In my teenage years, I would spend three hours a day taking care of the animals I would show at the county fair. I would wake up in the morning, feed and water them, wash them from head to hoof, and then bring them into the barn to sit under cooling fans away from the hot, humid outdoors.
At night, I'd take them for a walk up and down our dead-end road on a halter. It wasn't unlike walking a dog in the park, except my companions were 1,000 pound heifers hell-bent on eating clover on the side of the road. Afterwards, I turned them out to pasture.
The whole purpose of all of this was to get them acclimated to being at busy fairgrounds and to have them be handled as much as possible so they'd build trust in me. They were all my girls. They centered me and gave me purpose, and in turn I tried to give them a good life. I deeply cared for their health and well-being.
I don't think my love of animals is unique. We are a nation that loves animals, so much so that through consumer advocacy we have demanded cage free eggs, pasture-raised beef, hormone free milk, and a continued scrutiny of the heinous practices common in feedlots and big production chicken and pig farms. We have, through various advocacy efforts, held farmers accountable to raising animals in the most humane way possible. All of these efforts are for the betterment of animal care as well as our food system.
I believe that we should continue to advocate for the best farm husbandry practices, but I also think we should be advocating for ourselves.
As humans, we actively choose to confine ourselves at desks indoors. We choose to eat foods that are killing us. We forgo recess for our children to improve grade. We eat overly processed food and we medicate unhealthy bodies to fix the ailments of poor lifestyle choices.
Because we, as people, are such believers of personal choice, it is hard for me to reconcile the difference between the high and necessary standards we place on animal husbandry with how little we take care of ourselves. We might pay homage to the lost recess, hate our desk jobs, and starve our bodies into malnutrition, but the national median of both health and happiness continues to decline.
Of course, there are people fighting this. From farm-to-school lunch programs, improved access to healthy foods, and an awareness that our food and lifestyle choices have made us an unhealthy nation.
It is heartening to see, but I want more.
Just as the farmer has to choose how to care for and manage his livestock every day, so too must we make the daily effort to say to ourselves: is what we are doing really for the best, healthiest choice for our bodies?
We need to demand more. From our employers incentivizing healthy work environments, to the educational system valuing healthy food and activity as a new means of marking achievement. And mostly, from ourselves. We need to make the commitment to treat ourselves as well as we want our animals, whether pet or livestock, to be treated.
We see health as a personal, almost selfish choice whereas we see animal wellbeing as a moral choice. I believe that if we want the tidal wave of 'health' information to have any impact on ourselves and society at large, we need to re-frame the question of why we would want good food, good exercise, and a good life.
Beyond feeling good about our bodies, is there a more important reason for making healthy lifestyle choices? I believe that there is.
It doesn't mean we ought to condemn people for poor eating habits or lifestyle choices. That only feeds in to a culture of shaming that is corrosive. Rather we should be recognizing that health isn't just about us as an individuals, but about the broader impact that healthy lifestyles have on our families and communities. When we look at it from this different angle we will be changing the conversation and our motivations drastically.
Studies have shown that healthy people perform better in the workplace as well as the impacts of health on communities. We owe it to ourselves to believe that when we take care of ourselves, there is more at stake than what's for dinner. It's not always about how we look, or how we feel. It is also about the fact that being a happy, healthy human being has greater impact on our communities than we might suspect.
It boils down to this: animals should be well taken care of, and have a happy lives. As a caretaker, that is a moral imperative. As caretakers of ourselves, our communities, and our relationships with others, we should take our own health just as seriously.