Fridays at the Auction

“You ladies here to buy a cow?”

“We’re thinking about it,” was our straight-faced reply. It was true – we were thinking about it. Our thoughts were frantic with the desire to purchase every last bovine in the facility. A desperate daydream as implausible as the purchase of a single calf.

We knew that when we planned a trip to the local livestock auction. We knew that we would witness indescribable suffering, that we would be unable to rescue any lives from this tragic, exploited existence. However, faced with a barn of tagged Holstein calves, the urge to take one home was nearly insuppressible.

A women pointed toward the middle pen. “Those ones there were un-sellable. They’re free if you want any.”

Stepping closer, I gazed down at the discarded infants. Of the seven, five huddled in the corner farthest from human reach. One hobbled aimlessly, disabled by a swollen kneecap. My eyes drifted to another, lying alone in the straw, his fur slick with wetness.

“That one’s too young,” continued the woman, eyeing the damp calf, “I think he was just born this morning.”

I inquired as to their fate if no one took them home.

There was no hint of compassion in her succinct response. “They’ll kill them,” she informed us. And I wondered why I had bothered to ask.

The overall purpose of livestock auctions is, on a most basic level, the buying and selling of live farm animals. As one interviewee explained to me, farmers take animals to these auctions for “last resort” sales. Auctions also serve as the grim finale to 4-H projects when youth sell their one-time pets for profit.

Yet the actual function of these institutions is multifaceted. Much to my dismay, I discovered that the local livestock auction serves as venue for weekly social gatherings. It even features a dinner within the auction building. Farmers congenially devoured hamburgers and sausages with friends while, on the other side of the wall, cows and pigs were packed into dung-streaked stalls awaiting sale. No doubt the majority of attendees were there without interest in selling or buying, were present simply for the benefit of social interaction.

The gossiping and raucous laughter of the human animals was a disturbing addition to an already morbid scene. While they chowed down in their heated hangout, a mere wall away several hundred cows stood crammed on muddied cement floors, their breath puffing whitely in the frigid air. Plaintive mooing, terrified squeals, heartrending whimpers of motherless infants – these were the sounds of that fearful misery. And meanwhile the ranchers, in mud-streaked cowboy boots and flannel shirts, ate on mercilessly.

It is all too common to excuse the consumption by omnivores as culturally ingrained disassociation. To point out that when they eat a steak, they don’t truly make the connection to the sentient body of an individual cow. To suggest that, if handed an axe and a haltered bovine, they would be incapable of killing that animal, much less consuming its flesh afterward.

At this particular livestock auction, there was not the slightest pretext of disassociation. These men and women knew exactly what they were eating.

How did this callousness develop? Was there a deliberate decision to dismiss compassion toward nonhumans, or did it never occur to them to sympathize with the cows? Were they, like that young boy in his too-big cowboy hat attentively watching the auction with his mother, taught by their parents that this interaction between species was acceptable? And, perhaps more importantly could this current state of insensitivity be reversed? How could anyone even begin to tackle such a deep-rooted disregard for nonhuman life?

I often wonder, if a person has no qualms in violence toward non-human animals, is it such a great leap to endorse or participate in violence toward humans? Can compassion be selectively flicked on and off? Psychologists have long recognized that animal abuse is a precursor to human abuse.

And there is no denying that the treatment of the animals at this auction was abusive and violent. A microphoned auctioneer hollered earsplitting blather while animals were prodded, one by one, into the ring. A man in cowboy attire employed a four-foot long switch to keep the animals in motion. The animals, eyes wide with fear and legs jostling in panic, circled the ring frantically while their bodies were auctioned off to the highest bidder.

The audience watched with expressions approaching boredom. These people had been repeating this routine every Friday for years. How many Fridays, how many animals sold, discarded, murdered, these were numbers I did not want to know. Yet the participants recognized no moral errors. To them cows were irreversibly objectified as pieces of property, as walking lumps of food.

Several weeks ago I spoke with the executive director of a non-profit working on behalf of farmworkers and growers in animal agriculture. She explained to me that most growers trapped in poultry factory farming schemes did not want to inflict suffering on their birds. Oftentimes the cruelty of battery cages and other abuses are strictly required by industry employers. The growers themselves, she told me, began farming because they cared about animals and animal husbandry.

I was tempted to protest there is a serious distinction between caring about animals and caring about animal husbandry. A distinction illustrated quite clearly at this particular auction. It left me speculating, if I had handed out a questionnaire, what percentage of the auction crowd have given an affirmative to that ever infuriating statement: “I love animals.”? Surely they, like the meat-eaters who pamper pet canines, have adopted a blindness to that particular hypocrisy. I would bet the farm that almost every one of them considered himself an animal lover.

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The Politics of Fertilizer

“All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil.” ~Karl Marx

“The United States undertook – first unofficially and then as part of a deliberate state policy – the imperial annexation of any islands thought to be rich in this natural fertilizer. Under the authority of what became the Guano Island Act, passed by Congress in 1856, U.S. capitalists seized ninety-four islands, rocks, and keys around the globe between 1856 and 1903, sixty-six of which were officially recognized by the Department of State as U.S. appurtenances. Nine of these guano islands remain U.S. possessions today.” ~ from Hungry for Profit, page 45.

In The Jungle, lead character Jurgis has truly plummeted to the depths of desperation when he accepts a job at the fertilizer plant. In the vicious reality of the stockyards, an assembly-line position slicing into the abdomens of animal corpses is preferable to shoveling fertilizer. It’s the stench. Un-washable, it permeates fabric and clogs pores.

Jurgis and the inescapable odor were on my mind as I began reading Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment, edited by Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster, and Frederick H. Buttel. Though a mere slice of its spanning denunciation of agribusiness, this anthology provides fascinating insight on the fertilizer industry. From guano imperialism to chronically deficient soil, the politics of fertilizer are inextricably linked to the abuse of land, labor, and animals.

There is an intriguing military connection to the production and usage of agrochemicals, including nitrogen fertilizer. After all, “many of the pesticides used in agriculture were originally developed for military purposes as defoliants and nerve agents.” The process of producing nitrogen fertilizers is “the same process as the production of explosives.” The conclusion of World War II “freed up a large capacity to make nitrogen fertilizers” for domestic use. In a naïve attempt at resourcefulness, farmers were encouraged to make use of “the widespread availability of nitrogen fertilizer” (Magdoff, 51).

The adoption of this new approach meant the discarding of historically reliable methods. Pre-agrochemicals, agriculture relied on legume crops “to supply non-legumes with sufficient fertility” (Magdoff, 52). Legume crops, such as clover and alfalfa, were doubly useful in that they “convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use” and were also utilized as feed for ruminant farm animals (Magdoff, 52). With the removal of legumes and the purchase of fertilizer, there was no longer a necessity for farm animals in vegetable production. Thus the split between the growing of produce and the raising of farm animals for food into two entirely separate agricultural activities.

In many ways “this breakdown of the physical connection between the animals and the land producing their feed has worsened the depletion of nutrients and organic matter from the soils producing these crops (Magdoff, 53). Unattached to crop production, animal agriculture “became concentrated in certain regions: beef feedlots in the southern Great Plains, poultry in Arkansas and on the Delmarva Peninsula (composed of parts of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia), and hog production in certain parts of the Midwest and in North Carolina)” (Magdoff, 53). From these locations, “geographically remote from where crops are grown,” the “animal wastes cannot economically be returned to the land in a nutrient-recycling process” (Magdoff, 79). The result is that “crop farms must use large amounts of synthetic fertilizers to compensate for the loss of vast quantities of nutrients” (Magdoff, 53).

The depletion of nutrients within the soil is a dilemma complicated by far more variables than just the availability of fertilizer. Over-farming, agrochemical dependency, and monoculture production have transformed once fertile soil into the malnourished farmland of today.

Yet is farm animal waste a requisite for successful farming? Surely I am not the only vegan grimacing at the thought of factory farm waste nourishing my vegetables. Even organic fertilizers include a variety of products derived through animal suffering.

Reading both Hungry for Profit and Vandana Shiva’s Stolen Harvest: the Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, I was frustrated by the insinuation that healthy farming practices inevitably include farm animals. Shiva in particular emphasizes a codependent relationship between farm animals and farming. “By using crop wastes and uncultivated land,” she writes, “indigenous cattle [in India] do not compete with humans for food; rather, they provide organic fertilizer for fields and thus enhance food productivity” (Shiva, 58). Of course, Shiva is lauding this sort of practice for the benefits it provides to independent farmers. Any benefit experienced by the cattle in question is only relative to the hideous torture of animals by factory farmers. The indigenous cattle described by Shiva, though perhaps treated more kindly for their importance to the family’s livelihood, are nonetheless objectified, commoditized, and exploited.

As with agribusiness in general, the possible solutions to agrochemical dependence and chronic soil infertility would require radical agricultural reform. My concern is that many envision this utopia of small-scale, localized farming in the way that Shiva described. The question becomes not simply how to transform the global agricultural system, but how to do so in a way that excuses farm animals from enslavement. And thus the challenge becomes that much more difficult.

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Agricultural Dominion

The main winners from these policies [farm subsidies] are corporate livestock operations who buy absurdly cheap feed, making environmentally destructive factory farming possible.” ~from Food Is Different, page 40.

“In 2002 the U.S. approved a new farm bill, the so-called Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, which extended the basic U.S. subsidy system for another ten years, at an estimated cost to tax-payers of US$190 billion” ~from Food Is Different, page 39.

 

 

Listening to an Animal Voices’ interview with post-colonialism theorist Philip Armstrong, my interest was piqued by the concept of ‘seeding.’ Misleading as this term may seem, it has nothing to do with gardening. It is in actuality descriptive of seventeenth- century colonial groundwork for animal agriculture. As explained by Armstrong, “it was part of [the Europeans’] program of colonization, part of their program of discovery, and what we would now call globalization … they would seed oceanic islands with livestock which would then go feral and multiple and survive or not survive … and they could then be used by subsequent voyageurs.” Thus flocks of farm animals were deposited by ‘explorers’ on lands with imperial-profit potential.

