There has been a lot of coverage in the international press this week about a series of in-depth, undercover investigations into the practice of transporting farmed animals great distances (generally under hideous conditions) from the farms where they were raised to the blades that will ultimately slit their throats. On February 13, the UK’s Indpendent ran a very in-depth feature, including, on their website, investigative video footage provided by "Handle with Care," a coalition of international animal protection organizations, exposing the fact that "Millions of animals are suffering unnecessarily at the hands of meat traders by enduring cruel, drawn-out journeys across the world to be slaughtered on arrival."
It seems nonsensical. After a lifetime on a factory farm, why this final indignity--during which "thousands of animals die en route from disease, heat exhaustion, hunger and stress," only to be butchered in a foreign land? The Independent explains:
Many live exports are undertaken to make the fraudulent claim that the animals are home-reared. In Spain, thousands of horses are illegally crammed into lorries for a sweltering 46-hour journey to Italy. Canadian pigs, in conditions just as obscene, are condemned to a 4,500-mile journey by land and sea to Hawaii, so that, when slaughtered, their carcasses can be sold as "Island Produced Pork". For nine days, hundreds of pigs are crammed together in the dark, standing in their own excrement. Exhausted and hungry, they become ill, vomiting from motion sickness and waiting for long periods without food.
An article in Canada’s Globe and Mail went into further detail about the Canadian pigs’ ill-fated journey. I learned that each year, about 15,000 pigs are crammed into containers and are trucked and shipped from Alberta to the Aloha State via Oakland, California.
Oakland?? On my commute to the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s headquarters office here in the Bay Area, I drive past the Port of Oakland every day, watching the massive cranes that loom along the skyline like enormous giraffes lifting giant containers that I have always assumed contained things like Hyundais and plasma screen televisions. They look almost peaceful. Never once has it occurred to me (and as a longtime animal activist, these things do tend to occur to me) that there were living animals, hidden from sight, on the massive ships that I see each day on their way out to sea.
Folks, I have been lucky enough to make the trip from Oakland to Hawaii of my own volition, and despite the small fortune it cost for the privilege of a creaky, half-reclining seat on a sub-par airline, I endured leg cramping, inadequate food provision, and the wails of despair of a number of my economy-class travel companions, many of whom (primarily babies, but still) were in fact traveling in their own excrement. It was bad enough, is what I’m saying, and at least there was a mai tai waiting for me at the end of it. What these pigs must endure is to me, quite simply, unimaginable.
"Buying local" has become a hot-button term recently in the discourse around food politics. All of these new entries into the cultural (and, you’d better believe, marketing) lexicon--"sustainably grown," "locally produced," "ecologically friendly"--does anyone know what all of this is supposed to mean, exactly?
To me, this week’s exposé on the horrors of long-distance transport also offers a warning to be wary when considering vague food labels like "Island Produced Pork." It sounds so very idyllic, and it’s intended to. Consumers are becoming more and more aware of and concerned about the lives of animals raised for food, and that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, marketers are becoming more and more savvy about selling an image of local and, implicitly, "humane" meat production that may bear no resemblance to reality.
*Thanks to DawnWatch.com for keeping a keen eye out for animal-related news coverage like this from around the globe.
This past December, ALDF invited our members to honor special animals in their lives by sending an "In Honor of" or "In Memory of" certificate that we would hang on our "Wall of Love." So many wonderful tributes arrived, we decided some were just too precious not to share.
Like the tribute to Ariana from Jani D.:
"My raccoon – she loved me completely and I loved her back – the sweetest kisses I ever got. I miss her understanding and her love more than I can say. A week after my husband had died, I had no choice but to return to work. I came home after a tough day, the house was so empty and quiet. I was sitting on the couch, so lonely, and Ari came and jumped on my lap and reached her paw up to touch my cheek. I have never before or since felt such complete understanding and love."
Or the tribute to Bailey from Roseann M.:
"Bailey is more than a special pet. He’s not just intuitive, adorable and sensitive to everyone’s needs, he seems to talk with his eyes and understands so much. (We have to spell around him – too smart for his own good!) When he was 3 ½ months old, he would pull his leash off the hook on the wall and bring it to me. He would then go up to the third step so I wouldn’t have to bend down to hook his leash. When he was 2 ½ years old, he saved us from a slow, persistent gas leak. Bailey pulled me off the couch after bringing me his leash and kept barking to go out. It was bitter cold out but he pulled me so I would go back in. He’s my hero. Last October, Bailey was given 3-6 months to live. We take it one day at a time and make each day the best for our Bailey."
