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TRANSCRIPT: The Meat Matrix
Note: Episodes of Outside/In are made as pieces of audio, and some context/nuance may be lost on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors.
Laura Slitt [voicemail] : This is Laura Slitt, from Bartlett, New Hampshire. Just calling again, leaving a general message on my way home from my little vegan cafe in Chocorua.
Taylor Quimby: There are only three vegans that I’ve come to know well in my lifetime. First, was my vegan bandmate, Chet, who I met working at a burrito joint. Second was Chet’s vegan girlfriend, Christine. Smoked American Spirits. And third, is this woman. Laura Slitt.
Laura Slitt [voicemail] I heard VP interview Elaine Khosrova, regarding the virtues of butter. [laughs] Oh my god.
Taylor Quimby: Laura is both impossible to avoid, and easy to ignore. She’s been emailing me since I first started producing radio, more than 8 years ago.
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: Okay so the other side of the virtues of butter is that it comes from the milk of pregnant lactating cows who are restrained, artificially inseminated…
Taylor Quimby: Some are long threads that border on stream of consciousness. Some are just one short sentence stabbed out in all caps.
As I wrote this opening, a message from Laura popped up in my inbox. “THE REALITY OF NURSING ON BOVINE LACTEAL SECRETIONS” it said.
Attached was a jpg titled “fetal calves”. It’s not a cute picture.
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: In thanks for their service for providing the dairy industry, and the pharmaceutical industry, and the medical industrial complex…
Taylor Quimby: As you can hear, her voicemails - also somewhat regular - can go on for minutes.
She’ll get upset enough to swear on occasion. And even after all these years, the graphic descriptions can still catch me off guard.
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: There infant calves are sliced open out of their bodies, and fall onto the slaughterhouse floor, in a pool of their own mother’s blood.
Perhaps Mr. Quimby and Virginia Prescott could go to the local slaughterhouse where the spent cows…
Taylor Quimby: Mr. Quimby is me, by the way. Now I said Laura is easy to ignore - and that’s because for her, literally every issue can be traced back to the consumption of meat or dairy.
Our broken healthcare system? Eating too much meat. Pollution? Agricultural runoff. Mass shootings? It’s because eating meat has desensitized us to violence. No matter what kind of reporting I’m doing - if it isn’t about the animals, it’s not good enough for Laura.
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: Once again, living the lie. And that’s what we’re hearing from mainstream media.
[Voicemail sound, Discard SFX]
Taylor Quimby: So needless to say, I spent eight years deleted her emails without reading them.
Taylor Quimby: I deleted her voicemails without listening.
Taylor Quimby: And yet… there have been moments in my life.
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: What you know you can’t explain…
Taylor Quimby: Where I’ve sensed some invisible structure guiding my actions.
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: ...but you feel it.
Taylor Quimby: Like a vast tapestry hanging just out of sight...
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: It is this feeling that has brought you to me.
Taylor Quimby: This is the story of how I decided to take the red pill. To follow Laura Slitt down the rabbit hole. To find out just how deep it really goes.
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: Do you want to know. What. It. Is?
[Outside/In Somber Theme plays]
Sam Evans-Brown: This is Outside/In, a show about the natural world and how we use it, I’m Sam Evans-Brown. This week on the show, a deeply personal story. It’s one that might make you feel a little defensive… might occasionally have you shouting at us while you listen — certainly that was the case for me — but it’s Taylor’s story… his saga. And we’re just along for the ride.
Sam: And a heads up - there is one swear word in this episode, and descriptions of animals being killed for food.
Taylor Quimby: On June 1st, 2017, I got an email from Laura. It was the same day that President Trump pulled out of the Paris accords
[Paris Accord news clips, mux begins]
It was a more or less typical Laura rant - six paragraphs about mass extinction, about how it’s almost too late to save the planet, each sentence something you might plaster on a protest sign … All caps and exclamation points, lots of blame.
But for the first time ever, I hit reply. I tried to be vulnerable, to speak my truth. That I found dire environmental news overwhelming. That as both a human, and a journalist, these are scary times. That I struggled to know how best to talk about climate change with my son.
I told Laura that I ate meat, but was trying to cut back. I knew that Laura lived not far from my Mom. So I invited her to coffee.
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: Hi it’s Laura Slitt. I… got your message. And next week looks pretty good, so I’ll be in touch with you over the next couple of days.
Taylor Quimby: To be honest, this wasn’t the first time I questioned the ethics of eating meat.
I’ve read that the average american omnivore eats 202 separate animals every year.
That means by the time I was my early 20s, I had eaten some 4,000 animals.
Back then, my buddy Jake and I got drunk one night and had this semi-profound realization - that despite eating thousands of animals in our lifetimes, we had never once seen one get slaughtered.
It seemed unjust somehow. Or cowardly.
