Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year to My Blog Pals!!!

This is a heartfelt wish for a Happy 2011 to my Blog Pals, kindred spirits, fellow travelers, etc., out in the Blogosphere. May 2011 bring you lots of happiness and joy!

Actually, 2010 was - in so many ways - a year of encouraging developments.

Think about everything that has happened. More and more people are going vegan, and the movement is becoming more mainstream. Bill Clinton endorsed a vegan diet, which is actually quite a remarkable thing.

Think of all the other big-name vegans who were very out-in-the-open about their veganism in 2010: Russell Simmons, Natalie Portman, Mort Zuckerman. Steve Wynn, the wealthy and powerful real estate/casino developer in Las Vegas, went vegan in 2010 and announced his plans to have vegan cuisine at his establishments.

7-Eleven even started having vegan foods at selected locations. Sure they were mostly in New York, but at least the convenience store chain is slowly moving in the right direction.

All across North America, animal rights activists mobilized, protesting everything from animal testing to the seal hunt to whaling. On March 7, 2010, the documentary film The Cove won the Academy Award for Best Picture and drew attention to barbaric dolphin hunting practices in Japan. Meantime, the legendary documentary Earthlings, which converted so many people - including Ellen DeGeneres - to veganism, found even wider circulation on the Internet.

This isn't to say that 2010 was without discouraging moments. I don't need to say here that we have a long ways to go. A particularly horrifying - and very regular - occurrence in 2010 were the countless factory farm fires across North America, which killed hundreds of thousands - possibly more than a million - animals.

Then there was the horrific BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which has most likely damaged the fragile ecosystem in that region for generations.

But a lot of progress was made in 2010. And I suspect 2011 will be even better.

I loved 2010 because it was my first full year of being a vegan after a lifetime of omnivore living. I am happy with the lifestyle. It no longer seems to be such a novelty like it was about a year ago this time, around the time I first started. Now it just seems like what I do - the way I breathe, pay bills, run errands, etc.

The day will come, I hope, when all human beings embrace this way of living, and when the consumption of meat and other animal products is viewed as the custom of a bygone era.

May 2011 bring us another step closer to that reality.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Ellen DeGeneres on Why She Became a Vegan

Have a look at this interview with Ellen DeGeneres. It's four minutes and twenty-eight seconds long. Her eloquence is inspiring. And it's great to have such a big shot on our side of the battlefield. In this interview with Katie Couric, DeGeneres - oh, what the hell, I'll call her Ellen like everyone else - Ellen discusses her reasons for supporting the well-being of animals and adopting a vegan diet. Like another famous animal lover, Betty White, Ellen is loved by millions. And when she speaks, people listen. This is just the sort of inspiration we need.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Courage to Stare Truth in the Face

Do you have the courage to stare truth in the face?

If so, watch this video about how our dairy products are made. Even if you're already a vegan, even if you think you know what you're going to see in this video, please take six and a half minutes and watch it anyway.

Truth is not always easy to bear. To watch the suffering that cows and their calves endure is heartbreaking. Many people can't take these videos. They find them too grim. I recall reading a Blog post from one of my favorite vegan cookbook authors, Sarah Kramer, where she said something to the effect that she couldn't watch too many of these videos. She already knew what was in them, and she simply couldn't stand to watch them again and again.

Fair enough. Vegans have already paid their dues. They "get it."

But if you're not a vegan, please have a look at this video. Even if it doesn't stop you from drinking milk or consuming other dairy products, it is important that you think before you eat or drink. Know what you are taking into your body. Know the price that has been paid by living, breathing, sentient beings. Know the violence and suffering that certain choices entail.

Life is short. It's precious. And it means as much to a cow - or any other animal - as it does to us. At this point, I'm going to let the wonderful singer Kate Bush have the last word:
I just could not stand the idea of eating meat - I really do think that it has made me calmer.... People's general awareness is getting much better, even down to buying a pint of milk: the fact that the calves are actually killed so that the milk doesn't go to them but to us cannot really be right, and if you have seen a cow in a state of extreme distress because it cannot understand why its calf isn't by, it can make you think a lot.

My Column in the Waterloo Region Record

Hello Blog Pals,

Today my column on Animal Sanctuaries in Canada ran in The Record. I'm reposting it here. I hope you enjoy it!


Christmas is a time to think of others, including animals

  • By Andrew Hunt
  • The Waterloo Region Record

Opinion columnists, including yours truly, often focus on the negative.

Wars overseas, battles over WikiLeaks, political strife, economic uncertainty and threats of terrorism have recently been among the topics of contention on editorial pages.

Occasionally, a column will appear that reminds us of the splendid work being done by Canadian volunteers. In this Christmas season, men and women have donated generously to charities or worked long hours to help make life a little better for those less fortunate. In a few cases, intrepid souls have even journeyed to trouble spots like Haiti to do what they can to help.

These Canadians deserve our praise and thanks. But it seems to me that of all the unsung heroes, the ones thanked the least are those helping animals. Whether they volunteer at shelters or adopt animals in need of homes, countless Canadians have shown — over and over — that ours is a society that cares about animals.

Some of the most remarkable work is happening in so-called animal sanctuaries, which provide safe havens where animals can live healthy and happy lives.

Animal sanctuaries are all over Canada. Each sanctuary has its own focus. For example, right here in our midst, the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada, located near Guelph, offers an idyllic atmosphere for donkeys.

Why donkeys? The sanctuary’s website explains: “Donkeys are often abused and neglected, and, once no longer wanted, placed into an equine auction. Then, if a buyer is not available at the moment of sale, the animal is sold to a slaughterhouse.”

The Donkey Sanctuary has been a success story, thanks to its founders, Sandra and David Pady, as well as the kind folks who volunteer or agree to sponsor donkeys through contributions. The donkeys are not only given a second chance, but they get to meet the many visitors to the farm – men, women and especially children who go to the sanctuary on a regular basis.

This is but one example. There are so many others. Here in Ontario alone, we have the Ferret Aid Society, bird sanctuaries (Freedom Flights, Cherished Wings, Parrot Adopt and Second Flight), Rabbit Rescue of Ontario and Trails End Rabbit Refuge and various wildlife sanctuaries, not to mention safe havens for dogs, cats and other companion animals.

Right in our own community, there is an organization dedicated to sheltering turtles (Turtle Haven) and we are blessed with the extraordinary Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory (formerly known as Wings of Paradise).

Support is essential to the survival of these sanctuaries. Donations are especially welcome, though some may also need volunteers.

Up in the Arthur/Mount Forest area, the Ruby Ranch Pig Sanctuary, situated on 12 acres of land, is home to some lively personalities. Seeing these pigs in action is to witness these amazing animals as they are meant to live. They frolic outdoors, make friends with other pigs and humans, and most importantly, they live healthy lives, full of love.

Compare this to the millions of pigs born into dark and cold enclosed spaces, mutilated by having their tails cut and castrated if they’re males, and living short lives, packed together by the thousands before meeting a violent end.

Places like Ruby Ranch, and all of the other animal sanctuaries across Canada, provide us with hopeful stories that have happy endings. They give us a glimpse of how animals and human beings are meant to interact. The people who run them do so with few resources and rarely do they get praised or thanked. Doing whatever you can to help them is a wonderful way of giving back.

