Many of us eat meat but some of us choose not to. Jade Bilowol delves into her decision to move from one extreme to the other because of her love for animals. Photo by Vinh Dao.

“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian. Animals raised on modern factory farms and killed in slaughterhouses endure almost unimaginable suffering,” legendary Beatle Paul McCartney says.

If people don’t ask me when I’ll start eating meat again, they usually ask why I’m vegetarian. The answer’s straightforward. I love animals. So much so, I can no longer support a worldwide industry inflicting needless cruelty on intelligent creatures.

Just because they can’t speak English, Vietnamese, Ukrainian, whatever, doesn’t mean animals cannot gauge how inhumane we are to them.

Growing up with my parents playing The Beatles, the greatest band of all time, I now also listen to McCartney on a new front. He speaks from the animals’ perspective, giving them a much-needed voice many of us choose to never listen to.

Pigs are smarter than dogs and outperform some primates on tasks including playing interactive video games. “They have cognitive abilities beyond three-year-old children. Yet on factory farms, they are imprisoned in crowded, filthy conditions. Many will go insane from the stress, abuse and complete lack of mental stimulation,” McCartney says. When I saw a YouTube clip of the common practice of ‘thumping’ small, sick piglets to death on a concrete floor, I couldn’t help but cry.

Chickens, too, have a terrible lot. “Chickens and turkeys are arguably the most abused animals on the face of the planet. They are crowded into filthy sheds by the tens of thousands, and forced to live in their own excrement,” McCartney says. “Hens used by the egg industry are crammed into cages so small they can’t do anything natural or important to them, not even spread a single wing. The ends of their sensitive beaks are cut off with a hot blade.” This is to stop them pecking each other as they go crazy cramped together in tiny cages. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) says by omitting chickens from your diet, you can save many of them.

That’s no reason to target cows though. “Cows never forget a face or a place, and they have complex problem-solving skills. Cambridge University Professor Donald Broom documented the fact these gentle animals become excited and sometimes jump into the air when they have figured out a solution to a problem,” McCartney says. Yet we pump them full of hormones, keep them pregnant constantly and pry their offspring away from them at birth, triggering much anxiety for the mother and her calf. How would we feel in that situation?

PETA highlights that factory farm animals never get to see the sun or take in fresh air, except for a brief stretch while they are prodded onto trucks for a harrowing ride to the slaughterhouse. Many don’t survive transport. Others are too sick or weak to even step off the truck at the slaughterhouse. For what? To be hung and throats slit, often while they’re completely conscious, PETA says. Many are still alive while they are skinned, hacked into pieces or scalded in de-feathering tanks.

I had a turning point and it happened pretty fast once I took in the story behind what was constantly on my plate.

Before the public holiday at April’s end, I was a bona fide carnivore. My favourite things back in Australia were cranskies (fat sausages infused with cheese) and bacon-and-egg muffins.

In Vietnam, my penchant for pork continued unabated. A minimum five mornings a week, I kicked my metabolism off with a banh mi thit (baguette with processed pork) or banh mi heo quay (baguette with roasted pork) for breakfast and it was meat and meat for lunch and dinner. When cooking was too much, a dash to KFC for original recipe thighs, chips and gravy seemed a panancea. I went for months without eating green vegetables or fruit.

Then, the night before we were due to fly out of HCMC to explore Taipei and take advantage of Vietnam’s 30 April and 1 May break, we locked up our place, knowing our cat Dottie was on the rooftop doing his usual nightly thing. The following morning he didn’t greet us with his distinctive cry, wanting back inside.

My husband and I flew into a panic. We had to leave for the airport in under an hour. We raced down the street, brandishing a photo of our little one Dottie, asking if anyone had seen him. Not one had.

Buoyed by the fact he had the social skills of a flea, we opted to leave a bowl of food out for him. I almost didn’t get on the plane. I cried every time I had a beer in Taipei (which was a lot). People would see me sitting opposite my husband at a restaurant, hunched over, sobbing so hard my back was heaving uncontrollably. People would be forgiven for thinking we were breaking up.

Here I was, grieving for this little animal like my mum or dad had died. While searching the internet for advice on how to find missing cats we were at a venue that offered more than 100 craft beers and the owner was vegetarian, offering delicious meat-free meals.

A confluence of things around me culminated in a massive life change. As I was sitting at the bar, after drinking a variety of craft beers in quick succession to numb my grief over my little cat, I looked up news.com.au. The lead story was about animal cruelty covertly filmed at Australia’s biggest pork provider. ‘Each pig is killed humanely’ was its PR line. Normally, I would have shrugged off such a headline, not wanting to be diverted from my meat. But what I saw in those two clips absolutely horrified me. Pigs with legs so disabled they couldn’t move to what they knew was the gas chamber based on the cries of the other pigs dying before them. Electric prods penetrating their ears to melt their brains to coerce them to a fate they didn’t want. And that’s just the start of what I saw.

Admittedly in Vietnam, many animals are raised free-range and I credit that. But processed meat on supermarket shelves abounds. Animal slaughtering factories here are plentiful and this number will continue to rise.

McCartney speaks of the damage to the environment, the lack of sustainability, not to mention obesity, cancer, heart attacks, mad cow disease, SARS, bird flu and other illnesses associated with the meat industry.

“It is only prejudice that allows anyone to think there’s a difference between abusing a cat and abusing a chicken, or abusing a dog and abusing a pig. Suffering is suffering no matter how you slice it,” McCartney says.

“Eating meat is bad for our health, it’s bad for the environment and it directly supports appalling cruelty to animals. The decision is yours, please make the compassionate choice.”