Hog wrestling in Wisconsin

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This is the time of year where “county fairs” are popping up all over the United States.  These community events almost invariably center around animal exploitation, with 3/4 of the attractions in some way animal-related (not even including the food element).  I suspect that if animals and animal products were removed from most county fairs, you’d be left with a few rickety rides and a cotton candy machine.

The other day, Chad posted a link to this slideshow over at the Food Fight Blog.  It’s from a “hog wrestling” event in Wisconsin.  The following image is the first one displayed in the slideshow.  I’m showing it here in its original size to be sure it sinks in.

pig-wrestling

(Justin Connaher, Sheboyganpress.com) 

This picture’s been on my mind since I first saw it.  To me, it illustrates how far so many people are from the reality of animal suffering.

The event has its own web site at eldoradohogwrestle.org.  It’s sponsored by the Eldorado (Wisconsin) Fire Department/Lions Club and is “a timed competition where four person teams enter the “watery/mud” arena and try to catch-a-pig.”  Each pig is “used” one time and “treated humanely,” ensured by three people in the arena that “guarantee that no harm will come to the pig.”

The site then snarkily adds, “(At least not until it is taken to “market” on Monday morning.)”  Because as long as you treat them humanely while wrestling them for sport on Sunday, it’s OK to slit their throats come Monday.

Really, it’s pretty amazing how they go out of their way to describe how well the animals are treated during the event:

Hog wrestling is a timed competition where four person teams enter the “watery/mud” arena and try to catch-a-pig.  The goal is to catch, control and then carry the pig to the center of the ring, and then lifted up onto a padded barrel in 60 seconds or less.  Each hog is only used once!  Sixty teams try to “ham it up” in one way or another; but it is the slippery pigs that are the center of attention.  The porkers are clearly in the element, the competitors clearly are not.  The pigs are treated humanely; otherwise the entire team will get disqualified! We have two officials and a “hose man” in the arena with each team to guarantee that no harm will come to the pig.  (At least not until it is taken to “market” on Monday morning.)  The hogs immediately get hosed down with water, walked back to a shaded area to rest, which is more than our contestants get!  The whole thing ends up being a tremendous amount of fun as thousands of people look on under the blazing sun and temperatures (and beer) that make most people sweat like er, well..like pigs!

I don’t know about you, but to me, the picture above doesn’t depict a “humane” event.

Is it humane to drag these animals into an “event” that they obviously didn’t agree to?  Is it humane to confuse, scare, and hurt the pig by letting him be attacked and wrestled to the ground by groups of four (with names like “Team Deliverance” (pictured above), “P.E.T.A.” (how much you wanna bet that’s short for the oh-so-clever “People Eating Tasty Animals”), and “Bringing Home the Bacon”).

The picture above depicts a scared animal being tackled violently to the ground with what looks to be a bruised or bloodied leg.  Children and their families look on, smiling at this “silly” event.  To them, it might as well be a “kiss-the-pig” contest because, hey, the pigs are “in their element.” Yet, I doubt a single one of them could provide any reason why an event like this is either OK or necessary.

This is not a victimless event.  This is not fun for all.  This is not entertainment.

(Since my entry on hog-dog rodeos several years ago drew a slew of idiots, I’ll state right now that when the hog wrestling defenders arrive, any comments I deem trollish will be deleted.  Period.)

Why we need to rethink welfare

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My opinions on animal welfare campaigns have definitely changed over the last year or so and articles like this high-blood-pressure-inducing piece from Food and Wine illustrate the main reason my position has changed.

Let me start by stating what should be obvious: I’m not against better conditions for animals.  Welfare improvements are fine and dandy in theory because, hey, “less bad” is better.  But many times, as with “free range” eggs, the supposed welfare gains are nonexistent.  Instead, what we get is consumers feeling ethically better about their choice to eat eggs and an industry that can charge more money for their products.  You can bet the industry is making more profit, too, or they wouldn’t be making these changes.  We’re doing the industry’s marketing for them when we tout these supposed welfare improvements as “victories.”  The industry looks better for supposedly treating animals better, consumers feel less guilty about their consumption, and it does nothing to convince people to reduce or eliminate their consumption of eggs.  Yes, they may buy a few fewer because of the cost, but their fundamental thought process about animal products isn’t being challenged.

I used to think getting people to eat free range eggs, organic milk, etc. might be a “stepping stone” to veganism.  These days, though, I’m becoming more and more convinced that they’re steps backwards as we see more and more former vegetarians going back to meat.