Andrew Hunt is an associate professor of history at the University of Waterloo.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Some Ramblings on the Dilemma of Being a Sensitive Soul in Our Day & Age

Recently, I had another one of my slaughterhouse nightmares. Each time I dream the dream, I'm one of the animals - usually a chicken or a pig or a cow - waiting to be slaughtered, and listening to the forlorn sounds of my fellow chickens or pigs or cows as they're on their way to the same destination.

I've had the dream before, or a variation of it, several times. I always wake up very abruptly from it with my heart racing. I usually get up and read or listen to old-time radio shows on my MP3 player to calm me down. But there are occasions when I call up YouTube and watch one of the many videos about the horrific treatment of animals. Why I do this, I don't know. I think it might be my own effort to confirm the reality of my nightmare (as if it needs confirming). Sometimes I think I stare down into the abyss as an act of solidarity with the animals who are victims of human beings and their violent ways.

I have a theory about these bad dreams. I think they're a form of penance for all the meat I've eaten over the years. There is something liberating about opening one's eyes to suffering - in this case, the suffering of animals. But it can also be a painful experience. Once you gain knowledge of a wrongdoing or an injustice or mass suffering that you were unaware of before, you begin to see the world in a different way. You can't go back to where you were before. You can't unlearn what you've learned. It is impossible to live in ignorance ever again. There are no excuses to go back to the old ways of doing things. And you wouldn't want to anyway, knowing what you know now.

The real challenge of waking up to the suffering of animals is that there is just so damned much of it. Dogs, cats and other companion animals are being euthanized on a daily basis. The factory farm system is murdering billions of animals each year. Vast numbers of aquatic animals suffer a similar fate. Mammals have their fur ripped off them so unfeeling men and women like Justin Trudeau can pose with his family for Christmas cards.

There is a mass insanity about the way that human beings behave when it comes to animals. And when you figure this out, and then gaze deeply into the abyss - without restraint, without compromise, without myths or rationalizations - it can drive you crazy. Truly it can. It has driven me slightly crazy, I admit. I have nightmares. I seek out quiet places and sob. And I can begin to understand why this mass insanity drives good people to violence. I do not condone violence. Violence is what drove me to veganism. Veganism is a rejection of violence. But in a society such as ours, where violence - especially violence against animals - is so pervasive, how can that culture not rub off on you? How can you walk away from it with your humanity completely intact?

The dilemma for the humanist who sees things with clarity and who feels things deeply in her or his heart is that the mass murderers are essentially running the system, fulfilling the basic mission of supply and demand to a public of which only a tiny percentage is vegan.

It is important to look on the bright side, if for no other reason than to avoid being driven to utter madness by the mass violence we confront on a day to day basis.

Our numbers are growing. Veganism is being embraced by growing numbers of people. Flagrant abuse of animals is now almost always met by protests of some sort. Good people are mobilizing. Industries that specialize in animal products are introducing reforms to improve public relations and placate protesters. As Gary Francione points out, these forms of welfarism are not to be celebrated because they're aimed chiefly at making the mass destruction of animals more palatable to the general public. Still, they can also be seen as a sign of big businesses on the defensive.

There are reasons to be encouraged. But then there is also that dark abyss that we look into, and it drives us to feel a sorrow that is beyond description. That sorrow is rooted in the heartfelt empathy we feel toward animals and their suffering. There has been so much murdering and it continues every minute of every day. Every day I visit Gary Francione's Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach to read his amazing insights and refreshing common sense. And each time I visit it, I am confronted with that god-awful counter on the left side of the page that shows the number of animals killed since I logged onto the homepage.

When I see that counter, I feel deeply shaken. It is a sign of our collective madness as human beings. It is a numerical portrait of a sick society. How does somebody with a caring heart and a sensitive mind keep from breaking down completely from the overpowering weight of despair?

The answer - and it is a painful one - is that we cannot look into the abyss all the time. Just as we did in our past lives, before we opened our eyes to this suffering, we have to find the things in life that bring us happiness and meaning. This means spending time with loved ones. It means laughing and savoring the sound of others laughing, especially children. It means going on peaceful walks and enjoying the taste of delicious vegan food and listening to the music that speaks to our souls or slipping our favorite movies in the DVD player for a few hours of escape. It means turning away from - but not forgetting about - all of the darkness, the evil.

Sometimes, this is easier said than done. Recently, I proudly sponsored a beautiful pig at an animal sanctuary. As I looked at his picture, and thought of the happy life he is living in a safe haven where animals are loved and cherished, I could not help but let my thoughts drift to his fellow pigs that weren't so lucky. The pigs that are castrated. The pigs whose tails are cut. The pigs that live short lives in dark spaces, overwhelmed by the sorrowful cries of thousands and thousands of their fellow pigs.

These cries, once heard, are impossible to forget. I think about all of the uplifting pep talks I give to my students in my history courses about how one person can make a difference and, to quote the late, great Robert Kennedy, we all ought to try. I am not being hypocritical when I give that talk because on a good day I actually believe it.

Yet there are times when we have to put aside the Can-Do Optimism that is hammered into our heads by our media and our culture. We have to shut out all of this static so that we can feel the sadness. We each need to create within us a reservoir where we allow the despair to reside.

Antonio Gramsci spoke of the need to be pessimists of the intellect and optimists of the will. What he meant by that, I think, is that we need to jettison the Pollyanna optimism and acknowledge the scale of the evil around us. But the balancing act involved here is that we cannot let it drive us crazy.

Because if there is any hope to end the mass suffering of animals - any hope whatsoever - it rests with those who have stared down into the abyss, who have felt the sorrow fully in their hearts, and who have taken a deeply personal vow to do whatever they can - what little they can - in our fleeting moment on earth to wage war against the madness. And who knows? Perhaps the day will not come when all animals will be born into a peaceful world that respects their dignity and right to life. Yet we owe it to them to preserve our sanity enough to do what little we can to advocate on their behalf.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Video That is Powerful in the First Half, Not so Good in the Second... And Here's Why...

Please watch this devastating video, made by the Humane Society of the United States, depicting the horrific conditions inside Smithfield Foods, with a focus on the company's use of gestation crates. The video is both powerful and disappointing. And you'll see why when you watch it.

I applaud this HSUS video in some respects and disagree very strongly with it in other ways. The part of the video I like best is the first half, where the HSUS very bravely exposes the deplorable practice of gestation crates inside of Smithfield and documents exactly just how horrible and destructive these narrow confined spaces really are.

The second part of the video is less impressive. HSUS spokesman Paul Shapiro praises other pork producers in the U.S. and the E.U. for getting rid of gestation crates. When the video quotes Temple Grandin two minutes in, then it really begins to go downhill.

The real crime is not gestation crates, and the HSUS needs to be reminded of this. Gestation crates are a symptom, not the root, of the problem. The root of the problem - and I know I'm preaching to the converted when it comes to most of you who read this Blog, but what the hell? I'm going to say it anyway - the real root of the problem is the violence inherent in all industries that produce animal products.

Suppose all pork producers get rid of gestation crates, which, as this HSUS video points out, has happened already throughout much of the industry. It is still killing machine that destroys the lives of millions and millions - ultimately billions of pigs - each year.

