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On Gratefulness

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Happy (belated) New Year, everybody! I hope that the holidays were filled with love and yummy vegetables for each and every one of you. I ended up going out to eat for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinner, at two different fancy restaurant with very limited yet nonetheless delicious vegan grub. Vegetable curry was involved. Anyways, the holidays got me thinking about my family, my life, my upbringing, and how lucky I am. If you don’t mind, I’d love to share.

I grew up privileged, there’s no way to deny it. It always strikes me at random moments, as well as some not-so-random moments, like when I see people begging for food or when I hear another story about violence fueled by racism. The holidays are another time when I get to thinking about how extremely fortunate of a life I was born into. I was never once faced with concerns about whether I would be able to eat dinner, whether I would be too cold to sleep, or whether I would be unsafe in my neighborhood. I always lived in nice areas and my parents were loving.

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I was nineteen when I watched the documentary Earthlings which exposed everything I never wanted to know, but needed to know, about the meat, dairy, egg, circus, and breeding industries, among others. It should be classified as a horror film. It made the decision very, very easy.

My parents, who I lived with at the time, were skeptical of my new decision, but supportive. They paid for the groceries I asked for and even tried bites of my meals here and there. I see now that I may not have fully appreciated that, because lately I’ve heard more and more stories about adolescents and young adults attempting to be vegetarian or vegan but being thwarted by familial or cultural barriers. I’ve heard of parents saying, “If you want to be vegetarian, you can buy your own groceries,” or, “If you live under my roof, you’ll eat what I eat,” or simply, “We eat meat in this family.”

There are also those who are “thwarted” by financial issues. The quotation marks do not in any way demean those with financial struggles, but rather are there because the idea of a vegetarian or vegan diet being expensive is a massive misconception. With the internet allowing such accessible information, it only takes the press of a button to find hundreds of filling, delicious vegan meals that only cost a few dollars. Think: rice/beans/spinach/salsa, pasta/marinara/broccoli, chili/toast, vegetable soup, etc. You get the idea. It’s do-able. But while that’s a vital point to address, it’s a bit beside the one I’m really trying to make.

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My point is that lately I’ve been feeling a lot of gratitude for the fact that I was able to make the transition to a cruelty-lifestyle so smoothly, because I know that it’s not so easy for others. I had the support of my family and I lived in an area where fresh produce and vegan staples and treats were widely available. I still do, and for that I’m immeasurably grateful. I want to send love to everybody out there who is attempting, but struggling for whatever reason, to make the transition. I sincerely hope it works out for you, because nobody deserves to be hindered or punished for trying to do the right thing for themselves, for the animals, and for the world. Good luck with 2016, everybody!

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The Disconnect Between Animals as Pets and Animals as Meat

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In the U.S., where I sit here and write, the proportion of households with pets is higher than those with children. Who knew?! That number (63%) is much higher than the U.K., and more than triple Japanese households, but the fact can’t be disputed: humans love pets. And how could we not? If your lifestyle and funds allow for it, it’s pretty dang sweet to come home to your very own adorably innocent and perpetually pleased four-legged furry creature who thinks of only two things when its owner is away: food, and its owner (I am of course referring to dogs here, because from my experience cats never jumped for joy whenever I arrived home).

Let’s dig a little deeper. I might be alone in this, but I’ve always loosely equated the term ‘domesticated animal’ with ‘pets’- dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, goldfish. As it turns out, the list of domestic animals is much longer. Sheep, pigs, goats, cattle, chicken, donkeys, horses, geese, koi, and hedgehogs all make an appearance. According to Wikipedia, these animals have all undergone significant genetic changes from their wild ancestors, which is why they are now deemed ‘domesticated’. There are actually three classifications of domesticated animals, which include 1) animals which have adapted to a human environment (dogs, cats, guinea pigs, etc.) 2) prey animals which are kept for food (cows, sheep, pigs, goats) and 3) animals kept for working/nonfood purposes (camels, horses, donkeys).

