Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Minestrone Is Murder?

Maybe so — but carnivores still kill many more plants than vegans do

Day after day, meat eaters try to discredit ethical veganism with an astonishing array of pseudo-philosophical protests, but the recurring assertion that “Plants have feelings, too” is particularly vexing — mainly because it’s so transparently insincere. Think about it: Why are meat eaters so remarkably resistant to recognizing the horrific suffering of “food” animals, yet simultaneously eager to anthropomorphize faceless fruits and vegetables that utterly lack the brains, central nervous systems, and sense organs (like eyes and ears) generally associated with sentience? When carnivores insist that plants’ feelings matter, it seems to me that they disingenuously want to appear genuinely concerned about hurting innocent herbs, when in fact the sneaky subtext peeking out from underneath the edge of this compassionate facade is a self-serving accusation that we vegans are as guilty of murder as the most unrepentant flesh-obsessed gourmand.

The latest example of this perennially weed-like phenomenon sprouted up yesterday in Natalie Angier’s New York Times article “Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too” — a title which insinuates, baselessly, that plants’ faculty for feeling somehow negates the moral authenticity at the core of animal rights. Now, please understand, I am by no means criticizing Angier for promoting the hypothesis that all living organisms are imbued with some form of consciousness: actually, I find the eminent behavioral botanist’s quotation touting plants’ capacity for “sensory modalities and abilities we normally think of as only being in animals” quite compelling. What I do object to, strenuously, is that any carnivore (much less a mainstream science journalist) would have the unmitigated chutzpah to charge that it’s hypocritical for us vegans to shout “meat is murder” while allegedly committing mass herbicide — especially because meat eaters kill so many more plants than we do in the course of daily dining!

Need proof? Then check out these stunning statistics:

• To yield a single pound of edible meat, a chicken must consume about 2 pounds of grain*, a pig must consume about 4 pounds, and a cow must consume 10 to 16 pounds. So, every time someone eats meat, they kill 2 to 16 times as many plants than they would by eating vegan.

• Slaughtering approximately 65 billion animals worldwide for meat each year requires that one-third of humanity’s grain harvest be fed to livestock. This calculation accounts for 80% of U.S. corn crops and about 99% of U.S.-produced soy meal, but not the vast fields of grass and other naturally-growing plants upon which free-range cows, sheep and goats graze.

• According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock production occupies 70% of all the land used for agricultural purposes, and nearly one-third of the Earth’s entire landmass. This boundless terrain was once unspoiled habitat for billions of native plants and animals who were either displaced or eradicated — some to the point of extinction. The beef industry, for instance, is the driving force behind the destruction of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, one of the planet’s most diversity-dense regions, with nearly 80% of deforested land being used for ranching.

Strictly speaking, it’s impossible for us to physically survive without consuming other living entities — just as billions of microbial creatures subsist on the proteins in our bodies. But contrary to the misleading myths of popular belief, veganism isn’t about achieving perfection, purity or sainthood (or, for that matter, smugly proving our superiority or political correctness). Rather, the point is to consciously make pragmatic lifestyle choices that significantly reduce the amount of pain, agony and death suffered by others as a result of our privileged existence, and persuade people to do the same in the name of non-violence.

So, the next time some smart-ass carnivore tries to excuse their lethal fauna-filled diet by feigning sympathy for faultless flora, just look them right in the eye and tell them straight out: If you really, truly care about the plight of exploited plant beings, then go vegan now!

* I originally cited a website claiming (inaccurately, it seems) that the grain-to-meat conversion ratio for chickens is 6:1. Tip of the hat to Erik Marcus for pointing out the error.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Nightmare of the Nurse Mare Foals

Thoroughbred horseracing's invisible victims

For decades, the thoroughbred racehorse industry has practiced a shockingly cruel breeding method that activists have only recently brought to light. The result of this compulsory procreative procedure are nurse mare foals — the unwanted offspring of female horses used as nursing surrogates for thoroughbred ponies. Every year, tens of thousands of these horses are killed or orphaned simply because they are useless to a multi-million dollar enterprise that thrives on equine exploitation.

Here's how it works: in order to get thoroughbred mares to produce as many potential racehorse champions as possible, breeders push their biological limits to extremes by forcing them to reproduce once a year. Maximizing productivity requires breeders to have the mares reimpregnated right after giving birth, which precludes them from nursing their own babies. The newborns are therefore taken away from their mothers within days of delivery, and nursed by surrogate mares (of “inferior” breeds) who have just given birth to their own offspring — the “by-products” of this process known as nurse mare foals.

Permanently separating thoroughbred babies from their mothers is tragic enough, but most nurse mare foals face a far worse fate than either racehorses or surrogates. While some are killed soon after being born or starved to death, others are sold (as young as one day old) to the tanning industry, which slaughters them and turns their skin into handbags, belts, and other high-grade leather products. The lucky ones are rescued by horse advocacy groups, which, just like the tanners, must pay the going rate of $200 to $400 apiece — and then spend several hundred more dollars feeding and raising each horse for months before they are ready for adoption.

Rescuers nourish nurse mare foals by bottle-feeding them milk replacer, which could theoretically be used to feed thoroughbred foals as well, thus eliminating this exceedingly inhumane breeding practice altogether. There are two main reasons that they don't do this: formula is expensive, and horse breeders maintain that thoroughbreds need to drink real (albeit surrogate) mother's milk from the source to achieve peak athletic performance. Plus, the larger nurse mare farms (concentrated in New York, Kentucky and Tennessee) produce 50 to 100 foals a year, and it is more operationally efficient to make the surrogate mothers do all the work rather than paying human caretakers to feed the foals by hand.

Another possible solution to the problem of unwanted foals is a new domperidone-based drug protocol that induces non-pregnant mares who have given birth before to lactate. Though chemically manipulating horses' hormones poses ethical dilemmas in the context of animal rights philosophy, in practical terms it would prevent tens of thousands of unwanted foals from being born into a life of suffering and untimely death. It could also dramatically reduce the number of surrogate nurse mares by enabling thoroughbreds who are too old for breeding to nurse foals.

There are many ways to help relieve the suffering of nurse mares and their orphaned foals, from urging elected legislators to pass humane laws to financially supporting horse advocacy organizations or adopting a rescued foal. Learn more about how to take action at lastchancecorral.org.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Preposterous: The Presidential Turkey Pardon

The perverse absurdity of a reverse animal sacrifice

Every Thanksgiving, at a White House ceremony punctuated by much media fanfare, the President of the United States symbolically “pardons” a single turkey — just one day before he joins the rest of America in devouring 45 million others. Legend has it that Abraham Lincoln started the custom one Thanksgiving day in the 1860s by sparing his son Tad’s “pet” turkey from the axe, but the pardon only became an official American tradition in the late 1980s when George H.W. Bush* occupied the Oval Office. Lincoln’s gesture of historical kindness has since evolved into a bizarre ritual in which the country lightheartedly hails saving the life of one turkey in order to displace the unconscious collective guilt for killing millions more.

This year, the farce of this reverse animal sacrifice reached new heights of ridiculousness with White House videographer Arun Chaudhary’s YouTube video parody preview. In this short spoof (of what exactly, I’m not sure), 2009’s chosen turkey (named Courage) “does the slow walk right through the gates outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, past ‘Pebble Beach’ where reporters do stand-up television shots, through the West Wing and Oval Office into the Rose Garden.” So rather than solemnly acknowledging all the millions of birds who are summarily slaughtered for this bloated holiday buffet, we treat their deaths like a big joke — ha ha, industrialized mass murder is just so inherently hilarious, right?!

