Seated at a reclaimed wooden table in Healdsburg cafe, rays of summer sun streaming in like spotlights, three Sonoma County women have come together to save the life of a 50 pound pig whose imminent destination is my dinner table. After a volley of emails, we’ve agreed to meet here. It’s immediately clear that they’re not leaving without at least guilting me into rethinking my carnivorous ways. But their ultimate mission is safe haven for the Hampshire I’ve named Reggie Bacon.

Several weeks ago, I publicly announced that the pig in question would be the poster swine for a personal adventure in getting personal with my pork. He was to be raised compassionately (eating plenty of acorns and Gravenstein apples) at a Sonoma County farm, slaughtered by my own hands in the last days of summer, butchered and consumed in a farm-to-table experiment. The aim was to live out he urgent calls of food activists like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters to curtail our factory-farming dependancies and better understand the imprint of our own eating habits. The whole thing seemed like a good idea.

But as I wrote about the fate of Reggie, the passions of animal rights advocates and vegans were stirred in a very vocal way. Many were outraged, Facebook groups were mobilized and letter-writing campaigns ensued. How could I possibly live with myself after putting poor Reggie on a dinner plate. It was easy to dismiss much of the well-meaning, but sometimes misguided rhetoric and in a few cases off-the-rails ranting. My question to each of these activists was, “Why me?” Why attack someone who was actually in agreement that the commercial meat industry wasn’t in humanity’s best interest? Why attack an individual who was trying to better understand and embrace the inherent brutality of meat eating by experiencing it personally rather than mindlessly buying neatly packaged, faceless cuts of meat in a supermarket? I’m not a pet-eating monster, as many opined. I’m merely an avid consumer of bacon, ham, sausage and salumi trying to get personally involved with the process.

A few emails, however, caught my attention. In particular a plea by local vegan Dian Hardy, who merely wanted to talk about her experiences as a vegan. She wanted to raise the funds to purchase Reggie from the farm and send him to a no-kill sanctuary. I agreed with the plan in concept. So a few days later, here I was, eating dehydrated grains and nibbling a raw, meatless lunch at Cafe Gratitude with Hardy, Nan Sea Love and Eileen Harrington, all who shared their reasons for coming to veganism and involvement with a local organization called Compassionate Living Outreach.  Formed in 2008, the group encompasses both a passion for animal rights as well as the vegan lifestyle, embracing Sonoma County vegans with potlucks and nutrition information.

Reggie at Farm Sanctuary

They’re not alone. It’s estimated that about 23 million American follow a vegetarian diet — eating no meat, but including milk products and eggs in their diet. The same study, conducted¬† by Harris Interactive in 2009, concluded that about 7.3 million are vegans, excluding dairy and eggs as well as meat. And with increased concern about health issues, the environment and animal welfare, as well as a number of celebrities adopting a meat-free lifestyle (former President Clinton, Alicia Silverstone, Ed Begley, Jr., Woody Harrelson, Ellen DeGeneres, Brad Pitt and Alice Walker have adopted vegan diets) that number is growing.

Hardy, who has been a longtime activist in the local animal rights movement agrees. “There are no ‘others’ even for animals,” she said. For Hardy, Sea Love and many vegans, compassion for the suffering of animals is their primary driver for eschewing meat. They rattle off anecdotes of inhumane treatment, the brutal treatment of animals in factory farms and are often very emotional about their feelings. Hardy, who lives in West County, was an early member of Sonoma’s People for Animal Rights, an often outspoken group promoting animal rights.

Harrington, who came to veganism several years ago, has a more pragmatic take on her choices, initially moving into vegetarianism for health and environmental reasons, ultimately becoming a vegan. She’s contrite about the difficulties of maintaining the lifestyle. “I have to be compassionate with myself sometimes,” said Harrington. “Our group is about making progress. Eating meat is not sustainable for the earth. We have to take one step at a time, and it’s time to take it to the next step,” she said. “We all make mistakes and we learn from them.”

“But being holier than though is a big turn off. Sometimes vegans get a bad rap and deservedly so. I can see how (veganism) can be see as ‘we’re better than you’. But we’re all trying,” said Sea Love. “There are the ones you hear, and there are quiet ones all around you doing the gentle work,” she added.

I’m moved. We agree that if they can raise $200 to pay the rancher for Reggie and find him a good home, he’ll get my personal pardon. I inform them that I’m still going to carry out my plan, however, with another pig. They agree that this is “my journey” and despite their own reservations agree that Reggie saving Reggie is their journey. Two days later, after another flurry of emails, the funds have been raised and Farm Sanctuary in Orland, California has agreed to give Reggie a home for life. The 300-acre shelter hosts dozens of animals and offers tours and even overnight accommodations for animal-lovers. They’ve rescued countless animals from factory farms, slaughterhouses and auctions. Again, I’m moved.

So on a warm September morning, we gather in the parking lot of Western Farm Supply in Santa Rosa. Reggie in the back of a pick-up is secured in a wire cage but panting and grunting. Harrington, along with Santa Rosa vegan Caren Stanley (who has donated the money) meet us with the driver from Farm Sanctuary.

It takes four of us to hustle the uncooperative pig into a dilapidated crate that threatened to collapse with his weight. “It’s like he won the lottery,” said Harrington. I can’t argue. “I love you,” said Stanley, as he snorted and sniffed inside the Sanctuary van, “I love you, Reggie.”

As Reggie drives off to his new home, there’s a moment where Prebilich, the vegans and I share a moment of good vibes. “We’re not about being anti-farm. We are trying to give people another path,” said Harrington. “We want people to move toward a more compassionate world.”

Several days later, a picture arrives in my inbox. It’s of Reggie in a field of flowers at his new home. It’s adorable.

But here’s the thing. I’m still a carnivore. After my adventure with the vegans, maybe I’m a more thoughtful carnivore. I’m more willing to think about the animals I eat (which was sort of the original point, anyway) and reconsider if I really need to eat that roast beef sandwich, or if a veggie special might do instead. I’m more aware of the animal life which I’ll take this week as I continue this journey. My new vegan friends, I’m sure will be praying for us both. And I’ll be thinking of them, and the compassion and love they’ve shown not only to animals but to me.

“It’s a big tent. We can all come inside,” said Hardy.