Even former vegetarian cookbook authors are jumping the grass-fed, free-range bandwagon:

Even chef Mollie Katzen, author of the vegetarian bible the Moosewood Cookbook, is experimenting with meat again. “For about 30 years I didn’t eat meat at all, just a bite of fish every once in a while, and always some dairy,” she says. “Lately, I’ve been eating a little meat. People say, ‘Ha, ha, Mollie Katzen is eating steak.’ But now that cleaner, naturally fed meat is available, it’s a great option for anyone who’s looking to complete his diet. Somehow, it got ascribed to me that I don’t want people to eat meat. I’ve just wanted to supply possibilities that were low on the food chain.”

This is infuriating on so many levels.  For one, people are going to read this and think, “Wow.  Mollie Katzen, former vegetarian cookbook author, is eating meat again.  I guess vegetarianism isn’t that necessary of a goal after all.”  Trust me, Mollie, I’m not saying, “ha ha” at this.

Also frustrating is the implication that a vegan diet is “incomplete” when she says, “[N]aturally fed meat is… a great option for anyone who’s looking to complete his diet.”  We don’t need dead animal on our plate to be complete and as a vegetarian cookbook author, she should realize this.

It’s bad enough when people that are considering vegetarianism or veganism don’t go all the way because their moral sensibilities are sated by the promise of happy meat, but it’s even worse when we have former vegetarians (and vegetarian role models — even though it pains me to type that phrase) backsliding and speaking out about it.

The article’s author, Christine Lennon, closes with this: “Convincing those people that eating meat can improve the welfare of the entire livestock population is a tough sell.”  Allow me to close with a response:

It’s a “tough sell” because it’s cop-out reasoning that’s used to justify the consumption and commodification of animals for our tastes.

What is the solution?  Should we put an end to all welfare campaigns?  I don’t have the answers, but I know I won’t spend my own time or resources promoting such ideals.  I spend enough time already trying to counter the message that too many people are taking from these campaigns: that welfare alone is enough.  It’s not.

On Infighting, Welfarism, Rights, and Abolition

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Preface

Before I get into this, let me preface by saying a few things.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues over the last nine months.  I’ve started two or three posts on the issue and have ended up abandoning them because I didn’t know which direction I was going to go with them.  In fact, I still don’t know.

While I consider myself an animal advocate, I don’t feel like I’ve delved very deeply into the animal rights “movement.”  That is to say, I don’t have a day job at one of the national organizations, I haven’t attended demonstrations, and I don’t spend a lot of time doing letter writing campaigns.  All of these are good things, but based on time constraints and other considerations, I have to choose different ways to advocate for animals (like this blog).  As a result, this means I can still view arguments between national groups and well-known activists with somewhat of an outsider’s eye.

It’s never ceased to surprise me that any group, no matter how small or how niche, will always break down into in-fighting at one point or another.  One cause that I’ve been involved with for years has split into a number of factions because of disagreements and personality conflicts, this despite the fact that the cause is a disease that only affects about 50 people in the entire world.  So it doesn’t surprise me in the least that a lot of people working together for the same core reason — the animals — will often disagree on the best way to help.

I’d like to think that every serious animal advocate is an abolitionist at their core: they want to see animal exploitation go away.  They’d like the world to be vegan and they want animal interests to be considered alongside human interests.  The differences start to arise when the methods to get there come up.

Welfare, Rights, and Abolition

Welfarists believe incremental steps are an important part of the animal rights strategy.  Encourage changes within the system to improve the lives of the animals that are slaughtered, educate people about the conditions at factory farms and hope that if these people move to organic/free range meat and eggs, it’s only the first of many steps they’ll make to ending animal cruelty in their lives.

Pure abolitionists believe that we shouldn’t spend time promoting or fighting for things like removal of gestation crates for sows or cage free eggs on college campuses.  They don’t view these as victories because any marginal gains for the animals are offset by the people that now feel content with eating their humanely-raised meat or cage-free eggs.

Should we spend our resources on welfare reforms?

The primary arguments for spending time and money on these reforms include:

  1. They cost the industry money.
  2. They reduce animal suffering.
  3. They are effective in getting people to give up animal products (which is, presumably, the real end goal).

So, do these hold up?

The first question is the hardest for me to answer, even though it probably can be calculated and stated somewhat definitively.  Yes, the industry spends money to defend against welfare reforms.  Yes, implementing the reforms initially will probably cost them money.  But in literature from national organizations, one of the benefits touted to the industry is that the changes will be cost effective and will, presumably, increase profits.

We also see the industry taking credit for these changes, using them as a way to say, “Hey, look at us.  We care about the animals.  Buy from us, we’re not evil!”

