In April 2011, I decided to take on board a challenge: to eat only animal-free food for 30 days. A plant-based diet would mean no meat, fish, or flesh of any kind, no dairy products, eggs or honey – no animal ingredients whatsoever. Could I manage it for a whole month?
I was pescetarian at that time – a person who eats fish/sea creatures but no other flesh – and had been for 9 months prior to trying my vegan challenge. Before this I also ate poultry but no red meat (e.g. beef, pork, lamb). This changed after watching a short film entitled “If slaughterhouses had glass walls everyone would be vegetarian“. I witnessed a particular scene which upset me greatly. A man snapped the neck of a hen with his bare hands and screamed at her to die, while other hens flew around them in panic. I cried for three reasons: 1) out of pity for an animal powerless to save her life 2) out of guilt for my part in funding this industry as a consumer buying/eating chicken and 3) out of loss – because I knew I could no longer eat chicken and this was something that I had enjoyed. Were similar horrors bestowed upon other birds used as meat – what about turkeys and ducks? I decided to ditch all poultry and became pescetarian in that moment. I made a conscious decision: I didn’t want to be someone who knew but turned a blind eye. After nine months of being a pescetarian, I pondered why people would go vegan. Vegetarian I understood – but vegan?
I began reading up on the fish, dairy and egg industries to find out about the use of animals there. Of course farmed animals feel pain when they are slaughtered by the meat industry, I knew this from the “Glass Walls” video if nothing else, but what about fish – did they feel pain too? I had never stopped to think about this. I soon learnt that fish rupture under the pressure of being taken from their natural, watery environment; that their eyes burst out of their sockets under the extreme pressure. The practise also impacts countless other animals – dolphins, sea turtles, birds and seals are all commonly trapped in fishing gear and are thrown back dead into the ocean with devastating environmental and ecological effects. What about eggs and dairy – surely that can’t be as bad as the animals are kept alive? I found little comfort. Battery hens are kept in dirty cramped cages. They cannot stretch their wings and they have their beaks cut off to prevent pecking at each other under stress. Free-range wasn’t much better as here hens are packed so tightly into windowless sheds that they rarely have the ability to go outside and roam. Regardless of whether eggs are from caged hens, free-range or organic, all baby male chicks are disposed of on the day that they are born – they don’t lay eggs and are deemed too scrawny to be reared for meat. So they are minced alive or gassed as cost efficient means of killing them. I didn’t know that buying eggs was supporting these practises.
What about dairy? I found out that mother cows in the dairy industry are forced to bear calves who are taken away from them and made into veal. These mothers are wired up to machinery that makes their udders sore. The machines drain away their milk; milk that their bodies made for babies who they will never nurture. I wondered what the outcry would be like if this were happening to human mothers. How would I feel if this were my life? The Animal Aid website was very comprehensive in allowing me to gain an insight into how animals are used by us for our own gains. I came to the quick realisation that just as much suffering to animals exists in these food industries as it does within the meat industry itself. Before then I had always thought of myself as an animal lover but I had taken for granted the impact of my own behaviour on creatures that were out of sight, out of mind. I asked myself – if you don’t believe in suffering then why do you fund it every day? I read more about going vegan and was excited to find out about a vegan challenge via The Vegan Society. I registered for my 30 day Vegan Pledge soon after that and took my first steps toward becoming vegan.
With so many animal-free alternatives to all kinds of traditional meat and dairy products, I found the transition from pescetarian to vegan fairly straight forward. During my vegan month I really enjoyed shopping for vegan foods. Every time I went shopping I would come home with new foods and my diet soon became more varied than it had ever been before. I ate more fresh fruit and vegetables and felt more energised. I spent time experimenting with new dishes and adapting old ones. I found out that I could still have all my favourites like pizza, curry and spaghetti Bolognese – I would just make these using animal-free alternatives like dairy-free cheese and veggie mince. A vegan alternative seemed to exist for almost any item that I could think of. I could eat sausages, bacon, ice-cream, yogurt, custard, biscuits, chocolate, milk, cheese, chicken-style nuggets, fishless-fingers, burgers and “steak” pies – even egg-free mayo. It was all out there. I discovered a lot of great restaurants too, some vegan and some vegetarian with good vegan options. Vegan fish n’ chips is quite something! And I loved going out with new vegan friends for Chinese or Indian.
At the end of my 30 day challenge I reflected on my journey. I had read a few books by this point to formulate my ideas about being vegan and the bigger picture. I decided that I didn’t have good enough reasons to go back to being pescetarian so I kept on eating the vegan way. Week-by-week I learnt more about being vegan and how living this way improves my health, how I can still enjoy my treats and how changing my diet is kinder to the animals and to the Earth. I felt happier than before because I knew I was no longer making others suffer for my existence. I shared my new-found knowledge with my mother who decided to go vegan shortly after me. Like me, she thinks it’s one of the best decisions that she has ever made. Now I apply vegan living to other aspects of my day-to-day life. I don’t buy clothing or other items that are connected to animal suffering, like leather, wool, or down. I choose products that have not been tested on animals. And I don’t visit entertainment attractions where animals are exploited and made to perform, like the circus.
Going vegan is the single most important thing that I could have done for the lives of animals and also for my own health and our environment. I would urge anyone to give it a try. You’ll be surprised by how easy and rewarding it is.
By Emily Bennett
Emily took the Vegan Pledge with the support of London Vegan Campaigns