It happens almost every time I say, “I’m vegan,” to a new friend or acquaintance or co-worker… they ask, “Why?”
I kind of have a love-hate relationship with this question. Being vegan isn’t merely about what I eat–or what I don’t eat, for that matter. It’s about who I am as a person, about my values, about ten-plus years of life experiences, about the environment… well, I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself.
Eleven years ago, I arrived in North Carolina for a three-month stint in a survivalist/religious training program. The program was a sister-organization of the Bible college I planned to attend the following year. For three months, I’d be living in a cabin in the woods with no electricity. We did have indoor plumbing, a propane water heater and a propane refrigerator, so it wasn’t total bush living. I attended daily classes with all students and afternoon classes with a special women’s instructor. We worked out together, baked and cooked and ate together, and shared life.
I’ll never forget September 11, 2009–and this time it had nothing to do with the anniversary of 9-11. That day, the training staff had a little something extra special up their sleeves for us. At the lunch break, they told us we had an hour to prepare for an evacuation drill. We snatched tents, sleeping bags, pillows, back packs, and warm clothes and met at our mock extraction point. We were told that food would be provided. Two groups hiked two different routes to a remote camp site a few miles away from the mission base. We arrived at around dinner time, and pretty much everyone wanted to know, “What’s for dinner?”
“Dinner” came walking over the hill, dangling from their feet clutched by Jack & Jim, two program leaders: live chickens.
Betty & Barb walked the women through how to lay the chickens down on their backs, wings spread out, feet still clipped together with plastic bands, and to stretch out their necks. They had knives. We were supposed to kill the chickens. I was supposed to kill a chicken.
And I couldn’t do it. I cried. I couldn’t look into it’s eyes and take it’s life.
Some women had no problem with the killing. It was simple. This was how we got all our food. These animals were the kind worth killing. They weren’t beloved dogs or sweet cats. They were livestock, put on this earth for us to subdue and have dominion over.
I picked the chicken out of the chicken and rice and drank as much hot, strong, sweet Chai as I could pour into my belly that night. I don’t think I slept well.
That was the first experience I had really seeing where food came from. There are truths in life that we know that we don’t really know until we see them for ourselves. I bet there are a lot of people out there in the world like that.
After I give whatever answer comes to mind when I’m asked, “Why are you vegan?” I often ask, “Could you kill for your dinner if you had to?” The responses vary. Some are like I was pre-September 11, 2019: “No, that’s why I try not to think about it too much.”
I didn’t eat meat for a month after that. I was the softie of the bunch now–the one who couldn’t kill. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t look that chicken in the eye and kill her.
I had only intended to stay for three months, but I ended up staying in North Carolina for eleven months. Every month, there was an animal husbandry session. We learned how to raise and care for chicken, pigs, cows, rabbits, sheep, goats, and bees. We learned how and what to feed them, how to treat minor ailments, and how to castrate and kill.
I won’t tell you all the details of the goat slaughter, because I don’t remember all of them. It was in the spring-time. I thought I’d “toughened up” after the September incident with the chickens. But I hadn’t. I ran inside and hid and plugged my ears. But I’ll still never forget the screams of the goats as they died. I’ll never forget seeing their stiff bodies, rigor mortis splaying their limbs out at odd angles.
To answer the question, “Why are you vegan?” without telling these stories never feels complete. I’m vegan because I don’t believe that there is a kind worth killing. All life is valuable–regardless of species. I’d no sooner eat an armadillo than a pig, or a rattlesnake as a cow. I don’t believe that killing a pig makes it pork, or that killing a cow makes it beef; their flesh is their flesh,
Of course, there are humane ways to slaughter animals, just as their are humane ways to kill humans. But the killing I witnessed, even if it was humane, was bloody. It was loud. Those chickens, those goats, and all the other animals we worked with, they suffered for us. And I’m not willing to ask any animal to suffer for me, not for as long as I live.
In the words of Jeremy Bentham (emphasis mine), “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?‘ Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?”
Stay tuned for part two, coming in a day or two.