An interview with AMONG ANIMALS 3 contributor Jacquie Vervain

This interview was conducted and edited by Ashland Creek Press intern Rachel Harris.

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: Basically: the Yulin Dog Festival and the West’s reaction to the festival. Also: I love an ambiguous murder mystery.

I think one of the most frustrating things as an ethical vegan living in the USA is watching your compatriots react with pearl-clutching horror to the exploitation of animals across the ocean while having absolutely zero qualms with the meat industry within the U.S.

I’m a huge dog person, and I despise the Yulin Dog Festival. When it started gaining a ton of attention a few years back, I was overjoyed to see all the protests and demonstrations, and even happier to see rescues happening for those poor little dogs.

But, sadly, I started to notice the hypocrisy and xenophobia inherit within the U.S. response to the festival. For non-vegan Americans, there was almost always:

  1. A hyper-judgmental and pretentious “How dare these people do something so horrendous and disgusting—what complete barbarians” attitude toward Yulin for allowing the festival;
  2. An equation of the small festival within Yulin with all of China and, in extension, all of Asia, and also all Asians; and
  3. A complete lack of awareness that they themselves might be complicit in equally horrendous and disgusting behavior by participating in the U.S. meat industry, which slaughters 121 million pigs a year (as opposed to the reported 1,000 to 10,000 dogs killed in the Yulin festival).

Shortly before writing this piece, I got into an argument with my brother because he’s one of these meat eaters who strongly opposes the Yulin Festival. “You’re a hypocrite,” I said. “How can you sit there eating a literal pig and judge anyone ever for doing the same thing to another animal? Shouldn’t you go fix the man in the mirror first? Pigs are just as smart as dogs, and they have just as much right to liberation.”

My brother shook his head and, with all seriousness, said: “It’s completely different for pigs! The dogs in Yulin are tortured. That’s a part of the festival! That’s what I’m upset about most—that the dogs are tortured and then killed and then eaten. Pigs are just killed and eaten, and all animals have to die sometime, so who cares?”

I couldn’t believe that my adult brother, whom I love and respect in so many ways, actually held this belief in his head and heart—that pigs aren’t tortured when they’re taken to a slaughterhouse. But it’s a view that so many people have, and it’s one that is so dangerous and deceptive because it allows otherwise humane and liberal people to justify the mass slaughter of these beautiful animals and feel ethical and good at the same time. This creates complacency and does not compel change for the animals.

The argument swirled in me for a few days, until I decided I wanted to write about the Yulin Dog Festival. But I wanted to completely change the setting to an American one to show how what we do here in the U.S. is no better or worse than what any other meat-eating country does around the world.

At first, I pictured a big barbecue celebration in Texas, sort of like a rodeo, but with the bulls being physically tortured before slaughter so that the “taste was better.” But this little idea wasn’t enough for a whole story.

Luckily, I ended up taking a road trip to Salt Lake City to visit a friend who’s getting his PhD at the university. He gave me a copy of Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, and I started reading it right away. The treatment of girls and women in Mormonism and particularly polygamy has always haunted me, and I thought there was a connection to be made here between the oppression of girls and the oppression of animals in our society.

I’ve also always been obsessed with cults and religion, and the question of where the line lies between the two. The Mormons and the niche they’ve carved right between the two has always fascinated me. They’re Christian, but not. A cult, but not. And Christianity was once a cult but now it’s—

See? It’s all very confusing the more you think about it. I started to seriously question what even is a cult? Mormonism? Polygamy? Veganism? Normalized and unthinking mass murder of 121 million pigs a year? The Bachelor?

I truly, truly didn’t want to approach the story as anti-Mormon or judgmental of Mormons, because I think that’s sort of low-hanging fruit at this time, thanks to Matt Stone and Trey Parker (and I mean that thanks sincerely—if I succeeded in creating anything comedic in this story, it’s at least in part because I grew up watching them use satire to force attention on political issues). But I wanted to think and write about cults in a broader sense. And, if you look at the definition of a cult, it’s very nebulous:

A religious group, often living together, whose beliefs are considered extreme or strange by many people.

A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.

If you know anything about the structure and setup of The Bachelor—these definitions can be used to describe the show with eerie accuracy. The women all live together, and their behavior on the show is paraded as extreme and strange (and entertaining!) in front of the entire nation. And all of their veneration and devotion is directed toward the bachelor. There are rituals that have to be done a certain way, and words that must be spoken at certain times.

So: Non-Mormon Americans treat polygamy as a disgusting blight on humanity and feminism, all the while celebrating a show that objectifies, demeans, and places women in the position of temporary polygamy. And non-vegan Americans treat the Yulin Dog Festival as a disgusting blight on humanity, all the while celebrating their own bacon and barbecues.

I wanted to dive in and wrestle with all these linked concepts and explore this idea that unless we are actively attempting to pause, step back, and truly reflect on why we do what we do how we do it—we’re probably in a cult. Maybe a really big cult, maybe a cult whose god is not a god but an object, a base desire, a thirst for blood and bacon—but still, a cult. And the only reasonable thing to do if you’re stuck in a cult is to run!

Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: I stopped eating meat at twelve after watching a ton of PETA videos, so I went into this story very well aware of the horrors that pigs endure every day they spend in captivity awaiting slaughter. But I’m sort of obsessive when it comes to research, so I spent quite a few weeks diving back in to all those awful stories and secret footage. I also already knew a lot about the Yulin Festival, but I forced myself to go back and watch all the material I could so I could translate it to a U.S. setting. For the Mormon element of the story, I read Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven and watched a dozen documentaries on polygamy and Mormons. I spent an unwholesome amount of time watching reality television in grad school, so I didn’t have to do too much research for that element of the story, though I did read Amy Kaufman’s Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure for some extra behind-the-scenes info.

