Vegan Rising | CHANGE OF HEART
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A Life with Horses

I sit at my desk, watching 6 sheep graze contentedly in the paddock below where I once ran horses I trained for other riders and competed on. My mind drifts back further, my thoughts deepening, considering the myriad of ways I have used animals over the last 5 decades.

I loved animals, or so I honestly believed.

I ‘owned’ many of them – that’s how I saw it.

I ate a lot of them, cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and other animals from the sea.

But, of course, the idea of eating horses, dogs or cats or any other animal I saw as cuddly or cute was simply objectionable.

And as for eggs and milk… well, the animal just gives them anyway don’t they?

I rode and trained horses professionally for most of my adult life, most of my 33-year career in Victoria Police in fact.

I was a horse mad, pony club attending kid who grew up with the desire to have a life with horses and a farm of my own.

At 20 I joined VicPol for one reason and one reason only, I simply could not think of a better job with horses! I joined because I wanted to be a Mountie.

At 22 I achieved my wish and there I remained for nearly 3 decades: riding, training, and teaching. I trained and rode hundreds of horses over those years. More horses than I can recall.

One day, returning from the football with a colleague who happened to have a farming background, we pulled up next to a truckload of big-eyed calves. Brown and white, black and white, jersey coloured babies… all eyes and ears and innocence.

“Oh!! My god! Look at them, Harry! So beautiful!” I almost squealed in delight at the sight of them. I was instantly intoxicated by their sweetness and soft furry coats. Oh how I wanted to cuddle them all!

Harry, my colleague, ducked his head and looked across me to the semi idling beside us.

“Do you eat veal?”

I was confused. “Ummm, yeah, sometimes… Why?”

“That’s your veal,” he grunted as he returned his eyes to the road ahead.

“What? What do you mean? I don’t understand” I said, genuinely confused.

“Veal is meat from calves,” he said bluntly.

“But they are just babies” I cried, looking from those small, sweet faces to Harry’s and back again… still confused, scrambling to make sense of what he’d just told me.

He gestured toward the truck with his head without taking his eyes from the traffic lights, waiting for them to change…

“Yeah, the meats more tender. Really tender when they are that age.”

I sat then, reality hitting home, looking into those liquid eyes that looked back at me until the lights changed and we pulled away, leaving those babies to their certain fate.

I went home that night and told my boyfriend. He was equally incredulous that our occasional pub meal was, in fact, the flesh of baby cows. We knew we would never eat it again and I never did.

As I sit here now I am grateful to that taciturn middle-aged man giving me some cold truth that afternoon but how I wish he’d also told me why they were on that truck in the first place. That he’d also asked me if I drank milk, ate cheese, yoghurt, ice cream, and butter. He knew the answer to that one I have no doubt. Of course he did. Perhaps he thought I’d had enough of a reality check for one day.

The Awakening

I was in my early 20’s when that conversation took place. It would take another 26 years until I was prompted to look into the reality of my other choices regarding animals and what I found there, hidden in clear sight, shocked me to my core and would eventually alter the course and substance of my life

In May 2011, I watched a 4 Corners story that pried the lid off the brutal truth of the Live Export of Australian cattle to Indonesia. That expose led me to the Animals Australia website and my education really began. When I learned that 700,000 5-day-old calves a year were slaughtered as wastage from the Dairy industry I simply did not believe it. I mean, how could anyone do that! They were babies! And then that conversation with Harry all those years before came back to me.

But it took an angry diatribe from a third-generation dairy farmer’s daughter at a friend’s wedding to tell me that indeed, babies or not, my liking for cheese put those babies on the slaughterhouse truck just as surely as the dairy farmer who bred them had. My beef cattle farming boyfriend at the time gave me no sympathy “What did you expect!”

The drive home from the wedding was silent and hurtful.

More months and more investigation into the many ways we exploit and harm animals went by with animal products featuring less and less prominently on my personal menu, until 2 weeks after my 50th birthday I realised that caring was all well and good, but only by aligning my actions with that caring would I ever make sense of a situation that made no sense at all.

I can’t love animals yet ignore the plight of billions of them simply because I liked the taste of them.

New Life

I went vegan in August 2012. I cleaned out every animal product in my kitchen and gave them all to a friend with a big family. It felt good and it felt right. A weight lifted, one I didn’t realise had been weighing on me. But what to eat? I knew no vegans or vegetarians.

I quickly came to realise that replacing a piece of animal flesh with an IGA Veggie Burger would soon become disheartening and so I turned to the internet and began a deep dive into the wonderful world of plant-based and vegan recipes. Who could have known that a life without animal products could be so rich and varied and delicious! I wasn’t a very interested or talented cook as an omnivore but I was very interested in health and sports so I had eaten what I felt at the time to be a “healthy diet”. I soon came to realise I’d been duped. Along with just about everyone else in reach of industry marketing and government backing.

I really enjoyed the food I was making but what I struggled with most was the role I was playing in my workplace. While I was unable to ride at that time due to ongoing issues with a back injury I was training other trainers from the ground and not liking a lot of what I was seeing now that I watched with new understanding. The veil had been lifted. There was no going back.

I decided to take off backpacking overseas for a year. I rented my property to friends and backpacked around the world alone on a tight budget with no expectations or firm plans aside from having entered a 250km ultra marathon in Costa Rica in Feb 2014. The Coastal Challenge was my first major event as a vegan athlete and also ended up becoming the first of many ultradistance adventures fundraising for animal rights groups and sanctuaries.

