25 years vegan and counting. Sandy Miller on animal advocacy, southern hospitality, and running a vegan B&B

Sandy Miller with Hamish

Sandy Miller is the proprietor and host of The Cherokee Rose Inn (now serving only friends and family as of 2018), a delightful and cozy vegan bed and breakfast nestled in the Sunnyside neighborhood of inner Southeast Portland, Oregon. Sandy has been a vegan and animal welfare advocate for nearly 25 years and is an active member of Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants, a local grassroots organization whose mission it is to “end the captive breeding and halt the acquisition of elephants from the wild and free the elephants to sanctuary.” Sandy is the mother of a son and daughter who also live in Portland. She shares her home at the Inn with Hamish, an adorable, attention-seeking seven and a half year old American Eskimo dog, who she adopted from a shelter in San Jose, CA and Bill, a four year old black kitty who is a bit camera shy. She also has four parakeets she adopted from the Oregon Humane Society and Exotic Bird Rescue.

Cricket (CC): Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I wanted to interview you for a few reasons. One is that I think it’s really amazing that you have this beautiful vegan bed and breakfast and I wanted to get more insight into what inspired that. I also know you’ve been involved in animal rights activism for a good portion of your life, so I wanted to get to know more about you. I’ve talked with your daughter, Laura, and she said, “I think my mom is the most interesting person I know.”

Sandy (SM): Oh, no. Oh really… [Laughs]

The Cherokee Rose Inn
The Cherokee Rose Inn

CC: Tell me a little bit about your upbringing. Where are you from and what was your life like growing up?

SM: I grew up in East Point, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. I had a typical Southern upbringing, although my father was in the Army Reserves and would bring home foreign officers who were training at one of the camps in Georgia. So I’d say he, in particular, always had an interest in things a little bit different, a little bit outside the scope of the typical Southern upbringing. I’m a quarter Jewish on his side, so I grew up in the 1950s knowing that I was Jewish enough to have been in a concentration camp. And I think having that identification with a marginalized group, a persecuted group, led to my being more open to humans and nonhuman animals who are persecuted.

CC: How did your journey to veganism begin?

Sandy and Cricket talking recipes in the kitchen

SM: I went to college at Emory in Atlanta and both Atlanta and Emory are different in terms of being a lot more cosmopolitan and a lot more liberal than the surrounding area. So although it was a typical upbringing, I had that influence in the back of my mind. I grew up an omnivore — you probably know that fried chicken is the regional dish — and I continued to be an omnivore through my 20s and into a marriage. I flirted briefly with a macrobiotic diet and that was the first time I had experienced any kind of restricted food regimen where I didn’t just eat everything I wanted. After my divorce in 1981, my kids and I were invited to a coworker’s house for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and I took one look at that turkey and thought, “I am never going to have a dead bird at the center of my table.” I think that feeling reflects the fact that I finally felt independent and able to make my own decisions. So I became a vegetarian for the next 10 years. I attended the World Vegetarian Day celebration at Stanford two years in a row and started being exposed to how horrible factory farming is — even for animals not raised for meat. I remember some of the speakers saying, “milk is liquid meat,” “eggs are liquid meat,” and I’d never heard it put in such a stark way before. I was really starting to feel guilty about eating animal products. So in 1991, my kids (ages 14 and 17 at the time) and I attended the World Vegetarian Day celebration in Berkeley, and walked out of it vegan and have been vegan ever since; at least my daughter and I have.

CC: So becoming vegan for you was an ethical decision?

SM: Definitely. People would ask me why I was vegetarian and I would always just say that I refused to eat anything I’m not willing to kill. That was my explanation and understanding. Then making the whole connection [with dairy and eggs, etc.] became clear to me and I couldn’t ignore it anymore, so I became vegan.

CC: I know you were a biology teacher in the past, at the high school and middle school levels. I was wondering if that influenced or informed your relationship with animals?

SM: Absolutely. I think that’s central to my experience. It’s central to my current commitment to animal welfare. I have to go back, though, before my teaching days. I always had a very soft heart toward animals, as I think most kids do. In college I chose biology as my major. I’m ashamed to say that at the time, it was not even a dilemma for me to engage in the routine practice of killing frogs with a procedure called pithing. This is where you would stick a dissection needle through the back of their neck into their brain and scramble it around, supposedly destroying the brain so that they didn’t then feel anything. Then you’d cut up the live frog. This is so barbaric, but that’s what we did. I didn’t question it. I remember as a senior at Emory, I went to a graduate student to have him teach me how to pith a frog because it was easy to do it wrong. You could miss the brain entirely. I think most animal advocates haven’t actually purposely killed animals in cold blood, so I feel bad sometimes. I get pretty “holier than thou” about being a vegan now and then, thinking “why don’t they do this differently” or “why don’t they protest this animal abuse,” when I know that this is something that I have done and nothing will ever change that or bring back those animals or take away their suffering.

Hamish, Sandy's adorable dog

So I have two facts that I think are central to my self image. One is that I have been cruel to animals myself. I have killed animals. The other is that over the last 25 years, I’ve saved a lot of animals’ lives. That doesn’t wipe out the other, but it coexists with it.

