“Give a goat, save a life.” This is the slogan of an organization called Give-a-Goat. But unless you’re giving a goat to a farm animal sanctuary, you’re likely not saving anyone’s life.
With the holiday season comes the multitude of ads entreating us to extend our gift-giving to people around world who are less fortunate than we are — a noble request and one that many people will act on. But what is consistently advocated year after year is giving the “gift” of a farm animal to a family in need. Visit various charities’ websites and you will see beautiful photos of smiling children holding baby animals in their arms. The children are smiling, you will learn, because thanks to the gift of an animal, the family now has food and an income! You’ll be told how the goat or the cow or the sheep or the chickens selflessly provide the family with nutritious milk and eggs, and that the animals are a vital source of much-needed protein.
The intentions are great, but badly misguided. First of all, the health benefits of animal products are a myth. I won’t get into animal vs. plant-based nutrition here; ample information on the subject is widely available on the internet and elsewhere, including from Harvard, WHO and NIH. One can be optimally healthy on a plant-based diet. Further, an estimated 75% of the world’s population is lactose-intolerant, making milk consumption actually harmful, so no one’s doing anyone any favours there.
From an animal welfare standpoint, there are so many troubling questions in this scenario: What if there is a drought? What if the animal gets sick? How will the animal be cared for? How will the animal eventually be slaughtered? Animals given as gifts may well simply become another mouth to feed; if a family is having trouble feeding themselves, how will they feed this animal? Animals also use many times more in resources than they put out, so to speak. They use much more land and water than plant agriculture, which makes raising an animal for food an extremely inefficient use of already scarce resources. And what will the family do when that animal is no longer around?
Many organizations that are highly regarded by the general public cheerfully tout their “livestock”-gift options for people in third-world countries. World Vision offers cows, alpacas, baby chicks, goats, piglets, sheep and more. SOS Children’s Villages, Heifer International, Oxfam, Feed the Children (they even had a Cyber Monday special on goats: two-for-one)…all persist in the short-sighted and ill-conceived notion that it’s a good idea to give living beings to people who have next to nothing. Plan Canada International actually has some excellent options, including funding newborn checkups, gardens, school meals, medicine and mosquito netting — yet they still also offer farmed animals.
If you want to really make a difference in the lives of people in poorer countries, there are many ways you can provide concrete, long-term help. Here’s a partial list to consider:
- A Well-Fed World does incredible work to feed hungry people around the world. Learn more about it and how to support them here
- Help fund a water project in sub-Saharan Africa
- Support clean water initiatives through The One Foundation
- Help African children whose lives have been affected by AIDS by donating to the Stephen Lewis Foundation
- When women and girls are educated, everyone benefits. Support and empower women and girls through Willow Tree Roots or The Malala Fund
- Help people in Haiti. The issue of supporting international aid organizations in Haiti has been fraught with controversy, but you can find a list of Haitian-led initiatives here
- Literacy helps lift people out of poverty. Make a difference by funding literacy programs through The World Literacy Foundation. They work with people in 25 countries around the world.
Share your abundance with others without inadvertently contributing to animal suffering. And while you’re spreading your compassion around, please consider a donation to your favourite animal cause. Farm sanctuaries in particular could really use your help.
Wishing you a joyful season, whatever you’re celebrating.
I’ve seen a number of posts recently on Facebook from well-intentioned people questioning the ethics of “backyard eggs.” The rationale is that if the hens are treated well, what harm could there be in eating their eggs? It’s a reasonable question. But the answer may surprise you.
As they say at Edgar’s Mission, if we can live happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?
This has been a terrible day. It began with the news this morning that a tractor trailer carrying about 160 pigs overturned near Fearman’s slaughterhouse. After the initial feeling of horror, my first immediate thought was “I wonder if any of the pigs escaped?” And I hoped against hope. I knew that many activists I know would be on their way to the site — Toronto Pig Save holds vigils there several times a week. As challenging as the vigils are to attend, what the activists saw there today will likely haunt them forever. (As an aside, let me clarify that loaded word, activist: they are not “extreme”, they are not kooks. They are ordinary people who at some point saw what our society does to animals and found it so unconscionable that they couldn’t stand by in silence. That’s all. They’re just people who see an injustice and have to speak up, and they are deserving of respect, not the derision they too often receive.)
