Steve-O On Toxic Negativity In the Vegan Community

Steve-O on Toxic Negativity in the Vegan Community

Carnivorous cats, clam juice, and widespread misinformation about diet and disease have put celebrity stuntman and comedian Steve-O at odds with the vegan community.

It all started when a fan asked the former “Jackass” star if he was still vegan. “I’m not vegan because my cats aren’t,” he said during a Vancouver performance of his current show, the “Bucket List.” The once-vegan celebrity now eats fish.

It’s a justification that goes back years for Steve, and one that dates back millennia for humankind. Ancient cultures and many modern tribal nations around the globe have long relied on animal products, but in a deeper way than the drive-thru Western world. For tribal cultures, there are prayers, songs, and stories that teach respect for the animals who make the ultimate sacrifice so others may survive. And what can’t be used by humans would go to the animals – think dogs pulling sleds or Cleopatra’s cat. They’d get the scraps humans couldn’t stomach.

That concept of honoring the whole animal goes back for Steve well over a decade.

In a now-legendary 2006 appearance on Tom Green’s House Tonight, the stuntman and talk show host got quite inebriated in an episode that ran some four hours until they both passed out on camera. Now, ten years sober, Steve says during the episode he went on a little side rant about the circus.

Steve got his entertainment start in the circus. After attending the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus School, he ended up at the Hanneford Family Circus, which had been heavily criticized for its animal cruelty.

“I did work in a circus, which had three elephants and a tiger, and personally, from where I saw it, the situation that these animals were in was not [expletive] cool,” he says. “And that’s from a kid that had no inclination, no history, no direction towards animal advocacy at all. It was just evident to me that the circus owners were more scared of their own elephants than anybody in the audience and that the tiger had spent its entire life in one of two boxes.”

Steve-O and PETA

The rant about his experience caught the attention of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) staffer Michelle Cho. She reached out, asking Steve if he’d do an anti-circus PSA for the organization. He agreed.

“Little did I know, this brief encounter would become one of many over the years as Steve became more and more inquisitive and vocal about animal issues,” Cho recounted to LIVEKINDLY via email. “For those who don’t know Steve outside of a headline that describes him as ‘vegan,’ or a ‘Jackass,’ Steve is an inspiring human being who cares deeply about his family, his partner, and his friends. He has an enormous, generous heart, is friendly and warm to everyone he meets, and, like all of us, strives to live authentically and in his truth.”

When PETA came to film the circus spot at his apartment, he says he made a comment to Cho, worried that filming something for animals while sitting on his leather couch seemed hypocritical. He justified the couch to her though, citing native cultures who honor entire animals.

“I told Michelle that I ate meat and milk so it was okay for me to have leather,” he told me as we sat in his Hollywood Hills house where he lives with his fiance, the stylist, designer, and photographer Lux Wright, and their four rescue dogs and two cats. We’re on his grey couch — now it’s made of synthetic down instead of animal leather — bookended in-between his pile of rescue dogs. 

The leather couch comment is the same logic he’s comfortable with now when it comes to eating fish. But, he says, back then he took his statement to Cho a step further. “But I don’t eat mink —  so that’s why you’ll never see me in fur.”

Cho’s eyes lit up, Steve remembers, and she asked him right then if he would do an anti-fur spot for PETA. He agreed.

From there he’d go to do a number of PETA endorsements including anti-dissection ads, endorsing campaigns, and receiving awards from the organization.

Endorsing PETA was a two-way street. In some ways, as much as he validated the group’s work the organization validated Steve, who was railing against his drug addiction and starring on a show many didn’t take seriously. And as he struggled with his sobriety, he found his ethical choices kept him grounded and helped him to honor his body he’d been so unkind to for so long.

Celebrity endorsements work. It’s the reason Brad Pitt banked a cool $7 million for those Dior spots; Jay-Z took in a reported $20 million for his endorsement of Samsung. Jennifer Anniston raked in $5 million for Emirates airlines. The list goes on.

Consumers are psychologically invested in celebrity culture now more than ever. We buy the products they endorse because we admire them. Maybe we want to meet them or be them. We feel we know them. And if you’re an organization trying to reduce the sufferings of billions of animals, a celebrity endorsement is a critical validation to the work, a literal voice for the voiceless. It can even be the pivot point in convincing governments, organizations, or brands to make major changes for the animals.

