For as long as I can remember, I had both friends who were humans and friends who were not.
Paradoxically, at the same time, I had been raised to see certain animals as friends and others as food. By age eight, this distinction began to feel arbitrary to me. Around the same time, I learned that there were a lot of people in the world who did not eat animals at all. Well that made sense, I thought. Animals are my friends, so I don’t want to eat them. Probably thinking it was just a phase, my mother was glad I could “stand up for my principles.” I was and continue to be immensely grateful for her support.
Fast forward a few years. It had never made a lot of sense to me that I should need to drink milk that was meant for someone else’s infant or eat the unfertilized eggs of another species. Still, it took me longer to fully grasp the connection between the animals themselves, who I did not want to hurt, and the “products” that I was consuming that came to my plate only through direct exploitation. I was against the practice in theory, but believed those who said the act of actually taking the milk and eggs did not hurt anyone. Besides, I had only heard about these “vegan” types on television. They were the “extremists,” right? I thought what “they” were doing was noble, but not really accessible for me as a kid living in a meat-eating family. I thought that as long as the system was broken, one child couldn’t make a difference. I probably thought it wasn’t really my responsibility.
On all accounts, I was wrong.
Around age thirteen, I was given Erik Marcus’ enlightening book Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating, and within the first few chapters, I knew this was it. Through this and subsequent readings, I learned that all systems of oppression are interconnected. I learned that mothers do cry when their calves are taken away, and that birds can live their entire lives without once seeing sunlight or feeling grass. What startled me the most was learning the fate of male chicks in the egg industry – tossed by the hundreds the moment they hatch, peeping and barely walking yet, into a meat grinder or garbage bag to suffocate slowly beneath their brothers. They can never produce eggs themselves, so the industry deems them useless. The industry I was supporting literally turned living babies into trash because their bodies weren’t profitable enough. This understanding solidified my realization that I no longer wanted any part of it.
As soon as I graduated high school, I had the privilege of spending a few months living and volunteering at Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York, a haven for humans and non-humans alike who wish to live without undue violence towards each other. Though I was already vegan, my time at Farm Sanctuary gave me a window into the lives of the survivors of the industry that I had vehemently opposed for so long. One who I developed a particularly close friendship with was Petunia, a then two-week-old piglet who had been discarded because she was small. She would have been left for dead because her body was not considered profitable, but with surgery and patient care at the sanctuary, she bounced back and thrived as a friendly, curious, and wildly intelligent youngster.
A long time ago, I decided that there was already plenty of suffering in the world without my adding any more to the mix. Looking into Petunia’s eyes, I saw an individual, never an object to be consumed. She was one of the lucky survivors, but when I see any animal’s body on a plate today, that animal is no less “somebody” than she was when she was alive. That realization has blossomed into an integral part of my being, and I cannot imagine existing any other way.
You don’t need to be an “animal lover” to be vegan, just as you don’t need to love kids in order to not take part in child abuse. All you need is to develop an awareness of the acute suffering being inflicted upon hundreds of billions of innocents around the world, and make the conscious choice to stop taking part in it.
Chair and Co-Founder, Animal Advocates of Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, United States