Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Who'da thunk it?
In the arsenal of weapons for animal rights activists, the camera is mightier than the pen. And the mightiest camera of all is the concealed camcorder.
Our brothers and sisters at Mercy for Animals have been scoring one major coup after another with their hidden camera videos. MFA has sent their activists right into the belly of the beast: Ohio Fresh Eggs (Ohio), E6 Cattle Ranch (Texas), Willet Dairy (New York).
MFA's videos depict horrors that are so ghastly, so stomach-turning, so violent and savage, that most people would not believe such things happened on a regular basis if they weren't captured on video. Animals are mutilated in every way imaginable: Cut. Burned. Slashed. Slammed in the head with hammers. They have their heads whacked against the ground.
And at the end of the road, we all know what happens to these animals. It's called murder. And even in those facilities where cruelty is not the norm, death is.
MFA's successful campaigns underscore the vital importance of video in our day and age.
Videos and the Internet. These are our greatest allies.
Almost 30 years ago, my father came home from the store with a massive Sony video camera. It was a cumbersome, metallic-silver shoebox shaped object with an enormous, phallic-shaped (sorry for this imagery) microphone jutting out above the lens. In order to use it, you had to connect it to a huge VCR with a shoulder strap that had to be lugged around on the shoulder wherever you went.
No way could you have used one of these suckers to film an undercover animal abuse video, unless you went into the slaughterhouse disguised as Quasimodo, hiding the equipment inside of your hunchback.
Flash forward 30 years. New technology has given rise to camcorders no bigger than little packages of Wrigley's spearmint gum. Tiny wired lenses can be hooked up to sleeves, gym bag straps, coat zippers, shoelaces, pant cuffs, shirt collars, etc. There are tiny cameras built into sunglasses. There are cameras that can be made to look like buttons.
These cameras don't need big, bulky, multi-directional microphones, like that ancient, Paleolithic video camera my dad bought 30 years ago. Now the mics are not much more than threads, built into the wiring, as thin as the fiber-optics that surgeons use nowadays.
The new generation of brave, undercover investigators have a perilous job to do, as tricky as any operations performed by spies during the Cold War era. You can't just walk into a plant and start filming atrocities. You have to go through an elaborate process of concocting an identity, applying for a job, building trust over time, and taking part in activities that are heartbreaking.
But if done right, these videos find their way to the outside world, onto Websites like http://www.mercyforanimals.org, or they become a part of films such as Earthlings or HBO's horrifying and uncompromising look at a pig facility, Death on a Factory Farm.
The word gets out. People slowly discover the truth. Veganism wins new converts.
There are some abolitionist animal rights purists who insist that organizations such MFA that target individual factory farms are conducing ineffectual "single issue" campaigns that lull people into believing that these are the worst offenders and that, once the industry is cleaned up and reformed, all meat will become "happy meat."
But there are a lot of people like me who see these images and we're shocked out of our complacency. I was pushed over to veganism by Death on a Factory Farm. It was about one factory farm in Ohio (by the way, why the hell is it that Ohio seems to be home to so many of the worst of these places?). The factory farm in this documentary was actually a slightly smaller operation, run by a father and his sons, with a relatively small crew of workers.
I suppose I could've watched it and vowed not to buy pork or ham from that particular establishment. "I eat only humanely slaughtered meat." That sort of baloney.
But Death on a Factory Farm proved to be a startling smack in the face that I desperately needed. Rather than condemning one individual, family-run operation, I suddenly recognized that the whole racket is based on murder, and the only way of disengaging is to stop buying animal products. Not just meat. Eggs, too. Milk, too. Cheese, too. Leather jackets and shoes, too.
Videos and the Internet. The Internet and Videos. What a potent combination. No wonder so many big meat producers are lobbying for strict punishments against undercover investigators. These whistleblowers are true heroes and heroines. They're the Frederick Douglasses and Sojourner Truths of our times. They deserve our thanks, for doing the sort of work that earlier generations of muckrakers used to do.
