Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Canadian Seal Hunt: First the Bad News, Then the Bad News

When it comes to the ultra-violent and sadistic Canadian seal hunt, which do you want to hear first? The bad news? Or the bad news?

First the bad news: During this year's commercial seal hunt, 70,000 harp seals were killed, according to the Newfoundland and Labrador fisheries. That number is up substantially from last year's kill figure of 38,000. (Source) This sad news runs contrary to view that the seal hunt is dying due to declining demand for seal fur in other parts of the world.

Senator Mac Harb fought a
good - but very lonely - fight
against Canada's gruesome
and ultra-violent seal hunt.
Now the bad news: In a noble attempt to end this sickening practice, Senator Mac Harb introduced a bill to the Canadian Senate in early may that would end the commercial seal hunt. It was a brave thing to do. It took guts and very strong principles for Senator Harb to do that. 

Not surprisingly, Tweedledum and Tweedledee - whoops, er, uh, I mean, Harb's fellow Conservatives and Liberals in the Senate (the two political parties are virtually identical here in Canada) went after Harb's legislation and torpedoed it like the Lusitania. Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield spoke for most of the senators when he aid:
“Mr. Speaker, this is yet again another attack by a Liberal senator to try to undermine this safe, humane and sustainable hunt that is vital to coastal communities in northern and eastern Canada. Members on this side of the House have been unequivocal in our support for the Canadian seal industry. We will not abandon this industry at the behest of opposition parties or irresponsible and out-of-touch animal rights activists. We will continue to put the livelihood of hard-working Canadian families first.” (Source)
And there is one more piece of bad news (as if we need anymore): The Canadian Television Bureau, in an Orwellian move reminiscent of Eastern Europe during the communist era, banned an anti-seal hunt advertisement made by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) from being shown on Canadian television. So much for the people's right to see all sides of the story. This is merely another move by Canadian authorities to put the seal hunt out of sight, out of mind. 

Defenders of the seal hunt insist that it is an essential part of the livelihoods of large numbers of people, and that if it were banned, it would devastate the economy. But I quote from a Canadian Press article: "Darin King told the [Newfoundland] provincial legislature that 680 sealers took part in this year's hunt, which had a total allowable catch of 400,000." Since when have 680 people added up to substantial portion of the nation's economy? 

Pardon the abrupt change in subject, although I'll tie it in shortly to the seal hunt. Cocaine is a vital part of the economy in Latin America. In Andean nations, various Caribbean countries and Mexico, untold thousands rely on the production, movement and distribution of the drug. It's huge. It's in demand. And if the giant narco-captialist system were destroyed, it would devastate entire villages and ruin the livelihoods of families throughout South and Central America. Armies of campesinos go to work in the coca fields, while a massive network of smugglers keeps the drugs flowing north. 

Why do I bring up cocaine? Nobody argues that thousands of Latin Americans are dependent on so-called Cocaine Capitalism for their survival. Perhaps that's one reason why the War on Drugs never really went anywhere. Had it succeeded, it would have left vast areas of Latin America's narco-economy in ruins. 

And yet look at all the lives that cocaine destroys. Look at all the harm it causes. Look at all the hopes it has snuffed out. 

The seal hunt also destroys lives. Some would scoff the comparison I've just made. After all, in the case of the seal hunt, they aren't human lives. 

The prophetic Russian
novelist Leo Tolstoy
(1828-1910) warned
about violence against
That's a dangerous kind of reasoning though. It was Leo Tolstoy who said, "As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields." What he meant by that is that the violence we inflict on animals will inevitably metastasize into violence against other human beings. Earlier tonight, I blogged about a murderer named Luka Rocco Magnotta, who started off killing cats and moved on to killing a human being and sending his body parts out in the mail. I'm not comparing sealers, who make a living from the seal hunt, to Magnotta. But what I'm saying is that a society that accepts the "they're just animals" argument is one that is tacitly approving violence. And that violence, in one way or another, is going to come back to haunt us. 

That's more bad news, in case you needed any. 

