Monday, February 9, 2015

Slaughterhouse Workers Are Not the Enemy

by Bethany Cortale
The Vegan Vine
Protesting in front of the Catelli Brothers Slaughterhouse
On World Day for Farmed Animals, celebrated every year on Gandhi’s birthday (October 2), I thought I would do something special to signify the day, so I attended a New Jersey Farm Animal Save protest at the Catelli Brothers slaughterhouse in Shrewsbury, New Jersey.

The Catelli slaughterhouse is Shrewsbury's dirty little secret. Cleverly disguised as an office building, scared and bellowing animals are removed from a transport truck and forced into the back of the building in the wee hours of the morning when most people are still peacefully asleep, unaware of the terror, fear and violence that abounds there. A sign out front discreetly reads “Quality Veal & Lamb Products.”

Having worked in the area I was familiar with the abattoir, more so than most people who have lived there their entire lives. Given the public’s determined obliviousness, the protest provided a great opportunity to bring awareness to this house of horrors to the folks who pass by it every day.

Not long after I arrived at the protest, a fellow protester approached me and asked if I were vegan. I thought it an odd question considering where we were and what we were doing. Imagine my surprise when she said she wasn't vegan or vegetarian but felt that "it’s wrong what they're doing there.” Before I could inquire further, she moved to a spot across the street.

I assumed she was referring to the publicity surrounding last year’s undercover video that caused the slaughterhouse to be temporarily shut down. According to federal regulators, the animals were not being humanely slaughtered on par with USDA standards. Catelli closed its doors for about a week and then went back to business as usual having had, supposedly, retrained the staff about the proper way to unnecessarily take an animal's life. 

Or, perhaps this particular protester was concerned about the age of the animals being slaughtered since veal is made from newborn calves and lamb from newborn sheep. Age seemed to be an issue for another protester I spoke with who was upset about two main things: the workers themselves and the fact that they kill babies. I explained how all farm animals killed for food are, in effect, babies because they're all taken long before their natural lifespans. Furthermore, I discussed the direct connection between dairy consumption and veal. Few people in general seem to grasp that without the dairy industry, there would be no veal.

Since it was a weekday, we saw some of the workers coming and going. One older woman made a point of showing her protest sign to a worker leaving the facility, asking him if he could read it, which I thought was condescending and uncalled for. In an unusual circumstance, I found myself trying to explain the issues these workers face and how they, too, are exploited. While I would never condone what they do, I think targeting them is fruitless and ill-focused.

An industry that is hostile to animals is no less hostile to the people it employs to do our dirty work. In a 2011 VegNews article, “Injustice for All,” Mark Hawthorne investigated the conditions of slaughterhouse workers and found their jobs to be one of the most dangerous in the world. Working conditions often violate international human rights standards, and since many workers are immigrants (38%), and often undocumented, they remain fearfully silent. The average abattoir worker earns just $11.42 an hour, and they are often required to kill a large number of animals per minute. In the case of one poultry factory worker, 35 per minute. Those workers who fall behind are often subjected to humiliation and verbal abuse. Additionally, the large output demanded of them results in workplace injuries that often go unreported and untreated. Many workers do not have access to healthcare so in the rare instance that they do report an injury, they are often shuffled off to a company doctor who downplays their affliction.

In an interview with Mother Jones, Ted Genoways, whose family worked in the slaughter and meat packing industry, corroborated the increased injuries correlated with increased line speeds. “. . . when amputations occurred among the workers, and you've got somebody who's had a finger chopped off or has had a deep cut on their arm so that they're bleeding all over their station, there's somebody there to just pause that station and clean it while the rest of the line continues to move . . . they're not allowed bathroom breaks, or even ordinary breaks to sharpen knives or to wash their hands.” Nothing is more important than keeping the production line—the killing, eviscerating, slicing and packaging—moving at all times. 
“Slaughterhouse workers tend to be people who don’t have many other options . . . ,” said Cori Mattli in “Vegan in the Dairy State” (Chickpea, 2013). “Studies show that there is a high correlation with slaughterhouse work and post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. Workers become desensitized to violence.”

Slaughterhouse workers are people with little power who are given control over innocent and helpless creatures who are at their mercy, and the results are often inhuman and sickening. In her book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Dr. Melanie Joy provided worker testimony detailing the violence committed against both human and nonhuman animals.

Most stickers (those who stand in blood and slit the animal’s neck) have been arrested for assault. A lot of them have problems with alcohol. They have to drink, they have no other way of dealing with killing live, kicking animals all day long. . . . A lot of guys . . . just drink and drug their problems away. Some of them end up abusing their spouses because they can’t get rid of the feelings.

