I believe in grizzly bears. Vegetarians have lots of different reasons for not eating meat – health, the environment, karma – but that’s mine: grizzly bears.
In the past four years climbing, backpacking and hiking in the American West, I’ve seen all manner of wild creatures: Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, porcupines, gila monsters, marmots, elk, bald eagles, mountain lions, and my climbing partner after 11 hours of being roped to me. But I’ve only seen one grizzly. One summer morning, we were lucky enough to turn a corner on a trail in the Tetons and spot a cub milling around, looking for some breakfast.
As we stopped and backed away, the cub ambled down a boulderfield, paying us no attention. It poked its nose around in search of food, then looked up a tree trunk and in a second, lunged about four feet up the tree, sticking its claws in the bark and hanging on to get a better view.
I stood there in awe, madly clicking my camera trying to get a decent photo. In one moment, I was scared for my safety, excited that I had finally seen a grizzly, drawn toward it out of curiosity, and repelled by the knowledge that the bear could rip my face off with one swipe of its paw.
In the world we’ve built, with defenses against almost everything we think can harm us, it’s refreshing that I can still get myself to a place where such a rare, magical animal lives. I spend so much time in the mountains, where I’m a guest of the animals who live there, that it only makes sense to me to respect the lives of all animals, even if they taste good. Because I’m sure I’d taste pretty good to a bear or a mountain lion.
Grizzly bear meat hasn’t been on Americans’ dinner menus for a couple hundred years, and most of us don’t even have to hunt for our food anymore. We eat things called “prosciutto” and “sirloin,” not “pig” and “cow.”
I grew up eating “meat.” A few years ago, I made a decision to stop eating animals.
I can’t make a distinction between my dog, who’s convinced me she loves me, and another four-legged animal made of something we call “pork.” I can’t draw a line between a wild grizzly bear that stops me mid-stride and makes me fumble for my camera, and a chicken whose life we value in terms of how many McNuggets we can make out of its flesh.
I don’t try to convince other people to become vegetarian. Instead, I usually mention that my dad’s a butcher, that he’s run a business selling meat for 35 years. People ask what my dad thinks of me being a vegetarian. I tell them he reacted the same way he did when I got a tattoo, or when I took a huge pay cut to work at a nonprofit: He just shrugged, and, as always, let me do what I thought was going to make me happy.
Sure, when it’s time for Christmas dinner with the family, I always eat a bit light. But my last gift from my dad? An incredible portrait of a grizzly cub, taken in the Tetons. My grizzly, I like to think.