Eyes Wide Open

 

goat rescue
(“Lamb with Igualdad Animal Activist” –photo by Jo-Anne McArthur)

Why am I vegan and an animal rights activist? Because I abhor violence. Because I am sickened by suffering, appalled by cruelty, horrified by killing–and I don’t want to contribute to it.  It is really that simple. And yet the moral imperative that is at the core of my veganism is not easily understood by many; perhaps they think that acknowledging their own culpability in supporting violence towards animals, in their food (as well as clothing, entertainment and medical) choices–and then doing something about it by going vegan– is too complicated, too much of an effort.

I feel that there is something  else at play, however; something larger that is left unspoken and yet at some level is recognized by many people when they refuse to open their eyes to the plight of farmed animals.  When we  open our eyes to the violence humans do to these animals, we also open a door that leads to actively opposing that violence and influencing others to do the same. And that door leads to more and more doors. And all those open doors, while affording a vision of social justice for all beings, also offer a view of the world that is often bleak and troubling and confusing and overwhelming.

And there is so much that overwhelms us, so many images of suffering with which we are confronted, so much violence over which we have no control. One image in particular has, in the past few day, elicited feelings of  grief and outrage worldwide: the image of little Omran of Aleppo, Syria. How can you not view that image of a soot and blood covered little boy looking so small and dazed as he sits in the back of the ambulance, and not gasp at  what has just happened to him and his hometown? How can you not decry the ravages of a conflict which has caused so much suffering and death and has destroyed the childhood of children like Omran? How can anyone remain indifferent to such horrors?

When I saw that picture and then the video of Omran’s rescue from the rubble of his house, tears came to my eyes. Of course. But what to do with that feeling of grief? We see these images, we react as any caring human being should react but what then? I am outraged that such violence exists. But what to do with that outrage? Do I write a letter to the president? Do I take to the street in protest?  I confess, I do not have enough understanding of the Syrian conflict and I certainly don’t know what I personally could do to help bring it to an end. And so I cry tears of impotent rage.

Another captivating image graces my living room wall: a framed 30″ x 40″ print of an amazing photo by the Canadian photographer and animal right’s activist Jo-Anne McArthur; a lamb is cradled in the arms of a member of Igualdad Animal (Animal Equalityduring an open rescue of farmed animals destined for slaughter. What drew me inexorably to this photo and compelled me to purchase it at a showing of some of McArthur’s photos benefitting The National Museum of Animals and Society (now under the name of simply The Animal Museum in downtown Los Angeles) was that lamb’s eye staring out at us; unlike Omran’s stunned and hollow-eyed gaze, we can read in this lamb’s face hopeful anticipation, curiosity, relief. It’s an image that fills me with delight and also a sense of urgency. That lamb’s gaze never fails to remind me why I chose to become a vegan and why I  became an animal rights activist.

Those of us who care, those of us whose eyes and hearts are open to the suffering of others, we cry. But we also cry out — we cry out against domination; we cry out against social injustice;  we cry out against the exploitation and brutalization of sentient beings. We decry violence and we especially decry the violence of the powerful over the powerless. We come together to publicly denounce that violence, we do not cry out alone.

Sometimes we know exactly what to do, such as choosing to go vegan as a personal rejection of violence to farmed animals, or by rescuing animals from suffering and slaughter. Other times we are not so sure of what to do, especially when the problem seems far beyond our ability to solve it.

But we choose to keep our eyes open. We choose to not only be aggrieved  by the violence we see but also to be outraged. So outraged that we look for ways to turn that feeling into action. We choose to see and we choose to hope and we choose to act. We don’t always know what to do, that’s true. But we know that as painful as it is, we must keep our eyes wide open, always looking for that glimmer of hope on the horizon.

Will You Speak Out For Us?

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Who will speak out for us?
The animals you call food.
Who will give voice to our suffering?
Who will tell of the torture?
Who will cry out against the cruelty?
Our misery speaks volumes.
Who will listen to our story?
Who will care?

Artwork by Sue Coe

ChickensInBatteryCageslg

LAYING HEN. Listen to me. I lived a short brutal life! If you can call it that. Every nightmare second spent on a factory farm. Billions of us every year. Over a million every hour. Slaughtered! I was a laying hen. Male chicks are useless to the egg industry. They are gassed. Crushed. Suffocated in trash bags. Piled on top of one another and left to die. They have it easy! Soon after I hatched, part of my beak was seared off with a hot blade. It’s done to all factory farmed chickens, turkeys and ducks. Without painkillers. It hurts. How it hurts! For weeks afterwards.

HeartBrand Cow

BEEF COW. You want to talk about mutilation? They castrated me. They cut off my horns. They burned me with a branding iron. You think I was given any painkillers?

LAYING HEN. I was packed into a small cage with a half-dozen other hens. We had no room to move.It was horrible. My natural instincts told me to perch, nest, dust-bathe, forage and roam. But I couldn’t even move my wings. It was so crowded there. I was desperate. Frustrated. I wanted out. That’s why they cut off our beaks, so we wouldn’t peck each other in our misery!