Jake: Yeah, I think from my perspective it was, by eating meat I was participating in the death of animals on a regular basis.
Taylor Quimby: This is Jake. Sam and I skyped him from his apartment in Seattle.
Jake: And I felt like if I were going to truly live in that world and that was okay with me, them I needed to understand what really participating in the death of animals felt like.
Sam: And you figured that out.
Jake Oh yeah.
Taylor Quimby: I remember our original drunken conversation. It felt important, somehow. But I never acted on it like Jake did. Jake found a way to really participate in the process… by arranging to slaughter a goose.
Jake: Before anything else I needed to separate the goose from the rest of the animals. And the main reason is because if you’re going to slaughter a goose apparently you want it to have an empty stomach. And the other thing that I figured out was that if I was going to slaughter this animal, I think the most immediate way I was going to do it was going to do it with an axe.
Taylor Quimby:: Wait I thought you were going to break its neck?
Jake: Yeah, initially I was going to do that, but then, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen just how thick a goose’s neck is.
Taylor Quimby: Yeah.
Jake: So i ended up going with the axe.
Taylor Quimby:: Ok so you separate it out…
Jake: By the time I got to the goose pen about 24 hours later you could see the fear in this animal’s eyes. Which I had not expected.
[swell mux, fade]
Taylor Quimby: As soon as he opened the gate, the isolated goose bolted. Jake says he tried to catch it for a full twenty minutes, to no avail. He was starting to feel panicky...Eventually, he gave up trying to grab it by hand, and found some rope to make a lasso.
Jake: I caught the goose out on a trail. Put the broomstick down on the goose's neck, and pinned it’s head down onto the ground. And... oh wow… And in one pretty clean swoop I was able to take the head off. And this was a fully grown, bright white… snow white goose. And so what happened next was really traumatic... the stub of its neck lifted up vertically and at the same time is spread its wings open, and blood started pouring out of the neck, onto the back of the animal, so those snow white feathers became bright red with it’s own blood.
Taylor Quimby: I honestly don’t remember how I reacted when Jake first told me about the goose. But thinking back to it later, I was almost impressed - proud of him eve, for bothering to take our stupid conversation so far.
And as experiments go, it really did sort of settle the question. Why hadn’t either of us slaughtered an animal? Because we didn’t have to. It’s soooo much easier to pick up a half-pound of chicken tenders at Walmart, than it is to lasso a goose and chop of it’s head.
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: Hey Taylor it’s Laura Slitt. I’m off today, but I heard you were feeling under the weather, sorry to hear that. I’m off also tomorrow until…[fades out]
Taylor Quimby: After I emailed Laura to meet up, everything about her demeanor shifted. It was as if I was the first person to respond to one of her thousands of emails. And when we met for coffee for the first time, she told me – from my station, nobody ever had. We chatted for more than two hours. I deliberately took my coffee black. I didn’t bring a microphone.
Laura is in her 60s – older than I had imagined. She had hip glasses frames, a collection of colorful shawls around her neck. She seemed like the cool aunt, the one you might go to as a teenager if you wanted to learn about sex.
Laura told me about her pet pot-bellied pigs. She told me about how she struggled with addiction when she was young. She’s Jewish, but doesn’t really practice the faith. Too much hypocrisy when it comes to food, she says.
Even then I was scheming up a story about Laura. I wanted to explore the topic - but also to push back on her trollish form of advocacy. To help her understand why, given her approach, nobody would ever take her seriously.
But the more we talked, the less I cared about proving her wrong, and the more I wanted to know – what is it that propels a person to become so singularly focused on an issue?
What had Laura experienced, that I hadn’t?
What turned Laura into Laura?
Laura Slitt: So on April 10th
Taylor Quimby: 2001
Laura Slitt: I was running a small cafe…
Taylor Quimby: Laura was listening to NHPR.
Laura Slitt: … I was prepping… And out of the corner of my ear if you will…
Taylor Quimby: ...she heard a quick newspot… just a twenty or thirty second story…
Laura Slitt: About a Washington Post article that had to do with a slaughterhouse investigation. And the title of the article was, “They Die Piece by Piece”. Which had a photo of a cow’s face, eyes bulging, you could see the eyes were bloodshot… and underneath the caption, “He’s been skinned to his head, his legs have been cut off, and he’s still conscious.”
Taylor Quimby: The article’s author, Joby Warrick, exposed a number of slaughterhouses, where humane slaughter laws were being routinely violated. Where animals were being butchered before being killed.
It was a matter of days before Laura committed to making a lifelong change. It was like a lightning strike.
Laura Slitt: I felt like the only way I could empower myself not to participate was just to become vegan. And that’s what I did.
Taylor Quimby: That article came out in April. In September, the World Trade Centers collapsed, and Joby Warrick took on a new beat for the Washington Post: Terrorism.
