Gazing into a pair of melting brown eyes, the actress saw something that changed her world.
I've always been a patsy for anything with a face. Walking home from school one day when I was 9, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a man beating a dog with a stick. I yelled for him to stop, but he just kept at it. So the next thing I knew, I was flying toward him and pummeling him with my feet and fists. The man—slack-jawed—stared at me: this 65-pound attack child in kneesocks. The mutt licked his leg and trotted off.
Decades later I was taking a walk in the country, where my husband and I have a house, past paddocks full of horses, sheep, and cows. It was a spring day—warm, green, quiet—and I noticed a brown-and-white spotted cow standing close to the fence that separated my path from her field. When I edged closer, she didn't shy away as cows usually do. Instead she kept watching me and chewing her cud. I moved slowly until we were face-to-face, my hands on the barrier between us, and I looked into her eyes.
I'd been doing animal-issues work for years—campaigning for more-humane treatment for geese and calves fated to become foie gras and veal, for the adoption of shelter dogs and cats, for the banishment of steel trapping—but it had never occurred to me quite so clearly: This animal's eyes are no more or less valuable than my own. When we broke our gaze, I went home, where my husband was making cheeseburgers. I sat down, picked up the burger, put it to my mouth—and set it back on the plate. That was 18 years ago, and though I sometimes dream of a good BLT, I haven't eaten a bite of meat since.
I've always felt a connection with animals, felt that they have emotions, that they suffer as we do, that they could teach us a great deal about compassion. I think they deserve the same respect as people—not the same treatment, but the same respect. When I was 9 years old and pounding that man, a major lifestyle change didn't occur to me, and when I was 35 and working for the ASPCA, I wasn't ready. But I was evolving. My mind and heart were opening. And when I stood on that country road, I knew it was time to make a change, to finally line up my actions with my beliefs.
Printed from Oprah.com on Thursday, December 12, 2013