September 10, 2007

Hunting Stories

Posted in animal advocacy, animal rights, real life at 7:13 pm by nevavegan

A little while back I made a statement that I was going to try to get more into the narrative, and that answers and theories live within the narrative. So that’s where I’m going today.

I grew up in a family that hunted. I can’t tell you how many dead animals of various types were stacked up in our kitchen, or hung in bunches in our car port. Later, when I was vegan and rescuing abandoned rabbits, my mother liked to remind me many times that I ate rabbits as a child, as if this was some moral failing on my part. She said that she herself couldn’t bear to eat them, but she cooked them and fed them to us. It makes me sad actually, to think of eating animals that I later learned were so intelligent and loving. But at the same time, I feel terrible for having eaten chickens and ducks that I raised and loved. And one animal death that I felt horrible about strangley enough was when my father killed a very large rattlesnake. He pulled the dead snake out from the underbrush to show him off, and he was huge, five feet or longer and fat. I just sat there thinking how long that snake must have lived to get to be that size and how quickly his life ended just because he crossed the wrong person’s path one afternoon. My great uncle always told me about the ancient wisdom snakes carried and I hated to see one so old die for nothing like that.

All through all this hunting and carnage I held on to certain myths. The first myth was the idea of a perfect life and quick painless death, that these things made it ok for us to kill young animals for our own purposes.

The second myth is that hunting maintains some kind of natural order, controlling population and ensuring the health of the herd. Only much later did I realize that human hunting runs counter to “survival of the fittest.” Human hunters use guns or bows to kill the healthiest and strongest animals because they make the best trophies. Nobody killed the weak or sick animals. I also finally figured out that human hunting doesn’t control populations. For one thing, the hunters tried to only kill male animals, again for trophies I suppose. But leaving all the females meant that the populations actually continued to grow, which hunters like because it means they get to claim that deer over-population is a problem to justify longer hunting seasons or relaxing the limits on how many animals they can kill.

When my father killed a buck with impressive antlers (I don’t remember the exact number of points) he brought the dead deer into our kitchen and set him on the floor. I sat next to him, petting his fur, holding his head. He seemed so perfect because my father had killed him with one shot, and the wound was facing downward, so I couldn’t understand why this animal was dead. I begged my father to just let him go, but of course it was too late.

My father told this story of killing the buck. He said he was sitting out in the woods, enjoying the crisp fall weather, when the buck stepped into a clearing. My father said that he was at first frozen in admiration of the magnificent deer. Then the deer turned and looked at him. My father is big into the idea of psychic connections and empaths, so he explained it this way: the deer felt my father’s admiration and love for him, and so he felt safe and showed off, tossing his antlers, which gave my father time to raise his gun and shoot him through the heart. This made me so sad because the lesson I took away from it was that some people see beauty and long to destroy it.

Because my father had such a high sharpshooter rating in Vietnam, he always bragged that he never had to shoot an animal more than once. He said he never even attempted a shot unless he knew it would be instantly fatal. This was at the heart of the idea that hunting is “a gentleman’s sport.” That is the second myth. While I have no doubt that there are some hunters that try to be good people, my experience has largely been that hunters drink a great deal, are violent over all, and are not exactly law-abiding or kind. In fact, practicing violence year after year likely hardens them to the suffering of others.

Hunters used to over-run my great uncle’s property and the adjoining park, illegally hunting bears and deer. It was illegal to hunt in the park, and my great uncle posted his land all over with “no trespassing” and “no hunting” signs. However, the hunters did not care about the law, and sometimes if my father found them illegally hunting on our land, it came down to armed confrontations. We had gotten to the point that if we thought a person was on our land my father would not leave the house without his gun, that’s how rough these individuals were. I think we frightened a number of campers who drifted over from the park or day trippers who took a wrong turn though.

One of my hunter encounters which still chills me to this day happened one afternoon when I had my friend from school over. She got bored playing near our house and insisted we walk over to the pond which was on my great uncle’s property. I told her my parents would never give us permission to go that far alone, but she convinced me to go with her, and she, I, and my dog Khaki set out for the pond. It was a nice fall day and I was proudly wearing my new plaid poncho my aunt had just given me. The poncho was huge on me and the plaid was in shades of olive green and rust brown, matching the fall foliage.

My friend started singing and I happily joined in, and so we were singing pretty loudly when we neared the pond. Unfortunately there was a group of illegal hunters at the pond, waiting to shoot deer when they came to drink. We were just one turn away from the pond when I heard a man’s voice echoing up “Do you hear that? Girls! Let’s get them!” And then I heard the engines of their ATVs starting up.