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My question is: how are we as humans so easily able to separate the first classification from the second, or even the third? In other words, why would most of us be horrified at the idea of eating cat meat, yet chickens, ducks, pigs, sheep, cattle, and turkeys are all fair game (no pun intended)? I’m not an expert on animal meat, but I’m willing to bet the flavor of dog and cat meat isn’t too different from at least one of the aforementioned meats. So, why don’t we eat them? Why do we, instead, give them cute names and buy them toys and beds?

The reasons why cats and dogs are the most common types of pet make sense. Obviously, keeping a horse or pig in the house and taking them on walks isn’t quite feasible. The size, trainability, and behavior of cats and dogs makes them very suitable to keep as pets. But the broader idea here concerns the disconnect between pets and animals we eat. Though ethically it seems more appropriate to keep all of these animals on the same plane and think of them all the same way we think of our cats and dogs–as innocent creatures that deserve happiness and safety. Unfortunately, our minds have been trained to separate some types of animals from other types, so we now value the life of a pig, cow, or chicken, much less than a cat or dog.

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But is that fair? We don’t need meat to survive, and the methods by which this meat is produced is beyond inhumane. So doesn’t it seem like high time to destroy the disconnect?

It’s actually a broader topic than I originally thought, due to the crossover that sometimes occurs. Some people have pet snakes, but eating rattlesnake meat isn’t entirely uncommon. And another example: I have a friend whose parents own a small ranch where they keep goats and hens. His parents absolutely adore the goats; they bottle-feed them, pet them, hang out with them. The goats are not used for any other purpose rather than being pets. However, the hens, while also adored and never killed for meat, provide the parents with a tasty egg breakfast each morning. In a strange way (and I know this may be a “non-vegan” thing to say) this almost seems like the healthier, more ethical practice, because it destroys the disconnect between animals as food and animals as pets.

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We simply don’t think of meat as being what was once a live animal. And that’s not anybody’s fault, really–I think it’s largely in part to the secrecy of the meat industry (along with the dairy/egg industries). And I wrote about it in another post but I’ll mention it again: there’s good reason for the secrecy, because their practices are repulsive. So, that along with the fact that most of us grew up eating animal products from a young age and likely did not realize that we were eating live animals contribute to the disconnect. Because by the time we were old enough to understand that we had been eating breeds that we know and love, animals we visit at the zoo or pet at the fair, it was too late. It’s tough to reverse something that was true in your mind for years, and for years we just thought, “this is meat, it comes from the store, I would never actually want to eat a cow, or a chicken, or my dog, for that matter!”

So it seems the least we can do is be honest with our kids about what they are eating and where that food is coming from. Obviously, we don’t need to give our three-year-old the graphic details of how bacon is created, but I think that being forthright about the origin of meat with our children is one solution to breaking the harmful barrier between the way we think of pets and the way we think of meat. 

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Factory Farming: Beef

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How much do citizens of the world love beef? All we need to do is look for the nearest Golden Arches, which surely aren’t far, to answer this. That glowing yellow beacon can be found almost everywhere one turns, an ever-present symbol of instant gratification and grease, a fluorescent ‘M’ that hums deep into the night and which eerily seems to be whispering, “I will be here long after you will be.”

Sinister talking signs aside, the point is that beef is everywhere around us, whether it be in fast-food chains, upscale restaurants, grocery stores, farmers markets, the list goes on. The McDonald’s chain is present in 119 countries. In-N-Out is commonly referred to as God in the form of a food product. We love burgers. And steak. And jerky. Etc.

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Similar to our relationship with other animal products nowadays, humans tend to push aside thoughts regarding the origin of the slab of meat they are inhaling. After all, how could some delicately charred, juicy patty, so innocently resting alongside a slice of tomato and some withered lettuce, once have been a living, breathing creature just like you or I?

By now, the men and women behind the scenes of factory farms must have realized that most people would likely lose their appetite faster than one can eat a french fry if they realized exactly how the burger they know and love dearly was actually produced. As a result, these industries are less than transparent. Hence the disconnect. But, these farms are not completely secretive. Thanks to the internet, we do for the most part understand how they operate.

Essentially, herds of cattle are reared on grassy ranches, where they graze away happily, until reaching the hearty weight of about 650 pounds. They are then transferred to a feedlot, where they are kept in some type of pen and fed a special mixture which is any combination of roughage, grains, and supplements. They hang out at the feedlot for a couple hundred days until they are fattened up another 400 pounds or so. From here, they are transferred yet again to a slaughterhouse.

