“You’re obsessed,” my husband told me. He was right. Ever since my neighbor introduced me to Scooter, a female squirrel who lives in our Oakland backyard, I’ve been looking out for her.
I set out raw walnuts or a persimmon and move away to watch her enjoy them. I could sit for hours watching her eat. After getting comfortable with me observing from afar, Scooter produced two babies who warily hop around the yard, scampering away at any sudden movement.
Fascination with animals isn’t unusual for me. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve loved animals.
According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, I’m not alone. About a third of Americans over the age of 16 are wildlife watchers. Last year drew a record number of visitors to U.S. national parks with over 307 million people visiting them to relish the possible glimpse of deer, moose, wolves, bison or bears.
Many who care about protecting wildlife create backyard sanctuaries, putting out fresh drinking water for animals as I have for my squirrel friends in drought-stricken California. Others clean up litter or work to pass laws to protect endangered species.
Something I was surprised to learn is that what we put on our plates may have an even bigger impact on animals than all other actions combined.
A 2015 study published in the journal “Science of the Total Environment” found, “The consumption of animal-sourced food products by humans is one of the most powerful negative forces affecting the conservation of terrestrial ecosystems and biological diversity.”
The study concluded that we can significantly reduce our harmful impact on biodiversity by eating more plant-based foods and fewer animal-based foods.
How does what we eat affect wild animals? The Center for Biological Diversity states, “In the United States, 80 percent of agricultural land is used for raising animals and feed crops. That’s almost half the land mass of the lower 48 states dedicated to feeding the nation’s taste for beef, chicken and pork.”
Natural vegetation is being decimated to make room for crops to feed farm animals. This destroys wildlife habitats and as a result, harms native species and delicate ecosystems.
Livestock production has been implicated as the largest contributor to habitat loss.
That’s not all. Animals we factory farm and slaughter in America generate 100 times as much waste as people do. Manure is dumped into giant cesspools and then sprayed directly onto fields, completely untreated.
This pollutes important waterways, according to a biodiversity study in Science of the Total Environment, and contributes significantly “to the more than 400 dead zones that exist at river mouths worldwide.”
These dead zones are oxygen depleted waterways where no animal life can be sustained.
In addition to our backyard wildlife and marine animals, endangered species are also negatively affected. A Stanford University press release cites the expansion of livestock and crop operations, deforestation, illegal hunting and human population growth among the most serious threats to endangered animals.
The good news is that we can all be a part of the solution and it’s something millions of Americans, colleges and universities like College of the Canyons, and southern California school districts like Val Verde Unified, Los Angeles Unified, and dozens more are already doing: reducing the amount of meat they’re eating.
Helping wild animals can be as simple as swapping out a chicken fajita with a protein-packed bean burrito or exchanging pasta with meatballs to a zesty pasta marinara.
The Humane Society of the United States advocates the Three Rs: “reducing” or “replacing” consumption of animal products and “refining” our diets by choosing products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards.
It may not feel like every day we can play a role in addressing one of the world’s most pressing problems, but, in this instance, we can make a difference three times a day when we sit down to eat.
Recognizing that we can have a positive impact on animals like Scooter, her babies and so many others like them makes the decision to eat more plant-based meals even more enjoyable.
Kristie Middleton is the senior food policy director for The Humane Society of the United States and the author of “MeatLess: Transform the Way You Eat and Live” due out in March. She lives in Oakland.