I started running, but I looked back and my friend was stumbling along slowly, so I had to turn around and grab her and drag her into the woods. My dog stayed with me. I knew we didn’t have much time, but then I saw a tree surrounded by fallen leaves with a slight hollow in the roots on the Southern side. I shoved my friend down into the hollow, then my dog. I threw my poncho over them and began heaping leaves on top, and finally slipped under it myself.

For fifteen minutes we huddled there while the hunters drove their ATVs up and down the road shouting to each other “Where are they?” and “They couldn’t get far!” So easily they switched gears from hunting deer to hunting little girls. Finally they became convinced that we must have gotten much further down the road. One shouted “It’s how sound is up high like this, it carries a long ways, I bet they’re down near the church!” So they turned their ATVs and raced toward the church. Only when they were completely out of sight did we start trying to get home. I made sure we didn’t walk along any roads or large paths, so we picked our way through thorns and trees, keeping under cover the whole way.

Things like that made me understand why the old couple that maintained the church hid whenever a car or truck went by. We could go to services and they’d be friendly as anything, but drive by on a weekday when they were out weeding the cemetery and they’d dive behind a headstone and keep down.

Other than that encounter my family found slaughtered animals so often. Heaps of deer that had been shot and then only their antlers sawed off, etc. When there was a story in the news about a hunter who killed animals on his remote property until he got bored and started kidnapping women, raping and torturing them, then setting them loose on his land so he could hunt them down and kill them, it didn’t surprise me. I’ve seen it. I heard it in the voices of those hunters on the ATVs. That is not to say that all hunters hurt people. But I do believe that hurting and killing animals as a form of entertainment makes it easier to hurt people. I do believe that people who like to hurt people often also hurt animals. I think in a kind culture we have an aversion to bloodshed, but hunting teaches that bloodshed is admirable. In a kind culture we feel the shock of empathy when someone is hurt right in front of us. For a moment we envision the pain they feel, it’s what spurs us to rush in and help them, because we identify with their pain and know it is not right to turn away from them. Hunting teaches people to take pleasure in the suffering and death of other living feeling beings. Is it such a jump from there to not caring about others at all, or to being able to hurt people?

I do have to note also that all the hunters in my family were war veterans. These were men who had been trained to kill other people and in some cases had actually had to use that training and take human life. Some managed to kill their human enemies from a distance. Others had to fight at close range and watch their friends and enemies alike die terrible deaths. Once someone has reached a point where they’re able to do that easily, I can understand how they could easily hunt and kill animals. But I’d prefer to live in a culture where all life is valued.

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August 20, 2007

Survivors: Vulnerability

Posted in animal advocacy, animal rights, survivors, veganism at 1:57 pm by nevavegan

I have not been posting the survivors writing exercises lately. Many are just too close to the bone, so to speak, and putting them out there into the ether seems strange.

So it was somewhat coincidental that the most recent writing exercise was on vulnerability. Do we avoid the appearance of vulnerability? Do we fear vulnerability so much that we can’t even admit to ourselves when we need help?

To put this stuff out on my blog is in itself an admission of vulnerability. I know that there are people in the world who like to probe others for a sore spot, the slightest bit of weakness and then exploit that. There are others who respond to an admission of vulnerability with their own flood of emotion, relieved that someone else expressed fear or weakness or pain, because now they feel they have permission to express their own emotions.

I’ve been reading Pattrice Jone’s Aftershock recently and I have to admit it’s very interesting and also very reassuring. So I’m sure many ideas I’ll cover here can be traced back to her.

One thing that keeps striking me over and over is how our very denial of own vulnerability can lead us down a path where we stop seeing the pain of others. If we need to believe we are always right (in other words we are not vulnerable to making mistakes) then it is hard to admit that we’ve hurt other people or hurt animals. If we need to be right all of the time, then we can’t allow ourselves to reconsider our past actions, including the harm we may have done to animals by eating them or the products from their bodies or wearing their skins.

If we can’t admit that we ourselves hurt, then it is difficult to understand the pain of others. This might mean turning a blind eye to humans that are being exploited and it might mean telling ourselves that animals don’t mind their confinement, enslavement and eventual deaths for our purposes.

If we can’t allow ourselves to understand that we sometimes need help, how can we comprehend a world out there full of others, human and non-human who are suffering and can’t protect themselves, who are dying and can’t defend themselves, who live only to satisfy the capricious needs of their captors? We can’t admit that this happens because to empathize with that total lack of control means understanding that we ourselves could, if only for a few different turns in our lives, be reduced to a position of zero control.

I am so grateful for everyone who has offered me a helping hand through life. I like to feel that I’m pretty tough and I can take care of myself, but there are definitely days when the only things keeping me sane are going home to a husband who loves me unconditionally and all those furry faces who live for my return. None of us can do this on our own, but sometimes we’re forced to realize that and other times we manage to pull on the blinders and power through believing ourselves untouchable.

