Beware the Boomerang

The Daily Show recently did a segment – R.I.P. Facts – lamenting the fact [sic] that what is actually true no longer matters.

The problem, however, is actually significantly worse. If someone believes something false that conforms to their preconceived beliefs, fact checking them can actually strengthen their false belief. This is called the “boomerang effect.”

This is important to recognize, because it is very likely that most people believe that eating meat is necessary; chicken is healthy; free-range means cruelty-free; etc. Just telling them otherwise, even with supporting facts, is likely to just reinforce their current belief.

Instead, it is good to start by seeking out common ground. While most people have a negative view of veganism and vegans, most people also have a visceral repulsion to factory farms. So it is often good to ask what they know about factory farms as the beginning of a Socratic-style discussion.

Also, most people are willing to speculate on the motivations of others (rather than defending their own beliefs). It might seem strange, but asking people if they know anyone who is vegetarian and why they think those vegetarians don’t eat meat can be a good hook.

Unfortunately, there is no set script we can follow in every situation. But it is important to recognize that we can’t actually win an argument with a meat eater. The best we can do is to start a conversation. This is the way we can potentially find common ground, and allow the other individual to open their heart and mind to uncomfortable ideas.

portland2016-Matt Ball

Megan Watkins, Hero of Compassion

We are thrilled to continue to recognize Heroes of Compassion, people who are working tirelessly behind the scenes to help animals and make the world a more compassionate place.

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Today, we honor Megan Watkins. Megan joined the Farm Sanctuary Board of Directors in 2009 and has served as Chair, as well as on the Development and Executive committees.  Megan is the National Practice Executive for Foundations & Grantmaking at U.S. Trust.  She leads the practice area dedicated to helping individuals and families, as well as boards of directors and trustees, to maximize their impact in the charitable sector.  This includes educating and advising her clients on a number of topics related to philanthropic giving, including how to select the most appropriate charitable giving vehicle, identifying and articulating a philanthropic vision and mission, engaging family and/or board members in philanthropy, and the many nuances involved in starting and operating a strategic giving program.  Prior to joining U.S. Trust, Megan served as Philanthropic Advisor and Program Officer in the Philanthropic Services Group at J.P. Morgan Private Bank, where she facilitated giving in the areas of animal rights and welfare, affordable housing, human services, workforce development and youth development.  Megan’s additional nonprofit and policy activities include roles with ACCION New York, World Neighbors Nepal, and the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.  Megan holds a Master of International Affairs degree from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Latin American Studies from Barnard College.

Here is my conversation with Megan.

What does the phrase “living compassionately” mean to you? What inspired you to start down this path?

To me, living compassionately means living in a way that causes the least amount of suffering to those around you.  It means listening, being thoughtful, and showing care and concern in the decisions you make and the actions you take.  I would say that I started down this path fairly early in life, having been raised by a mother who was incredibly community- and service-oriented, even given limited time and income.  She was the first to teach my sisters and me that everyone’s voice mattered and that everyone should be heard.  She also showed us that it was important to keep our door open, to the people and the animals who needed our help.

It wasn’t until later in my life when I began to fully grasp the plight of farm animals and the conflict that existed between my values and my diet.  I absolutely attribute this awakening to the animals residing at Farm Sanctuary.  I had taken a trip up to Watkins Glen with my husband and a group of close friends.  Unsure of what to expect when stepping onto the property, I suddenly found myself sitting on the ground, looking into the eyes of the animals, and knowing that I was about to make a change that would impact the rest of my life.

What was the transition like for you, and what did you learn that might be useful to people currently trying to make changes?

My sister, my husband and I all transitioned to a vegan diet on the same day several years ago.  This was incredibly helpful to all of us, as we made our way through cleaning out kitchen cabinets, restocking ingredients and comparing recipes.  While I would say that we were all on a learning curve for the first year, we kept moving forward and soon found ourselves planning trips based on nearby vegan restaurants, or on Facetime “SOS” calls when our recipes were a flop.  If I had one tip, it would be to find a community.  Whether that is just a friend to join you, or an established group like Farm Sanctuary, every transition is easier when not alone (and you are definitely not alone on this one!).

