I took my first steps toward a vegan diet 15 years ago when I stopped eating cows and pigs. Soon after that, I stopped eating birds and fish, and my increasing concern for animal suffering led me to stop buying products from companies that test on animals.
Four years ago, I stopped eating dairy products and eggs and started to call myself a vegan. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make choices that don’t support industries that use and abuse animals. I carry a list of animal-derived ingredients to the grocery store, and I no longer buy products made from wool or leather.
I’ve faced some dilemmas during my vegan journey. What’s the right thing to do about those “whoops” bits of chicken or pig on the plate when the restaurant gets your order wrong? Right after I went vegetarian, I would just pick around the meat, but now I’m more likely to have a polite discussion with the server about adding vegan options to the menu. What about eating an egg laid by a rescued hen living in your own yard? I think it can be viewed as consistent with the spirit of a vegan diet, since it causes no harm to the hen and she wasn’t rescued for the purpose of producing eggs.
Another dilemma is what to do with my “pre-gan” leather shoes, which were purchased before I went vegan. I haven’t yet located nonleather hiking boots and rock-climbing shoes that fit me, so I’m still using the old ones while I search for vegan replacements. I’m not causing any additional animals to suffer by keeping these shoes until they wear out, but I don’t like giving an implicit endorsement to the animal-skin industry whenever people see me wearing them. (A vegan friend of mine handles this by telling people that her old leather shoes are really faux leather.) In a similar dilemma, my husband and I recently debated whether we would buy a well-maintained and affordable used car that happened to have a leather steering-wheel cover.
All vegans have to draw a line somewhere about what constitutes an acceptable (or at least unavoidable) use of animals. Tires, for example, are produced using byproducts from rendered animal carcasses. Medications are tested on animals before they are approved for human use. Even tap water in some areas has been filtered through animal bone char at a municipal treatment plant. No one can realistically be a perfect vegan—but that doesn’t have to stop us from making the best choices that we can.
Exploitation of animals is ubiquitous in the U.S., and it can be challenging for vegans to find cruelty-free alternatives to every product that they use in their daily lives. (“Was that veggie burger cooked on the same grill as the meat patties?” “Were any of the ingredients in this shampoo tested on animals?”) Whenever I must make a choice, I ask myself this question: What helps animals the most? When I’m dining with meat-eaters, I can choose to obsess about the possibility that there are tiny amounts of animal ingredients in my food, leaving the impression that vegan diets—and vegans—are a pain in the neck. Or I can show my friends how easy it is to make cruelty-free choices, which surely helps animals more than worrying about a problem ingredient that may not even be in there.
I know self-described “vegetarians” who eat birds, “vegans” who eat fish, and “animal lovers” who rescue dogs and cats but who eat cows and pigs. Sometimes I’m frustrated by this, but mostly I see it as a good thing. Some of these people will progress to making more cruelty-free choices, and some won’t—but all of them are choosing to reduce at least some animal suffering. I’m happy to see people anywhere along the road to vegan living.
What do you think?