This is a guest post by Toni Shephard. Toni has been an animal rights campaigner for more than 25 years and has worked for PETA, Animal Aid, Viva and the League Against Cruel Sports. In this posts she shares her “journey” towards veganism, which, incidentally, is similar to my own.
I grew up in northern Canada where the winters are so cold that icicles form in your nostrils when you step outdoors. My father was a butcher and eating meat was part of my daily life, as was the knowledge that meat comes from dead animals. Treading through puddles of blood amongst the pig, cow and chicken carcasses strung up in the butchering room was part of my childhood. I didn’t really give it a second thought.
That changed when I was about eight and visited a farm for the first time; I was traumatised. I couldn’t believe the animals I was feeding, cuddling and playing with were going to end up on someone’s plate, and it could even be mine. I cried as I told my mother I didn’t want to eat meat anymore, but she insisted that I would die if I didn’t. At eight, of course, I couldn’t know any different.
Eventually I discovered the truth. At 15, during a school nutrition class, I learned that it is perfectly possible – and in fact quite easy – to be healthy without meat. I swore off meat immediately, all meat: beef, pork, poultry and fish. I went vegetarian. This was a huge step as I didn’t know any other vegetarians – save for the elderly couple who ran a health food shop adorned with paintings of praying hands and the Ten Commandments. I didn’t really identify with them.
No one in my social circle was vegetarian or even sympathetic to the idea; in fact most of my friends mocked me for it. And family gatherings were incredibly difficult as no one knew what to cook for me; I was a burden. Needless to say my vegetarianism didn’t last long; within six months I started eating meat again. I felt bad about it at first, but after a few months eating meat was a normal part of my life again.
Fast forward a year or so and I happened upon a PETA magazine in the local record shop. Filled with images of factory farming it inspired me to give up meat once again, only this time I continued to eat fish. Not because I thought fish were inferior to land animals or incapable of feeling pain, but because I recognised that changing my diet in stages was more likely to produce lasting success. And it worked.
Family gatherings were easier because the host could serve familiar seafood dishes. Debates with my friends were easier because I could point to the atrocities of factory farming in defence of my diet and few could disagree. And if I’m honest it made the transition easier for me – I loved meat and giving it up left a huge hole on my plate. Eating seafood filled that hole while I learned how to cook with lentils, chickpeas and tofu.
I always knew my pescetarian stage was temporary, the first step on my way to vegetarianism, and after a year or so I was ready to stop eating aquatic animals too. I’ve never looked back. Two years later I went vegan, or rather took the first step towards veganism by deciding not to have dairy or eggs at home. Being vegan when out and about was more difficult and it took another year for me to reach that goal. That was 25 years ago and I am still a happy, healthy vegan today.
My story is not unique; all of my vegan friends (bar one) started out as meat eaters and transitioned to veganism gradually. The only exception is a friend who was raised vegetarian; no one I know went straight from meat-eating to veganism, at least no one who is still vegan. Like any lifestyle change, it is easier to do it in stages. And if it’s easier people are more likely to stick with it.
I am not ashamed of my pescetarian past. Although I can never know if I might have stuck with vegetarianism the second time round even without the preceding fish stage, I know it would have been more difficult for me and those around me. Instead I believe my journey made the change look easy and ‘do-able’, and I have two vegan sisters plus two vegan nieces to prove it!
The moral of my story is that reducetarianism, pescetarianism and vegetarianism are all useful steps on the road to veganism – if we vegans allow them to be. I’ve spent the last 25years fighting for animals and believe I have helped many, but if someone had told the 16 year old me that being pescetarian was a cop out, a waste of time, or hypocritical, my good deeds might have stopped there. So I’m glad there were no judgemental vegans in my northern Canadian town back then; I hope there never is.