Not long before COVID-19 changed our lives, my husband, Ken, and I adopted a dog who had been part of a highly publicized hoarding situation in New Mexico.

The newest member of our family, Grace, was very fearful at first. She refused to eat and cringed when my husband approached her. On our daily excursions, she walked with her head down, devoid of curiosity, not interested in sniffing anything. It was as if she had forgotten how to be a dog. Weeks later, when the mail carrier delivered a package, she finally made the sound I had been longing to hear—she barked.

Do you have a tendency to suppress your voice? Do you ever long to say something but find that fear holds you back? I spent a good part of my life staying safe within my comfort zone, rather than speaking the truth. In 2011, I received an e-mail from PETA regarding a contest then named PETA’s Sexiest Vegetarian Over 50. My inner voice immediately said, Do it! Despite the sea of self-doubt and trepidation that surrounded me, I entered—and won. This was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made, and I count other winners of this contest and its variations among my friends.

As a result, I began speaking up in a more public way in behalf of animals. I’ve written three books on the amazing power animals have to help us enjoy healthier, happier, and more extraordinary lives. I was thrilled when they became Amazon bestsellers and won several awards. Once a fearful speaker, I now give presentations around the world, and I even delivered a TEDx talk titled “Life-Changing Powers of the Animal-Human Health Connection.” Perhaps most importantly, the year I was named PETA Prime’s Sexiest Vegetarian Over 50 was when I went vegan—a change I am passionate about and grateful for.

As a vegetarian, I always felt a tug at my heart, knowing that by still consuming animal-derived products, I was negatively affecting animals’ lives and the environment. As a vegan, I was liberated from that guilt and developed a new, healthier, and more joyful relationship with my food.

Like Grace, who finally found her voice (and now uses it regularly), I found that entering this contest helped me discover my voice. I’m so grateful for the opportunity that PETA gave me to go down this path to do what I’m most passionate about—helping animals and the humans who love them.

Author Neale Donald Walsch says, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” It did for me, and I expect it can for you, too. If you have a voice inside you urging you to speak up for animals—whether it’s talking to your family and friends about issues our animal friends face or making the transition from being vegetarian to vegan, as I did—I hope my story inspires you to be a little bolder. I hope you come to recognize that your unique voice, just like Grace’s beautiful bark, can become a celebration of life.

Carlyn Montes De Oca is the award-winning bestselling author of Dog as My Doctor, Cat as My Nurse. Her work has been featured on ABC, CBS, NBC, and dozens of other media outlets. Her two new books, Paws for the Good Stuff: A Dog Lover’s Journal and Paws for the Good Stuff: A Cat Lover’s Journal show us how to harness the power of gratitude through healthy relationships with our animal friends. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband, Ken Fischer, and rescued dog, Grace. Visit Carlyn at AnimalHumanHealth.com.

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Click here to learn who has been crowned this year’s Most Beautiful Vegan Over 50 and about the many inspiring ways they are helping animals.