Elisabeth is one of my 3 closest friends, we know each other since 2014, when we met in Holland, while I was working through the EVS project as an animal care taker for the rescue center Stichting AAP. Lisa (this is how her close people call her) was 20 years old back then and she came one night, by car, all the way from Austria, all by herself! I went to the reception of the rescue center to welcome her and show her the way to our house. Lisa came to volunteer a month before I left so we were housemates and colleagues just for a little time while we were even working in different departments but still, we bonded and have developed a deep friendship ever since, for which I am more than grateful. Although I also went to Holland by car, from Greece, I was impressed that she did that too, even if Austria is closer to Holland, because she was so young for such a bold decision (I was 27). As a result, she gained my respect directly.

Back then, I was still just a vegetarian. Lisa was the one who opened my eyes when it comes to what’s happening in the dairy industry. She was the one who told me that in dairy farms, all the cows are females and they are artificially impregnated by a machine (more on this topic here). This was the first shock that initiated my scepticism against dairy and led me to go vegan later on.

To see how Lisa has grown as a person, ever since, is so inspiring and thus I decided to interview her because I believe that her story can be inspiring for more people and especially for other girls who grow in dairy farms. Please share her story, if you also felt inspired when reading it!

I must say here, that I feel so honoured and touched by her words on my influence on her. I didn’t see this coming when I sent her the questions…Thank you Lisa!

  1. Firstly, please introduce yourself. Tell us some things about you, your age, your background, your studies, what are you doing now and your vegan journey.

My name is Elisabeth. I am 29 years old and I am currently living in Vienna but I am from a small village in the county of Tyrol. I am now doing my PhD in forest ecology and protection, working with pathogenic fungi and how they affect tree health in times of climate change. I studied biology for my bachelor’s and plant protection for my master’s. My vegan journey started in 2014 when I was 20. After a terrible break-up, I went to the Netherlands to volunteer in the animal rescue organization Stichting AAP, where I first turned vegetarian because of the inspiring people I met there. You were also there at the same time, and you became a role model to me as later you inspired me to go vegan when I was around 23. I decided to study biology because I wanted to work with animals. Since I grew up on a farm, I was always surrounded by animals and taking care of them. However, after working in a zoo, I realized that to work with animals includes their exploitation in some form, so I decided to go into microbiology and plant protection. Working with animals made me realize that it does not make sense to take care of some of them and, at the same time, consume the body parts or products that come from other animals.

(This is fascinating and I never realised up until now that we had a similar journey, since myself as well went vegetarian after working voluntary in a zoo..because I had the same realization through this experience).

2. Growing up in the Austrian Alps, part of a family who runs a dairy farm, how hard was it to go vegan? You must have been taught that milk is good for us, especially since the milk you consumed was from your family’s products. So, how easy or hard has it been to accept the truth about how harmful dairy is to our health?

Growing up on a farm in the Alps is a paradise for a child because you spend a lot of time in nature and with animals. I was always playing with the young cows and taking them for walks; they were basically like my pets. However, since there was no use for the male babies on a dairy farm, at some point (when they were fat enough for slaughter), they had to go. My parents always lied to me when I asked where they were going. They told me they go to another farm where another farmer takes cares of them. I was always quite sad when one of them had to go, but I never questioned it and thought they were in good hands. When I was older and learned the truth, I was pretty upset with my parents, but they said they only wanted the best for me, so they didn’t tell the truth because I was too young.

When you are raised in this environment, you don’t know that there is another way of living. Especially as a child and teen when you don’t have the information about other ways of living. So, the first time I tried to go vegan was when I moved to another city and started studying because I was away from home. I raised the topic of veganism a few times with my family, but it always ended in disaster, so I decided to do it secretly. I started to watch documentaries that you sent me. It was eye-opening and shocking. At first, I felt like an idiot and guilty because all the money my parents invested in me came from exploiting animals. So, when I learned about veganism and its health benefits, I quickly switched to veganism.

Nevertheless, when visiting my parents, I always ate whatever my mom cooked (at this time, she thought I was vegetarian, which was acceptable for them). However, I was sick of pretending to be vegetarian at one point, and I told them the truth. We had a lot of arguments. They said that I should be grateful for everything we have thanks to all the work my ancestors did, and without the farm, they would not be able to pay for my studies and so on. So, I started to work part-time and applied for scholarships to not rely on my parents anymore. We had some tough months, and in the beginning, they were also worried about my health ans they also said that it was just a phase and that after some time, I would realize how harmful my new way of living was.

On the contrary, I bombarded them with information about the health benefits of a plant-based lifestyle. Our arguments ended up always to a dead end. Since I moved to Vienna, I don’t see them that often, and our relationship has become more distant. However, when I visit them, they accept my lifestyle by now, because they see me thriving health-wise. Compared to my other family members, I am the most healthy individual, so they can’t comment anymore on health-related issues. Because we don’t spend that much time together anymore, we are avoiding the topic altogether as I have to accept that they are not going to change. They also have to accept my lifestyle since I am not changing either.

3. As a kid, you must have heard the mother cows crying for their stolen babies after they were taken away from them. How has your family explained this phenomenon to you, and how did you experience this?

