I don’t remember the exact moment I decided to stop eating meat. I don’t remember the day, either. Or even the month. In fact, I only vaguely recall that it was about eight years ago, sometime during my final year of high school — a reflection not on the magnitude of the decision but rather my poor memory and even poorer recording of the past.
What I do remember about it — the events that preceded it and those that followed — had to be excavated with great effort from the recesses of my mind. It’s not something I think much about, after all. And I’ve never kept a consistent journal or diary of my daily doings. I suppose, in a way, my writing of this is just as much a personal exercise in chronicling and reflecting on my journey from meat-eater to vegan as it is an effort to change hearts and minds — cards on the table.
So, with that preamble out of the way, where shall I start? How about at the beginning…
Just like most of you reading this, my childhood — and a good chunk of my adolescence — was spent eating and using animal products. Meat, dairy, eggs, leather, wool…my parents would buy them and I’d gobble them up or put them on. I never even once questioned what I was doing, never thought twice about it. It just was the way it was.
I think this is due in large part to the well-established global norm of consuming — in both senses of the word — food and other products made by or from animals. From Toronto to Taiwan, everybody does it, and they’ve been doing it for generations. Most of our parents grew up with it being commonplace, just like their parents, and their parents before them. But I believe there was another contributing factor for me: I didn’t care much about animals.
It’s not that I didn’t like them. Rather, I didn’t really have any feelings toward them one way or the other. They simply existed — like a rock or a tree or a stick. I believe this had to with the fact that, for the most part, I wasn’t around animals much growing up, and thus didn’t really develop relationships with any. I mean, I went to petting farms and zoos a handful of times, and my cousins had a gray tabby — aptly named Gracie — who I’d obligatorily say hi to and pet, but that was about the extent of my interactions with them.
Most importantly — I think — unlike my cousins, I never had any companion animals.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. When I was around maybe seven or eight, my parents got me and my older brother, Ari, a goldfish who my dad named Rudy the Tailwagger. I suspect my parents did so in the hopes of teaching us a little about responsibility, but I couldn’t care less about Rudy. And as is often the case when parents buy their children pets, they wound up doing all the work when it came to looking after him. Rudy only ended up living for a few months and as I recall, when we buried him in our front yard, I wasn’t all that broken up about it. Ari, on the other hand, was in tears.
When I think back on the winding road that eventually led me to veganism, the only other event from my childhood that really stands out to me is an incident that occurred at a surf n’ turf restaurant in Florida (whose name escapes me). I honestly don’t recollect how old I was when it happened; I want to say somewhere around ten or eleven. And I only dimly remember the details of the actual incident.
My family and I were sitting down for a meal at this restaurant and I was eating a rack of ribs slathered in BBQ sauce — an unusual choice for me, now that I think about it; back in those days, I normally opted for more conventional dishes like a hamburger or spaghetti and meatballs. I recall hungrily chowing down on the ribs and quite enjoying the dish. But then, all of a sudden, I just remember feeling nauseous, sick to my stomach. I couldn’t take another bite, could barely look at the ribs. There was nothing wrong with the food. It didn’t taste funny or undercooked or anything like that. In fact, I don’t recall being able to pinpoint exactly why I was so revolted.
In retrospect, I think that eating an animal’s flesh right off its ribs, as opposed to a puck-shaped hamburger or a round meatball — boneless and bearing no resemblance to a living thing — I made some kind of subconscious connection between what was on my plate and the once alive being it had come from.
Despite my hazy recollection of this incident, I can still vividly remember that feeling of disgust, as if I’m a kid again and right back in that restaurant. It reminds me of a quote that I saw recently: “The mind will not always remember exactly what happened, but the heart will always remember the feeling.”
Though that feeling was strong enough to stick with me to this day, I nevertheless went back to my meat-eating ways, suppressing the whole experience. I’m not sure if I was nervous to make a change for fear of upsetting the balance of things — I’ve never been one to rock the boat. Maybe I was worried about what my family and friends would think. Or, perhaps, I rationalized maintaining status quo with respect to my diet, telling myself something along the lines of, “The whole damn world eats meat…”
There’s a gap of about five years between that incident and the next big plot point along my path to veganism: my family getting our first traditional pets, i.e. cats and dogs. For the first fifteen or so years of my life, we never had any of these typical companion animals in the home. And then, as if it were going out of style, we got four of them in the span of about three years — a trio of affectionate kittens and a loving puppy.
Thinking back on it, it’s hard to believe — given how close I am to them now — that when these critters first entered my life, I wasn’t particularly fond of them. As with all the animals that I’d encountered thus far, it wasn’t that I had anything against them. It was more of an apathy, an indifference toward them. In fact, my dad, who still eats meat to this day (we’ll get him in a bit), cared way more about them than I did.
But the more time I spent with these new additions to our house, the better I got to know them and the more attached to them I became. I really started to care for and feel connected with them. In fact, I developed such a strong bond with the first cat that we got — a rambunctious baby girl named Ketzel — that when my parents told me that they had decided to adopt two more cats (Katie and Kasey), I was against it, worried that these new companions would steal the spotlight of my family’s attention from her.