New technologies have worked in our favor. It may be too early to say that Omnivorism's days are numbered. But Veganism is winning over new converts partly because the evils of animal mass murder are getting to be harder and harder to conceal. Back when Sir Paul McCartney said, "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian," it was much easier to hide these sorts of crimes.
The pilgrimage toward the fullness of our humanity begins when people can no longer look away from suffering. The new technology - especially hidden video cameras - haven't turned the walls into glass. But, when used properly, they have created portholes for us to glimpse inside of these deadly operations. They haven't eliminated the evils of denial and indifference. But they have transmitted powerful images of suffering through our televisions and computer screens. Those who decide to ignore these images do so at their own risk.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
A colleague told me something recently that astonished me.
He's researching a project on the history of the Berlin Zoo (a.k.a., the Berlin Zoological Garden), which opened its doors in 1844 and has evolved in very interesting ways over the decades. He told me that back in the day - and now we're talking late 1800s, early 1900s - there used to be a section of the zoo dedicated to human exhibits.
This happened at a time when racism was pervasive, when the European powers and the United States were scrambling to divvy up the rest of the globe for imperial domination, and when Westerners developed an interest in all things "exotic" (read: non-white).
The Berlin Zoo, like many other zoos, started having human inmates of the dark-skinned variety. Curious Germans would plunk down their hard-earned money to see people from different parts of the world - Asians, Africans, South Sea Islanders - in their natural habitats.
The zoo in Berlin wasn't alone in this practice, I found out. Lots of zoos in European countries and even in the United States hosted similar exhibitions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
I bring this up because I read in a recent article about the deplorable living conditions that animals are enduring in the Dubai Zoo in the United Arab Emirates.
An article days ago in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National discussed the controversy over the poor treatment of animals in the Dubai Zoo. A lengthy highlight:
What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with those human zoos I mentioned at the start of this Blog Entry?
At a certain point, sometime around World War I (or not long thereafter), reformers arrived at the conclusion that exhibiting human beings in zoos was immoral. It robbed them of their dignity. It confined them illegally. It was a violation of their basic human rights. No human being should have to be confined to a small space and gawked at by other human beings.
States also outlawed infamous "freak shows," where human "exhibits" with severe deformities were displayed in much the same manner as humans in zoos. Over time, as science came to explain deformities, people began to sympathize with the so-called "freaks of nature." Hence, by the second half of the 20th Century, many states had adopted laws outlawing "freak shows." Michigan law, for example, outlaws the "exhibition [of] any deformed human being or human monstrosity, except as used for scientific purposes."
So if we, as a human race, recognize that it is wrong to exhibit human beings in zoos, why haven't we reached the stage in our thinking where we believe the same thing about animals?
Presumably they don't like to be confined to small spaces, gawked at, pointed at, laughed at, filmed with video cameras, photographed with cameras. No privacy. No consent from the animals. Only a limited space to run free.
Not all zoos are created equal. And it is true that many of them - including most in North America - take far better care of their animals than the zookeepers at the Dubai Zoo.
Yet we inevitably return to the question that most of us pose before going vegan: What right do we have to use these animals for our entertainment? To control them? To confine them?
I used human zoos as an example because the concept of being confined and observed is so unsettling to us as human beings. There's an old episode of The Twilight Zone, that great allegorical science fiction TV program from the late 1950s and early 1960s, titled "People Are Alike All Over" (it aired March 25 1960) - and DON'T READ ON IF YOU HATE SPOILERS - but it stars Roddy McDowall as an astronaut named Conrad who eventually becomes an exhibit in a Martian zoo.
It is a powerful episode, with a teleplay by the late, great Rod Serling, and it served as a thought-provoking commentary on the desire of human beings to confine and scrutinize other living beings, even if it robs them of their dignity. Serling, to my knowledge, wasn't an animal rights activist, yet he was able to hit a powerful message home to a Cold War era audience. Conrad (McDowall) realizes that Martians, who look just like earthlings in this episode (and dress like ancient Romans) are no different from their counterparts on the next planet. They're ultimately cruel, heartless, and have no respect for the rights of other living beings.
