Archive for April, 2008

NortonIn my infinite quest to be The World’s Strangest Person Ever, I have stumbled upon (ok, a friend sent me) an animal rescue website that has webcams on some of the animals who live there! The place is called Longmeadow Rescue Ranch.

Longmeadow Rescue Ranch is haven for hundreds of abused and neglected horses, cows, goats, pigs, ducks and other farm animals. The ranch is one of the most comprehensive horse and farm animal care and rehabilitation centers in the country.

In my infinite boredom at work, I have been spending some time checking up on the resident pig, Snortin’ Norton. He is awesome. I mean, 99% of the time he’s sleeping, but sometimes he wakes up and yawns, or he decides he’s not the most comfortable he could possibly be and he rearranges his hay and then goes right back to sleep. Basically: adorable.

Anyway, it is nice to see a former factory farm pig now enjoying the good life in a clean stall with lots of people to look after him! Check it out if you need a pick-me-up and/or you’re just weird like me.

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Lately I’ve been thinking about how differently I viewed the world only 2 years ago. I have always, always loved my dog and my cat and other people’s pets and therefore considered myself an animal lover, but at the same time, I never really thought much about farmed animals. I ate them and I wore them, but I never really thought about the real-life animal that the food on my plate and leather on my shoes once was.

My boyfriend a while back was not much of an animal person at all, but when he saw how much I loved my pets, he said to me, “I am surprised that you eat animals with how much you love them.” That got the ball rolling. He had a point. Still, I continued to eat them, putting cats and dogs into a different category than sheep, pigs, cows, and chickens.

I honestly don’t really know what else it was that prompted me to really, really think about farmed animals. I know I had some down time at work and would sometimes peruse various websites about animal welfare issues, and I suppose that kept nagging at me, but I can’t point to one specific event that made me flip the switch to become an animal rights person.

Yesterday, I spent much of the afternoon reading Tom Regan’s book Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights. It is one of the most influential books of the animal rights movement, and being only a third of the way through, I can already see why. One chapter of the book is titled “How did you get that way?” and reading it kind of made everything come together for me; I now realize that I’m really not THAT weird –at least not when it comes to making the transition from omnivore to vegan, or from pet lover to animal rights activist.

According to Regan, there are 3 primary ways people come to the movement:

1. They are born with an animal consciousness, meaning they just kind of “get” animals from an early age. They can empathize with them, understand when they’re upset or happy, and they form bonds with animals that most other people can’t or just don’t. He calls these people Davincians.

2. Damascans, on the other hand, have a change in perception at some point in their lives, usually triggered by a noteworthy event–many times that event is witnessing a particularly brutal act toward a helpless animal. “One minute [Damascans] accept the cultural paradigm; the next minute they do not” (Regan, 2004, p 24).

3. Lastly, and most commonly, there are the Muddlers. “…Most people who become [Animal Rights Activists] just muddle along in life, first learning one thing, then another; experiencing this, then that; asking some questions, finding some answers; making one decision, then a second, then a third” (Regan, 2004, p. 25).

This all made a lot of sense to me, and when I look at who I’ve become, I think I am a mixture of a Davincian and a Muddler. I think I’ve always had a powerfully compassionate side to me. When I was a kid, I loved animals so much. Not just that, but I assigned emotions and personalities to my dolls and could play with them for hours on end. To this day, I still sort of imagine that my plush toys have feelings – because, really, what 27 year old woman doesn’t still imagine that? Right? No? Oh…

At any rate, I fully admit that I lost my Davincian ways over the years, and came to the movement as a Muddler. I struggled a lot with making the changes I made in my diet and other consumption patterns – rejecting 27 years of such cultural norms isn’t easy, I know that. It was almost like I just got to a point (much like Regan says he did) where I had no choice anymore: There I was, an animal rights activist, in all my glory and confusion. Looking back over the whole process, I don’t think I’d change a thing. I mean, sure, I wish I had come to this place earlier in life, but at the same time, I think we all need to do it when it’s right for us. I sure am glad I did, because I know now that it’s the right decision – no second guesses, no doubt – and that’s a pretty good feeling.

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“Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight.”
~Albert Schweitzer

I think about this a lot. Maybe too much.

Sometimes, even though we all know there is immense suffering in the world, we ignore it. In some ways it’s a defense mechanism – how much suffering can we bear to know about in a world where we feel helpless about ending any of it? We’re all guilty at times of just being busy managing our own lives: going to work or school, paying bills, spending time with friends and family, or dealing with our own struggles. It’s not easy to open up your eyes and see all of the terrible things that happen around us.

