Thursday, March 5, 2015

Do Vegans Help or Hinder by Attending NonVegan Functions?

The Vegan Vine
Freedom from Want by Norman Rockwell
by Bethany Cortale

Last year I attended a childhood friend’s baby shower. It was a brunch affair so other than fruit and plain bagels, there wasn't anything that a vegan (or health conscious person for that matter, especially one having a baby) would want to eat. Not surprisingly, there were lots of animal products: bacon, spare ribs, chicken, eggs, butter, cream cheese, sausage, etc.

I enjoy being around family and friends but have grown apprehensive about being in environments where I know everyone else will be recklessly devouring the flesh and fluids of tortured animals.

In the nine years that I’ve been vegan and twenty one as a vegetarian, I’ve attended many functions where animal foods were present and plentiful. Never one to mince words, I’ve always been outspoken about being vegan and will rarely shy away from a confrontation. But over time, I’ve also learned to pick my battles.

Occasions where animal products are ubiquitous are not new to me, but my guilt in being party to them was, and in some way I felt that my presence at the shower signified (at least to myself) that I condoned the oppressive and cruel actions of others against animals through their animal consumption.

I reached out to my friend Laura, who runs the Princeton Vegan Book and Movie Discussion Club, for some advice. “I have thought about this quite a bit lately," she said. "If we vegans can look at the big picture, we probably have more chance of helping our nonvegan friends and family to think about what they are eating if we are sitting at the table with them than if we stay home. Of course, it is hard to sit around a table with meat, eggs, and dairy once you've made the connection with the animal suffering that was involved.  But if we choose to stay home, who will be there to represent the animals and our planet?  If we can do it, who knows what conversations might ensue, what connections might be made before, during, or after the meal? Even if nothing is said, our food choices tell a story."

Suddenly, it dawned on me that just being a vegan at a nonvegan gathering can be regarded as taking an activist approach. As possibly the sole vegan, I have an opportunity to change attitudes about animal suffering, more so than not being there at all.  My presence alone—along with who and what I make a point of eating and not eating—may encourage others to reflect on their own thoughtless habits. If I were not in attendance, everything would go on as usual and there would be no physical presence of protest. Furthermore, my being there and my refusal to eat what everyone else is eating may make some people uncomfortable, as it should.

I presented this position to another vegan and fellow book club member, Irene, and got a completely different take. She believes that a celebration is not the proper place to discuss the unethical behavior of others and alleges that dancing around it in order to be diplomatic is colluding with those promoting the murder of animals.

I see her point, but I also contended that due to social norms that sanction violence against farm animals and their mass consumption through debased might makes right thinking, most nonvegans are unaware of any unethical conduct or wrongdoing and are more than happy to remain ignorant, which is why I think these events can be opportune moments to inform and enlighten.

Irene went on to say that vegans can make a more prominent statement by simply boycotting an event where their absence is painfully obvious. Here, I think she makes a valid and compelling argument. For example, if a vegan is the guest of honor or a highly anticipated attendee at a nonvegan event, their nonappearance will be plainly felt. This act of dissent can be a real teachable moment as long as everyone in attendance knows the reason for the vegan's absence.

The old adage, "this is how it has always been done," doesn't cut the mustard. It wasn't acceptable for Jim Crow segregation nor was it admissible for the old boys club in keeping women out. Similarly, custom and/or "treasured" traditions involving food are not moral justifications for causing animals suffering and death. 

It got a little heated during the aforementioned baby shower when one of the women seated at my table told me that her daughter (who wasn’t present) doesn’t eat meat but likes eggs. She said this with pride as if this were cause for praise. I took the opening to explain some of the cruelties involved in egg production. With no good retort, she gave the same reply that most nonvegans typically give to end the discussion—the self-justifying line about everyone having the right to make their own choice. Fellow vegan rabble-rouser Ed Coffin explained why this perversion of personal liberty is invalid. “I hate when people dismiss veganism as a ‘personal choice,’" he said. "It’s not, it’s a moral obligation. Would those same people also assert that murdering someone, or beating a dog, or raping a child is a ‘personal choice?’ When your actions directly impact the lives of others, it’s no longer a simple ‘personal choice.’ ”

Robert Grillo, president and director of Free from Harm, put it plainly: “’Personal’ choices don’t have victims.”

“Anybody who has ever been vegan or vegetarian knows that it gets you in a lot of situations where you are expected to justify yourself,” said Christin Bernhold in an interview with the Weekly Worker. “People either ask with genuine interest why you are vegan, or they react aggressively. Naturally, there are moments when you don’t want that conversation again. Still, it always triggers a debate.”

I’ve come to realize that as much as vegans may dread activities that have us being surrounded by animal oppression and exploitation, sometimes just by being there we can be agents for mindfulness and change. Some interactions we have with others may be confrontational and some may not, and some may go better than expected with people who are genuinely interested in aligning their values with their behaviors—not just saying they care about animals but backing it up with ethical deeds. It may often be awkward or socially suicidal to talk about what people are eating while they’re eating it but it is, nonetheless, imperative. We should not shy away from interactions simply because people may become uneasy. We would not pacify someone who causes a child or a cat to suffer, so why do we want to make those who abuse farm animals feel comfortable? 

During these occasions I may look on people's plates with sadness and discouragement, but I never feel compelled or encouraged to partake in their feast. Unlike them, I choose to put my heart—justice and compassion—before the interests of my stomach. Rather, these events make me feel even more empowered to educate others and be the best vegan I can be. If, on the other hand, nonvegan events make some vegans feel like outcasts or socially pressured to conform with others, then perhaps the best thing for them and the animals is to avoid nonvegan events altogether.

It is neither compulsory that vegans attend every nonvegan happening, nor should vegans avoid every nonvegan event. I trust that, like myself, vegans will stay informed and figure out how to eloquently address conversations surrounding animals in their own time and will decide what each situation calls for.

In the end, the possibility of changing minds and behaviors regarding animal consumption is not possible without connections and conversations. Our presence alone invites others to become more aware of farm animals and, perhaps, to question their own participation in animal suffering. Who knows, you may stumble upon that one person who has been meaning to go vegan for some time but just didn’t know where to start. And then they met you!

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.