Essays by Inspiring Changemakers
“The cessation of human-caused misery in the animal world would be the most profound event in the ethical history of this planet.” – Victoria Moran, Foreword
The contributors to this book are wide ranging both globally and as practitioners of vegan activism comprising vibrant and compelling forms of activism, including the arts. Contributors are not content to be vegan and stop there. Vegan Voices dispels the notion that being vegan is a merely passive, “personal” “lifestyle” choice. Once upon a time in recent memory, veganism and animal rights often seemed, and often were, separate categories. Even many animal rights advocates tended to shy away from suggesting that an ethical rejection of animal products was a political act, cautiously characterizing it as a personal choice only.
Today a rejection of animal products is coupled confidently with vigorous advocacy for plant-powered, animal-free foods, cosmetics, and household products. Many of these products declare on the labels that they are vegan, plant-based, plant-powered – an amazing advance within the past ten years, one that we activists used to pine for . . . “if only.” But we didn’t just pine and sigh. We pushed and prodded companies, retailers, and people we met at the increasing number of vegetarian/vegan venues to create, request, and purchase vegan products. Today many former “vegetarian” fests have been renamed vegan, with vegan vendors exclusively – something that used to be feared would drive people away. Not anymore.
Compassionate feelings are a necessary, but not sufficient, response to the massive misery of chickens, cows, fishes, pigs, turkeys, ducks, goats and other sentient individuals stripped of their dignity and earthrights for our palates and plates. Compassion is defined in Rae Sikora’s essay as a “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Contributor Curtis Vollmar cites the definition of an activist as “someone who cannot help but fight for something,” a person who is “driven slightly mad by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness, so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.”
This drive can catapult an effort to wean oneself and others off “factory-farm” products in favor of “humanely-raised” products, but as Emily Moran Barwick notes in her essay, many labels like “humanely raised,” “humanely treated,” and “raised with care” lack any formalized meaning, and even when meanings are defined by the farmer or the “humane” certifier, beneath the convoluted legislation and industry propaganda, “humane concepts are based on a faulty premise: that there is a compassionate way to enslave, violate, mutilate, and kill.”
I joined the animal rights movement in the mid-1980s when PETA was just getting started. Through the years I have read and heard many presentations by Ingrid Newkirk, and so I thought, reading Vegan Voices, “well maybe I’ll skip this one, since I already know . . .” I’m glad I didn’t. Ingrid’s story of dining in a fancy restaurant that served lobster when she was in her late teens or early twenties showed me something new. She describes the process of broiling a live lobster and how, when three living lobsters were brought to her table before being tortured to death (unbeknown to her at the time), the lobsters waved their antennae toward the diners, “but I thought nothing of it . . . and we returned to our happy talk.”
But then she experiences an unexpected response within herself, which I will leave to you to read, which she interprets as her subconscious realization that waving their antennae toward the diners was the lobsters’ “cry for help . . . signifying their panic, their fear, their desire to be returned to their ocean home.”
I will leave for you, the reader, to learn what a lobster is put through in a restaurant kitchen even before being broiled to death.
Many of us, even after becoming vegetarian or vegan, are still shocked to learn that in order to “give” milk, cows and goats have to have babies, for whom nature designed mammary milk. The surprise is not just this “obvious” fact of life, but that it wasn’t “obvious” to us to begin with.
Filmmaker Allison Argo, already vegan at the time, in her discussion of making The Last Pig, describes her own remorse in filming happy pigs frolicking in the woods on a “humane” farm, whom she must then follow to the slaughterhouse: “none walked out. But I walked out a different person” she writes. The film features a farmer “grappling with his sense of morality.” He tells her of his horror watching a robin bleed to death when he was a child after the bird had been shot with a BB gun by his friend. This, for Allison, “captured who he had been at his core, before society and culture had reshaped his beliefs.”
A problem with this reasoning is the fact that “society and culture” are not abstract entities. Society and culture are composed of individual human beings who somehow collectively choose to silence the voice at their moral core in favor of feelings and desires that overwhelm empathy and ethics. In my contribution to Vegan Voices, I note the eerie, unnatural silence of chickens in the industrial chicken houses I’ve visited, linking their silence to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) in which the “sudden silencing of the song of birds” being killed off by industrial chemicals emblemizes humanity’s ruthless assault on the natural world and its inhabitants. Do we have the will, individually and collectively, to reverse course?
You’d think we might have learned something since the 1960s, but given the mainstream media’s evasive reportage on the zoonotic origin of the covid pandemic, added to flaccid government responses to global warming, it can be hard to be hopeful. Sociologist Mary Winckler concludes her sorrowful account of her expedition to the heart of the Amazon, where locals are not depressed by how they torture and kill “screaming” animals at a municipal slaughterhouse; rather, they “spoke loudly and laughed all the time.” She wonders if their attitude is a “psychological mechanism to mask” their sense of what they are doing. In her view, taking everything into account, “I cannot have any hope that what is happening in the Amazon can be reversed.”
She continues: “The last great natural area on Earth is being consumed by a combination of meat and soy,” the soy being grown not for human consumption but to build up the muscle tissue of chickens and other industrially-raised farmed animals. She sums up her pessimism in the words of Thomas More in his book Utopia, published in 1516, “I rather wish than hope.”
Contributors to Vegan Voices tell moving stories of their own evolution to becoming vegan, animal rights activists. We’re often aghast at how blind we were, as when Mary Finelli, founder of Fish Feel, notes that when she realized that eating other animals was morally wrong, “the wrongness of eating fish just didn’t register. In fact, I turned without compunction to eating more fishes after quitting eating other animals.”
Thus there is hope. But hope without action is helpless. Hope without courage is as useless as hiding one’s light under a bushel. Although Hope Bohanec, our Projects Manager, has worked for United Poultry Concerns for ten years, I had not been aware of her many previous encounters with angry defenders of animal abuse until I read her essay. She writes, going to the heart and purpose of this book: “My resolve was – and still is – unbreakable, and some verbal and psychological abuse is nothing compared to what the animals endure day after day, year after year, in animal industries. But it does take a certain courage to be an activist. I didn’t realize it then, but activists need not only perseverance but also a good degree of bravery to persist.”
Dr. Joanne Kong, the book’s editor and a prolific scholar, author, and speaker, says in her Afterword to this anthology, “I believe that one day, we will look back upon the mass exploitation of animals as a moral atrocity. Bringing it to an end will be proof of a revolutionary kindness and one of humanity’s greatest acts of compassion.”
So let us get busy. There is work to do and if we don’t do it, who will? Vegan Voices shows us many heartening and effective ways to contribute our individual talents to the passionately growing, global enterprise of animal liberation and vegan living and economics. Today is a good day to start.
KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns. Her latest book is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl (Lantern, 2019).