I was kept laying . . . eggs, eggs and more eggs. I gave so much that my bones became fragile from the loss of calcium. When my production declined, a worker pulled me from the wire battery cage, but my wing got caught and was ripped off. I screamed in pain, but only briefly. I was killed and my battered flesh was sent to the rendering plant.

I never knew a moment of freedom. I never knew a moment of comfort. I knew only misery and pain.

Emery-Before-RescueBROILER. I wasn’t put in a cage but in a large shed, like a warehouse, with tens of thousands of other birds. The stench, the dust and the ammonia fumes – they were awful, we had no relief. And our bodies! They were made to grow so fast and so big. My legs couldn’t even support my weight.

My life was sheer hell. I wish I could tell you that my death was quick and painless. When it came time for slaughter, I was snatched up with other birds and crammed into a crate which was stacked on top of other crates in a truck. No food or water during the trip. I was hungry and thirsty and terrified.

Where were we going? What was going to happen? When we finally got to the slaughter house, I was torn from the crate and shackled upside down onto a metal rack. I was conscious when they slit my throat and still alive when they immersed me into a tank of scalding water.dead-chickens
LAYING HEN. So that people can eat eggs.
BROILER. So that people can eat  chicken.
ALL. Yum! Yum! Yum!

Who will speak out for us?
Who will speak of the nightmare world?
Who will tell of the mutilations?
Who will scream our pain?
Who will cry out for us, whose cries were never heard?
Who will give voice to our suffering?
Who will listen? Who will care?

pig

PIG. Listen to me. If I had been a pig in the wild I would have liked nothing better than to stick my snout in the dirt and root. I would have taken mud baths to cool myself. And oh, how I would have roamed, for miles. Sniffing, sniffing and sniffing for food. Exploring everywhere.

But I spent my life confined on a factory farm. I wasn’t even viewed as an animal by the people there. No, I was a meat- producing, piglet-making machine without any feelings.

I was weaned from my mother at two weeks old and became a breeder like her. This meant that I was put in a gestation cage, a metal stall so small that it was impossible for me to move around. I just wanted out. I wanted to be free. The boredom was terrible. I’d bang my head on the cage door, but that did no good. I’d finally just give up.

After giving birth, it was even worse. I was placed in an even smaller farrowing crate while my piglets nursed. Over and over again, either pregnant or nursing, I was always caged.

Other pigs are put into concrete cells called fattening pens, each holding about a dozen pigs. Of course, the pigs act out in their boredom and frustration and try to bite one another. The factory farmers answer to this is to cut off their tales, cut off the ends of some of their teeth and punch bits out of their ears.

pigs in truck

Of course, we all had to die at some point. When I had stopped giving them enough piglets, my time had come for slaughter. A quick and painless death would have been a blessing to me. But that was not to be. I was packed into a hot truck with so many other pigs, crammed together, shocked with an electric prod. We were frightened, angry, biting at each other, trying to get out, looking for escape where there was none. And then the long ride, the heat unbearable, standing in our own shit. Many of us died, right there in the truck. What a hellish ride!

farmer john

How can I explain to you what I saw and heard and smelled at the slaughter house? Do you have any idea of the horrors there? I watched my brothers and sisters and my children being killed. I saw them struggle and heard their cries for help and I saw the workers brutalize them in their impatience. I saw their blood splashed all over the place!

When it was my turn, a worker put a captive bolt pistol to my head to stun me. But I struggled and the bolt missed its mark. I was still conscious when my throat was slit. My last sensations were feeling the blade of that knife and hearing the coarse laugh of the man who used it on me.

LAYING HEN. Listen to us! We speak the language of pain, the language of fear, the language of suffering. They have kept you from hearing us, kept you deaf to our cries. We cry out for open spaces, fresh air and a chance to follow our instincts. We cry out for comfort. We cry out for compassion. We scream our pain and moan our grief and shriek our terror. And you do not hear us. Who among you will take the time to listen?

state_of_misery_thin_spanish_cow_with_overgrown_hooves

DAIRY COW. Listen to me and I will tell you how the life of a dairy cow is anything but happy. I will tell you of my suffering and I will tell you of my grief – a mother’s grief.

Over and over again I was kept pregnant, artificially inseminated, to produce milk. Like all mammals, I produced milk for my babies. Or didn’t you know this? I was pumped full of drugs to make me give more and more milk. I was hooked up to a machine which chafed and hurt and greedily took milk from my body.

Milk meant for my baby! My babies! I never got to nurse them. I never got to nuzzle them, to care for them, to give them a mother’s love. They were taken from me shortly after their birth so that I could keep producing milk for you to drink. And so it went, over and over again. Impregnation. Birthing. Milking. Until I was spent, my milk all used up, my body depleted. They had taken all that I could give and they had taken my babies. They killed me and ground up my body for hamburger. I was only five years old. I never knew what happened to my babies.

CratedCalfInExcrement-lgVEAL CALF. I was one of her babies. A few days after I was born, I was sold to a veal farmer.
Mother, they took me from you and chained me by the neck, alone, inside a wooden stall! It was so small I couldn’t even move around. And that’s where I spent the rest of my brief life. Day after lonely day. My muscles wasted away. I needed your milk, mother, but they fed me something else that made me so weak.

