The wilderness vegan: Hold the cheese ‘n’ skeeters, please!

Hiking the beautiful Beartooths

Let’s say a couple–fairly new at describing themselves as vegan–is backpacking with friends in the Beartooth Mountains along the Montana/Wyoming border. Let’s say the mosquitoes are so thick–zillions of them, dense clouds of them–that they risk inhaling them (check), swallowing them (check), and swat them by the tens in their tent (check, check, check!). They find them floating in their oatmeal and coffee, and plastered into their couscous (check, and check). In spite of the blood-letting, they have a glorious hike above 10,000 feet elevation, are appreciatively reminded of their place in the food chain (this is grizzly country), celebrate one friend’s final-chemo-treatment first-year anniversary, and return happy and rejuvenated with over 100 bites each.

Time slipped away and before we knew it, three or four years had lapsed since our previous backpack trip. During that same interval, we shifted from vegetarian to vegan. Turns out that backpacking as a vegan isn’t significantly different from backpacking as a vegetarian. Macaroni and cheese was the most notable absence, and powdered soy milk replaced powdered cow’s milk. In hindsight, I realize that our bulk-purchased trail mix had some milk chocolate in it. Oops! OK, so we weren’t the perfect vegan backpackers, but we aren’t perfect anyhow, even at home. We are practicing veganism, and willing to cut ourselves some slack. Our hiking boots, after all, were purchased several pre-vegan years ago and are leather. We might never be “perfect,” but the way I see it, that’s not really the do-or-die point.

I think back to the early ’80s when I enlisted a friend to hike the Appalachian Trail. That’s right, never backpacked a single step but decided to walk the 2100 mile AT. We scrapped it due to over-use injuries (mine) after four months and 1400 miles. In those pre-vegetarian days (1985 was my turning point of conscience; I had never even heard the word vegan back then), I was unconcerned about animal ingredients and never thought about animal suffering. Factory farming? Not a clue. We ate canned Vienna sausages on that trip. What a difference 28 years can make!

Nearly three decades later, my husband and I are in our REI Half Dome swatting skeeters with intent to kill and remove. I wonder aloud about this, about ethical vegans engaging in wholesale slaughter of another life form. We momentarily stop, look piercingly into each other’s welt-covered face, and return to swatting inside as the droning hordes outside cover the thin mesh and nylon, seeking blood. Our blood.

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Mosquitoes aren’t mice, after all. When our house was built nine years ago, mice were built into it along with a then-undiscovered port of entry. We bought a live trap and could have caught and released mice as many times as we cared to set it in a night. We’d turn out the light, start drifting off, and “CLAP!” the trap doors clanged shut. “It’s your turn to empty it.” “No, I’m sure it’s your turn.” One of us would stumble out into the black Montana night, pondering the mountain lion that might prey on us while we compassionately released a field mouse. We bought another trap and ran two simultaneously. When all was said and done and the entry point found and sealed, we’d trapped and released just under 200 mice. We’d long since given up trying to explain to others why we were sleep-deprived zombies. “You’re catching them–and letting them go??? WHY? Surely you know they follow you right back into the house!?!” You can have that fruitless conversation only so many times.

Google just about anything and you’ll find that a) someone has already asked it, and b) someone has answered it, however authoritatively. Do vegans kill mosquitoes? Turns out some do, some don’t. Turns out the line is pretty much where you draw it. Respect for ALL life? Let ‘em live. Concern for SENTIENT life? Your call. Compassion Over Killing has this to say at its Frequently Asked Questions page:

Where’s my line? I remind myself that even the Dalai Lama–the enlightened compassionate one–is not a vegan and not always a vegetarian: ”His Holiness’s kitchen in Dharamsala is vegetarian. However, during visits outside of Dharamsala, His Holiness is not necessarily vegetarian” (official website). I realize that mosquitoes hatch by the gazillions, and their eggs can remain viable for years–even without water. I have to admit, though, that in this case, it’s really not about the individual skeeters, but about me.

Native American legends (Tlinget, for example; Tuscarora and Iroquois) explain how mosquitoes came to be. One typical scenario offers up a giant or monster who preys on the people until killed–cut into pieces, splattered, or burned. Those pieces, blood drops, and ashes become mosquitoes who continue to torment humans.

Will skeeter-swatting for self-preservation in the Beartooths have some similar karmic outcome? Is it substantially different from participating in, say, a coyote killing contest or blasting prairie dogs into a “red mist“? I believe it is, both in complexity/sentience of the target and intent of the agent. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy it…or even have to like it.

This post also appears at animal law blog Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.

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