“The Bystander Effect; What the Murder of Kitty Genovese can Teach us about How we Eat”

 

On March 13, 1964, a 28 year old woman known as Kitty Genovese was stabbed and killed outside of her New York City apartment building. A story appearing in the New York Times in the weeks following the incident reported that 37 people had witnessed the attack, looking out the windows of their own apartments into the courtyard where the attack occurred. Not one, the article reported, had done anything to stop it. After Genovese was initially stabbed, her attacker fled. But he returned to rape her and inflict the fatal stab wounds. The entire attack took place over the course of 30 long minutes. The story, some of the details of which have since been called into question, generated international interest and spurred researchers to study what they termed the “bystander effect.”

Researchers studying the Genovese case concluded that the one factor above all else influencing whether a witness or bystander will come to the aid of a victim is how many other witnesses are present. The more witnesses there are, the more people are likely to assume that someone else will address the problem, or even that what appears to be a problem is not in fact a problem at all. So for example, in one study, when people were alone, those who saw smoke coming from under a door reported it 75% of the time, but when there were others nearby, only 38% of subjects reported the smoke. Those who did not report either thought someone else would report it, or they figured that since no one else was responding, there must not have been a real problem.

Is this why we as a society look away and keep quiet as massive animal torture and murder goes on under our own noses? Globally we kill 70 billion land animals every year for food. That’s six million animals every hour. These are not animals who lead a good life and die a painless death. We read the reports. We see the undercover videos, and we know that what is happening is horribly, unconscionably, wrong. So why do we do nothing?

Hasn’t almost everyone seen some of the undercover footage of conscious pigs being beaten and cut up while still alive? The baby chicks, the males of the egg industry who are considered no more than “by-product”, tossed into machines which grind them alive, the mother cow rampaging and crying as she tries to prevent the dairy farmer from stealing her calf? The overgrown chicken genetically manipulated to produce as much meat as possible and unable to support the weight of his unnaturally large body on his frail thin legs? The battery caged hen with her broken wing lodged in the wire of her dirty cage, or even the deceptively labeled “organic” hens, their beaks seared off without anesthesia, the “free-range” hens who never see the light of day and who have no legal protection at all, not even the minimal humane slaughter protections given to the other land animals we kill for food.  Haven’t we all seen some of these by now? Don’t we all know at least some of this? And what kind of action do we take to combat the immense violence? What do we do to dismantle a system based on the suffering and exploitation of billions of living beings just as smart, just as capable of pain, as our beloved dogs and cats? What are we, the bystanders, the witnesses, doing to stop these crimes against nature, decency, compassion, and dignity?

Personally, when I first saw one of these videos and first learned of the horrors of animal agriculture, especially industrialized agriculture, I boycotted the industry and went vegan. But then a funny thing happened. After a year or two, I concluded that the problem must have been fixed. I reasoned that if I, a 17 or 18 year old high school student at the time, knew about the abuse, then the government had to know about it as well. And if the government knew about it, then obviously they would put an end to it. Arrest the abusers. Fix the system. Like if I witness a woman being stabbed and I call the police, I assume they will come and help her. That, by the way, is what a much later investigation into the Kitty Genovese story indicates, that someone or maybe even several people did call the police when Genovese was originally attacked. But in fact the early calls to the police were not acted upon, maybe because the police presumed it was a case of domestic violence, which at the time was primarily seen as a private matter. But anyone calling the police that night could not be blamed for assuming that the police would respond immediately and help the victim of a brutal attack. That is after all what the police are there for. And similarly, this was my own assumption. The government is there to protect the innocent, to prevent violence and harm. The government had been alerted, and they were certainly handling it. Or so I thought, and then I went back to eating cheeseburgers for another 15 years.

How many of us see the undercover slaughterhouse videos and say to ourselves, “Well if these behaviors, this unconscionable cruelty, were really widespread, someone would be doing something about it. So, therefore, there must not actually be a real problem. The smoke must not actually indicate there’s a fire.”

Kitty Genovese died. Where there is smoke, there is fire. In this case, it’s a fire engulfing 70 billion land animals and upwards of 1 trillion sea animals globally every year for our food. There are almost no laws protecting these animals. The laws that exist offer only the most minimal protections, are hardly ever enforced, and exclude birds, (who make up 90% of the land animals we eat ), and fish entirely. The cruelty we see is real. It is the norm. No matter how cruel a practice is, if it’s done to a farmed animal, and it’s practiced widely enough through the industry, it is legal. With the backing of the industry and the full protection of the law, egg hatcheries kill 200 million baby chicks every year. And even though the Humane Slaughter Act requires all animals (excluding birds and fish) to be rendered unconscious before slaughter, the industry’s obsession with the bottom line coupled with consumers’ demand for mass quantities of cheap meat, eggs, and dairy mean that animals are fattened up quicker, and sent to slaughter earlier, where kill lines get faster every year, and the number of animals who are still conscious while they are being dismembered only increases. And yes, the government knows. (See e.g. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/usda-plan-to-speed-up-poultry-processing-lines-could-increase-risk-of-bird-abuse/2013/10/29/aeeffe1e-3b2e-11e3-b6a9-da62c264f40e_story.html).

