When I was 15, I thought hard about the ways that all animals, including humans, have similar physiology: 2 eyes, leg and arm appendages, veins, skin, blood, bones, even the same organs. This was the first time I decided that to eat an animal or a by-product is just gross. Might as well just take human tissue, grind it, make a patty, and grill it. Same thing.
But then I would get hungry, and the stomach trumps the mind at times like that. And I didn't know what else to eat besides milk and cereal for breakfast, roast beef sandwich for lunch, and chicken for dinner. But then I began thinking about my dog, Tuna. Supposedly, I am more important than her and my needs come first because she is an animal and I am a human. But just because her agenda is to find a patch of sun to lie in and mine is to go to school and get a job and earn money does not mean that my needs are superior to hers. To think that they are would be applying my human values to her, and deciding that just because this lowly animal doesn't value the same things I do then I can decide what I'd like to do with her. And if she is tasty, why then, I could just kill her and eat her.
But this didn't sit right with me, of course. I would not eat my dog. I love my dog. I know her as an individual. But why should my knowing and caring for an individual animal necessitate them being saved from my plate? Maybe they have a right to live their life no matter what relationship I have with them. I don't know other people's dogs, but I do not want them harmed. They offer no value to me, but I still believe in their right to live. Why not any animal- cow, pig, chicken, sheep, goat? Are they below dogs? According to whose standards? Does a less smart person have less of a right to life than a smart person? And again, according to whose standards?
So I decided that eating animals and their by-products was gross, and now I had this philosophical argument as back up for when I got really hungry and didn't care. It has taken me many years to change my eating and shopping habits, and to this day, twenty years later, I am still learning. Luckily my journey has not been propelled by philosophical ponderings alone. It turns out that I am much healthier for not eating animal protein, as I have avoided the many hormones, chemicals, and saturated fats that go along with these "foods." And I am a staunch environmentalist, and it turns out that animal agriculture accounts for more environmental degradation than any other industry. By not being a consumer of animal products, I am doing more for the environment than if I gave up my car!
So now I had four reasons to continue to be vegan, and still sometimes it has been hard when everyone around me is eating meat, eggs, and dairy. But hard as it may have been, the reasons to stay the course kept coming like signs in the road that I was indeed on the right track. I have now come to know many individual farm animals whose lives I vowed to not exploit, even prior to knowing what amazing animals they truly are. Each certainly has their own unique personality, just like dogs and cats. I've met cows who've escaped impossible situations moments before they were to be slaughtered. Cows who have scaled 6-foot walls, minutes away from the killing floor where they have seen, smelled, and heard others before them fall. Cows are not physically supposed to be able to scale 6-foot walls. But some have. Some have escaped Halal markets in New York City, and ran for their lives through the streets, not knowing where they were going, but damn sure knowing where they didn't want to be.
I've met a cow who was so traumatized after all her years spent in the dairy industry where she gave birth to baby after baby and never was allowed to keep one of those babies because her milk was meant for humans - as were her babies. Her newborns were dragged away, minutes after birth, before they could suckle, before they could even stand, and instead of being licked clean by their mother's warm tongue, they were hosed off with harsh cold water and forced into a pen or truck for their fate as a future dairy cow or veal. Their mother was left with her natural inclination to nurture and nothing but an unnatural machine to feed. After she was no longer useful to the dairy industry she was sent to slaughter where she decided she had enough. She escaped and was rescued by a sanctuary where she is self-confined to a pen that she is afraid to step out of. Understandably, she does not trust humans, but she allows one person to go near her, a man who is one of her rescuers. She is nervous when anyone else tries to approach her, but she recognizes this man and allows him to get close. After all she has been through, she is able to recognize him as an individual. Yet why don't more people give her the same respect and recognize her individuality?
When I visit these animals at the sanctuaries where they are so blessed to be, I always think of the ones before them in that line at the slaughterhouse who were not able to escape. Or other animals who were so weak and maltreated, they never even made it that far. There is nothing I can do for those animals except to say to them, "It was not for me. Your life was not ended for me. With every bite of food I take, I am not harming you and I never will." That's the only thing that gives me some peace. That is why I am a vegan.
Some say veganism is a western privilege- that because we have the luxury of choice, we can actually choose to not eat an entire category of food. To this I can retort and say, eating meat can also be said to be a western privilege- one that Americans in general are so gluttonously taking advantage of. But I don't see the point in arguing if veganism is a privilege or not. This is my culture, and this is what I know. I can only try and affect change around me, and I only offer my opinions, I never force them. We are a in a country of abundance of resources and choices and of course I am grateful to be able to make the choice of veganism. I am also grateful my family does not own slaves and my mother is not forced to be subservient to my father. I am glad in this country we have battled against racism and sexism. And I am glad there is a large movement to squelch the next big 'ism": Speciesism - where humans take dominance over every living thing. I think western privilege can be an example to the rest of the world, that no, they don't have to live like us, but the goal of society can be to have equal rights for all, and to get to a place where we can think beyond ourselves and recognize the rights of others to live without oppression, torture, and fear- no matter what race, gender - or species.
Now one final note for those who are not fans of groups like Peta and other animal rights organizations. I think many people feel like animal rights activists are trying to shove their beliefs down everyone's throat. Yes, these groups do broadcast their views, and as a result, may offend those who believe differently. But may I offer this perspective: It is only fair. Vegans endure countless messages promoting things that they deplore: Beef commercials; Got milk? billboard ads; sides of trucks plastered with images of poultry; egg breakfast specials posted in restaurant windows…the barrage is endless and everywhere. If animal rights groups had the money and political power that the animal agriculture industry does, then we'd be seeing commercials and ads to combat these messages that are telling the public that animal exploitation is normal- when to so many people, it is not. If the dairy industry is allowed to tell a lie that milk does a body good, then why can't animal rights activists tell the truth- that it is not necessary, or even healthy, for humans to go from their mother's breast milk to another species' breast milk? Now, I'm not saying everyone will agree what the truth is, but at least the public would be presented equally with both sides and could make more well-rounded, informed decisions. And then maybe, instead of vegans being perceived as extreme, maybe the reasons for their choices will be more understood and even accepted.
Jennifer Chaky is a freelance copyeditor and owner of Go Lightly (www.golightlystore.com), an eco-store in Montclair, NJ where you can find things like bowls made from vinyl records, and vegan guitar straps. She lives with her vegan daughter, and their adopted family of various critters. They like to visit their friends at Maple Farms Sanctuary , Farm Sanctuary, and Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary.