Recidivism Part 2: Why Feeling “Normal” Matters

We are reprinting some of Ginny Messina’s insights from her research on veg recidivism. This week, we feature “Why Feeling ‘Normal’ Matters.” Thanks to Ginny for all her research and permission to reprint.

There are other important issues that we all know about—giving support, and especially sympathetic support when people are struggling with their veganism. Our community needs to provide a safe place for people to admit when they have made a mistake or a non-vegan choice. We need to honor effort and intention even when perfection (whatever that means) is elusive, to respect the challenges that some people face, and to let them proceed at their own pace.

But the last thing that I want to talk about actually covers a lot of ground in terms of encouraging a commitment to veganism. It’s the importance of making veganism feel “normal.”

A study from Cornell University titled “Who We Are and How We Eat: A Qualitative Study of Identities in Food Choice,” looked at this issue. The researchers found that many people (these were non-vegetarians) expressed a desire to view their food habits as “normal,” rather than “extreme.” This is important for our advocacy because surveys of ex-vegetarians found that many did not like feeling “conspicuous.”

We vegans eat (and live) in a way that is very different from the rest of the population. For some of us, it’s not a big deal. For those who value feeling normal, it might bring considerable discomfort regarding their vegan lifestyle. We can’t change the desire to be normal, but we can take steps to “normalize” veganism.

One way is to provide more vegan options that mimic usual eating patterns. The food industry has done a remarkable job of this and the choices are getting better and more diverse all of the time. Veggie cheeses and meats are much better today than they were ten years ago. It’s easier to find vegan options in mainstream eateries, too, and this is something that vegan activists should support.

I am frequently chastised for my stance on veggie meats—which is that it’s okay to eat them. Recently, a blog reader told me that they are “junk foods” that are “worse than meat” (as she had learned in an online course on plant-based nutrition).

I understand that avoiding these foods is an important part of some plant-based dietary philosophies. But nutrition isn’t a philosophy; it’s a science. I know of no evidence that a few servings of veggie meats per week will harm your health.

And it’s not just about convenience—although that is a big part of the benefit they bring to vegan diets. Just as importantly, these foods and others may make veganism more socially and psychologically comfortable for some people. They make it feel a little bit more like what some of us grew up with. They allow vegans to eat at restaurants with friends without having to ask the server to create something special for them—something that perhaps makes them feel conspicuous and uncomfortable.

We know that veganism isn’t about us. And a little discomfort on our part shouldn’t be a big deal given what the animals endure every day. But we also need to be realistic. Going vegan presents a huge challenge for many people. It’s not just about learning to like new foods and giving up old favorites. It’s about choosing a path that puts us out of step with much of society. Depending on who you are, where you live, and what your social circles are like, it can be alienating.

What we really want, of course, is for vegan to become the norm, not the fringe. But until that happens, making it look normal might be what is needed to help some people go and stay vegan.

Anger, Humor, and Advocacy


Click for larger. Thanks to B Breathed and Jody Boyman!

Some people have asked how I can make jokes when the animals are suffering so terribly, when I’m supposed to be entirely focused on animal liberation. I believe that having a sense of humor is in the animals’ best interest, because not only does it make our example more appealing, it also aids in avoiding burnout. In the cumulative 40+ years we’ve been active, Anne and I have known hundreds of activists who have given up working for the animals – some of whom have even gone back to eating meat! On the other hand, almost all of the successful long-time activists we’ve known – those who have made a real difference in the world – have a sustaining sense of humor.

As a reaction to what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses, very strong feelings are understandable and entirely justified. But I believe that our inability – individually and as a movement – to deal with our anger in a constructive manner is one of the greatest hindrances to the advancement of animal liberation.

Over time, people tend to deal with their anger in different ways. Some take to protesting, some to screaming, hatred, and sarcasm. Others disconnect from society and surround themselves with only like-minded people, seeing society as a large conspiracy against veganism.

I do not believe either of these reactions help to move society toward being more compassionate.

