Archive for June, 2007

It was the first time I had ever been so close to an animal so large.  It was the summer of 1992, and I had joined two friends in Pamplona for that annual foolishness known as “The Running of the Bulls.”  This was something I had long wanted to do, and I found myself sprinting up a cobblestone street with hundreds of other people from around the world.  The six bulls easily caught up with us, and they galloped past, their brown heads and sharp horns rising and falling.  They were so strong and graceful. 

After the run, my friends and I wandered back to the bullring.  Dozens of bull-runners were chasing several bulls around the arena, smacking them with newspapers.  These bulls would die in the afternoon bullfights.  The spectators cheered as men poked and teased these noble animals, mocking them in their fate.  Whatever excitement I had felt earlier was now eclipsed by contrition.  These bulls, I realized, wanted to live as much as I do.  Am I the only person to travel to Spain, run with the bulls and then feel shame?  What separated me from everyone else?  I felt isolated, like the only Bing Crosby fan at an Aerosmith concert.

That morning, I began to extend my circle of compassion — though I still had a long way to go.

Later that year I was in Ladakh, India, spending two months living with a Buddhist family high in the Himalayas.  Nearly every meal I enjoyed came from the family’s large vegetable garden, and I realized I had never felt more physically fit in my life.  Then two cows came to visit one day.  It was late fall — time to bury the remaining vegetables to store for the winter.  The cows, who lived with a nearby family, came to feast on any plants that remained.  One cow in particular made a deep impression on me.  She stood still as we looked into each other’s eyes, and I was taken aback by how sentient she appeared.  Clearly, she had as much right as anyone to a life without pain and suffering.  What, I wondered, entitled humans to murder these beautiful animals?  Was this really the way for one species to treat another?  Moreover, was I not enjoying the best health of my life on a plant-based diet? 

Of course, one does not develop an abiding personal tenet overnight.  I gradually gave up eating animal flesh while examining my life and the role compassion played in it.  I looked for opportunities to be more humane … to make choices that reflected my belief that all life is precious.  Upon returning to the US, I worked for and wrote about human rights, which eventually led me to “Diet for a New America” by John Robbins. I was horrified to learn about battery cages and the dairy industry.  I contacted Karen Davis at United Poultry Concerns.  Wouldn’t it be OK if I ate free-range eggs? I naively asked Karen.  No, not really, she replied. 

When I discovered there was a sanctuary not far from my home where I could visit farmed animals rescued from abuse, I arranged for a tour.  Like so many people who visit Animal Place or any other haven for the former inmates of agribusiness, I was profoundly moved by each animal’s story: hens who had been rescued from battery cages, cows who had escaped slaughterhouses and transport trucks, goats who had survived vet schools, pigs who had been surrendered by 4-H students with a change of heart, sheep who had been neglected by farmers.  I went vegan that day and commemorated my decision by getting a tattoo of a rabbit on my arm (not just any rabbit, mind you — the PETA logo rabbit). 

The next step, of course, was to share the joy of being vegan with others.  So I began writing about animal exploitation in magazines, volunteering for Animal Place, rescuing animals and trying to be the best example I could be.  Then something happened: several people I knew stopped eating animals.  I never asked them to; I simply told them about the industrialized abuses billions of animals suffer every year.  I gave people vegan cookbooks and books about factory farming.  I told them about my volunteer work and how much it meant to me.  I created and mailed Christmas cards focusing on animals.  I read everything I could about nutrition and animal rights so I could answer questions about this ethical lifestyle.

This conviction — this reverence for all life — has become my guiding principle.  It informs every aspect of my existence, including my choices about work, entertainment, home decor, healthcare, fashion, and, of course, diet.  I have found my core belief surprisingly simple to adhere to.  Yes, sometimes it means that I don’t buy a certain product because it’s been tested on animals.  It means I buy shoes made without leather and make special requests when dining in restaurants.  And sometimes I spend half an hour in some parking lot after a rainstorm, gently lifting wayward earthworms from the wet blacktop and returning them to safety.  But these are not sacrifices for me.  If compassion is my religion, these are the actions I use to celebrate it.  They are my rituals.  For me, living fully awake means embracing all species with the same level of respect and kindness. 

