As this is my first blog post, I thought I would start off by introducing myself. My name is Matthew Liebman, and I’m the new staff attorney at ALDF. As fate would have it, I started work on October 2, World Farm Animals Day. This seems appropriate, since it was the sad plight of animals slaughtered for food that piqued my interest in the animal rights movement and convinced me to go vegetarian (and later vegan) some thirteen years ago.
Right before I started at ALDF, I took a three-week-long cross-country tour of animal sanctuaries. My goal in doing the sanctuary tour was to meet my animal clients on their own terms, at least to the extent that’s possible outside of their natural habitats. Growing up in Texas, my exposure to animals was primarily at zoos, rodeos, and circuses, and on my dinner plate. As we all know, those are not environments in which animals can act and interact on their own terms. So in choosing where to visit, I tried to get exposure to as wide a range of animals as possible. At the sanctuaries, I saw all kinds of critters, from dogs and cats, to chickens and pigs, to lions and tigers, to tapirs and . . . whoever goes with tapirs. Alpacas, maybe?
Although these animals differed by species, they all shared an amazing resiliency in the face of callous indifference and downright cruelty by their former "owners." I met chimpanzees who had been exposed to infectious diseases in medical research, others who had been "pets" locked in basements, and still others who had been beaten into submission to perform for the entertainment of humans. I met pigs who had fallen off of transport trucks on the way to slaughter, chickens who had been debeaked and bred to grow at wildly unnatural rates, and cows who were destined for the veal industry before their rescues. I met wild cats who had been exhibited at dilapidated roadside zoos and kept as "pets." I met horses who had been left for dead by their “owners,” dogs and cats disabled by neglect and hoarding, and parrots abandoned when they got to be too much for their guardians.
And yet, in spite of all this misery, I saw living proof of the drive in all sentient beings to persevere. I saw animals rescued from death’s door and given a second shot at life. The integrity and indomitability I saw in these animals was nothing short of inspiring. When you come eye to eye with a once-imprisoned orangutan, you cannot help but respect the alterity of the beings with whom we share the earth. When you scratch a pig’s belly or hold a cooing chicken, you cannot help but understand that these beings are not simple commodities, no matter how much we try to pervert and suppress their animal natures.
In the two months since I started at ALDF, I’ve worked on a wide range of issues, all of which relate back to those animals I met at the sanctuaries. I have researched animal patenting, which involves rabbits and dogs like those I met on tour. I have worked on our cases against Farmer John and the Mendes Calf Ranch, which involve pigs and cows, like those I met at sanctuaries in New York and Texas. I have worked on ALDF’s animal hoarding cases against Janie Conyers and Barbara and Robert Woodley, which involve dogs and birds like the ones I met in Utah. The sanctuary animals gave me a profound gift. Their new lives of relative freedom motivate me through the often depressing facts of our cases.
I was privileged to have the opportunity to share some time with the sanctuary animals. Now I am proud to be able to work at ALDF on behalf of their imprisoned brothers and sisters who still yearn for liberation.
I just learned of a new island in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii. Excited about a new vacation spot? Think again. It’s not an island with sandy shores, palm trees and cabanas. It’s an island of garbage and it even has a name; "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch." Why shouldn’t it? It’s two times the size of Texas.
Two times the size of Texas.
Undoubtedly it is an environmental hazard, as 80% of the island is plastic and weighs 3.5 million tons. There is no logical solution for clean up and experts say that the "island" is only going to get larger. That is, of course, unless us humans have a dramatic change of heart and stop producing so much plastic, make plastic that is biodegradable and substitute plastic products. But that’s an ambitious goal considering our "throw-away" society has become so dependant on plastic and big business continues to feed us catchy phases like, "plastics make it possible," while showing us images of premature babies in incubators.
So why am I, as an animal rights advocate, rambling on about plastic and our environment? Because this world is One and everything we humans do affects all other living creatures we share this planet with, right?
There is no good estimate of how many birds and marine life have suffered and died from our manmade continent of waste, but we can be sure that it has been far too many. To a sea turtle, a plastic bag floating in the water looks remarkably similar to a jelly fish. When plastic is ingested by sea birds and marine life, it fills up their system but doesn’t pass. The end result is starvation and death.
How can we do our part to not contribute to the "garbage sprawl?" Recycle more and use less. Rethink buying that case of bottled water and use a refillable water bottle. Bring your own carry-out container to restaurants when you dine out. When you go shopping, whether it be for groceries, clothes or holiday gifts, pack your goodies in your own reusable cloth bags. Yes, it takes forethought and a bit of planning, but be creative and think outside the Styrofoam box. Aren’t our world and the animals worth it?
Interested in planning your next vacation to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Watch this short video to see all the island has to offer:
This week marks the final week of lectures for the first Animal Law class to have been offered at Cornell University Law School in Ithaca New York, which I am teaching as an adjunct professor. Nearly half of all accredited law schools offer an animal law course these days, and this past Fall Cornell joined their ranks. My class attracted plenty more students than the school or I expected, especially since it was a bit of a last minute addition to the curriculum over the summer, so there wasn’t much opportunity to promote it well. I’ll take the fact the class was full as a sign that there is a lot of interest in animal law.
My students came from a variety of backgrounds, including one who is dually enrolled at Cornell’s veterinary school. Some could be described as ardent animal advocates, others more curious to see what this animal law stuff is all about, and I’m sure there were a few who simply found it fit into their schedule well this semester. Nevertheless all of the students turned out to be actively engaged in the discussions, asked provocative questions of me and each other, brought up interesting cases that had appeared in the media, and generally kept me on my toes intellectually.
