Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas Tradition

In a well-intentioned and well-written recent article, newspaper columnist Sarah Hampson puts the case for family tradition when it comes to holiday food:
Rituals and traditions are a certainty in an uncertain world. They remind us that some things don’t have to change. And they cement our group identity. … They both obviate and trigger emotions. They’re a continuum from the past into the future; an attempt to ritualize love; to make it endure. And they express our need to reach for a past we can never fully recover or precisely remember. (“In praise of ‘bullet buns,’ rum balls, and other odd family traditions,” Globe and Mail, December 22, 2014)
As you might expect, Hampson has little interest in exploring alternatives to the Christmas food traditions of her family: "Needless to say," writes Hampson, "this is not a household that would tolerate Tofurky." The most important implication of that statement is clear, though I imagine it is not one realised by the author. Any North American household that, in the name of tradition, will not tolerate any shift away from egg-based, dairy product-based, and turkey-based foods is a household that gives its unwavering support to the practices of North American factory farming practices. Those practices entail not merely killing endless numbers of innocent non-human animals, but also making them suffer throughout their lives. Unless we eat only the much more expensive meat and eggs and dairy products that we know come from free-range animals (or unless we refrain from eating animal products, which is surely best of all), we are entirely complicit in that cruelty. In the end, no amount of rhapsodizing about tradition can hide that fact.

To be fair, it is a difficult thing to face up to the degree that our food traditions are based on horrific cruelty to non-human animals, and tradition of the sort Hampson describes is something worth caring about. But one can keep the traditions that don't entail cruelty while jettisoning the traditions that do; surely that is preferable to endeavoring to hold on to all family traditions, no matter how much pain they cause others. We all see this point clearly when we hear about certain traditions in other parts of the world--traditions in many parts of Asia, for example, that involve the intensive farming of dogs who are then killed and eaten. Sad to say, our own practices are just as cruel.

One of the best and most warm-hearted discussions of how to change while still being kind to the humans we love is Jonathan Saffron Foer’s Eating Animals. The account in that book of how Saffron Foer deals with his grandmother's feeling that eating chicken is a form of family love when he has come to realise that dead birds reach North American tables only after unspeakable suffering that he cannot accept, is wonderful reading for anyone who cares both about tradition and about animals--human or non-human.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Turkey Eating: Ritual of Unintended Cruelty

The New York Times published today an interesting piece by Marie Myung-Ok Lee that is clearly intended to be warmly celebratory. It focuses on how American Thanksgiving rituals--the Thanksgiving turkey in particular--assumed cultural significance for an immigrant family facing hardship and discrimination in Hibbing, Minnesota. Lee writes of how the rituals of her family's "midwestern diets remained inviolate, on Thanksgiving in particular: [such ritual] gave our family’s embryonic American life structure. It became my parents’ yearly recommitment ceremony to America." ("Eat Turkey, Become American," New York Times, November 26, 2014)

The piece is clearly well-intended, and many readers have responded warmly, calling the author's portrayal of family life "lovely," wonderful," "inspirational." As indeed it may be, so far as the human connections are concerned.

I was not the only one to comment on the place of the bird in all this; I posted this comment late today:
As we celebrate abundance and family, let's think of all our fellow creatures--birds and animals as well as humans. If we buy and eat turkey, for example, we should know that turkeys from "conventional" farms and slaughterhouses (which is to say, 99% or more) are routinely subjected to horrific cruelty. Here are some examples, from undercover work carried out by the courageous Mercy for Animals investigators:
If we don't want to be complicit in this cruelty, we do have options. Those who choose to eat animal products can insist on buying the flesh and milk of animals who have been humanely treated, and whose slaughter has been as humane as possible. Or we can go vegan--great for our health, great for the environment, and one sure way to reduce cruelty to animals.
Happy American Thanksgiving to everyone!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Having Sex and Having Babies in Captivity

For many years strong arguments have been put forward against the keeping of captive whales, dolphins, and porpoises in aquariums. Earlier this year it looked for a while as if they might have persuaded the powers that be in Vancouver, and that the Vancouver Aquarium would get out of the business of keeping captive cetaceans. But the mayor and his party have recently backed away from their earlier, more courageous stance--and now the city is unlikely even to take the much more modest step of putting an end to breeding in captivity.

Why the focus on sex and reproduction? Many would like the aquarium to simply release all cetaceans into the wild; others want them to keep things just as they are. The intermediate position that until recently seemed likely to prevail would have allowed the aquarium to keep and display animals who had been rescued and were considered incapable of surviving in the wild, but would have prohibited "captive breeding"--the practice of allowing the animals to reproduce while in captivity. From one angle it might seem cruel not to allow animals to carry out such a natural and important function--and so indeed aquarium staff have argued. The aquarium's CEO, John Nightingale, suggests that the Aquarium's policies are all about allowing what is "natural":
The Park Board’s use of the word breeding implies that we carry out some sort of planned, regulated or artificial reproduction program. We don’t do that at the Vancouver Aquarium. Our animals do mate, just as they do in the wild, because we keep them in natural groupings – just as they live in nature. Mating is the most natural thing in the world. In fact, sex and reproduction play an important role in our research and in our education programs. ("Park Board Picks a Fight with Mother Nature," Aquablog, August 1, 2014)
Mating may be the most natural thing in the world--but captivity isn't. It's the captivity part of it that makes everything problematic; if anyone has "picked a fight with Mother Nature," it is organizations such as the Vancouver Aquarium, which keep other animals in captivity throughout their lives. And, it should be added, throughout the lives of their children, and of their children's children. Once the aquarium has placed animals in an unnatural state of captivity, the key question regarding reproduction becomes "What happens to the children?" Perhaps it is the case that all the mature adults already in captivity have been rescued and could not be safely returned to the wild. But if they have children, will the children then be forced to live their entire lives in captivity? Releasing young cetaceans into the wild without their parents in the hope that they may find a pod that will accept them and that they will survive is nothing if not problematic. But if an aquarium is not committed to doing that, and if cetaceans in captivity are allowed to breed, what then? In practice, what the aquarium is really arguing for is an endless generational cycle of captivity, in which the whales and dolphins and porpoises will never be allowed to be free. But of course the Aquarium can't argue directly that captivity is "the most natural thing in the world." So they argue instead for sex and reproduction; who could be against that?

