Friday, December 03, 2010

I Ate My Father-Pig! Where Are My Calming Meat Goggles?!

Topical TV shows coax humor out of horror

Just wanted to clue you into a couple of random animal-related comedy snippets from this week’s television programming. First, check out this bizarre and disturbing 30 Rock clip:

I found this scene both funny and devastatingly poignant at the same time. Poor Kenneth—and poor Harold! Here this paternalistic pig essentially raises a fatherless boy, but the Parcell family betrays his loyalty and love by selling him for slaughter. And then, Kenneth himself backstabs his porcine pop by eating Harold’s cooked corpse for prize money, including his face (i.e., his identity). Truly, this is a killing joke, which is why it is so painfully amusing.

Sadly, the way Kenneth feels about his “Father-Pig” is how I feel, deep-down, about every animal killed for food. That’s because each one was someone, the subject of a life, and our evolutionary kin—and eating them is a form of incestuous cannibalism. I think the main reason that people are able to continue consuming meat is that they either don’t accept or can’t admit that animals actually experience emotions, including heartache and loss.

Perhaps only those of us who’ve had the privilege of knowing animals personally can fully appreciate the multifaceted pathos of Kenneth’s trauma. I assume that most readers of this blog already know that pigs are at least as sensitive and responsive as the dogs, cats and other companion animals with who we commonly share our homes and lives. It is this connective understanding that makes the eating of pigs or any other animals unthinkable to us. Of course, acclaimed actor Alec Baldwin (aka Jack Donaghy) already understands this, because he narrated PETA's Meet Your Meet video.

And now, this crazy clip from The Colbert Report:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Cheating Death - Calming Meat Goggles & the iThrone<a>
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionMarch to Keep Fear Alive

One of the things I love about watching TCR is that I can laugh while learning about science, politics and other current events. This red meat study, for example, is absolutely factual, with the results being completely contrary to the researchers’ expectations. That is, they hypothesized that test subjects would become more aggressive after looking at pictures of meat, but the exact opposite occurred. They subsequently theorized that the reason for this is that, just like our primitive ancestors, we associate food with the pleasurable security of eating with our accepted social group.

Speaking as a vegan, however, the sight of meat doesn’t calm me—actually, it makes me extremely anxious. That’s because, as a vegan, I see meat clearly for what it is: the putrefying flesh of animals who were tortured and murdered. When I see meat, I automatically visualize animals being executed en masse, and empathize with the lifelong suffering they endured on factory farms and the abject terror they felt as they were herded to slaughter. In fact, it’s such a reflexive response that I have to consciously switch it off just to function in “normal” society.

Seeing meat also raises my anxiety alarm because I identify so personally with animals. I figure, if humans are willing to kill tens of billions of sentient beings a year just to please their palates, what’s the life of a measly little person like me worth? Not much, apparently, in a world where most everyone’s wearing Calming Meat Goggles.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Exporting Factory Farms

The global expansion of industrialized "meat" production

More than 50 billion land animals are killed for food worldwide every yearand that number is expected to double by 2050 as consumers in rapidly-developing societies strive to emulate Western-style eating habits. Blatantly disregarding ethics, environmentalism and farming communities, agribusiness has already hatched a plan to profit from this rising demand for more animal products. That is, multinational corporations like Tyson and Smithfield Foods are actively establishing large-scale factory farm operations in India, China, South America, and other economically-emerging countries.

You can read more about this issue in a website article I recently wrote for the Food Empowerment Project, a non-profit organization that "seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one's food choices (and) encourag(ing) healthy food choices that reflect a more compassionate society by spotlighting the abuse of animals on farms, the depletion of natural resources, unfair working conditions for produce workers, and the unavailability of healthy foods in low-income areas."


Monday, October 04, 2010

Meat-Free Politicians

Vote Veg!
That's the message of "Meat-Free Politicians," my new article which VegNews magazine published on their website today. The piece includes short profiles of five vegetarian leaders at the national, state and local levels:

- US Congressman Dennis Kucinich
- US Congresswoman Betty Sutton
- Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin
- California Assemblyman Jim Beall, Jr.
- San Francisco Supervisor Sophie Maxwell
My aim was to highlight the work that each of these elected officials has done to help move the veg cause forward.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Muslim Veg Americans

Islam's animal rights ambassadors

In the stark shadow of 9/11, many otherwise patriotic Americans seem to have forgotten that the U.S. Constitution unequivocally guarantees our right and freedom to practice whatever religion we desire. From the high-profile protests against the “Ground Zero Mosque”* to the knifing of a Muslim cabbie in New York City and the Florida pastor who coordinated (and then cancelled) a Koran bonfire at his church, it's become all too painfully clear that America is afflicted with an advanced case of Islamophobia. Obviously, some of our fellow citizens are mistakenly equating the vast majority of peaceful mainstream Muslims with the comparatively small number of enraged jihadists who indiscriminately kill in Allah's name—turning all Muslims into potential targets of hate crime.

Islam and animal rights share at least one unfortunate commonality: the more extreme elements in both camps top the FBI's list of the most dangerous domestic terrorism threats facing our nation. Of course, the feds specifically bestow this dubious distinction on those who use violent and/or destructive means to achieve their ends, but in some people's minds, anyone who follows the philosophy of either Islam or animal rights is guilty by association of conspiring with the enemy—even if we would (literally) never hurt a fly. In that way, veg Muslims may be doubly suspect in a society that's still reeling from the traumatic impact of a shocking mass-murder nine years after the fact.

As an American and a human being, it sickens me to see anyone persecuted for their spiritual beliefs—as much as seeing animals tortured in factory farms and other industrialized death camps. I therefore feel compelled to stand up for peaceful Muslims, but as a secular agnostic, I would not presume to speak for them. It is in this spirit of solidarity that I present my exclusive interview with blogger, financial analyst and vegetarian American Muslim Fareeda Ahmed.

AR: Where are you from, and where did you grow up?

FA: I'm from New York. I was born in Manhattan and raised mostly in Westchester County, but I also lived in New York City for a number of years because I got my undergraduate degree at Columbia, and then worked at Morgan Stanley. My parents, on the other hand, were both born and raised in Pakistan, and came to the U.S. and got married after my father did his medical residency here. A lot of our family still lives in Pakistan, so I usually make a trip there every year. And I just moved to California last month to get my MBA at Stanford.

9/11 was obviously a pivotal point in American history and our relations with Muslims. Were you by any chance in New York City on September 11th, 2001?

No, at that time I was just 16—going on 17, as the song** goes—and a high school senior in Tarrytown, which is on the Hudson River about a half hour's train ride from the city. The entire school of about 400 students just so happened to be at an assembly that morning, and about 45 minutes into it, the headmaster interrupted to announce that two planes had been deliberately crashed into the Twin Towers. Our proximity to the World Trade Center meant that many of my classmates' parents and family members worked in or around there—my own cousin worked at the time for Morgan Stanley, sometimes in their WTC office—so the shock of that day was particularly personal for us.

