I am the first to complain about how annoying Facebook is, from the trolls to the unsolicited opinions to the general intrusiveness. At the same time, though, it has helped to bring some new perspectives and great people into my life that I might not have been exposed to otherwise. Amy Taylor is one such person and she came into my life when I was seeking thoughts about the practice of fat-shaming. A vegan RD based in Portland, ME, Amy specializes in working with people on binge and compulsive eating issues, helping those she works with adopt an intuitive eating model. I love her compassionate and thoughtful approach, which is also grounded in common sense and reason. Though Amy is based in Maine, she is able to take clients remotely! Please contact her if you'd like to hear more about her work.
1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?
When I was a child, my family raised chickens and turkeys for food. I vividly remember anticipating their arrival each spring. The mailman pulled into the driveway and beeped the horn, and presented us with a small, brown box with 50 peeping chicks inside. Out came the camera which recorded their first steps on our basement carpet. All summer we fed them leftover sandwich crusts and vegetables through the fence in their coop. They pecked around in the grass when we were outside, keeping us company as we played in the yard. Inevitably, the dreaded day came each fall when they would be slaughtered in the same yard where I had loved them all summer. I shut my shades and hid in my room, feeling very different from the rest of my family. Even though I was so upset that the birds were killed, however, I didn't realize that I didn't have to eat them -- I ate all animal products, just like everyone else, without question. I had never heard of vegetarianism, much less veganism, until much later.
I always loved animals, and as I grew up, I became a dog rescuer. Ziggy the dachshund was the first one I rescued from our local shelter, she was scheduled to be euthanized the next day. The next was Pippin, who was a breeding dog from a puppy mill in Tennessee. Winston was 12 when he was rescued after his owners were evicted from their home, also in Tennessee. With time came a husband and children and declining health for the dogs. Ziggy lived to be 17.
Around this time, my former husband and I became interested in being more self-sustainable. In addition to doing more gardening and canning, I wanted to have some goats for milking (but really just wanted some goats in retrospect) and visited a few farms. The woman at the first farm pointed out a skinny Nubian cross goat and informed me that she was going to go "into the freezer" soon if she couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. I asked her how they killed the goats, and she told me that they took them behind the barn and shot them in the head. She laughed when I asked about euthanization, saying that the vet bills for that were more than the family could afford. In the darkness of the barn I could make out several cages with rabbits inside. She explained to me that they were angora rabbits, used for their hair. In the distance, over a small hill, were white turkeys, most likely the same breed as the ones from my childhood, waiting for the weekend to be slaughtered for the Thanksgiving holiday. The woman at the next farm told almost the same stories (shooting in the head, which ones would be in the freezer, etc.). While we were there, one of the females went into heat and she excitedly let a male go in to mate with her. “She’s a virgin, so she doesn’t know what to do,” she said smiling, as the male chased her around the enclosure.
In researching keeping goats for dairy production, I read a story about a woman who was, raising them for milk as we had intended. I had never thought about the fact that they had to stay pregnant most of the time in order to lactate, just like cows, I learned later. The baby goats were not allowed to nurse and were essentially byproducts, sold as to whoever wanted them. The woman in the story recounted a time when one of the kid goats was sold to a family who quickly loaded him into the trunk of their car to be slaughtered for Easter dinner. That was her a-ha moment and part of mine as well.
After these experiences I decided to not pursue the goat idea. Still (unbelievably) not fully “getting it,” I decided that, since we had a brook that ran behind the house, I would purchase some ducks and we could use their eggs. I ordered online four ducks–two Khaki Campbells and two Cayugas–from a poultry clearinghouse. Just like the chickens and turkeys, the ducklings came in a tiny box. I found out a few days beforehand that they were coming from California…I live in Maine. Even though I was worried about the ducklings when I knew they were in the mail, I still didn’t make the connection that what I was supporting was wrong. I figured that since this is the way it is done, it must be OK. I later learned how horrible that experience is for animals and how inhumane the practices at hatcheries are–that they kill most of the male birds, because they are not considered valuable because they don’t lay eggs.
I began having conversations with friends that I could easily be vegan, but I was afraid of how it would affect my family. We had several favorite dishes that included animal products that we enjoyed making together, and honestly, I was scared that I would cause disruption in the family. I stopped eating pig and cow meat anyway. In the fall of 2012, I saw the movie Forks Over Knives sitting on the shelf at the video store. Although my reasons for being vegan weren’t health-related, as a Registered Dietitian, the topic interested me, and I thought my husband would enjoy it as well. After it was over, he said, “I will do a plant-based diet for a month.” I’ve been vegan ever since.
