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

i.

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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White Vegans Need Intersectionality

By Justin Van Kleeck

The vegan and animal rights movements have failed at many, many things. Despite what large corporate organizations are saying, the evidence that “we are winning” is pretty damn sparse. Veganism is slipping more and more quickly down a slope of consumerism, while the many ethics-based activists try desperately to cling to principles and strategies that are part of an actual ethical framework rather than on (slightly) altering consumption habits.

“The movement” has also done an outrageously horrible job of ridding itself of most of the privilege-based biases that allow oppression(s) to persist in human culture: racism, sexism, nationalism/xenophobia, anti-gay and anti-trans heteronormativity, sizeism, ageism, ableism, and a disturbing amount of speciesism as well.

This is all quite evident in most online vegan/AR discussion forums, as well as in mainstream vegan marketing. The appeal is almost always to an audience that is presumed to be fully capable of accessing and purchasing an endless array of “cruelty-free” consumables. In the activism and advocacy arenas, the expectation is that “anything for the animals” is available to everyone equally.

I am a perfect example of how problematic these biased assumptions can be. I went for twelve years as a white male vegan before I encountered, purely by chance and my own curiosity in researching, any real challenge to my assumptions as a privileged person in society and in veganism.

That challenge was intersectionality, and its emphasis on the interconnected nature of oppressions made instant sense. “Intersectionality” as a term had been around since Kimberlé Crenshaw coined it back in 1989, but it (and the associated awareness of other experiences and perspective than my own that it required) had played no part in my conceptions or advocacy as a vegan.

My experience also reflects well the general arc of theory and praxis in mainstream veganism. You see the effects in a variety of ways, from tokenizing of non-whites in marketing materials and prototypical “progressive” liberal efforts to be “inclusive” that reek of corporatized diversity plans, to outright racist (et al.) microaggressions that either downplay or overlook the truly remarkable work being done outside of the mainstream by activists of all makes and models.

Thankfully, intersectionality is gaining traction in veganism and animal rights, and more and more powerful voices are speaking up about the need for intersectional discussion and activism. Of course, and not surprisingly, there is an equally vigorous backlash burgeoning amongst many vegans–predominantly white, male vegans, I should add.

Two recent examples: Aph Ko’s groundbreaking article “#BlackVegansRock: 100 Black Vegans to Check Out” suddenly became an occasion for beating of the racist vegan bushes when The Vegan Society shared it on their Facebook page. The chants of “we are all vegan” and “it’s all about the animals” and “why you being so RACIST?” had that dreadful echo of “All Lives Matter” that exemplifies the failure of vegans to understand why intersectionality is so essential for actual long-term gains for the non-human AND the human animals.

Another recent article likens intersectionality to a “cult” because, well…cults do not have acceptable editorial standards among other things. While the rise of intersectionality is also a good occasion for all of us to remain extremely intentional and reflective in how we do theory and practice, there are some real persistent problems with (white) (male) vegan privilege being used to respond to intersectionality with any number of conversation-ending laments and tears.

Generally speaking, whatever points are being made in these and other similar criticisms about pro-intersectional advocates forgetting the non-humans rely not just on privilege. They also function by de-contextualizing what intersectionality is and addressing it as if it is like a camp of the movement. Doing so is a fundamental failure because of the impact that a pro-intersectional approach has on the real lives of non-white, non-male activists. Even if lip service is paid to the interconnection of oppressions, it is damn touchy as a classically privileged person/activist to wag your finger and mutter, “Animals tho.”

The movement has done a pretty shitty job for the animals in general, but it has perhaps done even worse for non-white non-males. I personally find intersectionality to be a powerful and long-overdue corrective, and it offers what is a truly revolutionary imperative, all because it challenges the hegemonic privilege of most of the vegans who currently hog the mainstream’s spotlight.

In Memory of Autumn

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This is Autumn the rooster. I want you to know his name.

Autumn died suddenly yesterday after what appeared to be a brief illness, seen mostly in a mild runny nose. I took him to the vet just a few days prior, and with medications was certain that his recovery would be swift.

But chickens are masters of hiding their suffering, and it seems there was much more going on than he let on.

Autumn is dead, so I suppose I should have said, “This was Autumn the rooster.” The problem with recent and unexpected deaths, though, is that past and present coexist. They mingle together; they dance and flirt in a sort of chronological vortex that pulls in your mind, little by little.

Soon nothing seems quite clear and concrete; everything exists in a liminal state, swirling.