What has been most challenging and/or surprising about living a compassionate life?

img_6177Speaking very personally, when I first became involved with Farm Sanctuary, I felt a bit like an outsider breaking into a very tight community.  I was newly vegan and, while familiar with the issues facing farm animals, hadn’t participated in the animal rights movement at such depths.  My experiences and motivations may have been questioned at times, which initially left me feeling somehow not vegan enough, or maybe not activist enough.  Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, I now find myself on the other side of this, struggling to be patient with those who haven’t made similar transitions in their own lives.  And then I remember, as Gene wisely points out, that we are most successful when we are able to meet people where they are.  Just like he met me where I was, once upon a time.

What advice / tips would you give to people who find it hard to cope with living in a world where the vast majority of people eat meat and so many farm animals are suffering and dying every day?              

Before I became involved with Farm Sanctuary, I actually used to lie awake, unable to shake images of animal cruelty.  I would have tears in my eyes, and would just stare at the ceiling.  I felt helpless, like the issue was too big and I was too small.  When I began spending time taking action on behalf of farm animals, when I sat with them in their own environment, I was finally able to breathe.  So my advice to anyone feeling helpless – activate.  Get even closer to the issue.  Become part of a community that cares and that is taking action on behalf of these incredible souls.

How did you learn about Farm Sanctuary, and why (and/or how) did you get involved?

Many years ago, I attended an animal welfare philanthropy conference where Gene participated on a panel.  He spoke early, maybe first, in a soft tone, telling stories of individual animals and allowing us to picture the beauty of what happens when farm animals find sanctuary.  He was followed by two or three other speakers, I honestly don’t remember, as I needed to leave the room.  When the next speaker began, and the horrifying images started to hit the screen, it was too much for me to process.  I waited outside in the hallway, listening, but not watching.  That was probably the first time that I thought seriously about needing to engage in some level of work on behalf of farm animals.  And while I absolutely acknowledge the impact that those other speakers and images had on me, it was Gene’s focus on the animals as individuals and ambassadors that truly spoke to me.

Has there been a specific animal who was special to you?

That’s easy – Snickers [lead photo of interview].  Snickers steer was the first resident of Farm Sanctuary to welcome me to the farm.  I treasure my picture with this amazing ambassador, he was an incredibly gentle soul and will forever be my reminder of my awakening to the plight of farm animals.

Do you have a favorite resident at one of the sanctuaries, and/or do you have a special affinity for a certain species of farm animal?

I can honestly say that I love every one of the Farm residents, even the bull who MAY have chased Susie and me over a fence one blazing hot afternoon.

image1If I were to pick … I really love goats.  I would live among the goats, with the full understanding that my pockets would be picked and my coat sleeves chewed until eternity.

What is your cookbook or recipe?

I am a huge fan of Terry Walters and the Clean Food cookbook.  Her lentil soup recipe is amazing!  My sister and I had the pleasure of joining her for a clean food cooking/yoga weekend and everything was plant-based, gluten free and pure awesome.

 

 

What is Real Courage?

Meat eaters love to change the subject and complain about vegans’ sense of smug superiority. But I can say it is very likely that I truly am superior to most everyone reading this: I have made more mistakes.

I stopped eating animals back in the 1980s. In the years after that, I made an absurd number of mistakes. Probably the main reason I wanted to publish The Animal Activist’s Handbook is to try to help others avoid at least some of the mistakes I made.

One of my biggest mistakes was lacking courage, but perhaps not in the way you think.

Over the years, people advised me to say I was vegan for my health. “That way,” I was told, “people won’t be threatened by you. Everyone cares about their health, so they won’t feel judged.”

Of course, I didn’t go along with that. I protested, “But I’m vegan for so many reasons! The Animals! The Earth! Human health!” Back then, our attitude was to “win an argument with a meat eater” (the title of a famous poster of the time). The approach was to try to overwhelm a meat eater with an endless list of what we believed were “facts,” which simplified to: all ills in the world, from impotence to hunger to ozone depletion to serial killings, were all because of meat.

