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Injustice and Empathy: My Path to Veganism

Welcome to the third 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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.20.33 AMKevin is a vegan MMA fighter who began volunteering with VINE last year, joining our on-site staff briefly last summer. Having recently hung up his fighting gloves, he now has more time and energy for the physical rigors of sanctuary work, and we were very happy to welcome him back to our regular on-site team this spring. When he’s not working out or working at the sanctuary, Kevin plays in a couple of local bands, and he has even brought his guitar to work to serenade the cows.

Like many people, I am aware of many tragedies and injustices, and I do my best to not contribute to them. When I found out about the consequences of littering as a child, I decided that the inconvenience of walking to the nearest trash bin was worth the effort. When I found out that certain companies used sweat shops to increase profits, I did my best to avoid their products. When I experienced prejudice, I decided to be less prejudiced.

However, when I fully realized almost all of my food and much of my clothing was made by exploiting and killing animals, I could only go a few days of inconvenience before coming up with some justification to return to apathy. I would shake the concern out of my head somehow or come up with some sort of reason to surrender to the traditions I had been raised with, to eat how every single person I had ever met did. After seeing a video filled with slaughterhouse footage, I made a valiant effort to go fully vegan as the video advocated, but I eventually gave up, and –unlike when you relapse with a drug and disappoint everyone– my friends and family were relieved.

Back then, I’d say it all comes full circle, that one day ants and worms will have their way with my corpse just as I ate these chicken nuggets — but I wasn’t eating worm nuggets and wouldn’t be fed to chickens after death. I’d tell myself that it’s natural, just like the wolves do — which would have been fair if I was willing to do everything else wolves did, like sleeping outside or asphyxiating yelping fawns with my teeth. I would even say, “we are smarter, and therefore our superiority is what makes it OK,” even though if extra terrestrials with superior intelligence were planning on making me into human nuggets, I wouldn’t be OK with them using that logic. Yes, our ancestors sacrificed animal lives for their own survival, but just as we try to leave behind other harmful acts (homicide, rape, thievery, etc) why not leave behind unnecessary violence towards other sentient beings now that we can easily survive without it?

It was easier to convince myself to eat what I was accustomed to, than to convince myself to change. I wasn’t the one having my throat slit, I wasn’t being kicked around or electrocuted, I didn’t have my children taken from me to be starved and consumed, I wasn’t in a cage. All I had to do was not think about it, and I could enjoy the lovely taste of big macs and ice cream. What eventually happened was I quit pork, then I decided to quit beef, chicken, I was a pescatarian, then finally vegetarian. I found out almond milk tasted great, learned about the egg industry, and after chiseling away all of these cruel products from my life piece by piece, I had found that this pursuit wasn’t about NOT doing something, but about finally doing something to address what I knew was wrong long before. I can’t do much about my car exhaust or the trash bags I put out every week, but what I do have the ability to do is not contribute to any products or services that I know harm animals, including human animals.

Luckily for me with my poor will power, a cruelty free lifestyle becomes easier every year. Although it took some research, I eventually found enough plant-based foods that I enjoy, so I am no martyr during lunchtime. I have tried certain products that I disliked, and I’ve spit them out; nothing I currently eat is anything but enjoyable to me. All I had to do was go through a short process of experimenting with the options available.

I found plant based meat I enjoy, and I found that I genuinely prefer the taste of every type of plant based milk. I realized that although I don’t adore eating most vegetables cold and whole, I can chop them up and sneak them in any meal I make. That has made me feel much healthier than I did before. I used to eat burritos, pizza, cheeseburgers, cereal, chili, and gyros… and I still eat all of that! I just don’t use any animal products.

The only real inconvenience left is when I’m with a group of people who want to go to a restaurant that doesn’t have any options for me, or I’m being served animal products at someone’s home. Although it can be awkward at times explaining myself, I think a few moments of inconvenience are worth not contributing to animal suffering. Instead of getting annoyed, I like to do my best to express why I eat this way instead of saying anything negative that might alienate the person or seem preachy or critical. Compassion is what drove me to veganism, so that’s what I try to express when people question me about it.

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People are often surprised that I’m vegan, and It makes me wonder what I can do to change that. Can I grow my hair long and wear tie dye? What can I do to not look like someone who contributes to violence towards animals? Ive met my fair share over the years and I’ve yet to find a physical attribute that could make for a cliche vegan.

One pattern I have found however, is that many vegans have experienced something that allows them to relate to animals. Whether it be enduring abuse, an injury, social injustice, or just being really close to a companion animal, if you dig a little, almost every person eating a plant based diet has something in common with the farmed animals they abstain from consuming. The tribulation I endured, was waking up during open chest pectus excavatum surgery as a toddler. I experienced a level of pain that to this day I have yet to surpass, along with horror, and confusion as the nurses pinned me down to hold the gas mask to my face. They had under-dosed me with anesthesia in fear that too much would kill me at such a young age, and the punch line is they developed a much less invasive procedure years later.

Although I didn’t take responsibility until many years later, I had lost the privilege of assuming there is some sort of threshold limit for pain. That experience and the large variety of other physical injuries I’ve been fortunate enough to feel through reckless recreation and martial arts have made me more empathic than I’d like to be, but I hope people can make the same adjustment without having to become so familiar with suffering.

We descend from people who killed animals for food and other purposes for a long time. A place where I live like Vermont would be a hard place to be vegan in 1846. Advancements in agriculture have made it possible to eat tropical fruits during January blizzards and get the full spectrum of macronutrients, amino acids and nutrients usually deficient in plants like B12, Calcium and Vitamin D. Not only is a plant based diet now better facilitated in that regard, the alternative meat, dairy, and even egg products taste better every year making it easier to quit eating animals without having such a drastic change in taste.

If I had known that soy/almond milk was delicious, and that gardein/beyond meat tasted fantastic, it wouldn’t have seemed like such an undertaking. Once I stopped looking at it as subtracting foods from my life, and started viewing it as adding foods that I was neglecting (like quinoa, couscous, fried tofu, etc) it went from being an arduous change to being an exciting progression. I try to be reasonable and remember how deep the roots are set and not judge others or my past self for doing what we were raised to do. If someone is a hunter, I condemn their actions but I will not shut them off. I also know people who work at slaughterhouses, and I refuse to give up on them. As an ex-fisherman who went from cleaning my catch of day to a guy unwilling to eat honey or clams, I know that many people have the capacity to change.

I at times can get angry or judgmental but I try to remind myself that guilt, anger, or any other negative emotion is never as good of a motivator as the power of love. Veganism is the right thing to do for animals, the environment, and our bodies, but the world isn’t going to change overnight. Being positive and happy will make it more appealing than going around pointing fingers at everyone having a milkshake.

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4 comments to Injustice and Empathy: My Path to Veganism

  • Mae
    Beautifully written!!! Thank you so much for sharing your story, Kevin. You hit so many points that many people overlook. I also had pectus excavatum surgery when I was a child. While I did not wake up during surgery, I did experience an unholy level of pain one day afterwards. Your ability to relate that to the horror and suffering of animals is very wise. And you are correct – there is no threshold for pain, or if there is, it is immensely higher than I’d even want anyone to experience. Thank you again for sharing :)
  • Christine Riding
    Really enjoyed reading your journey. Thanks for sharing.
  • Judy Brown
    Thank you for sharing your story! And I adore the picture with cow friend … your lightening bolt shirt adds that Super Hero Vegan touch! :)
  • Kevin Cudabac
    Thank you, glad to meet another person born with it, mine was super severe but im fine now. I got a huge ram skull over the deformity/scar

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