Of Bullies and Butchers: Ethical Meat, Vegan Bullies, and the Humane Myth

How do you respond with words to someone who murders your loved ones, glorifies that killing, is praised as a hero, and then casts you as a bully when you push back against such a heinous act?

This is the question I have wrestled with for months: How does trying to stop the murder of innocents make you the bully, and the butcher the saint?

In November of 2016, Wild Abundance, a homesteading & permaculture “school” in Asheville, North Carolina held a class to teach people how to “humanely” kill and butcher a sheep. A counter-protest, organized by the Let Live Coalition and in which I participated, got derailed by outside threats that were made by anonymous, unaffiliated individuals (against organizers’ requests to be peaceful and respectful when asking Wild Abundance to cancel the class). In the end two young sheeps were killed and processed…in order to “honor” them.

“The animal will be tethered, and when all the students are here, we are going to pray. Then we are going to wait for the moment that feels right and take the animal’s life.” – Natalie Bogwalker, Wild Abundance

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Natalie of Wild Abundance “honoring” a sheep.

In the ensuing mayhem after the start of the peaceful campaign, heated online rhetoric resulted in the would-be butchers pivoting on the notion of their vulnerability in order to divert attention from the act(s) of needless murder and blame “vegans” (en masse?) for the true violence. Natalie Bogwalker, owner of Wild Abundance, was portrayed (in pictures and words) as an innocent new mother being bombarded by militant vegans, and Meredith Leigh, the original instructor (butcher) for the class, as a stalwart hero of “ethical” food, food security, and sustainability.

The threats against them are unfortunate and had no place in the peaceful protest/campaign. But as a vegan, I (and many others) found this erasure/obfuscation of the true victims–the non-human animals being killed and butchered–to be both familiar and offensive. As a vegan who rescues, lives with, and cares for farmed animals, I found such intentional human narcissism to be beyond disturbing and disgusting.

Ayelet: starved and parasite-ridden due to severe neglect by a farmer, her body was so fragile and her bones so brittle by the time we rescued her that she broke under the strain of living...
Ayelet: starved and parasite-ridden due to severe neglect by a farmer, her body was so fragile and her bones so brittle by the time we rescued her that she broke under the strain of living…

Let’s be clear about this: What we humans have done over thousands of years is create a situation, a system, in which domesticated animals are victims by design, from birth. In particular, “humane,” small-scale farmers and so-called “ethical butchers” (see photo below) play off of the public’s admittedly wishy-washy concerns about animal welfare by portraying their actions–birthing and raising animals for the sole purposes of using, killing, and eating their bodies–as the best possible life for these beings.

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From Meredith Leigh’s Instagram account, at the scene of a planned “ethical slaughter”; she later denied using the “ethical butcher” epithet for herself, possibly after realizing it is even more fucking ridiculous than “ethical meat”: see http://www.mereleighfood.com/blog/2016/11/14/vegan-bullying-and-the-new-world, paragraph 5.

“ETHICAL BUTCHERS” & THE ULTIMATE BETRAYAL

Thus, If you’re a “humane” farmer, what you essentially do is create a relationship with individual animals, feed them, care for them, build trust with them…and then that “one bad day” happens, and you throw them to the ground, restrain them, and kill them. That bond is shattered, and these intelligent, feeling beings experience much more than just physical pain in this ultimate betrayal of their trust.

To many, this sort of scenario is not only acceptable but also ideal–it is the best possible life for beings who are dead, dismembered, and digested: That lamb is little more than a conglomeration of choice cuts and leftover bits, no matter how deeply a butcher professes to “love” him or her.

We always must remember that this fact means that humans always have the power, along with free reign to enact violence (of all kinds) on innocent bodies. The indelible reality of this power dynamic, which results in the killing of non-consenting individuals, also belies any notion of “ethical meat,” even if Meredith Leigh can write an entire book on the subject (which, it should be said, largely ignores actual discussions of ethics).

Beyond the act itself of killing, when humans pretend to be victims while slitting an innocent’s throat, we perform an act of erasure that perpetuates violence and murder by transferring human sympathies to another human, not the dying non-human animal. Period.

