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Confessions From a Flawed Animal Advocate

03/03/2015 02:29 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

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I got into a baby powder fight with my sister when I was 5 years old, furiously shaking the plastic bottles all over her pink carpeted bedroom. Two hours later, we found our beloved goldfish floating upside-down, encased in wet white clumps. Goldie was dead.

When I discovered at the age of 7 that hamburgers were made from cows, chicken wings came from chickens, and fish was made of ... fish, I became a vegetarian to help animals. Later that year, I "saved" four white mice who were about to be fed to a snake. Mickey, Minnie, Piña, and Colada, all lived a fruitful few weeks in my aquarium tank before sprouting tumors larger than their heads, and then died. So much for one of my earliest efforts to save animals.

I now declare that I am going vegan about twice a month, usually after being disturbed by the mistreatment of yet another animal in the mainstream dairy industry. And then I'm at a restaurant and spy a cheese plate on the menu and it even includes Gruyere. Oh Gruyere, you are my weakness. I agonize:

Me 1: Wellllll, there is a chalkboard, exposed wood beams and mason jars. That means the restaurant must be sourcing from happy farms.

Me 2: Sure, because animal welfare is always measured in mason jars.

Me 1: But the vegan option is too expensive.

Me 2: Gotcha. Hey, nice HBO subscription by the way.

I rarely make it past Day 3.

I experienced the same agony after I stole my sister's winter boots last year, and later realized they were made of real fur:

Me 1: But... but, if I don't wear them, who will?

Me 2: Well, my sister, probably. And then she won't buy another pair.

Me 1: They'll just go to waste.

Me 2: See prior response.

Me 1: But they're so warm.

Me 2: That makes sense. Fur is indeed how animals stay warm.

Some days I pull on the fur boots, chow down on eggs that I'm pretty sure were laid by the most miserable caged hens in America, read about the hunted baby rhinos I cannot protect and the "at-risk" dogs who I will not save from euthanization today, and wonder what's the point in even trying? I know how much I care, yet can't escape how much I seem to have failed to help many animals, so perhaps I should just opt out...

But if all the imperfect people of the world threw their hands up and did nothing, we'd be in sorry shape.

Case in point:

My super cool, Snapchat-ing, fraternity pledging 20-year-old cousin and I were eating lunch the other day when he said, "You know, I was kinda thinking about not eating pork anymore."

I smothered my excitement because once I deem something cool, it is automatically not cool. I resisted the urge to chime in that most of the 100 million pigs raised each year to be eaten in the U.S. live on factory farms, where mother pigs often live in crates so tiny they are unable to turn around. Worried I might lunge across the table and shake his shoulders as I over-eagerly told him this, I took a huge bite of my salad to shut up instead.

"Did you know pigs might be smarter than dogs?" he asked me. He'd been handed a flyer on the street, and then Googled it. I nodded, casually shrugging my shoulders. "But I'd never become a vegetarian or anything." He sighed, overwhelmed.

"Well..." I swallowed, trying to sound so totally bored.
"You could still ... eat less pig."
"Huh. I guess I could."
"Yeah," I shrugged. "Nobody's perfect, but worth trying at least that."
"Cool."

There is only so much one person can tangibly or mentally commit to in a day.

Accepting this should in no way let those whose policies or lifestyles inflict suffering on animals off the hook. Nor should any of us who are already helping animals stop striving to do more. Rather, the opposite. By accepting that we cannot do everything, let's stop feeling defeated.

Just because I can't adopt every pet in an animal shelter doesn't mean I can't provide a forever home for one. My cousin may be unable to fathom cutting factory farmed meat from his life right now, but it's still great if he can reduce his consumption, and he can still be proud that he helped the environment. If every family of four cut meat and cheese just one day per week, it'd be equivalent to taking their car off the road for almost three months.

I'd be taking the easy way out if I convinced myself that it's best to do nothing because I can't do everything. As social justice leader Ruth Messinger says, "We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed."

You may not have time in your day to fight ag-gag bills, roadside zoos and poaching, but it's still worth making one phone call, sending one email, making one donation, or volunteering with one organization, to join the fight against one problem.

I am not a perfect animal advocate. I'm kinda freaked out by birds -- how can they fly?! I've clomped around in fur boots, and if a block of cheese told me to jump off a bridge, I'd take a flying leap. But I'm doing as much as I can right now, and every day I strive to do better. That's all anyone can do.

Don't try to do everything, because then you'll do nothing. But do something.