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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Defending Beef

The Vegan Vine
by Bethany Cortale

There’s nothing I love doing more on a Sunday than watching football and reading the Sunday New York Times. But imagine my surprise when I reached for the op-ed section and came upon an article preposterously titled "Support Your Local Slaughterhouse." The article was written by Nicolette Hahn Niman, owner of BN Ranch in northern California, in defense of both her occupation—raising and slaughtering animals for meat—and her upcoming book, aptly titled, Defending Beef.

My initial thought was this woman must know someone at the newspaper to get a piece of puffery like this published. My second thought: of all the things on God’s green earth to champion, Niman can find nothing more worthy than the cruel and unnecessary slaughter of animals? Remarkably, she felt not only a need to rationalize her dubious and immoral career choice, but to actually write a book about it, too.

Some people stubbornly prefer to go down swinging. This is no exception for Niman, no more so than when she claims that small- and medium-scale slaughterhouses create a food stream trifecta “that is humane, ecological and wholesome." Apparently Niman is knee deep in her own deception and would like nothing more than for the public to join her. She went on to say:

"While it's painful to see our beautiful animals die, my husband, Bill, or our cattle manager has always accompanied every single one to the slaughterhouse stunning area. Being handled by a familiar person reassures the animals and guarantees that none is ever mistreated."

Can you imagine the betrayal these animals must feel when the people they’ve known and trusted all their lives suddenly turn on them and send them to their deaths? And for what, so the Nimans can make money? So consumers can get some sadistic pleasure from eating an animal’s tortured flesh? I guess, like most people, a mental state of cognitive dissonance helps Niman and her husband to sleep at night.

For starters, raising animals for food is not humane. While some animals on smaller farms may be treated better and have more room to roam, the outcome is the same as on any other factory farm and slaughterhouse—death! The Nimans, like other purveyors of animal flesh, are in business to make a profit, and the animals they bring in to the world for this purpose are viewed merely as a commodity to be exploited, no different than those on factory farms.

Breeding animals to be killed because there is a market for their flesh is not a moral justification for doing so, no matter how well the animals are treated prior to being slaughtered. It's like making an argument for child prostitution of which there also exists a market, albeit an illegal one. Would we excuse such an inhumane practice if those who exploit children insisted that the children are treated well, just like their own family, right up until they are handed over to their abusers?

Second, raising animals for food is not ecological. A World Watch Institute report found that animal agriculture accounts for 51 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. According to Heather Cooley, co-director of the Pacific Institute Water Program, domestic water use accounts for only five percent of water consumed in the US whereas animal agriculture accounts for a whopping 55 percent. One quarter pound hamburger requires over 660 gallons of water to produce, the equivalent of two months of one person’s daily showers. We don't have enough land, water, or resources to feed a meat- and dairy-centric diet to the current 7 billion humans who are on this planet and growing. Furthermore, the recent documentary Cowspiracy illustrated how small ranches akin to the Niman ranch, which raise fewer animals on more land, are even more unsustainable than factory farms because their animals use far greater resources over a longer period of time, and their system cannot be duplicated on a mass scale to meet the current demand for animal flesh.

In the film, Demosthenes Maratos, communications director at the Sustainability Institute at Molloy College, explained that currently half of all land in the United States is already dedicated to animal agriculture. So if we were to switch over to grass-fed beef, similar to the BN Ranch, it would require clearing every square inch of the US, up into Canada, all of Central America and well into South America solely to feed the demand for meat in the US. That figure doesn't even take into consideration that much of that land isn't suited to graze livestock so first we would have to level mountains, cities, etc. 

Third, raising animals for food is not wholesome. This is pure semantics on Niman's part. Her use of this ambiguous and pleasant-sounding term is a poor attempt at whitewashing something so cold, sickly and brutal. Eating animals neither promotes human health nor moral health. More and more people are waking up to the fact that the greatest contributor to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and most chronic diseases is animal products.

I realize Niman and her husband earn a living profiting off of the births and deaths of animals, so I expect no less than a self-serving argument for a livelihood predicated on the needless destruction of other living beings.

In her article, Niman acts as though she is the victim of the larger institution of meat production. When 8.7 million pounds of meat were recalled earlier this year, including meat produced by her own ranch, she called it “sacrilege.” This is precious coming from a woman who acts like a self-appointed god, determining when animals should live and die.

Meat recalls would be moot if Niman found a new line of work and if everyone adopted a plant-based diet. Sadly, the true sacrilege is her and her husband's irreverence for the lives of animals, treating them as disposable wares to be diced in cuts and quarters and sold to the highest bidder.

If Niman really wants to promote compassionate, sustainable, and healthy eating, she should drop her defensive stance and proactively advocate a vegan diet. If she did, she would find herself in good company. Cheri Ezell-Vandersluis and her husband Jim, who were both featured in the documentary Peaceable Kingdom, gave up their business as goat farmers and started the Maple Farm Sanctuary. Today they advocate a vegan diet and—in place of great sadness and suffering—work to bring joy to the lives of all animals. Now that’s something worth defending!  