So yes, let's dismantle all remaining gestation crates. But let's not stop there. What is happening in this racket is, in the words of John Steinbeck (from The Grapes of Wrath) "a crime that goes beyond denunciation." Tinkering won't change it. Reform won't change it. This is a Lernaean Hydra we're talking about here, and the only way to stop its rampage of destruction and terror is to sever all of its heads. Nonviolently, of course. But if you stop at gestation crates, the monster will live on, and will continue to devour innocent beings that deserve to live.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bill Clinton as PETA's Man of the Year? Hmmmmm...

Remember that song by C+C Music Factory that was popular about 20 years ago called "Things That Make You Go Hmmm"? It was based on one of Arsenio Hall's favorite taglines (talk about relics of the early nineties!).

Anyway, Bill Clinton winning People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' (PETA) "Man of the Year" award today was definitely one of those things that made me go hmmm. Most of you already knew by now that Clinton adopted a mostly vegan diet in May of this year.

Yeah, OK, I know that just the other day I said that on balance, maybe - maybe - animal rights advocates should stick with PETA, despite the mistakes and lousy stands the organization has made over the past several years.

And yeah, I know Bill Clinton is the most high-profile figure to embrace a vegan diet in 2010, which does a lot to bring the issue of veganism into the mainstream. That's terrific. And I'm especially happy that the vegan diet has worked wonders in helping to improve Clinton's health.

Bill Clinton explained his vegan diet on a national talk show:
I live on beans, legumes, vegetables, fruit. I drink a protein supplement every morning -- no dairy, I drink almond milk mixed in with fruit and a protein powder so I get the protein for the day when I start the day up. (Source)
And PETA defended its decision to name Clinton its "Man of the Year" thusly (in the words of Senior Vice President Dan Matthews):
Bill Clinton won not only because he's the most prominent person to go vegan this year but also because he used his platform to articulate the reasons why a plant-based diet is the most healthy diet. And of course, it doesn't hurt that he has Chelsea's lead to follow. She went vegan at 10, though her motivation was simply not wanting to support cruelty to animals. (Source)
I saw Clinton's interviews when he made the big announcement and he was extremely careful not to raise the issue of animal rights at any point. Moreover, Clinton admitted in all of those interviews that he eats fish. (Media outlets said Clinton was on a "mostly vegan" diet; is there such a thing??? I always thought you were either vegan or you weren't. Maybe I'm wrong...)

My purpose here is not to nitpick. I suppose my main concern is that there are a growing number of people embracing a vegan diet purely for health reasons. They want to lose weight. They want to feel healthier. And that's good. I'm happy to see it.

But when ethics are not at the root of these choices, then the "Vegan Diet" becomes a fad much like the South Beach Diet or the Atkins Diet (remember that god-awful thing??? I remember a loved one eating bacon all day long!!! Blech!).

People go on these fad diets. They lose weight fast (I lost 25 pounds instantaneously when I became a vegan... sadly a lot of his crept back on). And maybe in the process, the number of animals getting murdered dips slightly because of it.

But, much like all of those people who ditched the South Beach and Atkins diets after they quickly lost 10 or 15 or however many pounds, it's likely that a lot folks who become vegans for health reasons - like Bill Clinton - may very well end up following the same path.

It's difficult because of the temptation to cheer on every little advance that veganism makes. And I'm glad Bill Clinton is getting healthy again thanks to veganism - or a "mostly vegan" diet, I should say. But PETA giving him this award celebrates someone who became a vegan purely for health reasons, not to consciously help bring an end to the death and suffering of animals. Do his actions help animals? Probably some lives will be saved.

But you also have to look at intentions in these cases. Even if Clinton drew attention to the pluses of a vegetable-based diet, he did not - in any meaningful way - challenge the destructive system that is killing large numbers of animals every second of every day. Clinton deserves to be commended for his personal choices. But awarded? And by an organization that is supposed to champion animal rights?

Like I said at the outset, file this one under the "Things That Make You Go Hmmm" category.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Vegan Fast Food Restaurants??? Bring 'em on!!!

Heather Mills (right), the ex-wife of Paul McCartney, started her own vegan restaurant in London called VBites in 2009. Now she's vowing that she's going to start a fast-food vegan chain that is going to be bigger than McDonald's. (Source)

Good for Heather. I've always said that vegan fast-food restaurants are one of the keys to winning over omnivores who'd never otherwise consider eating vegan food. If you deliver great food at an affordable cost, people will come.

Hard to say whether it'll really be bigger than McDonald's. As of 2007, McDonald's boasted 30,000 restaurants in 119 countries serving an estimated 50 million people every day. I'm sure the chain has grown in the last three years. Even in economic hard times - let me re-phrase that: especially in economic hard times - people still flock to McDonald's.

Veganism is a hard sell to omnivores. I know. I was an omnivore most of my life, as recently as last year. If you slap the label of "Vegan" on something, a hell of a lot of omnivores are going to go out of their way to avoid it. There is this notion - a false one, but a very, very widespread one - that vegan food tastes like, well, can I say it? Shit.

That's far from the truth. But it's impossible to deny that a lot of people think that.

So Heather Mills might be a tad ambitious. Plus she isn't helped by the fact that compared to other fast-food joints, the prices at VBites ($11 Caesar salads; $8 soya burgers; $12 mini-pizzas with soya cheese) are a little higher. You pay more for vegan chow at VBites. It would be nice to have a vegan fast-food restaurant with prices as cheap as the omnivore ones.

But Heather's heart is in a wonderful place. And I hope she does get that chain started. Because delicious vegan fast food will find a following, I'm convinced, and - who knows? - it might even draw some people away from Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's, etc. etc. What a blessing that would be. And how nice it would be for vegans to have a place where there isn't only one damn token item on the menu (at the more thoughtful places!) for us to order.

Incidentally, Jessica Simpson's fiance', Eric Johnson (ex-San Francisco 49ers tight end) has said he also plans to open a vegan fast-food chain. (Source) We can only hope that both chains spread like gangbusters. Imagine vegans having to choose between two different fast-food places, the way omnivores debate Wendy's versus McDonald's (or McDonald's versus Burger King).

The day that happens, we'll know that veganism - to quote from the old TV show The Jeffersons - will be "a-movin' on up."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Few Thoughts on the Old Fur vs. Leather Issue

The debate over fur gets very intense. And it always gets me wondering why anti-fur militants do not respond in a like fashion to people wearing leather. Oh sure, we have to pick and choose our struggles. Each person fighting in the trenches for an end to animal exploitation is a welcome comrade. But you can't deny that fur causes an emotional reaction among those who dislike it that is far more visceral than other types of animal-related clothing.

Pictured here is MP Justin Trudeau, son of the late former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and now a Member of Parliament from Quebec. He is seen here with his wife and children, posing for their annual Christmas card and wearing furs.

The card sparked a heated protest, with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) leading the charge. I don't have the same problems with PETA that some other abolitionist vegans do. I know that any organization that fights on as many fronts as PETA does is bound to take some really shitty stands, but for every one of these they take, they also adopt some damn good positions and reach out to a hell of a lot of people. Many people have been moved to embrace veganism by the powerful PETA video, narrated by Alec Baldwin, that tells omnivores where their meat comes from. I paid dues to PETA last year, I'll pay them again this year. Despite my differences with the organization, I realize that ours is a huge battle, on a big front, and when we begin turning on each other, this movement will begin writing its own obituary.