Yet this sort of claim to victimhood is not only possible but also preferable to our culture at large. Thus Meredith Leigh, self-proclaimed “ethical butcher,” can talk up her “vulnerability” as a butcher of bodies and launch a campaign (and a hashtag…) against “vegan bullying” in the face of strong resistance to her planned act of murder during that class.

“COMPONENTS”

Image credit: https://i0.wp.com/3x39fmt0aja34zifjfnu4695x.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/mere-w-newborn-lamb-1-e1464302032302.jpg
Image credit: http://3x39fmt0aja34zifjfnu4695x.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/mere-w-newborn-lamb-1-e1464302032302.jpg

We must be honest in seeing what Leigh sees when she looks at an individual non-human. Her language is deeply disturbing in how it positions living beings as already-dead bodies, “components,” not-yet-divided morsels of flesh, calling to her and her tools to be separated and consumed. To her, the murder of the individual is merely a momentary passage to what they always were…

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This way of seeing and representing individuals makes Leigh not an ethical butcher, but in reality a death fetishist. What drives someone who is supposedly in harmony with nature and its constituent life forms to so visibly relish the death and dismemberment of those under her dominion?

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A lamb is not a pair of legs in a field, and yet…

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A pig is not a blank slate upon which humans can perform meaningless acts of universal communication, and yet…

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Her exertions to disembowel someone who did not want to die do not make her a hero, and they certainly do not make her a victim, and yet…

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These are all examples of performance art meant to gratify an ego and please an audience, a narcissistic act of consumption in itself, as needless and disturbing and offensive as the idea of an animal being murdered by a “loving” hand, which she (and I should say all “humane” farmers and butchers) so clearly wishes to cultivate.

Yet for Leigh, the human-non-human relationship is always about domination–albeit a form of domination cloaked in the vacuous rhetoric of love, compassion, connection, oneness, and “cycles of life”–i.e., euphemisms for senseless acts of subjugation and violence.

EAT YOUR PRIVILEGE

What Leigh and all other humane farmers and all their consumers do not, cannot, understand is that to truly honor a living being means respecting and nurturing them while they, like all of us, struggle to stay alive. It means becoming a family with them, not an oppressor towering over them with a boot on their throat. And then when they die, despite your best efforts to keep them well for their own sakes, it means dignifying their deaths and memorializing them in your heart, forever, as a memento to a loss that cannot be measured.

When you know the value of their lives as individuals, the mentality that sees them as “components” becomes pathological beyond words, and the betrayal lurking within the shadow of the Humane Myth becomes an unbearable offense to your very family.

Perhaps if Leigh spent as much time as I do caring for the victims of animal farmers, and simultaneously entertained the notion that they actually desire and deserve to live, she might rethink her convictions about “ethical” meat. Otherwise, as it stands she seems to be profiting in many ways as a butcher-for-hire who does not have to confront the devastating realities of love, loss, grief, and systemic violence–the ubiquitous bullying that is part of humanity’s oppressive traditions. I am sure that privilege makes her lamb chops taste much less like a dead toddler.

It must be a wonderful thing, this privilege to confront the moment of death in a position of absolute personal safety and dominance–not to be forced to experience the catastrophe of a loved one’s death, of bearing the weight of their dead body, of digging their grave and piling dirt upon them, and then of putting your heavy, heavy foot in front of the other as if your life has not just been utterly upended, forever.

I will never know what that privilege Leigh so clearly enjoys is like…but I would still rather have our sort of genuineness than ever to sink into the cozy consumption and weakly defended self-gratification of Leigh’s “ethical meat.”

 

Why A Canadian Judge’s Ruling About Dogs Is A Statement About Non-traditional Families

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Sometimes the family you make yourself is the only family you’ve got. Allowing the state to dictate that is divisive and cruel. 

In an unusual Canadian divorce case, a Sasketoon judge ruled in late December that a couple’s dog custody dispute was a “wasteful” and “demeaning” use of court time.