How did you feel when you learned that the hijackers were Muslim?

I felt a strong dual connection to America and New York—my country and my home state. I was struck hard by the reality that they had both just been attacked so violently and viciously, while also realizing that this tragedy was going to dramatically change things for Muslims here in America and around the world. For me, and for many others I think, it marked the end of childhood. Speaking as a Muslim, it was the start of being defensive, because I've always been sort of an unwitting diplomat for Pakistan, which I consider a kind of second home. There, I don't have to explain myself for being Muslim, but here, I am constantly reminded that I follow a different religious faith from most Americans. And to complicate matters, Pakistan has a reputation as a hiding place for some of Al Qaeda's most wanted. Even though it's one of America's strongest allies in the War on Terror, and Pakistani soldiers and civilians die every day in the fight against Al Qaeda, the associations Americans have with Pakistan are often negative, unfortunately.

It seems like many Americans these days believe that Muslims, even those born and raised here, are somehow sympathetic to or supportive of the terrorists—like they're secretly celebrating when Americans are killed. Do you ever experience divided loyalties between your country and religion?

Not only do I not sympathize with people who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam, but it affects me directly because I lived in Manhattan, and worked in places like Times Square and the New York Stock Exchange that are among the top terrorist targets in the U.S. I worked at Morgan Stanley for four years, which had more office space in the WTC on 9/11 than any other company, and a lot of my co-workers had horrifying stories about surviving the attack. This past May, I took my father to see a play on the same day that a car bomb almost went off in Times Square. The theatre was only one block from where the bomb would have exploded, and the show ended just an hour before it was set to detonate, meaning my father and I could have been killed if the attack had been successfully carried out. So when I hear, for example, that Iran may be developing nuclear weapons, I don't sympathize with the Iranian government. Instead, as an American and a person who could potentially be on the receiving end of those missiles, I feel the same fear that anyone else would. But being Muslim in America, there's the added dimension of not being allowed to feel that way because we're so misunderstood.

Do you feel life has gotten more difficult for Muslim Americans in the wake of 9/11?

Faisal Shahzad, the would-be “Times Square Bomber,” really ruined the accepted profile of Muslim terrorists as being from some foreign country. He was an American citizen with a wife and kids and a good job, so now people think that any Muslim—even their friendly mild-mannered neighbors—could be part of a covert sleeper cell. Otherwise, there were ups and downs over the years since 2001, but overall, things appeared to be improving for us. Then last month everything suddenly came to a head. Right after 9/11, people seemed curious about and only slightly distrustful of Muslims, but now many people just seem to jump to conclusions without even trying to get the facts. If there is a silver lining here, though, it's that today's rage provides an opportunity for reconciliation, and I know that Americans are basically caring and open-hearted people, so they'll eventually summon their better angels. Inclusiveness and tolerance are core American and Islamic values, and Muslims come from the same religious lineage as Christians and Jews. Realizing our commonalities is ultimately what will unite us in the fight against global terrorism.

Since my blog is about animal issues, let's switch gears and address some. I understand that Islam includes a strong tradition of concern for animal welfare. Can you please speak to that?

Well, there are very specific instructions in the Koran about how Muslims are to treat animals used as resources, whether they are beasts of burden or slaughtered for food. Generally speaking, Muslims must take care to minimize the suffering of other species. An example would be Halal meat standards, which require that butchers follow sacred practices to ensure animals slaughtered for food don't suffer unnecessarily. Integral to Halal methods is that Islam expressly forbids the caging, beating, branding, and mutilation of animals***. Quotes from the Koran about animals leave very little gray area about how Muslims must universally respect other species as fellow sentient beings, and it was partly my interpretation of Islam that led me to become a vegetarian. I mean, when I really started to think about it, eating meat just seemed to conflict with my Muslim sensibilities, which include compassion for all forms of life and ecological stewardship.

Every vegetarian has a personal transformation story about why they chose not to eat animals, so what's yours?

I decided to go vegetarian about two and a half years ago after becoming aware of certain factory farming practices, and then reading up on vegetarianism in the context of Islam at a PETA website which I later wrote a blog post about. I was also informed and influenced by books such as Skinny Bitch and documentaries like Food, Inc. Meanwhile, as I learned more about factory farming, I realized how totally contrary this system is to the spirit of Islam. Bear in mind, Islam doesn't dictate that we Muslims can't eat meat—that's why Halal was invented—so I could have easily purchased Halal meat in the city. Yet I felt, as a Muslim and a human being, that vegetarianism was a more compassionate choice, and that my faith was telling me not to eat animals. There's a passage in the Koran that basically says “Whoever has done an atom's worth of good will see it, and whoever has done an atom's worth of evil will see it,” which means we are all accountable for our individual choices, including how we treat animals. And health-wise, within about three months of phasing meat out of my diet, I looked and felt noticeably better, and had lost a few pounds, so it definitely felt right physically, as well.

Since vegetarianism has had such a positive impact on your life, have you considered taking it to the next level by going vegan? I ask this question as someone who was vegetarian for six years before going vegan, and experienced exponential benefits after abstaining from all animal products.

Veganism makes complete sense to me in theory, and it's certainly the ideal I want to move towards in the future. But at the same time, I've found it so much harder to stop eating dairy than meat. I know that's not a very compelling argument for eating these foods, and that dairy cows and egg-laying chickens still suffer, even if they're not raised on factory farms. I look at both my own life and the history of Islam on a trajectory, with progress building on the foundations laid by previous actions. Consider where Islam came out of, for example. Pre-Islamic Mecca, now Saudi Arabia, during the 6th to 7th centuries was a barbaric place where baby girls were summarily killed at birth. Islam helped create a more civilized society that outlawed some of the harshest practices of that era, including unrestrained cruelty to animals. One of Islam's key philosophical tenets, in my understanding, is that we must work towards a better world step-by-step. It's a question of evolution, and vegetarianism is a more evolved diet than meat-eating. And as you follow that trajectory to its logical conclusion, for me personally, it ultimately leads towards veganism.

Do you have Muslim friends who are also veg?

A few, but not many. It's not like I've sought out other vegetarian Muslims by, say, looking for them on Facebook, though. The ones I do know don't cite Islam as their primary reason for not eating meat: they express the same concerns about ethics, environmentalism and health that other vegetarians do. Also, I have many South Asian vegetarian friends, but they're not necessarily Muslim: they're Hindu, Jain or Buddhist.

Regarding vegetarian advocacy, do you find that meat-eating Muslims are more receptive to the vegetarian message when it comes from a member of their own faith?

Yes, because when I tell them about how the vast difference between industrialized agriculture and Halal standards effectively makes factory farming a sacrilege in Islam, I'm speaking from personal experience. So, out of respect for our traditions, Muslims may be more open than other meat eaters to changing their dietary habits—at least in terms of rejecting factory farm cruelty, if not giving meat up altogether. But many people don't know that at least 98% of the meat produced in the U.S. comes from factory farms, so even when they learn that Islam strictly prohibits the consumption of flesh from tortured animals, they may continue turning a blind eye to avoid being inconvenienced.