I was in and out of teaching for five years at the high school level and then spent many years as a housewife and in other careers. In 1998, I left a job at Kaiser and went back to teaching, this time at middle school; seventh grade life sciences, which I taught for 12 years. There were two of us seventh grade teachers and the other one carried out dissections, but I did not. By that time I had evolved to the point where I would’ve quit the job rather than kill another animal, but it was an interesting dilemma to be faced with my seventh grade students — especially the boys, I have to say — who were just dying to dissect a frog. By this time we weren’t killing them live anymore; they just came preserved. I would show my students live animals, instead. I had lizards and toads and so forth and brought in an iguana that I rescued named Donna. So that was my experience, my two-sided experience. I think if I had gone back to teaching at the high school level, teaching biology, I’m not sure I could’ve refused to do it [dissections], but luckily it worked out well and hopefully my kids got to see a more compassionate way to learn about the natural world.

CC: You’ve been an animal rights advocate for a number of years now. What are some of the campaigns you’ve worked on and which have you been most passionate about?

SM: I’d say advocate is probably a better term for me than activist. I’ve been pretty steady and good about donating to animal causes, but I haven’t been as active as perhaps I could’ve been. In fact, I wonder how people are able to work full time and manage to do so much advocacy on behalf of animals. I did have a full time job for many years, so my efforts were more toward encouraging the vegetarian or vegan diet as an indirect way to help animals. The one thing I always did do down in San Jose was protest the circus every year and I continued that practice when I moved up here to Portland. I expect we’ll be there again this fall, even though the elephants hopefully will not be there.

CC: And why the circus? Why is that something that has been important to you?

SM: Well, it’s just such an egregious, useless use of animals. I mean, human-only circuses like Cirque du Soleil are wonderful. It’s just amazing what the human body can do and to think that we have to drag poor animals into it when it’s not necessary at all, as with the rodeo. We don’t need to use animals to entertain ourselves. It’s cruel. There are a host of ways that humans use and abuse animals and people draw the line at different places. Some would say that animal experimentation is okay in science because it helps humans. I won’t go that far, but I know a lot of people would. But something like testing on animals for cosmetics or using them for entertainment is just so unnecessary that it just gets to me. A group I have been more deeply involved with lately is Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants (FOZE), and while zoos may not directly mistreat animals, it’s totally unnecessary to have live animals on display. These days, live cams can show you animals in their natural habitat without affecting their daily lives. I have begun to think more and more that the way to go with zoos is to make them virtual zoos so that there will be docents, people who could guide you through the exhibit. You wouldn’t see an animal in front of you, you’d see a screen with either a live or time delayed projection of the animal actually behaving in a natural way. I think the animals that suffer the most in zoos — because of their size, their natural intelligence and their social behavior — are elephants. That’s why I’m working especially hard to get the practice of having elephants confined in zoos to become a thing of the past.

Handmade elephant by Sandy
Handmade elephant by Sandy

CC: What is FOZE working on right now? What upcoming campaigns or events are in the works?

SM: On March 12th from 11-4, we’re having a bake sale, silent auction and raffle at the Cherokee Rose Inn to benefit our local work for the elephants and also to benefit Prince, an elephant down at PAWS sanctuary in California, who was born at the Oregon Zoo. He spent over 20 years in circuses being carted around and being tortured with bull hooks and chains and forced to perform weird acts and finally got to sanctuary a few years ago. It’s expensive to support an elephant, so we want to send some money to PAWS for Prince’s support.

And then, the oldest elephant at the zoo, Packy, is 53 and has a birthday in April. He’ll be 54. Up until last year, the zoo has always made a really big deal about celebrating Packy’s birthday. But last year they suddenly switched the event, calling it something else. It was still in April around the time of his birthday, but was de-emphasizing Packy. We feel that it’s because Packy has been in quarantine because of tuberculosis for at least a year. He hasn’t been in public. His health has been declining and they probably want to prepare the public for the time when his death is announced.  This year, they’ve changed things completely and had an event in February to celebrate their new Elephant Lands exhibit, which is a slightly increased space for the elephants to be. There are six elephants now. But they’re completely ignoring Packy’s birthday. So FOZE is going to celebrate Packy’s birthday at the zoo. We plan to give out cupcakes. A group from Seattle who worked very hard to free the two remaining elephants at the Woodland Park Zoo to sanctuary, but failed, are going to come down and join us. So in April we’ll be celebrating Packy’s birthday and shining a light on the fact that he has had a very long, very sad and unnatural life and we would really like to see him, like Prince, have a chance at a little bit of freedom in sanctuary. Those are the two main things coming up and then we’ll be tabling at the summer fairs — Alberta and Hawthorne and so forth.

CC: As someone who is very passionate about animal rights and animal welfare myself, I know that sometimes this work can feel hopeless and overwhelming. What inspires you to keep being a voice for the voiceless? What gives you hope?

