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?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Animal Activism: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Bethany Cortale
Animal Liberation
Beagle rescued from a research facility
I've been thinking a lot lately about various degrees of animal activism. Often, people are drawn to certain activities based on their personalities and strengths. Extroverts are typically good at interacting with the public; partaking in protests, leafleting and tabling activities, while those who are more introverted may work better behind the scenes organizing and writing letters. That being said, are some forms of animal activism more effective than others? 

Recently, the Humane Society of the United States came under much deserved fire for sponsoring Hoofin' It, a derogatory and speciesist fundraiser whereby consumers were encouraged to patronize local restaurants to dine on hooved animals (sheep, bison, cows, pigs).

In a Facebook response, HSUS President Wayne Pacelle offered a weak apology (that was quickly removed) and managed to talk out of both sides of his mouth, insisting that HSUS is asking people to choose more plant-based foods, while admitting that they are also "asking people to make better choices on the animal products they consume." Well, which is it?

Events like Hoofin’ It do not promote plant-based foods and a vegan diet; rather, they betray farm animals while perpetuating the comfortable and welcomed notion that eating animals is acceptable—even fun! HSUS may be great helping cats and dogs, but their farm animal tactics are regressive and hurtful, and they fail to promote veganism as the ultimate goal. This event may have placated attendees (and raised funds for HSUS), but it did not further the cause of securing the rights of animals to not be treated as property for human consumption. 

I recently finished reading Will Potter's excellent book, Green Is the New Red, in which he documented acts taken by animal and environmental activists, as well as government and corporate efforts to stop them under the guise of fighting terrorism. He cited several examples of nonviolent direct action against animal abusing institutions in which activists gave suffering animals their freedom without harming any individual. One specific action took place in 1997 at the Cavel West horse slaughterhouse. The Bureau of Land Management, a U.S. government agency, had been illegally profiting from the sale of thousands of horses rounded up on public lands who were supposed to be adopted out as part of a program to protect them. When an investigation revealed that the BLM had been secretly sending the horses to slaughter, the Animal Liberation Front burned the slaughterhouse down. According to Potter, the ALF issued a communiqué following the act stating that the fire brought "to a screeching halt what countless protests and letter writing campaigns could never stop." The arson ended up causing about $1 million in damage but the slaughterhouse never reopened. This form of animal activism produced immediate results.

When activists release minks from fur farms or rehome beagles, rabbits and cats rescued from laboratories, the effects are instantaneous and lifesaving to those individual animals. There is something very persuasive and powerful in these direct actions taken by activists, who are willing to put their necks on the line for animals. Yes, they are breaking laws, but they are breaking immoral laws. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” in April 1963, “. . . there are two types of laws: there are just and there are unjust laws. . . . an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law. . . .”

Still, as long as people continue to demand animal products and pay others to produce clothing from the skins and furs of animals, food derived from the flesh and secretions of animals, and cosmetics and household products tested on animals; dark and hopeless places like fur and factory farms, slaughterhouses, and animal laboratories will continue to exist and thrive. This was no less apparent than during a recent slaughterhouse protest I took part in when I was astonished to learn that some of the protesters in attendance were neither vegan nor vegetarian. How effective can animal activists be when even they choose not to remove animal cruelty from their own plates?  

Engagement for animals also hinges on ideological differences within the animal activist community, primarily between welfarists (who seek to reform and regulate animal industries) and abolitionists (who want to eradicate them). Welfarists are disconnected from the animal rights movement because their programs and policies do not promote rights, but maintain the status quo of animal exploitation and consumption, as illustrated by the aforementioned HSUS event.

Potter also illustrated the similar challenges Dr. King faced within his own civil rights movement: Dr. King reserved his harshest words for [fellow clergymen] . . . 'more devoted to order than to justice; who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly say: I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.' Moderation is a luxury of the privileged, Dr. King said. Patience is not possible at the end of a rope. . . . Dr. King defended his extremism in the face of what he called the 'tranquilizing drug of gradualism.'

It’s easy to see how welfarist schemes like cage-free campaigns, Meatless Mondays, and 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards that promote humane “happy” meat, exemplify Dr. King’s “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” These drives and programs tell the public that it’s acceptable to keep eating and abusing animals, that there's no sense of urgency in moving toward veganism, basically—take your time, the animals can wait! Dr. King said it best: “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” 

Welfarists are content to not stir the pot or make any waves, and they represent the interests of organizations that look to satisfy all parties (meat, dairy, and egg industries included). They are the Neville Chamberlain's of animal activism, who will appease nonvegans and bargain away the lives of animals with their organization’s blessing. In so doing, they point to industry improvements, like increased cage sizes, as small victories when, in reality, they are losing the war against animal exploitation and speciesism.

The animal rights movement is a fight for justice and nothing can be more unjust than validating the continual utilization of animals as food, offering very little hope to those expressively bred to suffer and die, who face the "end of the rope" every single day.

The main objective for both those involved in direct action and indirect action must be veganism and the elimination of animal exploitation in all its insidious forms. After all, how effective can direct action be in the long run if we don't also try to change the way people view animals and their uses? Oxford University Theologian Andrew Linzey said as much in his book Animal Gospel: "There can be no long-term future for animal protection without challenging many of the pivotal ideas that justify animal abuse. . . . We shall not change the world for animals without also changing people’s ideas about the world. . . . It is the willingness to do intellectual battle so that the claims of animals are heard and their case presented at every level of society."

The power we have as individuals and as a collective is immense. There are many ways to advocate for animals directly and indirectly, but they must begin with commitments to veganism, the rights of animals, and our own education so that we can continue to teach others.

Vegan Starter Kit