Do you see the problem? It was all about me: Why I was vegan, how I was so right, how I needed to win an argument, because meat eaters were so very wrong, wrong, wrong!

Now, in sympathy with Young Matt and the rest of us back then, there really was no other example. We all spouted endless claims of water usage and declining fertility. No matter how absurd a claim, if something sounded even vaguely anti-meat or pro-vegetables, we parroted it like the indoctrinated missionaries we were.

On a basic human level, this is understandable. We were a tiny minority, surrounded by meat eaters – meat eaters who often mocked us. You can see why we were so eager, so desperate to justify ourselves, to strike back, to try to belittle those who belittled us, to win.

Of course, looking at it rationally today, each of us knows that any discomfort we experience is nothing compared to what farmed animals endure. But to be able to take the animals’ perspective would have required me to think beyond myself and my self-interest.

I regret my lack of courage, my inability to get past my need to justify myself, praise veganism, and blame meat eaters for every ill.

Of course, if you had pointed this out to me back then, I would have been outraged: “I am courageous! Do you know how hard it is to be vegan in the world? Look at this sheet of ‘facts’: meat eating is terrible!”

My interactions with meat eaters consisted of preaching an endless stream of horrors, pontificating: “You are causing all this! You need to be Just . . . Like . . . Me!” It was so important to chant, to insist, to promote and pursue purity – much more important than working constructively to bring about actual change.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying that being vegan isn’t good or important. But however important our personal, day-to-day choices are, choosing effective advocacy for the animals is far, far more important. However much good we accomplish by being vegan every day of the rest of our entire lives . . . well, we can do more good than that in just an hour of honest, psychologically-sound activism – or in just a minute, by donating to effective advocacy.

To really accomplish good in the world, we can’t be like Young Matt. We can’t focus on what sounds good to us. We can’t just rattle off facts that we find compelling, repeat anything that seems to justify our veganism, latch on to the latest “study” that “proves” what we want to believe.

And we can’t just “do something, do anything.” Instead, we have to look at the overall, real-world impact of our advocacy, and compare those consequences to other alternatives we could pursue with our limited time and resources.

This isn’t easy, in part because it is just so easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “People are selfish, I’ll appeal to self-interest!” Or taking anecdotes as data: “Marcie went vegan for reason X, so everyone must promote X!” Effective advocates look beyond what we think or what motivates us and those around us. We need to put aside what makes veganism sound good to us and focus on what will move non-vegetarians to take steps that actually end suffering.

For example, we can’t focus on something that seems non-controversial, something that seems to appeal to everyone, if doing so might encourage someone to stop eating big animals and instead eat more birds and fishes; anyone who just gives up red meat causes much, much more suffering.

In other words, we must consider all the actual consequences of our advocacy.

I don’t mean to preach. I wasted so many opportunities; turned off so many people. It took me years – and the help of truly courageous people – before I could set aside my insecurities and ego and personal needs, and focus instead on practical, realistic advocacy that actually helps animals.

Yet I don’t know what I could have said to Young Matt. Three decades ago, I was so angry, so filled with the odd combination of insecurity masked by self-righteousness.

It was an intoxicating siren song. It still is.

But let me leave you with a few decades of data: Since I came to the first March for the Animals in 1990, I have met hundreds of vegans who burned with an absolutist flame. Many of them loudly attacked other vegans as pathetic sell-outs, gutless compromisers, collaborating capitalists, and welfarists.

MattChicago2016Few of them are around today. There are, of course, new adherents, new screamers and chanters, new Young Matts. But if you look, you’ll actually see a number of truly courageous people, people who have put aside their ego and are focused on helping the animals as much as possible, every day.

I hope you have more courage than I did, and will join with those who go beyond self-interest. Instead, we can do the real, concrete work: day-to-day, person-to-person outreach that is actually helping animals, literally changing the world.

