“I’m not going to give up cheese. And, I’m not going to wear ugly shoes,” I said to myself after reading a PETA newsletter cover-to-cover over 25 years ago. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals changed my life.
The newsletter arrived just before Thanksgiving. I read it from front-to-back sitting in our wood-paneled family room in a yellow flame-stitched club chair with my tan-striped cat, Corky, cuddled on my lap. It’s 1985 in Evansville, Indiana. It’s a conservative town in a “red” state. Not exactly a hotbed for bucking the system. Raised to fit in, I’m your typical girl next door.
The PETA newsletter showcased at least a dozen black and white photos of animals in cages or on factory farms. The articles on animal testing included pictures of monkeys with electrodes attached to their heads and rabbits with gook spilling from their eyes. All staring out at the camera as if to say, “Help me.”
I couldn’t believe monkeys, rabbits, cats, cows, chickens or animals of any kind would suffer, so I could have shampoo to wash my hair, mascara to lengthen my lashes or a clean toilet to poop in. It was also the first time I connected animals to the food on my plate. If it could be domesticated, it had a good chance of finding a home with my family. Animals were my friends. Dogs, cats, bunnies, parakeets, horses, goats, fish and turtles lived with us over the years. We gave them names. There was Sport, Snowball, Sylvester, Sounder, Candy, Flash, Mucho, Corky and Friday to name a few.
Dumbfounded and horrified, I declared myself a vegetarian and informed my family I wasn’t going to use any products tested on animals, eat meat or wear fur. “How could anyone support electrocuting a little mink in the butt for the sake of fashion and status,” I thought. I don’t remember everyone’s reaction but I do recall a few weeks later my mom showing up at my sister’s bridal shower wearing a brand new full-length fur coat. As her friends ooed and awed over this coat, my heart broke.
It took me 19 years to give up all animal products including meat, eggs, dairy, leather, wool, silk, down and fur. I really didn’t want to give up cheese, and I really didn’t want to wear ugly shoes. During those 19 years I was a haphazard vegetarian. I didn’t eat meat but I did eat fish. Not just sometimes but all the time. All that time, I secretly wanted to be vegan. I also wanted to be the same as everyone else. I certainly couldn’t be both. So guilt took up residence in the back of my mind and quietly reminded me that even when I said I was doing the best I could, I knew I wasn’t.
I was too scared to commit to a life so different from the one I knew — where my mom wore fur coats, we ate meat at every meal and my dad hunted on Thanksgiving with one of his beloved dogs. We live in a mixed-up world where we love animals called pets and eat animals called dinner.
On January 1, 2005, I committed to the vegan life. It isn’t always easy, but I face the challenges it brings knowing I’m living in alignment with my values. If there is a lesson in my story for anyone, it is this: Listen to your own voice — no matter what. And, life without leather and cheese is a joy.