How I Found My Way To Veganism

From early childhood, I’ve always had an interest in other animals. When I was a child in the ’60s, small frill-necked lizards dotted our old wooden fence. I loved to watch them and on occasion I would pick them up to look closer. Occasionally there would be a very large Bearded Dragon in our yard. My interest in our nonhuman residents was more than a superficial fascination with their appearance. I would find solace in their company. I’ve always felt different to others and I wonder if perhaps it was because I was adopted. I think in some odd way, I identified with my nonhuman friends and their obvious difference. Even at that early age, as I observed them, I remember wondering what they might be experiencing, what they might be feeling, what they thought of me, and so on.

lizard_on_postAs with most Australian families, my parents bought us “pets”. I don’t recall ever asking for a “pet”. We looked after guinea pigs, fish, and it was often the case that an abandoned neighbourhood cat would find a loving home at our house. When I was 7 or 8, I bonded with a little black fish in our aquarium. He would swim to the surface and I would scratch his head. I remember also bonding with an Angelfish and when he eventually died, I wrote a poem about my grief. I placed the poem with his little body in a match box, and buried it.

When I was 8 my grandmother took me fishing for the first time. I really had little interest in catching fish, and more interest in spending time with my Grandma. Unfortunately one fish found my line. Grandma took the fish down to the edge of the ocean to wash the sand away. As she did, the fish slipped through her hands and swam away. I was not disappointed. I look back and feel sad that children are encouraged to engage in activities that result in violence. My point in relaying this story is that like most children, I seemed to be swept along with society’s speciesist activities. Each generation is a victim of the earlier generation’s speciesism.

During my young adult life in the late ’70s/early ’80s, I mixed in circles who were engaged in social justice causes, alternative theatre and music. There were a number of vegetarians within those groups. At the time I thought that it made sense that we should not eat animals, because it was obvious that “meat” was flesh from a sentient being and because killing is wrong ii. But I never really had a conversation with anyone about this issue. Vegetarianism seemed more like a “personal choice”. Even in these circles, the issue of nonhuman animals being used as resources was not included among their social justice issues. Now when I look back at this period, it shows how very deeply ingrained speciesism is, that even intelligent, socially conscious people had not thought through this issue and did not include other animals in the moral community. Even those who had made a personal choice not to eat “meat”, did not extend this concern to animal advocacy.

I vividly remember one exchange in the early ’80s which, for some reason, has stayed with me till now. I asked my artist friend Holly (a vegetarian) why she didn’t eat fish. She was rushing through the house at the time on her way out the door and she quickly replied “because it’s an animal that lives in the sea”. It was unfortunate that Holly was rushing out the door, because I would have liked to have talked to her further about it. Generally speaking, most people I knew at that time, except for Holly, went through periods where they were vegetarian, and then returned to eating flesh and other animal products.

Likewise, I had been vegetarian on and off from the time I left home at 17, but during this time I was still consuming and wearing animal products. There was even one stage where I was pescatarian. I do not count being vegetarian as anything significant in my journey to veganism. To be clear, vegetarianism and veganism are quite different. Vegetarianism still involves eating animal products, wearing animal products and using animals for entertainment or other reasons. Veganism on the other hand is an ethical position which rejects using animals for food (dairy, flesh, eggs, honey etc.), clothing (wool, leather, silk, fur etc.), entertainment (horse-riding, animal circuses, petting zoos, zoos etc) or other reasons.  I often refer to this period of my pre-vegan life as living in a speciesist haze. Basically I was living unconsciously as regards other animals. I find that disturbing since I have always considered myself reasonably aware of justice issues and I aspired to live a nonviolent life, but this was not true before I became an ethical vegan. Throughout my life, I couldn’t bear seeing any animal being abused. I would intervene if I could. I was always rescuing some injured or abandoned animal, but it never really occurred to me that I was participating every day in violence by consuming and wearing animal products. It is true that most of us think about important moral matters in a completely confused and incoherent way.