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Often, the transfers can be the most stressful part of a cow’s life. They are crammed into trucks where they must stand with limited air flow for hours upon hours. They are legally allowed to go for days without food or water.

Upon arrival, many cows are too terrified to leave the truck which has been their home for the past any number of hours, and so they may be prodded with electric rods in order to make them move. Once in the slaughterhouse, the scared, confused, and likely injured cows are forced into a chute where they are stunned and then shot.

It’s a tough image to conjure up. It begs the questions: is this necessary? Is this right? Any vegan or vegetarian will probably answer ‘no’ to both of those without hesitation, but I’m willing to bet that a decent handful of meat-eaters may have trouble answering ‘yes’ to them as well. Because deep down, I think we all know that this isn’t right.

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It’s also not necessary. Often, people attempt to argue against my dietary preferences, citing evolutionary evidence by claiming that “we’re natural meat-eaters! Just look at our teeth! Look at our ancestors!” And I see where they’re coming from. For those who believe in evolution, then you know that around 2.5 million years ago, our ancestors were indeed eating meat (raw, since fire didn’t come around until about 800,000 years ago). Eating raw meat required stronger jaws and bigger teeth. Stone tools were also involved. This style of meat-eating seems to be in a different league than our current style, don’t you think? Of course, there are many differing beliefs and theories about the history of meat consumption, and it’s probably true that practices differed by region and culture.

Regardless, I don’t think it can be disputed that these days, eating meat is simply an exploitative, unnecessary, torturous practice which mostly serves the companies on top. It’s my wish that one day we can stop thinking with our taste buds and our wallets and start examining things using our brains and our hearts.

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Factory Farming: Dairy Cows

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Cows- we love them! Those hefty, docile creatures who seem to be perpetually nose-deep in grass. I’ve probably seen thousands of cows in my life, and yet still every time I drive past a field and see a herd of those cute black and white ungulates I reflexively squeal, “Oh my god, COWS!!!” When calves are involved, imagine the squeal as more like a screech, or maybe an awed whisper. I mean, they’re baby cows.

As tender and empathetic humans, we don’t like to imagine cute things in pain. Which is what makes it so difficult and heart-wrenching to tread into this realm, and also why many people consciously turn a blind eye or refuse to hear about what happens behind the scene. I know they say ignorance is bliss, but when the lives of other living creatures are involved, the importance of being informed can’t be stressed enough.

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While there are various methods of dairy farming, I want to focus on large-scale factory farms, which are common in the EU, India, China, Brazil, and right here in the states. In these farms, the goal is to produce as much milk as possible. In order to get milk, the cow must be lactating, which means she must have given birth to a calf. It’s really quite the same process as it is for humans. However, upon further investigation we can see the many disturbing differences between the two.

First, in order to ensure pregnancy, cows are artificially inseminated (AI) using a rod which contains semen. When I first learned this, I just couldn’t get over the seeming violation against nature which is inherent to AI. I’m not about to make this an issue of consent, but rather I want us to think about this in regards to mutual respect for all living things. What gives us the right to sexually violate a harmless animal without regard to their physical and emotional comfort?

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Once the mother has given birth, either naturally or from the farmer inducing it, her calf is often separated from her within 24 hours of birth. Then, the process of retrieving her milk begins. Cows have on average a 305 day lactation period, and over 2,000 gallons of milk can be produced during that time. Once she is “dry,” and once her udder tissue is regenerated, the entire process is repeated. Typically, dairy cows are kept alive until they are seven years old, and then they are sent to slaughter.

So, what happens to her calf? Well, male calves (‘bobby calves’) are usually raised for beef, another massive industry. A small amount are kept for breeding, and the rest are sent to slaughter. Female calves are raised to take the place of the older dairy cows- essentially taking the place of their mothers.