Jane Goodall is one of the many who have spoken out against the Vancouver Aquarium's policies. She notes the "high mortality rates" evident in aquarium programs that allow breeding, and deplores "the ongoing use of these animals in interactive shows as entertainment." More generally, she points out that
the idea that certain cetaceans “do better” in captivity than others is misleading, as belugas, dolphins and porpoises are all highly social animals which can travel in large pods and migrate long distances. In captivity, these highly vocal and complex communicators are forced to live in a low-sensory environment, which is unable to fully meet the needs of their physical and emotional worlds.
Vancouver Aquarium staff do not rely only on the "sex is natural" argument, of course. They also argue that breeding should be allowed because it's so interesting for other animals to watch and to study--specifically, for human animals to watch and to study. When head veterinarian Martin Haulena, speaking to a November 13 lecture audience, was asked about the aquarium's policy regarding the breeding of two harbor porpoises being kept in captivity, this was how he answered:
Reproduction is so incredible.…That’s what we’re heading into with our two [harbor porpoises]. So reproduction, gestation, development—all of that stuff is so interesting in these animals. ... [I and my staff are] banking on them getting along for the next few years. (as reported in "Vision Sends a Mixed Message on Aquarium," The Georgia Straight, November 20-27, 2014)
We can be quite sure that Haulena didn't mean "so interesting" for the porpoises themselves, though no doubt it is. The key thing is to what degree it interests us. And if human animals find it interesting to watch and study other animals having sax and having offspring, then we somehow feel it is justifiable to keep those other animals in captivity. As John Nightingale puts it in the remarks quoted above, "sex and reproduction play an important role in our research and in our education programs." By now humans have amassed decades worth of high quality film of these animals in the wild. Why should watching that film footage not be enough? Why should we need, generation after generation, to see them in captivity, actually mating and giving birth before our eyes?

There is of course no good reason. But it's all "so incredible." So we tell ourselves that we must see them making children, and that our children must see them making children. "Education," is what we call it. In the same way, of course, we could learn a very great deal more about the breeding habits of different sorts of humans if we kept them in captivity and watched closely as they mated and gave birth. But there, of course, we apply different ethical standards.

Aquariums also make much of the claim that it is "necessary" for the purposes of research to keep these animals in captivity. But a majority of scientific opinion now seems to have swung round to the view that such research is not only not "necessary"; it can be positively harmful to the whales and dolphins and porpoises, since it may lead researchers to draw false conclusions as to how cetaceans will behave in the wild, based on how they behave in captivity. Increasingly, these are recognized as being very different things.

On the ferry from Nanaimo to Vancouver yesterday the captain called the attention of passengers to a pod of dolphins swimming near the ferry. Along with many others, Maureen and I rushed to the ferry's starboard side and were thrilled to see dozens and dozens of animals, powerfully jumping again and again as they swam. At the speed they were going, I can imagine they would have gone from one end to the other of the largest aquarium tank in the world in a few seconds. But they had the whole Salish Sea to swim in, and beyond that, all the seas of the world. Maureen and I and the other ferry passengers weren't on a "whale watching cruise" chasing and bothering the animals; we were simply going about our business, and they were going about theirs. If I feel I need more education than that about the lives of dolphins, I'll watch a film or read a book.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Dairy Farmer?

I will post here a comment I just posted on the Globe and Mail site, in response to a feature about becoming a dairy farmer.

Dairy farmer? Why would you want to make it your life's work to take from a mother the milk meant for her children? To kill all the male children and sell their young bodies to be eaten? To imprison the mother in a world of concrete (the modern factory dairy farm)? To bio-engineer her body so that life will be extraordinarily uncomfortable for her, but so that her body will produce vast amounts of inexpensive milk, all of which will be drunk by another species--your own? The cruelty is almost beyond belief.

Make it a career? Destroy your soul.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Remaining Nameless

As Doug Saunders ("Lone Wolf" - The Globe and Mail, Oct. 25) and various others have pointed out, sensational acts of violence such as the killing of a soldier in Ottawa last week are often in large part motivated by a hope on the part of a mentally deranged person that the violent act will make him (it is almost always a him) famous. And we play right along: from the assassinations of a long line of politicians, to the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, to the Columbine High School killings, to the Utøya island mass murder in Norway in 2011, and through to the events in Ottawa last week, we keep splashing the names and photos of the killers across our front pages and our television screens. Why can we not simply say, “The killer, whose name cannot be revealed, was a 32-year old Caucasian, an Ottawa native with a history of instability and drug abuse, who had converted to Islam.” No name, no photo, and no chance of becoming famous through committing deranged acts of violence.

Our laws already recognize one important circumstance (youthful offenders) that we regard as providing sufficient justification to trump freedom-of-speech principles when it comes to revealing names. It’s time to add another.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Screening out the World

I began to spend a fair bit of time in the air when I entered book publishing in 1975. I was in my early twenties, and things were different then. On a flight of more than three hours there would always be a complimentary hot meal served—and there would always be at least a few people cheering as the plane landed. But the most striking difference? People looked out the window. A lot of people were wowed by the wonder that is the world from 35,000 feet up in the air.

I’m starting off on a business trip to New York as I write this; I’m writing from the rear cabin of a Boeing 777 traveling from Vancouver to Toronto. We’ve been taking the southern path for this route—across the northern States. For the past three hours I have been alternately reading and looking out (and up and down and ahead and back) at the mountains of Montana; at meandering little rivers and their ox-bows; at tiny endless squares of green and yellow and brown, of all the greens and yellows and browns that are in the fields of America; at the gentle, sweeping curves of the Red River as it rolls north toward the Canadian border; at the rounded shores of Red Lake; at light skittering off the silver of the thousands upon thousands of ragged lakes in the north of Minnesota. From ground level such wilderness lakes are a beauty without pattern, a jumble. It is only from the air that we can see the patterns and the beauty of their geology, their shared history in the earth’s crust.