In 1994, approximately ten years before becoming an ethical vegan, I became Buddhist. I found confusion regarding animals in Tibetan Buddhist circles. Buddhist centres warn not to kill insects, and some Buddhists release captive animals (after purchasing them), so Buddhism appeared to take nonhumans into their regard. Like many people, I assumed Buddhists would be vegetarian, but found students would eat vegetarian food at Buddhist centres, and then eat flesh and other animal products away from the centre. Tibetan Buddhist teachers would instruct students to pray over flesh before eating it, and instruct them to not eat flesh when they were taking 24 hour precept vows or on particular auspicious Buddhist days. Many teachers would, themselves, eat flesh at other times and generally eat and wear animal products. I questioned senior students about eating flesh, and got rationalizations that didn’t entirely satisfy me.

I don’t remember the exact incident which finally woke me from my speciesist haze, but if I recall correctly, it was in early 2005 when I happened across some information about the dairy industry. It was the same year Donald Watson who coined the term vegan in 1944, and who pioneered the vegan movement, died at the age of 95. At that time, I also remember a conversation clearly with a friend about how chickens are raised and murdered. I felt sick. I remember feeling horrified that this was seen as acceptable. After further investigation, I could no longer participate in this violence by using animal products and became an ethical vegan overnight. The moment I became fully aware of the reality of animal use, there was no turning back. Up until that point, I’d bought “free range” eggs, and had not realised the great harm in dairy and other animal products. I had not fully considered that we have no right to use other animals as resources. I had been mentally disconnected from the flesh and other animal products I was consuming in my daily life. I shudder to recall my former state of ignorance and I greatly regret all those years I used animal products.

After I became vegan I realised that becoming vegan personally was not enough. We wanted to stop animal use altogether, so we naively started trying to lobby government. Our brief experience in late 2005 to mid 2006 was very frustrating and disheartening, since government obviously was not interested in accepting that animal use simply needed to be abolished and mostly resisted “reform”.  We soon realised they were clearly only interested in “reform” which benefited industry economically. It was also clear they were interested in co-opting us and were also protecting animal use industry stakeholders. We saw clear evidence of this when we met up with one government representative who was actively pursuing “Controlled Atmosphere Killing” (“CAK”), a “humane” slaughter “reform” which PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has been promoting to industry for a number of years. PETA claims CAK reduces carcass damage, slaughterhouse worker injuries, and has other economic benefits for industry.

A watershed for us was when we were asked to make comment on the “draft policy” for treatment of pigs. All animal groups were advocating for slightly bigger cages, slightly “better conditions”, than the draft policy suggested. We could not, in good conscience, recommend welfare “reform”, so we commenced our submission by stating we opposed animal use. To proposals that minimum space for pigs be increased to about 1 square meter, we responded that the natural requirement for a herd of pigs was several square miles of forest understory. In disgust, at this point, we decided to stop lobbying government for “welfare” improvement (or any other reason). We could not support it because we wanted to end use and had always felt uncomfortable with advocacy which included and was limited to regulation.

Before I continue, since there is so much misinformation and disinformation about veganism, I wish to re-emphasise that I do not see any significance or benefit whatsoever in vegetarianism. None at all. Nor do I conflate vegetarianism and veganism since they are entirely different for reasons I have explained earlier. If I mention that someone is vegetarian, it’s just a statement of fact, and is not an endorsement, as if being vegetarian is beneficial, or a step towards, or similar to being vegan. For me there are those who are non-vegan and those who are vegan. There is no in between. If I could put flashing lights above this statement I would 😉

In mid 2006, my partner (who had become vegan at the same time as myself) and I decided to start a vegan not-for-profit organization called LOBSA (Liberation of Brother and Sister Animals) which we originally formed to bring veganism to the Buddhist community. I found many texts where Shakyamuni Buddha said we should do our best to avoid harming nonhuman animals (including insects and invertebrates) and that we should avoid eating and wearing animal products which were the result of intentional killing and harm. To my knowledge, in the Tibetan Gelug-pa tradition there is only one Geshe who teaches these Sutras on occasion, but he is not vegan and does not ask students to become vegan.