What are some of the most popular vegan foods in Muslim culture?

There are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, and they're spread across the globe, so food traditions vary quite widely. But vegans can enjoy foods from many different Islamic countries. For example, my family comes from the Punjab region of Pakistan near the Indian border, which specializes in dishes made from rice, vegetables and rich curry sauces. Vegans can also find many delicious options from the Middle East, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Morocco. Personally, my favorite food is probably chhole, which is an Indian/Pakistani dish made with spiced chick peas served warm. As a vegetarian, I can confidently say that I'm definitely not missing meat at all—not even my mom's famous chicken!

* In explanation of my consciously-included quotation marks, fans of The Daily Show may recall a recent episode in which Emmy award-wining host Jon Stewart humorously observed that the “Ground Zero Mosque” would be neither a mosque (but rather a community center) nor located at Ground Zero (but rather two blocks away in a former Burlington Coat Factory outlet).

** From The Sound of Music soundtrack. Here's a YouTube video clip from the movie for those whose memories need jogging.

*** See The Animal Ethics Reader, p. 237.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Californians: Urge Gov. Schwarzenegger to Sign Fur Labeling Bill Into Law

And everyone, please ask your U.S. Senators to support the federal bill that would enact a similar law nationally

The California State Assembly earned major kudos yesterday for passing AB1656, a bill that would close a longstanding loophole allowing retailers to sell fur clothing worth $150 or less without labeling these items as animal pelts. However, before this bill can become law, Governer Arnold Schwarzenegger has to sign it*. Information about how you can encourage the Governor to put his name on the dotted line—and urge federal lawmakers to pass a pending national fur labeling law—can be found at the end of this post: but first, here's some background explaining why it's important that they do so.

Congress ratified the original Fur Products Labeling Act nearly 60 years ago, but under industry pressure conceded that stores could still sell fur products worth $150 or less without labels. This was long before the technological advent of synthetic fur production, the popularity of fur trim and dyed fur in fashion design, and the development of society's widespread ethical awareness about animals exploited for clothes (which was raised almost exclusively by animal advocates' ongoing outreach efforts). I guess that's why it's only now, in the 21st century, that lawmakers are gradually getting around to fixing their predecessors' oversight.

In this day and age, when at least as many animals are killed for fur-trimmed garments as body-length coats, and few people can tell the difference between real and faux fur, many thousands of consumers unknowingly buy fur clothing and accessories because they assume that if it isn't labeled as such, it must be fake. Yet the reality today is that one in eight genuine animal fur garments are legally unlabeled, and while most of these are made from racoon dogs, some are actually the skin and fur of dogs and cats slaughtered in China. It's illegal to sell canine and feline fur in the U.S., but the outdated Fur Products Labeling Act makes effective enforcement challenging, to say the least.

With federal law lacking the teeth to keep people informed about the suffering behind their purchases, some state governments have taken forceful action to close the information gap. While California often leads the nation in passing progressive legislation, they will actually in this case only be the sixth state to enact a comprehensive fur labeling law (if Governor Schwarzenegger signs the bill). Better late then never though, so rather than dwelling on the past, let's now just get the Governator on board!

I've written before in this blog about Governor Schwarzenegger's somewhat chequered animal protection record. He has yet to weigh in either way on AB1656, but because this bill passed both chambers with overwhelming majorities, there's a good chance he'll do the right thing. Still, we need to ensure that he does—which is why we California voters need to make our voices heard now.

- Call Governor Schwarzenegger at 916-445-2841 and politely ask him to sign AB1656 into law, then follow up by sending a personal email to his office. A short, direct message is best in this case when time is of the essence, so all you need to say/write is something like "Governor Schwarzenegger, as a voter and constituent I respectfully ask that you please sign AB1656. This bill will ensure accurate labeling of fur clothing sold in California, and was recently passed with overwhelming majorities by state legislators. Thank you."

- The U.S. House of Representatives passed their version of the Truth in Fur Labeling Act (HR2480) in July 2010, and now it's the Senate's turn to follow suit by passing S1076. Call your Senators at 202-224-3121 urging them to do so, and follow up by sending them an email using the Action Alert provided by the Humane Society of the United States (sponsor of the fur labeling bills in California and other states).

* Sadly, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed AB1656 on September 27, 2010.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Death by Denial

Study shows meat eaters avoid guilt by believing animals don't suffer

“Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.”
– Mark Twain

Both modern science and common sense tell us that animals bred and killed for food suffer. Factory farms subject billions of animals to torturous abuse every year, and even the numerically few animals raised on comparatively idyllic farms are fattened specifically for slaughter. As a vegan living in an age when the connection between diet and practical morality seems so painfully clear, I frequently wonder why people are not wracked with remorse every time they eat meat.

Some explanation for this perplexing puzzle may be found in a study published recently by the academic journal Appetite which concludes that many meat eaters are in abject denial about food animals' capacity for suffering. Researchers began their investigation with the assumption that subjects would resolve the “meat paradox” of desiring meat but not wanting to harm animals by either 1) becoming vegetarian, or 2) tacitly discounting that eating meat entails killing animals. But upon testing this hypothesis, they instead found participants much more commonly chose a third option—professing a belief that animals are incapable of suffering.

Furthermore, researchers discovered that the very act of eating meat “reduced the (subjects') perceived obligation to show moral concern for animals”—in effect reinforcing their belief that animals don't suffer. Extrapolating from this correlation, one could surmise that meat eaters are caught in a self-perpetuating feedback loop of delusion that feeds their habitual thought and behavior patterns. Meaning, the more meat people eat, the more often they must consciously or unconsciously condition themselves to believe that animals don't suffer, cumulatively strengthening this increasingly unquestioned conviction.

Therapeutic Implications

Like the many other defense mechanisms catalogued by pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century, denial enables people to avoid direct confrontation with frightening aspects of the human condition. His daughter Anna was the first to systematically study denial in depth, and she classified it as the reaction of an immature mind to perceived threats. Therapeutically, reliance on defense mechanisms is considered maladaptive because they stunt our ability to cope with reality and preclude psychological progress.

Denying animals' capacity for feeling seems to fit right into this diagnostic model, so what does it mean that the majority of people still eat meat? Is society itself suffering from a mass cultural neurosis that has been overlooked by virtually every practicing clinician? Most psychotherapists eat meat, so the very same denial that keeps people believing that animals don't suffer would also blind psychologists to their own self-deceptions.