Being a joyful vegan doesn’t take willpower — just a willingness to try new things and choose mercy over misery.

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When I was a child I loved animals, or so I thought. For, while I really felt a kinship with and a great deal of affection for all animals, I hadn’t made the connection between their lives and who it was I was sacrificing and eating every day.

When I was growing up we always had pets: birds, fish, hamsters, rats, hermit crabs, dogs, and many cats. I was an only child, and our pets were really a part of our small family of two humans. I wanted to be a zoologist or an oceanographer when I grew up. I empathized with worms that I would see washed up on the sidewalk after a rain on my way to school, and I would stop to move them back onto the soil when I saw them. I was really into animals!

I was raised by my mother, who lovingly prepared all of my meals for me. She was a hippy in the 60s, so I was more than familiar with health food stores and vegetarianism. We were lacto-ovo vegetarians for a while when I was young, but we ended up back on a meat-based diet, a diet that I continued to eat when I moved out on my own.

When I was 11 I went to a friend’s house for dinner. They were preparing lobster, which I had never had before. I watched in horror as my friend’s father put a live lobster into a huge pot of boiling water. They acted like this was totally normal, but I’d never seen anything like it. Then, a couple of long minutes later, the poor lobster threw the lid of the pot onto the floor in a valiant attempt to save his life. One claw was poking out, reaching. He was still alive in there, somehow. The father slammed the lid back on and walked away.

I didn’t have any lobster that day, but I remember being horrified yet again while eating a bowl of stew. I lifted a spoonful to my mouth and saw that there were big taste buds on the chunks of meat. I was then told that it was cow tongue stew. Now I realize that it doesn’t matter what part of an animal you are eating; I think all animal products are awful, but at the time, the idea that my taste buds were tasting someone else’s was really disturbing. Needless to say, I didn’t have any more cow tongue stew.

After I moved from my home town of Corte Madera, California, to San Francisco, I was a waitress on Haight Street for many years. I didn’t have to learn to cook because I was allowed to order anything that I wanted from the menu while I worked. My choices were typically eggs Benedict, cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, salads with turkey, eggs, and 1,000 Island dressing, and such… not a healthy diet at all! When I cooked for myself it was usually boxed macaroni and cheese and bologna sandwiches, maybe a broiled salmon steak if I was feeling “fancy.”

One of the cooks where I worked was a vegetarian, and I remember asking her if it bothered her to work with so much meat as a vegetarian. She said that it didn’t. I really admired the fact that she was a vegetarian, although that wasn’t enough for me to change my ways.

Another time, one of the cooks kindly read me the ingredients on the box of ground beef that I was eating as burgers. I will never forget the first two ingredients: beef hearts, partially defatted beef fatty tissue. Even as a meat-eater this really, really made me sick. I stopped eating burgers there right away, although I still ate them elsewhere and I consumed all kinds of other animals’ bodies without giving them any consideration whatsoever.

Another day I made the mistake of watching “Faces of Death” with a friend. We thought it would be interesting. It is a documentary that shows real-life incidents involving accidents and death. It turned out that they portrayed non-human animal suffering as well as human. One clip showed four tourists visiting Japan and indulging in what was considered a delicacy, live monkey brain. There was a terrified monkey in the middle of the room, his body in a cage attached to the underside of a table, it’s head poking through a hole in the top of the table. Each person was given a little hammer, and they beat the monkey into unconsciousness by hitting it in the head with their hammers as it screamed and spun around in the cage, trying vainly to escape. Then, the waiter came over and sawed the cap of the monkey’s skull off. The tourists each scooped some of the live monkey’s brains out and ate it. The two women proceeded to throw up immediately. What a waste of precious life.

Another segment showed sheep in a slaughterhouse. They were hanging upside down on the slaughter line by hooks that went through their ankles. They had all been completely skinned, and their entrails were hanging outside of their bodies onto the quickly-moving conveyer belt. They were still alive, bleating in agony.

It was incidents like these that started giving me clues that the way I was eating really wasn’t in conjunction with my true desires and feelings.

