I knew things were getting bad when I started avoiding the grocery store. Not that there was anything unusual about the store where I shopped. It was a typical American grocery, crisply chilled and brightly lit, dairy on the right, frozen foods on the left. The problem was the smell. Even though the butcher section was in the back, I could smell animal flesh when I came through the doors, the faint stench that leaked through the plastic wrap and rose above the ammonia smell of the floors. That odor seemed to penetrate the skins of the fruits and vegetables. Was that possible? I wondered why no one else seemed to notice.

 

It is Sunday night, and I am at my computer, reading my PETA Action Alerts — e-mails from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Each week they list new and ongoing atrocities against animals, along with addresses so people can write letters to legislators, corporations, and government agencies. I keep a stack of prestamped postcards on my desk and send off eight or ten at a time. I write to the CEO of McDonald’s to insist that the chain require minimum humane standards of its meat suppliers. I write to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency to protest unnecessary toxic-chemical testing on hundreds of thousands of animals. I write to a district attorney in the Midwest, encouraging him to prosecute a large hog farm where undercover investigators made videotapes of workers beating animals to death with metal rods and hammers. By the end of my postcard-writing session, I am exhausted. There’s never any end to this. Each week another e-mail arrives with a new litany of abuse. My postcards seem pathetically inadequate, tiny pieces of paper floating on a vast ocean of suffering.

The next day is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but it doesn’t feel like a holiday with the gray drizzle outside. In my e-mail in-box I find another animal-rights bulletin, this one calling for volunteers to participate in street protests. I usually delete these, but this morning I’ve been reading one of Dr. King’s speeches, in which he says that people who accept evil without protesting it are, in effect, cooperating with it. He seems to be telling me that writing letters is not enough. It is time for my opposition to become more visible.

I am distinctly unsuited for street activism. Shy and nonconfrontational, with a lingering sense of decorum from my Southern upbringing, I try to avoid causing a scene. I’ve never come out publicly for or against anything, but staying silent doesn’t seem like an option when I think of the suffering of animals. Street activism, with its marches and signs, at least offers a sense of doing something real. I want to stand up for what is right, to feel that my actions make a difference, though in my heart I am not convinced. I must try to speak for the animals, even though I see a future unfolding for them that is beyond my ability to change.

 

As a first step I join the Farm Sanctuary volunteers. They have an information booth in New York City’s Grand Central Station, where they distribute materials about the plight of animals on factory farms.

When I show up for my first shift at the booth, I’m surprised to find that it’s in a prime location on one of Grand Central’s main corridors. Every hour hundreds of people walk by. I’m not sure exactly what to do, so I stand in front of the booth with some leaflets, calling out, “Take a look, friends! We should know how our food comes to us!” Most commuters ignore me (I can relate — I ignore people handing out leaflets in the city, too), but a fair number stop and pick up brochures about veganism or sign our petition to outlaw the crates in which young veal calves are cruelly kept. A middle-aged man with a ponytail encourages us. He says he has been a vegan for twenty years.

One of my co-volunteers, a handsome young man from Trinidad, is engaged in an animated conversation with a passerby who has his Bible out, probably scanning Genesis, trying to find the passage about man having “dominion over the animals.” I have been here only a couple of hours, and already I am amazed at how many people carry around Bibles and actually pull them out to support their arguments.

We have large signs that say, Violence Begins with Your Fork, and, Demand Cruelty-Free, and, Respect Life. I find the wording of the last sign unfortunate, for its similarity to pro-life slogans. Sure enough, a woman with a tense expression asks me how we can care so much about animals when there are human babies being murdered every day in abortion clinics. Shouldn’t they come first?

“I don’t know about that,” I tell her. “We’re here to say that each one of us can control what we choose to eat. We can take responsibility for whether our choices bring more violence and suffering into the world.”

She shakes her head in disgust at my thickheadedness.

I hear a woman walking by say, “Can you believe they’re working for animal rights and wearing leather?” Stung, I glance at my attire and that of my colleagues. It’s true, one of us appears to have on leather shoes. Although I am wearing microfiber shoes, I do have on a wool sweater. I make a silent vow to wear all cotton next time, regardless of the winter wind howling through Grand Central’s corridors.

 

A week later, I am back in Grand Central. This time I have taken care to dress professionally. I want to show the world that middle-class working people can also be advocates for animal rights, and that you can look attractive without wearing clothes made from animal products.

