Being Vegan, Vegan Being: Catherine Besch – It’s Not a Crusade, I’m Just Trying to Get Things Done.

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My name is Catherine Besch. I am the founder and executive director of Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue in Hoi An, Vietnam. I moved to Vietnam in 2012 and started the organization under a different name in 2013 with a partner. I’ve living abroad for nearly 10 years, half that time in Vietnam, but I am originally from Charlottesville, Virginia. I have a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Master’s in Emergency and Disaster Management and am about to begin a Ph.D. in Social Psychology. While I had called myself an animal lover my whole life, horse-obsessed and always covered in dog and cat hair, it wasn’t until 2013 that I went vegan and learned that to love animals means not to eat them.

My organization is the only farm sanctuary in Vietnam and we also have a rescue shelter that houses altogether 60 animals of 5 different species. We had the only non-profit veterinary training clinic in the country until recently when we started doing all our vet work as a mobile unit, specializing in mass sterilization projects. Our organization focuses on long-term projects for animal rights using education programs for schoolchildren, local animal welfare groups, and veterinarians as well as working to build up the capacity of the animal rights movement and veterinary industry through grassroots initiatives to better serve the needs of ALL species of animals. We provide free and low-cost sterilization to locals as well as free vet care for all rescue groups. The mission is to provide the best care possible with Western-trained vets and top-quality medicine to any animal that comes to us, regardless of whether it has an owner or not or if that owner can pay. While we will help organization’s sheltered animals, we strongly discourage the use of sheltering as an answer to ending animal exploitation. The veterinary industry, as well as the young, volunteer-run organizations have an extremely low capacity to ensure high welfare standards at animal facilities in Vietnam. Instead, we encourage vegan advocacy and education that addresses the root of animal right abuses in order to solve the problem rather than focusing on quick fixes that create more problems than they solve. Long-term and locally generated programs are the keys to building the animal rights movement in Vietnam and around the globe.

Visit our website at vietnampetsandvets.com and check out our adoptable animals and the work we do to build the animal rights movement in Vietnam.

I began investigating the animal agriculture industry when I was living in Mongolia and eating grass-fed beef that tasted horrible compared to the feed lot cattle I had been eating in the US, not knowing at all what a feed lot was then anyway. I figured this was the top as far as a natural life was concerned for a cow and I was shocked that it tasted so different than American beef. When I started to read about American beef and the entire industry of animal production. It was appalling and something that I had managed to turn a blind eye to my entire life. I called myself an animal lover and found out I was an animal abuser on a massive scale. I went vegan for a month and then back to vegetarian and then fully vegan within the year and I have never looked back.

How long have you been Vegan?

I went vegan in February 2013 and while I consider that about 34 years too late, it was the best decision I ever made.

Why is being Vegan important to you?

It started because I felt like I had no right to do what we were doing to animals, but I quickly learned it was so much more than that. I have no right to exploit any living being, and with the ecological disaster that is a result of animal agriculture, I was not only harming animals I consumed or exploited for eggs and dairy but the animals who were subject to the environmental destruction caused by these industries. On top of that, I was disgusted with the effect that these industries also have on humans.

When I first started going vegan, I was so angry at humans for what we have done and for all the blatant lies and filthy marketing is done in the name of greed and gluttony, but I realized it was also humans who suffered from these industries and I could not be part of it. I don’t have to love an animal to not want to eat it or harm it, and I do not have to like a human to not want to harm it. Veganism is all about compassion and about finding your place in the world as not being the dominant species, but just another resident of this planet among 8.7 million other species who are obligated to use my intelligence and reasoning to protect it, not destroy it.

Do you have a blog or favorite vegan blog you read?

