The abbreviated story about how I became vegan is in our “about us” section, but I wanted to flesh out the story. I think there are a lot of people out there who were like me, so of course I hope this story makes people think about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and if they’re really exactly who they like to think they are.
Two years ago I roasted a whole pig at my house; little did I know that 9 months later I would be eating my last animal carcass. So what changed in those 9 months? Did I learn something new about where my food came from? Nope, I (like pretty much everyone else) always knew where it came from and I (like pretty much everyone else) always knew it wasn’t always a good place. Did I become a new age hippie and suddenly want to become one with the world? Nope, I was still a craft beer brewing and drinking hipster who played video games with his friends until 3am and listened to weird music. Did I do it for health? Nope, I already ate quite well; my cholesterol was low, my blood pressure was solid, and I worked out pretty regularly. Did I meet someone who asked me a simple question that changed the way I lived my life for the better? Yes, yes I did.
Lorelei and I met on Tinder the February after that pig roast; we’re not normal Tinder folk, which is probably why we worked out. On our second date I found out she was vegan while I was enjoying a Bloody Mary with shrimp and bacon in it. Well, that was awkward. I believe I said it was a personal choice for people to eat meat and she responded gently yet assuredly that it wasn’t a choice for the animals being eaten. I didn’t want to have a fight on our second date with someone I had a great connection with, so I changed the subject. For the first few months of our relationship, I was vegan around her to respect her beliefs and because I enjoyed making new foods (before Lorelei, when I cooked at home for just myself, a lot of my meals ended up vegetarian or vegan because I could have an entire meal ready by the time my chicken breast was thawed to cook, so I didn’t mind), most of the time I was vegetarian around my friends, and occasionally I was an omnivore by myself. I never hid the fact that I ate meat when she wasn’t around (and she did ask!).
As our relationship progressed, the elephant in the room never left. As an ethical, environmentalist vegan, it was sometimes hard for her to resist tossing in little facts and numbers about the benefits of veganism. As a molecular biologist otherwise accustomed to thinking on a cellular level who fancied himself a localvore who ate “humanely” raised and “humanely” slaughtered animals (are they “humanely” dead, too?), I thought that I, too, was doing a great thing. I told myself that the animals I ate had great, albeit short lives, and were loved by the farmers who raised them. But the longer I was with Lorelei, the more I realized that who I thought I was and what I actually was were quite different. All those cheap late night burritos and cheesesteaks from greasy hole in the wall restaurants that I was eating? I don’t think those restaurants were getting grass fed beef from a small family run farm. The eggs in my breakfast burritos? I’m sure those chickens weren’t running around a pasture in an idyllic countryside. But I had convinced myself that I ate from local farms and truly cared about the animals who ended up on my plate. I’m sure everyone likes to think that. Upon hearing about terrible conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses, it’s easy to convince yourself that that’s an isolated incident and that there are laws to help protect those animals. But it’s a lot harder to realize the truth that what you actually hear about is only the tip of the iceberg and that while there are laws to protect animals, farm animals are rarely included in those laws. And even the exceptions who are treated well in life are killed a fraction into their lifespans, while I bended over backwards to give my pets long healthy lives.
As time when on, I found myself grabbing carne asada a lot less frequently. I was getting meatless options at restaurants with my friends and having them hold the cheese. But I still wasn’t ready to call myself vegetarian or vegan. I had my last pieces of meat on a trip back to Minnesota for my birthday in May 2014. I ordered a pork sandwich on the first day of the trip – and it tasted terrible. I mean, I’m sure it was fine and 90% of the country would have enjoyed it, but to me it tasted of death and decay. The rest of the trip I stayed vegetarian until my last day. I had a fried fish sandwich from a local diner because I made up my mind that I couldn’t eat anymore land animals after that pork sandwich, but fish was probably still cool. Again, the sandwich was awful (though I think this time almost everyone would have agreed with me on that one). I don’t even know why I finished it, but I did. That awful fish sandwich was the last bit of animal flesh that I put into my body. I don’t know if it was the knowledge I now couldn’t ignore, a change to my taste buds, or a combination. Six weeks later I willingly consumed my last bit of animal product, as they also necessitate slaughter and other practices I never wanted to partake in again. It was cheese pizza during a beerfest and the next day I told myself that that was it. (Check out http://humanefacts.org/ for more info on the problem with animal products like dairy and eggs and the "humane" label.) From that point forward I was officially vegan (though I still had trouble telling people I was… I didn’t want that to become my identity). After some early skepticism, my friends have happily ordered the vegan pizza when I was around, have raved about the food I’ve made, and one has even since gone meatless.
Why don’t you live within the moral boundaries you already have set up for yourself?
That was the basic question that changed my life for the better. Before I went vegan, I would tell you I loved animals (all animals!). I had a cat and a dog that I doted over way too much (and still do). I loved going out in nature and seeing all the animals enjoying their domain. Hell, I even loved seeing cows and chickens in pastures just living their lives. That question, though, kept creeping back into my thoughts. Before I was vegan, I’d get upset when I heard about restaurants serving dog, if a cow or pig escaped from a slaughterhouse I cheered for it to make it to freedom, and I felt that animal sanctuaries were a great thing (taking in neglected animals from factory farms so they can live the rest of their lives in peace – what’s not to love about that!). But beef and pork and chicken still made it onto my plate. The animals I saw in the pasture, the ones escaping the slaughterhouse, or the ones being rescued and brought to the animal sanctuary… those weren’t the animals on my plate. The animals on my plate were a number, a nameless creature that was simply “livestock.” It was just a product that was kept alive for as short a time as possible. It wasn’t my dog, my cat, the chickens I saw in people’s yards, the cows in a pasture on someone’s hobby farm. That’s what I told myself. I think that’s what everyone tells themselves.
Tens of billions of animals are slaughtered every year. There’s no way our brains can truly grasp that number; it’s too big, it’s just a concept, we can’t care about 50-75 billion individual animals because we simply can’t visualize 50-75 billion individual anythings. So we sit back and do nothing while 50-75 billion creatures are put to death simply because we want them on our plate more than we want something else. We convince ourselves that by caring about the handful of cows we see in a field, the four chickens in our neighbor’s backyard, and the hundreds of animals that were just brought to a farm sanctuary that we do care about all animals. It’s easy to convince ourselves of that because those are manageable numbers. Those animals mean something. We can see them, we can interact with them, and we can feel their love and affection so we can care about them. What do the billions upon billions of animals that we don’t personally interact with become? They’re afterthoughts if they’re thought of at all. They’re cheeseburgers, chicken salads, pulled pork sandwiches, fishsticks, etc. But they’re no different than the animal that you just said you cared about, that you do care about, the ones you’d be sad to see killed because you have a relationship with them.
I’ll stop here because I really want you to think about the question that changed my life:
Why don’t you live within the moral boundaries you already have set up for yourself?