PIG. Veal calves are fed an iron-deficient milk substitute that makes their flesh desirably pale and also makes them anemic.

VEAL CALF. I was scared, Mother. Scared and lonely and sick. The stall was damp, the wooden slat flooring soaked with my urine. I had trouble breathing.

BEEF COW. So they pumped him full of antibiotics.

VEAL CALF. I wanted to be with you, Mother. Where were you when I needed you? I was all alone in that stall.

ALL. Sixteen weeks! Sixteen lonely, weary weeks!

VEAL CALF. And finally, they killed me. I never felt grass beneath my feet.
And I never saw you again, Mother.

PIG. Oh, but wasn’t his flesh so tender, so succulent, so beautifully pale?
Wasn’t that veal a gourmet’s delight? Well worth all the suffering, wouldn’t you say?

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If animals on factory farms could tell
In tongues made knowable to human ears,
Tales that could touch both heart and mind,
What sort of stories would you wish to hear?
Those terrors that were voiced are all too real
But must this be the way?
There’s hope for some – the rescued few:
A sanctuary brings them brighter days.
But most still languish in a living hell,
No moment of surcease, no touch of grace,
But we can make a difference in their lives.
We can give them love’s transformative embrace.

It’s in our hands.

They are in your hands,
These animals, these fellow beings,
In your human hands,
Hands that can describe
An arc of Freedom
Or delineate
A circle of Despair.
Hands with thumbs that make
It possible to grasp
A single thread,
Heft a club,
Or hold a fork and knife.
Hands that can bring forth
Or take a life.
These animals
Are in your hands.
Hands which may not hold
The blade that kills but
Pay the ones who spill
The blood that’s on your hands.
Hands that cover eyes.
You say you sympathize
But hope that blindness
Can comprise a world
Where the flesh that you
Consume is somehow
Joyfully given,
Rather than so cruelly riven.
These animals, their fate is in your hands.
And when you bring
That Leg,
That wing,
That thigh,
That chopped up muscle mass,
That piece of what
Was once a living
Being
That lived a short and
Oh so brutal life,
Up to your mouth
Remember this:
Those animals, they’re in your hands.

Fellow Humans

A couple of days ago I was jarred by a remark made by an acquaintance — let’s call her Mary –a woman  whose work for the animals and for the planet I respect deeply. It was at the end of the annual Fur Free Friday protest in Beverly Hills.  A group of us had planned on getting lunch at Veggie Grill in West Hollywood and I, sans car, begged a ride from her. I looked forward to continuing a conversation begun the day before, at the Vegan Thanksgiving  potluck in Rancho Park, regarding effective activism and the need to get the larger, “Mom and Pop” public involved in animal rights causes.

As we walked to her car I mentioned how I have been forced, much of the time, to take public transportation and I mentioned how I loved taking the train, the Metro Expo La Brea station just a ten minute walk from where I live. Mary responded that she loathed taking the train or any form of public transport. And why is that? I asked. “Because of all those gross people.” she replied.

I wasn’t quite sure which people she was talking about. To be sure, I have encountered some less than appealing humanoids in all my years riding buses and taking trains. Was she talking about someone like the homeless guy I encountered once on a subway train in New York whose rotten cabbage/cat piss reek practically cleared a whole car? Or the woman chugging malt liquor from the can at 7:45 in the morning on the 212 bus headed into Hollywood?

No. Mary was not talking about certain people.  She was talking about all people — or at least the majority of people who still “stuff themselves with the bodies of dead animals” (or words to that effect.) In fact, she went on, she hated the human race. If a virus were to wipe out the entire human population, she averred, she would be fine with that. Now, I have heard this sentiment expressed before and have found it not only disturbing but asinine, as I shall explain below. But I did not, perhaps naively, expect to hear it from this woman.

“Name one good thing that human beings have done on this earth!”  she demanded.

“What about all of us?” I asked, “What about all of the people who care deeply about animals and the Earth and are working to bring about change?” She replied that we were but a minority and besides, it was already too late.  We’d already reached the tipping point.  Humans had fucked things up forever.  Another person who was walking  with us to the car, an older woman I didn’t know,  readily agreed that all people were detestable and she hated them, too.

“Do you hate yourself, then?” I asked  Mary. She replied that she had no problem with dying –and that she would be perfectly fine with having her whole family perish as well –but whilst she was alive she planned to keep fighting for the animals. I turned to–or perhaps on  (my ire was up)– the other woman and posed the same question: “Since you are a human, do you hate yourself?”

“Oh, I, too, do not care if I die,” she replied  in a European accent I was unable to identify.

“That’s not the question that I asked,” I told her, trying hard to keep a prosecutorial zeal from gaining control. “Do you hate yourself??”

She conceded that, well, no, she did not hate herself.

“So you just hate everyone else, then.  Is that it?”  We had reached  the car by this point and I got in and shut up. On the drive to Veggie Grill I remained silent until  Mary wanted to continue our conversation from Thanksgiving. I took this opportunity to confront her with her anti-human stance but she merely reiterated her desire to see a virus wipe out the entire human race.  There was no human being, “not even the Dalai Lama”  whose life was worth a damn compared to the life of an animal.