Friday, June 17, 2011
The latest Time magazine featured an article defending the "Happy Meat" craze by Josh Ozersky, foodie, food historian, author of The Hamburger: A History and frequent contributor to a plethora of magazines, including the aforementioned. At least Ozersky acknowledges early in the article that his foes have a legitimate point. As he writes:
I get the point made by animal-rights activists. Their primary arguments (that eating other animals is unnecessary, that their lives are as valuable as ours, that eating meat has catastrophic effects on our environment) are, to be honest, unanswerable. I admit that. I just don't want to stop eating meat. In fact, I want to eat even more of it than I do, if that's possible.
But Ozersky (I also tip my hat to him for having the honesty to admit in this article that Tony Soprano is his hero) goes on to admit that he won't eat meat that "comes from mistreated animals." He encourages his readers to do likewise.
Vegans and vegetarians, he says, "miss the point. People aren't going to start eating carrots three times a day. It's just not going to happen. So if you're going to eat meat, you should try to eat meat from small farms, or from larger producers who have demonstrated to the world that they are committed to cruelty-free production." He praises the efforts of animal behaviorist Temple Grandin and the industries that have implemented her suggestions to reduce animal stress on the slaughter floor.
Then comes this:
I buy cage-free eggs at the supermarket. I cook meat at home made by producers I trust. I don't approach companies like Smithfield or Tyson to sponsor my meat events. I would support any politician, of either party, who stood up for expanding the USDA's role so that it included at least cursory inspections of all farms where animals are raised for food. And likewise with any state legislator who would enforce state anticruelty laws for livestock the same as they do for cute puppies. Since neither of these things will ever happen, I try to lend support to industry initiatives like the National Pork Board's Pork Quality Assurance-Plus program, Whole Foods' animal-welfare system, and even Burger King's landmark 2007 commitment (which they say is still in place) to buy at least some cage-free eggs and farrowing-free pork.
The article rings with a self-congratulatory "aren't I a liberal" tone from start to finish. Yet, like all "Happy Meat" myth-making, it starts to fall apart under closer scrutiny.
It is time to make one thing absolutely, emphatically, 100% clear: There is no such thing as "Happy Meat." Meat, as the title of the 1985 album by English rock band The Smiths indicates, is murder. Nothing more, nothing less.
You can get rid of gestation crates. You can stop beating animals mercilessly. You can quit docking the tails of piglets. You can let animals roam around outside in the sunlight, graze in open fields, enjoy the temporary illusion of freedom.
But in the end, the very thing that makes the cruel producers criminal is the same thing that makes the word "humane" in the "Happy Meat" movement a joke. It's called Death by Exsanguination. Death, literally, by bleeding to death.
Don't fool yourself into thinking that an animal that is rendered unconscious by carbon dioxide before being bled to death is somehow better off than an animal prepared rendered motionless by captive bolt, gunshot or electrical stunning.
The most brutal, the most ghastly, the most inhumane and horrific element of meat production is the murder of the animal.
That isn't to say that it's not awful to witness livestock getting beaten or mutilated or harmed while they're fully conscious. That isn't to say it isn't heartbreaking to see an animal in an extreme state of stress or anxiety. It is better to see a pig calm before being murdered than agitated and screaming.
But in it all - and at the end of it all - is death. Bloodletting. Murder. Butchery. Serial killing. Whatever you want to call it.
Omnivores such as Ozersky, who feel a sense of moral outrage at the mistreatment of animals, have one big blind spot. The severing of veins or arteries. Or the piercing of the heart. The draining of the blood. The actual taking of the life.