That said, singling out fur over the production of other types of animal products has always been something I've never understood. It seems to place a higher priority on one type of animal over another. I do not mind people protesting Justin Trudeau. That doesn't bother me. In fact, the question arises: What if this Christmas card went public and nobody spoke out?

Still, it is impossible to ignore that fur causes a far more passionate outcry than leather or other types of clothing made out of animals, and for no good reason at all. The English stand-up comic Alexei Sayle had a funny and very cynical explanation for this: "People are more violently opposed to fur than to leather because it's safer to harass rich women than motorcycle gangs."

Of course, I don't buy Sayle's point - humorously though it may've been made. And I am a firm believer in fighting struggles on a very broad front and putting aside differences (as long as we all agree to zero violence). This is exactly what conservatives in the United States have done - put aside petty sectarian squabbling - and look at how successful they have been. When we turn on those in the movement we don't think are perfect, instead of keeping the focus on the institutions and ways of thinking that abuse and exploit animals, we begin to fight a doomed battle. But that doesn't mean we can't wonder, aloud, why some animals seem provoke a more emotional outcry than others. Any animal being exploited for any reason deserves equal sympathy - not only by this movement as a whole, but by us as individuals.

Stories of Hope: A Beautiful Reunion!

Try to watch this video without getting choked up. It is yet another reminder that animals have emotions, memories and form bonds. We already knew that. But seeing it - really seeing it - is deeply moving, and reminds us why we support Animal Rights and Veganism.

A Christmas Message Worth Remembering...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Stories of Hope (Dec. 7 & Dec. 8): A New Vegan Cooking Show & the Adventures of Scrub the Cat

December 7: Kudos to The Cooking Channel for announcing that it will air the first-ever show aimed at vegan foodies called The Veg Edge. The show will actually air for the first time on December 9 (but I read the story yesterday, which is why I'm counting it as my Dec. 7 "Story of Hope"). It will feature chefs preparing all kinds of dishes aimed at vegan viewers, and it promises to be quite a breakthrough - the first all-vegan cooking program. This is yet another sign of the growing influence of the vegan community, which is gaining new adherents every day. As The Cooking Channel noted:

“The Veg Edge journeys the country unearthing a new breed of vegetarians. From a punk rock vegan in L.A. to vegetable-loving firemen deep in the heart of Texas to a kickboxing chef who serves up meatless Mondays at his high-end NYC restaurant. Vegetarians 2010: food carts in Portland, a California beauty, East Village hipsters, confessions, recipes, even ribs…sort of.” (Source)

December 8: Scrub, a cat from Biloxi, Mississippi, described by The New York Daily News as a "battle scarred Tabby," was reunited with his forever family after being separated from them five years ago during Hurricane Katrina. After Scrub went missing back in '05, his family gave up hope of ever seeing their beloved cat again. Recently, thanks to microchip technology, the Humane Society was able to track down Scrub's owners - Chris and Jennifer Noble - and the family had a joyous reunion with the cat they loved so much. As local Humane Society director Tara High noted: "This is the power of microchipping. There is no other way the cat would've found its family. This is a very dramatic story with a wonderful ending." (Source)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Stories of Hope (Dec. 6): Helping Chickens Stay Warm

Chickens are on the receiving end of the worst brutality imaginable. They are packed into dark spaces, pushed together in crowds of tens of thousands, forced to gain weight faster than they're meant to (usually twice as fast as normal) and far beyond their normal weight level. As the group Compassion in World Farming noted: "The birds are pushed to reach their slaughter weight in just forty days." (Source) Once they are ready to be slaughtered, they end up dying in a cold and impersonal assembly-line fashion. These creatures - capable of forming bonds, capable of enjoying sunny days and beautiful grassy fields... sentient beings with feelings and emotions - end up living short lives that end in the most brutal way imaginable. Once they're dead, they end up statistics, food on dinner plates, bones in the garbage.

But some human beings are determined to help these beautiful creatures. In England, there's a group of volunteers that does something quite extraordinary. These kind-hearted folks knit sweaters for chickens that have been rescued from commercial farms. Since the summer, compassionate animal lovers have knit more than 100 sweaters for chickens. Due to the awful living conditions in chicken farms, many of these poor birds end up losing a lot of their feathers, which makes them especially vulnerable to the cold weather. The knitters are from Hebben Bridge, West Yorkshire, and they're united in the belief that these extraordinary chickens deserve to live lives of dignity and comfort. To that end, they've held "knit-ins" - in which they make numerous sweaters for the rescued chickens. As organizer Amy Leader put it: "In the winter, the hens need a little bit of help keeping warm." She added that finding volunteers has actually been quite easy. "Everyone went mad for it and wanted to do it straight away." (Source)

The knit-ins will continue through the winter and Leader predicts they will become a tradition in the UK. In fact, with Christmas approaching, some of the knitters are making festive outfits for the featherless chickens. "Maybe we can make little Santa hats for them," said Leader. "The possibilities are endless."

Proof again - as if we need more - that there are plenty of wonderful people out there who want to help - not hurt - our animal friends. If this isn't what the spirit of Christmas is all about, then what is?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Stories of Hope (Dec. 5): In Praise of Animal Sanctuaries

There are so many animal sanctuaries I could single out here. These are safe havens for animals, run by people who love them (usually vegans or vegetarians), where all kinds of living beings - pigs and chickens, dogs and cats, bunnies and cows - can live full and peaceful lives, without the threat of being killed. Which one to praise? I picked the wonderful folks at the Ruby Ranch Pig Sanctuary, located right here in Ontario, for all the wonderful work they do to help pigs in all shapes and sizes. If you get a chance, have a look at their Website. The pigs who live at Ruby Ranch enjoy a wonderful quality of life - the way all pigs are meant to live - and the Video I've posted here shows a few of them outside, enjoying the sunshine and just "hanging out" with compassionate humans.

There are so many other animal sanctuaries that do wonderful work that I could not possibly hope to single out all of them on this Blog. Suffice it to say that if you Google "animal sanctuary" or "animal sanctuaries," you'll get a list of these wonderful places in your area. Help them out, if you can. I plan to donate later this month as a Christmas gift to the pigs. Your help - any help - will not only improve the lives of these animals, it will underwrite the kind folks who work so hard, with no real fanfare or applause, and often with the tightest of shoestring budgets. They're the unsung heroes and heroines of our society. But I think nearly all of these volunteers would be the first to say that it is not they who are blessing the animals - it is the animals that are blessing us.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Stories of Hope (Dec. 4): Animal Videos Do Not Get Cuter Than This One...

I challenge you to find an animal video that is cuter that this one. It shows a dog, cat, bunny and guinea pig who are all close buddies. They hang out together and show great affection for one another. The video is both tender and touching. Once again, the theme of animals forming bonds with each other is very evident in these scenes. It is only a short video - about a minute and a half - but it packs a lot into those 92 seconds.

The video is also yet another reason to go vegan. The animals shown here are typically companion animals (although rabbits can often end up on dinner plates). Yet all animals that omnivores typically consume - cows, pigs, chickens, lambs, etc. - possess the same capacity to form bonds and show just as deep of affection toward one another.