“And what about all the children?” I asked, barely able to contain my repugnance for what this woman professed to believe. “All the young children I teach.  Do you want to see them perish as well?”

To which she replied, “Yes, them too. Children grow up to become vivisectors.”

Once we reached Veggie Grill, I had lost my appetite. As the two human haters waited for another human  to find parking, I took the elevator up to the ground level and then walked out to to Crescent  Heights and continued walking, down towards Santa Monica Boulevard. Away from human haters. Away from the activist crowd gathered at Veggie Grill, a crowd comprised of who knows how many others who fervently wished for a final viral solution to the human problem.

Of course, I do realize that there are many– perhaps most– in my Vegan/Animal Rights community and in the worldwide circle of advocates,who eschew such  misanthropy. Here’s what Animal Rights philosopher Tom Regan has to say in his book, Empty Cages:

With rare exceptions, ARAs [animal rights advocates] stand for love of family and country, for human rights and justice, for human freedom and equality, for compassion and mercy, for peace and tolerance, for special concern for those with special needs, for a clean, sustainable environment, for the rights of our children’s children’s children — our future generations.

I question whether most ARAs “stand for love of family and country” and it’s Hallmark- patriotic sheen but I would like to believe the rest is quite true.

Yes, human beings are capable of great cruelty, staggering mindlessness, monumental stupidity, selfishness, greed and folly.  Many people  have annoyed me, repulsed me, horrified and deeply saddened me. But there have also been people who have greatly inspired me, who have bolstered my faith in humanity, whose self-sacrifice and dedication are a wonder to behold, whose kindness and compassion have at times brought me to tears.  And I have known humans who, though not (yet) vegan, not animal rights advocates, have touched me deeply with their warmth, humor and sensitivity.

I understand the anger, the sickness-at-heart; I understand the rage. There is much that humans have done to animals and to Nature (and, I might add, to other humans) that is unconscionable and deserving of unequivocal rebuke.

But it makes me sick at heart to hear people like Mary declare such hatred for a species to which I, my family, friends and loved ones — and yes, even she–happen to belong.  And all this talk about looking forward to a virus wiping out the human race is such asinine rubbish.  Of course those like Mary are not prepared to start things off with themselves and not wait for the virus (thank goodness!) because of the important work they have left to do.  But it is fine to consign everyone else to death. Even little children who will, undoubtedly, grow up to become vivisectors.  And what of the suffering involved?  The anguish of   those who, before their own demise, have to witness their loved ones sicken and waste away. What of the pain, the terror, the horror of such a scenario? Would this, in Mary’s mind, be justice served?  Or is she planning on a quick and painless plague?

I am a human being, a deeply flawed human being.  We are all flawed to some extent.  Yes, even the beloved leaders of our Vegan/Animal Rights community (I have been privy to some stories which paint a less than glowing portrait of  the human interactions of some highly respected people ) But this does not mean they have not made positive contributions to  saving the lives of animals and to changing the hearts and minds of other human beings.  And this does not mean that there are so many others out there who are open to our message of compassion for all earthlings, who are ready to change, to become Vegan, to put their ideals into profound practice.

We cannot, we must not, conform to the false stereotype of the “people hating” animal rights extremist.  This does not mean that we must not confront the public with the truth — the horrors of factory farming, the insanity and barbarity of animal research, the depravity of the fur trade, etc. It means that we must be guided by hope, we must be always ready to take the long view, to see an arc of history that truly does bend toward justice.

And we must be open to the small epiphanies, the serendipitous discoveries that are awaiting us as long as we leave ourselves open to them. Last night, after taking part in a rousing street theater stunt against UCLA vivisection  organized by Progress For Science at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, I had time to kill before my bus arrived and so I stopped in at the bar at Buddha’s Belly on Broadway and Second for an  après (street) theater drink.

I had much to think about, much to contemplate regarding the events of the past few days.  I had been a part of a peaceful and lovely gathering of like minded folk in Rancho Park for the Vegan Thanksgiving potluck; I had been in the midst of some righteous anger directed at the purveyors of  fur in Beverly Hills; I was happy that the stunt on the promenade had gone well and that nearly thirty people had shown up.  I had felt a comradeship with these people, these dedicated activists,many of whom were young enough to be my children.

And I also was mulling over Mary’s comments.  As I sipped my Tsing Tao beer, to be followed by a sake, I scanned the others at the bar and in the dining area.  Would Mary find everyone of them gross and consignable to death?  And would I feel a true sense of kinship with any of them?  Did any of them really care about earthlings other than themselves?

We cannot, we must not, conform to the false stereotype of the “people hating” animal rights extremist.

And there I was, dressed up in my grown-up clothes, my non-wool dress jacket, dress shirt, slacks, non-leather shoes (I had been to the real theater earlier in the day). How did the others see me?  Would they see a much different person were I wearing the “Animal Liberation” tee shirt I wore to the fur protest? Most likely, yes. Dressed as I was, they had no way of knowing I was a Vegan, an Animal Rights Advocate, the creator of The Veg Monologues, fer cryin’ out loud.