In this particular cabin of this particular plane there are almost 200 people—20 rows, each nine across, almost all the seats full. If all the shades were up, perhaps 80 of those people could see something of this beauty—those in the window seats, plus those one seat in. Everyone could at least share in the sunlight of a lovely afternoon. But of the 40 windows, mine is the only one with the shade not lowered right down. There are screens on the backs of the seats. In the darkness that the passengers have imposed on themselves, almost all the screens are being watched.

When I was young, window seats were the most desired. Now, the aisle seats are much preferred. Oh, I know, it’s more convenient if you want to get up and go to the bathroom. And make no mistake, I like going to the bathroom as much as the next person. But complete convenience in going to the bathroom at any moment, like complete convenience in watching television screens and computer screens at any moment, is with us every day on earth. Even for relatively frequent flyers like me, it’s not every day we get to see the world in sunlight from 35,000 feet up. It’s still something magical; it will always be something magical, even if most of us decide we want to screen the magic out.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Causing Pain to Non-Human Animals: A North American Brand

Earlier today I came across the following, which I had submitted a couple of years ago to The Globe and Mail in response to an article by Fred Stenson, but which had never been published. It struck me that it would do no harm to post it here on the blog.
“We owe it to animals to treat them well,” says Fred Stenson in his article “In Defence of Branding Cattle: Alberta Ranchers on a Burning Tradition” (The Globe and Mail, June 23, 2012). But apparently what we owe to non-human animals is easily trumped by our own self-interest.

Stenson is under no illusions as to the pain that branding causes. “The smoke rises, the calf bellows. If the hair catches fire, someone brushes it with a gloved hand. The calf wobbles away, shaking its head and sorrowful.” Indeed, Stenson sees it as a virtue that ranchers do “this harsh work themselves: feel themselves inflict the pain. It is less hypocritical,” that way, Stenson argues, than it would be if ranchers were to have someone else inflict the pain on their behalf. No doubt it is. But does the pain really need to be inflicted at all?

The current American Veterinary Medical Association policy on livestock identification recommends that "a high priority be placed on using alternatives to hot-iron branding." And, as Stenson reports, there are indeed alternatives to branding with a hot iron: a method of freezing the brand on, and ear tag ID markers (which since 2005 have been mandatory in Canada). Not all studies agree that freeze branding is significantly less painful than hot-iron branding, but ear-tagging and micro-chipping are universally agreed to be far less painful.

Why are these not sufficient? Because the traditional hot-iron brand is easier for the rancher to read at long range. “We still need a brand for a quick ID,” Stenson quotes rancher Dave Lowe as saying. Otherwise, ranchers “would have to catch” a calf that strayed onto a neighbor’s property in order to be sure of the identification. Stenson accepts that as sufficient reason to continue the practice of branding all calves with a hot iron:
If the purpose of cattle branding were only about tradition and not practical at all, I would have to be against it. But that time is not here yet. In the meantime, I shall continue to respect it as necessary work.
Necessary? That an act of considerable cruelty saves us from some slight inconvenience does not make it necessary. It would certainly be more convenient for me to be able to identify my cat Frankie at long range if he were branded; Frankie not infrequently strays onto the neighbor’s property, and there are at least two other neighborhood cats who look very like Frankie at long range. It can be a real inconvenience for me to take the time to be sure it is Frankie in the neighbor’s yard. But that’s no evidence for the necessity of burning Frankie with a branding iron—any more than a slight inconvenience to ranchers justifies the pain they inflict on calves.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Shipping Guilt Overseas

I'm currently traveling on business in California. Over dinner tonight I was reading an extraordinarily moving book edited by Ann Argersinger--The Triangle Fire: A Brief History With Documents. I had known the basic facts about this horrific episode in our history for many years, but the first-hand accounts leave you with tears in your eyes, even a century and more on.

Why does this matter today? Above all, it matters because the sorts of sweatshop oppression that were the norm on Washington Place in New York a century ago are still the norm in today's world. The Triangle tragedy may be more than a century ago; the sweatshop tragedy in Bangladesh is little over a year ago. That was only the highest profile of many, many appalling sweatshop tragedies in recent years--and, sadly, it does not seem that conditions have improved much in the eighteen months that have passed since over a thousand workers lost their lives at Rana Plaza. Seven of the companies that sourced products from the Rana Plaza sweatshops have made at least some contribution to the compensation fund; the others (more than twenty of them) have given nothing. And so it goes. With our tacit approval, an industry that relies overwhelmingly on near-slave labor forges forward.

We are used to the rhetoric of it being a bad thing to "ship jobs overseas." But even worse is when we ship our guilt overseas. Just as we allow ourselves to not think of how non-human animals are treated if they are hidden away in feedlots or dairy barns, we allow ourselves to not think of sweatshop oppression if it's in Bangladesh rather than Brooklyn. We are happy to reap the benefits; we're fine with the low, low prices of milk and eggs and shirts and jeans. But we would prefer not to think of what is done in order to make these things cheap--we would prefer to outsource the guilt.

What can be done? Press our own governments to act, yes. And speak up any way we can. But also press ourselves to think of these things--and not to reflexively buy the cheapest, or to buy any clothing without asking where it came from.