One Atrocity Leads to Others

Luka Rocco Magnotta, the 29-year-old Canadian
who allegedly sent human body parts in the mail
recently, got his start as an animal abuser.
There's a piece of conventional wisdom that I've always agreed with that goes something like this: People who begin as animal abusers often graduate to heinous crimes involving human beings.

Take 29-year-old Luka Rocco Magnotta, a Canadian who has appeared in Internet porno videos and is now being sought by authorities for allegedly murdering a man, dismembering the torso and mailing various body parts to the offices of the federal Liberal and Conservative parties. 

The story is almost too gruesome and twisted to be true. 

And guess what?

In today's Vancouver Sun, columnist Stephen Maher reports that animal rights activists had been hunting Mangotta down for videos he posted online showing him murdering kittens. Maher writes:
They were motivated by four horrible videos in which a young man gleefully kills kittens. In the first one, in 2010, a young man alleged to be Magnotta suffocates two kittens in a plastic bag. A few weeks later, he posted a related video.
By January of 2011, after frantic online searching, animal lovers tentatively had identified Magnotta as the suspect. They meticulously compared photos that Magnotta posted of himself, identifying jewelry and furnishings that appeared in both, until they were certain they had found the right guy.
They then focused on finding him, something which was made more difficult by the many apparently fake photos Magnotta seems to have posted — using a host of false online identities — showing him in cities around the world.
This news, horrifying as it is, should come as no surprise. 

By the time police raided a Montreal apartment on Tuesday where Magnotta lived, they discovered scenes of human depravity and violence too horrifying to describe. The National Post, a Canadian newspaper I read religiously, actually describes a website called Best Gore that has posted a sickening video purported to be Mangotta cutting up his bound victim, having sex with the body and feeding parts to his dog.

Hard to imagine anything more vile than that.

Magnotta's story is a cautionary tale. There is a banner going around the Internet (especially Facebook) that says, "FAMOUS ANIMAL ABUSERS," and shows pictures of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, David Berkowitz and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. Below their faces, it says, "THE LINK BETWEEN ANIMAL CRUELTY AND HUMAN VIOLENCE IS INDISPUTABLE." 

I refuse to post that banner here because Vick, unlike Bundy, Dahmer and Berkowitz, is not a serial killer and does not belong with those monsters, despite his involvement in horrific dog fighting matches. Vick's dogfighting ring was broken up by authorities in 2007 and he endured a trial and punishment. Since then, Vick has served a prison term, publicly apologized and lobbied for legislation to create much stricter penalties for those who take part in animal fighting. 

As Vick said last year: "I deeply regret my previous involvement in dogfighting, I'm sorry for what I did to the animals. During my time in prison, I told myself I wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem." (Source

I believe Vick's face shouldn't have been added alongside Bundy, Dahmer and Berkowitz. We should forgive those who express genuine, heartfelt remorse about their crimes against animals. And Vick's example shows that not every single animal abuser goes on to become a murderer of human beings.

But take away Michael Vick's face, and the banner is absolutely correct. The link between animal cruelty and human violence is indisputable. My suggestion is to remove Vick from that banner and add the face of Luka Rocco Magnotta, who - if the ghastly stories about him are true (and they appear to be) - has earned a prominent spot among the very worst of the worst of the animal abusers who turned into savage killers of human beings. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

It's All How You Look At It...

Source: Lolcats

Words of Wisdom (with an inspiring video)

Below is a splendid quote from historian, author and activist Howard Zinn (1922-2010). To reinforce the sentiment expressed in the quote, I've also posted an uplifting video about the 2010 rescue of two very sick piglets, Chloe and Coco, by the Australian animal rights groups Uproar (Pig Rescue) and Animal LIberation Victoria. Uproar and ALV nursed these two beautiful beings back to good health, and they now lead happy lives at an Australian animal sanctuary, free from harm. Please read the quote and watch the video. You'll be glad you did.
"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places--and there are so many--where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."
- Howard Zinn

Saturday, May 26, 2012


From Italian photographer Tommaso Ausili's powerful photoessay "The Hidden Death" (2011)

A Physician Makes the Case for a Plant-Based Diet

This is a brilliant talk by Dr. Milton R. Mills, M.D., who makes one of the most convincing series of arguments I've ever heard that human beings are naturally herbivores, not omnivores. It is almost impossible to walk away from this incredibly informative speech without agreeing 100% that human beings were meant to consume a plant-based diet. Mills, a doctor from VirginiaStanford University-trained and a member of the advisory board to the wonderful Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (which promotes alternatives to animal testing and advocates a vegan diet).

