Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act: Revisited

Corporate Forces Behind Draconian Law Finally Revealed

In a recent three-part post on, journalist and blogger Will Potter sheds new light on the sneaky, underhanded process that a cadre of animal industry groups used to pass the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) near the end of 2006. Internal documents handed to Potter by an anonymous informant provide evidence that the Animal Enterprise Protection Coalition knew they lacked the necessary political support to push the AETA through congress, so they came up with a plan to pass it under the public radar – and
succeeded. Also included in the formerly clandestine documents is a list of those opposing the legislation, among which are Potter and In Defense of Animals (IDA), the organization that I worked for at the time.

Time Capsule: 2006

As the senior staff writer/editor at IDA immediately before, during and after the AETA's passage, I wrote all of their alerts encouraging activists to fight the bill by urging elected legislators to vote against it. Knowing now that the nefarious forces behind the AETA were secretly monitoring my work gives me a strange sense of retroactive satisfaction. However, I am also freshly reminded of the devastation I felt when the AETA passed, and that our efforts to preserve freedom of speech were so resoundingly squelched.

Being perhaps somewhat more idealistic about the democratic process then than I am now, I thought we would defeat the sweeping bill whose wording could potentially criminalize Constitutionally-protected protests against industries that profit from animal suffering and death. Sadly, I was wrong about our prospects for victory. But on the bright side, I was also wrong about something else: the impact that the AETA would ultimately have on the animal protection movement.

Flash Forward: 2008

To the best of my knowledge, the AETA has not yet been used to prosecute any animal advocates for engaging in traditional forms of protest (such as leafleting, boycotting or investigating businesses that perpetrate animal exploitation). Nor, seemingly, has the law "chilled" animal protection activists into inaction by causing them to fear arrest for taking a principled stand on behalf of non-human species. The AETA hasn't even been used, so far as I know, to charge underground animal activists as domestic terrorists.

To be honest, I’m sort of surprised (but heartened) by this, as my ultra-suspicious self of two years ago had more than half-expected to become the target of specialized paramilitary task forces for supposedly threatening the market earnings of powerful commercial syndicates. I vowed to myself back then that I would continue advocating for animals, even in the face of danger. But in reality, nothing changed at all: no pursuit or persecution by law enforcement personnel, no financially-draining lawsuits, no mandatory court appearances forcing me to testify or name names, no prison sentence – no nothing.

Thankfully, my fears turned out in retrospect to be merely part of a paranoid nightmare fueled by six excruciating years of Bush, Inc. reflexively undermining our civil liberties and deliberately pushing dissenters toward the fringes of society – pitting "us" (liberals) against "them" (Republicans) for their own greedy gain. Can’t say I’m disappointed, but then again, I thought at the time that maybe the fact that industry titans were attempting to label mainstream animal rights activists as "terrorists" meant we were an actual threat to the corrupt status quo – and therefore making real progress. I think now, however, that this assumption may have been only half-right: allow me to explain.

The Animal Exploitation Industry's New Fear: Legislative Reform

Judging from recent missives in the pages of meat, dairy and egg industry journals, it seems as though agribusiness insiders are less concerned these days about masked "terrorists" than they are about the impact of the latest bombshell to hit their world: the passage of Proposition 2 in California. This new law will outlaw battery cages for egg-laying hens, gestation crates for pregnant pigs, and veal crates for male calves in the state by 2015, and probably have much wider implications for animal agribusiness across the country in coming years. So it's not surprising that factory farmers are scared they will have to institute major changes in order to survive.

As just one example of the alarm reverberating across the spectrum of factory farm producers in the wake of Prop 2, reported that Steve Kopperud, VP of Policy Directions, Inc. warned attendees at last month's Texas Cattle Feeders Association Annual Convention against "allow(ing) idiots to dictate policy on how (meat producers) operate." Let's consider, for a moment, the context in which this statement must be placed, which is that Prop 2 won with a whopping 63% of the vote: a considerable majority in the largest agriculture state in the nation. Vegans, vegetarians and animal rights activists comprised only a very small proportion of those who voted in favor of Prop 2, so it would be understandable (statistically speaking, given our diametrically-opposed worldviews) if Kopperud had strictly limited his insults to our camp alone – but he didn't, and really couldn't, because the simple act of voting for Prop 2 essentially amounts to "dictat(ing) policy on how (meat producers) operate." Therefore, in Mr. Kopperud's expert opinion, nearly two-thirds of California voters are basically "idiots" who know so little about food production that they should be prevented from having any say in how farm animals are raised.

Considering that most of the initiative's supporters were meat eaters, Kopperud's brash insolence begs an obvious question: should a self-styled animal agribusiness representative blatantly offend the very consumers who keep his corporate constituents in the black? The fact that Kopperud did so with such insouciance indicates just how flustered industry spokespersons are by our movement's recent focus on motivating voters to pass laws protecting animals from the most egregious abuses, and the trend this signifies for the future.

Perhaps more importantly, Kopperud's distasteful name-calling symbolizes how out of synch animal agribusiness' standard operating procedures are with commonly-held values. The industry unwisely invested more than $9 million in a doomed campaign to stop Prop 2 from passing – vastly outspending its proponents and humiliating themselves in the process with ludicrous advertisements (no longer available online) that unintentionally exposed their true colors. Given that We the People won the battle over Prop 2 by such a wide margin of support, should I feel sheepish about taking some pleasure here in requesting that the real idiots in this debate please stand up?

Democracy In Action

The difference between how we managed to pass Prop 2 and how animal enterprises pushed the AETA through is striking, and represents the extremes of how the political system both works and fails in the modern age. Of course, there are many other contrasting examples of how social justice is upheld and subverted in the law books, and this will certainly not be the last. But the point is that, even if animal agribusiness continues to use deception and coercion to fight us, it won't matter as much as it used to, because established movement strategists are rapidly learning how to work the system in the animals' and the public's favor – and this truly frightens these entrenched economic interests.

Agribusiness conglomerates have, until very recently, operated under the assumption that animal welfare concerns are irrelevant and ignorable. So it makes perfect sense that they are shocked and outraged at suddenly being told what they can and cannot do to the living beings they euphemistically call "production units" (in industry parlance). But when they are done crying foul and making excuses for their bad behavior, we'll see if they've learned their lesson – and whether we need to teach them yet another one before they finally adapt to the changing times.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Help Animals by Submitting "Ideas for Change in America"

Maybe you've already heard about this new project called "Ideas for Change in America" sponsored by Inspired by President-Elect Obama's call for change, they're gathering ideas from citizens for what his Administration should focus on to change America. There's an animal rights section that currently includes 23 ideas you can vote for: you can also submit your own ideas, as I did. I hope you'll vote for my call to Enact a Moratorium on Building & Expanding CAFOs and ask your friends to do the same.

The 10 ideas that get the most votes are going to be presented to the Obama Administration on Inauguration Day. Following the inauguration, the campaign will be supported by a national lobbying effort run by, MySpace, and more than a dozen nonprofits. So each idea has a real chance at becoming policy. Hopefully, at least one of these ideas will focus on helping animals.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Video: Palin "Pardons" Turkey

In this strange video, as a slaughterhouse worker kills turkeys in the background, Alaska Governor (and erstwhile Republican VP nominee) Sarah Palin says:

"Certainly we'll probably invite criticism for even doing this, but at least this was fun."

Wait, what?! It's FUN to watch animals being killed?! According to FBI studies, that's exactly what serial killers think, and most of them practice murdering animals before moving on to human victims. Personally, I think this woman is totally psycho. Her lack of empathy and love of killing is a lipstick-red flag signaling a dark and dangerous bloodlust.

