Vegan Al: Cool Under Pressure, 2020

I had the pleasure of interviewing Allen Eckert this month in Pennsylvania, and found out just how many myths Al has busted! Take a look.

Hi, Allen! Thank you so much for taking the time to offer some details of your own vegan journey to others who might be inspired or otherwise informed by your experience. 

First, before we get into your story, how do you explain “vegan” to others?

When someone tells me they are vegan, my first thought is: “Really?”

Often, their next words will be: Except for fish. Or eggs. Or “CHEESE! I can’t live without cheese.” 

To me, being vegan is the conscious decision to do my best to not exploit. I would rather like to be called an anti-exploitationist. It is an ideal I know I can’t achieve, but it’s there to remind me whenever I ask myself: “Is this OK to eat, wear, watch or tolerate without giving a speech?”

Could you say something about what you do for a living?

I am currently a tractor trailer driver, and have been since 1996. It is a far cry from the 12 years prior, when I worked at a pig slaughterhouse.

What is the hardest part of being vegan in your job? 

Luckily working by myself doesn’t pose any ethical or logistical problems. There was a time when my job required me to stay on the road for a day or two. Then, finding places to eat presented minor problems.

Does your occupation inform your vegan perspective in any particular way? 

Not that I can think of. I am sincerely happy that I don’t have to make the hard decisions that many ethical vegans do. My hat is off to the people working in retail, food service, pharmaceutical, or even transportation. Many have to face shelves of animal-tested products or animal flesh, or pull loads of cruelty—situations over which they have no control. 

Allen, you are working through a major health crisis. Does being vegan offer you a unique perspective on this pandemic? 

Only that I wonder how many diseases would be prevented if humanity had lived an animal-free life. All of the pandemics and epidemics and even the seasonal influenzas that I can think of have their origins linked to animal agriculture or exploitation. 

So, food! What is an example of what you like to eat at home, and could you tell us how to get it or make it? 

My wife and I love to work in the kitchen. I worked in restaurant kitchens when I was in high school and for a few years before I got married. I learned the basics and don’t have problems converting recipes and creating new items. Most of our dinners are stir-fries. Brussel sprouts and mushrooms are often featured. We forage a little bit. We just ate a bunch of fiddlehead ferns. They were excellent. Next month I’ll be picking wild raspberries. We always have a butternut squash on the counter waiting to be roasted. Kale, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and tomatoes don’t last long in the kitchen. Crock pot soups and chili sans carne are winter staples. I am not big on recipes. I use whatever I have. It is hard to make a bad meal when using lots of different fresh, whole ingredients.

What is an example of what you like to eat on the road, and could you tell us how to get it or make it?

I really don’t eat much during work. When I was a runner, I would make a fruit and kale recovery smoothie and fill a thermos. Now, a thermos of coffee and a couple of fig bars do the trick. 

Other than eating, what do you do differently now that you’re vegan?

Do you mean besides looking down my nose at all the lower lifeforms that haven’t realized all the harm they are doing to the world yet? I don’t do that nearly as much as I used to. 

I don’t wear animals. I don’t enjoy entertainment that exploits them. I try to be conscious of my actions, and what outcome I might have on the world, or the moment. Today I was digging from a pile of dirt on my driveway. I disturbed a hill of ants. I could have just dug in and done what I needed to do. The dirt will have to be moved. I moved to the other side of the pile and dug there. I came back a little later and tested the original dig, the ants had retreated some. I dug, and repeated the process. It may seem silly, but I felt better. I hope the ants felt better too with time to relocate. Stinkbugs and spiders get escorted out of the house. So, I guess, Do as little harm as possible is a directive evolved from my veganism.

Allen, when and why did you become vegan?

My wife Cissy and I made the journey into veganism together. In 2007 I was diagnosed with Hepatitis-C. I also had stage 3 liver disease as a result. I am fully recovered now. Cissy was reading an article and suggested, in an effort to get healthier, we try vegetarianism. I was 48 at the time. We continued dairy for a long time. About two years. Podcasts came into my world around 2009. I started learning about the harm we do to ourselves and our environment. But that pales in comparison to the cruelty we inflict on animals. One podcast introduced me to a documentary: Got the Facts on Milk? We left vegetarianism for veganism the next day. Mama cows crying for their babies still haunt me. We also watched Forks Over Knives and Vegucated. We read several books. There really isn’t a logical reason not to change.

What would you say to people who are curious about becoming vegan themselves?

I first ask them why they are curious. And thoroughly examine those reasons. While it can be healthy, I don’t think it is a reason that sticks. I tell them to examine their reasons for wanting a difference in their life. Information is everywhere. 