-Matt Ball

Originally published in The Accidental Activist

Find Plant-Powered Options at Your National Park!

As the National Park system celebrates its Centennial, more people are making plans to visit. If you are heading to either your local park or another on your bucket list, you can consult this guide to the plant-powered options in and around each park. From a tofu taco at Glacier National Park to vegan pizza just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are plenty of options.

Yosemite Valley. Photo by Ellen Green.

Yosemite Valley. Photo by Ellen Green.

 

For these trips and any others, be sure to check out the V-lish guide to travel for more hints and options found at popular chains.

 

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30, Looking Back at 25’s Just Eats Tour

As most of you know, this is Farm Sanctuary’s 30th Anniversary. To celebrate as part of the Gala this month in Los Angeles, Gene’s old VW van has come out of retirement. Attendees can step right up and order a veggie dog celebrating this blast from the past.

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Gene previously had the van out for a tour following our 25th Anniversary. Here, we bring you his excerpts from his notes from that “Just Eats” cross-country tour five years ago:

Starting at Farm Sanctuary’s 25th Anniversary Gala, I’ve been on the Just Eats Tour, driving the original 1977 VW van that launched Farm Sanctuary in 1986 across the U.S. to celebrate our 25th anniversary and to explore vegan America.

Ib7f9uo6cqaan1bdn this van, we rescued our first animal, Hilda, a downed sheep who had been left on a pile of dead animals behind Lancaster Stockyards in Pennsylvania. In the early days of Farm Sanctuary, we also raised funds to support our work by selling veggie hot dogs out of this van at Grateful Dead concerts. Getting the old VW on the road again has been a blast, and we’re meeting so many amazing people along the way. We’ve found vegan food and vegan advocates in every corner of the country, in both rural and urban settings.

The factory farming industry is deeply entrenched in our food culture and economic system, but change is afoot. More and more consumers are seeking to reconnect with the sources of their food and to eat well, impulses that inevitably lead to a rejection of factory farming. An entrepreneurial spirit is flourishing in this burgeoning food movement, and new, socially responsible enterprises are sprouting up in agricultural areas.

After three weeks on the road, the van pulled into Orland, CA, in time for our Hoe Down. It was a beautiful event and the perfect conclusion to our cross -country exploration.

6a010536e26195970b01538f695bb2970b-800wiBesides the dependability of our old VW van, we were taken by the remarkable passion and diversity of America’s vegan food movement. We found vegans in urban and rural areas, representing all shapes and sizes, ethnicities and lifestyles. We met entrepreneurs, authors, academics, and spiritual and business leaders. We spoke with people who have been vegan for decades and others who just recently decided to forego animal products. And we also met second and third generations of vegans. The vegan movement is bringing people of different ages and various backgrounds together around common interests.

Restaurants are catching on, experimenting with vegan dishes and reporting strong demand. They have been impressed by how enthusiastic and appreciative vegan customers are to see plant-based options. The vegan community is helping these businesses to make plant foods more widely available, providing menu suggestions, product recommendations, and even recipes and food preparation tips. And with more vegan options available, omnivores are increasingly choosing them. Everywhere we went across the U.S., we saw that the vegan movement is vibrant and growing!

 

Guest Post: Beyond Meat and Tyson: sleeping with the enemy?

Another great post from our good friend Tobias!

The multinational meat company Tyson Foods is – at least to the vegan movement – a monster, slaughtering millions and millions of animals every year.

The startup Beyond Meat, on the other hand, is one of the vegan movement’s darlings, for taking meat alternatives to new levels.

How should the vegan movement respond when one invests in the other?

That’s what just happened: Tyson Foods bought a minority stake (5%) in Beyond Meat.

Beyond Meat

Judging by the comments on Beyond Meat’s Facebook page, and the company’s public response in a blog, many vegans are not amused.

The accusations are unsurprising: Beyond Meat sold out. They’re only in it for the money. Buying a Beyond Meat product now means financially supporting the meat industry, etc. Therefore, (some) vegans will no longer buy Beyond Meat.

