(To which you, I’m assuming, respond: “Hi, Moby.” See, even if you’ve never been to a 12-step meeting you’ve probably seen one on the television, as almost every series has to have a scene involving a 12-step meeting. Or so it seems). So, here’s my qualification, or how I came to be a vegan.
When I was two weeks old, my mother took a picture of me in my baby bath in our basement apartment on 130th street in Harlem. In the picture there’s me (a little grub of a two-week old baby) and watching me in my baby bath are:
Our dog (Jamie).
Our cat (Charlotte).
Our two pet lab rats (unnamed)
In the picture I’m looking up at the four animals and they’re looking down at me. I look pretty contented, and they look pretty contented. And I’m pretty sure that at this moment the neurons in my limbic system hard-wired themselves in a way that established that animals were benign and great. As I got older my mom and I went through a revolving door of suburban pets. The menagerie, over 15 years or so, included: four dogs, 12 cats, about 1,000 baby mice, an iguana, three gerbils, a hamster and a little snake.
I loved our animals. When one died I was heartbroken, crying inconsolably at the sad and bitterly unfair death of whichever dog or cat or mouse or lizard had died (and, with so many animals there was a lot of dying and crying). I don’t want to pick favorites from among our animals, but my favorite was Tucker, the cat I found at the dump. When I was 10 years old I was walking by our town dump and I heard some “mew mew mew”s coming from a box. I opened the box and inside found three dead kittens and one barely alive kitten (so young its eyes were still closed).
I picked up the barely alive kitten and rushed it home. My mom and I jumped in her car (not literally, we more likely stepped into her car) and drove to the vet. The vet was sympathetic but not encouraging. ”It’s rare for kittens to live without their mothers when they’re this young,” he said, “so try not to get attached.” We took Tucker home (I’d named him in the car), assuming he would die soon, and out of the blue our dachshund, George, adopted him. George became Tucker’s surrogate mom, cleaning him and keeping him warm, and Tucker lived to be 18 years old.
One day when Tucker was nine and I was 19, I was sitting with him in the sun on the stairs of my mom’s suburban house in Connecticut. It was a perfect moment, boy and cat and sun, idyllic and warm and, as I said: perfect. While sitting there I had an epiphany. And many of my epiphanies are pretty self-evident, so perhaps you’ll find this epiphany to be self-evident.
But anyway, here’s the epiphany: Sitting on the stairs I thought, “I love this cat. I would do anything to protect him and make him happy and keep him from harm. He has four legs and two eyes and an amazing brain and an incredibly rich emotional life. I would never in a trillion years think of hurting this cat. So why am I eating other animals who have four (or two) legs, two eyes, amazing brains, and rich emotional lives?” And sitting on the stairs in suburban Connecticut with Tucker the cat I became a vegetarian.
That was in 1985, 29 years ago.
My reason for becoming a vegetarian was simple: I loved (and love) animals and I don’t want to be involved in anything that leads to or contributes to their suffering. At first this led me to give up beef and chicken. Then fish (if you’ve ever spent time with fish you realize pretty quickly that they feel pain and are much happier not being hooked or speared or netted). Then I thought, “I don’t want to contribute to animal suffering. But the cows and chickens in commercial dairy and egg farms are pretty miserable, so why am I still eating milk and eggs?” So in 1987 I gave up all animal products and became a vegan. Simply so that I could eat and live in accordance with my beliefs that animals have their own lives, that they’re entitled to their own lives and that contributing to animal suffering is something that I don’t want to be a part of.
That was 27 years ago. So, being a math whiz, I can safely say that I’ve been a vegan now for 27 years. As time has passed, my veganism has been reinforced by learning about health and climate change and the environment. I found that eating meat and dairy and eggs are to a very large extent responsible for people developing diabetes, heart disease and cancer. I found out that commercial animal production was responsible for 18 percent of climate change (more than every car, bus, truck, boat, and plane combined). I found out that producing a pound of soybeans requires 200 gallons of water but that producing a pound of beef requires 1,800 gallons of water. I found out that a leading cause of tropical deforestation is cutting down trees to create grazing land for livestock. And I found out that most of zoonotic diseases (SARS, mad cow disease, bird flu, etc.) are the result of animal agriculture. And as a clincher: I also found out that eating a high fat, animal product-based diet can be a leading cause of impotence (as if I didn’t need more reasons to be a vegan).
So, the more I studied health and the environment, the more committed I became to being a vegan. And I’m ashamed to admit this now, but I had the inevitable vegan period wherein I was the insufferable vegan who yelled at his friends every time they ate meat. But over time I realized that when I yelled at my friends they didn’t end up eating less meat, they just ended up getting annoyed with me and not inviting me to their parties. And maybe I’m selfish, but I like getting invited to my friends’ parties.
I learned, eventually, that yelling at people isn’t the best way to get them to listen to what you have to say. When I yelled at people they became defensive and resistant to whatever it is I was trying to tell them. But I found that by respectfully talking to people and sharing information and facts with them I could actually get them to hear what I was saying, and even consider my reasons for being a vegan.
To be clear: Just because I’m a vegan I’m not saying you should be a vegan. It would be ironic if I refused to force my will on animals but was all too happy forcing my will on humans.
You should inform yourself as best as you can and eat and live however seems best to you. But, empirically and epidemiologically, you (and all of us, actually) have a better chance of living a longer and happier and healthier life if you avoid meat and chicken and pork and milk and eggs. At the very least I would strongly encourage you to avoid animal products produced on factory farms, as factory farms treat their animals horribly, and the meat and dairy that come from factory farms are filled with antibiotics and synthetic hormones and life threatening bacteria, etc.
OK, I could say more, and I’d love to say more, but I feel that I’ve covered the reasons I became and remain a vegan. I guess in closing, apart from issues of health and climate change and zoonotic disease and antibiotic resistance and impotence and environmental degradation, I’d ask you this simple question: Could you look a baby cow in its eyes and say to it, “My appetite is more important than your suffering”?