I have always been an animal lover but I have since learned how that particular self-concept fell short, in part, because of how and where I was raised. Born in the South Bronx, I never saw a lawn, a garden, or any animals other than dogs, cats, fish (in tanks), pigeons, rats and roaches. Lots of roaches. The only farm animals I knew about were from television, books or my See-and-Say toy (“the cow says Mooooo”). No association was ever made between those animals and the food we ate. The first challenges to my thinking came when I was older. I would say to someone how much I loved animals or that hunting was wrong and the person would ask, “Do you eat meat?” Answering that I did, the person would slap my face with my hypocrisy as I struggled to come up with a reason why eating meat was somehow different. After all, I wasn’t killing the animals, right?
Life continued with these disparities. At some point, I learned a bit about slaughterhouses and saw a clip here and there from which I turned my eyes away. I took up the saying that “if I had to live on a farm and see the animals that would become my dinner, I’d only eat vegetables.” I refused to eat lobster because “choosing one from the tank meant choosing which one lives and which one dies,” but all the while continued to eat meat.
In college, I worked several jobs including one at a medical school animal laboratory. My job was animal caretaker. I was the first female animal caretaker they had ever hired and I was proud of that. So naïve, I had no idea what horrors I was about to see but I worked there for several years, consoling myself that I was “taking care” of the animals. I fed them, gave them extra veggies for treats, broke rules here and there to let them have some time out from the cages and gave them attention and care that they normally wouldn’t get from the other workers. However, I refused to kill a frog in biology class. In medical school, I dissected a human cadaver in anatomy class. While dissecting the gluteus maximus muscle, I stated, “This looks like roast beef.” My professor came over and said, “What do you think roast beef is?” I had never made the connection before but suddenly, eating was not just about taste. I could name the veins, bones, and ligaments in my food and I started to avoid certain items. My new motto was “I won’t eat anything that looks the same when it’s dead and cooked as it did when it was alive and running around.” I did not want to recognize, as Jeffrey Masson puts it, the “face on my plate.” So I ate nothing with a head, nothing with eyes, and nothing on the bone. But I was still eating animals.
I was also gaining weight, a lot of weight. The years went by with me proclaiming my love of animals while I continued to eat them and gain weight. Fast forward and I am 268 pounds with a host of medical problems and a dozen prescription medications in my drawer. “I wish I could be a vegetarian but I love chicken too much. I could never give up chicken.” My new mantra but my world was about to change.
My husband, Tom, (boyfriend at the time) and I started Weight Watchers to lose weight. Several weeks into the program, I herniated a disk in my back and ended up immobile, on the couch and out of work for over a year. In the span of a few months, I lost my 14 year old dog, Poochie, to cancer as well as what remained of my family. Depressed and in pain, I lay on the couch watching television. Deprived of my usual fattening, comfort foods, I started watching food and cooking shows on The Food Network, The Travel Channel and other local stations. I became a huge Rachael Ray fan, likening her personality to the potential of mine, when not plagued with personal loss. For hours a day, I would watch cooking shows and attempt to “Weight Watcherize” the recipes in order to stay on program. I started ordering cookbooks and cooking magazines. I was watching food, reading food and thinking food every waking hour.
Health became a concern as I read about high-fructose corn syrup, artificial preservatives and MSG and I cleaned out the refrigerator and the pantry of anything that contained these items. We had nothing left in the house. It was amazing how these toxins had infiltrated their way into almost everything. I also began reading about dogs and cancer, how over 50% of dogs and cats die from cancer and that this was not true years ago. Having lost Poochie to cancer and being involved with the wonderful organization Canine Cancer Awareness, I read about what actually goes into pet food and was horrified. Then realized what goes into us and was even further horrified. Reducing our meat consumption was starting to sound like a good idea.
Then I found Christina Pirello of the TV cooking show “Christina Cooks.” She showed how to “makeover” favorite foods without meat, without dairy, without refined flours or sugars, without cholesterol or saturated fat and I was in awe of her. I bought her books, I watched her religiously, I wanted to be her. She mentioned the “V” word but I was not there yet, I was not aware enough for it to register. I knew I had always wished to be a vegetarian because I loved animals but there was still a block. I suggested to Tom that we have a few meatless days each week, to which he agreed. I learned how to cook delicious vegetarian meals and realized that the “side dishes” were always my favorite anyway. Lucky for me, I loved vegetables and salad was always a requirement with dinner. With a few vegetarian days each week, my diet was back on track; then I ate meat and felt sick. The final hammer was about to come down and my denial was about to be stripped away.
After doing some internet surfing, I requested vegetarian starter kits from PETA, Vegan Outreach and Compassion Over Killing. Then I watched the video, “Meet Your Meat.” I cried throughout the whole thing and swore I would never be a part of that suffering again. When my husband came home, I made him watch it and he cried too. We began the journey together and became vegetarians. Little did I know, there was so much more for us to do. I read several books that changed my outlook: “Diet for a New America” by John Robbins, “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter” by Peter Singer and Jim Mason and “Breaking the Food Seduction” by Dr. Neal Barnard. I learned it was not enough to give up meat; the dairy and egg industry caused even more suffering. We stopped buying dairy products and replaced them with non-dairy alternatives. This was hard for me because I was used to buying low fat and non-fat items for my diet. Non-dairy alternatives did not use these labels and seemed to have more calories but I soon learned the benefits of the non-dairy alternatives. Eggs were the hardest thing for me to give up. I was used to my “healthy” egg white spinach omelet for breakfast and I did not like tofu yet but the sting of hypocrisy was too harsh to ignore and the eggs were gone.
Whew! We did it! We were vegans!! Or were we? What, it’s not just about diet? It’s our shoes, our clothes, our make-up, our shampoo? There was still so much more to learn and at times, it felt overwhelming but instead of seeing it as sacrifices or giving things up, I see each item I learn about as an opportunity to help animals.
Gradually, we replaced our shoes, belts, clothes, and toiletries. We became master label-readers. We continue to read numerous books (my favorites being “The Missing Peace” by Tina Volpe and Judy Carman and the aforementioned “The Face on Your Plate” by Jeffrey Masson as well as his “The Pig that Sang to the Moon: The Emotional Lives of Farm Animals.”). Tom and I joined several groups so we could meet other vegans and vegetarians and have attended rallies, protests, talks, and marched in the Veggie Pride Parade in New York City. Last week, we visited the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary which was a wonderful and humbling experience. Tom is currently organizing a library display at his job for Vegetarian Awareness Month in October. There is always so much to do, always more to learn.
So far, I have lost 87 lbs. and I hope to lose more. This all started with my deep-seated love of animals and a food addiction that got in its way. Then a quest for better health helped strip me of my denial. It has now become all about the animals, ethics, advocacy, pride, and mostly, compassion. And I got better health in the bargain. Being a Vegan has given me a new focus and purpose in life. It is a journey I once never knew existed, let alone be able to travel. Now I cannot see myself going in any other direction.