Thank you survivor community for letting me ponder these issues again in a safe space. Thank you to everyone working to make the world better.

August 14, 2007

More on Peta, Welfare, NeoCarns, Oh my!

Posted in abolition, animal advocacy, animal rights at 12:22 am by nevavegan

Today Bruce Friedrich posted a response to the inspiring essay by Jenny Stein and James LaVeck. Bruce’s response is here on Animalblawg.

Having discussed this issue many times I’m disappointed to see the repetition of the idea that those who advocate for abolition OPPOSE welfare reforms. I know of nobody who opposes larger cages or more humane slaughter methods, quite the contrary.

What is at issue is whether or not the largest and best known animal advocacy groups are in essence putting a seal of approval on certain “humane animal products” by declaring minor (though certainly positive) reforms as major victories. Or to put this another way, as I’ve said many times before: if PeTA gives an award to the designer of a slaughterhouse does that give the general public the impression that what goes on at that slaughterhouse is morally acceptable?


I know that Bruce has previously answered this question as no, he does not believe that the word “award” conveys approval or endorsement. He and I just see this differently as I do feel that the words “award” and “victory” imply that the fruits of those victories, ie the animal products coming from those award winning slaughterhouses have the PeTA seal of approval on them.


I admire Bruce’s work greatly and am thrilled that he saw fit to reiterate his position that there is no such thing as a humane animal product in his recent article. My admiration doesn’t change the fact that I’m troubled by some of the wording in some recent campaigns, some from PeTA, more from HSUS and other groups.


This might be a simple difference in personal philosophy. I think that we can set the bar high and keep telling people that veganism is the only choice for people who love animals. The industry can then respond to that as they see fit, which would hopefully be to push through humane reforms on their own. In addition there are groups, like AWI or the farmers on the panel at TAFA who have no other goal than these welfare reforms and can continue to push for them. I would see this as “both ends against the center” with animal rights groups and activists pressuring the consumers with a message that veganism is the only humane choice, and then with the animal welfare side pressuring the industry to reform. But we all need to determine our own role in this and try to act in accord with our own integrity. Feeling that it’s a positive thing that others are pushing for welfare reforms isn’t necessarily an indication that we need to put the majority of our energy or financial resources into pushing for those reforms ourselves.


To imply that people who do not work toward welfare reforms are not acting in accord with the golden rule is somewhat insulting. As is the comparison of our view to the current regime in Iran. We all interpret this differently, often in keeping with our own experiences. But my views do stem from caring and I do often try to put myself in the position of the animal, as imperfect as that approach may be. I also recognize that how I’ve felt in certain situations, or my projection in trying to imagine how I would feel may not determine the best long term strategies for the movement as a whole.


But it is valuable to the welfare side to continue to paint abolitionists as bumbling morons who lack empathy. Because it is easy to dismiss our views if you feel we are stupid, immoral, or misinformed. What I see going on in the movement though is a deliberate effort to marginalize activists who do advocate for abolition. TAFA saw fit to include “humane” farmers who presented saccharine accounts of killing animals. We were assured that these animal exploiters were included because we’re all on the same side. However, those promoting abolition or with doubts about the Whole Foods, Humane Certified, small family farmers theme were excluded from the conference. So there was a range of views presented, but heavily skewed in one direction, with one whole end of the spectrum chopped off as if it didn’t exist.


I do wish we had decent studies on the topic of how people interpret and respond to animal welfare reforms, because I would be swayed by hard data. However there is a tendency within the movement to confuse correlation and causation. For example I often hear people repeat that humane reforms lead to more vegetarians because the countries with the most vegetarians have the most humane laws. This is correlation, not causation. It’s equally likely that vegetarians push for humane reforms, or that some other third factor in the population leads to increases in both.


For me personally I don’t feel it’s my role to make people feel better about continuing to eat animals. As with any of us as activists, my thought stem from my own experiences. I came from an agricultural background and never even remotely thought there was anything wrong with killing animals, so long as it was done “humanely.” I became a vegetarian in my teens reluctantly because I was upset about the practices of large scale animal agriculture. Once I stopped eating animals I was able to take a step back from a belief system I’d been steeped in and realize the problems with the entire practice of breeding, raising, and slaughtering animals for food. Had anyone told me during this time that I could happily eat free range chicken, I’m sure I would have done so.