But he still remembers how that slaughterhouse story touched a nerve.
Joby: Emails to an extent that I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed in 20 years at the WaPo, my inbox was flooded, handwritten letters, letters to the editor, and letters to congressman.
Taylor Quimby: I reached out to Joby Warrick, because I wanted to know – if Laura was pushed towards veganism just by reading his article – how was it actually investigating big slaughterhouses?
Places where, as he details in his article, a pair of workers might personally slaughter more than two-thousand cows a day, at 9 dollars an hour.
Turns out, Joby initially became interested in the subject not because of animal rights – but because of workers rights.
Joby Warrick: When you’re inside one of these places, first of all you get a sense of who works there - and generally these aren’t coveted jobs - these are jobs that go mostly to immigrants, Some cases we’ve even seen local prison populations being detailed, or being offered the opportunity to work in these plants because nobody else is willing. It’s hot, it’s difficult, it’s grueling work… there are all sorts of injuries including carpal tunnel and repetitive stress injuries, it’s not a pretty place to contemplate and yet it’s part of our lives in a way because we all partake in the products.
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: Hey Taylor, it’s me Laura. Bartlett. I dunno, I’m just feeling a lot of stuff this morning. And I felt like I needed to talk to somebody who I know understands, and somebody who is maybe empowered to do something. I’m just really frustrated that today at five o’clock, Governor Sununu, I’m going to try and go with my friend, is going to be speaking about tougher cruelty laws, while at the same time people are eating them, killing them, hauling them out of the… So I guess that’s it. It’s 7 o’clock in the morning I wake up every single morning thinking about these things, I go to sleep thinking about these things, I know you get it. I know you understand. And I just felt like I needed to talk to you. So you take good care. I guess just thanks for being you. Okay goodbye.
Taylor Quimby: By the time I spoke with Joby, Laura and I were practically friends. She’d call me at work, and we’d talk for fifteen or twenty minutes. She emailed almost daily. I’d coach her on how to get through to reporters, she’d send me videos of caged dogs, being prepped for China’s annual Dog Meat Festival.
I visited Laura at her house, and met her pigs. It was one of the few times I actually brought along a microphone.
Laura Slitt: There is Cecil the old man. He’s 13.
Taylor Quimby: He smells the fruit, so that means he’s spry enough.
Laura Slitt: C’mon Whitey! Whiteeeeeeeeey. He’s smart.
Taylor Quimby: I had always seen Laura as a quintessential vegan stereotype. Hers was a black and white, shame-based approach to changing hearts and minds, and it always left me feeling cornered.
But Laura has a sweet side. She’s caring. And not just towards animals. I told her - if you want to get reporters like me to listen, don’t be afraid to share the good stuff too. Show them your sweet side.
So in between slaughterhouse videos, Laura started sending me a completely set of links. Articles about lab-grown meat, veggie-based Ted Talks, and websites for prominent vegan thinkers.
One of them was advocate and psychologist Dr. Melanie Joy…
Dr. Melanie Joy: So the listeners are probably veg-curious at most, right? Most of them are not vegans, correct?
Taylor: Ahhh, that’s right, I mean we’ve never done a survey...
Taylor Quimby: And vegan cookbook author slash podcaster, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau:
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau: I’d love to Taylor, can I send you a copy of the 30 day Vegan Challenge.
Taylor Quimby: You may…
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau: Why are you laughing?
Taylor Quimby: And what the two of them told me, is that the invisible structure I’ve been sensing all this time… that vast tapestry… it has a name. Carnism.
Dr. Melanie Joy: Carnism is the invisible ideology that conditions us to eat animals. It’s essentially the opposite of vegetarianism…
Taylor Quimby: You may think eating animal is normal. The default. What Dr. Joy is arguing , is that the decision to eat animals is part of a belief system… A set of unspoken values about what is and isn’t okay.
Dr. Melanie Joy: So when eating animals is not a necessity which is true for many people but not all people, but many people today… then it’s a choice. And choices always stem from beliefs.
Taylor Quimby: But carnism she says has a consistency problem. People like animals.
But on the other hand, we eat animals. Often the same ones. In some countries we eat pigs and cows and chickens, all manners of fish and crustacean, occasionally bison and ostriches and sheep and rabbits, in other countries we eat ducks and goats and alligators, horses and dogs and camels and cats.
And that, creates a sort of cognitive dissonance… an uneasy awareness that our actions don’t line up with our values.
So how to we cope?
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau: When you’re dealing with cognitive dissonance, you can either change your behavior to align with your values, or change your beliefs.
Taylor Quimby: So, stop eating meat - or do everything you can to justify it. Society, has obviously chosen the latter.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau: We don’t say we’re eating animals, we say we’re eating meat.
Cow becomes beef, sheep becomes mutton… Porkchop is more palatable than “pigchop”.
