Michigan Microsanctuary: Interview with Rachel Waite of Vegan Michigan

It has been an eventful few weeks for us with our farmed animal rescue, Triangle Chance for All. We just took in four more chickens, including two young roosters who will be the start of our first rooster flock. We have also been receiving much more attention for our “microsanctuary” concept, including an article at Our Hen House and an exciting grant award that has helped us to launch The Microsanctuary Movement.

We feel that microsanctuaries can be a powerful source of inspiration and support for people who are thinking about rescuing farmed animals, or who are already doing it. Rachel Waite is one such person. She shared her excitement with us after finding a movement, an identity even, that made it clear she was part of something bigger … that she was not alone in turning her home-space into a sanctuary for ducks, chickens, and goats.

Rachel also founded Vegan Michigan as a way to educate her community about veganism and provide support networks for those making the transition, as well as those who already had. I was very interested to hear more about her experience with these two–in my mind closely interconnected–activities on behalf of the animals…

microsanctuary10Please share your story of going vegan. When did you make the transition, and what motivated you to stop using animals for your own benefit?

I grew up in a typical meat-eating family, but after an influential summer camp trip at age 10, I met a camp counselor who was vegetarian and told me about factory farming. When I returned from camp, I announced to my family that I was starting a vegetarian life. I spent my early tween years organizing an online group called “Veggie Club,” which I used to distribute vegetarian related e-newsletters to fellow vegetarians I met online, and we even had a website back when domains were free. Back then even vegetarianism was quite rare, and especially veganism. I used PETA’s web resources a lot because they were one of the only groups back then with a strong online presence. I’ve been veg now for 18 years, but it wasn’t until 2013 that I finally took the leap towards full veganism. With my decision to go vegan I feel like my ethical convictions are now totally aligned with my values, and that is very good feeling. I knew when I went vegetarian that I didn’t want to support animal exploitation, but without taking the full leap to being vegan it is impossible to avoid exploitation.

What has your experience been like as a vegan in Michigan? Is it particularly hard, or do you have a lot of resources and a strong vegan community around you?

There were a couple times previously in my teens I thought about veganism but I experienced major push back from my family and dropped the idea. I didn’t have any vegetarian family or friends for years and definitely didn’t know any vegans. My biggest regret is not going vegan sooner, but I realize now how important having the social support of other vegans can be in making this kind of life-changing, ethical decision. This was one of my major motivations for starting the Michigan-based nonprofit organization Vegan Michigan. Michigan has a decent-sized vegan community in the bigger cities, and the vegan restaurants and businesses have been increasing significantly in recent years. There are not a lot of restaurants that are 100% vegan, but a lot of places are at least offering significant vegan selections due to increased demand. A lot of groups and individuals are working hard to do “restaurant outreach” in our area and educate businesses about why they should carry more vegan options.

You founded the group Vegan Michigan to promote animal rights and cruelty-free lifestyles. What motivated you to organize your outreach efforts in this way? How has the response been so far?

The social and community aspect of veganism is really important because it aids people in being able to take that next step. This was a major motivation in organizing Vegan Michigan as a collective. There are many people who are already vegetarian or leaning in this direction but they feel alone in their convictions and are not able to take “the next step” towards adopting the vegan lifestyle. I want to educate individuals, advocate for animals, and build community among vegans. The community aspect cannot be over emphasized, as I believe this is key to creating lasting change and supporting each other in our common goal of ending animal exploitation and promoting veganism as the path towards achieving this goal.

We’ve had an extremely positive response to our efforts thus far. Many people have contacted me about volunteering, guest blog writing, working events, or helping us with our efforts in other ways. The vision for Vegan Michigan is to be a collective, not a top-down organization. We hope to continue to increase our stakeholders and contributors and want everyone to feel like they have an equal stake in the organization. Veganism isn’t about me or you or any one person playing the big shot. It’s about doing what’s best for the movement and for the animals.

What sort of goals do you have in the near future for Vegan Michigan and for yourself as a vegan advocate?

We plan to increase our presence at local community events in terms of educating the public about a vegan diet and lifestyle. We have a large-scale event planned for June 2015 called the All for One Festival, which focuses on yoga and healthy living. The event will highlight vegan cooking and food, animal-related nonprofit groups, vegan-friendly businesses, free yoga, and veg movie screenings. One problem I’ve noticed with many vegan events is that they are organized by vegans and only vegans show up. That is not an effective way to do outreach if the general public is not attending the events. In terms of building up the already vegan community that may be a good strategy, but Vegan Michigan is interested in reaching out to the general public and convincing more people to adopt a vegan diet and lifestyle. We are structuring our events to appeal to the general public so that non-vegans attend and are able to learn more about veganism.

