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The Care & Feeding of Vegans

December 21, 2015

xmas-sheepI’m deviating a bit from animal rights in this post, because it’s my blog and I can do that. With Christmas just around the corner (and yes, of course I realize not everyone celebrates Christmas, but that doesn’t diminish the relevance of this post), this seems as good a time as any to bring this up — what I’m going to share with you could easily apply to any family dinner. If you love a vegan, or even just like one well enough to feed them, this post is for you.

Veganism, from the outside, can seem kind of radical and restricting and leave even an accomplished home cook at something of a loss. While you might not bat an eyelash at accommodating a vegetarian at your table, many people seem pretty flummoxed about what or how to cook when you take dairy and eggs out of the equation.  (I know, because that used to be me!) So I’m going to take the mystery and intimidation out of it for you.

First of all, most vegans don’t expect you to make them a separate meal. I mean really, that kind of expectation is just not even polite. Some of us bring a dish or two, figuring it might be the only thing we’ll be eating. Most of us are fairly easy-going and don’t want to make a fuss or put you out (of course, we hope you would still include us on your guest list if we were lactose-intolerant, and this isn’t very different from a culinary standpoint).

Making your average Christmas dinner vegan is easy with a few minor substitutions. (Non-vegan “foodies” may balk at this, but hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it — it won’t ruin dinner, I promise!)

Where you would normally use chicken stock, use vegetable stock.

Where you would normally use butter, use a vegan butter, like Earth Balance.

If there’s a dish you make with sour cream or cream cheese, Tofutti’s vegan alternatives are excellent.

For milk, substitute almond, soy or rice milk (the first time I made mashed potatoes with almond milk I had serious reservations about it…and was very surprised when they tasted exactly the way I expected mashed potatoes to taste!). For cream, you could substitute cashew milk or a soy cooking cream like Belsoy. The latter is a bit of a specialty item, but I’ve seen it at major grocery chains in Canada. Look in the refrigerated organics section.

The other incredibly thoughtful thing every vegan eating with omnivores will hugely appreciate is not putting the turkey (or goose or ham, etc.) on the table. We know that to you it’s food, but to us it’s a dead animal. That might be hard for an omnivore to understand, but if you can imagine a dead, cooked pet on the table while you’re eating, trust me when I tell you that’s pretty much how we see it.

We don’t want anyone to sweat over what to feed us, but a host who makes an extra effort to make all of their guests comfortable is…well, simply a good host! But you will touch the very heart of the vegan in your life if you’d be willing to make a few substitutions for one meal. That’s a gift in and of itself.


Normalizing Cruelty

November 17, 2015

The holiday season is heading towards us like an oncoming train. As an ethical vegan (one who is vegan primarily for the sake of animals), this brings with it a sense of urgency to encourage people to think about what (or who) is on their plates and to carefully consider their gift-giving choices. As part of a backlash against rampant consumerism, as well as a growing concern for those who are not as fortunate as many of us are in the West, many people will look at options like gifts of “livestock” to a family in a developing nation. I’ve written about that before and I probably will again.

But most people don’t look that far afield anyway. Most people, whether they love the holidays or merely endure them, just do the usual — battle the shopping crowds and hope they choose “the right thing” for everyone on their list.

Transport-truckAnd that’s fine. But there is one children’s toy that is drawing a lot of attention this year, at least online and in animal rights circles. It’s a model “livestock” transport truck being sold at Walmart. (I use quotations because I have a passionate dislike of any word that commodifies animals or degrades their status as individuals.)

We’ve all driven behind or beside these trucks on the highway. Almost anyone feels at least vaguely disturbed by them, wondering about the animals inside and where they might be going, especially on an extremely hot or bitterly cold day. For anyone with a heightened awareness of farmed animals, encountering one of these trucks can pretty well ruin their day: we know where those trucks are most likely going and we know the animals inside it are suffering and scared. So to see one of those transport trucks reproduced as a toy feels like an affront. It’s not just a toy. It’s a toy that normalizes the objectification and abuse of animals.

