This is the story of my life growing up eating animals and the reasons I stopped. I hope somebody who is where I was might read it and change as I did.
Marshmallow Jellybeans Gumdrops Kirschner
For my second birthday, my parents brought home a Bedlington terrier for my sister and me. We named her Marshmallow Jellybeans Gumdrops Kirschner – a marriage of our favorite candy. We loved our dog as much as any people ever loved a dog but we never made a connection between our family dog and the animals we ate which we also purported to love. I learned not to pull my dog’s tail or pet her eyes, my first lesson in kindness to animals. She died when I was 16. It would take a long time before I realized the importance of extending the respect and love I had for my dog Marshmallow to all animals.
My father worked in a deli in the Bronx, New York to pay his way through college. He used to carve meat for a living. Every Thanksgiving, family and friends would comment on how well he carved “the bird.” It was a “masterpiece” they would say and he was “Picasso.” I grew up in a culture that took pride in eating animals and the art of serving them. Whether we marveled at the redness of the roast beef on rye or shared our pleasure over the tenderness of “white meat,” we ate animals often and without pause — chicken, steak, turkey, fish, bacon, hamburgers, hot dogs, eggs, and cheese.
My father took me fishing often. A traditional American father-son activity, I cherished that time with my Dad. I wrote poems about how he untangled my fishing line and used it as a metaphor for how he untangled my life when I needed his advice. I yearned to see my bobber sink beneath the surface and to feel the tug of a fish at the end of my line. We reeled in and ate everything we could catch. I don’t remember ever feeling sympathy for the fish.
My Goldfish Reggie Jackson
I loved my goldfish. I perched myself in front of his bowl and stared at him endlessly as he swam in circles. One day I came home from school and found him floating at the top of the bowl. I buried him in one of my Dad’s cigar boxes in the backyard. I missed him so much that I dug him up a few days later so I could say goodbye again. It is my earliest memory of feeling sad about the loss of an animal. It reminds me that I had the compassion for all living things at a young age but I didn’t extend it to all animals, likely the result of a lack of exposure to them. I never interacted with a cow, chicken, or pig until adulthood. I wonder how much my decisions would have changed if I had visited a farm sanctuary as a child. After meeting a turkey for the first time, it was unimaginable that I could ever eat one again.
I rarely ever saw the face of the animals I ate – no eyes, ears, or nose. I never thought about them. I saw slabs of unidentifiable meat. I cringed as I cut the veins out of chicken and felt disturbed by occasional blood splotches – a result of a weak stomach rather than compassion. I grew up in New York. We didn’t have any farms near us. As a child, I learned animals lived happy lives on outdoor family farms where they roamed freely. When they got older, they died a painless death. Finally, we ate them because we needed to eat them to survive. It sounded logical and humane. I thought nothing of it. I ate with confidence and no regrets. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
My earliest memory of any concern for the welfare of animals happened when my mother cooked us lobster on New Year’s Eve. I recall her anguish over dropping live lobsters in boiling water. She debated if she should lull them to sleep and let the water heat up or kill them instantly in hot water. I remember my mother dropping them in the pot and hearing a hissing sound. I couldn’t watch. It triggered a new response in me. I felt sad but it didn’t translate into making any changes. She talked about how bad she felt and then we ate them. It would be a long time before I realized what people did to farm animals before they reached my plate.
Still Indifferent and Naive
As I grew up, I became more and more health conscious or so I thought. I exercised regularly and made sure I got my protein every day, which meant eating plenty of chicken and fish. I thought those were my best options so I ate them often and with great certainty and pride. Ironically, I also volunteered for select animal and environmental causes in my community. I reflect on those years now with disbelief and shame that I spent so much time criticizing others for abusing dogs, whales, and other popular animals while simultaneously contributing to the pain and suffering of so many others.
Sitting among hundreds of dog and cat lovers at an annual fundraiser for an animal shelter, a video of abused and abandoned dogs and cats played on a big screen. I scanned the room and noticed people wiping tears from their eyes. They stood up one after another and announced donations of $1,000, $5,000, $10,000, and even $50,000 to end the abuse. And then, in a moment that will forever be seared in my memory because it marks the instant that I made the most important connection of my life, the host announced: “Thank you for your support this evening. Your donations will go a long way to help us end the abuse of animals. Now, please help yourself to the lovely buffet. We have veal, chicken, steak, hamburgers, roast beef, and much more. Enjoy!” Hundreds of people made a beeline for the buffet.
