I went to the beach one day when I was a pretty young kid and took home a clam. The next morning, I woke up to find that it had died.
“Well you put it in fresh water – it needs salt water. DUH!” my older, more worldly sister scolded.
So, it didn’t just die, I KILLED it. I was devastated.
I was a born animal lover. I was heartbroken about dolphins dying in tuna nets, and repulsed by my aunt’s fox fur coat. I’d catch spiders on my ceiling under a glass and release them outside; I put earthworms back in the soil when they washed out onto the sidewalk after a rain. I loved eighth grade English because we were given the opportunity to write the Canadian government to protest the baby seal slaughter.
I also always had a cat. I have lots of memories of one in particular. Her name, Ashes, was inspired by silky gray fur and white feet, making her look like ashes had been dumped on her. I’d scoop her up every night at bedtime and snuggled her under my chin, stroking her down her side to the tip of her tail. I’d drift off to sleep blanketed in peace as I listened to her rattling purr. For years she never resisted this ritual, as she seemed to be as comforted by it as I was. As a young child, I knew she had feelings, and I also knew that she inherently had rights to food, water, shelter, kindness, comfort and veterinary care. I knew these things about companion animals, but I knew nothing about gestation crates or veal crates, feedlots, battery cages, foie gras or downer animals.
"As a young child, I knew she had feelings, and I also knew that she inherently had rights to food, water, shelter, kindness, comfort and veterinary care. I knew these things about companion animals, but I knew nothing about gestation crates or veal crates, feedlots, battery cages, foie gras or downer animals."
I didn’t think about the hidden lives, the remnants of which I’d eat and wear on my feet. I ate burgers, pork chops, chicken breasts and drumsticks, cheese and ice cream gratuitously, and never gave a second thought to the material used for my K Swiss sneakers. The meat tasted good and the shoes were in style, which made me feel cool. That was all that mattered to me. I had no awareness of factory farms or the animals who suffered there.
I didn’t know that farm animals are excluded from most anti-cruelty laws, enabling such practices as painful mutilation, extremely limiting confinement and injurious handling. To subject our companion animals to such treatment is not only illegal, it would be unconscionable.
I was of course not alone in my blissful ignorance. Our collective psychology has given dogs and cats family member status while cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, ducks, geese and turkeys are relegated to live in squalor on factory farms, routinely subjected to brutality. Burger joints and steakhouses line our streets and weenie roasts are a national pastime. Leather is good and luxurious. Faux leather is bad and cheap. We are immersed in animal products that exist on a continuum of camouflage from the obvious flesh covered in cellophane, to milk and eggs, butter, cottage cheese, shiny patent leather shoes and pebbled leather car seats. The orderly arrangement of the meat section and the elegant presentation of the designer leather handbag on a pedestal behind spotless glass, belie the lives and cruelty behind the products.
Our disinclination to associate an animal with the products, the abundance of these products in our culture, and remote rearing and slaughter of animals insulates us from reality. This disconnect buttressed by a barrage of marketing promotes absolute lack of awareness - a convergence of forces creating a fortress, keeping our collective psychology unscathed.
Even as a born animal lover, I have been on a decades long personal journey of emotional reconciliation and intellectual awakening regarding my use of animal products. It’s been like a long, nauseating roller coaster ride. Occasionally, I’d reach peaks of awareness and consciousness, but lingering all too often in valleys of denial, ignorance and emotional disconnect: I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation shortly after college and eliminated all meat except fish, over night. Fish don’t have to live on factory farms - it was the thought of slaughter in particular that resonated with me. I eventually went back to chicken. Maybe they’re not as miserable on a factory farm as a cow or pig. Certainly the whole process is less gruesome. I continued dousing my coffee with half and half and devouring cookie dough ice cream. As a fashion lover, I never stopped buying leather shoes and handbags, rationalizing them as “by-products” of the meat industry. I did try some non-leather shoes, but I opted for cheap ones and quickly dismissed them as too uncomfortable. Somehow, my occasional efforts felt like enough - my ride was running smoothly enough, but there were bumps.
One experience occurred while volunteering in an animal shelter. There was often animated discussion about the neglect or abandonment suffered by the animals in our care. One day, I witnessed two volunteers having such a conversation, each with a burger in her hand. Like chipmunks, they’d take bites and stash them in their cheeks. Their discussion was so emotionally charged, they were more eager to continue the conversation than to chew and swallow. I couldn’t help but stare, listening to their shock and disgust while they packed cow flesh into their cheeks. The raging dichotomy sent me sailing off the tracks into the Twilight Zone. I landed hard in this place where there is no logic, reason or justification. For whatever reason, that particular event will forever be etched on my mind. It felt like a real game changer - the beginning of an intellectual awakening, bringing forth an intense desire to more seriously shun animal products again.
Believe it or not, I derailed – again. I absolutely lost control while pregnant, succumbing to urges for even beef that I hadn’t eaten in years. I’m not sure what I would have done if someone were standing in my way of a plate of beef stroganoff.
In the years that followed, I suppose I just lost myself.
My ride finally came to a slow stop with a coagulation of raw emotion, research, and experiences leading me to pursue a vegan lifestyle with greater resolve- digging in to seek the painful truth, and revamping my diet and wardrobe choices. I read more about the web of consequences of meat and leather production that extend beyond animal cruelty and suffering. I didn’t need to look any further than the insert in a box of Nicora shoes showing amounts of petroleum, water and kilowatt-hours saved by purchasing non-leather shoes. Human injury and disease, deforestation, water pollution, greenhouse gases, outrageous water consumption and toxic chemicals are also problems. I read about dairy cows, chickens and more. I watched the graphic videos. I was finally struck with greater clarity. Education was the missing link, forcing the transition from awareness to the more critical, intentional state of consciousness. Faced with new facts and reminded of what I already knew, my emotions were fortified and deepened, giving me a renewed sense of responsibility.
