One Small Step Led to an Enormous Journey
By Steven Matarazzo, Guest Contributor
[fusion_dropcap color=”” boxed=”yes” boxed_radius=”1px” class=”” id=””]I[/fusion_dropcap] am Steven and I love animals. I think that’s important to say first. I’ve always loved them. As a child I adored our two cats. When we got our first dog, when we brought home our guinea pigs, when we first brought home Bonnie (our rabbit). I’ve always loved them and each of those moments are very special to me. I would play with them, adore them, draw them, talk about them. They were a huge part of my life. Growing up I just always had a strong connection to them. However, there was never a connection between what I was eating and what I pet at a petting zoo or a farm.
While I’m a vegan now, I wasn’t always that way. I was your average kid eating fast food hamburgers and whatever meat products my family would have for dinner. I never questioned any of it. I was an average adult continuing those actions as well up until fairly recently.
In school, at least from what I could remember, there was never anything taught to us about farming or animals. I must have assumed that what was on my plate died willingly, or died of natural causes before being sold in the store. It never occurred to me what terrible tragedies these animals were put through on a daily basis just because of us. I had never considered going vegetarian. But then again, I never knew why people chose not to eat meat in the first place. Why make that choice in your life?
However I’d been exposed to it since a young age. Since as long as I could remember my Aunt was vegetarian. I remember forgetting this once when I was a child, and while we waited for a holiday dinner at my Grandma’s I asked if she wanted a piece of chicken while she waited outside for something. I was young, and I must have forgotten, and she was quick to tell me “I don’t eat that, I’m a vegetarian.” Although I feel a bit better now about that, as I’m a vegetarian as well (and a vegan too), I never asked myself, why? Those questions wouldn’t arrive until years later.
My path to becoming vegan was not a direct route. In my life I slowly came across more and more people who were vegetarian. Now I didn’t have a personal problem with that. You eat whatever you want, as long as you’re not telling me what to do I could care less with what you eat. But that didn’t last forever. I began a wonderful relationship in the summer of 2009 that would directly change and influence my views on animals, meat, dairy, and much more. This was with my girlfriend Allyson. She was vegetarian when I met her, and would become vegan while we were dating.
Food was just the start
The notion of her not eating meat wasn’t a big deal to me. When we went to eat we would just find places that had something she wanted. Although it meant I had to avoid eating at places I would have preferred at the time (like a BBQ place or something more meat heavy), I was willing to sacrifice that. Even before being vegetarian she would introduce me to new types of foods, Indian cuisine being one of them. Now I’m a wuss with spicy food, I can’t handle it at all, no way. But I was cautiously introduced to this whole new group of food that I now enjoy. Thai food was next, and soon my tastebuds were evolving.
Of course when dating someone who is vegetarian you are bound to eat at some veggie-only or vegan places. I always found something to eat at these places, I didn’t starve, not at all. In fact, the food wasn’t bad. I actually liked what I was eating! It intrigued me greatly that something that was not meat or chicken, could taste like it. It blew my mind.
An early instance of this was eating at the restaurant Veggie Heaven in New Jersey, a vegetarian Chinese food place with mock-meats, poultry and fish. I honestly thought they made a mistake when the brought out my fried rice with pork. Yes the pork maybe tasted a bit closer to chicken or beef, but wow. I honestly thought they served me meat by mistake. Of course my mind realized it was my tastebuds that were being fooled.
A next notable encounter was at Kaya’s Kitchen in Belmar, New Jersey. There I shared an appetizer of fake chicken nuggets with Allyson. They were amazing, they tasted just like chicken. I told her then, if this type of food was available to me, I would be vegetarian. Little did I know, it would only be a matter of time before I eat those words.
More and more we would eat at vegetarian or vegan places during our travels. I admit sometimes I would have preferred to go to a non-veggie place to eat, but each time I sat down and had a meal I enjoyed it. I was missing meat less and less. But that alone would not be enough to change my meat hungry ways.
Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York was the first farm sanctuary I have ever visited. Allyson was doing some writing for school and through a winding road of articles and talking to people she would meet someone involved in protesting the local bear hunts. William was apparently one of these protesters who would get taken away and locked up for protesting, and thankfully quickly released. He and his wife run a small sanctuary in New York and at first I was not too, too interested in going. However we ended up driving there for a visit to meet William and his wife Ellen. Boy did I not know what I was getting myself into.