I can only imagine the devastation that these non-native species wreaked on local habitats and wildlife population. It is troubling to view farm animals in this sense, as tools of imperialism. Centuries before genetically modified seeds were sold overseas the Western world was already priming the global stage for agricultural dominion.

This is a sharp reminder that utter disregard for both domesticated animals and their surrounding environment has long been the cultural norm. Sometimes we get away with pretending that the animal agriculture practices predating factory farming have awarded farm animals some since discarded dignity. As though the idyllic family farmer, hard at work on his bucolic homestead, before the invention of growth hormones and battery cages, had a genuine relationship with his animal property. To do so is to misconstrue the underlying problems, thereby obstructing possibilities for changes that would save lives.

One such example of this romanticizing of ‘peasant’ farming is This Land is Their Land: How Corporate Farms Threaten the World, an oddly author-centric work by Evaggelos Vallianatos. The book is peppered with unsupported veneration of Hellenic culture and pre-Christian farming practices. While the atrocious treatment of farm animals in current practices is implied, Vallianatos does not express any sympathy for the nonhuman animals victimized by agribusiness beyond the human health risks that result. His posited solutions call for agrarian reform within the existing system. Although his arguments initially sway toward anti-capitalist ideas, he ultimately proposes changes that would maintain many class and wealth disparities, not to mention an ever-pervasive speciesism and conventional animal exploitation.

Vallianatos is quick to blame inequitable farm subsidies as the villainous perpetuator of this current food production nightmare. However, while U.S. government subsidization of national agribusiness products ensure unfair world trade, these subsidies are only the results of a broader problem. As stressed by Peter M. Rosset, in Food Is Different, “eliminating subsidies won’t mean better prices for farmers or for consumers, because market concentration will still enable companies to dictate low prices to farmers and high prices to consumers” (Rosset, 51). Which is not to say that struggling for the abolishment of farm subsidies is futile, rather that it is not the end all solution.

The concentration of power in agriculture becomes particularly startling when examining the animal agriculture industry. Only “four companies (Tyson, ConAgra, Cargill, and Farmland Nation) concentrate 81 percent of the beef-packing industry … Often the same companies are the dominant firms in several sectors. ConAgra, for instance, figures among the four largest firms in the beef, pork, turkey, sheep, and seafood sectors, with operations in 70 countries” (Rosset, 46). The influence that these massive corporations have over governmental policy is evident in the policies themselves. For example, “the US position, backed by WTO rules, is that while countries can discriminate against dangerous products based on ‘sound science,’ such discrimination can only apply to the final product itself and not to the process used to produce it” (Rosset, 32). Under these guidelines, the US disallows other nations from any discrimination “against products whose health and environmental safety are still largely unstudied – like genetically engineered (GE) foods, or beef produced with growth hormones, is not ‘science-based’ because ‘scientific evidence is still lacking” (Rosset, 32).

The impact on other countries, however, is far more severe than simply the inability to boycott unsafe food items. Globe spanning trade laws that open markets make it impossible for small-scale farmers to compete in a corporation dominated system. In post-NAFTA Mexico, for instance, “imports of soybeans, wheat, poultry and beef grew by over 500 per cent, displacing Mexican production” (Rosset, 62). The result is that a country like Mexico is no longer fed by its own farmers, but instead through the importation of surplus U.S. products, the quality of which is determined by those who stand to profit.

In the United States, corn is the crop produced in the highest volume. It “is grown on nearly 80 million acres (32 million hectares) and is used mostly for livestock feed, domestically or overseas” (Rosset, xvii). This corn is profitably produced in gross surpluses courtesy of taxpayer-funded subsidies. Much of it is dumped abroad, sold at prices below the cost of production that make it impossible for other farmers to compete.

The key is to remember the interconnectedness. The U.S. government hands out economically- devastating subsidies to corporate-backed growers, enabling agribusiness to produce genetically modified, pesticide-saturated grain at cutthroat prices via the labor of underpaid, unrepresented farmworkers. This grain, laced with antibiotics and hormones, is fed to factory farmed livestock who will be slaughtered and packaged by exploited human labor. When Americans purchase these disease-inducing animal products at absurdly low prices thanks to the government’s subsidies, the profit is channeled into corporate pockets. It brings to mind a framing of the vegan argument that I once heard from Pattrice Jones: Industrial agriculture is bad for the animals, bad for the workers, and bad for the consumers – the only entity that benefits whatsoever is the corporate power.

In the context of contemporary agriculture, the notion of seeding starts to seem less absurd and more in sync with the mentality of globalization. Today, agricultural policies and practices continue to be forcibly exported. The consequences to humans, nonhumans, and the environment are trivialized. Predictably, the imperial powers that be are poised to plunder.

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A Modern Jungle

“In 1962 … agricultural workers in the United States were virtually powerless … growers routinely used vigilante violence and terror to prevent the ‘unionization of farm labor on any basis.’ [Carey] McWilliams uncovered the existence of a concentration camp near Salinas that was built to imprison farmworker union activists. One grower claimed that the camp was constructed ‘to hold strikers, but of course we won’t put white men in it, just Filipinos.’ McWilliams characterized the authority that agribusiness exerted in California as ‘Farm Fascism.’ Growers’ federations, backed by the banking interests that controlled much of California agriculture, exerted enormous control over state legislature and raked in tens of millions of dollars each year in federal subsidies. In contrast, farmworkers received no federal benefits and had no voice in Sacramento or in Washington, D.C.” ~ from The Human Cost of Food, page 357.

 

There is a black and white photograph on page seventy of The Human Cost of Food: Farmworkers’ Lives, Labor, and Advocacy, that I keep returning to. The book’s only image of farm animals, this single photo, despite the unhelpful brevity of its caption, conveys more information about the human role in animal agriculture than is even hinted at in the entirety of this anthology. It is the picture of two young boys, presumably the children of Mexican farmworkers in North Carolina. They are standing inside a turkey barn, surrounded by hundreds of encaged birds, on a floor whitened by the carnage of feathers. Dejection and discontent are etched with aching clarity on their young faces. It is a photograph that, no doubt unintentionally, encapsulates a suffering transcending any barrier of species. It is a wordless exemplification of the inseparability of oppressions, of why I am reading about farmworker issues to begin with.

Farmworker advocates lament the near extinction of the family farm, condemn the global devastation of contemporary agribusiness practices, and criticize the abuse and exploitation of human labor worldwide. The interests of individual farm animals, however, never make the priority list. Often they are disregarded completely. Some might argue that human rights are incomparably more important. To do so is to overlook the overlap in these struggles. The mistreatment of human workers and enslavement of animals are both rooted in disrespect for sentient life and an industry motivated solely by profit.

I recently re-read The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s appalling depiction of the lives of workers in the Chicago meatpacking industry. The heart-wrenching storyline follows one immigrant laborer struggling to survive and support a family in the brutally unfair climate of the stockyards. And while the focus is on human misery, the thoroughly described plight of animals and perversity of the animal product industry has certainly turned the stomachs and stirred the consciences of countless readers.

Sinclair’s expose novel was written in 1906, long enough ago to seem safely historical. And while it is tempting to self-placate with the notion that those days of mercilessness are in the past, I know that improvements are only relative. Corporate corruption, racism, sexism, and the litany of other injustices against human and nonhuman animals detailed in Sinclair’s work persist today.

Yet these abuses are no longer exclusive to slaughterhouses, factories, and factory farms. As editors Thompson and Wiggins point out in their anthology’s introduction, “it is no stretch of the imagination to claim that the United States has its own sweatshop system in its fields and food production” (Thompson, 16). Indeed, the agribusiness powers that dictate the horrendous working conditions of a poultry plant ensure that laborers on cucumber farms suffer similar injustices.

In 2000, one unabashedly bigoted grower in North Carolina was quoted bragging that, “The North won the War on paper but we Confederates actually won because we kept our slaves. First we had sharecroppers, then tenant farmers and now we have Mexicans” (Thompson, 250).

While the corporations that stock our supermarkets with out-of-season produce are unlikely to voice such opinions, their business practices reveal a silent concurrence. Today “many of the power-holders in agriculture and commerce – including agribusiness owners, their lobbyists, special interest groups such as the Farm Bureau, and the politicians who respond to them – actively oppose even the most basic improvements to labor practices. Because of knee-jerk reactions to farm labor improvements, even the provision of bathrooms and drinking water in the fields is still a fighting matter (Thompson, 12). The Human Cost of Food is brimming with such examples of agribusiness’ simultaneous dependence upon and abuse of immigrant labor.

It comes as no surprise to me that an industry that callously objectifies the lives of sentient non-humans and the environment would similarly lack respect for the basic rights of the humans in its employ. Yet the extent of human labor abuse in non-animal agriculture is direr than I realized.

What does this mean for the animals enslaved within the inhuman monstrosity that is contemporary agribusiness? If the exploitation of millions of humans is not enough to provoke any genuine restructure of practice and policy, could the suffering of billions of farm animals ever be taken seriously?

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Back at the Books

The warmth has drifted elsewhere, soggy leaves are obstructing my windshield wipers, and the elementary school across my street has resumed hosting masses of backpack-lugging children. It’s official: fall is here. And with it, Fall Quarter.

I am back at the books, but this quarter my studies are taking departure from my summer plans. My seasonal focus will be that ugly enemy of vegans everywhere known as agribusiness. In particular, the economics and human labor issues of animal agriculture on a local and global scale. This blog will serve as a venue for some of my writings and responses to literature on these themes. As always, I am approaching these issues from an animal liberation angle.

In conjunction with my study of agribusiness, I am also embarking on a project to better understand the interworkings of human relationships with farm animals. A student partner and I are compiling interviews with individuals who interact with farm animals in a variety of circumstances. These will include farm animal rescuers, animal agriculture employees, individuals ‘humanely’ raising animals for profit, and people who care for farm animals as companion animals.

Do you or did you interact with farm animals for an extended period of time? Are you interested in participating in this project? If so, please let me know. I would love to talk with you.