I am having to work to do this myself; it does take work to break the buying habits of a lifetime. But it can be done--just as we can give up factory farmed animal products, and keep going until we are vegan. If we push ourselves, we truly can make the world better--for the workers in sweatshops overseas, for non-human animals, for all of us.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Justin Trudeau: Appearance and Reality

Earlier today I was reading an Erin Anderssen column in The Globe and Mail on how too much attention has been paid by the media to Justin Trudeau’s appearance, and too little to issues of substance. Absolutely. But if too much media attention to his looks is the issue, do we need a full column on how we should pay less attention to his looks? Why not make that an aside in a column about, say, his ruling out any increase in corporate taxes (now at their lowest levels in more than half a century)? Trudeau did say last week when interviewed on the CBC that if there were loopholes [my emphasis], "then of course we'd have to look at that." Notice that verb "look." No commitment to doing. The appearance of a commitment to fairness and justice—that's one area where it really matters if appearance is all that people pay attention to.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Paws (and Feet and Hooves) for a Cause

Every year in British Columbia the SPCA holds "Paws for a Cause" walks in many locations as a way of raising awareness and raising funds. This year I handed out a flyer (with the message below) to people in Nanaimo as they gathered at Maffeo-Sutton Park last Sunday morning. I received a very friendly reception from almost everyone I spoke with--including one fellow from Europe who was just passing through but said he would now eat "nothing but free-range."

* * *

The ScotiaBank and BCSPCA Paws for a Cause Walk to Fight Animal Cruelty is a great way of raising funds, as well as raising awareness of the importance of taking a stand against cruelty towards non-human animals.

But let’s not restrict our compassion for our fellow creatures to dogs and cats. The average North American is complicit in the cruel treatment of over a thousand individual animals over the course of his or her lifetime; for each North American every year, well over two dozen birds and mammals are cruelly treated in factory farms before being slaughtered. The advertising campaigns of the companies who are responsible for breeding, raising, and slaughtering these animals either make no mention of the conditions the animals are subjected to, or suggest that they are raised in the way that farm animals were generally raised until the 1960s—in natural conditions, with lots of time spent out of doors and lots of room to move around; without breeding programs that make animals heavier and less comfortable in order to produce meat and dairy products in greater volume at less cost; without regular doses of antibiotics and growth hormones; and with a great deal of compassion.

That’s still the way farm animals are raised in much of Europe. But it hasn’t been the way most pigs or chickens or turkeys or dairy cows or beef cattle have been raised in Canada or the United States for a very, very long time. Well over ninety-five percent of the animal products in most North American supermarkets are products of the cruelties of modern “intensive” farming. The cruelty involved is surely reason enough to take a stand against these products. But it’s worth knowing that they’re also bad for the environment—and that they’re bad for human health. (If you don’t yet know how animals are turned into these products, information is available on sites such as,,, and; in films such as Food Inc.; or in books such as Eating Animals. If you’d like to know more about what the products do for human health, information is available on sites such as

How can we fight the cruelties of factory farming?

Go vegan. This is by far the best way to be sure you are not complicit in the cruelties of factory farming. (More and more studies are also suggesting that a whole foods vegan diet is best for promoting the health and the happiness of humans.)
Go free-range: insist on only free-range meat, eggs, and dairy products when you are shopping, and when you are eating in restaurants. Free-range products are far from perfect, but on average they are produced with considerably less cruelty than are “conventionally farmed” products. (In many areas of British Columbia you can also buy directly from local farmers, many of whom use only humane methods of raising animals.)
Go dairy-free. Many people imagine that dairy farming is the least cruel way of producing food for humans from the bodies of non-human animals. “We just take some of the milk away from the cow,“ people think; “where’s the harm in that?” Where to start when it comes to describing the harm? Perhaps with the fact that most dairy cows in North America live their entire lives in a small area of concrete—they never see a green pasture. Perhaps with the breeding of the modern dairy cow, which has been done so that the udder will always produce lots of milk inexpensively—and be horribly uncomfortable for the animal. Or perhaps with the most uncomfortable fact about all dairy farming: the milk is only available for human consumption because the cow’s babies have been taken away from her.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Directors' Cuts": Short Story Long

When did you ever hear of a "director's cut" of a movie in which anything was actually cut? Instead, the director's cut is always longer than the popular release--usually much longer. The assumption seems to be that the true artist creates a full, rich work of art, and crass commercial pressures then lead to a shortened, artistically inferior product.

The truth is surely the exact opposite almost every time. How often do we come out of a film thinking "It would be so much better if it were quite a lot longer"? Surely it is far more common for all of us to think "If only they had made it shorter!"

I'm not just thinking here of films such as Take Shelter—a case where an otherwise remarkably interesting and well-made film is essentially ruined by a misconceived last couple of minutes. I'm thinking primarily of that far larger category—films in which a natural ending point is reached after 90 minutes, and then another after 110 minutes, and then another after 130 minutes, and still the film staggers on. Take Spielberg's 141 minute Catch Me If You Can. For the first hour or more, the film is arguably one of the most entertaining dramatic comedies ever made. Indeed, it would not be difficult to come up with an "audience cut" that would result in placing the entire film among the best dramatic comedies ever made. I would suggest ending the film at the moment Carl lies and Frank is arrested overseas, and then summarizing the rest of the story (Frank working for Carl at the FBI and so on, as well as the material already summarized in the existing film) in writing on the screen before the credits roll—but no doubt a good case could be made for other moments. It's not that the last half hour or more of the film is bad. It's just so much less interesting than what has gone before. It meanders; it tells us little of substance about the characters that we didn't already sense; it ends up detracting from the overall effect rather than adding to it.

Here's an example in the other direction, which my partner and I also saw recently: the 1944 Murder, My Sweet. Starring Dick Powell and filmed in a wonderfully economical fashion by Edward Dmytryk. With one wonderful comic/romantic twist at the end. One, not three or four. The whole film? 95 minutes. A plea to Steven Spielberg; release a 95 minute "audience cut" of Catch Me if You Can. It will be one of the best things you've ever done—and one of the best movies ever made.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Carnivorous Wasps

Reason number 483 for going vegan: wasps don’t pester you when you’re eating a summer meal outdoors. Maureen and I were commenting the other evening on how the wasps never seem to stick around nowadays. They amble by, but as soon as you wave a hand vaguely in their direction, away they go. What a contrast to the meals we remember all too well from years gone by when the wasps just wouldn’t stay away from a plate filled with burgers and potato salad.

The reason? Social wasps (the kind that tend to want to socialize with humans at mealtimes) are omnivores, with a special fondness for animal products. Other than insects they don’t eat live flesh but they love to carry off little chunks of the dead flesh of a bird or a cow or a pig, cooked or uncooked. They will eat fruit too, but if our plate has nothing on it but veggies and legumes, they have virtually no interest.

(Human) Animal Health, Disease, and Diet

I’ve never paid as much attention as I probably should to the benefits to human health that going vegan offers; my partner Maureen is very largely responsible for keeping me up-to-date on the evidence. And—much as the meat and egg and dairy industries do everything they can to convince us otherwise—the evidence continues to grow that a plant-based, whole foods diet is the best choice for human health. (Note the “whole foods” part; it’s perfectly possible to eat very unhealthily if your plant-based diet is largely made up of processed sugars and starches.)

Most people are aware that there’s a correlation between eating animal products and high cholesterol. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that a plant-based, whole foods diet tends greatly to improve the condition of your heart and blood vessels. What may be more surprising is that there is now substantial evidence that such a diet can dramatically slow the progress of other diseases: diabetes, for example, Alzheimer’s, and even some cancers. In the case of diabetes and heart disease, such a diet can in many cases even begin to reverse the damage caused by disease.

If you’re interested and would like to check out some authorities that aren’t funded by the meat and egg and dairy industries, let me mention two great sources. T. Colin Campbell and Colin M. Campbell’s best-selling The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-Term Health is one. The China Study, one of the largest epidemiological efforts ever undertaken, was sponsored by Cornell University and Oxford University as well as the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine. It collected a vast range of information connecting disease and diet and lifestyle in thousands of different ways. T. Colin Campbell describes himself as he was before he directed the study in this way: “I was a meat-loving dairy farmer in my personal life and an ‘establishment’ scientist in my professional life. I even used to lament the views of vegetarians as I taught nutritional biochemistry to pre-med students.” The evidence convinced him, though, of “the multiple health benefits of consuming plant-based foods, and the largely unappreciated health dangers of consuming animal-based foods.”

Let me also mention Michael Gregor’s—perhaps the best single source for ongoing updates on the latest research in all these areas. His August 1 video summary of information, is a good place to start.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jeanne Gang: Rising Stories and Women Architects

In the round of cuts and revisions to Rising Stories that I’m working on this summer (the final round, I hope!) I think I will probably cut the line “You don’t even have to have a penis to build skyscrapers. Not any more.” The line is not all that funny (and I’m not sure that it fits the character). But what’s truly unfunny is that so much of the architectural establishment seems still to think that penis-possession should be a prerequisite to skyscraper building. Two cases in point: Zaha Hadid and Jeanne Gang.

Hadid remains the world’s most celebrated woman architect, but has never built a skyscraper. Though so far as I am aware she has not publicly said that she has never been asked to build one, it’s hard not to suspect that to be the case. Here is what she is reported to have said (in a 2013 piece in The Guardian):
[Hadid] said it was frequently assumed that a woman architect could not take on a big commercial project and that she was better suited to residential properties, public buildings or leisure centers. "I am sure that as a woman I can do a very good skyscraper," she said. "I don't think it is only for men."
And what sort of building is Hadid famous for designing? You guessed it: residential buildings, public buildings, leisure centers.

That same article references a survey in Britain by the Architects' Journal that revealed that at least sixty percent of women respondents reported both that they had experienced an insidious culture of bullying at work and that clients in the building industry were unwilling to respect their authority.

Jeanne Gang may at this point be the world’s second most famous woman architect; she is surely the most famous to have been the lead architect for a major skyscraper. Her 82-story Aqua in Chicago (which K.P and Robin look out on and talk about briefly in Rising Stories) is surely one of the world’s most extraordinary and most wonderful skyscrapers.

You might think that Gang and her company would have been in high demand to design skyscrapers since Aqua was completed to near universal acclaim in 2009. Evidently not. Not until this year has her firm been hired to design another skyscraper; early in 2014 a Chinese firm (Wanda Group) announced that they had hired her to build a residential tower in Chicago, and a San Francisco company (Tishman Speyer) has also hired her to design a 40 story condominium tower. Her design for 160 Folsom in San Francisco was unveiled this past week—a tower of swiveled peaks and curls that may well be as impressive as Aqua. Here’s a link: It’s a design that lifts the spirits, and we should be celebrating. But there is an unhappy backstory that tugs in the other direction: in the world of skyscraper design Gang remains the only significant player who is not a man. It’s long past time for that to change.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Cruelty to Animals: Should the Media Tell Us What We'd Prefer Not to Know?

The feature “Behind the Barn Door,” which aired on CTV’s W5 October 18, 2013, might seem a good example of investigative journalism at its best. The program revealed how the animals were treated at two massive Alberta egg facilities, Kuku Farms and Creekside Farms:
Perhaps most disturbingly, sick or injured chicks, are seen being killed by a practice called "thumping"—where a bird is smashed against a hard surface to kill it. On several occasions the video shows birds that survived but are left in a garbage bag along with a pile of already dead chicks.
The video did not merely expose the flouting of regulations at these two farms. Much more significantly, it gave viewers an understanding of how and why such abuse has become commonplace:
Industries such as the egg business have a Code of Practice that defines the care and handling of [birds], but the code is completely voluntary. Any oversight is conducted by the industry themselves. It is up to the Egg Farmers of Canada to perform the inspections, but as W5 learned, their primary focus appears to be the food safety of the eggs, or [issues of quota allocation], not whether the animals themselves are receiving adequate care.
Most significantly of all, the program gave viewers a vivid sense of the levels of animal cruelty that, far from representing “abuses” of the system, are entirely approved practice under current Canadian law and current Canadian industry codes of practice. Packing hens together in battery cages where the birds are so cramped they can barely move became “conventional” industry practice around the world in the second half of the twentieth century. In many jurisdictions there has been a strong push-back against industry; in California a referendum has forced industry to give birds more room, and in Europe battery cages are being phased out entirely. Sadly, nothing of the sort is happening in Canada: the failure in this country to limit the spread of cruelty towards animals in “conventional” farming operations represents a massive (and massively under-reported) failure of democracy.