The first time I heard the word ‘vegan’, it was when a customer asked me if a particular dish on the menu was vegan. I had no idea what he was talking about, and I thought it might be some kind of cult diet or something. I stared back at him blankly as I tried to figure out what that weird word he had said meant. That seems so funny to me now, the fact that I didn’t even know what veganism was and now it is such a huge part of my life.

One day, when I was 22 years old, I came home from an exhausting day of waiting tables and lay down on the couch to watch some TV. I turned on PBS because I love documentaries and they show them often. What I saw then changed my life forever. It is such a great coincidence that I didn’t do something more useful than watch TV on that day!

They were showing “Diet for a New America”, the incredible documentary by John Robbins about how what we eat affects ourselves, animals, and the planet. I watched, amazed, as everything I had been taught about animal products in my life and diet was expertly dismantled by this kind, compassionate person. I sat rapt, with tears in my eyes as he described and showed footage of the conditions on factory farms, and the endless amounts of unnecessary suffering that animals are forced to endure to turn them into products that are so unhealthy for our bodies and our environment.

At the end of the documentary they showed that “Diet for a New America” was available in book form. Once I got a copy I read it almost straight through. I could not put it down. The subject matter was sometimes painful to read, but Robbins also added lots inspiring stories of animals and their unique situations and personalities, which are incredible and uplifting, to balance things out.

I remember how angry I felt that we are so misinformed in our culture about the ramifications of a meat-based diet. The four food groups were even created by the meat and dairy industries to train us as children to eat their products. They provide free “educational tools” to schools, like food pyramid (their bogus, self-serving version of it) posters, etc.

I don’t even remember deciding I would become vegan at that point, it was just a matter of course. With the information that I had been provided by John Robbins, my eyes had been opened to what is really going on.

I went to a local health food store and stocked up on vegan cookbooks. I started cooking my own food, which was a lot of fun, and pretty much new to me. It was great to learn that there are so many foods out there. As a meat eater I was eating a much more limited diet. As a vegan I learned about foods I had never even heard of before, like tempeh, seitan, and all sorts of interesting veggies and grains.

I have been really lucky since then. Many of the people who I am closest to have also become vegan, so I have a strong network of people in my life who totally understand.

It also doesn’t hurt to have a fantastic woman like Colleen Patrick-Goudreau out there keeping me informed, inspired, and entertained with her incredible work. Thank you, Colleen!

~Linda in San Francisco, CA

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With a respectable corporate job and a nice little house tucked neatly in the suburbs, I settled comfortably into middle age and conformity.  The older I got, the less desire or incentive I had to be different or stand out from the crowd.  The only remaining vestige of my college years when I was less of a conformist, in middle age I continued to be a lacto-ovo vegetarian, more or less.  I found that being a more or less vegetarian was more or less unremarkable; that is, it was generally quite easy to fit in with the crowd and not bring any attention to myself.  After all, even the worst of steakhouses’ menus have a nice trendy salad or two from which I could choose.  And no one ever gave my choice a second thought!

But last fall, something happened that shook me out of my complacency and ultimately lead me to reject one of the most fundamental rituals of our society; the almighty, all-American, animal-centric way of eating.  Last fall, I found myself in the middle of a heart-wrenching situation.  This situation forced me to quickly make a decision. While I tried to make the best one I could given the circumstances, I realized shortly afterwards that my decision was the worst possible. Unfortunately, my decision and its tragic consequences will haunt me for the rest of my life.  Fortunately, this same decision and its tragic consequences compelled me to revisit several other ill conceived decisions I’ve made, to try to make positive changes.

Of these, the first decision I revisited was my long-ago decision to be a vegetarian.  You see, I had made that decision for humanitarian reasons, but from time to time over the years I would experience a vague, nagging feeling that perhaps the dairy and egg industries weren’t so humane after all.  Until last fall, I was always able to shrug that vague nagging feeling off just as quickly as I experienced it, thus managing to avoid doing even the most perfunctory research to confirm or dispel those unpleasant, but fleeting, thoughts.  After all, there were so many other matters to occupy my thoughts ….

