I'm often surprised at the reactions my vegan diet receives. Sometimes it's annoyance at my tainting someone's lunch or sometimes it's amusement at my presumed sentimentality or idealism (almost always accompanied by cracks about PETA), but most of the time it manifests in a mild or even defiant defensiveness. "Well, obviously the present state of factory farming is awful, yes, and it needs changing, of course, but my eating habits would hardly instigate any real change in those giant evil corporations and, after all, I need my protein. Surely my health is more important than a chicken's."
Without providing you with an extensive list of the benefits of veganism, I want to clear up some issues with the current reputation of the animal welfare movement. The problem seems to stem mainly from stereotypes, ultimately arising from its associations with groups that reject all use of animal products, whether it harms animals or not. An animal rights group might tell you that it's immoral to keep a pet, eat honey, or wear silk. But none of these explicitly cause pain to a non-human animal, provoking the charge that vegans are arbitrary extremists.
To clear up some confusion, animal welfarists aim instead to minimize suffering on a much larger scale. While circuses might treat animals cruelly and race horses are typically killed when injured or no longer in top condition, the meat market (pardon the euphemism) is still, by a huge margin, the worst industry for animal suffering. Yes, we can spend time and money on shutting down circuses, the fur and skin trade and even the Stampede rodeo, but eating animal products remains the single largest and best-funded contributor to animal suffering, and therefore should prompt us to consume as few of them as possible. Circuses and fur trading are already largely acknowledged as detrimental to animal welfare -- animal products in the form of food are not.
Although the two movements have been lumped together into one front of an emotional, slightly crazy and definitely marginal group, the core of animal welfare is founded in reason, promoting the least amount of suffering for the greatest number of non-human animals. Perhaps once this is more generally known, our reputation as hippies (or much worse, as terrorists) will fade.
How do we tackle rationally the consequences of purchasing animal products? We can start by cutting back meat consumption as much as possible. This could mean a transition to a vegetarian diet, or it could mean slowly removing the meat you won't miss -- cutting back in any form helps. I am not, however, suggesting an easy way out here: we are all entirely responsible for what we eat and where it comes from. The point to remember, then, is to question the consequences of our meal choices as frequently as we can. Free-range beef from Alberta might well be more ethical than Lucerne's factory-farmed milk. In the same way, meat from sustainable hunting might be more ethical than buying it from the supermarket's unknown source: at least the animal lived a relatively pain-free life in the wild before dying.
Veal and foie gras, along with factory-farmed turkey, are the least ethical of meat choices, because they cause the most suffering to the animals involved. Before buying groceries or ordering at a restaurant, look into exactly what you're supporting and take responsibility for the suffering that your purchases are effecting. Missing the rodeo or circus will make a difference, but not nearly the difference you can make by cutting meat out of your diet. And while you're at it, try not to give in to the all-too-easy presumption that vegans are crazy.