And yet, speaking as a vegan and career animal rights activist, I have to observe that Palin's surreal "pardon" video will probably turn more people off turkey this Thanksgiving than even this PETA turkey farm investigation in which workers stomp on turkeys' heads, punch them, slam them into walls, etc. So, thanks Sarah Palin...I guess...

Happy holidays!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


The election is finally over, and...WE WON!

Tuesday, November 4th saw two major victories for animals: the passage of Proposition 2 (the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act) in California, and the election of President Barack Obama, both of which garnered a wide margin of voter support.

I sit now in my personal power spot, atop a hill in Golden Gate Park from which I try to survey on high the brand new world that formed overnight while I slept, still carrying a hangover from election celebrations—as well as the psychic battering of the last eight years. Our long national nightmare of Bush-rule is coming to a close, but we will be reeling from the repercussions for a long time to come. Thankfully, the historic landslide sweep of “transcendent” multi-racial President-elect Obama is a significant sign that the United States of America has repudiated un-Constitutional unilateral arrogance, as well as hateful prejudices, and renewed its sacred promise to freedom and liberty for all—including, in my view, our animal kin.

Proposition 2

The fact that Prop 2 passed at the same time that Obama won the Presidency seems in itself momentous, showing unparalleled growth in the public’s awareness of and concern for farm animals. California is now the first state to ban battery cages for egg-laying hens (along with gestation crates for pregnant pigs and veal crates for calves). It’s a really big deal, and is being hailed as the the most significant advance in the history of the animal protection movement, at least as far as the number of animals affected is concerned.

Today I called my friend Paul Shapiro, the Director of Factory Farm Campaigns over at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), to congratulate him on Prop 2’s passage. The initiative was co-sponsored by HSUS and Farm Sanctuary (my employer), so for us and the multitude of others who worked on the initiative, as paid staff or volunteers, this has been a day to take pride in our collective accomplishment. After more than a year and a half of work, our movement’s efforts came to sweet fruition.

Paul and I shared our mutual excitement over the win, and talked some about what it might mean not only in California, but for the nation as well. “Seeing the largest agricultural state in the country ban battery cages is a dream come true for me, and for animal activists everywhere, because it will help more animals than any other voter decision in history,” Paul told me. “There’s never been anything like this, which shows just how far the farm animal protection movement has come in just a few short years. And my greatest delight today comes from knowing that we finally won a decisive victory for chickens.”

As Paul says, egg-laying hens are arguably the most cruelly-abused and long-suffering creatures on the planet. Chickens represent about 90% of the farm animals slaughtered for food every year, so of the 10 billion or so killed in the U.S. on an annual basis, about 9 billion are chickens. Most of these are “broilers” specifically raised for meat, but this number also includes “spent” hens who spend their entire lives packed with five or six others in battery cages where there isn’t even enough room for them to lift their wings. Prop 2 will require farmers to provide the nearly 20 million egg-laying hens raised in California every year with enough space to stand up, lie down, turn around, and spread their wings: which will probably necessitate a gradual transition to cage-free husbandry methods.

Paul says he's confident that California is just the beginning, and that other states are going to follow suit in the near future. “The opposition, funded mainly by the factory farms themselves, spent $9 million trying to defeat Prop 2, which was much more than the industry has spent to fight any other reform initiative targeting farm animals. This failure is going to force the industry to face the undeniable fact that they can’t win these battles against public opinion on animal abuse—no matter how much they spend. Maybe the next time we introduce a state ballot initiative, the industry will invest their money in helping farmers transition to cage-free systems instead of wasting it on misleading and unconvincing propaganda.”

President Barack Obama!

Over the last two months, I posted blog entries examining Obama's and John McCain's records on animal and environmental issues, and concluded, based on the compiled evidence, that an Obama Administration would be the better choice on both fronts. From farm animals to endangered species, Obama is likely to take a far different and more sensitive approach to these important issues than we have seen during Bush's two terms (the second of which is still 76 days away from ending).

Obviously, animal protection is not at the top of Obama's agenda right now, as he plans his transition into the White House—nor should it be. Our country faces devastatingly serious problems at the moment, mostly centered on the failing economy and an expensive war, that need urgent attention, and Obama must prioritize some affairs of state above others in order to be an effective leader. Nevertheless, I see good things happening for animals in the next four years.

I say this because Obama is a progressive politician who is clearly committed to tackling serious environmental issues and creating a greener culture and economy. For one, we will have a leader who takes the global warming threat seriously, so we will see new policies on climate change that represent a clean break with Bush era stalling and denial. Obama also has a vision for achieving energy independence through the development of alternative fuels that will be less harmful to us and the planet than burning petroleum. Plus, he wants to foster initiatives that will bring millions of green jobs to the United States, and make us the world leader in this emerging industry.

The kind of responsible environmental stewardship Obama proposes is essential to protecting animals whose habitats have been under constant siege by blatantly destructive mining, building and farming practices for far too long. This exploitive approach is designed to generate maximum profits for giant corporations and a wealthy few at the expense of the environment and animals' lives. While this insatiably omnivorous system is likely to remain functionally intact for many years to come, at least the extreme business-first rules of the Bush years will be tempered by much-needed reforms and regulations under an Obama Administration.

Universal healthcare is another important goal that Obama will pursue as President. As a candidate, Obama made statements about the need to make fresh fruits and vegetables more easily available to children in school cafeterias, showing he is aware of the close connection between a plant-based diet and healthy living. Central to his position on healthcare is personal responsibility and preventive care, so we may see an accelerated emphasis on eating better (i.e., less meat and dairy) as his program evolves.

What we eat (especially the type of food made available to us) is closely related to the issue of farm subsidies. Historically and currently, an overwhelming amount of the agricultural subsidies handed out to farmers has been intended to effectively offset the costs of raising animals for food to keep meat, dairy and eggs artificially cheap. Government support also favors large agribusiness corporations over smaller family farms, creating an uneven playing field that has all but obliterated traditional rural culture. Obama's stated stance on subsidies is that they should go to the farmers that need them the most; specifically, independent entrepreneurs pioneering innovative ways of producing food in the most economical, ecological ways. Of course, it goes without saying that the energy conversion ratio of growing food for people is much more sustainable, in terms of the amount of resources used and pollution created, than feeding animals so we can eat their flesh; whether Obama will acknowledge and act on this principle remains to be seen.

And finally (but not incidentally), Obama quipped during his exhilarating acceptance speech that his two young daughters were smiling because now that the election is over, they can finally adopt a puppy. I'm so glad that Malia Ann and Natasha’s wish for a dog will be granted not only because they (and the rescued dog) deserve it, but also for the great example it sets for other families. Obama's mention—in the crowning speech of his political career—of a puppy for his daughters shows that he cares deeply about their happiness and respects the special emotional bonds that often develop between children and animal companions.

I have not come across any mention in my researches of whether Obama has ever had animal companions, either growing up or as an adult, but now he will be welcoming a member of another species into his family. If he has never had the opportunity to experience canine friendship, Obama will now be able to see how much joy a dog brings his girls and perhaps come to more deeply understand and appreciate the intelligence of this furry friend—and, by extension, other non-humans as a whole.

I say that because Obama just seems like the kind of guy who's open to new experiences and seeing the world from different perspectives. This is the main reason I believe our new President will be a potentially transformative ally for the animal protection movement. If we do our job right by clearly communicating our concerns and worldview in a way that interconnects animal interests with his call for change, Obama is likely to incorporate this knowledge into his vision for a renewed America and form policies that reflect this.