I ended up bonding just as strongly with Kasey and Katie — and Lucy, a boisterous yellow lab we would get a year later — as I did with Ketzel. It wasn’t long before I viewed these animals that had been originally purchased as pets as so much more than that — as members of the family. When one of them got hurt, or wasn’t feeling well, or went missing, I felt no different than I did when the same happened to my siblings or my parents.
And yet, I continued to eat animals no different than them without a second thought. So what changed?
Clearly something, as I’ve mentioned several times in this piece that I am now a vegan. However, I actually didn’t make that leap directly. I went vegetarian first. And I actually wasn’t the first in my family to do so. It was Ari, my older brother. The one who’d wept at the passing of Rudy the Tailwagger.
I don’t recall a whole lot about the events surrounding Ari’s revelation. He didn’t boldly declare it around the dinner table one night or call a press conference to make the announcement. My family just noticed that he wasn’t really eating meat anymore, and when we questioned him about it, he told us that he’d decided to stop. Pressed for a reason, Ari explained that since we’d welcomed Ketzel, Katie, Kasey, and Lucy into our lives, he’d grown quite close to them — just as I and the rest of my family had. But with his attachment came a shift in perspective: he no longer felt right about eating animals.
I remember the ensuing debates and discussions about the health concerns (“Where will you get your protein?”) and ethics (“God put them here for a reason!”) of his choice, especially with my extended family — and in particular, my outspoken grandmother (or Bubby, as we call her). I remember Ari getting playfully teased (as I would come to be) and laughing it off with a smile (as I would come to do). What I don’t remember is his decision having any real effect or making a major impression on me at the time…but about a year later, I started to feel the same way that he did about eating meat — and for the same reasons.
The attachment and affection that I’d developed for our companion animals (and they for me), the realization that each of them had their own playful personalities and unique quirks, and above all else, their pure kindness and innocence — it forced me to look at all sentient things, not just cats and dogs, in a whole new light.
And so, I decided to stop eating animals.
I remember feeling quite nervous about “coming out” as vegetarian, even though Ari had done so just recently — or maybe it was because he had and I’d had a front row seat to all the fuss that had followed. Nevertheless, my decision came to light. The revelation wound up being quite similar to Ari’s: my family noticed that I wasn’t eating meat anymore, and when they asked me about it, I told them.
The transition turned out to be easy, immediate, and permanent. Many of my family and friends were surprised to hear that. When they found out that I’d gone vegetarian, they’d all say things like “That must be difficult” or “I don’t think I could ever give up meat”. I think the ease of my dietary shift had to do with the fact that it was borne of a moral motivation, as opposed to concerns of physical appearance or even health.
To be fair, I did have one slip-up pretty early on. After nearly 17 years of consuming meat almost every day, I was so accustomed to it being part of my daily routine that literally just a few days after swearing off the stuff, I ordered and took a bite of a McDonald’s hamburger across the street from the West 4th Street Courts in NYC — before suddenly realizing what I had done.
That was the last bite of meat that I ever took.
In the wake of my decision to go vegetarian, I faced the same onslaught of questions and got into the same conversations and arguments as Ari had after he took the plunge. But while my older brother was rather laissez faire when it came to trying to get others to follow his lead, I was a little more determined.
I talked a couple of friends into giving vegetarianism a try (unfortunately, I don’t think it lasted more than a month). I tried to convince my parents to switch our companion animals over to a meat-free diet — they refused, so I refused to feed the animals anymore and was relegated to litter duty (where I remain to this day). I even tried to establish a policy with my friends where, when I would drive places, they couldn’t order any food that had meat (this led to several fights and even a falling out with one of my not-super-close friends when he ordered shawarma after promising me he’d get falafel).
Barring that final example, I don’t recall being too militant about trying to get my family and friends to stop (or lessen) their meat consumption. I wasn’t particularly accepting when they would cook or eat the stuff right in front of me, but I didn’t make a big stink about it either. And I would never go out of my way to strike up a conversation about the ethics or the health benefits of vegetarianism — though when the subject got brought up, I didn’t shy away from it.
I don’t remember this live-and-let-live attitude changing all that much when, a year or so later, I took the next big step on my journey toward ethical and compassionate living: veganism. What was the precise impetus that gave me the push to make this change? In all honesty, I can’t quite recall. I seem to remember it being a combination of some graphic clips of farmed animals being abused and a video of a moving talk given by American animal activist Gary Yourofsky at Georgia Tech in 2010 (if you haven’t seen the latter already, I would highly suggest you check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5hGQDLprA8&vl=en).
Whatever the reason, I started reading up on the practices used by farmers and facilities (particularly in the US) to produce the meat that wound up on most people’s plates. This led me to the discovery of factory farming — an absolutely disgusting practice of mass breeding, abuse, and slaughter of animals — and how the meat, dairy, and egg industries are all cruelly connected (egg-laying hens are killed when their production falls off, same as female cows who’ve stopped producing milk). Additional research opened my eyes to the sickening truths of animals testing — both for scientific and commercial purposes.
