The earth was heavy with moisture and thick with trailing grass roots. Still, with each shovel full of dirt, my resolve to finish what I had started grew. On the ground, next to the hole I was digging, lay a new woolen shawl, a pair of leather shoes, a leather belt and some sleeping tablets made with milk.
It took me some time to fight through the grass roots and waterlogged earth, but with perseverance, the hole grew to a satisfactory size. I picked up the items lying next to me, delicately setting each piece of my history inside the small hole, and then quickly began to bury them.
All forward momentum in our lives is stunted by the emotional, physical and material baggage that tethers us to the past, and my transition to veganism was no different. The small makeshift grave I was now standing above marked the beginning of putting the cruelty in my past to rest.
To internalize the vegan ideal I had to come to terms with my speciesist treatment of animals. I knew that to move forward I could no longer treat certain feeling, breathing, sentient beings as if they existed solely to feed and clothe me while cherishing others as companions and friends.
After I made this decision, the question remained over what to with the animal-based items that lingered in my life. This story began with my final decision to bury them. Since some people may disagree with this choice, I wish to explain my thought process to remove any confusion.
As I began to contemplate what to do with the animal-based items I “owned,” the options that lay before me were thus: 1. Use my non-vegan items until they wore out. 2. Sell them. 3. Give them away. 4. Bury or throw them away.
To begin with, continuing to use the non-vegan items I owned until they were worn out never felt like a viable option. If I found out my shoes were made of human skin would I simply use them until they wore out? The “waste not, want not” philosophy that leads some people to continue using animal skin, hair and feathers in their lives while claiming to uphold the vegan ideal is deeply flawed. When we compare this level of tolerance for non-human animal skin, fat (such as is used in soap), hair, and bodily secretions to those made from the bodies of human animals such as ourselves, the contradictory nature of claiming to be vegan and continuing to use these items becomes evident. While this thought may seem ludicrous to some, during the Holocaust, lampshades, paperweights, soap, seat covers, and other items were made from the bodies of Holocaust victims. Can any of us imagine owning and using one of these items in order to not waste them?
If I believed that it was wrong to use non-human animals for my own means, then excusing the use of animal-based items because “I already bought them” seemed far too hypocritical. I could not use the fat carved from their flesh to wash my own skin or the feathers plucked from their dead bodies to cushion my head as I fell asleep at night. To keep any of these items in my life would have required me to continue my own denial of what they truly were – part of another animal’s dead body.
The next two options that lay before me were selling the items or giving them away.
Many people make these choices with the mindset that the animal has already been killed or harmed so why waste the items made from them? Or perhaps that they might be preventing someone from buying another animal-based item by providing them with a secondhand option. Some people also assuage their inner conflict by selling the items and giving the money to charity.
These thoughts weighed on me for a number of days, but in the end it felt wrong to sell something that was not mine to take in the first place, even if I gave the money to charity. Would I sell my rescued rabbit’s foot for a key chain? What about my dog’s skin for shoes…? If these thoughts make us feel sick, selling another animal’s body parts should as well.
If I threw the shoes away, though, they would end up in the landfill; if I gave them away, they would eventually end up in the landfill as well, but someone else would use them first.
As I looked at my cow skin shoes and belt, the wool and possum hair shawl, the milk-based homeopathic tablets, I couldn’t imagine another human being slipping her foot into these animal skins or wrapping this hair around them for warmth. To give these pieces of my past away seemed to say:
It is not okay for me to wear these items because I believe it is morally and ethically wrong to do so. But it is okay for you to wear these badges of our speciesist society, marked by death and cruelty though they may be.
I could not pretend that it was acceptable in any way, shape or form. I could not excuse their purchase or simply assuage my guilt over participating in these animal’s deaths by thrusting my karma onto someone else and saying… “here, you take these items, I can’t bear to look at them.” To do anything other than bury them was to continue to act as if they were they were just items of clothing or “comfort” rather than part of a dead body.
On that day I put my past to rest, by recognizing that I was not burying a pair of shoes, I was burying the skin off someone’s back, I felt that I finally gave some restitution to the animals I had taken so much from. It was not a shawl I laid to rest, it was the animals that had been harmed or killed because of its purchase. And finally, I was not wasting my “natural sleeping remedies.” I was recognizing that it was wrong to ingest a mother’s milk stolen from her calf, no matter how small the quantity. And I now sleep much better.
If we truly want to create a vegan world, free from cruelty and injustice, we cannot let our guilt or attachment to the past keep us from living this truth fully. Let us bury the past in recognition that we will not and cannot own, sell or give away another animal’s body parts, which were never ours to use in the first place.