I became involved very quickly in animal rights activities and began looking for more “farm” animals to rescue. We only had about an acre of land, so it couldn’t be cows, and our town didn't allow pigs, so they were out. I had goats in the back of my mind and began looking through Farm Sanctuary’s animal adoption network. I saw an ad from Christine Egidio, mentioning that she was an ex-sheep farmer, newly vegan, looking to re-home some of her sheep. I immediately e-mailed her to inquire. Two months later, I drove to Danbury, Connecticut, to meet Christine and collect my two new friends, Violet and Clover.
The first question people asked when they heard that I had sheep is, “Are you going to shear them and use the wool?” I would tell them that yes, you have to shear them because humans have domesticated them so that their wool would continue to grow and get matted and attract disease and cause discomfort. They also wanted to know what I would do with the wool. It’s hard for them to accept that I left it outside for the squirrels and birds to make nests. Here in Maine, as I’m sure is true in other parts of the world, it is very “cool” to spin yarn and knit your own hats, sweaters, etc. What people don’t realize is that by and large, “wool sheep” are not allowed to live long lives. Once they are done producing nice wool, they are sent to slaughter, just like any other “farm” animal. They are commodities.
Unfortunately, with the end of my marriage came the end of being able to care for Violet and Clover and the ducks. Christine Egidio agreed to take the sheep back and I drove them to her in November of 2014. Joy Lasa Karuna at Lasa Sanctuary in Ohio took the ducks. All of the animals are enjoying wonderful lives. In my personal life I have been lucky enough to find a wonderful vegan partner. It is impossible to put into words how valuable this has been to me. To have a partner who shares my morals and interests is an experience that I have never had, and I am grateful every day to have found him. Being able to discuss vegan ideologies, discover and cook new recipes together, and attend vegan conferences has deepened my understanding of the complex societal issues surrounding it (and has also been lots of fun!)
2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?
As a child and young adult, I simply did not know that veganism was something that people did. Later, I had a misguided idea that we needed animal products to be healthy. I think exposure to more vegan meals would have been encouraging. There was also an attitude in my peer group that being vegan was "extreme", which didn't help. A major barrier that I had as an adult is the fear of what it would do to my relationship with both my husband and children if I made such a drastic change. One thing that I think is missing in the vegan movement is more support around being a vegan with a non-vegan partner - it is extremely challenging to transition from omnivore to vegan after you are co-habitating or married to an omnivore, especially if you have children. There are some support groups on social media, but a lack of compassion from other vegans is common.
3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?
I have found it very difficult to help someone make the switch unless they are ready. All of those methods of communication would work if the person were close to making the connection. For example, people who are vegetarians I find are generally more open to changing. They've already stepped out of the norm and have at least stopped eating meat. Sometimes they are just uneducated about the cruelty inherent in the production of the rest of animal products (dairy, honey, wool, leather, silk, eggs, etc.) If someone isn't ready to change, no matter how I communicate the message though, it's not going to get through.
4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
The biggest strength is that its ideals are logical - to kill unnecessarily is wrong. There is no valid argument against veganism.
5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
I think that cognitive dissonance is the biggest hindrance. It is so hard for people to change their beliefs about behaviors that they have been practicing their whole lives. I also think that it's extremely challenging for people to transition, once they are in an established relationship. People are afraid of damaging their relationships, and food is a big part of most family's connections. Also, it is very difficult to change a child's diet once they have been eating animal products...and if the partner is not on board it's nearly impossible.
6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
"If it's unnecessary for human health to harm and kill others, then why do we do it?"
7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?
Forks Over Knives taught me that it's possible to be vegan and healthy and Food, Inc. exposed me to the (horrible) reality of animal farming. Although controversial, Gary Francione's writings and talks make so much sense to me and helped me sort out the arguments against veganism. I used to get stuck when asked certain questions that challenged it and his responses to those questions really helped. My partner helps me every day to continue to evolve.
8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?
I haven't felt burned-out yet - I'll let you know when I do and what I do about it! I will say that I don't allow violent pictures on my social media feeds. I either hide or unfriend those that post them regularly - I've seen enough.
9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?
That being larger-sized is not unhealthy. Poor nutrition and lack of activity certainly are, and being larger-sized is sometimes a correlation to those things, but in and of itself, being large generally does not cause disease and it is dangerous to think that it does. The diet and pharmaceutical companies make a fortune on our belief that all big people are unhealthy. I would want others to read Big Fat Lies by Glen Gaesser, Fat Politics, by J. Eric Oliver, and Beyond A Shadow of A Diet by Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel. Also I would like to reiterate that being vegan has nothing to do with health, it's about not exploiting animals. What people choose to eat vegan-wise is their own choice and other people commenting on it is judgmental. Being plant-based and being vegan are two different things -- a lot of people maybe both of those things, but they are mutually exclusive.
10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”
freedom to be myself.