First, you need a little back story…
Like most vegans, I come from a family of meat eaters, and I ate meat and other animal products during my youth. I was never much of a meat eater, and my mom will tell you how she often had to disguise the meat under flavorful sauces or in otherwise-enticing dishes to get me to eat what they thought was an important part of a healthy diet. I also grew up riding and showing horses, going on long trail rides with friends – and even breaking horses – so eating meat wasn’t the only non-vegan thing going on back then.
My father and brother are avid hunters and fishermen. My uncle is a world-famous horse trainer. I trained horses and gave riding lessons as a teenager. My grandmother bred and sold cats and birds. My mother also bred and sold birds. A freezer in the garage was always stocked with freshly packaged pork and beef from my parent’s own animals. While I never saw my dad cut up a deer, I always knew what that big saw in the garage was used for, and venison was a regular menu item.
On the not-so-green side of things, most everyone I grew up with or knew drove a muscle car, a 4x4 or a Harley – and most of them still do. Summer Friday nights were spent at car races or truck pulls, and taking the quads and motorcycles for a weekend of camping, off-roading and riding was a regular occurrence. There were lots of other fun activities going on, and this was obviously not all that we did, but this is the stuff that is most pertinent to this conversation. I was right there as a willing participant, and enjoying every minute of most of it, so don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not trying to speak ill of the other folks. I’m just confessing my eco sins and pointing out just how different things were back then.
I’d never even heard of someone being vegetarian until my teen years, and I can’t even remember when I met my first vegan. I would guess it was probably in college or grad school (although you will see later in the story that I may have met a vegan when I was much younger and just don’t remember it).
I’ve heard many times that you are either a result of or a reaction to your upbringing; apparently, I’m a reaction…or at least I became one after I figured a few things out.
Okay, back to the turning point in my vegan journey…
(Click the "Read More" link in the bottom-right corner of this post to continue.)
I grew up surrounded by animals that were pets, working animals or livestock, including dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, horses, cattle, buffalo, snakes, chickens and random furry or scaly things that showed up, were injured at one of my dad’s construction sites or were dropped off by folks in town who knew my grandmother had a makeshift animal shelter at her home long before the Humane Society showed up and that my mother carried on that tradition.
That is something I should mention as well: Like plenty of omnivores, my family loves animals. It was a strict rule that all of the animals were fed before the people could eat, and my father would never stand for someone mistreating a cat, teasing a dog of otherwise hurting an animal (except, of course to kill and eat them). My grandmother was a devoted volunteer for the Humane Society for years and, as mentioned, ran an animal shelter out of her home. My mother – just the other day – stopped in the middle of traffic to get out and help a turtle across the street. So, at least coming from a meat-eating family that loved animals probably also helped set me up for those later epiphanies that got me where I am today.
I feel the need to swear that I’m not procrastinating at this point, but the truth is…I am. I don’t like telling this story.
Okay, let’s try this again…
Knowing the little bit that you now know about my childhood, it really isn’t a stretch to figure my parents thought I needed to learn my place in the food chain a little better and stop being so sensitive about this whole killing-the-animals-to-eat-them thing. What better way to convince a country girl of the rightful order of things than to have her raise a lamb in 4-H, right? Plus, this was a common way the other kids were learning responsibility and making some money each year at the county fair. Really, the fact that they waited until I was 11 years old to sign me up is a miracle.
Now, I’m not saying they forced me. They didn’t. They pushed it, but they didn’t force it. I could have said no, but I did want a lamb that I would get to keep in the backyard and play with every day. That didn’t sound so bad. So, I got the lamb and spent the next several months feeding, grooming, exercising, training and hanging out with my little buddy. We went for long walks twice a day and even did things like model for an art class. Like I am with every animal that comes into my life, I was incredibly attached to him, which increased as we continued to spend hours together every day.
Along with my 4-H group, I painted a wooden name plaque in the shape of a lamb that would go on his pen at the fair and took part in other activities that taught us about raising and caring for animals used for food.
Months later, it was time to pack up his things and head to the county fair.
I played around with the other kids, wandered around the livestock area and attached his little lamb-shaped sign to the chain link fence that bordered what I didn’t really realize would be his last home.
My lamb’s name was Cry Baby; the name of the lamb that shared his pen at the fair was Meat Locker.
Auction day came, and we all lined up to parade our lambs through the sawdust one at a time so bidders could choose which lamb would end up in their freezer. We had already done all we could to fatten them up and make sure they were perfectly groomed, so our main job now was to smile, look cute and make those bidders bid.
It still did not occur to me that some well-meaning bidder with the intention of supporting local farming and youth would end up eating my Cry Baby. I knew of plenty of kids whose parents had bought their animals at auction and who never had to part with their furry friends, and I was so sure that my parents were going to do the same thing. In my 11-year-old mind, they knew and understood how much I loved animals and that I would never be able to handle parting with my Cry Baby so that some family could eat him.
That isn’t what happened, and this is where what I remember of that day and my mom’s version of what happened no longer coincide.
First, I will tell you what I remember happening next.
As soon as I realized that someone else had bought Cry Baby, I completely fell apart and was inconsolable. I took him back to the pen and clung to him like I was losing my best friend. Then, we got the news that – unlike other years – we were supposed to take our lambs to the slaughter truck ourselves. I was clearly in no shape to do anything, the least of which being to take my dear, sweet Cry Baby and load him on a slaughter truck to send him to his death – a death in which I was just as much to blame as anyone and that I was now powerless to stop.
My mother arranged for one of the guys I grew up with to take him to the truck for me and seemed honestly and completely perplexed about what to do with me. She and her brothers had raised animals in 4-H every year when they were younger, and to her this was a normal childhood activity – verging on a necessary rite of passage – in a family like ours. I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t comprehend how devastated I was to not only have lost Cry Baby, but to have actively participated in him being killed for food.
For some reason, I have never forgotten her response when I questioned her about how she handled it when she took animals to auction as a kid. She said, “Yes, of course I cried. Then we went and got pizza, and I got over it.”
I don’t include that quote to try to make my mom look bad. It was an honest answer from a frustrated woman with a devastated, bawling little girl on her hands.
Speaking of my mom, it’s now time to add the part of the story that she swears happened and of which I have absolutely no memory. Perhaps it was so traumatic that I’ve blocked it out. I feel that the parts I remember were pretty damn traumatic, so I don’t know why I would block out his one part, but all I can say is that I have no recollection of this happening, but my mother is also not known for lying.
The way my mother remembers it, auction day went almost exactly as I described it above…with one big ol’ exception. When she tells this story it includes members of an animal rights group cornering some of us kids with blown up pictures of lambs being slaughtered and telling us gory details about what was going to happen to the ones we had just auctioned off to the highest bidder. Apparently, we were inundated with disturbing visuals and horror stories until the grownups caught them at it and saved us.
Again, I don’t remember this, so I can’t say whether this had anything to do with my devastation and realization that day or not.
I did not go vegan that day. In fact, I continued to ride and show horses, eat some animal products and wear leather for several years to come. It could also be argued that my vegan journey actually began long before auction day when I was already refusing to eat meat half of the time and picking worms out of tilled earth in the garden to relocate them to a safer place. But this was the day that I recognized my participation in the raising of animals for food and that every bite of meat I took from that day forward would mean that an innocent animal had lost its life because of me.
That was the moment when something inside me finally clicked. My worldview was forever changed, and I knew that I could never go back to how things were the day before. I wasn’t sure exactly what I had to do or how; I just knew I had to do it.
This is why I consider the day that Cry Baby was led away to that slaughter truck the turning point that officially began my vegan journey.