If omnivores really want to live according to the spirit of Christmas, they'll stop killing these amazing creatures and instead celebrate all living things.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Stories of Hope (Dec. 3): Animals Helping Animals

This is truly one of the most amazing videos I've ever seen. It's from a couple years back (2008, I believe). It was shot in Chile and shows one dog rescuing another dog, an injured dog, on a busy freeway. The first dog shown in the video is hit by an oncoming vehicle, but this particular story has a happy ending: The second dog in the video, the hero of this story, saved the life of his injured comrade by - as the announcer points out - wrapping his paws around the dog and dragging him to safety. It is an astonishing video - and it shows what we already know: Animals are nothing short of incredible, to the point of being profound. They're intelligent. They form bonds with each other. And they have tremendous courage.

We didn't need this video to tell us that. Still, it's always meaningful to have our beliefs verified by something so harrowing and moving.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Stories of Hope (Dec. 2): A Lovely Video About Hope & Going Vegan at 7-Eleven!!!

OK, OK, I know this story has nothing to do with animals. Well, at least not directly. But it's still good news. At 7-Eleven convenience stores in the New York City area, vegan meals will be available for purchase. I've said lots of times - in this Blog and elsewhere - that one of the keys to successfully spreading veganism is to make decent vegan food readily available to the public. And that means - excuse the pun - beefing up vegan selections at fast-food places and convenience stores.

According to famed New York Blog The Gothamist: "Choices will include Pad Thai noodles, vegetable lo mein, Shanghai dumplings, artichoke spinach noodles and Hunan dumplings." Mmm mmm. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.

If the vegan meals are successful, there's a chance they may spread beyond New York City. And having vegan options at places like 7-Eleven, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, etc. etc., will go far toward nudging veganism into the mainstream and making it seem more acceptable to people who'd otherwise not even give it the time of day.

While I'm not wild about these places, there is no denying that a whole hell of a lot of people at at them, and broadening their horizons to include vegan food (I know Burger King has a veggie burger) would go far toward helping people realize that vegan food can come in all shapes and sizes, and can even take the form of fast food.

For those of you who aren't quite as thrilled as I am about the prospect of a vegan 7-Eleven, I'm including a hopeful video (below) about animals who were saved by loving human beings. Have a look. It's very touching.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Stories of Hope (Dec. 1): The Town that Rallied to Save a Cub

This month, with the Holidays fast approaching, I am going to try to focus on positive stories about the special relationship between people and animals.

In the small northern ski town of Incline Village, Nevada, an entire town rallied together to save a sick and orphaned bear cub. Townsfolk found the cub alone and severely malnourished in a meadow near the town. "She looked dazed when I found her," said Madonna Dunbar, who works as a conservationist for the Incline Village General Improvement District. "She was definitely underweight." (Source) BEAR League Executive Director Ann Bryant added: "She was about a basketball-sized cub. She was shivering and listless and approaching people in search of help." Thanks to Bryant, Dunbar and other volunteers who took the time to care for the cub and feed her, the bear made a remarkable comeback. Now the bear has been moved to an animal sanctuary in Reno called Animal Ark. She will live with another orphaned bear cub and receive lots of TLC for the next year. Eventually, volunteers will attempt to transition her from captivity to wildlife.

With all of the exploitation, factory farming, animal abuse and wanton destruction of life that you hear about all the time, it is deeply moving to hear stories like this one. This is a tale with a happy ending, and those are more common than you might think. More importantly, it shows that there are plenty of good people out there who genuinely care about animals and are doing what they can to help. If we lose sight of these stories and just focus on all the grim and tragic tales, we run the risk of succumbing to despair.

Keep in mind: There are lots of kindred spirits out there who care about the animals and will do whatever it takes to help.

By the way, Happy Hanukkah.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Know thine enemy...

Sit down - if you're not already - and prepare for the bad news. The organization Food & Water Watch's "Factory Farm Map" has gone online and it paints a very grim picture. Have a look for yourself - - and you'll see a map of the United States inundated from coast to coast with factory farms in every state. The interactive map is loaded with all sorts of information, breaking down factory farms by animals (hogs, beef cattle, hens, etc.) and it includes information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's census data from 1997, 2002 and 2007.

Undoubtedly, the most discouraging finding from the organization is that between 2002 and 2007, the amount of livestock in America's biggest factory farms has increased 20 percent.

Here are some more findings quoted directly from Food & Water Watch's Factory Farm Map information:

o In five years, total animals on factory farms grew by 5 million, or more than 20 percent.
o Cows on factory dairy farms nearly doubled from 2.5 million cows in 1997 to 4.9 million in 2007. Factory dairy farms growth in western states like Idaho, California, New Mexico and Texas shifted the dairy industry away from traditional states like Wisconsin, New York and Michigan.
o Beef cattle on industrial feedlots rose 17 percent from 2002 to 2007 - adding about 1,100 beef cattle to feedlots every day for five years.
o Nationally, about 5,000 hogs were added to factory farms every day for the past decade.
o The growth of industrial broiler chicken production added 5,800 chickens every hour over the past decade.
o Egg laying hens on factory farms increased by one-quarter over the decade.

o The average size of factory farms increased by 9 percent in five years, cramming more animals into each operation.
o In 2007, the average factory-farmed dairy held nearly 1,500 cows and the average beef feedlot held 3,800 beef cattle.
o The average size of hog factory farms increased by 42 percent over a decade.
o Five states with the largest broiler chicken operations average more than 200,000 birds per factory farm. (Source)
Factory farms are gruesome industries. Not only do they brutally exterminate billions and billions of innocent animals, they have been shown - in study after study - to be some of the worst polluters in the world. They often end up filling nearby water supplies with toxic waste. They are poorly regulated. And the people who run them are obsessed with maximizing profits and, at best, give only lip service to adopting proper safety codes and adhering to industry standards.

It is clear from this map that these institutions are metastasizing like cancer, spreading to every part of the United States. I'm sure an interactive map of factory farms would paint an equally grim picture in Canada and other countries around the world. These businesses operate in our communities, carrying out the most violent slaughter imaginable behind high fences and thick walls, hiding horrors from the world because the men and women who run these rackets know that if everybody could see what happens inside, billions of people would convert to veganism.

Farewell, Prince Chunk...

Prince Chunk was a celebrity cat. He got up to 44 pounds. He gained fame a few years ago, in 2008, when his owner lost her home and she left Prince Junk to wander the streets in New Jersey. He was eventually taken in at the Camden County Animal Shelter. He became something of a celebrity, chiefly for his enormous size. He appeared on Good Morning America and Live With Regis and Kelly. (Source)

Unlike so many cats in shelters, who ultimately face a lonely death of euthanasia, Prince Chunk's ordeal actually had a happy ending. He found a "Forever Family" that adopted him and showered him with love and affection. Vince Damiani and his family adopted the cat and took him to their wonderful home in Blackwood, New Jersey. They were chosen among 500 applicants (!) who were competing to adopt the beautiful but undeniably portly cat.

Sadly, Prince Chunk passed away on Sunday. I know he will be sorely missed in the Damiani household, and he's no doubt in the prayers of a lot of kind folks who remember seeing him in news reports two years ago.

