Friday, June 27, 2014

Behind the Vegan Scare

A healthy vegan baby boy.
Yes, they do exist. 
Maybe you've heard about the Florida mother, Sarah Anne Markham, who was arrested earlier this week for child neglect. Her baby was admitted to a hospital suffering from dehydration and she refused to allow the baby to be given medicine because she claimed "it contained ingredients that came from animals." (Source)

Headline version: The woman had been feeding her baby organic soy formula and the baby, at 12 days old, became dehydrated. Markham told the police she had chosen the formula in consultation with a vegan doctor, but she did not provide her/his name, and she was elusive under questioning. The police arrested Markham and her infant is now in protective custody.

It's a heartbreaking story, but already media outlets are likening it to a case of an Atlanta couple that starved their six-week-old child to death on a vegan diet of soy formula and apple juice. When the baby boy died, he weighed a shocking three and a half pounds. A similar case in France generated headlines when a vegan couple was arrested by French authorities, charged with "neglect and food deprivation" after their 11-month-old baby - who was given only breast milk and nothing else - died. (Source)

One can - and ought to - sympathize with these tiny and most helpless of victims. To die of malnutrition or starvation is a horrid way to perish (let's face it, there aren't any good ways to die, either). Neglectful parents have a great deal to answer for, and these infants undoubtedly suffered the unthinkable due to poor parenting.

Having said that, it is interesting to note how the press has used these worst-case scenarios, which happen to involve veganism, as cautionary tales to warn people against the vegan lifestyle. In Markham's case, the headlines proved quite sensational: "Is Veganism Child Abuse?" (, "Vegan Florida Mother Arrested and Accused of Neglecting Child" (WEAR ABC Channel 3), "Vegan Parent Denies Infant Medicine" (KSN-TV), "Vegan Mother Arrested for Child Neglect Over Beliefs" (eMaxHealth), "Mother charged with neglect after refusing to take her dehydrated newborn to a hospital over staunch VEGAN beliefs" (Daily Mail, UK - the all upper-case vegan was their emphasis, not mine).

It's possible to go on, but you get the picture. The cumulative effect of these stories is to throw a scare into any parents who are considering raising their babies and children on a vegan diet.

Full disclosure: I'm a vegan but my kids are not. I embraced veganism at age 41. That was five years ago, in 2009. By that time, my kids were into their teen years, and even though I sought to live by example and promoted the lifestyle, they were not prepared to embrace it like I was.

It's not unusual for people to embrace veganism later in life, and to allow their children to go on being omnivores. I've known other vegans who've taken this approach. There is nothing wrong with it.

I have also known - and admire - vegans who raise their children as vegans. Among the most attentive parents I've seen (many of whom are Facebook friends) insist on rearing their children as vegans. The ones I know make sure their children not only enjoy balanced diets, but delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinner, right down to the vegan bakery treats for dessert.

You won't hear about these diligent vegan parents in the latest media vegan scare. Plus, there is a glaring double standard at work here. While veganism is treated as the culprit in these very isolated cases of child neglect (only three that I have been able to pinpoint), one does not see deaths from tainted meat treated in the same hysterical fashion. Six years ago, there was a big listeria outbreak in Canada in which 22 people died and a number of others were hospitalized. Rather than warning about the dangers of meat consumption, which resulted in the tragic outbreak, press outlets instead assured a frightened public that eating meat was fine, that the "bad meat" (which in this case consisted of cold cuts from Maple Leaf Foods) had been removed from store shelves, and there was no need to panic.

In addition to the aforementioned double standard, it is important to note that the two heavily publicized infant deaths mentioned above were the result of starvation and malnutrition, not veganism. Vegans who eat healthy diets do not starve (that's coming from a husky vegan who's always dieting, always trying to watch his weight). Veganism may be touted by celebrities like J-Lo as the hot new way to lose weight. But believe me, once you get used to living the lifestyle, and your body has a chance to adjust to it, it's just as easy to gain weight as a vegan as it is being an omnivore.