And speaking of pigs, they’re smarter than dogs, but a dirty room is a pigsty, a sexist man is a chauvinist pig: more language that helps us choose bacon over bellyrubs.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau: It necessitates us considering them less worthy of our regard because we want to keep eating them.
Taylor Quimby: Much of this meat-centric language goes back centuries - with animal names of germanic origin, but words for meat being french… except in the case of the factory farms, where industry euphemisms have a very American spin.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau: They cut off their beaks. We call it de-beaking, but the industry calls it ‘beak conditioning’. They call them maternity pens, but of course these are pens where they cannot turn around, they cannot get up…
Taylor Quimby: Through all of these methods and more, the paradoxical system of carnism reinforces itself - an endless feedback loop that says eating meat is normal, natural, and necessary.
Dr. Melanie Joy: And not surprisingly, these same arguments have been used to justify violent practices throughout history from male dominance to heterosexual supremacy. Carnism, because it’s a dominant system, is institutionalized.
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Neo [clip from The Matrix]: No.
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: Why not?
Neo [clip from The Matrix]:: Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my own life.
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: I know exactly what you mean.
Taylor Quimby: This concept of carnism… it reminded me of the movie the Matrix. What Dr. Joy is saying is that we’re all brainwashed by a program… one that we can’t even see at work. One designed to keep us eating meat, without asking questions.
And when I hear this, part of me is like… yeah. Wow. Totally. But another part of me is like… wait,wait,wait,wait…
Because the whole carnism thing DOES feel like it’s lumping a whole ton of stuff into one big bad ‘meat’ pile. Factory farming, hunting, fishing, backyard chickens, roadkill… these do not all feel like the same thing to me. Maybe carnism is a system designed to convince us that eating meat is quote unquote normal, but c’mon… Death is normal right?
The funny thing about carnism, is once I started reading up on it - I got stuck in that dumb loop of wondering if every defensive thought I had is just the indoctrinated carnism talking. Yeesh.
Anyway, that’s the argument. Carnism. The Meat Matrix. And reservations aside, the scale - for those who see it this way - is hard to comprehend.
Dr. Melanie Joy: More farmed animals are slaughtered in one week than the total number of all wars throughout history.. Once you become aware of this reality… it is very difficult not to become traumatized by that.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau: it is quite literally like having an awakening. You are no longer asleep, you can no longer see… you see it for what it is.
I guess this explains why Laura can be so abrasive. She’s just trying to shout as loud as she can, to shock us out of our collective coma.
But Colleen and Dr. Joy… they’ve also seen the Matrix… and come to a very different conclusion.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau: The idea that people do nothing at all because they have to do everything, is so self-defeating.
Taylor Quimby: And whereas Laura’s method of argumentation often wavered into territory that I was easily able to write off - this more nuanced approach left me feeling somewhat disarmed.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau: So if they say something like, oh i could give up meat but I can’t give up cheese… and I say, well why don’t you give up meat and keep eating cheese? And they say, I never thought about that before…
Taylor Quimby: The thing is, it’s easy to argue with a vegan stereotype… Their outrage is so predictable, You can’t help but want to poke holes in their argument. What about the native americans eating bison? What about our canines? What if plants feel pain? What about honey? What if everybody went vegan?
I’ve made all those arguments and more over the years...But if it’s not all or nothing, what exactly is it I’m trying to prove?
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau: The biggest misconception about veganism to me is that people think veganism is an end in itself … vegan is a means to an end. And you can calm down about thinking you have to change your whole world view about if, you’re ever on a desert island, you know these scenarios people paint, you don’t have to solve that on a day to day basis.
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: Nobody can really tell you what the Matrix is… you have to see it for yourself.
Taylor Quimby: Last winter, I committed myself to looking at the world through Laura’s eyes. I started by clicking on every link that she sent me. Every beakless chicken pic.
Every botched slaughter video.
All that shakey cell-phone footage.
Terrified animals, secretly recorded and smuggled out into the real world.
These videos - they’re everything you know they are. Horrible. Nauseating. Very hard to watch.
But that’s only the beginning. Because for Laura, the atrocity isn’t just contained inside the slaughterhouse.
Like Dr.Joy said… the signs of it are It’s everywhere. It bleeds into our communities in a million invisible ways.
To see the Meat Matrix, I’d have to open my eyes to all those benign triggers…In my house… on my street... all of those red flags that remind Laura, this world is built on the bones of the animal kingdom.
Taylor Quimby: So I’ve got this mug. It says “make bacon not war.”
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: THE MATRIX IS EVERYWHERE
Taylor Quimby: It’s got a peace symbol but um. It’s made out of bacon. It’s a bacon peace symbol.
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: IT IS ALL AROUND US...EVEN NOW IN THIS VERY ROOM
Taylor Quimby: Got some mail here… boneless chicken fingers on the front.