I know this. I know it well.

I tend to think there are two types of people in the world: those who float through life, and those who really live life and really, really think about the world in which they live. Being a floater is easy–you concern yourself with your immediate circumstances and that’s about it. The latter, however, is really difficult. It means dealing not just with your immediate circumstances, but also with the circumstances across the world – poverty, hunger, child abuse, disease. Man, I got a little depressed just writing all those words. Kind of overwhelming, isn’t it?

Here’s the thing, though: Can you imagine, just for a minute, what our world would look like if everyone who was able chose to be a Thinker instead of a Floater? What if we all just picked a cause that we care about and put as much as we could in to making a difference for that cause? THAT would be overwhelming too, but in the best possible way. Think about how much we could accomplish.

For some reason, the animal rights movement is what called out to me. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about starving children in Africa, or racism, or AIDS . . . it just means that for me, this is what I needed to do. I spared myself the sight of the suffering of farmed animals for a long, long time. When I finally opened my eyes to it, it was heartbreaking. It took me a while to figure this out, but I finally realized that the only way I could not be heartbroken was to try to make a difference. I may have felt helpless, but I wasn’t actually helpless, and neither are you. I may never live to see the day when humans stop treating animals so cruelly, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to my grave without being able to say “At least I tried”.

So, I ask you to do this: Look around you. See the suffering, and then go do something about it.

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VeggiesI didn’t become a vegan overnight. I didn’t even become a vegetarian over night. Rather, it was something I thought about for a long time before I actually committed. After mulling it over for the better part of a year, I finally decided to stop eating meat all together in July of 2007. During my year of contemplation, I gradually started eliminating meat from my diet. First it was pork and beef, both of which were relatively easy for me to give up because I’d always known how unhealthy they were. I was still eating turkey and chicken, however, and wasn’t quite sure how I’d give those up–they were a pretty big part of my diet at that point. Still playing with the idea, though, I started trying to have vegetarian meals whenever I could. I really didn’t know much about a healthy vegetarian diet, so I knew I’d have to read up on it to make sure I did it right and didn’t end up gaining a bunch of weight or feeling tired or whatever (both of which can also happen on an omni-diet, obviously). As it turns out, I started to enjoy cooking – something that had never been a favorite pastime of mine. I loved the idea of making myself healthy, filling vegetarian meals, and enjoying my food so much. My taste buds seemed to change – I was liking foods I had never been particularly fond of, and it felt pretty cool.

I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone compared making a huge change in diet to getting married – you have this big day where you decide “Ok, this is it! I’m doing it!”, and then after that you just do it because you’ve committed. That made a lot of sense to me. When I was eliminating meat from my diet and learning about vegetarian cooking, I was kind of “dating” vegetarianism, until once day I decided “hey, we should get married”. Luckily, vegetarianism isn’t a person who can (and likely would) turn me down. We were partners!

It was the same thing with going vegan: I dated it for a while, and then just decided I was going to do it, and there would be no turning back. Now we’re in love…or at least I am. Let’s not worry about the details, okay?

Anyway, the point of this all is that I think baby steps are okay – in fact, they’re to be celebrated. A couple of my girlfriends (big shout out to Sarah & Becky) have both been taking their own baby steps. Sarah’s working on cutting at least some of the meat out of her diet and Becky’s a full-fledged veggie now. I am so proud of both of them, because I know what a struggle it can be, but I also know how worthwhile it is. I’ve never felt better in my life.  Sure, a lot of that is emotional because for me, eating animals just got to be kind of painful. I felt emotionally lousy every time I was doing it, to the point where it just wasn’t worth it anymore. I think that’s what psychologists might call my “conscience”, but let’s not get too fancy here. Basically, I just had this nagging feeling that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing – that was enough for me.

Whatever your reason for taking some of those baby steps (or in Becky’s case, pretty big leaps!) – health, the environment, animals – keep on steppin’! Knowing that you’re doing something good for yourself, the earth, and all those little piggies and cows and chickens will make you feel all warm & fuzzy inside.

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I am so excited about an upcoming animal advocacy event scheduled to take place here in the Twin Cities from June 6 – June 8. It’s called Their Lives, Our Voices:

Their Lives, Our Voices 2008 seeks to bring together individuals from across the region for a hands-on, high-quality conference focused on helping animals. Our goal is to make the conference as inclusive and accessible as possible for both new and veteran activists in the Midwest region, with a focus on farmed animal advocacy efforts.

