Compassionate Living Blog

Thanksgiving: A Dying Tradition

This article is reposted from a few years ago, but still relevant for the Thanksgiving Holiday…

Tradition. We hold onto it like the railing on top of the Grand Canyon, we just we can’t let go. Traditions can be important to a society–they shape who we are. But every culture’s traditions must be scrutinized by each successive generation for ethical and moral flaws. Throughout history, many traditions that were once considered natural and normal for generations, were eventually deemed outdated, cruel or simply no longer necessary. Some traditions are positive and make society stronger and more stable, but some have proven to weaken our character, damage our health and our spirit, and are cruel to others.

The tradition that we must scrutinize today is the merciless killing of billions of farmed animals, and particularly poignant this month, the Thanksgiving turkey. The Norman Rockwell image of family coming together on the third Thursday of November with a huge dead bird on a platter is rooted in our psyche as the epitome of tradition. It’s as if Thanksgiving wouldn’t be the same without the globular, barren belly of an avian carcass smack in the middle of the family dining table.

But what was traditionally seen simply as “food” by older generations requires deeper reflection and examination with new eyes.

The deceased turkey, lying exposed on her back with feathers ripped from her body, decapitated, limbs severed, and organs ripped from her belly through her anal cavity, certainly suffered a horrible fate, along with millions of others of her kind. Hiding behind tradition and masking violence with the euphemism of gratitude does nothing to ease the turkey’s misery.

Bending Traditions

To contemporary societies, established traditions seem consistent, continuous and interminable, but they can actually be quite fleeting and malleable. Some traditions we believe are as old as the hills are in fact fairly recent developments. The tradition of giving an engagement ring to a betrothed started less than a century ago in 1938 as a marketing scheme by a diamond company. But now, few eager potential spouses would be able to get away with a marriage proposal without presenting a ring or the answer may not likely be favorable.

There are some traditions from our recent past that do have ancient origins such as a hopeful husband acquiring matrimonial permission from a potential bride’s father and the daughter’s family negotiating with a dowry. We would of course see this today as incredibly demeaning to the woman and recognize that she has the right to choose her own spouse and her own destiny. But just as recently as the late nineteenth century, this tradition was thriving among the upper and middle class, even in the United States. Yet society eventually deemed this practice old-fashioned and even came to see it as shameful that a young woman would be treated as a piece of property to be exchanged, so the tradition fell out of favor and has fortunately vanished.

Of course racism has been a strong tradition in the United States and many would argue that institutions such as slavery were inextricable to U.S. economic development. At one time, tradition was considered a persuasive argument in favor of slavery and other forms of cultural and institutional racism. It took the courage of strong, ethical people to fight the traditional aspects of this brutal practice. With this fight came the recognition that tradition provided inadequate justification to commit atrocities against others. Of course, slavery is still present around the world, even in the United States, but it is illegal, considered reprehensible by mainstream society, and not practices for the sake of tradition.

The Traditional Turkey?

As the reality of the plight of farmed animals comes to light, the ethical ramifications of this traditional mainstay holiday feature must become the subject of scrutiny. Turkeys are packed into long, windowless buildings by the thousands. Much like chickens bred for their meat, turkeys are overcrowded on floor systems and forced to live in their own waste. Breathing ammonia fumes and irritating dust causes them to develop respiratory diseases, ulcerated feet, blistered breasts and ammonia-burned eyes and throats.

Turkeys have been bred to grow so fast and to become so heavy that their bones are too weak to support their weight. They suffer from leg deformities, arthritis and joint pain just in their first few months of life resulting in lameness so severe that they are sometimes forced to walk on their wings to reach food and water. Induced to grow too large too fast, turkeys raised for food develop congestive heart and lung diseases accompanied by engorged coronary blood vessels, distended fluid-filled heart sacs, abdominal fluid, and enlarged, congested livers.

Turkeys go to slaughter at a very young age, some as young as 12 weeks, but never more than 6 or 7 months old. They never see their first birthday, even though they can live to be 20 years old or more. They are violently handled and carried upside down by their legs to the transport trucks. Jammed in crates, they travel without food, water or weather protection to the slaughterhouse. No U.S. laws regulate the treatment of turkeys, chickens, ducks or other birds during handling, transport or slaughter.

Humanely-Raised and Free-Range is Better, Right?

As people become aware of the miserable conditions birds endure in the poultry industry, companies are attempting to appease customers by describing turkey meat as “humane” or “free-range” and other feel-good classifications. Unfortunately, these labels are largely insubstantial and the overwhelming similarities between practices on a supposedly “alternative” farm and those of a more conventional one far outweigh any differences.  While most “free-range” farms do offer outdoor pens, overcrowding is similar to indoor operations and painful mutilations are still routine.

While visiting Animal Place, a farmed animal rescue sanctuary in Grass Valley, California, I met Dakota, who puffed up his large arc of white feathers as we approached. Dakota’s snood and waddle (the wrinkly skin around his beak and neck) were a brilliant bluish purple. As we got closer and started talking to him, the folds of skin turned a dazzling red! This amazing talent can be an expressive indicator of his mood. What an incredible being and so beautiful! But poor Dakota’s feet were terribly deformed. His toes looked like swollen stumps.

Dakota had been rescued from a free-range facility where 20,000 birds were overcrowded in outdoor pens. Workers had not only painfully removed a portion of his beak, but had also cut off his toes. This must have been an excruciating experience for the young turkey.

If a turkey is treated with kindness and has plenty of space, he will not normally use his claws against others, but because of the overcrowding and brutal handling, stressed turkeys use their thick nails to defend themselves, which can be dangerous to workers or other birds. Rather than treat them humanely and give them the space they need, the industry has deemed it to be more convenient to cut off not just the nails, but the first and sometimes the second section of the turkey’s toes so they will not grow back, all without anesthesia. This is a common practice even with labels like “humane” and “free-range.” The open wounds often get infected and swell, making it incredibly painful for the turkeys to walk.

The similarly cruel practice of de-beaking is also routinely performed, no matter the label, where a sizable portion of the beak is burned off when the turkeys are just chicks. Not only is this a painful mutilation, but turkeys use their beaks to preen, to groom, to peck and to eat, all of which can be impaired with a disfigured beak, causing lifelong suffering.

There is a dark side to the romanticized notion of animals “free-ranging” outside. In harsh weather, heavy rain, freezing temperatures, cold wind, sleet or snow, outdoor operations may not have adequate indoor space for the birds to get out of the weather. In nature, turkeys would seek out natural barriers to bad weather like trees, bushes or slopes in the terrain. Thousands of birds overcrowded in a muddy, outdoor pen are often unable to escape the weather. Turkey farming, no matter the label, does not provide for the bird’s complex needs and the result is a miserable, short life.

Butterball’s Tall Tale

Butterball provides one-fifth of the U.S. supply of turkey meat producing one billion pounds annually. The company announced in the fall of 2014, just in time for Thanksgiving, all of their products will have the “American Humane Certified” label. Of course, this will make consumers feel that conditions must be significantly improved for the turkeys and that Butterball is providing a healthier, more humane product. But what does the label really mean for the millions of condemned turkeys currently awaiting the holiday holocaust?

The label’s requirements are so lax, most are already in practice, such as the basic provisions that require adequate food and clean water. It is likely that very few of the Butterball facilities will have to make any improvements at all. Under the American Humane Certified label, there are no requirements for animals to have access to the outside, so windowless indoor buildings are still the standard, and the stocking density requirement (how crowded the birds are) is 1 square foot of space for every 7.88 pounds of bird. This is only slightly more space than the typical industry standard. Birds are still de-beaked and de-toed, are still bred to become painfully overweight and still go to the same horrifying death as all of the other non-certified turkeys.

The American Humane certification is designed to be industry-friendly, so producers can still cram thousands of birds into windowless buildings and have a pacifying label on the product. This is nothing more than humane-washing to cover up the inexcusable and horrifying reality of confining and killing animals.

Visceral Veganism

There is an added element to contemplate when considering the Thanksgiving turkey. The traditional way to serve the dead animal is to pack the turkey’s body with stuffing–up the bird’s disemboweled rectal cavity. The anus has been removed, but let’s face it, it’s still basically stuffing food up a dead animal’s rectum. This is a repugnant revelation when you truly stop to reflect on it. The visceral reaction to this is disgust, and rightly so. Animal’s bodies are similar to ours and the thought of eating out of someone’s rump should be seen as filthy, offensive and incredibly distasteful. Eating dead bodies in any form is revolting, but this method is particularly ghastly.

A New Tradition of Compassion

In the recent past, the majority of U.S. citizens favored slavery. They resisted those who were fighting for the abolition of people of color. If you lived 150 years ago and were white, do you think that you would be in favor of freeing the slaves? Or do you think that you would be in the majority of traditionalists who wanted to keep the status quo. This is the question that will be asked in another 150 years, when people look back and say, how could a dead bird in the middle of the dining table have ever been a traditional symbol of gratitude and family? Don’t you want to be on the compassionate side of history? Let the Thanksgiving tradition evolve to a new standard of kindness and let’s resolve to shed no blood in the name of a holiday celebration.

We can create a new tradition and host a vegan Thanksgiving dinner for family and friends. It could be an intimate gathering of just close friends and family or a large community potluck. However we decide to celebrate our gratitude, let’s be brave and forward-thinking enough to initiate a new tradition of compassion. There are numerous delicious vegan options for holiday centerpieces such as Tofurky Roast, Field Roast’s Celebration Roast and Gardein’s Savory Stuffed Turk’y, just to name a few. A stuffed pumpkin or other large squash can also make a beautiful centerpiece. All the traditional side dishes can be made vegan easily with non-dairy milks and other plant-based alternatives. There is even vegan egg nog and I can personally attest that it is delightful!

Tradition should uplift and strengthen a community. As long as a tradition causes suffering, it is hindering our entire society’s ability to thrive. By practicing compassion, love and kindness, we can create a society where our holiday traditions facilitate a better world, for ourselves and all species on earth.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Denying The Freedom of Flight: The Story of Silk

Many people aren’t aware of how silk is produced, or even that it comes from a living creature. Having just spun their cocoons around their bodies for metamorphosis, billions of silkworms are boiled to death, unable to complete the remarkable transformation to a silk moth. They will never know the freedom of flight and fulfill their natural destiny of metamorphosis.

Chinese geneticists Shao-Yu Yang and colleagues have found DNA evidence suggesting that the silkworm domestication process may have begun 7,500 years ago. Silkworms are the larval form of the domesticated silk moth, Bombyx mori. The silk moth’s native habitat is northern China. They were domesticated from their wild cousin Bombyx mandarina, which still fly in their natural habitat today. The largest silk industry today is in India, followed by China and Japan.

The silkworms (technically a caterpillar) are the larval stage of the silk moth. They are fed their discriminating diet of mulberry leaves and eventually spin a pillowy, egg-shaped cocoon around their bodies in preparation for metamorphisms to a silk moth. It can take a silkworm up to three days to fashion the cocoon from one continuous, delicate thread of up to a mile long! (p.115 Bleating Hearts. Hawthorne) The cocoons are then boiled (or baked or steamed) in large vats by the millions to kill the worm inside. Then the long, continuous fibers from the cocoons are unwound and spun into thread, then woven into fabrics. Manufacturers don’t allow for the natural emergence of the moth as it damages the fibers. When the metamorphosis is complete, the moth secretes a liquid that dissolves the cocoon. The creature is killed in the cocoon to avoid blemishing the product.

“Humane,” “ahimsa,” or “peace” silks allow the worms to develop into moths and hatch from the cocoon. The hatching moth breaks the materials into short fibers, which are spun and woven into a silk that is more like raw silk (also known as noil). It is stubby and rough and not shiny. It is also much more expensive to produce, and because of all those reasons, the market for this alternative silk is extremely small. The insects are still “farmed” and crowded in small containers.

There is also a human cost as many silk factories treat their workers poorly and exploit children. The conditions are difficult, the silk fibers continually cuts into workers’ fingers, and reaching into the scalding hot water to check the cocoons is an common part of the job. In Bleating Hearts by author and activist Mark Hawthorne, he states, “India’s silk industry exploits hundreds of thousands of children, many as young as 5, who have essentially been sold into slavery.” He continues, “Children complain that owners beat and abuse them verbally.” (p.116 Bleating Hearts, Hawthorne)

I have been vegan for 28 years and silk and fish are issues very close to my heart as a wildlife lover. These are the two industries where we kill wildlife by the billions. To deny any creature the fulfillment of their destiny to becoming an individual who can fly seems beyond cruel to me. We prevent billions of beings the natural process of completing their life cycle, mating, and experiencing flying, all for an unnecessary, expensive, luxury fabric.

Some people might say, “they are just insects.” But insects are incredibly important to our planet. Insects pollinate many of our fruits, flowers, and vegetables. They help keep a balance in nature by keeping plants and other insects at stable levels. They are also the sole food source for many amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. We benefit in so many ways by sharing the planet with insects. We need insects.  We inevitably do kill them inadvertently with some of our daily activities, such as driving, which is unfortunate, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to kill an insect if I can help it. If there is an insect in my path, I will step over them, if there is one in my house, I do my best to get them outside alive and well and if I have a choice to buy fabric that doesn’t hurt someone, I will pick the one that does the least harm. I want to allow life to continue and flourish whenever I can and avoiding silk is another way I can do this. It is completely unnecessary for me to buy silk as there are numerous other fabric options and I don’t need it.

When I inquired about the practices of their silk production with a popular fabric company who had ecological and other ethical practices touted on their website, they replied, “We buy from a couple of sources who are as reputable as we can find, but that being said, they all boil the worms. That is how it has been done since the use of silk was discovered.” It’s heartbreaking, and so unnecessary. Please don’t buy silk.


Not In My Backyard: The Day My Quiet Cul-De-Sac Turned Into a Bloodbath

I live in a rural area of Sonoma County, California in the town of Penngrove. It’s farm country and there isn’t much more in the tiny downtown block than a burger joint and bars. But it’s a beautiful, peaceful area. The golden hills glimmer in the distance and mature, majestic oak trees shade the wild turkeys and deer in our neighborhood. My husband and I have been in this area for over a decade and while a miniature horse and some goats in a field is a common sight, chickens were not, that is up until a few years ago. The popularity of having chickens at home has grown and now we see flocks of chickens everywhere. Across the street, there is a chicken “tractor” (a mobile chicken coop) in a large field. We often see colorful chickens wandering and scratching around front yards as we take our evening walk.

So when our new neighbors built a chicken coop in their backyard, I wasn’t surprised, but I was concerned. Our four duplexes share a laundry and I walk directly in front of this neighbor’s house on a regular basis. He is often outside in a cloud of cigarette smoke. When the chickens first came, I braved inhaling a haze of second-hand smoke to inquire about the birds. He said that he got them for eggs. I said, “You’re not going to kill them are you?” He said no, that it was just for the eggs. I reminded him that he should adopt chickens if he was going to get any more, but doubted that he would care one way or the other about something like this as he blew smoke away from my direction.

A few months later, I was walking some laundry out to the machines. As I glanced in this neighbor’s front yard, he and two other men were standing around a tall, green, plastic garbage can. There was a scuffle and I couldn’t quite figure out what was happening at first, then I saw his arms spotted in blood and a big black bird flapping her wings furiously as she was being held upside down by both men in the garbage can. Her large ebony wings beat desperately against his arms. The third man was skinning the sandy colored feathers off another chicken and there was a third little body, colorless, headless, featherless, and with her feet cut off, balanced on the top of the garbage can. I dropped my laundry basket and screamed, “What are you doing!?!?!” The neighbor was immediately uncomfortable. He said, “Oh, sorry Hope.” One of the other men looked at me and said, “We’re gonna BBQ!!”

I ran back to my apartment and grabbed my cell phone and then back to the scene of the horror and with trembling hands started taking pictures while I pleaded with him to stop. There wasn’t another bird out there, just the three that were now still and silent. He said that these three were the “old ass chickens.” I assume he meant that they were not laying eggs as frequently as the others in his backyard.

Through my tears, I reminded him that he had promised that he wasn’t going to kill the chickens. He didn’t say much, just apologized again. He knows my feelings as he sees my vegan bumper stickers every day and we have talked on a couple of occasions about veganism and not killing animals. It seemed to me like he felt “caught in the act.” I can only hope that he does feel a degree of guilt and not just embarrassment about doing something his neighbor disapproves of.

I was so upset I forgot my laundry basket which sat out in the driveway for hours and I cried my eyes out. It was sickening to witness. My neighbor literally had blood on his hands from taking a precious life not 50 feet from my front door, and there was nothing I could do about it. The fact that these men were executing this repulsive act in a garbage can felt terribly symbolic of how they seemed to feel about these birds. They treated them like garbage and left their heads, feet, feathers, and other parts of their little bodies to be thrown away with the trash.

I called our mutual landlord to complain about my neighbor’s blatant act of barbarity. He sympathized with me but said only that he would tell the murdering neighbor that he should do it in a more private and secluded area of his backyard in the future. I know that it is legal to kill animals who are your “property” as long as you do it “humanely.” But what can be humane about taking a sentient being’s life? And although throat cutting and beheading are considered “humane” methods of killing, they certainly are not. Throat slashing is a painful, traumatic way to die and it can take agonizing, frightening minutes for someone to bleed out. Killing an animal who wants to live can never be humane. This idea that we can “humanely” take the life of another animal is an outrage. And I am outraged that it is happening in my backyard…in anyone’s backyard.

The idea that it is somehow better to “kill your own” baffles me. One argument that my neighbor might use is that the animal had a good life and this is her “one bad day.” But what about all the other days of life you are depriving her? What about all the days of sunshine, eating, playing with friends, and loving being alive? It’s not just one bad day, it’s denying someone a lifetime of experience, robbing them of the full knowledge of life. We don’t want our human life cut short, how can we justify taking the life of another sentient being who wants to live when it is completely unnecessary and we live healthier as vegans.

Another position that people who kill animals themselves take is that the person is now aware of the process and “knows where their food comes from.” But this is only useful to that person. The animal receives no benefit from this concept. If they took care of the animal, fed and cleaned and provided for this animal, then a bond of trust was formed between the caregiver and the dependent. To turn on someone who you care for and kill them is a terrible betrayal of trust. In fact, it’s the ultimate betrayal. This phrase is the title of my book on the subject of small scale animal agriculture. For a broader, in depth analysis of this issue, I encourage you to read my book.

I haven’t seen my neighbor since that horrible day which is unusual as he is typically out in his haze of smoke several times a day. I think he has moved his habit to the backyard so he doesn’t have to look me in the eye. I hope that my reaction made him think deeply about what he did. There is a different energy now when I walk past his place and out to the laundry. It feels somber and sad knowing what occurred there. It’s horrible to live with but only strengthens my resolve to fight for these beautiful birds and help bring about the day when they no longer suffer at human hands.




Planet of the Apes: Speciesism Exposed

by Hope Bohanec, Executive Director, Compassionate Living

The third installment of the epic prequel to the original Planet of the Apes movies came out recently and I was captivated along with everyone else in the theatre. Cheering for the mass extinction of your own species is an peculiar feeling– a little unnerving when you pause to think about it– but so easy to get on board when the human species’ litany of destructive, vicious, and callous actions are on full display as they so expertly were in this trilogy.

These three films are a startling illustration of speciesism, the assumption of human superiority resulting in the exploitation of animals. Many doomsday scenario films fill us with dread of asteroids and trepidation of severe weather events, but this apocalypse– or ape-ocalypse as graffiti on a wall suggests in the third film– is more subtle, emerging from our arrogance, greed, and disregard for other species. I am not the only one to perceive the speciesist themes of the movie that this writer also points out in her article where she explains that “War for the Planet of the Apes” inspired her to go vegetarian.

Starting with the first instalment of the trilogy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, we meet young Caser, who was born in a laboratory experimenting on apes for a potential Alzheimer’s drug. The death of his mother is one of the most tragic scenes in all three films. Laboratory workers are trying to forcefully take her out of her cage, not knowing that she has just given birth. She was hiding her infant from them and gets violent when she feels she had no other way of protecting him from the humans. After escaping through the building, she is dramatically shot dead on a board room table where the drug company executives were plotting to make billions on the drug that had been tested on her. The symbolism was not subtle.

The movie goes on to expose an ape “sanctuary” which appears to be progressive, but behind closed doors, the apes are taunted, tortured, and tormented. Caser plots an escape for himself and the other sad and somber simian inmates in this horrible prison. When a worker who had been extremely cruel to the apes is killed in the breakout, we get a sense of justice— that he got what was coming to him, once again, sympathizing deeply with the animals. As Caser and the others swing to freedom, heading for the Golden Gate Bridge, they detour to the San Francisco Zoo and free the monkeys and apes held captive there, just to spotlight another horrible institution where we enslave other species. The movie won’t let us find any shelter from the storm of oppression toward animals and in the end, we are desperately rooting for the apes as they face a barrage of bullets just to flee the city.

In the second film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014, Cesar and his fellow simians establish a thriving colony in the forest as the human race dies off from the deadly, contiguous, and quickly spreading sickness caused by the experimental Alzheimer’s drug– the same drug that made the monkeys “smart.” Cesar seeks peace with the humans, warning them to stay out of the forest and all would be amicable. But another ape, Koba, is full of hatred toward humans. Koba was experimented on for many years in a laboratory. His scars, gimpy gate, and cloudy eye show the years of captivity and torture. When Cesar allows the humans to come into the forest to work on their generator, Koba objects and Cesar says, “Let them do their human work.” Koba replies by pointing to a scar on his arm and groans, “human work” then points to his blind eye and says, “human work.” In the end, Koba starts the war with the humans, but they started a war on him and his body long before. It was human greed and indifference that filled Koba with rage, a rage that would set in motion the ultimate downfall of humanity.

In the final movie, War for the Planet of the Apes in 2017, Cesar is still seeking peace. He again offers mercy and asks the humans just to leave them alone. But the humans fear an ape uprising and seek to destroy them. As the animals are fleeing to the desert, a sadistic colonel captures the apes and confines them in a labor camp where they are forced to work with no food or water.

In this final film, I saw reflections to our human history of racism and xenophobia, and reminders that it’s not only animals we are cruel too, but each other as well. In the prison camp the apes who are too dehydrated to work are whipped by other apes, defectors who have joined with the humans. These collaborators are in charge of the slave-apes and dispense “punishments.” This was reminiscent of African-Americans slavery. Usually it was black men, sometimes called foremen or overseers, who would supervise the slave camps and whip those who got out of line. Often these men saw this as their only means of survival.

There is also a sinister scene where the Colonel is standing in a doorway high above the camp overlooking the “donkeys” brutalizing the ape prisoners while he shaves his head. It was eerily similar to a scene in the classic film “Schindler’s List,” a historical drama about Nazi occupied Germany, where the top military man is standing on a balcony above a concentration camp while the soldiers are terrorizing and killing people below as he casually shaves his face. I doubt that this was an allusion that only I recognized.

We see so much of the worst of humanity in the Colonel. Maintaining the superiority of the human species at all costs is the only thing of any importance to him and he is ruthless in that focus. Cesar tells him he has no mercy. The Colonel is a mirror into the mindset of the modern human. We want to keep our control of the comforts of life, our dominance of the planet, and our power over nature. We want to continue to enslave and kill other species for food we don’t need and persist with unrestrained industry at the expense of wildlife, nature, and a livable planet. These movies are a dire warning, a wakeup call to the human race that we are going down a very dark path and our arrogance will be our downfall. We have to live differently on this planet, or we may not be able to live here at all. We must take Cesar’s offer of peace and stop enslaving animals, destroying nature, and hating each other. In the meantime, I’m rooting for the apes!