(Check out this article for a scientific look at the consequences of separating dairy cows and their calves: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150428081801.htm)

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We could delve into conditions and overcrowding within dairy farms, as well as the recent outpour of undercover videos that have surfaced which show abuse inside of the farms, but I think we’ve covered the basics, which are enough of a bummer. However, I think it would be good to briefly discuss hormones in milk; estrogen, the female sex hormone, naturally occurs in the milk that cows produce. But bovine somatrotropin (also known as bovine growth hormone, BGH or BST) is a synthetic hormone which was developed by Monsanto. It is injected into dairy cows and as a result, more milk is produced at her peak production time. Interestingly, it is banned from the market in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, Argentina, and the EU, but not the US. There is currently no statistically significant data that rules that BGH is unsafe for humans, but there are overwhelming reports that the drug is unsafe for the cows themselves. Even Monsanto-sponsored trials found that to be true! Health issues include mastitis (inflammation of the breast tissue), reduction in fertility, foot problems, and lameness. But hey, since it’s probably not harmful to humans, and since it increases milk output, BGH should stick around, right?

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Let’s move on and take a moment to appreciate all of the marvelous cruelty-free substitutes that are at our green little fingertips (well, I’d like to point out that those of us with access to all of these great substitutes are lucky, seeing as some people aren’t afforded that luxury due to location or economic issues, but that’s a conversation for another time): almond, soy, rice, hemp, coconut, cashew, oat and even quinoa milk are on the market. Most brands offer original, vanilla, and sometimes chocolate flavor variations. And as if those aren’t options, there are usually both sweetened and unsweetened versions of each. Lately, I’ve been going for unsweetened vanilla coconut milk for my smoothies and cereal.

Oh, and don’t forget that the nondairy kingdom doesn’t stop at milk. No, no. Think broader; think ice cream, yogurt, and cheeses (I feel #blessed that I didn’t have to say goodbye to java chip ice cream and quesadillas). We are really quite fortunate to live during such an innovative time where there is such a plethora of delicious options that did not cause harm to any sentient beings. It’s my hope that we can spread the word and come together as compassionate humans and make the slow transition to dairy-free products in order to decrease the demand for cow’s milk and thereby save many, many cows from a painful, controlled, and short life. So, spread the word to your dairy-guzzling friends! Sneak them a sip of chocolate soy milk or vanilla coconut milk yogurt so they can see that hormone-free, cruelty-free dairy subs can also be delicious.

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Factory Farming: Chickens

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Welcome to the first post within a short series analyzing the practices and ethics of factory farming. This is a dense subject, so please bear with my attempt to sum up the extensive information and keep in mind that I am by no means an expert on the topic. It is my hope that the reader will keep an open heart and mind.

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Domesticated chickens have been around for a very, very long time- dating back to 8000 BCE in China. Ancient civilizations called fowl ‘the bird that gives birth every day.’ Chickens began to be commodified when it was realized that they possess two very valuable goods: meat and eggs. Egg-laying chickens, or hens, are farmed for their eggs, while broiler chickens are farmed for their meat. Combined, more than 50 billion chickens are farmed each year, with the vast majority reared in factory farms (74% of poultry meat, 68% of eggs) (Poultry Farming, 2015).

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Let’s first discuss the meat side of the chicken industry. ‘Broiler chickens,’ or just ‘broilers’ are raised specifically with the intention of being slaughtered for their meat. These chickens are actually a special hybrid of chicken which was bred for quick growth and development. This allows farms to have a faster chicken turnover rate, thereby increasing profit and decreasing prices for the consumer. According to Wikipedia, most commercial broilers reach their ‘slaughter weight’ after only five to seven weeks of age, though a chicken’s natural lifespan is six or more years (Poultry Farming, 2015).

Indoor broilers are raised in large, open structures that have heat, cooling, and food/water systems. This doesn’t sound too terrible thus far, right? The problem is, about 20,000 chickens are typically reared in these 500 by 50 (or sometimes 400 by 40) foot grow out houses. This leaves about eight-tenths of a square foot per bird. I also want to mention what they are given to eat- corn and soybean meal. For some of us, alarm bells go off in our heads when we hear corn and soy, since they are the two most genetically modified food products. [Note: While the safety of GM foods is not yet definitive, I still think it’s important to think about the connection between GM farm animal feed and the secondhand exposure humans receive by then consuming farm animals.]