There will be some amazing speakers, including Gene Baur from Farm Sanctuary, baby lambsCarol Adams, author of Beyond Animal Rights: A Feminist Caring Ethic for the Treatment of Animals, and Paul Shapiro from the Humane Society of the United States (just to name a few). I went to see Gene Baur speak once, and was able to visit with him afterwards and I have to say that he is truly inspiring. I left that evening feeling so much more positive about my ability to effect change for farmed animals. What amazes me about him is that despite all the horrible things he’s seen, he is still so optimistic and determined. For me it is all too easy to get depressed when I read about or watch a video on factory farming cruelty ….but somehow he manages to keep a positive attitude, and is such a great example for the rest of us. I can’t wait to hear the other speakers as well, all of whom I imagine will be just as energizing as Gene Baur.

If you live in the Midwest or feel like visiting, you should totally register for this conference. You can find all the details here. I am really looking forward to it!

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This morning on Minnesota Public Radio I heard a story about a local cockfighting operation that was busted in St. Paul. This amazes me. I mean, I know this kind of stuff goes on, I guess, but you don’t think it could be happening at your neighbor’s house or somewhere so close.

According to the Humane Society of the United States website:

Cockfighting is a centuries-old blood sport in which two or more specially bred birds, known as gamecocks, are placed in an enclosure to fight, for the primary purposes of gambling and entertainment. A cockfight usually results in the death of one of the birds; sometimes it ends in the death of both. A typical cockfight can last anywhere from several minutes to more than half an hour. The birds, even those who do not die, suffer in cockfights. The birds cannot escape from the fight, regardless of how exhausted or injured they become. Common injuries include punctured lungs, broken bones, and pierced eyes. Such severe injuries occur because the birds’ legs are usually fitted with razor-sharp steel blades or with gaffs, which resemble three-inch-long, curved ice picks. These artificial spurs are designed to puncture and mutilate.

What is the appeal of cockfighting? I honestly don’t get it. Who gets off on watching a couple of roosters peck each other to death? I suppose there is money involved, but it still kind of floors me that a bunch of grown men would sit around and watch this and actually enjoy it. What ever happened to good, old-fashioned video game obsessions??

Minnesota’s law allows for those participating in cockfighting or those in possession of birds used for cockfighting to be charged with a felony and sentenced to at least 1 year and 1 day in jail. Spectators are charged with a misdemeanor and charged up to $1,000 and/or 90 days in jail. In this case only 2 men were arrested for cockfighting, and spectators were issued misdemeanors.

A big shout out to the person who called 911 when s/he saw a bunch of people carrying chickens into a house!

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Many people confuse the terms “Animal Rights” and “Animal Welfare”.  Before I started reading about all of this, I think I just assumed that rights and welfare were the same thing, and I used the terms interchangeably.  The truth, however, is that that the two philosophies are strikingly different.

The animal rights philosophy argues that animals should not be used at all for human purposes, (whether for food, clothing, entertainment, or medical testing) because there is no morally justifiable reason why animals should have any less of a right to live free of pain and suffering than humans do.  Peter Singer explains it well in his book Animal Liberation.  His reasoning was that while we can’t know exactly how animals experience pain, it is safe to say that they do; if we agree on that, and it is generally accepted that humans have a right to be free from pain, then why should we treat animals any differently?  Some argue it is because animals don’t have human language or that their brains aren’t as complex as ours, but here we run into another problem:  Human infants don’t have language, and they don’t have reasoning abilities or a sense of morality, and yet we say that they deserve to be free from pain and suffering. Furthermore, there are many humans who have such severe disabilities that they will never have language or reasoning or morality, but we know that they can feel pain, and we would probably all agree that they deserve to be free from pain.  How, then, can we make a real morally relevant argument that animals – some who are as smart as 3 year old humans – should not also have this right?

Animal welfarists, on the other hand, believe that humans do have the right to use animals for purposes that benefit humans, but that we also have a responsibility to treat those animals with care.  The problem here is that differences of opinion will almost surely always exist regarding the definition of “with care”.  Does that mean making sure they are well fed?  That they have adequate housing? That they can practice normal behaviors for their species? That they are happy?  And how can we tell if an animal is happy?

I suppose the fact that I am vegan puts me in the Animal Rights category.  I don’t think humans need to eat animals for survival.  In fact, I think eating a plant based diet is in our best interest.  I also don’t think we need to wear animal derived products like leather and wool with all the great synthetics out there.  I think many animal-related medical tests are completely unnecessary, but I confess that I haven’t read quite enough about this yet to determine if I think any are justifiable (though if I say that some are, then I too am guilty of placing more value on a human’s life than an animal’s suffering and am probably not a very good vegan!)