On the other hand, the announcement also got over 1600 likes.

So it seems the audience is torn. What to think?

I’ll take the example of Tyson and Beyond Meat to talk about a very basic distinction when we think about what’s good and what’s not good. It will be obvious for many among you, but is hopefully illuminating for many others.

Basically, one of the ways to explain the different opinions about what Beyond Meat did is in terms of a difference between focusing on values and focusing on consequences. When we look at many moral discussions and issues, this dichotomy is often at their basis.

Let’s investigate.

People who attach the most importance to values will say things like what you read above: that Beyond Meat sold out. That you just can’t deal or cooperate with a company like Tyson Foods because it is evil. That now Beyond Meat has been contaminated. They will point to all the bad things Tyson does, that their intentions are bad, and will say that being somehow implicit in further enriching them is plain immoral.

People who attach the most importance to consequences will look at what will happen as a result of this “collaboration”. They will keep in mind the bottom line (reducing animal suffering, abolishing the killing of animals, or something of this nature) and wonder if what happened will advance this bottom line. In other words, they will not ask whether Beyond Meat did an evil thing or not, but will wonder what good or bad will come out of it: will there be more or fewer animals killed (in the long or short term).

Put very bluntly, for the sake of making it clear, we could say that value-oriented people will say that if something is wrong, it’s wrong, irrespective of any positive consequences. Consequence-oriented people will say that something is okay if the consequences are mostly positive, no matter whether or not we can consider the actual action or deed immoral.

It’s usually not that simple or black and white though. Value-oriented people will almost always take consequences into account to at least some extent, and consequences-oriented people will not throw all values overboard. But it’s a matter of focus, or priority. Two other words for these two approaches would be principled versus pragmatic. In philosophical terms, these two positions are known as deontologist (from the Greek word for “duty”) versus consequentialist (or utilitarian).

Here’s another example that may make the distinction between values and consequences clearer. A skilled hunter may give a wild animal a quicker and more merciful death than when this same animal would die a long, cruel death from hunger. However, this hunter – assuming his first intention is not to reduce animal suffering – wants to have a quick thrill killing an innocent being. Now, if we would have the power to stop this from happening again, what do we do? Do we stop the hunter because we think it’s wrong, even if that would be much less painful for the animal (let’s assume the animal will die in a few days or weeks through lack of food). Or do we say that, exactly because of these consequences, and in spite of the hunter’s intentions, this whole action turns out to be okay and we should support it?

It’s complicated, as you can see, and this discussion has being going on for ages in moral philosophy. It’s what the famous trolley problem is about, and it’s also what my experiment about eating meat for money is about.

(One way to think about this is to put yourself, in this case, in the position of the animal. Would you want people to care more about the consequences, which are directly affecting you? Or about the principles? My view here is that as the animal, I wouldn’t care about what’s right or wrong for humans to do. I would care about my suffering or not suffering.)

If you focus on values, and you have your values clear, then you can often use quick judgments to state whether to you personally something is okay or not okay. But if you judge by consequences, you need to investigate those consequences, and these are not always clear, and you usually have more “work” to do than a values-oriented person.

Let’s go back to Beyond Meat and Tyson Foods. I usually find myself attaching more importance to consequences. Reducing animal suffering to me is what counts, and I’m usually in favor of everything that contributes to that. So, apart from wondering if an investment of Tyson Foods in Beyond Meat is an evil thing in itself, so to speak, we could wonder: what would the concrete, actual consequences for the animals be? More generally, can it ever be a good thing when meat companies invest in plant-based products? Here are some possible consequences to take into account when assessing this case.

If a meat company butters their bread on two sides, or bets on multiple horses (to say it with two “non-vegan” expressions), and is able to profit from the growth of vegan products, we can assume it will become less resistant to this evolution. The lobby for meat is powerful, but as the industry’s financial dependence on selling animal products decreases while its profits from selling vegan products increases, we can expect a shift in their antagonism towards the growth of vegan consumption.