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: YOU CAN SEE IT WHEN YOU LOOK OUT YOUR WINDOW….
Taylor Quimby: Yeah, I can smell the hotdogs… Birkenstock store, leather.
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: OR WHEN YOU TURN ON YOUR TELEVISION….
[Oscar meyer weiner song]
[Got MILK ad!]
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: YOU CAN FEEL IT WHEN YOU GO TO WORK. WHEN YOU GO TO CHURCH….
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: WHEN YOU PAY YOUR TAXES.
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: IT IS THE WORLD THAT HAS BEEN PULLED OVER YOUR EYES TO BLIND YOU FROM THE TRUTH.
Elmo: And more Salami?
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus [clip from The Matrix]: THAT YOU ARE A SLAVE NEO.
Elmo: AND EVEN MORE SALAMI!!!
[mux and Matrix SFX swell then stop]
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: Hey Taylor, it’s Laura Slitt, from Bartlett. I just got back from a place called Woodstock Sanctuary where they had there annual, what they call, “ Thanksliving”. It would really be profoundly important important, and healing, and honest… and honest! To discuss Thanksgiving from the perspective of the birds. These poor birds whose 46 million lives are taken for no reason at all, other than we’re conditioned to think it’s okay. Cause they’ve done nothing to deserve what we do to them. Anyway, thanks a million, hope we can talk soon. Bye.
Taylor Quimby: All this effort, trying to see the Meat Matrix the way Laura does… it made me think back to my friend Jake. Who after slaughtering the goose, had what a lot of people would think of as a pretty ‘normal’ response.
Jake: Really took me a few minutes standing over this animal and really contemplating what I had done before I could pick it up. And I remember I grabbed it by its feet and I was carrying it back up the hill and the goose was still warm. And I kept thinking, ‘I’m the only reason this happened. If I didn’t decided I needed to end this animal’s life that goose would still be alive.
Taylor Quimby: But, like so many others have done before, he prepped, cooked, and ate that goose. And he still eats meat today.
Sam Evans-Brown: Well you’re still eating meat, aren’t you?
Jake: But that’s the contradiction is that like, there are things that we do in this world that are harmful, or hurtful, or problematic that we’re okay with. Even if I don’t enjoy the act of death, maybe I’m still okay with buying a steak from the grocery store? Can they both exist at the same time? I think they can, and I mean they do in my world. Which isn’t always easy to reconcile.
Taylor Quimby: Yeah.
Taylor Quimby: Jake sentiment here - that he can feel bad for animals, and eat them at the same time - is probably the most relatable sentence omnivores will hear in this story. After all, everybody comes up with their own rules. Maybe you eat beef, but draw the line at veal. Maybe you try and buy local meat but don’t fret about it when you’re at a restaurant. Jake wrestled with his food choices literally, chasing down and killing a goose. But we all wrangle with our choices intellectually - rounding our ethical choices up or down based on some individual set of calculations. We’re all contradicting ourselves.
Vegans may be discouraged by our willingness to accept contradictions like Jake’s. But it’s also pushed them towards another line of argument: one that, I must say, I do find rather concerning.
Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of climate change. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 15% of all greenhouse gasses can be directly traced to meat consumption.
Some would say it’s much higher, some would say a little bit lower - but 15% is a pretty well agreed upon number.
Reducing that number will require a dramatic shift in cultural norms. Because as long as we want cheap meat on the shelves, that 15% - is going to go up.
So absent some sort of big systemic change to reduce the emissions of agriculture, if we’re just looking at personal choices… eating less meat is THE low hanging fruit.
It will have more impact than switching to a hybrid car, recycling bottles, or biking to work.
We can ignore the animal welfare stuff, assuming we choose to stay in the Matrix.
But climate change won’t be sequestered to the slaughterhouses. We won’t be able to look away.
Taylor Quimby: Within a few months of reaching out to Laura, my cognitive dissonance was reaching meltdown levels. In the morning, I might watch a video of sick pigs being dumped by the truckload into a mass grave, alive… and then at lunchtime I would heat up leftover pork lo mein.
I found myself staring at my food while I ate it. I started dreading mealtimes.
I decided it was time to do something that Laura had told me I should do a long time ago.
Sam Evans-Brown: How are you feeling right now?
Taylor Quimby: I’m apprehensive. Yeah, I would rather be driving to see virtually anything than animals getting killed right now, you know it seemed like a good idea until you’re on the road and you’re like I guess I’m committed.
Taylor Quimby: That’s coming up. After a break.
Taylor Quimby: Last year, on a rainy weekday,Sam and I took a trip to a slaughterhouse just a few miles from the Vermont/ New Hampshire border.
I had called the owner, asked if I could come see the place. And because it was a small slaughterhouse, the sort of place that butchers local farmer’s market livestock… he said yes.
