Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Identity Crisis

Celebrity exploits and the animals caught in the limelight

Whether you love or hate (or love to hate) Paris Hilton, she’s virtually impossible to ignore. Spend some time channel surfing, flipping through a mainstream magazine, or standing in a supermarket checkout, and you’re liable to have the latest news of the hotel heiress’ exploits crammed down your brainstem. And on her arm, you’re just as likely to see a tiny dog in a skimpy dress as you are an obscenely expensive leather handbag.

At the peak of her stardom, Hilton’s iconic image was largely defined by two distinct “items”—a pair of oversized designer shades, and her perpetually-quaking Teacup Chihuahua, Tinkerbell. While Hilton’s publicists insist that the celebutante is a bona fide “animal lover,” she has very publicly treated Tinkerbell, and all her subsequent “pets,” more like fashion accessories than sentient beings. Emulating Hilton and other celebrities, people actually purchase little purebred “toy” dogs and parade them in trendy outfits as though they were playing with dolls.

You might ask, what’s the harm in a little dress-up? Nothing, except when it’s done primarily for the human’s pleasure and without consideration for the dog’s feelings, it perpetuates the view that animal companions exist not as individuals in their own right, but only to enhance their “owners’” self-image.

While they may be on different ends of the spectrum, the same mentality that drives Paris Hilton also holds sway over Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who finally pled guilty to federal charges of conspiring to run an illegal dogfighting operation out of his Virginia home. Like Hilton, Vick exploited dogs to boost his own ego, but rather than turning animals into fashion accessories, he used them as expressions of violence, power, and control over the “weak.”

Between 1999 and 2007, Vick and his cohorts cruelly primed hundreds of pit bulls to kill one another for this vicious blood sport, and the star quarterback is alleged to have executed numerous dogs himself—by shooting, hanging, drowning, and electrocution—simply because they were not good fighters. In the wake of these disturbing revelations, psychologists speculated in the media that Vick liquidated these “losers” because he identified with their “weakness” and took it as a personal humiliation, while proudly projecting his own personality onto dogs who won fights. Based on case histories of other dogfighters, it’s likely that Vick felt his dogs’ performance in the ring reflected directly—whether positively or negatively—on his own strength and masculinity.

Like all animals viewed as commodities—the billions killed for food, fashion, “entertainment,” and “science”—animal companions who are treated like ornaments by their “owners” are in a no-win situation. Whether they suffer from intense cruelty, as in Vick’s case, or indignity, as in Hilton’s, these animals have little choice in their lot, and often suffer silently. It is up to us to speak for them, and to remind others of all that animals give us—and the caring attention we owe them in return.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Vegan Ultimate Fighter Ricardo Moreira

Ricardo Moreira is a rarity in the world of Ultimate Fighting -- an extreme sport that pits martial artists of all fighting styles against each other, often inside a cage, where they punch, kick, and wrestle one another. In fact, the soft-spoken 26-year-old seems to be one of only two vegans on the international cage fighting circuit. "There are a lot of pescetarians who still eat fish, and there are fighters who sometimes stop eating meat and dairy to lose weight before a competition," says Moreira. "But besides me and Mac Danzig, I don't know of anyone else competing in mixed martial arts who doesn't eat any animal products at all, ever."

According to Moreira, "the most important fight is not in the ring, but out in the world where animals need our help." That's why he has been fighting for animals since he was a child growing up in San Francisco's Mission District, a tough neighborhood where he learned out of necessity to defend himself and others who couldn't defend themselves. For instance, young Ricardo got into many a scuffle in the schoolyard and on the street with boys who derived pleasure from kicking pigeons or stomping ants. Moreira joined the fight for animal liberation more formally in his teens, when he started attending IDA protests, and today talks with his fellow fighters about how animals suffer. "It takes both inner and outer strength to help animals," says Moreira. "I work on developing physical strength and skill in martial arts to show that we vegans can be just as strong in our bodies as we are in our convictions."

Once a vegetarian, Moreira was inspired to go vegan by the example of two vegan bodybuilders—Kenneth G. Williams, spokesperson for IDA's Vegan Campaign, and Robert Cheeke. Moreira figured if they could be bodybuilders without eating any animal products, then he could be a vegan professional cage fighter. "Like Kenneth and Robert, I want to set a positive example by being someone who is healthy and confident, hopefully inspiring athletes to go vegan and vegans to stay physically fit."

Moreira exercises a lot of discipline in order to compete in his chosen sport. He has a black belt in karate, a contact sport in which he won a state title, and studies other martial arts, such as aikido and jiu jitsu. He also adheres to an ultra-healthy straight edge lifestyle, consuming no alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. In fact, he doesn't even use curse words. "The only things I'm addicted to are training, competing, and animal rights," he says. He also gives private karate and kickboxing lessons at the Northern Tiger Kenpo in San Francisco, and hopes to open his own martial arts studio in the city someday to teach his personal style of street-level self-defense. Excelling at the increasingly popular sport of Ultimate Fighting will help Moreira establish a name for himself as someone who people seek out for training.

"This sport is not about violence or beating your opponent," he says of his fighting and teaching philosophy, "it's about being present and doing your best in the same way a batter wants to hit a home run or a basketball player wants to execute an amazing slam dunk. Feats of skill require physical and mental focus rather than anger, which ultimately weakens concentration and your ability to win." Underneath Moreira's calm yet intense demeanor, one can detect a deep sense of outrage regarding animal abuse—whether it takes place in slaughterhouses, fur farms, research labs, or so-called "sports" like rodeo, hunting, and dogfighting.

"I choose to get in the cage, but animals don't have a choice," Moreira says, pointing out that an activity is not a "sport" if some competitors are being forced to participate—especially when they are at such great a disadvantage that they could die. "At the core, sports is about becoming your best by competing with opponents who are at least evenly-matched to your skill level. Shooting a deer at long range with a high-powered rifle is about as fair a fight as me stepping in the cage a 10-year-old kid who's just had his first karate lesson."

Moreira continues, "Chasing and terrorizing animals is not a sport, it's a power trip. A lot of guys who try to prove they're tough by exercising power over defenseless animals would never step foot in the cage where they might feel some of the pain that they are inflicting on others. My nose was broken in my last fight, and because I feel like that pain gave me some insight into what animals suffer, I have more compassion for them—especially since what's being done to them is thousands of times worse."

Moreira's lifelong emotional understanding of animals continues with his dog, Janet, an eight-year-old Rottweiler-Bulldog mix who he has raised since she was a puppy and the smallest of the litter. "Dogs are pack animals, and I really feel like Jan and I part of the same pack, which is basically the same thing as a family," says Moreira. "She's like my daughter, and I treat her as such." He also has a 17-year-old goldfish named Nemo who is the last of his tank mates but still going strong in his golden years, even with only one fin left.

"I've always felt like the underdog, so that would explain why I identify with animals so strongly," says Moreira. "I fight to show that real strength comes from caring about and protecting those who need help, not abusing them. That is what a true guardian does."

- Learn more about IDA's Guardian of the Month, Ricardo Moreira, by visiting his MySpace page.

- Arrange private martial arts training with Ricardo at the Northern Tiger Kenpo by contacting him at or (415) 350-9140.

- If you live in or will be visiting the Bay Area, come see Ricardo Moreira compete at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco in March, 2008. Get ticket information.