We could wonder – as many vegans do – what happens with the profits the meat company makes from the vegan products? If we are values-oriented, we could say that this is wrong and disgusting in any case: this money is being used to enrich the exploiters. If we are consequences-oriented, we wouldn’t really mind about that in itself, though we might wonder whether these profits might be used to bolster the company’s meat department. In that case, we’d have a negative consequence. This seems unlikely though. I have a hard time seeing a reason why a company would structurally invest the profits from plant-based products to market their animal-based products – unless of course there’s much more money to be made with the latter. But it’s exactly because plant-based is on the rise and animal-based is (very slowly) on the way down in Western countries, that companies like Tyson are starting to invest in plant-based.

Another argument is that these huge companies like Tyson have a big advertising budget. They are able to put veg products really out there: on TV, in supermarkets, etc. Their reach is much bigger than that of the smaller, idealistic companies (though we cannot but be amazed at the attention Hampton Creek has gotten with virtually no advertising budget!).

If Tyson gets really interested, they could also start using part of their resources for research and development of vegan products.

As CEO Ethan Brown says in his blog post, this financial stake of Tyson in Beyond Meat also creates opportunities for the two companies to work together, and to have an influence on Tyson. This may sound naive, but consider the alternative: usually isolating someone or something doesn’t really do anything in terms of influencing them in the right direction. The only thing isolating someone allows you to do is to keep your hands clean. If you are concerned about keeping your hands clean at all costs, you’re very much values-oriented.

You’re also focusing on values when you say that Tyson is only doing this for profit. This is something that you might find morally problematic. However, no matter what Tyson’s intentions are here (and undoubtedly it’s about profit), the consequences could still be positive. In any case, money is one of the main motivations for people to do anything. I think it’s more useful for us to try to make use of and exploit this motivation than to condemn and boycott it.

Whether you focus more on values or more on results, Tyson is not just going to disappear, or stop doing what they do overnight. Rather, Tyson needs to evolve into something else. That is a much more realistic option. And as much as we dislike what it’s doing now, and as much as we may dislike big companies, capitalism, commercialism, consumerism, and so on, I think the best way is to “allow” Tyson to evolve, and to take steps like it just did. Likewise, I think it’s good if we “allow” Beyond Meat to get their hands dirty and get in bed with what is, until further notice, still the enemy.

 

Help End “One of the Worst Crimes in History”

Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, took to the pages of The Guardian to make the case that Industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history, and that the fate of industrially farmed animals is one of the most pressing ethical questions of our time. In this article, he addresses the common claim that animals have to be treated well in order to “produce.”

What makes the existence of domesticated farm animals particularly cruel is not just the way in which they die but above all how they live. The root of the problem is that domesticated animals have inherited from their wild ancestors many physical, emotional and social needs that are redundant in farms. Farmers routinely ignore these needs without paying any economic price. They lock animals in tiny cages, mutilate their horns and tails, separate mothers from offspring, and selectively breed monstrosities. The animals suffer greatly, yet they live on and multiply.

Kiev of Farm SanctuaryAt Farm Sanctuary, we recognize that each of these animals is an individual, with the ability and desire to have friends, love their offspring, and enjoy life.

One thing we can each do today is to share this video, What Came Before, with our social media friends. It tells a powerful story that can help more people start to make compassionate choices.

Thanks!

Messaging for Maximum Change

kennyKenny Torrella (right), an exceptionally effective animal advocate, came across an essay regarding the importance of using the word “vegetarian” instead of “vegan.” This was his experience:

I read [the essay about “vegetarian” vs “vegan”] a few weeks ago and have been experimenting with it lately. I think it’s a small tip for activists that goes a long way. For 2.5 years I had been telling people I was vegan if the subject came up. Now if people ask, I say I’m vegetarian, and it makes a world of a difference. When I used to say I was vegan, people would immediately say some kind of variation of, “That’s awesome, but I could never do that myself.”

