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Sunday, April 28, 2013

You eat babies

To commemorate my 25th year of being a vegan, I have decided to share some stories from various investigations I have done of factory farms, auctions, and slaughterhouses. Though these investigations were conducted with the organization I started and ran, Viva!USA, they are a powerful part of my life and hopefully will help many understand why veganism is a key part to Food Empowerment Project’s goal of a more just food system.

I debated on the title for this blog and, well, you can let me know what you think. It does make me flash back to my early vegan days when I was in high school – a time when, I acknowledge, I could have done a better job of encouraging people to listen to what I had to say.

But at the same time, the above title is the truth.

People in the US who consume chickens are, well, eating babies.*

Chickens slaughtered for food are chicks, really. They are less than two months old when they are killed. These absolutely gentle and fragile birds are mere babies.

It has always been easy to find farms where chickens are being raised for “meat.” There are so many of them. It is heartbreaking.

The first farm I investigated was in Georgia. It was a Tyson facility. When I opened the door to the shed, I was hit with a wave of humidity and the intense smell of ammonia. It burned my nose and my chest. My lungs burned for a couple of days.

You see, chickens are killed after seven weeks. And workers do not go in and clean the sheds every time they send these chicks to slaughter; they just put more in. So the ammonia buildup is tremendous.

I eventually sought to do investigations of Foster Farms, which are mostly in California. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, the ads probably are: they tend to feature two puppet chickens who talk about wanting to be “Foster Farm” chickens. Yup, just as bad as the “Happy Cow” commercials.

Inside the sheds (like all chicken farms), something seems very strange. After a while you realize it is the chickens themselves: their bodies seem abnormally large compared to their heads and their tiny little chirps.

And that’s just it. They are babies. They are bred to grow very large, very fast. Not only can’t their voices keep up, but neither can their legs.  And eventually, the lungs and hearts of these birds can’t keep up either; many die before they are even sent to slaughter.

Leaving one of the sheds, it was my legs that gave way. Watching these babies struggling to stand wasn’t even the main thing that made me fall down. And I do mean fall down … when leaving one of the sheds, I collapsed. I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with the number of birds. The reality of how many are killed. I could take 100 and would anyone even notice?

With every investigation I did, my goal was to create a campaign -- something to focus on. And with chickens, I was overwhelmed with the magnitude of the lives being taken.

Every farm had dozens of sheds, and each shed had approximately 20,000 chickens inside.

At the time, 23 million chickens were slaughtered every day for food. Today it is just under 24 million.

With a number so large, how do I make every individual matter? How do I get people to understand a bird who most have absolutely no personal association with. Not like cows who many pass along the highway. Not like ducks who they see on the ponds. Not like pigs who are the focus of movies. How do we get people to see that chickens too are feeling, precious beings?

This is something I still struggle with.

I hope the more we can get people to learn about chickens as individuals, the more they will empathize with them. Like how both hens and roosters will protect chicks, whether or not they are their offspring; how roosters will let off different warning calls to protect flocks; how chickens mourn, get happy, angry and, yes, have emotions. As with all animals, just getting to know them is key. But why must we get to know their personalities before we have empathy for them?

Oh, to get people to hold one of these absolutely gentle birds, their bones so fragile, and realize that we have the power to protect them! That we need to defend the most vulnerable – like babies. They don’t need much from us to take care of them. They simply need us to stop eating them.

*Most animals raised and killed for food are killed when they are young.

This blog was written in honor of International Respect for Chickens Day.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Some Pig

To commemorate my 25th year of being a vegan, I have decided to share some stories from various investigations I have done of factory farms, auctions, and slaughterhouses. Though these investigations were conducted with the organization I started and ran, Viva!USA, they are a powerful part of my life and hopefully will help many understand why veganism is a key part to Food Empowerment Project’s goal of a more just food system.

Charlotte’s Web is one of those books that made a lasting impact on me. This book not only made me think twice about animals who are killed, but gave me a longtime appreciation for spiders. What is most pertinent about this book today is that the whole point was Wilbur wanted to live – it wasn’t about his living conditions, it was simply about his desire to stay alive. And it also showed us strong and compassionate females. 

My first investigation of a pig farm was down in Southern Georgia (I was living in Atlanta at the time). Here on a very small pig farm, I saw firsthand mother pigs in gestation crates and farrowing crates. The haunting images of pigs in crates so small they could not turn around was no longer on video or in a photo – I was face to face with the reality.

The mamma pigs (remember, they are pregnant when they are in the gestation crates) banging their noses on the bars – over and over. Some of the larger pigs lay on their sides, struggling to move. These pigs were probably further along in their pregnancies. 

Their boredom and their frustration were not something that anyone could question. Day after day these pigs had nothing but bars to bite on, and they hit their noses against the doors. They stood on cement slatted flooring. Nothing to do all day and night.

Though I have never been pregnant, such an experience is not necessary to understand how uncomfortable these mothers were and how much they desperately needed to be comfortable.

From there, we were able to walk into a building where the mammas were in the farrowing crates. Pigs are moved from gestation crates to the farrowing crates before they give birth. 

Here in these crates, where again they cannot turn around or move, they give birth to their babies. And here, I saw anguish in their eyes. 

These crates are still legal almost everywhere.

The first time I ever saw footage of a mother pig, in a more natural environment, making a nest for her babies, it brought me to tears realizing the frustration they must feel in farrowing crates. All of the desire of these mothers to create a comfortable and warm place to have her babies—not to mention a desire for natural movements — is prevented.

Some farmers claim if they did not put the pigs in these crates, they would crush their babies. Can you imagine? How ludicrous is that? That would mean that pigs would have died out a LONG time ago. If a species constantly killed their young, I would imagine they would have gone extinct or would have evolved differently. But I guess the farmers want a pat on the back for saving the pigs, right?

Outrageous. But these types of unbelievable myths continue to thrive.

Charts on the farm wall indicated how many piglets lived and how many died. Clearly, their solution to nature wasn’t exactly working either. But the lives of these animals were just numbers.

I traveled to North Carolina (the second-largest pig-killing state in the US) to investigate more farms. My goal of course was to show how the living conditions of these animals don’t vary by the size or location of the farms.

In one area, I found what is called the “nursery,” which is where the piglets are kept before they get to the “fattening” area. This “nursery” was full of cobwebs (clearly not because Charlotte was trying to save their lives) and although the piglets were unbearably cute, there were some who were dead. The dead among the living – a regular scene on industrialized animal factories.

Shed after shed, I saw pigs in smaller pens within large sheds. Here I videotaped a pig with a leg injury – his leg so swollen he had trouble lying down. I watched helplessly as a pig with a huge, black ulceration died – right in front of me. Nearby I saw the putrefied corpse of a pig; what I thought was a plastic bag behind her turned out to be a small, thin pig who was left in the middle of the alley, without food or water.

Treating living beings as commodities is not just something that we as advocates say, it is reality.

I could cite studies and reports examining how intelligent pigs are, but I shouldn’t have to. I could dispel the myths about pigs being “dirty,” but I shouldn’t have to. Pigs, like all animals, deserve to live out their lives free of exploitation and suffering at our hands, and that should be enough to get all of us to stop eating them and go vegan.

Wilbur asked Charlotte, “Why did you do all this for me? I don't deserve it. I've never done anything for you.” “You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing.”

I hope one day we can truly be friends to all animals.