For work, I began liking many vegan pages on Facebook, but as a result of the kind of confronting nature of some and the endless stream of violence I experience not only in my own work in rescue, but with contact with these organizations’ media, I had to cut myself off a lot. I now know so much about the violence inherent in the animal production industries and don’t feel like I need to watch the pictures all the time, but in the beginning, I did watch a lot of the Mercy for Animals and others’ undercover investigations that reinforced my need to end consumption of animal products. Now I focus on vegan food and have traveling vegan friends with blogs like “Will Travel for Vegan Food” and “Earth and Eats” which I follow closely. I read a lot from Ecorazzi and The Abolitionist Approach as well. Recently I discovered Animal Liberation Currents and I look more for academic articles on animal rights now instead a lot of the blogs that are written for an audience that may not have already done a lot of reading on the top of animal rights.

Any recommended Vegan books?

The book that made me go vegan was Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, though that is not at all the intention of the book. It opened my eyes to the process of animal production on all levels and forced me to voraciously research more about the industry. Then I’d say the next step for me as a vegan that changed everything about how I view the world was Gary Francione’s works like “Eat Like You Care”, “Rain Without Thunder” and “The Abolitionist Approach”. I am fascinated by the philosophy of animal rights and how it diverges from animal welfare. I truly do not see myself as having any right to use any other sentient being for my own taste, amusement or convenience and I finally have found an approach that makes sense. I do not focus on any welfare reforms for animals but focus on total vegan advocacy. Admittedly, this is not a popular stance and I get a ton of flak for it because everyone likes to promote this reductionist meat eating approach as some sort of panacea for animal welfare. Not unnecessarily murdering an animal is the best “welfare” change I can see for animals. When you know the truth about what animal production is about and when you acknowledge that humans lack the right to use another species, veganism is the only answer.

Here s a short list of some books that give different view of veganism through philosophy, law, economics, sociology

Adams, C. (1990). The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory. New York: Continuum.

Bohenec, H. (2013). The ultimate betrayal: Is there happy meat? Bloomington, IL: iUniverse.

Dixon, C. (2014). Another politics: Talking cross today’s transformative movements.
Oakland: University of California Press.

Donaldson, S. & Kymlicka, W. (2011). Zoopolis: A political theory of animal rights. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Francione, G. (1995). Animals, Property, and the law. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Francione, G. & Charlton, A. (2015). Animal rights: The abolitionist approach. Exempla.

Francione, G. & Charlton, A. (2013). Eat like you care: An examination of the morality of eating animals. Exempla.

Joy, M. (2010). Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows: An introduction to carnism. San Francisco, CA: Conari.

Nibert, D. (2013). Animal oppression and human violence: Domesecration, capitalism, and global conflict. New York: Columbia.

Oppenlander, R. (2012). Comfortably unaware: What we choose to eat is killing us and our planet. New York: Beaufort.

Oppenlander, R. (2013). Food choice and sustainability: Why buying local, eating less meat, and taking baby steps won’t work. Minneapolis, MN: Publish Green.

Pachirat, T. (2011). Every twelve seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the politics of sight. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Taft, C. (2016). Motivational methods for vegan advocacy: A clinical psychology perspective. Danvers, MA: Vegan Publishers. Tuttle, W. (Ed.) (2014). Circles of compassion: Essays connecting issues of justice. Danvers, MA: Vegan Publishers.

Any recommended social sites, Facebook Groups or other?

I watch pages from James Aspey, vegan advocate from Australia, Gary Francione- the Abolitionist Approach (sometimes an unpopular but very provocative voice in the animal rights world), Earthlings Ed, Bite Size Vegan, Mic the vegan, and a cartoonist called Vegan Sidekick because he just lays it all out the way we sometimes need to hear it. Looking at the humorous side to veganism and looking for a community of other people going through what I personally experience as a vegan here helps a lot to diffuse some of the frustration.

Do you have a favorite movie or videos or your own media that you want to share?

“Earthlings” is always a good starter for anyone interested in animal rights, but I always recommend reading more than movies for people who really want more information. Movies are a good graphic taste of what the reality is of animal use, but they never have the time to fill in the really vital details of animal rights philosophy. Our videos are mostly clips from the life of animals at the shelter and farm sanctuary or rehab videos from the clinic. These are motivating for us here in our daily work, but not necessarily for veganism. Being onsite here is the best advocacy we can do as people get to see firsthand the lives of the animals who many people seem to think are just made to be eaten by animals.

