Nothing about my diet as a child would have suggested a vegan future, other than possibly my love of canned peas!
So Ryan, tell us a little about yourself. What was your childhood like? What sort of family did you grow up in? Were you brought up in a vegan family?
My dad was a very philosophical person. He used to ask me questions like, “how do we know this is not a dream and our dreams are not the reality?” This drove me crazy as a young kid, but I later learned to love it. He had shelves full of books by Kant, Plato, Nietzsche, Sartre and Wittgenstein. He loved to learn and think. We used to read pages of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for fun and spend hours discussing a few pages. In many ways my dad was my hero. From him I definitely obtained a love of philosophy and deep thinking on things beyond the surface level.
My mom was a different story. She was a bit of an irritable tyrant who ruled by the decree, “Because I said so”. I’m sure she meant well but she was a very irrational arguer, the kind of person for whom he who shouted loudest and refused to back down would be the winner. From her I got my unwillingness to back down, but I’d like to believe I’m only this way when I know the justness of the cause. Also, I think the sheer irrationality of her punishments made me hate ‘might makes right’, the power of tyranny. The words, ‘Because I said so’ were my worst enemy. This lis reflected in my disgust at the idea that we can treat animals in such a way because we have the power over them, or because “this is what we do”.
As far as diet goes, we were very much a family of meat at every meal. And as I got older there was a lot of fast food. Nothing about my diet as a child would have suggested a vegan future, other than possibly my love of canned peas! I’ve been eating a can of peas a day for as long as I can remember. I can tolerate fresh or frozen peas, but give me a nasty can of peas (no salt added of course) and I’ll eat it and want more!
What was it that made you choose vegan? Was there a particular moment or event in your life that prompted you to make the change?
The decision to go vegan happened relatively quickly. One piece of the puzzle was that I was teaching a summer class for kids on philosophy. And in that class my son wanted to talk about the issue of animal rights. And it bothered me immensely that I could find no real justification for eating meat. Every argument in defense of eating meat boiled down to “it is what we do” or, “I like the taste”. In my book, neither hold much water philosophically. And just prior to this my dad passed away from heart disease at the age of 63. Years of McDonald’s and an overall unhealthy diet (plus genetics) had caught up with him in spite of his being in good physical shape. And I think that shook me up. So my family decided we would start eating better. I was not going to die at 63. We watched documentaries like Food Inc. And this inevitably raised the animal issue, along with the health issue. So I ordered the book, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran. I must have read it all day when it arrived, and then watched Earthlings and Meet Your Meat. And that was it. I could probably have kept killing myself and saying, I’ll be healthier tomorrow or next week. But when I saw what was happening to animals, I was done.
You have a family of your own – are they all vegan too?
I told my wife that my son and I were going to go vegan. He was on board right away. And at first my wife and my daughter said that they would be vegetarian because she couldn’t give up cheese. Two hours later she said, “Let’s do this.” And that was in December of 2011. And we never looked back. From that moment my passion for fighting for animals became central to my existence, even if not yet fully expressed externally. I knew that I had to do something to help animals escape this cruel fate they’d been handed. From that moment my passion for fighting for animals became central to my existence.
Have your children encountered any problems at school or with friends?
Fortunately my children have been homeschooled since they were young. My son learned to read when he was very little and was reading books like ‘Charlotte’s Web’ before turning 3. He took a college-level math course at the age of 7. So school was never an option. This doesn’t prevent the world from constantly shoving meat, eggs and dairy in our face, but within the home and homeschool they were free from this being a major issue. And none of our friends made it an issue, at least not with our kids.
You do a lot of activism. Do you have a job you have to go to and then be an activist in your spare time?
My job is being a stay-at-home dad and full time activist. My wife and I have always put vey little value on money. I was planning to go back into teaching, which is what I had done before my son Christian Voltaire was born.
Do your family support what you are doing for the animals?
My wife told me that she knew I had to devote my whole life to this cause or I’d be miserable. And she was right. My wife and kids support me 100%. And I know that I am so lucky that as a family we would rather fight for animals than have more money. I also have a vegan brother and sister-in-law. But aside from them I am an outcast amongst my family because I refuse to be silent while animals suffer.
What different kinds of activism do you do? Tell us about Art from a Vegan Heart.
