Mychael McNeeley is just one of those guys who lit the fire within me to create this third interview series, Everyday Vegan Changemaker. I feel like I say this every time I publish a new interview in this series but it’s true: Everyday Vegan Changemakers are those who seek to remove barriers to veganism and encourage people wherever they are without ever selling out the animals and Mychael exemplifies this blend of inclusiveness and dedication. From his base in San Diego, Mychael shines as an example of someone who is friendly, helpful, warm, committed and humble with his vegan advocacy. I am always deeply impressed with his steady and welcoming approach, one that doesn’t center him but the animals. I am so happy to be shining a little spotlight on Mychael McNeeley, an Everyday Vegan Changemaker who is creating so much good in the world.
1. To start, we’d love to know how long you’ve been vegan.
2. We’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?
In my youth, I joined 4H. The first animals I raised were two pigs, Wilbur (the runt of the litter) and Charlotte. Charlotte’s Web was my favorite book at the time. I loved Wilbur and Charlotte with all my heart, and they were truly my best friends for the year I spent with them. To this day, I feel a sense of regret about the ultimate betrayal of my friends, although at the time, I really did not understand what was going to happen to them. I was 8 years old.
In my teens, I became interested in anything mystical, spiritual, or philosophical, and began looking into yoga. I read a book by Richard Hittleman. I can’t remember the name of the book, but in it, Hittleman suggested that his readers stop eating all flesh for thirty days. At the end of the thirty days, he asked that we try a meal including “meat” like those we had eaten before the “challenge.” He was sure that the feeling we got would convince us that we never wanted to eat flesh again. I took him up on the challenge, and after the thirty days had no desire to go back. (Later, I did, though, but that’s way too long a story to recount here.) I did not eat “red meat” for about 25 years from that point. I wasn’t completely onboard with the ethics of consuming or not consuming flesh, but I did believe that I should not eat any animal I wouldn’t personally kill, and I could not see myself looking into the sweet eyes of a cow and shooting them.
In 1996, I became a (biological) father for the first time. Jamie came unexpectedly, as did the incredible love between us, something I could never have imagined. Jamie was unfortunately taken from us in a car wreck. He was not quite six when he was killed, and had been a lifelong vegetarian. He would tell people that he did not eat animals because he would not eat his friends. Although, it took me a while to follow in his footsteps, I do feel that many seeds were planted for me at that time, and that becoming vegan honors Jamie’s memory. Also, knowing that ineffable bond and interconnectedness between parent and child, and understanding the grief of losing one’s child, I realize now that I never want to participate in breaking that bond for anyone, human or non-human, and that is exactly what we do in animal industries.
There are many moments along the way like these. All of these planted certain seeds that often took a very long time to germinate. While I had a soft spot in my heart for animals, I was also taught, as most of us are, that they are here to serve us, to feed us, to clothe us, to entertain us, and so on.
3. What was the catalyst (or were the catalysts) that made you go vegan? Was it a film? An experience? Someone else’s influence? A book? Was it overnight or did it take a while?
My wife, Debbie, and I had a child in 2007. I was 42 at the time, and after a few years, I realized that I would have to be in the best shape of my life to be a good dad to Liam. I started hunting around on Netflix for documentaries to watch on health, and came across Fat Sick & Nearly Dead. After that, I moved on to Forks Over Knives. This was around the Spring of 2012. After watching FOK, I really started moving toward eating a plant-based diet. After I mostly removed the animal flesh and secretions from my diet, that veil between them and me suddenly became much thinner. Knowing now that I did not need to continue to eat them, it was natural that my heart began to open to them.
At that point, I was searching feverishly for anything I could find on veganism (a term I had heard of, but honestly had absolutely no understanding of). I came across Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s podcast, “Food For Thought.” I started binge listening to that podcast. When I had a question, I would search the podcast library for answers. It didn’t take long before I was convinced that veganism was the direction I was heading. I had cut back quite a bit on animal “products” at the time, and made that leap into veganism pretty much “overnight.”