Maybe the cops that night in 1964 were sitting at the precinct eating donuts. I don’t know. Maybe they thought

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it was a private matter. Maybe the politicians have too much to lose by getting involved. Animal agriculture is after all a multibillion dollar industry, one of the largest in the world, right up there in terms of money and influence with the oil industry and Big Pharma. Agribusiness executives have salaries in the millions. They have lobbying budgets in the millions. The revolving door in Washington between government and agriculture is turning more than ever. ­­

A vegan or vegetarian saves somewhere between 371-582 animal per year, and more to the point, they prevent immense suffering for these animals. (http://www.countinganimals.com/how-many-animals-does-a-vegetarian-save/). Every time we share the message of compassion with others, we have the potential to multiply our own impact, and the number of lives we help grows exponentially.

When we hear the story of Kitty Genovese, don’t we all think to ourselves something like, “How terrible! I would have called the police! I would have run over and saved her. I would have done something to stop that horrible unnecessary crime! That poor woman and those terrible people who did nothing!”

The animals are being brutalized right now. They are being stabbed. They are screaming for our help. Each one of us can be the person who does something. We need to be the person who does something. No one else is going to do it.  So what can we actually do? First, we can look into our own lives and acknowledge our role in these industries and stop supporting them. Stop buying the body parts of living beings. Stop supporting the politicians who are in bed with this hellish industry. Eat plants, not beings. Organize. Talk to people. Speak up for the animals. Support groups like Vegan Outreach, Mercy for Animals, Compassion over Killing, and ARC who are working for social justice for the animals. Get involved. Be the change. Politicians and multi-national corporations are running this country, and it’s time we take it back. As a collective of individuals empowered by the courage of compassion, we can put this fire out. Rather than looking back on history and saying “I would have helped,” we can help the beings being attacked right now. “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

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We Are Not Powerless!

Great Middle Way

6a00e552200433883401b8d156a6fd970cConfronted with excessive and overwhelming cruelty in our contemporary world, many persons ask: Is it possible to contribute to peace effectively, when nation states, multinational companies, and numerous ignorant groups and individuals are dedicated to multiplying suffering everywhere? What can one person do?

Even if we do not have the capacity to help all those who suffer, we do have the power to reduce suffering considerably in our own sphere of action. We can be kind to our neighbors; we can refrain from increasing pain and suffering. And because the universe is an interdependent network of cause and effect, our compassionate acts —however small and seemingly insignificant— do have a positive effect on a global scale.

Specifically, without waiting for anything or anyone else, we can:

  1. cultivate mental peace, tolerance, good will, and generosity in our lives
  2. combat fear, rejecting the alarmist media
  3. withdraw our support from political, social, and…

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Why I’m an Animal Rights Activist When There Is so Much Human Suffering in the World

Before I was an animal rights activist, I was a budding human rights activist. While in law school, I helped victims of domestic violence obtain personal protection orders. I studied human rights and refugee law, participated in an asylum clinic, spent all my summer legal internships working with refugee organizations and focused primarily on helping women who were victims of gender-based persecution and violence such as honor crimes, forced genital mutilation, sex-trafficking, and rape. My first client let me touch the shrapnel that was embedded under the skin in her knee after the Taliban had bombed her village in Afghanistan and killed most of her family.  I also represented men when they were in need, like the gentle Congolese man who had been tortured, and had the marks on his body to prove it, because of dubious ties to the wrong political party. Refugees and victims of gender based violence are an incredibly vulnerable and deserving group of humans. Many of them have no family, no country. Many live their lives in fear. Without the help of international aid groups and non-governmental organizations, they are at constant risk of exploitation, abuse, persecution, homelessness, and death. And yet, I have chosen to dedicate myself and my life to the animals.

I’m sure every animal activist has been challenged on this point. “How can you waste your time on animals when there are so many humans suffering?!” “Why don’t you start with the humans, and when all of our problems are fixed, then you can help animals?” Of course this is the dominant mentality, based on a presumed superiority of humans, so much so that the slightest harm to a human is often seen to outweigh a tremendous harm to an animal. Given that the capacity to suffer is in no way limited to human beings, this bias in favor of humans is simple prejudice, favoring those we perceive as similar over those we perceive as different and therefore inferior, the hallmark of all discrimination and oppression.