I suspect that it may cost the industry a little money up front, but I have a tough time believing that incremental welfare reforms will cost them much money in the long-run.  The industry has proven itself as extremely adaptable.  If they are forced to comply with one new welfare regulation, they’ll find another loophole to exploit that will make up for it.

Next is the reduction in animal suffering.  Yes, it is better that a sow can turn around rather than being jammed in a gestation crate.  And yes, it may be better that a chicken doesn’t have to stand on wire.  However, from people I know that have been to “free range” or “cage free” farms, they describe these places as every bit as bad as a battery cage operation.  There’s still almost no room to move, the birds are still debeaked, there’s still an unbearable stench, and the birds don’t receive any extra medical care.  I haven’t been to either a battery cage facility or a free range facility, so I’m forced to go on what others have told me.

So, while there are (from my perspective) marginal welfare gains from adoption of cage free or free range eggs, I’m a bit concerned by lauding these as a “victory.”  It reminds me of Chris Rock’s bit about men that brag, “I take care of my children!”  Rock responds, “You’re supposed to take care of your children!  What do you want, a cookie?”  The industry should be treating these animals better.  Do we really want to give them a cookie just because they’re mistreating chickens slightly less?

Do I think pushing for animal welfare is a waste of time and money?  I don’t know.  I mean, in some sense, when there’s all this awful stuff going on, shouldn’t we try and make it better for the animals going through it right now?  On the other hand, would a wrongly trapped prisoner want groups to mobilize their writing campaigns to focus on getting him a bigger cell or would he a want campaign that worked to get him out of jail altogether and keep it from happening again to someone else?

I realize this isn’t the perfect metaphor, but it’s how I’ve thought through this issue thus far.  Take from it what you will.

Lastly, we need to think about whether or not these incremental steps will help encourage people to move to vegetarianism or veganism.  Several years ago, I might have said, “Yeah, going organic/free range is a good first step.”  However, as I’ve talked to more people and read more material, I’m not convinced of this anymore.  One great example: this past Christmas, I had a discussion with a family member who was fully convinced that eating free range eggs was fine because “the birds are treated so well.”  The way I see it, we have enough trouble convincing the average person that eggs aren’t OK even though they “don’t involve killing the chicken.”  People already have to be convinced to not eat eggs.  If we also have to convince them that, no, free range isn’t really OK, it adds an added layer of complexity for animal advocates.

An even more disturbing trend that I noted in an earlier post is that of long-time vegetarians returning to eating meat because now they can feel better about it.  I don’t know the de-conversation rate we’re talking about here, but the fact that anyone went from ethical vegetarianism back to consuming animal products scares the hell out of me.  I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, but it’s happening, which means that this idea of “humanely raised meat” may not be having the results originally hoped for in terms of being a stepping stone to veg*nism.

Marcus v.s. Francione

This weekend, I listened to the lengthy debate between Erik Marcus and Gary Francione.  I was looking forward to this because both men are passionate about animal rights, have a lot of common ground, and state their positions well.  I’ve got to be honest, though… listening to this “debate” (not really a debate since there were no time restrictions or moderators) was difficult.  Uncomfortable, even.

Reading reaction to the debate, I wasn’t surprised to see a wide variety of responses.  Some felt that Erik came across as ill-prepared for Gary’s onslaught.  Others felt Gary was rude by frequently interrupting and dismissing what Erik had to say.  Still others thought that Erik was the rude one by calling Francione a “fundamentalist” without having read his books.

Part of the reason I felt very ill-at-ease while listening to the debate was that I really wanted this debate to go well.  I’m friends with Erik and he was a big influence on me throughout my veg* journey, but at the same time, I find Gary to be an engaging speaker with very solid ideals.  And man, he’s a freakin’ fireball.  I’d love to see him go up against someone like Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity.  Or someone from the CCF.

Nevertheless, I found myself getting frustrated by the interruptions, the flow of the discussion, and the general tone from both of them.  And I think both participants felt the same way, as they sounded completely exasperated with each other by the end.

That said, while it wasn’t easy to listen to the debate, I encourage everyone to do so (if you don’t have time for the whole thing, listen to the first part — the second part involves a lot of going around in circles).  I think that even though these discussions may be uncomfortable and bring up a lot of strong emotions, it’s crucial that we talk.

One thing that’s baffled me has been the fact we have two very similar AR conferences: Animal Rights and Taking Action for Animals.  In recent years, national organizations have refused to participate in one of the conferences because SHAC supporters were on the same agenda.  Not the same panel, necessarily, but just at the same conference.  They didn’t want to be associated with the “extremists.”

