A 'Pesky'...tarian?! My attempt at veganism ... the challenges
... by an animal lover
How shall I categorize myself? Do I want to be categorized? Googling terms for the different types of vegetarian or vegan, I'm not sure there's a word for me ... okay, thank you ... that's not what I meant! But it did make me realise there is more to becoming a vegan than you might think, well, more than I'd considered anyway. This is my journey so far.
We never ate a lot of meat, as a family. My dad had some sort of heart attack when I was 16, I wasn't told the details. We were on holiday in Poole, Dorset and, swimming in the sea, he suddenly felt very poorly and spent the whole week in hospital.
Coming home, there were lots of changes in diet. White meat only, eggless cakes, low fat spreads and milk, no more fried food - bacon and onions had been a Saturday night staple. But it didn't phase me. I loved my mum's home-made soya sausages, I was fine with fish and chicken, and I didn't like the texture and grizzle of other meats anyway.
In my 20's I was offered a temporary office job at an animal research centre, typing up notes from the animal tests. I was very dubious as to how I would find this, but too curious to turn it down. I managed two weeks. The word 'carcinogenic' became forefront of my mind. Locked doors with notices on saying 'no admittance' coloured my dreams. At which point I 'chickened' out. The personnel department went to town and offered me a guided tour of the premises in an attempt to change my mind, very carefully and politely excluding me from certain areas. They were obviously keen to portray a 'clean as a whistle' organisation ... but they couldn't hide what I had seen in the notes I had typed.
That experience led me to join the BUAV (the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection).
[You may be more familiar nowadays with the name, Cruelty Free International, a name chosen by BUAV to more closely reflect the global work required in protecting animals from research experiments in cosmetic, personal care and household products. You may have seen their 'leaping bunny' symbol on products, indicating that the company manufacturing them is compliant with Cruelty Free's 'leaping bunny' criteria].
I received educational literature from the BUAV and set about purchasing products that weren't tested on animals. I decided to attend one of their AGMs in London - I wanted to learn more. I remember watching videos of animals in testing facilities projected on to the massive screen at the front of the auditorium. Music accompanied the projections ... the kind of music that really knows how to get your heart strings going and I sat there and fought back the tears, being acutely aware I was surrounded by people who seemed able to hold their emotions together. Yes, I'm a 'sensitive'. I was completely overwhelmed. How on earth could you help animals if their suffering brought out these kind of emotions in you? How did people do it? I had great admiration. But I actually had another emotion, besides the anguish and sadness I felt, which layered itself on top and I was quite shocked. I felt angry. Angry that this organisation could seemingly make matters worse for me by playing music over the top of the suffering, which seemed an unnecessary manipulation of my emotions and was causing me greater distress. Did people generally need to have animal suffering highlighted in such a manner? Surely the people present at the AGM were already animal lovers and didn't need the cruelty spelling out? Anyway, this sensory portrayal of animal suffering had an adverse effect on me, greater than I could have imagined, and I didn't attend any more events, shameful though that is to admit. I already found it hard to contemplate that there were human beings out there who could put animals through that kind of suffering and having it exaggerated in the form of a video put to music was too much to bear. It seemed that the only way I could handle the suffering was to look in the other direction.
I wasn't faced with a decision again until I was in my 30's when my partner's teenage daughter decided to give up meat because she was an animal lover. There was no conversation around the subject however. I was an animal lover too but it didn't occur to me at the time to change my food habits. I thought I was doing enough by eating minimal meat. I didn't educate myself and no one educated me. I just carried on as normal.
By my mid-40s I was almost vegetarian, with increasing thoughts of becoming vegan, but strangely not wanting to take responsibility for the change. I wanted a partner or a friend who would take me under their wing, show me recipes, take me to a vegan cafe or restaurant to try some different food, discuss vegan issues with me. But that didn't materialise. I mentioned to my new partner at the time that I loved vegetables and was thinking about becoming a vegan, but my comment went by the wayside as though I had never uttered a word and I felt cast adrift.
10 years later, in fact earlier this year, I found myself sitting in my car after doing a shop at the local supermarket. The receipt, plus accompanying coupons, was stuffed into the compartment behind the gearstick. My eyes glanced down and fixed on the coupon on top - a money-off voucher for a vegan meal at a supermarket cafe. It was a lightbulb moment. Why was I waiting for someone else to show me how to cook vegan recipes, or take me to a vegan restaurant? I was perfectly capable of doing that myself, I had the internet, I had a mobile phone. I was just being lazy. And that was that. I started looking at recipes online. I joined PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and they sent me a vegan-starter kit. I started watching Youtube videos of Gaz Oakley and other vegan cooks. I found an eaterie with a separate vegan menu. My journey towards veganism had finally started.
