COVER STORY: KIDS DIRECTORY

For FURRED, FEATHERED and FINNED

Local boy named PETA's Cutest Vegan Kid

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Animal activist Khendall Swearingen, a spunky seven-year-old vegan from Jacksonville, has no qualms about fighting for the causes he believes in. Last month, Khendall, whose mother asked to be referred to by her maiden name for privacy reasons, was rewarded for activism fighting the mistreatment of animals and, let’s face it, cuteness: He was named one of PETA’s Cutest Vegans of 2017. This elementary school student has put in more hard work than most adults. I sat down with Khendall and his mom at Blaze Pizza, one of his favorite vegan-friendly restaurants, to get a glimpse into Khendall’s plans to save the world, one animal at a time.

Khendall has been on a vegetarian diet since birth, but after learning about some of the horror stories that come out of the meat and dairy industry about a year-and-a-half ago, he realized he wanted to become a full vegan. But first, he had to decide whether he could live without his favorite food: scrambled eggs. Khendall ultimately decided that saving animals from mistreatment in the livestock industry was more important than having his go-to breakfast.

Not that the transition period from vegetarian to vegan hasn’t been challenging. “It was really hard at first, but now we found an alternative to real eggs and they’re even better,” he said. After doing some research on dairy alternatives, he realized he could still eat some of his favorite foods without harming animals. Asked what his favorite vegan food is, he perked up, eyes widening, and shouted, “Ooohh, definitely vegan brownies.”

Of course, some people question his beliefs and dedication, saying things like “He’ll eat meat when he’s older.” His mom, Tara, says that is not the case. “Khendall knows the truth. He reads ingredients now that he’s older and can read. He’s making his own choices.” She said that at school recently, Khendall’s teacher gave him a cupcake and he gave it back to her because she couldn’t confirm that it was vegan.

“I will stand up for animals’ rights because I believe there’s no reason to harm them,” said Khendall.

Khendall and Tara say that being a vegan wouldn’t be as hard if there were more vegan-friendly options in Jacksonville, especially in the Riverside area where the family lives. “At first, there were hardly any vegan options, but now after talking to local grocery stores like Publix, we’re starting to see a difference. Originally, there were no vegan cheeses, then one, and now two,” Tara said.

Still, both Tara and Khendall say that Jacksonville is seriously behind when it comes to adopting the vegan lifestyle. The previous weekend, the two visited Miami, which they said has a plethora of vegan selections. “You would just type vegan in your phone and hundreds of options came up,” Tara said.

Khendall didn’t travel all the way to Miami just to eat different varieties of vegan food; he went to advocate for Lolita. Lolita is the only orca living in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium—she’s been there for 46 years. They said Lolita is the largest orca living in the smallest tank; her body is longer than the tank is deep.

Khendall, along with hundreds of other protesters, held signs, passed out pamphlets and peacefully marched for Lolita to be relocated into a seapen. That’s a certain area in the ocean where she would be free to roam, while remaining under watch to ensure her safety—Lolita has no skills to live free out in the wild.

Another hot-ticket issue that Khendall is fighting for right now is the Florida black bear. Currently, a 2017 black bear hunting season in the state hasn’t been approved. Khendall and other animal rights’ advocates would like to keep it that way.

Last year, Khendall, along with thousands of people around the world, campaigned tirelessly to keep bear-hunting season closed. The cause drew lawyers, doctors, even some hunters. Their hard work and persistence paid off: The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission voted against opening bear-hunting season in 2016.

One of the many prizes Khendall received as one of PETA’s cutest vegan kids of 2017 was a golden chicken trophy that he named Chicken Boc, now part of the family. He’s been touring the city; visiting all of Khendall’s favorite vegan spots, like Carrabba’s, Mellow Mushroom, Blaze Pizza and Tropical Smoothie Café, taking lots of pictures along the way. Chicken Boc also went on the family trip to Miami.

In just seven years, Khendall has participated in an impressive number of projects and activist events, like advocating for the release of the recently deceased killer whale Tilikum from SeaWorld Orlando, protesting Lolita’s captivity, and protesting greyhound racing, to name just a few. He is also the honorary co-president of Animal Hero Kids, a group planning a trip to Washington, D.C., where the kids will speak with U.S. Senators about the repeal of President Barack Obama’s restrictions on hunting in Alaska.

So what does this young vegan activist want to be when he grows up?

“I want to become the president of the United States and make everyone a vegan.” He also dreams of being a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
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To learn more, visit AnimalHeroKids.org or follow Khendall on Instagram @IamLilBear.

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