Dr. Milton R. Mills
One of the many omnivore arguments that Mills destroys is the notion that other animals feed on animals, therefore human beings ought to be able to do the same. He does this by showing that human beings simply aren't built like carnivores. We don't run through the forests chasing down wildebeests and wild boars, ripping our prey open with our mouths and tearing at their flesh as they buck madly. Well, maybe some of us do. But it isn't natural.

Mills very capably demonstrates the many ways in which human beings are really physically plant eaters. If you're interested in reading about his ideas online, the website has published an excellent essay by Mills that covers much of the same ground as his speech. Mills makes extremely persuasive arguments that I do not hear often coming from defenders of the plant-based diet. We need more advocates like him to help us understand where human beings, as a species, went wrong, and how we might get back to doing things the right way.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What the Ag Gag Laws Don't Want You to See

If you get a moment, please watch this graphic video footage of life inside of a Wyoming pig factory farm. The clip above contains only a few scenes from the actual footage, which was shot by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) inside of a factory farm that supplies Tyson Foods. Most of the video above contains a discussion on the lefty Young Turks Network about the violent practices of factory farming and the rapid proliferation of these death houses around the world. The discussion is an superb one.

Below is the ENTIRE HSUS VIDEO (and it's quite graphic). If you're not vegan, I beg you - beg, beg, beg you - to watch the video below. Find out what you're paying other people to do for your eating habits. Please do not look away! These are the very types of videos that Ag Gag Laws are trying to ban. These are Orwellian laws, designed to punish people who tell the truth and reward those who allow the worst sort of savagery and cruelty in the name of profits.

The day will come when future generations look back on these times as the Dark Ages in the treatment of animals. If Ag Gag Laws prevail, the times will get darker and darker. Is this really what we want? Is this really a way to build a civilization that we wish to pass down to future generations?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Marc Bekoff in Forbes? The Times Are a-Changin'!

When I think of Forbes Magazine, I think of a business magazine that has been around a long time and has rightfully earned a reputation as a staid and venerable bulwark of free enterprise.

But Forbes surprised me with a long and detailed profile/interview with Dr. Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Bekoff is the author of the powerful The Emotional Lives of Animals and The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding our Compassion Footprint.

Bekoff is one of the most eloquent spokespeople for animal rights. He has written numerous books about the ethical treatment of animals and he travels around the world lecturing on the subject. He is also a past Guggenheim Fellow and a fellow of the Animal Behavior Society. In short, this guy is a heavy hitter. Yet he's not necessarily the kind of guy you see profiled in a magazine like Forbes.

However, there he is, speaking his mind in Forbes and saying very eloquent things. He speaks about a wide range of topics, from animal ethics to climate change to what he calls "proactive compassionate activism." There are moments when he sounds pessimistic. For example: "The stakes are huge if we fail to take care of other animals and Earth because we are on the brink of numerous irreversible losses to magnificent webs of nature. Our wholeness and that of the world at large is in peril.

But Bekoff ultimately sounds an optimistic note:
Rest assured that we are indeed making positive differences even if we don’t see them now. I also travel a lot, like you, and meet incredibly passionate and committed people all over the world who are dedicated to making the lives of other animals much better than they are. So, there is light, it sometimes seems very dark, but there is that ever-present glow that keeps me and many others going. I like to say we must get rid of all negativity, focus on what works, keep the faith, be nice to everyone including our opponents, and never say never – ever. We also need to “pick our battles” and accept that some people will never change, and that’s the way it is.
Marc Bekoff appearing in Forbes - a magazine that definitely does not have a history of publishing articles about animals and their well being - is itself a great victory. It is a sign that times are changing. Hopefully for the better.

