I got to know Alison Clayton-Smith (47) through Instagram, where her posts about knitting and spinning with vegan yarn and the ‘accessible pattern index’ caught my eye. In this interview, she talks about why she became vegan, her activism, her diagnosis and struggles as a chronically ill person. Alison lives in the UK and has launched and runs the ‘pig rehoming’ platform, through which pigs looking for a home are placed. She also shares some tips on how the animal rights movement can become more inclusive.
Hello Alison, tell us who you are? What’s your background? Where do you live?
I was born in the south of the UK but lived there only six months. When I was five we moved up to Cumbria and I lived in the north of England till I was 21. I consider myself a northerner even though I’ve been first in Hertfordshire and now Bedfordshire for 25 years! I still miss the hills of the north, the countryside round here is very ‘tame’!
I’ve been interested in Ecopsychology for some years and the courses and reading I have done have made me think a lot more about my place in the rest of nature and my relationship with what’s around me. I’ve practised meditation on and off for a long time and am very interested in spirituality in the sense of everything being interconnected. In my head I’m that wild woman living in a Croft in the wilds of Scotland surrounded by dogs, pigs, donkeys and sheep, walking the land and drawing water from a well. In reality only the dog part exists 😂
Before my health deteriorated I was always doing lots of things, volunteering, studying, exercising. I’m an eternal learner and researcher who never gets bored! I’m also a pragmatic optimist which means that overall I believe there is hope and things will work but things won’t be perfect because of human nature. I used to be an idealist but life changed that!
My background is all about humans and psychology. After a few years working in social care after uni I changed direction and went into HR and then specifically Training. I got an MSc in Organizational Behaviour which I loved doing but nearly broke me on top of working long hours in London. When I eventually had to give up working I’d been freelance for about five years. I tried looking at doing different things as my energy levels got worse, including doing the first year of an Integrative Psychosynthesis Therapist training which was very hard going both emotionally, as you go so deep, but also physically because of my illness. However I learnt a great deal about expressing what I needed. I didn’t continue because the year of personal development helped me see that I needed to spend more energy on looking after myself before I could support others.
How long have you been vegan? What inspired you to become vegan?
I became vegan about four years ago. I had been a lacto-ovo vegetarian from the age of 16, so about 25 years. I met a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig at Appleby Castle and fell in love. Something clicked and I stopped eating meat. Sadly because of my illness in recent years, I gave in to the pressure to try meat to improve my health, so I ended up being pescatarian for a year. All that happened was I put on a lot of weight! In the end, talking to a vegan friend I realised my sense of guilt was tearing me up inside and as I had thought about being vegan but not tried it due to food intolerances, I decided to give vegan a go rather than just go back to being vegetarian. Unfortunately the main sources of vegan protein do give me digestive issues but not enough to make me go back to fish. I still find it hard to believe that all those years as a vegetarian I could be so blinkered about dairy. It does however mean I can understand how and why people don’t make the connections between what they eat and suffering.
Can you tell some more about your disability / chronic illness and how it influences your life? What are your specific challenges?
I’ve had insomnia, IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and pain issues since my mid-teens. I think in large part due to the trauma of having a mum who was severely mentally ill from when I was 12-ish. She lived in a psychiatric hospital till I was about 19 so I took on the housework and carer role for my dad and brother. When I was 19 I stretched under a bed to get something and my shoulder twinged. Since then my right-side has had chronic diffused pain. In my twenties I was diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic ovary syndrome) and TMJ (temporomandibular joint) dysfunction. PCOS is a syndrome that affects the ovaries with symptoms such as weight gain, excess hair growth, irregular periods and difficulties getting pregnant. TMJ is a condition that affects the jaw joint and muscles resulting in pain and clicking/popping with movement. Then in my mid-late thirties whilst working long hours and doing triathlon training I started feeling more tired. I then had a deep tissue injury from a fall and a year of working around the country delivering training dosed up on painkillers and very little sleep. My physio at the time suggested I see the GP about chronic pain. Seven years ago I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and my health continued to get worse, especially after long stressful events, to the point I had to give up working and most of my hobbies. Fast forward to the last year and we discovered I had lots of uterine fibroids and a benign liver tumour which were probably the cause of the permanent bloating I now live with. And finally in the last month I have realised that a lot of my symptoms are likely due to late Lyme Disease, having been bitten by a tick at 17. It is only just this month, after asking for a blood test which came back negative, that I learnt from reading online that the bullseye rash I had at the time means I definitely had the disease. Sadly late Lyme is not really recognised by the NHS and it looks like I will have to go to private specialists.