Do you actively promote veganism? How? Please share any stories you would like.

We receive visitors at our farm sanctuary and shelter in Hoi An who are usually tourists who follow us on social media or googled animal rescues in the area and found us that way. Most come to see only the dogs and I very quickly take them through the building after loving on the dogs in the front to meet our pigs, chickens, and ducks who they are probably consuming when they go back into the city. Our resident pig, Master Julian, totally milks it with the guests. He has no prejudices, unlike the dogs who often hate men or are often somewhat racist towards the Vietnamese that visit. The Ju-Bear, as we call him, has no idea that having a 400 lb pig sidle up to you and beg for tummy rubs is not totally normal for every person in the world. He requires a lot of scratching, loves to run and play games, and is very affectionate and it’s hard to see a meat eater walk away without very seriously reconsidering their habits of eating meat. The ducks don’t like people, but I often can get one of the chickens to get a good head rub from the visitors so they can see how beautiful they are and how much personality they have. I remind people that these animals, whether dog, cat, pig, chicken or duck, are not in anyway interested in being their food and that should matter to them. They all value their lives as much as we do and that is easy to see from their time with us.

We also do 3-4 hour education programs for school groups where we discuss animal agriculture, animal and human rights, and how we can all “rescue” animals by not being a part of the process of their torture and murder. The message delivery varies based on age group, but the message of veganism is very clear. That has been a struggle for us to come to here as it is such an unpopular message, but the kids have enjoyed their time with us so much that all the classes at the school have requested coming back, so we get requests that override any teachers’ issues with veganism.

When we first started the organization, I was working with a partner who was not vegan and did not like me to discuss it. I broke off from working with her specifically so that I could actively promote the message of veganism despite the inherent risks in losing support from so many donors who were only with us because we talked about dogs and cats. I just could not stand the hypocrisy of telling people the dog meat trade in Vietnam is so bad when the number of pigs, cows, and birds killed for human consumption was in the hundreds of millions and yet no one stood up for those animals because of speciesism.

Our social media often reflects our constant fight to bring veganism into the public discourse about the rescue. Animal rescues are almost never vegan. Even many farm sanctuaries are not vegan, and that’s pretty scary. Rescue is full of speciesism and this is extremely frustrating when the public looks to us to provide them with information about animal abuse and yet we ignore the largest sector of torture and murder. As we are in Vietnam and the focus of all media with animals tends to be on either the dog meat trade or wildlife and wildlife product trade issues, we have to work hard to constantly inject the concept of abolitionist animal rights into the discussion. Farm animals are constantly ignored here as the socially- constructed hierarchy of value for each species tends to focus on the cute and cuddly, rather than those who are tortured and murdered at significantly higher rates than any other “companion” animal. We are very frequently attacked for speaking of veganism, but we cannot stop. No one ever shifted the conversation by staying silent when socially normalized and ignored atrocities are happening all around us.

By far one of the most frustrating parts of my job is being attacked by “animal lovers” who think we should only focus on the dog meat trade. The fact is, promoting veganism ENDS the consumption of ALL species. People say that ending the dog meat trade is a stepping stone towards veganism, which is like the same argument for weed being a gateway drug for meth addiction. It’s not, and multiple scientific studies can back that up. That’s why I know tons of anti-dog meat campaigners and donors who are happy to munch on a bacon cheeseburger and completely miss the hypocrisy in that. Ending dog meat is not a gateway drug to veganism. It is the other way around.

We do not promote things we do not actually want, such as promoting reducing consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy. Frankly, if you tell people to go vegan and they are given the tools to understand why, if they are sane, logical people, they will at the very least reduce their consumption. If you tell people to reduce consumption, you just gave them permission to continue to exploit animals at their own convenience, as it suits them, and no one actually wants that. This is why our messaging remains clear in all our education programs, visitor tours, and social media. Veganism is truly a moral imperative whether you like animals or not. It’s for the planet, human health, food security and food safety as well as for animal rights. Lying about it or softening the message to suit the fragile egos of the public does not do the animals any favors.

