Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Close Encounter of the Turtle Kind

See my undoctored photo & video proof of intelligent life!

“I know up on the top you are seeing great sights, but down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”

– From Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, by Dr. Seuss

Today I went to one of my favorite San Francisco writing places: a semi-private nature-nook in Golden Gate Park partially obscured by trees overlooking South Lake. It’s one of those special spots in the city where I can usually find some small semblance of solitude — only this time, a Red-eared slider, measuring about seven inches from nose to tail, had already claimed it as his* own. He was resting stock-still on the moist earth about 20 feet from the water’s edge, apparently just chilling out by the bench. I’d have expected a turtle to scamper away when I came along, but he just stood his ground even as I sat down.

At first he had his back to me, facing the lake, and retracted his head and limbs into his shell at my slightest movement. But after a few minutes, he suddenly turned himself around and stared straight at me for a good long stretch of time. Though I commonly spy wild turtles while hiking in the park, none had ever explicitly acknowledged my existence before, so I wondered what was up. Was he sick, and seeking my assistance? Or maybe someone had been feeding turtles here so that they’d become tame, and he was expecting a treat from me? Perhaps he was merely curious and wanted to study the bizarre biped in his midst, or aggressively drive me away from his territory?

The turtle’s behavior reminded me of my cats, Zelda and Jasmine, who sometimes perch on tabletops right in front of me about arm’s length away and stare hypnotically into my eyes with an oblique expression as though they’re trying to psychically beam some divine feline secret directly into my mind: but what? I just affectionately stroke their soft pliable ears and scratch under their fuzzy chins — but of course did not try this with the slider, cute as he was, wishing to respect his personal space and knowing that the bite of these particular snapping turtles is powerful enough to sever fingers. Yet I had the distinct impression that he was signaling me, as one conscious being to another. I was unable to comprehend whatever message he might have been trying to convey, however, being woefully ignorant of his obscure reptilian language.

Anyway, given this turtle’s unusually stationary stance (and the Chia-like plants growing on the front half of his shell), I was concerned that he might be ailing, so I eventually called San Francisco Animal Care and Control on my cell phone for advice. A very friendly officer assured me that it’s not uncommon for turtles to sprout foliage, and that he probably just wanted to sun himself (even though we were in the shade). As to why he hadn’t retreated upon my approach, the officer explained that the turtle would probably return to his watery habitat once I departed.

“Red” and I hung out there together for over two hours, until I opted to resume my hike through the park. But first I decided to test the ACC officer’s theory by only pretending to leave, hiding behind some nearby bushes along the footpath in wait. Sure enough, my temporary companion soon sauntered back toward the lake, as you can see in my (obviously) unedited minute-long video documentary chronicling his epic journey:

* Judging from the long fore-claws and thick tail, I believe this particular turtle was a male.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Hitler Farted!

Der Führer’s meat-powered flatulence disorder — and part-time vegetarian curative

Though modern historical scholarship has conclusively proven that Adolph Hitler was not actually a vegetarian*, many people even today still persist in believing that he was. Actually, Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels first started spreading this strategic misinformation more than 75 years ago to cloak the chancellor in an otherworldly aura simply so he’d be seen as Germany’s saintly savior. But, like most myths, this one does actually contain at least a tiny grain of truth — only in this case it’s a pretty humiliating back-story (or behind-story) that the Third Reich’s arch-villainous architects kept carefully hidden from the outside world.

In reality, Herr Hitler periodically practiced vegetarianism to combat the “excessive flatulence” from which he chronically suffered. The Führer’s ongoing gastric struggles have been corroborated by many reliably authenticated sources, including his own personal physician, Dr. Theo Morell, who wrote in his journal that he once witnessed Hitler endure a bout of “colossal flatulence…on a scale I have seldom encountered before.” In his groundbreaking book Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, author Charles Patterson wrote that Hitler found “fewer stains in his underwear” when he reduced his meat consumption, and “became convinced that eating vegetables improved the odor of his flatulence.” However, Hitler biographers attest that he certainly didn’t stick with vegetarianism, and in fact was a bona fide glutton for ham, liver, sausage, and (his favorite) stuffed squab.