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The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act

“AETA is not about the crime, it’s about the politics behind the crime. All of the actions targeted by this legislation (with the exception of First Amendment activity) are already crimes. The problem that law enforcement agents have encountered is not that there’s a shortage of statutes available, but that they just can’t catch underground activists. This legislation won’t solve that. It will, however, stray into the dangerous territory of prosecuting intent. This bill is not about crimes (or First Amendment activity) but about the beliefs of the individuals, and the social movements, behind them. Conservative lawmakers who opposed hate crimes legislation because it mandated disproportionate sentences based on ideology should logically oppose AETA on the same grounds.” ~Will Potter, from his blog, greenisthenewred.com

“The AETA is ostensibly meant to target underground, illegal actions committed in the name of animal rights by groups like the Animal Liberation Front. But underground activists won’t lose much sleep over this bill. Their actions are already illegal (and they know it); the government has already labeled them the “number one domestic terrorist threat.” And yet these activists continue to demonstrate that heavy-handed police tactics will not deter them. Legal, aboveground activists are the ones who should be most concerned about this vague and overly broad legislation, under which they could be considered “terrorists.” The AETA sends a chilling message to activists of all social movements that political opportunists can use the rhetoric and resources of the War on Terrorism against them.” ~Will Potter, from “AETA Signed into Law,” published in Earth First! Journal, January 2007

On the 13th of November, 2006, only six congressional representatives were present to vote on legislation that would dramatically alter the climate of animal activism. A suspension of the rules allowed the act to fly through legislative procedures in less than fifteen minutes. The sole voice of disagreement, that of Rep. Dennis Kucinich, was not loud enough. On the 27th of November, 2006, George W. Bush’s signature turned the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) into law.

An act that includes civil disobedience in its definition of terrorism is understandably alarming to the activist community. The AETA states that even “non-violent physical obstruction of an animal enterprise or a business having a connection to, or relationship with, an animal enterprise, that may result in loss of profits but does not result in bodily injury or death or property damage or loss” can be punished with prison time and daunting fines. This is further detailed as offenses that do “not instill in another the reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death,” do not cause “economic damage or bodily injury,” or that cause “economic damage that does not exceed $10,000.”

From the introduction of the act to the subsequent scaremongering and conviction of activists, Will Potter has chronicled the ongoing green scare on his blog, greenisthenewred.com. Potter is one of the few journalists to examine the government’s recent targeting of animal and environmental activists, much less make it his focus. In studying the AETA and its implications for the animal liberation movement, I reviewed the archives of Potter’s blog and his many published articles on this topic.
I have listened to Potter speak on two occasions: at a University of Washington presentation and at the Animal Rights Conference 2007. At both events the audience responded with questions about whether or not their personal, aboveground activism could be construed as terrorism. Could they go to prison for leafleting? Or protesting? Or, as the SHAC7 trial demonstrated, for operating a website?

The intent behind this legislation was clearly to squash activism. As Potter wrote: “The purpose of the balaclava-clad ad campaigns, the State Department briefings, the DHS memos, the outlandish prison sentences, the FBI harassment and the blacklists is not to protect national security or even to catch illegal, underground activists. The point is to instill fear in the mainstream animal rights and environmental movements—and every other social movement paying attention—and make people think twice about using their First Amendment rights.” The purpose was to scare activists out of being active.

However, the overall feeling at AR2007 suggested that perhaps this legislation is having an entirely different effect. Speaker after speaker encouraged us to not be intimidated. Emphasis was placed on knowing our rights, recognizing the threat, and choosing our risks wisely. No one suggested that anyone stop taking risks. Indeed, many individuals that I spoke to had decided that, if acting on their beliefs could land them in prison, they wanted to be sure that what they were doing was worthwhile. Presented with the choice of fear or resolve, most are choosing to up the level of their activism and striving to achieve as significant an impact as possible.

For additional information on the AETA, your legal rights, and the activists currently targeted by the green scare, check out the following websites:

http://www.noaeta.org

http://www.cldc.org

http://www.greenscare.org

http://www.nlg.org

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Making the Neighbors Angry

“I hear activists being termed ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists,’ surely it’s extreme to stitch up the eyelids of a kitten in a research laboratory, it’s extreme to transplant the head of one monkey onto another, it’s extreme to tear a young calf from his mother’s side to steal her milk and condemn him to a short life in a veal crate, it’s extreme to castrate a young piglet without anesthetic merely to argue that the meat will taste better when he’s murdered. Surely that is true extremism, real terrorism against the weak and innocent. I believe that those who seek to end atrocities of that nature are only guilty of one thing, and that’s compassion.” ~Robin Webb, responding in September 1991 to the question of justifying the ALF’s activities

Consider the vivisector who makes a cushy living off torturing animals in laboratories for frivolous research. Thousands of caged animals suffer and die at his hands. Convincing him to cease his practices would save countless lives. Yet appealing to his empathy is futile. Picketing the lab yields no results, the university doesn’t respond positively to your letters, and the animal welfare laws passed on a national level are not enforced. Short of an illegal action, what can you do?

One option is a home demo. Targeting individual animal exploiters through home demonstrations is a tactic that was brought into the discussion more than once at the conference. This aboveground strategy takes activists directly to the front lawns of the exploiter. It typically involves educating the neighbors and encouraging media attention. Most importantly, it ensures that the vivisector is not allowed to leave work behind him. His family, his neighbors, they all feel the repercussions of his choice. To spare everyone the trouble, all he has to do is make the decision to stop the cruelty.

Homes demos are, unsurprisingly, not endorsed by everyone in the movement. Indeed, many adamantly oppose this approach. Critics cite alienation of the community, negative media attention, damage to the cause’s reputation, and the employment of harassment and intimidation.

Those who speak in favor of home demos tend to be those who support direct action tactics. This was true of the interviews that I read this week with three of U.K.’s most publicly radical animal activists. It was in a booklet entitled Keep Fighting: Three Interviews with Britain’s Animal Liberation Front Press Officers. Clearly this was reading material produced on a budget. The photocopied, unnumbered pages fade into the margins. I cringed with every ‘you’re’ mistyped as ‘your.’ Yet despite it’s unimpressive appearance, the text is quite interesting. It is the transcript of interviews conducted in 1991 with Ronnie Lee, Robin Lane, and Robin Webb. As they explained to the interviewer, the three former ALF Press Officers were unable, for legal reasons, to discuss illegal activity in a way that could be interpreted as promotion. So, when asked about effective campaigning and “the way forward for the animal rights movement,” all three advocated home demos.

Ronnie Lee, the founder of the ALF, who has completed more than one prison sentence, admitted that, “marches and demonstrations outside of laboratories and other animal abuse establishments haven’t been very effective.” While discussing “winnable” campaigns, he suggested that, “a successful local campaign could be mounted … against vivisection.” He explains: “If you campaign against vivisection at a particular establishment using a type of campaign that puts attention on individual vivisectors, like harassing them personally, going outside their homes and disrupting their personal life, then you are going to stop those people, eventually you are going to stop those vivisectors from vivisecting because they just won’t be able to take the pressure anymore. You are going to have to target a lot of individual vivisectors before you close the lab, but all the time you are achieving these small victories of vivisectors who stop doing it, you are cutting down the number of vivisectors, you’re making it very uncomfortable for anyone to vivisect in that place.”

Likewise, Robin Webb saw home demos as an extremely effective approach: “To really stop the abuse – apart from unlawful direct action which the Animal Liberation Front carry out – find out who the animal abusers are, for example, vivisectors, go and demonstrate outside of their houses, leaflet their neighbors, make it clear to their local community how they make their money, that their mortgage repayments are paid with blood-stained money. They will then become outcasts in their own community. It will encourage them to find another way of earning a living. If the animals can’t get away from their exploitation, if the animals are imprisoned 24 hours a day, why should the abusers go home, put their feet up, and watch television?”

In response to the argument “that you shouldn’t make the partners and children of the family pay,” Webb was unwavering. “It is not the responsibility of the campaigners, it’s the responsibility of the animal abuser. All they have to do is stop what they are doing, and their family won’t be involved in any unpleasantness anymore. It’s all the responsibility of the animal abusers. If they stop what they’re doing, then any demonstrations and picketing would stop.”

I found it highly noteworthy that these three dedicated activists, when unable to suggest ALF actions, chose to encourage this particular tactic. Does this suggest that demonstrating in neighborhoods is the next best thing to breaking into laboratories? Not necessarily.

These interviews, as I kept reminding myself, occurred sixteen years ago. I wonder if these three still espouse the same perspective. I am especially curious as to whether the optimism expressed in this booklet has endured such a lengthy passage of time with so little progress.

Recently Arkangel (arkangelweb.org), originally a magazine co-founded by Robin Lane to report on progress in the movement, posted an article on the rise of vivisection in the U.K. “Latest Government figures for 2006 on animal research,” reads the article, “show a rise to 3.01 million of scientific procedures on animals in the UK, up 115,800 on 2005 or just under 10,000 a month. In addition the report showed that 133,800 more animals were used in experiments, representing a 5% increase on the previous year.”

What does this say about the effectiveness of the movement? Would the situation be even worse if animal activists had not worked so tirelessly? Would the situation be better if activists had done more? If only I could ask Lee, Lane, and Webb for their opinion. Whatever their answers might be, to me these statistics mean only that this immense struggle for the lives of animals remains as urgent as ever.

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On Violence, Liberation, and the ALF

“The question the animal rights movement should ask itself is: What course of action would we justify and engage in if it was our own mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children in the torture chambers and not nameless unfamiliar animals? And also: Is the ALF justifiable in its own moderate choice of tactics? Once we answer these questions honestly we might better appreciate that in over 19 years of operation in the US, the ALF has yet to cause physical injury or loss of life in a campaign that has achieved liberty for tens of thousands of the voiceless victims of humanity’s war against the animal nations. Meanwhile, corporate, government, military and private animal abusers remain committed to their own code of real violence and terror, as evidenced by their contemptuous disregard for all other life on earth” ~Rod Coronodo, from the article Direct Action Speaks Louder than Words

“Every time you walk past a dog on a chain, the radical feminist or ALF activist might remind you, you are making the political choice to allow that animal to spend his or her days in lonely anguish.” ~Pattrice Jones, from the article Mothers with Monkeywrenches: Feminist Imperatives and the ALF

Genocide and fishing vessels, torture and vivisection, rape and factory farms, murder and slaughterhouses. When I think of violence, all this and more clouds my mind simultaneously. And somewhere, in the periphery of the mental montage that is my conception of violence, is the violent activist. This would be the anti-abortion zealot with a handgun. Or the Weather Underground member with a strategically placed pipe bomb. However, as I read Satya’s series, Violence and Activism, from March and April of 2004, I realized that the violent animal activist was absent from my definition of violence.

