10 Questions: Everyday Vegan Changemaker with Gary Loewenthal

Gary Loewenthal is a pretty fabulous Everyday Vegan Changemaker and I am thrilled to feature his Q&A in Vegan Street’s ongoing series. Gary is such a wonderful guy: down-to-earth, funny, approachable and warm, he is a fantastic advocate for the animals, and even turned his passion into the amazing outreach tool, The Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale. I am so glad to know him.

If you have someone you’d like to nominate as a future EVC (maybe even yourself!), please let me know in the comments or message me.

1. To start, we’d love to know how long you’ve been vegan. 
 
Fifteen years.

2. We’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

One one level, my vegan transition started on December 26, 1999. My wife and I reluctantly agreed to foster a cat, named Mike, for five days.

At the time, we had never talked about animals in any serious way — as companions, as food sources, as moral agents, none of that stuff. It simply wasn’t on our radar.

Within an hour of Mike’s arrival, my concept of cats began to change. He had quite a personality. Within a few months, I was participating in online cat discussion groups. Within a year, I led one and was participating in cat issues. One thing led to another… I’m starting to segue into the next question.

Notice that I said, “On one level.” On a deeper level, looking back, I think that — perhaps like the vast majority of people — I had the compassionate impulses and sense of decency that would have propelled me to go vegan, but I repressed it, or at least didn’t pursue it. There were precedents that I can see now were indications of an interest in vegan principles.

Several years before Mike literally walked past the threshold, and into our house and our lives, my wife bought a copy of Dr. Neal Barnard’s Food For Life. We didn’t go vegan or vegetarian. But we incorporated tofu and soy milk into our diet. Twenty years before that, I met my first vegan, and though his limited (and rather belligerent) outreach had no apparent effect on me, I can still remember what he told me about calves being killed for cow’s milk — and it was true. So the encounter left an imprint, perhaps planted a long-germinating seed. I can recall other incidents where I believe I stifled my feelings for animals, keeping an emotional distance to protect myself from being hurt.

I didn’t realize the implications of any of these occurrences when they were happening. But with hindsight, they fit a pattern: I was vegan inside all along, but I went along with society and habit rather than explore or cultivate those life-changing, impactful possibilities.

On the fifth day that Mike was with us, we asked if we could keep him. The answer was yes. We were clueless about cats, but quickly learned. He stayed with us for 15 years — the remainder of his life, and that was the beginning of our career as “failed fosterers.”

3. What was the catalyst (or were the catalysts) that made you go vegan? Was it a film? An experience? Someone else’s influence? A book? Was it overnight or did it take a while?

As you can guess, Mike was the main “catalyst” (which I believe derives from “cat” and “analyst”). As my relationship with him grew, so did my general concept of animals’ cognizance and uniqueness.

At the same time, my involvement with cat issues led to broader awareness of how animals were exploited. In late 2000, I read a book about cat care (Cat Be Good, by Annie Bruce), and one of the suggested readings at the end was Why Animal Experiments Must Stop and How You Can Stop Them by Vernon Coleman. I bought the book. At first, I didn’t believe the author. Surely, these horrors were one-offs from the past and didn’t occur in modern times — making rats tread water until they drowned; shocking newborn kittens as they sought the comfort and warmth of their mother. But they were really happening. As many others have said, I couldn’t ever un-see that.

In 2002, I attended an animal rights convention. It was only 20 minutes from my house. I met some of the groups that had helped with cat issues with which I had gotten involved. I heard Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns talk about the living Hell of battery cages, and it was practically a Pentecostal experience for me. I saw large “FaunaVision” videos of seals being clubbed to death. The world became a more horrible place that weekend. But I also met people who dedicated their lives to ending these injustices and forming a world based on respect and kindness. The helpers, as Mr. Rogers would say.

My dive into animal protection went deep. I veered off my corporate career path and just did animal-related work for several years. I co-formed a local vegan outreach group. I started a blog and created animal-based websites. I wrote hundreds of letters to the editor. I saw none of this coming. I know I’m far from the only one who totally unexpectedly became an animal activist.

I didn’t go fully vegan until 2004. Why did it take me so long? I was stubborn. I had a habit of rationalizing “just this one slice of cheese pizza.” I was reluctant to incriminate myself. I made excuses about inconvenience. Compared to those who go vegan overnight after their first exposure to a slaughterhouse video, my “journey” was sort of a train wreck. But eventually, I realized that none of my excuses held water. None justified easily avoidable harm to animals.

