I am seventeen, and there is one vegan at my school. We are not close, we simply share a few classes, and it feels strange to me that I know this intimate detail about her, about how she nourishes herself. Everyone knows, because the burden she carries is too great for her to keep to herself, but her determination reads as sanctimonious to the rest of us. While workshopping college admission essays, she chooses the theme “Who would I invite to my table, and what would I feed them?” I don’t hear whom the lucky recipients of her invitation are, but she will feed them an intricately beautiful vegan meal, free of murder. The word hangs in the air like an accusation. Boys titter in the back row, and girls find each other’s attentions to smile smugly between themselves. No one is interested in humoring her insinuation, but she never waivers as she reads the entire essay aloud. When she finishes, the room is silent. The teacher looks bewildered, but offers her a few structural suggestions. With little fanfare, we move on to the next essay.
The fact that we live in middle America and she has a Russian last name does her no favors– before her veganism, she already had the air of different about her, although I will not question if her heritage fed into our mistrust of her belief until over a decade later, when I begin to write this piece.
She sits in front of me in study hall, and we get along well enough. Sharing a mutual friend helps, but I can never quite shake the anxiety that comes with talking to her: she is an active bomb, constantly threatening to explode, and I am terrified of her vivaciousness, her certainty. I am meek and have none of her courage, preferring to take my place in the middle of the class: not at the front, with the kids actively salivating for our teachers’ affections by performing well, and not in the back with the kids yearning for our teachers’ attentions by simply performing. In my mind, we are foils: her, petite and blonde, a firecracker; me, tall and lanky, a ghost. I am not sure I enter her mind at all.
Today, she leans back in her chair and groans loudly before swiveling around to face me. Lunch is still two periods away, and she is hungry. I offer her some of the pretzels I’ve been snacking on, and she looks at me as if I have just slapped her. I immediately begin cataloguing the ingredients: flour, salt… water? Could eggs be in pretzels? Milk? I realize I have absolutely no idea what they’re made of.
“I’m s-so sorry!” I sputter, trying to find the right wire to cut. “I didn’t know pretzels weren’t vegan.”
“Oh, they are,” she snaps back, her eyes defiant. “I just don’t like them.”
The fire I see in her is something I’ve never seen in myself. This realization thrums against something inside me (jealousy?), and my anxiety melts into a self-righteous irritation. Instead of confronting my own fears, I form an opinion about her, about vegans, that will take years to shake.
I am twenty, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals tears through my group of friends like wildfire. I think back to high school, to her, and decline to read it. “I know factory farming is bad,” I parrot half-heartedly, knowing that I don’t actually know, that I would simply prefer not to acknowledge it. I recall the black and white footage of hogs on an assembly line that we watched while discussing The Jungle in a History of Chicago class. It’s the way the pigs scream as they’re hung upside down by their ankles, as their throats are slit and as they’re systematically unzipped, cut, butchered, that’s the most upsetting, almost human. Certainly, I tell myself, things are better now. Somewhere deep down, I know without knowing that they aren’t.
I left a suburb of the Hog Butcher for the World for the state that now leads the nation in hog production. At any given moment, 20 million pigs are being raised here, though I will never see a single hog during my entire college experience. This is by design. Most factory farms are off the beaten path, hidden from well-traveled roads. The most common place to see a pig is along I-81 on their way to slaughter. This single journey from their cages is the only time these animals will feel the earth beneath their feet and the sunlight on their snouts. In a few hours, these novelties will be replaced with horror that I do my best to ignore.
And yet, one by one my friends become vegetarians. Vegan is still too-hippie, too-militant, and while their meals forgo chicken and beef, cheese and butter are Midwestern staples that no one knows how to extricate themselves from. Potlucks now include nacho casseroles, Senegalese peanut soups, three-cheese and mushroom risottos. I become the outlier, clinging to meat, and it’s not my conscience that makes me finally surrender. It’s plain and simple social pressure. I borrow a friend’s copy of what I now jokingly call their Bible (for its successful conversion rate) and finally begin.
It is the filth of meat production that disturbs me. The literal shit that the animals are covered in their entire lives, their open sores, their unending supply of antibiotics to keep them alive until they are large enough to turn a profit. I understand why this book has the effect that it does, and I succumb, a new vegetarian lamb in Foer’s flock.