As far as I’m concerned, we need to mobilize all corners of the AR movement.  Of course there are going to be disagreements and arguments, but for heaven’s sake, let’s talk about it.  Let’s take a look at things from all angles and honestly consider tactics, techniques, and ways that we spend our money.  Long-time activists need to hear new ideas and newcomers need to pay attention and learn from those that have come before them.

I realize I’m saying this as a relative newcomer to the movement that is very much still an outsider.  I know I’ve got a lot to learn and that my perspectives will change with time, but I get this feeling that we’re at a very important crossroads in the movement.  We need to respectfully sit down and discuss things on a level that doesn’t get personal.  One side shouldn’t say (or even imply) that the other is wasting their time.  Or dismiss the other’s opinions out of hand because it’s different.  Or ignore another viewpoint because it may seem too extreme or fundamentalist on the surface.  If we can form a real, honest dialogue that leaves egos and personal conflicts at the door, perhaps we can figure out where we really go from here.  I suspect there isn’t a simple answer.

Elsewhere

Here’s some more stuff to read/listen to, primarily with regards to the debate.  I haven’t gone through all of these, so this is as much a list for me as it is for you:

Veganism Is Not Extreme

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When I first became vegetarian a little over six years ago, it was a huge change for me. For three meals a day, I committed to doing something different than I had done for the previous 27000 meals of my life. To me, giving up meat was extreme, especially early on when I tried to figure out what else I could eat other than soy hot dogs.

After a little while, though, it felt very natural and I realized that vegetarianism wasn’t that big of a deal. And while I thought that someday I might possibly go vegan, the idea of veganism still seemed extreme to me.

When I finally made the transition to veganism, it also turned out to be not that big of a deal. Today, it seems like the most normal thing in the world to me, definitely not “extreme” by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, to anyone else that hasn’t made the transition to veganism, whether omnivore or lacto-ovo vegetarian, it still seems very far “out there.” The phrase “vegan extremists” is not terribly uncommon:

“Fish is a great source of protein and it’s one of the few foods that almost all people will agree is good for you – except some vegan extremists – with the caveat that you have to be careful about where the fish comes from and what kind it is.” (also includes this comment from a reader: “To heck with vegan extremists! Put the fish on my plate!”)

Vegetarian and Vegan extremists, as well as fur-haters (people who throw red paint at people who wear fur) have a heavily intolerant view on animal testing, they firmly believe that any testing is inhumane, they pass pictures of animals in torture-like devices and are very active in trying to make meat-eaters and fur-wearers feel like murderers, just because they don’t abide by the vegetarian/vegan extremist point of view.”

And, of course, the “don’t they have anything better to do” variety of comment:

Please beware that the vegan extremists are not going to go away. Like extremists of every stripe, they want to impose their values on others. Many have nothing but time to kill (so to speak) and plenty of $$$ from a few high profile backers.”

We regard sports and activities as “extreme” if they are death-defying, ones that if performed without experience and the utmost caution would cause the average person to meet a painful end. Indeed, death itself is probably the most extreme thing that any of us will ever face (and the one thing that we will all face at some point). It’s the end of this life, and even if you believe in the afterlife, you can be sure you’re in for a drastic change when the reaper calls your number.

Likewise, we look at torture as extreme because in many cases, it’s a fate worse than death. It makes the victim wish for death as a quick release from the suffering.

If one looks at the animal exploitation industries–that is, the meat, dairy, and egg industries, the vivisection and animal testing industries, and the fur industry–a few obvious things come to light. The vast majority of the animals used in these industries undergo treatment that would be considered torture by the mainstream if inflicted upon humans: confinement, sharing cramped cages, force feeding, starvation, rape, use of foreign substances, lack of medical care. For whatever reason, when these acts are committed against non-human animals, they’re considered “standard industry practices” and not torture.

But even if agreement can’t be reached on the treatment of these animals, one thing is undeniable: 100% of them face the most extreme of extremes: death. And not a natural death that most of us hope for, but an early, painful, unnatural death at the hands of another. This death would be at best considered torturous and at worst, murder. Again, since these acts are not being committed against humans, most of us accept them as the normal part of life.

So the question at this point is, “Why is veganism extreme?” It’s extreme because it causes us to radically change how we live our lives.

But forget that for a moment. Forget any personal change required in becoming vegan (because, after all, would we consider inconvenience if it involved our next door neighbor being tortured?). Consider only the actual actions involved in a.) eating meat, wearing animal products, and supporting animal testing and b.) practicing veganism.