And then the bartender, a  friendly young woman named Jamie, spoke to me. “Did you just come from a movie or show?” she asked.  And I told her that, no, actually, I had just come from a street theater stunt against vivisection at UCLA.  And that’s how I found out that she and her mother were both Vegan and supporters of animal rights.  As she went about her bar tending duties we talked about veganism, tofurkey, Native Foods, and how difficult it is sometimes being around people who just don’t get it. Before I left, I urged her to check out this blog.

So, Jamie, if you are reading this, it was great meeting you, fellow Vegan.  Fellow Human.

Being Vegan: Not A Diet, An Imperative

A while back, at a pre-opening event at the new Westwood, California  site for the popular and ever expanding Vegan restaurant Native Foods Cafe , I shared a table with a very intelligent, very attractive, outgoing young woman, a Rutgers University graduate and budding entrepreneur who had taken part in the recent Fur Free West Hollywood (WeHo) campaign.  She was not Vegan, nor even vegetarian but something of a “flexitarian.” Still, she considered herself a compassionate person concerned about animals and, well, perhaps she might go vegetarian one day.  She enjoyed vegan food, but when it came to socializing with Vegans, there was a problem. “It just seems to me,” she opined, “that most of the Vegans I meet,  ALL they want to talk about is being Vegan.  I mean, can’t they find something else to talk about?  After all, it’s just  a diet!”

Oh, dear.  There are several assumptions in her statement which I and many of my Vegan brethren (and sistren) have heard in one form or another from representatives of the non-Vegan general population (NVGP):

1) Veganism is primarily about making food choices  2) Those choices are a personal preference  3) Not everyone has an interest in your personal preference   4) You are trying to force your preference on me. Now, if we were talking about just food, this would certainly be a different issue.  A love of asparagus, for instance.  An obsession with heirloom tomatoes.  Or, perhaps, raw food versus cooked food.  If this were, indeed, merely about personal preference – even if that preference might personally benefit others – then one would be justified in saying, “That’s fine for you, but not for me.”

But, of course, it is not just about personal preference. We are not talking about merely the consumption of plant-based foods.  We are not talking about a completely (no lacto, no ovo) vegetarian diet.  There are, indeed, those folks who have adopted such a diet because of health concerns or for other reasons related to their own well-being.  But I do not think they should be called Vegans.   Yes, it is great that they have adopted a diet that is not rooted in animal suffering, that does not support the bloody corporations which profit from the torture and slaughter of innocent beings.  But let’s be clear about something. “Being Vegan” – this implies a state of existence that informs who we are in a very essential way, a state of existence which, I believe, is informed by ethical concerns rather than self interest .  And it extends its manifestations to include what we wear, what entertainment choices we make, what medical research we support, what businesses we patronize.  It influences our whole world view.   Yes, people come to Veganism for a variety of reasons (which The Veg Monologues hopes to convey) – ethical, health, environmental – but ultimately it is a moral imperative which commands our adherence to the principles of Veganism.

Let’s be clear about something. “Being Vegan” implies a state of existence that informs who we are in a very essential way, a state of existence which, I believe, is informed by ethical concerns rather than self interest.

Let’s explore for a bit this concept of the “moral imperative” and how it applies  to Veganism. The eighteenth century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant is well-known for his discussion of the categorical imperative, that which one always has a duty to do, regardless of the consequences of doing it.  In the present day, here is what  philosopher and  renowned Animal Rights Advocate, Tom Regan, has to say about the ethical question of turning animals into food, from his book Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights:  

“We ought to stop eating the bodies of animals (“meat”), just as we ought to stop eating “animal products,” such as milk, cheese, and eggs.  Commercial animal agriculture is not possible without the violation of the rights of farmed animals, including violation of their right to life.  More fundamentally, commercial animal agriculture violates the right of animals to be treated with respect.  We are never justified in injuring the bodies, limiting the freedom, or taking the lives of animals because human beings will benefit, even assuming that we do.”

Notice that Regan writes, “ought.”  This implies an obligation or duty. He takes the deontological philosophical view . Deontology is concerned with duties and rights. Veganism, then is, or ought to be, as much about animal rights as it is about food.   Veganism recognizes that it is not justifiable to choose to contribute to the violation of the rights of farmed animals even if people have a craving for animal flesh or animal secretions.  Veganism makes it imperative that we eat like we give a damn.

Let’s return, however, to my convivial table mate at Native Foods.  Let us assume she had said something like, “I recognize the moral imperative inherent in Veganism.  But still, must that dominate the conversation?  Don’t Vegans have anything else to talk about?”  Of course, my first response would be to ask, if you do, indeed, recognize the moral imperative inherent in Veganism, why in the world are you still eating animals and animal products? But I would also feel that, perhaps,  she had made a valid point.  Mind you, I would not agree that ALL Vegans only talk about Veganism. I am happy that I have Vegan friends who have interests and passions, as do I,  outside of Veganism  (and vegan dining)– hiking, music, books,  theater, movies, art, dancing, to name a few.