I've taken out my job pressure and frustration on the animals. . . . [T]here was a live hog in the pit. It hadn’t done anything wrong, wasn’t’ even running around the pit. It was just alive. I took a three-foot chunk of pipe—and I literally beat that hog to death. Couldn’t have been a two-inch piece of solid bone left in its head. Basically, if you want to put it in layman’s terms, I crushed his skull. It was like I started hitting the hog and I couldn’t stop. And when I finally did stop, I’d expended all this energy and frustration, and I’m thinking, what in God’s sweet name did I do? (p. 83)

As I tried to explain to my fellow Catelli protesters, it always comes down to simple economics and the willfulness of individuals. If consumers discontinue buying animal products, then farmed animals will cease being bred and supplied to slaughterhouses, and businesses like Catelli will eventually fold. Slaughterhouse work is precisely related to consumer demand for animal flesh and secretions. Each of us has enormous purchasing power. When we buy animal products, we endorse violence against animals. To demonize the exploited slaughterhouse worker for giving us what we ask for and for doing what we ourselves don't have the nerve to do with our own hands is craven and hypocritical. 

By all means, slaughterhouse workers are not innocent, but neither are they solely guilty in committing cruelty against animals. In his book, Every Twelve Seconds, Timothy Pachirat explained how distance and concealment are utilized to sustain industrialized killing in our modern society. "Those who benefit at a distance, delegating this terrible work to others while disclaiming responsibility for it, [bear] more moral responsibility, particularly in contexts like the slaughterhouse, where those with the fewest opportunities in society perform the dirty work" (p. 160).

For all intents and purposes, the nonvegan protester I met is no better than your average consumer in approving and upholding the atrocities and savagery that take place every day behind slaughterhouse walls. Maybe she is slowly making the connection between her food choices and animal abuse as she comes to realize that she, too, has blood on her hands. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Worshipping Golden Calves

The Adoration of the Golden Calf

by Bethany Cortale

If you think cows are the only victims of the beef industry and that chowing down on a hamburger or steak only affects them, think again.

For decades now, regulatory-captured federal and state government agencies, primarily in the West, have been on a full out blitz to decimate wild animals and waning species deemed a threat to the livestock industry, particularly cattle. These agencies have betrayed their duties to protect and defend wildlife and have chosen instead to guard corporate interests. Years ago I wrote on this issue, but it bears repeating as the situation has only gotten worse.

Wolves, grizzlies, bison, coyotes, burrows, horses, prairie dogs, elk, pumas, sea otters, bobcats, and mountain lions are just a few of the species viciously targeted by government agencies using taxpayer dollars in order to protect “live stock” investments.

The Wildlife Services agency, a branch of the USDA, has a track record of executing millions of wild animals every year, mostly on behalf of farmers, ranchers, and the animal industrial complex. Animals who are considered nuisances, who interfere with the raising of cattle and the hunting of big game, don't stand a chance. According to a three-part series by the Sacramento Bee, Wildlife Services has used steel traps, wire snares, poison, and aerial shooting from helicopters to kill indiscriminately, even those unintended animals like federally protected bald eagles; more than 1,100 dogs, including family pets; as well as birds, beavers, river otters, and rare and endangered species.
The Interagency Bison Management Plan claims to be concerned with the welfare of Yellowstone National Parks' bison (American buffalo), yet one of the IBMP’s members is the Montana Department of Livestock—a direct conflict of interest. Politically motivated by corporate pursuits, the IBMP has zero tolerance for wild animals like wolves and bison, who occasionally leave the park. A common threat levied against bison is their potential to spread tuberculosis in cattle, but this has been greatly exaggerated and unfounded. According to the Buffalo Field Campaign, there has never been a documented transmission of brucellosis from wild bison to livestock. The IBMP continues to use false threats of bison transferring brucellosis to cattle as justification for the murders of hundreds of bison.

Gray wolves have also suffered dearly as a prime target of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency along with Congress continue to play games with the lives of gray wolves, listing and delisting them from the Endangered Species List at will. Ranchers view the wolves as a direct threat to their livelihood and have successfully lobbied government agencies for support. The government's hired marksmen have targeted wolves from helicopters in the air and trappers have caught them on the ground. 

The Vegan Vine
Coyotes aren’t faring any better. Every year the National Predator Hunters Association helps organize events like Austin, Nevada’s annual “Coyote Derby” (pictured right) whereby participants are encouraged to kill as many coyotes as possible. One participant interviewed by a member of Catholic Concern for Animals said the derby is held in support of local agricultural families that are having livestock decimated by predators.