Children are naturally compassionate; if you take a child to a farm animal sanctuary and let them pet a chicken, rub a pig’s belly, pet a calf or cow, you will see that child’s face light up like they’ve just experienced magic. And if you sit down to dinner that night and tell them that whatever is on their plate is just the same as the animal they met earlier in the day, I guarantee you they will not want to eat. Tell a child the calf she petted this afternoon is not allowed to have his mother’s milk because humans took it away so WE could have it instead, and that child will tell you she thinks that’s wrong.

We should be encouraging children’s innate compassion and connection to animals, not actively working to suppress it. The only fundamental difference between the animals we keep as companions and the ones we raise for food is . . . nothing. Children lose so much as they grow older: their sense of wonder, their innocence, their belief that the world is a nice place. Don’t let them lose their compassion too. petition asking Walmart to stop selling the trucks

Op-ed of the month!

September 21, 2015

This morning I read an op-ed in the L.A. Times by Bruce Friedrich, Farm Sanctuary’s director of policy and one of the most intelligent voices in the animal rights movement.

It speaks to the myth of humane slaughter and is such an important read that I am duplicating it here. Every animal Bruce writes about could be someone you or I know, someone I’ve written about…and that’s the whole point: each animal, each of them, is someone. They are intelligent, they feel both physically and emotionally, and they have a vested interest in their own lives. In that respect, there is no fundamental difference between them and the animals with whom we share our homes and our beds. The calves Bruce writes about could be Julie; the pig could be Esther.

There is a Humane Slaughter Act in the United States and while I would argue that humane slaughter is itself an oxymoron, what little protection the act is supposed to offer farmed animals is useless, because it is ignored and no one in authority seems to care.

Horrible abuses occur in slaughterhouses every day, everywhere, all the time. It doesn’t have to be this way. If you eat animal products and are complicit in this, I implore you to reconsider your choices. If you don’t, I am asking you to act. Support change in whatever way you can, whether by asking politicians to vote down ag-gag laws, signing petitions, or educating others.


The cruelty behind your ballpark hotdog

Late last year, a government inspector paid a visit to Clougherty Packing, the Vernon slaughterhouse responsible for killing the animals that, in the afterlife, become Dodger Dogs and Farmer John-brand meats. With the inspector watching, an employee tried to render a lame pig unconscious, a procedure that should require one shot to the head with a stun gun. Because the pig was not properly restrained, however, the employee had to shoot her multiple times.

Later, the inspector witnessed another botched stunning: the employee had to “pull out the stuck rod from the skull and reload the captive bolt” before he finally succeeded. In both cases, there was no backup stunning device available.

Such sloppy work amounts to “egregious” illegal activity under the Humane Slaughter Act, which declares that livestock must be slaughtered “only by humane methods.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture — according to its own policy directives — is supposed to suspend plant operations in response to such infractions. It can also refer abuse for criminal prosecution or, in extreme cases, effectively shut down a poorly run plant by withdrawing its grant of federal inspection.

Yet official records that I received through the Freedom of Information Act show that after the Clougherty Packing debacle, as well as similar incidents across the country over the last two years, the USDA declined to punish the perpetrators, issuing administrative warnings instead.

USDA inspection records chronicle workers running over crippled animals with construction equipment, animals regaining consciousness after having been shot through the head with a captive bolt, and workers intentionally abusing injured animals. Dozens of slaughterhouses either can’t or won’t follow the law. But the USDA allows them to continue operating.

At a Minnesota slaughterhouse, a plant manager repeatedly electrocuted a cow that was trapped in the stunning box with a hole in her head. For more than 15 minutes, the worker tormented this cow with electric prods, trying to force her from the pen “despite this being physically impossible.” When she was finally killed and extracted from the box, this poor animal had four freshly broken ribs and multiple deep wounds where her “hide had been forcefully ripped off, varying in depth but in some regions down to the [muscle] beneath.”

Over less than eight months, this plant was cited 14 times for humane slaughter violations and its operations were suspended on multiple occasions, but it was not shut down and no one was criminally prosecuted.

At a plant near Fresno, a worker unloading animals from a truck dropped a crippled calf from a height of about three feet onto the concrete floor of the slaughter pen. “This calf landed on its body and remained recumbent on the concrete.” The worker continued, pushing four more calves “off the trailer, chin first onto the concrete.” Although plant operations were briefly suspended, the worker was not charged for this intentional and criminal cruelty.