It would be years before Steve was a full vegan himself, but the course seemed unstoppable; he may have a high pain tolerance as evidenced in his professional work, but he’s also a highly sensitive individual keenly tuned into the world around him. Forever pushing against his own inevitable demise, he sought out spiritual wisdom to help make sense of his life and the hallucinations spurred on by drugs. He was confronted with a truth about meat-eating and causing suffering to others. “How can you expect to be saved if you eat meat?” he recalled one particular teaching that stuck with him.

Like Steve, Wright is an animal lover who wants to provide shelter for as many animals as she can. The couple will be opening an animal sanctuary, the “Radical Ranch,” in the not-too-distant future, with plans for using it as a platform for animal welfare discussions and fundraising. Steve’s pace quickens when he speaks of the ranch. It’s got a number of prongs that he thinks can move the ball forward on the discussion of ethics and animal rights.

But after the incensed “Bucket List” attendee took to social media to share the news that Steve is no longer vegan, things changed. The star says suddenly he was bombarded with harassing emails and messages on Instagram. People attacking and bullying him. “I had to do something,” he said.

So, he posted pics of himself coiled up in a fridge full of vegetables telling “militant” vegans they weren’t helping the cause with their attacks. He was pissed and it showed in his not-so-polite public response. He’s been an outspoken voice for the animals for years. His current tour includes segments that highlight animal abuse and suffering. There’s Wendy, the Peruvian street dog who now never leaves his side, the poachers he thwarted with his bare hands in an African sting, and the countless social media posts and campaigns he’s done for vegan brands and animal rights organizations.

Do Clams Have Brains?

On the surface, Steve comes across as mild-mannered, clean cut. His raspy voice veils his turbulent past and the diligence with which he rails against his mortality. But give it a few minutes and you’re quickly reminded that this is no ordinary guy. There are surprises around every corner.

That’s how we come to Clamato — the Mott’s clam and tomato juice (and MSG-loaded) drink. Before going vegan Steve was quite a fan of the stuff. And while on an international flight recently, the recovering alcoholic had a craving for bloody mary mix (without the vodka). All the drink cart had in that vein was the tomato-y juice of clam. He declined at first. But then, he changed his mind. He called the flight attendant back over and sipped his way into one of the biggest debates in the vegan movement.

Whether or not bivalves — clams, mussels, oysters, scallops — have the capacity to feel pain has long been debated. Chinese Buddhists that otherwise adhere to a vegetarian diet quote the goddess Guanyin, who, as the legend goes, said consuming bivalves was an accepted practice on a vegetarian Buddhist diet.

From biological and ethical perspectives, there’s the issue of whether or not these creatures have the capacity to feel pain. Bivalves have no brains — at least, not in the same way that other sea creatures or land animals do. Their nervous systems are markedly less complex than a fish or lobster. Either that or they’re so far advanced on the evolutionary spectrum that we can only think they’re inferior to brained-animals.

So, Steve drank the juice. And he liked it. He didn’t take the decision lightly and pored over data on bivalve sentience. He ultimately decided he could eat them and not feel morally compromised.

He says beyond the sentience and pain issues, clams “more than any other organism,” can thrive in factory farming situations, “which makes perfect sense since they don’t need space.” He points to the environmental benefits for the protein source (versus larger livestock) and the low-levels of heavy metals as compared to other fish.

But then, with two rescue cats in his life, Steve-O faced another hot debate: should cats be vegan?

A growing number of pet owners are shifting dogs to vegan diets. Dogs are far more omnivorous than cats by nature (and maybe just less picky). Even meat-eating dogs tend to love vegetables, peanut butter, tofu. But cats are the definition of carnivores. They’re built to kill — even the housecat who’s never properly set foot in the natural world can and will successfully “hunt” and kill rodents and insects inside the house.

So, Steve fed his cats fish. And as he was already eating clams and oysters, he felt no lines were being crossed in eating fish himself, too. I believe fish is healthy for my pets, and for me and Lux,” he says.

“What the Health”

Here though, he seems to struggle, tensing as he talks, standing up, sitting back down on the synthetic down couch. He’s got something else on his mind beyond whether or not he’s still “part of” the vegan community he helped build. It’s something he’s not spoken about publically before.