It does give me some hope that maybe I can improve my health and get more of my life back but it’s going to mean yet more fighting. I’m grateful that I’ve always managed to walk our doggy and do a bit of activity round the house and I have a supportive husband. There have been very dark times when my pain or fatigue levels are very bad, but somehow I get through them. Being able to get back into knitting, and learning crochet and spinning, has been really important in helping me feel like I can still achieve things.
What do you find the most frustrating about living with an (invisible) chronic illness / being disabled?
Feeling like I have to constantly justify/explain myself and my limitations because most people just don’t understand. Oh and dealing with unempathetic doctors who reduce me to tears!
You do a lot of knitting and crochet. As wool is traditionally used a lot here, which materials do you use as a vegan? And where do you find them?
I have used hemp, flax, cotton, soy, bamboo, ramie, tencel, seacell, rose, mint, banana and sugarcane. Some of those are essentially just different forms of viscose, e.g. rose and mint. I buy both spinning fibre and yarn from a vegan indie dyer in the UK, Flora Fibres, and then yarns from other indie dyers who do plant as well as wool yarns, such as Third Vault Yarns, and from mainstream online yarn shops such as Lovecrafts and Wool & The Gang who are stocking more and more options. However I’m actually focused on working through my stash and then I’ll mainly use yarn I’ve reclaimed from second hand jumpers, etc. I’ve bought and recycled yarns to reduce the environmental impact, and just buy the odd special skein. Spinning is more tricky as I don’t think there’s a way to get reclaimed fibre to spin.
I saw a post on your Instagram about the Accessible Patterns Index. What is that about?
The Index was set up by Renee Van Hoy to provide a place where ‘blind or print challenged’ knitters, crocheters and loom knitters can find patterns that are accessible to them. Renee originally set up a group and the index on a popular yarn crafts website called Ravelry, which I was also an active member of. Very sadly this year Ravelry made changes to their website which resulted in large numbers of their members suffering health issues when using it, including migraines and seizures. Both Renee and I were amongst the many people trying to get Ravelry to address these issues, and that’s how we ‘met’. As a result of Ravelry’s continued failure to take accessibility seriously, Renee decided the Index needed to be available as a standalone website, and that’s how the Accessible Patterns Index came about.
You do volunteer work for a pig rehoming organisation. Can you tell us some more?
Two years come April I had this idea that there should be a central point of communication about pigs in need to sanctuaries and rescues across the UK. I was frequently seeing all these Facebook posts about pigs and realising the sanctuaries must be getting bombarded by lots of people contacting them about the same pigs. At the time I was a supporter of Pigs In the Wood Sanctuary and I emailed them to see if they were aware of any similar projects. Serendipity happened because it turned out Jaclyn Haggata, the founder, had been thinking along the same lines. And so the PITW Rehoming Service was born and it snowballed and became this huge thing that I never anticipated 😂.
Basically if people need to find a home for a pig they can contact us and I will try to find a private home for them, or sanctuary/rescue space, through posts on social media and via our network. I try to keep requests to sanctuaries/rescues for the difficult or critical rehomes as they are usually full and overstretched as it is. Also if people are looking to have pet pigs, we will put them on our list and when suitable pigs come up we can match them up. All homes are vetted remotely, we just don’t have the resource to do it face-to-face. It can be especially stressful because we don’t have the space to take pigs in so if one is likely to be slaughtered or ‘euthanised’ , we have to try and find somewhere quickly and often it comes right down to the wire. We get a mix of so-called mini pigs that have grown too big for the house through to rescued farm pigs.