There wasn’t much of an agenda. I wanted to know if watching an animal get slaughtered would jumpstart my moral engine, turn some switch inside me that would make vegetarianism the only obvious choice.
Sam: Wait, are you on Laura’s side? I wouldn't say you’re on Laura’s side?
Taylor Quimby: No, but I would say that I’m more on Laura’s side than most people are...
... but I’m not on Laura’s side. I feel like I’m on nobody's side. I hate everything.
Taylor Quimby: On the one hand, I’ve always been a little jealous of people like Laura. Yeah, she’s incredibly high-strung… but her righteousness is so unconflicted. I envy her certainty.
On the other hand, I fear becoming like her.
I’m already prone to long lectures as you can hear - and I don’t want to become a better person, if it comes at the cost of being a more annoying one.
Sam Evans-Brown: Oh here it is… PT Farm.
Taylor Quimby: It does have a cowy smell.
Sam Evans-Brown: Cowbutt.
Taylor Quimby: Doesn’t smell like meat, it smells like cow.
Sam Evans-Brown: Cowbutt, yeah.
Taylor Quimby: On the outside, PT farms is boxy, and mundane looking… Like it could be a warehouse for packing peanuts, or the administrative building for an accounting company.
Inside, there’s a small store, and carpeted office with a town clerk sort of vibe - nothing fancy.
That’s where Sam and I met Pete and Tara… the P and T of PT Farms.
They’re married, bunch of kids.
Pete is a burly guy. Big beard, looks like he could probably step in and do any job in the place if he has to.
Sam Evans-Brown : You get a lot of visitors?
Pete: Yeah we get a few.
Sam Evans-Brown : Anybody wielding microphones a lot?
Sam Evans-Brown: ok… just checking…
Taylor Quimby: I should say that I was pretty surprised that he said yes to us coming - slaughterhouses are notorious for keeping the press out.
After all, even the cleanest, most humane slaughter isn’t going to look pretty on camera - and as the saying goes, people don’t like to see how the sausage gets made.
But PT farms makes a point of being transparent - their tagline is “Know where your meat comes from.”
Pete: You want to look in the windows?
Sam: Do you remind if I record Pete?
Pete: No it’ll be a challenge.
Sam: What do you mean by that?
Pete: It’s loud on the other side. Although we’re mostly killing pigs so we won’t go through as much air.
Taylor Quimby: Just outside the office, Pete pushes open a door to reveal a huge, mostly empty warehouse. Batting cages off to one side… for when Pete and Tara’s kids come to hang out. And in the center, almost like separate building inside the building, is the facility where the processing happens.
Pete: Everybody’s just coming back from after lunch.
Taylor Quimby: We stepped up to one of the huge windows that look inside. Immediately things got weird.
Sam Evans-Brown: So what are we looking at here?
Pete: [long pause] This ain’t gonna work. This is just pissing me off.
Sam: It is?
Taylor Quimby: Pete left us alone in the slaughterhouse. I had no idea what was happening. We followed him out back into the lobby, where Pete quickly us off to Tara.
Tara: What’s going on? You okay?
TQ: If you want us to not record, and just talk…
Taylor Quimby: It was pretty clear that he thought we had come o paint him as some sort of villain. That wasn’t the intent, but maybe he’s not entirely wrong.
Taylor Quimby: Anyway, Tara was a lot more forthcoming about what it’s like to be in the business of providing American meat.
Tara: I have to be honest, when Pete and I started on this venture I preferred to say we were just farmers.... I might even leave this piece out, because I don’t want the … uh? You do what? You kill animals for a living? Yeah I know it sounds absolutely horrendous when you say it like that. But I’m putting food on your table.
Taylor Quimby: Tara also told us that some years back, PT Farms had had a hit of e.coli from some of their beef… and had to briefly shut down operations. It was costly, and stressful, and scary.. And the coverage had a whiff of elitism… as though the same folks that were espousing the virtues of eating local couldn’t face its realities.
Tara: local and western beef can both have the same problems. They both shit E.coli, those cows. Or they can. So there’s a lot of education.
Taylor Quimby: I knew that big slaughterhouses were famously secretive… that they don’t want journalists poking around. But it never occured to me that meat producers are also dealing with the cognitive dissonance of the American Meat Matrix … with the choice that so many of us make: to shield ourselves from the process. What’s strange, is that so many folks - myself included - have eaten meat for years, and still manage to pass judgement on the people who get it to the grocery store… as though we weren’t half of a very important equation… Supply… and demand.
Tara: I say to the kids, why do you think I raise these pigs? And the kids said, sausage and bacon! One of the teachers looked over at me and said you’re going to give these kids a complex. And I’m like really?
[mux fades in]
Because I think the kids who don’t understand where their meat come from are going to have a complex.
Taylor Quimby: Laura or Dr. Joy - they would probably call this indoctrination… that this is how carnism asserts itself. By teaching children it’s okay to kill pigs.
But I agree with Tara… people who grow up on farms, people who see their parents cull a chicken, or slaughter a goat…. These folks are less likely to deal with meat matrix anxiety as adults.
Eventually we did get to see what we came for. We stood outside the giant window, and Tara pointed out the room where the cuts get butchered.
Then we moved to another window… where a number of slaughtered pigs were hanging from heavy chains on the ceiling.
I’m not even sure when exactly it happened, listening back to the tape.
I remember watching… monitoring my own reaction, waiting for my stomach to turn, or my throat to close up. Instead I felt remarkably calm.
The whole operation was very orderly… and I felt removed, in another world. Turns out, I had seen this all before - on TV, on the internet. It didn’t look any different than I expected. Violent, yes, but also, robotic. Dispassionate.
We stood there for a few minutes, saw one pig get shocked with a prod, first behind the ears, and then at the apex of the heart. It’s body shuddered uncontrollably. And then a worker, and then hung up it up and slit its throat. before having its throat slit. He A worker was prepping another pig when we left.
I think Laura wanted me to visit a slaughterhouse because she assumed I would be equally outraged. But I don’t think my trip had the intended effect at all. Was it unsettling? Yeah. Was it life-changing? No.
If I had any doubts at all, it was because I had visited a small slaughterhouse, as though it were representative of the norm. It’s not. Even with all the farm-to-table stuff these past few years, about 85% of all the cows slaughtered in the US come from just four companies. That’s four companies - slaughtering 33 million cows per year.
If I was at one of those bigger operations, I might have seen dozens of animals slaughtered in that same amount of time. I could handle one pig. I’m not sure how I would feel the same if it was scaled up.
Tara: There’s a part of me that can look at that and say wow, I’m glad we’re not doing it like that… wow… those factory farms… but there’s a flipside that also says jeez… they've got it figured out.
Taylor Quimby: Either way, I left PT farms feeling less certain that I did before. Is eating meat always wrong? I don’t think so… but if that’s the case, when is it okay?
Tamar Haspel: I do think that eating eat meat is okay… but you have to know where it comes from. Some meat is okay, and other meat is not okay
Taylor Quimby: This is Tamar Haspel. She’s a Washington Post columnist who writes a lot about divisive food-policy stuff - obesity, animal agriculture, GMOs. She has this way of cutting through the sentiment on complicated topics, asking and sometimes answering questions like... what really is better for the environment? What food policies actually improve health? And which ones are we just patting ourselves on the back for.
Tamar Haspel: It’s always there are trade-offs, but all the time all of the advantages and disadvantages bubble through the media and social media they divide people into camps, and one camp picks out the advantages, and the other side the disadvantages and we have this black and white thing, and so our argument about meat is too often, yes meat is great, it’s low cost protein people, it’s a way of turning grass which can’t people eat…. And then on the other hand we have animal welfare issues, pollution issues, greenhouse gas issues, it’s... it’s complicated.
Taylor Quimby: Tamar told me quote, “I never eat meat without thinking about animal rights.” And as far as I can tell, she isn’t messing around. She farms oysters, a mollusk that even some vegans are willing to eat... She raises and butchers her own animals, rarely buys meat from the grocery store - and when she does, she examines the labels carefully - and even then has a pretty weirdly specific set of criteria for picking out poultry.
Tamar Haspel: This is going to sound silly, but i look for the chickens that aren’t spherical?. That have legs that really stick out. Because that indicates the chicken maybe has had more exercise, that it maybe hasn’t grown quite so fast into that butterball shape.
Taylor Quimby: Pete and Tara care about their animals - but when push comes to shove, they’re running a business - and if they have enough customers to hire more people, expand operations, kill the animals a little quicker - I expect they will.
Tamar on the other hand - she’s all about the DIY. When she kills a pig, she’s just stocking her freezer. It’s not profit-driven, and it’s not a philosophy that can be easily scaled up.
Tamar Haspel: I think if you’ve ever had broken down a whole animal, and tried to use the whole thing… Okay, well what are we going to do with the heart…. Can we use the skin for something? Do we want to make cracklings? It’s not efficient at all. It’s incredibly time consuming and draining. But we feel very strongly that we want to use every part of an animal that we kill for ourselves, because every part we don’t use… it means we have to take some other part from some other animal!
Taylor Quimby: Folks like Tamar are typically framed as the ethical meat-eaters. Considerate carnists. A way to love your bacon and eat it too.
And you know what? I can live with that argument. But… if this is the ethical alternative… you have to ask yourself? Are you willing to raise and slaughter your own animals? Will you eat the heart, carve the bones... use the skin for cracklings?