When, if ever, is animal activism violent? Is it violent for a group of masked, sign-waving activists to holler incriminatingly on the front lawn of a vivisector’s home? Is it violent for the liberators of caged animals to vandalize the lab and render useless the tools of torture?

In a political climate that pairs ‘animal activist’ hand in hand with ‘terrorist,’ the controversy over direct action, animal liberation, and underground activism is as significant as ever. While reading Satya’s collection of articles, many of which directly advocated for nonviolence, I also looked at writings on the movement’s most notorious component: the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). In 2004 Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella published an anthology entitled Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals. The result is a fascinating insight into the history, rationale, motivation, perception, and tactics of this underground movement.

Best summarizes the unique composition of the ALF in his introduction: “Given the decentralized and anonymous nature of ALF actions, the ALF in principle is not about authority, ego, heroism, machismo, or martyrdom; rather, it is about overcoming hierarchy, patriarchy, passivity, and politics as usual so that creative individuals can dedicate themselves unselfishly to the cause of animal liberation” (Best, 24).

It is crucial to emphasize that, in the entire history of the ALF, not a single human or nonhuman animal life has been taken. Despite the autonomy of each ALF cell, there is a list of overarching guidelines. This short list includes rules for taking “all necessary precautions” against harm. The primary purpose is, as explained in the ALF Primer, “to liberate animals from places of abuse … and place them in good homes where they may live out their natural lives, free from suffering,” “to inflict economic damage to those who profit from the misery and exploitation of animals,” and “to reveal the horror and atrocities committed against animals behind locked doors.” The ALF is a logical response to an industry that profits from the perpetuation of violence against nonhumans. When decades of begging the public to empathize has yet to halt the reality of widespread animal exploitation, ALF activists bypass the painstaking route of public conversion and literally liberate the animals.

The media and pro-vivisection groups such as the Foundation for Biomedical Research like to depict the ALF as angry, arrogant young men in baklavas wielding crowbars. This unfortunate image is one that Pattrice Jones, in her essay, recommends replacing. She proposes giving a “feminine face’ to the ALF. “What happens,” asks Jones, “when you change that mental image” of “a black-clad young man” to “a young woman or a gray-haired grandmother?” (Jones, 149). As Jones explains, the ALF is in fact “consistent with both ecofeminism and anarcha-feminism” as well as “with radical feminism in general” (Jones, 144). This is one of many positive angles from which to understand and support the ALF that few have bothered to explore or embrace.

Rather than focus on the laudatory aspects of the ALF, some prominent figures and organizations in the movement have chosen to distance themselves from ALF actions rather than be tainted by controversy. As Karen Dawn pointed out, in 2003 the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) withdrew from the Animal Rights Conference. The organization’s excuse was that, by associating themselves with “the rhetoric of Rod Coronado and Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty (SHAC)’s Kevin Jonas” they “would damage HSUS’s mainstream image (which translates into millions of much needed mainstream dollars in donations) and subvert HSUS’s standing in the legislative arena” (Dawn, 214).

Bruce G. Friedrich offered an intriguing counter-perspective to the choice of many organizations to disassociate from the ALF and other, aboveground radical groups such as SHAC. He argues that ALF actions are “useful to the movement” in that “they shift the debate” by making “the rest of the movement respectable” (Friedrich, 257). As he explains, “those who work on the radical fringe push that fringe outward and make others, formerly radical from society’s vantage, seem far more mainstream. And that, of course, is our goal: to alert society to the fact that animal liberation is every bit as reasonable, as a movement and philosophy, as was the abolition of slavery and suffrage for women” (Friedrich, 257).

Indeed, the tactics employed by the ALF are not so very alien or radical when put in the context of the history of social justice movements. As Kevin Jonas, who is currently serving a six year prison sentence for his involvement with SHAC, wrote for Satya (almost two years before he was convicted as a terrorist), “Many people do support liberations, property destruction, violence, forms of terrorism, and even murder” (Jonas, 18). They have “supported such violent tactics in the crushing of the Third Reich, the establishment of fair labor practices, and … to kill Osama bin Laden. Winning animal rights is what is so threatening and ‘terrorizing’ – not the way in which is fought – for the prospect of such principles being accepted would undermine a great many cultural, economic, and societal institutions which depend on animal oppression for their survival” (Jonas, 18).

Yet even the most radical activism on behalf of animals becomes tame in comparison to the violence perpetrated every second by animal exploiters worldwide. As Best wrote, “For every scratch an activist might inflict on an animal exploiter, a sea of blood flows from the bodies of animals; consequently, it is the height of perversity to brand activists rather than animal exploitation industries as the ethical misfits” (Best, 334). In this light, the cultural and societal reactions to ALF actions are irrelevant beside the countless lives that liberation tactics has and continues to save.

Jones asked her readers, “Who do you hope will be around if you are ever confined in a cage or about to be forcibly impregnated?” (Jones, 145). It’s a question worth considering when we get caught up in arguments over the most appropriate tactics. You can define them as violent, nonviolent, or by some category of your own invention, but in the end all that truly matters is that the ALF is opening cage doors and liberating lives.

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Young and Impatient

“Although animal use, like war, comes packaged as an eternal violence, a natural, regulated, and therefore socially permissible violence, advocates are not obliged to consider the animal rights movement a war, with all the good-and-evil rhetoric that perspective absorbs. Copying the activity of warmakers or soldiers, forcing people to behave or not to behave in certain ways – this perpetuates the paradigm of daily social control by some authoritative force. Other people are not the enemy of animals rights; if there is an enemy at all, it is the tendency to depersonalize others. Using conscious animals as means to an end means depersonalizing them. It involves alienating some individuals, some population, from our moral community, so that we can pull from them what we want. Militancy reinforces precisely the same social habit.”

~ Lee Hall, from Capers in the Churchyard

When I first picked up Lee Hall’s Capers In the Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in the Age of Terror, I was puzzled by the title and the image of an ancient churchyard on the cover. Halfway into her work, it became evident that the churchyard was no metaphor. It is the actual gravesite of Gladys Hammond, the mother of a British couple that earned their living through breeding animals for biomedical experimentation. In 2004, as the pinnacle of a long-running campaign to close this farm (which notably sold animals to Huntington Life Sciences), Hammond’s coffin disappeared from her grave. Anonymous activists offered to return her bones in exchange for the closure of the farm. The farm stopped breeding lab animals. This gutsy action, which resulted in the imprisonment of four activists, is an isolated example of a creative tactic. Yet it is under the headline of this unique action that Hall proceeds to criticize the movement. The book is scathing evaluation of welfare reform, animal liberation activism, militant activists, and animal rescue. Though she has no other examples of grave excavation, Hall condemns other prevailing tactics for ceasing animal suffering as though they were all buttressing this one offense.

Hall’s indignation over Hammond’s remains has less to do with disrespecting a grave than with alienating the community from a compassionate cause.  She is deeply concerned with how the public perceives the movement. Considering her preoccupation with the opinions of meat-eating bystanders, Hall unwaveringly depicts direct action activists according to the mainstream stereotype.

Much of Hall’s scathing critique of liberationists is based on assumptions and misrepresentations. Hall insinuates that militant activists are too shortsighted and impatient to engage in worthwhile approaches. Young and tattooed, they are all idealists self-embedded in simplistic good-and-evil scenarios. They are in it for the thrill, the risk, the glory of self-sacrifice. Their actions on behalf of animals are nothing more than “indulgence in authoritarian tactics and in violence” (Hall, 75). And in this “community that’s thought to have a high female presence,” Hall alleges that “showy male leadership is common” (Hall, 65). “Thought” is the imperative word here, seeing as Hall has no statistics or demographics from which to legitimize her illustration.

From my vantage point, “militant” animal activists defy Hall’s stereotype in almost every way. Granted, many have tattoos and are under thirty, but that is irrelevant to the ideology. The ALF, Hall’s favorite example, is comprised of individuals who choose to risk their own freedom in order to spare the lives of animals. They are underground and receive no credit unless they are caught. Such direct action, stemming from compassion for all species, employs exclusively nonviolent tactics. The suggestion that these activists, who are fighting against systemized animal abuse, in fact revel in violence, intimidation, and “establishing hierarchy” is both offensive and inadequately defended (Hall, 29).

In contrast, Hall’s arguments against welfarism are eloquently on target. She writes that “professionalized welfare advocacy,” which “largely functions to ensure that activists conform to the received social and economic template” would be more accurately labeled as “husbandry” (Hall, 99). This revised label better describes an approach that fails to address the exploitable status of nonhuman animals. She explains that “true attention to an animal’s welfare would not permit the fashioning of that animal into a commodity, let alone advertising companies that base their success on that paradigm” (Hall, 99).

Yet Hall’s writing, by bouncing back and forth between criticisms in an organizational style that left me scatterbrained, does not bother to distinguish between the very distinct forms of activism. The radical tactics of SHAC are compared to passive welfare reforms such as pushing supermarket chains to stock cage-free eggs. It is almost as if Hall’s choice to simultaneously attack dissimilar poles of the movement were deliberate. Taken together, it makes it easier to depict different philosophical approaches as one hypocritical and irrational series of blunders.

