Philosophy and Ethics

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The following blog entry appeared as a guest commentary in the Wellesley Townsman on November 14, 2013.

Early Saturday evening, I was driving home from the office after seeing my day’s last patient and the car immediately in front of me struck a deer.  We were in the left lane of a divided highway going east.  The deer ran across the west-bound lanes, jumped over the barrier into our lane, and got hit immediately.  There was nothing the driver could have done to avoid the collision.

While the driver was able to pull over into the breakdown lane, the front side of his vehicle completely demolished, I was stuck in the left lane.  I slammed on my brakes to avoid running over the deer and I put on my hazards in hopes that nobody would crash into me.  Everybody else just kept on driving, and as such I was not able to move over.  I had a close-up view of the deer dying right in front of my car.

The deer tried to get up, which I hoped might signify that it was miraculously okay, but then it fell over and was kicking its legs.  The flailing slowed and became almost nothing.  Eventually there was an opening in the traffic and I was able to pull around the deer.  As I did, I looked out my side window to the animal on the ground just a couple feet away.  It was bleeding profusely from its mouth, still alive, still moving its legs ever so slightly.

I pulled into the breakdown lane and called 911.  In addition to reporting what happened and the exact location, I made a point of telling them that the deer was hurt really badly and needed help.  (The driver who hit the deer, by the way, appeared to be physically fine as he stood outside his car making a phone call of his own.)

After hanging up with 911, I had no idea what to do.  Getting out of my car and going to check on the deer crossed my mind, but the chances that I would get hit by a car myself were high and who knows how an injured wild animal would react to a human approaching it.  Besides, I am not a vet, and even if I was I had no medical supplies of any sort and no way to transport the animal.  In other words, the best I could have done anyway would have been to keep it company.

Feeling completely helpless, I left.  As I drove away, I saw a single police cruiser approaching the scene.  Traffic continued on, squeezing through the bottleneck caused by the dying deer in the road.  (I did later follow up with the police, who termed the deer’s injuries “catastrophic” and confirmed that it did not survive.)  Angry at what I perceived to be an underwhelming response, I thought to myself, “If a human ran out into the road and got hit like that, an ambulance and fire truck would have been here immediately, not just a lone police cruiser, and other drivers wouldn’t be passing by the body like it was nothing more than a nuisance.”  One of my friends who is a veterinarian later explained to me why there was nothing that could have been done to save the animal even if the entire staff of Angell instantaneously arrived on the scene.

When Joanne and I met up at home, she could tell that I had been crying.  We love animals.  Any of you who have seen our waiting room pictures know how important our pet bunny is to us.  Our honeymoon largely revolved around animals: snorkeling with marine life in Fiji, spotting mountain goats, dolphins, seals, and penguins in New Zealand, and getting close up with kangaroos, wallabies, emus, parrots, casuaries, and koalas in Australia.  We like deer too.  Helplessly watching one die in front of me in obvious pain was very, very difficult.

Although I am still am omnivore, my eating pattern has been trending towards vegetarianism in the last few years for reasons that have nothing to do with health benefits or supposed virtue.  At first, I started eating less animal products just because they tend to be more expensive and require more care in food preparation than vegetarian alternatives.

Then ethical questions came into play.  We nearly went to an Italian restaurant once before discovering that they serve rabbit, a decision that is certainly within their rights, but one that we felt we could not support by giving them our business.  From that evolved several questions: Why was I okay eating other animals, but not rabbits?  If I owned a pet fish, would I still eat seafood?  If chickens were cuter, would I still eat poultry?  If I like feeding the pigs at the local farm, what am I doing eating pulled pork sandwiches?  How can I find cows funny, stop to take their picture when I drive by them, and then eat a hamburger as if the patty grew on a tree somewhere?  Given that I criticize steak houses and BBQ joints that decorate with pictures of cows and pigs, respectively, because I do not want to be reminded of what I am really eating, aren’t I just turning a blind eye to reality by seeking out restaurants without such decor?  Where do we each draw the line between the animals we value and protect and those that we are okay sacrificing to feed ourselves in the face of perfectly fine plant-based alternatives?  No answer is right or wrong; these are questions of personal philosophy.

After Saturday’s accident, we went out to dinner as planned to a nearby Greek restaurant that we like.  I ordered a bunch of side dishes: tatziki and pita, butternut squash, and rice pilaf.  Someday, fad-diet aficionados will no doubt focus their fear on protein, just as they once did on fat and now do on “carbs,” but until then I don’t think anybody will deem my meal anything close to balanced.  Still, the idea of ordering my usual Mediterranean salad with a skewer of chicken on it after what I just witnessed felt disgusting.

I tell my patients all the time that they are not lab animals or homework assignments from some nutrition textbook.  Real life is complicated, messy, and far from perfect.  I know all about the advantages of eating meat (complete proteins and essential amino acids, heme iron, zinc, B12, and the like) but being a dietitian and having that knowledge does not make me exempt from the complexities that influence the way we eat.  Our food choices are about way more than just nutrients and calories.