Stick With the Vegan Message, It IS Working!

Long time animal rights activist Matt Ball, who co-founded Vegan Outreach, posted a video on YouTube on May 27, 2017 titled “Want to save animals’ lives without going veg? Eat beef, not chicken,”

Click here to view the video

Perhaps many animal rights advocates can sympathize with Matt Ball’s frustration that vegan advocacy has not had more effect, but his assessment that the movement has been a “failure” is grossly overstating the point. Even more alarming is his “new-and-improved” message of telling people to exclude only chickens from the diet. While his data is essentially correct, his strategy does not follow. It is true that the majority of farmed animals slaughtered are chickens, and it is true that if someone stopped eating chickens– even if their beef and pork intake increased, which it most likely would– they would kill fewer animals as chicken’s bodies are smaller and produce less meat per animal.

I use this same data to emphasize the need to focus our advocacy on chickens, since they are 97% of the animals killed for food. However, while I encourage activim focued on chickens for reasons similar to Ball’s contention, I feel that we should not focus on chickens at the expense of other animals.

Let’s take a closer look at Ball’s message of solely cutting out chickens from one’s diet. If someone stops eating chickens and instead replaces chicken flesh with beef and pork, that will increase the demand for cow and pig slaughter. While it would reduce the amount of animals killed overall due to the animal’s size, the end result is not a non-violent world where no animals suffer in slaughterhouses. It’s creating a world where a smaller amount of different animals suffer in slaughterhouses, but the numbers of animals killed is no less staggering. While one could say this is slightly better, does this message facilitate our goal of creating a non-violent, vegan world?

Ball’s recommended strategy seems like a confused and mixed message that is discordant with the overall spirit of our objective (as animal rights activists)– to end the suffering of all animals. His message would need to be thoroughly explained and nuanced if it were to make any sense for the general public. On the surface is seems as arbitrary as “don’t eat a dog, but do eat a pig.”

There is also the consideration of fish. If someone stops eating chickens and instead eats fish, then no improvement will have been made to reduce animal suffering since fish are similar in size to chickens. In fact, some fish consumed are smaller and weigh less than a chicken. If the focus is solely on the number of animals killed, switching to fish could increase the number if by-catch (non-target marine species caught and killed in the nets, long-lines, etc.) is included as well as the consideration that some fish are smaller than chickens.

Ball is vague about his recommendation. Are we to understand that the main message of the animal rights movement should be to not eat chicken but instead to eat larger animals? If that is what he means to say, this strategy makes little sense if it were delivered to people who would be willing to go vegan–or even to reduce meat consumption– with some support, tactful persuasion, and education. Delivering Ball’s message to such a potentially “vegan-inclined” or “flexitarian” audience would amount to enabling people in their meat eating by endorsing the consumption of animals.

Ball’s message (i.e. to focus on persuading people to stop eating chicken only) may be an effective message in certain circumstances where someone has expressed that they would never give up or reduce meat consumption, but may still have the desire to help reduce overall animal suffering. In such a specific, isolated instance this message could be offered as a step –albeit a small one– that one might take in the right direction of relieving some modicum of animal suffering. But it is a dangerous overstatement to say, as the video seems to, that the vegan message has been a failure and the entire movement needs to change our strategy to this new rhetoric of focusing on the abstention of chickens from the diet.

If Ball’s strategy were followed, we would be offering people who may have the potential of reducing total meat consumption, going vegetarian, or even becoming vegan an endorsement to eat meat. In fact, we wouldn’t be anti-meat anymore; we would be pro-beef, pro-turkey, pro-lamb, pro-fish, and pro-pork. If Ball’s suggestion is that this should be the predominant (or exclusive?) message of the movement, then it would no longer be a movement to end animal suffering.

If Ball’s message was exclusively delivered to people who would never consider either giving up meat, or cutting back on meat, then perhaps his message could save some lives within this small, targeted audience. However, the problem remains as to how an activist is to distinguish between someone who would be willing to reduce overall meat consumption or become a vegan/vegetarian, from the ardent, intransigent meat-eater. The stakes of this discernment are high: an activist either becomes complacent with a watered down message or engages in effective activism. In the absence of a clear method of discernment (if such a method could exist), it would be best to err on the side of reducing the most suffering rather than complicity. Ball’s message of cutting out the consumption of chickens should therefore not be generalized to the public because it would have an enabling effect on the consumption of meat for people who would just as easily be persuaded by recommendations to reduce or eliminate meat consumption.

It’s important also to address Ball’s overstatement that the vegan movement is a “failure.” While society might not be changing as fast as we want, we have certainly made significant progress. Ball states that the movement started in the 1970’s, but the shift in focus from animals in laboratories and entertainment to animals bred and killed for food only began in the 1990’s. This movement is in its infancy, especially when compared to the time frames of other historic social movements.

There is ample evidence to counter Mr. Ball’s claim that the number of vegans is not increasing. This is a quote taken from the Wikipedia page “Vegetarianism by Country” about the amount of vegetarians and vegans in the United States:

“In 1971, 1% of U.S. citizens described themselves as vegetarians.[104] In 2008 Harris Interactive found that 3.2% are vegetarian and 0.5% vegan,[105] while a 2013 Public Policy Polling survey found that 13% of Americans are either vegetarian or vegan—6% vegetarian and 7% vegan.[106]

This Vegetarian Resource Group poll (in association with Harris Poll) has concluded that in 2016 there were 3.7 million vegans compared with half a million in 1995. This is a substantial increase in just twenty or so years. Another assessment from a report called Top Trends in Prepared Foods in 2017 concluded that veganism is up 500% since 2014.

The signs and examples of the proliferation of veganism in our mainstream culture are too numerous to list. But just to mention a few– the American Medical Association (AMA) just passed a resolution that calls on hospitals to serve plant-based meals and to eliminate bacon, sausage, hot dogs, ham, and all other processed meats. Kaiser Permanente advises cardiac patients to adopt a plant-based diet. The availably and diversity of animal-free meats, cheeses and other foods has increased not only in Los Angeles and New York, but also in rural areas like Kentucky and Oklahoma. Harvard Magazine recently published an article about the rise of vegan culture. This is only one such article out of hundreds that are written every year.