The surrounding area was beautiful, big trees, open land, hills and scenic views at every turn. A perfect place to have an animal sanctuary, or even just a house. We parked our car and walked around some small trees and shrubs to the entrance to the sanctuary. A photographer was already inside talking to the owners. We we greeted by this friendly bunch and introduced ourselves. A sign was hung outside that asked you not to consume meat or dairy products on the grounds. This would be my first animal sanctuary tour, and boy were my eyes about to be opened wide.
The Safe Haven sanctuary has a good size piece of property to work with. However when I say it’s small, that is only in comparison to the later sanctuaries I would visit. But that’s not a bad thing, not at all. It seems to be a good size for the animals they had living there. As we exited the house we were greeted by the sounds of the goats, chickens and sheep talking to each other. Along the way Allyson would be asking plenty of questions related to the sanctuary overall and by this I learned more than I ever thought I could about these animals.
Our tour started when we were greeted by a large golden retriever. I believe Daisy was her name, she would follow her master during the tour and bark whenever she felt like it. No matter how many times he asked her to stop, she would continue as she pleased, but we didn’t mind. Will spent some time introducing each being. The chickens collected themselves under the wooden bench near the goat pen as we walked by. Cluck, cluck, cluck. They fluttered about sending dirt and dust in the air while flapping their wings. We were told that this was a dust bath, one of the favorite activities of a hen or rooster. It helps keep them cool and they absolutely love it.
I learned about these creatures differently than one may expect. It was not by shockingly violent, cruel videos or in-your-face extremism by others. No, not at all. This was by kind, gentle guiding hands and information based on facts and science. A very direct way of trying to reach me which proved very effective.
Will shared stories of these animals background and their conditions. How they got there, what injuries they may have, why they needed to be helped, etc. Each story got me thinking more and more. One of the most touching items was about the birds. I learned that the turkeys and chickens we see in the stores and on farms today are modified and engineered to be fatter and more meaty for us to kill and consume. Dark or brown feathers are not desirable by the meat industry, so these white “broiler hens” (as they’re referred to) have been in-bred and modified to be this way. White and pale. These animals are simply not designed to live a long life. Factory farms aren’t merely breeding these animals and killing them, although that itself is horrible enough, the truth is much worse.
These factories are engineering these animals to grow faster and be heavier so they can raise them and kill them as fast and efficiently as possible. Less time equals more money. That’s all this is about, profits. The birds are de-beaked and de-toed, a process that mutilates the animal without medical treatment or care, usually using a red-hot heated wire. Why do this? To prevent fighting and attacking. These birds are in such cramped conditions, that fighting is inevitable. They do this to prevent further damage to their final product.
That’s all these animals are to these farms, a profit. The male chickens are destroyed as beautiful little chicks because they are simply undesirable. Someone, somewhere, has decided that they have no use for them. They can’t lay eggs and they are not fat enough to be used for meat. And because of that, they are unceremoniously murdered or left for dead.
Another moving story was about the turkeys. These turkeys suffered the same de-beaking and de-clawing as the chickens. However one of the particular turkeys was doing something that Will pointed out to us. She was making a nest. She wanted so badly to have babies and make a nest, her body was telling her it’s time to do this. However, due to the way she was bred, that is impossible for her. However, this animal was continuing to do as it would in nature, without the knowledge that it’s body has been tampered with to make her mission impossible. In fact some birds are so overgrown due to inbreeding and hormones that they can have difficulty laying eggs. An egg can become lodged inside the animal, eventually rupturing and causing infection, and sometimes death.
The goats were next, Duncan was a beautiful creature who came up to the fence and said hello. One of the roosters clucked around in the goat pen, Will noticed this and mentioned that the hawks in the area would likely be intimidated by the goats and not bother her, although he still kept a watchful eye. A pair of ducks had a nice pen with a little pond. One of these mallards recently had a friend pass away. However they quickly found him a friend in the most amazing way he just wandered onto the farm, likely from a nearby shooting range. At the range these ducks are raised in darkness, so naturally when they open the pen they fly out. When they do they are greeted by an array of bullets from hunters who consider this a sport.
