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

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.

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. “ethical-butcher” 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: http://3x39fmt0aja34zifjfnu4695x.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/mere-w-newborn-lamb-1-e1464302032302.jpgWe 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…

“pig-writing”

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…

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.”

 

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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.

Brenda Sanders Joins the Striving with Systems Collaborator Crew

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All of us at Striving with Systems are overjoyed to announce that Brenda Sanders, a tireless vegan community activist in Baltimore City, Maryland, has joined us as a collaborator!

Brenda Sanders serves as Executive Director of Better Health, Better Life, a public health organization, and is Co-Director of Open the Cages Alliance, an animal advocacy organization in Baltimore, MD. Through Better Health, Better Life, Brenda runs the Eating for Life program, a series of free workshops aimed at teaching people in low-income communities how to prepare healthy vegan food. With Open the Cages Alliance, she co-organizes the Vegan Living Program, a six-week education program that teaches the basics of transitioning to the vegan lifestyle. Brenda is also co-creator of Vegan SoulFest, an annual festival that celebrates culture and the vegan lifestyle, and she’s a founding member of PEP Foods, a collective of food justice activists and business owners whose goal is to bring affordable vegan food to low-income communities in Baltimore City.

The Inescapable Speciesism of “Progressive” Media

By Justin Van Kleeck

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Having lived with chickens for several years now, I can quite clearly see just how impossible it is for mainstream America and the media serving it–whether far “right” or far “left”–to step back from a conceptual framework that positions non-human animals as lesser beings here for our consumption.

A rather jaw-dropping example is a recent article in Mother Jones about the problems with so-called “cage-free” eggs. As we all should expect by now, the article shocks no one in its shocking revelation that the “cage-free” label on a carton of eggs means much less than most starry-eyed egg-eaters think it does…

Articles like this are endlessly frustrating because they assume, reinforce, and depend upon the premise that non-humans (in this case egg-laying hens) are, inextricably, objects within the human food system, and thus they emphasize the details of treatment over the ethics of use.

That is, in ethical terms, they are asking the wrong questions because, in virtually every single case, they are depending on a conceptual framework in which chickens (like other consumable animals) are food, always and already and forever...

Every single journalist who wants to do a story on the “transition” (ha ha) to “cage-free” eggs (ha ha) should, instead, take a big step back and think about a few other issues, if they actually want to do some compelling (or “progressive” or even fucking less exhaustively trite) journalism.

1. Where are the boys? Chickens (like most species) give birth to roughly equal numbers of male and female offspring. But where are the boys at these supposedly more “humane” cageless egg farms? Answer: they are dead. They are almost all dead (the few who make it out are usually dead, just at a later date) because hatcheries (where virtually every chick today is born) kill them outright…because no one wants them. Why in the name of profit would a farmer raise a boy–feeding and caring for (ha ha) them–the same way as a hen who will lay the eggs that farmer sells???

2. How many of these supposedly “happier” hens are going to lay like mad for a year or so, then lay fewer eggs, and then either be slaughtered *because* they are less productive or die because they develop one of the inevitable health problems laying hens experience as a direct result of selective breeding for egg production–including egg-yolk peritonitis, ovarian cancer, or one of the many other related conditions?

3. As long as major media outlets (as well as so, so many vegans…) promote the notion that there is a “better” (read “acceptable”) way to use non-humans for food, what you will encounter is a gentrification of the food system (“happy” animals are expensive animals, obviously) coupled with a continued exploitation of non-human animals for human food, to the utter detriment of the non-humans. There is no necessary (or even sufficient) imperative to stop eating animals in a narrative that says treating them “better” is less deplorable than treating them like Descartes’ automata.

To take the position that “nicer” exploitation is somehow acceptable means both condoning violence and excusing the vast number of humans who actively crank out endorphins over being “compassionate” animal lovers/exploiters, completely ignoring the paradox that recognizing the need to be “nicer” to animals necessitates asking why they deserve to be treated any nicer than cogs and robots. At all.

This happens all the time, of course… One glaring example is how NPR, the great bastion of liberal media, seemed to do story after story in the summer/fall of 2015 on how rough of a time the food industry was having because Avian Influenza was killing (or causing to be murdered) millions of laying hens, which meant egg prices were going up. GASP–chefs and bakers had to look at plant ingredients instead, or pay more for eggs as supply decreased!!!