What we as animal advocates want is nothing short of a complete transformation of our food system to a world where animals are no longer exploited and harmed for food production. This is not going to happen overnight. While any effective social movement needs to adapt and evolve strategies, we must stick to our message of decreasing and eliminating animal products– not just a shift in the types of products consumed. We should always evaluate our effectiveness and our tactics–and I applaud Ball for doing so– but shifting the primary message of our entire mission (if that is in fact what he is proposing) is confusing and risky.

We must not give up on the potential for people to make compassionate choices and we must be steadfast in our dedication to the dream of a non-violent world for animals. We cannot let our goal be obstructed by our tactics. The vegan message is working, so let’s be resolute in our objective of total animal liberation and not weaken or neglect this as the primary message of our movement.





Sayonara Circus! The Demise of Ringling Bros. Circus and What It Means for Farmed Animals

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily Circus had their final show this week in New York. After 146 years of abusing animals for entertainment, the “cruelest show on earth” finally closed its doors. This victory for animal rights advocates is nothing short of historic. I never thought I would live to see this behemoth of entertainment collapses, but a thousand small cuts from a compassionate community brought down a giant.

In May of 2016, Ringling announced that they were going to retire their elephants from the shows. While this in itself was a huge victory, there were still dozens of other animals of other species that would continue to be confined in trucks and train cars only to come out to whips and other devices of submission and pain, forced to perform unnatural and dangerous acts.

Soon after the announcement to retire the elephants, ticket sales took a “dramatic drop” and the company announced full closure later that year. This is fantastic news for the lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos, horses, and llamas who still made up the miserable animal menagerie at Ringling. No more animals will be breed, taken from their mothers, beaten, and forced to perform for Ringling’s circus. Never again.

While I didn’t directly assist in Ringling’s downfall, other than showing up for some Bay Area protest with activist friends in the last decade, I did help get the ball rolling against the circus in the 1990’s. I was active back then with the group SPAR, Sonoma People for Animal Rights, and I organized our vigorous circus campaign, protesting smaller circuses who came through Sonoma County, CA with a variety of animals.

Dedicated SPAR activists educated circus attendees about the cruelty that animals endure during training and travel. We shot video and got footage of elephants shackled by the foot on just two feet of heavy chain, horses without water in the blazing summer sun, and tigers in their tiny cages pacing back and forth. We would call the authorities and try to get citations issued, showing them footage on our bulky hand-held video cameras as there were no cell phones or wide-spread use of internet then. We even got Rohnert Park, CA. to pass an ordinance banning wild animal entertainment acts in the city limits.

Eventually, we had our own small victory and the circuses stopped coming to Sonoma County.

Soon after, like many in the animal rights community, I shifted my focus to the much larger issue of animal agriculture and farming animals for food. Larger in terms of animals impacted, as there were only a few hundred circus animals in the U.S., but millions of animals killed for food each year. We acknowledged that circus animals didn’t suffer any less, but that we could possibly save more lives by creating a vegan world.

I am now so grateful for the few devoted activists who stuck to the circus issue and I hope they are reveling in this extraordinary victory, as anyone who cares about animals should. They deserve a great deal of praise and thanks for a job well done.

With numerous countries banning the use of animals in traveling acts, zoos, and aquariums, animals abused for entertainment will soon be a shameful relic of a barbaric past. People are beginning to have sympathy for suffering animals forced to perform or confined in amusement parks and this concern is gradually extending to farmed animals as well.

Concern for animals bred and killed for food is on the rise as meat sales are declining. Though our work is far from over, I believe the path forward will bring an awakening as we evolve to become a truly compassionate society where no animal suffers at human hands.

Because of the commitment and courage of dedicated activists, the pillars of animal abuse are falling, with Ringling being one of the first enormous pillars to crumble, and more are sure to follow. Let’s take a moment to celebrate and recognize how monumental this is. With vigilance and veganism, we will see an end to all animal cruelty.


Ethical Eggs?

by Hope Bohanec, Executive Director, Compassionate Living

I love having conversations about chickens. Luckily, I get to chat about chickens quite often though my work with as an animal advocate, but my joy can turn quickly to frustration as I often get asked which eggs are ethical to eat. People are always cooking up potential scenarios, “What if it’s from my local, natural foods store? They research and only buy the best of the best” or, “If the eggs are from the farmer’s market, then it’s ok, right?” or, “If it’s a neighbors chicken, or my own chicken, and I know that she is having a good life and won’t be killed, can I eat the eggs?”

The answer to all of these possible situations is “No.” Here’s why:

As long as eggs are considered food, hens will be considered a food production unit. Even if there is this implausible, rare, ideal circumstance where the hen is actually in totally humane conditions (and if you are buying an egg, it is almost assuredly that this is not the case), there is no way we could feed over seven billion people this way. It simply can’t be done profitably.

We must stop looking at chicken’s eggs, and her flesh for that matter, as food. We cannot consider animals as commodities any more. No matter how ethical one operation wants to be – mistreatment, abuse, misery, and corruption will exist in another. We must end the use of animals as food.

Buying Eggs from the Natural Foods Store or Farmer’s Market

If you are buying eggs from a health food store or even a farmer’s market, no matter the size of the farm or the label on the carton, there are hidden cruelties that are economically necessary to making income on eggs.

Egg farms can’t profitably hatch their own chicks. They purchase chicks from huge, heartless hatcheries where the baby birds are hatched not in a warm nest with a mother hen’s love and affection, but rather they are thrust into a frightening world of conveyer belts and metal machinery, roughly tossing them about like inanimate objects. The males don’t grow fast enough to be profitable for meat, so they are killed just hours after hatching by the millions. Thrown away alive in dumpsters outside the hatcheries to slowly die of exposer and dehydration or ground up alive in maceration machines for fertilizer or other products.