In an attempt to further salve society’s buried remorse for all the many tons of bird blood spilled throughout November at friendly neighborhood abattoirs, Courage gets to live out the rest of his natural days at Disneyland. But animal advocacy organization Farm Sanctuary** says the “Frontierland” exhibit of this Southern California theme park is not the “The Happiest Place on Earth” for turkeys, and that courage and his alternate*** should be moved to one of their shelters for safekeeping. In a press release, the group charged that “The Walt Disney Company…has shown that it lacks the ability to provide (adequate) care” because they feed the birds “a high-calorie, high-fat diet formulated for rapid weight gain, a likely cause of (their) premature deaths.” The way we treat our “rescued” Thanksgiving turkeys is a representation of what this holiday means to us, and begs a necessary question: Is dying young from obesity-related causes at the world’s most corporatized amusement park really the kind of freedom our pilgrim forebears had in mind when they shared their first harvest meal with the local natives?

A Real “Indian” Pre-Thanksgiving

Just yesterday, the Obamas held their first official state dinner at the White House honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a vegetarian world leader. While (contrary to media reports) not all the food served was strictly vegetarian****, the menu showed some small awareness on the President’s part that meat doesn’t have to be the centerpiece of a fulfilling meal — or our diets. And yet, come tomorrow, he and the rest of the First Family will be digesting a customary turkey flesh feast, so I guess Obama really didn’t learn all that much from Mr. Singh’s ethical example.

Now, I’m just an average guy, nothing particularly special or extraordinary about me (for instance, I haven’t won a Nobel Peace Prize). Even so, I’ll be non-violently “pardoning” a turkey for real this Thanksgiving***** by not eating one — just the same way I’ve been pardoning turkeys every day of my life for the last 14½ years. Meanwhile, President Obama (like other U.S. Commander in Chiefs before him) is making a public show of offering amnesty to one turkey while simultaneously ordering another to be killed for his table — a behavioral contradiction that seems rather shallow and hypocritical. I mean, it’s not like either of these turkeys deserved to die, and yet one is given the full celebrity treatment while the other is condemned like a convicted criminal on Death Row, forever nameless, along with millions of his kind.

The penitentiary metaphor is perfectly apt here, for turkeys are indeed incarcerated for their entire lives on factory farms, helplessly awaiting execution in their dark, dirty prisons — despite the fact that they have committed no crimes (unless being born a member of their particular avian species can be considered a punishable offense). Ironically, humankind has complicitly committed unspeakably unnatural atrocities against turkeys for generations in government-certified factory farms and slaughterhouses. But we wouldn’t want to bring any of that up, because it might ruin someone’s appetite for slow-roasted wings, breasts and “drumsticks”!

Turkeys are affectionate, intelligent animals who deserve compassion, not torture. They are innocent victims who love life and deserve to live as much as anyone else. In that sense, a supposed “pardon” granted by our nation’s leader to a single turkey appears not as an act of mercy, but rather a disingenuous attempt to officially sanctify senseless slaughter in the name of commercialized gluttony.

* I originally wrote that John F. Kennedy was the first President to pardon a turkey for Thanksgiving, but later found out that Bush Sr. was the first to officially perform the pardoning ceremony, a custom which all subsequent Presidents have followed.
** In the interest of full disclosure, Farm Sanctuary was my employer from 2008-2009.
A Vice Turkey has also been appointed to take command should Courage for some reason be rendered unable to perform the duties associated with his post.
**** Along with a wide selection of both vegetarian and vegan options, the executive chefs prepared Green Curry Prawns for guests.
***** For the first time in many a year, I’ll be the sole vegetarian dining with an extended family of committed carnivores.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Go Figure! The Mathematics of Dietary Death

Computing the cost of plant vs. flesh food production in animals’ lives

Anyone who’s been vegan for any length of time has heard the dizzying array of specious arguments for why people are supposedly meant to eat meat, dairy and eggs. These reasons range from the nutritional (“we need animal protein to live”) to the Biblical (“God gave humanity dominion over all the Earth’s creatures”) to the ethical. Yep, that’s right: some omnivores have the cajones to claim that vegans are responsible for killing more animals than flesh eaters!

Oregon State University professor of animal science Steven Davis, for one, contends that people who eat beef from cattle fed on grazing pasture spare more animals’ lives than vegans because of all the death supposedly caused by harvesting crops. While Davis’ research has appeared in such prestigious periodicals as TIME magazine and the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, apparently no one bothered to peer-review or fact-check his methodology before publication. That is, a new analysis of the professor’s claim reveals that (surprise, surprise!) his numbers don’t quite add up.

Artist and graphic designer Mark Middleton recently calculated the true impact of food production on two categories of animals: domestic species specifically slaughtered for human consumption, and wild species killed as a consequence of agricultural harvesting. What’s more, he translated his findings into an easy-to-read graph* that enables comparison of how different diets (i.e., plant vs. flesh foods) impact animals’ lives — both by the numbers and as an interactive (filterable) visual representation of these otherwise abstract values:

Extrapolating from this diagram, we find that:

• Eating chicken flesh takes about 100 times the number of animals’ lives as eating the equivalent caloric content of vegetables.

• Subsisting on only grains for an entire year would likely cost fewer than two animals (e.g., field mice) their lives.

• Contrary to Davis’ central assertion, the number of wild animals who die as a result of beef production is much greater than occurs in the harvesting of all plant food varieties combined.

Middleton arrived at his revised conclusion by incorporating into his formula some criticisms of Davis’ work by researchers Gaverick Matheny and Andy Larney which, upon even cursory consideration, seem so basic that it’s amazing they even had to bring them up. I mean, it doesn’t take a mathematician to know that we can feed more people per acre by using land to raise crops rather than cattle, as Matheny opined, or to understand Larner’s contention that counting animals killed by predators (in addition to, say, chemical pesticides and mechanical threshers) skews the end results. So Middleton’s new presentation begs an obvious question: why did Davis’ claims go so completely unchallenged by the mainstream media and the scientific establishment when he made them?

Opinion makers’ unquestioning acceptance and promotion of Professor Davis’ flawed theory says more about meat eaters’ desperate psychological need to justify their violent destructiveness than anything else: apparently, people want to continue eating animal flesh so badly that they will even unconsciously create and cite conspicuously inaccurate data to make the case that omnivores are ethically superior to vegans. Once again, we vegans have the truth on our side, but there remain some lingering doubts about its persuasive value, because people basically believe what they want to believe. If history is any guide, many omnivores will continue to invent and propagate ways of salving their guilt by convincing themselves that meat is not murder but mercy — no matter how much incontrovertible evidence we vegans present to the contrary.

Related AnimalRightings:

- My 8-page VegNews magazine feature article “The Road to Vegetopia: (Re)Imagining the Future of Food” (illustrated by Mark Middleton)

- My blog post about Middleton’s “Virtual Battery Cage”

* For interested techies, Middleton built this interactive graphic in Adobe Flash using a data visualization library called Flare. Click here for a full explanation of the analysis and mathematical proofs.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mystery Corpse: Extraterrestrial Visitor or Balding Sloth?

Four teens insist they killed unidentified creature in self-defense

OK, this is weird…

…but rest assured that scientists will (probably) soon have a logical explanation for the bizarre pinkish carcass recently recovered in Cerro Azul, Panama. British hoax debunker Dr. Darren Naish makes a convincing case that the so-called “Blue Hill Monster” is nothing more exotic than a native three-toed sloth of the Bradypus species that had somehow lost most of its fur coat. However, if DNA tests do by chance fail to conclusively ID the victim as a known denizen of this planet, the FBI should send any top-secret real-life equivalent of Fringe Division they may have south of the border pronto in search of a crashed spaceship.

Whatever biologists eventually determine this creature to be, the pertinent part of the story from an animal rights perspective is that the teens (four males, aged 14 to 16) claim it was living when they saw it come out of a cave, and they killed it simply because it was crawling in their direction. Of course, the adolescents assumed that being approached meant they were about to be attacked, so they threw rocks at their alleged assailant until it was stone cold dead. Then they dumped the body in a nearby creek, returning only days later to photograph the remains and alert the authorities.

Now, I don’t feel it’s my place to pass judgment against these kids: if their account of events is true (which some doubt), it’s easy to imagine them being freaked out by the shocking reality of something they had never seen before, so their violent reaction may well have been borne from a visceral terror of the utterly unknown. Which would mean that the encounter triggered their autonomic “fight or flight” response, causing them to reflexively weaponize whatever objects lay most conveniently close at hand. Yet this only serves to illuminate an unsettlingly dark aspect of human nature: faced with a unique lifeform they did not understand, the boys savagely destroyed it in the most primitive possible manner instead of pausing to assess the actual threat level — an alarming outcome that intimates implications for everything from race relations and war to our wanton destruction of the environment, and ultimately our species’ prospects for avoiding self-imposed extinction.

That the creature bears a disturbing resemblance to many of the humanoid aliens commonly depicted in our movies and mythology invests the murder with an even more universal theme. I mean, the iconic blockbuster E.T: The Extraterrestrial wouldn’t have been nearly so endearing (or popular) if young Elliot had just repeatedly pummeled the nighttime stowaway in his family’s shed to death with that baseball, right? With the thought-provoking District 9 currently straining the veracity of Steven Spielberg’s more hopeful fairy tales in multiplexes worldwide, let this unfortunate incident be a lesson to any intelligent beings out there cruising the cosmos who may be thinking about a visit to Earth: “We come in peace” is probably not going to cut it down here!

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Tender Trap: A Loathsome Lobster Tale

(or, Why some foodies make me boiling mad)

“I don’t think you realize who you’re dealing with here. You might have me in the tank for now, but just wait ’til I get these f---ing rubber bands off.”

Freddy the Lobster, from an op-ed in The Onion

Most omnivores wouldn’t know an absent referent if it were staring them in the face (which it is, in fact, every time they eat meat), but I expect a heightened awareness from fellow writers, who I believe are socially obligated to deeply consider the ethical implications of their words. I was therefore struck once again by people’s seemingly limitless capacity for insensitivity and death-dealing denial when I read today’s “Bitten” blog in the New York Times entitled “Boiling the Lobster,” in which author Emily Weinstein recounts her first attempt to cook live crustaceans.

According to Weinstein, she just had to send these inveterate invertebrates to Davy Jones’ Locker herself “at least once” as “a rite of passage” (into the ignominious ranks of culinary killers, one can only presume). Yet what is most disturbing about Weinstein’s insistence that she’s engaged in some sort of sacred ritual is her disingenuous attempt to make violence palatable by leapfrogging clear over the obvious objections against killing that vegans embody in their everyday actions. Here, in Weinstein’s own words, are the excuses she proffers:

“The problem was that I was actually kind of afraid of putting (the lobsters) in the boiling water. It wasn’t the thought of killing a living creature — to me no meal could be more celebratory than one that begins with a cocktail and a round of raw oysters, which are live when they’ve shucked and served. And it wasn’t a moral issue. I am a meat eater, and no matter how lovely the life of an animal was, someone, somewhere, still had the task of dropping it in the proverbial pot. What I feared was kickback — the lid blowing off, hearing the sound of lobsters screaming*, or something unimaginable, and worse.”

Yeah, that’s right, Ms. Weinstein: it’s all about you. I mean, really: who the hell cares about the murder of three insignificant lobsters — as long as you have a “celebratory” meal and get to safely confront your phobia of feeling even a tiny fraction of the terror, pain and utter annihilation of consciousness you just knowingly inflicted on several sentient beings? After all, according to your “logic” at least, torturing small animals to death is inherently therapeutic!

And by the way, the life of every creature you’ve ever eaten was indeed “lovely,” as you say — the animal equivalent of a spa vacation! The lobsters you bought, for example, likely lived in a warehouse storage tank for months before even arriving at the pound where you purchased them, crammed in with hundreds of others whose claws were banded shut to prevent them from tearing one another to shreds under the stress of severe confinement — which was just so much fun for them all, like a nonstop party! Lobsters have a strong predilection for dark places and are highly attuned to atmospheric temperature changes, so the store owners may have thoughtfully illuminated their glass aquarium and adjusted the thermostat a few degrees colder just to make the zany antics of these born entertainers even more exciting for you, the paying customer. But the fact that you yourself so graciously killed these creatures after their blissful captivity for your very own meal, instead of letting some anonymous chef do your dirty work, definitely makes up for any slights our diminutive red friends may have experienced while accommodated as preferred guests of the altruistic seafood industry.

Putting sarcasm aside for a moment, the rest of Weinstein’s post documents her flawed and failed attempts to “minimize (the lobsters’) pain” and cook them in a “humane” manner — first by unsuccessfully hypnotizing them, then freezing them — before painfully boiling them to death. Despite these precautions, at least one of the animals remained conscious during the deadly dinner preparations: when their tormentor lifted the pot’s cover, “As if shielding itself from the intrusion of light, a lobster raised up its claw,” at which point the callous cook “clapped the lid back on.” With this chilling image still freshly imprinted on the reader’s mind, Weinstein efficiently ends her account with a description of how “sweet” the lobster meat tasted, a self-congratulatory pat on the back for so courageously dispatching defenseless creatures, and a cutesy killing joke about not quite yet deserving the “go-go wellies” worn by the teenaged Rhode Island shopgirl who helpfully sold her the live lobsters.

If you find yourself existentially distressed after reading Weinstein’s mundanely-related horror story, a quick perusal of reader comments should provide sufficiently convincing proof of your minority status. Which is to say, a sizable proportion of reader responses would be most accurately categorized as macabre preparation suggestions — everything from “killing the lobster with a knife to the brain” to using “special scissors to snip off their little faces.” These people would be vilified as psychopaths for talking about kittens this way, but their recommendations are welcomed in this mainstream online forum because most people think of lobsters as things so lowly that we need not even concern ourselves with whatever form of alien sea life may lie behind those beady black eyes.

Well, if you eat lobster (and are, by some circumstantial fluke or cosmic miracle, still reading this), here are a few fascinating facts about these captivating creatures that will hopefully change your mind.

Lobster Lib

• Lobsters are members of the Phylum Arthropoda (which in the original Greek literally translates as “jointed feet”): their closest genetic cousins include crustaceans like crab, shrimp and crayfish, but they are also related to insects, spiders and scorpions. As a species, lobsters have inhabited Earth since the Jurassic period (~ 206 to 144 million years ago), meaning they are about two hundred times as old as the human race. Lobsters can live for well over 100 years when left alone, but most at some point fall victim to the U.S. fishing industry, which traps and removes about 3.5 million tons of lobsters from coastal ocean waters every year.

• Like sea turtles and some migratory birds, lobsters have a built-in magnetic compass that enables them to engage in true navigation. That is, they exhibit an extremely rare talent for orienting themselves — in total underwater darkness on the ocean floor, mind you — without accessing physical landmarks or chemical cues. Using this ability, some lobsters journey hundreds of miles to reach their spawning grounds.

• The unfounded claim that lobsters cannot feel pain has been proven false by scientific research, some of which indicates that lobsters produce opioids (the chemicals that convey painful stimuli to the brain) and have opioid receptors. It is therefore logical to conclude that they would not possess these anatomical features if they could not experience physical suffering. And, of course, the most obvious evidence that lobsters feel pain is that they wildly flail their bodies around when thrown into boiling water, and sometimes desperately try to climb out of their scalding prisons.

Would learning about lobsters’ lives have any effect on foodie bloggers who wax poetic about the succulence of their meat? Well, some gourmands already apparently experiment with ways to “humanely” kill lobsters before cooking and eating them, either to salve their own guilt or get animal rights activists off their backs. But the thing about many meat-eating foodies is that their pattern of moral disconnection applies to virtually every species of animal.

Granted, I focused on lobsters in this critique, but there are also countless examples of foodie bloggers relishing such gourmet atrocities as foie gras, milk-fed veal, lamb brains, and live baby octopus tentacles (among many, many other harvested body parts) — and then nonchalantly writing about their aesthetic adventures without bothering to even mention those who suffered and died to sate their appetites. Meanwhile, other foodie scribes cagily try to justify murdering animals by offering up the same old trivial alibis that are so obviously intended to evade any authentic ethical discussion. Seriously, flesh-eaters: arguments like “meat tastes good” and “Hitler was a vegetarian” (FYI, he most definitely was not) have absolutely no bearing on whether it is ethically acceptable for humans to inflict suffering and death on billions of animals when we don’t have to.

On a positive note…

There is a veritable cornucopia of high-quality vegan foodie blogs out there with pictures, recipes and restaurant reviews to get your mouth watering. Here are just a few (somewhat arbitrary but worthwhile) selections to start with:
- The Vegan Foodie
- Vegan Yum.Yum
- Post Punk Kitchen
- Vegan Appetite
- Vegan Eats & Treats

…and here are some random lobster-related resources for good measure:
- Watch “The Simpsons” episode in which Homer raises (and then accidentally cooks) his pet lobster Pinchy
- Listen to the B-52’s classic New Wave song “Rock Lobster”
- Read the late David Foster Wallace’s article “Consider the Lobster” from the August 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine

* Marine zoologists maintain that it is physiologically impossible for lobsters to scream, as they have neither lungs nor vocal chords: the noise that to many people sounds like screaming is actually trapped air being expelled from their shells, which expand rapidly when immersed in hot water.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Help Farmworkers, Help Farm Animals

New Yorkers: Urge your Senators to vote YES on S.2247

“The African is incapable of self-care and sinks into lunacy under the burden of freedom. It is a mercy to him to give him the guardianship and protection from mental death.”
– Former U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun regarding slaves (circa 1844)

“This notion that they need to rest is completely futile. They don’t like to rest. They want to work seven days.”
– Hudson Valley Foie Gras Co-Owner Izzy Yanay regarding farmworkers (circa 2009)

It is our moral obligation as citizens of a democracy to ensure that every worker in America has the same basic rights as every other, regardless of what job they do. Yet even now in the 21st century, as the result of a 71-year-old compromise with segregationist Dixiecrats during the New Deal era, those who toil in New York State’s agricultural fields and factory farms are still denied the fundamental benefits that the rest of us take for granted. And I’m talking here about some of the most basic employment expectations, like getting at least one day of rest a week, disability insurance, collective bargaining options, and overtime pay for working extra hours.

Though California passed the first laws rectifying this disparity in the mid-1970s and most other states have since followed suit, New York still suffers the unrepentant repercussions of blatantly racist government policies more than seven decades after their codification. To redress this longstanding injustice, a broad coalition of labor advocates, student activists, religious groups, and state legislators are now unifying behind the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act (A.1867/ S.2247), and after a long struggle are finally within reach of victory. I’m glad that some animal advocates have already cast their lot with the workers, but hope that the animal protection movement as a whole will join them in this fight for equal treatment under the law, because:

1) We vegans eat the New York-grown apples, grapes, potatoes, corn, cabbage, and other plant foods that farmworkers help raise and harvest, and our purchases may well be subsidizing an exploitive system that denies tens of thousands of people the guaranteed protections that we enjoy.

2) If he were alive today, trailblazing farm unionizer and fellow vegan Cesar Chávez would be leading the charge for these workers’ civil rights.

3) Of the approximately 80,000 farmworkers employed by New York State’s multi-billion agriculture industry, more than half are documented migrant workers and illegal immigrants of Latino descent who are compelled to endure terrible working conditions under threat of losing their livelihoods and being forced out of the U.S.

4) There is no ethical justification for economically discriminating against people based on ethnicity, class or nationality.

5) Achieving parity for those working in factory farms will also dramatically reduce incidences of animal abuse.

Workers are Animals, Too

There are probably some animal advocates out there who would argue that siding with people who harm animals for a living is speciesist because it prioritizes farm workers’ interests over animals’ well-being. While I acknowledge the kernel of philosophical legitimacy at the core of this claim, I would counter by pragmatically pointing out that ignoring the farmworkers’ plight helps neither them nor the animals, but rather bolsters the power of those who abuse both — the factory farm owners. Just as Nobel Prize-winning author and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” In this case, the only way we can take the animals’ side is by siding with the workers against the industry that oppresses them.

Please bear with me while I explain. These laborers typically work 60 to 70 hour weeks, and yet most still live below the poverty line. Many are allowed to reside in the U.S. only temporarily via the H-2A guest worker program, which strictly prohibits them during that limited period from working for anyone besides the employer who originally hired them. Such restrictions leave these legal workers completely at farm owners’ mercy, and reluctant to petition for even the meager protections they are entitled to because reprisals could very well entail not only job loss but summary deportation.

Meanwhile, the health and safety risks most factory farm hands undergo on a daily basis are far beyond what American workers in virtually every other industry are ever exposed to. Being kicked by cows and bitten by pigs are the least of these hazards: peer-reviewed field studies indicate that an inordinate number of U.S. farmworkers are afflicted with acute and chronic respiratory diseases from constantly inhaling air that is rife with toxic gases emanating from the tons of feces and urine expelled by farm animals at a typical concentrated livestock facility. Farmworkers also suffer disproportionately from symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, and fever, but show up to work every day without fail because their employers are not required to provide them with paid sick leave, and taking a day off without pay could mean losing one’s job altogether.

On Down the Food Chain: Victims Become Victimizers

As far as how this affects farm animals, think about it: such vulnerable employees are unlikely to report labor law violations, so they certainly aren’t going to speak up when someone breaks the state’s minimal animal welfare statutes. In fact, surveys show most farmworkers are never even informed that such laws exist. What’s most disturbing and destructive about this situation is that the frustrations caused by working excruciatingly long hours for low wages in stressful and often dangerous conditions greatly increase the probability that farmworkers will commit egregious acts of animal cruelty.

First, it’s essential to understand that the factory farm environment is intrinsically antithetical to ethical norms. Consider, for example, what workers go through every day at Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Upstate New York. Inside giant warehouses, tens of thousands of ducks are confined in body-sized stalls and force-fed excessive amounts of corn-mash for a period of 30 days before they are killed and their bloated and diseased livers harvested for a high-priced gourmet delicacy. Once the compulsory gorging cycle begins, the birds will only accept food from the same person at each meal, so workers (who must individually feed hundreds of animals each day) spend about 12 hours a day (interspersed throughout each 24-hour period), seven days a week for four full weeks shoving pneumatic tubes down ducks’ esophagi and pumping them full of food. On the 31st day, some workers get a day off, then come back to work after a 24-hour leave to start the cycle all over again.

Second, if this sounds sick to you, remember: the agriculture industry seriously maintains that these conditions are perfectly normal, healthy and “humane” for both the workers and animals. To reiterate, the description above is not an aberration but the legal and accepted norm for American foie gras production, and similarly horrific conditions are common at other factory farms. Yet, as we animal activists know all too well from viddying ultraviolent sinnys of undercover investigations showing workers kicking chickens like footballs and lethally smashing piglets’ heads against the floor, superfluously abusive incidents are also all too common behind the bloody walls of these licensed hellholes.

