It was 10:30pm on a crisp Sunday evening and tears were streaming down my face as I apologized to her profusely. “I didn’t know. I’m so sorry. If I knew, I wouldn’t have waited so long to switch.”

She just stared back at me. I was there to comfort her in the final hours of her life, yet it was me who was seeking forgiveness and peace from her.

Let me explain. During my recent appearance on JaneUnchained’s #LunchBreakLIVE, the subject of animal vigils came up. When I first heard about them last year from a friend whom I met at the Switch4Good Dairy-Free Athlete Summit, I had absolutely ZERO desire to attend one – ever. But I promised Jane Velez-Mitchell on camera – meaning that I had a lot of witnesses – that I would go.

I loathe being out on Sunday nights and the last place I wanted to be was at a cow vigil, but I am a man of my word and I knew it was an important thing to do now that I had become something of an activist ever since the S4G Athlete Summit. It was important to see firsthand the real-life impact that the meat and dairy industries have.

Although I had stopped eating animals 29 years ago, I didn’t give up dairy fully until four years ago. Whenever I talk to people about going vegan, more than consuming meat or cow’s milk, usually I hear how difficult it would be for them to give up cheese. I never was much of a cheese eater. But, maybe it’s the Philly boy in me, I love pizza. I often say how easy being vegan is once you find the meat and dairy-free substitutes you like. Pizza, sadly, was my last vestige of dairy and it was super tough to give up my weekly treat, a Sunday night tradition that dates back to my college days of bicycle racing and those post-race pizzas earned after a hard week of training and clean eating. Of course, now I realize I can just switch to vegan pizza, which many pizza parlors are offering.

Symbolically, the day I picked to go to the cow vigil was Mother’s Day. When I called my mother that day, I told her about my evening plans. I tried to imagine what the experience would be like as I hit the gym in the hours before my departure. What would I see? How would I feel? Would I be able to sleep after the vigil?

When I have drives longer than 30 minutes, I usually call a friend or family member, but I wanted to remain silent on the drive to the slaughterhouse. The vigil was called for 9:30pm and when I arrived, there were about 50 people standing amidst dim electric candles and creative protest signs. There was the trendy couple from Las Vegas who made attending the vigil as part of their vacation. Same with the female couple visiting from Vancouver. There was the emotional 20-something woman who made the two-hour drive each way from San Diego. There was Wayne, who played jazz for the cows and steer through his smart phone. There was tattooed and buzzcut Max and a leggy blond model named Hannah, two vigil regulars who kindly made me feel welcome. Max was a helpful fount of information in addition to serving as a benevolent “host.” The group was an ethnic rainbow and ranged in ages from teens to 70s. Anna and Brian from LA Animal Save gathered us in a circle to explain what we were there to see. They discussed the protocol of what transpires at the slaughterhouse, how we were to act – “this is a love mission” – and introduced the slaughterhouse’s head of security, who was friendly and happy to answer any of our questions.

What we saw was a relatively small parcel of fenced-in land containing what looked to be over a hundred cows and steer. They had arrived on trucks driven a great distance. The cows and steer stood in these pens. They were waiting for their lives to end, for the slaughter to begin. Many had numbered tags affixed to their ear or were branded.

I went over to get as close to the fence as possible. One cow was laying on her side and another “witness” expressed his concern, asking me if the cow was okay. I didn’t know. This was all new to me and it was a lot to process. The experience took me back to when my cat was sick and needed to be euthanized. I decided that my last duty to Mocha was to make her departure spiritual and peaceful. As the vet prepared the cocktail of injections that would end her life tranquilly, I held her, stroking her fur and chanting into her ear. It felt like that was what I was supposed to do this particular evening for this particular cow. But I wanted to apologize to her, too.

I was told by the security guard and the vigil organizers that there were many dairy cows in the lot. Because I had consumed dairy for 50 years of my life, I knew I had allowed myself to become a supporter of that cruel and unnecessary industry.

From a slight distance, I focused all my love and energy on that one cow and began a silent dialogue. As I spoke, tears welled up and fell from my eyes. She had suffered far too long in her short life and her suffering would finally end within hours.

I felt guilty. Why didn’t I give up dairy sooner? Although I had cut back on cow’s milk 29 years ago, I’d had enough lapses to make me part of the problem. When I traveled (and was away from the blender I use to make my plant-powered, dairy-free post-workout protein smoothies), I’d  fall for the chocolate milk ads and drink a quart of cow’s milk after a workout. I’d often end up running to the toilet, hours later, because my rumbling stomach couldn’t tolerate the milk made for baby cows. A cup of yogurt, fruit and nuts was my pre-skate meal for a while. And there was my Sunday night “pizza reward ritual” that I struggled to give up. Bearing witness to  dairy cows, about to be slaughtered after a lifetime of forced impregnation and misery, I pondered, helplessly, what could be worth this?

The acrid stench of slaughterhouse death seemed to follow me home. I tossed all my clothes into the washer and I had to take a hot shower. When I climbed into bed, I gazed at the photo I had taken of the cow with whom I’d communed. By the time I’d arise the next morning, she would be gone. I only hope she felt my love and was finally at peace. But I won’t be at peace until I know that cows (any animal) no longer live (suffer) and die like this.

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