Now Mercy for Animals has done it again; as reported on CTV News June 9 2014 and on the national CBC News this morning, workers at the Chilliwack Cattle Company (milk from which is packaged under the popular “Dairyland” label) have been shown by a Mercy for Animals investigator to have been engaging on an ongoing basis in abusive behavior of the most sickening sort towards dairy cattle. And, as with the egg industry, there is good reason to believe that cruelty to farm animals is systemic.

Much of the problem is with the law; meaningful reform of Canada’s animal cruelty legislation (the essence of which dates from the 1890s) has been stalled again and again—perhaps most shamefully in 2003, when a bill that would have brought real improvement was passed by the House of Commons but allowed to die in the Senate. In 2008 the government passed very modest amendments to animal cruelty legislation, but these offered so little protection for non-human animals that they were vigorously opposed by the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. Provincial governments (Conservative, Liberal, and New Democrat alike) have given the issue just as low a priority—and with both federal and provincial law so toothless, the judiciary has been powerless to make any meaningful contribution towards reducing cruelty towards animals in our agricultural industries.

What, then, of democracy’s fifth estate? Are the media making some efforts to raise awareness and bring about reform? And should they bear some responsibility to do so?

The broadcasting of the W5 feature and of the news features on CTV and CBC news might seem to suggest that the media is indeed trying to bring this issue to the attention of Canadians. But dig a little deeper, and the reporting of these investigations—in other media outlets as well as these—starts to reveal a different story.

To begin with, these investigations were not carried out by CTV or CBC, at the instigation of CTV or CBC, or under the auspices of CTV or CBC. They were entirely the initiative of the animal welfare organization Mercy for Animals. That W5 chose to air a feature on the work a Mercy for Animals investigator had done is to its credit (as is the follow-up work W5 did, such as uncovering a directive sent by the Egg Farmers of Canada association to its members: “do not allow [the media] access to your farms or barns”). And it is to the credit of CTV and CBC News to air reports on the most recently uncovered abuses in the dairy industry. But neither W5 nor the networks can in any way be credited for having done the investigative work themselves.

Such has long been the pattern with other exposés of cruelty to animals in Canadian agricultural practice. The 2010 Global television documentary No Country for Animals, for example, relied on investigative work carried out by Twyla Francois (then with Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Food Animals) and others; Global’s own reporters had not conducted any undercover investigations.

What is most remarkable about the media coverage of these horrors, however, is not the failure to include investigative reporting as part of that coverage; it’s that there has been so little coverage of any sort. To put things in perspective, it may be helpful to look at total numbers. One result of the everyday practices of Canada’s egg and poultry industry is that each year more than 700,000,000 birds in Canada are subjected to horrific treatment throughout their short lives. Set beside that number the estimated annual total of 2,000 birds that suffer horribly after landing in oil sands tailings ponds in Alberta. Or set it beside the “culling” of 56 sled dogs in Whistler in 2010. These were high-profile media stories that received ongoing coverage for weeks, even months. By contrast, W5’s feature on the mistreatment of a far larger number of birds received coverage only for a couple of days. A good deal of that coverage, moreover, focused largely on the side-story of whether or not McDonalds Canada had any connection to the farms that had been investigated. (The headline “No McDonalds Eggs come from Alberta” in the Nanaimo Daily News was not untypical. Nor was the choice by that newspaper of what to highlight in bold: “’We care about the humane treatment of animals and believe they should be free from cruelty, abuse, and neglect’—Karin Campbell, McDonalds spokeswoman.” The actual facts of how the animals are treated at the farms visited are nowhere mentioned in the paper’s report.)

Famed philosopher Richard Dawkins suggested recently that the systematic cruelties of today’s factory farming are so extreme that a century or two from now we may well look back on them in “something like the way we today look back on the way our forefathers treated slaves." Why might it be that the Canadian media have been so quiet about such an important and acutely troubling issue?

One obvious answer might be advertising; the food industry spends many millions annually in Canada on advertising, and most of that industry is in one way or another heavily invested in the cruelties of the intensive farming of non-human animals—if not directly, then in the low prices that these practices bring to the supermarket. As soon as one puts it in those terms, though, it becomes clear that one cannot blame the food industry—or the media that rely to a significant extent on advertising revenue from those industries—without also blaming the consumer.

Let’s put it a little more bluntly—without blaming ourselves.

Food prices in recent decades are a bit like murder rates in North America; they keep going down, even as most people think they are going up. In inflation-adjusted terms the average prices of meat, eggs, and dairy products have been declining steadily since the 1950s; the cruelties of mass production “conventional farming” have lowered the real price by considerably more than half over that time, even as most of us have become far better off. You wouldn’t know it to read reports of food prices in the media—or the reported reactions to the prices of organic and free-range produce. An Iowa State Veterinary Medicine professor (salary range—well over $100,000) who was deputy undersecretary for food safety under George W. Bush recently pronounced that he could not “afford organic, free-range, or food raised with methods from the 1950s.” He neglected to mention that those 1950s methods involved only minimal cruelty to non-human animals. The inference, in effect, is that we should let the pigs and the cows and the birds suffer so that we may have more disposable income for our cars, our gadgets—and the $4 lattes and $6 drinks that even those of us who “can’t afford” an extra $2 for free range eggs seem to be able to find room for in our budgets.

