[Editor’s Note: Clay Garrett is a writer, graphic designer, marketer, and vegan from Texas. He is married with two children, four cats, two dogs, an English Angora rabbit, two miniature horses, and a donkey. He holds a B.A. in digital art and design from Henderson State University (see his work at https://claygarrett.myportfolio.com.) He is also the art director for VEGWORLDmag.com. He spoke to Charles Camosy about animal rights and his Catholic faith.]
Can you tell us about your current advocacy work for animals? How long have you been doing this work?
I’m the Art Director and a writer for VEGWORLD Magazine–a digital vegan lifestyle magazine. I’ve worked with VEGWORLD about four years. As Art Director, my primary responsibility is to present VEGWORLD as a contemporary and captivating magazine which informs and inspires readers along their own vegan journeys. VEGWORLD sold last year, and I stayed on through the change in ownership; since, I’ve taken on a larger writing role. I write profile pieces about individuals doing amazing things who just happen to be vegan.
It’s important to illustrate to vegans and non-vegans alike that veganism can be a part of your life without being your entire life. You can be a three-time Olympics weightlifter, a minimalism blogger, a university professor, a small town doctor, or a mechanic (all people I’ve written about) and be vegan. Highlighting these individuals–in contrast to the animal rights advocates doing brave and necessary work–broadens the scope beyond stereotypical veganism.
I continue to work with VEGWORLD‘s previous owner on several projects including HealthFest – an annual event featuring some of the most renowned plant-based diet experts. I also participate in much of the marketing efforts of Friends of Marshall Animals, a non-profit raising awareness about the importance of a new, no-kill animal shelter in Marshall, Texas. I also work with a number of humanitarian groups, vegan athletes, vegan podcasters, and vegan writers on various projects.
I understand you recently converted to Catholicism. But before getting into that, let me ask if your calling to work on behalf of animals came from any kind of religious faith before you came to the Church?
My work in animal advocacy didn’t begin from any sort of religious position, at least not consciously. Looking back, I find it hard to believe my faith wasn’t subconsciously guiding me. My work in animal advocacy comes from a deep-seeded need to align the type of person I believe myself to be with the actions I take. And while this isn’t some novel idea (certainly Jesus pointed us to this), applying this mindset to the way we treat animals beyond our pets isn’t a step most people take.
The driving force behind the decision to adopt a vegan lifestyle was a very basic idea–I considered myself an animal lover, yet I ate animals. Both things simply couldn’t be true at the same time. It was a paradox with exactly two solutions: 1) admit to myself I, in fact, didn’t love animals and continue eating them 2) become a vegan. I chose the latter because I couldn’t rationalize the systematic torture and slaughtering of innocent animals for my tastebuds.
At that point about seven years ago, I’d already read about too many examples of individuals–and large groups of people for that matter–thriving on little to no animal products to trick myself into believing animal protein was necessary to sustain human life. When you are stripped of the false belief that you must kill animals for food, you are left with what is a sobering thought: You want to kill animals for food. It’s a very uncomfortable place for most people, and it certainly was for me. There wasn’t enough protein deficiency hysteria in the world for me to get past the fact animals at the most basic level don’t want to die, and I was sanctioning their deaths with my dollar merely for a taste preference.
Soon after adopting a vegan diet, I committed to a vegan lifestyle by eschewing all animal-based products including leather jackets, shoes, and even my wallet. I read a half-dozen books, watched several documentaries, and watched countless YouTube clips on veganism. I was shocked to find out just how many everyday consumer goods contain animals products and just how much veganism could contribute to making the world a better place for all its inhabitants.
What drew you to the Catholic faith? Was there anything in particular about it that made it a good fit in light of your advocacy?
My wife was raised in a devout Catholic family, so I was initially exposed to Catholicism when we started dating. As I began regularly attending Mass, I started to appreciate many things about the Church. I was drawn to the tradition and rituals within the Catholic faith. Each Mass has gravity and importance. It was something I’d never felt before. The Catholic Church is tethered to the origins of Christianity and the Church embraces that while Protestant denominations seem to shun the idea.
When my wife and I were married, we agreed to raise our children in the Catholic Church, and I always assumed I would convert to Catholicism but had no immediate plans to do so. As time passed and our children were born, I felt a stronger pull to the Church. Joining the Church was yet another way to align the type of person I believe myself to be with the way I wanted to show up in the world. It seemed hypocritical to call myself a committed man of faith yet not be committed to the Catholic Church.
As it pertains to my advocacy, I see animals’ right to life and humans’ right to life as a straight line, all-encompassing ethic which seamlessly aligns with Catholic teaching. At the very least we should treat animals’ lives similarly to the way we treat human life–taking either only as a last resort and only when it can be deemed unequivocally necessary for survival. And in truth most people will never be in a situation that rises to this level. Chickens aren’t threatening our lives or the lives of our families. We aren’t at war with cattle. The decision to take an animal’s life is overwhelmingly made as a matter of convenience or economics.