As far as goals for myself as an activist, I attended the 2014 Animal Rights National conference this July and learned a lot and met some awesome activists in our movement. I’m planning to also attend the World Vegan Expo in March and continue to expand my activist strategies and skills to bring back and use in our efforts with Vegan Michigan.

I also know that you have your own microsanctuary for farmed animals, including chickens and ducks. How did you get into rescuing farmed animals as a vegan?

About a year ago I started dating my boyfriend, Ryan, who is also vegan. Ryan is heavily involved with animal rehab and rescue at the Lowell Farm and Wildlife Center. As a vegan, working directly with animals is something we are all drawn to do, and almost every vegan I know dreams of “someday” opening their own animal sanctuary. The microsanctuary concept empowers vegans to make “someday” into now. We don’t have to own a million acres of land or have a million dollars to offer sanctuary to rescued farm animals. We can do this on a small scale now with the resources we do have.microsanctuary2

We started off building our microsanctuary with a few Pekin ducks who were rescued from wandering on the highway in the winter. These are the kind of ducks people raise for meat or eggs; they were surely not being fed well and wandered off. We freerange the ducks during the day, and they have never left the property. We have a large shed in our yard that we turned into an animal barn for the ducks. We later continued to add more rescued animals whom we found out about because of our connections with the wildlife center. We added six chickens and three goats. The goats share the barn with the ducks and the chickens have their own custom-made coop and run. We built the goat enclosure ourselves with supplies we bought from Lowe’s. I’m not a country girl—I was born and raised in the city—but I’ve educated myself on farm animal care with the help of my supportive boyfriend, and together we are caring for the animals we have here.

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How does your own microsanctuary inform your work as an advocate? Do you see the two as being interrelated in any way?

I definitely feel closer to my passion for ending animal exploitation because of the microsanctuary. Every day I am reminded by these amazing animals what I am fighting for. My work as an animal advocate and having a microsanctuary are two things that definitely can and should go hand in hand.

Have you seen other people undertaking similar efforts where you live by seeking to provide permanent homes to rescued farmed animals while committing to not using them? Are you noticing any sort of increase in the number of people doing what you do on a larger (national or international) scale?

The microsanctuary concept really has not taken off around my area. There is still a lot of confusion around when it is okay to use animal products and when is it not okay. For example, a lot of people house chickens in order to use their eggs rather than just for the pure joy of housing the chickens. While the ethics of using a backyard chicken egg is better in comparison to using a factory farmed egg, either way the animal is only being appreciated for what he or she can give us and not for what he or she is. Animals are not ours to use and should be respected as sentient beings.

As a vegan advocate working hard in the community, I am sure you know that there a plethora of approaches to getting non-vegans to make the transition. What sorts of strategies have worked best for you? Where would you like to see the vegan/animal rights movement head in the future?

I am acutely aware of the differences of opinion between vegan activists and the different approaches being used. For Vegan Michigan, it was intentional that we used the word “Vegan” in our name rather than the more common “Veg” because we felt that “Veg” gives the impression that either vegetarian or veganism is the goal rather than veganism. However, we also recognize people make their own choice in terms of how to get to this goal and whether to take steps or go “cold turkey.” We support all steps towards veganism, but we make veganism the clear goal in our efforts to educate individuals. We also don’t shy away from talking about the health or environmental benefits of a plant-based diet. I’ve known people who adopt a plant-based diet for reasons other than ethical ones and later come around to what I like to call “the truth.” I’d love it if every single person responded to the abolitionist model, but I don’t think everyone responds well to that approach even though to me personally it makes the most sense.

microsanctuary7While I consider myself an abolitionist at heart, it is hard to stomach the idea of making zero welfare reforms in the meantime while we continue to fight for a vegan world. We have to think about what we can do to help animals now while at the same time promoting a consistently vegan message. I really believe that veganism is the ultimate promotion of compassion and nonviolence, but some key activists are very critical of each other in a way that doesn’t promote these ideals. In the future, I would like to see the welfare reformers and abolitionist vegans working together more and less criticism and division within the movement. I really believe we all want the same thing and that is to end animal exploitation.