Years later, I now try to leverage my experience at making self-protective excuses. I may be able to get inside the heads of those who do the same thing I did. I hold up my unimpressive stumble towards veganism as a “surely you can do better than this” example.

And to actually answer the last part of the question…It was everything: Videos, talks, articles, books, conversations, reflective thinking, getting acquainted with new foods. Maybe mostly it was me getting over myself — admitting I was wrong and overcoming defense mechanisms.

Although you didn’t ask, my wife went vegan from me talking about what I experienced. She never saw one video or graphic image. I am so lucky that she went vegan with me, with no resistance. It just made sense to her.

4. What were your biggest challenges or obstacles to going vegan and how did you overcome them?

Part of me likes to debate ideas, and part of me eschews it. See, I even debate myself. And that’s sort of what happened as I leaned into veganism. My morally lazy and weak side would rationalize a purchase that had “free range” animal products. My principled and strong side would argue against it. Eventually, I realized that none of my excuses justified the harm I could easily avoid. Ultimately, I don’t actually think it was logic that got the best of me. One day, I realized I just couldn’t do that to animals. I’m sure the logic helped, but empathy and a sense of kinship — really, just a feeling in my deepest gut, in my heart — made the final ruling.

Also — I know this will be all-too familiar to many — once I was vegan, I couldn’t get my head around the fact that others didn’t instantly go vegan, given the depth of the horrors and the ease with which we could avoid most of them. Until I thought about my own painfully start-stop, excuse-riddled journey, and all the subtle fears which impeded progress but in retrospect seemed silly.

5. What is the world like as a vegan today compared to when you first went vegan?

The entire spectrum of veganism seems much more mainstream. Millennials have grown up with veggie burgers; they’re not novel. Veganville was a hit on SNL. Pro football athletes are trying plant-based diets. Impossible (controversy aside) and Beyond have spurred mainstream articles heralding the new plant-based age. Your neighbor drinks almond milk. Billionaires are investing in plant-based startups.

Yet meat consumption is rising worldwide, and has recently upticked in the US after a few years of decline. How many of those Impossible / Beyond purchases displaced an animal burger, and how many displaced a Boca burger? (We’ll know more when we see 2019 meat consumption figures; and as sales rise, I’m guardedly optimistic that some people who would have bought a flesh-based burger bought the plant-based option instead.) So on a historic scale, it’s still early. But there are hopeful signs, and all this mainstreaming — especially the profusion of widely available products aimed at meat-eaters — makes activism easier.

Although the percentage of vegans (at least in the US) has not changed much in 15 pears, I feel that the breadth of vegans has increased. I know vegans all over the demographic map, and this, to me, is another good indicator of mainstreaming.

6. Please tell us your “why vegan” elevator pitch.

Going vegan is a great way to extend compassion to all animals — slaughterhouses are horrible places — and help preserve the environment. It won’t cost you an extra dime, it doesn’t require any laws being passed, and it’s never been easier — and it’s easier than you think. I used to eat meat every day; if I can do it, you can do it. I’m happy to help. Hey, is the elevator stuck? (Kidding on that last point.)

7. What is your favorite thing about being vegan?

I love that I’ve divested from participating in the horrors of animal exploitation. I no longer do that to animals. It’s such a relief to be free from that burden, to no longer have to fool myself by pushing back horrific pictures and screams so I can eat my dinner. I feel like at least in that part of my life, I’m living in accordance with my values and innate compassion. I’ve reduced my “suffering footprint” as well as my environmental footprint.

Being vegan has also made me realize that there’s more I need to do. I’m trying to reduce my waste in other areas, and my use of plastic. I avoid sweatshop clothing as much I can, and have started buying more vintage clothes on Etsy. I still have a long way to go. Others, as usual, are way ahead of me.

I also try to maintain an optimism and cheerfulness with individuals, even as I decry what our species is doing to the planet. As awful as we can be en masse, it’s still easy to find kindness and generosity every day.

8. If you could tell someone some simple advice for shifting away from eating animals, what would it be?

Do you hate hurting animals? Good, now that we’ve got the “why” out of the way, we can focus on the “how.” My baseline advice is for people not to change the general nature of their diets — if they like their status quo — including amount of fat, protein, and carbs, but to switch to plant-based alternatives. (Bigger changes can come once the switch to plant-based is firmly in place.) Simply google “vegan recipe” followed by anything you want, including any qualifiers you need, such as “quick,” “kid-friendly,” “spicy,” and so forth. You’re likely to get good hits on the first page. Experiment a little. Browse food blogs. Buy some high-rated vegan cookbooks if you prefer hard copy.