Encouraging Signs Of Late

Staring into the abyss too long not only hurts the eyes, it can crush the soul. To allow yourself to empathize with suffering animals is noble. However, taking in too much suffering, seeing nothing but agony, and seeking out only the negative, can leave the sensitive person feeling defeated, traumatized and alone. That is why here at We're All Animals, I encourage kindred spirits to take out a moment from time to time to look on the bright side. Sometimes it's easy to miss the good things, the encouraging developments. They don't always generate headlines. But they're there.

There are five encouraging developments that are worth highlighting here. All three given me a heightened sense of hope about the future.

1. Denny's is now going gestation crate-free! They'll be joining McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and other fast-food giants in moving away from the practice of forcing pregnant pigs into tiny cages.  It's hard to grasp the significance of this development unless you know a bit about the history of Denny's. Growing up in a conservative Red State, I remember Denny's being the restaurant of choice for ordinary folks, working stiffs, truckers, night owls, flapjack-loving patriots and elderly men and women who sought out big plates of food for cheap prices. Denny's was always the all-American joint, usually located near the freeway, promising comfort food at all hours of the day and night. Denny's, according to the L.A. Times, has more than 1,650 locations across the United States. And they serve an awful lot of food made out of various pig products. So when they start the move away from gestation crates, that will have a big impact.

Said Greg Lindford, Denny's vice president of procurement and distribution: "Denny's takes its role as a responsible corporate citizen seriously. We will endeavor to purchase products from companies that provide gestation crate-free pork and are committed to influencing our suppliers to share in a gestation crate-free vision for the future."

Score one for the movement to jettison gestation crates. Actually, score many! Up here in Canada, the massive doughnut chain Tim Hortons is moving in the same direction.

2. While we're talking gestation crates, the grocery store chain Safeway in the United States is also going gestation crate free. Some vegans may say this is not enough. And they're right. But for these huge chains to acknowledge the cruelty of gestation crates, an issue that wasn't even on the table five years ago (honestly, who in 2007 even knew about gestation crates?) means the animal rights and animal welfare movements are having a huge influence on these corporations.

3. According to Mercy for Animals, meat consumption is on the decline in the United States. This is great news. As MFA notes:
In 2011, compared to 2010, the number of land animals that died for American consumption fell from 8.4 to 8.2 billion, or 242 million fewer animals - including 1 million fewer cows, 5 million fewer pigs, and 240 million fewer chickens. That's a nationwide drop from 8.9 billion in 2005 to 8.2 billion in 2011, or 725 million fewer animals killed. 
It is true that the number of animals dying is still staggering. But the decline is an encouraging sign. MFA points to a growing awareness of cruelty to animals, as well as such gruesome industry practices as the use of "pink slime."

4. The state of California is banning foie gras. The statewide ban goes into effect on July 1. There is also talk that other states may follow California's example (source). For those of you who don't know what foie gras is (even in my omnivore days, I never ate it), it means, literally, "fatty liver." One again, I'll let the wonderful folks at Mercy for Animals explain:
Its production entails extreme animal cruelty and suffering. Pipes are painfully shoved down ducks' throats and they are forced to ingest several pounds of food at once--far more than they would eat naturally. This process is often repeated two to three times a day. The ducks' livers become engorged and diseased, swelling up to ten times their normal size, and resulting in horrific emotional and physical suffering of these unfortunate animals. Most ducks find it difficult to walk and breathe normally. Many suffer from ruptured organs and die. Ducks are typically crammed into small, filthy cages for the duration of their lives, unable to move, walk, or spread their wings. They become so distressed, they sometimes tear out their own feathers or cannibalize each other. 
Kudos to California for banning this hideous "delicacy." Let's hope that other states follow California's example right away. Make no mistake: This ban on foie gras wouldn't have happened were it not for the rising influence of animal advocates.