For years I felt paralyzed as I looked out at the world with all of its suffering. I desperately wanted to help but didn’t know how I could possibly choose between helping the people in third world countries living in extreme poverty, and the millions of children under the age of 5 dying every year from malnutrition, or the victims of ethnic and religious wars that so brutally claim the lives of innocents at any given time in modern history, genocides like that in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, atrocities taking place right now in Libya, Syria and Yemen. Millions of mostly women and girls are bought and sold into the world of sex trafficking every year to endure unspeakable crimes. And then there are the animals being used for painful and often cruel experimentation in laboratories, the fur-bearing animals like the playful foxes who are killed by anal electrocution so as not to damage their fur, or the Chinese raccoon dogs who are routinely skinned alive in order to make knock off UGG boots or for the cheap fur trim on our winter coats .[1] But the number of all of these animals combined is a drop in the bucket compared to the 55 billion farmed animals we kill every year for food. Fifty five billion animals. The entire global human population is about 7 billion, and we kill 55 billion animals every year for food. Each and every one of those fifty five billion was an individual with the capacity to have bonded with family and friends and to have led a joyful life like the rescued pigs seen in this video but who instead led a life of intense misery and often sadistic exploitation before enduring the terror and pain of slaughter.

All of these human and non-human beings suffer terribly. All of them are worthy of our compassion. I have always wanted to help them all. I still do. But the reason I choose to dedicate the majority of my time to advocating for non-human animals rather than all of those deserving humans is that we as a society all basically agree on human rights.  When I say we as a society, I do not mean the moral outliers of the international community like members of ISIS, or those in our own society like rapists or serial killers, but those who represent the dominant ethic in the world community, the law abiding members of our society and the international community. And according to that dominant ethic, it is wrong to abuse woman and children. It is wrong to murder innocent men. When we see humans who are starving or being exploited, raped, kidnapped, murdered or tortured, we believe it is wrong. Most governmental bodies around the world, NGO’s, and individuals agree that it is wrong to cause intense physical or emotional pain and suffering to human beings. We criminalize such harm, and we punish those who commit these crimes.

The same cannot be said of animals, especially not farmed animals, whose abuse is accepted by the same moral community that rejects the abuse of humans.  Even those of us who shower our dogs and cats with affection do so while sitting down to feast on a meal comprised of the body parts of equally sentient beings whose entire lives were spent in suffering. As a society, we still do not see what we’re doing to animals as wrong. While all animals in our society are still legally considered property, at least abusing dogs and cats is now a felony in all fifty states. However, what is felony cruelty if done to a dog or cat is perfectly legal if done to an animal we have designated as a food animal.[2]

We not only kill 10 billion land animals in the US every year for food, (55 billion globally) it would not be an exaggeration to say that we torture them for the duration of their short lives before we kill them. We confine them in tiny cages that drive them literally insane. [3] We take babies away from their mothers and murder them by the millions (e.g., we kill 260 million baby chicks every year because they are a “by-product” of the egg industry).[4] Dairy cows are impregnated on what the industry calls a “rape rack” in order to ensure the cow will continue to lactate and provide milk that will be denied to her baby, who will be taken away at birth. If that baby is female, she will become a dairy cow and like her mother, she too will be forcibly impregnated, and then after giving birth to four or five babies and milked so much the odds are she will suffer from a painful udder infection called mastitis, she will be slaughtered at a fraction of her natural lifespan when her body becomes too depleted to continue producing milk at the volume modern agribusiness demands. If the baby the dairy cow births is a male, he will either be killed on the spot, or turned into veal (i.e. confined all alone in a dark pen and fed an iron deficient diet to make him anemic because consumers prefer the taste and color of meat that comes from anemic babies). [5]

Non-human animals are conscious, intelligent, emotional beings. If we have ever lived with a dog or cat, we probably know this from experience. If we need proof, we can ask the scientific community. In 2012,   a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational and neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge and declared that non-human animals are conscious- meaning they can think, feel, perceive, and respond to the world in much the same way as humans. [6]

It is hard to measure pain. Usually with humans we just ask them how much pain they feel and they tell us. But when they can’t tell us, we look for external signs of pain such as trying to get away from the source of pain, vocalizing (yelling, crying), grimacing or shaking to name a few. Non-human animals demonstrate all of these same signs. If we can bear not to look away, it is plain to see that the egg laying hens crammed into battery cages, or the sows confined to gestation creates so small that can’t turn around, or the dairy cows being dragged to slaughter because they are too lame to walk all suffer tremendously.

Just a few hundred years ago, Rene Descartes, the father of western philosophy, strapped living dogs to tables and cut them open without anesthesia believing that their howls were like the sounds made by machines, no more indicative of pain than was the screech made by the machine’s metal parts. Hard to imagine, that. And yet today even on so called humane farms, we routinely subject cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and other farmed animals to mutilation without anesthesia.[7]  If we think what Descartes did was wrong, how can we possibly condone what we do to farmed animals every single day? There is no reason to believe that a dog feels more pain than a pig or for that matter that a human feels more pain that a dog. Some, like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, think non humans may even feel pain more acutely than humans do. [8] In fact we are so certain that non-human animals do feel pain like humans do that we subject animals like mice to pain tests in labs in order to better understand human pain.[9]

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that at least a million chickens and turkeys are boiled alive every year because the production line is so fast that their throats haven’t been slit by the time they get to the tanks of scalding water into which they are dropped, only to be boiled alive.[10] More than 1 million pigs die in transport every year before they even get to the slaughterhouse.[11]  They are packed in so tightly they cannot move, and can barely breathe. They die of suffocation, overheating, being trampled.