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There are additional problems that result from rearing so many chickens in such a small space. First, ammonia from their droppings produces highly polluted air within the structure. If there isn’t enough air flow, the eyes, respiratory systems, legs and feet of the chickens can be damaged or burned. Also, the overcrowding combined with their abnormally large breast muscles (remember, broiler chickens are bred for fast growth, causing their muscles to be much larger than a typical chicken of the same age) puts a strain on their hearts and lungs. In the U.K., up to 19 million broilers die in their sheds from heart failure each year (Poultry Farming, 2015).

It should be noted that there are “higher welfare indoor farms,” where the chickens have slightly more space and richer environments, and live up to two weeks longer than conventional indoor broilers do.

Egg-Laying Hens

Meanwhile, egg-laying hens are being raised in similar space-deficient farms. Battery cages, which house anywhere from three to eight hens, are small metal or mesh cages with a floor of sloped mesh for feces or eggs to drop through. Food is provided via a trough, and water is dispensed through a nipple system. Cages are stacked back-to-back and arranged in rows, often housing a total of tens of thousands of hens. Similarly to broiler chickens, egg-laying hens are packed tightly so as to increase production. On average, hens receive about 67 square inches of cage space, which is smaller than a piece of letter sized paper (Cage-Free vs. Battery-Cage Eggs, 2015). With this amount of space, hens are unable to stretch their wings, perch, make a nest for their eggs, or even stand up. Discomfort aside, can you imagine how boring it would be to spend your whole life in a cage pressed up against five other hens?

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In the wild, hens spend hours and sometimes days with her eggs, protecting them until they hatch. But within mass-production methods, she is not allowed to spent more than a few moments with her egg.

Free-Range/Cage-Free

Most of us are aware of the free-range phenomenon which has caught wind in the past few years as more documentaries about animal welfare were released. More people grew concerned about the welfare of factory farmed animals (which is great). The result? Free-range! Cage-free! Let the chickens run around outdoors on a lush, green farm and live a life comparable to animals in the wild! Many consumers rested easier with the knowledge that they were no longer contributing to the cruel methods of factory farming chickens and eggs.

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Sadly, free-range farms aren’t always  the paradise we would ideally like our meat and eggs to come from. While it is true that free-range farms allow the animals to be outside for a period of the day, there is no minimum amount of time that they actually are outside (at least in the U.S.), and they are still confined to cages at night. [Note: In the U.K., free-range hens have constant access to the outdoors, and broilers must receive at least eight hours outdoors each day. Good job U.K.!] Another major issue with free-range farms is, again, overcrowding. At many farms, cannibalism and feather pecking are issues, which sometimes prompts farmers to resort to beak-trimming. However, there are a variety of different types of farms, some providing even greater levels of comfort. On the other hand, there are also eggs labeled ‘cage-free’ which means that the hens were not raised in battery cages, but they also stepped foot (or talon) outside.

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It would seem that the terms ‘cage-free’ and ‘free-range’ are not exactly synonymous with ‘cruelty-free.’ However, it can be agreed upon that free-range and cage-free breeding is a step in the right direction.

Slaughter

I mentioned earlier that broiler chickens reach their slaughter weight at around five to seven weeks. The chickens are then transported to a slaughterhouse in crates, where they must wait without food in the hours before their death. Many chickens die in the midst of this process, due to stress or injuries acquired during transport. Actual slaughter method might be electrical stunning followed by an automatic knife slitting their throat. Sadly, “according to the USDA, millions miss the blade and drown in tanks of scalding water while conscious and able to feel pain” (Cruel Poultry Slaughter, 2010). In the gas methods, they are stunned with gas before conveyed to a killing machine. A variation of gas stunning slowly releases gases until the chickens become unconscious.

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I know it’s difficult to read this information and imagine the trauma that factory farmed chickens go through, regardless of whether you are a meat-eater or not. Yet I firmly believe that we all have a compassionate side and the ability to be part of a change in our methods. I also recognize that for many of us, it can be easy to shrug off this information and file it away into a deep pocket of the mind- I believe this goes along with the fact that we are extraordinarily desensitized to violence. Still, I don’t think that’s a proper excuse to stand by and let the gruesomely unethical mass murders continue. We must make the farm to plate connection, and we must help those around us see it as well. As humans, it’s our duty to be a voice for those who can’t. At the very least, we can spread the word and help to decrease the demand for these products which will in turn save some innocent lives and restore a bit of lost love into the world.