But his recent passing did stir an important debate about pet obesity. It's actually a crucial issue, one often overlooked in debates about animals. I have a beautiful cat named Summer who weighs about 17 pounds and I have to keep her on a diet because she is considered overweight. When I adopted her from the Humane Society, she weighed even a little more. Thanks to a diet that I put her on last month, Summer is losing weight and feeling better.

It's hard with pets. A lot of us work during the day, and sometimes we just end up pouring copious amounts of food in their dishes because we don't want them to go hungry. But as Prince Junk's story tell us, pet obesity is an important issue. Prince Junk was somewhere between 10 and 12 years old (the news accounts vary), but he may've lived at least a few more years if his weight weren't an issue. (Source) Who knows?

For our animal companions, a healthy diet is the key to a happy life. Sometimes I forget this, especially when the combination of my pro-animal rights philosophy meets my libertarian style of doing things around the home. Sometimes, I fill that cat dish too full and I go on about my business.

But the passing of Prince Junk will make me think twice about being nonchalant about these matters. He was a beautiful cat. He lived a good life. But I'm glad his experience has drawn attention to the important issue of pet obesity.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A deeply moving video worth watching

Pardon my absence for several days. I was knee-deep in marking papers and various administrative jobs that come with being an academic. Even when I'm away from this Blog for days, animals are constantly on my mind. I am about to celebrate the year-long anniversary of converting to veganism. The conversion came as a bit of a shock to me at first, because I went from being an omnivore to a vegan with no "vegetarian transition." Since then, there have been times when I miss certain foods with animal products. Not meat. Never meat. But I do miss cheese and milk and, from time to time, even fish.

Once you cross a certain threshold, though, it is impossible to go back to the old ways of doing things. Your eyes are opened. You become enlightened. And it is impossible to unlearn what you've learned. I think that's why, to paraphrase the great Paul McCartney, slaughterhouses do not have glass walls. When you go over the edge of Niagara Falls, you can't get back to the top of it again.

This video I'm posting today is a powerful and heartfelt declaration by a fellow vegan about her reasons for choosing that lifestyle. It is one of the best of these types of videos I have ever seen (and believe me, I've seen my fair share). Please watch it and share it with others if you get a chance. Animals deserve to live long lives of happiness, to form bonds with other animals and human beings, and they have a right not to live in darkness and fear and despair. And we humans have no right to murder them, to end their lives violently.

And unfortunately, on this issue, there is no compromise, no safe middle ground. Don't buy the bull about "happy meat" and "ethical" animal slaughter. Certain words just don't go together. Happy and meat, for instance. Ethical and slaughter, for instance. Humane and factory farming, for instance. Let's ditch the Orwellian terminology and see things as they really are. Once we take a good, hard look at the horrors of what animals experience, that's when we get our moments of clarity. That is when we know what needs to be done. And that is when we realize what, exactly, in this world is ethical and what is right.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Heroic dog's tragic end shows the tragedy of euthanasia

The news from Arizona is grim. A heroic German Shepherd mix named Target, who saved the lives of 50 soldiers in Afghanistan by alerting them to a bomb, was euthanized in a suburban animal shelter by mistake.

Apparently, Target had recently gone missing and was picked up by the pound staff. She was mistaken for a stray and "put down." Ruth Slater, director of Pinal County's Animal Care and Control division, said in a statement: "When it comes to euthanizing an animal, there are some clear-cut procedures to follow. Based on my preliminary investigation, our employee did not follow those procedures." (Source) Target was actually owned by Sergeant Terry Young, who adopted her in Afghanistan. Needless to say, Young and his family were distraught to hear that Target was euthanized so fast after turning up at the shelter. Young reported her missing on Friday. He found out she was at the shelter, but it was closed on the weekend. He raced over there Monday to pick her up. By then, she was dead.

Target was a nationwide celebrity. She appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and her story was known to millions. Her heroism in Afghanistan transformed her overnight into a larger-than-life dog in the United States.

Her death is a tragedy. But, when you think about it, it's no more tragic than the deaths of animals in shelters across the country. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has noted:

"The HSUS estimates that animal shelters care for between 6-8 million dogs and cats every year in the United States, of whom approximately 3-4 million are euthanized. At this time The HSUS can only estimate these figures because there is no central data reporting agency for animal shelters. This overpopulation of companion animals is widely acknowledged across the country by professionals and experts in the animal welfare field. Overpopulation is a tragedy. There are simply not enough responsible homes for all of these wonderful, innocent animals. At this point in time, it would be impossible to humanely house every unwanted animal in the United States." (Source)

That's just in the United States. The scene isn't much more hopeful in Canada, and it paints a troubling picture of throw-away societies that place little value on the lives of animals. Many times on this Blog, I've praised the brave men and women who work in shelters across the country and are given the unenviable task of having to put these animals to death. Make no mistake about it: They don't want to do it. It makes them heartsick to euthanize animals. It is the ultimate act of love and compassion. When I condemn the "throw-away" culture, they are 100 percent exempt.

No, I'm talking about the collective culture of people who are so shortsighted they don't spay and neuter their pets or take adequate care of them. Obviously, Sergeant Young did not fall into this category. He adored Target, and so did his family. And there are countless other animal owners who take wonderful care of their pets.

But there are also owners who can't be bothered to take decent care of their cats or dogs or other companion animals. And there are more than you'd think. Too often, they drop off innocent and unsuspecting animals at shelters across the country and expect others to do their dirty work. Not all people who take their animals to shelters fall into this category. There are a number of pet owners who have legitimate reasons for giving up their animals, and such partings often end up being very painful. Yet there is no denying that there are also many who drop off animals at shelters due to their own responsibility or unwillingness to take adequate care of these family members.

Target was the victim of this widespread irresponsibility. Shelters are filled to capacity due to that irresponsibility. And this heroic dog paid dearly for that. But so do millions and millions of other companion animals, each and every year. Their lives are as sacred as the life of Target, the dog that won so many hearts for her bravery in Afghanistan.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Just what does she mean by "very normal"?

I don't know which was worse: The gruesome descriptions of the nearly 1,000 dead pigs found at a farm in Fulton County, Pennsylvania (right), or the response of the real estate agent who is now trying to find a buyer for the farm.

In case you haven't heard the news, authorities made a grisly discovery on a Pennsylvania farm on Monday: between 950 and 1,000 dead pigs were left to starve to death.

"I was horrified when I opened the door and saw what I saw," said Dennis Bumbaugh, a police officer with the Better Days Animal League. "All I know at this point is that I'm dealing with a heck of a lot of dead animals." (Source)

The farm, in Union Township, belongs to a couple named Dennis and Kerron Clark, who have reportedly separated in recent years. Dennis left the farm in August and stopped taking care of the pigs. Thanks to him, now the place has become an open-air mass grave.

The poor animals died over a period of several months and in extreme agony.

Almost as appalling as the hundreds of pigs perishing in such an excruciating way was the reaction of realtor Rebecca Glesner of Long and Foster Real Estate, who is in the unenviable position of trying to sell the giant death house.

Her response to the gruesome scene? "I think this is very normal in a lot of farming operations, that you're going to have dead animals." (Source)

Dude, you didn't say that. Tell me you didn't say that!

Very normal? Just what in God's name do you define as "very normal?"