So what's behind this media-generated vegan scare? It is all noise and no substance. If anything, it speaks to the ignorance of many of the journalists reporting on it. Veganism is healthy for human beings when it consists of a balanced diet. No diet - vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, carnivore - is going to make a difference if one is being starved to death.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Do Animals Have Emotions?

Here is a fascinating story from CBS New York on animals and emotions. It's a brief story (2 minutes and 43 seconds) about animal behaviour and emotions using some very moving examples of animals forming bonds with other animals and human beings (my favourite story is of Mr. G. and Jellybean - you'll love it, I promise!). The story arrives at the conclusion that animals do, in fact, have emotions. One of the main talking heads in the story is the very eloquent veterinarian Dr. Richard Goldstein, chief medical officer of the Animal Medical Center in New York City. If you get a moment, check it out. It's well worth your time, and it represents another step in the process of connecting the dots in such a way that explodes the notion of animals as commodities and instead treats them as individuals with dignity, a purpose, and - yes - emotions.

In a Just World...

Words to Remember

A sentiment we'd all do well to remind ourselves - over and over again...

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Farewell Casey Kasem, Humanitarian, Vegan and Advocate for Animals - and All-Around Great Guy

I was a huge Casey Kasem fan in the 1970s and 1980s, back in the heyday of the radio show he hosted, American Top 40.

Little did I know at the time that Casey was very political. In fact, he was a lifelong supporter of a variety of progressive causes, including the anti-nuclear movement, environmentalism, social justice and Arab-American rights. And guess what else? He was a committed vegan and an animal rights activist! He became a vegetarian in 1974 and a vegan in the early 2000s. 

With a heavy heart, I read of Casey's passing over the weekend. He died at the age of 82, after spending years combating the effects of Parkinson's disease.

He was a man of so many talents. Not only was he known as Mr. Top 40, he was also a master voiceover artist, perhaps most famous as the voice of the hippie slacker Shaggy in Scooby Doo.

Because Kasem was more famous as a nationally recognized D.J., most people probably overlooked all of the wonderful work he did to help animals. He was, for example, the national chair of the Great American Meatout, which sought to educate people about the harm and violence that came with meat consumption. In 2005, he received the Celebrity Animal Advocate Award at the National Animal Rights Conference.

In a 2007 interview with Dr. John A. McDougall, Kasem discussed his views on the treatment of animals. What better tribute to Kasem than to include his views here?

Here are Casey Kasem's reflections:

"Let's begin with the chickens. Put in those cages that are no bigger than a folded newspaper. Chickens have pride and a pecking order. When you consider that they are in there, some of them without beaks and some of them with beaks. Those that have beaks of course cannibalize the others, because they need room to move, they can't even move their wings. And of course their feet are getting tangled in the wire. And then there is one wire cage set upon another and another and another and another. And the feces fall on top of the heads of these creatures. As they are born and they happen to be born a male chicken, they are thrown into a plastic bag and they suffocate in the bodies of their brothers. And the female chickens, their beaks are put into a metal machine that cuts the beak off. Some of them don't survive that. They are made to create eggs and ultimately become food for animals I guess, if not human beings."
"The pigs are stored very often in the same way. In concrete buildings that are warehouse size. And in order to keep the floors of the building clean, they use ammonia. We know that pigs are much more sensitive in smell than humans are. Could you imagine living your entire life smelling ammonia, day in and day out, in a darkened room. Children don't know that those pigs don't get out and play in the mud, that those pigs are just products, treated like inanimate products."
"Then you have the calves, in their 2 by 4 prisons. Where they have no opportunity to ever feed on their mother's breast. The animal is immediately taken from the mother and the calf is put into this little stall. Not allowed to suck on anything, but just fed milk, so the price for their bodies can be a lot higher as they sell milk-fed veal to customers at restaurants. The mother, the cow. Never seeing their offspring, but being artificially inseminated, again and again and again, so that their udders will be full, because they are impregnated. And that means more milk for the dairymen. Their udder is so big, that they are literally on the floor. They too, hardly ever see the sun or the grass or graze."
"And this goes on and on and on. For all kinds of animals. Not to mention the ones that are being experimented upon. So, this is my priority. I feel that if I do nothing else in life, but can turn a few people around, I can do a lot to help the animals in their tortured lives."
"In protest against the animal industry, we have to stand up and let people know why it is that we don't eat cheese and we don't drink milk. Besides from the fact that it's not healthy for you, how very unhealthy it is for those animals who have just become products. They are not beings anymore in the eyes of the people who produce them."
"I believe that if in the 4th or 5th grade, children could take a field trip to a slaughterhouse, we wouldn't have to worry about people becoming vegetarians. It would be just automatic. It would happen in a day. Those kids would get such an eyeful and their teachers as well."
"I just think that Americans, who unfortunately grow up watching television, motion pictures, day in and day out, where there is so much slaughter of human beings. I would hope that they would recognize, that if we can go back to the very basic thing, that is not to want to bring death to anything, anything that has eyes and can run away from you. And realize that that is basically right and should be just core in our thinking, then that could be the beginning of really a new world order, ultimately. Because as long as we keep killing animals, I have a feeling that we're going to keep killing people. There is certainly a relationship there."