Torture and death are extreme. Meat, fur, and animal testing involve both. Therefore, these actions should be considered extreme.

Veganism bypasses all of this. Veganism opts out of exploitation, torture, and death. Veganism strives for compassion. Veganism is peace. Veganism is not extreme. Eating dozens of animals a year (even more if you’re into chicken rather than beef) is extreme.

Sure, we’re all still freaks for the way we choose to live our lives because it’s so drastically different than what most people do, but it doesn’t make our lifestyle extreme. In fact, it’s our very choice to abstain from animal products and the suffering that’s associated with them that makes us the antithesis of extreme.

How to Veganize It

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This is a short article I wrote for my CSA‘s newsletter. I thought I’d include it here. The audience generally knows what a “vegan” is, but may not have had a whole lot of experience cooking for them. I wanted to come strictly from a food angle and only briefly mention the reasons people are vegan.

It’s summertime and you’ve got a group of people coming over for dinner. It’s stressful, but you’re feeling confident because you’ve got a bagful of CSA veggies and a pile of favorite recipes to serve up to your friends. There’s one problem though.

A vegan’s coming to dinner.

Let’s quickly define “vegan” in case you haven’t come across one of these crazy beasts before. Vegans are strict vegetarians that abstain from meat (which included poultry, fish, game, etc.), dairy, eggs, and honey and also do not wear leather, wool, silk or other animal-derived products. There are ethical, health, and environmental reasons people go vegan, but we won’t go into that here (if you’re interested in more detail, visit http://www.vegblog.org/resources/).

A slight panic sets in. If you can’t serve someone meat, that’s OK. You’ve dealt with vegetarians before. But now you can’t use butter, eggs, milk, cheese, or honey in your meal? This is going to be hard, isn’t it?

Thankfully, no. Here’s a quick guide for ways to deal with those pesky vegan dinner guests:

  • Make all your sides vegan. This is easy if you’re a member of the CSA and have a large batch of fresh veggies and herbs. There are plenty of vegan recipes on the web site (vegetarian recipes are marked as such, but you’ll have to look more closely for explicitly vegan recipes) and most public libraries have a vast collection of vegan cookbooks that you can borrow. If you have enough tasty vegan sides, they can mix and match those to fill up their plate. But please don’t leave them with just salad and carrot sticks.
  • Ask the vegan if they want to bring a dish. Many times, vegans will bring their own dishes to functions in order to not trouble the host while ensuring that they have something to eat. But if it’s a potluck, let the vegan know you’re looking forward to seeing what they bring and trying something new.
  • Make all your food vegan. Believe me, it’s not as scary as it sounds and even the hardest of hardcore meat eaters will rarely turn their nose up at a free meal even if it doesn’t have meat in it. In a lot of cases, you can use familiar recipes just making certain substitutions:
    • For meat, replace it with a soy or gluten-based analog. There are so many great faux chicken, beef, and pork subs out there and they’re easy to find. Just check the label to make sure that the manufacturer doesn’t use dairy (like whey) or eggs (Morningstar Farms is famous for doing this).
    • For dairy, swap out milk with soy, rice, or almond milk. For cheese, look for a soy based cheese (read the label and watch out for casein, a milk-derived protein) or just leave the cheese out.
    • Eggs can be a tad tricky. It’s easy if you’re baking (see http://www.theppk.com/veganbaking.html for great tips for getting rid of eggs in cookies, cakes, etc.) but it may be a bit tough if you’re making an egg-heavy quiche. If that’s the case, Google “vegan quiche.”
    • Honey can be easily substituted for with agave nectar (a liquid sweetener derived from cactus that tastes very similar to honey and is very low on the glycemic index), brown rice syrup, or a dry sweetener.
    • If trying to figure out exactly how to swap out ingredients in a recipe is a bit daunting, hit Google and search for a vegan version of your recipe. So, if you were going to make fettucine alfredo, search: “fettucine alfredo” vegan recipe

As you can see, cooking for vegans may be a different experience than you’re used to, but it’s by no means difficult. Vegan food is not (or, rather, does not have to be) boring. And when a vegan friend comes by and sees that you’ve prepared a great vegan meal that isn’t spaghetti with marinara sauce, a salad, or a stir fry, their mind will be blown and they’ll be ever so thankful they don’t have to subsist on the snack tray.

Ryan MacMichael is one of those “pesky vegans.” He’s the PVF webmaster but also runs vegblog.org and wrote the foreword for the amazing cookbook Vegan with a Vengeance.