The New York State Assembly has already passed their version of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act (A.1867), and 28 of the 32 votes we need for a majority in the Senate have been secured. It’s therefore looking pretty good, but influential agribusiness lobbies are actively pressuring lawmakers to defeat this measure, so we need to make one final push to get this bill passed. With the Senate due back from their summer recess in September, you can make a difference now by checking whether your State Senator is already a co-sponsor of S.2247. Depending on their status, contact their office and take one of the following actions:

- If they oppose: Tell your Senator that, as a constituent and a voter, you strongly believe in equal treatment under the law for farmworkers, and urge them to reconsider their position on this important issue. You may wish to mention that polls show New Yorkers overwhelmingly support expanded rights for farmworkers.

- If they are already on board: Let your Senator know that you greatly appreciate their support for this bill, and urge them to 1) persuade their colleagues who have not yet signed on that it is time for New York to stop denying farmworkers the fundamental rights they have earned and deserve, and 2) work to put this bill on the legislative agenda so the full Senate can finally vote on it.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Rescuing Michael Vick

Animal abuse and the politics of atonement

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.

- Bob Marley, from “Redemption Song”

After serving a reduced sentence of one and a half years in federal prison, sports superstar and convicted dog killer Michael Vick was recently released on probation and provisionally reinstated into the National Football League (NFL). Now, if the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback can just find a team willing to sign him*, he could be back competing on the gridiron as soon as October**. Yet no matter where he goes or what athletic heights he may reach, Vick will never be able to shake off the Stygian shadow of his contemptible legacy.

It is worth considering how the public’s perception of Vick has changed since July 2007, when he first faced felony animal cruelty charges for running a dogfighting operation at his Virginia Beach estate. Back then, I was covering the story as a staff writer for In Defense of Animals, and recall from my reading that, at first, the comments on news articles were dominated by defenses of Vick arguing either that 1) their hero was an innocent scapegoat in a racist conspiracy to discredit a prominent black role model, or 2) dogfighting was just harmless fun and animal rights activists were making a big deal out of nothing. Yet when sordid details of Vick’s dirty deeds emerged soon thereafter and his initial denials gave way to contrite confession, many football fans learned for the first time about the horrors of this illegal underground “sport,” and their ill-informed excuses for Vick’s bad behavior quickly turned to recriminating accusations of betrayal.

Now that two years have passed and Vick is once again a free man, the central debate is no longer about whether dogfighting is a serious offense, but whether the ex-con has truly paid for his crimes simply by doing some time. Vick claims that he has (at least in a statement released through his agent***), and many football fans argue that since he has met his obligations under the law, the NFL has no business punishing him any further. However, not everyone agrees: for example, according to recent polls, Vick is the most hated figure in sports today, and most people want him to be banned from the NFL for life.

Player Haters

Animal advocates in particular seem to harbor strong suspicions that Vick hasn’t reformed, and doesn’t deserve a second chance because he’s just playing the chastened supplicant to shorten his jail term and resume his lucrative career. Once the highest-paid player in professional football with a $130 million ten-year contract, Vick declared bankruptcy under a mountain of legal bills while behind bars, and is currently employed as a construction worker for just $10 an hour. Vick clearly has a powerful financial incentive for getting back in the game, so you can’t really blame doubters for being somewhat cynical about a guy who remorselessly tortured dogs for six years and claims to see the error of his ways only now that he’s completely broke and disgraced.

Opinions about Commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision to conditionally allow Vick back into the NFL are deeply divided between two main camps with diametrically opposing viewpoints: those who say the convicted animal killer has been punished enough, and the majority who contend that he can never repent for the atrocities he so callously perpetrated. However, being that these contrasting attitudes are fueled more by highly-charged emotions than cool reason, aren’t they merely two sides of the same coin? That is, neither absolving nor condemning Vick based on feelings of adoration or disgust will help the millions of dogs who are still being tortured and killed in fighting pits: only a balanced middle way of openness and vigilance can sustain the process of social enlightenment that began with Vick’s arrest.

The collective efforts of animal rights activists helped pressure the Atlanta Falcons to drop Vick from their roster, persuade corporate sponsor Nike to nix their multi-million-dollar endorsement deal, convince the NFL to temporarily suspend him from play, and solidify support for his conviction on animal cruelty charges. These were all victories for animals, and examples of how our movement effectively worked with the media, the courts, and other mainstream institutions to hold a murderer accountable. However, if we let our feelings dictate our actions now by assuming that Vick is irredeemably inhumane and beyond salvation, then we will be rejecting a potentially transformative ally in the fight against animal cruelty.

A “Hail Mary” Pass?

Leading the way down the path of penitence and repentance is The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which faces harsh criticism for allowing Vick to actively participate in their community-based outreach programs aimed at keeping young people from getting involved in dogfighting. While Vick is not an official HSUS spokesperson, he has already spoken to at least one group of Atlanta youths, and HSUS hopes this will be the first in a long series of heavily-publicized events. Here is HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle’s explanation for their plan:

“When Michael Vick asked to help, I was as skeptical as anyone. And then I put my strategist hat on, and tried to imagine what a guy like Vick could do to help us combat the problem. We used his case to strengthen the laws in America, and now we can use his celebrity and the story of his fall as a parable to reach kids in the cities who will pay attention to him... If this is simply a self-interested ploy to rehabilitate his image or return to football, we will find out soon enough, and we will repudiate it. But if Michael Vick is sincere, then we can, we must, use his story to advance our broader mission—saving lives and ending dogfighting.”

Vegan hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons also urges us to show Vick charity for the sake of suffering animals. “We can never undo the suffering those innocent dogs endured or bring back the many, many lives that were lost,” Simmons recently wrote. “All we can do is try using Michael Vick as an instrument, to stop dogfighting in the community while we save the lives of those innocent animals and change the karmic effect that will be felt by those who wake up and realize what they have done.”

Is Vick Still Sick?

Earlier this year, Vick visited the offices of PETA, where he met with President Ingrid Newkirk, underwent the group’s “Developing Empathy for Animals” course, and discussed possibly appearing in an anti-dogfighting ad. PETA rescinded their invitation, however, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that Vick trained fighting dogs by making them attack “family pets” and laughed when dogs tore one another to shreds. Considering the depths to which Vick’s sadistic persecution of innocent victims sank, is it any wonder that there remain many, many people out there who want him to suffer the same terrible fate as the dogs he tormented and killed?

PETA also asserted, based on consultations with psychiatrists, that Vick’s violently aberrant behaviors “fit the established profile for anti-social personality disorder” (i.e., he could be psychopathic), and urged Commissioner Goodell to order a brain scan procedure and full psychological evaluation before deciding whether to lift his NFL suspension. Goodell claims that Vick underwent testing “with animal-rights activist groups” (though apparently not PETA) before his reinstatement was announced, and that “those tests did not indicate that there was any reason he couldn’t make a transition forward.” As a preventative measure, PETA is now encouraging supporters to press Goodell to add a statement to the NFL’s personal conduct policy specifying animal abuse as an unacceptable offense.

Mercy Is Not Absolution

It’s certainly not easy to put our anger aside and have faith in someone who has so irrevocably violated others and hasn’t yet fully shown himself worthy of our confidence, but that is what we are called to do. We are summoned to reserve final judgment on a fellow fallible human being on the off chance that he may turn from a reviled enemy into a valued partner. We are beckoned now inexorably toward the immovable but precipitous zenith of the living spirit, for as Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

That said, I hope Simmons is right in stating that Vick “understands that his true calling is just beginning,” because in dealing with a former animal abuser, we have every right to be wary that he is playing us for chumps, and to demand he work very hard to prove his sincerity and earn our trust. Speaking of which, here are some starting actions that Vick could take to fulfill his promise to make amends for his past transgressions:

1) Forcefully and frequently speak out against dogfighting through PSAs, media interviews and public events.
2) If he is signed by an NFL team, earmark a substantial proportion of his salary for anti-dogfighting efforts.
3) Ask Russell Simmons to personally teach him about the ways that different animals are legally abused for food, fashion, science, and recreation (e.g., circuses, rodeos & “sport” hunting).

While Vick’s actions were inarguably deplorable, their exposure also enabled millions of people to glimpse a dark reality that might have otherwise remained forever hidden from their sight. Ultimately, this fallen star’s redemption could get even more people to think about animal abuse (much of it legalized) in a far broader context. So, for the sake of the billions of animals still suffering, we must support Michael Vick in his efforts to become a more humane person.

* The Philadelphia Eagles subsequently signed Vick on August 13th.
** NFL Commissioner Goodell originally ruled that Vick would only be allowed to start playing in week six
of the 2009 season, but then changed his mind and gave him permission to resume quarterbacking in week three (September) .
*** A week after I wrote this post, Vick again claimed to be a reformed man in a 60 Minutes interview.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Alzheimer’s & Animal Products

More evidence that cholesterol-rich meat, dairy & eggs increase the risk of dementia

Want to maintain your brain and stay sane in the membrane well into your Golden Years? Then lower your cholesterol levels now, warns an epidemiological report published recently in the medical journal Dementia and Geriatrics Cognitive Disorders.

The new research cites alarming statistical findings that decisively link Alzheimer’s disease — an incurable and debilitating cognitive dysfunction affecting more than five million Americans (mostly) over 65 years old — with heightened cholesterol levels. Although a surfeit of scientific studies has already implicated the overconsumption of inherently high-cholesterol animal products in four of the top six causes of death in the U.S. and there have been previous studies linking Alzheimer’s (number seven) with high cholesterol, this new report is considered the current gold standard on the subject. Basically, between 1964 and 1973, medical researchers at Kaiser Permanente and the University of Kuopio in Finland collected cholesterol data* from nearly 10,000 patients aged 40 to 45, then checked back 30 years later to see who had developed dementia. The results showed that:

• Those with the highest cholesterol levels (240 milligrams per deciliter of blood and above) in middle age were 66 percent more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease in old age than those with lower cholesterol.

• Those with only moderately high cholesterol (between 200 and 239 milligrams per deciliter) still had a 52 percent increased risk of developing vascular dementia, the second most prevalent type of dementia after Alzheimer’s.

While uncontrollable factors such as age, genetics and a history of head injury contribute to one’s chances of developing dementia, lifestyle changes play a key role in decreasing risk**. Optimistically speaking, with health care reform currently front and center on the political stage, we can hope that this study acts as a wake up call for the more than 105 million Americans with high cholesterol to lower their levels by exercising more and eating better. And hopefully, they’ll be able to reduce their numbers without taking statin drugs, which are associated with dangerous side effects.

If you or a loved one want lower cholesterol levels,
going vegan is the best and healthiest way to do this because — unlike meat, dairy and eggsall plant-based foods are 100% cholesterol-free! To learn more, read this interview with David Jenkins, M.D., lead researcher of the “Portfolio study,” which measured the impact of various foods on cholesterol levels and compared the results of different diets with the use of statin medications. Then, if you or a loved one decide to lower your cholesterol by going vegan, follow this easy step-by-step approach to gradually making the switch.

* The researchers did not distinguish between “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol because the health impacts of these different types of lipids had not yet been established when the study started four and a half decades ago. Furthermore, while the results strongly indicate a causative relationship between high cholesterol and development of dementia, researchers remain unable to definitively isolate the mechanism responsible for the correlation.
** It is noteworthy that another study published August 6th in the journal Human Brain Mapping linked obesity with brain shrinkage, which scientists believe could also be a cause of dementia.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pranking the Monkey

What The Yes Men can teach animal activists

When Sacha Baron Cohen hit the big screen in 2006 as the crude but endearing Kazakh TV correspondent Borat Sagdiyev, he held a funhouse mirror up to the ugly underbelly of bigotry, intolerance and ignorance that permeates American culture. The guerrilla mockumentary drew unprecedented popular attention to the disturbing persistence of anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and other troubling prejudices by becoming a surprise blockbuster hit with box office grosses exceeding $260 million worldwide. In May 2009, the irrepressible Mr. Cohen returned to multiplexes portraying the flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion reporter Brüno to take aim at homophobia — but he’s not the only comedian who’s using cinematic satire as a weapon to fight oppression this summer.

The Yes Men:
Andy Bichlbaum & Mike Bonanno
That’s because The Yes Men (Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) are back with their second movie: entitled The Yes Men Fix the World, it premiered on HBO this past Monday, July 27th (and earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival). Now, at this point, some of you may be wondering, just who (or what) are The Yes Men? To answer this question, allow me to explain by comparison: while mega-star Cohen disarms his unsuspecting subjects (persons both ordinary and famous) by flawlessly inhabiting characters who exude oblivious faux naïveté regarding shared mores, The Yes Men are radical social justice activists who specialize in “Impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else.” In other words, this daring duo speaks truth to power by pretending to speak for the insidious organizations and institutions that wield power in ways so dangerous and destructive that they defy both logic and imagination.

A Yes Men-designed Halliburton SurvivaBall
The Yes Men’s chameleonic performances at corporate conferences and on national news programs not only consistently generate controversy and media publicity, but (more importantly) concrete results — as well as some pretty big laughs for their growing fan base. But even crazier than the pair’s antics themselves is the fact that these intrepid impostors are typically taken very seriously by their hapless victims — no matter how insane or outrageous their proposals actually are.

For instance, when The Yes Men hawk bizarre inventions — like the Halliburton SurvivaBall or a WTO-designed leotard suit for remote factory mangers complete with “Employee Visualization Appendage” (i.e., an outsized inflatable phallus with TV screen for convenient monitoring of employees) — business people don’t chase them off or call the cops: they applaud and request business cards. When the progressive provocateurs suggest combating Third World famine with fast food hamburgers made partly from human feces or ending African poverty by reinstating slavery, free marketeers are intrigued rather than horrified. It’s the kind of eye-popping, jaw-dropping theatrical sleight of hand that makes you stare in disbelief and think “Wow! How the hell did they pull that off?!”

Applications for Animal Activism

Sure, The Yes Men are very effective at revealing a hideously dark side of human nature that most of us would rather not see, but that should not obscure the fact that they also expertly expose the extremes of capitalist greed and excess. That’s why I hope animal advocates will be inspired to learn from their example and supplement our own campaigns by incorporating their unconventional strategies. Here are some possible starting points:

Identity Imitation – Attend a conference, job fair, trade show, or fancy fundraising event posing as a representative or spokesperson for a company or industry (e.g., meat, fur, vivisection, circus, etc.) that kills animals for profit. This may involve setting up a booth or table with phony brochures and posters, wearing a T-shirt with the company’s logo on it and handing out spoof fliers, or just hijacking a live microphone in between speakers and delivering an over-the-top but completely convincing speech expressing animal exploitation values in raw form. To pass yourself off as authentic, remember to dress appropriately (i.e., formally) for the part you’re playing.
The Yes Men's alternative edition of
The New York Times

Media Mockery – The mainstream media often seeks to please its advertisers by offering up uncritical coverage of animal issues that serve as de facto promotions for inherently inhumane industries and companies. The propaganda promulgated by animal enterprises themselves is even more ludicrously manipulative because it is not even mediated by any pretense of journalistic objectivity. Reframe the debate by producing a fake magazine, trade journal or corporate Web site that explains straight-up the true viewpoint of commercialized animal torture (i.e., without the softening touch of public relations image management).

Online Hi-Jinks – The Internet is rich with potential opportunities for tricking animal killers and their apologists into dropping their customary decorum and unwittingly divulging their most shocking beliefs. Set a Twitter trap by finding a “backchannel” for an animal industry conference and start posting as one of the initiated, then make your exchange public. You can also attend industry events as a “true believer” to capture conversations with attendees on video and post them on YouTube.

