On Facebook it is always astonishing to me to witness how heatedly debates arise between long-term vegetarians and those who advocate veganism. Vegetarianism is frequently proclaimed as a ‘step in the right direction’ and staunchly defended by so many who obviously are both sincere in their belief that it is ethical, and their assertion that it protects animals. Ultimately each of us must answer to our own conscience and here I try to clarify my own experience.
I must stress here that this post specifically excludes any temporary changes we make in our lives during the period when we have decided to become vegan and are going through a phase of transition. During this period, each of us finds our own way to incorporate the practical aspects of veganism into our lives, a process that depends on our individual circumstances but is generally of limited duration.
For me, vegetarianism was certainly ‘a step’, but was it in the right direction? It was a step that I wavered about for four decades without conviction – decades that I now consider to be wasted years. It was a step taken without my understanding or challenging either my own unchecked speciesism, the scale and extent of our species’ atrocities, or the moral imperative to stop regarding sentient individuals as resources and commodities.
It was a step that did not lead me to veganism – only unequivocal vegan education did that. On the contrary, it was a step that led me to confusion, frustration and misunderstanding. The moment I realised the true facts about my vegetarianism and my many nonvegan choices unconnected with diet, I just couldn’t stop what I’d been doing fast enough. In short it was a step that I would give almost anything to be able to take back.
Going back to basics, a ‘vegetarian’ is defined by The Vegetarian Society as:
Someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits with, or without, the use of dairy products and eggs. A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or by-products of slaughter.
I have several issues with this definition however these are irrelevant in the face of the one glaring factor that utterly fails to provide protection for our nonhuman kin. It’s a diet that defines what one may eat. It’s not an ethical stance, it’s not a moral baseline. It’s a list of permissible substances which one can eat and doing so, be entitled to adopt the label ‘vegetarian’ as defined by this particular organisation.
Vegetarianism, veganism and ‘cruelty free’
Potential confusion is not in any way helped when so many groups and organisations conflate the words ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’, implying that they are similar. The standard definition has become so accepted here in the UK that the supermarkets all stock huge ranges of products defined as ‘vegetarian’, all supported by skilful marketing strategies that promote them as everything from ‘healthy’ to ‘humane’ with few exceptions, each of which contains animal milk in some form – frequently as cheese – and eggs which are often described as ‘free range’. .
Many of us – and I was one – mistakenly assume that ‘vegetarian’ is synonymous with ‘cruelty free’ when nothing could possibly be further from the truth. Yes, I had stopped eating the obvious slabs of bloodied flesh. But what I did not realise was that my dietary consumption was continuing to supply the market with dead flesh, even though I did not consume it directly. And as for my non-food choices…
Who isn’t protected by vegetarianism
The following is not an exhaustive list*. Even assuming that all food-related ‘by-products of slaughter’ like gelatin and isinglass are avoided, vegetarianism, by its very definition, does not protect:
- All mammals brought into existence, confined and used for milk /cheese/ yoghurt/ ice cream/ butter production. Specifically;
- Infants who are taken away soon after birth to be killed as ‘waste’, as ‘veal’ or, if female, raised separately as replacements for their mothers;
- The mothers themselves, forcibly impregnated at regular intervals to keep milk flowing freely, anguished to have their calves removed very soon after birth to maximise their milk supply for human consumers;
- The mothers slaughtered for cheap ‘meat’ when their milk yield drops and they cease to be commercially viable;
- Male animals raised in confinement and used for the repeated extraction of semen required for the customary commercial practice of artificial insemination;
- Mammals used in this way include the cow, buffalo, goat, sheep, camel, donkey, horse, reindeer and yak and their infants.
- Any bird brought into existence and raised for egg production. Specifically;
- Their parents, confined in breeding facilities, producing vast quantities of fertilised eggs that are stored and incubated in drawers in hatcheries;
- Male chicks – a different variety from chicks raised for their flesh – who are killed on hatching by suffocation, gassing or maceration. Macerators are machines that turn live chicks into a bloody sludge which is subsequently used for such products as fertiliser and pet food;
- Female chicks who are de-beaked and confined, their reproductive systems manipulated to produce approximately 10 times the number of eggs their bodies are designed to bear until such time as their production declines and they cease to be commercially viable, whereupon they are slaughtered for cheap ‘meat’;
- Birds used for egg production include chickens, ducks, quail, guinea fowl, pheasants, rhea, ostrich and geese.