Finally I did my long overdue homework.  After reading lots of articles and listening to some great podcasts (including Colleen’s excellent articles, podcasts, and her links to other great resources) I finally realized the error of being only vegetarian. In order to produce milk (and of course all dairy derivatives including such vegetarian staples as cheese and yogurt), cows must give birth.  Continuously. They give birth to “surplus” calves, which are not only subject to horribly inhumane conditions for the duration of their short life, but slaughtered for veal within months of birth. 

As for the cow that produces milk and “surplus” calves, once her milk production diminishes she is sent to the same cruel slaughterhouse as her offspring.   Humane egg production is also a myth.  Both the living conditions and the manner in which chickens are slaughtered once their egg production diminishes are beyond deplorable.  Even “free range” chickens are subject to many of the same abuses as their caged counterparts.  I realized with a horrible sense of chagrin that because of my deliberate ignorance, for years I had actually been supporting the very same heinous industry I thought I was avoiding. 

I also learned a lot about the nutritional aspects of a vegan diet.  While I’m not a nutritional expert, I’ve read enough pro- and anti-vegan diet nutritional literature so that I’m completely convinced that I will get all the nutrients I need to be healthy for the rest of my life from a vegan diet.  I may get sick in the future, but it won’t be because of my diet.  Conversely, I’ll be more likely to avoid some of the illnesses that are linked to an animal-based diet, including coronary artery disease and some types of cancers.   To summarize what I learned about vegan nutrition and diet, in their 2003 position paper, the American Dietetic Association concludes, “Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence.” 

Of the countless decisions I’ve made in my life, I’ve questioned many over the years and revisited a few more recently.  There have been precious few about which I both feel and know with complete certainty are the right decision.  My decision to become vegan is one of those precious few.   I celebrate the fact that I now stand out from the majority, in that my life is no longer rooted in the suffering and death of others.  I also celebrate the endless variety of tasty, healthful, nutritious plant-based foods and recipes in which to prepare them.   

Lori in Mansfield, Massachusetts

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My path to veganism and animal rights activism began when a vocal black cat entered our lives in 1987. At the time, I worked at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It was late fall and I often arrived home after dark. As I prepared my dinner, the black cat would appear on the sill outside the kitchen window and meow relentlessly. Over the course of an evening, I would move from room to room, and she would follow along outside, moving from window to window, still meowing.

 After two or three weeks of this, my boyfriend said he would take her to his house, and that’s what he did. We’d both anticipated a loud and chaotic car ride for both him and the cat, and loud and chaotic it was.

 When Roy called me at work to say they had arrived at his house, and he described how she had carried on using a whole range of voices, I said, “I know her name! It’s Diva.” As time went on, Diva became an even more perfect name for her, as it took on a number of other appropriate meanings.

 In the ensuing days, Roy would call me to say what a character the cat was, and how much he liked her. At first I attributed it to novelty and change, but I learned differently.

 About five months later, Roy got a new job in Phoenix. We married, packed up Diva and our stuff and settled in Scottsdale. I spent those early weeks fixing up our apartment, which meant I now had steady interaction with Diva. She was fascinating. I had lived with cats for most of my life, but she emanated a power and mystique I’d never sensed in my other animals. I began to think about black cat lore and witches and familiars. I started reading books on mythology and history, starting with Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Roy and I had a great many conversations about Diva, conjecturing, searching, trying to understand her powerful presence.

 I happened to pick up a Yoga Journal that featured an interview with John Robbins. Robbins had just published Diet for a New America. Moved by the article and his stories about dreaming of pigs, I bought a copy of Diet and shared it with Roy. Coincidentally we traveled to San Diego, where we ate at a Govinda’s restaurant. The signs making note of their karma-free food got plenty of our attention.

 We were vegetarian from then on—summer or fall 1988—always intending to go vegan but somehow still not making the necessary connections. I became an activist even so.

 I think it was in 1997 that when a colleague asked me if I ate eggs, I answered yes, and at that very moment a voice spoke to me which asked, “Why are you still eating eggs?” I went home and told Roy I thought it was time for us to go vegan.
 So we did. In the early days I missed the taste of cheese less than its convenience as I realized it had become my most relied-upon fast food. Gradually we learned to substitute for the things we were used to, and that was that. Many new vegan foods and cookbooks were coming on the market, and Roy and I were both motivated from our hearts, so I think our transition was about as easy as it gets.