Last September, the Bureau of Land Management—which has become known as the organization that stood down to racist, right-wing rancher Cliven Bundy and his band of thugs—began eliminating 800 plus wild horses from 1.2 million acres of Western land to placate cattle ranchers. Many of the horses were injured or killed during capture, starved to death or auctioned off for their meat.

State and federal governments are not only happy to lend meat industries their services but, according to Meatonomics, also fork over taxpayer money to pay for it. The cattle industry is a major recipient of the very type of government handouts that conservatives often decry as welfare. Currently, 63 percent or $38 billion of taxpayer money is given to animal food producers every year. And if that wasn’t enough, Americans also incur $414.8 billion in annual externalized costs thanks to the meat and dairy oligarchy.

Though cattle seem to get most of the government's consideration, they fare no better. Viewed merely as meat machines, they are protected so long as they too can be subjugated for a profit. For that matter, any animal utilized for food or who gets in the way of this exploitive process is in danger of being exterminated. For example, rather than curtail human development and the fishing industry, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed gunning down 16,000 cormorants, birds who nest on Oregon's East Sand Island, in order to prevent them from eating their natural diet of salmon and trout. Why? So what remains of salmon and trout (human overfishing has depleted these species) can be sold for human consumption. The bottom line is the industry (money) is sacrosanct and animals are not.

One might assume, at the very least, that environmental organizations are looking out for wildlife and fighting against corporate interests, but even they have succumbed. Late last year the Natural Resources Defense Council proclaimed victory in Illinois after Governor Pat Quinn signed the Protection of Wildlife Bill. Sounds nice, right? Well, according to NRDC, the bill will make hunting and shooting mountain lions, gray wolves, and black bears illegal except in cases where the animals threaten livestock. Apparently no animal is safe when it comes to Big Ag.

Earlier this year, the Center for Biological Diversity launched a project called Take Extinction Off Your Plate to educate people about the links between meat consumption and wildlife loss. According to their website, livestock grazing is among the greatest direct threats to imperiled species, affecting 14 percent of threatened or endangered animals and 33 percent of threatened or endangered plants. Wild animals suffer not only the collateral damage of meat-related deforestation, drought, pollution, and climate change, but also direct targeting by the meat industry. Native species are frequently killed to protect meat-production profits, to reserve more feed for cattle, and because they disrupt the unnatural homogenous landscapes desired by livestock managers. 

I'm sure most people who eat beef products are not aware that in doing so they’re harming many more animals than just cows. Ultimately, there would be no appeal for slaughtering wildlife and protecting cattle if consumers didn’t compensate the animal agriculture industry through their beef purchases; yet another reason why people can’t claim to love animals and eat them.

Consumers have the power to make a difference for animals by becoming informed citizens and making ethical choices. It starts with each individual, an awareness of other life around us, and a willingness to go against the crowd. It starts with going vegan

The golden calf isn't relegated merely to antiquity; it exists even today, in many ungodly forms.

Poussin, Nicolas. The Adoration of the Golden Calf. 1633-1634. National Gallery, London. Wikipedia. Web. 28 July 2014.

Vegan Starter Kit

Monday, December 22, 2014

Vegans: The Planet Is a Living Thing, Too!

The Vegan Vine
by Bethany Cortale

The environmental movement reached a crescendo in September with the People’s Climate March. During this time the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, recently appointed United Nations Messenger of Peace, delivered an urgent plea to the Assembly and its members to scale back the effects of impending climate change. Unfortunately, at no point during his speech did he allude to the substantial impact industrialized animal agriculture has on climate change. I wasn’t surprised by this. After all, DiCaprio, like most professed environmentalists, is not vegan.

We often hear that one cannot be fully dedicated to the environmental cause while still consuming meat, dairy and eggs. This is absolutely true, but I would also argue that one can’t be fully dedicated to animals while also being a consumer-driven, resource-depleting, wasteful, non-recycling vegan. 

When environmentalists, like DiCaprio, ignore how their food preferences affect animals, they do a disservice to the environment. And when vegans ignore the damaging effects their product and energy consumption and disposal have on the environment, they indirectly hurt animals. 