What are some of the biggest challenges and/or issues that vegan advocates need to be addressing?

There are SO many things that need to be done. We are at the very beginning of a major social movement: the animal rights movement! We have the animal sanctuaries, we have the lawyers, we have the grassroots nonprofits and vegan meetup groups, we have the bloggers, we have the career activists, and many many others fighting for this cause every day. I think every person in this movement plays a critical role since we are a growing movement! I think bringing more attention to the exploitation and putting that information in front of people is the key way we will increase support for our movement. These types of outreach efforts, I believe, are critical in reaching non-vegans. I also think continuing to build community for those who have already made the decision to be vegan is important as well. One of the worst things to hear is that someone “was vegan” or “tried to be” but didn’t have enough social support.

How might we best inspire other vegans to take part in rescuing farmed animals from the agricultural system and becoming caregivers? Do you see this as having a key or marginal role in the larger effort to end exploitation?

I post a lot on social media about the animals we have here at our microsanctuary. I hope to inspire other vegans to house rescued farm animals rather than continuing to view farmed animals as the “others.” We happily adopt and foster dogs and cats but somehow view farmed animals in a totally different light. Even as vegans we can be guilty of viewing farmed animals this way. When people see pictures and videos of these amazing animals living happy lives this helps improve even non-vegans’ appreciation and compassion for farmed animals and hopefully brings them closer to making that connection.

For me personally, starting the microsanctuary has played a key role in strengthening my conviction as an activist. The animals inspire me every day to keep on fighting the good fight and to be the best version of myself. They make me want to work harder as an activist and motivate me to do what I need to do for the movement. In the larger effort to end exploitation, if the microsanctuary concept really took off, it could have a profound impact. I will certainly be doing my part to promote the microsanctuary movement to my fellow vegans as I know firsthand what a rewarding experience this can be.

Thanks for speaking with me about your microsanctuary and your work with Vegan Michigan!

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On Vegan “Masculinity”

I have been a vegan for over 15 years. I have been a man for over 35 years. When I went vegan, I never felt particularly troubled as a man by the decision to stop eating meat and other animal products. I was aware of the caricature of vegetarians in popular culture, which attaches femininity (which is “bad”) to any and all things “veg,” but my process of going vegan was very simple: Could I continue living in a way that did, or even could, cause harm and suffering to other beings.

The answer was “no,” and I was vegan.

Recently, there has been a renewed attention to the issue of masculinity and its ability to withstand the supposed weakening, feminizing qualities of veganism. A recent story on NPR recounted the lifestyles and stories of vegan men who were seeking to expand the notion of masculinity to include things like compassion, sustainable living, and not eating other animals. A few months ago, VegNews published “The Vegan Man Issue,” making a similar attempt at dispelling the concerns of modern manly men that going vegan would mean…well, terrible things for their manhood.

A number of strongly negative reactions to these proclamations of vegan manhood have come out, thankfully. But as a vegan man, I have been particularly bothered by these efforts to save masculinity from the threat of veganism.

Or, put another way, I have felt deeply disconcerted by the attempts of some to save masculinity from supposed threats through an effort to make it subsume those threats within itself.

From my perspective, masculinity and the entire system of rigid gender binaries are not worth saving. They are not worth shoring up, they are not worth bailing out, and they are not worth the harm to be done by hamstringing the subversive political energy of ethical veganism–a subversiveness towards oppressive systems that has been talked about more widely since at least the publication of Carol J. Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat.

Let me be blunt. I do not want masculinity to feel safe about veganism, because I do not want patriarchy to squelch yet another effort to bring it down (which, I believe, ethical veganism damn well ought to be doing). I do not want my life as a vegan man to be constantly measured against some code of abstract qualities, from appearance to behavior, so that some of my fellow males might not worry about becoming more “feminine” should they decide to stop being assholes and go vegan.

And I sure as hell do not want feminism and the inherent feminist component of ethical veganism to be sanitized, silenced, and suffocated by some clumsy, panicked effort to expand or redefine “masculinity” so that it includes what has hitherto been denigrated as central to “femininity”–thereby continuing to relegate the feminine to the role of less than, secondary, or inferior.

I am sick and tired of how much harm we do to individuals by trying to fit them into the masculine-feminine ideological box or judge them based on their ability to cram themselves in it. I am hopeful that ethical veganism can help us all to see the dangers in oppressive systems, no matter what form they take.