A friend and creative collaborator of mine from college once explained to me his “cosmic anchor” theory of comedy, which basically propounds that farting is the most primordial form of humor (because the anus is like a second mouth that “speaks” behind our backs and beyond our control, like some mutant strain of rectal Tourette Syndrome). Just think of the hysterical irony, in this particular instance, of a flatulent fascist dictator who can’t seem to stop “talking out of his ass,” as it were. I can just see Hitler at a sprawling public rally delivering a raging rant accusing the Jews of being foul and disgusting animals, banging his fist on the podium and Seig Heiling the rabid crowd — and during a dramatic pause in his spittle-flecked harangue, blasting a massive bugler out the back of his beige jodhpurs that is picked up by the custom Neumann CMV3 condenser microphone and broadcast over loudspeakers to the entire crowd and live radio audiences throughout occupied Europe! Actually, Hitler liked keeping vicious attack dogs around for his amusement (meaning he enjoyed brutally beating them into submission), so in this and other scenarios, he probably would have blamed them for his own embarrassing bumburps!

Despite all these fun-poking antics aimed at smelly old man Hitler for his congenital gas-passing ailment, I do feel it’s worth exploring whether he was onto something…maybe our bodily emissions can be better managed (to smooth social interactions and slow climate change) through improved dietary habits. While there seems to be no real consensus about whether a vegan diet produces less toxic wind than eating meat, dairy and/or eggs, here are a few claims (provided with a general disclaimer about not actually knowing their scientific merits) that I’ve gathered on the subject:

• According to one article published in 1913 (which Hitler himself must have surely read), “The longer the feces are retained in the intestine, the longer the bacteria act upon them, thus causing fermentation and decomposition…A plentiful meat diet also favors the formation of gases (because) the digestive fluids are not able to fully digest it.” Of course, those prone to flatulence are advised to avoid foods that leave “residual matter” in their wake, such as cabbage and beans (the proverbial “musical fruit”).

• A Q&A in the online magazine VegFamily suggests that sticking to a healthy vegan diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, organic whole grains, and lots of water produces relatively little flatulence. Echoing the claims made in the article cited above, respondents assert that (just like meat) processed vegan “junk food” takes longer to digest than natural foods, and therefore results in greater amounts of gas.

• The lifestyle website declares that “Vegetarians might fart as often as meat-eaters, but their ‘serenades’ do not smell as much because vegetables produce less hydrogen sulfide. The more sulfur rich the foods you eat, the more your farts will stink because bacteria will generate sulfides and mercaptans as they break down the nutrients.” Their preventative advice includes steering clear of fumigant foods such as cauliflower, taking Bean-O supplements, and ingesting herbal essences like chamomile, peppermint, sage, and marjoram.

* While Hitler openly praised vegetarianism (mainly because he idolized the classical composer Richard Wagner), the National Socialist Party legally outlawed independent vegetarian societies throughout the Fatherland and their expanding empire, forcing these groups to either join the centralized Nazi Living Reform Movement or disband. So, while vegetarianism itself wasn’t strictly criminalized under fascism, all autonomous organizations were, specifically meaning they could no longer choose their own socio-political positions or espouse non-violent philosophies. Nevertheless, in bold defiance of the totalitarian state, courageous vegetarians continued to hold clandestine meetings that were unaffiliated with official government institutions, routinely risking enslavement and probable extermination in concentration camps.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Witness to Suicide at Powell and Market

Onlookers laugh and cheer as a man jumps to his death – and we wonder why more people aren’t vegan?!

I was there today when a man killed himself before a live audience of bystanding spectators in San Francisco.

I was biking down Market Street when I saw a massive crowd gathered near the Powell Street cable car turnaround. They were frantically yelling, a combination of anxious cries and excited cheers, as though watching the climax of an intense sports match. I figured it must be a fistfight, but I was wrong…because the shouting then rose to a sudden cacophony punctuated by a dense fleshy thump.

I had never heard a sound like that in my life, and wondered what the hell it could be. Traffic had stopped, people were rushing across Market, and police & ambulances were screeching in, so I crossed the street to find out, and saw, right on the north side of the Powell BART station fence, a handful of cops standing over a shirtless man lying face-down in a bloody pool on the sidewalk. People were pointing up at the window ledge of the third-floor apartment above the “Forever 21” store he’d just jumped from, and holding cameras in the air snapping pictures of the corpse.

This nightmarish scenario was disturbing enough, but far worse was overhearing numerous young people actually laughing and saying things like “Oh shit! Did you see that?!” and “That was so cool!” One twenty-something woman nearby even loudly bragged to her friend on a cell phone that “I was yelling ‘Jump! Jump!’ And then he jumped!”

We may well wonder what caused 32-year-old Dylan Yount to take his own life. I don’t know his reasons, but maybe it had something to do with being sick and tired of living in a world where shit like this happens?

Call me naïve or out of touch, but I was actually shocked that some people’s response to seeing a fellow human violently end his tortured existence was about the same as if they’d just watched a YouTube video of a guy getting repeatedly kicked in the balls.