I could write for hours critiquing this judge’s insensitive 15-page decision. But let’s just take a handful of quotes from the piece to explain why his decision demonstrates violent bigotry against non-traditional families[CW: speciesism, heterosexism, classism, ableism]:

  1. “In Canada, we tend not to purchase our children from breeders.”
    Actually, humans pay people for sperm, embryos, and uteruses all the time. Just because we call them fertility clinics and wrap up these costs into the services they provide doesn’t mean they do not serve the same purpose as breeders. And adoption costs a lot of money too. So a variety of circumstances occur in which we functionally purchase human children.
  2. “We tend not to breed our children with other humans to ensure good bloodlines, nor do we charge for such services.”
    We tend to do exactly that. It’s called the aristocracy. Also, per above, fertility clinic much???
  3. “When our children are seriously ill, we generally do not engage in an economic cost/benefit analysis to see whether the children are to receive medical treatment, receive nothing or even have their lives ended to prevent suffering.”
    Governments and corporations undertake a cost/benefit analysis every time they make legal changes pertaining to healthcare.
  4. “When our children act improperly, even seriously and violently so, we generally do not muzzle them or even put them to death for repeated transgressions.”
    Perhaps Canadians don’t physically place a muzzle on children, but child protection statistics contain a laundry list of abuses we subject children to in the name of discipline up to and including execution. Also muzzling humans as a form of torture and abuse is not without precedent in western society.
  5. “He said that should be obvious to all based on a bit of logical, dispassionate thought.”
    The notion that the United States’ neighbors to the north represent an inherently progressive population is becoming increasingly overblown. Why do ‘pale, stale males’ still imagine that their thoughts to be the product of logical, dispassionate discourse when they’re only a single limited perspective to consider?
  6. “Danyliuk said given dogs are property and not family, it would be absurd for him to make a ruling about visitation rights.”
    Cis white men have attempted to define what constitutes my family for far too long. Radical concepts of family have existed for centuries outside of what ‘the law’ narrowly calls a family. And this is the crux of why his circular logic presents an act of violence.
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Mothers nursing children not belonging to them is often dismissed as a biological imperative unless you’re human (and even then, not always).

Mothers nursing children of different species is often dismissed as a biological imperative rather than an act of parenting. Only humans get the benefit of the doubt, and even then not all of us.

How many black families have been cobbled together with non-blood relatives? The lifelong friends we claim as cousins because we were raised together? The women we exalt as Auntie because they were always there to feed and clothe us absent a biological parent or guardian (or in collaboration with one because intergenerational poverty makes us responsible for one another) ?

How many queer families have adopted one another because we were rejected by bigoted parents and guardians? How many queer couples have been denied the right to execute their partner’s affairs? How many people are routinely denied medical care because they don’t meet the strict definition of a dependent in the healthcare industrial complex? Be they best friend, grandmother, or nephew. Are these intimate relationships invalid because the state deems them unworthy of protection?

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Mr.G [right suffered from severe depression until he was reunited with his companion Jellybean [left].
One could argue that the common denominator in all these circumstances is our humanity. But interspecies relationships are not uncommon, nor are they limited to humans. And by every meaningful metric, other species are persons. Judge Danyliuk would be wise to consider this evidence. And we would be wise to take note of how the establishment historically acted to diminish our individuality through the rule of law.

And for what it’s worth, none of the judge’s explanations for why animal companions should not be considered family are even valid reasons why we should be doing any of those things anyway, to humans or anyone else.

The bottom line is that we should be expanding our understanding of family, not restricting it.

Kat Von D Illustrates the Dangers of Neoliberal Whiteness in Veganism

Celebrity vegan Kat Von D became a bit of an anti-racist hero when she outed former friend Jeffree Star for his racist comments. And her actions were 100% commendable. But here’s the thing about anti-racist work. It’s not a once-and-done business. We constantly have to be aware of what it means to fight institutional bigotry. And when an Instagram follower challenged Kat on perpetuating anti-black racism herself, accountability sailed clean out the window.

To briefly summarize the exchange, Von D posted a photo on her Instagram of her makeup team that featured a variety of white faces. [click on the image to read the full messy exchange]

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And one of her followers gently called her in by explaining that dark-skinned femmes were not represented.

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But instead of internalizing her follower’s words, Von D performed the mother of all tap dances and called on anti-black racism’s greatest hits.

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Judging by this comment, Kat doesn’t understand how her version of diversity doesn’t include black and brown faces, just different variations on white women. Much more troubling, she conflates race with nationality because American, Canadian, Dutch, Mexican, Australian, and Argentinian are NOT RACES. But then her next comment gets even worse.