I believe these "carnists" (as Ozersky calls himself) feel guilty when they watch animals being beaten or harmed or mutilated videos shot by Mercy for Animals or PETA (or insert your group/individual here) because somewhere, in the inner recesses of their minds, they understand that this horrible, degrading, stressful treatment is occurring at the very end of the animal's life.
If you've read this Blog in the past, you'll notice I rarely (if ever) invoke the Nazis, only because their crimes were so uniquely heinous that I am loathe to compare anyone to them. Sadly, sloppy Nazi analogies abound. However, Adolf Hitler, in one of his more insightful moments, wrote about what he called "the big lie" in his long 1925 rant Mein Kampf. It is worth quoting here because his words are applicable today.
All this was inspired by the principle--which is quite true within itself--that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.
"Happy Meat" is one of the Big Lies of today. There is no happy meat because there is no happy death. No living, sentient being goes willingly to become food for someone else, especially someone who does not need meat to live a happy, healthy, high-quality life.
Let's make it perfectly clear. Meat is death. It is destruction. It's mass murder. The production of meat entails a level of suffering beyond human comprehension. The victims of meat production, whether they live in dark and cold gestation crates or run freely outside, ultimately face a fate unimaginable to people. The very fact that it is unimaginable is what enables us, as human beings, to engage in all forms of denial. As Mark Twain rightfully pointed out: "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."
"Happy Meat" is a swindle. A con job. A multimillion dollar effort to bamboozle the public, to assuage mass guilt, to fool people into believing that the "product" wrapped in shrink wrap and styrofoam is delightful and will make our lives better.
Who among us, except for a tiny handful of lifelong vegetarians and vegans, didn't buy the lie at some point in their lives? We learned. The truth got through to us. Tear down Fortress Happy Meat and the truth will reach others. It won't necessarily end what Ozersky calls "carnism," but it will demolish an illusion based on lies, deceit and denial.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
One of the things that haunts me is how much of my life I spent advocating - and sometimes fighting for - social justice, but I failed to include animals in the equation.
People at the forefront of struggles for change - whether they're fighting for a cleaner environment, a more open and accountable political system, a safer neighborhood, a saner foreign policy, or what have you - are fighting the noblest battles of all.
It is mystifying to me, though, that so many advocates of positive change leave out the animals. I've pondered this for quite some time. One would think animal rights would fit in neatly with the other "Good Fights" on the left side of the political spectrum. But one often finds centrists and conservatives taking up the cause as much as progressives.
Moreover, you can thumb through the pages of the leading lefty periodicals of our time - The Nation, The Progressive, for example - and many progressive Websites and Blogs (Common Dreams, Daily Kos), and find nary a word about animals, animal exploitation, animal rights or veganism.
This isn't meant to pick on these folks. They have their work cut out for them. There are a thousand battles to be fought, and all the odds are against you if you're thinking of rolling up your sleeves and working on behalf of the most vulnerable. The humanitarians deserve praise, not criticism, for their efforts.
Yet it does highlight an unusual inconsistency - one that I had in my own political beliefs for many years. I rallied against the arms race when I was younger, yet I ate chickens without thinking about them. I got arrested resisting my university's investments in South Africa, yet I didn't flinch or wince as I devoured T-bone steaks and fillet mignons. I gave time and money to human rights groups like Amnesty International, but the rights of the cod or the halibut that I consumed didn't cross my mind.
Eventually, a light went on. The combination of several factors in my life, crisscrossing together about two years ago, sent me on the path toward animal rights and veganism.
Once I had my awakening - my epiphany - I wondered how I could've lived in darkness and ignorance for so long. Why didn't I realize that animals suffer from the pain and exploitation and violence that comes with being turned into a commodity as much as human beings? More so. There aren't billions of human beings being murdered each year by a system whose very foundation is bloodletting. How could I have ignored the animals for so long?
At a certain point, and I'm not sure when this occurred - maybe a year ago or so - I stopped beating myself up for all of those years I spent as an omnivore. Why bother? What's done is done.