The complete inability of supposedly progressive journalists and media to actually think about the underlying ethical problems and real-time implications (on the victims) of the exploitative, speciesist food system is borderline criminal. To watch instance after instance of it occur is as disconcerting as it is disappointing.

But then again, what incentive would the media outlets–catering as they do to a culture as pleased by bacon as it is by “happy” eggs–have to do otherwise than applaud mediocre measures that make everyone feel nice as they eat their omelette?

The answer: none.

Veganism and the Problem of Props

By Justin Van Kleeck

Vegan advocates and activists face huge challenges on every front: a gargantuan industry and culture of non-human animal exploitation; entrenched habits, traditions, and taste preferences that support the aforementioned; and a willing suspension of critical thinking by basically everybody with a stake in the continued domination of other animals.

This makes any effort to change human behaviors and opinions a Herculean task, no matter which approach one uses to do it…while also making every effort all the more dire.

Unfortunately, as veganism has grown as a movement, the difficulty in reaching non-vegans has led to many problematic, and seemingly counterproductive, methods of advocating on behalf of non-humans. I will touch on a few in order (I hope) to highlight a general tendency of turning individuals into rhetorical props, whose existence and experiences are treated largely as tools due to their strategic efficacy.

A fierce debate is raging in many vegan circles these days around the issue of racism amongst vegan groups, leaders, and prominent voices. There are countless episodes on social media and the blogosphere where vegans throw down with overtly racist language, let alone the equally countless instances where racial violence is downplayed as a “lesser problem” than violence against non-humans. These manifest a deep misunderstanding of what racism is by vegans, and an inability to perceive how different systems of oppression reinforce each other.

However, an arguably more troubling trend (to me at least) is the ease with which white vegans want to utilize the oppression of other humans in order to make analogies with the oppression of non-humans for the sake of vegan advocacy. The language of slavery is mined to the depths, images of historical acts of violence are juxtaposed with gory scenes from animal agriculture, all for the sake of forcing non-vegans to “get” that oppressing non-humans is just as bad/unethical as oppressing humans through regimes of enslavement.

As my colleague Christopher Sebastian McJetters has written, this unflinching and unapologetic deployment of the S-bomb by vegans hinges on a disregard of the myriad ways in which black vegans (and black humans generally), in the U.S. especially, continue to live with the after-effects of slavery and white supremacy. As he puts it:

“Basically what we’re looking at is a pattern whereby blackness is used and commodified at different times and by different groups to further an agenda without offering any type of real solidarity on black issues. And if animal rights doesn’t address this, our activism will be no different.”

The comments on Christopher Sebastian’s article exemplify how quickly white vegans will defend their right to make rhetorical use of others’ experiences, despite having absolutely no need to share those experiences in their own lives. Thus white vegans actually believe they have the right to instruct black vegans on the history of slavery, simply to buttress their stance that any argument “for the animals” is a legitimate one.

Aph Ko’s experiences with Black Vegans Rock are also frighteningly indicative of veganism’s growing discomfort with alternative narratives and spaces. Aph has faced so much pointless vitriol–including charges of racism! It should not need to be said, yet it endlessly does: veganism is not a homogeneous realm of colorblindness and equality, simply because our human societies are so, so far from that utopia (as if that were even a desirable goal in the first place–which it surely is not). Further, one vegan does not exist in the exact same societal context as every other–which means a black vegan activist is going to have many, very important and potentially dangerous, cultural truths to take into consideration that a white vegan activist just will not. Their experiences are going to be totally different, and the reality behind that is something vegans too easily ignore or forget when engaged in propped-up advocacy.

Another example of how vegan advocacy relies on making individuals into props comes in the effort to clarify and counteract speciesism–the generalized prioritization of humans as a species over other species.

This can occur in some overt ways, like turning the suffering of one individual–a mother cow losing her calf, a chick being sent into the grinder at a hatchery, or a pig lying down inside a gestation crate–into an image for public consumption, even if we have never once met that individual or any individuals of their species. I am more sensitive to it now since getting into farmed animal rescue and sanctuary work: vegans who have no idea of what cows, chickens, or pigs actually endure every day of their tragically shortened lives advocate on their behalf, but the victims’ individuality quickly fades into the incomprehensible quantity of dead bodies.

