“I would stop and think of him” – a story of Vegan Evolution
By Rob Branch-Dasch, Guest Contributor
“Up!” I urged myself. “UP!” My legs pushed, fingers clawed, and slowly I pulled my body onto the next ledge. That October I had begun an ethnobotanical expedition of South America, and a few fences and warning signs weren’t going to keep me away from one of the world’s most amazing cultural landmarks. I had scaled half way up the side of Machu Picchu when the altitude and my early pot of Peruvian coca leaf tea shook my brain violently. A shimmering vision of a cow appeared before me, and almost at once her deep, brown eyes had me both hypnotized and paralyzed. I was powerless, able only to stare and listen to her urgent message. Her words still haunt me today; they went something like this: “Mooooooooooooooooo.” Unfortunately I don’t speak cow so probably missed the finer nuances of any detailed instructions. Nevertheless, my new vegan mission in life was clear.
Of course, that’s all complete bunk; coca leaf tea actually helps erase the symptoms of altitude sickness. And if you want to get technical, I’ve never actually been to South America. Unless you count Mississippi. But I have looked very deeply into a cow’s eyes, and do believe that on some species-spanning level we communicated. I suppose the story of how I became vegan really isn’t so glamorous after all.
As you’ve probably guessed I was one of those annoying little kids. Not a bully, and not even one of those obnoxious ones that runs around restaurants screaming and throwing feces. I was worse: one of those weird arty kids who spent more time socializing with trees and animals than with people. I created homemade signs with environmental messages and carried them through the neighborhood, picking up trash. That’s right, an annoying little do-gooder even back then. At that age though I didn’t understand the complex relationships between environment, animals, and health; I just wanted people to stop littering. I was a greenie very early on.
Years later a friend said she was giving up something for Lent and asked what I was giving up. I didn’t share her religion but chose to give up meat as a challenge. Some kind of challenge – I ended up enjoying life without meat. I reconnected with a lot of vegetables; it turned out to be something like joining Facebook. At that time I was living in Hawaii, and the local culture’s focus on health and its acceptance of vegetarian food was inspirational. I did resume eating meat, albeit in smaller quantities. My transition to a healthier diet and lifestyle had begun.
After I moved to Arizona I “bunnysat” for some friends while they were on holiday. I gave their rabbit friend Chloe free run of my home and was surprised to discover how vibrant a rabbit’s personality could be. When Chloe went home I decided immediately to adopt a rabbit from a rescue group. I discovered a friendly little fella that was almost entirely black, except for silver fur on the bottoms of his feet and a tiny goatee. He looked something like a hopping motorcycle jacket and I named him Spike. He changed me forever.
I adopted Spike when he was just six weeks old and searched the internet high and low for responsible care information. This was the mid nineties so there wasn’t as much online, but search results often surprised me with sites about vivisection. What? Animal testing! LD50! LD100! How people could do that to someone as precious as Spike was beyond my comprehension. Many of the sites promoted veganism as a way of reducing animal suffering, so veganism became my goal. I created a list of manageable steps and went about achieving them. I took veganism out, kicked the tires, and it ran perfectly. I had some questions but didn’t know any vegans to turn to; unfortunately I didn’t realize yet that almost any sun-avoiding, underweight, tattooed, highly caffeinated person wearing Chucks was likely to be vegan. I was sure I was doing the right thing but felt like I was on a lone crusade; I needed direction, tips, and some reassurance that being vegan wasn’t somehow turning my brain into a block of tofu.
That reassurance was received when I joined Arizona’s first Farm Sanctuary Walk For Farm Animals. As our group walked through Scottsdale carrying signs proclaiming that farm animals had feelings, other people stared at us. I didn’t just feel different, suddenly I also felt like I was part of a different group, and part of a better future. I began talking to others on the Walk and discovered that most of them were also vegan. They included all kinds of people; some weren’t thin, pale, or tattooed, and none of them had either visible scars or electronic ankle bracelets. It appeared that I could actually be vegan and remain successfully embedded in the omnivore’s world while working to change it. I never looked back.
More than a decade later temptations have come up, they’ve been easily controlled – probably because I’m an ethical vegan and made the transition in manageable steps. The cheeses, desserts, meats, and other foods that some people miss haven’t swayed me. A visit to Farm Sanctuary later was also a big help; there I met a peaceful cow named Hugo. I apologized to him for all the horrors that my previous lifestyle had supported, and promised him that if I were ever tempted by those things again that I would stop and think of him. I also think of a future in which all animals – including humans – can live naturally, peacefully, and sustainably. In such a future, wonderful organizations like Farm Sanctuary won’t even be necessary. That’s because veganism won’t be glamorous, it will simply be normal.
Photo: Farm Sanctuary