One of the things that I hear frequently is that educating people, particularly strangers, about veganism, is difficult.
On the contrary, our everyday interactions with people provide us with many opportunities to discuss veganism. This essay will discuss a couple of examples. I will discuss more examples in future essays.
For example, in January of this year, I had to take Robert, one of our dogs, to see a specialist at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. There was a woman—I will refer to her as “Jane” for purposes of this essay but that was not her real name—sitting with me in the waiting area. Jane had a greyhound with her. And, as always happens when two humans are in such a place with their nonhuman companions, we got to talking about what health problems had brought us to Penn. And that led to how Jane had adopted her dog from a rescue group and how our dog was found living under an abandoned car.
After a minute or two of discussing how horrible the greyhound racing industry is, I told Jane that I used to teach at the University of Pennsylvania many years ago, and that Penn was notorious for the horrible experiments, testing, and “educational” procedures that it performed on dogs and other nonhumans. She said that she had heard about Penn’s animal experiments and I mentioned how strange it was that one part of the building was devoted to the application of veterinary medicine to help the animals who were loved by humans and another part of the building was devoted to torturing nonhumans who were not members of anyone’s family. Jane made the point that it really made no sense that we treat some dogs or cats as family members and we treat some dogs and cats as “research tools.”
“How true,” I said. “But in many ways, we’re all just like these Penn vets. We treat some animals as family members and we harm others.”
She look bewildered. “What do you mean? I would never hurt a dog or cat.” I moved the conversation away from dogs and cats and starting talking about cows, pigs, and chickens, and how they are really no different from dogs and cats. There is something very strange about the fact that we regard some nonhumans as family members, as beings whom we love and whose personhood we recognize, while, at the same time, we stick forks into other animals who are no different—morally or empirically—from those whom we love.
Jane was silent for a moment and then asked, “are you a vegetarian?”
“I’m a vegan,” I replied.
“You mean you don’t even drink milk?” she asked.
“That’s right. I don’t eat eggs, or any dairy products.”
“I can understand not eating meat. But what’s wrong with dairy and eggs?”
“Everything. The animals used in the dairy or egg industry are kept alive longer than most of their ‘meat’ counterparts, are treated worse, and end up in the same horrible slaughterhouse.”
Jane looked troubled.
“But isn’t it really hard to be a vegan?” she asked.
“Absolutely not,” I replied. “It’s unbelievably easy and it’s better for you and for the planet, in addition to being the right thing to do if you regard nonhumans as members of the moral community.” I spent a few minutes talking about the health benefits of a vegan diet and the ecological disaster of an animal-based agriculture.
Our conversation stopped for about 30 seconds and then Jane asked, “could you get me some information about how to go vegan?”
“Sure. Give me your email address.” She did.
We talked for a few more minutes about the wide range of vegan foods that are now available, and Robert and I were then called in to see the vet. Jane was gone when we came out. That afternoon, I sent Jane a number of things to read about veganism—both about the moral, health, and environmental issues concerning veganism, and some practical information on nutrition and making quick and easy vegan food. That evening, I got a short reply, “Thanks. I will read these with interest.”
Two weeks ago, I got an email from Jane—the first I have heard from her since sending her the materials. It read, in part: “I am about 60% vegan already and am working toward 100%. I already feel better both as a matter of my spirit and my body. I am using the vegan dog food that you recommended and she loves it! Thanks for taking the time.”
Veterinary hospitals and offices are always great places to start up conversations about veganism. People are focused on their nonhuman companion and are emotionally very open to thinking more abstractly about nonhuman animals as a general matter. I cannot recall ever being in a veterinarian’s office (and we have had up to seven rescued dogs at one time, so we’ve had plenty of experience at the vet’s office) where I did not start up a conversation with someone that drifted to veganism.
Another great place to talk about veganism is on an airplane.
When you order any sort of special meal on a flight, those meals are usually served first. The air host comes over and asks whether you ordered a “special meal.” I always respond, “yes, I ordered a vegan meal with no animal products whatsoever.” Most of the time, the person sitting next to me, or the two people sitting on either side (if I am in a middle seat) ask me whether I have allergies or why I have requested such a meal. This, of course, opens the door to a discussion about why it is that I am a vegan. Depending on the delay between getting my meal and the distribution of everyone else’s, I have had about 20% of the people I talk to ask the air host whether there is another vegan meal when the cart comes around. (Actually, I never start eating my meal until the cart comes around in the event that this happens and there is no extra vegan meal as I will happily give mine to my neighbor and have done so on a number of occasions.)
Some of the best discussions I have had on animal rights and veganism have occurred on airplanes, particularly transatlantic flights. You are stuck next to someone for about 7 hours and people are often very happy to spend at least some of that time talking with the person sitting next to them.
One of my favorite stories occurred several years ago. I was on my way to Paris and was seated next to a woman who had a fur coat. She was not wearing the coat, but had it against her seat. I was reading a copy of my Introduction to Animal Rights, which, at the time, I was thinking of doing a second edition and I was considering changes that I might make. The flight was delayed leaving Newark Airport, so we had some small talk about connecting flights that we had in Paris. She saw my book and asked, “is that a good book?” I smiled and said it was an “excellent” book! She asked me if I was an “animal rights type.” I replied that I was, and she spent the next 30 minutes (during which we were still at the gate) talking about her 2 dogs and how much she was going to miss them while on the business trip to France, etc.
And then she raised the issue of her fur coat. She said, “my coat must offend you. I’m sorry.” She started explaining to me that it was a “ranch raised” fox coat and that the animals were not caught in traps. I explained how “ranched” animals are tortured as much as trapped ones, but I made the point that I found her fur coat—whether “ranch raised” or trapped—no more offensive than a coat made of leather or wool. She seemed astounded by this. “You don’t wear wool or leather?” “No,” I replied, “I am a vegan.”
I spent the next 15 minutes (still at the gate) explaining what veganism is and assuring her that veganism provides a wide variety of exciting and healthful food choices, and is the logical choice for anyone who cares about nonhuman animals. I then suggested to her that the foxes that were killed to make her coat were no different from the dogs that she was very sad to be leaving behind in New York for two weeks. We then started talking about our “moral schizophrenia” that affects and infects our thinking about nonhumans.
The plane took off, the meal service started, I was given my vegan meal and my neighbor asked the air host immediately whether there was an extra vegan meal on board. There was an extra meal and she requested it. We spent the next several hours talking about animal rights and veganism and I confessed to being the author of the book that she had asked about!
About two months after that flight, I got an email from this person. She had given her fox coat to an animal group that would use it in anti-fur demonstrations and she had ordered Introduction to Animal Rights from Amazon.com and had read it. She was working toward veganism, using a technique that I had suggested to her where she gave up all animal products for one meal, then for 2 meals, then 3, and then for all snacking. Another 2 or 3 months went by and she wrote to say that she was completely vegan.
Vegan education is challenging. We live in a culture in which most people assume without thinking that consuming animal products is “normal” or “natural.” Vegan education is time-intensive work; it often means working one-on-one and spending a good deal of time.
But every day life presents us with all sorts of opportunities to educate others and the most effective opportunities are calm, friendly exchanges between two thinking human beings.
And every person who goes vegan is a vital contribution to the nonviolent revolution that will eventually shift the paradigm away from animals as property and toward animals as persons.
Gary L. Francione
© 2008 Gary L. Francione