This year in the UK I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of pigs in need and it’s pretty depressing really. A large part of what I do is also educating people, particularly around the realities of having pigs as pets. I’m gradually adding resources to our website for people, as well as posting on the Instagram and Facebook page. In 2021 I would love to do a proper campaign but I need to work out how to do one first!
if people need to find a home for a pig they can contact us and I will try to find a private home for them, or sanctuary/rescue space
I have struggled a lot with the role as it has grown, trying to find a way to keep doing it without making myself more ill. The last few months I have been ‘working’ two weeks on one week off, which seems to be preventing the big crashes, though it’s still taking more out of me than I would like. However I’ve finally got someone, another chronically ill vegan friend, who is covering on my week off and will hopefully be doing a bit more. And it looks like we will have another volunteer from March. If we do, then we’ll be able to work out a ‘rota’ and I will reduce what I do. Unfortunately the nature of the work is stressful and I deal with a lot of unpleasant people/situations and as stress is one of the worst things for my illness, it’s not ideal and has definitely impacted on my personal life as a result. On the other hand I am hugely grateful to have been allowed to create something new from scratch and volunteer from my sofa. At the time I took it on I had been feeling sad and frustrated for a while at no longer being able to do something meaningful to create a better world. Also I’ve become an active part of the sanctuary team, even though I rarely get to the sanctuary as it’s a few hours from where I live. Being part of the volunteers group online has been so rewarding, plus I get to see lots of piggy pics and hear about their antics!
Are there any other forms of animal rights activism or for other causes that you are involved with?
Only online sharing petitions and fundraising and information on campaigns, etc. I don’t have the energy after the rehoming to even do that sometimes. The main organisations I support are Animal Free Research UK because as someone who relies on medication and hopes for a cure, I think it’s really important to campaign for the end of animals in testing; Animal Aid because I like the wide range of issues they cover and their lobbying work; and The Oldies Club who help senior dogs find homes, just because I’d love to have a home full of oldies! In terms of other causes I also have done a little bit online in support of ending discrimination in other aspects such as race, disability and sexual orientation; and in terms of Human Rights internationally such as Yemen. In my twenties I was very actively involved with Amnesty International. These days I struggle to do much at all on all these other areas apart from sharing educational posts occasionally.
Be supportive of people who need medicines or other treatment that has involved animal testing/ingredients. We don’t take these things for the fun of it so we don’t need to be made to feel we are failing by using them.
Have you faced discrimination based on your chronic illness? On being a woman?
Illness, not that I can think of, apart from some of the medical profession. Being a woman, I witnessed a lot of discrimination when I worked in HR/Training, including race, age, sexual orientation. I’m sure I probably was subject to it myself I just can’t remember!
Some vegans like to portray plant-based eating as a magical cure all for all diseases. What do you think about that?
I am trying to find a polite way to answer 😂. But seriously, I think it does a huge disservice to what veganism is about and sets people up to fail, as well as marginalising those of us who are not cured.
Can you give some suggestions as to how the vegan and animal rights movement can become more inclusive and accessible?
- Be creative about good volunteering roles from home that are flexible. There are so many skilled and motivated people out there.
- Stop the vegan = health/beauty/fit message.
- Stop using emotional blackmail and guilt-tripping and expecting people in sanctuaries and rescue to be available to help 24/7. Honestly I see people in the sanctuary world driving themselves towards a breakdown and it’s not sustainable. Even more so it means those of us who have to live with health limitations yet again feel like we’re fighting to keep our boundaries or that we don’t belong because we simply can’t be available for every emergency.
- Be supportive of people who need medicines or other treatment that has involved animal testing/ingredients. We don’t take these things for the fun of it so we don’t need to be made to feel we are failing by using them. Help us campaign for things like animal free testing instead.
- Read about intersectional issues, such as the books by Sanctuary Publishers and the book Beasts of Burden by Sunaura Taylor. The latter really made me rethink how we see other species and disability. For instance I no longer say other species are voiceless just because they don’t communicate with human speech.
Is there anything else that you would like to share here?
Thank you for interviewing me. If anyone would like to learn more about the Rehoming you can find us on IG at @pitwpigrehoming, FB at Pigs In The Wood Rehoming Service or our main page Pigs In the Wood, and the website https://www.pigsinthewood.com/rehoming.
Alison Clayton-Smith – Interview CripHumanimal, by Geertrui Cazaux
– Interviews Crip HumAnimal – I particularly welcome stories of disabled LGBTQIA+ vegans, BIPOC vegans, vegan women, or other oppressed and marginalised groups, to highlight their specific experiences and the interconnections of oppressions –