Farewell, Casey. Your wonderful voice of compassion and reason will always be missed!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

More Reasons to Be Hopeful

Every now and then, when the posts on this blog begin to get a little gloomy, I make it a point to spotlight reasons why those who love animals should be hopeful. Despair comes so easily in our day and age. Yet if all we do is despair, if all we do is wring our hands and focus on the bad news, then we miss out on some very wonderful acts of conscience, compassion, and - yes - even heroism.

There are reasons to be optimistic. Unfortunately, in a time when bad news dominates the headlines and television reports, it's easy to miss out on those reasons. That's why I like to steer attention to positive examples of change, and what better place to do so than in this blog?

So with no further delay, here are some developing stories that will hopefully augment our hope in our troubled times.

The Saugatuck Craft Butchery - closed for
Meatless Mondays!
1. CLOSED FOR MEATLESS MONDAYS: Check out this front display window for Saugatuck Craft Butchery in Westport, CT. It now closes on Mondays in honour of "Meatless Mondays." This may not seem like a big deal, especially to the vegan uber-purists. However, it is a big deal! A decade ago, most people didn't even know what Meatless Mondays was. Today, by contrast, Meatless Mondays is so big that a butcher shop like this one refuses to do business on the day. In most locales across America, Monday is a heavy shopping day, which makes this act all the more remarkable. Saugatuck, which prides itself on selling on the finest "pasture-raised and organic meats" doesn't have to close its doors on a day that would likely be incredibly profitable. To close it for this reason shows that even among butchers, there is a growing mindfulness about the move away from meat consumption. I say: Good for Saugatuck! It's an important first step. I hope other butchers follow suit.

Mayim Bialik's new
vegan cookbook.
2. VEGAN HEROINE OF THE YEAR: Mayim Bialik is a busy woman! Star of the hit show The Big Bang Theory, she is also a mother of two and has a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA. Add to her long list of achievements that she's the author of a vegan cookbook! Mayim's Vegan Table (New York: Da Capo Lifelong Books) spotlights over a hundred of the actress's favourite vegan recipes. (source) Bialik went vegan at age 19 and she has never looked back. As she explained to The Vegetarian Times: "A taste aversion stopped my eating meat, then my deep love and respect for animals started informing more and more of my decisions. I had an innate sense of wanting to be vegan, but I needed more information. The change was gradual, which let me think through every step. I was still eating dairy when my first son was born; he couldn't tolerate my breast milk and I realized I had a dairy allergy. So it kept evolving. I read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, and that did it." (source) Good for Mayim! Her cookbook looks fabulous!