Do you have thoughts on why some people go vegan and others don’t, although similar information is available to both? 

I hate to think it, but I am more convinced every day that there are two types of people. There are people that care, and people that don’t. Subsets within these groups surely exist. Like people that hide from truths. And people that minimalize the things they know. 

Conversely, people that care can be complacent, or lazy, or underestimate the effects they can have in society. I’m sure I fall into that group somewhere, at least at times. 

Has anyone become a vegan because of your influence?

My mother saw the light after 78 years, and her health has benefited greatly! My daughter is carrying the tradition on and raising her daughter vegan as well. I hope I have an effect as part of the collective.

Allen, you once hunted. Vegans surely don’t think of hunters as low-hanging fruit when they look for communities to persuade. Are they right that hunters are unlikely candidates for becoming vegan? 

I think hunting families have a tough tradition to crack. I didn’t have a close relationship with my father. I got interested in target shooting when I was around 12. I joined a shooting club and became pretty good. It wasn’t until I was around 30 that I started hunting with some friends from work. I didn’t have those family bonding moments and memories to overcome.

Do you think it is unusual for a hunter to become vegan? 

While I think it is unusual, I see it as possible. I think people that live their lives with the desire to learn as many truths as possible can be reasoned into any true position. It all depends on the desire to be honest about your positions, and change when the information warrants it. Dairy farmers have changed. Pig farmers have changed. Doctors and lawyers have changed. Slaughterhouse workers have changed. Why not hunters? I fell into the last two categories.

Do you think vegan advocates spend enough time on the issue of hunting animals? 

We must face the fact that very few wild animals would ever die of old age. Nature red in tooth and claw and all. Most hunters, but not nearly all, pride themselves on one-shot kills and dropping in his tracks. Seems gross now. 

I haven’t met anyone who wants to inflict pain and suffering. While hunting is exploitation, and the same experience could be achieved with a camera, I think this is more of an ecological issue than a humane or cruelty issue. The turmoil we inflict on the earth and all its finely balanced systems, and creatures, including us humans, is just too sad. 

Today, game has a different meaning for you. You are a board gamer who developed a farm animal refuge game. Do you think gaming can be influential in a vegan shift?

I don’t know about a shift. But I think every time we can say the word, or express the concepts of veganism, we should. Just to let anyone thinking about it know they are not alone. That someone else is doing it, and thriving.

Some of your game pieces represent foxes. Why did you include those in the refuge scene?

I include the foxes to let the players know that farmed animals aren’t the only animals that need to be considered. And foxes are beautiful.

Could you say a few words on what might be hardest for you, psychologically or otherwise, about living a vegan life?

That we know there is a better way to live. And then, to be incapable of conveying the principles of empathy and compassion to others. Even to the people we know already have empathy and compassion. Living every day, knowing the suffering continues with no end in sight, tends to make me nihilistic. Not in an anarchy type of way. More of a uselessness.

Any ideas that may be helpful to others who might experience similar struggles?

Knowing that any act of humanity I make has a positive influence on somebody, man or beast, makes it worthwhile. No one person will save the world. We all must find solace in knowing that we and our actions are less the problem, and more the cure.

In what direction do you hope the vegan community will go? What should be emphasized?

In every direction. Let everyone know you are vegan. People need to know who you are. Your position will not be taken seriously until it is a movement. People cannot change if they are not aware a viable option. Let everyone know that someone they know is happy and healthy in their decision to be compassionate. The word Vegan is in my Instagram moniker. I compete in bearding competitions all around the country. These competitions are now online, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I still let everyone I meet know:  I am Vegan Al. I wear the vegan message on hats, pins, and shirts. 

And lest anyone think all vegans take themselves too seriously, here is a photo of your recent first-place beard win! (Congrats!) Anything else you’d like to leave us with, Vegan Al?

I think most people are compassionate. It’s all about where they draw their lines. It starts with one’s self. If you stop there, you are a sociopath. You could move the line to your companions and family. Your companion animals may have a position inside your line. Where to draw the line next? Does the line move to heritage? Social groups? Religion? Species, domestic or wild? I hope we all find a point when we can start removing lines and realize that we all suffer. We all deserve the right to live as we are without these artificial lines designed to separate. Help when you can. If you can’t, get out of the way so someone else can.

Remember, don’t let perfection get in the way of doing the best you can. Just be honest about what is your best. One of my favorite quotes is by Maya Angelou. Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.

Thank you, Lee, for approaching me for this interview, and the chance to open up and express my views. I hope my answers inspire somebody to look at their own reasons for the way they live. 

Photos courtesy of Allen Eckert (banner image: Thomas B. from Pixabay).