Read the other beautiful tributes to special companion animals on ALDF’s Wall of Love.
Years ago, a very wise woman said to me: God is a noun, but it is also a verb. It took me awhile to understand that way of thinking, but today, I see it as a way of living; it guides the choices that I make on a daily basis. God is whatever I do that brings out the best in me, that draws me closer to growing into the person that I truly want to be. God is active, not passive. God is more about doing than about merely believing. When I choose to be compassionate, patient, ethical, creative, or giving, I grow closer to God. And, sometimes I fail, which helps me to be more humble.
My career, the work that we do at ALDF is a reflection of my understanding of God. We use our legal skills to protect animals from harm and suffering. Sometimes, I’m asked: if you care about protecting others, why don’t you eliminate human suffering first? My answer is that I am working at the roots. I work for animals precisely because most people choose to ignore their suffering.
If God is a verb, then my place in the world is to help human beings open their hearts and their minds to the widespread suffering that my colleagues and I deal with on a daily basis, and to support an end to that unnecessary suffering.
Certain religions teach that human beings are very different from and far superior to all other species. I disagree, and believe that, in the ways that really matter, we share a great deal in common. Humans are not alone in their ability to feel pain and have a sense of their own life force. We know that dogs, cats, pigs, cows, chimpanzees, in fact, all of the more complex life forms have a central nervous system much like our own. They feel pain and pleasure and form close familial relationships with members of their own species. They show that they have emotions and preferences; they communicate their needs and sometimes, even show a sense of humor. I’ve talked with so many people who have close emotional relationships with dogs and cats and what I’ve just written is quite obvious to them. They consider animals to be members of their families specifically because animals give us so much on an emotional level. We don’t form deep emotional ties with our toaster ovens, because they can’t give anything back. A dog can, and does.
I think it’s a miracle that individuals from different species are able to communicate with each other and form a close emotional bond. My veterinarian, Dr. Diane Ritchie calls this: "when two souls connect," a subject that I covered in another blog.
But, we humans have a rather schizophrenic relationship with animals. We love them, spend billions of dollars on pet food, toys, bedding, veterinary care, and yet, too often, we abuse and exploit them. On a daily basis, we at ALDF deal with the very worst things that humans do to animals: the Michael Vick case was an eye-opener for many Americans, but we have dealt with the horror of dog fighting for many years. We have a database that, sadly, lists categories such as: beating, burning, dragging, drowning, shooting and microwaving. We refer to those horrible actions as "intentional cruelty," but much greater long term suffering happens in the area of a more benign, institutional abuse.
Each year, billions of animals are raised for food, and most of these farmed animals live in intensive confinement – they can barely move, or turn around; they can’t socialize with others of their own kind as they normally would, or do anything that is natural to them. They live out their lives in a persistent state of physical pain, suffering, and frustration because their most basic needs are ignored. All of this suffering happens because for most people, those animals don’t matter, they are not important enough for us to be concerned about their pain.
I believe that suffering matters to the individual who experiences it and therefore, it matters to me. Harriet Beecher Stowe once wrote that: "It’s a matter of taking the side of the weak against the strong, something the best people have always done."
If God is a verb, then I grow closer to God when I work to end the suffering of those who cannot speak for themselves.
Some stories are far too wonderful not to share...
The following is an email from Bruce Wagman, ALDF's chief outside litigation counsel, to ALDF staff in response to an email he received from Tina, the adopter of Lucy, a dog rescued from the Woodleys. As Bruce says, this is why we do it!
From: Bruce Wagman
Subject: This is why we do it
What a great way to start a day -- tears of joy after all those tears of pain while ALDF worked to rescue the Woodley dogs. And what a great way to spend a life. What a gift of a group you all are. Thank you again, today, for the opportunity to work with you and accomplish this kind of miracle success. Most lawyers spend their lives fighting for money for their clients, big expensive disputes far more costly than Woodley, and the end result is either money won or money not lost. No lives saved. All that money won and lost could not pay for the lives of Lucy, and Joyce's Edgar, and hundreds of others (in Sanford and elsewhere) that you are responsible for saving. My presence in this work is a gift I will always cherish, as are the emails that we get from wonderful humans like Tina.