As if such documented brutality weren’t bad enough, undercover investigations consistently find that abuse is even worse than is indicated in the USDA’s official records.

At a slaughter plant in Chino that processes large numbers of crippled dairy cows, the Humane Society of the United States secretly documented workers beating animals, shocking them, ramming them with forklifts and using high-power hoses to shoot water into their nostrils — all in an attempt to force them to stand. USDA inspectors were in the plant during each incident, but they never cited the plant for abuse.

The USDA’s own inspector general warned in 2013 that Humane Slaughter Act enforcement was both “inconsistent” and “lenient.” In a random sampling of inspection reports, the inspector general found 10 egregious violations of the law that did not result in plant suspension, including a captive bolt lodging in a conscious pig’s skull for at least four minutes before the animal was killed, a pig being boiled alive and a forklift operator driving repeatedly into a crippled pig.

If the USDA is going to follow its own policy directives and enforce the Humane Slaughter Act, it should consider two crucial reforms.

First, all egregious violations of the law should automatically result in at least plant suspension. Over the years 2013 and 2014, I documented dozens of examples of such violations that resulted in mere warnings. That simply makes no sense; an egregious infraction deserves a stern response.

Second, the USDA should refer intentional abuse for criminal prosecution. The Humane Slaughter Act is a criminal statute and violations can — theoretically — result in fines and jail time. Not only is criminal prosecution a suitable punishment for animal abuse, but the predictable threat of prosecution would act as a deterrent, discouraging mistreatment in the first place.

Personally, I see no ethical difference between eating a chicken or a cat, a pig or a puppy; I don’t think slaughtering animals for one’s dinner can ever be humane. But, for now, the Humane Slaughter Act is all we have; the least the USDA could do is enforce it.

~Bruce Friedrich

Copyright © 2015 Los Angeles Times


Profile: Skylands Animal Sanctuary & Rescue

September 9, 2015

Skylands-bldgsOver the past five years, Mike Stura has become the go-to guy across half the Eastern Seaboard when animals need rescuing. A mechanic and truck driver by trade, he’s often the first one someone calls when a sheep has escaped a live market and needs safe transport, goats need rescuing from a backyard butcher, or a cow has made a break for freedom from a slaughterhouse. He’s the guy who will get in his truck in the middle of the night and drive five hours in a snowstorm to get an animal to safety. He even bought his own trailer — followed by a truck, a bigger trailer, and a sprinter van — for the purpose. (In fact, I first met Mike and his wife, Wendy, in person when they volunteered with a cross-country rescue of 1100 chickens, something that would have been infinitely more challenging without their help: they not only drove half the night to be there, but after the initial triage of the birds, Mike then transported hundreds of them to different sanctuaries across several states.)

A natural with the animals — most of whom are terrified of people — Mike introduces himself to them and says “Do you know who I am?” Incredibly, they seem to. Animals are much more perceptive than they’re often given credit for; most of them grasp very quickly who they can trust, and they trust Mike. Whether he’s pulling them out of a hell-hole of neglect where they’re surrounded by their dead friends and family, or walking into a halal slaughterhouse in New York City – where he has more than once successfully talked butchers into surrendering a live animal – the animals know he’s on their side.

By late 2013, Mike and Wendy had three goats of their own when Mike rescued Jimmy, a young steer with a host of health problems. Mike knew there was nowhere to take Jimmy; all the sanctuaries he worked with were full up. He had enough room for Jimmy while he was still small, but as Jimmy grew, he was going to need more space…and so Mike and Wendy started looking for a farm. Before too long, they found a beauty – and their own sanctuary.

They signed the papers at the end of January this year and took possession of 229 stunning acres of pasture and forest in Wantage, New Jersey. Just three and a half months later, in mid-May, Skylands Animal Sanctuary & Rescue started giving public tours. Since then, their farm animal family has grown to nearly 60 and includes cows, sheep, goats, pigs, turkeys, chickens, five ducks and one goose.

Last month I was fortunate enough to spend several days at Skylands with Mike and Wendy. Though I had seen many photos, they didn’t really do justice to the size and the postcard-prettiness of the place. As you approach the farm from the road, it looks like a picture in a children’s storybook come to life.