A different approach is to try to maintain a positive outlook and a sense of humor. This makes it easier to continue in activism, as well as avoid self-righteous fundamentalism. In turn, this makes it possible to interact positively and constructively with others, thus making it more likely they will take steps to help animals.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to gain and maintain a sense of humor. One suggestion is to always remember your ultimate goal. In my case, it is the alleviation of suffering. If I allow myself to be miserable because of the cruelty in the world, I am adding to the suffering in the world. More importantly, I am saying that unless utopia is instantaneously established, it is not even possible to be happy. Thus, my goal is inherently unachievable.

To help build any real and lasting change in the world, we need to convince others to think beyond themselves. We must be willing to do the same. Just as we want others to look beyond the short-term satisfaction of following habits and traditions, we need to move past our anger to effective advocacy – i.e., moving from yelling and chanting and arguing to positive, constructive outreach.

If I believe I can’t be happy – that I am a slave to my situation – how can I expect others to act differently?

It also helps to maintain a historical perspective. I realize I am not the first person to be upset by the state of affairs in the world. I can learn from the mistakes and successes of those who came before me.

Few people come to an enlightened view of the world overnight by themselves. It took me over a year after my first exposure to the issues to go vegetarian, and even longer after that to go vegan. If I had been treated with disgust and anger because of my close-mindedness and (in retrospect) pathetic rationalizations, I would certainly never have gone veg.

My story is not unique. Not only does my journey show the downsides of anger and the benefits of kindness and patience, it also indicates that you shouldn’t give up on friends if they don’t react to information as you would like. Shunning friends because they don’t immediately adopt your vegan views not only cuts you off from the very people we need to reach, it also perpetuates the stereotype of the joyless fanatic with no life other than complaining.

“Fighting” suffering is not the only way to make a better world; creating happiness and joy as part of a thoughtful, compassionate life filled with constructive advocacy can be a far more powerful tool for creating change.

As long as there is conscious life on Earth, there will be suffering. The question we face is what to do with the existence each of us is given. We can choose to add our own fury and misery to the rest, or we can set an example by simultaneously working constructively to alleviate suffering while leading joyous, meaningful, fulfilled lives.

In the end, being an activist doesn’t need to be about deprivation, sobriety, and misery. It’s about being fully aware so as to be fully alive.

-Matt Ball


Welcome to 2015!

After a hiatus, we’re back!

We’re in the process of rethinking and then relaunching the CCC infrastructure, including a revitalized blog, a more active Facebook page, and many new materials. We will, of course, continue to offer amazing essays and other resources.

We would love to hear from you with your suggestions, thoughts, and ideas. How can CCC help more people become more effective activists? Please email us at activist (at)

Thanks so very much. We’re looking forward to building a more compassionate world with you!
Matt Ball
Senior Manager for Engagement and Outreach

Bowling without Blindfolds: How We Can Knock Down the Most Animal Suffering

By Ben Davidow and Nick Cooney 

February 27, 2013

Dinner PlatesImagine you’re standing in a dining room before a massive table set with 100 plates. Spread on the plates are all the chickens, cows, and pigs an average American consumes in one year. Americans eat a lot of meat, so the plates are piled high with animal flesh.

If you tally up the plates, you’ll find that 44 plates contain chickens, 30 contain cows, and 26 contain pigs. Given this table, it makes sense that our movement places roughly equal focus and resources on cows, chickens, and pigs. Right?

Wrong. This table represents the weight of the meat Americans eat, but it doesn’t reflect the number of animals they eat.

In place of the table, picture all the actual, live animals that were farmed and slaughtered to produce that meat. Looking at this collection of animals, you notice something strange: there’s a large mass of chickens and only the occasional cow or pig dotting the landscape. Where are all the pigs? Where are all the cows?

Because chickens are so much smaller than cows and pigs, many more of them must be slaughtered to produce the same amount of meat. To get the same amount of meat that can be obtained from a single cow (or four pigs), more than 200 chickens must be killed. That’s why, despite the fact that people eat almost as much pork and beef as they do chicken, they eat many, many more chickens than they do cows or pigs.

Kiev of Farm Sanctuary

For farm animal activists, what truly matters is not the amount of meat that is consumed but the number of animals that are harmed and the amount of suffering caused. Our movement’s outreach efforts, however, are based largely on the illusory dinner table: we tend to direct our resources according to how often animals are consumed, not how many are consumed.