While I realize that law school debt will prevent many of them from pursuing an animal law practice right away, I am hopeful that many will find a way to do so on a pro bono basis in the meantime. If my class is any indication of the caliber of animal law practitioner we will see in the future, we all have plenty of reason to be optimistic about the animals’ future.
The holidays are upon us once again.
Now don’t get me wrong; I love the holiday season for many reasons. For one thing, the true goodness in people often comes out this time of year. And for another, I’m a sentimental sap; soon after Thanksgiving, I love digging out the holiday ornaments from my childhood, hanging up my companion animals’ stockings and dressing up my dog in his holiday bandanna. And I enjoy watching my loved ones open my gifts to them, and seeing their eyes light up if I happen to luck out and get them something they really need or want.
But with the joy of the season comes some difficulties that we animal advocates often face when we go "over the river and through the woods" to spend the holidays with our loved ones. For example: watching your sister sashay into the room in her mink fur coat. Or, watching her dogs shiver outside in the cold. Having dinner with your aunt, who is contributing to companion animal overpopulation by letting her cat have another litter of kittens. Debating whether or not to visit your family at all because they won’t allow you to bring your beloved dog.
Some of us also find that our dietary choices become front and center this time of year. You find yourself wondering if you can endure yet another snide remark about vegans from your brother. You ponder if that pink stuff mixed in with your sister-in-law’s green beans could really be bacon. (Who knew that a perfectly good vegetable could be so perfectly ruined?) Or my personal favorite, the question asked every year by far too many well-meaning but clueless relatives: "You’re a vegetarian but you eat turkey, right?"
And worst of all - thinking about all of the billions of animals worldwide who continue to suffer in some way or other, as you sit with your loved ones in a warm, comfortable home.
Okay, hopefully I haven’t thoroughly depressed you. Because this year, I think I’m going to approach things a little differently. In a recent meeting, ALDF staff learned about the phrase, "You get more of what you focus on." This simply means that if you focus on the negative, that’s what you’ll get, and if you focus on the positive, you’ll have more uplifting, positive experiences. It sounds awfully new agey and "woo-woo," I know. But many of us can attest to the success of following this simple rule of human experience. And it doesn’t mean that we should ignore animal cruelty and abuse, just that we should focus our energy on finding solutions.
So this holiday season, I choose to see the good in people and to find common ground where I can, instead of division. For example, I have a relative who is not a vegetarian but who wishes that farm animals would be treated humanely before ending up on her plate. When I see her this Thanksgiving weekend, I will be sure to have a conversation with her about something she’ll be very interested in, the California Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, for which some of us California citizens are currently gathering signatures. If passed into law, this state bill would outlaw three of the most horrendous cruelties of the factory farming industry: veal calf crates, pig gestation crates and chicken battery cages (see http://www.humanecalifornia.org for more info).
This Thanksgiving week, I am also focusing on the friends and family in my life for whom I am grateful. This includes our beloved dog, Connor, who presented quite a challenge during his initial "difficult behavior" years. Every time we see Connor sitting politely (if bouncily) by our side, we are also grateful for his dog behaviorist (or as we affectionately call her, "Connor’s doggie shrink") who has enabled him to coexist peacefully with us and fit perfectly into our family.
And on a national level, how about the fact that ALDF won the Woodley hoarding case, and that the dogs, who suffered at the hands of Barbara and Robert Woodley for so long, are now officially able to be adopted by their amazing foster parents! Or the case of Maggie the elephant, who was recently transported from a cold Alaska zoo to bask in the bright California sunshine at a wildlife sanctuary. Or the fact that Adam, the kitten in Sonoma County, CA who was deliberately set on fire several months ago, is now done with his skin graft surgeries and is living the life of a normal, playful kitten. He’s been adopted by his caring veterinary nurse and has a happy life ahead of him. Watch Adam's video:
These are just some happy endings for animals; there are many more I haven’t mentioned. And there is, of course, still much more to be done. But I say, somebody pop the champagne! Because now that we’re nearing the end of 2007, animal advocates everywhere have much to celebrate.
We need to take a moment to focus on these victories, and use them to shore up our strength as we get ready for the challenges ahead.
Every year at this time of year I go through the same conversation with my parents. They ask what I want for Christmas and I say, "Oh don’t buy me anything." I mean, I’m 43 years old! Train sets and Legos are just not that exciting anymore. And clothes? Well, let’s just say my parents, being in their 60s and 70s have different taste.
My main concern is that I don’t need things. It’s amazing how even a relative minimalist like myself can accumulate things. I often look in my closet and think, "What is all this stuff?" And, of course, my parents are living on fixed incomes and so it’s kind of silly for them to be spending their limited funds on stuff I don’t need.
But, the reality is, try as I might, they are going to get me something -- because they love me and, well, because that’s what you do for the holidays.
My solution? Well, everyone who cares about me knows that my passion is animals. It’s always been that way. So, as you can imagine, I’ve gotten my share of animal-themed merchandise through the years – please, no more stuffed wolves! But now, given the work that needs to be done on so many fronts to protect animals, I ask my family and loved ones to make a donation to ALDF – or any animal protection group that they feel is effective – in my name.
That way they feel good about getting me something they know I will be truly grateful for. I feel great because they honored my passion and gave me something really meaningful. And, best of all, the animals are a direct beneficiary of my parents’ love for me and of the spirit of holiday giving.
That’s what it’s all about.