With my measly psych BA and only one long-ago year of grad school in counseling under my belt, I am clearly unqualified to say whether denial of animals' suffering should be officially added to the D.S.M. 5, but from my layman's perspective, it appears to meet the key criteria. The fact that the majority of people are in denial about something so important doesn't make this denial any less real—actually, its statistical prevalence and relative invisibility make it even more troubling than mental distortions held only by a minority of outliers. That is, such widespread and socially-sanctioned denial not only alienates individuals from essential parts of their own psyches, but also perpetuates the ongoing victimization of billions of animals the world over every year.

Activist Applications

While it's highly doubtful that institutional psychology will acknowledge denial of animals' suffering as a serious subject of clinical concern anytime soon, activists can still use insights from the psychological literature to raise people's moral awareness of other species. By understanding people's defenses against acknowledging animals' suffering, we can form effective strategic approaches that target the problem's root cause—the mind's reflexive cognitive processes. This particular study is a good place to start, so here are some suggestions for how animal activism can pragmatically apply its findings.

- Since we cannot assume that most meat eaters grasp and accept the basic fact that animals suffer, we must emphasize evidence from ethological, neurological and physiological research showing that they do. We can also point out that farmed animals like cows, chickens and pigs are just as smart and sensitive as our canine and feline friends.

- Having already overcome our own denial about animals' suffering, we activists can use our experience with this paradigm shift to determine whether defense mechanisms impact other areas of our lives, thereby gaining a deeper appreciation for how these conceptual traps insidiously influence people's thoughts, emotions and actions.

- Scientifically speaking, eating meat bolsters the denial that keeps people from realizing that animals do indeed suffer. So, conversely, persuading them to choose vegetarian and vegan meals at least periodically provides personal opportunities to critically examine their beliefs about animals. Encouraging meat eaters to try flexitarian meal plans like Meatless Mondays, Vegan Before 6, or Weekday Vegetarianism allows them to explore compassionate dietary changes without having to face the paralyzing fear of never again being able to taste their favorite foods.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Singularity: Building the Perfect Beast?

Near-future visions of high-tech human and animal lifeforms

“You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”
The Borg, from Star Trek: The Next Generation

Some scientists believe that, within the next three decades, humanity will reach an evolutionary turning point called the Singularity when we mind-meld with machines to create a living, conscious intelligence that is superior to our own. Such a history-shattering event would essentially usher a new and unprecedented species into existence—a race of TransHumans who would be ultra-intelligent, virtually immortal and perhaps physically unrecognizable.

Though it’s still much more science fiction than actual fact, some researchers (and billionaire investors) believe the Singularity is not only possible but inevitable. Technocrats speculate that the convergence of exponential aggregate advances in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, cybernetics, cloning, and other inconceivably-complex disciplines will someday allow people to synthetically enhance their minds, bodies and lifespans beyond the narrow limits that nature has otherwise imposed upon us mere mortals. Among the more mundane proposals: surgically implanting fully-integrated microprocessors in humans’ brains, growing vital organs in test tubes, designing smart swarms of nanobot doctors that can routinely cure life-threatening diseases, and downloading people’s memories and personalities onto hard drives so they can “live” forever on the digital plane.

While it seems that Singularity scientists’ supreme goal is to turn humans into real-life superheroes (or perhaps demigods), they certainly don’t confine their theoretical “improvements” to us Homo sapiens. They claim that tomorrow’s pets, for instance, will also be custom-made in the lab—from parts of different animals, that is, and perhaps spliced with human DNA. The hybrid chimeras of mythology (from mermaids to unicorns) could then be made flesh-and-blood, along with freaky Frankenpets like furry fish, flying cats and talking dogs.

And then there are the cyborg species: animals with bionic bodies and computerized brains designed for military security and surveillance detail. The Army has already fitted insects with electrodes connected to tiny circuit boards and radio receivers that allow human operators to remote-control their flight patterns. As for the Singularity’s impact on farm animals, factory farms are already overpopulated with mutants who’ve been genetically selected for commercially exploitable characteristics like rapid growth and oversized body parts. However, the Singularity could enable bioengineers to manufacture livestock that are even more “adapted” to the artificial assembly line environment, like hydraulic hens, pigs with toes for standing on concrete floors, and cows with stretchy silicone udders.

On the plus side perhaps, Singularity technology may also be the key to mass-producing meat in vitro and with food replicators, which could conceivably end factory farming (and the suffering it causes). Yet, for all their forward-thinking, Singularity scientists appear to have no more ethical concern for animals than their more traditional colleagues—even though the realization of their ideas could visit new and even greater forms of pain on other species by changing their very nature. Indeed, they could construct self-aware creatures who, lacking legal rights, are just as exploited as today’s animals.

On that dire note, here’s hoping humanity’s techno-transcendence is accompanied by an ethical Singularity of planetary mass consciousness-awakening. Because ultimately, without greater understanding of and respect for life itself, our evolutionary leap forward will merely lead us from the proverbial frying pan into the fire.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hub SoMa Launch Party – Thurs. May 27

New downtown SF coworking space a major activist resource

Would you like to be part of an exciting community that is committed to social change? Are you seeking support and resources for a project you're involved in, or an organization you'd like to form? Are you an activist looking to connect with entrepreneurs, artists, fundraisers, community leaders, and other professionals working on different progressive issues in a friendly office environment? 

If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, then the Hub is just what you need.

The Hub is a creative coworking space with 25 branches on five continents where
thousands of members connect and collaborate around the work they are doing in various
“change sectors,” from environmental sustainability and community development to
human rights and international investment. It is a place where people from diverse backgrounds meet to help each other reach their world-changing goals, whether it's starting a socially-conscious business or optimizing their non-profit's vast potential. As an actual workspace, the Hub offers all the amenities of an office—from “hot desks” and conference rooms to Wi-Fi and printers—as well as support services provided by mentors and consultants.

While a Berkeley Hub has been operating out of the David Brower Center for some time, a new 8,600-square-foot San Francisco location recently opened in the SF Chronicle Building at Mission and 5th Streets (one block from the Powell BART station) that's three times larger than the Berkeley Hub. They are holding their Launch Party on Thursday, May 27 from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m., and tickets are $10 each. This grand opening event gives animal activists a great opportunity to learn about the Hub, meet some of their members, and start taking advantage of this unique resource.

How can the Hub help animal activists? I recently spoke with Berkeley Hub “Host and longtime vegan Meredith Walters to find out.

AR: What is your job as a Hub “Host”?

MW: Basically, getting to know members personally and understanding what they're working on so I can connect them with people who can help. This includes everything from making individual introductions to encouraging people to attend our group events.

What are some of the Hub's specific support resources, and how can they benefit animal activists in particular?

We offer a range of programs that enable people from different social change sectors to share their skills, ideas and resources. For example, in the evenings and on weekends, we have panel discussions and speaker presentations on topics like branding, marketing, fundraising, and social networking, as well as other events such as reading groups and film screenings. All of these activities offer people opportunities to learn from and network with one another. I would encourage animal activists who become members to both attend events and organize their own, as well.