5: The Collapse of Ag Gag?: Earlier in the year, animal rights advocates became alarmed about the passage of repressive "Ag Gag" laws in Iowa and Utah that have introduced harsh penalties against whistleblowers who expose (through videos or photographs) the insides of slaughterhouses and factory farm operations. For a time, it seemed that Ag Gag laws were spreading across the United States like wildfire. But the movement's momentum is slowing. Efforts to introduce Ag Gag have either died or are dead in several states, including Florida, Illinois and Tennessee (source). Sadly, an Ag Gag law has just passed in Missouri, but thanks to compromises made as a result of pressure from animal advocates, there is a loophole in the legislation that gives whistleblowers 24 hours to report incidents of animal abuse or neglect to law enforcement should they witness such acts. Not surprisingly, the pork industry is calling the law "diluted" (source)

It is true that animals are dying all around us in huge numbers as a result of human cruelty on a massive scale. But people are waking up. Pressure being applied steadily and rigorously to big corporations is working. Slowly, painfully, there is movement away from the insanity, in the direction of what might truly be called "civilization." If we ever get there, we have those kind men, women and yes, even children, who took it upon themselves to become voices of the voiceless, and who fought for the well being of animals, to thank for it. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Words of Wisdom

"In a way, to be indifferent to suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response."
- Elie Wiesel 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Watching Omnivores Struggle

The slippery slope.
It's interesting to watch omnivores grappling with their food choices. I just finished reading an article in the Toronto Star defending meat eating. "Why Consuming Animals May Be the Right Thing to Do," said the headline.

Echoing a New York Times contest in March asking readers to defend meat consumption in 600 words or less (which, not surprisingly, the big food industry/factory farm shill Temple Grandin entered), the Star published a litany of familiar excuses justifying the act of killing animals and then devouring them.

Author and New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik led the charge: "All animals die. The choice for a pig is not between painful death and perpetual life, but between one death and some other. If we ate only animals that died naturally, then could there be any rational objection to our eating them - to eating their flesh in celebration of their life rather than burying it to rot or merely burning it?"

Toronto butcher Stephen Alexander, a big supporter of buying local, "humanely" raised meat, is clearly wrestling with the ethics of meat eating when he tells the Star: "You're killing them to live, you're killing them because you enjoy meat and it's good for you. But at the end of the day, there is the cold, hard truth that you're killing animals to eat their meat.... You have to justify it to yourself and that's all there is to it."

"Ethics are an individual choice," reasoned Heather Travis, who handles public relations for Canada Beef Inc., which represents 83,000 farming families here in Canada. Travis said her organization "strongly advocates beef as part of a balanced diet," and warned that staying healthy on a meat-free diet "can be trickier if you eliminate animal protein sources from your diet."

The temptation is great to pick apart these arguments one by one, and most intelligent vegans would be able to dance circles around these people in a debate.

But to me the most interesting element of all of these defenses of meat eating is the extent to which omnivores feel the need these days to justify the act. Five years ago, when I was an omnivore, I never felt any need to defend my choices. I liked meat. I ate it. End of story.

Today, five years later, more and more people are either going vegan, or feeling the need to justify and explain their food choices. I run into thoughtful omnivores all the time who are really - really - struggling with consuming animal products. Increasingly, it's getting so only an over-the-top fruit loop like Ted Nugent gives absolutely no thought whatsoever to chowing down on the flesh of sentient beings.

Famous food journalist Mark Bittman.
For the rest of us, it's a different story. I personally think the New York Times' challenge - which triggered an avalanche of responses from across the country - was a useful exercise in getting omnivores to think about why they do what they do.

A decade ago, the renowned and widely respected New York Times food journalist Mark Bittman gave little or no thought to the animals he was cooking (by his own admission). But in recent years, Bittman has developed profound misgivings about eating animals. These days, he believes that "20 or at most 50 years from now, those of us still alive will express incredulity at the way we once treated animals destined to become food." (Source)

Gordon Ramsay and friend. 
Bittman is not alone. Not long ago, famous TV chef Gordon Ramsay watched a hidden camera video of the inside of a factory farm (in this case, a pig facility). Seeing the male pigs being castrated without any anesthesia, sows chewing nervously on bars, and pigs shrieking in horror during the last days of their short lives, Ramsay was visibly shaken - and disgusted - by what he witnessed. Of course, Ramsay didn't go vegan. But the treatment of animals, an issue that for the longest time was never on his radar, has entered into his consciousness.