That year, 2013 into Feb 2014, opened my heart and mind even further – the things I saw, the people and animals I met and the injustice I witnessed when man and beast are not valued as equally entitled to the compassion and respect we would afford others. I found the Facebook page of Animal Liberation Victoria while I was travelling and joined up, telling them who I was and that I wanted to do activism with them when I returned.

Founder Patty Mark later told me she cried when staff told her that a cop had joined their ranks and wanted to help. I still fundraise and do some activism with ALV today.

I knew I needed to do something more aligned with my values. I wrote to all the clubs I coached at privately and told them that I now saw how we treat horses in a different light and as such could no longer in good conscience teach for them.

I wondered how that would go down at committee meetings. I didn’t receive a response from any of them.

When Worlds Collide

I’d been a cop on a horse since I was 22 and knew little else than teaching and training horses and riders. I no longer wanted to do that. It was my sole income stream. I had financial commitments for my elderly mum and a mortgage for myself. I had no partner to fall back on. I knew I would have to re-train in some way.

In late March 2014, home and back at work just 3 weeks, I attended Duck Season opening with ALV. I was illegally on the water at dawn rescuing ducks on the outskirts of Geelong all too aware I was breaking the law and more than a fine if caught my job would be in jeopardy.

The next day I marched with ALV proudly carrying an Animal Liberation banner with another ALV member in a march against the Abbott Government…ironically at the back of the march directly in front of 8 of my colleagues. I gave them a cheery wave. I had never felt as sure that I was on the right side of justice as I was that weekend standing with other activists opposing government endorsed practices and policies. I can only imagine what some of my colleagues were saying to each other as they watched me that day!

The next morning, Monday, I turned up reluctantly to the Police Academy in Glen Waverley to commence a 5-day Semi-Automatic Firearm course. I had been dreading returning to operational duties and getting back on a horse to carry out duties that I knew would no longer be aligned with my sense of justice but I felt I had no other choice.

I wasn’t to know as I sat down at a desk to be briefed on what would occur over that 5 days that I would be walking out of that building within 4 hours, never to return as a serving member.

Sometimes our heart takes over. I read once in a book “The Power Of Now” by Eckhart Tolle; “If there is an apparent conflict between the mind and body, thought will be the lie and emotion the truth. Maybe not the absolute truth of who we are but the relative truth of our state of mind at that time.”

I stood in a line with other police to my left and right, learning to “rack” this new firearm, my head was full of thoughts of not belonging, of not wanting to be there, or enforce laws I no longer had faith in. I struggled to regain focus on what the instructor was saying. I stood there, willing myself to listen but our body, our emotions, will not be denied when the truth is clear to us. Tears welled up, growing fatter and heavier, then sliding down my face as I struggled to regain composure without drawing attention to myself.

But my heart won out that day… And it must be said, has not failed me since.

The Beet Retreat

I will not pretend the transition away from a 33-year career was an easy one. It was one of the hardest journeys of my life. There was the shame at letting colleagues down, there was the shame at not coping very well with that shame. There was fear of the unknown, insecurity of my abilities to reinvent myself and to pay my bills and meet my responsibilities to others.

And who was I now I was not a cop?

I described this painful time to a force appointed psychologist that I felt I was shedding my skin but I was still caught in it. Would I actually resign? Could I? Should I?

By chance, I decided to use one room here as an Air BNB. Simply because I missed other travellers and seekers. And I needed the money and distraction.

Over the course of the next months, I found that welcoming new visitors into my home and life was a highlight and salvation to my still troubled soul. Toward the end of the year, a friend of many years pointed out to me, “Maybe you could do this?” The idea of running my own business had never occurred to me. My first thought was no, I couldn’t! But I was soon won over by the idea of truly aligning all my passions through this purpose of providing others with a glimpse into a vegan world that was both welcoming and beautiful to all, no matter how they viewed animals at that time.

I came to know it as my “Gentle Advocacy” and I still do today.

The Beet Retreat has continued to grow organically since it’s low key beginnings in Easter 2014. I have simply responded to what my guests and visitors have asked for and what felt in alignment with my own values, interests, and talents.

I was 51 when I opened the doors and am 56 now in September 2018. I felt I had no skills beyond horse riding and teaching back then. I had no understanding of the value of soft skills: communication, empathy, enthusiasm, hospitality, kindness and a desire to serve.

The Beet Retreat has now welcomed 100’s of guests and cooking class participants. I run several whole food vegan cooking classes a month, host retreats, take guided hikes, I also have a book percolating inside me…

So many visitors have gone vegan or plant-based after an experience here… more still are well on their way or simply now understand the why behind much of what has changed the lives of people like me and others who will read these words.

This place is a work in progress always, as I am, as the movement is. None of us holds all the answers but we have the questions. It’s the questions that hold the power to initiate great change. Until we are prepared to examine, to question long-held beliefs, we will remain stuck.

Going vegan is simply the biggest single action any person can take on that journey to releasing themselves and others from oppression and injustice. It is not the be all and end all but without it all else will fail.

Not all of us are in a position to make huge career changes or even small ones but we all have so much more power to change than we realise.

I have long quoted who I believe was Theodore Roosevelt “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are” It guided me as I travelled the world as a new vegan. It guided me as I stumbled along setting up my small business, never really sure if what I was doing was the “right way” to do things. And it guides me now in everything I do.

Just do what moves you. What feels right in your body. In your heart. Be smart, yes. Be courageous when you can. But be kind too. Not just to those who agree with us but to those who may agree with us tomorrow. Know we can be both. Always.

Author: Jan Saunders
Owner and Host at The Beet Retreat

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