I became an animal rights advocate not because I don’t care about humanity, but because so few people care about the non-human animals. The suffering of animals we use for experimentation, for fur, for our food is shocking to the conscience. Watch one undercover slaughterhouse video and we might think the vile cruelty we see is an anomaly. Watch hundreds and hundreds of these videos and we begin to  realize that the disdain with which the workers treat the animals, kicking chickens like footballs,[12] kicking and stomping turkeys destined for Thanksgiving dinner,[13] slamming piglets onto the concrete floor and leaving them to die,[14] is not anomalous but is the norm.

The degree and scale of the suffering involved in animal agriculture in particular is beyond anything humanity has ever endured. Polish-born Jewish-American author Isaac Bashevis Singer famously said “In relation to … [the animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.” This refers of course to the Nazi concentration camp where close to a million Jews were exterminated in gas chambers. The first time I ever heard the comparison made between factory farming and the Holocaust was by someone who lost most of his family in the Holocaust and who himself is a survivor of it. Alex Hershaft is an animal rights pioneer who has said that his experience in the Holocaust not only contributed to his becoming a vegan and an animal rights activist, it is the cause of it.  During a recent trip to Israel, he had this to say in an interview: “The Jewish Holocaust is a unique event in human history; and the best way to honor the Holocaust is to learn from it and to fight all forms of oppression. We may have been victorious in World War II, but the struggle against oppression and injustice is far from over. For me, the Holocaust isn’t a tool in the struggle, but an experience that shaped my personality and my values, made me who I am today, and drove me to fight all forms of oppression, including the oppression of the weakest creatures, the animals.” [15]

In addition to its importance for the non-humans, vegan advocacy goes beyond helping non-human animals. Vegan advocacy seeks to raise consciousness and awareness about the ways in which we treat other beings. The animal rights movement does not just advocate for a select group of beings, it advocates for principles truly universal in their scope. Animal rights advocates don’t just advocate for the rights of chimps or cows or fish. They advocate for a more compassionate world for all beings. They bring awareness to structures of power that are oppressive and based on exploitation, that harm non-human animals, humans, and the environment. Veganism is rooted in the concept of ahimsa, a Sanskrit word meaning non-harm to all sentient beings as well as the living environment. It is a movement that above all values the reduction of suffering, and calls on us all to bring more awareness into the ways in which we relate with all beings, the non-humans as well as humans. Fundamentally, vegans advocate for the values that all social justice movements uphold. They focus on the non-humans, but what they are really advocating for is a society in which no sentient being is used as a means to another’s end. They are fighting for the elimination of all forms of prejudice and oppression. They work to build a world where no sentient being is discriminated against based on morally irrelevant qualities, where all beings are valued and respected, where none are enslaved or tortured, where all beings are allowed the freedom to thrive and pursue their own innate potential for happiness and joy.  As long as our society is built on a foundation of brutality, oppression and exploitation of billions of sentient beings, how can we ever hope to have true justice or compassion within human society?

Being an animal rights activists is not about limiting our compassion to non-humans, it’s about extending our circle of compassion to include all beings who can suffer. In the world we live, there is no comparison to the enormity of the suffering endured by the non-human animals, especially those enslaved by the meat, dairy, and egg industries. I am an animal advocate because the screams of billions of animals remain unheard. I am an animal advocate because no being should suffer, and the suffering of non-human animals is so intense, so constant, so massive, and so widespread. I am an animal advocate because humanity is still in denial that it is our own daily choices that are responsible for the immense suffering of a truly unfathomable number of conscious, emotional, sentient beings. I am an animal advocate quite simply because it is the animals who need me the most.

[1] “Inside the Chinese fur farms which breed ‘raccoon dogs’ in tiny cages and skin them alive to make luxury coats sold in the West” Dan Bloom, The Daily Mail, 14 February 2015,  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2867219/Inside-Chinese-fur-farms-breed-raccoon-dogs-tiny-cages-skin-alive-make-luxury-coats-sold-West.html

[2] http://aldf.org/resources/advocating-for-animals/farmed-animals-and-the-law/

[3] http://woodstocksanctuary.org/learn-3/factory-farmed-animals/pigs/

[4] https://arcforallsentientbeings.wordpress.com/2015/04/07/vegans-are-so-extreme-or-what-could-possibly-be-wrong-with-eggs-and-dairy-part-i/

[5] http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/veal.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/

[6] http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf

[7] “Deciphering “Humane” Labels & Loopholes”, Woodstock Animal Sanctuary, http://woodstocksanctuary.org/learn-3/the-humane-farming-myth/humane-free-range/

[8] http://boingboing.net/2011/06/30/richard-dawkins-on-v.html

[9] “Behavioral Measures of Pain Thresholds” Michael S. Minett, Kathryn Quick, John N. Wood, Current Protocols in Mouse Biology, Sept. 2011, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9780470942390.mo110116/abstract

[10] “USDA plan to speed up poultry-processing lines could increase risk of bird abuse”, Washington Post, Kimberly Kindy, October 29, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/usda-plan-to-speed-up-poultry-processing-lines-could-increase-risk-of-bird-abuse/2013/10/29/aeeffe1e-3b2e-11e3-b6a9-da62c264f40e_story.html

[11] “Research Looks at Transport Losses,” Feedstuffs 17 Apr. 2006.

