Saturday, February 11, 2012

THE RACE, AID STATION, & RECOVERY: Why I Became A Vegan, Part 1 (of a 4-part series): To Reduce Animal Cruelty

I get asked all the time why I became a vegan...and it's a question I'm happy to answer. But it's such a long answer that I usually end up saying "Well, in a nutshell: health, environmental, animal cruelty, and religious reasons."  Now that's casting a broad net!! But it's true that all of those reasons factored into my decision.  And it wasn't a decision that I made lightly.  It's a decision that I'm very proud of, and being a vegan triathlete/runner/Ironman is something I'm even more proud of because it requires more effort, education, and commitment.  

So I've decided to explain my reasons in a four-part blog - because each reason is fairly hefty in and of itself.  So from now on, if someone asks me why I'm a vegan, I can give them my nutshell reason and then say "read my blog if you want to know more!"  But seriously, maybe this will help some of you understand, and make you ponder some things on your own.  My goal isn't to try to convert anyone to veganism - that's a personal choice that I won't force on anyone and I try to respect everyone's choices. But what I have a hard time respecting is when people - including myself - make mindless, robotic choices.  And honestly, that's how most people eat - mindlessly and out of habit.  "Oh, I'm in a hurry so I'll grab something from McDonalds." "Oh, I'll just buy the cheapest chicken/hamburger at the store."  People tend to operate on auto-pilot when it comes to food without questioning their choices.  And that's exactly what food is - a choice.  Barring some over-arching allergy or medical reason, your food is your choice.  

So here's my attempt to explain why I choose to be a vegan.  I'm not perfect.  I make mistakes and bad choices.  For example, for my 40th birthday, some friends took me to lunch at an Asian place.  At the end of the meal, the restaurant brought out a bottle of champagne and a dessert.  The dessert wasn't vegan.  So I felt conflicted because on one hand, I didn't want to be rude, and on the other hand, I didn't want to be unfaithful to my vegan choice.  I decided to eat some of it, more because of the guilt over being "rude."  In hindsight, I wish I would have chosen differently and chosen to have the guilt over offending someone instead of the guilt over cheating on my veganism.  But we learn from our mistakes.  Next time, I'll explain, politely, why I can't accept the nice offer of a non-vegan food.  So if my reasons for being vegan and my mistakes in that journey make you think a little more about what you're eating, where it came from, how was it raised, how it affects your body, other living creatures, and our planet, then I'm happy.  You don't have to be perfect - I just hope that people try to be more mindful of their food choices.  If you have questions, I'll do my best to answer them....

Part 1:  To Reduce Animal Cruelty:  

In 2006 I started doing some pro bono work with the Animal Welfare Institute ("AWI") and represented them in a case in Illinois concerning a horse slaughter plant that had been shut down by state law.  (FYI, there were three horse slaughter plants that had operated in the United States to slaughter horses for human consumption in other countries like Belgium.  Thankfully, these plants are no longer in operation).  Have you ever watched footage of an animal being slaughtered?  Most people know abstractly that cows, pigs, and chickens have to be slaughtered to get on their dinner plate, and most people are abstractly o.k. with that.  It's an "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" mentality.  If you're one of those people, then I recommend that you watch this video.  I was raised to be able to watch disturbing videos/movies, so I have a stomach for it.  Videos like this make me cry, but I watch them.  I'm able to watch them because I want to understand...I want to put a face on the problem so I know what I'm dealing with...I realize that most people aren't like that.  But I also realize that it's easier to ignore something horrible and disturbing if you bury your head in the sand...

WARNING!! This is a very difficult, disturbing video to watch (and it's one of the more mild ones I could find). It should NOT be watched by anyone under 18 without adult supervision.  This video was made by the Humane Society of the United States:  

During my work with AWI, I watched a lot of horse slaughter and other animal slaughter footage.  And I started to become more aware of the "factory farms" that plague our country.  The more technical term is a "confined animal feeding operation" or "CAFO." According to AWI's On the Farm section, 56 billion animals (not including fish) are slaughtered every year, the vast majority of which are slaughtered in CAFO's or factory farms.  

The horror of what these animals - these living, breathing, sentient creatures of God - go through just to satisfy our appetites, didn't sit right with me anymore.  And I was a Nebraskan who'd grown up eating meat, chicken, and fish - I even ate bites of raw hamburger while getting dinner ready.  But I never questioned where those animals came from and what they endured to get from the land to my plate.  So I made the conscious decision to give up meat.  I just didn't want to be a part of that pain and suffering anymore.  I didn't want to eat that fear and bloodshed.  I didn't want a living creature to be killed for the sole purpose of feeding me.  

Why did I give up fish also?  (FYI, a "vegetarian" is someone who has given up meat and fish.  A "pescetarian" is someone who gives up land animals and birds, but not fish or seafood).  Well, as AWI explains, modern fishing methods are destroying the sensitive ocean habitat and upsetting the ecological balance of marine life.  Moreover, a study by Victoria Braithwaite, Do Fish Feel Pain, shows that fish can feel and react to painful stimuli through their nervous systems.  So although they can't yelp or show facial expressions like a land animal, fish too feel pain.    

Now, I want to be very clear about something:  My disgust at eating meat was triggered by the practice of factory farms.  Only later as my knowledge about vegetarianism and veganism evolved did I come to adopt other reasons - health, environmental, and religious reasons - that further supported my food choices.  So when people ask me "What about small family farmers - isn't my choice and other people's choice to become vegetarian and vegan going to put small family farmers out of business," my answer is "no."  First, realistically, the entire country - or world for that matter - will never become vegetarian.  Second, I support - through recommendations - the small family farmers who are raising animals the right, humane way.  AWI has instituted a program called Animal Welfare Approved, which "prioritizes the well-being of animals, and the sustainability of humane family farms."  The Animal Welfare Approved program certifies and audits family farmers who can abide by the highest animal welfare standards.  You can visit this link to learn more about the standards and look for the Animal Welfare Approved label on meat, poultry, eggs, and milk at your store.  

If you can't go vegetarian or vegan, look for the Animal Welfare Approved logo and urge your stores to carry meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy that meet these animal welfare standards.... 
So while I support and commend family farmers and pray that those family farmers someday are the only kinds of farms that raise animals for human consumption, I choose not to eat any animals at all because of the other reasons I'll explain later in the rest of this four-part series, i.e., I think that we are supposed to care for those who cannot care for themselves, and my body just feels better without any animal products.  

However, for anyone who will not become vegetarian or vegan, I beg of you to understand where the animals on your plate come from and make every effort to at least boycott large factory farms by refusing to buy meat and poultry that is not humanely raised.  This chart prepared by AWI provides a quick comparison of farm industry labels and independent guidelines so you can see, at a glance, the inhumane treatment that large farm and fishing industries allow, but that farmers in the the Animal Welfare Approved program are prohibited from doing.  

So, the horrific nature of factory farms, seeing the pain, terror, and bloodshed of animals as they are slaughtered, and understanding the inhumane conditions in which factory farm animals are raised, spurred my life-changing decision to become a vegetarian.  

A year later, I decided to become a vegan.  And the reasons for that switch, will be explored in the next three stay tuned....

In the meantime, can you commit to start thinking differently - or at least start thinking at all - about your food choices?  

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