Director James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) went
vegan in 2012 and hasn't looked back.
3. SCHOOL OF VEGANISM: In Calabasas, California (northwest of Los Angeles), an environmentally-conscious private school heavily founded and financed by director James Cameron, the dietary menu has - like the famous director of mega-blockbuster hits Avatar and Titanic - gone 100 percent vegan! MUSE School CA, thanks to Cameron and his wife, Suzy Amis, is now the first school in the country to go entirely vegan. I should note that one public school in Queens, New York, has gone entirely vegetarian, and another school in San Diego has adopted Meatless Mondays, but an all-vegan school is unprecedented. Cameron and Amis - motivated by a love of animals, respect for life in general, and concern for the environment - deserve praise for going out on a limb and showing that a vegan diet is proper and healthy. This was a brave thing to do, and let's hope their decision inspires other schools to do likewise. (source)

Garfunkel the pig, resident of
Happy Trails Farm Animal
Sanctuary in Ravenna, Ohio.
4. INSPIRATION FOLLOWING TRAGEDY: Kudos to the wonderful folks at Happy Trails Farm Animal Sanctuary in Ravenna, Ohio. Earlier this year, on Valentine's Day - February 14 - tragedy struck the sanctuary when a building burned down, killing two goats, a pot-belly pig and a rooster. Thankfully, two cats and two goats were rescued from the inferno, yet the irreplaceable loss of these four precious lives was devastating. Remarkably, the sanctuary has been busily rebuilding. The goat-sheep barn that burned to the ground in February is now being replaced by an even nicer, safer structure, and the sanctuary will also be seeing the addition of a new horse arena and multi-purpose building. Happy Trails is seeking donations (at the link above), and welcomes visitors to the beautiful 10-acre farm, where - at any given time - about 150 animals are living a good life of love, rehabilitation, and happiness. I've said before, and I'll say it again, that folks at farm sanctuaries are doing the work of saints. Countless happy animals - spared from the factory farm and the butcher's knife - are the reward for their tireless efforts. Way to go, Happy Trails!

5. The decision last week by Mexico City's legislative assembly to prohibit animals from appearing in circuses was a great move, although it has sparked some controversy. (source) According to an Associated Press news report from June 9: "More than 1,000 acrobats, clowns and other circus employees marched through downtown Mexico City on Tuesday to protest a new ban on animals in circuses." (source) Despite complaints from Mexican circus workers that the move is going to have devastating economic effects, the ban actually represents a principled move by Mexican politicians to end one of the worst forms of animal exploitation in existence. Mexico City isn't the first city in the country to enact such a ban. Actually, the nation's largest city is a relative latecomer in a nationwide movement to outlaw the participation of animals in circuses. The aforementioned AP report went on to note: "Armando Cendeno, president of the national circus association, said the measure will affect about 50,000 circus employees and 3,000 to 3,500 animals, mainly elephants, tigers, camels and hippos. 'It is impossible to take these animals back to their natural habitat, because they would die,' he said." As the demonstration in Mexico City shows, changing society so that animals are no longer exploited can potentially be painful, especially when jobs and livelihoods are at stake. Change is seldom unambiguous and straightforward, and it is never easy. But the Mexico City legislature has the right idea. Animals ought not to be exploited for entertainment. Or for any other reason, for that matter. Let's hope other places where animals are integral to circuses follow Mexico City's example.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

One, two, many Chilliwacks: What happens when the outrage subsides?

The abuse of cows at Chilliwack Cattle Sales in British Columbia in May 2014.

Once again, an undercover investigator has captured some deeply disturbing footage on video. The public's reaction has been one of shock and outrage, which is good. But one wonders whether the most important lessons here have been overlooked.

The town of Chilliwack in British Columbia is the location of the largest dairy farm in Canada, Chilliwack Cattle Sales, home to some 3,500 animals. In the month of May, an activist with Mercy for Animals - who took a job at the dairy plant for the purpose of surreptitiously shooting videos inside of the facility - captured some unbelievably nightmarish scenes inside of the plant.

