Welcome to the second in VINE’s “Paths to Veganism” blog series, in which VINE staff and invited guest contributors will share their stories. We believe that these stories, considered individually and collectively, will help the vegan and animal advocacy movements develop more nuanced and comprehensive strategies.
Like most people, I had a few starts and stops along the road to food-oriented veganism. The first time was kicked off when my girlfriend and I visited the game preserve (read, zoo for deer and bison) in North Park, Pittsburgh. We stood looking at a group of deer behind a fence and I wondered how anyone could hunt anything (sic) so beautiful. She said well, you eat hamburgers don’t you? Are cows less beautiful than deer? Her half-serious, half-joking manner was exactly what I needed to hear.
Then and there I declared myself a vegetarian. I had no idea about veganism, nor did I have any desire to find out more information. I ate fish sandwiches too, I suppose because fish aren’t cute, cuddly mammals. This lasted about three weeks – just long enough for me to hit PMS, crave the organ flesh I always did at that time, and cave in.
It was years before I even considered going vegan again. I was a huge fan of flesh and thought that steaks under a pound were for wimps. I knew which grocery stores sold the kind of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream I liked best. You get the idea. When I was 30, I moved to Ann Arbor where I worked with adults with serious mental illnesses in a community-based setting.
It’s sort of like how I came out as a lesbian – this vague sort of “hey, I’m gay” just started drumming in my head, daring me to listen. That happened to me around my childhood sexual abuse too – just this something rising up from inside telling me what I had refused to see for years.
When I met pattrice (in the context of a disability rights campaign), she was a vegetarian, but after we got together, I was consumed with grappling with some other ethics-based issues she laid at my door (good ones, but challenging ones), and so I didn’t engage with that too much. I even made friends with someone who was, at that time, vegan (she is no longer vegan), but – at least in my memory – that did not figure too large in my eventual catharsis (although both of these undoubtedly fed it).
Speaking of that catharsis, here is where it becomes strange to me in terms of teasing out how and why I woke up to animal exploitation and abuse. It’s all fuzzy, to be honest. It’s sort of like how I came out as a lesbian – this vague sort of “hey, I’m gay” just started drumming in my head, daring me to listen. That happened to me around my childhood sexual abuse too – just this something rising up from inside telling me what I had refused to see for years – the voice of truth that speaks to all of us if we would only listen.
While that initial jolt is still fuzzy to me, though, what came next isn’t. We started sending money to Farm Sanctuary and Best Friends. We joined the National Anti Vivisection Society as well. From the first two organizations I learned many truths about both companion and farmed animals. Pattrice and I inhaled and discussed all of the newsletters we received. Because both of us were used to the dynamic of powerful interests lying to less powerful ones, we were not completely surprised that this information was carefully hidden from most people, but even we found ourselves taken aback sometimes by a particular practice or aspect of the animal agriculture industry.
I am not a big one for talking about my emotions publicly, so I will just say I was a basket case back then. I lost pretty much all of my friends because I could not understand how they didn’t get it, particularly when all I could do was get it. Over and over and over again. I would wake up with images of downed animals in my mind, and was generally unable to control when any of the countless visuals I’d crammed into my head would pop into my mind. Setting aside hard times I’ve had due to past abuse, it was the single hardest thing I’ve ever gone through.
I believe that this period of time was critical for my progress into veganism (and beyond). Without a gut-level visceral knowledge that, at base, it is wrong to cause untold misery, torment, and death to billions of animals for any reason, one’s stance toward animal liberation is tenuous at best.
I lost pretty much all of my friends because I could not understand how they didn’t get it, particularly when all I could do was get it.
Over the next several months, I went vegetarian, pattrice moved more toward veganism, and I knew I would have to get there eventually myself. I began writing letters to the places the NAVS recommended, went vegetarian, and began a sort of general intention to become vegan. I didn’t really have any other idea as to what to do with this new-found information, however. Luckily, I mentioned something to my boss at the time, and one day she came back with a news clipping from the Detroit Free Press that featured Gary Yourovsky and his work with ADAPPT. I called him and was both surprised and honored when he offered to come meet me at an Ethiopian restaurant in Ypsilanti.