Bittman has been much more aggressive in moving away from cooking animal products than Ramsay. In fact, Bittman gained fame for his Vegan Until 6 diet, spotlighted in his book Food Matters, that advocated going vegan before dinnertime for improved health. Yet what began for Bittman as a health issue keeps coming back to the more significant matter of animals and their suffering. He can't get away from the issue. These days, in fact, he keeps bringing it up. It haunts him, just as it haunts any thoughtful omnivore. And this trend is working its way into corporate America. Burger King made headlines in late April when the chain announced it will switch to cage-free eggs and pork by 2017. Other fast food restaurants are likely follow.

Pigs in a factory farm. Many omnivores are troubled
by what's happening in the food industry. 
We vegans tend to be somewhat dismissive toward omnivores who are struggling with their food choices. But it's impossible to overemphasize the importance of this development, because it's a very new one. And it's becoming more and more widespread. Recently, I went on a local radio station to talk about these very issues on a program about farming and agriculture.  I could see the host, himself an omnivore and advocate of what he called "humane" livestock farming, was also grappling with these same issues. He and I shared a sense of uneasiness with the growth of big, corporate factory farms. A lot of omnivores, having watched documentaries like Food Inc. and Forks Over Knives, are experiencing these same feelings. I believe Bittman is absolutely correct, that  "20 or at most 50 years from now, those of us still alive will express incredulity at the way we once treated animals destined to become food." This is not a Pollyannaish notion. It's a reflection of the changing reality of our times.

A growing number of omnivores are troubled by their actions, and the increasing defensiveness of some is an outgrowth of a moment in history when the animal rights movement is gaining traction around the world. For those of us who feel passionately about animals and their rights, this shift may seem too slow and way overdue in coming. But it is happening, little by little, and it offers a glimmer of hope.

Look Out for the Meat Gene!

More interesting stuff from the frontiers of science: A study conducted by scientists at Duke University Medical Center in the United States and a group of researchers in Norway found that people who dislike meat are genetically predisposed to be disgusted by the smell of it.

The researchers were particularly focused on a gene called OR7D4 that is "linked to an odor receptor that detects a compound called androstenone, which is found in male mammals, and is most commonly detectable in pork meat." (Source)

Apparently, people with two functioning copies of that gene can more easily zero in on the smell of androstenone, while those with one or no functioning copies of the gene cannot detect the odor. Interestingly, it is the people who can detect the smell (researchers estimate 70 percent of people have two functioning copies of the gene) that are far more likely to be repulsed by it. Those who cannot detect it are more likely to like meat.

Tests were conducted on 23 human participants. Researchers concluded that the desire - or lack thereof - for meat could often be determined by the number of functioning OR7D4 genes in a subject. One of the researchers, Dr. Hiroaki Matsunami, an associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke, pointed out that the presence of the OR7D4 genes in people are often a determinant in whether they will like meat. Not just pork. All kinds of meat.

"The male pork meat contains relatively high levels of androstenone, but you can also find it in other types of meat," said Dr. Matsunami. "In fact, androstenone is also found in human sweat, so it's not a pig-specific chemical." (Source)

It is encouraging to know that 70 percent of the population is genetically inclined to find the odor of meat repellent. But don't expect to wake up tomorrow to read headlines that over two-thirds of all people have gone vegan. There's a reason why meats are often cooked with spices and sauces that probably end up overwhelming the smell of androstenone. It's the same reason the walls around slaughterhouses are so high and so thick. Denial is the key word. Still, this is an interesting story. You can read about it here.

The Smiths had it right all along!
But I also think it's a mistake to over-emphasize the genetics angle. I myself used to love meat - every kind of meat imaginable - and now I can't stand the stuff. Hate to look at it. Hate to smell it. Would starve to death before I had to actually put it in my mouth. Once upon a time, I was the person for whom the Meat Lover's Pizza was invented. Now I find the concept of a Meat Lover's Pizza to be horrific, gross and completely inedible.