I recognize that most people don’t share my views, and for that reason I am also a strong proponent of working toward better welfare standards for animals used for food, medical tests, etc.  I think asking someone to at least consider where their food comes from and how the animals were raised is a much easier sell than asking everyone to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet.  I suppose in this sense I am something of a welfarist too.  I just hate all of the commonly accepted procedures that are done on these farms – debeaking, tail docking, and neutering without anaesthesia to name a few.  These practices are so unnecessary, and result in a lot of pain for the animals who endure them.  I think it is worth our efforts to eliminate these painful practices.  Perhaps the first step in transitioning people to a veg*n diet is to first get them to realize that they have some responsibility to the animals they consume.  Unless they understand that, the chances they’ll ever change their eating habits are incredibly unlikely.

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Not long ago I went to a presentation called “From Farm to Fork: The Environmental Impacts of Animal Agriculture” held at the Bell Museum in Minneapolis. The featured speaker was Gowri Koneswaran, Director of Animal Agricultural Impacts at the Humane Society of the United States. It was a great presentation.

During the first half of her talk, she discussed the conditions on factory farms; namely, she detailed the cruel practices that cause unspeakable pain and suffering to the animals who live on these farms. She showed photographs of egg-laying chickens crammed 6 to a battery cage, with no room to spread their wings, nest, or practice any of their natural behaviors. battery cages

There were pictures of sows forced into gestational crates so small that they could not even turn around, calves in veal crates, and animals living in their own filth because they have no other option.

Gestation crate

These were all issues I have read about and been disturbed by before.

The second half of the presentation, however, was about the environmental impacts of animal agriculture. I was floored by some of the data. This site has a great map of the United States showing where factory farms are located (the Midwest is the worst!), and how much pollution has resulted because of them. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.” And while that alone is troubling, animal agriculture is also responsible for a huge percentage of the much more harmful greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide, most of which comes from animal manure. After sitting through this presentation, I thought to myself, “what am I waiting for? Why don’t I just commit to being vegan?” So I did. Everything I had heard and read about seemed to all point in that direction and I really couldn’t argue with it anymore.

If you want to read more about the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, I recommend checking out Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, which you can find here. It’s like 400 pages, so I haven’t read it all, but you can go through the table of contents and pick out chapters you are interested in and read those. That’s what I did, because, man, 400 pages??

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A little less than a year ago, I made the decision to become a vegetarian.  Bored at work, I had started reading articles online about the horrible animal cruelty that has become so prevalent on America’s factory farms.  Having grown up on a small farm in the Midwest, my idea of a cattle farm was vastly different from the ones I read about on animal welfare websites.  I couldn’t believe the types of abuses that were commonplace on these large, industrialized farms.  It broke my heart. 

For almost 27 years I ignored it.  I ignored the fact that the meat on my plate was once a living, breathing animal – a sentient being capable of love, joy, fear, curiosity, frustration and especially, pain.  The more I read, the more I knew I couldn’t ignore it anymore.  The choice to go vegetarian was something I contemplated for what seemed like a long time.  I knew that for me it was the right thing to do, given my views on animal treatment, but at the same time I had so many questions: 

Will one person going vegetarian actually make a difference anyway?

What will my (omnivore) family and friends think?

Where will I get my protein if I don’t eat meat?

How will this affect my life?

Can I even do it?

In short, despite my convictions, it wasn’t an easy decision, but one day I decided to commit to it.  I haven’t looked back.  In fact, I just continued to look forward.

Almost immediately after going vegetarian, I got involved with a local animal rights organization and started contemplating veganism.  I knew I didn’t want to contribute to animal suffering, and the more I learned about the abuses that are so common in the egg and dairy industries, the more I felt like becoming a vegan was the right thing for me to do.  However, the same questions presented themselves.  As a lifelong lover of cheese and milk chocolate, I wasn’t quite sure I could do it.  I mean, I really, REALLY loved cheese and chocolate.

I’m happy to report, however, that I finally did bite the bullet and commit to veganism, and I have to say I’m pretty proud of myself for it.  I finally feel like I’m living my values.  I’m doing something that’s good for my body, good for the environment, and most of all, good for animals.   One person does make a difference, and even if you proved to me that it didn’t, I’d still be vegan because living what I believe in makes me feel good.

So, that’s my story.  Stay posted for more info on factory farming, the animal rights movement (past and present), and veganism!

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