What’s This Vegan Thing All About?

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What’s This Vegan Thing All About?

By Jennifer Chaky, in Vegetarian Friends
April 2009

An Animal Like Me

When I was fifteen, I thought hard about the ways that all animals, including humans, have similar physiology: two 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 she 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 know my dog as an individual, and love her. I couldn't eat her. But why should this animal be lucky? Maybe they all have a right to their lives, whether I relate to them or not. I don't know other people's dogs, 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 dull-minded person have less of a right to life than a smart person?

Human and Planetary Health

So I decided that eating animals and their by-products was gross, and now I had this philosophical argument as backup 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 also avoided the many hormones, chemicals, and saturated fats that go along with these "foods." And I am a staunch environmentalist; 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!

Each a Unique Personality

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 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 supposed to be able to jump that high! Some have escaped Halal markets in New York City and ran for their lives through the streets, not knowing where they were going, but for darn sure knowing where they didn't want to be.

I've met a cow who was terribly 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 them because her milk was stolen by humans--as were her babies. She watched her newborns being dragged away minutes after birth, before they could suckle, before they could even stand. 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 chunks of veal. Their mother was left with her anguish, her natural passion 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. But she decided she had enough. She escaped and was rescued by a sanctuary where she confines herself to a pen that she is afraid to leave. She is nervous when anyone else tries to approach, but she allows one person to go near her, one of her rescuers. After all she has been through, it is impressive that she is able to recognize this one person as an individual, one who cares. Why couldn't all the others before have done so?

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 maltreated and weak , they never made it that far. There is nothing I can do for those animals except to say to them, " Your life was not ended for me. Anytime I eat, 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.

Vegan Elitism?

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--as though our choice is essentially snobbery. To this I can retort: eating quantities of meat can also be said to be a western privilege--one that most Americans 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 effect 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 that my mother is not forced to be subservient to my father. I am glad that in this country we have battled against racism and sexism, and made progress. And I am glad there is a large movement to squelch the next big 'ism"--Speciesism --where humans take dominance over every other living thing. I think western privilege can be an example to the rest of the world: no, they don't have to live like us, but the goal of a 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, no matter what their race, gender, or species, to live without oppression, torture, and fear.

We Vegans Deserve Equal Say

Now one final note for those who are not fans of sometimes-outspoken groups like PETA: I think many people feel that animal rights activists are trying to shove their beliefs down everyone's throat. 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 . . . the barrage is endless and everywhere. If animal rights groups had the money and political power that the animal industry does, then we'd be seeing more commercials and ads to combat these messages that animal exploitation is normal. 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 to go from their mother's breast milk to an animal's breast milk? Not everyone will agree what the truth is, but at least the public would hear from both sides equally. And then maybe, instead of vegans being perceived as extreme, we will be seen as normal. Maybe the reasons for our choices will be more understood and even accepted.


Jennifer Chaky is a freelance copyeditor and the owner of Go Lightly, an eco-store in Montclair, NJ where you can find things like bowls made from vinyl records. She lives with her vegan daughter, and their adopted family of various critters. They like to visit their friends at Maple Farms Sanctuary, and Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary.

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