If the notion of killing (or supporting the killing of) an animal for food — even one treated humanely its entire life — had given me a nudge to quit eating meat, the revelations above forced me at knife-point to swear off consuming any and all animal products/by-products. The shift was as quick and smooth as giving up meat had been.
I was now a full-fledged vegan.
When my family and friends learned of this, I again found myself in debates and facing a barrage of questions about my decision, just like when I had gone vegetarian. Only this time, the subject of these queries and arguments was predominantly about my well-being (“How healthy is a vegan diet?” and “You should really talk to a nutritionist.”). The limited nature of the diet was another hot topic, especially in terms of eating out.
Though he knew these same discussions lay waiting for him, not long after I went vegan, Ari made the decision to adopt the lifestyle too — just as I had followed in his footsteps in going vegetarian. Soon my younger brother, Noah, had joined the ranks as well (with a stop along the way at vegetarianism), and my mom had cut out meat (though she still ate fish). The only hold-out was — and still is to this day — my dad.
Oddly enough — or maybe not, considering how common it is — my father has some of the deepest bonds with our companion animals out of all the family. Two of them (Kasey the cat and Lucy the dog) even sleep with him, often together. Moreover, my father openly admits to feeling bad about eating animals. And yet, he still does it — a contradiction that has led to many a debate between the two of us.
For my father, it comes down to taste and convenience. I can’t tell you how many times he’s said, “If I could easily find substitutes that tasted just like meat, I would eat them instead.” To him, the onus lies on the companies that make imitation meat to improve their products and make them more widely available. He acknowledges that these companies have made strides in recent years and does in fact eat many of their products. But some of them just don’t hit the spot like the real thing does…
(To my dad’s credit, he has cut out all red meat and cut back substantially on chicken — whether of his own volition or as a consequence of our house now being predominantly vegan, I’m not sure. Though the why isn’t really all that important…)
For me, it’s always been a lot simpler: everyone should always strive for their actions to be in line with their ethics, regardless of their circumstances. I think the operative word here is “strive”. None of us is perfect. We all do things that we later regret — myself included. Over the years, I’ve slipped up a number of times, knowingly eaten products that contained dairy or honey, used others made by companies who test on animals. But I’ve always tried my very best to hold fast to the compassionate ideals of veganism.
You’re almost 3000 words in now and if you’ve been paying close attention (as I’m sure you have), you’ve likely noticed that I haven’t talked about something — a glaring something that the general public often associates with vegans: animal activism. I’ve been vegan for about seven years now and in spite of my strong feelings about the abuse and slaughter of animals, I’ve never really gotten involved in terms of trying to make a difference. Sure — I’ve shared some posts and videos on Facebook, signed some online petitions. But for the most part, I’ve been quite content with just being vegan — living what I believe to be a compassionate existence, quietly supporting animal-friendly causes and products, only really engaging in discussion about the lifestyle when the topic arises.
I think this has a lot to do with the central aim of animal activism: to try to get people to change their way of life. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve never been the kind to upset the apple cart. I’m the don’t-rock-the-boat guy. The live-and-let-live guy. I’ve also never been a fan of preachy evangelist-types who try to covert others to a lifestyle, often through fear mongering or shoving beliefs down throats. Moreover, I’ve never found their approach to be an effective way to sway hearts and minds.
But lately, I’ve been feeling a growing obligation to get involved, to actively play a role in making this planet a safer and more compassionate place for animals. With the virus slowing down the pace of the world and me finishing up a project (a feature-length screenplay, unrelated to veganism) that I’d been working on for a few years, I’ve had a lot of free time on my hands, much of which I’ve used to think — about what I want to do with my life, the most fulfilling way I can spend my time, how I can make the most positive impact.
Meditating on these questions, I’ve found myself returning again and again to the idea of animal activism. But how exactly does one get involved in such a thing?
Looking for a jumping-off point, I began doing some research, reading articles and books (Striking at the Roots by Mark Hawthorne was a big help), watching videos and documentaries — searching all the while for a way to marry activism with my passion: writing. I found the overlap of these two Venn diagrams, if you will, in the form of blogging. And so here I am — blogging.
This is the first of what I hope will be many posts to come. I intend to write not just about animal rights related issues — and not just essay/article-style pieces — but rather whatever happens to be occupying my thoughts at a particular time in whatever form best suits it, be it prose fiction or verse poetry. Being inundated with the same style of writing on the same subject is a sure-fire way to turn people off.
So, why did I choose to write this for my inaugural blog post?
Well, it seemed like a decent way to introduce myself to would-be readers, to give them some background on me. But as I mentioned at the outset, my real motivation with this piece was twofold. In part, it stemmed from a personal desire to chronicle and reflect on my road to veganism. But more importantly, I wanted to share my story in the hopes that it (or some part of it) might just resonate with someone out there teetering on the fence of adopting a more animal-friendly lifestyle, and hopefully, give them the needed nudge to make that positive change — for themselves, the world, and most of all, the animals.