Now when I say I’m vegetarian, people become more open and tell me about other vegetarians they know, vegetarian foods they’ve tried, how they’ve considered going vegetarian, or they had been vegetarian in the past and want to get back into it. Whenever I met a vegetarian while leafleting, I used to say, “Have you considered veganism?” The situation would immediately turn a bit sour. For a split second they saw me as someone they had much in common with, and after asking if they’ve considered veganism, they see me as someone telling them to do more – that their vegetarianism is not enough. Out of the number of vegetarians I had met and responded to like this, not a single one responded positively – none said, “Why yes, I have been considering veganism lately!” All of them said a variation of, “Well, veganism seems like a good thing, but it’s just too much for me.” No matter how much cajoling, they wouldn’t budge.

The funny thing about this is that when I was a vegetarian I was the same way toward vegans. This is something important to remember. I didn’t go vegan because another vegan was telling me to, or even telling me about it… I did it on my own after thinking about it and researching it for several months. Now while leafleting, I give words of encouragement to vegetarians I meet. I tell them how awesome it is that they’re vegetarian, to keep it up, I say “Aw, you’re the best,” I give them literature that has recipes and nutritional information. This makes a huge difference! They feel encouraged to do more, rather than being told to. They may not feel as alone in their choice if they meet another “vegetarian” that is also an activist and is thanking them.

Although our initial reaction is to identify as a vegan or to convince vegetarians to go vegan, 9 times out of 10 it doesn’t turn anyone on to veganism— it only makes them feel like they’re being judged, as if their lifestyle choice to eschew all meat products was worth nothing. I’m not saying this is a fool-proof guide to live by and of course there are instances where it’s important to say you’re vegan, or if a vegetarian wants more information about going vegan, then by all means, hand out vegan literature and share your experiences as a vegan. Although I was first skeptical of this tip about language, I experimented with it and found it to be a much better approach toward turning more people on to a vegetarian lifestyle.

As always, kudos to Kenny for being concerned less with justifying his own choices and more with opening as many new hearts and minds as possible!

Originally published in The Accidental Activist.

Christina Cuenca, Hero of Compassion

We are excited to continue our Heroes of Compassion program, where we recognize people who are working tirelessly behind the scenes to help animals and make the world a more compassionate place.

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Today we honor Christina Cuenca, who has been unstoppable as Farm Sanctuary’s Walk for Farm Animals coordinator in Seattle since 2013. She is a board member of the Northwest Animal Rights Network and Generation Veggie. After the birth of their son, Luciano, Christina and husband Fernando formed the Seattle Vegan Families Group. Christina is currently grants manager for a local nonprofit organization, as well as an aspiring poet. In her spare time, Christina enjoys hiking, reading, rummaging through thrift stores and, of course, strong coffee.
seattle-walk

Cultivating Compassionate Communities: What does “living compassionately” mean to you? What inspired you to start down this path?

In late 2000, I came across Erik Marcus’ book, Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating. I couldn’t believe I had been virtually unaware of the realities of factory farming, and I remember feeling sucker-punched in the gut. I finished the last page of the book, emptied out my fridge and pantry, and became vegan on the spot.

For me, living compassionately means more than just not exploiting animals. It means thinking about the world and all its living beings as connected, valuable and deserving of respect and consideration. It means being accountable for the decisions we make that affect others and our planet. It means community taking care of one another during difficult times, and celebrating each other’s accomplishments with sincerity and joy. It means showing up when it matters, in whatever way that you can.

What was the transition like for you, and what did you learn that might be useful to people currently trying to make changes?

I was so angry about what had been hidden from me, my total ignorance about where my food came from, that I didn’t really have a transition period. I finished that first book, and said “no more.” Since then, I’ve expanded my knowledge to include an understanding of the environmental implications of eating meat and how capitalism drives the decisions we make (or are made for us) about our food. The oppression and exploitation of animals does not occur in a vacuum, and I’ve realized it’s important for us to continue to engage in complicated, messy dialogue. Don’t be afraid to have those conversations.

What has been most challenging and/or surprising about living a compassionate life?