Subject: Re: Celebrate Over 300 Freed!
Dear Bruce, Leann and all ALDF staff,
I just wanted to thank you for all your work on behalf of my little Lucy (N53) and all the others like her. I wanted to let you know what your work has meant in the life of one precious little dog. After being rescued from the horrific conditions at the Woodley's, Lucy lived for a little over a year with the wonderful people at Cole Park Veterinary Hospital. No one would adopt her, probably because she tried to bite anyone who came too close and would not "warm up" to repeat visitors. When I first met Lucy, she bit me too. Even after repeated visits, she would sit frozen on my lap and seemed relieved to return to her cage. When I first took her home, she was afraid to go to sleep. She would sit there with her little eyes closing and then jerking open as she tried to remain vigilant. She would jump backward if I took a deep breath, and heaven forbid I should cough or sneeze! She kept her eyes on me at all times, and was quite adept at running backward. Every sound or shadow frightened her. I have never seen an animal so terrified of absolutely everything. It broke my heart. I soon realized that her vision is not very good, and I'm sure that this added to her insecurities.
Now, 2 years later, Lucy is a fiesty, curious, yappy, bossy, loving, little girl. She is funny and fun-loving and into everything. She loves to play with her toys, go for walks and rides in the car and have family and friends come over to visit. She is still shy in new situations or with new people and continues to enjoy eating an occasional "turd," but she is the love of my life. The little dog who was afraid to be petted, now sits on my lap or snuggled beside me whenever I am sitting. She sleeps curled in the crook of my arm at night. She loves to wake me up in the morning by pouncing on my chest, sticking her tiny nose in my face and wagging her whole body. She is a happy girl! I am so grateful for the opportunity to have her in my life! I cannot thank you all enough for all of your work. Lucy thanks you too!!!
Today, February 4th, is my birthday, which I’m lucky enough to share with the filmmaker George Romero, the father of the modern zombie movie. "Wait, zombies?," you ask. "Isn’t this blog supposed to be about animals?" I know, I’m getting there.
A few of us from ALDF got together recently to watch Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, two of the finest zombie movies ever made. More than just blood and guts (but certainly those too), these films are also incredibly poignant social commentaries. Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968, has strong racial undertones, raising serious questions about how interpersonal racism can undermine solidarity in the face of a collective threat (such as that posed by the undead). Dawn of the Dead, released in 1978, uses mindless zombies to satirize American consumerism and alienation. The film takes place, of course, in a mall.
Watching these films, I was struck with how easily they can be translated into the context of animal ethics (though this may not have been Romero’s intent). Of course, the most defining characteristic of the cinematic zombie is his or her insatiable drive to feast on flesh, regardless of the terror this hunger inflicts on the victims. Zombies stagger mindlessly after their prey, utterly oblivious to the screams, the fear, and ultimately the gore involved in their meals. The suffering of their food simply does not register. Remind anyone of the meat industry?
Not unlike zombies, many people think nothing of tearing flesh from bone, despite the fact that the leg they hold in their hand once belonged to someone. Someone with a family, a life, a story, a desire to live. When watching zombie movies, most of us root for the food! We want the human prey to get away, to survive, to return to her family or friends. We cringe at the blood and the gore. Are we mindful enough to do the same when it comes time to sit down for our own meals? Or will we be as mindless as the zombies, deaf to the ethical dimension of who we eat? Even some zombies are (ahem…) waking up to the possibilities of foregoing flesh!
The brilliance of Romero’s movies, and what makes them so provocative when it comes to their social insights, is the metaphoric potential of zombies, their ability to represent all sorts of mindless behaviors we humans have. Whether it’s racism, consumerism, speciesism, or some other –ism, the automation of the zombie calls attention to the daily ways in which we are all capable of either shuffling on or choosing otherwise.
So, happy birthday, George. Here’s hoping for a little less mindlessness in this world.