Is Half a Vegan Better Than None?

I post cute animal videos on Facebook. My cat is one of my favorite beings. My favorite childhood journey was to the Catskill Game farm, where you fed little bottles of milk to the baby lambs, pigs and deer. The pigs and I both squealed with delight. Clearly, I am an animal nut.

My love for animals led me stop eating meat and poultry 15 years ago, but I've never been able to make the leap to veganism, and I constantly feel guilty about it. Am I weak, cruel, vain? Perhaps. I love ice-cream, omelets, and salmon; shoes, belts and bags. I draw the line at buying leather coats, which is really just to save face -- I don't want what I'm wearing to scream "dead animal carcass." Leather shoes are smaller and less conspicuous.

My friend Kathy Freston, author and conscious eating activist, might cut me some slack. At a recent New York media luncheon hosted by the uber zen Pure Yoga, Freston was quizzed by Gotham's finest health and lifestyle reporters about incorporating veganism into their families' lives. In her latest book, Veganist (her pithy sobriquet courtesy of husband Tom), Freston recommends "leaning in" to a vegan diet by first giving up meat one day a week, substituting it with tasty cruelty-free alternatives that mimic meat. Though clearly she recommends eventually moving to a vegan, whole foods diet, these initial small changes alone can improve your health, the environment, and of course, lessen animal suffering. Her approach is spot on for the American public -- no way are most people going to go from Philly cheese steaks to marinated tofu skewers in 0 to 60.

But I feel like I've been "leaning in" for 15 years and it's high time to take the leap to veganism. I've used little, self-deceptive tricks to hold out this long. For years I blindly (and somewhat intentionally) operated under the incorrect assumption that in buying leather products I was simply utilizing the by-products of meat eaters. I now know that's not true. And while I do seek out 100% man-made shoes -- and there are some stylish ones out there if you know where to look -- if really taken by a pair of leather boots, I will buy them. For the most part, I buy non-leather handbags (ladies, they're also a lot lighter so no shoulder fatigue), and belts if they're decent looking. But again, if I fall in love with something leather, I seem unable to keep myself from buying it.

Wearing leather is perhaps even more egregious than eating meat. We're not even getting nourishment or protein (which you can also get from non-animal sources). It's about vanity. Even worse, much of our leather comes from nations where animals are notoriously badly treated, including India (cows are not sacred everywhere in India) and China where, infamously, they also eat cats and dogs. Have a look at PETA's disturbing information on this.

What about fish? I still eat it, though I stopped with lobster because of the boiling alive thing (especially after having looked one in the beady eyes in the lobby fish tank). But that's about it. With fish, they live in an environment that's foreign to us. They're harder to relate to than furry mammals, our brethren. I justify eating them because fish lead normal lives until they're caught, unlike farm animals who have miserable lives until they're slaughtered.

However, I'm learning that farmed fish are packed in like, well, sardines, and get about a cup of murky, chemical laden water to swim around in. No one should eat them. Perhaps a day on a fishing boat watching nets full of fish squirm and jump and gasp for life might cure me of my fish habit, or seeing the unfortunate sea turtles, dolphins and other lovely aquatic creatures that get caught in the nets.

I thought I was off the hook with eggs. "Free range" was my get out of jail free card. But after finally forcing myself to watch some undercover videos on of the atrocious conditions egg farm chickens live in and how most of the male chicks are killed at birth (ground to death -- talk about grisly), I've had to rethink eggs.

With dairy, you guessed it, you're not just using a cruelty-free by-product. Again, most of the males of the species are disposed of just after birth though some are yanked from their mothers to live short, horrible lives in dark little crates where they are raised for veal. And female dairy cows lead short lives too, just a couple of miserable years being repeatedly impregnated to keep the milk machine going 24/7 before they are worn out and killed for hamburger meat.

Now, I don't believe that humans were never supposed to have consumed animals or used their by-products. We needed to, for shelter, food, tools, and much more. Some cultures still need to for survival. But I believe that as humans become more humane, and despite all the evil deeds that still go on in the world, we have evolved and it's part of our path to move away from animal products. Maybe we're meant to use some animal by-products -- eggs and milk and wool (though dairy has the protein casein, a proven cancer promoter) -- but to do it without cruelty could perhaps only be accomplished on a small farm. The size and needs of our society make it difficult to meet demand. But still, there are many ways it could be done more humanely, even with mass production, though the agriculture lobby is strong and resistant. And as Mark Bittman explained in his recent New York Times op-ed piece, some states are trying to pass "ag-gag" laws, making it a criminal offense for animal rights activists to make undercover videos of farm animal abuses.

So, I know all of this now, have cringed at the images, and sometimes feel galvanized to cross the bridge to veganism. But I stop short. Why? What do I need to happen? Should I watch a majestic salmon swim upstream or visit a slaughterhouse? Must a magic flying cow talk to me in a dream?

Seriously, all you veganists out there, what made you take the leap? Was it a word, an image, an experience? Or was it just selflessness? And until I "get it," until I surrender my selfishness, is half a vegan better than none?