This is not to say that the animals need to suffer the worst abuses so people like me can wake up and see the light. Instead I’m saying that I really feel I’m vegan today because I wasn’t told that free range chicken, grass fed beef, or cage free eggs were huge victories. Worse, when we declare reforms by fast food chains as victories, when those animals are still treated in a way that just defies the imagination of most average consumers, are we putting a stamp of approval on fast food products? Keep in mind that the declaration of victory with Burger King went out on every major newswire and even made the TV news and got commentary on talk shows. Bruce’s essay stating that he is for welfare reforms but still feels there is no humane meat, that went out on two major blogs. That’s a large audience, but clearly not as large as the audience that heard that Burger King is now humane.


I value the honesty of the PeTA pamphlets and mailings I got when I was younger that kept telling me over and over that veganism was the only option to end the suffering of non-human animals. I took a half-way step and became vegetarian before becoming vegan, but I was never told that this was ok, that this was the end of my journey. PeTA set the bar incredibly high–a life where compassion had to touch every aspect from my plate to my shoes to my shampoo. PeTA also never wavered from the idea that every single person who got a pamphlet from them was capable of achieving this.


I try to approach others as I would want to be approached, with complete honesty and openness on the issues. I don’t chase people down and call them names, or act unkindly toward them, because I’ve been there and then some, but I do let them know how I see the situation. In keeping with that I would not feel I was treating another human being the way I myself would want to be treated if I pre-judged them as too unkind, too lacking in compassion, or too ignorant to understand the basic concept that animals are not ours to use. It is a radical concept, it takes some getting used to, but if I can get it I really believe that almost anyone can.


I know Bruce employs the same respect and honesty with other people when he gives presentations or talks to people one on one, of course. But I return to my earlier point that the campaigns for welfare reforms and the subsequent declarations of victory may send a different message to the average consumer. Particularly as PeTA has the reputation of being the hard line on opposing animal cruelty, so if even PeTA thinks Burger King is awesome, then shouldn’t we all eat there?

August 3, 2007

Small Family Farms Are Better?

Posted in animal advocacy, vegan, veganism at 2:13 am by nevavegan

I read the Animal Welfare Institute’s statement about the inclusion of farmers (only farmers who raise and slaughter animals incidentally, no farmers of organic veggies were invited) in the Taking Action for Animals Conference.

Though I was thrilled to hear that in addition to concern for animal welfare AWI also opposes “counterproductive marketing techniques” for animal exploiters, I’m still not sure I understand what they’re saying with that.

As the Tribe of Heart essay pointed out, we’re on the brink of a major environmental catastrophe and animal agriculture is one of the primary culprits. Do small family farms offer us a way to keep eating animals but be better for the environment? In a word, no.

The reason why small family farms are better for the immediate environment is that they have fewer animals. IE you’d rather live next door to Joe Bob and his 10 cows than right beside Cows, Inc and their feedlot of a thousand or more cows. Fewer animals in one spot means fewer greenhouse gases emitted and less feces and urine going into the water supply. There would be less smell and less use of antibiotics to fight the rampant often resistant diseases that flourish in these settings

That’s good news, right? It’s good news maybe, but it’s incomplete news.

Joe Bob’s cows cost more to produce and he sells them at a premium to places like Whole Foods that promote “humane meat.” Animal welfare organizations encourage people to buy their chunks of cow flesh from Whole Foods or other stores that sell “compassionate” animal products. But this remains the realm of people who are better off, who have the extra money to buy these premium products. Everyone else is still buying from Cows, Inc, and Pigs, Inc., and Chickens, Inc., etc. So while these “free range” animal products are a symbolic gesture of concern for animals they make little difference for the vast majority of the animals tortured and killed so we can eat their bodies.

Does this mean that we need to do more to promote Joe Bob so he can sell more cows? What about legislating Cows, Inc to improve the conditions there?

None of these solutions will work because we aren’t addressing the demand side of this equation. Even if it were ok for Joe Bob to breed, raise, and ultimately slaughter cows to feed wealthy people, there just isn’t space in the world to graze all the cows people want to buy and eat. Would the 25 million cows slaughtered each year in the US cause less environmental damage if they were never put into feed lots? Where would we put 25 million cows? In your backyard?

There is no way that 25 million cows (not to mention all those raised and slaughtered abroad) could not have an environmental impact. So the only way to address these issues is to not buy the flesh of cows so fewer cows will be bred into existence. The only thing that can eliminate factory farming is massive conversion to vegan diets because there is no way enough animals can be raised “free range” to meet the overwhelming demand for animal flesh. There is not enough grazing land for that many “grass fed” cows, not enough happy farms with red barns for all those chickens to see sunlight and hunt for bugs. There is not enough space or resources, so it makes sense to try to chip away at this from the demand side of the equation.

Can we work with “humane” farmers and small family farms to further this goal? To improve things a little at a time?