I had seen a few videos recently and read about some of the conditions on factory farms and suddenly it clicked. Why would we eat abused animals to raise money to end the abuse of animals? I remember going home that night and looking into my dogs eyes and asking myself “What is the difference between the pain my dog suffers and the pain any other animal suffers?” I couldn’t answer my question. I was raised to love my dog and eat other animals. “Was that the right thing to do?” I asked myself. And so began the exploration for the truth that changed my life forever.
I have regrets in my life but none more than the fact that I spent so many years contributing to the confinement, abuse, and death of so many animals. I always fancied myself a critical thinker and muckraker but for so long I followed cultural norms and failed to think for myself. I didn’t know about the cruelty on farms, the negative environmental impact of animal agriculture, or the steroids and antibiotics the workers inject in animals that cause people so many health problems. Most of all, I didn’t know I didn’t need to eat animals to survive. Not knowing is not an excuse though. I should have asked more questions and given it more thought. I’m grateful I figured it out and now lead a compassionate life where I try to avoid inflicting harm on animals.
Prior to becoming a vegan, I suffered a devastating back injury. I underwent a series of tests and injections at multiple hospital visits that significantly impacted my outlook on life. To determine the level and location of my pain, I had to remain fully conscious as a doctor inserted a needle into the depths of my back. I never knew such pain existed. I kicked my legs. I screamed so hard that nothing came out of my mouth but air. Although the most physically painful experience of my life, I’m grateful for it every day. It keeps me grounded and it reminds me of the pain billions of animals needlessly endure and it inspires me to continue to speak on their behalf. I will never do to any animal anything I would not want done to myself. That is the creed that guides my life.
I am not perfect. No vegan is perfect. In fact, I often tell vegans that it’s counterproductive to act perfect because their lifestyle will seem unattainable to people who aren’t motivated to be meticulous in every decision. Furthermore, vegans are still responsible for the displacement and death of animals. Tractors kill mice, rabbits, and insects in the production of vegetables and marine life dies as a result of offshore gas exploration and oil spills. Organic farmers use animal manure in their soil. Natural habitats are cleared to make wood furniture and cars often contain leather timing belts. The list goes on and on. It’s important to realize that choosing to become a vegan doesn’t end your negative impact on the lives of animals but it significantly reduces it. Simply by choosing not to eat animals, you can save thousands of animals in your lifetime from the horrors of commoditization. If someone told you that you can single-handedly save thousands of animals’ lives, would you do it? I’m telling you.
Will I Die If I Stop Eating Animals?
No. To the contrary, you should be healthier if you have good eating habits. Since I became a vegan, my blood test results have been immaculate. I don’t suffer from a protein deficiency and my cholesterol and blood pressure are perfect years after the transition. I’ve also retained all of my muscle mass. Do my results mean that you still don’t have to account for B12, iron, and D3 intake? No. Just like you do when you eat everything, you need to ensure your intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and other foods that contain these essential nutrients for optimal health. Are some vegans unhealthy because they eat junk food? Yes. I recommend a full series blood test at least once every year so you can monitor your progress and ensure your health.
I don’t expect you to become a vegan or even a vegetarian overnight. It takes most people some time to change their eating habits and discover new and delicious food. Even if you begin the process on your own timetable, reducing your consumption of animals and animal byproducts, you will make a huge difference in the lives of animals, the environment, and your health. I hope my 30 Ways in 30 Days: A Guide to Compassionate Living motivates you to start.
Many people tell me how much they love animals as they dine on their remains, wear their skin, and pay to see them exploited. I explain to them in a gentle way that if you eat animals, you don’t love animals; you love to eat animals. If you love animals, you don’t eat them; you save them from being eaten, tested on, worn, and exploited for profit. When I made that realization, it hit me like a freight train and I felt awful but it snapped me out of a cultural coma and ended my delusions of compassion. I was not who I thought I was; now I am who I think I am.
Make the Connection
I’m no better than anyone eating animals who isn’t thinking about what they’re doing. I just made the connection sooner and it feels terrific. I haven’t been sick for years. My conscience is clear. I feel sad that people eat animals so I try to help them learn what I learned. Animals belong in their natural habitats. They don’t want to be caged and abused or die prematurely and there is no reason for it to happen. We can do so much better as a people. We don’t need to eat animals to survive. I wonder how something so simple could have escaped me for so long. Time and time again, people who make the transition tell me “I can’t believe I ever ate animals. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Neither do I.
Andrew Kirschner, Ed.D., is a grassroots vegan animal rights activist. He writes a zero-profit blog, Kirschner’s Korner, to help raise awareness about issues affecting the global community to make the world a more humane place. To receive new articles via email, enter your email in the “Follow Blog Via Email” link at the top right of the blog.