Of course veganism goes beyond diet. It’s fairly easy to swap out home care products for cruelty-free varieties. Replace clothes as they wear out.

If you live in a food desert, or your parents control the food budget, or you have kids who are picky eaters, or an uncooperative partner, or are currently in the Navy living in a submarine (yes, I came across this once), I get it. Do the best you can, in earnest. If your heart’s into it, you’ll find a way eventually. There are lots of groups offering support. (Caveat: Social media can magnify minor differences of opinion into raging arguments.)

To paraphrase an old saying about planting trees: The best time to go vegan is many years ago. The second-best time is today.

9. Can you tell us about a time that you think you had a positive influence on someone considering your vegan or compassionate living message? What do you think made it effective?

Well, since I helped start and run a vegan nonprofit, and we created techniques and campaigns that got international attention…I hope my vegan message resonated with some people. :) A rough estimate is that during the time I was off the career path and just did animal stuff, taking everything into account, I saved around a million animals. And if I consider what I lost in earnings and retirement savings, it cost me about a dollar per animal. I’d do it all again. I should note that it would have been very difficult to do this without the understanding and tolerant support of my wife. I learned that behind many full- or most-time activists is a supportive partner with health insurance. These days, Patreon supporters can collectively be that partner.

There have been some instances on social media when people said they went vegan because of my posts. That is very gratifying. Social media is a difficult platform for presenting challenging ideas, because you lose most of the multifaceted real-life context that cultivates friendly communication.

For whatever reason, I have an interest in the hard-to-budge or belligerent individual. For instance, when tabling, many times I have seen this: There’s a person who’s interested, and a bored spouse or partner. Let’s say it’s the husband for brevity. I start up a conversation with him, while someone else at the table engages with the more interested party. If he’s wearing a shirt with a sailboat, I might ask about sailing. Before you know it. we’re having a pleasant conversation. After a few minutes, he ends up taking some literature or asking sincere questions about plant-based foods for barbecues. One time, I was leafleting with a friend on the National Mall. Two men approached us on their way to a Christian event. The one talking to me started by stridently defending eating animals on religious grounds. Long story short, by the end of the discussion, he warmed up to at least some of the vegan ideals, took a pamphlet, shook my hand, and thanked me for the conversation. Similar experiences have happened probably hundreds of times now.

My “secret,” which is not a secret, is that if you treat people with respect, and understand that they may be acting out of defensiveness, because deep down they might be uncomfortable with hurting animals but at the same time are vested in it — causing the mind and emotions to to get wound up in a knot — then you can lower their defenses with your calm, polite interaction, and once you do that, you have a real chance at positive — influential — dialog.

Other success factors for me, which are not remotely original: If someone asks a question, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, and no matter how much they’re trying to trip you up, answer it matter-of factly. Make sure you tailor the response to the situation rather than giving something canned. If they make a point with which you agree, express your agreement. The more relatable I am to the person with whom I’m talking, the more I feel they see me as credible and the more likely they are to take whatever I say to heart — even if it’s down the road when they’re more reflective. I try to be creative. Once, a coworker told me she hated veggie burgers. I said, “That gives me an idea. Each Friday, I’ll bring in a different veggie burger, store-bought or homemade, with customized toppings, and you give me your honest feedback.” After four weeks, she completely changed her mind about veggie burgers. I think the success factor was that I got her involved as a stakeholder, and there was no pressure. When life gives you lemons — actually I love lemons. What I mean to say is, don’t get angry, think up a solution. Remember, they’re just people like you and me; they may be hostile but they have basically the same fears; they may have different experiences and hot buttons.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is…”

Being vegan is basic decency. It’s as normal and necessary to me as breathing by this point. It’s a simple but profound way to avoid unnecessarily harm and help sustain the earth and its inhabitants. Try it. The rewards are magnificent.

Extra credit: Please let us know your favorite vegan organization.

Cheating on the extra credit question: My favorite vegan organization is the one that helps you, not-yet-vegan reader, move closer to being vegan.

Thank you, Gary!

Marla Rose is a journalist, co-founding partner of VeganStreet.com and Vegan Street Media, and she wants you to check out this handy-dandy free guide for new (or aspiring!) vegans. If you like the work Vegan Street is doing, please consider joining our Patreon community for as little as $1.00 a week.