Saturday, February 21, 2009

Anarchy in the UC

Four California activists arrested under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act

I am an antichrist
I am an anarchist
Don't know what I want
But I know how to get it
I wanna destroy passerby
'Cause I wanna be Anarchy

- The Sex Pistols, from "Anarchy in the UK"

The FBI recently made the first arrests for violations of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) by charging four animal rights activists with using threats and physical force to intimidate University of California (UC) biomedical researchers into abandoning their animal experimentation careers. Here are the basic allegations against the accused:

- Holding protests with other activists outside the homes of UC Berkeley and Santa Cruz vivisectors, where they marched and chanted slogans.

- Trying to force their way inside a researcher’s house and throwing an unidentified "object" at him while shouting verbal threats.

- Producing and distributing fliers with the names, addresses and phone numbers of UC animal experimenters. The FBI found the fliers right before the homes of two UC Santa Cruz researchers were firebombed.

Note that the four arrested activists have not been charged with the firebombing, nor for physically injuring anyone, but mainly for actions that could potentially provoke someone to commit acts of violence. While these actions fall within Americans' First Amendment rights, each defendant could spend up to five years behind bars if convicted. Now, if you think the prospective punishment for these crimes seems harsh, it is, relatively speaking: consider, for example, that under California state law, assault and battery is punishable by a stint in jail "not exceeding six months," and the average prison sentence served by a child molester in the U.S. is about three years.

Perhaps sentencing under the AETA is more severe because it is the only law of its kind, in that it applies exclusively to the animal exploitation industry. That is to say, if you used these activists’ exact tactics against, say, the executives of a logging company that was clear-cutting an ancient forest, you would not be penalized as strongly as you would be if your target was a fur farm. No other industry enjoys such legal protection and privilege.

What Happens at UC, Stays at UC

The news article from which I first learned of the activists’ arrest reads like a self-congratulatory FBI press release, and conspicuously fails to mention any of the animal experiments taking place at UC Berkeley/Santa Cruz that so enraged the accused. Referring, for example, to the activists as "extremists" three times in the text is just biased journalism. Sadly, such selectively partisan coverage is typical of the mainstream media, which just loves sensationalistic story arcs with clear-cut heroes, villains and victims (cops, criminals & upstanding citizens), but is consequently incapable of treating this subject in an objective, balanced manner.

Apparently, the mainstream media mentality holds that merely questioning the ethics and efficacy of biomedical research on animals amounts to rewarding those who took illegal action against it — then, supposedly, the "terrorists win" in some way. That kind of moral blindness misrepresents reality by omission of a crucial perspective. That is to say, even if the vast majority of the populace is disgusted by how the "extremists" expressed themselves, that does not make the cause they speak for any less just or crucial, and yet the media is shirking its responsibility to inform the public about the legally-sanctioned cruelty being perpetrated at public institutions of higher learning under the guise of scientific progress.

To fill in some of the missing facts, here’s a brief overview of UC Berkeley’s animal research program. About 40,000 animals are used in experiments at the school’s Northwest Animal Facility every year. These largely taxpayer-funded projects include, for example, such "medical advances" as implanting electrodes and other devices in the brains of captive and clinically-controlled primates, cats and songbirds. Meanwhile, Berkeley is in the process of building a new $266­-million Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences (complete with an expanded underground vivisection lab) that will more than double the current facility’s size. And remember, Berkeley is only one of ten UC campuses, and hundreds of thousands of animals are killed in research every year throughout the UC system.

Helpless Despair

As an animal advocate, I identify with the arrested activists’ frustrations and motivations, but disagree with their alleged approach because, on a psychological level, actual or perceived threats only galvanize sentiment for those targeted by intimidation while reinforcing existing negative prejudices against the animal advocacy movement. I subscribe to Carol Adams' view that intimidation tactics are driven by traumatic knowledge of the vast scale of animal suffering caused by humanity, and that projecting our subsequent rage onto others is counterproductive and generally unhealthy for everyone involved. I strongly believe that coercion rarely (if ever) brings about a positive outcome, but violence is so ingrained in our society that some people feel making threats is the only way they can effect change in the world.