I’ve tried many different types of activism. My favorite thing to do is probably my work on my Art from a Vegan Heart Facebook page and Etsy shop, which I use to fund my art supplies, activism in general, and recently to sponsor a few animals at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary. I love doing art to promote the vegan cause. Everything from my drawings of Piglet (of Winnie the Pooh fame) getting slaughtered as Christopher Robin looks on, to portraits of many different animals. I love doing art and it’s like an escape where the part of my brain that is tormented by what is happening to animals can shut down for a bit. I especially enjoyed putting together my video called The Boarax, which is both on my Facebook page Art from a Vegan Heart and on YouTube. It tells the story of the Smithfield pigs and how they suffer. It was done as a children’s rhyme with colorful pictures to try to make it a version that kids can see but still hear the reality of what is happening.
Other things that I’ve done include using stuffed animals to raise awareness. I stage photo shoots of them with the meat product they would be made into as people watch, so those people might make the connection or ask what I was doing. I was even thrown out of Walmart on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for setting up several stuffed animals in front of the bacon section. The stuffed animals were mostly pigs wearing signs and shirts with vegan messages and they held frames of actual pigs saying things like, ‘Rest in Peace’. I wanted to do something special on that day because clearly I take inspiration from people like MLK who stood for justice in the face of great opposition.
I also write daily messages on my car rear window with Window Crayons because I feel that this helps spread the message to so many people I could otherwise not reach. I really think if all vegans started doing this, our message would be deafening because it would be impossible to avoid. My messages range from facts, to gentle statements, to flat out in-your-face doses of ‘what you are doing is wrong and this can’t continue’ messages.
And most recently I’ve taken to just approaching anyone I see in grocery stores anyone with dairy, eggs, or meat, and telling them whatever I can quickly share about how horrible for the animal is the process of making that product. I usually have a coupon from Gardein to give them and encourage them to try the alternative. I just decided it was killing me to sit quietly by while people paid for horrible things to happen to animals. I had to speak out or die inside. I chose to be silent no more. I can’t say that I do it perfectly or that I never choke. But I keep pushing forward and keep trying to reach into people’s hearts and pull out any empathy or compassion that I can find.
One other form of activism that I’ve been working on is making vegan t-shirts. At this point my closet is full of designs I’ve made, printed and ironed on to t’s. And I plan to keep making new ones. I think any way we can get the message out that veganism is the future, all the better. We truly have to make it a tidal wave of justice sweeping over the world so that no-one can hide in blissful ignorance pretending that meat, eggs and dairy are victimless crimes.
And finally, I’ve just finished writing my first vegan anthem. Hopefully before too long I’ll be able to share it in a semi-polished form. It’s been many years since I last wrote a song or did much with music, but I figured I’d give it a try.
Which kind of activism do you find the hardest, and which is the most rewarding?
The hardest activism is talking directly to people. When i walk up to people in a grocery store, I never know what kind of reaction I will get. I never know if people will be nice, mean or in between. Sometimes people are just wonderful to interact with, and other times they make me feel like I am the embodiment of evil. But being a true introvert, all interactions take a toll on me. I’m exhausted by the end of my trek through multiple grocery stores talking to people about their food choices.
The activism I find most rewarding is anything I do that inspires someone else to raise their voice for animals. I consider activism to be in part about raising awareness and part about inspiring others to join in with raising awareness. If every vegan out there made themselves heard, our message would spread like wildfire and be an unstoppable force. So, I try to do anything I can to show that there are so many ways in which we can make ourselves heard.
You must have had some fascinating encounters. Are there any in particular that stand out in your mind?
The encounters that usually stand out for me are the people who just seem dead inside. People who seem like they could be the ones in the videos doing horrendous things to animals without any hint of guilt. These people shake you to the core with a fear that evil really exists. One time, an employee at Walmart saw that I had a stuffed pig that said, ‘Don’t eat me’ on it, and she opened the conversation as I came to check out with, “Do you work for PETA, ‘cos God put pigs like that on this planet for me to eat. And you better not come up on me when I’m wearing my fur coat.” No matter what I said to her that day, or the numerous times since when I’ve tried to find the tiniest crack in her wall of utter compassionlessness, as far as I can see, she remains truly dead inside.
As for positive experiences, it’s amazing when friends you thought probably wrote you off as crazy, now suddenly tell you they’re working towards a vegan lifestyle. Or when those you were certain had no chance of ever hearing your message start to join you in spreading that very message you were sure would never reach them.
How would you like to be remembered? If there is one message you could leave behind, what would it be?
I want to be remembered as someone who refused to back down in the face of injustice. I want people to know that I would sacrifice all and devote everything I can to leaving this world a better place for all living creatures. If this is not achieved in my lifetime, I’d like the message I leave behind to be that we must be silent no more! We must be loud and unrelenting in our assertion that things must change. All living creatures must be respected in their desire to live and be free from unnecessary suffering and pain.
Ryan, thank you for the privilege of having you share something of your life with us. You are a truly inspiring person.