Do you miss any non-Vegan foods?

I would say I miss cheese, but I actually miss vegan cheese, as it is unavailable where I live in Vietnam. All the dairy products I “miss”, are all available in vegan versions that are just as if not much better than their dairy versions, but they are generally not available in my area here in Vietnam, so what I actually miss are the foods I can only get in other countries, not non-vegan food exactly.

What is your favorite Vegan stereotype? If someone asks you a question about it, how do you respond?

I was routinely told I was going to die of malnutrition when I went vegan, so I started endurance racing. I did 2 marathons, including one mountain marathon in the jungle in northern Vietnam. Then I did a half Ironman (70.3 miles of swimming, biking, and running). All of this I did on a mostly Vietnamese vegan diet consisting of rice and veggies with lots of greens and legumes. Just basic, real food. I not only didn’t die of malnutrition, I never took supplements, never counted calories or nutrients, and just ate as I pleased when I was hungry and managed to carry on a grueling training schedule plus my daily work at the shelter and organization. I was not winning races, but I wasn’t trying to. I was just having fun and enjoying being strong and healthy and getting out of the madness of the shelter for long runs.

Now when people say that I am going to die of malnutrition, I tell them about the races, but also now have gained some weight and am not chubby by American standards, but the Vietnamese surely notice my extra 6 kilos since the Ironman triathlon. When I am insanely busy with the clinic and going through whatever depressing event has set us back in our work, I eat to feel better like a lot of people in the world and sometimes gain a little weight, even by being vegan. Being vegan is not synonymous with being bone thin or super healthy. It’s another way of proving that vegans aren’t going to die, but can even have a little fat on them!

What’s your favorite Vegan restaurant?

There was one in Tallinn, Estonia that I went to last year in the historic old town center called Rataskaevu 16, and another called V Vegan Restoran. Both were absolutely magical. Those and one in Wroclaw, Poland called Vega in the city center is also incredible. This is a hard question because I eat at amazing vegan restaurants all over the world and am always just blown away by the creativity of some dishes, plus the modification of traditional dishes to suit vegans. It’s such an amazing adventure to eat vegan wherever I travel.

What’s your favorite recipe?

This is my lazy vegan cheese sauce:

2 blocks tofu, tons of garlic salt, 3 cloves strong garlic, salt to taste, non-dairy milk of any kind (unsweetened) (as much as needed to suit the consistency of what you are trying to use the sauce for), plus half a roasted and peeled red pepper, and around a half cup of nutritional yeast flakes. It’s cheap, fast, and all it takes is pressing a button on your blender and you have cheesy magic. Anything that can be made in a blender is pretty much my favorite food. I have a severe blender addiction.

What is the one big stereotype you hear about Vegans that you want to dispel?

People tend to get angry at vegans for acting superior, which for non-vegans any behavior can qualify for this “superiority” problem. Not wanting to eat with non-vegans does not mean we are acting superior. It means we are grossed out by having to watch people consume corpses, chicken ovulation, and breast milk of another species not out of necessity, but because ignorance is bliss and they like the taste. We also generally just want to eat and not have to have a controversial subject every single time we sit down to consume our delicious food. That’s the hardest thing I have to deal with socially. I literally have acid reflux when I have to watch people eat non-vegan food or when I am forced to smell it and be around it. I don’t want to be physically ill; I’m not acting superior.

My biggest assumption about vegans before I became one was really nutty. I just thought veganism was for hippies. I assumed all vegans had dreads, tattoos of butterflies and Hindu gods, and didn’t shave their legs or wear bras. That’s just insane, but this is what I thought about vegans. I don’t do yoga, have cleanly shaved legs, and I own a fine collection of bras. I can’t stand dreads, personally, so I am sure if being a vegan required them, I would not be one. Vegans somewhere along the line gained a reputation for being some sort of bizarre society of black sheep, and the truth is we come in all sorts of styles. We are body builders, yoga fanatics, ultramarathoners, chubby couch potatoes, businessmen and women, academics, and morons. We are a breed with no boundaries, but a common compassion for animals, the planet, and humanity. That’s the tie that binds us. Some of us are really aggressive and “militant” (as so many people like to call anyone who confronts their long-standing and abusive habits), and others are extremely quiet and open-minded, reaching out to people rather than attacking them. All sorts of people are attracted to veganism and I am certainly not like all other vegans.