Lurking around all of this dysphoria, of course, is a recognition that roosters specifically (along with chickens in general) fall very low on the scale of moral consideration for most people. Whereas hens lay eggs that humans can eat, making them at least “worth something” to the many humans who love to eat eggs, roosters do not do a whole lot that humans find particularly useful. In fact, roosters are mostly a pain in the ass–a kicking, biting, intimidating whirlwind of feathers and fury that your average human wants to avoid.

These interrelated attitudes of apathy and aversion towards roosters lead to some devastating consequences. Female and male chicks are born in about equal numbers, but males are, as a policy, killed at hatcheries. If they are not ground up alive or suffocated in a trash bin, you might find their dead bodies used as packaging material and insulation for the chicks you ordered for your backyard flock and your “happy” eggs. The horrors faced by these young boys are just unfathomable, but we know what goes on. For example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJ–faib7to

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukWtsY04cAc

Those boys who do make it out alive typically end up, like Autumn, unwanted and abandoned; many end up killed once they reveal themselves to be male with that first crow.

I remember getting a message that police in a local town had picked up a stray hen, and the only offers to “rescue” her came with a promise to eat her. I got in the car, drove to where she was being held, and got her out of harm’s way. For several weeks, in fact, we believed Autumn was a she. Until that crowing started.

He was always an affable fellow. While not obviously craving affection, he would very quickly fall asleep on your shoulder while being held, and he loved a good scratch on the neck.

Autumn and Salem of Triangle Chance for All. Photo by Rosemary Van Kleeck.

Once he arrived at our place, he quickly became attached to another recent rescue, Salem. They were virtually inseparable. One of my fondest memories is bringing them outside to their yard and watching them greet each other with a rooster dance. Where one was, you would find the other. Their bond was profound.

Autumn’s last days were spent inside, for what we thought would be a short recuperation period. I held him to help give him his medications on what would be his final morning, scratched his neck (like a Narcoleptic, he quickly nodded off as I stroked him), and gave him a kiss.

The dysphoria of sudden death is in many ways centered on a clumsiness in transitioning from present to past tenses. We experience this transition with every breath, but changing tenses for individuals and our relationships with them is a much harder process to navigate: I still feel out of balance and teetering, as does the rest of the world…

This was Autumn.

I want you to remember his name.

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Full Text of Justin’s Interview with Yoga International

I was recently interviewed by Kathryn Ashworth, a Producer at Yoga International, for a story she was doing on veganism and animal sanctuaries. Because of space limitations, only a portion of the interview made it into the final article, so Kathryn and I agreed to post the full text here for interested readers… ~ Justin

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1. What is The Microsanctuary Movement? How is a sanctuary a state of mind? 

The Microsanctuary Movement is an effort we started based on our work with Triangle Chance for All to help empower others to rescue farmed animals and self-identify as being part of a sanctuary, both through information and resources and through support networks. We are working on our website right now, but in the meantime we have been trying to share helpful tidbits through The Microsanctuary Movement’s Facebook page and our Facebook group, Vegans with Chickens. Through these and future means, we hope that the movement will inspire many vegans to rescue farmed animals, whether that be a rooster and some hens, or a few goats, or whatever species they can accommodate. To us, this is truly revolutionary because relying on large sanctuaries exclusively means limited ability to rescue farmed animals. Large sanctuaries can usually take in a few hundred animals at most, and so much of their income goes to administrative and other non-care costs. Comparatively, a few thousand vegans each rescuing a handful of animals would open up so much more space and (this is important) resources for care.

To answer the question about sanctuary being a state of mind, we have to first recognize that “sanctuary” is about how one cares for rescued animals and sees them as beings worthy of the utmost respect. Thus a microsanctuary centers on a space that is home to rescued animals and emphasizes their health and happiness. 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. I am frustrated by how self-limiting we all tend to be when it comes to our views of sanctuaries. I so often hear people say that they want to start their own sanctuary one day if they win the lottery, but without any clear idea of what “sanctuary” really means to them and how to get there. I was there once, and the notion of a typical sanctuary was so daunting that I did not even know where to start to make it happen. By throwing out the ideal, I was able to really think about what sanctuary means for the residents and the caregivers. It is a very powerful relationship and way of living, as well as a perspective on the world and our role as caregivers.

This sense of dedication to the service of rescued farmed animals, as a way to end (and help ameliorate in some way) their exploitation, is what lies at the heart of sanctuary—and on an individual level truly defines a microsanctuary. This is all about how we approach rescuing animals and accommodating them within our lives where we are now, not where we might be at some undetermined future time.

2. Can you give us an example of one animal you rescued and sheltered recently? How did you find them? What’s their story?