No. Very simply our goals are at opposition. We say that we accept that some people will never become vegan so we must compromise. But let’s imagine that despite whatever compromises we make we are far more wildly successful at converting people to veganism than we ever imagined. That would put these people out of business, so we are at cross-purposes.

In addition I think that large gains in the number of vegans would hit these “humane farmers” harder than factory farms, as the people willing to spend more and go to special stores for “humane” products are generally the ones who care and might be receptive to the idea of veganism. No wonder these farmers would like to ally themselves with us and get our endorsement for their animal flesh. They want that “humane” seal of approval, they want us in the animal rights/environmental community to tell the people who listen us that people can eat this type of meat and still do the right thing. The question I have more trouble with is why we’re so eager to join forces with them.

Small family farmers like to talk about the close relationship, love and caring, that they share with the animals they raise and slaughter for profit. If I learned anything from reading Frederick Douglas it’s that even the best intentions become perverted when one human being owns another. When economic systems depend on the exploitation of others anyone entering into that system can become a monster, no matter how much they thought they cared before their livelihood depended on not caring.

These people may say that they care about their animals, they may even believe they care about them. But they still slaughter them at young ages and purposefully breed animals into this world only for the purpose of killing them.

Because I grew up in an agricultural setting I’ve seen things that defy explanation. I’ve seen a woman cry because foxes got into her yard and killed some of her chickens, only to turn around a few weeks later and chop the heads off the surviving chickens. I’ve seen a man mourn the loss of his hunting dog as if the dog were a person and then purposefully drown an entire litter of puppies because he was unable to sell them. I’ve seen the idealized “small family farmer” openly beating and kicking animals that weren’t cooperating. Sure it’s better than factory farms still, but don’t confuse what is going on here with true compassion.

This push to promote and work with small farmers and “humane” farmers is a wrong turn for the movement.

July 31, 2007

Please read "Project for the New American Carnivore"

Posted in animal advocacy, vegan, veganism at 5:03 pm by nevavegan

James LaVeck and Jenny Stein have written a long, intelligent, well-reasoned piece regarding some changes in the animal rights movement as evidenced by the speaker list from TAFA, the conference which took place this last weekend. The essay is entitled “The Project for the New American Carnivore” and compares the domination of the movement by welfare issues to the neo-con takeover of our country’s government among other apt observations.

Please take a moment (or a little longer) and read this excellent essay.

July 30, 2007

Dairy Farmers in the American Heartland

Posted in animal advocacy, vegan, veganism at 1:11 pm by nevavegan

I have a really good friend who often argues with me that if everyone went vegan a lot of “Americans” would be out of work. And she isn’t the only one who says this—many people believe that taking compassion into account when we fill our plates somehow means less compassion toward our human neighbors.

I for one never really bought this argument. For one thing I’ve never been so optimistic as to think that I’d start my vegan blog and then suddenly a few days later nobody would be buying cow’s milk. But I also believe that people currently employed in industries that exploit animals could slowly but surely find work in the expanding industries replacing animal exploitation. Soy milk and veggie burgers, anyone?

But yesterday the Washington Post ran an interesting article showing a little spoken of trend in animal agriculture today. The United States is actually importing people from other nations to supply us with the steady stream of animal products consumers demand. This article covered the tensions and growing pollution in one community as Dutch dairy farmers set up huge operations in the US. We also know that many people working on battery farms for eggs or in slaughterhouses are illegal immigrants.

I’m not anti-immigrant by any means, but I believe that these trends show that rather than keeping our citizens working and productive, this huge push for more and cheaper animal products is actually just increasing a demand for cheap labor and asks immigrants to do work that many citizens are no longer willing to do.

So the next time someone accusing you of trying to put American family farmers out of business just because you order a soy latte, ask them how many of their friends currently work in animal agriculture. Remind them that the mythic small family farm is just that, a myth. Remind them that to produce all these animal products they thoughtlessly gobble we’re importing people as well as animals.

Then point them to this article and show them how dairy farming rather than keeping “Americans” employed is pushing them out of their communities and polluting their water and soil. I wonder if anyone making the “jobs before animals” argument really knows much about how our animal exploiting industries operate.

July 28, 2007

Driving Sideways

Posted in animal advocacy at 1:13 pm by nevavegan

Driving sideways, taken in by the scenery, as you’re propelled along
And your companion, refuses to navigate, for fear she may be wrong.

This song always got under my skin. Aimee Mann knows how to round up all my demons and put them in a beautiful package and stick a bow on top.

The thing about driving sideways is that there are times in life where we realize there’s so much wrong, but those demons I mentioned come out in force and keep us locked into a non-productive path. Where do the demons come from? Well, let me tell you.