Yet media bias paradoxically bolsters the "extremist" position by holding a tight spotlight on a small fraction of "outlaw" activists while blacking out the much larger community of law-abiding activists who perform the groundwork of public outreach and education. Mainstream news stories about animal rights "violence" against vivisectors are common, but reporters are nowhere to be found when people gather legally and peacefully at demos against UC’s use of animals. So apparently, animal advocates are only worth paying attention to when we break the law.

Still, it was heartening to see more commendable media coverage last year of other major animal stories, including the Proposition 2 victory in California, the Chino slaughterhouse scandal, and Michael Vick’s conviction for dog fighting. The common thread between these three stories is that they all centered on either enforcing the law or creating new ones. So, in pragmatic terms, working the law rather than breaking it seems to be having a better actual impact on how animals are viewed and treated by humans, especially over the long term.

Deepening Awareness

So we don’t need to threaten or intimidate others to have a real and sustained impact for animals. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is an excellent exemplar of holistic and peaceful social activism, and right now I’m reading one of his many books, which is entitled Healing Anger: The power of patience from a Buddhist perspective. His teachings about the need to cultivate a disciplined temperament and channel anger appropriately in the face of adversity are based on the Bodhisattva vow, which means dedicating one's life toward the welfare of others. As an example, here is one excerpt that explains our responsibilities to our "enemies" (say, those practicing vivisection):

"One of the reasons there is a need to adopt a strong countermeasure against someone who (causes harm) is that if you let it pass, there is a danger of that person becoming habituated to extremely negative actions, which in the long run will cause that person’s own downfall and is very destructive for the individual himself or herself. Therefore, a strong countermeasure, taken out of compassion or a sense of concern for the other, is necessary. When you are motivated by that realization, then there is a sense of concern as part of your motive for taking that strong measure."

As a Bodhisattva-wannabe, I want to save as many animals as I can and "enlighten" as many people as possible about the need to respect all forms of life. That entails emotionally engaging the anger, outrage and despair I feel over humanity’s crimes against animals, and hopefully taking "strong countermeasures" grounded in kindness that will ultimately (in Buddhist terms) benefit all beings. Basically, in order to stop demonizing people who know not what they do to animals and themselves, I must first reconcile with my own demons, for only universal compassion has the power to transform consciousness.

If you live in the Bay Area and want to join an established grass-roots effort against animal research, check out Berkeley Organization for Animal Advocacy (BOAA) online or attend one of their weekly Wednesday evening meetings.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Turd Sandwich

Why are there bugs, rat hairs and feces in our supposedly "vegan" food?

Hold onto your gag reflex before reading "The Maggots in Your Mushrooms," an Op-Ed in yesterday’s New York Times which points out that insects, rodent fur, "foreign matter" like cigarette butts, and other barfworthy ingredients are all commonly present in the foods we eat — even though you won’t find them listed on the labels. That's because the USDA doesn’t especially consider these nauseating items health hazards, but rather unavoidable "aesthetic" defects, and has established standards to regulate the amounts of detritus that various foods can legally contain before being deemed unfit for human consumption. For instance, tomato juice can include 10 or more fly eggs per glass, 25 grams of curry powder can have over 100 bug fragments, and up to 2,500 plant lice may be swimming in a bottle of beer. These government-sanctioned criteria leave the average person scarfing down two to three pounds of bug-hair-crap-matter every year.

Yuck, to be sure (even though insects are considered delicacies in some cultures), but the real gross-out factor here for vegans is the fact that even many supposedly vegan foods are not really vegan because they contain parts of dead bugs and other animals (that just happened to get mixed in there during the manufacturing process). While we vegans like to think that our diet is "pure" (in the sense that we don’t eat any creature that crawls, flies or swims), there is certainly no guarantee of this, especially if we purchase packaged foods or patronize restaurants. The good news is that we can avoid most of these unsavory contaminants by preparing fresh produce, grains, beans, etc. at home from scratch.