For a long time, I assumed learning and socialization (nurture rather than nature) had a lot do with that. But who knows? It's starting to sound like there is a genetic component to vegetarianism and veganism. It would be interesting to know how many of us fit the right genetic coding for people who are disgusted by meat and how many of us are sickened by it in spite of our genetic composition.

Food for thought.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Be Kind to Animals - Always

This week is Be Kind to Animals Week. I just read a lovely - and very inspirational - story about Yvonne Wall (right), who runs a horse sanctuary in California called Forever Free Horse Rescue (check out their wonderful website if you get a chance). The story (click here to read it) talks about Yvonne's tireless efforts to help abused, abandoned and neglected horses. She gives them a loving home where they feel both safe and wanted, and where they form bonds with each other and with compassionate people.

These stories are so important because we're inundated, day in and day out, with tragic stories about the harsh and violent treatment of animals in factory farms, slaughterhouses, laboratories, fur manufacturing facilities, hunting grounds and countless other places where harm and death run rampant. It is so important for us to remind ourselves that there are also good people in this world trying to make a difference. People like Yvonne Wall, who gives and gives and gives of herself. Her reward, as she tells it in the wonderful video that goes with the story, is to make a difference in the lives of these beautiful beings. 

People like Yvonne deserve our thanks and inspire us to do more. Those of us who are passionate about animal rights hold out hope that one day, this is what all interaction between human and animals will look like. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Is it Hard to Go Vegan? My Advice: Do the Best You Can

These days, people exploring the possibility of going vegan are probably hearing a lot of conflicting advice about the lifestyle.

On the one hand, vegans sing the praises of adopting veganism and the joys of consuming a plant-based diet. On the other hand, you hear about celebrities who give up on veganism, or famous people who acknowledge the challenges of a vegan diet.

Take, for example, Ellen DeGeneres, an inspiration for vegans across the country. Recently, Ellen admitted that going vegan is harder than you might think. Like so many of us, Ellen was an omnivore - and not all that long ago, either.

"I've always called myself an animal lover," she said. "And yet I ate them. Until four years ago I would be driving past these cows on pastures, and think 'What a lovely life that is,' and I'd go and order a steak. It takes a click, just one light bulb, and you're like 'I can't do that anymore.'"

So true. And yet sometimes the "click" is the easy part, especially when you live in a world where so much processed food includes animal products. Even many veggie burgers contain some sort of dairy or egg. Amy's Kitchen soy cheese pizza, for example, contains some modified milk ingredients (or it did for a long time). Many kinds of granola bars contain dairy. Baked Lays barbecue potato chips contain chicken broth (not all barbecue chips are made of meat products - many, in fact, don't contain them).

Then there are all those processed foods that don't have animal products in them. Oreos don't (they used to, but eventually lard was replaced by vegetable shortening). Skittles don't. Many kinds of potato chips don't. Chips Ahoy Chewy Cookies don't (although regular Chips Ahoy do).

You have to be an Ingredients reader when you go shopping. I suppose it's a good habit to get into - knowing what you're putting in your body.

Then you also end up asking at restaurants. "Are there any animal products in X?" Many times, the young and wide-eyed waiter or waitress doesn't know. "Let me get back to you on that."

As Ellen put it in her recent Washington Post interview: "It's like anybody who's trying to make a change, especially a habit like eating food every day. It's hard to make a change." And this is coming from a woman who has a 24-hour, full-time vegan chef working for her!

There are other challenges one must confront. If you switch to veganism later in life and you have older children (teenagers) who are omnivores and don't want to go vegan, what do you do? What about people who switch to veganism and have companion pets who eat food with meat in it? Even vegan pet food makers acknowledge that cats are naturally carnivores and male cats are easily susceptible to severe urinary tract infections if you steer them to a vegan diet instead of a carnivore diet. And finally, you have the purists to contend with - those people who police other vegans to make sure there are no cheatatarians in our midst.