Growing up was hard for me, as I’ve mentioned many times. My mother liked to be right. She liked to be right so much that she couldn’t tolerate anyone telling her otherwise, so if on the rare occasion I found my voice and said something (and it was always from fear, a wrong turn is one thing, but if it looked like a wrong turn off of a cliff then I got worried) the reaction was swift and punishing. I’ll always remember the rebukes “You don’t tell ME what to do!” or “I’m not going to let some smart-mouthed little girl dictate to me!”

In retrospect I really don’t believe that I was smart-mouthed, just now and then fear helped me find my voice. I remember once I went to school and we had health class and the entire time they put up slides of dead and disabled babies saying “all of this was caused by women drinking while they were pregnant.” I went home and at 2:30 in the afternoon my pregnant mother poured herself a glass of sherry. With tears in my eyes I said that I’d just been told at school that drinking is really bad for unborn babies. She could have lied and reassured me, she could have said she’d never heard that, instead she punished me for opening my mouth.

Years and years later I ended up in a relationship with a really unpleasant guy, this time driving sideways was really about driving, among other things. But if we were in the car and I said “ok, we need to turn right at the next light” I’d get the raging response of “I’m not a moron! Shut up! I know where to turn! Stop treating me like I’m stupid.” If I thought we’d made a wrong turn it was “I know what I’m f—ing doing!” So I learned to keep my mouth shut, though happily I did finally grow a spine and get out of that horrible relationship.

Part of being an adult and trying to put past baggage where it belongs is learning that if the driver makes a wrong turn that is going to cost us an extra forty minutes of travel time, then I should probably actually say something. Good, normal, adult people don’t rage at others for saying things like that. But when you grow up with it, it can be hard to relearn.

Recently I posted to my blog and on an email list some of my concerns about some of the larger animal charities. I was turned off by certain fundraising methods and moreover concerned that as a movement we’re “driving sideways.” The response was of course swift and punishing. I’ve been told I’m too angry. I’ve been told I must be trying to work against animals and must in fact hate animals. I’ve been told I’m just trying to tear down good people who dedicate their lives to helping animals. One person went so far as to attempt to psychoanalyze me and said that I’m projecting other issues from my life onto excellent groups because I have psychological problems I’m unwilling to deal with.

I dunno. Sometimes bad fundraising tactics are just bad fundraising tactics. Sometimes if I say “hey, where is this car going?” I really mean “hey, where is this car going?”

I’m not perfect. I’ve worked on a lot of stuff. I have more to work on. I always thought maybe at least it’s an advantage that I can often identify what’s wrong and why—it’s a start at least.

I feel like I’m back in the car being told to shut up. I don’t feel like shutting up just yet. I do make an effort not to vilify individual people. I think that the people who work for and support these groups do so out of absolute sincerity. I just think that somehow group-think has from time to time maybe resulted in a couple bad decisions, a wrong turn now and then.

July 27, 2007

Culture and Tradition Again

Posted in animal advocacy, vegan, veganism, violence at 7:16 pm by nevavegan

How many times have all of us working to help animals heard someone excuse inexcusable behavior because they feel that animal abuse is “part of their culture” or a family tradition?

I wrote about this before in Tradition Vs. Veganism, and again a couple days ago I touched on it by noting again that my family participated in cock fighting, a practice most people find abhorrent today.

Although culture and tradition provide comfort and identity to many people, they can also hold us back when we fail to ever question those traditions. Did my ancestors enjoy cock fights? Possibly, but remember this was also the era of public hangings. People would pack a picnic and go watch another human being die a slow agonizing death. This was a time when my great grandfather changed his name and purposefully covered up his origins because he thought his real name and his real ethnic identity would prevent him from running a successful business. Side shows flourished back then as people paid money to stare at and make fun of the disabled and ill. We’ve turned our backs on many of these old “traditions” so why not re-examine other traditions as well?

Most of us come from backgrounds where some traditions were beautiful and others were terrible. Though we rarely think of child abuse as “tradition” in many families it is taught, preserved, and passed down generation to generation the same as if it were a style of dress, or a way of praying. Likewise animal use and abuse can be a bad habit or a flawed belief as much as a tradition.

Would most of us go around kicking puppies simply because a family member had previously kicked puppies? Probably not. We would recognize that as a personal failing on that relative’s part. But we cling to things that are equally cruel because we attach an arbitrary meaning to them. Turkeys suffer terribly during their short lives, and are slaughtered under terrible conditions, yet we feel this is necessary so we can put the traditional turkey on the Thanksgiving Day table. We still go to the circus to watch enslaved elephants controlled through fear and pain perform for our amusement because “Dad used to take me as a kid.” What we need to recognize is that we have a lot more options and a lot more information than our ancestors had—we can still take our kids to a show, and there are lots of shows that don’t use animals; we can still eat a wonderful, delicious meal together without the turkey because we have so many other foods available now.