[12] “Chick-fil-A Suppliers Caught Torturing Animals On Hidden Camera By Mercy For Animals” Nov. 19, 2014 http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/chick-fil-a-suppliers-caught-torturing-animals-on-hidden-camera-by-mercy-for-animals-283166311.html

[13] http://www.butterballabuse.com/readmore.php

[14] http://pigcruelty.mercyforanimals.org/

[15] http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4655781,00.html

“Vegans are So Extreme” Or “What Could Possibly Be Wrong with Eggs and Dairy?” Part II.

In Part I of this post, we talked about all the not so obvious but very real reasons why eating eggs supports cruelty. The story behind dairy is much the same. If we believe the ads we see on TV, dairy cows spend their days lazily grazing in green pastures, socializing with their friends, and soaking up the sunshine. Farmers will also often tell us city folk who don’t know any better things like “dairy cows need to be milked.” (Spoiler alert: Cows wouldn’t need to be milked by humans if we didn’t steal their babies.) Most of us are so disconnected from the source of our food that we probably never think of the origins of our lattes or ice-cream cones or cheese pizzas.  But if we do, we might very well have an image not too far from the happy cows in the ads. So what could be wrong with dairy?

I’m fortunate that most people I talk to about veganism aren’t challenging my choice but are genuinely curious and a bit perplexed about what it is that vegans find objectionable about milk and milk derived products like cheese, yogurt (yes, even kefir), butter, or ice-cream. With a look of confusion, people often ask me things like, “but it doesn’t hurt to milk them, does it?” Just like it doesn’t hurt a chicken to lay an egg, but there is tremendous suffering inherent in the egg-industry due to the surrounding conditions, (see Part I of this article), so too, we must understand all of the conditions that surround the actual milking to truly grasp the enormity of suffering involved in the dairy industry.

To begin with, 99% of dairy produced in the US comes from factory farms. As many of us already know, factory farms have nothing to do with green pastures, sunshine, or happiness. The driving force behind the industrialization of farming is increased profit, which is at direct odds with animal welfare and quality of life. Factory farms, also called confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), hold the greatest number of animals in the smallest possible space in order to increase efficiency of production and maximization of profits. Dairy cows spend their lives indoors, on concrete floors, hooked up to a mechanized milking apparatus. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), between 1970 and 2006, we have managed to double the amount of milk extracted per cow from 10,000 to 20,000 pounds per year, about 10 times what she could produce naturally. The industry has done its best to turn her into a milking machine, but she is not a machine. She is a living being, and so this increased production has come at the expense of her health, including a painful udder infection called mastitis, which can be caused by bacterial infection, or by chemical, thermal, or mechanical injury (so yes, even the milking itself can hurt) to her udder. A conservative estimate is that somewhere from 30% to 50% of all dairy cows are afflicted with mastitis at any time.

Tail docking is a common practice used in an attempt to minimize infection and mastitis, despite the lack of evidence that it actually accomplishes either and the widespread scientific consensus that the procedure is unnecessary and painful.  The tail is her only protection against flies, and if you’ve ever spent time near a cow, you know she is almost constantly switching her tail to brush away bothersome flies.

Tail docking involves the amputation of half or more of a cow’s tail.  A cow may have her tail “docked” with heated scissors which cauterize the stump simultaneously with cutting, or with an emasculator (used in crushing testicles during castration of male calves) which is used to crush the tail, after which the tail may be cut off below the crushed area. In heifers and grown cattle, tail docking usually involves use of a tight rubber ring applied around the tail, which reduces oxygen to the tail, and causes the tail to die, which is then either cut off, or falls off on its own. The practice is almost always done without anesthesia. Besides the pain involved in the procedure itself, animals can suffer chronic pain due to neuroma (a tumor composed of nerve tissue that forms at the injury site). About 50% of all cows in the U.S. have undergone the painful procedure, which has been banned in the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Knowing the all-encompassing misery of life on a factory farm, many of us try to be compassionate consumers by purchasing dairy products like milk and cheese that come from organic dairy farms.  At least, we think, organic cows must live that idyllic life pictured in the ads. The organic standards say that dairy cows must be allowed to graze for 120 days a year, and they aren’t pumped up with antibiotics like their factory farmed counterparts, so if nothing else, we might think, that must ensure that farmers keep them healthy. We are willing to pay a little more to see that these animals have a decent quality of life. Problem solved. So again, why do those crazy vegans insist we give up all dairy?