For more information on these ideas, and to join an international network of activists bent on subverting the dominant paradigm from a variety of strike points, visit The Yes Men’s Fix the World Challenge Web page. If you have acting, graphic arts, computer programming, photography, videography, writing, or other creative skills that you would like to use for a Yes-Menesque animal rights project, please let me know at mathomas@gmail.com. As a longtime writer/activist who grew up fascinated by MAD magazine and Wacky Packages, I’ve often thought it would be loads of fun to engage in this kind of irreverent enterprise, and would love to collaborate with others on making something cool!

10 Handy “Culture Jamming” Resources:
1. The Yes Men’s “special edition” of the New York Times
2. Adbusters
3. No Logo
4. Culture Jam
5. The Onion
6. Billboard Liberation Front
7. Ron English
8. Negativland
9. Abby Hoffman Brigade
10. Freeway Blogger

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Attack of the Anti-Prop 2’s!

Bills to kill farm animal protection invade three states

“This is Michigan, not California. We’re not going to allow an outside group to come into Michigan and give chickens the right to drive cars.”

- Michigan State Representative and House Agriculture Chairman Mike Simpson*

Since 2002, a total of six states have passed laws banning one or more of the main intensive confinement mechanisms factory farms use to maximize revenue (i.e., battery cages for egg-laying hens, gestation crates for pregnant pigs, and veal crates for calves). In the last year alone, four more state legislatures have introduced bills to ban all three of these industry-standard constraint systems — and they certainly won’t be the last to ponder such measures.

If you were a captain of the farm animal exploitation industry whose bottom line depended on treating cows, pigs and chickens however you damn well pleased, wouldn’t this revolting development freak you out? Well, of course, but the real question is, what would you do about it? Would you a) go about your business as usual and hope that your home state doesn’t try to restrict your legal right to abuse animals, b) proactively make operational changes that reflect current public attitudes about animal welfare, or c) go on the offensive by calling in some favors from your powerful politician friends who owe you big for those meaty campaign contributions you’ve been dishing out over the years?

You don’t need to be a whiz at multiple choice tests to know which one of these strategies corporate magnates in at least three states have collectively opted for:

- Michigan lawmakers have introduced HB 5127 and HB 5128, two bills that would create a statute to codify Big Ag’s animal welfare guidelines into law. Needless to say, their idea of “animal welfare” includes giving each egg-laying hen just 67 square inches of cage space, grinding their male chicks up alive for fertilizer as soon as they are born, and many other cruel but routine atrocities.

- Ohio legislators have already placed a “livestock standards” measure on the November 2009 ballot for voters’ consideration that would amend the State Constitution and give a council dominated by livestock industry “experts” sole authority to set “care and well-being” standards for the treatment of farm animals. Passage of this proposition would preempt lawmakers from debating animal welfare issues and be used to delude the public into believing that farm animals are not subjected to abusive practices when in fact they are.

- The Oklahoma legislature passed a law earlier this year that gives the the Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry exclusive authority to rule on animal welfare issues in the state. Essentially, this prohibits local governments from creating ordinances regarding “the care and handling of livestock” that are more restrictive than those enacted by the State Ag Department.

Why, you may wonder, can’t the government allow voters or their democratically-elected representatives decide where to draw the line on cruelty to farm animals? Because, as Michigan House Bills sponsor Representative Don Armes argues, these bills are needed to “ensure that livestock regulations are developed by experts at the state level who know what they’re doing.” And who are these quote-unquote “experts” to whom Rep. Armes so deferentially cedes all power? Why, the very same skilled professionals who made fortunes by enslaving, torturing, killing, and selling animals for profit, of course!

Despite such reassurances from trusted elected officials like Rep. Armes, the farm animal rights activists who have devoted much of their efforts in recent years to passing anti-confinement bills and initiatives have a different view of this matter. “These measures are obviously a counterattack against the success of Prop 2,” claims Paul Shapiro, Senior Director of HSUS’s Factory Farming Campaign. “The basic idea is to give the appearance of regulation, but in reality these programs won’t prohibit any of the inhumane practices that are already standard in the agriculture industry. In fact, they would actually codify the cruel status quo into law, effectively putting the foxes in charge of guarding the henhouse.”

Shapiro also points out that, with the full force of the mighty agribusiness lobby behind them, industry-friendly lawmakers have been able to move these bills forward quickly in an attempt to avoid legislative and public scrutiny. In response, HSUS is actively encouraging state lawmakers in Michigan to oppose the House Bills and mobilizing their members to put pressure on elected officials by contacting their offices. A campaign to inform Ohio voters about the deceptive intentions behind the November 2009 proposition is already in the planning stages, and the organization may attempt to place its own pro-animal measure on the ballot in 2010.

The crucial question here for both sides is, are these industry-driven proposals the magic bullet agribusiness needs to stop the state-to-state spread of Prop 2-inspired bills and ballot initiatives? Similarly, will they be able to deceive people into believing that current agribusiness practices — like confining animals in cages and crates, debeaking chickens and tail-docking cows — constitute “humane” treatment of living, feeling creatures? The answers depend in large measure on the outcomes in Michigan and Ohio — but much more so, in a deeper sense, on the determination, drive and energy of farm animal rights activists.

* It is important to note that, despite Rep. Simpson’s claim, chickens cannot legally drive automobiles in California: when Prop 2 is enacted in 2015, it will simply ensure that egg-laying hens (as well as breeding sows and veal calves) have enough room to stand up, stretch their limbs, and lie down without bumping up against a wall or another animal. The fact that the Honorable Mr. Simpson (sponsor of the Michigan animal "welfare" standards bills) issued this hyperbolic statement signifies nothing more than the fact that he has been watching too many old Foster Farms commercials, and that he is a pathetic suck-up and sellout to the animal corpse-food industry.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Wars of Whales and Words

The real “eco-terrorists” kill animals, not save them!

I have recently been watching Whale Wars, which (for those who haven’t seen it) is Animal Planet’s hit reality TV show about the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s quest to stop illegal commercial whaling on the high seas. In Season 2, Episode 4 (entitled “Yum Yum, Eat Crow”), a member of the Sea Shepherd crew said something very interesting about so-called eco-terrorism that really struck me as exceptionally true and wise.

A Japanese whaling ship being tracked by Sea Shepherd on the Antarctic Ocean had somehow lost a man overboard, and the cetacean hunters were searching for him (or rather, his corpse, because a human could survive no more than an hour in waters so cold). Sea Shepherd’s Japanese translator aboard the S.S. Steve Irwin radioed the whaling vessel to offer them assistance in the search, to which the whaling captain replied (in subtitles) that they would not accept help from “environmental terrorists.”

After the conversation, Sea Shepherd’s native-Japanese translator explained to the audience through the camera that the whalers (rather than animal protection activists) were the real eco-terrorists because they were killing nature’s precious creatures. Even though it now seems self-evident, I had never thought of this interpretation of the “eco-terrorist” label before, the profundity of which was underscored by the fact that the speaker had hidden her face behind a mask for fear that her family would suffer violent reprisals at the whalers’ hands. Think about that frightening reality, and it’s pretty clear who the true terrorists in this story are.

Being one who believes in the sanctity of language, I find it despicable that some would so arrogantly abuse words for their own purposes by seeking to redefine or reinvent them until that they mean their exact opposite. Not surprisingly, the first to describe environmentalists as terrorists were logging company PR flacks seeking to turn public opinion against Earth First! tree-spikers in the late 1980s, and by the 1990s, industry front groups, right-wing think tanks and free-market politicians were routinely trying to link environmental defense with terrorism. The deliberately distorted discourse fostered by these pernicious biocidal forces amounts to a form of psychological warfare, so it is not surprising that those who make a living by killing would project their own violent tendencies onto others by accusing them of what they themselves are most guilty.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Here Comes the Sunstein!