Am I being too idealistic here? Am I just so overwhelmed by exhausted elation, sudden relief and irrational exuberance that my perceptions are rosily distorted? Maybe, but what's the harm in that? We should all savor this moment by letting our imaginations soar to new heights while keeping our feet firmly planted in the ground of a rapidly-shifting reality. And anyway, I don't think my expectations are unrealistic. A new day is dawning, and with it the chance to see with eyes wide open what possibilities the sprawling future may hold.

Electoral Funtime! Check out these humorous video clips:

The Simpsons - Treehouse of Horror XIX: Homer's voting machine nightmare

The Colbert Report - Threatdown: Prop 2

The Daily Show - Road to the Dog House: Obama's victory promise to daughters

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Obama vs. McCain on Animals & the Environment: Round 2

Senator John McCain - Republican candidate for President of the United States of America

In September, I posted an entry on Senator Barack Obama's position vis-à-vis animals and the environment. This second installment in that two-part series examines Senator John McCain's record on these important issues. Those who've read Round 1 know that I've already personally endorsed Obama/Biden as the ticket most likely to result in positive outcomes for animals and the environment: here is a more comprehensive explanation for that choice.

Animal Issues: A Chequered Record

There have been notable instances in Senator McCain's career when he stood up for animals. For instance, he voted against a $2 million subsidy for the fur industry, co-sponsored the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, and supported bills to stop interstate trafficking of birds for cockfighting and the killing of bears harvested for their organs. Even so, his record on animal issues is inconsistent and sometimes nonexistent.

To begin with, McCain has yet to issue any public statements on animal protection issues, according to the Humane Society Legislative Fund (HSLF). He also neglected to fill out the HSLF's presidential questionnaire, which seeks to tabulate the candidates' positions on a variety of animal welfare legislation proposals currently before Congress. In contrast, Senator Obama not only responded to the questionnaire, but pledged support for virtually every pending pro-animal bill.

The HSLF also claims that Senator McCain “has been largely absent on other issues, and has failed to support a large number of priority bills or sign onto animal protection letters that have broad support in the Senate.” When a groundbreaking Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) video investigation brought the issue of downed farm animals into the presidential debates earlier this year, Obama stated that “the mistreatment of downed cows is unacceptable and poses a serious threat to public health,” but McCain remained conspicuously silent. McCain also recently delivered the keynote address at a rally for the US Sportsmen's Alliance, an organization that actively promotes trophy hunting of threatened species and canned hunting of animals in fenced enclosures from which they cannot escape. Online research has not enabled me to determine whether or not McCain himself actually hunts animals: if anyone has a citation with the answer, please post a comment here. However, he goes fishing on the artificial lake on his property (at least for PR purposes).

McCain's choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate convinced the HSLF to issue their first-ever endorsement of a presidential candidate – for Barack Obama. The HSLF is urging animal advocates to vote Democrat not only because “McCain's positions on animal protection have been lukewarm,” but primarily because “(Palin's) record is so extreme that she has perhaps done more harm to animals than any current governor in the United States.” The organization also asserts that “If Palin is put in a position to succeed McCain, it could mean rolling back decades of progress on animals issues,” an assessment that mirrors what I posted about Palin here in this blog soon after she was nominated.

The Pet Vote: McCain Wins Paws Down

According to an AP-Yahoo! News poll, “pet owners favor McCain over Obama 42 percent to 37 percent, with dog owners particularly in McCain's corner.” And really, given the number of companion animals he and his wife Cindy have, it's no wonder. “There’s no denying John McCain is an animal lover,” writes a dog blogger named Jenna. “With fourteen dogs, six cats, two turtles, three birds, fourteen fish and a ferret, he far surpasses the average number of pets per household.”

Wow, that's a lot of animals! I assume the family has staff who do the majority of caretaking, because the Senator and his wife are obviously very busy people who spend a lot of time on the road (and have at least seven houses around the country). Even so, I sincerely hope that the McCain's truly love and appreciate every one of the animals in their various homes. I also hope that that they adopted their animals rather than purchasing them from breeders, because millions of homeless animals are put to death in shelters every year, but I cannot find the answer to this question online.

Meanwhile, as I mentioned in Round 1, the Obama family doesn't yet have any pets: they plan to adopt a dog (at the behest of their two young daughters) after the election is done. Does this mean McCain likes animals more than Obama does? I have no idea. However, let's remember that it's not the number of animals a person has that really matters, but the attitude he/she has towards them. That is, animal lovers fundamentally respect members of other species as sentient beings capable of thought and deep emotional connection (even though many seem to think dogs somehow differ from, say, cows in this regard). It would be interesting and perhaps enlightening to find out how both McCain and Obama view animals.

Agricultural Subsidies 

According to a May 19, 2008 McCain campaign press release
, the Arizona Senator has “vowed to aid small farmers by targeting agricultural tariffs and subsidies doled out to agribusiness”: If I am elected president,” he told members of National Restaurant Association in Chicago, “I will seek an end to all agricultural tariffs, and to all farm subsidies that are not based on clear need. I will veto any bill containing special-interest favors and corporate welfare in any form. Regarding “the billions of dollars in subsidies served up every five years to corporate farmers, McCain said The original idea was to provide a buffer to small farmers in tough times and to assure a stable supply of food for our country. But nowadays, the small farmers have been forgotten, and instead the Congress sends a steady supply of subsidies to agribusiness.

So, at least from what they say, it seems that the Republican and Democratic candidates have similar views on agricultural subsidies, with Obama actually taking a somewhat more moderate stance on the Farm Bill (which McCain said he would have vetoed) that has played well in critical rural swing states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Indiana and Ohio. Both McCain and Obama have posted their plans to help family farmers on their websites, but Obama’s is by far the more in-depth (with McCain’s limited to just two paragraphs). The most notable difference between them on farming issues is that Obama strongly supports government investment in the development of renewable plant-based alternative fuels like ethanol, whereas McCain has set his shoulder squarely against this new industry (and has therefore been accused of shilling for Big Oil).

Ultimately, I don't know whether McCain or Obama would better serve the cause of animals on the issue of agricultural subsidization (though I do think we need to develop ethanol to some extent as a fuel source). I encourage readers who have additional insights to post their comments on this blog.


On the McCain website one can find the candidate’s statements on environmental stewardship and climate change. But based on the many discrepancies between his statements and fact throughout his political career and presidential campaign (more on that below), I don’t believe McCain can be taken at his word on anything. This impression is confirmed by many others who have already done the work of digging more deeply beneath the surface of McCain’s environmental resumé.

For instance, Green Piece Blog posted a very thorough and wide-ranging critique entitled “McCain vs. McCain on the Environment” that compares and contrasts the Senator’s past record on conservation with his positions as a presidential candidate. Their conclusion: “McCain has abandoned his past moderate environmental views and adopted the much less environmentally friendly platform of his party. It seems pretty clear from this well-documented analysis that a McCain Administration would further despoil the planet and endanger those trying to live on it.

“The Reality-Based Community”

“…guys like you are in what we call the 'reality-based community.' ... But that's not the way the world really works now. We're an empire of sorts, and when we act, we create our own reality. ... We're history's actors, who are willing to do what's needed, and you can study what we do.”

- Anonymous Bush aide to journalist Ron Suskind in 2002

I provide this quote, as a proud citizen of the “reality-based community” (hello fellow residents!), because John McCain has been lying so much lately (and so knowingly, so repeatedly) that I find it hard to believe anything he says at all. Seriously, his libelous attack ads (orchestrated by Karl Rove’s protégé), along with the insulting doublespeak spouted by both he and Palin, transcend shamelessness and border on the treasonous. Because our country faces pressing problems (economic collapse, rising unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, the war, oil dependence, global warming, etc.) that threaten the nation’s very foundations, I submit that strategically reviving the Culture Wars to deliberately distract voters from the real issues is a traitorous betrayal of the American people, as well as America herself.