And it’s not only that a larger number of chickens are killed. Chickens also endure more days of suffering than any other farm animal, other than some farm-raised fish. We get this amount by multiplying the number of animals that are eaten by how long each one lives and suffers on a factory farm. Chickens also suffer particularly cruel treatment on factory farms.

When we carry out vegetarian outreach without considering the relative suffering caused by different animal foods, we are bowling with blindfolds: we can’t know where to aim, and our success will be limited. It’s time to remove the blindfolds and knock down as much animal cruelty as we can.

Clementine of Farm Sanctuary

If we see farm animals as individuals, and we want as many individuals as possible to be protected from cruelty, then we should focus first on getting the public to give up eating chickens. Having that focus will enable us to save more lives and spare more suffering.

Consider, for example, that getting someone simply to cut their chicken consumption in half spares 14 animals per year a lifetime of misery. If someone were to give up eating chickens entirely they would spare about 28 animals per year from a lifetime of misery.

At the very least, our outreach efforts should place greater focus on chickens. We should tell people that the first and most important thing they can do to help farm animals is to cut out or cut back on eating chickens.


Ben Davidow is the author of the forthcoming e-book Thinking Outside the Cage: Leading Farm Animal Advocates on How to Have a Meaningful Impact, in which a modified version of this essay will appear.

Nick Cooney is the Compassionate Communities Campaign manager at Farm Sanctuary.


Want to receive blog updates twice a month? Join the Compassionate Communities Campaign to get them delivered straight to your inbox.

dinner plate photo by Dave Le (CC: AB-NY-ND); hen photos by Farm Sanctuary

Compassionate Selling — Feel, Felt, Found

Special Guest Blog By Jaime T. Surenkamp

January 30, 2013

Welcome to February, the season of love and of listening to your heart!

Listening to our hearts can lead us in beautiful directions, but leading with our hearts when it comes to activism is not always the best way to effect change. Selling, on the other hand, is all about persuading or influencing an individual to change or take a course of action. And, that’s our goal — to create change — so we’re all going to take a mini crash course in sales!

Pig snoutAs compassionate salespeople, we should see every interaction as an opportunity to sell someone on a healthier lifestyle and new way of looking at animals. Our “product” is a lifestyle of compassionate choices that lead to better health, a better planet, and a better life for all animals.

If you are new to sales, I’d like to introduce you to a long-standing technique — the Feel, Felt, Found approach. This sales approach can be highly effective in our conversations about animal rights and veganism.

As illustrated in Nick Cooney’s book Change of Heart, studies show that people are more likely to make a change when they empathize with others who have experienced a similar change or challenge.

The Feel, Felt, Found approach opens the door for that empathy.

ListeningFirst, become the listener. As the listener, you validate how the person feels, and you hear their objections or concerns.

Second, you assure them that they are not the only person to have felt this way. Many others have faced similar same challenges, so they are not alone in their thoughts. This is a powerful approach. Again, as illustrated in Nick’s book, people statistically are more likely to make a change based on their knowledge of what others are doing. Validating that someone is not alone in his or her concerns is comforting and persuasive in your communication.

Third, alleviate their fears by letting them know what you and others have found.

Here’s an example. A common response to the idea of becoming vegan is, “I could never give up cheese. I love cheese.” Here is the Feel, Felt, Found response:

I definitely understand how you feel. I felt that way, too. I was a big cheese and Greek yogurt fan myself. Lots of other people have felt that way too it’s probably the number one concern when people consider adopting a vegan diet. What I found is that I don’t really miss cheese at all. And these days, there are so many good plant-based cheese options that it’s really easy to have a cheese pizza or cheesy lasagna that’s delicious. 

I always try to express excitement about my experience as a vegan. This is actually pretty easy because I have found so many things to be excited about. But I digress.

