Like most kids, I grew up with a non-human family member. Her name was Mandy, and she was a black standard poodle -- as loyal a friend as I’ll ever have. Spending lots of time with Mandy, I quickly understood that she experienced joy, disappointment, and pain. And I tried to be as good to Mandy as I could.
At one point, I started to question why I would pamper this one particular animal while feasting on other animals. I asked my dad about the treatment of the animals we eat, since my dad grew up on a small farm in rural Iowa. He told me that the animals on his farm led good lives – lives worth leading. That helped ease my concerns about eating animals for a while.
In the spring of 1995, I took an Intro to Ethics course at the College of Lake County, a community college in Grayslake, IL, a suburb of Chicago. Throughout this course, we discussed various ethical issues, and one day, we discussed farm animal suffering. I learned that a lot had changed since my dad was a kid in the 1930-40s, and that today’s farm animals lead lives of great suffering inside of factory farms and die a brutal and merciless death inside of modern slaughterhouses. As a result, I went vegetarian. Three years later, after learning about the mistreatment of hens raised for eggs and cows raised for milk, I decided to go vegan.
Nearly twenty years after taking meat off my menu, I’m doing great, as evidenced by my third half marathon that I just completed. And there is a certain peace that comes from knowing that I’m doing something that greatly minimizes the amount of suffering in the world. Eating is not just a means to fill myself up; it’s a celebration of my values and is a practical step towards bringing about the world that I wish to live in.
When I first transitioned to being vegetarian and then vegan, I found that it was important to continue to try new foods. To use an idea coined by the author Erik Marcus, I was not just cutting the old foods out of my diet, I was crowding them out with new foods. Some new foods I liked, and some I didn’t. And so I stuck with the foods I liked, and soon I had a diet that was far more varied than my previous omnivorous diet. I was eating delicious Thai, Mediterranean, Ethiopian cuisine – foods that had previously been off my radar. That’s a point worth stressing: As counterintuitive as it may seem, going vegan increased the diversity of foods I was eating.
When I first went vegetarian, a number of my friends and family members were skeptical, and I even endured a bit of mockery. But I did my best to just be respectful but firm that this was something that was important to me and that I was sticking with. Eventually, a few of those who originally mocked me started singing the praises of a vegetarian diet. And those who didn’t at least now respect my decision, even saying that it’s the right thing to do.
There’s so much going on in the world that we don’t have control over. But one thing we do have great control over is what we eat and the impacts of such. Choosing a diet that embraces compassion for animals has been a source of empowerment and joy for me, a great opportunity to be, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “the change I wish to see in the world.”