Some encouraging words for new Vegans?

I encourage people to hang on through the part after becoming vegan where you finally realize that all these people around you who you trusted to be kind and compassionate people are happily paying for the murder of other living beings for something as trivial as personal, but socially normalized habits. The hardest thing about being vegan is finally waking up to the notion that there are endless lies around you about how things are produced and people you trust and care about are participating in them as you had before you knew the truth. The change in diet, clothing, and consumption is easy-peasy. It’s the social part that makes veganism hard. The best thing I can recommend is to find other vegans and become part of a community. Where I live, there are very few vegans to talk to and it can be very isolating. I watch a lot of my favorite activists like Earthlings Ed, Gary Francione, Bite Size Vegan, and Mic. the Vegan to sort of feel closer to a larger group of people also struggling with the same issues. Meeting vegans in person is always a treat for me. That is rare at this point outside my own organization which is all vegan.

Are you a cruelty-free vegan?

I do my best to not buy any brands that are tested on animals, but here in Vietnam, that information is not easily available for the brands that we can buy. I do my best, but I know I am making mistakes unknowingly. It’s hard to cope with that, but we lack the resources here to ensure that we are not partaking in animal cruelty.

I don’t wear much makeup as the heat just melts it off here and I spend a lot of time outside of air conditioning, but when I do buy makeup it is from companies that are at the duty-free in airports that I know are not testing on animals.

What are you favorite Vegan non-food products or companies?

I like a Lush shampoo called “I Love Juicy”. It’s vegan and just an amazing shampoo, and that’s coming from someone who knows dirty hair. Living in an animal shelter and vet clinic and being out on the dusty roads here running or riding the motorbike is a good way to learn about just how dirty you can really get. This shampoo is the bomb.

What is the toughest Vegan item to find that you need? Toothpaste, Deo, glue, etc..

All of the above. Hoi An is not a place to find cruelty-free options in these types of products. If I buy these types of things vegan, it is from other countries.

Talk about a time when you struggled with your Veganism?

I think I don’t have trouble with veganism, but with society’s reaction to it. I get really tired of it being a crusade every day when I am just trying to get things done. I hate having to explain myself so often when I just don’t want to contribute to animal suffering. It seems like a no-brainer now and while I know it is my job to constantly work as an advocate and to convince people to become vegan, it has made me a social recluse as I just am so busy and unless I am working very specifically on advocacy issues, I really want to just do my thing. It’s not possible if you have contact with humans. As I mentioned, the consumption aspect of it is the least of my worries. It’s people that make me want to not go back to eating corpses but to just find an island only inhabited by vegans just so I can get on with life and stop having to defend something which I find to be so obvious now.

What is one question you would ask other Vegans? Please answer it.

How do you handle meat-eating family events?

For me, I don’t go to them. In the beginning, I used to go to family events and dinners in which people were consuming animal products, but I have learned that being considered rude is far better than being forced to watch people consume animal products. I am naturally an outspoken person who is comfortable with speaking about controversial subjects, and often this overshadows whatever event is going on, so I tend to just avoid social events if we are not just going for only drinks or eating at a vegan restaurant. This should not be true for people who do not have this job for a living though. I think I am just really burned out on being in a constant crusade for work. It’s important to find a balance between the advocacy and being a human with other interests. This is a tough point for me as veganism and animal rights are so central to my core beliefs, but I need to work harder on just being a person too.

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    Being Vegan, Vegan Being: Catherine Besch — It’s Not a Crusade, I’m Just Trying to Get Things Done. - Love Vegans

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