After dismissing the prevailing tactics of animal activism as either ineffectual or counterproductive, Hall flounders in her own inability to offer a viable alternative. Her vision of “the most comprehensive peace movement ever known” is blurry. For a book brimming with the details of the movement’s flaws, there is a notable lack of details regarding her envisioned solution. From what I could piece together, Hall is proposing “an animal-rights advocacy that’s based on everyday living” (Hall, 126). Apparently this would consist of compassionate vegan outreach while “unraveling our hierarchies” and “giving up the human clubs of whiteness, of maleness, and even of humanness, kicking the habit of defining ourselves as possessors of dominion over all that fly, walk, swim, and crawl over the contours of a weary planet” (Hall, 132).

If the path to Hall’s utopia is patiently waiting for the world to embrace veganism and adopt non-speciesist egalitarianism, then she can count me out. In the meantime billions of animals are enslaved and exploited. Liberation, welfarism, and every other strategy to save animal lives may be riddled with imperfections, but at least they act. Crossing our fingers that animal exploiters can be gently convinced to change radically without confrontational tactics is not going to get any animals out of factory farms any time soon. Call me shortsighted and naive, but as Hall pointed out, “this impatience has a particular appeal to young people” (Hall, 67).

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Compassionate Exploitation

“Let us not forget, there is a reason why human rights groups do not develop or endorse ‘humane’ methods of torturing and executing political prisoners, and why children’s rights advocates do not collaborate with the international pornography industry to develop standards and special labeling for films that make compassionate use of runaway teens. To do such things is to introduce moral ambiguity into the situations where the boundaries between right and wrong must never be allowed to blur. To be the agent of such blurring is to become complicit oneself in the violence and abuse.” ~James LaVeck

“Promoting free-range, sunshine and fresh air before a ‘stunned’ slaughter for animals sugarcoats the bits and pieces of their bodies for the public, it isn’t getting our job done and it’s dishonest to the animals depending on our help … The real work isn’t negotiating with the animal industries, but with educating the public. The biggest threat to animal farming is veganism.” ~Patty Mark.

Last fall I received two issues of Satya magazine in the mail that dramatically altered the way that I thought about farm animal activism. Satya’s September 2006 issue, Killing Us Softly?, and October 2006 issue, Milking Us Gently?, were devoted to the elevating controversy over ‘humane’ animal products. Each issue was comprised of essays by and interviews with activists from oppositional ends of the debate. I decided that these noteworthy back issues were well worth revisiting. However, rereading the arguments of so many passionate activists in the wake of AR2007, I was struck by the magnitude of this standstill. Almost a year after these writings were published, the movement remains just as indecisive, inconsistent, and impeded by a widening internal divide.

At the conference, the controversy was politely simplified into a sterile welfarist versus abolitionist debate. Awkward plenaries featured speakers taking turns giving speeches about their personal philosophy.

I was grateful to return to the productive contrast of these Satya issues. The magazine was successful in keeping the discussion coherent. As editor Catherine Clyne explained: “This is about the consistency of our messages and actions and their consequences. It’s about the 10 billion animals killed for meat each year in this country – humanely raised or not – and what we’re doing to stop that.” It is not about, as Erik Marcus insisted during one plenary, a mere difference of “opinions.” These opinions carry the weight of the movement’s effectiveness and define our ability to actually save lives.

The questions tackled by Satya were all without clean-cut answers. Who is truly benefiting when animal products labeled ‘free-range,’ ‘cage-free,’ ‘free-farmed,’ ‘grass-fed,’ ‘certified humane,’ and ‘organic’ take such an upsurge in popularity? What is happening to the movement when animal advocacy organizations applaud and endorse the consumption of ‘humane’ meat, eggs, and dairy? Will incremental improvements in factory farms save more or less animals in the long run?

Many activists fighting for improved factory farm conditions have conceded to the institutional power of factory farms by accepting agribusiness’ indestructibility as a given. If it is not possible to shut down every slaughterhouse tomorrow, then it seems logical to focus our energy on lessening the brutality that occurs today. To make life a bit more bearable for the animal who we won’t be able to save. In one of the conference sessions, Karen Davis reminded us how, for the hen in a battery cage, a bigger cage does make a difference. How can we tell her, asked Davis, that factory farm reform is only a pointless fight for longer chains?

This perspective was eloquently described by Lee Hall’s article as “seductive but largely illusory.” As Bob Torres explained: “Welfarism is accepting defeat before we’ve even begun the battle. It accepts as a premise that genuine vegan and abolitionist outreach can’t be and aren’t effective enough, and so trades for measures which (though may decrease suffering in the short-term) actually reify the condition of animals as ours to exploit … It is justifying slavery by asking for longer chains; it is asking the abuser to abuse more gently.”

Yet the gentling of abuse is a change that many activists perceive as a success. Enslaved animals are marginally better off, and consumers are demonstrating that they care enough to pay a little more for animal products produced under these improved conditions. ‘Humane’ animal products and the companies that sell them are being lauded, even endorsed, by some animal advocacy organizations.

Then again, does the marketability of ‘humane’ animal products signify a public potential for veganism or a public grateful to hear that they can be animal-friendly without kicking the meat habit? While free-range eggs, organic milk, ‘humane certified’ meat, and the like may be a steppingstone for some, for others it is undeniably a leap backwards. As the founder of Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary pointed out in her interview, countless people are choosing ‘happy meat’ over vegetarianism: “No exaggeration: every person or group who visits the sanctuary, no matter what their background, age, sex, or socioeconomic position, beams with pride when they proclaim, ‘It’s okay, I only buy cage-free eggs and organic milk.'” James LaVeck reiterated this point, writing that “already sanctuary workers, educators and frontline vegan activists are reporting that members of the public, when confronted with the reality of farmed animal exploitation, increasingly indicate that they will express their concern for farmed animals, not by boycotting or reducing their consumption of animals products, but by purchasing products marked as ‘humane.'”

When I first read these essays nearly a year ago, I was in the process of learning firsthand just how true LaVeck’s words are. The welfarist organization that I worked for had instructed me to contact all of the small-scale farms in the area that sold ‘free-range’ eggs. My coworkers saw nothing problematic in the assignment. From their well-intentioned standpoint, a local alternative to factory farms was an easier sell than veganism. This was indeed the case – people were practically lining up to assuage their guilty consciences by purchasing ‘free-range’ eggs rather than cut eggs from their diet. That month I spoke to over two dozen farmers, mostly small-scale organic vegetable farmers selling eggs for supplemental income. All save a handful informed me that their eggs were in such high demand that they were turning away customers.

The factor that cemented my own beliefs regarding the futility of promoting ‘humane’ animal products was a phone conversation that I had with one of those farmers. He was quite gregarious on the phone, cheerfully telling me how his chickens roamed the organic orchards by day, scratching blissfully in the pesticide-free soil. I asked how long the chickens lived at his farm. They only lasted about three years, he explained, before their egg production declined. Knowing full well that a hen could naturally live to be fifteen, I inquired as to where the chickens went after three years of laying. The farmer laughed and said that he didn’t really know, but that they “probably were turned into dog food.”

As that farmer demonstrated, and as countless animal welfare measures continue to demonstrate, the “longer chains” solution overlooks the underlying problems with animal exploitation. It does not question the notion that animals are pieces of property for us to utilize and exploit. Will being a little nicer to our property increase said property’s chances of escaping property status in the long run? Maybe. But with happy meat sales skyrocketing, would-be vegetarians opting to be conscientious omnivores, and slaughterhouses massacring record numbers, the outlook is grim.

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Aftershocked Activists


“How can we live and act in this world? How can we think the unthinkable without going insane? How can we speak of the unspeakable without lapsing into babble? The planet is in peril. Suffering surrounds us. How can we feel our feelings about that without being overwhelmed or immobilized by them? We need the motivating energy of those feelings. We need not to waste energy shutting them down. We need to find a way to manage and channel them. We need to make peace. We need to do this here and now, as damaged animals in a damaged world.” ~Pattrice Jones, Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World, a Guide for Activists and their Allies

 

Any animal activist knows exactly what Pattrice Jones is getting at when she writes that “sometimes the truth is sickening,” that “sometimes facing the truth feels like a punch in the stomach, leaving you temporarily breathless and immobilized” (Jones, 193). We acknowledge daily a truth that is physically painful to contemplate. It is the reason that we act. Once we accept the extent of pain and suffering endured by animals with every passing second, we run headfirst into a new and frightening dilemma: the need to cope. It is a need that continually re-arises as we struggle to save lives and create change. It is a need that we often push below the surface, opting instead to focus our energy on a cause. It a need, a consequence, an inevitability that Jones explores in detail in her incredible book, Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World, a Guide for Activists and their Allies.

I finished reading Jones’ book while traveling to the Animal Rights 2007 Conference in LA. Strapped into an uncomfortable plane seat, engrossed in the reading, I could not stop thinking of all the people that I wanted to share it with. I thought of animal rescuers I know who are dealing with post-traumatic stress, of fledgling vegans battling depression, of activists who give up when confronted with burnout. Activism invites a certain vulnerability. It often includes risks and acts of selflessness. Yet sacrificing our health and sanity to the cause is not only unnecessary, it is counterproductive.

Taking care of other activists is and should be a part of activism. “Every social change movement,” writes Jones, ‘must embrace an ethos of empathy for all – including ourselves” (Jones, 147). As an activist, our bodies are our tools. Speaking at the conference, Jones instructed us to invest in brain function. To get enough sleep and stay hydrated.

Jones describes a movement as an ecosystem. As a system of social relationships that draws strength from biodiversity. Disregarding these relationships between individuals will always be detrimental to the cause. Unhealthy relationships, she warned, will decimate the effectiveness of any organization regardless of its financial situation. A movement is only as healthy as the joined efforts of the people who comprise it.

This metaphorical ecosystem is not exclusive to the animal liberation scene, but rather is interwoven and overlapping with other social change movements. At the conference, many speakers, including Jones, addressed the urgency of allying the animal rights movement with environmentalism. Yet Jones was one of the few to bring human exploitation into the discussion.

Jones does not differentiate sexism from speciesism. While these “problems” are typically understood “as separate albeit overlapping,” Jones insists that “they are just different aspects of our nameless violation” (Jones, 173). “They are,” she continues, “justified and perpetuated by the same ideologies and practices” (Jones, 173). “Our ideas about daughters and dairy cows evolved when both were the property of husbands” and therefore “the characteristics we ascribe to female humans and domesticated animals refer to and reinforce one another” (Jones, 175).