I am twenty-four years old, and my partner has decided to become vegetarian again. We now live in Texas, and the shock of Eating Animals has worn away, replaced by a craving for barbecue. He tells me this as I am mid-pulled pork sandwich, and my body viscerally recalls the description of a hog factory farm floor, covered not only in shit but also with “whatever will fit through the slatted floors”: vomit, blood, piss, hair, antibiotic syringes, and dead piglets that, perhaps mercifully, were too weak to make it. I am angry at him for reminding me of them and their suffering, those baby animals smarter than dogs, that he chose this moment to make me confront that I turned my back on a belief I held so strongly. I set down the sandwich to face him.
“I just really believe it feels wrong to eat meat,” he explains apologetically. Somewhere inside I agree, but I still finish my meal. Despite the fact this pig was castrated without anesthesia to preserve its taste, the pork still leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
I re-read Eating Animals, but this time it’s not the filth of the factory farms that disturbs me, it’s the cruelty. The death-crowns in salmon, a morbid phenomenon that occurs when sea lice eat down to the farmed fishes’ skulls, lingers in my conscious, an image I can’t exorcise. I am too afraid to Google what this actually looks like, but my imagined version is upsetting enough–fish swimming in their fetid tanks, dead-eyed, with an ivory wreath carved into their faces as parasites eat their way down to the bone. In a few weeks, a family will be grilling that same fish and lauding themselves for purchasing farmed salmon, an ethical victory compared to consuming the fish’s wild cousins. Everyone knows the steep price of deep sea fishing: 4.5 billion sea animals killed as bycatch each year, including 3.3 million sharks, 60,000 sea turtles, and 20,000 dolphins and whales, but compared with the suffering farmed fish face daily, it’s hard to consider this family’s purchase a victory.
I linger over the lines describing the chickens’ fates. Although their throats are supposed to be cut before they enter the scalding tanks to loosen their feathers, four million birds each year make it past the automated throat-slitters and the backup slaughterers and are dumped into the boiling water alive.
People conflate veganism with losing–losing convenience, losing social standing, losing culture, losing bacon. But I only feel like I’ve gained.
These facts sit with me in a way they did not before, plucking at some string in my gut that says this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong. Suddenly, the girl from high school’s attitude doesn’t feel so hysterical.
It begins to feel necessary.
I scour the internet for more information, for others who feel as tricked/enraged/guilt-ridden as I do. What I find is Earthlings. The film is free online, a documentary that details the way animals are abused for pets, food, clothing, scientific research, and entertainment. I watch dogs get crushed alive in a trash compactor, cows hung by their back legs so that they can be dehorned, pigs stuffed in crates so small they can’t turn around. Nearly an hour in, a skinless fox turns its head to the screen and blinks. As the animal breaks the fourth wall, it also breaks something inside of me. I am already crying, but this final image of violence is too much to bear.
I slam my laptop closed.
I dissolve into sobs.
I am 28 years old, nearing the four year anniversary of my decision to go vegan. “Decision” doesn’t feel like the right word, though. “Become” or “transform” are more appropriate verbs. Once the veil is lifted, once you have seen the inside of a factory farm, read the statistics, drawn the lines, you can never really go back. And time and time again, the news cycle supports this awakening: “dietary GHG emissions in meat-eaters are approximately twice as high as those in vegans,” “the World Health Organization classified red-meats as ‘probably carcinogenic’ and processed meats as ‘carcinogenic’,” “Several North Carolina Hog-Waste Lagoons Flooded by Hurricane Florence,” and on and on.
I care about animal suffering, but I also care about ecology, about public health, about human rights. As Safran-Foer says near the end of Eating Animals, “Factory farming, of course, does not cause all the world’s problems, but it is remarkable just how many of them intersect there.”
People conflate veganism with losing–losing convenience, losing social standing, losing culture, losing bacon. But I only feel like I’ve gained. To be able to have such a positive effect on the planet simply by being conscious of what goes into my body is an incredible gift.
Every now and then a new acquaintance will ask me “Do you mind if I eat meat in front of you?” and all I can do is politely shake my head no. How does one begin to answer that question, to unpack what that means, without torching a relationship? Do I “mind” if that meal is a symbol of cruelty, of environmental degradation, of human rights atrocities? I do, but I can only make the decision for myself. Are the iPhone in my pocket and the fast fashion clothes on my body not equally problematic in their own ways? I am not perfect, but I am trying. We must all find our own ways to reconcile how we can live compassionately. Being vegan is mine, but I will admit: sometimes, I wish I was brave enough to stand up boldly before a room and declare that no murder should be served at any table.
Until then, all I can do is prevent it from being served at mine.