Since speciesism is so pervasive I knew there would probably be resistance to vegan education, but there was much more resistance than I expected when we joined an international Mahayana Buddhist organisation. I was particularly disappointed since the Lama who is spiritual director of the organization is vegetarian, and frequently talks about not harming animals, including insects and worms. Unfortunately, to my knowledge he would never actually state that his students should become vegetarian. Resistance increased from those who thought what we were advocating reflected badly upon some teachers, including H.H. the Dalai Lama who consumes flesh and other animal products. Sadly after a year, we decided there was not much point in continuing with their organisation and we left.

In early 2007, we asked Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo (a Kagyu nun and subject of “Cave in the Snow” by Vicki Mackenzie) to be the patron of LOBSA. Jetsunma said she would be “delighted”. We also asked H.H. the Gyalwang Drukpa to be a patron. He happily accepted. Both were already vegetarian . Both Jetsunma and the Gyalwang Drukpa had made statements instructing their students to become vegetarian. Unfortunately, beyond these measures, they have not adopted veganism. We later decided to de-register our organisation but we have continued to maintain the LOBSA.org website. We had registered LOBSA as part of our association with the Buddhist organisations, but had never intended to use it to get money, or pay ourselves anything, even as a non-profit organisation. I do not have any intention to do so in the future.

For almost 3 years I was on the mailing lists of many large animal organisations. I constantly networked online with these organisations – domestic and international. During this time, I was uncomfortable that all their single issue campaigns never seemed to mention becoming vegan, and increasingly would suggest “humane” animal products or to boycott the industry until they “improved” conditions for animals. I couldn’t recognise that my discomfort was valid, because every large animal organisation appeared to be using this approach. In retrospect, I can now see that despite claims they were for animal rights, they only seemed to promote “humane” use and they rarely, if ever mentioned veganism. In the rare occasion they mentioned veganism, it was soft-peddled, human-centric, conflated with vegetarianism and presented as a diet or as “hard”, “extreme” or optional. They seemed to avoid using the term vegan in association with their single issue campaigns, but instead always asked for donations. What I did see at the time — which I found most disturbing and noticeable — was how all large animal organisations seemed to be intentionally moving closer and closer to industry, and this appeared to be escalating.  I was only able to articulate this discomfort later. A pivotal moment for me was when awards were being given to animal use industries. About this time, there was also a proliferation of support for “happy” meat. I felt frustrated and at a loss, and felt like the promotion of “humane” use was selling out animals. I was looking for a way to articulate my position and why I was not comfortable with this, and that’s why it was such a relief to come across Professor Francione’s work.

I can’t talk about my awakening and journey to becoming an abolitionist vegan without talking about the importance of Professor Gary L. Francione’s work for me, and how greatly his work has influenced my life. There were two stages to my becoming an ethical vegan.  The first was the time prior to finding Professor Francione’s work, when my veganism included an intuitive but unformulated abolitionist viewpoint, but I was also lost in mainstream advocacy confusion. I was never comfortable with the welfare “reform” which all large animal groups and many animal advocates seemed to be promoting, but I didn’t know how to go forward. Abolishing animal exploitation seemed to take a back seat, and as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t feel at all comfortable promoting “better conditions” which were really just a slightly different and slightly less torturous form of animal exploitation. I had come across “abolitionism” earlier, but it was misrepresented. As a result, I responded negatively.

The second phase began when I had the good fortune to be properly introduced to the abolitionist approach to animal rights by Prof. Francione himself in August 2009 on his private Facebook page. It immediately resonated with me. Until hearing some of his arguments, I had not felt the confidence to fully articulate my thoughts about speciesism and “reform”. His explanations made a great deal of sense and I decided this was definitely the way to proceed. Prior to Francione’s work, no one had clearly argued that sentience alone is the only criterion needed to be a member of the moral community and that no other cognitive characteristic is necessary; that membership in the moral community means that you cannot be used exclusively as a resource (the pre-legal right not to be treated as property); that promoting welfare reform is not only morally problematic but practically problematic in that the chattel property status of animals results in a structural inequality that necessarily limits the level of protection accorded to animal interests; and that veganism must be the unequivocal moral baseline of anything that claims to be a rights movement.