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The reasons why colorblind ideology only reinforces racial inequality have been written about to death. Furthermore, she claims not to hire based on race. But statistically, hiring based on race is a time-honored tradition in our society. Otherwise, we’re just left to believe that unemployment rates for black people are double the rates of white people in the United States because that’s a weird quirky thing that mysteriously happens and that’s just the way it is.

The reason why this is relevant to our veganism is because we should be proceed cautiously when choosing our vegan heroes and heroines, and we should hold them accountable when they fail to act responsibly. When popular vegans perpetuate anti-blackness, they create more opportunities for potential black and brown allies to dismiss animal justice as a movement they want no parts of. Is that fair to animals? Obviously not. But that’s the reality of the world we live in. And I’d much rather cultivate a movement that fosters inclusivity instead of ignorance.

Kat Von D has a remarkable opportunity to support black femmes and pique their interest in veganism and animal liberation. I don’t want her to go away. I just want her to use that opportunity instead of just exploiting black femmes by profiting from their dollars.

Unravel the Past and Craft the Future

By Charlotte Eure

The day before I woke to the nightmare of the post-election world, I finished reading a graphic novel about a different human disaster. Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking, written by Anne Elizabeth Moore in collaboration with six different comic artists, offers a beautifully simple way of communicating extensive information about a very complex web of exploitation and oppression. In four chapters, Moore explores connections between the garment industry, fashion, sex work, and anti-trafficking NGOs. For me, the book served as part of the constant and necessary reminder that there is so much I don’t know and so much history lying beneath seemingly innocuous aspects of our lives.

While reading Threadbare, I saw many similarities to our culture’s animal use. We buy final products ready to cook, ready to wear. We don’t ever have to see the violent and exploitative processes that lead to their placement in stores for our convenience. Our consumerism is often the epitome of ignorant bliss, and oppressive systems encourage us to remain oblivious, an unfortunately easy task in an image-obsessed and superficial culture. Most of us really don’t like it when someone drudges up all the nasty shit at the core of our choices. Especially in a time when even a lot of social justice rhetoric centers personal choice and individualism, challenges to dearly held personal expression are typically unwelcome. The refrain often goes, “If something makes me feel good, how can it be wrong? I know everything is terrible. You don’t need to remind me. Just let me enjoy my bacon and H&M dress in peace. Let me hold on to my bigotry and prejudice. I’m not hurting anybody!”

But of course pleasure doesn’t exist in a vacuum even if it might feel that way in the moment, and even though pleasure matters, which it does – we are not here to just suffer and survive.

Our role as consumers is also only part of the design. Marginalized communities experience limitations that further complicate notions of choice. Dressing a certain way is often a key to accessing resources. Food deserts create disparities, and authorities may spread misinformation around nutrition and health. Connections exist amongst the animal agriculture industry and the medical industry as they do amongst the garment industry and NGOs. Corporations build factories overseas and move slaughterhouses and CAFOs to rural areas of the US in part to keep them hidden from the majority of white, middle and upper class consumers. This is painfully obvious in the rerouting of the Dakota Access Pipeline from a predominantly white neighborhood through sacred Native land at Standing Rock.

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It can all feel overwhelmingly hopeless, as though we are powerless against an unstoppable force. And we need to forgive ourselves when we’re exhausted, when we’re scared, when we need time and space to heal and regain strength. But still, what we do matters, and it matters that we stretch ourselves to make imperative connections. Most of us don’t have to think about women in the garment industry, just as we don’t have to think about slaughterhouse workers or CAFO and dairy farm workers, but we can and we must.

The pain and suffering we are willing to allow others to experience for a singular momentary pleasure is one of the most heinous human traits. And the farther removed we are from each other, the more easily this exchange occurs. It doesn’t just take physical distance. We distance ourselves psychologically and emotionally with all kinds of mental gymnastics, often going so far as to acknowledge intellectually the harm we are doing yet refusing to empathize and imagine different ways of being and doing.

Empathy and imagination are crucial to not only our survival but to our ability to thrive. With Donald Trump’s election and a Republican majority, life is looking very bleak. But if there is one small sliver of comfort I take, it’s that more of us than ever are admitting this. The world of Donald Trump as president is one where horrors are revealed. Where once a postracial lens seemed to pacify so many (and will frustratingly continue to for some), I hope we heed this message in all its importance: we can’t keep ignoring our collective nightmares. We can’t keep pretending that all is well simply because so many of us don’t have to see where and when it is most certainly not. We have to confront our waste, our terrors, our injustice.

