Waking Up: Vegetarian to Vegan

by Alisa Rutherford-Fortunati on March 30, 2011

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Over the last six years that I spent as a vegetarian, vegan felt like a small step away. Vegan was, from my perspective, the sister of vegetarianism; close, but with a tumultuous relationship. It wasn’t until one month ago, when I actually became vegan, that I really began to understand how distant these concepts are and why there has and continues to be tension between these two communities.

There were a lot of reasons I became vegetarian, including moral, spiritual, and health-related issues. But at the heart of it, I became vegetarian because I wanted to remove some of the hypocrisy from my life. If I wasn’t willing to kill the animals I was eating, then why was I eating them?

For me, cutting out meat wasn’t that difficult. I simply added in more beans, lentils, healthier grains and veggies. Along with the twenty pounds I dropped after adopting this lifestyle, I began to feel better about my impact on the environment and the animals around me.

Being the only vegetarian in my family wasn’t always “easy”, but I felt like I could walk around with my head held a bit higher… Walk around, that is, in my down jacket and leather shoes, enjoying my Greek yogurt and scrambled eggs.

Some may say that I wasn’t a true vegetarian due to fact that I still wore leather, and now I realize this fact as well, but I accepted the animal products in my life as “unavoidable compromises”. It was just too “hard” to find acceptable footwear, it was just too “hard” to cut cheese, eggs, honey and other animal products out of my diet and life. What if I was traveling? What if my friends invited me over for dinner? What if I went out to a restaurant? Could I get enough protein from being vegan? Enough vitamins? I was full of excuses and rationalizations for my choices.

Then, six months ago, I began WWOOFing on a small dairy farm in Italy. I wanted to understand more about where my food was coming from and the work that went into producing it.  Working on the dairy farm didn’t turn me vegan, but it did make me realize that if you’re drinking milk, animals are dying for you. What do you think happens to the male calves that are born to keep the cows producing milk? What do you think happens when a dairy cow gets too old? Or too sick?

Even after this experience it didn’t set in.

Next I went to a biodynamic vineyard complete with veggie gardens, chickens, sheep and cows. For lunch, we would go into the garden to pick a salad, and then to the hen house to grab an egg. I have never heard such a mournful cackle as when I removed all the eggs from under a hen attempting to nest. She looked for her eggs for over an hour, wandering confused and calling, calling, calling. It was not only this that broke my heart though, but the realization that roosters are sold for meat, and male chicks are ground up alive at hatcheries. If you eat eggs, animals are dying for you.

Even after this experience it still didn’t set in.

Finally I came to Gentle World’s Vegan Education Center, inspired by a friend’s email suggesting it as an interesting place to visit and drawn by the “Veganic Gardening” concept. I thought, “what the heck, why not WWOOF for a week and see what happens?” My mother, who was traveling around New Zealand with me at the time, asked “Do you think you’ll become a vegan?” I replied, mouth full of grilled cheese sandwich, “You never know, but probably not.”

From the second I walked onto the property, my idea of what a vegan was started to crumble. These were not the skinny, wimpy, slightly grubby hippies I had gone to college with. (No offense intended, but many young vegans subsisting on french-fries and cigarettes do veganism as a whole a great disservice.) The Gentle World community members’ faces glowed. I watched one of the 57-year-old community members walk by carrying a twelve-foot ladder in one hand over his head like it was nothing. The food was AMAZING and there were NO animal products on site.

Suddenly my excuses seemed flimsy, the “inconveniences” trivial in comparison to the lives and pain vegan choices would save. After a couple of days, one of my fellow WWOOFers asked to watch Earthlings – a powerful documentary on the abuse animals receive on this planet, narrated by Joaquin Phoenix – and I stayed to watch it with her. I finished the video in tears, nauseated, convinced that there was no such thing as a non-vegan animal lover, and 100% vegan. Well, maybe 100% vegan in diet choices and 60% vegan in philosophy and action.

Veganism is in many ways an evolution; not merely a diet choice, but a complete shift in perspective. As one of my favorite Gentle World volunteers said, “you can’t be vegan on and off – you’re either vegan or you’re not.”

As I look back over the last 26 years of my life, I wonder how it is that it took me so long to stop being lazy and live my life the way I’ve always said I wanted to: with love, kindness and honesty.

If you’ve asked the same questions I have, claimed to be an animal lover, an environmentalist, a health nut, or if you gently remove bumblebees from your house instead of squashing them flat, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself why you’re not vegan and what excuses are left.

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