At least 40 pigs — piglets, really; they were only a few months old — died in or as a result of the accident. I confess I have not watched any of the videos that were shot this morning; the photos are bad enough, but the sound of animals in distress tears at my heart like nothing else can. The activists were there for hours. They saw dead pigs in the overturned truck, dead pigs on the road, live pigs who were bruised and cut, trying to run…pigs who were more seriously injured terrified and screaming in pain.
Steve Jenkins, co-founder of Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary, lives not far from where the accident happened and he was there too, as was Anita Krajnc, the woman who is currently on trial for giving water to dehydrated pigs on a hot summer day (she was arrested again today, for crossing police tape). When an animal arrives at a slaughterhouse injured, they cannot by law be “processed” and enter the food chain. People were pleading with Fearman’s (yes, that’s actually the name) employees to release at least some of the injured pigs so they could be tended by a veterinarian and live out their lives at a sanctuary. Steve Jenkins had himself offered sanctuary to the injured pigs. With breathtaking heartlessness, the activists’ pleas were ignored. Even though Fearman’s employees could have turned the pigs over, they instead chose to shoot them with a captive bolt gun and bulldoze them into a dumpster. If that’s not spite, I don’t know what is. They didn’t show a shred of compassion, of common decency, of humanity. Steve Jenkins wrote earlier today “In the four years I have known Esther, I have never heard the noises I heard coming from those pigs today. It was sheer terror, and I will never forget it. But the hardest part was witnessing first-hand the total indifference shown for their suffering, by those responsible for their care.” It’s callous, and utterly heartbreaking. Every single one of those poor piglets was someone. They are Esther, Julia, Mouse, Marge and BooBoo…they all had their own personalities and feelings, whether they were shy or curious or passive or mischievous.
The reality of their lives was bad enough. The accident today was bad enough, with the added fear and suffering it wrought. But when those slaughterhouse workers chose to kill injured piglets rather than let them go to sanctuary, it broke something in the spirit of every animal-lover I know. How could they?
This is why I spend so much time advocating for animals. They need it, urgently. They are *someone*, just like our cats and dogs. You can be anything…why not be kind?
I’ve recently become acquainted with Barbara LaRue, a fellow animal rights blogger (who posts much more frequently than I!). She’s really well worth reading. Here’s her latest.
I hear it often and I know it’s meant as an acknowledgement of how I define myself, but having compassion for animals and therefore being vegan shouldn’t be thought of as only for a small group of people who have an unusual affinity for animals.
Most human beings have at least some sympathy for other living beings and will not deliberately do them harm.
If compassion for animals was simply something that was unique to a minority of humans, a quality that makes one person or thing different from another (like very strong artistic talent or musical ability), it would be useless to try to persuade others to at least consider why they would want to go vegan.
Vegans come from every walk of life, every age group, every color, gender and even political viewpoint (although I surmise most vegans lean a little left politically).
Those who’ve gone vegan after realizing…
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Humans did this. She had no name, only a number: 765. They restrained her and she cried out in pain when an arm was thrust inside her to impregnate her. She laboured and bellowed and gave birth. Before she could even clean up her calf, they took her baby away. She mourned deeply. They took her milk for butter and cream and cheese and yogurt. Then they did it all again, maybe three more times. Taken from her own mother at birth, that has been her whole life. Now there’s nothing left to take from her; her body is tired and spent. So now she’ll go to slaughter. She’ll be loaded onto a truck with so many other cows, all of them frightened and confused, all of them like her. They’ll travel for hours, maybe more than a day. Unable to control their bowels, they will wind up stinking, covered in each other’s shit. When they arrive, electric prods will be used to force them off the truck. It hurts. They’ll hear other cows mooing in terror and they’ll smell the other cows’ blood. If they’re lucky, the captive bolt gun will work and they’ll be unconscious when their throats are slit and they are skinned and dismembered. They’ll never know what they did wrong.
This is dairy. And every time we buy it, we are in effect saying “Do it again.” Please explore alternatives. Don’t consign another cow (or goat or sheep) to her fate.
“Wow, vegan. That’s amazing. I could never do that; I admire your discipline.”