I don’t doubt, though, that she has met a number of Vegans who have used Veganism as a sort of conversational cudgel.  I don’t doubt, either, that I have wielded that cudgel more than once throughout my twenty plus years being a Vegan.  Would the same critique apply if the conversation were dominated by talk of the human rights imperative of supporting the Palestinian people?  Or the environmental imperative of stopping global warming (with links, of course, to modern animal agriculture). Or . . . the spiritual imperative of accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?

“Aha!” I can hear some of the NVGP exclaim, quite satisfied to have this last analogy broach the as yet unspoken subject. “You Vegans are all about spreading the gospel of Veganism, all about evangelizing us omnivores. You don’t converse . . . you try to convert!”

Do we Vegan advocates want more and more of the NVGP to become Vegan  — or at least set foot on the path to Veganism?  Damn right we do!  Do we tend to preach? Perhaps. But whereas a Christian evangelist hopes for a transformation based on faith,  we ask that people make a moral choice based on fact. And the fact is that over billion birds and mammals are slaughtered for food each year in the United States.  Before they are killed, often not quickly, not cleanly,  they are subjected to deprivations and abuse in  factory farms that would be considered criminal if done to other, non-farmed animals.

Even supposedly “humanely” slaughtered animals (an absurd contradiction in terms!) have their lives cut short, not because humans need animal flesh to survive (as we now know, through research such as The China Study , a diet centered on animal flesh and animal products is deleterious to human health) — no, these animals,  each and every one a subject-of-a-life as Tom Regan puts it, are killed to satisfy a taste.  Or, in the case of laying hens and dairy cows, they are slaughtered once their brutalized bodies can no longer produce any more eggs or any more milk.

Do we Vegan advocates want more and more of the non-Vegan general population to become Vegan  — or at least set foot on the path to Veganism?  Damn right we do!

Vegans  know all too well the reasons for becoming Vegan. We understand the importance of the choice we have made. Our eyes are open to the horrible violation of rights inherent in the nightmarish world of factory farms, where living beings are treated as things, mere commodities.  We know that we  can’t  look away. At some point we were compelled to look at our own complicity in helping to perpetuate the suffering — even those of us, such as myself, who were many years vegetarian — and we now realize we have a duty. We understood the imperative of making changes in our own lives so as to effect a change in the lives of farmed animals.  We knew then and we know now how much it matters.

I agree with Australian philanthropist Philip Wollen that Animal Rights — and by extension, Veganisn–is “the greatest Social Justice issue since the abolition of slavery.” I became a Vegan advocate not because I wanted to force my “preference” on others, but because so much is at stake, because so many lives hang in the balance.  Because  justice for farmed animals is never going to be a reality until people  WAKE UP and look at what they are doing — out of habit, out of their own preference– to perpetuate the injustice.  That is what I bring to the table.

What are some other reasons that someone might go on and on about being Vegan?  Well, of course, it could be the zeal of the convert, or perhaps a feeling of wanting to share this new, profound information which must surely have an immediate and positive effect on the listener — how could it not?  It might also be that many of us Vegans feel terribly marginalized by the NVGP;  we are always enthusiastic over the prospect of a potential new member of the club and we tend to overdo the enthusiasm.

And yet, there are reasons for having “something else” to talk about.  For one,  if we are truly trying to get others to listen to us, we don’t want them to tune us out.  And the surest way of getting them to tune us out is to dominate the conversation, to force others to listen to something they are not ready to hear.

But there is another reason.  Veganism  ought to be seen in a global context, and not just because  switching from animal agriculture and an animal protein centered diet to a plant-based food source–for the lives of animals, for the environment (despite what some people will have you believe. Click here for some excellent fact checking on this) , for people’s health — will bring about profound positive change worldwide.  Veganism and animal rights need to be seen as existing in the larger, ever changing world; as part of the global mix of  ideas about peace, social justice, health, compassion,  oppression, liberation,  freedom and so much more.

And we Vegans ought to be a part of that world.  We need to be making human connections, not just with other Vegans but with the non-Vegan general public.  We need to be a part of the world of Hope and Joy, Loss and Pain;  of making mistakes and of making amends that all human beings are a part of.

Yes, it is imperative that we not shy away from talking about being Vegan,  that we be unapologetic advocates for the animals.  But it is also imperative that we accept the fact that we are imperfect human beings in a world of imperfect human beings, in order to bring ourselves to the table, to join in the conversation.   And add our Vegan voices to the mix.

[for an excellent exploration of the same topic– Veganism as social obligation, not a preference– see my pal Kara’s post here — we cover some of the same territory but through a different lens]

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Addendum:

Several re-readings of this and multiple mullings-over have convinced me that I did not do my duty in forcefully and unequivocally stating the case for Veganism as a moral imperative.  I see now that my words, particularly at the end, could be misconstrued as excusing as merely “imperfect human beings” those who would disregard or ignore the imperative and continue to act in a way that perpetuates animal suffering.  I certainly did not mean it to come across that way. What I should have said is that we Vegans/Animal Rights Advocates should recognize that there are alliances to be made with others who are concerned about social injustice, oppression, liberation, etc.  within a human paradigm.  As the chant goes: “One struggle, one fight, human freedom, animal rights!”  It is all of one, multi-faceted piece.

I also believe that we should not be smug in our Veganism, we should not be  imbued with a vanity that causes us to forget that we are not perfect, that we are fallible. A self-righteous attitude doesn’t help the animals and it only alienates those people we are trying to influence.  BUT, I want to reiterate that this doesn’t in any way mean that we do not have morality on our side; it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strongly and unapologetically TELL THE TRUTH.  And people who proclaim to be compassionate and ethical and who are not ignorant of the facts but discount or ignore the moral imperative of Veganism should be confronted with their inconsistency.  Yes, we should take the Matrix-like veil of Carnism into account but we also shouldn’t be afraid of urging others to take the red pill.

The Courage of Our Convictions

“True courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to proceed in spite of it.”

♣ Think about those people you consider truly courageous.   Who would you pick?  The first responders who rushed to the inferno of the World Trade Center?  The airline pilot who made a successful water landing, his skill and presence of mind saving his plane full of passengers?  The combat soldier who put himself in harm’s way to protect his comrades?  The mother who fended off attackers to protect her child?  In times of danger, in the midst of life-or-death struggles, when extraordinary courage is called for and proceeding in spite of fear is of absolute necessity, there are those who will rise to the challenge.  We are in awe of these acts of bravery and self-sacrifice, these instances of courage, and we ask ourselves if we would be able to do the same.  If we were put to the test, would we pass?

For many people, just getting through the day requires an act of courage.  People struggling to pay the rent or make the mortgage payment. People living in poverty, living with hunger. People who daily face violence, hatred, prejudice, persecution; who encounter racism, sexism, homophobia, and yet somehow maintain a courageous attitude.  That sort of courage is born of an instinct to survive, and is stronger in some than in others;   courage and hope can stand only so much abuse before they are crushed under the juggernaut of economic and societal forces far beyond one’s personal control.

“Everyday courage has few witnesses.  But yours is no less noble because no drum beats for you and no crowds shout your name.”  –Robert Louis Stevenson                                                                                                   

And there are those who work to help others in need; there are those who work to change the system, to make it a more compassionate one, a system which puts people before profits.  The majority of these humanitarians and activists seek no personal glory, expect no hosannas, seek no reward beyond seeing the achievement of their altruistic goals;  in fact, these people who devote themselves to making the world a kinder, more just, more peaceful place, often struggle against indifference or even outright hostility from the general public, and yet they carry on, they take a stand, they take action, because they know what they are doing is right.  They have the courage of their convictions.

Now think of those whose sense of moral obligation, whose courage born of compassion lead them to help non-humans — the animals.  They take action for the purpose of opening eyes and/or opening cages, such as the Mercy for Animals undercover investigators who have exposed, for example, the cruel practices at the world’s largest egg -laying breed chicken hatchery – Hy-Line International in Spencer, Iowa; or the Compassion Over Killing investigators who, in addition to documenting the abuses, also conducted “open rescues” at two egg farms in Maryland. There are, as well, those who liberate animals (without the use of violence) from research facilities, puppy mills, mink “ranches,” etc. These brave people, committed to freeing animals from their suffering, have put themselves at risk; they have not only risked getting arrested, they have also exposed themselves to witnessing firsthand cruelties and horrific environments most of us would want to avoid for our emotional well-being.

But one does not have to go undercover, break into labs or commit any dramatic act to to be an advocate for animals.  Being an ethical vegan requires an everyday sort of courage that is no less noble for lack of drum beats.  By choosing to be vegan for ethical reasons — and to be so proudly, strongly, openly and as a model for others to follow –you take a stand, you put your compassion into action.  There are various ways that ethical vegans can and do demonstrate the courage of their convictions. Below are some I have thought about. I’m sure there are many more.

♣ The Courage to Look

Whenever I participate in vegan video outreach at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, during a showing of Meat Your Meat or Earthlings or other videos which depict the horrific truth about the plight of farmed animals, there will be, invariably, those people who rush past, shielding their eyes or the eyes of their children, refusing to look. The images shown are, indeed, truly disturbing stuff, the stuff of nightmares, hard to watch.

But not looking does not make the nightmare world  of factory farms and slaughterhouses not exist.  There are,  of course, people who stop and watch; in fact the aforementioned videos are the biggest draw and allow us the best opportunity for leafletting.  Are these people mesmerized by the violence on screen?  Captivated by seeing images that are usually hidden from them? Curious to know how their dinner is “produced”? It is hard to say but I do know that some are deeply moved by what they have seen.  Their eyes have been opened, their hearts have been touched and perhaps they have taken the first steps towards a more compassionate diet.

“When faced with a choice between confronting an unpleasant reality and defending a set of comforting and socially accepted beliefs, most people choose the latter course.”  — W. Lance Bennett

Vegans have the courage to look at that unpleasant reality and then to look at their own connection to it, to see that they can make a choice, that they can choose to say no to those socially accepted beliefs about animals as food and yes to a more compassionate choice.