Our Peer-to-Peer mentoring groups are a great way for people who are starting projects to bounce ideas off each other, share resources and hold one other accountable to their own goals. We currently have groups in food justice, environmental sustainability and international development—all of which are directly related to animal issues. A lot of innovation happens when activists dialogue with people who have different perspectives, so working within a group allows animal advocates to both learn from and influence non-vegetarians, as well as test their messaging out on them to see whether it resonates.  

Hub members also have access to some very practical resources, like legal and marketing consults for social enterprise development, which is useful to anyone starting or managing a vegan business or animal protection non-profit. They can also use our private conference rooms for meetings, and rent our event space for larger groups.

But the most important resource the Hub offers its members is a shared workspace where they can meet and collaborate with each other. It's the hot-desking aspect that really gets people to connect with others, and where the most profound changes take place. Everyone at the Hub is doing something to find solutions to the world's problems, and that is at its core inspiring. Working for social change is challenging, so we are here to help people stay strong and avoid burnout by transforming their deepest values into action.

How many Hub members are vegans, vegetarians, or animal activists?

Right now, there are numerous vegan and vegetarian members who care about animal issues, but we don't have a large animal rights contingent, so I would love to see more animal activists get involved. In my experience, Hub members are more respectful toward vegans than most people, partly because they're generally open-minded, but also because they're already somewhat aware of the reasons people are vegan. And while not everyone is going to be vegan, Hub members all have their own passions and thrive on hearing about other people's passions, so there are many opportunities for mutual education.

It seems like many Hub Events involve eating. Are vegan options offered?

Food is a central gathering point at the Hub, and when we have potlucks, Brown Bag lunch discussions, Sexy Salad (every Wednesday, when everyone brings in a salad ingredient), and other shared meals, a lot of it is vegan. When I bring food, I always label it as vegan with a “help yourself” sign next to it. As a result, my diet comes up often in conversation, giving me the chance to tell people about the reasons I don't eat animals. And a few people have told me they're going vegan because of conversations we've had: they get excited about it and want to connect with a vegan who can guide them through the transition.

To learn more about the SoMa Hub:

- Attend the Launch Celebration on Thursday, May 27 from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m.

- Come to an open house between 9:00 and 11:00 a.m., Monday through Friday

- Arrange a tour during business hours (9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Monday through Friday) by emailing or calling 415-624-5881

- Check out the Bay Area Hub events calendar 

- Join the Hub (membership starts at just $25 a month)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

TV’s “Dog Whisperer” Probes Puppy Mills

Watch the episode online and send it to dog-loving family & friends

An estimated 11 million Americans tune in to watch The Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic Channel every week—making host Cesar Millan arguably the world’s most famous canine behaviorist. And this week, he teamed up with undercover investigators from Last Chance for Animals (LCA) to give viewers a hidden-camera glimpse inside the dark and disturbing world of puppy mills:

Of course, Millan is certainly not without his critics, who variously charge that his training methods are overly-simplistic, unscientific, inhumane, domineering, and basically better for his ratings than for damaged dogs. As an animal rights advocate, I’ll admit to being rankled that he kept referring in the episode to individual dogs as “it” (instead of “he” or “she”)—which suggests that he thinks of them (on some level at least) as impersonal objects rather than autonomous subjects. And ultimately, with all that’s edited out of each episode, for all we know The Dog Whisperer could be about as “real” as, say, Survivor, The Bachelorette, or any other so-called reality show on television.

Despite whatever controversy Millan unleashes, I do think that he genuinely cares about dogs, and I’m glad that he used his show to educate people about puppy mills. I’d love to see him do similar expos√© episodes about dog fighting rings*, the dog meat trade, and other issues affecting canines.   

Write a quick email to Cesar Millan and one to NatGeo thanking each of them for helping expose puppy mills on The Dog Whisperer.  

* Millan did guest star in an episode of the hit Fox Network drama Bones in which he helped real-life vegan actress Emily Deschanel shut down a dog fighting ring. Also, another NatGeo reality show, DogTown, produced a two-hour season premiere episode entitled “Saving the Michael Vick Dogs” that explored the violence behind dog fighting. However, as far as I can tell, The Dog Whisperer has not yet substantially addressed the dog fighting issue.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Will Obama Suspend the Commercial Whaling Ban?

Administration clashes with conservationists over controversial compromise

For centuries, whaling vessels relentlessly chased aquatic leviathans across the world’s oceans, hurling harpoons into the giants’ flesh so their corpses could be processed and sold for
meat, oil and perfume. Unchecked whale warfare ultimately pushed cetaceans to the brink of extinction, but they were pulled back by a global moratorium on commercial whale hunting declared in 1986.

While this international treaty is far from perfect (having since allowed the killing of 35,000 whales for “scientific” purposes), it did set an important precedent that recognized humanity’s ethical obligation to protect endangered species from the excesses of industrial exploitation. But now, the commercial whaling ban is in danger of being overturned in the name of saving whales from eventual obliteration—and it is the U.S. government that today stands at the helm directing this controversial course of action:  


U.S. Leads New Bid to Phase Out Whale Hunting

By JOHN M. BRODER, April 14, 2010

WASHINGTON — The United States is leading an effort by a handful of antiwhaling nations to broker an agreement that would limit and ultimately end whale hunting by Japan, Norway and Iceland, according to people involved with the negotiations.

The compromise deal, which has generated intense controversy within the 88-nation International Whaling Commission and among antiwhaling activists, would allow the three whaling countries to continue hunting whales for the next 10 years, although in reduced numbers. Read Full Story

Many whale species remain endangered, but President Obama apparently believes that the best way to save them in the long run is to legalize commercial whaling for a decade, and he will advocate for this agenda at the International Whaling Commission’s annual meeting in June. Unfortunately, neither the New York Times nor the Administration* explains exactly how this plan will realistically protect whales now and in the future. The proposal’s proponents claim that compromising the moratorium will end up saving thousands of whales from slaughter through enhanced enforcement mechanisms and buying negotiators time to secure a permanent hunting ban down the road, but they offer no guarantees that whaling nations will be forced to stop whaling after the decade is up.

Given the information vacuum trailing in the Administration’s wake, Obama’s plan seems more than a bit fishy to me, and leaves them vulnerable to valid criticism from concerned citizens who feel they’ve been shut out of the discussion. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), for instance, calls the government’s proposal “a whaler’s wish list” that would open the Antarctic Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and North Pacific to Japanese whalers, and allow Norwegian and Icelandic whalers to continue violating scientifically-based conservation policies. IFAW also pointedly asserts that Obama’s proposal directly contradicts the promise he made during his candidacy to strengthen the international commercial whaling ban—not suspend it.

Will We Never Learn?

From shipping collisions and pollution to climate change and Navy sonar experiments, whale populations face graver threats today than ever before, and yet world leaders still refuse to take a strong stand for their preservation. If not now, then when will the international community forcefully confront whaling nations by shouting “enough already”? It’s the 21st century—and we should have stopped coddling this cruelly destructive industry decades ago.

