Making a difference in the lives of animals

“What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make” – Jane Goodall, an amazing conservationist, primatologist, and personal hero of mine

Last night, I watched the movie “Okja” for the first time. It was such a well-made movie that was both inspiring and incredibly depressing and made me very happy to already be living a vegan lifestyle. If you have not already seen it, I highly recommend it, especially if you are someone who cares about animal rights or has ever considered becoming vegetarian or vegan. Although there are many documentaries out there about factory farms and poor living conditions for animals, this is the most impactful fictional movie I have ever watched on the subject. Even if you’re not that interested in such topics, it really is a beautiful, strange, moving film with a unique story line and fantastic acting, especially on the part of Jake Gyllenhaal. Man, that guy has range.

A vegan vagabond

As an avid traveler who is also vegan and gluten-free, finding food I can eat in foreign countries is not always the simplest task. Sometimes I make minor exceptions because I’m just hungry and need to eat, or because I’m living on a farm and can see exactly how the animals are treated, but for the most part I do my best to stick with my chosen diet.

For some reason, the mere act of being vegan seems to invite people to propose rare scenarios and see how I would respond, asking questions like “What if you were on a deserted island and there was nothing else to eat!?” or “What if a tribe in Africa wanted you to be a part of a ceremony where you had to kill a pig and eat it and it would be rude to refuse???” (It really is amazing how creative people are with these things!) The truth is, I don’t know how I would act because I’ve never been in those situations, so I will deal with them as they come. We all like to think we would stick to our guns in stressful situations, but it’s hard to really know how we would act until such events actually unfold. Although, if I WAS stranded on a deserted island, I’d like to think I’d take after Tom Hanks by learning to create fire, practicing my own dental care, and becoming best friends with a volleyball named Wilson.

Once in New Zealand, I was out on a boat with some friends who were fishing straight from the ocean and I thought “Hey, maybe now would be the time to see if I could be ok with eating some meat, since it was wild-caught, which is how I think all meat eating should be done”. But then my friend started gutting the fish and blood went everywhere and I started crying and decided that if I can’t even watch a fish being killed I probably shouldn’t be trying to eat it. I think it’s  a good idea to re-examine your moral choices every now and then and your reasons for being committed to them, and this was a great reminder for me that I definitely do not ever want to go back to eating meat.

Scare tactics

As with anything in life, I generally feel like scare tactics are not the way to get someone to see your point of view. If you’ve read any of my blog posts ever, you’ll know that I am a huge proponent of not letting fear run your life, so why should it be any different with this? I’ve never been one to post terrifying photos, or tell people that they are horrible for all the crimes they’ve committed against animals – shaming someone is a very quick way to shut them down and lose their ability to hear you openly.

Besides, the truth is that most people already know that animals are not being treated well. It’s old news that terrible things go on in slaughterhouses and unfortunately, that’s just not enough for most people to want to make a change. We watch movies like “Cowspiracy” or “Food, inc.” and get really upset for a week, declaring that we will no longer support the torture of animals and will become a vegetarian! But then life goes on, we remember how good a hamburger tastes, and the impact slowly fades as we return to our normal habits.

We as humans are very good at blocking the bad things out and I am just as guilty of this as the next person. For example, I am not super careful about where I buy my clothes, even though I know that a lot of big companies have horrible practices that harm both people and the earth. It is cheaper and more convenient to ignore those facts and continue shopping wherever I want than it is to do some research and make informed choices about which companies I give my business to. I’m not proud of this behavior and it is something I want to be better at, but like many of us, I am not quite there yet.

I believe the best way to encourage others to treat animals well is not by making them feel bad but to set an example by living a vegan lifestyle and having meaningful, non-aggressive conversations with those who are interested in learning about it. Of course, I would love it if everyone on the planet decided to become vegan! But I’m not going to accomplish that by being hateful and angry – why would I do that when my goal is to lessen the amount of pain in the world?

When people ask me why I am vegan, I love to share with them the many benefits a vegan lifestyle provides! Although I was initially motivated by a desire to do no harm to animals, over the years I have acquired a plethora of reasons why eating a plant-based diet is good for both myself and the earth. For one thing, raising animals like cattle in large numbers in factory farms has a huge carbon footprint and a very negative impact on the earth. And if you are interested in a great book about the link between animal proteins and cancer, check out The China Study.

I know that there are plenty of people out there who insist that they need animal products in their diet to feel healthy and I don’t know their bodies the way they do – everyone is different and has different dietary needs. But there is just so much evidence now that eating a plant-based diet or at least limiting one’s intake of animal proteins is beneficial. And if you are going to eat meat and other products, make sure you know where it comes from and how those animals are being raised and treated, both for your own sake and for theirs. There are plenty of small farms that have good practices and follow guidelines to make sure their animals live good, happy lives and don’t spend their days cooped up in cages being injected with hormones.  

