Twelve Questions
Jennifer Dann poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Apollo Taito

By Jennifer Dann

Apollo Taito is a sergeant in the New Zealand Army, an ambassador for animal rights organisation Safe and one of an estimated five Samoan vegans in the country.
Apollo Taito tells his mum he won't bring KFC for dinner. Photo / David Rowland
Apollo Taito tells his mum he won't bring KFC for dinner. Photo / David Rowland

1. Why did you become a vegan?

I was introduced to veganism by my wife Helene. She's Danish - we met at Les Mills in New Lynn. I had an old calf injury from jumping out of a helicopter in East Timor so I decided to try a yoga class. I sat next to Helena and thought she was cute. I was trying to be cool, thinking "This yoga thing's going to be easy" but within 10 minutes my whole body was shaking and pouring with sweat. She was really gracious and helped me out.

2. What's wrong with dairy products?

Like everyone I thought our dairy industry was really good - the cows were happy and loved to give their milk. Once I became aware of the harm done to them by being constantly impregnated to produce milk, their calves taken away and bobby calves slaughtered, I couldn't go back. I choose not to support an industry that forces suffering on other beings.

3. Why can't you eat free range eggs and meat?

The idea of "humane" slaughter was created to help us sleep at night. Those animals still have to die. People don't realise the physical impact on chickens forced to mass-produce eggs, even free range. The male chicks are destroyed because they're just another by-product of the industry. People may think being vegan is extreme but if you think about the fact we cram animals into dark places and kill and eat them, that's actually more extreme - but it's perspectives, eh? How we construct reality. We used to think slavery and denying women the vote was okay too.

4. What did your mates think?

When I first went vegetarian the guys would make fun of me and write 'vagitarian' on my order and then crack up when it was read out loud. That's army humour. I was flatting with a typical Kiwi guy who went off his rocker once when Helene was talking about how a plant-based diet has less impact on the environment. He goes, "We can't all be expected to eat bushes," kicked over a chair and walked off. He had a bit of an impulse control issue, but they're good friends now. I tell my mates that becoming a vegan doesn't mean you're going to lose your balls. It's not wrong to care.

5. Is it hard to be vegan in the army?

The army's been improving its nutritional standards so the mess chefs are really cool about providing alternatives. When we go bush I take my own food. At the end of an exercise there will usually be a big barbecue. I find the smell offensive, so I'll put myself aside but my unit, though they still take the piss, are supportive. I know of one other vegan in the army and two in the air force - all female.

6. Are there many Samoan vegans?

I know of four other vegan Samoans. I met them through vegan Facebook groups. Eating pig is a big part of Pacific culture. One of my most traumatic memories is helping my uncle kill a pig in a backyard in South Auckland when I was about 7. Hearing it screaming while we strangled it with a lead pipe was a huge shock. Fish is also a big part of the Pacific diet - and KFC. Mum will still ask me to bring it for a family dinner and I'll say, "Sorry mum, I can't". So my family's had to adapt too. They'll provide salads or fruit and prepare my food on a separate stove.

7. How do you get enough protein?

Protein is really overrated. Have you ever heard of a New Zealander with a protein deficiency? The real problems are obesity and cardio-vascular disease. There's a huge misconception among guys at the gym that you need protein drinks. I lift heavy weights and my post-workout recovery has been noticeably better since I went vegan. I've maintained my pack fitness and even improved in certain areas.

8. Why did you become an ambassador for Safe?

I felt I needed to do more to help animals that are suffering and dying in their millions every week. My work at Safe has mostly been spreading the word at stalls - challenging the myth that drinking milk and eating red meat is healthy and wholesome and part of what makes us New Zealanders. Safe acknowledges that families are dependent on the farming industry. We need to develop alternative crops but can't change the industry overnight. We are making headway. More people are vegan and there are more vegan products in supermarkets and cafes.

9. Where does your moral compass come from?

My parents are heavy church-goers. They both worked long hours so as the eldest of four kids I was given a lot of responsibility. Our key family values are love, loyalty, honesty and courage.

10. How do you juggle your army and civilian careers?

The Territorials are good about letting you switch between army and civilian work. At the moment I'm a sergeant with the Auckland army unit in Grey Lynn while working full-time for the DHB and doing a part-time doctorate in health science at AUT University.

11. Do you have any ethical problems with carrying a gun in the army?

No. Society does need roles like the police and armed services. When you have people that choose to harm people you need people to counter that.

12. Would you ever break the law to save animals?

I have thought about it. I do sometimes admire people that take direct action but like Safe I think it's best to work within the law. I'm interested in helping grassroots animal rights groups set up good governance structures so they've got a more thoughtful sense of direction and so people who want to get involved can feel safe that they're not going to get asked to do anything outside their comfort zone.

- NZ Herald

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