We may look for ways to alleviate the guilt that may come with admitting our complicity by placing the blame elsewhere or by justifying our behavior with desperate clinging to harmful traditions, just as Trump looks back to the past with the haze of nostalgia that it somehow used to be better, when we know it has been bad, it was never not bad. Resist guilt and instead take responsibility. As upsetting as it is to face the horrors of fast fashion or animal use or white supremacist patriarchy, it is also liberating. It is then we can begin to create a life otherwise.

In Threadbare, Moore writes, “Usually, an enforced culture of silence shrouds abuse and coercion.” To stop the cycle of abuse against our planet and each other, we must begin by acknowledging and speaking on the atrocities of the past – and I mean the past as recent as minutes ago. Be vigilant in this. Don’t let your fleeting pleasure and comfort excuse another’s oppression. Don’t let your ignorance fuel injustice. Move closer to empathy, to compassion, to movement and growth. If ever there was a time for us to learn and build new paths forward together, now is that time. If history has shown us anything, it’s that now has always been that time.

 

 

The Hypocrisy of a Butcher’s “Vulnerability”

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By Charlotte Eure, with Justin Van Kleeck

I recently read an article about the latest butcher/hunter being oh-so vulnerable by killing a defenseless being, talking about how super spiritual it is to murder someone as long as that someone is a different species and is culturally acceptable to cut up and eat.

I’ll share my favorite puke-inducing section from that article, and let me preface with a big LOL and some sobbing at the idea of respecting life as you rob someone of it but anyway:

“Both on paper and in person, Leigh’s respect for life and for the land shines through—as does, somewhat unexpectedly, her vulnerability. In her book, for instance, she includes a scene in which she prepares to slaughter a lamb named Hercules at a friend’s farm. ‘I drove all the way there with my troubles thick upon my back,’ she writes, and then describes the smell of hay in the barn, the look of the lamb’s eyes, and the mountains rising up in front of them as the lamb dies.”

Murder really heightens the senses, apparently. I’m pretty sure serial killers are on that shtick too. But who knew that as long as you choose the right victims, you can turn your sadism into vulnerability? The mental gymnastics! Humans are amazing.

People in positions of domination who exercise authority and power to enact violence often co-opt the language of vulnerability. This hurts me more than it hurts you. I do this because I love you. Lies. Domination is the rejection of vulnerability. Domination embraces power. It works to rationalize and excuse unnecessary violence as though it is in the best interest of everyone. It’s egoism. It’s how humans can make the slaughter of actual vulnerable beings all about their own feelings. “Ah, I’m so connected with the Earth now that I’ve denied someone else their connection to it. Especially now that the lamb is finally not screaming anymore, I can really take in all this beautiful scenery!”

A million myths exist to perpetuate our use of animals. One of the nastiest is that our hierarchical and exploitative relationship with them is naturally beautiful, spiritual, and loving. The idea that loving someone means violently killing them because we want to – for whatever reason – perverts the very meaning of the concept. Leigh saw “the look in the lamb’s eyes” like it was just another part of the scenery. What was that look? Why no mention of the inevitable struggle that ensued? Why no mention of the way in which Leigh killed the lamb? Instead the lamb passively died? Of course. In this story, as is often the case when the humane myth is at work, the horrific act of slaughtering an animal who wants to live becomes a mutual decision in honor of nature, one in which the victim participates willfully and in which the violence is somehow an act of respect and happens peacefully.

The only vulnerable person in the moment during which Leigh slaughtered a lamb was the lamb. Leigh, however, is eager to co-opt that experience and make it about herself and her anxiety surrounding her decisions to inflict violence and death upon the vulnerable, a despicably typical rationale for abuse of power. In this way, she clouds the hierarchical relationship that exists. She complicates her dominant position and her abusive behavior. She tells us, “It’s hard for me too!” Yet she emerges from that moment unscathed. In fact, she emerges with a prize! She now has parts to sell and to consume. Meanwhile, we’ll never fully know what the lamb experienced as they realized they were in danger, as they felt blade pierce their flesh, as they bled to death in the shadow of a killer who took solace in the beauty of the mountainside. (I mean, really??)

