09/12/2013 10:33 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

Animals as Partners in Our Work for a Vegan World


At the extraordinary Toronto Vegetarian Food Festival this past weekend, I spoke to an emotional audience about some of the residents of Catskill Animal Sanctuary -- animals whose lives and lessons have transformed not only my understanding of animals, but also my beliefs about how best their allies can work on their behalf. My talk made the case that as a movement, we must make the animals our partners in this vital, urgent work. People need to know pigs, cows, turkeys, and chickens the way we know and love (in many cultures), our dogs and cats. Hear me out.

First, Melanie Joy is right about "carnism." In Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Joy describes "the invisible belief system" that supports the choice to eat meat. Our beliefs are so ingrained that most of us deny there is a problem with eating animals, believe eating meat is necessary, and perceive certain animals not as living individuals, but as food objects. While most people care about animals and try to live with compassion, "carnism" influences us to violate deeply-held values every time we sit down to a meal. If Joy is right (and it seems obvious that she is) we must help humanity see food animals as we see our "pets." Both our history as a species and one's own personal history prove that the more we feel connected to someone (two or four-legged), the harder it is to ignore his or her suffering. Knowing cows and chickens in all their remarkable individuality is a darned good way to challenge carnism.

Call me crazy, but many indicators suggest that America's diet is changing: the decrease in our meat and milk consumption in recent years (milk consumption hit a 30-year low in 2012), the changing face of supermarkets as a clear indicator of increased consumer demand for vegan products, attention by the media to stories about the horrific cost of a meat and dairy-based diet on human health and on a planet ready to spit us out, well, like a bad piece of meat. So much more. Equally encouraging is a recent study out of Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute cited by activist, writer, and professor Gary Francione that found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The lead scientist in that study wrote, "Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame." A quick consideration of other 20th century social movements suggests the truth in this finding.

The role of farm animal sanctuaries in what I hope to hell is humanity's burgeoning compassion and shift to plant-based eating probably can't be overstated. Think about it: we are among the handful of people who know pigs, sheep, cows and chickens the way most people know their children. Our job, after all, is to ensure that our animal friends thrive.

The first stop on CAS weekend tours is our pig barn. Here, I lie down in the straw with my friends and give my "individuals within any species are truly individuals" talk. I go on to tell stories that illustrate the differences between pigs Franklin, Nadine, Moses, and others. There are lots of tears during moments like this, and lots of statements that begin with the words, "I had no idea." Some guests "have no idea" that mother pigs live in cells a couple inches wider than their bodies; no idea that the pigs we eat are babies... just six months old. And some guests "have no idea" that the emotional range of pigs mirrors that of humans! Guests either laugh in delight, or, overcome with emotion, weep as Miriam the piglet charges to me, climbs in my lap, and rests her head on my leg when I call her name. At sanctuaries, the animals become their own best advocates. We humans may choose to ignore our own health and the precarious state of planet Earth. We may choose not to look behind the veil at food production -- its violence is too horrific for many of us to see. But we can all see, and enjoy, and appreciate, animals who live in peace and joy at farm sanctuaries dotted around much of the country. It is here, at sanctuaries, where a vegan diet speaks for itself.

Make no mistake: the movement for veganism is the most challenging social change movement in history. We're not asking a segment of the population to change in order to right a wrong. We're asking every single human being to change. And unlike with other social movements, it isn't enough for supporters to sign petitions, vote for a proposition, join a protest, make phone calls. We can do all of this, but unless we adopt a vegan diet, our other efforts ring hollow. There are many other reasons that make it an overwhelming challenge.

And yet I choose to believe we're going to get there. On Monday and Tuesday, I joined Toronto Pig Save and Toronto Cow Save at two vigils to bear witness to slaughter-bound animals. On Monday, 35 of us stood on a traffic island in downtown Toronto. As transport trucks stopped at a light on their way to Quality Meat Packers, we touched the piglets, offered water and consoling words. On Tuesday, we gathered in the street where three cow slaughterhouses are located, and again -- when the truck came in, we could see, and touch, cows just moments before they endured a death so gruesome that words adequate to describe it fail this writer. Yet while it might seem ironic, what I felt in those moments gave me a quiet, unshakeable resolve. From one little pig who, notwithstanding being hot, thirsty, frightened, scratched to hell and unable to move, looked at me with grace and strength, and from the wet nose and blinking eyes of one remarkable cow, I felt the entire animal community goading us on. "Thank you," is what I felt. "You can do it!!"

That little piglet and that sweet cow are both dead now, and millions of individuals as special as they have died since I began writing this piece thirty minutes ago. There is darkness and suffering all around us; there is also light. Moments from their deaths, two beautiful animals touched me, with their grace and forgiveness, as deeply as I have ever been touched. They are gone now, but they believed in our goodness.

I do, too. Go to vigils. Start your own cow, pig, or chicken save group. Get to know sanctuary animals. With our animal partners, friends, let's carry on. We've got a vegan world to make.