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 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.