Just because there is a label on the eggs that says “humane” or “cage-free” or “free-range” almost certainly does not mean that these hens lived a happy life. Many of these farms are still over-crowding debeaked hens in windowless warehouses where they suffer in filth.

A small, cage-free or free-range farm will not be able to feed all the chickens whose egg production has waned. They can’t profitably “retire” hundreds of hens, so birds that are only a couple years old will be killed by brutal methods such as slow and painful gassing, being buried alive and throat slashing when they could (and want to) live many more years of life.

Getting eggs from a neighbor or small farm “down the street”

There may be scenarios where someone is able to get eggs from a neighbor or a small farm in their area. And perhaps the hens appear to be living the “good life” on this farm or in a backyard. Why can’t we eat these eggs? First of all, you don’t know the whole story. Even a neighbor could have purchased the chicks from a feed store or from mail order, thereby giving money to the cruel hatchery industry and subjecting new born chicks to the horrors of being shipped through the mail. The only ethical way to obtain a chicken is to rescue her from a sanctuary, humane society, or from a bad situation.

But even if the hens were rescued, have a clean, protected enclosure and will be able to live out their lives in peace, (which is rarely the case), we still should not eat their eggs. Such an improbable situation could only feed very few people in a rural area with access to this backyard or small farm. This operation would not be able to consistently supply the neighborhood, or local restaurants or groceries for that matter. To be profitable, they would have to start purchasing chicks and “getting rid of” the chickens that are not producing efficiently. They would need to start keeping more hens in a smaller space and so it starts; going down the same road that lead us to industrial, large-scale farming.

This romanticized notion that we can go back to pastoral days of small, ethical farming is a delusion. Confining, breeding, and farming animals for their flesh and bodily secretions was never humane. As long as we consider eggs food, the probability for exploitation will always be present. “Humane” farming of chickens to feed the billions of people on the planet is impossible.

Identifying as Vegan

It’s important that we identify as vegans, abstaining from all meat, dairy and eggs. You may eat only eggs that you think are ethical, but you are then identifying as an egg eater. Let’s say that you are at a friend’s house and she baked some muffins. She says there are eggs in them, but they are from a “good source.” Because you eat eggs, you believe her, and don’t think much about it and eat a muffin. But that “good source” could be a cage-free farm where the hens are debeaked, never feel the sun on their feathers or the earth beneath them and live a short, miserable life.

The better scenario is to say, “Thanks, but I’m vegan” and not eat the muffin. This demonstrates that it is highly suspect that the eggs were from happy hens and we are choosing not to exploit animals for their bodies anymore. You can then bake some delicious vegan muffins for your friend to try next time!

As long as a hen’s eggs, or her flesh, are considered food, there is the potential for abuse. Assuming that we can feed the billions people on the planet with “backyard” eggs is a fantasy. As I say in my book The Ultimate Betrayal, “It is not our methods of animal agriculture that need to change, it is our unwillingness to give up animal products and animal farming.” We must stop this cycle of use and abuse, live a truly cruelty-free, vegan lifestyle, and stop eating eggs.

(this article is a reprint from 2015, but still relevant and worthy of a Spring re-post)

Year of the Chicken

January 28th marked the Chinese New Year. Each year, the Chinese zodiac has a corresponding animal that represents a 12-year cycle. A person’s birth year matches to one of twelve animals on the zodiac rooster-2017calendar and 2017 is the Year of the Rooster (or, depending on the gender, the Year of the Chicken). This so happens to be the corresponding animal to my birth year, 1969. Many East Asian countries celebrate each animal on the calendar for various virtues and personality traits corresponding to the person. Asian restaurants often have the Chinese zodiac wheel of animals and the corresponding birth years on paper placemats for a fun connection to the twelve animals.

I have always loved that the rooster was my Chinese zodiac animal. While many of the farmed animals are represented (ox, pig, goat, rabbit), I have a particularly close affinity for chickens, not only because I work for the world’s only organization focused on protecting chickens, United Poultry Concerns, but because I have information about these beautiful creatures that most people do not have. I know how intelligent, emotional, and social these birds are and I also know that they are, without a doubt, the most abused animals on the planet and in the greatest numbers.

For every one pig killed an eaten, 60 chickens are killed. For every one cow that is killed and eaten, 190 chickens are killed. Each year, 35 million cows are killed in the U.S., 35 million chickens are killed each day. And they are in the worst condition and suffer the most in brutal battery cages, at the heartless hatcheries, and at the slaughterhouse. These birds are the largest number of abused warm-blooded animals in the world. Along with the billions of chickens who are slaughtered for their flesh and eggs each year, millions more suffer in laboratories, get dumped in animal shelters, and die miserably in poultry houses without anyone knowing that they ever lived.

RoosterWhat we’ve learned about the avian brain and behavior in just the last 15 years contradicts hundreds of years of misinformed views about chickens and other birds. Much of what was previously thought to be the exclusive domain of human / primate communication, brain and cognitive function, and social behavior, is now being uncovered in chickens and other birds. Chickens are far more intelligent and cognitively sophisticated than previously believed. They express emotion like grief, fear, enthusiasm, anxiety, frustration, boredom and friendship. They communicate distinct vocalizations and behaviors that convey a wide range of information pertaining to territory, mating, nesting, distress, danger or fear, contentment, and food discovery.

Sciences is also learning that chickens can be deceptive and cunning, that they possesses communication skills on par with those of some primates and dolphins, and that they uses sophisticated signals to convey their intentions. When making decisions, the chicken takes into account its own prior experience and knowledge surrounding the situation.

As we are discovering the complexity of chickens, it is fitting that this is the Year of the Rooster. These birds have an ability beyond humans to see the infrared light of the morning an hour or so before humans do, so the rooster alerts us to the coming dawn with a robust crow. Just as the rooster calls us awake in the morning, I hope that the Year of the Rooster will \wake us up to the beauty, grace, and amazing complexity of the chicken and bring the dawn of a new era of compassion for these beautiful birds. year of the rooster circleEach day brings a new opportunity to move us closer to the day when no chicken suffers in human hands. Won’t you help to bring that day closer and get active for chickens. The Year of the Rooster is at hand.

A Holiday Happy Ending: Mama Hen and Seven Chicks Rescued from a Gas Station

The other morning I was pumping gas into my Prius when I saw a chick-rescue-1beautiful chicken hanging around the door of the gas station convenience store.  She had brown and black feathers with white specks like snow had just lightly fallen on her back. As I looked closer, I saw that this hen had several tiny chicks in the bushes behind her right outside the door of the gas station store. I looked around and thought that this was an unusual (and unsafe) place for her to hatch her clutch as chick-resuce-2there was nothing around that three foot square patch of bushes but concrete, cars, and a busy road.

I asked the workers in the store and they said that there were eight chicks when they first hatched, but now there were only seven. As the cold drizzle started to fall, darkening the color of the concrete, the hen puffed out her wings a bitchick-rescue-4 and the babies huddled under her for protection.

I knew I couldn’t leave them there. I started making calls.

Compassionate Living board members Melanie and Russ Walker dropped everything and were at the gas station within a half hour with an animal crate and towels. I had been sitting near the mama hen working on getting her used to me. We bought sunflower seeds from the store and feed her a few. She was  coming right up to me as I was talking to her. I got my hands near her as she was pecking at a seed and quickly gripped chick-rescue6her and gently put her into the crate. Next it was all hands on deck snatching scattering, peeping chicks! We quickly gathered all seven and put them in with mom.

A new farmed animal sanctuary called Goatlandia agreed to take the feathered family. Deb Blum, the founder of Goatlandia, has been caring for not only goats, but rescued pigs and a flock of a couple dozen chickens on her land in North Santa Rosa, California for many years. I was so grateful that she agreed to take them, and right away too. After we got the crate in my car, I headed directly there.

As a vegan activist, I think about farmed animals every day. I think about the suffering they endure, their horrible living conditions, the tortuous procedures they must undergo, the loneliness and misery they must feel, and what I can do to help them. But I rarely actually encounter or engage with animals, though I have been trained to handle them in rescue. It was a treat to have this family in my car and I was so moved by the soft, cautious vocalizations of the mama hen on the drive to the sanctuary. She seemed to be saying, “Yes, this is a somewhat distressing situation, but we will be okay. Its true kids, I’m a little concerned, but mom is here and we will be okay.”

When I arrived at the sanctuary, Deb was preparing a small coop that waschick-rescue-coop2 in a separate area, but near the chicken runs. She fluffed fresh straw on the ground and I helped her clean water and food dispensers and fill them. She prepared a large dog crate and lined the bottom with towels and then took a bulky towel, rolled it up, and formed a circle with it in the back of the crate. Deb knew just what she needed because as chick-rescue-deb2we coaxed the family out of the travel crate and into the larger dog crate, mama knew exactly what to do with the nest of towel. She immediately gathered her brood under her and settled down on the “nest”, seeming right at home.chick-resuce-coop

The next day, a storm rolled in to our area with a steady, cold rain and I had a smile on my face all day thinking about that little chick-rescuse-after1feathered family and how they were now safe, warm, and dry. Eight lives are now out of harm’s way, it was a good day. chick-rescue-chicks-in-pan

A huge thank you to Melanie and Russ Walker for quickly coming to the rescue and to Goatlandia for taking them in.

Climbing out of the Trump Slump

Trying to adjust to the dystopian reality of having a climate denier (amid an embarrassment of other dreadful things) as president of the United States has made for a challenging few weeks. I’m finally emerging from the fog of disbelief and despair, licking the wounds of anguish, and clearing my head of despondency. I have to now, more than ever, draw on my core strength of grassroots activism. Not that I ever put a great deal of stock in government making large strides in creating a sustainable future, but at least, for a few years, it felt like there was some leadership assistance pushing the burdensome boulder of climate mitigation and animal liberation up the mountain of complacency, but that arduous rock just came crashing down on our heads.

trump-fucking-the-earthTrump has pledged to revive the carbon emitting U.S. coal industry, create oil pipelines, roll back regulations protecting our air and water, and kill Obama’s Clean Power Plan that includes historic reductions from carbon pollution and expansion of the clean energy economy. Before the election, a study by Lux Research estimated that Trump’s energy policies would create 3.4 billion tons of additional carbon emissions in eight years, if he gets two terms.

It is now up to us to stand up, shake it off, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. We can no longer rely on our government to hear the thunderous warnings of the climate scientists; we have to save this planet ourselves, one person at a time, one plate at a time. We need a massive scale, global shift to a vegan diet.

We are at a critical time with the planet warming exponentially. Many scientists warn that to avoid catastrophic climate change, we need to keep the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gasses at 350 parts per million (ppm). This September, the planet registered at 400 ppm, surpassing that crucial threshold. We need immediate action to mitigate the damage that is coming from disastrous droughts, shattering storms, rising sea levels, climate refugees, and devastating famine.

The current trajectory for climate change mitigation is a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and alternative transportation options. This takes time, money, resources, infrastructure change, and most critical to our discussion here, government involvement. We no longer have the luxury of sitting back and hoping that whatever administration is in power will help this planet or her animals. We must step up and take control of the situation ourselves.

earth-wtih-handsOk, so here is the hopeful part amidst the doom and gloom. A global shift to a plant-based diet could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to help mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change, end the suffering of millions of farmed animals, and would take little or no time, money, resources, infrastructure change OR government involvement to make it happen. In fact, it could practically happen overnight. It would just take the will of the people to alter their food purchases to plants. It’s that simple. It can be done.

But it starts with you and me. Outreach is key and that is why I have dedicated my life to educating our community about the power of our plate and why it is so vital to choose only animal-free foods. But I can’t do it alone, Compassionate Living needs you! If you are in the Bay Area, won’t you make a commitment in 2017 to helping us promote a vegan diet on the grassroots level by volunteering for our Outreach Team? If time is tight and activism is not for you, perhaps you would become a monthly donor and help us sustain our outreach throughout the year.

In whatever way you can help, let’s climb out of the Trump Slump and get to work! The animals and the planet are counting on us.