Lorie Chortyk of B.C.'s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) described the terrible conditions:
This wasn't pushing cows along. These are animals who are trapped being kicked in the face, being viciously beaten by people laughing. There is nothing in this behaviour that would have been part of a normal farm operation. (source)
Not surprisingly, once the video was released, it went viral, and Chilliwack Cattle Sales is now facing a public relations nightmare. Alas, now the blame game has predictably begun.

The Kooyman family, owners of Chilliwack Cattle Sales, claim they were shocked by the video, that it completely caught them off guard, and that they never suspected - or were ever aware - that such abuse was running rampant in the plant. The company works closely with a massive dairy producer in Canada, Saputo, and to quell the rising tide of anger, eight employees involved in the abuse have been fired. There is now some talk of criminal charges of animal abuse being filed against them.

The company hired a P.R. firm to handle the media exposure. Reporters have been given a tour of a clean facility, told that video cameras (CCTV) will be installed, and that the public will have access to the CCTV footage. The company and the BC Dairy Association have assured the public that there is a zero tolerance policy regarding abuse. Mercy for Animals has called for radically improved treatment for the cows, including an end to the beatings and proper care and transportation for animals that are sick, injured or downed.

For their part, the eight fired employees insisted that the Kooyman family knew of these abuses. "I wouldn't say they should be completely shocked," insisted ex-employee Jamie Visser. "They knew about 80 percent of what was going on." (source)

Who knows what the Kooymans knew and when they knew it? What is clear is that these kinds of abuses are rampant on dairy farms across North America. It is important to remember that Mercy For Animals never targeted this particular company. As MFA's Anna Pippus notes: "Every time we've gone undercover at random facilities we've documented animal cruelty that has shocked and horrified the Canadian public. This isn't a coincidence." (source)

It is encouraging to see how extensively this case has been covered by the media, and I have no doubt that the many dairy producers and promoters who have expressed outrage over this footage have been sincere in their concern.

But what happens when the outrage subsides?  Believe me, in a few days, it will (if it hasn't already). Then what? Well, you can bet they'll be more more careful about monitoring employees at Chilliwack Cattle Sales. Meantime, the wonderful folks at MFA will undoubtedly uncover more abuses at other facilities, because this sort of terrible treatment has become par for the course at so many places that produce animal-based products of any kind.

The ultimate tragedy of it all - and the real takeaway here - is that even if the worst abuses are eliminated (and it's hard to say whether this will happen, as this isn't the first time Chilliwack Cattle Sales has come into scrutiny for questionable practices), fundamentally the story will not change for the poor cows.

The same malevolent and deadly system will continue. Human beings will go right on drinking milk or consuming milk-based products for which they have no nutritional need. Mother cows will still be forced to give birth to keep producing milk and their offspring will meet the same grim fate or be turned into veal or beef. And once the cows cannot produce milk anymore, they will be violently disposed of. The milk that cows produce should feed their offspring, and their offspring only. Instead, they're offspring are being carted off and sliced up, ground up, milked or otherwise somehow exploited until death.

If you think about it, it's a violent, insane and profoundly unhealthy way of existing. But that is how we do things, because that is how things have been done for generations. And as long as profits are being made, and jobs are being provided, people accept the insanity. But ask yourself: What does it do to our humanity to avert our eyes, to ignore the suffering of our fellow sentient beings?

Make no mistake: There will be many, many more Chilliwack Cattle Sales. This isn't the first, it won't be the last. In April, Mercy for Animals captured even worse abuse on film at the huge veal-production complex at Pont-Rouge outside of Quebec City. As CTV reported: "Baby calves, just weeks old, are kicked, punched, slapped and yelled at by barn employees. Some are grabbed by the testicles to force them into narrow wooden stalls. Several lie gasping for air on slats stained with urine and feces."