Use the “found” comment as an opportunity to key into whatever you know about the person you are talking to. If they are analytical types, your “found” statement might sound something like this:

Cow in storm

What many people have found is that you lose your craving for dairy altogether because dairy is addictive. Dairy has a protein called casein, which, when broken down in digestion, can act like an opiate, meaning it has a calming effect. This is helpful for a baby calf, for example, because it creates a calming effect and promotes bonding with his mother. Mother Nature is smart: She knows that a calf needs to nurse to grow, so this addictive effect will keep the calf coming back for more. But humans drinking cows’ milk can feel that same calming, addictive effect. Once you’ve removed dairy from your diet, you remove the addiction. Not only will you not crave cheese, milk, or any other dairy, but I found that my skin got clearer and my energy level increased.

Use your best judgment on how to frame the conversation, but you get the drift.

Whatever response you choose, always give the person you are talking with an opportunity to digest what you’ve said and to respond with their thoughts. This is another key ingredient to being a good salesperson — remember when to be quiet and try to talk less, not more, than the person you are speaking with.

Practice the Feel, Felt, Found approach in other aspects of your life so that it becomes natural in your vocabulary. This approach is more than a sales technique; it’s also a useful framework for many interactions in life. When we are discussing being vegan, our non-vegan friends or family can feel threatened or judged, and that can result in combative discussions. By using the Feel, Felt, Found approach, you stay grounded in the conversation and can maintain a non-confrontational exchange of thoughts.

And, on that topic, we shouldn’t ever judge others. We all have non-vegan friends and family who are kind, caring, and loving. It’s important to understand that each of us is on his or her own journey. Not everyone you speak with will be receptive to you, and not everyone you talk with will change. That is not our choice to make. However, being a compassionate advocate, providing information when engaged with someone, and offering help without judgment is one of the best things we can do to be a voice for animals.

So, happy compassionate selling!

Jaime T. Surenkamp is the founder of VeniceBeachVegan and is a compassionate, passionate advocate for animals.


Want to receive blog updates twice a month? Join the Compassionate Communities Campaign to get them delivered straight to your inbox.

photo credit 1: cloud_nine via photopin cc ; photo credit 2 : Bindaas Madhavi via photopin cc ; photo credit 3: ‘J’ via photopin cc 

The 2012 Presidential Election and the Future of Veg Advocacy

By Nick Cooney

December 11, 2012

Regardless of your political affiliation, there’s a lot to learn from the 2012 presidential election – a lot to learn about effective vegan advocacy.

No, neither candidate uttered the word “vegan,” or even addressed the issue of factory farming on the campaign trail. But, as the Los Angeles Times and New York Times reported in the weeks following the election, the political game has shifted permanently as a result of the Obama campaign’s successful use of data analysis and social psychology to win over swing voters in battleground states.

Here’s what it looked like on the ground. First, a team of 50 “data nerds” spent months compiling more than 80 pieces of information about individual voters in swing states – everything from age to household income to voting history to magazines they subscribe to. Using that data, a mathematical model was created to predict how likely any individual voter was to vote for Obama. Special efforts were then made to target hundreds of thousands of voters who, according to the model, were on the fence but who could be persuaded to vote for Obama.

Meanwhile, a team of behavioral scientists was advising the campaign’s get-out-the-vote department on the finer points of persuasion. Canvassers used subtle tactics such as getting likely Democratic voters to sign a written commitment to vote or informing them that most of their neighbors vote – tactics that increased people’s likelihood of showing up at the polls on election day.  The rest, as they say, is history. Swing state after swing state, as well as the general election, went to Obama.

Just what does this mean for the future of veg advocacy? We can ignore these results – or, we can steal a page from the Obama campaign’s playbook and begin making data-driven decisions in our veg advocacy work. To be more specific, we can look to data to figure out who we should focus our veg advocacy efforts on, and how we can best reach them.


With only limited time and money, it makes sense to target our veg advocacy towards those we are most likely to persuade. For example, because young people are more likely to go vegetarian than other age groups, it makes sense to target them. Vegan Outreach focuses most of their leafleting outreach on college campuses for that very reason. Passing out 1,000 leaflets on a college campus is likely to create far more vegetarians and meat-reducers than passing out the same number of leaflets on a city street.