The 2017 movie “What the Health” made by “Cowspiracy” filmmakers Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, hit Netflix like a giant tofu meteor. It ricocheted around the Internet. When I interview people at events or festivals about what turned them vegan it’s by far the most common answer I get. “I watched ‘What the Health,'” they inevitably tell me. The film dived into the health issues of the Standard American Diet. Steve appears in the film. But he says he wishes he hadn’t.

He takes specific issue with the claim in the film that animal products are the root causes of diabetes — potentially even more damaging than sugar. Diabetes is a national epidemic as obesity rates continue to rise across the U.S. The disease that once typically took hold in adulthood is now claiming victims as young as age five. There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests a plant-based diet may help to reverse type-2 diabetes symptoms, but whether or not eating animals causes the problem is something Steve says isn’t clear and should be a big red flag for anyone watching the film.

To me, it not only sounds patently false but it’s reckless and irresponsible to say that,” he said. “I’m thinking that doesn’t sound right particularly because I’m personally in trouble with sugar.”

So he did his own research.

“And what do I find I find but video after video of people saying ‘I myself am a vegan and ‘What the Health’ is a bunch of [expletive]’.”

There have been a number of criticisms of the film claiming that it exaggerates facts. Publications including TIME Magazine, Scientific American, and Vox all poked holes in claims made in the film and question the authority of its experts.

“The film includes a lot of facts but also a lot of opinion, anecdotes, unsubstantiated claims, misleading statements, and a few outright falsehoods,” Scientific American notes. “Just because someone has MD or PhD after their name does not guarantee that everything that comes out of their mouth is reliable.”

Steve says that compassion for animals isn’t a license for “fake” science and directly blatantly lying to people just because you like animals.” But Steve says the film’s experts gloss over details and intentionally steer people away from animal products.

“So my trust is gone now. I’ve been lied to, the vegan community is spreading [expletive] lies.”

TIME magazine says the documentary relied on outdated information, specifically claims that eating an egg a day is “as bad for your life expectancy as smoking five cigarettes a day, due to artery plaque buildup from high cholesterol content in eggs.” But, the magazine says, “that assertion is based on outdated information, and recent research suggests that the effects of eggs are nowhere near comparable to those of cigarettes. Recently, national nutrition experts declared that cholesterol, found in foods such as eggs, is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption. Other research has shown that the kind of cholesterol you eat isn’t solidly linked to cholesterol levels in the blood.”

The Future

Steve’s clear that he’s not eating animals these days out of spite or anger toward the vegan community. He’s honoring what makes sense for his body. But he’s got questions. And being attacked by militant, angry, and abusive vegans doesn’t compel him toward believing in or spreading lies to help the cause.

“The human experience as you know is an exercise in wrapping your head around your mortality, and people have different ways of doing that,” he says. He’s made a career out of facing his fears and challenging the status quo. But he’s also guided by his heart, maybe more than anything.

“I understand we have this ability to make these bigger decisions that animals can’t make. Sure. No one can be held more accountable. It’s not even a question for me,” he says.

I understand why our community has been critical,” Cho says of the vegans putting Steve on blast. “It’s natural to feel disappointment, but it’s entirely counterproductive to cast aside or ridicule,” she says.

“We have to look at the bigger picture and really examine why it is so probable that those who go vegan ultimately go back to eating animals,” she says. “The number of people who identify as former vegetarians or vegans is staggering, and we can’t offer constructive or productive criticism unless we are critically and empathetically listening when we ask ‘why?’ or ‘how could you?’ Part of responsible advocacy is examining recidivism in our community in order to be more effective.”

For Steve, actions seem to speak louder than words. They always have for the stuntman. He thinks the Radical Ranch he and Wright have their sights set on as well as some provocative campaign ideas could help move the needle forward — not just for animals, but also for the people so invested in sparing their suffering.

“I have more resources across the board going into this than most anybody else who is starting an animal sanctuary,” he says. The focus of the ranch will be on the 43 species of farm animals that are well-suited for human interaction. Steve envisions a place where people from all walks of life can come, connect with animals, nature, and perhaps most important: each other. 

“So that’s how we’ll cultivate compassion,” he says. “It’s organic and non-combative. And that’s so meaningful these days.”

Images courtesy of Steve-O