When I arrived, he was there with another activist who was, completely unbeknownst to me, engaged in some very courageous underground activities. Of course, I had no idea who either of them was (or would become). The two of them spent a very generous amount of time helping along my nascent animal liberationist activism. Nothing they said indicated that I should turn toward ALF-type work (not that I am suited for it in any case), but they hit hard and were extremely helpful.
Afterward, I went to some ADAPTT-sponsored anti-circus demos in Detroit, some anti-vivisection protests in Ann Arbor, and some other things. But such protests alone aren’t really suited to my temperament, not to mention the fact that I don’t always know how effective they are. I sometimes fear that such protests have become such a part of the background for many folks now, and are so dependent upon a particular context for their impact, that it is unclear to me exactly who they are reaching much of the time.
That’s about the time the idea for a sanctuary began in our heads. And so, when pattrice and I decided to move to the country, that idea was held out there as Something We Would Somehow Do When We Got There. It was vague and open-ended – an idea with no plan whatsoever, no timetable, nothing. My mind was, in fact, taken up with the student teaching I would need to do in order to fulfill my desire to be a high school English teacher.
But when we saw our first white chicken on the side of the road about a month after we moved in, that was that. I won’t go into details of that rescue here, as it’s posted on our site, but that was that. We could have said no, we’re not set up yet, too bad. We could have said no, not ready now, try back in a few years. But we grabbed him up and took him home. (I was elected to do that duty, and it’s embarrassing how anxious I was about picking him up.)
That, as I say, was that. By that summer, we were a sanctuary with more chickens and I was one step away from being completely vegan. My final item was not cheese, as it is for many folks, but ice cream. And whether or not I articulated it this way at the time, there is something extremely icky (not to mention highly unethical) about working with animals in a rescue setting and still consuming products made from their bodies.
I made a plan to kick the last animal-based food out of my diet: ice cream. I spent three weeks in Pittsburgh that summer eating ice cream for every meal (either as the main dish or as a dessert). One of my friends there questioned whether or not this tactic would work. She didn’t understand that I wasn’t trying to lose weight – I was eliminating cruelty from my diet. I knew I would never again knowingly eat cow’s milk ice cream again, and I haven’t.
That, to me, is what I primarily remember about why I went vegan. It wasn’t about meeting individual animals. It wasn’t about getting healthy (I’ve always been sort of an ox in terms of my general indestructibility). It was about knowing the torment visited upon billions of animals. It was about injustice. Here is a cow. Here is the cow being strung up to have her throat cut. Here is the corpse of the cow being carved up so people like me can have a steak. Here are twelve gazillion more cows just like her, all facing the camera, knowing the doom that awaits them. The second the truth hit me (which unfortunately took many years too long to happen), what could I do? How can anyone REALLY know the truth and continue on as before? (Don’t answer that – I know it happens all the time. I just don’t know how it happens.)
So yeah, learning the truth about animal agriculture was why I eliminated animal products from my diet and my wardrobe. I now see that as the starting point. I’ve come a long way since then in terms of my veganism – specifically, in dismantling the human-centeredness that I possess, along with all of the other humans on the planet. I work hard at this every day, knowing I will never get there but working nonetheless.
That’s the part of veganism that no one talks about much, and yet possibly it’s the most important thing – this work to interrogate and revise our inbred human supremacy. Think about it. It’s great that we eliminate cruelty from our diets. But isn’t that just a baseline? Do we really deserve points for eating tempeh instead of pork chops? It’s like giving men points for not raping women. They get no points for that, in my mind, just as eating a delicious vegan diet, while fabulous, is no reason to sound the horns. Refusing to inflict harm is merely the first step. The next steps are healing the wound.
VINE stands for Veganism Is the Next Evolution. However, my original idea for this acronym was Veganism Is Not Enough. I still believe that being vegan isn’t enough. An imperative baseline, yes. An endpoint, no. The wound humans have inflicted upon everyone else on this planet – and continue to inflict – is the most ingrained and widespread wound imaginable. It feels daunting, to say the least, to work to heal it. But work we must. So suck down that smoothie and let’s get to work.