Another benefit of focusing on young people is that when they go vegetarian, they really go vegetarian. A 2009 study from Europe – but likely applicable to the United States – revealed that young people who go vegetarian are much more likely to follow an actual vegetarian diet, free of chicken and fish, than older individuals who say they have become vegetarian.

Similarly, women are more likely to go vegetarian than men. In the United States and Europe, both female vegetarians and female meat-reducers outnumber their male counterparts by a ration of 2:1. Some recent testing by The Humane League found that online vegetarian advertisements shown only to women were about three times more effective than ads shown to men and women equally. Therefore, it makes sense to focus our veg advocacy on women (especially young women) as much as possible.

Apart from age and gender, there are, no doubt, other demographic groups who are more likely to go vegetarian. Art students, fans of punk and indie music, Mac users, and people with tattoos are a few examples. The more we target our veg outreach efforts towards those groups, the more animals we will save.


How do we become more effective in persuading individuals to make a change? Thankfully, the very research the Obama campaign relied on is available for anyone to read. Change Of Heart, available in the Farm Sanctuary store, discusses that research and how animal advocates can apply it to their work. Classics in the field of persuasion science, such as Robert Cialdini’s Influence, may also be of interest.

Even beyond the specifics of how and why, perhaps the most basic lessons veg advocates can take from the presidential election is that it pays to understand our audience. It pays big time. And understanding our audience does not mean making assumptions about what will motivate them. It doesn’t mean guessing which groups are most likely to care. Understanding our audience means looking at the data and then making data-based decisions. If it can shift the tide in a multibillion dollar election campaign, then it can certainly shift the tide towards a more compassionate world as well.


Want to receive blog updates twice a month? Join the Compassionate Communities Campaign to get them delivered straight to your inbox.

Best advice for animal activists – part one

July 30, 2012

Farm Sanctuary’s Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives Bruce Friedrich was recently asked to share his “top three pieces of advice for aspiring and fellow activists to become more effective.” His response will appear in the forthcoming book Strategic Compassion by Ben Davidow.

Matt Ball and I wrote a book about how advocates can be maximally effective for animals, The Animal Activist’s Handbook. Peter Singer says about the book: “Rarely have so few pages contained so much intelligence and good advice. Get it, read it, and act on it. Now.” Taken from our book, my top three recommendations are:

1. Remember the multiplier

If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you’re saving dozens of land animals and even more sea animals every single year. That’s something to be proud of, and it’s a deeply powerful statement in support of compassion and mercy and against cruelty and misery. Amazingly, if you convince one more person to adopt a vegetarian diet, in that moment you’ve doubled your lifetime effect as a vegetarian. So we should all be doing what we can to influence others to adopt a vegetarian diet, including little things like wearing vegetarian T-shirts and putting “Happy Vegetarian” bumper stickers on our cars and laptops, and bigger things like getting active through Vegan Outreach’s Adopt a College campaign or Farm Sanctuary’s Compassionate Communities Campaign.

2. Pretend you’re Socrates

Socrates asked questions of those with whom he was engaged to help others see that their current moral paradigms supported his position. We should also do precisely that. No one wants to support cruelty to animals, and yet anyone who is eating meat is supporting egregious abuse. So our best way of engaging with people is to help them question how, when eating meat, their values and actions are not in alignment. All other arguments are a diversion from this central and winning argument—which should be framed as a discussion, not a diatribe.

3. Don’t get discouraged

As Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s remarkable to think that for most of human history, humans have considered it acceptable for some humans to hold others as slaves, and for women to be—for all intents and purposes—the property of their husbands. Think for a moment about how quickly that understanding has completely changed in the developed world—in just a few generations. There’s so much animal suffering that it’s easy to get discouraged, but we shouldn’t: We have science, logic, and morality on our side; it’s only a matter of time before we win.


Want to receive blog updates twice a month? Join the Compassionate Communities Campaign to get them delivered straight to your inbox.

Best advice for animal activists – part two

July 30, 2012

Farm Sanctuary’s Compassionate Communities Campaign Manager Nick Cooney was recently asked to share his “top three pieces of advice for aspiring and fellow activists to help them become more effective” in 400 words. The following is his advice, which will appear in the forthcoming book Strategic Compassion by Ben Davidow.