Only a miniscule number of people actually work as whalers or consume whale meat, and yet somehow, society as a whole enables this tiny minority to decide whether or not whales will survive. Hunters obviously don’t care about the suffering of individual whales, or whether they eradicate any number of majestic and irreplaceable species, as long as they keep profiting from their deadly trade. Their bottom-line mentality is that they will continue slaughtering whales as long as there are whales left to slaughter—morality, sustainability and sanity be damned.

But is this attitude really so different from that held by the vast majority of Americans who refuse to stop eating meat, despite the suffering and death it brings to billions of animals a year and its role as the primary driver of global warming? No, not really. It is the same indifferent, shortsighted belief system rationalizing human domination over other species that is at the root of both behaviors—and will someday lead to our own annihilation if not reversed.

1) Call or email the White House and tell President Obama to reinforce rather than compromise the moratorium on commercial whaling.

2) Congress is currently considering a bill called the International Whale Conservation and Protection Act that would maintain and strengthen the commercial whaling ban and promote other worldwide cetacean protection efforts. Urge your elected officials in the House and Senate to co-sponsor and support this important bill.

* The White House website contains no mention of Obama’s position vis-√†-vis commercial whaling, and their press agents have failed to return my phone and email inquiries as promised. This is the second time the White House has ignored my requests for information about their handling of animal protection issues: last month, a press officer personally assured me that someone would call me back the following day regarding the President’s position on shark finning for a post I was writing, but three weeks have now passed, and no one has responded.  

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tell Congress to Close Loopholes on Cruel Shark Finning

Every year, the world’s fishermen hack all the fins off of more than 100 million living sharks and dump their dismembered bodies back into the sea, leaving these massive fish to suffer an agonizing death that can take days. Some die from starvation, while others are slowly devoured by various predators, or simply suffocate because they cannot swim and sharks must remain in constant motion to keep oxygenated water flowing through their gills.

The driving force behind this aquatic atrocity is the growing global appetite for shark fin soup, a high-priced delicacy that is most popular in China, Japan and other far-east Asian nations. Shark fins fetch about $200 per pound, while shark meat only sells for less than one-tenth that price. So it is economically profitable for fishing companies to simply chop sharks’ fins off and throw their mutilated bodies overboard because ships can only fit so much flesh in their refrigerated holds on long journeys out at sea.

The impact of this inhumane practice has been devastating to fragile oceanic ecosystems. Coupled with other slash-and-burn methods like long-line fishing, shark finning has caused a 90 percent decline in worldwide shark populations over the last half century. And because sharks are the top apex predators of the deep, their dramatic disappearance has led to radically increased numbers of rays and skates, which devour shellfish at an unsustainable rate.

Fortunately, some people are taking effective action to counter the seafood industry’s wave of wanton destruction. When the Goldman Environmental Prize (widely considered the “Nobel” of environmental awards) recently recognized sea turtle biologist Randall Arauz, founder of the non-profit organization Pretoma, for his successful efforts to end shark finning in Costa Rica, the campaign against this abominable animal abuse achieved new levels of international awareness. His undercover video documentation of a vessel killing 30,000 sharks for 33 tons of shark fins ultimately led to the banning of shark finning in his native country, formerly the third largest exporter of shark meat, and the development in 2006 of legalese that has become the standard guideline for countries around the world to follow. A short Goldman Prize documentary about Arauz rightly proclaims that he “has taken Costa Rica from being a leader in shark finning to being a global leader in shark preservation.”

Momentum to prohibit shark finning by the U.S. fishing fleet is proceeding apace here, as well. Congress banned shark finning in 2000, but ships in the Pacific Ocean are still allowed to bring shark fins to market as long as they weigh less than five percent of sharks’ “dressed” weight (i.e., the carcass minus its head and innards). In March 2009, the House of Representatives passed a bill to make Pacific fisheries comply with the same rules as those operating in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, and passage of a Senate companion bill entitled the Shark Conservation Act (S. 850) is all that’s needed to make it the law of the land (and sea).

Call your two U.S. Senators and politely ask them to support and co-sponsor the Shark Conservation Act, then use the Action Alert provided by the Humane Society of the United States to send them a follow up email. For maximum effectiveness, customize the subject line and message body to ensure your memo stands out.

Also call and write President Obama urging him to aggressively promote an international shark finning ban, as only 33 of the world’s nearly 200 countries have instituted regulations against shark finning, and enhanced enforcement around the world is needed to stop sharks’ downward spiral toward extinction.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

SF's Safe Routes to School Program

A post about bicycling (for a change)

I wrote a piece for the San Francisco Bike Coalition that was posted yesterday on the "Bay Area Transit" blog of SF Gate, the website for the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. (Well, Part 1 was posted, anyway.) Though this has nothing to do with animals or veganism, I thought some readers might be interested in the article.

Read my article "Safe Routes to School Program Aims to Double Their Success"

Monday, March 29, 2010

California Lawmakers Consider Creating Animal Abuse Registry

Online database would protect animals by identifying convicted felons

In November 2008, former Los Angeles County Assistant Fire Chief Glynn Johnson publicly beat his neighbor’s six-month-old puppy Karley so viciously with a 12-pound rock that she suffered skull fractures, a cracked jaw, collapsed nasal passages, a crushed ear canal, and broken-out teeth. After the young German shepherd mix was determined unsavable and subsequently euthanized, Johnson was convicted of felony animal cruelty, and currently awaits sentencing*. But what’s to prevent this known animal killer from taking his aggression out on another defenseless victim the next time he becomes uncontrollably enraged?

Though it’s of little consolation to Karley or her aggrieved guardians, at least this tragedy has inspired one lawmaker, California senate majority leader Dean Florez, to introduce a measure that would prevent other animals from suffering similar fates. If his proposed “Animal Abuse Registry” bill (SB1277) becomes law, it would institute a statewide database documenting cruelty cases that would enable law enforcement agencies, shelter staff and average citizens to track convicted felons and consequently keep them away from innocent animals. Florez modeled his legislation on the sex offenders’ database pioneered in California that puts criminals’ addresses, places of employment, and photographs online, and now operates in all 50 states, successfully reducing recidivism among these dangerous deviants.

No doubt, the bill’s passage would be a major advance in the fight against animal cruelty. For one, it would enable shelters and breeders to ensure that they don’t adopt or sell animals to known abusers, including those who’ve been convicted of hoarding animals, running illegal animal fighting rings, operating disgraced puppy mills, and otherwise torturing, mutilating or killing animals. And because animal cruelty has been conclusively linked with domestic violence, child abuse and even serial murders, it would also serve as an early warning system that would help police investigators to prevent other violent crimes.

