not to mention the compassion and kindness that come with loving living things instead of eating them; however, we didn’t make the boys join us. It had to be their own decision.
The oldest, nine at the time, was in immediately. He was always uncomfortable with the idea of meat, preferring his animals alive and fluffy. His signing up didn’t surprise us one bit.
The youngest, then six, became the bearer of bacon. He supported us in theory, but some things cannot be rushed into, and swearing off hamburgers, in his world, was one of them.
It was six months later, after watching Babe, the movie about a talking pig that isn’t Charlotte’s Web, that he turned to me on the couch and said, “I want to become a vegetarian.” And he did.
Today, nearly five years later, the kids are far more adamant than my wife and I in terms of questioning waitstaff about gelatin, lard, or stock. They stand in grocery aisles reading labels and judging the world accordingly. They spend their weekends at animal sanctuaries like The Gentle Barn outside of Los Angeles, hugging cows and snuggling turkeys. The boys are healthy, happy, and more responsible by the day, despite the fact that I have never made them eat a single pet.
Our conscience is clear, and our dogs sleep soundly.