Another funny little note on Thanksgiving is that turkey and pumpkin are the two traditional foods that most people insist on for the holiday, citing that these were foods from the first Thanksgiving. There is some dispute about that story. But when we look at the other foods served, we see a lot of foods that would not have been present, like rolls and stuffing made with wheat flour, green bean casserole, many dishes containing sugar or cheese, and other ingredients that would not have been present at the first Thanksgiving. So the traditional foods are a little arbitrary.

So many times I’ve heard people lament the effect their traditional cooking has had on their health. A friend of mine from Jamaica said that she had gained a lot of weight and developed a pre-diabetic condition from eating her traditional “comfort foods” like meat pastries. Fearful she might lose her eyesight, she had to find ways to eat foods she had not been fed at home, like salads, for the sake of her health. But she found she could still honor her heritage with fruit, which had always been a part of her family meals, she just had to give up the breaded and fried items. She could also still enjoy traditional stews, but she decided to add veggies and leave out the fatty meat she used to enjoy. I can sympathize—my family apparently never ate a vegetable except one that was cooked in lard, so many of us had to learn new ways to look at food!

If we can give up traditional foods because our health demands it, we can also give up or adapt traditional foods because we want to be kinder to animals and the planet. After all it’s not just our own health that’s affected by what we eat. That was another reason my friend decided to change her diet. She remembered all the beautiful birds of her home in Jamaica and feared that climate change and pollution would drive them into extinction.

Another way we can view traditional cruelty and our decision to depart from it is by asking ourselves what our ancestors would have wanted. Veganism would have been an alien concept to most of them naturally, but all of them wanted a better and more peaceful life for us. In my family I’ve had an ancestor or more than one in every single US war, starting before we were even the US, with the American Revolution. My ancestor who fought in the revolution was a Quaker and thus must have had terrible reservations about going to war. But he wanted to fight that war with the hope that his children and their children could be free from war.

That’s not how it worked out sadly, but we keep in mind that our ancestors who fought wars, slaughtered animals, fought animals, or even stole for a living all wanted better for the future generations. They hardened their hearts hoping we would not have to. If we could talk to them today they probably wouldn’t totally get each and every decision we’ve made, but they would want us to live in peace and take care of the planet and each other. (We’ll forget for the moment that random ancestor who would hate you for not covering your hair in public, or the one that didn’t want you mixing with people of other religions, or the one that would say “You never been to prison? What you think you better’n’ me?” or the one who went on some murderous rampage before being shot down. We’ll just leave those disastrous chapters of family history shut for the time being.)

When we do cruel things just because our forbearers did, we are not really honoring their memories. Instead we are merely repeating their mistakes.

July 23, 2007

Think Of The Animals We Don’t Protect

Posted in animal advocacy, family, real life, vegan at 8:23 pm by nevavegan

With all the attention on Michael Vick and his dog fighting and dog killing activities, many of us, myself included, forgot momentarily that far worse than this goes on day after day, hour after hour, year after year, on farms and in slaughterhouses all over the country.

As a nation we tend to divide ourselves into distinct categories, and choose beliefs and traditions meant to define us culturally and ethically. I wrote before that animal fighting was a tradition in my family, and in fact my great grandfather won the seed money to open his hardware store from running cock fights. His children though distanced themselves from animal fighting, preferring the image that went along with owning and store and a house, to that of the opportunistic vagabond who blew in on the west wind to gamble, sleep in gutters, and fight animals. They only touched birds who were cooked and served on plates. They didn’t gather and place bets in dark alleys. Of course they saw nothing wrong with hunting or farming though, occupations that they saw as denoting a higher social class.

I am not proud of this family history, but I find it informative. This tangible connection from me through a generation still living, to more blood thirsty traditions. Traditions that are looked down on by most of society. It’s easy to cry out against practices done by the few, conducted underground, that smack of backwardness and open cruelty. But meanwhile we don’t often question where our food comes from. We deplore obvious blood lust, but tolerate covert cruelty done for our convenience.

As horrorific as I find dog fighting and cock fighting, I have to remember that the torture behind all those neatly packaged Styrofoam trays of flesh in the grocery store is equally terrible. That the suffering of animals kept alive to produce milk and eggs, only to be killed when their production drops, is much like the suffering of dogs bred and forced to fight, and killed when they lose. Intensive confinement, painful tail and ear docking (as well as debeaking and amputation of toes), electric shocks, open wounds, all of these are found in animal agriculture. Rape racks are not an invention of dog fighting rings, they are part of animal agriculture, designed to force reproduction on animals so traumatized and deprived that they would no longer reproduce on their own. Even on small family farms, reproduction is not the choice of the farmed animals, but is carefully planned and implemented to maximize profit for the farmers.