If I could go back and uneat all those animals I ate, if I could unbuy all of those leather shoes and jackets I bought, I would. But the pathos of life is that we don't have time machines. We can't undo our mistakes.
We can learn from them, though. We can decide that we will not continue living in ways that are destructive, doing things that are harmful, hurting beings that are sentient.
And instead of scratching our heads, wondering why many of the people who are on the front lines of the crusades for social justice aren't fighting for animal rights, maybe we ought to realize they, too, are susceptible to the propaganda from the food industry and all the other rackets that prey on innocent animals. And while we're at it, perhaps we should count our blessings.
Thirty years ago, animal rights and veganism weren't even a blip on most people's radars. Hell, twenty years ago they weren't. Today, the most controversial film out there, Folks Over Knives (which, for the sake of full disclosure, I haven't seen yet), is advocating a vegetable-based diet as a means of combating health problems brought on by consuming animal-based products.
Veganism is winning new converts on a daily basis. The growth of the lifestyle may seem maddeningly slow at times, but there is no denying that it has found a mass audience - with the help of the Internet, documentaries, blogs, etc. - that it never had before.
More people are waking up and realizing just what I did - that no vision of social justice is complete without including animals. Animals, too, feel pain and anxiety and fear and sadness, but also the joy and love and exhilaration that comes with being free.
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum - right, center, left - we can all agree that animals must never be exploited, used or harmed in any way. And veganism is a much healthier way to live, and a much saner diet, than consuming animals.
When you have the power of truth on your side, you have the capacity to create a light nobody can ignore. As lonely as it often seems to batter away at the cliffs like the waves of an ocean, such action does create shifts. We may never reach Utopia, but there's a possibility we'll arrive somewhere a hell of a lot better than where we're at now.
Friday, June 10, 2011
Once again, Farm Sanctuary's Gene Baur shoots down the myth of "Happy Cows" in this excellent - and very short - video shot in the American heartland, Kansas. Take out a minute and a half or so and watch it. Hear what Gene has to say. Gene is a real hero to the Animal Rights Movement. This summer, he and some of his Farm Sanctuary comrades are traveling across the country in what is known as the "Just Eats Tour" to promote animal rights and veganism.
And in case you haven't heard, Farm Sanctuary is celebrating its 25th Anniversary. Last month, supporters of the organization held a lavish, celebrity-studded celebration at the Cipriani Wall Street restaurant in New York City to honor Farm Sanctuary's many wonderful achievements. Lots of celebrities turned up to dine on vegan meals and toast this wonderful group.
Hopefully, Farm Sanctuary will be around for another 25 years - and another 50, 100, 200 and more - years from now. America - and, indeed, the world - is blessed to have such a caring and visionary organization leading the way in the struggle for animal rights.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
Certain heroes and heroines don't get monuments. Many of the ordinary rank-and-file Civil Rights Movement activists, for example, didn't get monuments built in their honor.
Environmentalists who've fought bravely for a safer and cleaner world don't get them either. And don't expect any of the wonderful folks who are resisting the excesses of our neo-Gilded Age - the concentration of wealth, the unchecked power of corporations, the allegiance between politics and special interest groups - to have any monuments dedicated to them.
And then, of course, there are those tireless advocates for animals who should also be honored with statues - the men and women and children who have fought tirelessly for the voiceless.
One of those kind souls - sadly, no longer with us - was Edward Gardner. Gardner was only 38 when he was struck and killed by a limousine while trying to rescue a group of ducklings as they tried to cross the busy Tri-State Tollway (Interstate 294) in Illinois. It happened on Memorial Day, May 30, 2011.
Remember that name.
By all accounts, Gardner loved life. And he loved animals. Those who knew him said that he would go out of his way to help animals. To him, all life was precious. All life had meaning. Gardner was not one to simply talk the talk from the comfort of his home, either.