Vegan Starter Kit

Saturday, September 6, 2014

You Are Your Companion Animal's Best Advocate

by Bethany Cortale

Caveat Emptor! In Latin, it means buyer beware. When it comes to pet food and veterinarian advice, you had better become familiar with this axiom or you risk compromising your companion animal's health as I almost did.

As the guardian of a cat named Max, I have as much—if not more—of a responsibility to him as I do to myself because I am solely responsible for his care and wellbeing. I've made a lifelong commitment to him, no different than the commitments most people make to their children.

In the eyes of the law, I am wrongly labeled as Max's owner, primarily because animals are considered property much like a sofa or a bed—or a black person in America prior to the Civil War. I know better, however, and as a cat guardian I have grown and evolved as I have learned how to provide Max with a happy and healthy life.

While I am vegan, Max is not. He isn't vegan because I wouldn't want him to be vegan, but because I know it's not in his best interest. Max is a true carnivore by nature and although he may not be outdoors chasing down birds and squirrels, I feed him a meat-centric diet that a carnivore requires for optimum health. I do not feel morally conflicted about feeding Max animal flesh because it is what he would eat if he were undomesticated. I adopted him from a shelter, and until humans stop breeding cats and dogs for domestication, it is the best I can do. Furthermore, forcing him to eat a vegan diet would not only compromise his welfare, but it would be morally inconsistent with the spirit of veganism.

Male cats are more prone to urinary blockages and infections than female cats due to their longer and narrower urethras. Max has had a history of urinary tract infections, which makes it even more fitting that he consume a wet, carnivorous, grain-free diet. During his last serious bout with the infection, the vet treating him suggested that I feed him a dry food (Hill's Science Prescription Diet) designed for urinary health that—coincidentally—also happened to be sold right there in the veterinary clinic.

I balked at the vet's recommendation but bought the food and went home to do some research. It was just as I had suspected; cats who have had urinary tract infections, especially a history of urinary tract infections, should never, ever be fed dry food!

Indignant doesn't even begin to describe how I felt over this obviously biased and uninformed recommendation by a veterinary professional who is supposed to be helping my cat get better—not worse. Needless to say, I returned the food and looked for another veterinarian.

It wasn't just the type of food that was problematic, but the quality of the food itself. I have painstaking researched pet food companies, canned cat foods, and individual ingredients within those foods over the years and have learned what questions to ask company representatives and how to identify good formulas from bad ones. From my own research, I found Hill's Science Diet pet food to be among the worst. I also visited a natural pet food store that requires its employees be educated on pet nutrition and spoke with a representative there about Hill's Science Diet food because I was shocked to see that the store carried it. The employee said the store carried the brand because people asked for it, but she told me that she has cats, too, and she would never feed her cats any Hill's Science Diet formula.

So why are vets pushing what I think is pet junk food at veterinary clinics? And why does a vet prescribe a dry kibble to a male cat with a history of urinary tract infections? I think many animal guardians would be surprised to learn that veterinarians are not animal nutritionists. According to Susan Thixton at Truth About Pet Food, dog and cat nutrition classes at most veterinary schools across the country are known to be very brief, lasting only a couple of hours in total. Moreover, the classes are typically taught by representatives dominating the pet food industry, including Hill's Science Diet, Iams/Eukanuba, and Purina, so there is an inherent conflict of interest and very limited understanding of high quality pet food.

And the conflict doesn't end with the individual veterinarian. According to holistic veterinarian Dr. Jean Hofve at Little Big Cat, pet food companies provide a great deal of indirect funding to the American Veterinary Medical Association through lecture sponsorships, receptions, exhibitor fees, and "goodies" at the annual AVMA Convention, in addition to direct donations to the AVMA Foundation. Dr. Hofve went on to say that in 2008, AVMA created a four-year "AVMA Platinum Partner Program" with Hill's Science Pet Nutrition and that the AVMA received more than $1.5 million from Hill's in exchange for promotional favoritism.

Now you have some idea why Hill's Science Diet pet food is widely available at veterinary clinics around the country. Like most everything else, it's not because the food is any better or more nutritious, but rather because the company has paid for premium exposure to potential customers.

And food isn't the only cause for concern. Big Pharma has infiltrated veterinary clinics as they've done human doctor's offices where both are equally prone to physicians hawking and overprescribing medications. In another instance, a vet tried to use Max as a test subject for a new drug that contained a three week supply of antibiotics that was to be injected in him all at once. When I politely questioned the vet and told him I didn't want Max to have the injection, he became insulted and left the room. Needless to say, we didn't return to him either. If I can't question a doctor—whether he be treating Max or me—without him getting defensive, he's not worth his salt as a professional.

Thankfully, Max hasn't had a urinary flare up in four years. Unfortunately, the shameful and manipulative exploitation of companion animals and those who love them by pet food companies, veterinarians and the AVMA continues. Therefore, it is crucial to keep in mind that no one loves your companion animal as much as you do. You are their best advocate, so advocate for them! I'm not suggesting you don't trust anyone, but as the old adage goes: trust but verify, and always do your research. As with all animals, don't be afraid to speak up! Your friend is depending on you.

Vegan Starter Kit