However, while an animal abuse registry would certainly reduce cruelty cases by acting as both a deterrent and stopgap against violent behavior, some critics warn that it would violate offenders’ civil liberties by socially stigmatizing those who’ve already paid for their crimes with jail time. Opponents also worry that making abusers’ whereabouts and criminal records public might encourage those who feel the convicted haven’t been adequately punished to pursue vigilante justice. Others claim that it is unfair to require animal guardians to finance the database’s creation and upkeep with a two-to-three-cent-per-pound tax on pet food, and that alternate funding methods (like having felons pay a $50 fine) will not raise enough money for the program’s maintenance.

Ultimately, however, what it boils down to is whether protecting the privacy of animal abusers is more important than saving animals’ lives. The Animal Legal Defense Fund, for one, hopes that California will become the first to publicly register animal abusers, and that other states will soon follow suit until a national database is firmly established. The group’s website,, encourages visitors to sign a petition urging their state legislators to introduce their own bills, and features a video outlining the advantages of animal abuse registries.

*  In April, Johnson was sentenced to 90 days in jail. The judge also required him to serve 400 hours of community service working with dogs, take anger management courses, and reimburse Karley’s guardians for the veterinary expenses they paid in attempting to save her life.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Zoonotic Diseases: The Next Global Plague?

An in-depth overview of an evolving human health threat

An overwhelming amount of nutritional research implicates the consumption of meat, dairy and eggs as a key cause of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other serious illnesses. Industrialized factory farming is also one of the main drivers of environmental degradation, from pollution to global warming, pushing humanity’s very survival toward the brink of extinction. Yet there is another potentially deadly danger linked to the eating and production of animal products: zoonotic diseases that can be transmitted from domesticated farm animals to people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, food borne illnesses are responsible for about 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths every year in the U.S. The CDC estimates that at least one-third of these illnesses and fatalities are directly attributable to the consumption of meat. However, this does not account for cases of food-borne illness caused by eating tainted dairy or eggs, the consumption of plant foods contaminated by bacteria originating from animals, or direct contact with infected animals.

The biological symmetries between humans and other animals enable some viruses to leap the species barrier when humans eat contaminated animal flesh, or by infecting farmers working in close proximity to livestock (who in turn become contagious and pass viruses to people with whom they come into contact). Some of these contagions are the result of complex evolutionary processes which make them so novel that the human immune system has not yet developed defenses against them. In other instances, bacteria growing inside the intestines of animals can afflict whoever ingests contaminated food with symptoms ranging from indigestion to fatal organ failure.

However they are transmitted, zoonotic diseases are clearly a grave threat to public health that some virologists say could potentially kill hundreds of millions of people worldwide should any of them grow into pandemics. Fortunately, there are many preventative measures we can take today to minimize the impact of this medical menace in years to come. With this in mind, below is an overview of the most common and emerging zoonotic diseases.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
  • Prevalence: Over 90,000 confirmed cases and 18,000 deaths in the U.S. per year
  • Symptoms: Large staph infections (usually on the face, behind the knees, under the arms, and/or on the buttocks) that can turn into abscesses and lethally infect the bloodstream, bones, joints, lungs, and heart
  • Transmission: Direct contact between humans and infected pigs; possibly communicable through consumption of contaminated pork products
MRSA (pronounced “mersa”) now claims more human victims in the U.S. than the AIDS virus, and poses the greatest danger to people with compromised immune systems. Scientists have established that MRSA is transmitted to people through direct physical contact with pigs. However, fears that the disease may have entered the human food chain arose in 2008 when three patients in Scotland who had no contact with pigs were diagnosed with a variant strain known as ST398.

A team of independent researchers from the University of Iowa found MRSA present in 70 percent of the 209 hogs tested on 10 different farms in two states. Despite this evidence, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has no plans to test pigs or pork products for infection. Meanwhile, the pork industry categorically opposes testing, claiming that taking such precautions is “unnecessary to protect public health”.

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD, or Mad Cow Disease)
  • Prevalence: 117 confirmed deaths worldwide since 1990
  • Symptoms: Loss of muscle control, changes in personality, impaired memory, and degenerating vision rapidly leading to severe dementia and death
  • Transmission: Consumption of beef products infected with prions (aberrant protein agents) from the brain or spinal cord tissue of cattle
For many years, farmers inexpensively fattened cattle to slaughter weight by feeding them a high-protein diet made from the detritus on the slaughterhouse floor — including the bones, entrails, brains, and spinal cords of other cattle, which is where the virtually indestructible prions that cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) reside. BSE was nicknamed “Mad Cow Disease” because the prions damage bovine’s brains, causing them to exhibit symptoms of “madness” such as uncoordinated movement, loss of balance, and radical temperamental alterations. People who contract vCJD (the human equivalent of BSE) display similar behavioral abnormalities as the prions rapidly destroy their brains.

The disease typically gestates for a period of years in the body, but usually kills its victims within weeks or months of the onset of symptoms. The vast majority of cases in both humans and cattle have occurred in the United Kingdom, but in the U.S., three BSE-infected cattle have been found, and three humans are know to have contracted vCJD. Notably, the CDC does not require doctors and hospitals to report when patients are diagnosed with the disease (so the number of affected could be considerably higher), and the USDA scaled back its detection efforts by about 90 percent in 2006 based on its claim that there is only “a very, very low level of BSE in the United States”.

H1N1 (Swine Flu)
  • Prevalence: In the 2009-2010 outbreak, over 16,455 confirmed human deaths worldwide, including 2,009 deaths in the U.S.
  • Symptoms: Fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle stiffness, headache, chills, fatigue, diarrhea, and vomiting
  • Transmission: Humans contract H1N1 through direct contact with infected pigs (e.g., in hog barns on farms), then spread the virus to other people; there have been no documented cases of infection through consumption of pork products
H1N1 (commonly known as “swine flu”) gets its abbreviated name from the hemagglutinin (type 1 of 16) that binds the recombinant human-pig-bird virus to the host cell (the first of 9 types of neuraminidase). The recent H1N1 outbreak is descended from an influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people worldwide in 1918 and 1919, and recurred several times throughout the 20th century in different locations. Indeed, the evolutionary trajectory of the virus has been tracked by research identically matching 80 percent of the newest H1N1 strain’s gene sequences to a superbug that first emerged in 1998 from a Smithfield pig processing plant in North Carolina (the top pork-producing state in the U.S.) and ravaged the North American pig population.

While the virus had originally spread from pigs to farm employees working in close proximity to contaminated animals, the first case of a human infecting a hog herd occurred in Alberta, Canada. Soon after this discovery, the Egyptian government ordered the slaughter of the entire nation’s pig population – about 400,000 animals – ostensibly to stem the spread of H1N1 to humans. As the United Nations criticized the move as “a real mistake” that would do nothing to protect the populace, animal rights groups maintained that factory farms (rather than pigs) were responsible for the virus, and culling herds would be cruel and counterproductive.