I have very little discipline. I weigh 30 pounds more than I should. Being vegan requires absolutely no discipline at all. I am not vegan for my health or the environment; the benefits to both are a happy side effect of my veganism. I’m vegan because I love animals…not just cats and dogs, all animals. I became vegetarian because when I started learning about modern animal agriculture, about the way we treat farmed animals, I became very, very uncomfortable with what – or rather whom – I was eating.
Then I visited a farm sanctuary and met dozens of formerly commodified animals. It was so plain to see that they were smart and curious, engaged in their world, and I felt privileged that they so easily let me into it. It was immediately obvious what remarkable individuals they are. Every single one of them had a name and their own personality, had friends and preferences and moods. I couldn’t see farmed animals the same way after that; I saw them the same way I see cats and dogs. (In fact, I saw them the same way I see people, only better; animals don’t have the objectionable qualities of so many humans.)
World-renowned photographer and animal advocate Jo-Anne McArthur has said “Once you start seeing, you can’t stop,” and it’s true. It changes everything. I don’t see a chicken breast, I see a body part of an animal just like Cinnamon, for example, a cheeky, friendly hen who lives at Skylands Animal Sanctuary & Rescue. Where some see a pork chop or bacon, I see part of the chubby leg of Marge, a joyful and outgoing pig who lives at Farm Sanctuary — or Esther the Wonder Pig, whose enormous and funny personality has become known worldwide. Once you begin to see who animals are, you can’t close your eyes again, and that’s a good thing. I gave up nothing when I became vegan (which I too once said I couldn’t imagine doing); on the contrary, I gained in ways I can hardly begin to put into words.
Is it challenging to become vegan? At first, a bit — you’re forming new habits and turning your back on familiar ones you’ve had all your life. It requires a little effort as you become a label-reader, and perhaps suss out some non-animal versions of foods to replace the ones your taste buds miss. But it’s not hard. I don’t love ice cream or cheese more than I love Emma and Jackson, a beautiful dairy cow and her son who would both be dead by now (and would have suffered horrifically) had they not been rescued. And that equally applies to goats and sheep: they are treated just as badly as dairy cows and I’m lucky to have many goats and sheep in my life whom I love, every one of them no different than a dog or a cat.
When you really take in the misery, the fear and pain and loss that farmed animals endure, it’s impossible to enjoy a steak or an egg or a hunk of cheese. If you wouldn’t crowd, confine, mutilate, or beat a cat or dog, why is a pig or a chicken any different? I can’t justify what is really outright torture because I happen to like the taste of something.
So no, being vegan does not require discipline. At its simplest, it’s just a choice you make.
Less than 18 months after one of their own chicken farmers spoke out on video against industry practices, Purdue — one of the largest suppliers of chicken meat in the United States with an estimated* 14,300,000 chickens —has announced concrete steps it’s taking to improve the lives of the chickens they raise. It’s a big deal, and it wasn’t just the damning video that prompted their actions; it was ever-increasing public demand that farmed animals be treated better.
It is no longer any secret that the vast majority (about 98%) of farmed animals of every species are raised and housed in horrific conditions. With anywhere between tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of animals living in intensive confinement in massive, windowless sheds, each animal, regardless of species, is born to a life of misery. They are thinking, feeling beings. Their sentience is indisputable. Mutilated in infancy, denied the ability to express every basic, natural behaviour, their lives are filled with pain and fear and little else. They have no space to move around. They are repeatedly forcibly impregnated, only to have their children taken from them. They cannot live in family units as they would naturally do. They cannot choose with whom they live or when they eat. Their food is loaded with antibiotics simply so they may survive the horrendous conditions in which they live. They live with one another’s illnesses, feces, and urine, every single day. They go blind and develop serious respiratory problems. (Those cows you see on pasture when you’re driving outside the city? Those are the other 2%.)
But change is, slowly, coming. Most people agree that animals, even the ones “destined” for our plates, should not be made to suffer. Most people want “happy meat.”
To that end, some in the industry are beginning to respond. More and more restaurant chains are committing to cage-free eggs. Smithfield, one of the largest “pork” suppliers in the U.S., is phasing out gestation crates for pigs by 2022 (though they previously said 2017). On a political level, several U.S. states have banned the use of gestation crates: Arizona in 2012, California in 2015, Colorado in 2018, Florida in 2008, Maine in 2011, Oregon in 2013, with Michigan, Rhode Island, and Ohio (who is including battery cages and veal crates in the ban) all in progress. Canada made it illegal for newly built or renovated facilities to include gestation crates after July 1, 2014; established operations must convert to open-housing systems by July of 2024.
