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.