During his UN speech DiCaprio made some good suggestions. His appeal to governments to pass sweeping carbon tax legislation and to eliminate government subsidies for coal, gas, and oil companies is vital. Nonetheless, he shouldn’t discount the importance and power we all have as consumers and citizens of the world. So, while I do agree with him that industries and governments need to take resolute, large-scale action, I disagree with his statement that “this disaster has grown beyond the choices that individuals make.” The reality is that the climate change problem requires both—earnest and extensive government action coupled with decisive, individual action. 

However challenging it may seem to some, everyone must stop making excuses and embrace a vegan diet. Furthermore, government must eliminate the $38 billion of taxpayer money used to subsidize the meat and dairy industries, which only make it easier for people to remain nonvegan and support destructive products. In addition to cutting subsidies to these harmful industries, the government also needs to tax them as they do tobacco. Similarly to cigarettes, animal product consumption is a deadly, detrimental, and unnecessary habit. 

In his book, Meatonomics, David Robinson Simon proposes a 50 percent federal excise tax on all domestic retail sales of meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, which would result in the following:
  • 172,000 fewer annual human deaths from cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • 26 billion fewer land and marine animals killed each year.
  • A 3.4 trillion-pound annual reduction in the emission of carbon dioxide equivalents.
  • 440 billion pounds less hazardous waste generated yearly.
  • 708,000 square miles of US land no longer devoted to raising livestock or feed crops.
  • $26 billion in annual saving to Medicare and Medicaid programs.
  • Annual decline of $184 billion in animal foods’ external costs imposed on Americans.
The dire situation of our planet requires that both individuals and governments find the collective will to slow down and potentially reverse climate change. To do this, we are obligated to focus on the biggest culprits: animal agriculture and fossil fuels. To disregard one or the other or both is fruitless. Likewise, a vegan must recognize the importance of being an environmentalist, and an environmentalist must see the necessity in being vegan. The two are inseparable. Those who take up the cause of one and not the other will be less effective in averting both environmental and animal exploitation.

According to oceanographers, some 40 percent of the ocean surface is now covered with plastic. In his article, "Choking the Oceans With Plastics", Charles J. Moore noted that plastics biodegrade exceptionally slowly, breaking into tiny fragments in a centuries-long process that entangles and slowly kills millions of sea creatures who mistake plastics for their natural food, ingesting toxicants that cause liver and stomach abnormalities in fish and birds, often choking them to death.

This is just one environmental crisis of many symptomatic of our reckless consumer- and technologically-driven society.

Being vegan doesn't conclude with what we eat. How many of us try to consume less plastic? How many vegans avoid plastic water bottles and recycle regularly? How many vegans seek to reduce their energy and water consumption? How many vegans only buy what they truly need and seek to live a more simple life? How many live in efficient spaces, take reusable bags with them to the grocery store, and cook at home, skipping wasteful takeout food containers? These any many other questions are presented to each of us every single day and how we answer them speaks to who and what we value.

Whether human or nonhuman, all animals require clean air, clean water, and uncontaminated soil. Vegans cannot claim to care about animals without also caring about the wild spaces and ecosystems that animals call home. If we seek to protect animals, it goes without saying that we should also seek to protect their habitats, too. It behooves all of us. After all, Earth is also a living thing—if and when it dies, we all die. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sorry to Burst Your Vegan Bubble!

by Bethany Cortale

The Vegan Vine
Okay, so picture it. I'm in a bookstore (remember those?) thumbing through the magazines. I spot a new vegan magazine and excitedly reach up to retrieve it. As I do this, another customer sees this and stops me.

“Are you vegan?” he asks. I tell the stranger in the magazine aisle that I am vegan and ask him the same question, to which he also responds affirmatively! I flash him a great big smile and express how wonderful it is to meet another vegan. We share how long we've each been vegan and briefly discuss local vegan restaurants. I reach for my wallet to hand him my personal card with my blog’s information, but before I can even get it out of my purse, he divulges to me that he still eats fish . . . and eggs . . .


Fast forward a few weeks later. I'm at a liquor store looking for an organic, vegan wine and am having trouble finding it, so I ask a woman working there for help. When she finds out that I'm vegan, she tells me that she, too, is vegan. (Insert my aforementioned reaction here.) Alas, "But I mostly eat vegetarian," she says, "and cheese, I just love cheese."

I realize vegans are few and far between so casually meeting another vegan is always a personal thrill for me, but rarely does this seem to actually happen. Americans are consuming the least amount of meat since 1973 and the number of people Googling the word vegan has increased exponentially, but that doesn't necessarily translate into a rise in the number of people adhering to a daily vegan diet. Varying polls substantiate this inconsistency, showing vegans making up anywhere between one and seven percent of the U.S. population.