SM: That’s a great question. My involvement with zoos can be very discouraging because the public opinion on zoos has not moved far enough yet for me to see the changes that I really want to see. So if that was all I did, it would be very discouraging. I still do it because I believe very deeply in it, but I’m afraid I will not be around to see the day when zoos stop confining elephants. I’m a supporter of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which does a lot of great work for animals that are used in experimentation and has done wonderful advocacy on changing school meals. I also support In Defense of Animals (IDA), because they’re doing things in many places for the animals that really make a difference, like the circus protests and so forth. There are no more elephants in Ringling Brothers circus. It’s a mixed victory because the elephants are still confined, but it’s something that I think our work and IDA’s work and many other advocates over the years have brought about. So I like to mix up my support, my time and my money, between groups working for the long-term eradication of animal exploitation and those which are seeking step-by-step improvements in the lives of animals that are alive today.

CC: So now I want to talk about your bed and breakfast. What inspired you to open a vegan B&B?

SM: Well I don’t travel much, but when I do I look for vegan places to stay and it’s not always easy. When I was living in California and would come up to visit my daughter in Portland in the early 2000s, I was amazed that there wasn’t already a vegan B&B here.  On a visit in 2005, I was thinking how lovely Portland is and how I might really be able to live a wonderful life here. A realtor happened to find this place for me and I fell in love with it. It’s a 1912 Craftsman and I just loved the open layout. It has a downstairs and upstairs with two huge bedrooms and another small room and a bathroom. So I kind of justified buying this wonderful house by saying, “Okay I’ll open up a vegan B&B.” I didn’t do a lot of research on the hoops you have to jump through, so when I finally did move up here in 2010 and started going through the red tape, it took a while. Because it’s a land use variance, you have to tell the city and send out letters to all the owners of property within a half mile, as well as to the neighborhood association and so forth. My daughter helped me have an open house to let people come and see what I was planning and to get to know people. It was a very stressful few hours. As it turned out, no one came at all except my next door neighbor. That was in March 2011 and I didn’t open for business until the start of 2012 due to all the fees and things to do to get legally licensed.

CC: Where does the name Cherokee Rose Inn come from?

SM: That’s the state flower of Georgia, which is my home state, and since Portland is the “Rose City,” I thought it was nice to have a connection with the rose. The Cherokee Rose is a wild rose and there’s a wonderful legend that the Cherokee tell about when they were forced out of their homeland in Georgia and North Carolina on what’s called the Trail of Tears in the 1830s by the federal government, who was basically stealing their land. It was a very hard trek and a lot of them died. So the story of the Cherokee Rose is that the Great Spirit sent this bush in the path; these bushes sprang up along the path behind them as the Cherokee walked along. The white flower… it’s very symbolic because it has five petals for the five tribes of the Cherokee and each leaf has seven leaflets, which was also significant. The white, I think, was for the tears of the women and the yellow center of the flower represents the gold that had been taken from them. The Cherokee rose is a ferocious rose, with thorns everywhere to keep the white people from taking more from them. The flowers are fragrant and beautiful, but the thorns are just ferocious. So it’s a tribute to conquered people and to my home state. A lot of people think nothing but bad things about the South, but there are good people there. There’s a part of me that still loves it.

CC: That’s a beautiful story.

SM: So I wanted to bring warm Southern hospitality and offer it especially to my fellow vegans. I don’t exclude non-vegans from staying here, but because I don’t advertise anyplace other than on Happy Cow, most of my guests are vegan — which is fine by me. I always get a little nervous when my guests are not vegan because I know they’re not used to sitting down to a meal without meat.

CC: Speaking of guests, I am imagining you get visitors from all over the world coming to stay with you. Who have been your favorite or most memorable guests?

SM: I have a world map upstairs that has push pins and people are invited to stick a pin where they’re from. I’m very happy to have pins there from every continent except Antarctica. I love all my guests, but the ones I like most are the ones that put me at ease about the dog and cat. There are guests who come mostly for the dog and cat. The animals don’t go upstairs, but they’re on my website because I want people to know they’re here in case they have a severe allergy. There are many guests, though, who come specifically for that “home experience.” Some are on long trips and have left their dogs at home and are lonesome for them. They’re really happy to be greeted by an enthusiastic, attention-loving little pup and cat. The two of them will just lie on the floor and wait to be petted. So my favorite guests are the ones I don’t have to worry about having the animals around.

CC: What type of meals do you treat your guests to?

SM: I offer a hearty breakfast because, as a vegan, I hate to have nothing on offer but oatmeal or fruit or something. So I usually have some sort of protein — sausage or tofu scramble — and fresh fruit. I do a Southern breakfast with black eyed peas, cheese grits, and fresh baked biscuits. In the South it would be collards, but here  — in honor of Portland — I serve kale with it and that’s a pretty popular breakfast.

CC: So I know you’re coming up on your 25th vegan anniversary. How do you intend to celebrate?

SM: I haven’t decided, yet. I want to have a big party. My daughter has taken this journey with me for the last twenty five years and I hope to come up with something fun.

CC: Thank you so much for your time today. I really enjoyed speaking with you.

SM: Oh, well thank you!

Story updated December 2018. The Cherokee Rose Inn is now closed to the public and serving only friends and family.

All photos courtesy Iris de Lis / Portland Pictures.

Links to organizations mentioned in this article: