May 31, 2007

Burnout, Depression, and Trauma in Animal Work

Posted in animal advocacy, burnout, recovery, trauma, violence at 5:31 pm by nevavegan

I must be a really bitter person, or maybe it’s my birthday coming up, but I seem to be just full of negative posts lately. I’m so sorry.

NOTE: This post contains descriptions of violence which may be upsetting or triggering to some.

Disclaimer: The following will just be some personal observations on this topic, as I’m not really qualified to discuss this beyond my own experience.

As Pattrice Jones has written, activists are particularly prone to trauma and need help in dealing with it. As animal advocates we are often in situations that are not healthy for anyone and naturally psychological stress is the result.

Pattrice states in her abolitionist-online interview that much of what we refer to as burnout in the movement is actually depression. Long years of discouragement, seeing horrible things over and over, it all adds up. That depression can be paralyzing and hold us back from action. It can also spur non-productive or even self-destructive action as well.

I don’t want to name names here, so I will be purposefully vague, but I have seen a number of leaders in the animal rights movement give small presentations on coping with burnout. In other cases the question of burnout arose in discussion periods following some other talk. While I appreciate the sincere efforts of those individuals I often found their comments rather unhelpful. Over and over I heard “We all suffer burnout and depression, but we just need to remember that the animals are suffering more, and so we should pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and keep going.”

At the time I found such a statement something that’s very easy for a person in a position of power to say. I don’t doubt that these leaders also suffered depression and stress and trauma, but as they were steering the ship, so to speak, their experience differed. Because being in a position of power gives that person a feeling of control and purpose. That can to some extent counteract the helplessness some of us in the ranks felt. I do think it’s harder in many ways to keep up the level of involvement, despite crippling depression, if your only role is to follow instructions. Especially if sometimes you doubt the wisdom of those instructions but know that you have no say in forming policy or direction.

I do also think perhaps these leaders should think twice before taking their own advice. I firmly feel that the way to deal with trauma, depression, and other mental and emotional health issues is to get help. People don’t realize when they’re in this fog how distorted their thinking might be, but I don’t think people who ignore their own mental health will make very good decisions or ultimately be terrific leaders or role models. It’s possible that people who are ignoring their own mental health and suffering crippling depression might treat others very badly without even realizing it.

I also suffered depression related to my work with animals, but my post traumatic stress disorder was something else, relating to an unconnected attack. One thing that is important to know about someone suffering trauma is that additional traumas tend to hit in different ways and can be particularly destructive.

As an example, I participated in a protest where I was asked to handcuff myself to a door. I did this, and within seconds of handcuffing myself to the door a security guard grabbed me by my neck and I blacked out. When I woke up I was in the street lying on my face, only I actually didn’t know where I was for a little while. And again, like the last time I was knocked out I was so incredibly nauseated and my head hurt so badly on coming to that I pretty much could not speak and couldn’t think about anything else. After a little while I remembered where I was and I realized that my hand had been pulled out of the handcuff a wide strip of skin was missing from the back of my hand and I had a smaller cut on my wrist. The police arrived asked the security guard if I was alive, and he said I was drunk (I was not, but he was hardly going to admit he’d knocked me out) and so the police kicked me (not hard) to try to get a response out of me, but I was still unable to respond.

This was a particularly bad experience naturally, made worse by my traumatic memories of what had happened to me the last time I’d been knocked out. When the police realized how badly I was hurt, they let me go, and I had to find my way back to the organizer of the protest so I could reclaim my purse and keys and go home. He didn’t voice any concern about my injuries and expressed no sympathy or regret, just the usual platitude that sometimes people get hurt at protests and of course the animals suffer more. Then he said he was in a big hurry to get to a party so he couldn’t speak to me further.

I naturally knew the animals suffer more, but I was not in great shape for a while. I also had no health insurance at the time so I just went home and poured alcohol over my hand and bandaged it up the best I could. I tried to use my really old, bad camera to take some photographs of the bruises on my neck, but no charges were ever brought against the security guard.

That was the last protest I did for that particular organization because I came to believe that they put their activists in dangerous situations (I was told prior to the protest that this was no big deal, it would go very quickly, and while there was a chance I MIGHT be arrested, most likely nothing was going to happen) and then couldn’t even muster a sympathetic word for them when they got hurt.

But the end result of this was that some time later I was asked to participate in another protest for a different group and ended up getting a little roughed up at this one as well, though not badly. And though I was not the only one roughed up by any measure, it just hit me really hard and I had a full blown panic attack.

Sigh, I know this is starting to sound like all I ever did with my time was get beaten up, but this was at a time when I was going to so, so many protests, often several a weekend, and so out of hundreds literally, two went bad, one of those very, very bad. So it’s not like I was getting hurt at every, or even very many protests.

After my panic attack I wanted to continue volunteering for that particular group, but I just knew I couldn’t any longer participate in protests. However, while I was expressing my desire to help in somewhat safer ways to another activist with that group, he said that probably it was not a very good idea because the leader of that group apparently was not happy with how I’d conducted myself. What I was told was that it had been said in a meeting, in front of all the “important” people with that group, that I was “a stupid fucking bitch who fucked up everything and shouldn’t be allowed to work with this group anymore.” And so I didn’t do anymore work for them.