Today we have a video monitor set up. It plays a continuous loop on the life of pigs, from their birth in a factory farm to their death in the slaughterhouse. I watch about five seconds of it before I have to stop. The soundtrack, a Gregorian chant, reverberates in the station’s stone corridors.

One of the volunteers keeps up a running commentary about what’s happening on the video. There are easily fifty people standing around the monitor. Some look horrified. Many have no expression at all, but seem mesmerized by the violence. A few people eat hot dogs and ice cream while watching. I circle the crowd discreetly, offering leaflets on vegan living.

Coming home from Grand Central that afternoon, I feel disgusted with myself. What a sorry activist I make. How easily I cave in to despair. Where is the fire I feel when I’m sitting comfortably at home, writing letters?

For the first time, I have had a real taste of the enormous wall of hostility, apathy, and ignorance that maintains the status quo. To pep myself up, I think of the courage of the abolitionists, the suffragettes, and the civil-rights activists, how they held to their convictions month after month, year after year, despite crushing setbacks, physical violence, and humiliation. I think of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton crossing the country on horseback, only to be met with taunts and jeers for suggesting that women have rights. I think of Mahatma Gandhi facing the enormity of the British Raj, or Martin Luther King Jr. marching through Selma, Alabama. To me, the long battle for animal rights is no less important a struggle. I just wish I felt more adequate to the task.

 

I never intended to become a vegan, let alone an animal-rights activist. For most of my adult life I’ve been an apolitical consumer, too absorbed in my own dramas to concern myself with the rest of the world.

But things began to change as I reached forty. The material world became less alluring. I read more books on philosophy and spirituality. And slowly I became more conscious of my choices in life. I lost my taste for beef, then for pork. One day I looked down at my meal of roast chicken and felt repulsed. I decided to go meatless for a while.

Awakening from the deep sleep of unconscious consumption, I became aware of the ethical dimensions of my eating habits. I also began to see through the cultural distortions that allow us to believe we love animals (think of the cute pink pigs, happy cows, and baby chicks in children’s books and greeting cards) while keeping the grotesque reality of their lives far from our sight.

I read about Gandhi and his commitment to ahimsa, or a life of not-harming, and I thought about what that might mean in my own life. Where my food came from — whether a strawberry or a glass of milk — began to matter. I came to realize that all products that contain ingredients from animals — chicken-noodle soup, ice cream, yogurt, waffles — have one source: the factory farms of agribusiness.

First, seventy-two labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us.

— from the meal chant in Zen Buddhist monasteries

 

I get a brochure in the mail from an animal-rights group, this one about the life of a chicken on a factory farm. The first thing a newly hatched female chick will experience is a hot blade searing off her beak. (The male chicks don’t make it that far; shortly after hatching, they are ground up for fertilizer.) The brochure goes on to tell how the rest of the chick’s life will be spent in misery, crammed into a tiny cage with other chicks, seven or eight on top of each other: no movement, no fresh air, and no sunlight — until they go to the slaughterhouse.

I put my head down on my desk and weep. How can this be? How have we institutionalized this horror? How can 280 million Americans (minus the vegetarians) eat chicken several times a week and not know this? People are horrified at the human capacity for evil, revealed at places like Auschwitz and Babi Yar, Cambodia and Rwanda and Sierra Leone. Yet they ignore what goes on in factory farms, an atrocity that seems no less chilling to me.

Some days I walk the streets of New York and just look in the restaurant windows: burgers here, chicken nuggets there, whole chickens roasting on grills, meat sizzling on street vendors’ carts. New York is known for its restaurants; people come here just to eat. Yet when I look around, I see only a vast eating machine based on invisible suffering. Every year, 10 billion farm animals are raised and slaughtered in the U.S. Chickens are starved into unnatural egg-laying cycles until they become “spent hens” and are slaughtered. Pigs are immobilized in tiny iron crates, forced to lie in their own waste. Young calves are torn from their mothers and tethered in filthy stalls, kept weak and anemic to produce the white flesh preferred by veal consumers. That is what America is built on: Billions of tortured animals. A vast underground of suffering.

Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them.

— first of the Four Great Vows in Buddhism

 

When I think of saving sentient beings, I don’t usually think of stuffing envelopes. But reality is far less exciting than fantasy. An urgent request for volunteers has gone out from a coalition of animal-rights groups: an important piece of federal legislation will soon be coming to a vote, and the mailings must be put together as quickly as possible to garner support in Congress.