The Courage to Say No

 It is comforting just to go with the flow, to blindly accept what Melanie Joy has dubbed the carnist ideology that tells us that eating animals is normal, natural and necessary. Once our eyes have been opened to the cruelties and suffering inherent in animal agriculture and other forms of animal exploitation and abuse, it is incumbent upon us to reject this worldview, to say “No!” to the brutalization, the needless slaughter of sentient beings, each one, as animal rights philosopher Tom Regan argues, a “subject-of-a-life.” We must say “No!” to battery cages, gestation crates, veal stalls, stockyards, slaughterhouses. “No!” to the continual rape of cows to turn them into milk machines. “No!” to turning chickens into egg-laying machines. “No!” to debeaking, teeth clipping, tail docking, branding, castration. “No!” to merely bigger cages and yes to empty cages.

The Courage to Say Yes

 It can be hard to make a change in your life, even a very positive change. This involves leaving the known and comfortable for strange new territory. It involves opening oneself up to new possibilities, new choices, new ideas, new perceptions, new friends. We are tempted to think, “What have I gotten myself into?”  When we say yes to veganism and by extension animal advocacy (more on this below), we are often agreeing to a paradigm shift of sorts, a change in our basic assumptions about our relationship to animals; or we are affirming what has been there all along but we were perhaps too timid to fully embrace it.

The Courage to Care

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote about the “I -Thou” (or “I-You”) relationship which expresses the mutual existence of two beings.  There is no objectification in such a relationship, there is no thought of using the other, as one would in an “I-It” relationship. Ethical vegans care deeply about animals because they recognize an “I-Thou”  relationship with them.

But with caring comes the possibility of being hurt; caring about animals coexists with knowing how much they suffer, and many people would rather shut off their caring selves rather than experience the sort of psychological pain such knowledge can inflict.

There is also the problem of  not being able to make a personal connection with animals when they are viewed in a general, abstract way, especially if  we are talking about the billions of farmed animals killed each year. Most people do care deeply about their “own” pets and may even care about dogs and cats in general and many care about animals in the wild, but they have not widened that circle of caring and compassion to include the animals they call food, or at least not enough to cause them to change their diets and lifestyles.

Ethical vegans have the courage to care about all animals, especially those who languish in the misery of factory farms or even those raised in comparatively “humane” ways, only to have their lives cut short so that humans can use their bodies to satisfy their craving for animal flesh.

The Courage to Hope

In my previous post I wrote about the necessity of hope. Sometimes, though, things just seem hopeless, we are beaten down by the unrelenting suffering in the world. Sometimes it takes an act of courage to hope  in spite of it all –but then that hope must be turned into action.  And taking action keeps hope alive.  Vegans have the courage to hope for a better future for animals and humans. And they have the courage to take action to make that future a reality.

“Action is the antidote to despair.” –Joan Baez

The Courage to Not Have All The Answers

I have been a vegan and animal rights advocate long enough that I have had the opportunity to encounter just about every question that anyone might throw at me — first and foremost, of course: “Where do you get your protein?” and also, “Don’t plants also feel pain?” and “Do you care more about animals than you do about humans?” and “Weren’t animals put on Earth for us to eat?”  and “What in the world is wrong with drinking milk?”  But there are times when someone might have a question, perhaps something dealing with statistics which I, a dyscalculiac (someone who has an innate difficulty with numbers), am unable to answer.  At which point I will confess that I don’t know but that I will try to find out. We cannot know everything, be able to answer every question, meet every challenge.  But we do know the basics: animals are sentient beings, they are subjects-of-a-life, they suffer; it is unnecessary to eat them and in fact we would be a lot healthier if  we adopted a  plant-based diet.  We must have the courage to admit we don’t know everything   — but also have the courage to clearly express that which we know very well.

The Courage to Bear Witness

As people who became vegan for ethical reasons, for reasons of empathy and compassion, we must have the courage to bear witness to the suffering of animals.  We did not choose veganism simply because it makes us feel good or contributes to our well-being. One way to bear witness is to be proudly and openly vegan and then to explain to others why we are.  We can do this through conversations with friends and family or through volunteering with organizations such as Compassion Over Killing or Mercy for Animals to name just two of many; you can leaflet, do street theater, join in protests; you can write letters, make phone calls, start a blog. You can work with others to change laws. You can help out at a farm sanctuary. In short, you can be an activist, an Animal Advocate.

“Bearing witness means choosing to suffer. Indeed, empathy is literally ‘feeling with.’ Choosing to suffer is particularly difficult in a culture that is addicted to comfort–a culture that teaches that pain should be avoided whenever possible and that ignorance is bliss. We can reduce our resistance to witnessing by valuing authenticity over personal pleasure, and integration over ignorance.”
— Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism

 ♣If you are new to veganism or perhaps on the cusp of becoming vegan, and you are feeling a bit timid, I urge you to consider what you have just read. Find the courage within yourself to fully embrace this compassionate, life-affirming, ethical way of being, despite whatever challenges may be present.  And know that there is great joy, great strength in being vegan. Know that there are many others out there who have made the ethical choice to go vegan, to break free of the carnist ideology. There is a community of like-minded people who are just waiting to welcome you into the circle of compassion.

“Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.”  –Henry David Thoreau

And if you are a Vegan for Life, as I am, I hope that these words have helped  to remind you of how much we need to carry on courageously and to help others, new to veganism, be strong in their decision — to act with the courage of their convictions.♥