To us Americans living in the real world—where facts, knowledge and judgment actually mean something—McCain’s candidacy is looking sad: watching, listening to or reading about him is severely depressing. Having to see his face and hear his delusional crap for the next four years would drive me mad. Every night I'd have to go to bed wondering, what crazy catastrophe will I read about in tomorrow's news? And will the nightmare of President Palin actually come to life?

Now, that’s “only” my opinion, but it’s an informed opinion based on some amount of research, deliberation and soul-searching. I emphasize this because I had stated in Round 1 of this series my sincere intention to objectively evaluate the candidates. I firmly believe that, along with a review of McCain's record, incorporating some analysis of his willfully deceptive campaign tactics is absolutely essential to understanding the potentially devastating implications of a McCain presidency.

In Conclusion

Anyway, there's my two cents on the election. I hope these posts leave readers better informed than they were before about what is at stake for animals and the environment, as well as our country and the world. Choosing the next leader of our nation is a complex and multi-faceted decision, and I respect that many folks consider it a very personal matter. While I do not condone single-issue voting, I hope readers will carefully weigh these important facts when they enter polling booths in November, and ensure that family and friends know the difference between McCain and Obama on animals, the environment and other crucial issues before they cast their ballots.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Ultimate World War: Animals Against Humans

Sudden increase in animal-on-human attacks may be revenge-motivated, say some scientists

I know it sounds like I'm making this up, but I'm not: some scientists now actually believe that drastically rising incidences of animal-on-human violence around the world are due at least partially to a concerted effort by various members of the animal kingdom to exact vengeance upon humanity for all the atrocities we have committed against them. A radical shift in how animals interact with humans is taking place, they say – and it may be because other species are becoming aware in some new way of their mass-enslavement and victimization by none other than the human race. I have hazy childhood memories of a badly-acted made-for-TV natural disaster movie from the late-seventies in which this was actually the plot: who would've predicted back then that this schlocky premise wouldn't necessarily turn out to be so farfetched after all?!

I learned about this zoogenic conspiracy from a fascinating article entitled “Mad cows (and livid lambs)” that appeared recently in the Telegraph, a British newspaper. Citing the statistically-astonishing rise in animal attacks on humans over the last few years—ranging from elephants, chimpanzees and sharks to dogs, mountain lions and badgers—journalist Will Storr bolsters the assertion that nature may be turning on us by including informed observations from respected field researchers and numerous stories of real-life animal attacks. He also clearly conveys what is perhaps the most crucial component of this equation, which is that modern scientific research overwhelmingly indicates animals are far more intelligent and aware than even most animal lovers had assumed.

Meaning, significantly, that before scientists could even consider the possibility that other species may be revolting against us for destroying their habitats and slaughtering their families en masse, they first had to give animals credit for being smart enough to recognize the cause of their suffering and where to seek retribution. Logically, the theory implies that animals must have complex thoughts and emotions – an intricate inner life from which they respond to the outer world. Someday, when researchers conclusively prove this to be true, it will radically transform humanity's view of animals – and, hopefully, our treatment of them.

One of the leading voices in the scientific movement towards getting people to recognize the depth of animal consciousness is vegan ethologist and author Marc Bekoff, who is quoted extensively in the article. Bekoff (a Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder who has collaborated with Jane Goodall) says that animals are almost certainly motivated by revenge in some situations. However, judging from the article, he seems to approach cautiously the idea that a pan-species rebellion is underway across the globe.*

But this is precisely what some scientists are suggesting. Gay Bradshaw, a world-renowned elephant expert and director of the Kerulos Centre for Animal Psychology and Trauma Recovery, believes that “What's happening today is extraordinary. Where for centuries, humans and animals lived in relatively peaceful co-existence, there is now hostility and violence.” The evidence presented by Bradshaw and her colleagues that recent elephant rampages are tied to the species' psychological traumatization has gained some notable interest from animal researchers and even the general public. Bradshaw and other researchers simply expanded their perspective beyond marauding gangs of juvenile-delinquent pachyderms as the number and range of animal attacks from across the species spectrum rapidly accelerated.

“Animals have the same capacity that we do, in terms of emotions and what we consider to be high-mindedness and moral integrity,” she said. “In fact, I'd argue they have more, because they haven't done to us what we've done to them. That's a sobering thought. It's amazing that all the animals are as benign as they are. It's amazing their restraint. Why aren't they picking up guns?”

Ironically, this sentiment is consistent with what the National Rifle Association (NRA) suggested could happen in an illustration from one of their fundraising booklets, which I addressed at length in January 2007 right here in this very blog. "Even though the picture is pure fantasy," I wrote, "I think it is an accurate rendering of the NRA's deepest fears: that the future holds wild packs of pissed-off animals roaming the post-McDonald's® wasteland seeking vengeance against their bipedal oppressors. Obviously, once animals are freed, they will kill and enslave humans in retribution. Kind of like the old adage that if we didn’t hunt, eat, experiment on and otherwise torture and kill animals, they’d all either die of starvation or take over the world…"

So it seems I may have gone off a little half-cocked there in mocking the NRA's potentially valid fears. For, as Storr points out in the Telegraph article, "Stories like these remind us that there are millions of beasts armed with teeth and stingers, who can out-sniff, out-run, out-fly, out-fight and out-bite any of us. The eerie truth is that, right now, we're surrounded. As a species, we've been at the top of the food chain for so long, we've forgotten that 'humans' are mere anthropoid apes and, in distant millennia, we had to fight the feral armies to get here. In our hubris, we imagine we're an animal apart."

If it turns out animals are attacking and killing humans as retaliation for our arrogant attitude, my fear is that people will see this as all the more reason to massacre them in even greater numbers. When humans feel in immediate danger, their capacity for reflective thinking basically defaults to the "fight or flight" instinct—it's me or him, us against them—rather than compassion. Consequently, people may not understand or care that we humans are causing this aberrant violence by abusing animals so terribly, and that we might therefore be able to reverse it by treating the planet and its inhabitants decently.

Humans too lash out with lethal force against other humans who they perceive to be oppressing them: we generally call these people terrorists. And what have their horrific suicide bombings and televised beheadings of infidels wrought? Panicked, we Americans forfeited some of our most precious civil liberties in the name of safety, and our President initiated a preemptive war based on falsified claims that has cost thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and our moral standing in the global community. The question is, has all this destruction brought us closer to peace and security or mutual annihilation?

For myself and others, 9/11 was a wake up call that signaled a desperate need to prevent future tragedies by questioning what drives terrorists to take up arms in the first place. Could America's oil-dominated economy (which necessitates a foreign policy of kissing up to Middle Eastern dictatorships) have some role in creating the horrendous living conditions endured by millions in the Persian Gulf? Does our country really respect the peoples of the Middle East, or do we undermine their freedom by financially and politically supporting harsh regimes where dissenters are systematically imprisoned, tortured and executed for speaking truth to power?

Likewise, given all that we do to animals, it should not surprise anyone that they'd want to take revenge on us: the real question here is, do they have the ability to knowingly and collectively strike back at humans based on this motivation? If the answer is yes, then this war between us will only escalate, because it seems unlikely that humanity will be accepting animals as equals on this Earth anytime soon. Therefore, consider: if animals and humans really do start fighting an all-out war against one another, which side will you be on...and, as a human being, will you even have a choice?