Sadly, systematic and institutionalized cruelty is normal in the factory farm racket. From the time they're piglets, pigs live short and violent lives, often kept in dark and poorly ventilated places. Female pigs in gestation crates have no room to move around. Pigs unable to move on their own due to sickness or injury are carried to slaughter on forklifts. In many operations, pigs are conscious and aware of being slaughtered. And even in the more "humane" farms that successfully put pigs to sleep, their deaths are still violent and bloody. Don't fool yourself into believing that if an animal is unconscious, everything is OK.

But as horrific as the treatment of pigs in the factory farm system is, it's not quite as awful as allowing these poor animals to starve to death.

Maybe the simple fact that the terrible treatment of pigs is "normal" should cause us to step back and call for an end to the violence that human beings inflict on millions of these animals every single day in all parts of the world.

This mass starvation of pigs is but the latest in a long, long, long catalogue of unspeakably awful episodes of animal abuse. And it is emblematic of a wasteful society that both fails to protect animals and puts an incredibly low price on life.

Remember that all pigs began like this little fellow right here. They are intelligent animals who have feelings and memories, form bonds, and even communicate with each other. They need warmth and love and care, not neglect, abuse, starvation and violence.

What right have we to call ourselves a "civilization" while we're condoning - either through direct endorsement or simply looking the other way - the mass slaughter of these beautiful and very important beings?

Monday, November 8, 2010

The tragic fate of Ben Franklin's beloved birds

I celebrate two Thanksgivings. Being a Canadian and an American, Thanksgiving for me comes twice a year: once in October, once in November.

Back in my omnivore days, I didn't think much about the turkeys I was eating. The thought of these birds suffering when they were alive never even crossed my mind, to be honest.

There were plenty of other things to think about. I cherished the time I spent with family. When I celebrated American Thanksgiving with loved ones in the United States, I looked forward to shopping the next day. I loved the warm feeling in the house while the dinner was cooking, especially that magical blend of aromas of the baked bread and roasted turkey. And I cherished the sound of laughter and the happiness of loved ones inside the house as the steam collected on the window panes and it got colder and colder outside.

So much to think about. Who really has time to consider the turkey?

The great enlightenment thinker, inventor, author and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin thought the turkey should be the national bird of the newly created United States of America. He saw in the turkey great beauty and dignity. He thought the turkey was an appropriate symbol for a great nation.

Franklin was also a vegetarian. He didn't eat turkeys. He thought turkeys were so majestic, he refused to eat them.

What would Ben Franklin think if he were to return to North America today, to witness the deplorable ways that turkeys are treated on mass-production turkey farms? I'm certain he would be appalled. And I have no doubt he would have some words of wisdom to share with us.

In his religious beliefs, Franklin was a deist. That means he believed in a God that did not intervene in human affairs. In Franklin's view, human beings had to monitor their own morality, and he thought all of us - men and women, young and old - have an obligation to let reason and rational thinking be our guides in life.

Franklin, I have a feeling, would tell us that we cannot continue to live in denial when it comes to the suffering of animals. He would be particularly troubled by the fate of the bird he admired so much, the turkey.

I have posted a video here from the wonderful folks at Farm Sanctuary. It gives us a disturbing glimpse of the short and violent lives that turkeys live. As Farm Sanctuary notes, between 250 million and 300 million turkeys are raised for slaughter in the United States alone. Millions are raised for the same purpose here in Canada. Conditions on many turkey farms are deplorable. And even the ones that treat the turkeys more humanely share the same goal as the ones that abuse the poor creatures: The mass and systematic slaughter of Ben Franklin's beloved birds.

There is another way of coexisting with turkeys, a better way. Farm Sanctuary has an Adopt-a-Turkey program. PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - lobbies presidents of the United States to spare the life of the White House's Thanksgiving turkey and go vegetarian. Animal sanctuaries across North America - in the United States and Canada alike - offer a healthy environment where turkeys can live, free of violence.

If I'm being perfectly honest, I'll admit that - from time to time - I miss the old turkey Thanksgiving dinners, especially when October and November roll around. I see packaged turkeys in the freezer section at the grocery store and my thoughts drift back to those warm nights at my grandma's house when I cleaned off my plate (after second helpings!) and felt a strong urge to doze off in the middle of the football game.

But then I look at the poor turkeys and the toll that Thanksgiving takes on them. I would never ask any omnivore to give up his or her Thanksgiving turkey, but what I would ask - what I've always asked - is that they watch videos like the one I've posted here.

Know what you are eating. Know the violence your choices entail. Know that these birds deserve life, not death.

Be enlightened. Good old Ben Franklin, if he were here among us, would ask the same thing.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Another undercover documentary having a big impact...

In the UK, the animal rights organization Viva! has filmed a very important undercover documentary about the egg hatchery racket. Even if you think you know what's happening in this business, please take four minutes and 53 seconds out of your day and watch this short film.

As Viva! points out in this film, about 40-50 million chicks are killed per year in Britain alone, most of them dying in electric mincers or gassed alive, as shown in this film.

This is heartbreaking footage. And if you don't live in England (and I don't), please don't go thinking, "Those are terrible conditions they've got in the UK. Good thing it's not that way here."

Remember: What you see in this film is Standard Operating Procedure in the egg-hatching industry all over the world. It is a profound immoral business, and this film shows precisely why that is the case.

Good for Viva! for filming these horrors. Films like this one are making a huge difference. Videos such as this one are getting lots and lots of hits on YouTube, and they're winning new converts for our side every day.

A proper punishment for hog farm owners

It was so wonderful to see 23 charges filed against two hog-barn operators in Winnipeg who severely neglected their 2,000 hogs, which resulted in authorities finding 400 of them dead or dying, and later destroying 160 of the animals.

According to an article today's Winnipeg Free Press, the charges laid against the farmers in Notre Dame de Lourdes included (among others):

  • failure to provide adequate food and water to more than 2,000 pigs
  • failing to provide adequate medical attention to hundreds of wounded or ill animals
  • confining more than 2,400 animals in a space with inadequate ventilation, according to court documents

I know that vegan purists and hardcore animal rights advocates who don't have any use for "welfarism" might argue that punishing animal abusers misses the point: All exploitation of animals must end. Punishing the abusers soothes the public into believing that justice is being served and everything is going to be OK. I get it. I understand the concern.

But for years, the justice system has traditionally let animal abusers off the hook. Authorities looked the other way. The worst abusers never even got a slap on the wrist. People were allowed to do pretty much anything they wanted to animals without facing any consequences for their actions.

Things are changing. There is a heightened consciousness about the need to end animal suffering. Rather than condemning the "gradualist" approach, we should adopt the view that every step in the right direction is a good thing. Improving the quality of life for animals is essential, even if those improvements do not entail dismantling the factory farm system tomorrow (which should happen, and it's important for us to keep saying, over and over and over, that it should happen, until we're blue in the face).

Something is better than nothing, though. We as vegans and animal rights activists can insist on radical changes, but those aren't going to occur overnight. Seeing harmful individuals - like the hog farmers in Winnipeg - appear to be getting the punishment they so richly deserve is extremely encouraging.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Time to change "politics as usual" by putting animals on the national political agenda

In my past life, before I became a vegan, I would've been sitting in front of the television, completely wrapped up in the Midterm Election results. This is a particularly interesting election, with the Tea Party insurgency taking over the Republican Party, and the Democrats are about to suffer a grim setback to their great victory two years ago.

