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.


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.

Then I Handed In My Super-Secret Abolitionist Decoder Ring and Went Home

Posted in abolition, animal rights, veganism at 1:56 pm by nevavegan

Mary Martin, a self-admitted abolitionist recently called it “the a-word.” I sympathize. I would consider myself an abolitionist, and yet there are times when maybe I don’t measure up? I’ve seen a number of arguments lately against arguing from environmentalism, or arguing against vivisection on non-ethical grounds (like my recent post on how stupid some animal experiments are). Those methods, according to some, fall short, because they don’t emphasize animal issues from a rights point of view.

What does it all come down to? I think people should be vegan. I think veganism is the only ethical way to live in this world, the world we have, not the ideal world we make up in our heads to excuse our own shortcomings.

I think that to promote veganism we should be honest. We shouldn’t downplay the plight of the animals because the horror of it upsets people. We shouldn’t tell people untruths about veganism or give poor nutrition advice. We shouldn’t pretend we are perfect. But we should face our fellow humans as humans and tell them what we know and what we understand and hope that at least part of that message sinks in.

I don’t think we can promote veganism by praising people for using slightly less awful methods of slaughtering, nor do I think we can promote veganism by giving free advertising to restaurants that don’t really serve vegan food but now use cage-free eggs.

I don’t think we can promote veganism by being degrading to people, whether that means the exploitation of women, or trying to trick people into veganism by capitalizing on their desire to be thin alone. For what it’s worth everyone I’ve known personally who became vegan only to lose weight gave it up because they were looking at it as another diet and then a new fad diet came along and they decided to try that one. Which is not to say that people can’t be motivated by their own desire for health, I’m just not sure the pursuit of thinness alone is enough. But others have told me they knew people who were only vegan for health reasons who stuck with it, so my experience doesn’t define everyone’s, I guess.

But when it comes to promoting veganism I’m going to open up the toolbox and use every tool at my disposal that I don’t find unethical. I think animals have a basic right not to be bred and brought into this world simply to be used and killed for our taste buds or amusement. That’s basic. But I’m going to throw the suffering argument in too. Then I’m going to throw the environmental reasons at my audience. If they want to talk religion, I’ll talk religion. If they’re concerned about health I’m going to reassure them that veganism is healthy. There are lots of reasons to be vegan. There’s really, as far as I’m concerned, one ethical way to view animals. However, it takes a radical re-thinking of our current world view to get there, so I’m all for using everything we have. I’m not against appealing to every reason and every emotion, I just use those things toward veganism, not toward promoting Burger King.

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?