Yeah. Me neither.
Tamar has seen the Meat Matrix for what it is… But she wound up making a completely different choice than Laura did.
The irony here is that even though they’ll be pitted against one another in meat matrix culture wars, the vegans and the dedicated ethical meat-eaters actually agree on what may be the most important piece of this whole puzzle: That all the rest of us aren’t thinking nearly enough about whether and how to eat meat.
And I was shocked when Tamar went one step further: and admitted, it’s really the Laura Slitts of the world that shift public perception.
Tamar: If you’ll allow me to mix a metaphor, it’s the lunatic fringe that moves the needle. So look at Americans and fur…
[SFX of protesters]
But it’s these kinds of activities, that kind of outrage that i think eventually penetrates the consciousness of the zeitgeist… i do think that it is extreme positions that capture people’s attention in a way that nuance and moderation does not.
Taylor Quimby: There’s a big caveat to this point though. And that is, overall vegetarianism rates in the US has been more or less flat for a couple of decades. So the shift has been more granular - we eat less beef and more poultry, there are more plant-based options in store shelves, and major chains have moved away from some of the most controversial practices used by factory farms.
Vegans may have indeed moved the needle - but that doesn’t change the fact that, according to the USDA, Americans in 2018 are on track to more meat than ever before: 222.2 pound per person.
Taylor Quimby: I will say that Laura helped differentiate me from her own views but also pull me in that direction.
Tamar: I got nothing but good things to say about that. But oysters? Really? I draw the line at that.
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: Hey Taylor, it’s Laura Slitt. Back from the south. Hope you had a good manageable winter. Mine was partially in California, but I just spent the last two months at Gainesville Florida at Jungle French Primate Sanctuary. I dunno I thought maybe we could get together, the first thing I heard when I turned on NHPR this morning was about dog-sled racing and how we can do it in warm weather, and I left a message for Rick Ganley that I hope they do the full story because in dog-sledding, which I just heard a presentation about, hundreds of thousands of dogs can be killed. I just wanted to call and say hi, see how you’re doing… and put in a plug for the animals of course. My life’s calling. Okay, talk to you soon I hope. Bye.
Taylor Quimby: Sometime after my visit to PT Farms, I made the leap. I stopped eating animals. It wasn’t a lightning strike for me. My moral engine didn’t suddenly turn over. Eventually I just had to face it my own truth - the choice was mine, and all in all, I think it’s easier to give up meat than is to start my own farm.
Of course, I’m still half in the Matrix. I’ve read about the dairy industry. A lot of vegans consider it worse than meat, for a number of reasons you can google, if you ever go down this road too.
Anyway, it wasn’t a lightning strike, like I said. It was more like a big resigned sigh. I stopped talking about food for awhile. stopped working on this story. I stopped talking to Laura. I decided to give myself a break.
Which was sort of funny, because even as I continued shifting in her direction I found that our friendly rapport started to stiffen.
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: So there’s always that other side Taylor that never, ever, ever, EVER… get’s…
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: Why is it always the animal rights activists that feel the pain and the suffering…
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: Hey Taylor it’s laura. In Bartlett. Sorry we never connected. I guess either you find me a little bit too intense, which I am… kinda on the edge all the time.
Taylor Quimby: I think when we first started talking she felt heard… and hopeful that I would use my position as a producer to influence our station’s content. But over time, I was just another cog in the wheel.
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: You know human beings lost their way a long time ago and domesticating animals is the root cause, why can’t we talk about it, why is it so hard? Thank you.
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: Let’s have these debates! These are the big debates that need to happen. Thank you.
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: The animals need our help and it’s our obligation do do so. Thanks. You’re a good guy.
Taylor Quimby: Truth is, I worry about Laura. The horror, the outrage… they can be powerful motivators. But too much isn’t healthy. It turns you away from the world you’re trying to change. And I think you need to be able to see the Matrix, if you’re going to help the people who are close to it.
And Laura, I want you to know: I am on your side. It might not always seem like it. But I am
Laura Slitt [voicemail]: Hey Dear Taylor. It’s Laura Slitt in Bartlett. I lost Cecil. The black pot-bellied pig to a really gruesome bear attack. I’ve had bears in and out of this corral since I moved here in 1996 and it’s never ever been a problem. So I just felt like I wanted to tell you and thank you for being who you are.
[Saved voicemail SFX]
Taylor Quimby: To the rest of you Outside/In listeners. I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us.
Taylor Quimby/Neo from the Matrix: I know you’re out there.
I can feel you now.
I know that you’re afraid.
You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change.
I don’t know the future.
I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end.
I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin.
I’m going to hang up this phone.
And then I’m going to show them what you don’t want to see.
I’m going to show them a world.
A world without borders or control, without rules or boundaries.
A world where anything is possible.
Taylor Quimby: Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.