Truth is, I've become appalled with "politics as usual" ever since becoming a vegan and experiencing a heightened awareness of animal rights. Partisan politics has gotten to be so damned ugly. And it's ugly on both sides of the spectrum (although most of the ugliness, at this particular moment in history, is coming from the extreme Right).

Worse yet, neither camp - Democrats or Republicans - seem to be too terribly interested in the well being of animals. It's as if animals are not even on their radar.

Often, the Democrats seem to be more natural kindred spirits than Republicans. You're more likely, I'm sure, to find higher numbers of vegans among Democrats. Most animal rights activists, if they are political, are probably Democrats or somewhere on the left side of the spectrum.

But whenever I turn on the television and listen to the pundits and political talking heads discussing the latest happenings in the hallowed halls of power, I'm struck by the absolute absence - the total and complete absence - of animals on anybody's agenda, Democrat or Republican. Whether commentators are on the Left or Right, they're united by their rigid human-centric worldview.

Animal rights activists are often criticized for not being sufficiently pro-human rights. I've addressed this issue recently on this Blog (see here). For years, foes of the animal rights movement have accused us of not being concerned about human rights. That nonsensical claim has been discredited over and over again by thoughtful animal rights advocates. Maybe it's time for us to more aggressively turn the argument around and point out that the human-centric pundits don't care about animal rights. If they truly give a damn, they'd better start to show some genuine concern for animals.

I'm not just talking about the United States, either. The same thing needs to happen in democracies around the world including here in Canada. I often focus on the United States because I teach American History, I used to live in the United States (indeed, I've actually lived most of my life there), and I think that trends that occur in the U.S. have a way of rippling around the world because the country has so much influence. But these lessons are applicable elsewhere, including right here in Canada.

We get so immersed in our own subculture that it's easy to miss the fact that we have a lot of work to do. Getting animals on the national political radar is an uphill struggle. Brave animal rights activists have made great accomplishments and now the movement for the liberation of animals is taken very seriously in communities across North America. There is still a lot of work to do to get animals on the national agenda, but make no mistake: They are worth it. The key is to keep doing what we're doing, so that our subculture continues to expand, wins new converts and begins to exert real influence on the mainstream.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Beware of the Vegan Police!

Let me open by saying that most of the vegans I've gotten to know since I became a vegan a year ago are the salt of the earth. They're great people. They're kind. They're reflective and thoughtful. They care about the world, about making compassionate decisions, and - most importantly - about the well being of animals. It's a wonderful and vibrant community of kindred spirits. I am proud to be a part of it. What I'm about to say here is not applicable to them.

Oh Lord, I do get tired of the Vegan Police.

The Vegan Police is a term used to describe vegans who tend to be overzealous and take it upon themselves to make sure that other vegans are following the rules. Because they've never done anything wrong, because they've never fallen off the wagon, and most importantly, because they're so damn cool, they have appointed themselves as Vegan Enforcers, making sure that North America's infinitesimally small vegan population falls into line and does everything - absolutely everything (no exceptions!) - by the book. And if any vegans are caught making mistakes, it's crucial that they be outed.

You know the type of people I mean.

"If you do X, you're not a true vegan." "If you do not do Y, you're not a true vegan." "Whatever you do, do NOT do Z! Real vegans never do Z!"

You'd better not feed your cats non-vegan cat food.

You'd better not slip on your old leather shoes to go out in the rain.

You'd better... Oh, you get the picture.

I have a couple of Facebook friends (I won't name names) who fall into the category of Vegan Police. These well-meaning folks will occasionally appoint themselves Judge, Jury and Executioner in order to decide who's the real deal and who isn't.

All I can say is: It must be exhausting to be in the Vegan Police. I don't know how they do it. There simply aren't enough hours in the day for me to become a "Vegan Monitor," making sure that everybody who claims to be a vegan lives by the strenuous rules and regulations that I lay out for them.

I chatted with a vegan friend once who lamented what he called the "Vegan Gestapo." Frankly, I haven't run into anybody so heavy-handed that I'd use the label "Gestapo" to describe him (or her). But certainly, I have come across some people who ought to be considered part of the House UnVegan Activities Committee.

Sometimes I wonder whether there is a "Vegan Police Academy," where the righteous go for extensive training to figure out who needs to be rooted out for lacking sufficient purity.

One of my favorite vegan cookbook authors is Sarah Kramer of Victoria, British Columbia. Her books are filled with wonderful recipes and great insights. Check out her Website at Go if you get a chance. Sarah often says in her cookbooks, on her Blog and in interviews that she does not want to be the Vegan Police. As she told one interviewer:
Being vegan is a very personal choice for me and I try my best not to be the Vegan Police. I prefer to live by example and hopefully my vegan choices will rub off on the people around me and will raise their consciousness a little so they'll start making cruelty free choices. But I do have some friends who are dog lovers. They would lay down in front of a car for their dog, but they still munch away on fried chicken or steak. The connection they have for one animal and the disconnect they have for another fascinates me and frustrates me all at the same time. So I try my best not to judge (because that does nothing) and instead to gently encourage. We all have a path to walk and some of us are faster than others.
All vegans would do well to take a page out of Sarah Kramer's book. Well, not literally (because her books are so wonderful, I prefer to leave all of the pages in them). But you know what I mean. As a historian, I've studied countercultures and subcultures in United States history, and a common thread I've found is that each one contains very zealous types who like to make sure that everybody else in the group is adhering to all of the rules.

I don't know why some people feel the need to do this. Sometimes I think the policing types are so into monitoring the actions of others because they project their own weaknesses and insecurities onto other people. It is like homophobia. Ever notice the worst homophobes seem like they're closet homosexuals trying to violently repress that side of their personality? I imagine that a lot of Vegan Police have a real hankering for a piece of chicken or a slice of old-fashioned pizza or a dish of ice cream or some other delicacy made of animal products. They project their cravings onto others and become Vegan Commissars.

Of course, I'm talking about a very distinct personality type - definitely a minority within the vegan community, which is a minority within the vegetarian community, which is a minority of the North American population. As I've said before (and I'll say it again and again and again, until I'm blue in the face), most vegans I know are extraordinarily wonderful people, and what I'm saying now is not applicable to the overwhelming majority of them.

Still, the Vegan Police are a very vocal minority and it's impossible to miss them. My concern about the policing types is that their rigidity may frighten off possible converts.

Rather than policing the tiny vegan community, we should focus on the real offenders - the factory farmers, the fur traders, the foie gras racketeers, etc., etc., etc.. Ours is but a little homestead in a sea of animal exploitation, and the last thing it needs is a sheriff. Or worse yet, an entire police force!

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Please note: The image used above - "The Vegan Police" - is from a T-shirt used by the wonderful folks at the Ruby Ranch Pig Sanctuary (see their Website here!). This T-shirt is reminiscent of one of my favourite shows, Dragnet, starring Jack Webb. The kind-hearted folks at Ruby Ranch do all kinds of wonderful work with pigs. Please support them! Interestingly, I found it by going to Google Images and entering "Vegan Police." It was one of the first things that came up. They are very graciously allowing me to use the image here. In return, I'd like to praise them for the extraordinary work they do and encourage you to visit their Website. There are so many wonderful animal sanctuaries across North America, and Ruby Ranch is one of the best!