According to the USDA, more than nine out of ten dairy farms practice dehorning, whether organic or not. Dehorning is an excruciating procedure where farmers cut or burn the horns off of cows. Generally, no anesthesia is given. Undercover videos of the procedure show cows bellowing and trying to escape while the torturous procedure is being performed. Temple Grandin, the unapologetic meat-eater known for her support of animal agriculture and her research into minimizing the stress on animals used in agriculture says “[w]e should be giving them a lot of anesthetics. The research is clear. The dehorning is the single most painful thing we do.”

Despite the pain, the procedure is considered a “standard industry practice” and is thus permitted by law in every state. Animals used for “food production” are specifically excluded from the federal Animal Welfare Act, and no matter how painful or cruel a procedure is, if it is done to a farmed animal, and is considered “standard industry practice,” it is legal in the U.S.

While welfare reforms could one day do away with the cruel practices of confinement and mutilation, the cruelest aspect of the industry is also one that is absolutely inextricable, and upon which the whole industry, organic or other, is built. This is the fact that no mammal produces milk without being pregnant. Just like humans, cows only lactate when they are pregnant, so in order to keep a dairy cow lactating, the dairy industry has to keep her pregnant pretty much all the time.

Cows are artificially inseminated by a machine the industry often refers to as a “rape rack.”  A cow’s gestation period is the same as a human’s, nine months. Almost as soon as she gives birth, she is re-impregnated, so that she gives birth once a year and never stops producing milk, keeping her under constant physical stress. Though a cow’s natural lifespan is about 20-25 years, dairy cows’ bodies are so spent after only two-five years, they are sent to slaughter, where even at that very young age their already crippled bodies can only be turned into cheap meat for our fast-food hamburgers or our pets’ food. About 75% of “downed cows,” those arriving at the slaughterhouse too weak or injured to walk to slaughter on their own, are dairy cows.

And what happens to her baby? The baby for whom her body is producing milk? In nature, a calf will nurse for about a year, and the bond and close relationship between a calf and mother will last a lifetime. But we don’t raise cows so that they can give milk to their own babies. What would be the point in that? We raise dairy cows so that humans can have the milk nature intended for her calf.  Therefore, calves are separated from their mothers immediately after birth. The writer James McWilliams describes his experience witnessing this forced separation like this:

“I became a vegan the day I watched a video of a calf being born on a factory farm. The baby was dragged away from his mother before he hit the ground. The helpless calf strained its head backwards to find his mother. The mother bolted after her son and exploded into a rage when the rancher slammed the gate on her. She wailed the saddest noise I’d ever heard an animal make, and then thrashed and dug into the ground, burying her face in the muddy placenta. I had no idea what was happening respecting brain chemistry, animal instinct, or whatever. I just knew that this was deeply wrong. I just knew that such suffering could never be worth the taste of milk and veal. I empathized with the cow and the calf and, in so doing, my life changed.”

If the newborn calf is a female, she will go into the same cycle of constant, forced impregnation, having her calves stolen from her one after another until her body stops producing at maximal levels and then she too will be sent to slaughter. Just like different species of chickens are used for eggs and meat, different species of cows are used for dairy and meat. Thus, male calves born to dairy cows are considered a useless byproduct of the industry, and just like the 260 million male chicks born into the egg industry who are killed upon hatching (http://freefromharm.org/eggs-what-are-you-really-eating/), approximately one million male calves are either slaughtered or left to die in the US each year.  According to the enthusiastically pro-farming website www.thisisdairyfarming.com,  “[w]here no other viable options exist, very regrettably, farmers have no choice but to cull their bull calves.”

When I was first considering the ethics of eating, veal was the first animal product I gave up. Veal are male dairy calves up to three to four months of age who have been taken from their mothers at birth, and rather than being killed immediately, they are kept confined, all alone, in darkened pens so small they can barely move. They are fed an iron-deficient diet with the sole and intentional purpose of keeping them anemic and preventing muscle development because consumers prefer their meat to be pale and tender. While they are still just babies, they are crowded onto trucks and taken to slaughter. Once I learned what veal was, I was horrified and saddened and had no trouble never touching it again. But I ate dairy for almost another 20 years without realizing that veal is simply a byproduct of the dairy industry. As long as there is a dairy industry, there will be a veal industry. As long as we purchase dairy, we keep the veal industry in business.

All dairy cows, male or female, will be slaughtered just as certainly and systematically as those cows who are bred and raised for beef. The males of the dairy industry will go to slaughter much earlier, most of them while they are still babies. Perhaps they are the lucky ones, as the females will endure years of often unrelenting physical pain and emotional trauma every time another baby is stolen.

I remember when I first discovered the cruel realities of the dairy industry, I held out one last flicker of hope that maybe somehow goat cheese was the answer that could allow me to keep eating the cheese I craved without supporting the cruelty I abhorred.  But the nature of a dairy, no matter what the species, is that females must become pregnant to produce milk, and half those babies will be males who are useless to the dairy and way too expensive to just keep around as pets. Moreover, because the demand for goat meat is so low in our culture, goat farmers often have a hard time selling the baby males at all, even for meat, so most are killed only moments after birth and thrown away in the trash pile.