Something that particularly attracted me to the Abolitionist Approach is that it is holistic and includes supporting civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTI rights etc and because this is a logical extension of justice. All forms of discrimination are related and represent violence. I truly believe, as Professor Francione says, that veganism is the single most important form of social activism that anybody can engage in and that any serious social, political, and economic change must include veganism.

Veganism is a nonviolent, grass-roots political movement. It is the heart of nonviolence. It is not a “personal choice”, it’s a moral imperative. Promoting nonviolence and social justice for nonhumans (and humans) is very important in the world today. We are all interconnected.  And as long as we eat, wear and use other animals for our pleasure, we engage in daily violence, and we will never know peace.

Some of the issues I have come to understand through Professor Francione’s work is the way welfare “reform” or regulation of animal exploitation further enmeshes animals in the property paradigm, and does not move them closer to nonhuman personhood; “Animal welfare ‘reform’ only makes our exploitation of animals more economically efficient; it does nothing to recognize their inherent value (as moral persons).” “We have had welfare reform for 200 years now. We are using more animals in more horrific ways than at any time in human history. Welfare reform does not work. It cannot work. Animals are chattel property. Given that status, and the reality of markets, including and especially the fact of international markets and ‘free trade’ agreements, animal welfare will rarely if ever provide more protection to animals than what is economically justifiable.” “Veganism is the only coherent response to our recognition that animals are members of the moral community.” His work reinforced my belief that not only do animals have an interest in not suffering, they have an interest in continuing to live and that a “humane” death is still unjust.

Finally, Professor Francione maintains “if you accept that animals are members of the moral community but you are not vegan, it is either because: 1. you don’t take morality seriously enough to act on your own moral views; or 2. you have some speciesist view that animals are “inferior” members of the moral community. There are no other choices.”

In conclusion, I always considered myself as someone who acted for social justice and nonviolence, yet I had been participating in violence and animal slavery for most of my life.  My greatest regrets are the years I spent eating and wearing products of violence, and how long I thought it was normal that we use other animals as resources. I was, on the whole, living unconsciously. I’m a fairly private person. I try to live a very simple life. I’m fortunate to live in a relatively harmonious country, in a beautiful rural area. But it is difficult to truly enjoy this while seeing nonhuman slaves in the fields, and being aware there are 56 billion other animals (not including aquatic animals) being tortured and murdered for our pleasure each year. Now I try to spend as much time as I can in vegan education. I strive to incorporate Ahimsa into every aspect of my life, into my thoughts, words and actions. I don’t know how successful I am, but I try. I find that veganism has had a wonderful and profound effect on all aspects of my life. I’ve become so much more aware of not harming, of protecting other animals (including insects etc), and I have a much better understanding about my own place in the world. I’m so glad that I did not leave the world before becoming vegan, and I hope that I am able to spread veganism to as many people as possible before I do. Veganism will solve many of the world’s problems. In short, I dream of, and work towards, a vegan planet.

Finally, I would like to share this quote:

“All slaves want to be free—to be free is very sweet. I have been a slave myself—I know what slaves feel—I can tell by myself what other slaves feel and by what they have told me. The man that says slaves be quite happy in slavery—that they don’t want to be free—that man is either ignorant or a lying person. I never heard a slave say so.” ~ Mary Prince (1831) Bermudan author who was once a slave)

If you’re not vegan, please go vegan. It’s much easier than you think. Please start here

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i I put “meat” in quotes to indicate that this word is one that, in English, is used to create cognitive distance between reality and our comfort. In general, saying we eat flesh has far more emotional accuracy. Likewise, we disguise our actions by a double system of labeling: e.g. a cow becomes “beef”, a pig, “pork”, a sheep “mutton”.

ii I focus on flesh consumption in describing my early life, not because I think eating animals is more significant than other forms of animal use, but because that is what people around me focused on. Likewise, in later references to Buddhism, teachers focus on eating “meat”, and did not even consider other animal products or many forms of animal use were the result of violence. As a vegan, I see any use of animals as equally morally unjustifiable, and do not personally make distinctions between eating animals or animal products and other forms of animal use. All use is morally unjustifiable.

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