It's hard, being a vegan in a meatcentric society. As Hanna Schosler, researcher at the Institute for Environmental sStudies at Vrije University in Amsterdam, told the International Herald Tribune: "The dominant social-cultural norm in the West is meat consumption. The people who want to shift to a more vegetarian diet find they face physical constraints and mental constraints. It's not very accepted in our society not to eat meat."

When you add up all the challenges, it can be pretty exhausting. But as my hero Elie Wiesel likes to begin so many of his sentences: "And yet..."

And yet...

And yet...

It seems to me that the best way to be a vegan - the only way to be a vegan, really - is to just do your best. If you fall off the wagon, you fall off the wagon. If you have an old pair of leather shoes from your past life that are more comfy than these stiff, new canvas jobs you just bought the other day, just wear the damn things until they wear out. If you don't want to switch your cats to the vegan pet food (that most pet stores don't sell anyway and you have to special order it over the internet if you really want it), just stick with the brand you've been buying.

Do your best. That's the mantra of the sensible vegan. And remember: Vegan options have massively multiplied over the last 20 years. It's far easier to be a vegan in 2012 than it was in 1992. And it'll be even easier to be a vegan in 2022 than it is in 2012. The word is spreading. More and more people are converting. Vegan restaurants are opening up in cities around the world. And more omnivore restaurants are featuring vegan options on their menu. A lovely restaurant around the corner from where I live now even boasts a vegan cheesecake on its menu.

We live in an imperfect world. Animals are dying by the billions. Food companies slip animal products into so many different types of food. If you can, read the ingredients and stay away from the foods that have animal products in them. But I go back to my advice: Do the best you can. Don't beat up on yourself if you thought something was vegan, bought it and discovered later that it wasn't. We all learn from our mistakes.

Most vegans I know are among the sanest and most reasonable people I've ever met. But there is that "purist" faction of the movement. If you let them call all of the shots and engage in self-flagilation for failing to live up to their demands, you'll burn out or self-destruct.

Sometimes you have to sit down and remember why you became vegan in the first place. I did it more for the animals than for my health. Seeing anxiety-filled pigs gnawing on the bars of gestation crates or workers tossing live male chicks into grinders or flailing cows hanging upside down as blood drains from their arteries - these are all the reminders I need for why I chose the vegan lifestyle.

Sure it's a challenge. But think of what an infinitely bigger challenge it is to be born an animal - a food animal, a fur-bearing animal, an animal used in tests. These doomed beings don't have the luxury of getting to choose between a cruelty-filled diet and one that is cruelty-free. They aren't put in the position of deciding whether to buy that nice leather jacket they saw at the mall. They can't debate the merits - or lack thereof - of vivisection. No. They will live their lives in fear and darkness and an early and violent death, the ultimate hellish creation of human selfishness.

Do your best.  Never stop doing your best. In a world filled with violence and imperfection, be as good a person as you possibly can be. Live as close to your ideals as you can. Never forget those inner stirrings that led you here. Remind yourself that our numbers are growing. It may seem lonely, but there are kindred spirits out there. Remember Shakespeare, from Hamlet: "This above all: To thine own self be true."

Or, as I prefer: Do your best.

Ruby Roth: An Eloquent Spokesperson for Veganism

Here's the wonderful and eloquent Ruby Roth, talking about her controversial book Vegan is Love on CNN. We're lucky to have Ruby on our side, fighting the good fight. In this clip, she is offering a spirited defense of veganism, both as a way to get healthy and a means to improve the lives of animals. She also promotes introducing veganism to kids. Have a look - I'm sure you'll be equally impressed.

Words of Wisdom

“Can you really ask what reason Pythagoras had for abstaining from flesh? For my part I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of soul or mind the first man did so, touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, he who set forth tables of dead, stale bodies and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived. How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the stench? How was it that the pollution did not turn away his taste, which made contact with the sores of others and sucked juices and serums from mortal wounds?”
—Plutarch (Greek historian, c. 46 – 120 AD)