"I didn’t need to look any further than the insert in a box of Nicora shoes showing amounts of petroleum, water and kilowatt-hours saved by purchasing non-leather shoes. Human injury and disease, deforestation, water pollution, greenhouse gases, outrageous water consumption and toxic chemicals are also problems"
I became clear that simply dabbling in humane choices was not satisfying me. Human beings possess capacities that elevate us, giving us dominion over other life. Ironically, we then choose not to apply such capacities as compassion and justice or a myriad other critical thinking skills to honestly and fairly evaluate our treatment of farm animals as commodities.
Of course, pursuing a vegan lifestyle has challenges, and I’m embracing them as opportunities for creativity. I’ve tweaked my recipe for Portobello mushroom stroganoff made with cashew “sour cream” several times, and must say it’s pretty good. I haven’t quite perfected the use of applesauce as a substitute for eggs in corn muffins, so next time I’ll try ground flax seeds or mashed bananas.
Eliminating leather also inspires creativity. The perfect pair of shoes is the icing on the cake for a great outfit. Alas, the limited eco-friendly vegan choices make for a creative challenge, so I’ve learned to look at my choices in myriad ways. Not only are my Nicora Sinclair boots perfect with the very casual vibe of a pair rolled up boyfriend jeans, but they also work really well with skinnies, a blouse, and statement necklace for a dressier look. It creates a different vibe, adding interest through unexpected contrast.
While I enjoy the creativity, I also experience my share of guilt as well. I was careful to say that I wanted to “pursue” a vegan lifestyle because “pursue” falls short of obligation or full commitment. Every time I cave and eat scrambled eggs or add half and half to my coffee when the restaurant has no substitutes, I am wrought with guilt. I even felt guilty when I still ate the pizza that arrived at my house with cheese when I had ordered it sans cheese.
"Education was the missing link, forcing the transition from awareness to the more critical, intentional state of consciousness."
In the long run though, I’ll be much better off if I extend compassion to myself as well. If I choose to beat myself up over every transgression, it contributes to feelings of failure. If I perceive my efforts as often falling short, how much more often will I digress from my goals? I think that was my problem all along - I couldn’t be perfect at this vegan thing, so I gave up. I will make mistakes, but I hope to continue using them as an opportunity to learn something new or try a different approach. I do my best everyday. Little decisions add up and every mistake/regret is an opportunity.
Why were the eggs irresistible, or why did I succumb to the half and half? Perhaps I need to learn more about managing my protein intake with vegan sources, or do a little research to find places in my community that do offer dairy alternatives (or bring my own) and let management know I’m appreciative, just as I emailed customer service at Nordstrom to explain why I was happy they carry Matt and Nat handbags.
Meanwhile, I’ll expand upon my repertoire of recipes and try to come as close to perfection on that vegan corn muffin as possible, and then move on to blueberry. I will continue to thoughtfully spread the word about the plight of factory-farmed animals when the opportunity arises. I will give my business to companies like Nicora and Gunas. And, I’ll remember to keep my successes in mind. I recently turned my back on a luxury car, opting instead for a much less sexy Toyota Rav4 because I could get a faux leather interior. Every time I slide into that seat, it makes me happy.
I wanted to tell my story for several reasons:
- I’d imagine it’s relatable for many. Aspiring vegans and “maybe someday vegans” might find that they will not be perfect either. Adapting can be difficult, so you may stumble, but being imperfect is no reason to give up completely. Be kind and patient with yourself.
- One of the greatest gifts we can give animals beyond forgoing animal products is to be an effective ambassador for them, which is best done with compassion, consideration and patience. It took me decades to get on track even though I was always concerned about animal welfare. My journey reminds me not to get frustrated with, or look down on others. For anyone not raised in a vegan household, it will be a journey.
- Being well educated on the issues related to the factory farming industry is an essential step toward an ambassadorship. Detailed knowledge not only bolsters our confidence in our positions, it better enables us to share with confidence as well. It prepares us for clear, purposeful conversations.
I am holding onto hope for animals and squeezing it tight. A vegan lifestyle will satisfy my immediate goal to end internal struggle, but I also like to think that collectively, my choices have impact beyond my life and household. Certainly my vegan purchases contribute to helping companies like Nicora thrive, but I also wonder about the smaller things: I wonder if the customer service rep who responded to my email to Nordstrom will start to consider the plight of animals if she did not already. Has any waiter or waitress ever researched a vegan lifestyle after a conversation with me? Have any of my friends decided to forgo meat for a meal or two? I might never know the answer to many of these questions, but change is coming.
In my home state of California, Proposition 2 passed in 2008, banning battery cages, veal crates and gestation crates. The following year, a bill was signed ending the painful amputation of tails from dairy cows, and in 2012, the ban on the production and sale of foie gras in California went into effect. None of it happened overnight. This type of change is like an evolutionary process, but the vast majority of people do not want animals to suffer. Votes are cast and bills are signed to help animals when people are conscious of their suffering. If enough of us participate in the change process in whatever way possible, by making even small lifestyle changes, or educating others, perhaps together, we can light a fire under that evolutionary process.