Monday, February 28, 2011

Why is One a Pet and the Other Food?

These two beautiful beings are now living a happy life at a wonderful animal sanctuary in Australia called Brightside Farm Sanctuary. If you get a chance, please visit Brightside's website, because our Australian brothers and sisters are doing the work of saints. Both of these animals narrowly escaped what could have been a tragic ending.

Fankie, the kitten, was found trapped in a battery hen manure pit, in terrible shape. She almost didn't make it out of there alive. Lulu, the pig, was rescued while still weaning at a local pig farm. Sadly, the rest of her family wasn't so fortunate. Lulu's relatives are on their way to becoming statistics, numbers to add to the billions of animals murdered every year around the world, for no good reason at all.

The question becomes: Why is one treated as a pet and the other food?

Look at them both. Both love living. Both savour life. Both are part of this wondrous and mysterious drop from the womb to the tomb.

Yet for most people, the cat is a companion animal, while the pig is sliced into pieces for food.

If we vegans have it our way, this sorry state of affairs is going to change. Because veganism represents a deep reverence for all life and an understanding that human beings are not the only species that deserve a good and meaningful existence on this little rock way out in the middle of nowhere.

All sentient beings have a right to live. Like these two amazing friends, whose lives were almost snuffed out, yet they somehow - against enormous odds - were given a second chance.

Wonderful Cartoons Provide Food for Thought...

This is a wonderful video compilation of Dan Piraro's vegan and animal rights-themed cartoons from his syndicated cartoon panel Bizarro. Born in 1958, Piraro had been an artist and musician for years and began drawing Bizarro in 1985. Like Gary Larson's enormously popular cartoon panel The Far Side, Bizarro often incorporated surreal or dark or edgy themes. By 2006, 250 newspapers were regularly running Bizarro, so the cartoon was getting out to a wide audience. Piraro has long considered himself to be a liberal with progressive politics, and in 2002 he became a vegan. Veganism and animal rights issues are frequently incorporated into his cartoons. When you watch this video, you'll see a true artist - and a true humanitarian - at his best.

From the "Make That 32 Flavors" File...

Where's Mikey from the Life Cereal commercials when you need him?

Remember Mikey? He was the kid in that 1972 commercial (that stayed on the air for about a decade, longer than any commercial ever made) who was so picky that he wouldn't try any new foods. But when two of his older buddies at the breakfast table pushed a bowl of Life cereal in front of him, the finicky child chowed down.

I wonder what Mikey would make of this Human Breast Milk Ice Cream (pictured right) they're now peddling at a joint called Icecreamists in London's Covent Garden? They call it Baby Gaga Ice Cream, and they were able to make the first batch thanks to donor Victoria Hiley of Leeds, who apparently furnished enough milk to create 50 servings of the stuff. As AlterNet blogger Sarah Ditum notes:

The milk comes from the breast of Victoria Hilley, apparently, who receives £15 for every 10oz she supplies. (Source)

Well, the finicky young eater might not get a chance to sample the goods. Turns out that local officials raided the restaurant and confiscated their supplies to make the creamy dessert. (Source)

It turns out this is not the first delicacy to be made of human breast milk. You may recall last April, foodies in the New York City area were abuzz over cheese that was made of the human breast milk. The human breast milk cheese caused a lot of controversy and prompted much debate about the use of human milk versus cows' milk in food.

The same debate seems to be starting up again, thanks to Baby Gaga. As the founder of Icecreamists Matt O'Connor explained:
We were debating is it better for us to use milk from cows, which are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics and are impregnated every nine months, or is better that we use mother's milk. It's the most natural thing in the world, and we thought, why not do an ice cream that celebrates the miracle of motherhood. And the Baby Gaga was born. (Source)

Unfortunately, right after Baby Gaga was unveiled last week, there were complaints to the local city council from a couple of busybodies that the breast milk ice cream might be potentially harmful. The council ordered the remaining ice cream confiscated until a verdict on the product's safety could be handed down by the country's Food Standards Agency.

So the $64,000 question for vegans is: Would you try a bowl of Baby Gaga if it were sitting right in front of you? Hmm. We vegans understand the profound irony of human beings consuming cows' milk, which is not meant for us to consume, yet being grossed out by foods containing human breast milk.

That said, I'm not sure I'm ready to trade in my mint chocolate chip Tofutti Cuties for a dish of Baby Gaga.