As we process all of this information, it’s helpful to keep in mind that despite the propaganda of the dairy industry manipulating us into believing we need dairy to be healthy, there is absolutely no reason a human being needs to consume dairy products after infancy and certainly not from another species.  In fact, the science shows we will be a lot healthier if we don’t.  Here are just a few highlights of why dairy is so bad for our own health:

  • the antibiotics, hormones, and steroids we ingest when we consume dairy products,
  • the measurable pus and blood found in all milk products,
  • the casein and other animal proteins modern nutrition science tells us increases our risk of cancer and other Diseases of Affluence,
  • the saturated fat and cholesterol designed by nature to fatten up a baby calf but which only cause obesity, premature puberty, clogged arteries, and other major health problems for humans.

As is true of the egg industry, the extreme cruelty inherent in the dairy industry is not always apparent on its face. When we walk into an ice-cream store with our children or pour a little organic milk onto our cereal in the morning, we can easily miss the fact that we’re directly supporting animal cruelty and tremendous suffering of deeply emotional and gentle animals.  Vegans will often say that the only regret they have is not having gone vegan sooner. I’m one of them. I’m sorry to admit that it took me years to process the disconnect between the world I wanted to live in, one where cows and goats lived happy lives grazing on green pastures and frolicking in the sun, and I got to innocently share ice-cream cones with my dad, and the world we actually live in, where babies are routinely stolen from their mothers, where mothers aren’t able to protect their babies, where literally billions of animals are slaughtered, most of them in their own childhood and many so brutalized by the time they arrive at the slaughterhouse that they have to be dragged mercilessly to the killing floor, where the screams of sentient beings are ignored or disregarded in every moment, in this very moment, even now, as I am writing this, and you are reading this.

A constant optimist, because the animals need us to be, I believe the day is not too far away when mass violence against our non-human brethren will be what is considered extreme rather than the compassionate people who choose to live in a way that does them the least harm. And we, each one of us, have the power to create that world with our educated and compassionate choices.

Photo of Mikey, a rescued dairy calf, now living peacefully at Poplar Spring Sanctuary in Poolesville, MD. Photo courtesy of Deb Durant.  Deb, who volunteers at Poplar, tells us that “Mikey was taken from his mother as soon as he was born, as they are, and was then purchased by a broker who rented him to a nursery where he was used as part of a petting zoo. (The places that do seasonal “farm” things, with tours in the fall, etc.) At the end of the season he was going to be sold for slaughter, but a woman who worked there convinced the nursery to allow him to be rescued. Mike Stura, in NJ, has facilitated many rescues over the years, and he drove Mikey many hours to bring him to PSAS Mikey is named in his honor. (And Mike Stura and his wife recently started a sanctuary of their own, called Skylands Animal Sanctuary and Rescue.)

Correction: Please note this article originally contained a massive under representation of the number of male chicks killed by the egg industry. The most accurate current count is that 260 million male chicks are killed every year in the US alone, and that change has now been made to the article. 

“Vegans are So Extreme” Or “What Could Possibly Be Wrong with Eggs and Dairy?” Part I.

Most people can understand why an animal lover might give up eating meat. We all realize that an animal has to die for a piece of meat to end up on the table. But what nobody would ever know, without doing a lot of questioning and connecting all the dots, is that animals will just as inevitably be slaughtered in order to put milk and eggs on the table.  What’s even more counter-intuitive is that the animals of the egg and dairy industries will probably suffer a lot more than those raised solely for their meat.

Before I became vegan, I can remember asking vegans I knew questions like: “Don’t hens lay eggs naturally anyway? So what’s wrong with eating them? Why is that cruel?” These are the questions people ask me now with a skeptical raised eyebrow, like veganism can’t make sense because there’s no harm to be found.  I’m so excited when people ask me these questions now because here’s the thing. Vegans are thoughtful. Nobody goes vegan without giving the issues a lot of deep reflection and introspection. And these are essential thoughtful questions. If you’re asking these questions, you are practically already vegan because once you understand the answers, the whole game (and by that I mean your whole understanding of the world) will begin to change.

Yes, it’s true. Female chickens, hens, will lay eggs regardless of what we do. Collecting their eggs and doing whatever we want to do with those eggs, including eating them, would not be a problem if it were not for two facts.

For one, all egg laying hens, whether they are on a large scale commercial industrialized farm (a.k.a factory farm) or an organic, free range, “humane” farm, or even the backyard chickens your favorite aunt has named and built a heated shed for all come from a hatchery. The hatchery is where egg layers are produced. The chickens who are raised for meat (“broilers”) are selectively bred to produce as much meat as possible. Egg layers are not. Therefore animal agriculture has manipulated two entirely different  breeds of chicken, one for laying eggs and one for meat consumption. Therefore, when, at the hatchery, chicks hatch, they are immediately “sexed.” That is, some worker at the hatchery checks the sex of the chick. If that chick is female, she becomes a layer. But a male born to the egg industry cannot be used for meat, (he’s not been bred to fatten up enough), and is equally useless to the egg industry because he can’t produce eggs. So if that chick is a male, point blank, he is killed.