1. Think like a businessperson

It is wonderful to care about animals.  And, if we do care, we certainly want to be maximally effective with our advocacy efforts.  That means we should focus on the activities that help as many animals as possible.  So, we need to think like businesspeople. Companies have a financial bottom line, and every decision they make is based on whether it’s good or bad for that bottom line. We need to be just as calculating in our work. We need to look at the different advocacy programs out there and decide which of them will allow us to help the greatest number of animals possible and reduce the greatest amount of suffering possible.

2. Ask, “How many animals did I help?”

An easy way to see how effective we’ve been is to ask ourselves (perhaps each month), “How many animals did I help this month?” You might not know an exact number, but you can get a decent sense. If you’ve passed out a couple hundred leaflets to college students you’ve probably gotten one person to go veg and spared 30 animals a year a life of misery. If you’ve shown a video on animal cruelty to 100 people, probably one has gone veg and you’ve also spared 30 animals. These are complete ballpark estimates, but it’s clear that the end result of either of these activities (or similar veg advocacy work) is dramatically higher than many other forms of animal activism. The next important question to ask yourself is, “How can I help a greater number of animals next month?”

3. Be more like your audience

People are more likely to listen to you, and be persuaded by you to care about farm animals, if you look, talk, act, and interact like them. No matter how you may be in your regular life, the more you can look and act like your audience when doing veg advocacy the more effective you will be and the more animals you will spare. Consider it like wearing a uniform to work: uncomfortable, but important to success. And it is doubly important for us because lives are on the line.


Want to receive blog updates twice a month? Join the Compassionate Communities Campaign to get them delivered straight to your inbox.

The Caring Vegetarian

By Nick Cooney

July 12, 2012

“There are more important problems to worry about than animals.”

If you’re an animal advocate, you’ve probably gotten a response like this at least once. You may have heard it at protests, when passing out vegetarian leaflets, or even when speaking with friends about animal cruelty.

As a way to ignore the issue at hand, some people spin things around and accuse animal advocates of being the uncaring ones. There is a persistent notion among some that vegetarians and vegans care only about animals, and not people.

The idea is not a new one. In the 1940s, one leading psychiatry journal even published a scholarly article entitled “The Cruel Vegetarian.”  The author — the head of psychiatry at a major American hospital — argued that vegetarians were domineering and sadistic and that they ‘‘display little regard for the suffering of their fellow human beings.”

Of course we know that is not true. Most animal advocates also care deeply about a broad spectrum of social justice and humanitarian causes. An interesting recent study shows that vegetarians and vegans appear to have more of an empathetic response to both human and animal suffering.

Vegetarian, vegan and omnivore brainsFMRI brain scans showed that the areas of the brain associated with empathy (such as the anterior cingulate cortex and the left inferior frontal gyrus in this study) were more activated in vegetarians and vegans compared to omnivores when all three groups were shown pictures of human or animal suffering. Written questionnaires on empathy, in both this and other studies, seem to confirm higher empathy levels in vegetarians and vegans (Preylo and Arkiwawa, 2008; Filippi et al, 2010).

Why do some people still have the impression that vegetarians care only about animals and not people?

For one thing, sometimes our anger over animal cruelty gets directed at others. While it’s frustrating when someone does not care about animal abuse, we need to realize that attacking them for it does no good for animals. It simply creates more of a divide between us and those we are trying to persuade.

A second reason could be that, although there are many serious issues that are worthy of our attention, we have made the choice to focus on farm animals. Because we focus on these issues and not others (poverty, environmental destruction, human health, etc.), we may unintentionally give the impression that we don’t care about other causes.

So when talking to friends, family or the public, it may be helpful to mention our concern for some of these issues. It’s easy to point out that we eat vegan for the same reason that we donate to fund anti-malaria efforts in Africa: they are both easy ways to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

And sure, it’s true that a small number of people love and dote on animals but lack much empathy for other human beings. While we may not be able to change their attitude, we can work to ensure that, in our own lives,  our empathy and compassion truly extend to all living creatures.


Want to receive blog updates twice a month? Join the Compassionate Communities Campaign to get them delivered straight to your inbox.