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 Ch├ívez 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.