Recently, I coined the term veganwashing to describe efforts to water down a steadfast vegan diet. Books like Vegan Before Six by Mark Bittman and self-identifying labels like pseudo-vegan ignore the ethical foundation and magnitude of maintaining an unwavering vegan diet—the animals. As a result, people will often call themselves vegans even though they continue to eat meat, dairy and eggs. To bring home this point, a vegan friend of mine recently received the following reply on a dating website: “I was born in Iowa and can milk a cow. I am vegan as well, I only eat beef that has been fed on grass!”

Is it too much to ask that when someone calls himself or herself a vegan that he or she actually be vegan in practice?

Many may think my focus on strict observance is petty. What I find distressing, however, is the inability of people to put the lives of other sentient beings above the interests of their own gustatory desires and frivolous appetites, particularly when they make a point of identifying themselves as vegans. What’s more, cynical nonvegans are constantly looking for any opportunity to draw attention to inconsistencies or hypocrisies in vegan diets in order to back their false assertions that veganism is arduous and impractical. The man in the bookstore and the women in the liquor store unwittingly feed this fallacy.

I'm aware that no one can be one hundred percent vegan since animal byproducts are surreptitiously used to make roads, tires, fertilizers, plywood, television screens, and myriad of other things that are virtually incapable to avoid. Nevertheless, it is the demand for animal foods that directly creates a surplus of excrement, blood, bones and other animal parts used to make these and other imperishable items. In her book, Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans, Sherry Colb explains that only by eliminating the demand for food products that come directly from animal-farming and slaughter will we be able to simultaneously eliminate the demand for the fungible byproducts that are part of so many consumer items. Basically, if there weren’t a market for animal flesh, there wouldn’t be a market for other animal byproducts like leather jackets and cowhide footballs. Therefore, vegans are continually undermined by the choices made by those who continue to devour animal foodstuffs, whether they be nonvegans, vegetarians or half-hearted vegans.

My aim is not to belittle the efforts of those trying to reduce animal suffering, but to champion the ethical importance of strict vegan diets. In order to stay focused on animals, we must continually educate ourselves and stay socially connected with other vegans and animal rights activists. Moreover, we must remain disciplined, willing, and committed to the abolitionist principle, which rejects all animal use and establishes that all sentient beings (human and nonhuman) have one fundamental right: the right not to be treated as the property of others. To participate in anything less or to make any personal distinction between species of animals like chickens and fish; between flesh and other animal products, such as dairy, eggs, cheese, or honey; or between animal foods and other products or services that exploit animals, is disingenuous to the lives of animals, the foundation of veganism, and the cause of justice.

Rutgers University Animal Law Professor Gary L. Francione explains why veganism is the moral baseline: There is no coherent distinction between flesh and other animal products. They are all the same and we cannot justify consuming any of them. To say that you do not eat flesh but that you eat dairy or eggs or whatever, or that you don’t wear fur but you wear leather or wool, is like saying that you eat the meat from spotted cows but not from brown cows; it makes no sense whatsoever. The supposed “line” between meat and everything else is just a fantasy–an arbitrary distinction that is made to enable some exploitation to be segmented off and regarded as “better” or as morally acceptable. . . . all animal products are the result of imposing suffering and death on sentient beings. It is not a matter of judging individuals; it is, however, a matter of judging practices and institutions. And that is a necessary component of ethical living.

I'm always happy to engage with nonvegans. They are often unaware of what is actually going on, so the bar begins low and has nowhere to go but up! I've met inspiring people who want to help, they just need to know how. On the other hand, my expectations are much higher for those who label themselves as vegans, who have some idea of what's really happening to farmed animals, and who are potential role models for others. The vegan community naturally holds those who describe themselves as vegans to a higher standard because it assumes that their practices are in line with their knowledge and principles. How often do we hear people say that they “love animals”? If you then ask them if they eat animals, they say they do. We expect this inconsistency and hypocrisy from the majority of people, but vegans are supposed to be wiser, therefore, more is expected of them. It may be an unfair yardstick, but we mean to model a higher standard and a better way to live by embracing a vegan way of life.

If we're going to call ourselves vegans, we need to emulate veganism in all aspects of our lives as best we can, but especially with regard to the foods we purchase and consume as it is the central and fundamental component of what it means to be vegan. If we aren't going to be honest with ourselves about why we want to be vegan or why we call ourselves vegans, how then are we going to maintain our veganism in a hostile, nonvegan world? Moreover, how can we hold out any hope for others or for the billions of animals who are counting on us every single day?