Given the local communities of which you are a part, I imagine the veganism plus Catholicism combination is fairly unique! How do you engage with those who think differently from you on these matters?
I live in a small town in northeast Texas surrounded by hunters, and Protestants, but surprisingly I’ve run into virtually no issues with either. Being well educated on both subjects helps a great deal. Whether it be Catholicism or veganism, I try and find the common ground with any detractor.
As I’m located in the ‘Bible Belt’, common spiritual ground isn’t difficult to find; I just emphasize the substantial commonalities between Catholics and Protestants. I’ve found arguing over differences of faith rarely leads to a productive exchange with anyone except those who are particularly receptive at that moment.
Common ground when it pertains to veganism can be more difficult to cultivate. In general, I emphasize the health benefits of a vegan diet. The health benefits of a well-planned vegan diet are unimpeachable – there are as as many studies substantiating the deleterious effects of animal flesh as cigarettes. The threats of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes – four of America’s top seven causes of death – can be substantially reduced and/or prevented by a vegan diet. And the Standard American Diet is a significant contributor to all of these conditions. Furthermore, virtually all of the nutritional concerns associated with a vegan diet are theoretical and don’t manifest in the real world at a significantly higher rate in someone eating a vegan diet than the Standard American Diet.
For instance, the concern of a lack of protein in vegan diets is essentially a medical urban legend. If someone eats anything approaching the recommended daily caloric intake via any normal diet, a protein deficiency is virtually impossible. The health benefits of a vegan diet speak for themselves.
The justifications for consuming animals are thick with paradoxes, hypocrisy, and relativism, so it’s difficult to bring up the subject of ethics without questioning an individual’s character. I only discuss the moral and ethical concerns associated with animal consumption – both in diet and consumer goods – if the other person broaches the subject initially. My standard response to why I went vegan is, “I realized whatever difference I assume exists between the animal laying on my plate and the animal laying at the foot of my bed is a difference I just made up.”
Most open-minded people who give this statement any thought at all quickly realize most of the value we attribute to various animals is based on culture bias, not intrinsic worth. Everyone can come up with examples of the different ways certain animals are treated in other countries across the world.
What do you think the Church can do to help secure a future in which we treat animals according to the will of their Creator?
The Church can a play a significant role in reducing and ultimately eliminating animal suffering. The Bible features several ‘vegan friendly’ passages including in Genesis 1:29, “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed—to you it shall be for food.” So, God’s original intent was for man and animal to live in harmony in the Garden of Eden.
The Jewish people are later permitted to eat specific meats, but I would argue this concession was allowed begrudgingly — eating meat wasn’t then made obligatory. Later in the first book of Daniel, Daniel and his men are permitted to eat only vegetables and drink water for ten days and after this time frame they are clearly healthier than their Babylonian counterparts. This diet was so superior that Daniel’s men continued eating it for three years.
One of the Church’s most important missions, combating world hunger, would be greatly aided by encouraging parishioners across the world to move to a vegan diet. Crop production worldwide exceeds the amount needed to feed the population, but over one third of all crops grown are fed to livestock. That livestock is eventually consumed by humans. It’s a horribly inefficient system. The U.S. alone produces enough crops to feed 800 million people, but again, most of it is fed to livestock — livestock whose natural diet is grass, not corn and grains. The food most of us choose to eat is literally the largest contributor to world hunger! Veganism isn’t just a vehicle to spare animal lives, it’s a way to more efficiently feed the world.
Also, if we are going to be the compassionate, merciful people God calls us to be, it’s difficult to look past the abomination that is factory farming. God created these animals, and their lives have a certain value independent of their utility to mankind; this is evident in Genesis 1 as God proclaims, “Animals are good.” As Catholics we are obligated to value life, protect the innocent, and live in accordance with the way God intended, and no one could argue factory farming is something God intended. Male calves are ripped from their mothers hours after they are born and then crammed into a dark box unable to move only to be slaughtered as veal weeks later. Chickens are stacked on top of each other, so tightly packed into tiny cages their beaks are removed to keep them from pecking each other to death as they slowly lose their minds. Male chicks are born and then immediately tossed into a grinder alive, all so a fast food chain can have cheap chicken nuggets. And are we really supposed to believe God intended for us to drink the milk of another species? Cow milk is intended for baby calves, the same way goat milk is intended for baby goats and human milk in intended for baby humans.
Animals have a purpose ascribed by God and mankind has a responsibly to allow them to flourish the way God intended and that starts with not killing them for our own foolish ends.