Fun fact about Skylands: it’s a former dairy farm. There is a sweet irony, a quiet joy, in taking a place that once represented pain and loss for animals, and using it to give them true sanctuary, a home where they are seen as individuals and treated with love, gentleness and respect. No one will be hurt or have their babies taken from them here. It is a place where they can be who they are, express their natural behaviours and be safe from fear and harm. They can recover from their past traumas and form relationships with one another, one more thing they are denied when they are raised for food.


The sprawling acreage of Skylands has been fenced into separate pastures, some of them massive. Even the forest is being fenced in, allowing the residents to find shade from the summer sun, browse the tasty leaves of shrubs, and – in the case of the pigs – root in the woods as they would in the wild, safe from predators. It’s paradise, and a world away from the cramped and filthy conditions the animals here were born into. Beautiful and sturdy shelters dot the landscape of the farm; no one has to sleep outside unless they choose to, and two beautiful new barns are in progress to give the animals even more room and allow for the growth of the sanctuary. The existing big barn, the former dairy barn, is clean and comfortable, redolent with the smell of fresh straw.

Julie. Photo: Edie Stehwein

Julie. Photo: Edie Stehwein

This is where I met Julie. The daughter of a dairy cow, Julie was taken from her mum soon after she was born, so soon that she didn’t receive enough colostrum, vital for the development of her immune system. (Here is a simple truth: if you’re consuming dairy, it’s because somewhere a baby like Julie is not. Dairy cows are forcibly impregnated year after year and have their babies taken from them so that we can have milk, cheese, ice cream and more. It’s so unnecessary. We don’t need it and it causes terrible cruelty. There are so many great non-dairy alternatives now, with more available all the time.)

JulieMooFor weeks, since bringing Julie home, Mike’s schedule has revolved around hers, because Julie needed to be bottle-fed.  She’s doing well now and is playful and demanding. Her insistent call begins with a pre-moo, to let you know she’s thinking about mooing. “Mm. Mmm…” Then out comes the mighty moo itself, incredibly loud coming from such a small girl. She still wants to suckle and will go for your hand over and over again, while looking up at you with her big, brown, Disney eyes. When she plays, she jumps and frolics like an overgrown puppy, pushing her head into you as she discovers her strength.

Had Julie remained at the farm where she was born (along with a twin brother, who died shortly after birth, saving him from the fate that awaited him as a veal calf*), in a little over a year she would have been impregnated against her will, by a human hand, and gone into “production,” just like her mother. She would have been killed at about five years old. Here, at Skylands, she will know only love, form friendships with other cows, and barring any insurmountable illness, could easily live into her twenties.

Julie is just one of the dozens of animals who have found love and safety at Skylands. Sanctuaries play such an important role in changing how we view farmed animals. It is only here that people can interact with them and really see them for who they are…see that each one of them is a remarkable individual with intelligence and a fully developed personality, and that their lives matter to them as much as ours do to us. Farm animal sanctuaries change lives, both for those who live there and those who visit. If you’ve never been to one, I hope you’ll go online, find the one nearest to you and go.

I asked Mike what it means to him, just five years after becoming vegan, to have this sanctuary. His answer was simple: “It means I can keep rescuing animals and teaching humans not to see the animals as commodities, but as individuals. I love it.”

Note: You can visit Skylands Animal Sanctuary & Rescue in Wantage, N.J., a little over an hour from NYC. Like and follow their Facebook page and watch for their updated website, coming soon.

*See my 2013 story about Michael, another rescue of Mike’s who now resides at Skylands.


Mourning Cecil & Making Connections

July 29, 2015
Cecil the lion. Photo: African Bush Camps

Cecil the lion. Photo: African Bush Camps

As much of the world continues to mourn Cecil, many animal advocates are also asking, “Where is the grief and outrage for all of the OTHER animals?” Those who are hunted, those who are tortured in labs, those who suffer the most in the greatest numbers — the ones we raise for food. The grief so many people feel for Cecil is the same grief ethical vegans (those who are vegan primarily for the animals) feel when we hurry past the meat aisle in the grocery store.

Yes, it is just that painful. We don’t see chicken legs and breasts, hamburgers, pork chops and steaks. We see who these cuts of meat used to be — the individuals they once were.