When Gardner's close friend Jim Gollwitzer heard about the terrible tragedy, he focused on the act of compassion rather than the man's death. "That's totally Ed," he said. "That's how big of a heart he had." Gollwitzer told the Chicago Tribune that Gardner used to volunteer on his summer vacations at a wolf sanctuary in New Mexico. "He cared about animals. It was one of the passions of his life." (Source)
Gardner also loved cars. He spent years fixing up his 1960 Chevrolet Parkwood. He loved going to car shows, being a part of the community, sharing stories with his fellow muscle car enthusiasts.
Clearly, Edward Gardner was a man in love with life. He died in the prime of life, struck down while trying to help ducklings.
Jim Gollwitzer completely understood why Gardner sacrificed his life to help ducklings. Because Gardner was someone who believed in the sanctity of life. Not just human life - all lives. He didn't hesitate to help the ducklings. And if he had it to do all over again, Gardner would not hesitate for a second to do what had to be done.
There probably won't ever be any monuments to Edward Gardner. No statues. No fountains. No plaques. No park benches bearing his name.
Those of us who love animals and see a touch of the divine in all living beings owe it to Gardner to build a monument to him in our own minds.
The first step in doing this is to always remember his name.
Edward Gardner. He died much too young, but his was a noble death. May we always remember his courageous sacrifice. May his love of life continue on in the actions of we, the living.
There are many ways to create monuments. Sometimes the greatest monument is not forgetting.
Saturday, June 4, 2011
It is so encouraging to see the Vegan Diet going mainstream across North America. In the United States and Canada, people are realizing that veganism is not only a healthier way to live, it's the only way to enjoy a truly humane diet, one in which animals are not exploited, treated harshly and murdered in the making of our food.
Up here in Canada, CBC News featured a fantastic article on its Website about the mainstreaming of veganism the country. From British Columbia to the Maritimes, people are going vegan every day, with new converts all over the place. Asked about vegan diets, Dana McIntyre, president of the Vegans and Vegetarians of Alberta Association, noted, "They're gaining in popularity. It's not a trendy, hippy way of eating anymore." These days, she adds, "you see a range of groups all moving towards a vegan diet."
Just the other night, I ate at a local family restaurant where I've taken my kids for years. They've added several new dishes to their menu that are explicitly advertised as "vegan." Their dessert menu now includes vegan cheesecake and a few other vegan treats. This trend is repeating itself in restaurants across Canada.
The same thing is occurring in the United States. Veganism is here to stay. It's going mainstream. And this is a wonderful thing to see. As Blogger Jamessina Hille wrote on her blog the other day:
These developments are encouraging. And believe me, we need all the encouragement we can get. Because the alternative way of living - the one we see too often in documentaries, and read about in books - rests on a foundation involving the rampant, horrific and immoral abuse of animals. Vegans are showing that there is a different way of living, a hopeful way, one that does not involve the destruction of life.
Not only is vegan not a dirty word. Vegan is the most hopeful word in the English language.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Another one of my favorite videos, from PETA, featuring the wonderful actor Casey Affleck. This video actually had an influence on me going vegan in the fall of 2009. Have a look at it if you get a chance and share it with friends and loved ones.
Casey is a fantastic performer and a very insightful guy. Back when I was an omnivore and I watched this video for the first time, I really liked his approach to the issue. He turned out to be non-dogmatic, yet outspoken in his beliefs. A video like this one is especially good for folks who are still sitting on the fence. check it out if you get a chance.
Sorry for the long hiatus. I took most of the month of May off of blogging to attend to other writing that I had to finish. I'm back in the saddle again, though, and posting this compelling video that offers more reasons to go vegan. Have a look. The facts speak for themselves.
But the number one reason for going vegan - above health reasons, above economic and environmental reasons, above the fact that vegan food is actually damn good - is for the animals. Murdering them or using them for any purpose is immoral. Period. End of story.
Well, maybe it's not the end of the story, exactly. There are other reasons to go vegan. Watch this video and find out some of them. But remember: Number One Reason = The Animals.