It’s existentially insane that, in this day and age, supposedly civilized folks consume actual, real-life atrocity as a form of entertainment while it's actually happening. The fact that these grotesque inhuman deformities actually felt comfortable broadcasting their repugnant monstrosity to everyone within earshot makes my heart ache. But what makes it so much worse is that they actually felt compelled to publicly proclaim the deadness of their souls.

Significantly, all of those I personally observed deriding Dylan's death were young adults ranging from their late-teens to mid-twenties. It's not really a generational thing though: callous, casual cruelty rears its ugly head in every century, whether it's the Roman Coliseum, Jack the Ripper or Kitty Genovese. I just expect better in 21st century San Francisco. Regardless of place or time, those who laughed as Dylan died clearly have no manners, no shame, no decency, and perhaps no capacity for compassion.

And I really can’t help but wonder, what in the world made them that way? Did they suffer horrific, unspeakable physical abuse and psychological torture as children? Or are they just unbelievable assholes? Either way, what's their excuse? And does their vile brutality and lack of empathy indicate that, ultimately, humankind has no future?

The Killing Joke

Years ago, when I was newly vegan, I spent many a Friday night with other activists on the sidewalk outside of the Metreon multiplex in downtown San Francisco handing out “Why Vegan?” booklets while showing “Meet Your Meat” and other factory farming videos on a battery-powered TV/VCR. Most people would walk by without acknowledging my offer of a booklet and deliberately avoid looking at the TV images. Some would stop and watch for awhile, and maybe take a leaflet, or even cry and thank us for being there, putting a little money in our donation jar.

And a few – always young men – would make a big show of laughing out loud as animals were slaughtered onscreen. Similarly, when I co-hosted “Vegan TV” on the SF community access station, we’d sometimes get calls from Beavis and Butthead types calling us faggots, pussies or whatever because we refused to eat meat.

In those days, such things rarely phased me, because I had an explanation. I figured these young guys joked about animal cruelty and those who repudiated it because admitting to anyone (especially their male peers) that they had feelings about anything (or anyone) left them vulnerable to ridicule, rejection and being branded “gay” – so laughing at others’ pain was their way of acting tough.

Hey, I was involuntarily subjected to junior high school too, and remember what a powerful force peer pressure was at that age, and how often I conformed to others’ rigid and distorted definitions of manhood simply because I lacked a strong self-identity and the courage to be myself. So, armed with this analysis, I deduced that the boys’ humorous reaction to slaughter footage was both a result of nervous laughter and a way for them to impress their friends. It seemed rather pathetic, but understandable: because in a way I’d been in their shoes before.

But now, after years of practicing animal rights advocacy and discovering denial firmly entrenched in every stratum of society, I no longer find such simplistic explanations of casual cruelty satisfactory. Mainly because even most so-called “mature adults” never really grow up when it comes to fundamentally respecting non-human species. Many don't even respect fellow human beings.

Even as I write, and even as you read, somewhere in the world animals are being tortured for people’s amusement in circuses, rodeos, horse races, game reserves, dog fighting rings, and other “entertainments” that by all rights should have been abolished along with human slavery long ago. But there's also still human slavery, war, starvation, terrorism, and torture going on this minute as well. There are millions of poor, homeless children right here in prosperous America. In one way at least, my experience today only served to reinforce my grave doubts about the true nature of our species — that humankind, as a whole, is stubbornly numb to the sufferings of others, whether or not we are directly responsible for their misery.

Then again, in my despair, there’s a whole other side to this story that I’ve neglected to tell. That is, of the hundreds of people who today saw a man fall to his doom, most did not laugh or cheer: they cried openly in the arms of loved ones, or sought emotional solace from a stranger, or stood silently awestruck alone contemplating the inconceivable. If not so distressed by the relative minority whose heartless behavior I found so nauseating, I might have stuck around awhile longer to grieve with those whose humanity seemingly remained intact, and perhaps found my faith in people restored. Instead, numbed to the core of my being, I rode on, and decided hours later to share my thoughts here in this public journal.

I guess it just goes to show that every life experience presents both challenges to and opportunities for growth, and what we choose to make of them is often largely up to us. Meaning, in the course of our Earthly journey, we always need to beware of mistaking one small aspect of reality for the whole truth.

If you are feeling suicidal, please call a suicide hotline and get the help you need!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Act Now to Protect Great Apes

Tell Congress: Pass bill to ban invasive primate experimentation

"It's about the money. There's big bucks in this research, especially chimp research. We're talking millions. Millions of dollars."