Veganism and zoos

Having worked in and out of zoos since the age of 13, I have often been asked if my work conflicts with my beliefs as a vegan. It’s an interesting question because it clearly assumes that being vegan is a choice of an animal lover whereas working at a zoo is not. Sadly, this is a belief many people hold that is simply not true. Yes, there are plenty of bad zoos out there who do not treat their animals well and are focused mainly on entertainment and profit. But the good zoos of the world are doing so much meaningful conservation work! To this day, I have never worked with a keeper who did not care deeply for the animals they worked with, many of whom they see as family members, the same way most of us do with our pets.

Zoos have the opportunity to provide many animals with a long, healthy life that they would very likely not have if they lived in the wild. In an ideal world, of course, all animals would be wild and free. Unfortunately, animals face a plethora of challenges today and for some that are critically endangered, they would no longer exist if it were not for zoos. Animals in zoos are given habitats free from predators that are full of good food, with enrichment and toys that suit their needs and encourage natural behaviors. These animals are ambassadors for their wild cousins and the hope is that people who view and interact with them will be inspired to take action that will benefit other such animals who still need help.

In addition, many zoos have breeding and release programs that work to revive wild populations on the brink of extinction, such as the California Condor. These programs are only possible because of the money zoos make through visitors and food and souvenir sales and are vital to the survival of so many species. And the summer camp programs that many zoos host teach children to be stewards for wildlife and instill a sense of responsibility to take care of our planet.

I know that not all zoos are doing important work, but a lot of them are and if you are an animal lover, you should find out if there is a good zoo in your area and go support it! One way to know if it is a good zoo is to check if they are accredited – in the U.S., the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) has strict standards on how animals are housed and taken care of that institutions must comply with in order to be a member. Check out what volunteer and conservation programs they have and see if there is a way you can get involved if you want to help out!

Make change that works for you

At the end of the day, there are thousands of actions each of us could be taking to lessen our impact on the earth and its creatures and sometimes it is simply too overwhelming to choose. So many of us are well-intentioned and want to make the “right” choices, but we feel hopeless or lost and don’t even know where to start, so we end up taking no action at all. It is easy to feel like there are so many terrible things going on in the world that our actions won’t even make a dent, so what’s the point in trying? But imagine if every person made even one small change in their life to do less harm – if you can even save the life of one animal, it has made a difference.

I know that throughout my life as both a vegetarian and a vegan, I have had many meaningful conversations with friends and strangers and have been told on more than one occasion that I inspired someone to stop eating animal products, or at least to eat less, and that is something. I may not be able to save all the animals in the world from harm, but at least I know that I personally am doing as much as I can to not contribute to it. Although the transition was challenging at first, I eventually reached a point where being vegan just made sense and was no longer difficult for me to adhere to. Any time I thought I wanted cheese or milk chocolate, I simply pictured the suffering that animals had gone through to make that product just so I could eat something yummy when there were plenty of other options out there, and that was enough to stop my craving.

If you’re thinking that is way too much of a commitment for you, there are so many other ways to cut back on your animal product intake without going cold turkey! Graham Hill has a great 5-minute TED Talk on being what he calls a “weekday vegetarian”, which is exactly what it sounds like: he is vegetarian during the week and eats whatever he wants on the weekends! How great is that? I think we often get caught up in labels and think that if we aren’t fully vegan or vegetarian, then it doesn’t “count” for some reason and we may as well give up. But the truth is, you can design your diet however you want and if you want to designate certain days of the week where you are vegan and certain days where you aren’t, then go ahead! Even if it’s just one day a week that you cut out animals products, that will make a difference (both for the animals and for your health!)  

Then again, maybe being vegan isn’t for you. Maybe you are the kind of person who researches company practices and makes conscious decisions about which businesses to support, maybe you do a really great job of not using plastic cups or containers, or maybe you make a lot of money and are in a position to be able to donate a lot of it to worthy causes (in which case, givewell.org is a great resource that evaluates the efficacy of various nonprofits). You can do all of these things or just one them, or something totally different, but in my opinion, the best change you can make is one that you will actually stick with. So find something that you care about that works for you, that gets you fired up and makes you actually want to make a change, and then do that thing. We can’t do everything, but we can all do something.

To sum it all up…

In the words of the Sassy Gay Friend when he is reprimanding Juliet for attempting to take her life over her love for Romeo: “Look at your life, look at your choices”. Whoever you are, there is SOME change you could make today, even if it is something small, that would help make the world a better place. It may not save the planet, end hunger, or bring about world peace, but if you are able to positively impact the life of one person, one animal, or even one plant, isn’t that worth it?

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