The greatest challenge for me has been navigating the ups and downs of feeling like you’re making a difference one day, to feeling like you aren’t making even the smallest ripple of impact the next. I am often overwhelmed by the apathy that is so pervasive in our society, the overconsumption of our natural resources, the out of control consumerism, the disregard for anything other than “me and my own.” And it’s not easy to re-center and re-focus. I often find myself wondering: What more I can do? How can I be more efficient so I can take something else on? I’ve gotten a bit more adept at managing this over the years, especially after having a child, but it’s a constant struggle.

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What advice would you give to an aspiring activist?

First and foremost, find your circle. Find ways to connect and cultivate relationships with others who are fighting the same fight. The support you find within your community will help keep you energized and positive. Of course, it’s dangerously easy to have your worldview skewed when you are surrounded by only like-minded individuals, and our social media feeds only compound this. It’s important to step out of that safe bubble.

How did you learn about Farm Sanctuary, and why (and/or how) did you get involved?

Farm Sanctuary is highlighted in Erik Marcus’ book. Living in New York at the time, Watkins Glen was an easy road trip away and I had the pleasure of staying in one of the adorably rustic red cabins. My time at the sanctuary was emotional and powerful. It was the first time I had been near a farm animal after becoming vegan, and the experience transformed my veganism from theory to the intimate.

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After visiting the sanctuary, I attended a Walk for Farm Animals event, and was moved by the positive energy and the many compassionate people who came together to show their support for ending the abuse of animals on factory farms. While I had been vegan for years at this point, the experience sparked my animal activism. I moved to Seattle in 2008, attended Seattle’s first Walk for Farm Animals in 2011, and became a volunteer organizer for the event in 2013-2015.

Has there been a specific animal who was special to you?

My first adopted cat, Ashes, will always have a special place in my heart. She was full of attitude and zest, and I was crazy about her. We currently share our home with Sir Isaac Newton, a ball of orange-haired feline sweetness. He is one of those rare unicorn cats who loves belly rubs.

 

Do you have a favorite resident at one of the sanctuaries, and/or do you have a special affinity for a certain species of farm animal?

During my one and only visit to the Watkins Glen shelter, I met Arbuckle. I sat with this blind and incredibly sweet cow for a while in the fields. I’ve never forgotten him.

How do you think things will change over the next 50 years or so?

Being a mother, much of my current activism focuses on building support and community for vegan families. My husband and I started a local meetup group for vegan families in Seattle, shortly after the birth of our son six years ago. Since that time, membership has exploded. I also work with Generation Veggie, an online resource for raising plant-powered kids. I see growing numbers of vegan children who are confident, proud, and vocal advocates for animals. I think we’ll continue to see compassionate vegan families become more mainstream, and this is an exciting shift. I also expect to see advancements in cultured meat, which has the potential to affect great change.

What is your favorite “main dish” recipe or meal? 

This changes fairly regularly, but right now I’m on an avocado toast craze. I can’t get enough.

Is there anything else you would like the Farm Sanctuary family to know? 

Here are a few other organizations that excite me:

www.generationveggie.org
www.narn.org
www.foodispower.org

 

A Quick Guide to Our Biases

Few of us were raised following a compassionate diet, and few of us immediately stopped supporting the exploitation of farm animals once we found out about factory farms.

Yet if we’ve been living a compassionate life for an extended period, it is easy to forget what it is like to be a meat eater in this society, surrounded by friends are family who also follow the standard American diet. If we are to be effective advocates for farm animals, however, it is important to be able to step outside of ourselves and reach out to people where they are currently.

While the case for our current diet seems entirely self-evident to us, it doesn’t come across that way to others. We all have significant psychological tools and tricks that can help us rationalize and justify our current choices. Understanding these biases is important if we are going to help people get past them and on the path to an ethical diet.

LifeHacker published a nice infographic from Business Insider to summarize our main biases, such as choice-supportive bias, availability heuristic, and the bandwagon effect. Give it a review, and keep them in mind the next time you are talking with someone about the reasons for following a compassionate diet. You might just have a more productive dialog!