Narriman Fakier, former employee of New Iberia Research Center turned whistleblower

In March of last year, ABC's Nightline, World News Tonight, and Good Morning America shows aired disturbing video footage captured by an undercover investigator from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) which depicts the severe abuse of primates at New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) in Louisiana, where new medical and pharmaceutical treatments designed for humans are tested on more than 6,000 monkeys and chimpanzees. The exposé documents what the HSUS investigator saw during his nine-month stint posing as a lab tech, using hidden cameras to bring Big Science's dirty little secret to light: that researchers routinely violate basic animal welfare laws, and only suffer consequences when the public demands justice.

The United States is one among only four nations in the world where research on chimpanzees is still legal. Meanwhile, countries like Austria, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and the UK have banned invasive experiments on all great apes (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, bonobos — and homo sapiens) because the immorality inherent in such studies cannot be ethically justified on the basis of saving human lives. Seriously, torturing and killing our closest biological cousins is not the only (or even best) way to understand our own medical maladies, and yet it continues, funded by our taxes: why?

One reason is that animal research is extremely profitable. Between 2000 and 2009, the National Institutes of Health, a Federal agency, granted NIRC more than $17 million in public funds to conduct research on chimpanzees — money they used to viciously persecute primates, both within and beyond the law and often for decades on end. In this case, the government took appropriate action against NIRC, with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack ordering an investigation of their operations and pledging to punish anyone found guilty of violating the Animal Welfare Act. But while NIRC is one of the nation's larger primate research centers, it's trespasses still only represent the relatively small tip of vivisection's animal cruelty iceberg — what remains buried beneath the depths of deception is perhaps even worse, and even during the best of economic times, the U.S. government clearly wouldn't have the means to police every facility all the time.

Emptying the Cages

Thankfully, inspired by HSUS's repulsive revelations, Congress is now considering a pragmatic and compassionate solution: the Great Ape Protection Act (H.R. 1326). This bipartisan bill would phase out invasive research on great apes, ban the breeding of these primates for experimentation, and permanently retire hundreds of chimpanzees to sanctuaries where they would be lovingly cared for instead of callously exploited for profit. Passage of this bill would greatly accelerate our country's ethical evolution towards respect for other life forms and advance our moral standing among nations, but there is still one extremely powerful force standing in the way of our potential progress: the numerous medical research institutions that would lose hundreds of millions in revenue if H.R. 1326 becomes law.

The highly-influential Society for Neuroscience (SfN) is just one of the many scientific associations that cunningly cultivates an oh-so-purely-altruistic image, but is terrified of having their inalienable American "right" to torment animals for a living restricted in any way. Recently, this illustrious organization bombarded its members with a "Call to Action" urging them to tell their Federal Representatives to oppose the Great Ape Protection Act because "(it) would inhibit medical advances and researchers' pursuit of new vaccines and treatments to prevent disease" (hepatitis C in particular). In their sample letter to members of Congress, SfN even pretends to give a crap about non-human species by emphasizing the "number of protections in place to ensure the welfare and well-being of these animals" — conspicuously ignoring the fact that existing laws are not being obeyed or enforced, as the video evidence from inside New Iberia and other primate research labs makes so painfully clear.

While SfN boasts a membership of more than 40,000 scientists and physicians, only a miniscule minority of these are actively engaged in primate research. So why, then, did they disseminate this action alert to their entire constituency? Certainly, they fear no longer having great apes to sacrifice on the altar of empirical knowledge, but they're even more afraid of being drawn inexorably down the slippery slope. That is, if the government outlaws invasive primate experimentation today, what horrors will tomorrow bring — rights of personhood for genetically-engineered lab rats?!

Sadly, SfN officials and other dogmatists of domination are mentally enslaved by the antediluvian ideology that all of Earth's millions of species exist merely to serve human needs — an historically corrupt doctrine in which animals' interests are dismissed as utterly irrelevant. Fortunately, their outmoded attitude is not shared by the majority of society: an online survey being conducted by, for instance, currently indicates that nearly two-thirds of respondents support the Great Ape Protection Act. Nevertheless, it’s not We the People who will ultimately decide whether to pass this bill, but our democratically-elected Representatives in Washington, D.C.—and animal research institutions' pockets are obviously deep enough to peddle political influence. So please, make sure your Representative knows where you stand on this issue.

Use HSUS's "Humane Alert" to call and email your Federal Representative urging him or her to co-sponsor and vote YES on the Great Ape Protection Act (H.R. 1326). Then check out the other ways you can help primates, and forward the alert to your family and friends around the country.