While I was sad that my panic attack may have created difficulties for anyone, I can also look at it objectively and know that because my panic attack was internal (ie I wasn’t screaming or out of control, I just absolutely had to get out of there that very second) and because it took place outside of the public eye (no potential members, or employees of the store we were protesting, or passersby observed it) that in the larger scheme of things it was probably not that bad. Furthermore I thought I was being proactive in identifying something I shouldn’t do (protesting) and trying to find something else I could do.

Now this would simply be a sad story about how I messed things up and couldn’t work with a couple of groups any longer, except that I started hearing similar stories from other activists. They felt shunned if they mentioned that their particular emotional issues precluded them from certain actions, while they thought they were just being honest about what they could and couldn’t do. Others felt that if they asked for any kind of consideration or sympathy after bad experiences they were treated as if they were whiney or weak, and similarly felt excluded from participating further.

It used to be (and sometimes still happens) that when activists feel pushed out from another group where they volunteer or work, they try to go form their own group, so they can be in charge. But I can’t say that the proliferation of groups has done much to help activists deal with trauma or depression. Instead I’ve seen many examples of the new leader of the new group now turning to his or her new volunteers and telling them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop whining. So the cycle perpetuates.

I can’t really come up with any explanation for it except for this one article that says people in charge often simply can’t empathize with those working under them. But it seems largely ineffective to completely neglect the emotional health of volunteers and allow them simply to be driven out from the movement or fade away. I suppose most groups just hope for continuing new crops of fresh, young volunteers to replace those that simply can’t go on.

Additionally I have to wonder if some of these seemingly unpleasant reactions from those in charge are related to their own levels of trauma and depression. If these leaders are themselves suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or severe depression, these mental health issues can flatten their experience and distort their perceptions. They may find themselves so stretched to the breaking point that they are really unable to spare a sympathetic word or thought for anyone else. Their depression might push them to a point where they are seeing the whole world in black and white, ie you’re either with us or against us, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem, you either agree with me or there’s the door. It seems terribly inefficient to me for people to ignore their own emotional wellbeing to this extent.

To go back to the comments also that we just need to get over ourselves or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps seems to me to represent a fundamental lack of understanding of post traumatic stress disorder. We’d all love to simply push it out of our minds, and I was successful in doing that much of the time. The very nature of flashbacks however is that they force themselves into the conscious mind at inopportune times. These are vivid memories of trauma that feel extremely real and like they’re happening right now. Nobody can simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps to deal with that, people with PTSD need help. You wouldn’t try to fix your car by yourself with no training or experience and how much more important is your mind?

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Interesting conversations and offensive posts

Posted in abuse, recovery, violence, women's issues at 12:18 pm by nevavegan

Some thoughts here might be controversial, hence the title: offensive posts. I’m trying to honestly look at issues that affect my life and probably affect the lives of many others as well.

One thing that I try to keep in mind as I wander through my life is the concept of equality. Not that all of us are the same, because that’s patently ridiculous, but the idea that the differences between us don’t automatically rank us on some kind of hierarchy. Instead we all bring different things to the table and in an ideal world our different viewpoints and different skills could fit together like a jigsaw puzzle and we’d all be able to contribute and participate.

Then the cold hard world shows her face and I know that all around me I’m surrounded by people who in one way or another are cut off from participating in our common culture. The sense of powerlessness became palpable in some communities. In other situations, people with all the trappings of being important may in fact feel very shut out. They keep their ideas to themselves, potential contributions are never made.

Clearly the “isms” can shut people out of participating in society: racism, sexism, ageism, and the not-an-ism, homophobia. Some people struggle against these forces and insist that their voices matter, others get discouraged and retreat to the quietness of family, chosen family, or small communities where they can feel accepted.

There also comes with this the strange phenomenon where people start to think that prejudice is acceptable, if it’s good prejudice. Yet in any case, to assume that we know something about someone based on external factors, like race, gender, age, or socio-economic status is always prejudice. Because quite literally we pre-judge them. We think we know who they are and their capabilities before we ever actually get to know them.

This leads me to another point. I have been thinking lately about the topic of how women hurt each other and hurt children, and yes, even hurt men. Which is a no brainer, because women are human beings, and all human beings probably hurt someone else at some time, and there are some human beings who practically make careers out of hurting other people, and then there’s the whole spectrum in between.

But when I’ve talked to some of my friends in the past about female on female abuse, or child abuse perpetuated by mothers, I often run into this wall. Many of my female friends will insist that women are natural nurturers, that we are automatically filled with compassion and love. So if a woman turns violent or abusive, it is only because she herself has been abused to the breaking point.

I rankle at this because 1) I do think most abusers were abused themselves, but this applies to men as well, and we don’t tend to excuse their behavior because of that. Instead we ask that they act like adults, get help, and take some kind of responsibility for their actions, and 2) Women can be pretty awful sometimes even in the absence of abuse (again with that being human part).

This lead me to a fascinating exchange with Angie Reed Garner, and I just have to quote her, because she said it perfectly:
“I have always thought that one of the primary ways that women are stunted and deformed by sexism is that there is a lack of literature and general awareness in the culture about the ethical issues pertaining to women’s behavior. There is more about how women go crazy, but not much about how women fight against each other and children for power, control and resources.”

How very, very true. We decry sexism and yet at the same time we allow certain damaging behavior to go totally unchecked because we are attached to the myth of the perfect mother, the madonna and child, the female angel of mercy. So we cannot accept the idea that women also fight for power and prestige, and that they may backstab, slander, or shun other women to achieve those goals. We don’t like the idea that a mother might look over the limited resources of her family, and put herself first and her children last. We give a resigned sigh when a father spends his money on alcohol and doesn’t pay child support, but we neglect the whole concept that women might make similar decisions.

I want to explore this topic more over the next couple weeks, well not just this exact topic, but aspects of sexism, aspects of abuse, and just the general lack of research and documentation on issues within female culture in this country.

I also got some information from the moderator of the Survivors forum, though I’ll leave her anonymous for the time being. As expected, she said, most members when they sign up for access report abuse or attacks perpetrated by men. But it was not so lopsided as you might expect. She told me the split is about 60/40 in favor of men as the abusers. Further she said that about 25% of the community is actually male, which was a surprise to me as most males in the forum are very, very quiet. I expect though that rates of abuse for men, especially men abused as children, are probably fairly high, but just going on anecdotal evidence from my own experience, men are less likely to seek therapy, and less likely to join support groups or forums.

I’m not sure where all of that fits into my thinking other than a kind of general “wow, our culture can be violent.” But hopefully I’ll be able to form more thoughts on the topic as time goes on.

May 29, 2007

Birthday Blues and Other Mistakes

Posted in family, philosophizin, stupid me, veganism at 3:43 pm by nevavegan

So before anything else, everyone should go check out Harold Brown’s article entitled “The Dynamic Between the Animal Industry and the Animal Movement” which appeared in this edition of UPC’s Poultry Press. Sometimes we need to just ask ourselves what we’re doing and why!

My birthday is coming up really soon and this is always a bad time of year for me. We passed the anniversary of my being attacked, and it came and went without real notice, because it’s not a day I observe. However the ghosts came too, all the nagging self-doubts that sometimes tell me I should have died years ago and it’s only some cosmic accident that I’m alive.

I don’t mean to say that in any kind of suicidal way. I’m thankful for each and every day, and all those moments of beauty that shower down on me. I just think of people I’ve known who aren’t here any longer and I miss them. And I think on my own mortality and the line between my being here and not being here seems so thin and so easy to cross over, and I boggle at the randomness of my existence.

My birthday kind of sucks because it is always the reminder that I’m a trusting moron. It might be dangerous to call myself such on my vegan blog. But actually I think in a way this makes me more right about veganism, because I recognize this tendency in myself. So I definitely did my homework on all aspects of veganism. If someone tells me something, I look it up. If I’m wondering about something, I look it up. And one source isn’t sufficient, I have to double and triple check. And I like to look at the methods and size of the actual studies, because I know not all studies are created equally.

At first I was not so open to the idea that vegetarianism and ultimately veganism might be a good idea. I thought: Why would my family feed me meat if it weren’t the right thing to do? The environmental issues were the wedge that started to separate myself from the “eating animals is right” view. Because the environment is changing, and our damage to it is snowballing. So, if things are changing, then “what’s right” might be changing too.

After years of doing this, my thinking has changed in many ways. I’ve come around to thinking that if I don’t need to eat or wear or abuse animals to ensure my survival that probably means I really shouldn’t. IE, I don’t need to hurt others, so I shouldn’t hurt others. I’ve read more and learned more. But it’s always there, the need to research and give myself a little sanity check.

But anyway, trusting moron…

See, I was born in June. My brother was born in May, on the Sunday just before Memorial Day, Memorial Day Sunday, part of the long holiday weekend. And growing up, my parents always told me that I was also born on Memorial Day Sunday, and so every year my family would observe our birthdays together, on the Sunday before Memorial Day. My mother didn’t believe in holding birthday parties for children, she didn’t let us invite our friends or anyone our own age, but we still had cake and some family there, and maybe even a gift or two. As I got older I asked why we often celebrated on my brother’s actual birthday, but never on my actual birthday. My parents told me that Memorial Day used to sometimes take place in June, but after I was born Congress passed a law to decree that Memorial Day would now always occur in May, and so it would never be on my birthday again.

So, all through school when I told people that I was born on Memorial Day Sunday and that’s why my family observed my birthday then, people would look at me like I was nuts. They’d tell me plainly, no, you were not born on Memorial Day Sunday, to which I’d happily reply that the year I was born Memorial Day really did happen in June, but then Congress passed a law… And people laughed at me, but I kept on insisting.

Fast forward to me being an adult and married and still believing this story, and my husband told me that he hated to be the one to break it to me, but this was all entirely fiction. We looked it up. No, I was not born on Memorial Day Sunday. Any law regarding Memorial Day was passed long before I was born, and even so Memorial Day had never been in June. I told my sister about this, and noted that I was a little disappointed to learn this after so many years. She passed it on to my parents. The end of the story is a rather annoyed phone call from my mother to tell me that it was no big deal and she couldn’t understand why I was being so childish as to talk to my sister about my birthday not happening when we all thought it did. Still she insisted that she always thought I was born on Memorial Day Sunday, but she’d really been in too much extreme agony risking her life giving birth to me to notice what day it was.