- Any individual used for their skin and/or body coverings both in the domestic and import markets. This category includes leather, hide, fleece/wool, silk and fur. Specifically;
- All individuals stripped of their skin to supply leather. By no means a by-product of the flesh consumption industries, but rather a lucrative sideline or in some cases the main event, these include cows, pigs, calves, sheep, dogs, cats, goats, alligators, kangaroos, horses, ostriches, buffalo, oxen, yak, deer, snakes and even many species of fish;
- All individuals brought into the world to be used for their wool. Sheep in particular have been selectively bred to over-produce wool while being exploited in every other way with the slaughterhouse being their only escape. Alpacas, llamas, camels and goats are also victims of this trade;
- All individuals brought into the world to be used for their feathers and down. Feathers are frequently plucked from the living bodies of our victims. Birds used in this way include chickens, geese, swans, ducks, ostrich and others;
- All individuals used in the fur trade. Species used in this way include ox, rabbit, mink, muskrat, beaver, wolves, stoat (ermine), otter, sable, seals, cats, dogs, coyotes, chinchilla, bears, possum and others;
- It includes silk worms boiled alive for their cocoons;
- It includes rabbit angora, which is essentially fine fur plucked from the agonised and screaming bodies of living rabbits;
- It includes cashmere, mohair and goat angora, shorn, combed or plucked from goats kept in controlled confinement until slaughter becomes the most viable commercial option;
- It includes bristles for brushes – frequently taken from pigs, badgers, mink, goats, horses or even squirrels;
- It includes skins, termed ‘slink’ skins, of unborn infants, cut from their mothers’ wombs during slaughter. It should be noted that many dairy cows and also many sheep are pregnant – sometimes in the late stages of pregnancy – when taken to the slaughterhouse. Although statistics are hard to come by, it is accepted that the unborn infant may endure a lengthy and painful death either within the body of their mother while she is being beheaded and dismembered, or having been cut from her womb to be skinned or discarded as waste. Karakul, also termed Persian lamb is a type of lambskin most highly prized if the rightful owner was still an unborn foetus but still valued provided the infant owner was less than three days old.
- All individuals used for testing and vivisection by the chemical, drug and research markets. Although there is a popular myth that this practice is carried out only for ‘medical reasons’, this is a complete fantasy and the number tortured in this way worldwide continues to increase year on year. The species of the victims include cows, sheep, pigs, mice, rats, dogs, cats, primates, rabbits, horses, fish, birds, hamsters, guinea pigs, even zebrafish, fruit flies, and worms.
- All individuals whose body parts or secretions are used as ingredients in drugs, chemicals, toiletries, cosmetics or other non-food ‘products’.
- All bees used to produce honey.
- All individuals confined in an establishment or otherwise used for human ‘entertainment’. These include zoos, circuses, safari and sea life parks as well as a wide range of racing, fighting and baiting ‘sports’. I can’t even start to list the species affected in this way. Probably all of them.
As I mentioned earlier, this list is far from exhaustive and despite my three years as a vegan, I am still shocked from time to time to discover new horrors that our inventive species has devised.
Through the consumer demand that my money created, the knowledge that I was a participant in so many of the practices detailed above is something that I can never escape, but can only try to atone for.
Every human can know only what is in their own heart, but for me, being vegetarian did not in any way align with my rejection of violence and cruelty. It was in direct conflict with my perception of myself as a person, as a mother and as a sentient inhabitant of this planet.
By contrast, veganism completely rejects all use of nonhumans, recognising that we have no nutritional or other need to do this. By being vegan we try – in so far as we can – to ensure that no other individual suffers for our self-indulgence. At last, through veganism, my actions align with who I am, and I can live with that.
Grateful thanks to Christophe Hendrickx for his french translation of this essay.
*List updated 31 March 2017