I live with and care for rescued chickens (along with other farmed animals), and my every moment involves ameliorating the embodied oppression of speciesism that they have to deal with. My partner and I have lost beloved family members, and dedicated countless hours and dollars to their care, all because humans value them for what they have been bred to produce. I know how awful speciesism is for the individuals who suffer because we try directly to alleviate it every…waking…moment.

Yet no matter how we do it, we are fighting speciesism as proxies–the importance of that point cannot be overstated. And most of the time we get caught up in our own notions without a very clear idea of what speciesism actually means for the individuals who suffer under it.

Despite my close connection to non-humans, I would never dare use the experiences of others as a rhetorical tool in vegan advocacy. My devotion to sanctuary for farmed animals has nothing to do with downplaying the oppression of other humans, and vice-versa; to draw either line would be to participate in continued oppression, and that cannot be acceptable.

Equally problematic, vegan anti-speciesists tend to invoke the quantity of non-humans slaughtered by humans to counter criticisms of their rhetoric. But it is terribly, terribly dangerous to get caught up in the game of “Whose Oppression Is Worse?” Besides the fact that trying to quantify suffering and exploitation is an impossible task, it utterly devalues the lived experiences of individuals (human or non) suffering under those oppressive regimes and practices, the macro- and the micro-aggressions.

What we must prioritize in our advocacy is the indefensible violence that individuals have to endure, not the spin we put on their experiences–be it when confronting racism, sexism, ableism, speciesism, homophobia, or any other form of oppression. Why not advocate in a way that is pro-intersectional, not propping up other oppressions, when we can very readily do so?

Instead, engage with other humans and with non-humans, so that your advocacy can be based on a genuine understanding of contexts not your own. The fight for liberation becomes so much more meaningful and powerful when it is done collaboratively, with a recognition that we all still have much to learn from each other in order to strike at the roots of oppression.

Animal Rights and the Language of Slavery

By Christopher Sebastian McJetters

For the past week, I have been following discussions in different spaces where white vegans are arguing about what I suppose is their inherent ‘right’ to appropriate slavery in order to further the narrative of animal rights. And yes, the vegans in question are almost ALWAYS white. That alone should tell us a lot. But unfortunately it doesn’t.

Let me share an experience from my own life that might explain why this is problematic. This past summer, I was with a very progressive white vegan and his family. An opportunity arose for him to bring up veganism again in front of his mother. I can’t remember what it was. A news story perhaps where she expressed some empathy for an individual animal or something like that.

Anyway, seizing upon that opportunity, the slavery comparison came out of his mouth. For a brief moment, nobody said anything. None of the three of us. We just sat there in his mother’s kitchen. And then she suddenly started falling all over herself. Handling objects, moving things around, cleaning furiously, with a worried frown on her face. She just kept muttering over and over about slavery. “What does slavery have to do with anything? Why would he even say that? What kind of a person does he think I am? I would never support slavery!”

And it eventually dawned on me that all of her fretfulness had to do with me. Me. As author Claudia Rankine would say, I was a black object immediately thrown against a stark white background. I was a prop in a discussion between two white people–one white person who was looking to use a history of blackness to make another white person understand a point he wanted to drive home and another white person who was deeply invested in not seeming racist.

In truth, this discussion stopped being about the animals. In fact, it might never have been about animals at all. It was about whiteness. Neo-liberal white guilt on the part of my friend. And white fears on the part of his mother. They had centered their white feelings to the detriment of the animal victims involved. And there, for all the world, sat me. With my own history laid bare and a voyeur to a scene where everyone was desperatey uncomfortable with my presence.

And this isn’t an isolated incident. This is what it often means to use slavery in the context of animal rights. His mother didn’t have his foundational comprehension of critical race theory. She didn’t share any knowledge of intersectional feminism or have a context of power, oppression, and privilege. She’s a homemaker. A woman who was raised in the bosom of capitalist patriarchy in the United States and who worshiped at the altar of American exceptionalism. She had no understanding about the reality of animal slavery whatsoever. All she knew in that moment was that she didn’t want to be racist. And in dealing with her white fragility, this conversation threatened her self perception.