In another month, Chilliwack will be forgotten by most people, just like Pont-Rouge is now largely forgotten. Cows will continue to suffer. Some will be abused - hit, kicked, punched, knocked by metal rods and wooden clubs. Others may die in farm fires, which are all too common these days. Most will probably live their lives without being abused to the same extent as the poor cows at Chilliwack.

BUT MAKE NO MISTAKE: Whether they are abused or not, they'll all meet the same fate. Maybe that's why this kind of abuse is so rampant, so widespread. At some level, these young men - boys, really - know deep down inside what tragic fate all of these poor beings will ultimately meet. Hitting and punching and abusing the cows creates a disconnect. It hardens these workers. It makes them more callous. Though one can never condone such awful behaviour - in fact, one should always condemn it in no uncertain terms - it does represent a form of alienation that seems to be a predictable and, in some sick sort of way, logical outcome of a system that is ultimately based on the wholesale and wanton destruction of life itself.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Random Thoughts on the Ultimate Invasive Species

Nutria hunting in Louisiana. What do you call it when an "invasive species" is hunted by the ultimate invasive species - humankind? 

Here's a factoid I bet you didn't know: The United States government kills millions of animals per year.

In 2013, the federal government "shot, poisoned, snared, or trapped" some 4 million animals. Animals on the government's "hit list" include bobcats, coyotes, river otters, foxes, black bears, as well as (according to The Washington Post) "greedy feral hogs, giant swamp rats called nutria, big aggressive Argentine lizards called tegus and swarms of hungry starlings...."

Most of the killings are carried out by the United States Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services. According to a recently released statistics, the killings in 2013 included:

• 75,326 coyotes
• 866 bobcats
• 528 river otters
• 3,700 foxes
• 12,186 prairie dogs
• 978 red-tailed hawks
• 419 black bears
• three eagles (that we know of), both the golden and bald variety

As noted above, all of these are said to be "invasive species." But what is the real "invasive species"?

Let's review the evidence:

• What animal has destroyed the earth's rainforest at an alarming rate, with no end in sight?
• What animal has drained the earth of its oil, mined every potential deposit of every resource imaginable, polluted until holes formed int the ozone, and wiped out entire ecosystems in the name of progress?
• What animal is responsible for more mass extinctions than any other animal on earth?
• What is the only animal in this world that intentionally inflicts sadism and mass murder on other animals, including its own species?
• What animal has spilled oil on nearly every stretch of beach from Alaska to South America, throughout the Gulf of Mexico, up and down the Atlantic Coast, and in nearly every other part of the world?
• What animal...

Oh hell, you get the picture! I realize these rhetorical questions get tiresome, and I'm sorry to inundate you with them. However, the purpose here is to raise an important point about which species is truly the "invasive" one. I think we all know the answer.

Unfortunately, there are some cases when the mass extermination of certain wild animals is done to offset terrible damage. For example, it is widely known that nutria can - and, indeed, have - severely damage wetlands across North America. To allow them to continue to multiply and spread unchecked means the continued destruction of these delicate ecosystems.

Still, there is "context" - there is a "big picture" - behind this wanton destruction of animal life by the U.S. government. Human beings, with their malevolent collective notions of progress, development, globalization, commodification, unfettered markets, and growth for the sake of growth (which the late, great Christopher Hitchens called "the ideology of cancer") are inflicting far greater destruction on the earth than any invasive species.

These same destructive tendencies are what lead us as a species to collectively believe that animals are things - commodities, products, items to be bought and sold - things with a price tag on their heads, sometimes literally. Factory farming is far more destructive to the environment than all the nutria in the world combined.

If we do not stop to reexamine the core values that got us to the global environmental crisis where we are now - greed, violence, denial, an absence of empathy - then we will continue to witness this insane paradox of human beings destroying "invasive species," even as the ultimate invasive species continues to carry out the slow (alas, sometimes not so slow) murder of Earth.