The writing process itself was very smooth and took only a day or two. Then I revised, revised, revised. I might still want to go back and revise. I never say things right the first time. I’m a big reviser.

Q: Tell us about The Mad Girl’s Guide to Animal Liberation on your website—what inspired it, and what are your hopes for it?

A: Thanks for asking! The Mad Girl’s Guide to Animal Liberation is an interactive (by which I mean there are loads of memes, TikTok clips, and Daft Punk music videos) textbook/memoir about animal rights that I designed for teen girls.

In addition to being a writer, I’m a feminist and I have an MEd. I teach a debate class for advanced students, and I always sprinkle in topics like “Should we eliminate animal testing?” because I never tire of discussing animals.

Each time I assign this topic with a new group of kids, I’m amazed by how smart, fierce, and compassionate the girls in my class are. They almost always all want to free the whales and burn down the science labs that test on animals. I absolutely love their energy, but inevitably one of the boys in class says something like, “Yeah, but why should we care about what happens to a lab mouse? We all eat chickens. You eat cows, right? What do you even care about a lab mouse for?”

And he’s got a fantastic point! So at this point the girl has to either admit he’s right and back down from her argument that animals should be respected, or she has to declare on the spot: I’m going vegan! Never once has the latter happened—the girls always back down. They say something like, “Oh, yeah. That’s true.” And then the debate ends, because the girls don’t have the knowledge or skill to continue fighting for their deeply held belief that animals matter.

The truth is: Unless they have vegan parents, most children grow up simply eating the meat their parents make for them and not thinking much of where it comes from. Most parents do not take their children to slaughterhouses, or show them videos of what happens to baby chicks in the egg industry.

So it’s not until children turn into young teens and gain a bit of body and mind autonomy that they’re in a position to discover and question where their meat comes from. I think there’s a huge gap in the current scene, which focuses primarily on converting adults to veganism, because there’s so much controversy around the idea of teaching young children about veganism. However, I think the teen years are the perfect time to introduce animal rights and veganism. These kids are at the perfect age where they can think and reason for themselves. Plus, they’re not yet stuck in any irreversible patterns. (How often do we hear fifty-year-olds say they can’t ever imagine giving up hamburgers, as if speaking about cigarettes?)

There are so many amazing and informative websites on veganism out there already, but I wanted to design one that appealed specifically to teen girls, in part because 80 percent of vegans are women and 79 percent of those in animal rights groups are women, and in part because I was once just like them. Young and full of love for animals, but with absolutely no idea of how to stop participating in the exploitation of animals. That exploitation runs deep and has so many tentacles. At times it seems like a monster we’ll never truly defeat. But I wanted to provide a space where girls who are passionate (or just a little curious!) about animal rights could go to get their questions answered, their confidence boosted, and their beliefs validated, because they’re the ones who hold the future in their hands, and if anyone can defeat this monster—I bet it’ll be them!

Q: Which writers inspire you the most?

A: Right now, I’m absolutely living for Ed Winters’s This Is Vegan Propaganda (And Other Lies the Meat Industry Tells You). He’s a phenomenal speaker and advocate for animals, and I hope his book continues to reach readers. For this story, I was deeply inspired by the posh and polished Victorian tone of Emily Brontë, who’s my favorite writer of all time. I mixed that with the body horror of Stephen King because I can’t think of anything more jarring, and I love stories that clash. And I’m a massive, massive mystery buff. Beneath all the theatrics, this is a simple mystery novel à la Chandler or Hammett. But I loathe mysteries with simple, unambiguous endings, and I’ve got no one but David Lynch to thank for that.

Q: Why did you choose a pig’s point of view for this piece?

A: I was originally planning on a third-person omniscient, but as soon as I started drafting, his voice just started flowing out of me. I instantly fell in love with Amos Throckmorton III, and I tried my best to give him dignity and grace despite the horrific nature of his short life. In doing so, I ended up writing him a love story, which I hope helped to humanize him. But I didn’t want to be too sappy, since I think sometimes sappy animal stories get discounted for being “childish” or “juvenile,” so I turned his beloved Ava into an unattainable, mysterious, and often cruel ice queen. I was also endlessly amused and delighted by the narrative potential of Amos’s divided soul, which was within all the characters who had eaten him. Sometimes point of view can feel arbitrary in a story, but the POV of this piece is intrinsically linked to the piece itself. I couldn’t have one without the other.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?

A: The first time I shared this story was in an MFA workshop during grad school circa 2019, and, with a few exceptions, it did not go over well. At the end of class, my (very non-vegan) professor said in frustration: “I just don’t know who I’m supposed to feel sympathy for in this story—the girls or the pigs? It lacks focus.” I was absolutely heartbroken by this question. I hope future readers walk away with soul-deep knowledge in their guts that both the girls in this story and the pigs in this story matter deeply and irrevocably, not at the expense of one another, within the confines of this story and, more importantly, beyond.

Jacquie Vervain’s story, “Behind the Chokecherry,” appears in Among Animals 3. Jacquie holds a BA in English literature with a minor in classical studies, an MEd in secondary education, and an MFA in fiction. She writes dark fantastical mysteries and runs The Mad Girl’s Guide to Animal Liberation, a website designed to connect teen girls with the fight for animal rights.