Yes, there are times when the slavery discussion is productive. I don’t disagree with that. But overall, this is what we’re looking at. This is the reality of introducing slavery. It can help. It can be useful. But the dangers of letting the discussion center whiteness are very real. And don’t even get me started on how whiteness invokes slavery when having this discussion with black nonvegans. It’s nothing short of emotional blackmail. And emotional blackmail is one of “the master’s tools” as Audre Lorde is famously quoted as saying.

For the record, I also keep hearing white vegans say that the animal rights community is unfairly singled out when making comparisons to human rights. But that criticism is also untrue. In the past decade, we’ve watched queer activists fetishize American blackness to win human rights for the queer community. Some people here might even recall The Advocate magazine famously ran a cover with the headline “Gay Is The New Black?” and black Americans everywhere doubled over with laughter.

This isn’t to say that queer persons don’t experience discrimination or are not meaningfully oppressed. We are! But to compare queerness to blackness is (bluntly stated) insulting. And I say this AS a queer black U.S. American. The ways in which I am oppressed based on my queer identity compared to how I am oppressed based on my black identity aren’t even in the same ballpark. And as with animal rights issues, blackness was (and is) left once again worse off than before (see: police violence). Meanwhile, white (and largely male) gays are victoriously picking out China patterns for their weddings.

And we see this reproduced over and over again in white feminism when celebrities like Patricia Arquette and Nancy Lee Grahn behave as if black people either owe white women something or opportunities for black people are equal across racial lines.

Basically what we’re looking at is a pattern whereby blackness is used and commodified at different times and by different groups to further an agenda without offering any type of real solidarity on black issues. And if animal rights doesn’t address this, our activism will be no different.

I have said repeatedly (and still maintain) that I don’t think the language of slavery should be entirely abandoned or that certain people are forbidden to use it. Some resources like Marjorie Spiegel’s classic The Dreaded Comparison make these connections respectfully and forcefully without compounding racial aggressions. Three tips for how to be a good ally against racism and speciesism:

1.) Stop being too liberal with how we apply such incendiary language, and learn to employ better sensitivity and discernment when approaching these discussions.

2.) Amplify the voices of marginalized people who talk about these issues themselves instead of appropriating their histories or experiences to further our agendas. Noble though your intentions may be, what does it say about your activism if you need to say incendiary things when you don’t have those experiences?

3.) Make an attempt to understand how layered oppressions impact different groups to maximize our impact and build a broader, more inclusive community.

Lessons in Applied Speciesism

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By Justin Van Kleeck

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The memory of picking up Orion and Hikaru, our first rescued roosters, from the shelter is still vivid, albeit with the fuzzy edges of most past memories. In contrast with Hikaru’s vibrant reds and oranges and blacks, Orion was essentially white. His personality was a similar study in contrasts: whereas Hikaru was often ferociously forward and likely to peck you if you got too close, Orion was just scared. We could not get within ten feet of him for months.

Both of these roosters had their own medical issues that needed tending to: Hikaru had a horrid case of scaly leg mites, and Orion had a nasty bumblefoot on each foot. The foot issues never slowed Orion down as he ran, for many long minutes at a time, away from us as we tried to catch him to take him inside for bed every evening. (Getting him out for the day was a less-extended process, simply because his makeshift pen in the basement was smaller—making it easier to catch the flashing white roo.)

Memory is tricky not just for being fuzzy—especially fuzzy in places where you want it to be sharpest. It also tends to be infuriating for its proficiency in adding much later the proper emotional significance to moments, to events, to routines, that we would be all the better for if we could catch them in that moment of time when they are most relevant.

It was only after days of watching Orion nearly constantly as he weakened, sickened, showed his age, and eventually died that memory imbued those moments—now long gone, fading as quickly as they gained greater significance—with the sort of heart-breaking weight they suddenly had for me. And still have, now, several months since Orion died.

In my head, which is as damaged as my heart after losing too many dear companions, the year-plus that slowly-yet-quickly unfolded after my first ride home with Orion is not strictly linear. The X-axis has twists, crinkles, folds in upon itself. Early moments ripple forwards and touch upon later ones, yet always remaining past, further back along the unforgiving, unrelenting X. It becomes unbearable at times.

