In a 1990 photo from the Animal Liberation Front,
two activists posed after removing 82 beagles and
26 rabbits from a laboratory in Cambridge, England.
I was watching a “60 Minutes” report on YouTube when I realized I could burn down a logging station. The 2005 report, called “BurningRage,” told the story of the environmental extremist group the Earth LiberationFront, which the United States government had come to regard as its greatest domestic “terrorist” threat. At the time, the E.L.F. was responsible for over 1,000 actions, including the most financially destructive act of domestic terrorism ever recorded: One of its autonomous cells had set fire to a $23 million housing development outside San Diego, completely destroying it.
I was watching this because the E.L.F. activist Daniel McGowan had recently signed a plea agreement ending a long trial for setting fire to the offices of Superior Lumber in Glendale, Ore., causing over $400,000 in damage. By temporarily shutting down Superior Lumber’s operations, McGowan and five other activists delayed the untimely deaths of untold numbers of trees and animals whose habitats were being clear-cut. McGowan looked like a hero to me and to others in the movement.
It was 2006 and I was 22. I had been an ethical vegan for only a short time, but was already beginning to learn about organizations like the E.L.F., the Animal Liberation Front (A.L.F.), and Earth First! thinkers like the green-anarchist philosopher John Zerzan, and bands like Gather and Earth Crisis, who made hard-core punk music about animal liberation.Seeing the twisted, charred remains of the San Diego housing development flicker across my computer screen, I thought of all I could do with my own hands, and my anger. I cared passionately about protecting other species and decided to act.
My boyfriend and I began penning a manifesto and planning our own actions, studying manuals for lockpicking and building incendiary devices. The anarchist sites we frequented gave us directions for reproducing zines from PDFs, so we began to distribute them out of my boyfriend’s apartment and called our distro Black Masque. We watched countless videos shot surreptitiously inside vivisection laboratories and slaughterhouses, and read deeply about rewilding and primitivism, talking about how we’d help take down the sick system, then live in a treehouse in the mountains and grow our own food.
Seven years later, I’ve still never carried out an action. My boyfriend and I split up and I moved back home. I got a job in a coffee shop and life took over. Before long, I wasn’t even vegan anymore.
My parents are ethical vegetarians but left it up to me to decide on my own. When I was 10, I did, after finding a PETA pamphlet about animal rights at my friend’s house and bringing it home. I remember the rankling feeling I had after calling the 800 number on my toothpaste tube a few days later and asking a woman if the company tested its toothpaste on animals. I found out it did, but I didn’t stop using it — back then, I didn’t know there were alternatives. Throughout most of middle and high school, I was the vegetarian outlier among my friends. I believed I was special.
By the time I got to college, my lifestyle had become so habitual that I forgot why I wanted to abstain from animal products in the first place. After all that time, I still knew little about the beef industry and its connection to the dairy and leather industries, and nothing about the precarious state of our oceans as a result of overfishing, or the fate of unwanted male chicks unlucky enough to be born on egg farms. My freshman year, I fell in love for the first time, with an Italian-American boy who lived down the hall from me in my dorm. He was an enthusiastic and aggressive meat eater, and after many weeks of his prodding, I relented and ordered a salmon steak at the Macaroni Grill. Since then I have alternated between meat eating and strict, at times militant, veganism.
Currently, I’ve been vegan for over a year, having again made the change after finishing a novel about young lovers getting involved in veganarchist activism. But the passive, day-to-day choices of ethical veganism alone leave me feeling restless.
During the E.L.F.-A.L.F. period, I moved into a new apartment and got a kitten, whom I named Roslyn. I loved her immediately and intensely. Being a young adult of the 21st century, I demonstrated this love with hundreds of pictures on Facebook. All of my friends knew Roslyn and adored her; she even had her own Facebook account after a while. So when my boyfriend, who was already vegan, asked me why I would eat some animals but not others — for instance, Roslyn — the question seemed ridiculous. But thinking about it, I couldn’t give him a good answer.