As I said, as a child, you don’t question what your parents are doing. If you grow up in this environment, you think this is normal and don’t know any other reality. I never understood that they were crying for their babies. My parents told me it’s normal after birth because they are in pain. Only later I did realize what was going on. Until the age of 12, I loved to help my parents with the farm work, but when I found out that the young ones were going to slaughterhouses or were transported through half of Europe to end at another farm, I completely rebelled. I stopped helping them and spent most of the time with my friends, avoiding being at home altogether. It was a vast disappointment discovering that they were lying to us.

4. You are the first person who made me realize that cows are impregnated artificially with a machine, the raperack, as it’s called in English. You initiated my path toward veganism… Did you ever think that this is not normal? Have you ever seen the procedure, or are you only aware of it? 

I saw it happening many times; however, I never really understood what was happening, and it was normal for me. Watching documentaries like Earthlings made me realize that it’s rape, which occurred around the age of 20.

5. You recently told me that the dairy industry in Austria is declining a lot. Would you like to tell us a bit more about this? 

Austria is one of the countries with the strictest laws for animal welfare. Since we have many small-scale farms with less than twenty cows, those farms are often only a part of the income for the farmer’s family, and often, they work full-time in other jobs in order to make a living. Since the laws for livestock farming started getting stricter, they usually can’t afford the investments in their facilities. For example, it will soon be completely forbidden to have cows tied in the barn, which means that they would have to rebuild the whole stables, which is very costly. Also, energy prices have significantly increased, but the amount they earn for one liter of milk is not growing. So they earn less than in the past. For many farmers, it’s not attractive to keep going under those conditions since it’s a 24/7 job—however, those things mainly affect small-scale farms only. Giant factory farms are very rare in Austria. However, those are the ones who get more financial support from the EU and the government. So those are expanding, while the traditional forms of dairy farming are becoming less attractive for farmers. My concern is that we will soon have more factory farms because they produce more efficiently and cheaper than small-scale farms, which is only shifting the dynamic but not helping the animals.

6. How do your parents react to any conversarion on the ethics of dairy industry?

As I mentioned, I rarely visit home and I try not to discuss the topic anymore. My parents love their cows, and they somehow live in denial. My mom is sad for every cow that is too old and is not giving milk anymore. My mom raised them all with the milk bottle when they were babies and saw them growing up and aging. They are also very caring. For me, it is tough to grasp how they, on the one hand, adore their cows, but on the other side, they exploit them. It feels like they are somehow brainwashed or in denial. Because if you do one thing for all your life and then realize how much harm you are causing, you will go into deep depression. When I ask them, they answer: We want them to live their best lives as long as they are on our farm. That does not make sense to me, but I realized that they live in their reality and see the world entirely differently than I do. So, every discussion is a dead end.

7. Do you think that in the future things will change?

Since my dad is retiring this year and my brother will take over the farm, maybe things will change. My brother has his own business and he is not able to manage the farm and the company simultaneously without getting burnout (since he also has two very young kids) as my parents are also getting older so they can’t help him with the physical work anymore. As a result, they will either have fewer cows or change to crops—or both. However, things will change and hopefully, for the better, at least on our farm. For Austria overall though, it’s hard to say because at the moment there is an increase in big-scale farms and a decline in small-scale farms. The problem with increasing animal welfare and stricter laws is that the end consumer feels that they are not doing something wrong because the animal was raised under “better” conditions and has lived a good life, which is only marketing. It isn’t easy, but I think the young generations are more willing to live plant-based lives and they are better informed about what is happening.

8. Finally, please tell us some things about your journey as a vegan activist.

My journey as a vegan activist started approximately one year after I went vegan. A woman wrote on Facebook that she is going to a protest in Munich and if anyone wanted to join. So I went with her to Munich to a anti-circus protest and I really enjoyed the vibe. We met some people from AV (Anonymous for the Voiceless) Munich there and they invited us to join a Cube of Truth. I really liked the idea and how the information is presented to people not familiar with veganism. So me and the woman, Michaela, became friends and started our own AV-group in Salzburg. We set up a facebook group and in the beginning we were no more than eight people. But over time, more and more vegans came and joined us and we had some very successful conversations.

Activism gave me hope that people if they get the right information, can change. We also started an Animal Save group in Salzburg. We were stopping trucks in front of the biggest slaughterhouse close to Salzburg and documented how were the conditons of the transport of the animals and where they were caming from. It was very traumatic and we cried a lot, but we supported each other to deal with this emotional upseting situation and all of the group got quite bonded.

Things changed when I moved to Vienna. There was already an AV group very active and quite successful. However, I did not click with the people as much as I had in the Salzburg group, but still I really enjoyed the movement. Together we also went to Berlin to attend the 24 hours Cube of Truth which was massive and activists from all over Europe came. It was an amazing experience. The Salzburg group still exists and Michaela was leading it alone for a while and now some other girls are the organizers.

When COVID19 emerged, I stopped attending the Cubes of Truth in Vienna. Also, during the first months of the pandemic I was living in Sweden via Erasmus and after coming back to Vienna the group was very quiet so I haven´t attented any Cube anymore. However, I am still thinking about starting getting involved with activism again although now, since I started working on my PHD I am quite busy and in my free time I focus more on seeing my friends and exercising. But one day I am quite sure to start again.