Obama’s prospective “Regulatory Czar” will ban all use of animals…according to meat, dairy and egg industry hacks, that is

You may want to start unfurling those mothballed “Mission Accomplished!” banners and planning end-of-the-movement celebrations, because, after many long years of tireless effort to abolish humanity’s abuse of other species, we are finally and definitively about to win the war against animal exploitation! Apparently, the United States is on the very cusp of an unprecedented Golden Age of Animal Rights when meat products will completely disappear from supermarkets and be replaced by tofu imitations, fur salons will be transformed into hemp-and-pleather fashion boutiques, and vivisection laboratories will be converted into homeopathic apothecaries. It’s literally a vegan’s lifelong dream come true!

At least, that’s the radically compassionate world that animal enterprise apologists at the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) and the American Conservative Union (ACU) warn we’re headed for if Congress approves President Obama’s nefarious nomination of Cass Sunstein as ostensibly omnipotent Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)*. Corporate propagandists are trying their damndest these days to demonize Sunstein, an accomplished attorney who befriended Obama when they were both professors at the University of Chicago Law School, primarily because he is a vegetarian and the co-author of Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions (among many other books). It is therefore not so surprising that Sunstein’s appointment was recently blocked (or at least delayed) per the objections of Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who (erroneously) claimed the nominee “has said that animals ought to have the right to sue folks,” and worried that giving Sunstein regulatory oversight would affect “a number of other issues relative to agriculture,” which would surely rankle many of his key campaign contributors whose fortunes rise or fall with the value of beef, pork and poultry shares.

The root of Sen. Chambliss’ first concern is a quote from Sunstein’s aforementioned tome which reads: “[A]nimals should be permitted to bring suit, with human beings as their representatives, to prevent violations of current law … Any animals that are entitled to bring suit would be represented by (human) counsel, who would owe guardian like (sic) obligations and make decisions, subject to those obligations, on their clients’ behalf.” However, despite Chambliss’ unease, this statement (consistently taken out of context by Sunstein’s opponents) does not entail granting animals explicit rights under the law, as journalist Julian Sanchez explains: “Sunstein was suggesting that in order to enforce animal cruelty laws already on the books, private parties might be given standing to bring civil actions against those who violate these existing laws, rather than leaving it up to government prosecutors to investigate and make cases. Judges could order plaintiffs to pay defendants attorneys (sic) fees in order to deter frivolous suits.”

Put this way, Sunstein’s proposal sounds “very conventional and a little boring,” as the candidate himself noted during a May 12 confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (which approved his nomination). To Chambliss’ credit, the Senator wants to hear Sunstein out in person before deciding whether to oppose or support his appointment. Sunstein will have an opportunity to more fully explain the meaning and implications of his views in a meeting with Chambliss and other Senators sometime this month.

However, some of Sunstein’s shriller detractors have already made up their “minds” about Sunstein, and are doing everything they can to make sure others see the horns they’ve so helpfully painted on his head. These masters of delusion also nonsensically insist that the relatively obscure post of OIRA Administrator wields a level of influence that vastly exceeds the authority of any other U.S. government official — up to and including the President. Here are some recent quotes that express the tenor and suppositions underlying the anti-confirmation viewpoint:

“Sunstein’s work could spell the end of animal agriculture, retail sales of meat and dairy foods, hunting and fishing, biomedical research, pet ownership, zoos and aquariums, traveling circuses, and countless other things Americans take for granted… Americans don’t realize that the next four years could be full of bizarre initiatives plucked from the wildest dreams of the animal-rights fringe. Think about every outrageous idea PETA and the Humane Society of the United States have ever had, and imagine them all having the force of federal law.”

David Martosko, Director of Research, the Center for Consumer Freedom

“If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Sunstein will have unchecked power to severely limit or end hunting freedom and gun ownership in America. [...] Sunstein will have the power to write regulations dealing with the length of hunting seasons, Federal land use, deciding which species are ‘endangered,’ draconian noise and environmental standards at shooting ranges, taxes on guns and ammunition, gun shop and gun show regulations, federal record keeping on gun purchases… And on thousands of regulations dealing with meat processing, life-saving medical research that involves animal testing, animal ‘rights,’ and much more.”

“Stop Sunstein” petition from the American Conservative Union

In the interest of journalistic objectivity, I should mention that I normally find such misguided critics infuriating, but today they just make me laugh because they’ve clearly gone over the deep end. I mean, yeah, the CCF’s whole reason for being is to shill for greedy corporations, and Sunstein is not the first Obama appointee opposed by the ACU, but the fact that these paranoid sociopaths seriously believe the OIRA Administrator has “unchecked power” to outlaw guns, hunting and meat is so ludicrously beyond even the remotest realm of possibility that it makes their shtick comedic gold. The only reasons to even pay the slightest bit of attention to such hyperbolic right wing idiocy are to revel in its unintended satirical value, and to make sure decision-makers understand how utterly moronic it is.

Perhaps I’m only snickering now because in the process of being so obviously on the defensive, the animal killers have inadvertently exposed their most vulnerable weak spots — mainly, their tendency to become irrational when their dominance is threatened. In reality, if Sunstein is appointed, society’s treatment of animals is not going to fundamentally change: the OIRA Administrator’s job is definitely not to create new laws, but to basically ensure that U.S. regulatory agencies (such as the EPA, USDA, etc.) comply with existing ones. At best, we can hope that Sunstein will hold these agencies accountable for breaking animal welfare statutes — which would be a first in U.S. history and something that could indeed significantly impact how animal exploitation industries operate. However, according to an Op-Ed by Greg Henderson, editor of the agribusiness journal Drovers, they’re much more worried about how Sunstein’s confirmation could allow pesky animal advocates to file so-called “nuisance suits” against factory farms:

“Sunstein’s views on animal rights could be disastrous for all of livestock agriculture, not because stockmen routinely abuse animals but because such legal remedies could be used by animal rights activists to initiate nuisance suits. Assuming current animal abuse laws remain the same, activists could successfully tie up livestock producers with legal procedures for years. And once the door is opened a crack to allow legal action by animals, it would only be a matter of time before the interpretation of abuse comes into question. For instance, are animals fed corn abused? Some animal rights advocates believe they are. What about cows living on the range without shelter? Are they abused if they don’t have access to a heated barn? Sunstein’s views represent those on the fringe now, but the actions we take now may determine if those views are mainstream in the future.”

While Henderson’s analysis is at least somewhat more pragmatic than that of his colleagues, it still reveals a fundamental distortion of perception. Take his claim that factory farms do not “routinely abuse animals” — it’s demonstrably false. Consider, for example, this small sampling of standard agribusiness practices, all of which are perfectly legal in the U.S. and used to enslave billions of animals a year:
If you amputated half of your dog’s tail without anaesthetic or slashed your cat’s throat while she was wide awake, you would be rightly charged with animal abuse, but Henderson (like all “stockmen”) implies that farm animals are somehow subject to completely different physical laws than companion animals. Of course, his job as an agribusiness hustler is the same as the CCF’s and the ACU’s: to reframe the debate so that the concerns of animal advocates appear not as legitimate ethical arguments against torturing and killing billions of living beings for money, but rather mere quibbling over some “minor” discomforts animals endure in the course of their otherwise supposedly idyllic lives on factory farms. The best in the business do it unconsciously, automatically, crafting messages as though there were no other way of thinking about things — because they never do.

But this narrow-minded strategy won’t work forever because as people learn more about the routine cruelties animals suffer on modern farms, the more disgusted they become with those who perpetrate abuse and the less they believe their lies. It is inevitable that, in the coming years and decades, increasing numbers of people will undoubtedly see the truth — and that, over the long haul, animal advocates’ core values will become mainstream. Sunstein’s nomination is just one more sign that this is already happening, and one more crucial step in the right direction.

* The Senate confirmed Sunstein on September 10, 2009