Before we visited the sheep I got to meet a very special animal, and she was really something. The photographer was inside a small barn, down on one knee with his camera lens protruding through an opening between two sliding doors. What was he being so careful on capturing? Was he spying on a sheep? No – they obviously weren’t too shy. Stepping closer to him I got a peek of what animal dwelled inside.
It was a rabbit! A beautiful little white rabbit with black spots. She was sitting quietly in the back of her large room, filled with chewed on twigs and wooden platforms. Her holes and burrows were littered around and you could see some dirt on the back of her legs. She seemed so kind and sweet. Years later it would sadden me greatly when I learned of her passing. However it was clear she lead a happy life, the story on the sanctuary website says she would pass through a tunnel to her other animal friends (a tunnel she dug obviously), but always return to her barn at night. But when I visited she was very much alive. When the photographer stood up we chatted a bit, and the rabbit hopped about in her pen before relaxing in a corner.
We moved then moved onto the sheep. There were four or five of them in a larged fenced in area. Will unlocked the gates and dug through a box coming back up with a huge collection of hay. The sheep knew it was feeding time. He placed the hay in the large feeder and all of them came over for their lunch. Will discussed how when one of the sheep recently passed away, that the others seemed depressed. That got to me as well. People often assume something is not intelligent because it may not have the raw brain power we do, or may not seem to act “smart”. But it was clear to me that these animals were beautiful beings with their own personalities and traits. It’s impossible not to see. Anyone who blindly believes that these creatures are all the same are truly blinding themselves.
Loving animals and animal education are the stepping stones of becoming vegan
Safe Haven was a great experience. But I’m sad to say I didn’t go vegetarian just because of that, although it did make me think a lot about my experience there. I did cut down on my meat and egg digestion. But the next few visits to more sanctuaries would see an even greater decrease. We would soon visit the famous Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. Also Located also in upstate New York, this sanctuary was gigantic and made Safe Haven look tiny by comparison.
This was the first time we visited the place and wow, what a sight. You arrive down a small road and arrive at the owners house. In the distance are gigantic hills and beautiful sights. An impressive solar panel is in the distance, sharing space with some of the resident goats and sheep. Here we got to see even more wonderful animals. Rabbits, pigs, cats, dogs, goats, chickens, and even cows. All happy in their own new environments, truly safe from any cruelty or harm they may have previously encountered. We just happened to catch a tour by Mike Stura, a wonderful person and animal rights activist that takes his title very seriously. I’ll never forget the first part of the tour, or any part of it for that matter. The way Mike spoke to everyone was in a calm but commanding manner and that moved me. Anyone could get in your face and yell at you why you should do this or shouldn’t do that and make you feel bad. But Mike wasn’t that person. You could tell the passion he had for these animals and why he was spending his time taking us on tours and talking to us. He was all about education, and you could tell he deeply loved these animals.
Our first stop on the tour was to meet the chickens and he echoed the stories of the terrible practices done in the industry to these birds. He showed the battery cages on display that held 3 or 4 full-size chickens crammed in a tiny wire cage. This cage was designed purely to fit more birds in one place, meaning more profit for the egg and meat industry. We learned that egg laying hens don’t lay tons of eggs forever. After as little as two or three years they’re ‘spent’ and the production of eggs drops dramatically. It’s at this time where these chickens are “thanked” for their loyal service by being killed. There’s no factory farm that has a section of older hens to live out the rest of their days, they’re slaughtered. There’s no mercy for these animals.
While there a hen laid an egg right in front of us, when asked what they do with them Mike explained that the eggs are fed back to the birds. This was intriguing to me, but as he explained, the birds go through such a hard time to produce the egg, eating it helps them regain some of the nutrients and energy they lost during the process. This would be later echoed at other sanctuaries we would visit. As the day progressed we visited the turkeys, the ducks, the pigs, and then the cows. Each was a real treat, we all had a great time seeing animals and petting them and taking photos.