I know! Let's give it to Mikey!

Yeah, he won't eat it! He hates everything!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Oprah and Veganism

I realize I still haven't commented on Oprah Winfrey and her 378 staffers "going vegan" for one week. Earlier this month, after the episode aired (February 1), the blogosphere was aflutter with all kinds of commentary. Like millions of other people across North America, I did see the episode in question, at least most of it. I did like Kathy Freston, the New York Times bestselling author who served as a very eloquent "vegan ambassador" to Oprah's show and was the only person on it who discussed the suffering of animals. Good for Kathy, whose book Veganist: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World has undoubtedly won over new converts.

I agree with the moderates who insist that Oprah's vegan message is being beamed to a largely omnivore audience, thus breaking through the formidable anti-vegan wall that surrounds many people who eat meat and other animal products.

It is too bad that Oprah used the word "radical" to describe the vegan diet. It is too bad that one of her guests was Michael Pollan, who frustrates the hell out of me because he recognizes how evil factory farming is, but he insists that "happy meat" is an acceptable alternative. Murder is murder, Michael, and it doesn't matter whether the being whose life is taken lived in a cramped gestation crate or out in a grassy field. Murdering them is still a crime, no matter how you slice it or spin it.

It was a huge missed opportunity that Oprah didn't have Gary Francione on her show. The man would've set everybody straight.

It's difficult to either universally praise or condemn Oprah. Her message is getting out to tens of millions. Lately, veganism has been a part of that message. Too often on her show, the vegan message is wrapped up in losing weight and staying healthy, and not so much in liberating animals from suffering.

But inevitably there are going to be some people who were moved by her message who explore veganism in greater depth. Hopefully, some of these compassionate omnivores will discover Gary Francione's website and the countless others that are dedicated to an unwavering message of compassion toward animals. Hopefully, these newcomers will learn more about what happens to animals and fish who are thrown by the billions into the factory farm meat grinder. And equally importantly, hopefully they'll learn that dairy products also exact a tremendous toll on cows and calves. And maybe, just maybe, they'll discover that the "happy meat" touted by Michael Pollan is a myth.

The message we want them to hear is that all animal suffering is immoral and must end right now. Sadly, on Oprah's vegan episode, that message often got lost.

This much ought to be said about Oprah's vegan program: It is presenting veganism as an option, and it is beaming the message on a level that the rest of us cannot. It is reaching an audience that the rest of us are not. It is winning over people who are beyond the scope of abolitionists to win over. The omnivores aren't listening to us, but they're listening to her.

That doesn't mean her message isn't fraught with problems. It is. What it does mean is that veganism is being nudged into the mainstream. Omnivores are usually won over by accident. They turn on Oprah, watch her show, buy Freston's book and go out and Google "veganism." Googling "veganism" brings up websites, news stories and videos. Maybe the curious soul looking into veganism for the first time will click on one of the videos that PETA posted about animals suffering in the factory farm system. Maybe they'll stumble upon a Gary Francione podcast. Who knows? Maybe they'll find "We're All Animals"! You never know.

Accidents often cause people to put 2 and 2 together. Information is piled upon new information. For the first time ever, a shocked soul watches animals being slaughtered, fish being cut open alive, calves being whisked off for veal. "I didn't know," they might say. "I just didn't know." Sometimes, the scenes are so awful, the sensitive soul will look away. But a light has been turned on. Consciousness has been raised. The long march, as we all know, begins with a single step.

Learning about suffering is a complicated process. Who knows why some people choose to live compassionately while others turn a blind eye to suffering? These questions are all a part of life's great mystery.

But at least Oprah's show - bad as it was in some spots - was a spark. Some viewers are undoubtedly going to investigate veganism more deeply after watching it. Veganism will inevitably lead some to animal rights. At the end of the day, the vegan and animal rights movements may win over a few converts who stumbled our way as a result of seeing Oprah's deeply flawed vegan episode. Our best hope is that curious folks with kind hearts set off down the path, and eventually cross the point of no return.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Introducing the Amazing Chicken (courtesy of Jonathan Balcombe)

Animal Behaviorist Jonathan Balcombe, one of my favorite authors, was interviewed for this fascinating documentary on chickens.

