Why my friend Asta doesn’t eat animals.
A childhood spent growing up on a property where livestock are run tends to ensure that farm children are aware that some animals are destined to be eaten. There are those that are members of the family; dogs, cats, guinea pigs, horses, and the sacred pet sheep, goats and calves that tend to dot the house paddocks even when the children have grown and gone---and there are those that end up on a plate somewhere, sometime.
Yet not all of us are comfortable with that demarcation that allows us to treat some animals in one way, protected by legislation that punishes people if they are cruel to them and others in another way, where a degree of “cruelty” is seen to be a necessary part of farming animals for food.
I often ponder on this as I drive the dusty distances between home and farms when I am working as a rural journalist. I find myself no longer able to eat meat: an off and on vegetarian for much of my life, I was capable of eating meat when I knew where it came from and how the animal had died (preferably while it was asleep in its paddock!).
After seeing footage of Australian cattle being poked and prodded in an overseas abattoir wearing distinctive yellow ear tags and looking remarkably like those we had ourselves dispatched to LSS for the same destination not long before, I found myself no longer able to taste joy in a piece of steak. But that is me. As a family we still farm animals, and other members of our family still eat meat. We are still engrained in an industry relying on income from the raising of livestock for slaughter.
All these conflicting interests and thoughts were swirling around in my head one recent spring day, prompted by the presence on the calendar of Meat Free Week. As the week came and went, I mulled over the muddle with regard to being carnivorous omnivores, and I thought I would ask my childhood friend Asta Lander why she is a vegan.
Like me, Asta was borne of Scottish farming parents who moved to Australia with their young families in the late 1960s to farm in the Western Australian wheatbelt. Like me, she grew up conflicted about the role of animals in her life, and with a great deal of empathy for the creatures that she shared her time with.
Asta is an artist; married with children, she fills her house with animals and people who need love, and her paintings and photographs are a reflection of the person she is: warm, passionate, funny, and devoted to the wellbeing of all living things.
Rather than reflect further on my own conflicted lifestyle, I thought it would be better to ask Asta about her journey, from a farm child surrounded by pets and other animals to a vegan creative with a passion for protection of all creature great and small.
During Meat Free Week (https://www.meatfreeweek.org/what-is-meat-free-week) people were being prompted to think about the amount of meat in their diet, and the environmental, food security and human health implications of increasingly meat laden diets. There is a call for “flexitarianism”, which simply means building a diet based on less meat, and more plant food. What it all boils down to is that our demand for meat is increasing globally; it is affecting our health, the welfare of some animals, and our environment. There needs to be a balance. By providing an insight into what makes people make that switch, we might achieve a degree of understanding which might be good for us all in the long run.
So, why doesn’t my friend Asta eat animals?
It’s a long story…. but eventually everything in my body screamed not to eat the creatures I felt a connection with.
Do you think your childhood on the farm has contributed to your love of animals?
From a very small child I made friends with animals. I wanted to be Dr Doolittle and to speak their secret language.
My best memories are of rescuing the cold orphaned lambs. We lined them up in cardboard boxes in front of the fire and bottle fed them. I don't think there is a sweeter infant animal than a lamb.
My favourite programs were Kimba the White Lion and Lassie - programs that it's a wonder I wasn't "banned" from, because I would weep so uncontrollably over the story lines. The first book I ever remember reading myself was an early reader called Whiskers.
When we left the farm my tearful hysteria was over leaving the animals. I would never see our barn cats again - the ones I used to read to. We moved into a temporary home for a year and then onto 10 acres when our new home was built. We had a handful of animals.
When did you stop eating meat? Was it a conscious, deliberate decision or something that just sneaked up on you over time?
When our youngest children were in Primary school we moved to Katanning, with Peter's work as a Deputy Principal. I loved my time there, we all did and we were very active in the community. We even bought a home there.
Unfortunately we had to move due to unexpected circumstances, but moving gave me the opportunity to really consider my on again off again vegetarianism. In Katanning there is the meat works which employs a lot of the refugees (I taught their children), and of course there is also the massive sheep sale. But in Narrogin, where we moved to, and where I grew up, I had conflicting emotions and thoughts as well.
Was I being overly sentimental, as I was told I was as a child? Was I being impractical and stealing the livelihood of farmers like my dad had been? Was I being disloyal to my father and my family line of farmers? In Scotland the farm my father grew up on had been in the family for 400 years!
