I certainly never identified as an animal lover.
My parents gave away our dog shortly after I was born—the two of us proved too much work, and human trumped canine—and that more or less set the tone. There was Benny, the outdoor cat I disliked for his total lack of interest in me; Joey, the parrot who neurotically ate his own regurgitated food and always seemed pissed off except when he was allowed to fly a couple of laps around the house; Hercules, the hamster who escaped his tiny plastic home only to be found hiding in a pile of laundry. I happily put him back in his cage, but he had tasted freedom and committed hamster suicide a few days later. When my parents broke the news to me, I was almost amused by their concern. My 12-year-old cousin Eva had just died tragically a few months before—did they really think I’d be heartbroken over a pet?
Still, I was never a natural at eating animals. But I was a finicky kid, and adding “picky eating” to my growing roster of OCD tendencies seemed a bad idea. I pushed myself to eat the Happy Meals that seemed to make my depressed dad feel good, concentrating on the fries and shake, nibbling a nugget or two before handing over the rest. I disliked fish in particular, but the day I learned to suppress that impulse—ahem, acquire that adult taste—over dinner with my cousin’s grieving parents, I felt I’d accomplished something.
By the time I was in my 20s, I knew which unrecognizably fleshy foods I liked best: burnt turkey bacon, tuna fish, and maybe the occasional salami slice—made of organic beef, of course. At 24, I dated a vegan for the first time, an older Australian philosophy professor I met on Tinder who deliberately kept me at a distance. Once, when I was particularly mad at him for not falling in love with me, I went across the street and ordered steak, just to spite him. I didn’t get it well-done this time. The red in the middle matched my wine and breaking heart. It all made me feel powerfully romantic, wealthy, generous toward myself.
This is what Buddhists would call “confusion.”
My experience with the vegan dude confirmed my suspicion that “animal people” must care more about chickens than people, which seemed not only weird but treacherous. There were lots of things wrong in the world, and so shouldn’t we start with the most obvious, human suffering? I wrote about women’s rights, had a reusable water bottle, voted progressive, signed petitions, etc. Veganism, to the extent I even considered it, clearly wasn’t my issue. Plus, I barely ate meat compared to most people.
I even identified on OkCupid as “mostly vegetarian,” which is how Jacob, who had set a filter to search only for vegans, vegetarians, and mostly vegetarians, found me. When I looked at his profile, he seemed almost too perfect—handsome and intense, with stubble and obvious intelligence, just the way I like them. I scanned for the catch until I found it: He was vegetarian.
He probably cared more about animals than people, I presumed.
As cynical as I was, his diet hardly seemed a legitimate reason to say no to his thoughtfully worded request for a date, and so I saw his offer and raised it by inviting him to watch three hours of acid jazz and showing up stoned. Afterward, we sipped tea as he basically interviewed me—my usual trick on dates.
A few hours in, he brought up the inevitable: “So, why does it say you’re ‘mostly vegetarian’ on your profile?”
“Well, I hardly eat meat,” I replied. “But I still do sometimes.”
Then he asked, “Do you think there’s any reason why we have the right to eat animals?” I blinked. He didn’t and let the silence hang. Despite knowing vegetarians all my life, at 27, no one had ever asked me that before. He wasn’t accusatory. He was just asking my opinion.
“No, not really,” I said. And then he moved on to some other question, probably about my childhood. That was it. I didn’t know it yet, but I wouldn’t eat meat again.
On our second date, I came over to his place to check out his apartment and his claim that he used to work as a cook. He made an impressive frittata, but I still didn’t really like eggs and barely ate. We stayed up until 3 a.m., using words until we gave in to more universal forms of animal communication.
We started living together almost immediately, recklessly. It was easy to go vegetarian with a personal live-in chef. In fact, I felt fantastic. I was relieved to have permission to stop doing something I’d never really felt comfortable with, lifting the weight of a cognitive dissonance I didn’t realize I’d been carrying. My new boyfriend mostly cooked vegan but sometimes had the cage-free eggs or goat cheese he’d rationalized as more ethical in the fridge. He told me about a documentary called “Earthlings”—“the vegan maker.” I wasn’t ready to watch it yet. I had a feeling that once I saw how my occasional cheese pizza slice or ice cream scoop was made, I would have to give them up.
And wasn’t it a sort of moral slippery slope? I’d probably have to shop ethically too—where would living in line with my values end?! I was also afraid I’d trigger something in myself. Like many women, I had a history of disordered eating. I was just starting to feel like I had a healthy relationship with food, and I didn’t want to mess it up. Plus, the cream in my coffee.
At the same time, a strange thing started to happen: I began noticing animals. It seemed that I’d tapped into the experience of Franz Kafka, who once wrote of looking at fish after going vegetarian: “Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you anymore.” Finally, I got why people oohed and aahed over dogs in the street. I found myself looking at subway rats differently, finding them cute. I didn’t even want to kill spiders—their lives no longer seemed like mine to take. We got a humane bug catcher so we could trap and release them, and every time I did, I felt a little closer to who I really was, or at least who I wanted to be.
About six months in, I decided to watch “Earthlings.” The footage of animals being slaughtered and abused was graphic and upsetting, but it was the way the documentary opened that impacted me most. It argued that all discrimination is based on the same logic, which is that some individuals are “just different,” their bodies “made” for killing, enslavement, labor, or breeding. Watching obviously suffering cows hooked up to machines, forcibly milked and impregnated until they died of exhaustion, I felt enraged first and foremost as a feminist.
How had no one told me about this?
How could I not have known that the cream in my coffee was the result of the captivity of female bodies, of scared babies taken from crying mothers? I was also upset as a Jew, seeing pigs herded into gas chambers. (I later learned that Jews like us were herded off to concentration camps in cattle cars.)
“We can’t participate in this,” I said. “We need to be vegan. Or, at least, I need to be.” He nodded, and that was it. We went vegan, together.
I was nervous but again somehow relieved. Every day, I found, I could do this thing. It didn’t make me perfect, but it did make me feel a little less hypocritical and disempowered, and that was a relief. I was also pleasantly surprised when other selfish benefits started rolling in. Though I thought I didn’t eat much dairy, by cutting it out completely I felt less bloated, my digestion was stellar, and my skin became clearer. If anything, I felt like my relationship with food was healthier or at least that it was easier to feel when I was full or hungry. I had found a way to channel some of my desire for control into something that actually mattered, something beyond myself.
Other changes started to happen. I’d stop in the street to notice a bird picking at the ground, then feel sorry for having startled her. Seeing fish trapped in a tank made me unbearably sad. Every life, every body, began to have worth and meaning. The world felt more vibrant. It felt… well, it felt almost like falling in love.
Of course, it also felt maddening. I saw a meme recently that said going vegan was like being that character in a horror movie who’s trying to warn everyone but who no one believes. It does feel like that much of the time — like everyone is calling you crazy for adopting the diet study after study says is the human race’s best shot for continued viability on this planet. The grocery store became a place where I saw dismembered body parts other people insisted on calling food or, even more maddening, humane. Holidays like Thanksgiving became rife with inconsistency, as I watched otherwise progressive relatives denounce Trump while chowing down on someone’s thigh and stolen milk, as if it were their birthright.
And so I started working for Mercy For Animals and writing about veganism. By labeling myself with the V-word, I knew lots of people would assume the same things about me I’d once thought about the band of compassionate misfits I now belonged to. People who are just trying to suck a little less.
Because in the seven and a half minutes you took to read this many words (thank you, and congratulations on still having an attention span), roughly 125,000 animals’ lives were taken, and all to produce food that is making human children and adults—especially people of color—sick. I just don’t see how we can ever hope to turn it around with one another until we stop destroying the planet’s lungs to create room to make products as carcinogenic as cigarettes, until we see that putting all that violent energy into the world—25 million land animals a day just in the U.S. (we don’t even know how many fish, because so many are killed they’re counted in tons, not as individuals), all dying in violent terror—affects us all.
I didn’t have to start hugging chickens in my spare time to see them as worthy of life and freedom. I just had to start dreaming of a world where human animals see themselves as stewards of, rather than conquerors of, the planet and one another; a world where calling someone an “animal” is no longer an insult but a compliment, a way of appreciating their attunement to the present moment and their environment; a world where everyone, regardless of differences in experience and appearance, is allowed to live in peace and freedom.
Image Credit: Adobe Stock
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