When I was little, maybe 7 or 8, a family of squirrels took residence in a pine tree in our front yard.
We may have never been aware of their existence, except that one day my brother and I found three tiny, still hairless baby squirrels lying at the base of the tree trunk, still alive.
After informing our parents, we picked them up with some cloth, scrambled up our favorite climbing tree and placed them back in their leafy nest. I have no way of knowing what ever became of those squirrels, but my 7-year-old self believed I was doing a good deed by returning them home. I would have gone to great lengths to help a suffering animal.
At that same home where I grew up, there was a terrible storm one evening with torrential rain, thunder and lightning. Our neighbors across the street had left their dog out without shelter, and being the animal lover I was, I told my dad about how worried I was about the dog’s welfare. The dog’s caretakers had a history of neglect, from my point of view as a child.
After some time, the storm continued, and the dog was still outside, cold, wet and alone. My dad decided to take action on my behalf by calling the police. Sooner or later, an officer showed up at the neighbor’s house. We watched as he or she knocked on the door, spoke with whoever answered, and then we observed the dog going inside. Success.
Children have a natural curiosity of and appreciation for nonhuman animals. Just watch any child observing animals at a zoo. I was no exception. We’re born with compassion for all life, but as we grow into adulthood, we become desensitized to the violence and suffering of other sentient beings around us.
I became a vegetarian in January, and it wasn’t long after that I became vegan. I decided I could no longer support the exploitation and enslavement of nonhuman animals—animals who breathe, think, feel pain and suffer just as we do.
Now I’ve decided I can no longer be scared of calling myself a vegan. The word “vegan” itself can cause a multitude of reactions and judgements. Being vegan does not mean I’ve joined a cult. It is not a radical lifestyle choice. It isn’t about deprivation or sacrifice. It isn’t even about me.
In its most basic definition, being vegan means I do not eat meat, eggs, dairy, honey, gelatin or any other animal by-product. But diet is just the beginning.
Here is the definition from co-founder of the British Vegan Society, Donald Watson, who coined the term “vegan” in 1944:
“The word ‘veganism’ denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practical—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
Of course people have asked me, more times than I can count, “where do you get your protein?” And once, even, “where do you get your calcium?” It’s difficult not to laugh and roll my eyes, but I’ve learned to smile politely and explain as much as I can in a short amount of time. Being vegan is something I take very seriously, so I’ve educated myself not only on animal rights, but the health and environmental benefits of veganism as well.
After all, according to the American Dietetic Association, vegan diets “are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
But I’m not doing this for the health benefits. As a vegan, I have re-sensitized myself to the cruelty to and suffering of the animals brought to our plates, turned into clothing or used for our entertainment.
Authors Bob and Jenna Torres put it better than I can: “To be vegan is to have the guts to deny the fairy tale of the harmless animal product. To be vegan is to deny the psychological distance between the flesh in the Styrofoam tray at the supermarket and the someone—not the something—who that meat came from. To be vegan is to live fully and honestly with yourself about how animals are treated, and it is about your not taking part in that exploitative system to the greatest extent possible. Veganism is not only an affirmation about how we want the world to be, it is a lived form of protest, and our reminding people that everything is not quite right when it comes to how we treat animals.”
My daily choices now reflect my values of kindness and compassion toward all life, and I have never felt happier or more myself. Becoming vegan and reconnecting with my 7-year-old self, who would do anything to help a squirrel, a dog, or any other living, feeling, sentient being—human and nonhuman alike—is the best decision I’ve ever made.
As philosopher Albert Schweitzer said, “The thinking person must oppose all cruel customs, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition and surrounded by a halo. When we have a choice, we must avoid bringing torment and injury into the life of another.”