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.


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.

February 9, 2007

Tradition vs. Veganism

Posted in family, happiness, vegan at 1:38 pm by nevavegan

In many ways I feel strangely qualified to address the issue of how we can honor and uphold family traditions while still being vegan. I grew up in a family with farming roots, my father and grandfather hunted. My great grandfather made his original money, the seed money for his hardware store, off of cock fighting. Which in a way makes my very existence now dependent on cruel cock fights that took place 90 years ago or more.

When I first decided that I had to become a vegetarian my mother felt I was turning my back on my heritage. Much moaning and wailing ensued. Apparently she felt I was rejecting her values and giving up everything that made our family unique. I’ve heard similar statements from others, like “I would go vegan, but I’m descended from farmers; it’s part of who I am.”

Another weird logical trap I’ve seen people fall into is the “I wouldn’t be here” trap. For example, “if it weren’t for dairy farming, my grandparents would have starved, and I would never have been born. So it can’t be wrong.” But the wonderful thing about becoming vegan today is that it is only a commitment from this day forward to try to live with compassion toward animals and practice a more environmentally sound diet. I don’t own a time machine and I’m not going back in time to wipe your grandparents or mine off the face of the earth. I’m only talking about the choices we make right now, today, and how those choices affect the world around us.

I don’t want to take a revisionist view of history; I’m not going condemn my departed family members for having eaten meat. I like to think that if they’d been exposed to the idea of veganism they would have tried it, but I don’t know that for certain. What I can know is that while what I choose to eat is an important ethical decision for me, for my ancestors it was largely a matter of convenience and availability, not an issue of conscience. This gives me a lot of wiggle room to honor tradition and keep in touch with my heritage while still being vegan. I just pick and choose the traditions to keep. Amazingly, I’ve realized that’s what everyone does, vegan or not.

For example, I cook and eat black eyed peas and collard greens every year for New Year’s day. This is a long standing tradition in my family and in most families from the Southern United States. It is a tradition about abundance, simple foods, warmth and sharing, and it encompasses our hopes for the coming year. My great grandmother cooked hers with bacon grease, I cook mine with olive oil and herbs, but still every year when I cook them I think of her and my great uncles as I stir the pot.

I was closest to one of my great uncles and I’ve found a couple of important traditions that I can honor in his memory. First of all, he loved dogs and never had less than ten dogs at any given time as far as I know. Many of his dogs simply showed up at his door begging for food and stayed. He wasn’t wealthy, but since there were never any puppies or any fights, it seems he got them all altered. One of his dogs he found trapped in a leghold trap while hiking in the woods. He freed her and carried her home and from then on she was the most pampered of his dogs. So even though my great uncle would never have thought to protest anything, when I protest or write letter against leghold traps I’m honoring his belief that they were cruel and should be outlawed. When I rescue homeless animals I’m honoring his compassion and generosity. When I educate people on companion animal care or push for spay/neuter programs I’m honoring his devotion to canines.

But you don’t have to have a leghold trap-hating great uncle to honor family traditions. For most of us our compassion for non-human animals didn’t come out of thin air. We had family members who liked cats or dogs for example, or a nature-loving aunt, or whatever. We simply built on the values expressed by those family members and took them to the logical conclusion given the world we live in, that exploitation must end and compassion is the ultimate goal.

Like I said, everyone picks and choose the family traditions they follow. My very own mother, who thought my veganism was turning away from my heritage, hid from me the fact that many of my older relatives were avid tarot card readers. That was a tradition my mother didn’t like, but it sits fine with me. A lot of my ancestors made their way through prison at one time or another, a tradition that my parents, grandparents, and my siblings and I have all turned away from. Though my parents felt hunting was a great family tradition, nobody was proud of the cockfighting done by my great grandfather; they considered it low class and degrading. When it comes to food though, I think my grandfather said it best of all.

“When I was little my momma would send me down to the creek with a bucket of pig intestines, cause she didn’t want to wash them by the house. It was awful. I had to wash and wash them in the creek, all the while trying to keep the sand out of them. I’ll never forget that smell. Finally I’d take them home and she’d put them in a pot with seasoning and cook them all day long to make chitlins. When I grew up I moved out of the South and joined the Air Force and I’m never going to have to eat chitlins again in my life and nobody can make me eat them.”

Interestingly enough though, chitlins were not a favorite, cherished recipe carried here from the old country. They were an effort by our ancestors to not waste anything and to make use of every resource available to them, even if it was distasteful. Perhaps the tradition to honor is this case is the frugality and creativity that led our forbearers to make this Southern dish, and not the dish itself. As we’re faced with unprecedented strains on our environment, maybe the take home message is “make do with less and waste nothing.”

We all pick the traditions we’d like to keep; it’s not so hard to pick the compassionate ones to honor and keep.