The sexualized violence that humans perpetrate against other humans has inescapable parallels to the sexualized violence perpetrated against nonhuman animals. As Jones points out, “sexualized violence [is] hidden in plain view within such normal acts as eating meat and advertising goods with women’s bodies” (Jones, 171).

Less public yet more flagrant is the control over the reproduction of farmed animals. A dairy cow, for instance, is forcibly impregnated. Mere hours after birth her calf is stolen away (if a male he will be locked into a veal crate) so that her milk can be used for human consumption. All of this violence so that humans can drink cow’s milk, a product that is not only unnecessary but is in fact linked to many human diseases. “No one wins,” Jones reminded me, except the corporate power that profits from the exploitation of these animals. She offered me a single sentence to encapsulate the connection: “Eating meat is exploiting the body of another being without their consent.”

Unfortunately, some animal welfare organizations continue to demean female bodies as a means of promoting an animal-friendly agenda. Some people within the movement exhibit sexism in their speech and actions. And, much to my own bewilderment, most feminists are not even vegetarian.

As Jones told us, if division is the problem, then connection is the answer. “Since the 1970s,” writes Jones, “we have come to see how forms of discrimination,” specifically “race, sex, class, sexual orientation, and ability”, “compound and support one another” (Jones, 199). What needs to happen now is the integration of “animals into the analyses of social justice activists and the concerns of social justice activists into the agenda of the animal liberation movement” (Jones, 199). As Jones concludes: “People talk a lot about building bridges between movements. I say there’s no time for that: We have to be the bridges right now” (Jones, 200).

And while coalitions are being forged and alliances formed, activists need to take time to take care of themselves. We shouldn’t forget that our own bodies are as worthy of respect and care as the bodies of the animals we are fighting to save. Animal liberation is, after all, a movement born out of compassion. It is about time that we allow our compassion to extend to its full potential.

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Vegetarianism’s Unknown History

Tristam Stuart’s The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times is an intriguing read. From doctors to missionaries, religious zealots to political revolutionaries, it is packed with details of Europe’s vegetarian legacy. Though at times the abundance of information is overwhelming, Stuart’s work offers fascinating insight into an unknown history.

Rather than approach history with chronological bullet points, Stuart chose to devote chapters to individuals or small groups of correlated people. For example, Stuart gives the most influential vegetarian doctors and religious leaders chapters of their own. This allows the author to divulge the idiosyncrasies and back stories of every relevant figure. It is these details, many comical or scandalous, that keep his summaries of their lives far from dry or boring.

One of my favorites was John Oswald. He was a British vegetarian so sensitive to animal suffering that he could not tolerate walking past a butcher’s shop. Yet he was also “intimately involved in the process that transformed the French Revolution from a mainly peaceful process into a bloodbath” through his notorious advocating of violent revolution (Stuart, 309). Oswald was a proponent of democracy and staunchly anti-monarchy. “Rousseau had elevated ‘sympathy’ into the philosophical basis for both human and animals rights,” explained Stuart, “Oswald took this to its radical extreme, transforming sympathy into a mandate for democratic revolution and vegetarianism” (Stuart, 298). In addition, “Oswald recognized that the meat industry was a principle cause of economic oppression” (Stuart, 301). Because “predation was symbolic of social inequality,” from Oswald’s stance “vegetarianism was also an act of solidarity” (Stuart, 301). He connected social and animal oppressions and used this knowledge to fuel revolutionary fervor. Oswald died in an overly ambitious attempt to overthrow the British monarchy and bring French revolution home.

Oswald is unique in his role in one of European history’s major events. Most of the historical figures revealed in Stuart’s book played much subtler roles in history. He is also unusual in that he was an atheist and deliberately estranged from the norms of his day. By far the majority of European vegetarians were deeply religious and able to reconcile vegetarianism with the culture of mainstream society.

By the 1600s, when Stuart begins his history, vegetarianism was something that most Europeans had heard of. The concept of choosing to abstain from eating meat had already been introduced to Europe by India. Stuart explains that after Europeans had ignorantly “accustomed themselves to thinking of Europe as the pinnacle of humanity, travelers were shocked to find in India a thriving religion which had been sustained in a pristine form since well before – and virtually oblivious to – the invention of Christianity” (Stuart, 34). Indeed, this ‘discovery’ of “a people following an unbroken tradition of vegetarianism and exercising an extreme moral responsibility towards animals radically challenged European ideas about the relationship between man and nature” (Stuart, 34). While most of Europe was too ethnocentric to fully endorse this foreign culture, they eagerly adopted attitudes and practices from India and Indian religions.

After observing another culture that valued animals, individuals in Europe began searching within biblical ideology and Europe’s own ancient roots of Pythagorean thought to justify kindness, pity, and compassion toward animals. It was soon a widespread belief that vegetarianism was the state of man before the Fall (i.e. in the garden of Eden). Rather than give the Indians any credit, Europeans insisted that Pythagoras, himself a vegetarian, must have taught vegetarianism to the Brahmins (Indian philosophers). In reality it was Pythagoras who, in his travels, developed his philosophy through interacting with other cultures. “Europeans projected onto the Indians the simplified Pythagorean idea that they abstained from killing animals for fear of hurting a reincarnated soul” which, as Stuart points out, “implied that the Hindus were not valuing the life of the animal itself” (Stuart, 53). People intent on finding Western roots of vegetarianism even pushed the search to far earlier than Pythagoras’ era. Isaac Newton in particular devoted much effort to discovering the one true religion and “clearly regarded Eastern and Pythagorean vegetarianism as a remnant of God’s original law” (Stuart, 111). As Stuart illuminates, “the belief that the prelapsarian diet was healthy and virtuous appears to have become almost an established norm by the end of the seventeenth century (Stuart, 81).

People throughout Europe realized, by the Indian example, that not only was it possible to survive on a vegetarian diet, but that it might even be healthier. The promotion of vegetarianism by the medical community logically followed. Countless doctors touted a vegetarian diet as physically, morally, and spiritually superior. While some of the doctors investigated by Stuart used this approach as a means to fame and fortune, for many it was simply an obvious way to improve health. The argument for the healthiness of vegetarianism only increased with time and the growing empirical evidence. By “the late eighteenth century, which Stuart deems “the heyday of medical vegetarianism,” “it flourished in the most prestigious medical faculties of Europe” (Stuart, 236).

Even the infamous disbeliever of animal sentience, Rene Descartes, jumped aboard the healthy vegetarian bandwagon. As Stuart wrote, much to my astonishment, Descartes himself was a practicing vegetarian! While “members of the public were appalled to hear that Cartesians kicked and stabbed animals to make the point that their cries had no more significance than the squeak of a door,” Descartes’ choice to decline meat for health reasons was far less controversial (Stuart, 134). “Descartes conducted dietary experiments upon himself” and came to the conclusion “that meat was unsuited to the mechanism of the human body” (Stuart, 135). Stuart half-sarcastically suggests that “it would be most surprising if Descartes’ medical decision to abstain from meat also made him feel better because it avoided the irrepressible sensation of sympathy for animal suffering” (Stuart, 137).

While most of these Europeans were vegetarians for strictly health and sympathy reasons, there were a few who, in their ethical embracement of vegetarianism, were predecessors of environmentalism and animal rights. Thomas Tryon, for instance, “in complete contrast to the norms of his society … came firmly down on the side of attributing to animals a right to their lives regardless of human interests” (Stuart, 71). He also “anticipated the shift from anthropocentrism to the biocentrism of modern ecological thought” (Stuart, 73). “While orthodox Christians tended to insist that all creatures had been made solely for man’s use,” Tryon developed “a system that resembles, and would later be developed into, environmentalism” (Stuart, 73). Similarly, John Evelyn, a prominent British vegetarian, was “a forbear of modern environmentalism” who “lobbied Parliament to introduce laws to curb air pollution” (Stuart, 86). And John Williamson “appears to have been one of the first (if not the first) to work out a thorough critique of meat-eating on the basis of its resource inefficiency” (Stuart, 250).

Though the relative prevalence of vegetarianism in Europe from the 1600s through the 1800s was a pleasant surprise, I am torn between feeling encouraged or let down. While I knew that certain great thinkers of history, such as Pythagoras and Leonardo da Vinci were vegetarians, I had not realized the extent of European vegetarianism. Yet one question continues to nag me: With such a head start, why hasn’t more progress been made on behalf of animals?

Then again, this was vegetarianism, not veganism, and it was adopted primarily for reasons of health or compassion. In more ways than one the animal rights movement is a different movement, fighting newer atrocities (e.g. factory farming) and promoting a different philosophy (ethical veganism). Trying to qualify the progress of contemporary animal liberationists versus fringe groups preaching biblical vegetarianism in the 1600s is pointless. Stuart doesn’t even go there.

So is this history relevant for current activists? I think so. And I think that Stuart does as well. He writes: “European vegetarians challenged humanity’s reckless exploitation of the animal kingdom. We owe to them – and especially the Indian philosophies that backed them up – some of the environmental sensibilities we enjoy today” (Stuart, 444).

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Regan’s Defense of Mammals

Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights is actually a case for mammalian animal rights. He qualifies the animals hat he is defending by repeatedly specifying that they are normal, mammalian, and over one year of age. Regan’s eventual argument for the rights of nonhuman animals is, therefore, disappointing in its exclusion of countless species.