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Citations:

‘Cage-Free vs. Battery-Cages.’ 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/cage-free_vs_battery-cage.html

‘Cruel Poultry Slaughter.’ 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/slaughter/facts/cak_slaughter.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/

‘Poultry Farming.’ 2015. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poultry_farming

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The Vegan Dilemma

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I’m not ashamed of my vegan diet in the slightest. That being said, I tend not to flaunt it or even mention it unless I’m going out to eat with a group and they suggest going to a steakhouse or a Red Lobster (nobody I know ever actually suggests those places, but for the sake of the restaurants’ conveniently obvious non-veg names I’m going to pretend they do). In my experience, no one has ever been annoyed by my “restriction”- more commonly, they’re interested and ask me questions.

However, there are times when I don’t want to go through the potential hassle of mentioning it at all. For example, recently I was at a small party in West Oakland where everybody was fairly drunk off of PBR’s. Someone yelled, “PIZZA?” and the crowd went wild. “PIZZA! PIZZA! PIZZA!” everybody chanted.

“What kind do you want?” the guy who invited me, Greg, asked.

“You know what, I’m not too hungry,” I replied. I know that I could have told him, but I wasn’t quite in the mood for all the drunk kids in my vicinity to start asking questions about how it’s possible to give up cheese. “I mean, it’s CHEESE,” they would say, exasperated.

So, when the pizza arrived, and sloppy, stumbling party-goers burst into tears and bowed down to the delivery guy as if he was a messiah, and then as slices began to disappear at speeds comparable to Usain Bolt at the 2008 Summer Olympics, I sat back with my beer and observed the frenzy. “Amazing,” I said softly. As I watched my glassy-eyed peers crouch down to vacuum up with their mouths any crumbs that may have been lost in the depths of the carpet fibers, I felt rather like a scientist observing a pack of ravenous chimps. I was practically Jane Goodall at Gombe Stream. My thoughts were interrupted by Greg waving a slice in my face.

“Sure you don’t want a bite?” he asked.

“Gimme some of your crust,” I replied, leaning forward and biting off a corner.

Some may read this and think, “Wow, poor soul, it must be terrible to never be included in all the delicious, cheesy fun.” Strangely, I don’t feel excluded when I’m in situations like the one above. That’s probably due to the fact that in the four years or so that I’ve cut out animal products from my diet, my body and mind have developed a mild aversion to all things covered in coagulated udder juice. But I will say that there are times when I’m walking down the frozen section of the grocery store and hear the pizzas whispering, “We know you want us.”

“You’re right,” I say to them with a sigh. “I kind of do.”

Luckily, I live in California where nearly every grocery store now carries vegan pizza. They may be $10 for a personal size but it’s nice to know that I could get one if I really wanted one.
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Ultimately, it can be difficult to juggle the delicate balance of pronouncing your dietary habits or to keep them quiet so as not to a) isolate yourself by being known as the pesky vegan, and/or b) ignite a flurry of questions about where I get my protein or whether I care about the exploited workers who pick my vegetables.

Before I get criticized for “not standing up for my beliefs,” I want to mention that years ago, when I was a freshly budded vegan, I was the type to crinkle my nose up at my friends when they moaned with delight into their chicken sandwiches, or to lecture my parents on the inhumane methods of slaughter that were used to procure the bacon they were frying. Don’t even get me started on the ruckus I would make when I saw foie gras on the menu at a restaurant. It took time for me to realize that while I strongly believe that humans don’t have the right to cruelly massacre animals the way that we do, and while I do feel twinges of irritation when people say, “I can’t even watch a second of those factory farming documentaries, they’re so sad,” then proceed to slurp up their Spaghetti Bolognese, I also do not have the right to thrust my beliefs onto anyone. I know a handful of other vegans disagree with this idea, claiming that change will not come unless we speak up, but I’ve found that the vegan lifestyle is more positively responded to when it’s not aggressively marketed.