Most of us do a dance around these issues in our minds; in a 2006 column Margaret Wente faced them with appalling honesty:
Most of what we do to animals before we eat them isn't nice. If we knew exactly how they lived and died, we'd be horrified. Fortunately for us, we're so removed from where our food comes that we can choose not to know. Ignorance is bliss, and I, for one, am a devoted carnivore. I have studiously tried to avoid learning about the revolting details of factory farming, because if I knew, then I would have to stop eating meat … or at the very least search out meat that had an okay life. That would be hard. It's easier to be a hypocrite.
How much responsibility should the media in a democratic society shoulder for reporting what most of us don’t want to hear? It’s widely accepted that the media bear a good deal of responsibility to report on what is likely to harm our health and/or harm the environment. As it happens, the factory farming of non-human animals is increasingly acknowledged to cause both those sorts of harm. And, to be fair, the health and the environmental realities are beginning to be more widely acknowledged in the media—though, tellingly, such coverage is usually to be found in the lifestyle sections. To judge from the news and the business sections of our major dailies, one would think that low prices for meat and milk and eggs are nothing but a good news story; when outrage is heard, it is usually over the fact that Canada’s marketing boards prevent prices here from being quite so low as those in the States.

Even if damage to human health and to the environment were not among the byproducts of factory farming, it’s arguable that the media in a democracy would have a responsibility to report on the cruelties of factory farming. As part of the role the media play in our democracy, we expect that from time to time they will stand up for the rights of oppressed minorities, even when the majority is not disposed to respect those rights. Indeed, it is especially when the majority is not disposed to respect those rights that we expect the media to play a crucially important role. We also look to the media to stand up for those who quite literally do not have a voice; if sled dogs are being abused by their owners, if animals are being mistreated in zoos, or if animals in the wild are being harmed, we expect the media to speak out. We should expect no less when it comes to the animals humans intend to consume as food.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Petting Zoos: A Test Case of Zoo Psychology

Robert Everett-Green argued persuasively recently in The Globe and Mail that, on balance, zoos do not serve a useful role either in conserving endangered species or in educating human animals to become more knowledgeable and more caring about non-human ones (“Why I’m Never Going to the Zoo Again”). There was a lively reaction to his article, with many writing in support, but also many (including several zoo executives) waxing indignant. A key pillar of the pro-zoo argument is of course that zoos help children learn about animals, and learn to care about animals—not just the individual animals in front of them but also members of the same species who they will never see, who may be thousands and thousands of miles away. Conor Wyche of Mississauga, Ontario, expressed this idea concisely and well in his letter to the editor: “It is difficult to connect to, or care about, things you never see” (Globe, April 5). Massimo Bergamini expressed a similar view in his own op-ed piece, ridiculing Everett-Green’s suggestion that these days we can learn more about the natural lives of animals from films than from viewing them in person in captivity. “As if digital interactions can ever replace being able to see, smell, hear and touch an animal,” he sniffed. “What a frightening, alienating and dangerous vision of the natural world.”

Bergamini’s and Wyche’s views sound like simple common sense. But are they right? One conclusive test comes to my mind: petting zoos. These have become extremely common throughout North America and much of Europe as well. There are eleven in the Seattle area, ten in and around Amsterdam. Most are stand-alone operations, but it has also become very common to find a petting zoo (or “Children’s Zoo”) as a special section within a traditional zoo; from Omaha to Edmonton and from Boston to San Diego, mainstream zoos have developed areas where very young children may see farm animals up close.

The cuteness of the animals in petting zoos (lambs and goats and ponies, but also calves and pigs and chickens and turkeys—many petting zoos include most varieties of “food animal”) tugs on the heartstrings in much the same way as does the cuteness of the baby gorilla or the baby giraffe. Allison Holm’s gush on the Seattle Parent Map site puts it very plainly indeed: “It’s not spring without baby animals, so grab your kiddos (and camera) and get ready to oohh and ahhh over furry and feathered new additions [to the zoos and petting zoos in the Seattle area].”

But do all the fuzzy feelings engendered by these” furry and feathered” friends carry over into the wider world? One would like to think they do, but the evidence points in the other direction; it’s hard not to conclude that, however unintentionally, petting zoos and children’s zoos where farm animals are on display end up doing more to foster cruelty than to prevent it. Children’s zoos and petting zoos began to become popular in the 1950s and 1960s. The first children’s zoos seem to have come into existence around 1950; according to the OED, the first recorded use of the term “petting zoo” in print is in a 1965 article in the Fond du Lac (Wisconsin) Commonwealth Reporter. In Canada, the Experimental Farm in Ottawa seems to have been something of a pioneer in trying to build awareness of farm animals among city children. The British magazine Country Life ran a feature on the farm in 1965, saying that although the primary purpose of the farm was agricultural research, the general public was “welcome to come and see what [was] being done.” I remember myself as a very small child growing up in Ottawa in the 1950s, visiting the animals at the Experimental Farm, and loving the experience—just as children throughout the Western world have come to enjoy the experience of visiting children’s zoos and petting zoos over the past half century. And I would love to think that such experiences help children to develop a humane attitude towards their fellow creatures—not just the cute baby ones that they are allowed to pet but also the ones far away.

But is that the case? Why should we expect that oohing and aahing over little calves or little chicks in front of us should have any real effect on our attitudes towards the calves and chicks we can’t see? How much effect does oohng and aahing over the human babies we see here on Canada have on our attitudes towards the babies in South Sudan or the Central African Republic who may need our help, but usually don’t find help forthcoming?

It is striking that the era of the petting zoo has coincided almost precisely with era of tremendous growth in intensive animal production; the factory farming of “food animals” really took off in North America in the 1950s and 1960s. Even as our society has encouraged its children to express affection for the small number of farm animals who are displayed in petting zoos, it has been complicit in the growth of a system that treats with horrific cruelty the billions and billions of farm animals which the children don’t see. A cynic might suggest that at some level the two go together—that foregrounding small scale but highly visible settings in which kindness towards farm animals is encouraged acts as a useful distraction from the high volume cruelty that has for the most part been hidden away.