In another interview, Leigh fills out the sketch of her transition from vegan to “ethical butcher” (yes, you read that right). “High school exposure to horrific slaughterhouses, corporate domination, and empathy for fellow her fellow earthlings had turned her off meat. But everything changed after a trip to the third world—where she witnessed a population whose lives and livelihoods depended on animal protein (every last bit of it).” Confronting the very real fact of “third world” [sic] hunger and poverty, Leigh responds by seeking “ethics” in the American food system by booting living beings out of her field of ethical consideration and into the limbo of the absent referent.

We see the slipping away of living individuals for Leigh as she recalls asking herself, “We have hungry people in our country and we’re not going to eat something because we’re afraid to? Or because of regulation? Or because of whatever our culture has deemed normal?”

Whatever reasons Leigh has crafted to explain her decision to dominate, the least she can do is stop pretending that she is somehow vulnerable in that decision. The least she can do is acknowledge that the moment she willfully slaughters another being, she is fully in power. She is dominating. She wields a knife against the actual defenseless, vulnerable being.

Perhaps the most disturbing horror of Leigh’s “ethical” worldview is that her conscience can simultaneously feel a desire to care for and to treat “humanely” other beings, while also always already seeing them as dead bodies, as cuts of meat and grist for the gustatory mill. This sort of moral dysphoria takes for granted that other animals exist for us, and any nod towards individualizing them (and their concomitant “welfare”) becomes arguably the greatest betrayal imaginable—they each are equally someone and no one, a fragile life and a heap of carrion on the table.

This hypocrisy of perspective and narrative is enacted more and more, becoming normalized to the point of fetish in modern food culture: for example, a food co-op in Durham, North Carolina is celebrating community with a “farm to feast” lamb roast…but don’t worry, vegans, there’ll be vegan options too!

Leigh wields her power by the domination of true vulnerability, but through the logical twists of the humane myth, she can become an icon of compassion while committing murder. There is nothing vulnerable in her position…

And don’t even get me started on the nightmares experienced by oppressed groups coerced by capitalism into slaughterhouse jobs NOR on women trying to empower themselves by enacting traditionally masculine violence against other marginalized, vulnerable bodies. J/K, please get me started.

 

 

 

 

Microsanctuaries: A Micro-Manifesto

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By Justin Van Kleeck

As ethical vegans who are also interested in helping animals living in this world right now because of humans, my partner, Rosemary, and I began to rescue farmed animals in order to get them out of the agricultural system—not to give them “better” living spaces in which they were still exploited, but to get them out once and for all.

We started the Triangle Chance for All microsanctuary, and from that The Microsanctuary Movement, around two hens: Clementine and Amandine. All of our rescue efforts on typical “pet” species took on a new quality when we transitioned to farmed animals. Once we rescued these hens from a shelter and began to interact with them as individuals, not as abstract concepts, the notion of being “vegan for the animals” took on a profound new importance.

Living amongst such wondrous beings, we began to reconsider – and to deconstruct – the ideal of an animal sanctuary. In late 2013, we had moved to a three-acre property outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where our view consists of a wall of trees rather than rolling pastures. But, in the course of applying vegan ethical considerations to the two hens suddenly residing in our house, we decided that we could scale the model down and get creative with what we have, not what we think we “should have,” in order to provide permanent shelter and care to our rescues. We began to see ourselves as building a “microsanctuary.”

Much has happened in the intervening two years since the lovely Clem and Am came into our lives. Fortunately, they are still living here with us, along with many other old and new residents of the microsanctuary. In every moment, though, they and the other roosters and hens who live here with us remind us of the value and importance of every life—even the lives that a speciesist, commodifying, cravenly capitalist society tells us are worthless. Baby chickens cost a couple of bucks at most, and roosters are “worth” even less; in a throwaway culture that concocts all sorts of selfish notions about what is “good,” these beings are the lowest of the low.

But to us they are everything.

Let us be clear about this: A microsanctuary is as much about ethos as it is about property sizes and resident numbers. A microsanctuary is grounded on the idea that sanctuary is a state of mind, and building one’s (human) life around the well-being of (non-human) animals is not only important but central to the ethos and ethic of veganism.