Meat Is Murder — And Icky!

Notably, the Times piece doesn't even mention the revolting substances found in meat, milk and eggs. Of course, as a vegan, I find the idea of eating animal flesh or secretions to be just as repugnant as ingesting bugs, if not more so — which is why I can continue eating what I do, even knowing what (and who) is actually in it. I figure most meat eaters must rely on a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance just to prevent themselves from being aware that the organisms they’re devouring were once actually living, breathing creatures made up of blood, veins, intestines, and other internal organs that produce things like piss and shit…which, by the way, are far more prevalent in meat, dairy and eggs than plant-based edibles. Food-borne pathogens such as salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli can certainly wind up on tomatoes and spinach, but the primary source of these dangerous bacteria is animal feces.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are around 75 million cases of food-borne illness in the U.S. every year, about 5,000 of which are fatal. Food contaminated with animal feces (whether by direct contact or agricultural runoff) is the number one cause of these infections, and meat is the main agent by which they spread. That is because animal flesh is exposed to fecal matter during every step of the production process — from the crowded factory farm, where animals live in their own filth, to the slaughterhouse kill floor, where the fetid contents of their bowels can spill into the "product" when their stomachs are eviscerated from their still-warm carcasses.

A person infected with even the most miniscule amount of E. coli may, for example, suffer seizures, neurological damage or a stroke — all from eating a little bit of shit. Unfortunately, modern industrial production methods only make the problem more widespread. Hamburger meat, for instance, is processed by the ton in gigantic grinders before being shipped all over the country, meaning that a single fast food burger may contain flesh from dozens or even hundreds of different animals, and a single diseased animal can taint over 16 tons of beef. Yet the E. coli bacteria is so resilient that it can survive freezing and direct temperatures exceeding 150 degrees, so if you do still eat meat (though I’m ethically against it), definitely cook it thoroughly before consuming.

But (you may protest) the meat industry, and government regulatory agencies, are always looking out for our best interests, right? Well, let me tell ya, they have a way of dealing with this disgusting and life-threatening dilemma...but you might not like it. Their solution: irradiate meat products, which disrupts the bacteria’s DNA so they can’t reproduce but doesn’t kill them. In other words, if you eat irradiated meat, you’re still eating shit, even if the massive number of microbes feeding on it can no longer get busy. But then this leads to more shit in your food, because if producers can just blast meat with radiation to make it "safe" (forget palatable), why should they even bother trying to keep fecal matter out of it?

OK, Life Itself is Kinda Gross…

It is not possible to exist without harming or ingesting bugs, as it were, since the vast majority of them are microscopic, and live on and within us by the billions. In fact, scientists claim that our bodies are composed of about ten times as many microbes as human cells. That means that in terms of each person's biomass (i.e., the total volume of living cells in a body), approximately 10% is human, and the other 90% or so is "other" (so to speak). Just think about it: there are about three pounds of bacteria in your digestive tract alone, and many, many more microbes crawling in and around your body at any given moment than there are humans on the Earth.

These single-celled organisms are (evolutionarily speaking) about 3.5 billion years older than humans, and have a symbiotic relationship with every living creature on the planet. As a result, not so surprisingly, they basically control all of our essential biological functions, from maintaining the surface of our skin to breaking down the food we eat. If it weren’t for these tiny, virtually weightless entities, our bodies would literally just fall apart — and yet, without us, they would do just fine.

Which is precisely why the future of medical science may very well depend on a more complete knowledge of these fascinatingly mysterious life forms. David A. Relman, a microbiologist at California’s Stanford University and chief of infectious diseases at the VA hospital in Palo Alto, believes that "A better understanding of the indigenous microbiota of the human body will lead to much more prudent strategies for maintaining and restoring health." This may (or may not) be putting it mildly: in his book Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years, futurist and speculative fiction writer Bruce Sterling predicts that microbial medicine will soon become the very foundation of all health care.

