18 October 2011

TDIV Q&A: Does veganism really make a difference?

Does veganism really make a difference?

I've got a story to tell that answers this question perfectly. Before I went vegan—just about five years ago now, I was a meat and veggie kind of guy and the very definition of a rabid omnivore. A New York Strip steak, spinach and a dirty Stoli martini was my favorite dinner out. I ran daily, weight-trained and felt just fine. I had always had always loved animals, in the trite way that everyone loves animals when asked (sort of like how everyone is having a great day when asked at Starbucks, or wherever.) I confess, from time to time, eating meat, dairy, or chicken, gave me a twinge of nausea. That piece of gristle, dangling tendon, or smell of milk would reflexively force suppression that a sentient life ended for a ridiculous whim.

It's not without irony that an obligate carnivore changed all of this for me.

When my partner Troy and I moved to the Seattle-area, we wandered into Pet Smart during a Purrfect Pals adoption drive. This was not the first time we'd "found" ourselves in the adoption corner of Pet Smart, and I enjoyed the time, but was ambivalent to adopting a cat. To that point in my life, I'd yet to have any meaningful relationship with an animal. A volunteer immediately piled me with felines in an attempt to find one that would catch my eye, while one black cat sulked in her cage and hissed at a kitten. Not exactly Ms. Congeniality, but after a time, she came out and smelled me before retreating to her cage to hurl insults (translation is mine.)

The volunteer said "that cat" didn't often come out from hiding—the only cat whose name the volunteer appeared not to know. I was a little irritated at this and replied, "It's easy to love the cute ones, right?" Ok, I haven't won many Congeniality titles, either. This black cat, named Hathor, was just over a year old and had been homeless before her time at Purrfect Pals, was adopted and returned a month or two later (like a sweater that doesn't fit, or something.) Troy met her, and after bit of paperwork later, she was on her way home with us.

Hathor spent the better part of two weeks under the bed during waking hours, venturing out nightly, darting to and from the litter box, (and took all of her meals under the bed.) I was a full time-plus student, so I spent a lot of time with her while she settled into her new surroundings. A remarkable bond forms over time when you have two animals (human and non-human) which don't entirely trust each other at first, and are somewhat surprised to find each other in the same space. Hathor, in last few years, let me in on how much animals can teach us about becoming better versions of ourselves. We don't communicate in the same ways, but understanding has developed carefully from respect and patience with each other.

This isn't about transferring the emotions of one species onto another; anyone who has spent any amount of time with animals that weren't looked at as objects understands this bond. Nevertheless, at the time it was entirely new to me. Looking into the eyes of another animal that has come to trust you, there isn't a doubt of this sentience. I couldn't ignore the connection between the animals I used, for food, clothing, and the animal I had come to care for deeply. There is limitless information available on the internet regarding the lives and behaviors of any vertebrate you wish. It's fascinating, and deeply troubling in its implications.

A cow, a pig, a cat, a dog, click, click, click—we can't deny that these animals are much more than what we force ourselves to believe. I felt like I was lesser to continue to eat and use animals when I would never permit such a fate for Hathor; I felt lesser of a person and lesser of a man to live my life in this forced ignorance. To pun, I went vegan "cold turkey," and it was the easiest decision I have ever made (remember, this was a man who inhaled beef, and chicken with gusto.) Once you make this connection, no reasonable person can go back.

Years later, and Troy and I have adopted another cat and a dog, raising both of them from a little over 8 weeks of age. Watching Hathor, she has grown from a perpetually pissed-off cat, deeply troubled from her first year of life. She took on an active role keeping both Simon (our Maine coon) and Dexter (dachshund) in check, playing with both of them and they've shared a close relationship since.

There you have it—one obligate carnivore made an irrevocable difference in my life, and now I work to educate and discuss these same issues with others, with you.

Going vegan can have a profound impact on your life, your connection to animals, your awareness of food politics, and your environmental footprint. Your story may not resemble mine in the least, and it is natural to wonder whether a single person can have any impact against the seemingly endless tide of commercials and advertisements pushing the Happy Cows and "humane beef" myth. If you choose a life of less harm, remember that you haven't made the choice to go vegan alone. You have made it with me and with millions of others around the world.

You may make the choice to go vegan for the environment, for ethics, (or even health) whatever the reason, you will have a cumulative impact with every bit of education you gain on the topic, with every dollar you spend on non-animal products and with every person you speak to about veganism. It's natural to prefer routine, to fear or minimize anything that threatens held beliefs. This brings me to another point that you will also learn by choosing veganism.

You will be less popular with some people, they may be strangers or your friends (though, if it's the latter, they suck—that's the technical term—and aren't really the sort of people you want as friends anyway.) Expect a little teasing, but the genuine friends will come around and respect your choice, as long as you respect your choice. Others will ask inane questions and push fear-mongering theories on you, but don't worry about that, because since when would any adult put their ethics up for a group vote?

I have found that some people will work to find a way to interpret anything different from their belief system as an attack. It's a peculiar thing, but some omnivores will corner you about veganism, and then accuse you of the "preachy vegan" status for giving the facts in return. Every vegan should expect that at some point, and it's ok. It really doesn't matter how many people won't admit the multi-tiered logic of veganism, it only matters how many do.

You are free to choose the kind of difference you want to make. You may choose to simply go vegan and be happy, and no further. That's ok; you don’t have to be a crusader. The bigger the difference you choose to make, you cannot know the effect this will have upon someone else in the future.

If ever you should doubt this, and it is natural of the human condition to do so, find something to think of in those moments to remind you that small work does matter. For example, on May 16 of 2006, a person whose name I will never know brought a young stray to a no-kill animal shelter. This person could have kept driving, or walking or what-have you, and Hathor would have never found her way to our home. I may or may not have chosen veganism had I not seen how a traumatized animal could heal and learn to care for other animals. This is a difference that I am forever grateful.

Nathan Rivas
Nathan is a passionate animal advocate and vegan in the Seattle-area, who lives with a crazed dachshund, an enormous Maine coon and a judgemental short haired black cat. Nathan graduated with a Bachelors of Science (summa cum laude) from Northeastern University. He is preparing for his Masters of Science program in the fall and likes to make jokes that involve the chemical compound arsole (and is totally addicted to gardein).

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/opensourceway