I used to eat animals. Sometimes. As recently as twenty-six months ago, I made decisions about who I did and didn’t eat based on criteria as flimsy as how many legs a particular animal had, whether he or she breathed through lungs or gills, and how I felt about their personalities after awkward introductions in petting zoos. And that was after I began to examine whether or not eating animals truly reflected my innate compassionate feelings towards them.
Being occasionally vegetarian–or making determinations regarding an animal’s edibility based on how friendly he was–or indulging in a hamburger only if it was “humane certified,” made wading in and out of social settings awkward and it confused the issue of why I cared in the first place. Not just for me, but for people who asked why I did or didn’t eat certain animals. I didn’t have a respectable answer for them. I didn’t have a respectable answer for myself.
Clarity came when my much-younger cousin Jessica shamed me into watching PeTA’s “Meet Your Meat” series on YouTube. She had posted the link on Facebook with the comment “If you eat animals, you should know how they become food.” And that, my friends, is flawless logic. An hour later, with a refrigerator full of animals and their products and no prior concrete plans to explore veganism, I no longer ate animals–period, and I was no longer confused about why.
I later learned that Bruce Friedrich had produced the “Meet Your Meat” series for PeTA, back when he was their Director of Vegan Campaigns. Friedrich further influenced my thoughts on eating animals, after I watched taped lectures where he discussed the importance of making veganism less about moral purity, and more about saving animals. A hard line to draw for many new vegans after their initial Soylent Green “It’s people” moment. I have never met Bruce Friedrich, but a paternity test would confirm him as the father of my veganism. I was beginning to see how being vegan would change everything.
Deciding to give cows, pigs, chickens and fish their proper consideration profoundly impacted my relationship with my own animals. I struggled with the emotional complexities of feeding my pets animals I now believed were just as deserving of life as they were. As I was. After several weeks of smelly doggy-gas and scorn from naysayers, I abandoned vegan diets for my dogs, promising to revisit the issue later when I had done more research and could convince myself and others that I wasn’t doing something wrong.
A quick investigation into commercial animal-food production would’ve allayed my fears that feeding nutritionally-complete plant-based food to my dogs was wrong, but as of this writing, I’m still feeding my animals other animals and making all sorts of excuses for doing it. And while I’m not proud of it, I’m not completely ashamed either. It’s a complicated issue for a lot of vegans, and it’s still something I would like to work towards reconciling someday.
Ingrid Newkirk is an animal rights hard-ass and a co-founder of PeTA. If Bruce Friedrich is the father of my veganism, then Ingrid Newkirk is the mother of my activism. In 1988, Newkirk made the following statement to Newsday: “In the end, I think it would be lovely if we stopped this whole notion of pets altogether,” a quote that is often used by “No-Kill” advocates like Nathan Winograd to malign Newkirk as having a deep-seated agenda to eradicate all companion animal species. Ingrid Newkirk thinks it would be lovely to stop this whole notion of “meat” altogether too, and she has receives similar criticisms for expressing the sentiment.
Discussions about ending the exploitation of farm animals for food raise questions about what their roles might become if they no longer exist solely for the purpose of our eating them. Mental images of tumbleweeds lurching along lifeless pastures, and farm animals relegated to being dusty essays in taxidermy, may lead some people to believe that raising animals and eating them is the kinder alternative. The thing is, Ingrid Newkirk wasn’t suggesting condemning companion animals and farm animals to being dingy museum relics. She was expressing a desire to see our relationships with animals change and grow, and to see their exploitation come to an end. People who see animals as individuals rage against labels like “pets” and “meat,” because terminology that defines animals as commodities makes their exploitation infinitely more marketable. Individuals and corporations who profit from animal exploitation rage against organizations like PeTA because encouraging people to question the social and spiritual boundaries that separate people from animals makes animal exploitation less marketable.
With just one degree of separation between you and “Meet Your Meat” (and people like me), the situation is precarious for those who make their living turning animals into food. With organizations like PeTA reminding us that we like animals–that we are animals–and that the meat industry turns its $142 billion yearly profit on a business model of unfathomable animal cruelty, there’s a lot to worry about. And it’s not just about introducing people to their consciences. When PeTA began targeting fast-food giants like McDonald’s and KFC for their cruel business policies, improvements in animal welfare came fast and furiously throughout the meat industry. PeTA’s reputation for getting in-touch with its crazy carries a lot of cache with animal enterprise executives who would rather not be on the receiving end of PeTA’s sometimes distasteful but exceptionally effective antics. But PeTA’s ability to broker backroom deals for more compassionate business practices is largely due to its targeting animal enterprise in undercover cruelty investigations and going public with it. And there’s PeTA’s lobbying for legislative animal welfare reforms. Industry consultants travel the country giving seminars on how to deal with the problem of PeTA, if it should come knocking at your door.
And it’s stunningly impressive, if you think about it. Combined, Yum! Brands Incorporated (KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut) and McDonald’s Corporation spend $1.3 billion dollars every year marketing their products to consumers. Meat industry giant Cargill, spends $1.8 billion of its $120 billion revenue on advertising annually. PeTA’s entire annual budget–for all campaigns and expenses–is around $34 million dollars annually. Less than two-tenths of a percent of what Cargill alone spends on promoting the exploitation of animals.
So that’s why I not only support PeTA, I write about them. A lot. And affectionately. I counter disinformation about them wherever I find it. There’s absolutely no way we can have a vegan world without them.