Which I guess I can accept for what it is. It doesn’t matter. Though I will note that my family was never confused about the birthdays of either of my siblings. I looked it up and my brother really was born on Memorial Day Sunday. The only thing that really bothered me about it was all the times I’d made an idiot out of myself insisting against all evidence and all really good arguments to the contrary that this myth was real.

If there’s any point to this story, it’s to refer back to something my therapist said: I have a gift for loving and believing in people even when they haven’t earned it. I have to be careful with my trust and my belief. And though my impulse really still is to trust and love everyone, I have to be able to look at things with a critical eye as well. I can like someone, but I don’t have to accept everything they say as gospel. If nothing else, even the best intentioned people are sometimes mistaken.

Lately in the animal rights movement I’ve noticed a tendency of those in positions of power to take any questioning as a direct insult. “Don’t you know how hard I work; don’t you know how many hours I put in for the animals?” Honestly I really do. It’s just that my loyalty isn’t to the person, it’s to the movement. I can know how absolutely sincere someone is in every possible way, and still sometimes wonder if they have all their facts straight. It’s not a desire to hurt anyone on my part; it’s a reflex now: Check the facts and then check them again. With it comes the innate distrust of anyone who demands belief without providing solid evidence or logical backup. Sorry, I can like you without following you off a cliff, and I can like you without believing you’re infallible.

Sometimes it’s not so bad to question everything. I’ve even had those moments where I go back and review the reasons I’m vegan and note how my views have changed over the year. Because it’s my compass and my road map to understand where my convictions come from. Because without questioning I’m just happily rattling off something someone else told me, and it might be that I’m saying something really silly and everyone else knows it, except me. So I have to review. I have to ask if what I’m doing is helping or hurting.

I think about the protests I went to when I was younger, organized and attended often by fairly prominent people in the movement. We were babies really, and so, so angry. The sight of a full length fur coat in a shop window, sent me to tears and then to shouts of rage. I saw the footage over again in my mind of animals in traps, and multiplied it over hundreds of times to produce that coat. And I was one of the calmer people there, really. So you can imagine those protests were a little on the frightening side. So now, years on I have to look at that and ask if that was helping or hurting. Was I indulging my emotions or was I reaching out to people and educating them on the issues. I don’t think anyone was really listening then, when our shouting reached the upper decibels.

So I have to ask myself: Is this something I really understand, or do I have to go back and do my own research and get a better grip on it? Am I acting in a way to further compassion or am I loose cannon? Am I simply repeating things that I’ve been told without any of my own knowledge?

Where does that leave us? Simply here: It’s not wrong to ask the hard questions, it’s in fact absolutely vital to our movement. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.

May 28, 2007

Roger Yates, and other thoughts

Posted in animal advocacy, companion animals, veganism at 3:57 pm by nevavegan

Hey cool. Roger Yates on his blog on human-nonhuman relations, mentions the discussion from “Sean.” That’s not “Sean,” that’s Sean, my husband. Sadly I have no way to email Roger Yates and let him know, and he has turned off comments on his blog.

Other than that, my upset over the whole conference debacle continued for several days and I haven’t really been posting because everything that pops into my mind to say is just exceedingly negative. So it seemed better to bite my tongue, err, bite my typing fingers…

But this one thought did come to me. I got into a debate previously with someone from HSUS about their webpage devoted to finding a good dog breeder. Their stance was that they had tried everything possible to convince people to adopt, and so, since they had realized some people will still just ignore adoption and go to a breeder, they decided to provide information on how to find a good breeder.

While I did understand the frustration, truly I do…. Maybe I should say how deeply I understand the frustration. I’ve been involved in companion animal rescue quite a few years now, and still people I otherwise respect, and people who I have educated on the issue, have still gone to breeders. So yeah, I feel your pain, so to speak.

My issues were 1) putting it on the web allowed people to bypass all adoption information and go straight to the idea that “good dog breeders” do exist and they could find them, and 2) Really, you’ve tried EVERYTHING to promote dog adoption?

Immediately idea from the mundane to the wild and wacky flooded into my mind. Have we tried tv commercials on companion animal adoption? Have we asked all the dog and cat lovers in Hollywood to push the inclusion of adoption as a plot point on popular shows and in movies? Have we put on “Shelter Dog Shows” in the middle of town to show off how absolutely gorgeous and loving all these dogs at the shelter are? Can we get more articles in periodicals about the reality of companion animal overpopulation? What about a “shelter dog ambassador” who would go around visiting mayors and elected officials to educate them on shelter and overpopulation issues? He could be a very well-behaved (obviously) shelter dog and his message could be “Dear mayor, please help save my brothers and sisters at the shelter.” Maybe the news would cover that.

And so on and so on….

So here’s my thought. When we say that we’ve tried everything to promote veganism, could we instead apply some of that same creative insanity to this issue. What if we all stopped worrying about seeming foolish and put aside fears of voicing a bad idea and we all just spilled our brains and our guts to come up with as many ideas as possible for promoting veganism.

My ideas are much the same. Can we get our pals in Hollywood to push for a “normal” character on a popular show to be vegan? Not the wacky, hippy character, but could a likable, well-grounded character simply order the veggie burger when everyone goes to the diner together? Can we air commercials and do print ads for veganism.

My commercial idea was to have all kinds of normal people giving a quick shout as to why they’re vegan, like one woman saying she’s doing it for the environment, and a guy hugging a piglet or something saying he’s doing it for the animals.

Can we host vegan food samplings? Not just giving out veggie burgers, but with a variety of really good vegan food, so that people will realize the variety and fun of vegan food.

I thought also, and I’ll try to come up with this, that it might be cool to make some vegan-promoting things that can be worn by people who have to either dress nice or wear a uniform to work. I can’t wear t-shirts or typical buttons to my work, though I put message buttons on my purse. Some days I have to look super-professional so even those buttons have to go. So what if I came up with some jewelry or lapel pins that look really good, but still say “vegan” on them. It would be like people who wear a small gold cross all the time, inconspicuous but allowing us to subtly get the message out.

How about some “Vegan festivals” in the larger cities. We’d need some help, that’s a huge undertaking, but it would allow local businesses to go out and promote that they’re vegan friendly and maybe local vegan musicians and artists would participate. Might be cool.

Well, for better or worse, that’s my brain dump on the topic. Maybe more to come. What are your ideas? What’s the wackiest, most original, most creative thought you have on promoting veganism?

May 24, 2007

Tackling Taking Action for Animals

Posted in abolition, Francione, rant, TAFA, vegan at 4:36 pm by nevavegan

Warning: Rant ahead, mind the curves

Something has been brewing in my mind for a while, and the main side effect of that is to make me horribly depressed… Sigh. Mainly this seemed to be something beyond even my ability to blog. That something is HSUS’s conference taking place in July in Washington, DC, called “Taking Action for Animals.”

As opposed to the “other conference,” Farm’s Animal Rights 2007, taking place this summer on the West Coast, in L.A., “Taking Action for Animals” tosses the concept of rights out the window, by eliminating it from the title. The new title implies participants should be active, and it’s somehow about animals, but the rest is left to our imagination.

HSUS decided to co-opt the annual conferences and start their own, claiming at the time the regular conference was giving a platform to speakers who promoted violence and illegal activity. Rather than continuing to participate in that conference, and therefore give a voice to their ideal of legal, non-violent activity, they pulled up stakes and started their own conference.

Unfortunately another side effect of shutting out those supposedly “violent” voices, was also shutting out voices of anyone who had a new or creative vision, anyone who had an issue with the status quo. HSUS had their own platform now and they could deny admission to anyone they chose. Make no mistake, there are many people in the movement who aren’t invited to TAFA, even though they have never promoted any kind of illegal activity. There are others who will be speaking there, who did promote illegal activity in the past, but are now employed by HSUS and who can be counted on to speak only on the HSUS agenda.

I’m not necessarily opposed to people creating their own conferences for their own specialized agendas, after all, everyone has a right. So the first few years of Taking Action for Animals I merely waited to see how it would go, asked my friends who attended for their opinions, and withheld judgment.

What brings this issue up for me now is that Whole Foods is co-sponsoring the conference this year, and a representative of Whole Foods will be speaking there. I don’t know if Whole Foods has any say in who speaks or what topics will be covered. I’d like to know that, but unfortunately I don’t know because HSUS won’t answer my questions in that regard.

Erica Meier of Compassion Over Killing replied that essentially it’s a great conference, COK is co-sponsoring as well, and she hopes to see me there. That unfortunately didn’t answer my fundamental questions about the role of Whole Foods in shaping conference content.

Another group that I won’t name, which is also speaking at the conference indicated to me that they were not given any restrictions on content based on Whole Foods participation. Which is great, but the questions I have are still ones which really only can be answered by conference organizers, that is HSUS, not by groups that naturally want to attend and promote their ideas.

Why would it bother me that Whole Foods is participating in the conference? Well that really depends on the unanswered questions. Is Whole Foods going to be promoting the “humane meat” they reap insane profits from? Will they be touting organic cow’s milk, and “artisan cheeses?” Or are they simply going to be handing out vegan food samples and recipes? Because things like that actually matter. Because I feel veganism is the fundamental key to helping animals, and I honestly cannot name another person I know in the movement who doesn’t agree with that.

My husband Sean Day, who has spoken at numerous Animal Rights conferences asked TAFA if he could also speak there, to speak about the dangers of promoting humane meat and to emphasize that in his opinion, the movement toward veganism must be our primary focus. He also intended to criticize Whole Foods “compassion certified meat.” He was told that unfortunately all speakers were already set and it was too late for him to participate. After he was told this, more speakers were added to the conference, and one of those new speakers confirmed to me that he had been asked to speak after Sean had already been told there were no more openings for speakers. It doesn’t surprise me. I knew that HSUS wouldn’t let him speak, because to go in and say that veganism is within reach of everyone, and that it is fundamental to our cause is simply too threatening to HSUS. I just wish they could have been honest and come right out and said they didn’t want him there instead of telling an obvious and easily disproved lie.

So Sean will not be speaking at Taking Action for Animals. Pattrice Jones, whose voice I’ve found so inspirational, will not be speaking at Taking Action for Animals. Gary Francione, who inspires some of us and alternately enrages others, but never fails to engage or get people talking, will not be speaking at Taking Action for Animals. Alex Herschaft of FARM won’t be speaking. Lee Hall, who actually wrote an entire book decrying illegal and/or violent/threatening tactics in animal rights, will not be speaking at the conference which claims it was specifically formed to fight those tendencies.

I don’t necessarily agree with every speaker listed above, but I absolutely feel that the way we form thoughtful and considered views is by hearing many opinions and weighing them against our own ethics and experience. In this manner we come to posses the tools (not final answers, not absolute truths) but the tools, intellectual and persuasive, to help us go back out into that wild world and spread veganism. I absolutely believe I got involved in veganism and animal rights, despite my farming roots and hunting family, because I had the ability to step back from things and ask tough questions and listen to all viewpoints. I was able to hear views contrary to my own and not dismiss them out of hand. Back in the beginning I listened to the anti-animal camp as well, you know. I weighed what I heard against my own heart, read a lot of voices, and found the solutions that worked for me, which made sense here and now. I believe our movement will lose something so vital when we shut out the voices of the thinkers and theorists, just because they might go outside the HSUS box.

And lest HSUS claims that the exclusion of these speakers is to avoid controversy, may I point to one of their keynote speakers last year: Rory Freedman, co-author of the book Skinny Bitch. Now, I’m not going to make this long entry longer by doing a book review of Skinny Bitch, but lets just say it’s certainly not uncontroversial. I participate in the Vegan People forum and I can’t tell you how many times eating disordered young women have joined the forum saying that Skinny Bitch has inspired them to use veganism to lose even more weight. Some feminists I know lament the degrading language the book uses to cajole women into veganism out of shame over their bodies. I believe the authors defend the book saying the foul and degrading language is a “joke” and that the severely calorie restricted diets presented there are meant to help the obese lose weight. Personal mileage may vary, but I’m firmly in the camp that believes veganism should be a celebration of life, health for ourselves and all creatures, and a bastion of safety, not another way to kill or sicken young women in the pursuit of an unrealistic body ideal.

So, um, calling women names if they happen to get chubby, that’s fine, no problem there. Letting Gary Francione say that vegans should not advocate minor animal agriculture reform, but should spend their time promoting veganism, hey, watch out, that’s crazy talk!

I got tagged for a meme

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:57 pm by nevavegan

Bazu of Where’s the Revolution has tagged me to name 5 blogs that I visit, that are smart and teach me things.

Hmm, well all kinds of blogs teach me things. I’ve saved blogs I like to frequent to the right on the blogroll, but it’s by no means a comprehensive list!

Of course I have to give props back to Where’s the Revolution and say that I love the beautiful food and recipes from her blog and thought provoking discussion and comments. But I think it’s cheating to tag back the person who tagged me, so without further ado.

Super Weed: Pattrice Jones’ new blog. If you’ve ever seen her speak you know how thought provoking she can be. Now you can spy on her daily thoughts as well. What could be better? I don’t always agree 100% but it’s certainly food for thought.

Voice for the Voiceless: always bringing up animal topics that get the wheels turning, plus beautiful photos of sanctuary animals.

Angie Reed Garner: Because she doesn’t shy away from tackling the good, bad and the ugly when it comes to art and art related topics. She can bring up deep fears or closely held hopes, sometimes simultaneously.

Lifestyles of the Chic and Vegan: Because I love hearing about how people became vegan, what issues speak to them, and how people navigate the vegan-unfriendly world and workplace while holding to their vegan ethics.

Animal Person: Mary Martin, Ph.D. discusses all sorts of animal issues. Again, I don’t always agree, but it’s often pretty interesting.

If you want to blog about the blogs you read and love, consider yourself tagged!

May 23, 2007

Whole Foods Doesn’t Live Here

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:41 pm by nevavegan

As I sat at the mechanic’s the other day, waiting for repairs to be finished on my car, I saw a man limp into the attached parts shop. This wouldn’t be a big deal, but I couldn’t help noticing that on one side of his head an enormous abcess, fluid-filled and transparent, probably half the size of his head in fact, bulging and hanging from his cheek, stretching his face out of proportion. I can’t know he hasn’t been to a doctor, but here it’s a fairly good bet that he doesn’t have insurance and is waiting for that odd point it becomes an “emergency.”

That’s what people here do. They deal with scary health issues for months, even years, and then wind up in the ER, possibly dying from something preventable.

Then a woman and her daughter came in to see if their car was ready. They chatted with me, ready to complain to anyone about the wait. Both were morbidly obese. The daughter, who was maybe 11 or 12 could barely walk, and each step seemed to bring agony, though I can’t guess if it was just the weight or if she had other health problems.

“Why don’t you sit down, baby?” asked the mother of her daughter “You look so uncomfortable.”

The girl eyed the tiny plastic yellow chairs and said “No, I’m gonna lean up on the counter here.”

I remembered how I was at that age, literally swinging from trees and trying to outrace my dogs, and here’s a little girl who can barely walk. I wanted to cry, but I smiled instead because I didn’t want her to feel out of place or singled out.

I remember reading in the paper about a low-cost clinic where a doctor reported treating a little girl whose obesity had caused both of her hips to dislocate, just from the extreme weight on her small frame.

One of the mechanics came in from the garage with the typical facial discoloration of uncontrolled diabetes, panting slightly from the exertion of moving his own considerable weight around.