It is only after providing a detailed description of why other animal rights theories are inadequate that Regan posits his own: the subject-of-a-life approach, or the Rights View. By his own definition: “Individuals are subjects-of-a-life if they have beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future, including their own future; an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and pain preference- and welfare-interests; and an individual welfare in the sense that their experiential life fares well or ill for them, logically independently of their utility for others and logically independently of their being the object of anyone else’s interests … [they also] have a distinctive kind of value- inherent value- and are not to be viewed or treated as mere receptacles” (Regan, 243). He makes clear that not all humans or nonhumans animal qualify. “Normal mammalian animals, aged one or more, as well as human like these animals in the relevant respects,” writes Regan, “can intelligibly and nonarbitrarily be viewed as having inherent value” (Regan, 247). As for non-mammalian animals and every being under age one, Regan is unwilling to take a solid stance. He writes that, “it remains possible that animals that are conscious but not capable of acting intentionally, or say, permanently comatose human beings might nonetheless be viewed as having inherent value” (Regan, 246). He will not state that they do have inherent value, only that it is possible. And what about those human and nonhuman animals who, while not meeting all of Regan’s subject-of-a-life criteria, are alive, aware, and a far cry from comatose? He writes that “it may be that animals, for example – which, though conscious and sentient (i.e., capable of experiencing pleasure and pain), lack the ability to remember, to act purposively, or to have desires or form beliefs – can only properly be viewed as receptacles of what has intrinsic value, lacking any value in their own right” (Regan, 246). “Mere receptacles,” in this context, is defined as treating said receptacles “as if their value depended upon their utility relative to the interests of others” (Regan, 248-49).

This is where Gary Francione takes issue with Regan’s theory. He also finds the idea that only some animals deserve to be subjects-of-a-life to be reprehensible. Francione points out that “although it is easier to identify the constellation of qualities that Regan describes as present in normally developed mammals of a particular age, there is no doubt that chickens and other birds are intelligent, sentient beings with an experiential life. And although most of us do not even think of fish as conscious of pain, researchers have concluded that fish ‘have subjective experiences and so are liable to suffer’” (Francione, xxxiii).

I cannot personally attest to the value of fish, insects, and other non-mammalian animals beyond the recognition of their sentience. But I have had the pleasure of interacting with many chickens.

I often think of the chickens at the sanctuary where I spent two years. They are a motley flock of breeds, sizes, intelligence, and personality. There was Effie, the independent adventuress who enjoyed hopping onto the shoulder of unexpecting visitors. Bert, the loner rooster with the bum leg that I had rescued personally from neglectful owners. Phyliss, the blind hen that chose to live with the goats. Sylvia, the brave bantam who could usually be found exploring the pig yard. Rock, the mischievous fledgling who broke every rule. Splish, the best friend of a chubby duck named Splash. Old Man Rooster, who would run up to greet me at the gate to the Chicken Barn. Each was a unique individual with his or her own personality and preferences.

Nevertheless, according to Regan, none of these chickens deserves basic rights. They do not qualify under his selective definition as a subject-of-a-life. Therefore, they may not have inherent value. They may only exist in their utility to those of us who do have inherent value. If that were indeed true, than the torture and massacre of billions of chickens annually to please American taste buds would be justifiable.

I was further disappointed to read Regan’s analysis of the “lifeboat situation” from the perspective of his Rights View. In his pretend shipwreck, there are “four normal adults and a dog,” yet the lifeboat can only hold four. “Which one ought to be cast overboard?”  Regan responds, “the rights view’s answer is: the dog” (Regan, 351). Regan argues that even if the number of dogs was greater than one (“suppose they number a million”), it is still justified to save the humans. Regan claims that this “is not speciesist.” He writes that the choice is “based on assessing the loses each individual faces and assessing these losses equitably” (Regan, 324). It appears that Regan is contradicting himself. The fact that he believes the ‘equal’ inherent value of humans to be superior to that of dogs is a speciesist belief.

I realize that this hypothetical has no easy solution. Much as Francione described in his burning house analogy, in the unlikely event that this situation did occur outside of our imaginations, human nature would almost definitely result in the death of the canine.

But consider the implications of applying this logic to other ‘burning house’-type situations. Regan is providing justification for humans to rank their inherent value over that of other animals whenever they feel that their life might be endangered. Indeed, he is justifying giving superior value to the lives of a small number of humans to a comparatively huge number of nonhuman animals. Again, how is this not utilitarian and, more importantly, how is this not speciesist?

Despite these major shortcomings in his Rights View, Regan’s book does make significant contributions to animal rights philosophy. He painstakingly debunks the philosophical treatment of animals in the work of numerous philosophers (including particular attention to Descartes and Singer). Most importantly, he argues for the rights of (some) animals, something that was absent from previous animal defense arguments.

Still, I find the suggestion that some animals do not have inherent value to be exceedingly offensive. In my opinion, sentience should be the only requisite for the right to live as an individual and not as objects, commodities, or in servitude to the interests of another. While Regan’s work was a groundbreaking beginning for animal rights philosophy, its trivialization of the suffering of billions of non-mammalian animals makes it insufficient for the animal rightists of today.

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Earthlings

In lieu of celebrating the fourth of July, I watched the documentary Earthlings.

The film is a procession of painful-to-watch footage. It takes you inside factory farms, puppy mills, and laboratories. It shows you death by lethal injection, gas chamber, throat slitting, strangulation, electrocution, and blood loss. It reveals the suffering, terror, agony, grief, and desperation of countless animals.

The images are too ghastly and atrocious to translate into words. There is no way to describe the eyes of a cow whose throat is being sawed into with a dull blade. Or the face of a dolphin who, hooked and chained to the back of a car, is being dragged bloodily down the street. Or the gait of a pig dragging a watermelon-sized abscess. Or the scars on the forehead of a circus elephant who has been whipped into submission. Or the expression of an injured dog who has been tossed into the container of a garbage truck.

It was evident that much of the material had been obtained undercover. At times the flaps of jackets entered the sides of the screens, presumably the result of a concealed camera. I’m sure that the act of filming required many levels of compassion and courage. To take the risk of not being caught, to witness these atrocities, to withhold one’s own desire to cry out and physically intervene – this is not the sort of work that just anyone can undertake.

I watched with two other people. We winced and gasped in unison. We heard one another’s oh my gods. We shared the comforting snuggle of an oblivious cat.

Yet the three of us were already vegan. Already well aware of global animal cruelty and the need to take a stand against it. As such, I’m unsure why we felt the urge to watch it. Certainly it didn’t give us any warm or fuzzy feelings. It yanked us in and dropped us off loaded with outrage, grief, despair, and an indescribable sadness.

There was nothing in this film that took me by surprise. Even the few cruel practices that I was unfamiliar with (rubbing red pepper flakes into the eyes of Indian cattle to force them to keep walking, for instance) did not require any suspension of disbelief. I didn’t question the validity of any of it. The most heartbreaking change that I underwent in becoming vegan was accepting that humans are committing unthinkably cruel acts every second of every day. This documentary impels the viewer to draw the same conclusion.

What does it say about me (about anyone) that mere moments after the film has ended I can go on with my life? Did my mind truly digest all of those horrific images? Or did I push them aside to linger in the periphery of my perspective? Maybe. But there is no way that I will ever forget the sight of a pig undergoing a slow slaughter or a wolf skinned alive. These images are too gut-wrenching to dissipate in my memory’s montage of images viewed secondhand.

It is both a blessing and misfortune of film that we are able to shut it off. The movie ends or we lose interest, and then we move on.

Earthlings will not let you do that. It will penetrate the years of desensitization. If you care at all about animals, it will not leave you untouched. Hopefully it will inspire you to do more, to increase your efforts. If nothing else, it will refuel your passion and remind you why your choices are so crucial. It reminded me why I went vegan in the first place. And it reinforced why I intend to stay vegan forever.


(Note: You can watch this film for free on http://www.youtube.com. The documentary’s official website is: http://www.isawearthlings.com/)

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Disavowing Peter Singer


“It’s a waste of time us to start yelling at each other, ‘I’m an animal rights person, and you’re a utilitarian.’ The important thing that we have in common is that we’re not speciesists, our interests overlap. And given where we are, that’s really more important than we insist that one take a particular systematic position.” ~Peter Singer, interviewed in Herbivore, July 07 online issue

It has become increasingly common for animal activists to renounce Peter Singer as grandfather of the movement. That his utilitarian philosophy is not always in sync with the convictions of many activists is more apparent than ever. Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights and Gary Francione’s Introduction to Animal Rights both argue that Singer’s philosophy should be rejected when it comes to animal rights. As I have not read Singer’s Animal Liberation in its entirety I was hesitant to write about Regan and Francione’s debunking of utilitarianism. However, by some lucky coincidence, Herbivore magazine’s July online issue featured a highly relevant interview with none other than Singer himself. This pertinent interview, while thought provoking, reaffirmed my opinions about Singer and provided additional material in support of Francione’s abolitionist position.

Utilitarianism, which Peter Singer espouses, is a philosophical approach to comprehending morality. It determines “what is morally right or wrong in a particular situation” by “the consequences of our actions,” favoring whatever “brings about the best results for the largest number of those affected” (Francione, 131). In the context of animal rights, interviewer Yxta Maya Murray succinctly explained that utilitarianism does not “require us to say that killing animals is always wrong, or that animals shouldn’t be killed because they have a right to live. It’s wrong to kill them because killing and eating animals doesn’t contribute to maximum welfare.” In other words, it is not about ‘rights’ at all. The rights of animals are irrelevant.

Indeed, Singer does not even believe that animals have inherent rights. He specifically said that he does not believe that “it’s always wrong to kill animals based on an idea of inherent or intrinsic rights.” While he is “prepared to talk about animal rights as a rhetorical tool as part of a political campaign,” and believes there is a need for “a system of laws that gives rights to animals,” he does not think that system should be “based on inherent rights.” This is in significant contrast to Regan and Francione who both argue for the rights of animals and the recognition of their inherent value.

Francione devotes much of his book to outlining and rebuking Singer’s philosophical flaws. Francione describes Singer as a modern version of Jeremy Bentham. The latter was utilitarian philosopher of the 19th century who introduced the humane treatment principle, laying the groundwork for the creation of animal welfare laws. Interestingly, Bentham also decided that eating animals was acceptable. What Francione finds most unforgivable in both of these philosophers’ approaches to animal rights is that neither confronts the property status of animals. Instead of questioning the status or usage of animals, utilitarianism questions their quality of life. In fact, Singer (like Bentham) argues that while animals have interests in the quality of their lives, they do not in whether they live or die. Francione resolutely refutes this notion. “To be a sentient being means to have an experiential welfare,” writes Francione, “In this sense, all sentient beings have an interest in the quality of their lives but also in the quantity of their lives” (Francione, 137). Utilitarianism allows room to interpret quality life in terms of ‘humane’ usage of animals for human benefit, which Francione considers unjustifiable in all circumstances.