We don’t want to legislate dog fighting to make it more humane or less lethal. Instead we want it stopped entirely. Maybe we should start thinking about other animals, equally innocent but totally unprotected, in the same terms.

July 20, 2007

Discussing Donations Again

Posted in animal advocacy, donations at 4:58 pm by nevavegan

There has been a lot of blog buzz and several recent news stories about donating to non-profits. So I’m going to revisit the topic and share some more of my thoughts. This is meant to be supplemental to my prior entry “Donations as an Investment.”

I really feel like I might be unfairly picking on The Humane Society of the United States, because they are certainly not the only organization to use the kinds of fundraising tactics I want to discuss. However, I will cite them as an example of the kinds of things that worry me.

With all the news attention on Michael Vick’s involvement in dog fighting, dog killing, and dog starving, I got an email alert from HSUS asking me to make “a special donation” to provide care to the dogs rescued from Vick’s property. The email showcased a picture of a single dog with scars and cuts on his face and nose. The photo was not really “staged,” this was in fact one of Vick’s fighting dogs. However, studies have demonstrated that people donate more when shown a picture or told a story about a single animal in need, so this appeal was cleverly designed to elicit donations.

HSUS does not have a shelter and the location of the dogs is currently unknown by the public at large. However HSUS is apparently “overseeing” the care of the dogs.

Shortly after the first email alert I got a second one from HSUS. They said that their servers had crashed due to an overwhelming response to the Vick case, but now the problem was fixed. They asked me again to make a “special donation” for the care of the dogs.

Out of curiosity I clicked on the donate link. What I found there was somewhat disappointing. In fine print at the bottom of the donation page was the standard disclaimer that my donation could be used on other programs, not just to help the dogs rescued from this dog fighting ring.

I find this deceptive because I felt the words “special donation to care for these dogs” indicated that a donation made in this way would be restricted, but instead the small print told a different story. I don’t doubt HSUS will do a great deal to help these dogs, but I also believe donations will exceed the amount needed for the day to day care. I also believe that if there is an excess of money raised in this manner it should go to the actual shelters caring for the dogs, not into HSUS’s larger budget. In other words, if more money than is needed comes in, I would prefer to see it go to improving shelter facilities to better handle future cases like this, than going in Wayne Pacelle’s salary.

But to be fair, this is not just an issue with HSUS. Nearly every organization out there sends very specific fundraisers out, talking about an individual crisis situation, and in the fine print they place a disclaimer to say that they’re under no obligation to spend the donations on that specific situation.

I’ve worked at a number of non-profits through the years, animal related and human related (Please note: I’ve never worked at HSUS and none of the stories below have anything to do with HSUS). I’ve seen things that broke my heart. I’ve seen a fundraising letter go out talking about a tragic animal crisis in another state, only to see the record-breaking donations that came in from that letter go to redecorating the office, not to helping the animals whose terrible stories were told in that letter. Those animals continued to suffer and die. I’ve seen a large donation that the donor intended for direct animal care, but failed to restrict, go into fundraising materials and new computer equipment, while direct animal care was scaled back. And all of that was made possible by the fine print.

This is why when a recent story broke in my own area about a woman who left a one million dollar bequest to the Ann Arundel SPCA I was thrilled to see that the donor knew enough to restrict her donation. She specified her funds must go to direct care for animals. No doubt her bequest will free up other funds to improve the shelter facilities and send out fundraising letters. But if you’re going to leave a bunch of money to an organization, be sure to specify its use. Otherwise, that bequest could be used for anything.

There are other things that I specifically look for when making donation decisions. I don’t really like to donate to organizations whose boards don’t meet basic standards or have only advisory powers. This one is a new one for me, but after having witnessed some bad situations, I’m starting to learn the values of boards. Organizations limit the powers of their boards to make it impossible to ever remove the founders of the organization from positions like CEO or president. While I understand the sentiment behind this, I do feel it’s bad for the animals. There could be a situation where the founder is unable to keep up with the responsibilities of running the organization, or is suffering diminished mental capacity. When a board has powers to address that, they can step in and save the organization and do what’s best for the animals. When the board has no such authority some pretty terrible situations can develop.

So in conclusion: Per the prior entry, consider your donations an investment and choose to support organizations with a clear consistent message, consider salaries and compensation when you make donations. For today’s entry, always read the fine print when making a donation, when making a large donation restrict its use to programs you approve of, and finally consider board and structure of the charity. Is this a charity with all the decision making power vested in one single person? What will happen to this charity if that person is suddenly unable to perform their duties?

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