So yes, the tide is turning.
But treating the animals marginally, or even somewhat, better than they were before should not be seen as an excuse by omnivores to go about gustatory business as usual. The so-called “humane myth” is just that — a myth. Everyone knows about gestation crates, but no one’s talking (yet) about the farrowing crates: a very similar confining device where sows lie for weeks on cement, with bars separating them from their offspring so they don’t roll over on them (not something they’re really all that prone to doing, by the way). There’s nothing humane about picking up the runt of the litter, knowing she’ll take too long to reach market weight, and slamming her head into the floor under the guise of “euthanasia,” only to leave her lying twitching and in agony. (One of the industry terms for this, incidentally, is PACing — Pounding Against Concrete.) There’s nothing humane about cramming chickens in a shed where the air is so thick with ammonia from their urine that your eyes burn and you can’t breathe without a mask — an option the birds don’t have. There’s nothing humane about breeding birds to be so prolific in their egg-laying that they become too weak to push an egg out and successive eggs build up and rot inside them. There’s nothing humane about a “farmer” restraining a cow and ramming his arm up her vagina to the elbow to impregnate her (the restraining device, incidentally, is called a “rape rack” by the industry), and then removing her baby from her almost immediately after birth. There’s nothing humane about cutting off an animal’s tail and testicles without anesthetic or pain relief. There’s nothing humane about branding. There’s nothing humane about cutting off a bird’s toes so that when they fight (a result of intensive confinement), they don’t scratch up the “meat.” There’s nothing humane about the way hatcheries — from whence egg-laying hens come — throw the male chicks in garbage bags to suffocate amongst one another, or into a macerator to be ground alive (there’s the “chicken meal” you see on ingredient lists).
In the vast majority of U.S. states, the animal cruelty laws specifically exempt any practice deemed to be common on farms, making everything I’ve listed above, and more, perfectly legal. In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (you’ll notice this comes under “food inspection,” not an anti-cruelty act) has a Code of Recommended Practice. If you read it, and it’s pretty easy to find online, it sounds good, all things considered. No mutilations are to be performed without anaesthetic, no downed animal is to be treated with anything but kindness, no undue loud noises are to be made which might frighten an animal, you can’t hasten one along the chute towards slaughter with an electric prod in the eye or the anus, and no animal is to be slaughtered while conscious. It’s a very comprehensive document. But it’s not law, it’s recommended practice, and it’s massively unenforceable — as evidenced by every single undercover investigation ever conducted in Canada.
I am really pleased to see the plight of farmed animals becoming more and more part of the public consciousness. We simply must treat farmed animals much better than we do, because they are individuals with personalities and preferences. While I personally wish we didn’t raise them for food at all, I still have to applaud incremental improvements in their welfare even while the tiny increments frustrate me no end…because those increments still matter to the animals.
I do not want people to interpret these small improvements in the lives of farmed animals as a pass to continue eating them. If you eat meat or eggs or dairy, do not let these little changes lull you into thinking the animals had a nice life. They still didn’t, believe me. Their lives will be only marginally better than they were before. The abuses I’ve written of here and in the past still continue every day. Sheep are punched in the face. Pigs are beaten with pipes. Chickens are scalded alive. Downed cows are still poked in the eyes and rectum with electric prods. Betterments in animal welfare are not a free pass to participate in the system. Every time you pay money for meat, eggs or dairy, you are telling someone somewhere, “Do it again.”
I do believe people care how animals are treated. But we also don’t like to change, and we have cultural and emotional attachments to certain foods that seem to transcend our sense of compassion. We are positively expert when it comes to cognitive dissonance, skilled at emotionally distancing ourselves from a piece of knowledge.
Here’s a little thought to take with you and remember when you read about improvements to farmed-animal welfare. It’s a quote from Andrea Kladar, a Canadian animal advocate:
“To examine whether something is humane, first determine if you would want it done to you.”
*Estimated by me, based on: Purdue has 2200 farmers contracted. Each farm has approximately 4000 to 10,000 chickens. I split the difference at 6500 chickens x 2200 farms.