H5N1 (Avian Flu)
  • Prevalence: 486 confirmed cases and 287 human fatalities worldwide; no reported human cases in the U.S.
  • Symptoms: Viral pneumonia, respiratory distress, and multiple organ failure
  • Transmission: Most cases are the result of direct physical contact with infected birds on farms and in live markets, or surfaces contaminated with their feces; passage of the virus from person-to-person remains relatively rare
Like other avian flu viruses, H5N1 is naturally present in the intestines of wild birds and rarely causes them to be sick, but this disease is devastating to domestic chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese unfortunate enough to contract it. Transmitted via saliva, mucus or feces, H5N1 is highly communicable among avian populations, and can very quickly devastate whole flocks (with an average mortality rate near 90 percent) and expand to others. Notably, while this virus does not spread as easily to humans, it is almost as deadly, killing more than half the people it has infected.

H5N1 was first found in the human population in 1997, and while most of the cases have occurred in Indonesia, the virus has also struck African and European countries. Given the relatively high fatality rate associated with H5N1, scientists are concerned about this strain mutating into a form that can pass more easily from person-to-person and cause a global pandemic that could claim hundreds of millions of lives. Laboratory research suggests that medications currently on the market could be used to effectively treat people for avian influenza, but experts also warn that the virus could quickly develop resistance to these drugs.

  • Prevalence: Kills several thousand people worldwide (approximately 580 in the U.S.) every year
  • Symptoms: Fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea (which can spread infection to the bloodstream and become fatal)
  • Transmission: Salmonella typically infects people who consume foods contaminated with animal feces (usually meat, milk or eggs, but salmonella-tainted manure from farms can also poison fruits and vegetables)
With more than 40,000 cases diagnosed each year in the U.S., salmonellosis is among the most common intestinal infections affecting the human population. Infants, the elderly and persons with compromised immune systems are the most vulnerable to salmonella bacteria, which comes from the digestive tract of birds, reptiles and mammals. Studies have found that about 25 percent of chickens sold in the U.S. are contaminated with salmonella.

Persons infected with salmonella typically exhibit symptoms within 6 to 48 hours of ingesting the bacterium, and recovery usually takes about a week. Antibiotics are often not an effective treatment for salmonellosis because many strains have become antibiotic-resistant, and because these compounds can slow the process of intestinal shedding necessary for recuperation. Cooking food thoroughly and washing all surfaces that come into contact with raw meat can help prevent the spread of infection.

Escherichia coli 0157:H7
  • Prevalence: Causes approximately 73,480 illnesses, 2,168 hospitalizations and 61 deaths a year in the U.S.
  • Symptoms: Abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, and vomiting; approximately 10 percent of subjects (mostly children and the elderly) develop haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a disease that causes acute renal failure in as many as 5 percent of those who contract it
  • Transmission: Most infections are the result of physical contact with infected people or animals, or the consumption of contaminated water or food (most commonly milk or cheese that has not been pasteurized); can also be passed from person to person
One of the most common bacteria living in the digestive tract of humans and other animals, E. coli is usually harmless to its hosts. However, some strains make people sick, and one particular variety that has developed in the intestines of cattle (E. coli 0157:H7) has the power to kill. Research indicates that as much as 3 percent of the U.S. cattle herd may harbor this deadly contagion.

E. coli spreads very easily, as ingesting only a tiny amount of bacteria (as little as 10 microbes) can cause serious illness and even death. Food contaminated with E. coli looks, smells and tastes the same as nontoxic food, so it is impossible to tell using just one’s senses whether meat, dairy and other products (such as alfalfa sprouts and other vegetables) are safe to eat. Cooking food thoroughly and washing all surfaces that come into contact with raw meat can help prevent the spread of infection.

  • Prevalence: Approximately 2.4 million cases and 124 deaths in the U.S. every year
  • Symptoms: Diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and fever; can become life-threatening to persons with compromised immune systems if it infects the bloodstream
  • Transmission: Most cases are caused by eating raw or undercooked poultry, or cross-contamination of other foods by infected flesh; outbreaks are also associated with the consumption of unpasteurized milk or infected water
By far the most common cause of food-borne illness, campylobacter affects almost 1 percent of the U.S. population every year. This bacterium naturally resides in the intestinal tracts of mammals and birds, doing them no harm. However, ingesting it can cause humans to suffer severe sickness and even death.

Studies indicate that more than one-half of raw chicken carcasses sold in the U.S. contain campylobacter. However, it is a relatively fragile bacterium that can be killed by drying, exposure to oxygen, excessive heat (i.e., cooking), and the pasteurization process. Cooking food thoroughly and washing all surfaces that come into contact with raw poultry can help prevent the spread of infection.

Factory Farms: Breeding Grounds for Zoonotic Diseases

Meat-borne diseases have plagued humankind since our pre-historical hunting and gathering days, but a relatively recent (mid-20th century) agricultural innovation – factory farming – has created a “perfect storm” of conditions for the rampant development and rapid dissemination of new pathogens among the human population. Some of the profit-driven techniques steering the world toward impending disaster include:
  • Overcrowding – Factory farms typically cram thousands of animals together in a single massive building where they spend most of their lives. Population density is increased through the use of intensive constriction devices, such as battery cages (for egg-laying hens) and gestation crates (for pregnant sows). Keeping animals packed together in regimented rows saves space and makes large farms easier to manage, but also greatly amplifies the spread of contagions through constant close contact.
  • Environmental deprivation – The stress caused by intensive confinement, lack of exercise, unnatural diet, absence of sunlight, taking children away from mothers, and other traumatic factors impairs animals’ immune systems to the point where their bodies become dangerously susceptible to disease. The living conditions at Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) are so bad that many animals would not survive without the antibiotics farmers constantly feed them. In fact, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that about 70 percent of the antibiotics administered in the U.S. are given to farm animals, an abusive practice that is making these drugs less effective in the treatment of human diseases.
  • Substandard sanitation – The average CAFO generates millions of gallons of waste a year, and animals therefore typically wind up standing and lying in their own decaying feces. As the waste putrefies on the ground, it also fouls the air with ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, and other toxic gasses that diminish immunity and breed respiratory infections. Not surprisingly, microbes from animal feces are the primary source of most foodborne pathogens, often contaminating meat during the slaughter process.

Downed animals – those too sick or injured to stand or walk – are more likely to carry dangerous viruses or bacteria that can be transmitted to humans who come into contact with them or eat their flesh. In March 2009, the U.S. government announced a new rule banning the slaughter of all downed cattle, a move that will help protect the public from zoonotic diseases and prevent much unnecessary animal suffering. However, it is still legal to cruelly force other species of animals to the kill floor for processing by prodding them with electric shocks, dragging them by chains, or pushing them with forklifts.

As long as producers can make even a small amount of profit from the flesh and blood of downed animals, there will be an incentive to abuse them without regard for their suffering and endanger people’s health by processing potentially diseased animals into food. You can take a stand for human health and farm animals by going vegan and contacting Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urging him to extend the ban on slaughtering downed cattle to all animals used for food.