When we got to the cows seeing the veal crates was shocking. I never was a big fan of veal and I can’t recall the last time I even considered ordering it. Of course after seeing this I would never have it again. But seeing this terrible contraption, made for the sole purpose of constricting the movements of a baby animal was heartbreaking. Thankfully Mike balanced this sad scene calling his big buddy Dylan over, a rescued veal calf, who was no longer a small calf but a giant. Dylan was the largest cow I had ever seen, I did not know these animals could grow so large! Of course they are often never given the chance to. He was sweet and playful and ate greens right out of our hands. Mike walked in the pen and gave him a great big hug.
We left the farm that day and we learned so much, but I am again ashamed to say I was not vegetarian just yet. Although another severe plummet in my animal intake occurred. We would go back to Woodstock again, and afterwards, returning home I stepped out of the car and announced to Allyson that I was never going to eat red meat again. From then on it was a very slippery slope. I had never liked to eat fish, besides the rare tuna fish sandwich – so that was gone as well… So what was left on the meat side of things ? Chicken. That didn’t last long at all either… I’d had veggie and vegan chicken nuggets and patties, and realized that would be very easy to substitute. The last piece of animal flesh I unfortunately consumed was a poultry sandwich at a burger chain.
One small step can lead to an enormous journey
In August 2012 I started my vegetarian experiment. The first few weeks were a bit rocky, but living with Allyson helped. We had always made a lot of meals together and she was always very supportive. I had my weeks of vegetarianism before. I think the most I’ve gone was 2 weeks, usually caving at the office cafeteria and eating a sandwich with meat on it just because there was nothing “better” to have. But this time I tried hard. I knew I could do it if I really tried. Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. Before I knew it I was 3 months in and I felt great. Then six months, and a year almost snuck up on me. I was vegetarian and I felt great. I lost a good deal of weight in the process and I was no longer eating the animals I cared so much for.
I was never a big milk person at all, but I loved cheese. That was going to be the hard thing to give up if I were to go vegan. I thought I couldn’t do it. Just like I thought I could never be vegetarian. However that too, would change. I slowly started trying vegan cheeses – as Allyson went vegan I sampled her food and wasn’t turned off by it. Yes the vegan cheese doesn’t taste exactly like real cheese, but it’s close – very, very close. And there are many different ones to try. And when you haven’t had cheese in a week or maybe a month – it tastes even better. Knowing there were a large variety of non-dairy cheese available helped. But realizing the suffering the dairy cows went through pushed me to being vegan even quicker.
You see cows don’t just produce milk 24/7. No animal produces milk just for the heck of it. They produce milk for their young, for their babies. So how do we get so much milk? We artificially impregnate them. They produce milk, and we steal it from them to sell it. What about their babies? They are ripped from their mother after birth, literally. The baby calves remain so thirsty for their mother’s milk – the milk designed for them but taken from them. The most heart wrenching images of this were in the recent premiere of ‘The Ghosts In Our Machine’. A scene shows a bucket of milk given to a calf. Before he finishes a worker takes the bucket, dumps out what precious drops were left inside, and walks away. The calf turns around to other calves his age. They instantly lock mouths, desperately trying to get more milk from each others mouth.
There are no families on farms, only profits to be had. The female babies are kept in the factories and given the extreme bare minimum of their Mom’s milk that is required to survive. The males are undesirable and often killed or left to die as they become anemic and deficient in the nutrients they need to survive. They are often sold to veal manufactures. These male calves are destined to be tied inside a cramped box, unable to walk around or move, so they stay tender until their untimely death at only a few months old. Never seeing their mother again, never knowing love, compassion or the warm touch of their Mom’s body.
Knowing that buying these meat and dairy products helped support these farms abuse these animals made me go vegan. Vegan butter and cheese were fine by me. I didn’t need the “real” thing just to indulge my taste buds temporarily, while an animal suffers due to my particular taste for an item. There were other options available, smarter options.
While it may seem like I became vegetarian and vegan to help myself, that is far from the truth. Yes it helped me be at ease with my own choices in life, but I did it for them. For those who lack the audible voice to tell the world what is really going on. For those that can’t protest, spread the word, or expose the cruelty in these factories. I did it for them. I did it for the animals.
This post originally appeared on veggiebunny.com.