His interview is part of a 2008 documentary titled Fowl Play, an amazing looking documentary on the world of chickens. The film looks like a wonderful documentary about the treatment of chickens in the factory farm system and the efforts of activists to save these beautiful birds and help give them a peaceful life.

The interview is fascinating and I am posting it here because I am a big fan of Balcombe's writings. Incidentally, Fowl Play is brought to us by... Yep! You guessed it... The wonderful folks at Mercy for Animals.

Animal Rights groups do not get any more humane or effective than M.F.A. They have done so much to help teach people about the evils of the exploitation and mass murder of animals.

Thank you, Mercy for Animals, for all you do for animals. And thank you for interviewing Jonathan Blacombe for your documentary. He is one of the most insightful and humane voices in the struggle for a more just world.

One more...

Here is another Mercy for Animals video, one that focuses on human beings who are among those that I spoke of in my previous Blog post who are making a difference. The video is beautifully made and is a much-need reinforcement, especially for anyone who feels lonely in pursuing their vegan ways. The lifestyle can be very lonely when you are not surrounded by kindred spirits. This video is a reminder that those kindred spirits are, indeed, out there, and they're not giving up. They realize the fight is worth it.

Another Powerful Must-See Video

Actor James Cromwell (The Queen, L.A. Confidential) narrates this powerful Mercy for Animals video on the deplorable treatment of animals in the Factory Farm Gulag. It's so effectively made, and so heartbreaking, that I'm posting it here.

These videos are essential viewing. I've always been of the belief that films - short films, feature films, documentary films - are one of the most effective ways of winning over omnivores and vegetarians to a cruetly-free vegan lifestyle.

Many folks, whatever their political persuasion, are innately kind and hate to see animals treated poorly. Sadly, there are some very kind people who are torn. They hate seeing animals treated harshly, but they want their meat, they want their eggs and milk, they want their fish and all of their animal products. The thought of not ever eating meat or eggs or fish or dairy products seems too stark to them. They hate seeing animals go through pain, but their love of animal products outweighs their desire to see an end to animal suffering.

The key with omnivores is to figure how to tip the scale so that it weighs more in the direction of wanting to see the elimination, once and for all, of the exploitation and mass murder of animals.

How to accomplish this??? Well, as I said in my Blog the other day, the Animal Rights Movement is a Big Tent struggle with lots of people trying their damnedest to end this kind of suffering and bloodletting. Who has the right approach? That is up to you to decide.

But I'll tell you who does not have the right approach: Those who believe that it is OK to consume animals, whether it is done as food or clothing (or for any other purposes). They need to understand the suffering their choices are causing. The best way to get through to them, I think, is to beam the message through audio-visual means, or to write about it or lecture about it in such a powerful way as to hit the message home clearly, and without second guessing.

And that message, as we all know, is that causing suffering - any kind of suffering, whether human or non-human animal suffering - is not acceptable and will not be tolerated by those who want to create a truly civilized society.

Call me a Pollyanna, but I'm optimistic that we're moving in the right direction. More and more people are going vegan. The Internet has been a godsend, helping to beam the message to the remote corners of the world. And it has enabled us to see that good people - in Asia, in Latin America, in the Middle East, in Europe - are mobilizing on behalf of the animals.

The recent events in Egypt have shown us the nobility of the fight for human rights and democracy. That fight must begin to spread so that all sentient beings are included in the equation. It isn't easy. The trick is for the waves to keep battering the cliffs, eroding the earth, changing the landscape. So that when future generations are writing the history of these times, they will note the barbarism of widespread animal consumption, but they will also see videos like this one and realize that good people fought the good fight and made a difference.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Agony of Winning Hearts and Minds: A few thoughts on a recent Facebook exchange...

I had a wonderful Facebook exchange with the good folks at LiveVegan. It was a debate, of sorts, about how best to win the Hearts and Minds of non-vegans. How best to win omnivores and vegetarians over to the cause?

A lot of us not only ask this question, we feel this question very deeply. We know the clock is ticking, and with each passing hour, millions of animals around the world die violent deaths, the victims of customs and traditions and economic markets that have robbed them of their dignity and reduced them to commodities, food, clothes and so forth.