A microsanctuary can be any space run by a vegan (or multiple vegans) that is home to rescued animals and emphasizes their health and happiness above all else. So someone with a rescued house rooster is just as much a sanctuary (by virtue of being a microsanctuary) as a million-dollar non-profit with hundreds of acres and hundreds of animals.

This is important: We have to question the conceptual cultural categories we vegans inherit—such as “food” animal and “pet”—and we have to stop accepting the agricultural model as the ideal for these beings we suppose to respect. This is what microsanctuaries are doing.

By throwing out the ideal of what a farmed animal sanctuary “should” look like, Rosemary and I were able to really think about what sanctuary means for the residents and the caregivers in situations like ours. It is a revolutionary relationship and way of living, for modern vegans; it involves completely rethinking our perspective on the world and redefining ourselves in the (radical) role of caregivers.

This sense of dedication to the direct service of rescued farmed animals, as a way to end their exploitation, is what lies at the heart of sanctuary—and on an individual level truly defines a microsanctuary. To understand ourselves as vegans in light of the relationships we have with these beings is not only what defines our existence as co-habitants of a microsanctuary, but also shapes our notion of why we do what we do and where our moral obligations as vegans truly lie: to the animals.

Seen in this light, veganism is no longer so much a negative orientation, in the sense that we are trying to not cause harm or not be part of exploitation. It feels so much more positive to have a direct role in the care of the very individuals for whom most of us went vegan. Rosemary and I are and always have been vegan for the animals; saving and sustaining the lives of as many of them as we can has given our veganism so much more depth, meaning, and relevance.

Make no mistakes here: Microsanctuaries are meant to be radical spaces, just as microsanctuary vegans need to be a radical force.

What we seek is a world in which no individual being is used as a means to an end, and no individual being is made to feel (or be treated as) lesser than for any reason. That will only be possible with a staggeringly comprehensive overhaul of everything that we know in our modern life. It cannot happen if we keep bringing humans into the world as we do, and keep consuming in the ways and amounts that we do, and keep pretending that the human species has some special significance in the universe that makes it more valuable than any other, and keep rationalizing why it is okay for us to benefit from the suffering and exploitation of other beings so that our way of life can keep humming right along.

We as a species, as a culture, as a society, need to learn humility, and we need to recognize the value of other lives as much as we need to understand the tragedy of forcing them, without consent and for our pleasure, into existence.

Cleaning up chicken poop daily is a wonderful way to make that learning happen.

Go do it.

Originally published in Barefoot Vegan magazine, July/August 2016. Download a PDF version of the article here.

The 2016 Vegan Mac ‘n Cheese Smackdown – A Magnificent Spectacle

Grub Factory

It’s taken a few months for me to fully process the 2016 Vegan Mac ‘n Cheese Smackdown and be able to put it all down on paper – from the good and the really good to the bad and the really bad. At the moment of its inception, the members of both the PEP Foods collective and Baltimore Vegan Drinks knew instinctively that this event had massive potential. I remember getting goosebumps on my arms as we discussed the possibility – the audacity, really – of planning a large-scale vegan mac ‘n cheese competition in Baltimore City. For me, the thought of an event like this one was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying – I knew it had a chance to be a smashing success but couldn’t help but entertain thoughts of it being a miserable failure. As is often the case in life, Baltimore’s 1st Annual Vegan Mac ‘n Cheese Smackdown was a little bit of both.

We started with an organizing Dream Team. Between the members of the PEP Foods Collective and Baltimore Vegan Drinks, we were working with so much event planning experience that there was a less than 0% chance that the Smackdown would be poorly organized. We each had our own distinct areas of expertise. Whether it was social media promotion, logistics, budgeting, public relations etc., we had someone on our team who kicked ass in that area. And even though this was the first time PEP Foods and Baltimore Vegan Drinks had ever collaborated on anything, we worked as if we’d been organizing events together for years. It would in no way be an exaggeration to say that the organizing phase of the Smackdown was near flawless.

The moment we announced the event, it gained immediate traction and folks started pre-registering both as chefs and attendees. The excitement was palpable and as organizers we found ourselves working around the clock to keep up with all the inquiries we were getting from people who were interested in the event. Between the comments and questions on the Facebook page, the emails to the PEP Foods and Baltimore Vegan drinks websites and the regular phone calls, it was quite a challenge to keep up. Add to that all the supply procurement, food and drink purchasing, media outreach, marketing and promotion, volunteer and chef coordination, regular communication with the health department, fire department and various other event planning minutiae and our organizing Dream Team had our work cut out for us!

