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 - http://www.factoryfarmmap.org - 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.