The initial post on the Facebook exchange got me thinking. It said:
Gary Francione's twitter reponse to Woodstock Farm Sanctuary's post about a new study shows sheep are highly intelligent even smarter than primates in some respects: "This suggests that intelligence is morally necessary for personhood. It isn't. Only sentience is." -- GLF

Those of you who have read this Blog in the past know by now that "GLF" - Gary L. Francione - is one of my idols. I've always had huge amounts of respect for him. I always will. There are so many things I admire about him: His brilliance, his humanism, his consistency, his unwavering principles.

But I also know that a lot of omnivores don't know who Gary is, and unless they're looking to convert to veganism (like I did), they're probably not going to ever want to read his work or understand his point of view. Omnivores, with honorable exceptions, tend to circle the wagons. They don't want to hear things that go against their customs and traditions, their ways of doing things. Many wish to continue consuming food and clothing made of animals and they aren't willing to give those things up. Again, there are exceptions - omnivores teetering on the edge of going vegetarian or vegan - but most keep the walls high.

So I posted the following reply:
I agree with Gary Francione that intelligence is not morally necessary for personhood. But I also believe these kinds of studies make omnivores pause and rethink why it is OK to eat some animals (e.g., sheep) and taboo to even consider eating others (e.g., primates).
It triggered a very friendly debate, with the moderator emphasizing the importance of a consistent abolitionist vegan message. I don't disagree with that position necessarily. But I do feel that some flexibility is needed when it comes to winning over omnivores. Hence my follow-up post on Facebook:
Well, I was speaking from personal experience, as someone who went from being an omnivore to being a vegan. When I was thoughtlessly stuffing my face with meat (and other animal products) and I found out how intelligent pigs were... and then I learned that chickens understood math... and I learned that cows formed emotional bonds... (et cetera, et cetera), it did not "reinforce speciesism" in me, Far from it. It made me start to become aware about the centrality of sentientism.

In purely practical terms, I don't know what these sorts of studies do for other omnivores. Back when I was one, this kind of information helped me embrace veganism in a way that simply saying, "This being is sentient, therefore you have no right to use her/him or destroy her/him" could not have accomplished.
The exchange went on - congenial from start to finish - but in the end, I came away feeling despair because it is so hard to get through that Great Omnivore Wall. So many of the people in my life that I love and cherish are omnivores and show no signs of giving it up, despite having a "Black Sheep" vegan in the family. I can tell you one thing: As someone who grew up in a Red State where people love their meat and their eggs, their ice cream and their cheese, talking about "sentient beings" won't likely win them over to the cause. Will anything else win them over? I don't know.

I've heard lots of vegans attack "baby steps." Purists favor an all-or-nothing commitment. I can see why. I concur that strict veganism is the way to go.

But practically speaking, we are dealing with people who don't want to change their ways. The thought of giving up animal-based products - whether meat or cheese or milk or yogurt or cottage cheese or fish or lobster or leather jackets or whatever - seems more stark to them than the suffering of animals. Call them selfish. Call them "set in their ways." Call them destructive. Call them whatever you want. This is the reality that we must confront.

But every day of the week, I read about wonderful animal rights activists struggling to get their message across. They beam their message in a hundred different ways. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals stages protests and organizes advertising campaigns that are very "in-your-face." Groups such as Woodstock Farm Sanctuary issue studies about the intelligence of sheep and provide loving safe havens for beautiful animals. Gary Francione crisscrosses North America (and the world) giving lectures, he Blogs, he Twitters, he works endlessly. Philosopher Steven Best, based at the University of Texas at El Paso, advocates more militant forms of direct action. And there are some vegans who press for "flexible veganism" or "flexitarianism" (a.k.a., semi-vegetarianism), thinking that some animal product reduction is better than no animal product reduction.

So who's right? If you think about it, these struggles take on elements of religious and political debates. People argue. Some critique moderates and "welfarists." Others embrace sectarian positions and try to police the tiny vegan movement that does exist. And voices of moderation in the movement lament the presence of militants. Adherents of nonviolence argue with those who advocate more extreme forms of resistance.

Do you know what that makes us? A lot like every other social protest movement in modern history. This is a "Big Tent" movement, or as Walt Whitman might say, "A movement of movements." And yet, I think at the end of the day, most of us in the movement feel - at the very deepest level - the sorrow of losing these beautiful animals who are being obliterated en masse by a brutal social order.