["PETA's Mission Statement : People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is the largest animal rights organization in the world, with more than 6.5 million members and supporters.
PETA opposes speciesism, a human-supremacist worldview, and focuses its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time: in laboratories, in the food industry, in the clothing trade, and in the entertainment industry. We also work on a variety of other issues, including the cruel killing of rodents, birds, and other animals who are often considered “pests” as well as cruelty to domesticated animals.
PETA works through public education, cruelty investigations, research, animal rescue, legislation, special events, celebrity involvement, and protest campaigns"].
I thought cutting out dairy products was going to be my hardest challenge. I loved milk and cheese and used it a lot in cooking. But there are so many substitutes nowadays. There's even a substitute for parmesan which is really similar. My local health shop is a fantastic resource - I'd never considered before that I could buy a butter substitute. And I'd always had an aversion to low-fat spreads in the past, they had a strange smell (again, I am particularly sensitive) but the vegan version I found was fine. I've never really been one for baking although I do have a sweet tooth, but I've just weaned myself off most cakes and biscuits, knowing that sugar is not that healthy anyway. I do miss an omelette now and again. But you can actually buy an egg-flavoured salt and make a kind of substitute egg-flavour omelette with gram (chickpea) flour. I like making onion and red pepper bhajis with gram flour which I'd never considered would be easy to make. It all gets easier over time, and with practice, and I'm actually a more adventurous and spontaneous cook for it.
Chickpeas, lentils and pine nuts became favourite substitutes for meat, and I was already in the habit of using Quorn to make chilli con carne and spaghetti bolognese, although I found there was a vegan version (it hadn't occurred to me there might be a non-vegan version). I also found a product called nutritional yeast, or savoury yeast flakes, a natural food grown on molasses and dried, which was great to make a 'cheese flavoured' sauce or sprinkled into soups or casseroles for more flavour. So all in all I was set fair for a vegan diet. Or was I? I hadn't been able to give up fish and found I was eating more because it was such an easy option either to oven-cook or to use in sandwiches or wraps. Up until now, I justified eating fish by telling myself that fish weren't ill-treated like animals. But mass fish farming has its controversial areas and I can't say how all the fish I eat is sourced. So, this may well be the next area of my diet that I look at.
One morning I woke with a start, when it dawned on me that I owned and wore two pairs of leather boots and at least two pairs of leather shoes. I imagined myself wearing the boots with a down-filled padded coat I had recently bought and felt fabulous for a moment. Then I realised it was my 'ego' that was feeling fabulous about it. I remember reading an article about someone who had become an animal rights campaigner and struggled with the whole 'should I give up my already-owned leather products and, if so, when'. She did eventually, but there was definitely a struggle-of-the-mind to be had. Some people who are generally pro-vegan condone buying leather products as long as they are second hand.
Then there's leather seats in cars. To me it seems a ludicrous and extravagant use of an animal product. I can understand why you would prefer leather shoes, for breathability, stretch and comfort and they last longer and look better for longer. But why have leather seats? I've always found upholstered seats in cars durable, more comfortable than leather and even more aesthetically pleasing. And why have leather sofas, they're so cold to sit on.
There's so many different things to consider, but I'm now acutely aware of the suffering animals go through to provide us with leather. Generally, people don't want to know how bad the suffering is for these animals. They don't want to look at the pictures on the front of PETA's magazines. They don't want to look at videos of animal suffering. And what about the world's largest pig farm reported to be being built in China? Who can blame anyone for turning a blind eye? Ignorance is bliss, right?
Coming back, full circle, to my experience at the BUAV AGM, there's still the question of testing on animals for medical research.
The Vegan Society's website brought my attention to some of the non-vegan excipients (oooo .... I had to google that .... 'active substances') used in the manufacture of medicines. And most medications have to be tested on non-humans to get licensed.
The Vegan Society's statement “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose” helped me come to terms with the fact that veganism is a work in progress. And MY journey towards veganism is definitely that. I'm making inroads, at a steady pace. The important thing is not to turn away from the cruelty ... after all, the animals can't. I've had to make myself watch videos and look at pictures of suffering that I can't bear, and let the tears roll down my face. Because, without emotion, who's going to change anything. Finally, I'm facing my fears and educating myself.
[There are many smaller animal charities in desperate need of donations, particularly as COVID has meant the curtailing of their much needed fund-raising Open Days in 2020. One local charity that I support is Hillside Animal Sanctuary in Norfolk, UK, their patron is the actor, Martin Shaw. Their website is a gentle and child-friendly introduction to caring for mistreated, abandoned and factory-farmed animals, although some parental supervision may be advisable].
Organisations mentioned in this article can be found online at:-
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