* Bekoff's response to this blog entry is included in the Comments section below.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Obama vs. McCain on Animals & the Environment: Round 1

Barack Obama: Democratic candidate for President of the United States of America

After my last post regarding Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin's record on animals and the environment, I figured I should take a broader look at where the two Presidential candidates stand on animals and the environment, because of course the top of the ticket is really where it's at. Basically, I am concerned with whether Obama or McCain would better serve the interests of other species, from farm animals to wildlife, if elected. (In the interest of journalistic credulity, this is a good time to mention that I support Obama, but that I nevertheless strive to objectively convey my take on the available facts.)

I'm currently reading the recently-published Obama campaign book Change We Can Believe In: Barack Obama's Plan to Renew America's Promise, which is basically a blueprint for what he wants to do as President. Here's one excerpt that is worth the consideration of animal welfare advocates:

“Give Family Farmers the Stability They Need to Thrive"

"Barack Obama believes that our farm programs and supports should go to help family farmers—not large agricultural companies—survive and thrive. As President, he will fight for farm programs that are targeted directly at family farmers, giving them the stability and predictability they need to succeed. An Obama Administration will support an effective payment limitation of $250,000 so taxpayers aren't underwriting big agribusiness. Most important, it will close the loopholes that allow mega-farms to get around the limits by subdividing their operations into multiple paper corporations. Finally, an Obama Administration will make agriculture disaster assistance permanent.”

Helping small-scale family farms by withdrawing the unfair advantages that have allowed agribusiness conglomerates to dominate the marketplace for decades would likely lead to improved animal welfare, as much of the suffering on factory farms is due not only to their standard mechanized production methods, but also their size. That is, factory farms are not only more likely to use battery cages and gestation crates, for example, but their massive scale inherently devalues the lives of individual animals, who, for “practical” economic reasons, are therefore much less likely to receive veterinary care than those raised on smaller family-owned farms. Statistically speaking, factory farms are responsible for a lot more animal abuse, cruelty and suffering than family farms that, comparatively, at least remain rooted in some semblance of traditional animal husbandry.

Leveling the playing field will also help family farms to compete successfully without being forced into adopting intensive factory farm methods by a fixed market system that rewards the biggest producers (simply because they can afford to hire lobbyists), a development that most animal protection advocates would support. However, some are uncomfortable choosing sides here because both of them are essentially exploiting animals for profit, even as many more animal protectionists have already aligned themselves with family farmers against some of factory farming's worst abuses. A prime example of this is Prop 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which is endorsed by numerous family farmers, and will be on the ballot in California this November.

Further on in the book, a section entitled Safeguard the Environment for Future Generations begins:

“Just as it's critical that we stop the planet from warming, it's also important that we protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil in which we plant our crops. Doing so is the basis of a sacred trust we must safeguard for our children and grandchildren; their health and their well-being depend on it. For too long, too many in Washington have sought to divide us over these issues, arguing that we could only either protect the environment or grow our economy. Barack Obama rejects that false choice.”

In addition to explaining how Obama plans to clean up America's air and water, this section addresses restoring wetlands, helping Western states meet water demands, reducing poisons like mercury and lead, holding polluters accountable, and environmental justice. Obama’s energy and environment plans are also laid out in detail on his website.

Killer Conservation

However, most animal advocates will be disappointed by the following section entitled “Honor Sportsmen and Protect the Great Outdoors,” which speaks of “the great conservation legacy of America's hunters and anglers.” The section goes on to support Second Amendment rights, expanding access for hunters and anglers to public lands, and preserving habitats for “sportsmen” – and animals, by proxy, so these self-styled “athletes” can have someone to “compete” against (i.e., kill).

OK, so Obama's not exactly the ideal animal protection candidate, but at the same time, realize that Obama has never himself gone hunting, and that not all hunters are the same: meaning—no matter how hard it may be for us animal advocates to accept—many hunters do genuinely care about conservation. At least these “moderate” hunting advocates enter the wilderness with some pretext of responsible stewardship – especially when compared with their much more extreme counterparts.

For example, the hunters Obama refers to are those who would ostensibly abhor the aerial hunting of wolves in Alaska, canned hunts and the delisting of polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. Aside from their penchant for shooting innocent wild animals, these hunters share some crucial common ground with animal advocates and environmentalists in that they want to preserve wildlands (even if it is, primarily, to satisfy their own violent recreational desires) and reject the worst excesses of those hunters who (like McCain’s running mate, for instance) glory in the most abjectly cruel types of animal slaughter.

Oil Under the Ice

Notably, as far as oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is concerned, Obama says he would consider "a careful, well thought-out drilling strategy that was carefully circumscribed to avoid significant environmental damage." Many critics of oil drilling in ANWR argue that it won't lower gas prices but merely despoil one of America's greatest natural treasures at the behest of oil profiteers. Already, over 500 toxic spills occur in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oil fields and pipelines each year: do we really want to expose one of the last remaining truly pristine places in the US to this?

Also notable is that Obama's position is actually the moderate one in this Presidential race. Considering the possibility of resource development in the ANWR is a world of difference from the unofficial slogan of the Republican National Convention, where chants of "Drill, baby, drill!" broke out amongst the crowd. Kinda ironic, actually, since, as of press time, McCain opposes drilling in the ANWR, but his VP pick who governs the state it's in wants to drill the hell out of it. What it basically comes down to for me is, I'm on the side of the polar bears, birds, caribou, and other animals living in the ANWR who obviously wouldn't want people and machines invading their habitat and leaving poisons in their wake.

Dog Due Do

When asked by a woman at a Las Vegan town hall meeting about his stance on animal rights, Obama quipped that he cares very much about them, and “not only because I have a 9-year-old and 6-year-old who want a dog.” A flip answer, to be sure, on a serious topic that has never really been part of any election year dialogue, but at least he had a positive response and seems open minded about the concept. Even so, his reference to children and dogs also raises the question of whether Obama fully understands the true meaning and full implications of animal rights, and what his stance would be if he did.

Anyhow, the Obamas, displaying responsibility as parents and impending guardians, promised their daughters a dog after the campaigning is done. More than 42,000 people cast their votes for what breed they thought would be best for the family, and the poodle won. Whatever breed the Obamas do choose to adopt come November, the American Kennel Club has offered to “assist them in responsibly acquiring a puppy or adult rescue dog.”

Some animal advocates started campaigns to encourage the Obamas to adopt a mixed-breed, the biggest dog on the animal rights block to do so being PETA president Ingrid Newkirk. In a letter to the Obamas, she wrote that “This country is proud to be a melting pot, and there is something deeply wrong and elitist about wanting only a purebred dog." Obviously, she’s got a point there. After all, “Millions of Great American Mutts—the dog that should be our national dog—are set to die in our nation’s extremely overcrowded pounds and shelters for lack of good homes."

(On a side note, the Palin family also lacks a dog, so maybe someone will start a campaign recommending the breed that best fits her particular personality…ok, all you canine cosmetologists out there, I assume you know where I’m going with this, so I’m gonna stop now...)

Obama’s Other Animal Actions

According to the blog Vegan Soapbox, Obama “is considered a strong candidate on animal rights issues.” For example:

- As a US Senator, he co-sponsored legislation to stop horse slaughter, saying “I think how we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other, and it’s very important that we have a president who is mindful of the cruelty that is perpetrated on animals.” He also voted to upgrade federal penalties for dogfighting and cockfighting, and to criminalize possession of fighting dogs as well as dogfight attendance.

- He signed a letter requesting increased funds for enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act, the Humane Slaughter Act and federal laws against animal fighting. He also wrote a letter to the National Zoo in Washington, DC expressing concern for the health of Toni, an elephant who was subsequently euthanized in 2006 at the age of 38 due to captivity-related causes.