The proposed bill — the Federal Downed Animal Protection Act — would provide minimum levels of humane treatment to “downed animals” or “downers,” the slaughter industry’s name for animals who are too weak, sick, or injured to walk into the slaughterhouse. (The law states that only animals healthy enough to enter under their own power may be slaughtered.) The downers are a problem the industry wishes would go away. Every effort is made — including beatings and the use of electric prods — to get a cow or pig to walk from the transport truck through the door of the slaughterhouse. Those who can’t be made to walk are chained and dragged by a pickup truck or tractor into a pile to die of neglect.

When I get home, I study for the first time the materials I’ve been busily stuffing into envelopes for the last few hours. Although I already know more than I ever wanted to know about downers, I can’t stop staring at the pamphlets. I force myself to look hard at the grainy pictures, not to turn away. These scenes are happening right now, every day, all across America. While I am working or cooking or riding my bike, the slaughterhouses are doing their work with chilling efficiency; the downers are being dragged into piles to die. I tell myself to stop obsessing, to put the pamphlets down and get on with my day, but I can’t seem to do it. I keep staring at the pictures.

That night I dream of Luna. When I was a child, my grandmother lived on a small farm in southern Virginia, and Luna was one of her dairy cows. There were about a half dozen cows on the farm, but Luna was special. Sometimes while the other cows were taken down to the pasture, Luna was brought under the shady trees in the side yard. I would go out and talk to her and pet her, and Luna would occasionally amble over and look in the kitchen window, as if to see what all the fuss inside the house was about.

In my memory Luna has soft, placid eyes, but in my dream her eyes stare blankly ahead, her head mounted on a wall like a hunting trophy. Her eyes do not accuse, but neither do they offer recognition. I wake up grieving for an animal I can barely remember, my connection with Luna forever lost in the irretrievable past. I stare at the ceiling. Luna’s eyes swim in the blackness overhead.

 

On a brisk and windy afternoon, I find myself in the heart of Times Square, helping to construct a PETA display. After months of wrangling with New York City bureaucracy, we have a three-hour permit for a street exhibit.

PETA is known for its aggressive, outrageous tactics. Activists have thrown a pie in the face of Procter & Gamble’s CEO at an annual shareholders’ meeting because the company refused even to discuss ending animal testing. They have stormed the runways of fashion shows all over the world to protest the fur trade. Yet few actions have ignited as much controversy as the Holocaust exhibit, which presents graphic photographs of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps alongside photos of animals in factory farms. This is the exhibit I’m helping to set up.

Several men in blue uniforms emblazoned “Security” approach us, and I feel a wave of apprehension. Are they here to make us move? The exhibit coordinator tells me that they are security guards hired by PETA for our protection. Both the exhibit and the volunteers staffing it have been attacked in the past.

It doesn’t take long for the photographs to attract attention. One serious-looking man in a beret confronts me about whose idea it was to compare factory farms and Auschwitz. I talk a little about the exhibit while he scowls at the images. He looks so pained that I almost feel like apologizing. There is a long pause, and I brace myself for a scathing response. Still staring at the images, he says, “It is important that people see this,” and he walks off.

One woman glances at the images and hurries by as quickly as she can. She looks at my hand, outstretched with a leaflet, as though it might contaminate her. Another woman screams, “Shame!” over and over. “You compare Jews to pigs? This is bullshit. You people disgust me.” I can still hear her ranting long after she has disappeared into the crowds on Broadway.

One of the volunteers is engrossed in a conversation with an elderly couple. I can pick up only their heavy German accents. Later he comes over glowing and explains that they are Holocaust survivors and very supportive of the exhibit. “They got it right away,” he says. There is no predicting people’s reactions.

We are not the only ones who have chosen this stretch of Times Square for leafleting. A frail-looking Hispanic man in a Yankees cap stands nearby, handing out what appear to be pamphlets for a Broadway show. On closer examination, they turn out to be half-price coupons for steak dinners at a nearby restaurant. If he is aware of the irony of the situation, he doesn’t show it.

At first I ignore the coupon man. But we keep finding ourselves on the same stretch of sidewalk. As I get closer, I see that he is much older than I thought and doesn’t have any teeth. He takes one of my leaflets, looks at it intently, and points excitedly to the photographs. He speaks urgently, but his voice is so soft and his toothless mumblings so inarticulate that I can’t even tell what language he is speaking. I have dealt with the indifferent, the outraged, and the curious, but I don’t know what to do with this failed attempt at communication. Dusk is falling as I drift to another area of the sidewalk, leaving the man and his steak-dinner coupons silhouetted against the PETA banners and the flashing neon lights.