I would not go so far as to suggest an intentional link between the two. But whatever the motive, whatever the rationale, the spread of children’s zoos and petting zoos has done little or nothing to deter people from eating the products of cruelty. For all the publicity about free range alternatives to what is now described as “conventional” farming, the products of these more humane alternatives represent well under 5% of the market in North America; almost everyone decides to save money and buy animal products that could never claim to be “cruelty-free.” Families ooh and aah at the cute animals at the petting zoo or the children’s zoo, and then go off to eat the same animals at a nearby McDonalds, where the drive to keep prices low for those families has meant that the levels of cruelty the non-human animals experience (not just at the slaughterhouse but throughout their short lives on the “farm”) has steadily been ratcheted up.

One cannot expect the four-year old petting the little calves and piglets to make the connection—and one would not want to tell a four-year old the facts as to how the calves and piglets who aren’t lucky enough to spend their lives in petting zoos are treated. But what about once children do become old enough to learn something of the truth (the gestation crates for pigs that restrict mothers so fully they cannot turn around; the laying hens crammed five or six to a tiny cage for their entire lives; and on, and on). Do they connect the bond they have felt with the animals they can touch in a petting zoo with the animals far away? Sad to say, there appears to be no connection made.

And what of the adults? If anything, having the opportunity to perform expressions of affection towards calves and turkeys and piglets—and giving their children the same opportunity—may act as a salve to adult consciences. Almost every adult who eats factory-farmed animal products in North America is at some level aware that the animals from which those products come are often treated cruelly; almost every adult wants the prices of these products kept low; but almost every adult also likes to think of him- or herself as someone who loves animals. How can those attitudes be reconciled? At some level, of course, they can’t. But if adults are able to take their children to petting zoos and children’s zoos—and if they themselves smile at the resulting happy interactions between human and non-human animals—it can only help to demonstrate that they are indeed animal lovers. If there’s cruelty happening in the production of what they eat, they surely can’t be in any way held responsible. Can they?

Petting zoos and children’s zoos, to put it bluntly, facilitate a denial of complicity in cruelty.

What, then, of the argument that “it is difficult to connect to, or care about, things you never see,” that ”digital interactions” could never “replace being able to see, smell, hear, and touch an animal”? Much as that argument may seem plain common sense, the fact is, of course, that industry won’t allow us to see in person how the overwhelming majority of farm animals are treated. It has often been suggested that if the barn walls behind which the cruelty happens were made of glass, factory farming would quickly become more humane. No doubt—but the reality is that such transparency will never happen. The only way in which we can see how those animals live their lives is by paying attention to photos and films that brave undercover workers have taken inside those facilities—in short, through “digital interactions.” The sad fact is that going to a petting zoo is unlikely to lead anyone to become more humane in their food choices. Watching a Mercy for Animals video showing what actually happens behind the closed doors of a factory farm, on the other hand, can inspire true compassion, and real change.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Fourth Reason to Treat Non-human Animals Well–Human Happiness

There have long been three sets of good reasons for people to refrain from eating factory-farmed animal products (and, ideally, from eating meat or dairy altogether). Now there is a fourth.

The set of reasons that Animals emphasizes is the one with the longest pedigree; from Pythagoras to Percy Shelley to Peter Singer, Paul McCartney and k.d. lang, there have been well-known figures putting forward the case for treating our fellow creatures with kindness rather than cruelty.

For decades now there have also been two other arguments. The environmental arguments are overwhelmingly strong. When humans eat animals rather than plants we consume far more of the earth’s resources (the land devoted to growing feed for the animals, the water required to irrigate the land, the energy required at every stage of the process); when “intensive” rather than organic methods are used, the damage becomes far worse.

The third set of reasons concerns human health. In the early nineteenth century Lewis Gompertz called on humanity to give up eating animal products–even though he was convinced this would not be good for our health, he felt the moral imperative of refraining from cruelty to other animals trumped whatever concerns we might have over the loss of nutrients in our own diets. Today we may admire Gompertz’s ethical courage, but we know that he was wrong about human health. Study after study after study has shown the health benefits to humans of adopting a diet without animal products. All else being equal, the less you eat animal products the less likely you are to get cancer, stroke, diabetes, heart disease—that’s just the beginning of a long list. (According to some studies, certain sorts of vegan diet can even reverse the effects of some heart disease.) Yes, there are still many in denial about those studies—and many interested parties in the meat and dairy industries would prefer you didn’t know about them, and try to discredit them. But that’s becoming harder and harder to do; the simple fact seems to be that you’ll be healthier if you eat other animals less often, and in smaller portions—and healthier still if you stop eating other animals entirely. (If you'd like more information on this side of things, is a good place to start.)

The fourth reason? Human happiness. A substantial and growing body of research over the past ten years or so has found an inverse correlation between the degree to which humans consume other animals and the degree to which they are happy. To some extent, of course, one would expect that to be the case, since healthy people tend to be happy people. But much more than that seems to be involved; it’s also a matter of the chemical activity in the brain. In a series of studies in recent years, scientists have concluded that the consumption of various animal products promotes inflammation of the brain; that, in the other direction, a healthy* vegan diet helps to release chemicals that improve the human mood; and that, in general, those who do not consume animal products tend to report being in a better mood than those who do (to an extent that other variables are insufficient to explain). If you’d like to check out some of the research, I’d recommend starting with this article: “Restriction of meat, fish, and poultry in omnivores improves mood: A pilot randomized controlled trial” by Bonnie L. Beezhold (Benedictine University) and Carol S. Johnston (Arizona State University), Nutrition Journal, 2012 11:9. In their references Beezhold and Johnston point the way to much of the other relevant research.

It may not speak particularly well of our species if humans who consume other animals are deaf to the arguments regarding cruelty to those animals but responsive to appeals to self-interest—whether based on human health or human happiness. Nonetheless, it if the suffering of pigs and cows and birds and the others is reduced through the operation of human self-interest, that will be no bad thing.

*One should emphasize the qualifier “healthy”; all bets are off for those subsisting on French fries and vegan chocolate chip cookies.