- In his response to a questionnaire by the Humane Society Legislative Fund, Obama pledged support for almost every animal protection bill currently pending in Congress, and says he will collaborate with executive agencies like the USDA to make their policies more humane.

In Conclusion

I still plan to write Round 2 of this entry – that is, an analysis of John McCain’s record on animals and the environment. Sorry to be a spoiler, but I’ve already absorbed quite a lot of information about the candidates (from partisan, bi-partisan and non-partisan sources, as well as the two competing campaigns), and feel confident in saying that the animal advocacy and environmental movements will be much better off with the Democrats in this election cycle. Legislative report cards based on the candidates’ records and positions seem to bear this assertion out:

- On the Humane Society Legislative Fund's most recent Humane Scorecard, Obama got a rating of 75 (as did Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Joe Biden), whereas McCain got a 25.

- The League of Conservation Voters, on their 2007 Congressional Scorecard, gave McCain a score of zero for his voting record in the Senate on environmental issues, whereas Obama scored 67 out of 100.

- The Sierra Club strongly endorses Obama over McCain in the election, and released a Presidential Scorecard that provides a side-by-side comparison of the candidates on energy and the environment.

- The Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund officially announced their endorsement of Obama/Biden with a scathing press release blasting McCain for picking "the notoriously anti-environmental Palin" as his running mate, and calling his conservation voting record "mediocre at best, often erratic, and clearly inferior to that of either Obama or Biden."

Across the board, actually—from the economy and the war in Iraq to foreign policy and civil liberties—Obama is the clear choice in this election for progressives (and anyone else who's still sane after two Bush terms) …unless, of course, you want to go third party (and hey, I readily admit, I’m a registered Green who voted for Nader/LaDuke in 2000). If you live in California (or any other sure-shot Blue State), your vote pretty much doesn’t count, given the Electoral College system, because (fortunately) Obama’s gonna kick ass in our little corner of Neverland. But if you or someone you know lives in one of the swing states, please—I beg of you!—vote or urge your friend to vote carefully in full consciousness of the consequences for the animals, America and the world.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Palin's "Polar Express"

To McCain’s rootin’ tootin’ VP pick, wildlife is for shootin’ and the planet is for pollutin’

Clearly, there’s something about Sarah Palin that places her a cut below even most other far-right-wing politicians when it comes to animals and the environment. An avid moose hunter and lifetime member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) who, as Governor of Alaska, actively promotes the aerial hunting of wolves because they prey on the big game that hunters like to shoot, Palin also filed a federal lawsuit last month to keep polar bears off the Endangered Species List because it would allegedly harm the state’s "oil and gas...development" prospects.

Even though a 2007 US Geological Survey report warned that two-thirds of all polar bears could be wiped out by 2050 if Arctic ice continues melting at the rate predicted by scientists, Palin sued the federal government for daring to protect this increasingly vulnerable species and their delicate habitat. The Bush Administration has been trying to neutralize the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for years, so it was probably no coincidence that, just one week after Palin filed her lawsuit, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne ran a new rule up the flagpole that would essentially allow the very federal agencies proposing and carrying out government-funded projects, rather than Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, to decide for themselves whether their development plans threaten the survival of endangered species. Such a change would essentially disable the ESA as the guiding force in US environmental policy that it has been for the last three and a half decades.

With approximately 30,000 species going extinct every year, never to exist again, the Earth cannot afford such narrow-minded, short-sighted policies, yet Kempthorne's proposal is expected to pass. The public comment period for the rule change expires on Monday, September 15, so if you care about polar bears and other threatened and endangered species, now is the time to let the US Fish & Wildlife Service know how you feel about this plan.

If the new rule is enacted, the next administration to take the White House could choose to reverse it and return things to the way they have been since the ESA became the law of the land in 1973. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama swiftly condemned the proposal when it was made public, so there is a good chance he will rescind it if elected. Republican nominee John McCain did not comment on the plan, but based on his choice of Palin as a running mate, it seems fairly certain that the rule would remain firmly in place under their watch.

Put some of the puzzle pieces together, and it isn’t too hard to see a disturbing pattern of violence, ignorance, intemperance, and just plain meanness emerging from the details of Palin’s life and politics. Blatantly disregarding overwhelming scientific evidence and consensus, she still doesn’t believe there’s a direct correlation between human activity and global warming (confirmed once again by her evasive answers to Charlie Gibson's questioning in yesterday's interview on ABC News), and consequently opposes protecting an irreplaceable apex species whose icy habitat is steadily melting. She kills free-living moose for fun and makes stew from their carcasses, and spent $400,000 in tax funds on a campaign to promote the unsportsmanlike practice of gunning down wolves from low-flying airplanes simply so she and her NRA buddies can have more living targets to shoot at on their lethal recreational outings. She wants to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) (which happens to be in Alaska) to oil company drilling, exploitation and profits, despite the real and present danger this would pose to the fragile ecosystem and its native and migratory inhabitants, from polar bears to bowhead whales. She is also a religious fundamentalist who doesn't believe in evolution and wants public schools to teach creationism.

What we see from these examples (as well as many others comprising Governor Palin’s record) is that she is out of step with the great majority of Americans, who:

- Generally don’t hunt animals, and see the aerial hunting of wolves as viciously cruel;

- Overwhelmingly accept that human activity is the cause of global warming;

- Oppose oil drilling in the ANWR because it's ecologically reckless and won’t relieve our dependence on foreign suppliers;

- Recognize the scientific validity of evolutionary theory and that creationism is nothing more than a religiously-driven doctrine extrapolated from Biblical mythology; and

- Want strong protections for threatened species like polar bears under the ESA.

If Sarah Palin becomes the next Vice President (or, heaven forbid, President of the United States, should 72-year-old cancer patient McCain die in office), expect to see a radical shift in government policies towards anti-animal and anti-environmental extremism over the next four (or more) years—both Man and Woman against Nature—that will surpass even the Bush era's mighty excesses. I dearly hope, for the sake of our country and the world, that American voters who understand what is at stake—from animals and the environment to the economy, the Iraq war, foreign relations, and civil liberties—will not let that come to pass.

p.s. If (like me) you are somewhat flummoxed by Sarah Palin's appeal to voters, read this insightful essay by cognitive linguist and political analyst George Lakoff for an enlightening perspective on the importance of "emotional symbolism" in political campaigns.

p.p.s. Animal advocates may be greatly disappointed to learn that Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech for the Republican Vice Presidential nomination was penned by none other than key Bush speech writer Matthew Scully, author of the bestseller Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. I find it hard to understand how Scully can reconcile the contradiction between the trigger-happy Palin and his righteous contempt for those who shoot innocent animals (as quoted from page nine of his book regarding hunters):

“And to me it has always seemed not only ungenerous and shabby but a kind of supreme snobbery to deal cavalierly with them (animals), as if their little share of the earth’s happiness and grief were inconsequential, meaningless, beneath a man’s attention, trumped by any and all designs he might have on them, however base, irrational or wicked.”

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Vegetarian Pro-Wrestler Killer Kowalski dies at 81

Legendary pro-wrestler Walter "Killer" Kowalski died yesterday from a heart attack at the age of 81. According to the NY Times obituary, the 6-foot 7-inch, 275-pound wrestler "displayed a gentle and even aesthetic side. He became a vegetarian in the mid-1950s, pursued charitable work for children with special needs and delighted in photographing fellow wrestlers. His work was sometimes displayed at galleries."

Services for Kowalski will be held Wednesday, September 3rd at the Weir Funeral Home in Malden, Massachusetts, in case you happen to be in that part of the country next week.