While Francione’s critique of Singer is bold and, at times, incensed, Regan’s detailed deconstruction of Singer’s utilitarianism is almost apologetic. Could it be because Regan’s 1983 publication of his book was so soon after Singer’s successful Animal Liberation of 1975? Perhaps that would explain why Regan ends his analysis with such a weak conclusion: “If the criticisms raised against Singer are fair and on target, neither those who seek a solid foundation for the obligation to be vegetarian nor those who seek a sound theory will find it in his preference utilitarianism” (Regan, 231). What an anticlimactic finale to a twenty-five page critique. Why the ‘if and implication that, quite possibly, his arguments are lacking in fairness or aren’t on target? Does Regan doubt himself, or doubt that his reader will be willing to doubt Singer?

Disregarding Regan’s wishy-washy conclusion, his scrutiny of Singer’s preference utilitarianism is not shy about exposing the “insuperable objections” of “hedonistic utilitarianism” (Regan, 202). His chief objection is that utilitarianism does not support individual rights and builds only a shaky case for vegetarianism. Furthermore, utilitarianism’s emphasis on the consequential benefit of actions for the majority allows for exploitation of the minority. As he politely asserts, “The modest point being urged here is that, for all its emphasis on equality, utilitarianism would sanction recognizable forms of sexism and racism, if the facts happened to turn out a certain way” (Regan, 227-8).

It seems likely that Singer would not disagree. When asked about feminist veganism, Singer informed the interviewer that, “It’s always been my argument that racism, sexism, and speciesism is all part of the same attitude of one group dominating or making use of an allegedly inferior group.” Yet how utilitarianism combats these oppressions is less clear. If the oppressor is in the majority, and benefits from the oppression, does that benefit outweigh the suffering of oppressed minority? Sometimes it does. As Singer demonstrated on a BBC documentary, he believes that some animal experimentation “could be defensible” if the benefit greatly outweighed the plight of those vivisected.

Singer proposes that activists “shouldn’t get too involved in philosophical differences.” Yet these differences cannot be avoided when it comes time to take action. While some work tirelessly on animal welfare campaigns, others argue that these very campaigns are not only a waste of effort, but are detrimental to the cause. Activists are taking sides. This is one of the stickier situations within the movement that I will discuss further in future posts.

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Francione on Linking Oppressions

Francione briefly touches on several topics (admittedly beyond the scope of this book) that I wish were given additional attention. While the content implied within each of these quotes could merit a book in its own right, I feel it is important to briefly address these issues as they will be recurring themes in my writing.

In our capitalist culture, many societal problems are addressed through the implementation of only those solutions that are already institutionalized. For example, it has become popular to respond to the current environmental crisis by choosing to purchase ‘green,’ thus perpetuating the consumer culture that has nearly devoured the planet’s resources already, rather than revising the consumerist lifestyle. Likewise, the response of most Americans to disillusionment with a presidential administration is to put their faith in the next election rather than question a corrupted government system.

Francione highlights one example of how this status quo approach, in the context of public health, has serious repercussions for animals: “In many ways, the choice to use animal experiments to solve a problem is as much a political as a scientific decision. Animal experiments are considered an acceptable way of solving the AIDS problem; needle exchanges, condom distribution, and education about safe sex are much more controversial” (Francione, 37). It follows that the choice is to pour money into the development of pharmaceutical treatments rather than focus on prevention not only increases the suffering of the millions of individuals without access to adequate health care, but also perpetuates the vivisection industry. While many people recognize that the modern medical establishment is focused on treating the symptoms rather than tackling the roots of disease (and thereby ensuring that the medical and pharmaceutical industries continue to rake in profits), we often overlook the extent to which nonhuman animals feel the effects.

Animals are affected by all of the norms, laws, and institutions of our society. One of Francione’s examples of how restrictions on animal exploitation ties in to social class struck me as especially relevant: “The difference between hunting and fighting animals is not a difference in animal mistreatment. Rather, the difference is between amusements historically associated with the lower socioeconomic classes (bear baiting and animal fighting) and those associated with middle upper classes (hunting and hare coursing)” (Francione, 164). This explains why bear baiting and animal fighting were relatively easy to outlaw (although fighting is still legal in parts of the U.S.!), but hunting and hare coursing were not. The state and federal level anti-cruelty laws that Francione is so critical of have had many successes targeting individual citizens who wantonly abuse or neglect animals, but are mostly unable to touch the for-profit animal exploitation industrieswith their purchased political sway. If brought to court, big business (e.g. animal industries with lobbying power) are able to get away with more extensive and barbaric acts of animal cruelty than is the average dog abuser. Money becomes a near abuse-animals-for-free ticket, assuming that the monetary leverage is substantial enough.

Francione recognizes that animal problems cannot be addressed outside the context of human problems. He writes, “It is likely that we could accept that animals have moral value and abolish institutionalized exploitation only in a context in which we generally rejected the moral legitimacy of much of the violence that is routinely inflicted on humans by other humans. Similarly, it is likely that we could reject speciesism only in a context in which we generally rejected the moral legitimacy of the racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes and behavior that still affect our culture and deny other humans full membership in the moral community” (Francione, 166). In other words, acknowledging that animals are not pieces of property is not enough. This point, which appears on the last page of his book, is what truly separates Francione from many animal rights theorists. It is why I find his arguments so compelling. He is popping the AR bubble to remind us that animal rights is not an issue in and of itself. To genuinely be opposed to animal exploitation is to be opposed to all forms of oppression.

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Francione on Animal Rights

“How intelligent does a parrot have to be before we conclude that the parrot possesses general concepts or ideas? Does the parrot have to have the conceptual ability of an eight-year-old? A twenty-one-year-old? …We do not consider it sufficient that an animal possess a characteristic that we have for centuries denied them – they must possess some undetermined quantity of that quality, and this allows us to up the stakes every time we encounter proof that animals possess such a characteristic … In this game of special characteristics, animals can never win.” ~Gary Francione, from Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog

I should confess that I am no stranger to Gary Francione’s abolitionist argument. I have listened to enough Vegan Freak Radio and Animal Voices to be quite familiar with his ideas. Reading his Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? was strangely like re-reading a book I had never read. Disregarding its familiarity, the book offers a refreshing perspective on animal rights. Lucid and accessible, his writing communicates each of his points as though he were simply articulating commonsense. Then again, from my stance, that is exactly what he is doing. For the contemporary animal activist who is frustrated by the movement’s sluggish progress, Francione proffers a logical launching pad.

The foundation of Francione’s theory is that animal exploitation is rooted in the fact that all nonhuman animals have property status. We use animals as a means to our own ends because, as property, animals have no interests. Whenever it is a choice between the interests of the property owning human and the animal, the human interest will always trump that of the nonhuman. His ultimate assertion is that it will not be possible to abolish animal exploitation until the property status of animals is addressed.

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My Blog: The Why, Who, and What

“It reminded me of what women encountered in the academy about twenty years ago, thirty years ago, as they began to talk about feminism and women’s studies. As you may know there’s this new, burgeoning field called animal studies. It’s just getting started. But once you take that leap, and you began to look at the world from the point of view of all the others that we dominate, it just opens up a whole new vista. It’s a vista that’s quite out of line, or out of step, with what’s considered, in a way, tolerable, by mainstream academia.”

~John Sanbonmatsu, interviewed on Animal Voices, May 15th, 2007

 

It struck me during a one am traffic jam last September. Hardly a eureka moment, it was a nearly unbearable forty minutes of despair. I rolled down my window and stared, vision blurred by tears, at the blatant cruelty taking place only a few feet away. The motor of the braked poultry truck buzzed on, oblivious. Meanwhile the hens, crammed into stacks of metal battery cages, their emaciated bodies exposed to the exhaust-laced cold, chirped in motionless despondence. They were egg-layers, post their profitable production peak, en route to slaughter. I, an animal rescuer by profession, was utterly helpless.
I emerged from that traffic nightmare with a transformed perspective on my objectives as an activist. It was a painful reminder as to why I was vegan, why I had spent the last two years of my life working fulltime for an animal sanctuary, and why I couldn’t shake the feeling that I ought to be doing so much more.

After some serious deliberation, I decided to return to school and pursue animal studies. The idea is that by gaining a deeper comprehension of the issues and the possibilities, I will be able to work more effectively for the cause in the future.

I’m lucky to be at college that encourages independent study and has many open-minded faculty members. Nonetheless, the only way I was able to study animal rights was by doing it independently. It is difficult to find an academic setting to discuss animal rights literature and ideas. Outside of animal science and animal law, there is little formal recognition of animal studies in most upper education institutions. Few professors take it seriously. On the rare occasions when animal rights is broached in a classroom setting, vegans typically find themselves defending their lifestyle and beliefs rather than engaging in meaningful discussion.

This is when the blog enters the scene. It is a critical part of my independent learning contract. The purpose of this blog is to share my thoughts about what I am reading and learning. My hope is that other people who are serious about animal rights and social justice will want to share their thoughts and reactions as well. I would love to receive comments, suggestions, ideas – really any sort of feedback at all.

For my ‘vegan book club’ I will be doing a lot of reading. For the next two quarters I have designed my own curriculum to study animal rights, the current movement, the repression of activists, and how animal issues tie into other social justice issues. I am especially interested in the interrelatedness of oppressions (racism, sexism, and speciesism, to name a few) and how these oppressions originate, are justified, and are allowed to continue. Throughout the summer the books and essays that I post about will be focused on animal rights philosophy, history, and the movement itself. I am attending the national Animal Rights Conference in LA this month, so I plan to write on my experiences there as well. In the fall I am shifting my focus to animal rights in the context of social justice and human rights (If anyone has any suggestions for my reading list, I would appreciate the input).

Thanks for reading!

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