...but this shit doesn't just "happen"

When the USDA says that the presence of fecal matter and other contaminants in our food is "unavoidable," what they really mean is that it would cost producers (and therefore consumers) more to ensure that our food is safe and consistent with our cultural standards. OK, so tens of millions of people get sick, and about 5,000 people (mostly children and the elderly) die every year from food-borne pathogens, while fundamentally repugnant stuff is made an inherent part of our food supply: that’s just the cost of doing business…and of making a hefty profit. Sarcastically speaking, we can’t seriously expect the multi-billion dollar food industry to uphold higher quality standards: I mean, they might make less money!

Essentially, contamination of food (whether vegan or otherwise) is not unavoidable: the USDA merely refuses to hold companies accountable for harming their customers. But there are still ways that you can help reduce the number of food-borne pathogens in our food:

- Go vegan: This will lower your own chances of contracting a meat-borne disease while also diminishing the number of animals on factory farms, thereby decreasing the volume of feces produced by livestock (and thus the incidence of food-borne illness).

- Encourage legislators to pass food safety laws: Visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest Web site to see what laws are being considered, then contact your legislators urging them to support those you agree with.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Experience the Virtual Battery Cage

See a factory farm through the eyes of an egg-laying hen

It is often difficult for people to truly comprehend the suffering that animals on factory farms are subjected to on a daily basis. Facts and figures are informative but can be abstract and intangible compared to actual reality, while videos documenting the conditions animals endure usually show their suffering from the human angle — from outside the cage, so to speak.

Fortunately, there’s an innovative new interactive tool called the Virtual Battery Cage (VBC) to help fill the perspective gap. Created by artist, web developer, and animal rights advocate Mark Middleton, the VBC was modeled and textured in Blender 3D, and uses Adobe Flash and Papervision 3D to create an experience like a QuickTime Virtual Room (QTVR). Such "spherical panoramas" have been around for a number of years now, but this is the first time anyone has used this emerging technology to expose animal exploitation.

Middleton says he created the Virtual Battery Cage "to compel viewers to empathize with caged hens by seeing their world from their point of view, and to show that chickens are not just things, but actual living beings whose feelings matter. I also wanted to make something interactive and interesting that would attract viewers to the facts about the misery that chickens suffer just so humans can eat their eggs."

Many of these facts are included on Middleton's website, complementing the audiovisual sensory experience. For instance, an estimated 95% of egg-laying hens raised in the U.S. (about 300 million birds a year) are intensively confined in battery cages, with each cage holding 5 or 6 birds on average, but sometimes up to 10. The cages are so small that the hens wouldn't be able to spread their wings even if they were individually caged, but the average amount of space given each bird is only about two-thirds the size of a standard sheet of paper. This is barely enough to even sit in, yet this is where laying hens spend their entire lives.

Crammed together in battery cages for months on end, chickens are prevented from engaging in even the most basic natural behaviors, like nesting, perching, scratching, foraging, dust-bathing, exploring, and stretching. Their intensive confinement contributes to serious health problems, including respiratory diseases, and broken bones and foot disorders from constant contact with wire floors. Though chickens can live for more than 15 years, their egg output starts to wane after about two years on factory farms, so they are sent to slaughter, but not all of them even survive that long. Use your mouse to scroll around the VBC environment, and you'll find a dead chicken lying on the ground among her living cage-mates.

So, whether or not you still eat eggs, visit the VBC to get a glimpse of what it's like to be inside a battery cage on a factory farm. When you see the sights and hear the sounds that comprise a lifetime of suffering, you may be inspired to act, whether by foregoing eggs or educating others about factory farming cruelty. Here's an easy way to start: forward the VBC to your family and friends and encourage them to take a look around.

And check out my 8-page feature article The Road to Vegetopia: (Re)Imagining the Future of Food with illustrations by VBC designer Mark Middleton, from the March 09 issue of VegNews magazine!