Kowalski's insurance was not enough to cover his medical bills, so his widow Theresa has set up a memorial fund to help pay them off. Donations can be sent to:

Walter "Killer" Kowalski Memorial Fund
c/o Citizens Bank
876 Main Street
Malden, MA 02148

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

California: Get the Vote Out for Farm Animals

Study shows low voter awareness of the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act

There is an article in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle which states that less than 25% of likely California voters are even aware that Proposition 2 -- the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act -- will be on the ballot in November. That's apparently typical for voter awareness of ballot initiatives, with the election still more than three months away. However, there are already a dozen propositions on the ballot (and counting), making state initiatives very confusing for voters who (experienced poll workers say) too often don't understand what they're voting for or against.

In this case, I think that the more time people have to consider our issue by learning what actually happens to animals on factory farms, the more likely they will be to support Prop. 2 on November 4th. It is noteworthy that another new study shows that of those polled, voters favor Prop. 2 by a whopping 63% to 24% -- an impressive margin of more than two-to-one. Nonetheless, leaving 75% of voters to enter the booth without the facts needed to make an informed choice could lead to defeat, so we animal advocates should take this as a sign and an opportunity to make sure we get the word out. Doing so is made only more urgent by the fact that the opposition is already on the move.

They call themselves Californians for Healthy Food, a group that is comprised of the state's most powerful agribusiness conglomerates. They have already poured a massive infusion of cash into disseminating a shameless misinformation campaign specifically aimed at fooling the public into protecting the industry's profits instead of animals' lives. According to the Chron article:

California poultry and egg companies have put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign war chest to fight Prop. 2, which they say would devastate their industry and boost the price of eggs.

"Our job is to communicate with the voters and tell them what the consequences of this initiative really are," said Julie Buckner, a spokeswoman for anti-Prop. 2 efforts.

One fact the Chron reporter failed to mention in this context is that research shows it costs producers less than one additional penny per egg not to confine laying hens in battery cages, so making these animals' lives somewhat less intolerable may ultimately increase consumer prices by a few cents per dozen. But the opposition is well-funded and unscrupulous in their defense of cruelty, and will do and say anything they can get away with to defeat Prop. 2, so it is up to us animal advocates to expose the wider public to the truth of the matter.

One way to do this is to spread the word by sending emails to your friends, family and colleagues in California that include a link to online information. Also check out other ways you can get involved and support the campaign to pass the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Answering San Francisco Art Institute's False Accusations

Cancellation of video exhibit showing animals being killed provokes reactionary response from SFAI President

On May 8, 2008, The Art Newspaper, a British publication, ran an editorial by San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) president Chris Bratton entitled "I see a new, pervasive and global condition of fundamentalist violence directed against dissident images and thought". It accused animal rights activists (and specifically IDA) of "demagoguery" and inciting death threats against SFAI employees.

As this is a completely false accusation based on Bratton's fractured and fearful view of animal rights activists, and because IDA is thoroughly dedicated to non-violent advocacy for animals, we posted an online response to his editorial, so readers of The Art Newspaper will know that it was Bratton's mismanagement of the outrage surrounding "Don't Trust Me" that caused the exhibit to be shut down.

Below, read my response to SFAI president Bratton's distorted claims, and get the real story behind the controversy.

I work for In Defense of Animals (IDA), one of the organizations that Chris Bratton accuses of fomenting "fundamentalist violence directed against dissident images and thought." I wrote IDA's alerts about the Adel Abdessemed exhibit sponsored by the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), and in no way, shape, or form did I encourage anyone to make violent threats. Nor did I post photos or home addresses of SFAI employees, or "cue...constituents with language meant to incite outrage and 'direct action.'" Check the alerts and see for yourself:

During the writing process, I called SFAI trying to get some background on how Abdessemed obtained his footage, and spoke with their media liaison on the phone. I asked him whether Abdessemed had in any way staged the footage, because I find it hard to believe that crushing animals' skulls in with giant hammers is standard practice on Mexican farms. I strongly felt that the public had a right to know whether these animals were specifically killed for a work of "art."

Though cordial, SFAI's media liaison did not have the answers to my questions, and this was days after the controversy over the exhibit had begun. Why was SFAI's official spokesperson still so completely uninformed at this point about a scandalously violent exhibit the school was sponsoring? All he could tell me was that SFAI had scheduled a public hearing to open up a dialogue; however, they quickly cancelled that meeting after allegedly receiving death threats, a claim that has not yet been substantiated by any concrete evidence.

My interaction with SFAI's spokesperson demonstrated how completely unprepared they were for the public's reaction to the exhibit. I don't know why Bratton is so surprised that people expressed anger towards the Institute's complete lack of interest in addressing legitimate concerns about cruelty to animals. His editorial mentions "a lecture by the artist, well attended and eliciting enthusiastic responses." So, not even one person at that lecture saw fit to inquire about Abdessemed's role in obtaining footage of animals being bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer? Is the state of contemporary art in the city named for Saint Francis, patron saint of animals, now so amoral that lecture attendees accept it as a given that artists should be able to kill for the sake of creation?

If I'd been told when I called SFAI that Abdessemed had obtained the footage purely as documentation of a common practice on Mexican farms – and that SFAI planned to communicate this as part of the exhibit – I would have in fact recommended to IDA that we encourage people to support the show by going to see it. Indeed, animal rights activists routinely use video images of animal slaughter to expose violence with the hope that people will change their consumer habits after seeing how terribly animals suffer. Abdessemed's work, however, did just the opposite: removed from any contextualizing description or hint of origin, it implicitly encouraged people to accept humanity's exploitation of animals and the commoditization of their bodies as a supposedly inevitable, inarguable, and natural fact of life—an all too common assumption by society in general.

Judging from his self-congratulatory editorial, Bratton remains in denial about SFAI's role in the show's cancellation and oblivious to the fact that he bungled the handling of this controversy by deliberately obscuring the origins of "Don't Trust Me." Given the utter lack of explanation, is it any wonder that we would assume Abdessemed had in some way set up or provoked the scenes of killing portrayed on six video monitors? Bratton's shock that people would be upset by the intentional killing of animals for "art" indicates how deeply disconnected he is from public sentiment and empathy for the animals who were victimized so that representations of their deaths could be displayed in a gallery.

SFAI has still not fully revealed precisely what role Abdessemed played in obtaining his images. I believe he and SFAI meant to keep the images decontextualized to elicit shock in viewers: if people don't know what exactly they are seeing, their imaginations fill in the void with all sorts of wild speculations, eliciting even greater emotional turmoil. It is also likely that Abdessemed wanted to generate controversy, and he did: now he has bragging rights in the art world to say that his exhibit was the first one in SFAI's 137-year history to be shut down. He can boast that his work is so intense that people couldn't handle it.

Abdessemed seems to enjoy his reputation as a "dangerous" artist. Why else would he pull stunts like painting a picture while hanging upside down in the sky from a cable tied to a helicopter? Well, for the attention, of course, but my impression is he's more showman or provocateur than artist. Notably, animal rights activists were not the only ones who questioned the ethical and aesthetic merit of "Don't Trust Me": members of the art community recognized that Abdessemed sought to shock and upset people with his work, and signed a letter to Bratton condemning the exhibit.

In the end, what I find most offensive about Bratton's argument is that he has linked my advocacy work for animals with "demagoguery" and terroristic threats against people. I take strong exception to that mischaracterization, and want to point out that IDA fully condemns violence as a form of activism. My words and actions are consistent with my values of respect for all species, including human beings.