Because I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time at farm sanctuaries, I also tend to see “meat” as very specific individuals, because the few animals who have, by great good fortune, escaped the system must represent for their species. So I don’t see a pork chop, I see an actual body part – I see Fiona’s or Esther’s or Marge’s leg, and it makes me cringe. I don’t see a Thanksgiving turkey; I see Turpentine. Name a cut of meat and I can tell you about an animal I know who it could just as easily have come from. And call me sensitive, but it breaks my heart. I know that those animals are every bit as aware and full of personality as a cat or a dog.

People are mourning for Cecil for several reasons: because he was lion, a wild animal – and a regal one at that, and we (illogically) hold such animals higher in our esteem than we do sheep or cows or pigs; because he had a name, he instantly became “someone” to the world, instead of “something”; and because he was injured and in pain for nearly two days before he was finally killed outright, and we feel for his suffering, which we deem unnecessary and cruel.

While Cecil’s death is tragic and senseless, my hope is that it has shone a spotlight on big-game hunting, which is a $744-million business in South Africa alone, and made people consider the lives of other animals too, including farmed animals, whose intrinsic value as living beings is no less than Cecil’s.  There is no fundamental difference between them. There are all someone.

An open letter to Michael Burrows, CEO of Maple Lodge Farms

March 30, 2015

Last week, Mercy For Animals released an undercover video of horrific animal abuse at Canada’s Maple Lodge Farms. Michael Burrows, CEO of Maple Lodge Farms, wasted no time in releasing a video of his own, expressing deep concern about MFA’s investigation.

Here is my open letter to Burrows:


Dear Mr. Burrows,

You did an excellent job in your video following the recent Mercy For Animals investigation. The trouble is, every industry exec says exactly the same thing after every undercover investigation is made public. Every exec says “It’s an anomaly, it won’t be tolerated, we don’t condone this, we have strict policies, we care about animal welfare.” But it simply isn’t true. These statements have absolutely no credibility anymore. No company is targeted for investigation; it’s completely random, and yet the same horrific abuses are uncovered each and every time. That is not an anomaly, Mr. Burrows, it is standard operating procedure. And it is not acceptable. If, as you say, your auditors ensure that appropriate animal-handling procedures are being followed, then the MFA would have had no story to tell. The truth is, animals are nothing more than commodities in the world of animal agriculture and their welfare is meaningless when it’s up against a company’s bottom line. Animals are handled the way they are because it IS allowed, because no one really cares, because it’s more important that each one of them is killed and “processed” (not necessarily in that order, I hasten to add) as quickly as possible than it is to ensure they suffer as little as possible.

You’re right: no one wants to see animals suffer. They just want to buy chicken for $4 a pound and they don’t want to know how it got in the cellophane package.

The cost of meat is astronomical – for the animals, the plant workers and the environment. But the days of snowing the public are over.

The Real Dirt on Farming

March 29, 2015

This was a bad weekend for my blood pressure. I was enjoying a cup of coffee, settled in with the weekend paper, when one of the inserts I normally discard caught my eye. It was a 12-page, glossy ‘digest edition’ of The Real Dirt on Farming. On the cover were photos of lusciously coloured vegetables, a couple of good-looking cows, a nervous-looking pig, and a group of smiling people – representing Canadian farmers, I suppose – in a cow pasture. Naturally, my curiosity was piqued.

It was all pretty benign and low-key until I got to Farm animals 101 on page five. All of sudden these farmers sounded like veterinarians working for love. I have no doubt that some of the smaller farmers raising animals for food probably do actually care about their animals. Not enough to do something different for a living, but I do believe some of them care. The few who have actually become sanctuary founders or activists, not to mention vegan, attest to that. I’ve read several stories of farmers who, emotionally, just couldn’t do it anymore. But they are an infinitesimal minority and I have simply seen too much to believe that most farmers give a toss about the animals in their care.

Veal calf. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals (Click to visit We Animals' website)

Veal calf. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals

This newspaper insert crossed the line into propaganda when it stated things about animal care that are flat-out untrue. I realize that a word like “propaganda” has an almost Orwellian ring to it, but it’s not remotely out of place here: the way the majority of farmed animals are housed (or warehoused) is itself entirely Orwellian.

Consider the following quotations from The Real Dirt on Farming:

“Farmers and ranchers choose to work with animals because we enjoy it. Caring for animals properly is simply a matter of doing the right thing but it also makes good business sense. Content, healthy animals are more productive animals and lead to higher quality food products.”