In the end, my final post on Facebook read:
I really like this debate. I think it's a wonderful exchange (and very friendly, which I love). I do consider myself an abolitionist, and I ultimately reject welfarism. I suppose I'm trying to grapple with some of the complexities of winning hearts and minds (which we can all agree isn't easy). There are lots of issues to think about. But I'm glad this is such a lovely community of kindred spirits and we can talk about these things. And I also think veganism has made huge gains in recent years, thanks to lots of wonderful people like you and Gary Francione. I know we're all trying to grapple with the best way to spread the message. And, at the end of the day, I'm not even sure what I said above is right. It breaks my heart to think about all of those animals who are born into such a hellish short and violent existence. I think knowing what's happening to these sentient beings while I'm struggling with how best to convince omnivores of the error of their ways (the clock is ticking, precious lives are being taken) is what's most agonizing in this whole equation.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Animal Abuse Scandal that Shook Canada

The killing of 100 sled dogs in Whistler, British Columbia, has caused a huge scandal across Canada.

Newspapers have been fixated on the "dog slaughter," which allegedly last April, when post-2010 Winter Olympics demand for dog sled rides plummeted. A company called Howling Dog Tours Whistler Inc. allegedly shot the dogs and buried them in a mass grave.

In the past few weeks, news of the slaughter has escalated into a full-fledged national scandal. The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals launched an investigation of the alleged slaughter.

Stories about the bloodletting have been all over the television and internet, and newspapers across Canada (and outside the nation) have editorialized about the brutality. Howling Dog Tours Whistler Inc.

The company responsible for the dog slaughter issued a statement saying
that the dogs to be euthanized were too old or sick and not adoptable. These dogs live to run and were not able to do so and would have had to be kept in cages with the result that they would have had very poor or virtually no quality of life. (Source)

This as an after-the-fact rationale that sounds like a big load of B.S. Of course, it is regrettable that the terrible treatment of factory farm animals does not stir the same sort of reaction as the violent slaughter of 100 sled dogs. Most people who become outraged at the news of dogs being shot can't be bothered with stories about pigs and cows and chickens meeting violent deaths.

That much is impossible to deny.

But I keep going back to what I've been saying all along on this Blog. We've come a long way, baby. Twenty years ago, an incident like this would have likely passed without anyone noticing. Thanks to years of struggles by animal rights activists, outrages like this one are now capturing media attention from far and wide. The Internet has helped spread the word. And companies caught treating animals so horribly either go on the defensive or they go out of business.

We'll take all the outrage we can get. Bless the public for being so furious about this nightmarish story. Notice has been served to companies that brutalize and kill animals. People who are shaken to the core and outraged by the treatment of these dogs are potential converts to the cause of animal rights. If a story like this can upset them, other instances of animal abuse can have a similar effect.

The key is to keep chipping away, like waves battering cliffs. Eventually the wall will erode and collapse.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Another Vegan Success Story

If you get a chance, check out this video of Loreen Dinwiddie, a spirited 108-year-old woman from Portland who insists that a big part of her longevity is her vegan diet.

Similarly, fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who passed away in late January at the age of 96, while not a vegan, was close to it. He did eat fish and eggs, but almost never touched any other animal products.

In the scheme of things, the vegan diet is a relatively new way of life. The pioneering British vegan Donald Watson (1910-2005) founded the first vegan group in 1944 with a few kindred spirits. He died at the age of 95, living long enough to see his once marginalized lifestyle gaining new adherents around the world and moving from the fringes to the mainstream.

Because the diet has not been around for long (even though there were certainly practitioners of it before Watson came along and gave it a name), we have not really had time to test whether it promotes human longevity. Do vegans live longer than non-vegans? The verdict is still out.

But we do know that so many animal-based products are not healthy. For those who still don't believe this, check out the statistics published by the Vegetarian & Vegan Society of Queensland, Australia. Or any other reliable, comprehensive vegan Website. Or download Vegan Outreach's wonderful brochure here.

The stats don't lie. Veganism is a far healthier way of living than omnivorism or vegetarianism. But - like all diets - you always have to be mindful about what you eat. My downfall comes from the fact that Oreos and Ruffles are vegan. Also, Sweet & Sara's Vegan Marshmallows have become a staple of my diet, and sometimes I'd be better off if I didn't eat quite so many of those.

The vegan diet has only been around in name for 67 years, but I have a feeling that history's verdict on the lifestyle will be a very positive one. And people who embrace it will be rewarded with longer lives and a knowledge that their decisions are not spreading and prolonging misery among non-human animals.