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No Excuses

June 29, 2016

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.


Young free-range chickens. Imagine how much less room they’ll have when they’re grown. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

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.



Photo: Chuck Liddy, News Observer

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.


Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/We 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.


It’s Not About Changing People

June 17, 2016

I’ve just discovered a blog by fellow writer and sympatico advocate Barbara LaRue. I particularly like this post.

Mercy for all Animals

calf snuggles man

I learned a long time ago that you can’t change anyone but yourself, and that is a truth that most of us come to face eventually.

The message of veganism has been attacked by some as a message that tries to force people to change, and while it may seem that way, no one can force another to feel something they don’t feel or to change internally.

No one likes to feel forced to act or think a certain way, and I get that.

It’s simply not possible to force anyone to change, no matter how noble the cause that’s being fought.

What veganism does try to do is simply to expose the cruelty that exists with regards to how man treats the animals he uses for food, fur, research and entertainment.

I realize that I have no power over anyone else and my work on behalf of animals is…

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Thoughts on Mothers’ Day

May 8, 2016

This is the Mothers’ Day post nobody wants to see. You can turn  away, but that won’t change anything. There is nothing graphic here & the video is just two minutes long. I know most of you love goat cheese; I used to, too. But it comes from a mother whose baby has been taken from her, just like cows. It’s as traumatic for them as it would be for anyone. It just isn’t right to do this. And what happens to those babies? Their sole purpose in life was to make their mothers lactate. So they are slaughtered for meat.

While there isn’t a huge market for goat meat in North America, it is the most-consumed meat worldwide. So the U.S. and Canada, along with a number of other Western nations, export the baby goats to places like the Middle East, where demand for goat meat is high. Live export means these adorable animals, who have so much character and personality, will be herded by the thousands into the cargo hold of massive ships, where they will endure a journey that will take weeks. They will be crowded. They will be very hot. They will be scared and confused. Many will get sick; some will die. They will live in their own waste for the duration of the trip. Those who survive will be slaughtered barbarically, though not before seeing their friends and family slaughtered too.

Dairy is not harmless. Many people believe it’s even worse than meat, because the animals involved suffer so much more and for so much longer. It doesn’t matter if the dairy products come from cows or goats or sheep: the process and the suffering are the same. No animal produces milk without first giving birth. And we’re the only species who consumes the milk from another species — how weird is that? We don’t need it. The babies of these countless mothers do. If you’re consuming milk — or a product made from it — it’s because somewhere a baby isn’t.

Celebrate Mothers’ Day by honouring all mothers: kick the dairy habit.

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.