4. What were your biggest challenges or obstacles to going vegan and how did you overcome them?
It’s funny how natural it was for me — pretty easy, really, to become vegan. There were a couple of small hurdles I had to deal with. One of them was work boots. I was working as an arborist and had to figure out what to do about boots. As hard as I tried over the years, I never did find a good, vegan forestry-type boot. Fortunately, the ones I already had were good quality, and I was able to resole them to get me through. I started wearing hiking boots for most everything I did at work, and those were a lot easier to find in a vegan version.
5. What is the world like as a vegan today compared to when you first went vegan?
Frankly, it is hard for me to tell! I have, over time, placed myself so much into a “vegan bubble” that the world often seems more vegan to me than it is.
As far as the products available, things continue to improve. Vegan meat products have made a huge impact. Cheeses continue to get better. The excuses for not being able to eat vegan food, especially for those of us who have these products available to us, are running thin.
From a social standpoint, it does seem that many more people understand what veganism is than they did seven years ago. Part of what I work toward is the normalization of veganism, so this is very satisfying to see. The goal would be that we need a word like “veganism” as much as we need a word to describe a “non-cannibal.”
6. Please tell us your “why vegan” elevator pitch.
If we can live out healthy, satisfying lives without killing or paying others to kill animals, how can we possibly justify continuing to do so?
Most people believe in the “golden rule.” Veganism is just a matter of expanding our circle of who “others” are. Animals are not objects to be used, but are individuals. As Tom Regan said, “What happens to them matters to them.” How can we possibly leave any sentient being outside of our sphere of whom we believe deserves justice, respect, and bodily autonomy? The larger quote from Tom Regan is: “The other animals humans eat, use in science, hunt, trap, and exploit in a variety of other ways have a life of their own that is of importance to them apart from their utility to us. They are not only in the world, they are aware of it, and also of what happens to them. And what happens to them matters to them. Each has a life that fares experientially better or worse for the one whose life it is. Like us, they bring a unified psychological presence to the world. Like us, they are some-bodies, not some-things. In these fundamental ways, nonhuman animals in labs and on farms, for example, are the same as human beings…”
By the way, this question is why we started “One Minute Vegan.” My own “elevator pitch” is evolving, but there are a couple of mine on the channel.
7. What is your favorite thing about being vegan?
I absolutely love everything about being vegan. I know that sounds hyperbolic. Of course, there are hard things about it, like feeling so deeply into things every part of every day (tears flow often). Still, I would take that any day over not feeling empathy at all.
Being vegan truly is something so beautiful; I never could have imagined it until I got here.
8. If you could tell someone some simple advice for shifting away from eating animals, what would it be?
Well, it kind of depends on the person, but one thing I often suggest is rather than “cutting out” anything, just begin adding in plant foods- crowding out the animal-based “foods.” Because of my own experience, I do believe that once the animal flesh and secretions are out, a change in heart occurs. That change of heart hopefully leads to “grokking” veganism and animal rights.
9. Can you tell us about a time that you think you had a positive influence on someone considering your vegan or compassionate living message? What do you think made it effective?
I have found that most of what seems to influence others is to ask questions and then really listen. The times I’ve seen the most beautiful shifts were the ones where the person realized the answers themselves rather than responding to my telling them anything.
I had a friend who had read Animal Liberation and had become a vegetarian. I simply asked the question, “What made you become vegetarian, but not become vegan?” She thought about that for a while, and then reported back to me later that she had become vegan!
10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is…”
To me, being vegan is a radical step in the evolution of humankind. It is a beautiful way to live, and opens the doors to understanding many systems, opens us to love more deeply, and solidifies the reality that everything truly is connected. Veganism is an important and necessary part of creating a just and peaceful society.
Extra credit: Please let us know your favorite vegan organization.
Huge shout-out to Vegan In San Diego for helping to bring our local community together in an inclusive and fun way. Carly Morales, along with a handful of volunteers, has poured her heart and soul into this for several years, and this year they gained non-profit status.