You see, no longer is Orion just the fleeing, fleeting white feathered biped who squawked and screamed if we got too close. As he learned to trust us, and as he took his rightful place as the great grand alpha rooster of our homeplace, he started to recognize us as belonging along with him here, in this place, with the other hens and roosters over whom he cast such a watchful eye.

I never really realized the impact of this evolution until the edges became far too fuzzy. I could not have known in the moment how much it would mean to me that, for weeks before he became too sick to walk steadily, or be on his own in his yard as normal, he would walk up to me when I came around to pick him up and carry him in for the evening. Perhaps I am just a failure at this whole chronology thing, but the evolution of our mutual trust over time seemed to be just a simple fact of the present. It simply was, alive in all its momentousness much as Orion was bigger than life in his roosterly presence.

His waning was too much. His death was impossible to process. His burial was more than enough to break me in places I did not know remained to be broken. His absence is a void that memory tries desperately, blindly and haphazardly, to fill with something approaching the reality of what he was.

Always, it fails.

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ii.

The death of Orion the rooster takes place within a larger matrix of chicken care, of course, that makes his experience (and ours) so much more tragic. This past summer, we lost a number of chickens over a period of a few weeks, in what were (are) without doubt the most difficult times of my life.

After thousands of years of domestication for food and entertainment purposes, chickens have only recently started to receive any sort of moderately adequate medical care. And after thousands of years of domestication for these human ends, much as with purebred dogs they are born with a whole host of inherited health problems. Modern hens breach their shells already “programmed” to lay 250-300 eggs each year, and the males who make it out of hatcheries alive are born from that same mutated, hijacked gene pool as hens. To put it bluntly: modern chickens are bred to live fast, lay lots, and die young.

This is all worth mentioning because it throws into relief the sickness, attempts at treatment, and death of Orion the rooster—and so many chickens like him who are fortunate (and rare) enough to receive some level of reliable veterinary care.

When you take your dog or cat into the vet’s office with some ailment, you assume that you will be given a reasonable diagnosis, a treatment plan, and a potential outcome. We take this as a given; we believe, with the sort of faith most gods would envy, that our medical caregivers will offer us something accurate to work with.

Not so with chickens. There is almost nothing like that with chickens.

iii.

Speciesism is the belief that humans have a primary universal significance giving them the right and power to dominate other species for their own ends. There are many ways in which speciesism dictates and shapes our everyday experience; human society as we know it would not exist without an unquestioned belief in the predominant glory of humankind. Even amongst those who fight for “the animals,” the ascendancy of humanity is a nauseating “of course” that is as impossible to challenge as it is to uproot—even rhetorically. It permeates us, and all we build, because it is at the foundations of everything we know. Even a glimpse at that foundation from above is enough to induce a vertigo that none of us can handle.

Beyond blatant anthropocentrism, of course, is an extension of valuation based upon what is more or less worthwhile for humans. This can be most clearly seen in the (horribly arbitrary, yet indelibly pernicious) division between “companion” and “food” animals. Culturally, we value and accept certain species of non-human as members of our family, as outside the realm of consumable (though even they get “consumed” in various ways—but I digress). In contrast, a culture’s “food” animals remain forever beyond that horizon of simple companionship. They cannot shake the ascription of consumable, even for humans who choose not to consume them.

This is why you would think it pretty typical to adopt a dog or cat for your household; if you mention adopting a chicken for a new family member instead, you will surely encounter raised eyebrows, even amongst other vegans.

Through speciesism, our culture’s food animals remain consumables, others, inextricably intertwined with the notions of slaughter, disassembly, preparation, and consumption. A part of what defines our culture is what beings we consume—for example, we do eat cows, but we do not eat dogs. Doing the latter will reveal you to be as problematic a part of Western society as will not doing the former.

iv.

Thus the sheer paucity of reliable veterinary care and medical expertise for chickens (and other farmed/food animals). Imagine the horror of the rare vegan who rescues a farmed animal and finds that every book, veterinarian, and online forum is devoted to a level of care warranted only by the ends of exploitation.

This is what we faced in trying to treat Orion. Our vets could find and show us instances of his decline—failing kidneys, neurological problems, labored breathing—and point to whatever pathogens their diagnostics might show.

