“That Is Just Too Extreme For Me”


I had to laugh when the person across the table said this to me about a month ago.  It was in response to my friend telling her that I was vegan.  She then went on to explain that she had once been vegetarian, but started eating meat when her boyfriend moved in with her. 


35 years ago I downed a hot dog at a café in Chicago with my friend Deb.  After our hot dogs, we walked into the leather shop next door.  Deb wanted a leather jacket.  The smell and sight of all the leather made me say to her, “Don’t buy this stuff, it’s dead animals.”  The woman behind the counter heard me.  She asked me one simple question that changed my life forever:  “Do you eat meat?”  My 15 year old brain should have been able to make the connection immediately, but it took a moment.  My first thought was, “What’s meat got to do with dead animals?” It took a moment before the light bulb went on for me. I suddenly realized that even though everyone thought of me as the queen of animal lovers, I had missed this connection completely for 15 years.  I broke the silence and answered her question, “No, I don’t eat meat.”  Deb looked at me like I was crazy.  She had just seen me devour that hot dog next door.  When we left the leather shop, Deb asked why I had lied to the clerk.  “I didn’t”, I answered, I will never eat animals again.”  And I never ate meat again after that day.


When I went home and told my parents I was no longer eating meat (I did not know the word “vegetarian”) they told me how extreme this was and ordered me to eat “normal” food.  I did not follow their orders. 


I continued to eat lots of dairy and eggs.  I assumed that since the animals weren’t killed, everything must be hunky dory with those industries.  Then a few years after becoming vegetarian, I was renting a small cabin from a dairy farmer who lived next door with his family.  One day I heard loud bellowing from his barnyard.  I got on my bike and rode over to see what was happening.  There was a semi backed up to the barn and small wobbly legged calves were being pushed onto the ramp of the truck.  Some looked like they had been born that day and others were maybe a few days old.  I asked Melvin, the farmer, what was going on.  He told me that the calves were being “shipped off” since they were males.  I asked where they were going.  He replied, “Sometimes they go straight to slaughter, but these are headed to the veal facility. No need for the males.  We don’t even use them to keep the females pregnant.” He explained that dairy cows are artificially inseminated. 


I asked Melvin about the sounds I was hearing.  “That’s the mothers.”  When I asked if I could go see them around the back of the barn, he told me not to get upset.  He told me they would be fine in a few days.  I came around to the back of the barn and found the large group of mother cows with their mouths wide open bellowing for their calves.  Some were pushed so hard against the barbed wire that there was blood dripping from their chests.  That day I stopped eating all dairy products.  I started visiting facilities that produced eggs and realized I did not want to support the cruelty I witnessed there, either.  I had become a vegan although I did not know that word. 


What we think of as extreme often becomes mainstream over time.  Racial equality, girls attending school, women voting, the idea that the earth is not flat, tattoos, body piercing anything other than ears, abolishing slavery and many other notions were considered extreme at one time.  When we question our cultural norms we often find that they are based on habit and an agreed upon story rather than any logical thought process.  Kindness and compassion can be very threatening in a culture that supports cruelty for pleasure or profits.  One example would be abolishing sweatshop labor.  Most people would rather get cheap items and allow sweatshop labor than simplify their lives and live without excess possessions. 


It may seem extreme to many people to hear that someone has chosen to not consume any animal products.  I have even heard leaders in the peace movement call veganism extreme.  Our definition of moving toward peace often does not include all life, just our own species. It is much easier to talk about peace than it is to make changes that reflect our willingness to create peace. 


Extreme is a very relative term and depends where we choose to draw the line.  Many people who are choosing a raw foods diet may be considered extreme to someone eating a cooked food diet.  Someone may feel strongly about living a vegan lifestyle, and still be willing to kill roaches who appear in their home.  Many people think that Michael Vick’s behavior was extreme and feel sympathy for the dogs who suffer in dogfighting, but do not feel anything for cows or pigs or chickens or the animals in rodeos and circuses. 


If in fact it is “extreme” to choose to not support an industry that revolves around violence, then I, and many others, are willing to be this “extreme”.  One day our cultural circle of compassion may widen, the line drawn further out to include more beings. When that happens, eating a plant-based diet will be commonplace and something else will be seen as “extreme.” 


Someone asked me yesterday if I had a religion.  I told this person that I felt that the best thing we could do as humans would be to just follow the golden rule.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  I added that we may have to look at our limited definition of others.  Is it possible to include all races, religions, cultures, species and all life in this definition of others?  If so, we can, whenever possible, let our lifestyles reflect this inclusiveness.  With open minds and hearts we can share with each other and discover new ways of living compassionately.