There are so, so many beautiful but poignant stories here at the TCA Microsanctuary, because each resident’s story reflects upon both their unique personality but also the exploitation by humans that they were rescued from. One of the dearest to our hearts is that of Bibi, a tiny little hen who came to us after her three flock-mates were killed by a raccoon who broke into the “chicken tractor” they all lived in in someone’s backyard. Bibi barely survived and was maimed in the attack: her top beak was partially bitten off, a hole was punched into her bottom beak, and she also lost part of a wattle. When she arrived, she was clearly suffering from PTSD; she spent several weeks just sitting in a bathroom like a lump. She started to come out of her shell when we put a mirror in with her, and then she really regained some of her spark when we brought in one of our other hens, Hypatia, to be a companion for her. Now she is a real fireball, with plenty of spunk and attitude. She has had to have several surgeries on her beak since then, and will likely always have trouble eating and require special attention, but she really rolls with the punches.

Bibi’s story highlights so many of the problems with backyard chicken-keeping (for example, she was part of a hatching project in which eight of the twelve chicks who were roosters and so were sent back to the farmer and most likely killed). We feel lucky to have gotten the opportunity to give her a better life.

Another story is that of Plutarch the piglet. Plutarch fell off a transport truck in transit and was taken to a rural animal shelter while still a tiny little guy. When one of our board members, Linda James, discovered him at the shelter, we started scrambling to find placement for him (because we knew we could not accommodate an 800-pound farm pig at our microsanctuary). Richard Hoyle at The Pig Preserve, an amazing sanctuary in Tennessee, stepped up and agreed to take Plutarch. TCA board members Linda and Alan Nelson fostered Plutarch for nearly a month, allowing him to grow bigger and stronger in a loving space, and then several board members transported Plutarch to The Pig Preserve in late December—where he is now the most rambunctious, joyful pig you will ever meet.

His story is sad for so many reasons—not just recognizing that he would have been killed in a matter of months for his flesh, but also realizing that he was stolen from his mother at such a young age and never got to know that nurturing parental love as he grew. Animal agriculture is a story of broken families as well as torture and death, and Plutarch’s experience makes that abundantly clear.

3. What do you mean when you say, “veganism is the only satisfactory response to the suffering of non-human animals”? What about humanely raised animals?

There is no “humane” way to eat or use a living being or the things that come from her body. There is a persistent effort in our society to assuage our discomfort with harming other animals by coming up with slightly less bad ways to do the things that make us uneasy. There is no longer any doubt that, as a species, humans can thrive on a plant-based diet and have no need to exploit other beings for our benefit. That recognition of our ability to live without directly harming other animals has to frame this entire discussion about whether or not it is possible to exploit those beings “nicely.”

It takes little time researching the practices of every agricultural industry to see that animals are commodities, not individuals. You cannot justify killing a living being who is not in pain many, many years before he or she would naturally die. But that very thing happens with cows, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits…any animal used for food, really. There is a vast difference between when an animal is at “market weight” (i.e., when they are old/large enough to slaughter for prime profits) and when an animal is at the end of their natural lifespan. Chickens can live up to 13 or 14 years, for example, yet “broiler” chickens raised for meat are slaughtered after six weeks. Even dairy cows, who are supposedly given a better life because they are not raised for meat, still end up as hamburger after their milk production declines after a few years. It makes no sense for a farmer or corporation to keep feeding, vetting, and otherwise dealing with an animal who is not at peak production. If you want proof of this, research what happens to “spent” laying hens, whether they are in battery cages or so-called “free-range” farms, once their egg production declines after a couple of years—if they even make it that far.

As for chickens naturally producing eggs, which is a common misconception, it is helpful to understand the biology of a modern domesticated hen. The wild ancestors of domesticated chickens, which are wild jungle fowl from South Asia, lay at most ten to fifteen eggs per year strictly for reproduction. In contrast, domesticated hens have been selectively bred and genetically altered by humans to produce 250-300 eggs per year. This genetic manipulation has turned hens into victims of their own biology, leaving them trapped in their  own bodies, and it is directly responsible for the fact that most hens die before age five because of reproductive system complications (especially cancer). So to say a hen “naturally” produces the eggs humans eat is to utterly twist what “natural” actually means. There is nothing natural about a domesticated hens’ eggs, just as there is nothing ethical about eating them. Whenever a human eats a hens’ egg, whether it came from a battery cage or a backyard flock, they are perpetuating this inescapable suffering that hens endure.

Veganism is the only answer to this situation because there is no good way, no ethically defensible method or process, to exploit other beings for our benefit. Period. Once you accept the fact that animals exist for their own reasons, and have as much right to live as individuals with their own autonomy, then the question of how they are exploited is a moot one. One cannot exploit another being and pretend that one is being nice about it. One cannot justify using other animals when the only reason for doing so is personal tastes and habits and a refusal to look past the traditions and corporatized narratives telling us we need animal products to be healthy. To do otherwise is to turn individuals into objects, and that can never be justified.

4. What about people who say that they can’t afford to not eat meat due to health issues? 

In almost all cases, health arguments for eating meat or other arguments are based on ignorance of actual human nutrition, an attempt to excuse away a desire to eat animal products, or a combination of similar factors. I recognize that some humans may have such severe health issues that eating a plant-based diet is extremely difficult, just as I recognize that many humans live in food deserts and have a huge challenge just finding adequate food to feed themselves and their families. But the majority of us have the capabilities, both in our physical needs and our resources, to stop eating animal products. This is even true for athletes who put their bodies in much more rigorous and demanding physical conditions. There are vegan ultra-marathoners, bodybuilders, mixed martial arts fighters, NFL football players… It is abundantly clear, looking at living breathing humans, that being athletic does not prohibit being vegan.

5. How do animals, particularly the ones we classify (culturally) as less important (pigs, chickens, cows… etc.) give your life meaning? Why do you connect with them as individuals when so many see them as food?

Being vegan for us is centered on the idea that other animals deserve as much respect and consideration as our fellow humans.  Living with and rescuing animals (in particular farmed animals), however, reflects the fruition of our ethical principles put into practice. This is especially true for farmed animals because all of us, even vegans, have accepted the idea that they are somehow different than dogs, cats, and the other species we classify as “companions.” They live on farms somewhere out in the country and are owned by farmers … unless they are lucky and go to a big farm sanctuary that is also out in the country and run by a different sort of farmers.

It would be hard for us to pinpoint a reason why we connect with farmed animals as individuals, except to say that it is an entirely impossible task for us to do otherwise. Humans have desensitized themselves to violence and exploitation, in particular by compartmentalizing them so as to ignore or forget them. We, and other ethical vegans, are not able to do that any longer. Taking that to the next level, we are committed to helping as many animals as we can get the respect that they deserve by getting them out of the exploitative systems they are trapped in. Getting involved with farmed animal rescue and care has led to a profound shift in how we see ourselves as vegans. It 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 and responsibility for the care of the very individuals for whom we went vegan. All of us at Triangle Chance for All 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.

6. What do you think it will take to finally convince people that this is a social crisis? Is the solution simply a matter of leading by example?

We have to do the work and reach the humans we can but not wait on others to make change happen. This means focusing on helping the victims of human greed as much as possible while also advocating on their behalf. It often seems that no one ever listens, and that we are losing the battle to make a society that is kind to all beings. But whether or not we achieve our goals, we have to do the work and strive as hard as we can.  Otherwise we can be sure we will lose.

I do not think leading by example is enough, though it is important. We have to feel within ourselves the urgency of non-human animal liberation because it is far too easy to deprioritize or forget their suffering. Empathy is important, but it is not the same as experiencing what they do, and I think this is a large part of why so little has actually changed with how humans treat other animals. So I think “what it will take” is some sort of crisis that makes consuming animals immediately harmful or impossible. Even with as many vegan products and resources as we have available now, vegans are still a tiny minority (about 2.5% or so) of the American population, and this is true globally as well. It is not a matter of practicalities.

I try hard not to be a pessimist with this whole issue. Humans have a hard time acknowledging crises until they significantly affect the humans (especially the humans with the most power and privilege) themselves. That is why it is so crucial for those of us who do get it to both advocate to other humans and act to make change happen for the individuals who suffer—whether that means helping others go vegan or rescuing animals from exploitation. Advocacy and leading by example are not enough; activism, whatever that means for you (be it protests, disruptions, leafleting, rescuing animals…), has to be a key part of how we live in the world as vegans.

7. Do you practice yoga? If so, how does your practice influence your activism?

That depends on how you define yoga, I suppose. If you mean mat work, Rosemary and I, as well as board member Linda Nelson, practiced yoga for years before starting TCA. We all saw yoga as a practice while also taking seriously the principles behind it. For example, ahimsa is a principle of not harming that (we feel) provides an imperative for being vegan. This is why Jivamukti Yoga, for example, includes veganism as a component of the practice. It is a shame that more modern yoga traditions and practitioners do not recognize this.

You could also see what we do as a form of karma yoga, of course. As someone who studied and practiced Buddhist meditation for many years, as well as yoga, I feel very strongly that our “practice” is most important when it is actualized through our ways of living in the world. What we do in private on our mats or our cushions should be a foundation for how we live in and influence the world around us.  We should also do more to acknowledge how intentional acts of service, compassion, and justice are essential components of a practice of ahimsa.