The deciding factor was my daughter's high school assignment. She chose to debate the dairy and egg industry. My world cracked wide open. Now not only could I not eat animals - because everything in my body screamed not to eat the creatures I felt a connection with, but I had to give up milk and eggs - because male calves and male chickens were killed for me to eat these.
Is veganism in keeping with your spiritual beliefs, and did they contribute to your decision to give up the animal related components of your diet?
So once again, circumstances dictated another move. This time to the city. This made it easier to transition to veganism. It started with me doing the 31 Day Vegan Challenge. During this time I educated myself with everything I could get my hands on. Every gory detail. I watched documentaries on veganism, for the animals and for the environment, such as Earthlings. Read books. Including those that had a Spiritual/Christian vegan stance - like Dominion by Matthew Scully.
And during this time I also became a Franciscan. Many Franciscans aren't vegan, some are vegetarians. I personally suspect that St Francis would have been a vegan, though I value his stance on eating what you are offered out of respect for your host. I can't, but I can see that perspective.
There are stories of St Francis being given a sheep and he took the sheep to church with him, where the sheep would bow and worship his creator. St Francis is known for preaching to the fish and the birds. He is said to have moved a caterpillar (I think it was) off the road so it would not be trampled.
And of course there is the famous story of him befriending the wolf who terrorized a community because of hunger. He helped them come to a truce - the wolf was fed by the villagers and no longer bothered them, as his needs were being met.
Did you expect your veganism to be a long lasting choice?
I had promised myself that I only had to do this for 31 days. If I was able to use animal products (because veganism is also about abstaining from anything that causes harm to animals - such as leather shoes, and feather doonas), after that, then so be it.
But of course the knowledge I now had meant I was freed to become who I had always wanted to be as a child - living in harmony with the animals. It was not a hardship. It was a release. Like most vegans, I only wish I had made the decision earlier.
Is it easy being vegan?
Life is a contradiction. Occasionally I do eat a lolly with an ingredient that isn't vegan, but that is far and few between. There are many alternatives out there. I don't find it too hard to veganise food when I go out, or to wash my hair with products that have not been tested on animals.
If I feel like eating something with the texture of chicken there is a brand that gives me that fix. And there are so many varieties of dairy substitutes.
I do find it very difficult to feed my animals animals. I think if my greyhounds had been puppies (rather than grown dogs rescued from the racing industry) I may have brought them up vegan, if they were obliging. It is possible to feed dogs a vegan diet. With cats, this never enters my head, as they are obligatory carnivores and it is my understanding that they would suffer and fall ill. Clearly I don't want that.
I even wear a very fake second-hand fur coat. Though I do feel I have to make it very clear it is fake and that I don't support the fur industry. I have had sweet, perhaps too honest people reply that they understand why I feel I have to justify myself - but not to worry - because it really does look very fake! This makes me laugh, and them.
In what other ways do you work to make life better for animals?
I painted two fundraising wine bottle labels. (Goodwill Wines) Greyhound Angels and Human Research Australia for their Ban Primate Experiments campaign.
For an exhibition to raise awareness and funds for the Ban Primate Experiments campaign. I used op shop monkeys...giving them a second life, just as I hope for those in captivity and used in experiments. I hope it will cease all together (there are breeding facilities in the Eastern States) and that those left will be given a new chance in sanctuaries.
I have donated original art for fundraising, mostly for animals’ charities. I have slowed down in that area though as I found the more I gave the more I was asked to give. The pressure began to stress me. I absolutely found it hard to say no. It also concerned me that artists are approached too much to donate their work. I would rather donate my art as I feel inspired or to raise my own funds and donate to a charity that is particularly important to me. I try to stick to just a few so that I don't become overwhelmed. I just try to have healthy boundaries.
When I paint animals (recently anthropomorphic animals) I am trying to express the close connection that we have with other species. I am hoping that the images might jolt the viewer to consider how alike we are. I am very intrigued by people's reactions. They are often comfortable with a mammal's head on a human body but not a fish's. I wonder why that is. I meet quite a few people who tell me they have cut out eating meat...but then they add that they still eat fish. I wonder if humans find it easier to dismiss fish as having feelings...and therefore a fish head on a human body challenges that perception
(Photograph of Asta provided by her and taken by "the super-talented photographer @danielcomben.")
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