But because of a millennia-old, speciesist approach to chicken “care,” our context for treating Orion felt limited at best, medieval at worst. We had no fucking idea what was going on, what we could do, and how we could keep this dear member of our family alive. Indeed, attempting to get veterinary care may have done more harm than good, in Orion’s case and in the cases of others, thanks to the limitations in knowledge about chickens and the relative inexperience with extended treatments.

Needless to say, the irony of this situation never escaped our attention: one of the oldest domesticated species is still one of the most enigmatic, and most difficult to treat, precisely because of humanity’s pathological effort to create a bigger, better chicken.

v.

As hard as the limitations of medical care were, even more challenging and insulting were the regulated restrictions in potential care that we encountered while trying to treat our chicken family members.

Imagine going to your veterinarian when your cat is sick. The vet runs some tests, drawing blood and doing a fecal culture and possibly pursuing an ultrasound or radiograph, and discovers the cause of your companion’s ailments. Voilà—thanks to the tests, your vet gives a diagnosis for your cat and knows the specific medications that can successfully treat her.

Now imagine that your vet stops you short after the diagnosis, explaining that while there is a medication available to treat your cat’s condition, federal and/or state regulations prohibit her prescribing that medication for your cat. Essentially, the well-being and SURVIVAL of your cat must defer to a mandate on what drugs can be administered for X, Y, and Z reason.

Surely you would be whipped into a frothing fury over such utterly absurd nonsense. When your companion, your family member, is sick, the only thing that matters is getting them well.

Unfortunately, applied speciesism carries the companion animal/food animal divide into the realm of what drugs are available for treatment. The “Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank,” or FARAD (not linked here because FUCK YOU), is the Food & Drug Administration’s effort to protect human consumers from possibly harmful chemicals entering the sacred human food supply.

Or, put in slightly less speciesist terms, the FARAD exemplifies how U.S. consumers prioritize their own health concerns over the well-being of the animals they pay others to needlessly breed, raise, fatten up, slaughter, process, and serve by withholding certain drugs (chemicals) that could possibly impact human health.

The frenzy over drugs in animal products does mean something: antibiotic-resistant organisms are not things you want to fuck around with, and in large part we have the agricultural industry to thank for an ever-increasing resistance in bacteria and viruses. You might as well see most modern animal farms as infernal cauldrons from which Orcs are born…because they ARE.

However, applied speciesism relegates forever certain species such as chickens to the “food animal” category, thus dumping them into the buckets that FARAD (i.e., the FDA and USDA) determines cannot receive certain drugs. No matter what.

The problems with speciesism’s influences on available medical treatment arise when those of us who rescue chickens, take them out of the food chain, and refuse to use them or any of their parts for human benefit run headlong into the wall of FARAD. Even if we know what particular pathogen or condition a particular chicken has, and we know what particular medication would successfully treat it, we very well might not be able to administer said drug because some humans somewhere are eating others like our particular family member.

Because of speciesism, because of human consumption habits, every member of a particular species is condemned to “food animal” status and the correspondingly circumscribed options for care we give to beings we intend to ingest.

The idea that someone might have ever eaten Orion or one of our other companion chickens is enough to induce a fugue state. The inescapable fact that we are forced to treat chickens like Orion as if they were to/could be eaten is only insult piled on to injury.

vi.

The perniciousness of speciesism becomes clearer when we see some of the (many) ways in which it grinds up the bodies of individual beings within the cogs of human culture. Abuse, murder, and consumption are only the more obvious ways in which speciesism gets applied through, and onto, the bodies of non-human animals.

We likely will never know what exactly happened, biologically and pathologically, with Orion the rooster. But it is still painfully clear that the ignorance we encountered, and the restricted care options we were forced to navigate, had their roots in the sickened soil of our speciesist culture.

And perhaps even more painful is my recognition that, cast in this light, the many months during which Orion came to shape me, teach me, and trust me are nearly meaningless because he was little more than a throwaway and a commodity to so many other humans.

With my last breath, I will refuse, resist, and refute this self-serving sickness of the human species. Orion’s life was worth more than that, as is the life of every “farmed” animal we selfish humans have forced into existence.

Their worth shall not be measured by the paltry marks of human myopia.

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