Every vegan story is different. Mine starts 30 years ago with an Andean condor. Really, I think it starts 48 years ago with my family’s cat, whom I loved more than anything. But for the purposes of brevity and a more compelling narrative, I’ll start with the condor. When I was 18, because of my experience working with animals (I had wanted to become a veterinarian), I was enlisted by a naturalist in my hometown to help care for his newly acquired Andean condor, a 6 month old baby, whose parents had been part of a US Fish and Wildlife captive breeding program that had lost its funding. The parents had been transferred to the Indianapolis Zoo, but the zoo had no more space for the baby, whom we named Veedor. There’s much more to Veedor’s story. . . you can read about it in this book, Veedor the Condor. My role in Veedor’s life was as one of a team of people to help feed him and take him out regularly to fly, as well as travel with him to schools, nature centers, etc. to teach people about condors and other endangered species.
As carnivorous scavengers, condors eat animals, not animals they have killed but ones that have died of other circumstances, roadkill, predators’ leftovers, etc. (As an aside . . . I have a great appreciation for vultures. As scavengers, condors serve an important ecological role in ridding the environment of diseases; they have an amazing immune system and are able to consume the most bacterial and viral laden carrion without getting sick!) Veedor did not do his own scavenging. The area in which we lived was too populated for him to fly free all the time. So, we had to provide food for him. That meant going to grocery stores to ask for fish heads and other scraps, and going through the local chicken farm to cull dead chickens from the battery cages. Furthermore, we often fed Veedor by hand to establish parental bonds with him. After watching him disembowel chicken carcasses up close, I gave up eating chicken myself, and soon after, other meat. Initially, my choice to give up meat wasn’t ethical or health-related; it was purely visceral.
But that experience did reframe my thinking around eating animals. I had made that fundamental connection between eating meat and the animals from whom that meat comes. I still ate eggs, dairy, and fish though. Years later, after becoming vegan, I wondered how I could have continued eating dairy products and eggs. After all, I had been inside a factory egg farm. I had seen the conditions the chickens were subjected to; as a pre-vet student, I had travelled with veterinarians to dairy farms and seen the way cows were treated. Why didn’t I make that ethical connection then? Melanie Joy’s excellent TED talk on the psychology of eating meat answered those questions. Our connection to animals as fellow living beings is so obfuscated by cultural norms that we can’t see even what is right in front of us. And for most people, the animals they eat are far from right in front of them. They are hidden from sight in windowless barns to which the public has no access. As I write this, I recall I had to promise not to bring anyone else with me to that egg farm. The farmer did not want to excite protests.
So when and why did I make that all important jump from vegetarian to vegan? About seven years ago a couple of friends invited me to come with them to a screening of the film Forks Over Knives. This is a film about the benefits of a whole-food plant-based diet, based on the findings of the book, The China Study. The film made a strong and clear correlation between the consumption of animal protein and prevalence of cancer; more specifically, it highlighted a study showing that eating animal protein turns on genes that cause cancer, and stopping eating animal protein (in the same host) turns off the cancer-causing genes. Having several cases of cancer in my family, I walked out of the film and declared, “I’m not going to eat any animal products anymore. No more eggs or dairy.” Though I did immediately stop eating all animal products, I was not yet truly vegan. I was eating a whole-food plant-based diet, but I was doing it for myself, for my health.
I didn’t become a full-fledged ethical vegan until I read Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, in which he explores the animal agriculture industry, as well as our cultural traditions and psychological habits around eating. It was one of the hardest and most compelling, books I’ve ever read. Hardest, because I literally sobbed my way through it as I learned about the conditions to which animals who are raised for food are subjected- the pain, misery, fear, sorrow, and death. And most compelling, because it is written with real journalistic soul, a truth-seeking clear-sightedness, clean prose, and impeccable research. What are books for, if not to challenge and alter our perspective? Eating Animals succeeded with me on every count.
Since then, I have continued to read about and bear witness to (as far as I am able) the atrocities of animal agriculture, as well as the sad myriad of other ways animals are regularly abused in culturally sanctioned practices throughout society; animal testing in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and military industries, the use of animals for “entertainment” in circuses and even local country fairs, the sacrifice of animals that is protected by “tradition” in both religious and secular rituals (e.g. bullfighting), all are horrific.
For me, now it is no longer enough to know about these things, to bear witness myself, and change my own behaviors and habits. I feel my responsibility has grown from knowing to teaching. One of my favorite quotes by Melanie Joy is:
“awareness has always been the antidote to violent ideologies . . . virtually every atrocity in the history of humankind was enabled by a populace that turned away from a reality that seemed too painful to face . . . every revolution for peace and justice has been made possible by a group of people who chose to bear witness and demanded that others bear witness as well.”
So I have created my own website, Truth and a Cupcake, to collect resources I come across- articles, books, film, videos, other websites, organizations- that support animal advocacy and the shift toward a compassionate, informed vegan lifestyle. I have also begun to spearhead vegan challenges in my community, informing, encouraging and supporting friends and family as they consider becoming vegan themselves. I join the growing chorus of voices in this important social justice movement to raise awareness; quietly, kindly, but persistently demand that others bear witness; and wake people to their own innate compassion. For health, for the planet, for everything. . . but most importantly, for the animals.
Truth and a Cupcake
TEDx Talk: Toward Rational Authentic Food Choice; Dr. Melanie Joy
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Forks Over Knives
Veedor the Condor
photographs by Jonathan Doster