This is my community. I live right down the street. And here are people who are not having basic health needs met in ways that matter. They are all waiting for the point it becomes an emergency to think about change, to think about doing something. That day that they can’t walk, the day their blood sugar crashes, whatever it is that will warrant the trip to the ER. Though it’s much harder to tackle most health issues at that point.

At the same time that I was observing this, as well as the obesity in my neighbors, and the hold that cigarettes still have over communities like this, even as wealthier neighborhoods ban them from public areas. At the same time I got an email asking to give feedback to Whole Foods on their product selection.

But how could I give them feedback? Whole Foods won’t move to neighborhoods like mine. They say they sell wholesome, healthy foods, but they also charge high prices, and someone at Whole Foods did a demographic study and decided my whole, entire county was a poor bet for opening a store. Whether it was the average income, the racial factors, or the crime statistics, Whole Foods doesn’t live here and isn’t even thinking about moving.

Meanwhile we have My Organic Market, and you’ve got to love them for setting up shop here and posting their “We take food stamps” signs, and for having better prices than Whole Foods anyway. Every weekend I go to My Organic Market to load up on veggies and see new faces each time. Sometimes it’s people timidly bagging up greens saying “My doctor said I gotta start eating this.” Sometimes it’s enthusiastic newbies vowing to try every mock meat available until they find one they love.

But it’s not as simple as opening a store and hanging out the shingle. The papers right now are full of people lamenting the gaps in our health care system (and those definitely need to be addressed). But we also need to teach people skills to help themselves. I’m sure that mother at the mechanic doesn’t want to do anything to hurt her daughter, but she feeds her the same foods she’s always eaten. On this rung of the ladder food means comfort, food means afluence, food means love, and nobody wants to be stingey with those things.

I’ve definitely gone hungry myself. I have my own disordered relationship with food. For me veganism is such a simple solution (although I’m an ethical vegan, the health benefits are just a bonus for me). It means that the basic “filler” of my diet is now vegetables and legumes and whole grains. So even though I do add some vegan “junk” in, it’s a better diet for maintaining health. Fewer empty calories, more good stuff.

May 22, 2007

I’d do anything for you, except the one thing you need

Posted in bunnies, companion animals, health at 10:51 pm by nevavegan

I brought up recently that I took Jasper the rabbit to the vet and the vet called him “obese.” Not “you’ve got a chubby rabbit here.” But “obese.”

My first response was to say that Jasper wasn’t obese. Sure he could be a little more active, but he’s just a big bunny…. No, the truth was I had let my bunny get overweight to the point that it was detrimental to his health.

This makes me sound like the worst bunny-mom ever, but it happened so gradually I didn’t see it coming. First Jasper really wasn’t socialized at all when we adopted him, so the only real way to interact with him was to coax him out with bits of apple or dried cherries. Then we were putting out dry food for both him and Juniper and we kind of knew that Juniper was elderly and eating less and he was getting more, but that was ok, right? Then Juniper died, and Jasper was all alone, so how else was I going to comfort him except to shower him in every type of delicious treat. The weight gain was so gradual that he didn’t look any different to me from the day he’d come into our house.

It took someone else shining a light on the problem for me to wake up. Luckily Jasper has two new friends now to keep him company and lots of hay to chew on. He still gets treats from time to time, but fewer now and the dry food is carefully measured.

We’re actually trying to be better with all of our rescued animals. Now with the cats I’m trying to crack out the toys, not treats, to bond with them. It’s hard not to give the dogs those cute little dog cookies sometimes, but they also have to go outside and walk and run with me.

It’s kind of scary how easy it is to harm the health of those we love, even with the best intentions. I’ve always loved to cook, and I totally would shower my husband with baked goods at every turn… He told me to stop actually. No more cookies, no more cakes! It feels like such total rejection to me, in a way, because I do base so much of my self image on being a nurturer, being the one who makes the food and hands it out, and then gets the praise of how good that food is. I’m finding healthy dishes to make though of course, and still sometimes I make beer battered tofu, but I can’t do it to excess.

But our country is in the middle of a human obesity epidemic that likely has its roots in just these issues. And oddly enough, right along with the human obesity epidemic is a companion animal obesity epidemic. At the same time that we’re finding starving cats and dogs living off scraps from garbage cans, record numbers of dogs, cats, rabbits, and even other animals are going to the vet with health problems from eating too much in general and too much junk in particular.

I think about this with regard to companion animals who are totally dependent on us. We love them so much we’d do absolutely anything for them. We’d take them to the vet, let them sleep in our beds, change our schedules for them. But we won’t do the one thing they need, which is make the nutritional and food portion decisions they can’t make for themselves.

Especially with rescued animals, some of them just have the “full button” permanently broken. Torty, my ex-feral cat would probably eat herself into a coma if she had the chance. She knows what it’s like to be hungry, and she doesn’t ever want to experience that again. That’s instinct. Outside it would help her store calories for the lean times ahead. But I’m the one in charge here and I know I’ll feed her tomorrow and the next day and the next. So I have to sometimes say no. Even if she begs. Even if she makes terrible crying noises and I feel like the meanest person on earth.

Of course, this is sadly true for a lot of human children too. Their parents need to force them to eat some veggies and say no to some donuts, but another rant, another time, I suppose.

A Break from Our Regularly Scheduled Blogging

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:00 pm by nevavegan

Let’s see. I got sick with plague. Seriously, it was really bad and I still don’t feel 100% and it’s been four days.

Next, today was the day I was supposed to be in court, but the guy requested a jury trial, which I understand is some kind of ploy and this is likely to be the last I’ll hear of the whole thing.

There were topics I wanted to blog but I’m feeling so strange about it all. May and June are the months of unfortunate (and some fortunate as well) anniversaries for me. All kinds of ghosts are coming back to haunt me. My birthday is coming up shortly, a day I always dread. Blah, pointless angst going nowhere. I know I should just get over it, yet here it is. It feels fake for me to blog about happiness when the truth is that I’m wrestling down some memories at the moment.

It helps to remember it’s all part of the cycle. Anniversaries do bring things to the surface. It bothers me a little less this year than last, and last a little less than the year before.

There are still happy things. I saw the most beautiful tiger swallowtail butterfly today. The animals are all healthy and happy (knock on wood).

I had this nightmare during the worst of my fever about being stalked by Ann Coulter, and on reflection it’s kind of hilarious.

May 18, 2007

Use and Uselessness

Posted in companion animals at 3:38 pm by nevavegan

Invisible Voices recently posted on our expectations from animals. This is a huge topic and it’s going to take me a little while to work through it all.

One thing that this topic brings up for me is my family’s attitude toward animals, and the kind of atmosphere I grew up in and accepted for a long time.

In this atmosphere animals had to have a purpose to justify their existence, while at the same time my parents did have their moments of softness and sentimentality toward animals. So it was a strange mix.

When I was quite young my father purchased a dog that I adored so much I still have dreams about him to this day. But he was not brought into our home to be a family pet, he was a hunting dog from a long line of excellent hunting dogs. He quickly proved his worth and our kitchen counters were yet again stacked up with the corpses of ducks and geese. This dog Beau, however, died very young in a tragic accident.

The replacement hunting dog proved himself less useful, and I recall my father’s not infrequent rants about spending a ton of money on a pedigreed hunting dog who turned out to be too gun-shy to go hunting. For those of you not familiar with hunting lingo, gun-shy means that this new dog Khaki, spooked at the sound of gun fire, much as he spooked at thunder. Going hunting terrified him and overpowered his carefully inbred retrieving instincts. So my father often called this new dog “useless,” “worthless,” and other such words to indicate that he was not earning his keep.

And so it went. We had an out of control rodent problem at one point, so my mother answered a free to a good home ad and got two kittens to become rodent-killing machines. That did not turn out as planned, and yet again the “useless” label got pulled out.

So, it is odd to turn this around in my adult life and try to find a way to live in which I am useful to animals regardless of the effort they put forth to earn it. But then I find that in fact all interactions with animals are useful to me, in the lessons that they bring and they way they inspire me and turn me back to compassion when I’m feeling that old empathy-fatigue. Still I can only appreciate these lessons when I let go of expectations.

Not every feral cat I help is going to like me. They don’t like interacting with people. Never mind that I got that horrible infection treated and they feel better now, they’re still going to hiss at me and run away. But the lesson isn’t about me, it’s about their resilience and the power of their survival instinct.

When we brought Torty in from the feral colony we had hopes that she was young enough to tame, but she proved thoroughly feral. After keeping her out of the colony so long, we didn’t feel we could put her back out, but we also didn’t feel like we could adopt her out to someone looking for an affectionate house cat. So she stayed with us. After a few months she warmed up to me, but it took her years to accept Sean. We would have felt keeping her in our apartment was too stressful for her, but she did love the other cats, and seemed comfortable there.

So she did not meet the expectations of a loving, easy to care for companion cat. But she brought other lessons with her. One thing that was kind of amazing to me was how she played with toys. While the other cats would go nuts chasing a string back and forth, Torty would seek out a covered place, like under the couch or under a table and wait for the string to come to her, then she’d reach out with one lightening fast paw and grab it. I had read this from some scientists who studied feral cats (they said that unlike tame cats who sometimes kill birds just in play, feral are very serious about hunting and don’t play with their prey and typically take easy prey such as sick or injured animals, thus making estimates about how many animals cats kill, which were all based on domestic tame cats, invalid to ferals). It was cool to observe first hand.

Another funny thing with Torty was that though she fears humans, she loves other furry creatures. Naturally she loved cats having lived in a feral cat colony, but she also immediately took to our bunnies, Sherman and Scooby. I’d often find her just sleeping right next to Scooby (a large New Zealand Red). When Scooby died, Torty went through the apartment for days just yowling and then she’d go back to Scooby’s area, and then yowl some more. Some people have told me that cats don’t mourn and she was probably more upset about change than about missing Scooby. But I’m pretty sure she was in grief over the loss of her friend.

Another time I’d brought in a rabbit I’d just rescued. Torty kept grooming him, which I thought was strange. Sadly he didn’t make it, as it turned out he had cancer. I’ve always wondered if Torty knew he was sick before we did and if she was trying to comfort him.

But of course, even if Torty never taught me anything, and had no “use” to me, I still was committed to her care.

I guess I always just think about the Alice Walker quote and how true it always rings:
“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.”

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