You would think so, but no. The cost of animal death is actually built into the business model. We have fewer farms raising more animals. Individualized care of any kind is not only not a possibility, it’s not even a concern. That’s why they use prophylactic antibiotics: so the animals can actually survive the conditions they’re raised in and make it to slaughter. A miserable, unhealthy dairy cow does not produce less milk than her healthier sister. And none of them is happy being restrained in what the industry itself refers to as a “rape rack,” forcibly impregnated and then having her baby taken from her so that humans can use her milk.

“Barns protect livestock from extreme weather and temperatures (hot and cold), diseases like avian influenza, and predators like wolves and coyotes.”

Such a nice idea, but not entirely truthful. The animals do not have the choice of whether to be outside or in, so the truth is, the only time they may ever breathe fresh air or glimpse sunshine is on a crowded, barren feedlot (where cattle are fattened just before slaughter), or on their way to the slaughterhouse. Furthermore, barns do absolutely nothing to protect chickens or turkeys from avian flu. On the contrary, they act like an incubator for disease. As for the wolves or coyotes, do a Google search for images of factory farms – predators aren’t getting anywhere near them. (I’m sure barns are helpful in that regard for sheep farms, but let’s not kid ourselves: this is not about the animals and their comfort and safety. It’s about money.)

“Animal housing is about animal needs, which can be quite different from human needs, and every animal is different. For example, laying hens are descended from jungle fowl that live in small groups under tree roots. This means it’s natural for the hens to want to live closely together with other birds in smaller, enclosed spaces. And, given the choice of staying indoors or heading out to pasture, dairy cows often opt for the comfort of well-ventilated barns in warmer weather.”

Animal housing is not about animal needs. It is about maximizing profit. No pig needs to spend the majority of her life confined in a gestation crate in which she cannot turn around or exercise a single natural impulse. Nor does she need to be separated from her offspring in a farrowing crate. Farmers will tell you they do this to protect the piglets from their mother rolling over and crushing them. Has that ever happened? Sure it has. Is it a normal occurrence? Absolutely not. I have friends who work at farmed animal sanctuaries who have never seen it happen. Pigs, like almost all animals, are excellent mothers and not prone to killing their young, accidentally or otherwise.

It’s almost funny to me that the industry talks about what’s natural for laying hens as a justification for housing them in unimaginably cramped conditions, yet they don’t talk about the fact that it’s NOT natural for hens to produce so many eggs so quickly that many of them die from reproductive cancers or prolapsed uteri before ever becoming a chicken “fingers” or chicken loaf, sliced and sold as sandwich meat – the usual end for egg-laying hens. If you’re reading this on an iPad, then you’re looking at the amount of space your average chicken spends her entire life confined in, unable to stretch a single wing.

“Farmers must follow laws for humane treatment [of animals]…Neglect and abuse of animals of any kind is against the law.”

Except here’s the thing: what is exempt from animal abuse laws is anything that is considered to be common practice on farms. So here’s a list of all the things it’s perfectly legal and acceptable to do a farmed animal, all without anesthetic or pain relief:

  • Branding
  • Disbudding (removal of horn buds)
  • Castration
  • Tail-docking
  • Tooth-clipping (exactly what it sounds like, done to young pigs so they don’t cause damage biting each other in intensive confinement)
  • Debeaking (using a machine to sear off the very sensitive tip of the beaks of turkeys and chickens, again so they don’t damage each other in intensive confinement)
  • Detoeing (cutting off the ends of the toes of farmed birds – as above)

Imagine for a moment someone doing any one of those things to a cat or a dog. It would most certainly be considered animal cruelty. It would be considered torture. What’s the difference? What’s the difference between a cat or a dog or a cow or a pig? A popular ad campaign says the only difference is our attitude. Because we keep certain kinds of animals as pets and raise others for food, what is unconscionable for one becomes institutionalized and accepted for another. But it doesn’t make any sense.

When an interest group – in this case, Farm & Food Care Foundation – is appealing to you and offering you information, I urge you to look at it with a critical eye and question who benefits from it and how. Question motives. Follow the money. It’s not in the pockets of animal advocates.


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