Not long after we had signed the contract with the event venue, it started to become apparent from the large number of pre-registrations that there was a chance that the Smackdown could outgrow the venue. There were no guarantees, of course, that the numbers would actually exceed the capacity of the space, but it was getting close enough for us to be concerned. Of course, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do about it at that point – the capacity of the space was 600 people, the pre-registrations had gotten up to 400 a week before the event, and although there was the possibility that we would get more than 200 walk-up attendees, there was just no way to know for certain and so we proceeded with our organizing efforts keeping our fingers crossed that the numbers would just work themselves out. The numbers did not just work themselves out.

Volunteers

On the afternoon of the Smackdown, our 30 chef participants were set up and ready to sample their vegan mac ‘n cheeses, our dozen or so volunteers were at their various stations, our judges had taken their positions at the judges’ table, our MC was at the microphone and we were ready to start the event. Oh, and there were hundreds of people standing outside the door in a line that stretched two city blocks. I think even as attendees moved through the line and began rapidly filling the venue, each of the organizers – myself included – was so engaged in managing whichever aspect of the Smackdown to which we were assigned that it didn’t initially sink in how massive the event was becoming. I, for one, was so hyper-focused on providing for the chefs’ various supply needs that I didn’t realize how packed the room had gotten until I was swallowed up in the crowd and literally couldn’t move through it. By then, of course, the wheels were already in motion and the Smackdown train wasn’t about to be stopped.

We estimate that over one thousand people showed up to the event.

To a vegan mac ‘n cheese competition.

In Baltimore City.

That actually happened.

 

TheLine

As confident as all the organizers had been that our event was going to be a success, none of us could have imagined that a thousand people would line up outside those doors. We were more than prepared to accommodate 500 or even 600 people. But a thousand? Nuh-uh. And so the venue was packed beyond capacity, the lines to sample mac ‘n cheese were chaotic, participants were hot and irritated – with the occasional thumbs up and, “Wow, this is awesome, great event guys!” thrown in – and the organizers and volunteers spent almost the entire time in a perpetual state of scrambling to keep up with the pace of the event. The Dream Team had been bested by our own success.

On the upside, the attendees seemed to really enjoy sampling all the delicious variations of vegan mac ‘n cheese our chefs had cooked up. Even though the lines to get samples were long and excruciatingly slow, people appeared to be very engaged with the chefs, asking questions and giving feedback as they made their winding way around the room. When all was said and done the chefs had a blast and we actually got quite a bit of positive feedback and helpful constructive criticism from the attendees. Of course, there was plenty of not-so-helpful – and quite frankly vicious – criticism from those who were appalled that they should have had to wait in line (some of them for up to 45 minutes!) to engage in their God-given right to sample copious amounts of vegan mac ‘n cheese. But you know what they say: You can please all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time …

Vegan Refocused       Chef Green

Of all of the lessons we learned from the magnificent spectacle that was the 2016 Vegan Mac ‘n Cheese Smackdown, one of our biggest faux pas that I still regret to this day is that we didn’t send a volunteer outside with a clipboard to check off the pre-registered attendees and expedite their entry into the event. Honestly, I’m convinced that had I been stationed at the entrance it would have occurred to me pretty early on that it was unfair for people who’d pre-registered and paid ahead of time to have to stand in the same long line as those who’d just walked up off the street. Alas, no one thought of doing this simple thing that probably would have stemmed the flood of negative backlash we got from some of the people who attended the Smackdown. But you live and you learn, and we certainly learned a lot from this event!

As for the 2017 Vegan Mac ‘n Cheese Smackdown, the Dream Team will be coming back together in the very near future to start planning for an even bigger event – this time with full knowledge that Baltimore City is ready, willing and able to throw down on all the hot, gooey mac ‘n cheesy goodness we can throw at them – and this time we’ll be ready to put on a truly spectacular event! Until then, may we all strive to make kinder, more sustainable choices that benefit our health, the Earth and all those with whom we share this beautiful planet!

 

#LetsGoVegan