Now Roslyn lives at my parents’ house in Florida and I live in a tiny apartment in one of the largest urban spaces on the planet.
A large part of the difficulty I’ve had sustaining what I consider to be an ethical lifestyle over the years has been the lack of direct contact I have with animals. Most of the animals I see are either moving about on screens, or already cold cuts — processed food being another kind of screen. Recently, I watched two videos of an orphaned rhino cuddling with its keeper. I commented on a photograph of a baby brown bear on the National Geographic Instagram. I did most of the research for my novel online, where images of suffering animals intermix with those of docile house cats and cows grazing on hillsides.
There’s a documentary, which I’m afraid to watch, called “Earthlings.” The two-and-a-half minute trailer contains so much real footage of graphic violence that I don’t think I can handle two hours of it. Joaquin Phoenix narrates while a cow thrashes around on the floor of a slaughterhouse, bleeding out, and a deer is skinned alive but continues to live. A dog is thrown, struggling, into the back of a garbage truck. One racehorse trips and five more go stumbling over it. At the end of the trailer Phoenix says, “It takes nothing away from a human to be kind to an animal.” Seeing this, I feel a number of emotions: pity, rage, fear, indignation. But I know they’re synthetic. They don’t touch the love from which springs true compassion.
Sometimes, walking to the subway, I’ll stop to watch finches play on a patch of grass, or a squirrel flick its tail next to a bush. If I’m lucky, I’ll see rats running along the tracks while I wait for my train. But aside from the occasional dog, I never interact with animals. And while I feel more strongly now than I ever have before that being vegan is the most ethical lifestyle choice I can make, I’m also more sensitive to the artifice inherent in my daily understanding of animal life.
My first time grocery shopping after going vegan last summer, I walked down the meat aisle past sausages, ground beef and chicken cutlets, aware that my rediscovered beliefs were, to a large extent, intellectual. It took an imaginary leap for me to recognize the blood pooling in the corner of some Saran Wrap as that which had once carried nourishment to the organs of another being, so I conjured up videos I’d seen of slaughterhouses, battery cages and nursing sows. I reminded myself of all I’d read recently, how disgusted I’d felt just days beforehand. Reaching the end of the aisle, I still felt disconnected. Then I saw the chicken feet.
They’d always been there next to the cow tongues but I’d never seen that they were so humanlike. They were bled white and plump. Their four digits bent innocently at the knuckles like children’s. Skin was torn where it was handled too roughly, and snapped tendons showed from the ends of wrists beneath ragged skin where the feet had been chopped. Fingernails came to elegant points. I got close and stared. What had been theoretical just seconds before had suddenly become disturbingly, gloriously real to me.
Growing up by the water in Florida, I spent a lot of time interacting with wildlife: stingrays, pelicans, mangroves, lizards, orange trees, hibiscus and any number of sea birds and tropical bugs. My husband and I flew down recently to visit my parents and I took him to an estuary where I used to spend my free time. We stood silently at the edge of a tide pool, and after some minutes, fiddler crabs crept from the mud, first one at a time, and then by the dozens. They scuttled around our feet making gentle waves, unaware that we watched from above.
It is one of my life’s great regrets that I haven’t done more to defend other species against human greed. Whether fatigue or complacency, finding excuses is easy. A lack of time and money is the first. Then comes the blame: I don’t have money because capitalism doesn’t work; this is how the system’s designed; it doesn’t allow you to resist. Then the defeat: We’ve already lost; the earth is doomed; I’m doing all I can day to day.
Deep down, I know that I’m not.
Recently, The Associated Press reported that the earth is standing at the precipice of a sixth mass extinction as a result of disappearing habitats. When I read things like this, my rage is ignited as it was nearly a decade ago. I wonder all over again: Who is injured when a logging station or a slaughterhouse burns? Who is injured when it doesn’t? When we talk about animals, we are also talking about humans. But anger alone will get us nowhere, and violence will get us nowhere. As if grieving, we have to learn to endure, making conscious choices, every day, which help us to live.