Keep in mind, however, that SFAI claims they decided to pull the plug on "Don't Trust Me" and cancel the planned public hearing not because of the public's outrage, but in direct response to threats of violence. So, if no one had made these alleged threats and I had just gone about my business of writing more alerts asking people to contact Bratton and let him know how they felt about the show, "Don't Trust Me" might have been on display for its entire scheduled run. So what Bratton is essentially saying is that terrorism works.

Yes, completely ignoring the rational, respectful entreaties of the majority and then caving in to intimidation by a tiny minority of invisible bullies – that's showing them, Bratton! Seeing as how effective these supposed threats were in the success of this campaign, I strongly suspect that more activists will start using these tactics the next time a similar situation arises. But please remember, all you animal rights activists out there, that while threats and violence may appear to result in some form of "victory," they do great damage to our cause in the long run by creating fear and resentment rather than true understanding and transformation of consciousness.

Framing SFAI and the artist as victims allows Bratton to claim the moral high ground and paint all animal rights advocates – regardless of whether our activism is peaceful and law-abiding or potentially violent – as a single undifferentiated mass that will pursue its goals "by any means necessary." In making no distinctions between my alerts and life-threatening emails, Bratton shows he is totally clueless about the diversity of the animal protection movement, and the non-violent strategies used by the majority.

Given Bratton's biased attitude, it does not surprise me that IDA's attempts to reason with SFAI were largely ignored. All we wanted was for SFAI to listen and respond appropriately to our concerns. Had someone initially given me reason to believe that Abdessemed was in no way involved in the killings beyond filming them, the tone of my communications would have been very different. Instead, Bratton irresponsibly insisted on maintaining a tightly-sealed information vacuum.

Lastly, I want to address the charge of "censorship" lodged against those who saw "Don't Trust Me" as a sickening example of "art" in the form of cruelty to animals. This was a publicly-funded exhibit – as a San Franciscan, some portion of my tax dollars was spent to put this work on display. I have the perfect right to say what I think about it, and refuse to censor my writing or apologize for my actions.

In fact, it was actually Bratton, as president of SFAI, who censored Abdessemed's work, for he was the one who ordered it shut down. Rather than standing tall like a strong leader, he laid down on the ground trembling with his hands behind his head at the first sign of trouble, then blamed others for his very obvious inadequacies. If he really believed in the value of Abdessemed's work, Bratton would have done a better job of explaining SFAI's position to the public, and tried harder to defend freedom of artistic expression.


Addendum: On July 24, 2008, I received this email response from an art critic:

Regarding the Adel Abdessemed exhibition, I have just read that somebody in San Francisco is proposing a bill that would make it a felony who causes suffering to an animal while making art. More censorship coming. Last year, an artwork by Huang Yong-Ping was removed from a major exhibition in Vancouver because flies (I say right, flies) were not being treated right. Now Abdessemed's show has been cancelled altogether. What's next? A touring show of these evil anti-animal-rights artworks under the banner "Degenerate Art"? Where did our freedom go?

Regarding art, I must say, as an art critic that I am, that you have no idea about contemporary art, visual creation or art in general. You have made it clear in your response to the president of the San Francisco Art Institute.

Regarding veganism and food choices, I feel threatened by people like you. Because you are not just trying to "help" abused animals. Your ultimate mission and/or wish is to eradicate all animal consumption and resort to eating vegetables, whether your fellow humans want it or not.

If you all could, you would turn the world into a Vegan Fundamentalist Republic. Our freedom is at stake.


Bruno LeMieux-Ruibal

But wait, there’s more! After I published his first email (admittedly, without his permission), he wrote to me again three days later:
Ayatollah Mat,

As I thought, dialogue or conversation are not your forte. You'd rather publish private e-mails without asking (so rude), accuse me of things I never said (so wrong) and laugh (so childish) than answer my letter in the same channel as it came, that is- personal and private.

But listen, I'd rather be hated by intolerants like you than used by ignorants... like you (I see you respect animals, but not humans).

Now, make it public, be in bliss and feel oh-so-good about yourself. Because it's great being you, isn't it? Illuminated and ever right, ready to teach the world and punish the wrong. Yeah.


My open response to Mr. LeMieux-Ruibal – for all to see:

So, you were upset that I posted your “personal and private” words on my blog – hey, welcome to the 21st century! And yet despite this complaint, you have sent me an even juicier email. Methinks thou doth protest too much! So then, I assume you must want me to post the second one, too. Okay, if you insist…

Well, why not, anyway? Sure, you personally offended me, but much more importantly, you’ve insulted all animal advocates, and the movement community has a right to know about that. If you’re really so sure that your opinion of me and other animal advocates is correct, then you should want everyone to know about it – no need whatsoever to hide or be embarrassed, right?

I publicly and proudly proclaimed my perspective on the animals-in-art issue in IDA alerts to SFAI, as well as my detailed response to Bratton’s editorial. You responded to my writing by attacking me personally – a stranger who you don’t even know – yet you call me “rude”? Give me a break!

And claiming that I should take personal attacks as an invitation to converse is the height of hypocrisy. Don’t pull that with me. If you were really interested in “dialogue or conversation,” you would have written a rational explanation of why you believe people should be allowed to kill animals for art. In contrast, declaratively stating (with no analysis to back up your claims) that I “have no idea about contemporary art, visual creation or art in general” and calling me “fundamentalist” are not valid critiques of my work, but merely personal insults. As far as respect is concerned, I reserve that for those who earn it by granting me basic respect, not those who don’t know me yet cast outrageously false aspersions about who I am.

But I certainly don’t “hate” you, as you seem to think: I simply recognize that we hold widely disparate values. That is, I wholly oppose the unnecessary killing of sentient individuals for art, food, etc., and you are in favor of killing sentient individuals for art, food, etc. I am for animal rights, and you are for animal exploitation. I see no need for “dialogue or conversation” about that because you’ve already made up your mind about this issue, and about me – “Ayatollah Mat …Illuminated and ever right, ready to teach the world and punish the wrong.” Clearly, you don't know me, and you don’t want to talk: you want to argue and disagree and call me silly names because you need to convince yourself that you are “right.” Sorry, I’m not about to waste my time playing your head games. I am only indulging you now because some readers may find this exchange amusing and informative.

In conclusion, the wildly stereotypical inaccuracy of your conclusions about me and every other animal rights activist makes your emails unintentionally hilarious, so I continue to post them. Seriously, The Onion should write a story about you! Incidentally, you might want to work on your sarcasm – we’re laughing at you, not with you. Also, there is no such word as “ignorants” – “ignorant” can only be used as an adjective, not a noun, so there is no plural form. Consider gaining a basic command of the English language before accusing any more of us “ignorants” of ignorance.

p.s. For educational purposes, you might try putting a contact button on your blog so people can give you feedback.

You see, the encouragement and constructive criticism I get from readers is important, but what better way to start my day than with a hot steaming mug of blind bigotry and belligerence? Frankly, I think the experience would benefit you – especially as an art critic. My email address is publicly available on my website and blog, so any angry, bitter crank in the world can personally chastise me and belittle my life goals and values any time they feel like it. And yet, while I have your email address, the public does not, and therefore no one else has any way of letting you know what they think of you or your work.
Guess what I’m trying to say, speaking as one devoted to ideals of freedom and liberty, is that avoiding contact with the reading public doesn’t exactly foster interactive free speech…but then, I guess that’s convenient for you, anyway.


Ayatollah Mat Thomas
Chief Grand Poobah, Vegan Fundamentalist Republic

Tune in now for the semi-interminable continuation and exciting conclusion of this fascinatingly combative ethical/aesthetic discourse (same Brat Time, same Brat Channel) by consulting the comments section directly below! KAPOW!!!