This piece was published by The Identity-Story Project on July 16, 2016
I am vegan and an animal rights activist. It is a not an identity that I was born into, but one that I actively chose. I became vegan after reading “The Inner World of Farm Animals: Their Amazing Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Capacities” by Amy Hatkoff. There wasn’t one particular section that was pivotal for me. But as a psychotherapist whose work is based on Attachment Theory, I probably was most affected by how powerful relationship bonds are in the lives of other animals.
I will never forget the story about Maya, a former dairy cow. Maya never got to raise any of her own children since calves are by-products of the dairy industry and are taken away from their mothers on the first or second day of birth. All dairy cows end up in the slaughterhouse when they become so worn down and produce less milk: after about four to six forced pregnancies. Maya somehow became a resident at Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal rescue organization. Maya’s longings to nurture her babies were deep-rooted and at this safe haven for farmed animals, when calves also miraculously found their way to the sanctuary instead of a slaughterhouse, Maya welcomed and nurtured the babies. Farm Sanctuary looked for families to adopt the calves. When they found loving homes, Gene Bauer, Farm Sanctuary’s co-founder, would lead the calves away from Maya, who became inconsolable, “rolling on her back and wailing.” Hatkoff writes that Maya has never forgiven Gene and will not allow him to come anywhere near her, her grudge lasting 15 years.
In reading about the intellectual, emotional and social lives of animals who had previously been invisible to my heart, it became clear to me that we animals are all the same in the ways that matter most. We all have feelings, we are all aware of what is happening to us and around us, we all experience fear, we all care about our lives, friends and family. An internal moral compass took shape: if I wouldn’t do “it” to a human, I could no longer do “it” to another sentient being.
By the time I finished the book, I no longer looked at the world only through my perspective or another human being’s perspective. I now always included the perspective of nonhuman animals. The world was never an innocent place, but including nonhuman animals in my moral community makes the world an even darker place. When I walk into a supermarket and have to pass by the “meat” department, I hear the sounds of squealing pigs desperate to get away from the mechanical arm that will take them to their violent death. This is a sensation etched in my soul. When I go to a non-vegan restaurant with friends or family who are not yet vegan and look at the menu, I see the fear in a cow’s eyes and hear her fast breath, her panic to find a way out of a metal box before she is bolted with a stun gun and hung up by one leg until her throat is slit. Going to a conference and sitting near someone wearing a fur coat, I see the terror in a bobcat’s eyes, her paw crushed and bleeding in a metal trap. At a zoo, filming for an animal rights organization the elephants’ repetitive movements that indicate boredom to advocate for the end of zoos, I over hear a mother say, “Seeing these elephants make me want to go to a circus.” I see baby elephants, ripped from their homes and families, tied up and beaten with bullhooks to break their spirit and force them to perform tricks for our entertainment.
By including the perspective of other animals, I became painfully and acutely aware that behind the civilized façade of our lives there lurks a dark and sinister system throughout the world of violence and exploitation toward nonhuman animals. I felt, and can feel, a great shame in being human. I was aghast at how up to this point in my life, I had been unaware of this atrocity and how I had been participating in this horror.
A part of me, strong and resolved, knew I would never again participate in this system of exploitation. And an equally steadfast part of me grew to be an advocate for the rights of these helpless and wordless victims to not to be used as commodities, but to have their inherent worth as subjects of their lives respected and valued. I purposefully use the term “wordless” and not “voiceless” because these animals have voices. They speak their sorrow, their fear, their terror, their pain, their longings. The question is whether we humans hear and respond to their cries.
Being vegan defines how I see the world and how I am in the world. I have to disconnect from all that I see and know to get through a day. My relationships have changed. I go through mental gymnastics/mental weight lifting exercises to remember the power of cultural norms to help me stay connected to people who I love and care about and who continue to participate in this insanity of treating other sentient beings as widgets.
Despite choosing a way of life that is outside the mainstream, I have never felt surer of something nor more grounded in who I am. I’ve always been an anxious person, but I am less anxious since becoming vegan. I am more integrated, making conscious choices to live a life according to my values of compassion and justice. I’m nicer to sales people, telemarketers, my neighbors, and others. I go out of my way to help revive a mouse who was left on the sidewalk by a startled cat. I watch my friend commit to feeding birds and squirrels and it inspires me to do the same. I purposefully carry a spider back outside from a corner in my basement. I choose vegan, fair-trade chocolate so as not to support slavery in any of its forms.
Veganism and animal rights activism has given me a purpose, a meaning that fulfills and drives me. The lives of billions of innocent, vulnerable nonhuman animals depend on me and other animal rights activists to advocate for their lives.
I feel a part of something bigger than myself and I feel a part of a tribe of fellow vegans and animal rights activists. I have never been happier. I was answering questions designed to get to know someone with a friend and fellow vegan. Question Number Nine (out of 36): For what in your life do you feel most grateful? Independently of each other, we both responded that it was being vegan. This choice says we respect the lives of other beings and we work for a world in which individuals and society do not treat others, be they human or nonhuman, as objects to be used and enslaved. Choosing to become vegan and an activist is the part of my identity I am not only most grateful for, but also most proud.
(Professional Website: www.BethLevineCounseling.com)