 Diva died in 1995. I divide my life into long phases—Before Diva and After Diva. There’s little comparison between my sense of the world before she came along and after she came along. Three precious cats share my home today (they are named Pablo, Fergus, and Neruda). Each is unique and magical as Diva in his own way, and we owe an enormous debt to her, who opened us to the sacred and ineffable riches of interspecies relationship.

Cathleen in Oakland, CA

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In 1988 I took an Environmental Science class as a sophomore at Penn State.  From films, we learned about soil degradation, water pollution and destruction of the rain forest as consequences of animal agriculture. I don’t know if the professor was a vegetarian, but I made the switch rapidly that semester to a meat-free diet.  It was purely for the environment and had nothing to do with animal welfare in any regard.

Four years later, I worked for an animal shelter in rural Oregon.  I saw a hand-made flier entitled, “Vegetarianism and Animal Rights:  A Free Series of Videos on Alternate Thursdays.” Since “I loved animals,” I thought my boyfriend and I should go.  It was November and just before Thanksgiving.  Off we went to this perfect stranger’s house with no idea what was in store for us.  I’m not even sure I knew what “Animal Rights” meant.

In Ron and Peggy’s living room, we watched, “The Animals Film” and learned about intensive-confinement animal agriculture, the clear connection between milk and veal and that roosters have no place in egg production.  It was hard to watch.  I have a crisp memory of the drive home through trailer parks and orchards, both of us sitting in stunned silence.  Someone said, “Well, I’ll never eat that again.”

We didn’t, and for the most part, we have never looked back (he’s now my husband).  Yes, we have made occasional allowances for wedding cake and if grated cheese finds it’s way onto our plates, we make do, but for the most part, we haven’t missed these things that were the foundation every meal, every day for over twenty years.  And it’s not
because of the incredible array of delicious, animal-free foods available, of which there were and are many.  It’s because of the unforgettable footage of the routine practices of animal agriculture.

Today, when I speak up about the cruelties of animal farming, I’m told, “Oh, I know all about that.”  Really?  I doubt it because I believe the vast majority of reasonable people would find the routine practices of animal agriculture abhorrent, if only they would bother to take a serious look.

So, if you know of someone who says they simply can’t resist animal products or they say they believe stories about animal agriculture to be false, exaggerations, or atypical occurrences, ask them to watch, “Earthlings” or “Meet Your Meat” or another of the video’s available online.  These are not easy to watch, to be sure.  But if we demand animals endure deplorable conditions in which death is their only relief, can’t we take enough responsibility to watch?  Once we become
completely informed, the decision of what to eat takes care of itself.

~Susan in Pacifica, CA

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Although I’ve never been a huge meat eater, I decided to officially become a vegetarian this past summer.  My original decision was simply because I was disgusted by both the taste of meat and the thought of eating animals that were once living.  But as I began to search for tips on vegetarian cooking, I came across more and more information that confirmed I made the right choice — for my own health, for the environment and animals, and for the world as a whole. 

I discovered your website this spring, and have been listening to your podcasts for several months.  A year ago, I would never have considered being vegan, and I was definitely one of those “but I love cheese!” people.  But you’ve inspired me to reduce the amount of animal products in my diet.  As a student, I have had to compromise and opt for the vegetarian choices when I eat in the dining hall, but I am proud to say that I have stopped buying dairy products and I’ve even had a few successful attempts at vegan baking!

Listening to your podcast, however, I’ve realized that veganism is a profound belief, rather than just a special diet.  The vegan choices I’ve made thus far have been surprisingly easy, but I feel that if veganism is something I wholeheartedly believe in, I should be willing to make sacrifices.  So I’ve decided to go completely vegan this summer (when I’m home and away from college food).  I’m really excited about this decision, but it is a place I never would have arrived at without your podcasts.

Since I only know a couple vegetarians and zero vegans, listening to your podcasts feels like talking to a friend.  When I get sick of telling my friends where I get my protein from, or after watching them consume hamburgers at a barbeque, I come back to my room and listen to your friendly and wise words, and I am reminded that I am not the only “crazy vegan” in the world.  So thank you, a million times, for the work you do. 

Thank you for being such an inspiring person!

Carynne M.

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