260 million male chicks are killed at egg hatcheries in the US every year. The most common industry methods for killing them are maceration, which means they are ground up alive in large machines, and gassing.   As horrible as it is to grind up baby chicks alive, in many ways these males are better off than the females because the females will now likely endure years of pain and misery if they are one of the 99% who are shipped off to an industrial egg producer. But whatever the fate of the females is at this point, whether they go to industrial agriculture, become “free range” hens, or end up in some nice lady’s back yard, all those females come from a hatchery that has just killed 50% of the newborn chicks, a practice which we directly support whether we purchase these layers ourselves and take them home and give them names and knit them sweaters or purchase the cheapest eggs we can find at Walmart. In both cases we directly support the killing of the male chicks. All hatcheries kill the males. They could not stay in business any other way.

The second problem with eating eggs is that 99% of the hens leaving the hatchery will go into commercial egg production. Less than 1% of chickens nationwide are raised as “free range,” according to the National Chicken Council (NCC). And oy vey, free range is a whole other issue. And another blog post, another day. Suffice it to say for now, free range hardly means they are free. In any case, 99% go straight to industrial sheds anyway, where they are kept in what are known as battery cages.

Battery cages are small wire cages so small that a hen will never in her entire life be able to spread her wings. She will be packed into the cage with as many as 10 other birds. This close confinement may lead her to peck at the other birds in her cage, (if I were trapped in an elevator with 20 people for my whole life I’d probably start shoving too), so the industry “debeaks” the birds. Debeaking is a euphemism for searing off their beaks with hot iron without using anesthesia.

The floors of battery cages are made of wire, which is painful to the tender feet of the birds and routinely causes them to develop sores that are typically left untreated. Birds also try to spread their wings (can you imagine not being able to raise your arms for your entire life?), which then frequently become caught in the wire of the cages. It is not economical to treat injured birds. So their injuries are not treated.

If you’ve ever driven through the countryside and seen long rows of unmarked windowless sheds, those are probably hen houses, holding row upon row of battery cages, stacked one on top of the other so all the birds except those on the top row are constantly urinated and defecated upon. The stench of feces and ammonia is overpowering and disease and sickness unavoidable in such conditions. Many birds die from injury and disease. Undercover investigations almost always reveal the carcasses of dead birds left in cages with live birds.

Though the natural lifespan of a chicken is about fifteen years, by the time industrial egg laying hens reach between 18 months and 2 years, their bodies are spent, wrecked from abuse, and their egg production declines. In one last ditch effort to squeeze out a little more profit, egg producers commonly use a practice called forced molting which involves starving the birds to shock their system into laying out of cycle.  The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that at any given time, over 6 million hens in the U.S. are being systematically starved in their cages.  After 2 years of this misery, they are sent to slaughter. By this point, their bodies are so beaten, and their flesh so bruised, it can only be used as scrap meat for canned chicken soup, frozen nuggets, or pet food.

Science tells us that chickens have communication skills that rival those of primates. Recent studies indicate that in many ways such as counting, and understanding that objects exist even when they are out of sight, chickens may even be more intelligent than human toddlers. They exhibit empathy, and with complex central nervous systems, we know they experience physical pain the same way human beings do.

Maybe now is a good time to point out that birds, all birds, egg laying hens, chickens raised for meat, turkeys, ducks, geese, and others are exempt from federal welfare laws including the Humane Slaughter Act. So in case you’re thinking none of this could be true because these practices must be illegal (as of course they should be, and that is a very natural assumption for us to make), they are not. They are legal, standard industry practices, which in some very circular reasoning is exactly what makes them legal. There are no federal protections, and standard industry practices, as such, no matter how much suffering they cause, are exempt from state cruelty laws.

Because birds are exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act, they are not required to be rendered unconscious before they are shackled, dragged through an electrocution bath, have their throats slit and are then dropped into boiling water. According to the USDA, an estimated 1 million chickens and turkeys are boiled alive each year in U.S. slaughterhouses, because the speed of the kill line (the faster the kill line, the higher the profits), makes it impossible for workers to ensure that the birds are dead before they are dropped into the scalding water.

The pain and suffering that comes in an egg is not obvious, but once we pull back the curtain and peek into those windowless sheds, into the hatcheries, the battery cages, the slaughterhouses, we realize that as harmless as an egg seems, it represents unconscionable cruelty that we support every time we buy or eat an egg. Giving up eggs does not seem so difficult or so radical once we understand the immense suffering involved in their production.

In the next post, “Vegans are So Extreme” Or “What Could Possibly Be Wrong with Eggs and Dairy?” Part II, we’ll look into the shadow side of the dairy industry and continue to demystify the compassionate logic of veganism.

Photo of Mikey the rescued dairy calf courtesy of Deb Durant. Taken at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary.