Caregiving Is Activism: Microsanctuaries in Theory & Practice
This presentation will explore the role of microsanctuaries as a form of vegan activism. Microsanctuaries, which can be as small as one human caregiver providing sanctuary to one rescued nonhuman, are more accessible and dynamic sanctuary spaces founded on principles of radical antispeciesism and collective liberation. We will discuss the theory of microsanctuaries in the context of antispeciesist approaches to species who aren’t commonly seen as companions, as well as the practice of rescue, caregiving, and education. We’ll also look to the future of animal liberation to discuss how microsanctuaries can fit into existing models of radical human activism such as mutual aid networks.
About the Presenter
Alastor (Justin) Van Kleeck (they/them) has a Ph.D. in English and lives with their partner, Roz, near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They spend most of their time working at the Triangle Chicken Advocates sanctuary, which Alastor and Roz founded in 2014, and which inspired them to start The Microsanctuary Movement together later that year. Alastor is a co-organizer of the Humane Hoax Online Conference and Chicken Webinar. They have presented at the Animal Rights National Conference, the Conscious Eating Conference, and the Humane Hoax Online Summit, and have been interviewed on podcasts such as Our Hen House, Beyond Species, The Bearded Vegans, and others. Much of Alastor’s writing is available at strivingwithsystems.com.
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5:45pm — virtual doors open
6:00pm — introduction from The Radical Companionship Project
6:10pm — presentation and q&a
7:10pm — event ends
Content Note: the presentation will discuss speciesism.
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From the time I was in elementary school until I graduated from high school, I relied on reduced and free breakfast/lunch programs at my schools. I’m grateful that I never went without, thanks to this program, to what was then called “food stamps,” and to extended family support.
During these developmental years, I think it’s safe to say that no one wants to feel like they are “different” in ways that mean something is wrong with them. “Different” often evolves into shame, and a sense of shame created by external sources (from adults to other kids to policies and programs) can do immeasurable damage to individuals–immeasurable and long-lasting.
So it is utterly disgusting that “lunch shaming” BY SCHOOL OFFICIALS AND SCHOOL DISTRICTS is a thing. A not-uncommon thing. To wit, from Eater:
“An Alabama elementary school stamps a child’s arm with the message: “I need lunch money.” A Minnesota school district warns graduating seniors that they will not receive caps and gowns unless their meal debt is paid. A New Hampshire cafeteria worker is fired for serving students with outstanding lunch bills.”
Think about that child as an adult in charge takes a stamp, stamps their arm, and forces them to walk around with “I need lunch money” emblazoned on their arm. Think about that experience, and of sitting in class or walking in the halls or riding the bus with that on your arm.
I think it’s indicative of the dark manifestations of the American bootstrapping narrative that “lunch shaming” is a trenchant problem. If a child can’t pay for lunch, there must be something “wrong” with their parents. They aren’t working hard enough, or budgeting properly, or just being decent hard working god-loving patriotic AmeriCANS. And, therefore, there must be something wrong with the kids as well.
Poverty is a complicated thing, but the virulent classism of capitalist America is harming adults, and it is harming children. Even worse, it can push children down a path that fulfills the very narrative driving classist assumptions about who needs support and why.
Think about those shamed children. Is that what you want?
Or let me tell you–I know how it feels to stand in a lunch line with your free lunch card while your friends pay for their lunches. Or to stand in a grocery store checkout line, thumbing through your book of food stamps while people stare at you impatiently. It’s hard, and if the messaging you get from everywhere as a child is that you’re not right for being in this situation, it will haunt you.
When Iris came to live with me in 2011, I had been vegan for a long time. I was constitutionally against all forms of animal exploitation, including (obviously) dog fighting. On a basic, conceptual level it’s not hard to understand that an animal does not want to be forced to fight–just as they don’t want to be maimed, be abused, or be killed. As a general principle, I think we all can agree that nobody wants to suffer or to be killed.
As Iris and I formed our bond, though, the depth and horror of dog fighting became part of me. The reality of that trauma, though not mine, permeated my flesh and bones. I would think about what Iris must have experienced as a bait dog–deaf, restrained, scared, unable to defend herself–and my fury would escalate until it was almost unbearable. The idea that this brilliant, lovely, joyful, lively person was treated as an expendable nothing seemed beyond comprehension.
Iris re-framed my understanding of dog fighting because she made me see it through her experiences, and she made me understand its violations and violence through her physical and emotional scars.
Despite her horrid beginnings, she was such a happy person. She delighted everyone who knew her, and together we all learned how to interact with the world. She was my first encounter with caregiving for others—prior to her, I had been a hermit with only plants for dependents. It was quite a change when she entered my life…but I’ve grown a lot since then, thanks in part to her.
The same genes that made her deaf, pink, white-furred, and blue-eyed also made her prone to skin allergies and frequent occurrences of dermal hemangiosarcomas, a type of cancer that resulted in skin growths. We believed that the dermal hemangiosarcomas were relatively low risk, unlike the internal versions of the cancer, and surgeries to remove and test the ones that appeared always went well.
The first we knew something wasn’t right was late in the night on 8 June 2019, when she seemed to have an upset tummy and trouble breathing. When the ER vet explained that an ultrasound had revealed two tumors, one on her heart and one on her liver, and that the heart growth had burst and was bleeding out into the sac around her heart, I didn’t believe it. We knew that internal hemangiosarcomas do this…but never had we thought she had them internally.
Iris was an unstoppable force. That night, though, it was clear she was in pain as the tumor bled. She couldn’t even walk ten feet without needing to lie down. It seemed impossible.
We were looking forward to many more years with Iris, and losing her at nine years old feels truly unfair (though not unusual for dogs with her condition, apparently). She’s been a huge part of our lives for many years, and she touched many people during that time with her joy and energy for life.
As I said, Iris was a force.
It’s been a long time since this one individual opened the door into caregiving for me. Many people will read about her and think that, because she was a dog, our bond and my grief at her passing are normal. Humans and dogs are somehow essentially intertwined. We love them as they love us. They are family.
Over the years, I have formed similar bonds with many individuals: chickens (OBVIOUSLY), ducks, turkeys, pigs, goats, sheep, cats, rabbits. In my experience, these bonds and the day-to-day relationships we all shared are as true, as valid, as deep, and as meaningful for both sides as was my bond with Iris.
Iris loved life and valued companionship. I’ve never met a chicken, pig, sheep, goat, or cow who didn’t feel the same.
We first adopted Iris while living in a middling town in Virginia that had poultry processing plants both downtown and just outside of town. That meant trucks crammed full of hundreds of terrified white birds–Cornish Cross chickens as well as turkeys–barreled down city streets and lined up outside the plant downtown, filled with confused babies unknowingly awaiting their deaths. These juggernauts of misery took babies to their deaths, and human city residents occasionally grumbled but otherwise lived their lives.
Those individuals on those fucking trucks were something else, something other, not within the human circle of consideration nor within the human circle of knowing.
How wrong we humans are, in our nonsense, partitioning the cats and dogs from the chickens and pigs, as if there is some truth, some universality, some ETHIC in our choice to see dogs as family members and chickens as flesh.
I understand the egg industry through individual hens like Clementine, Coriander, Beatrice, Tansy, Hypatia, Vadelma, Doree, and Bibi, as well as roosters like Philalethes, Hobbes, Zooey, Gandalf, Pantagruel, and Julian.
When I think of those monstrous trucks now, I think of the Cornish Crosses we care for and have cared for, like Cin and Mer, Lyubkin, Lollo, Sabrina, Roquette, Angelica, Myrtille, and Dorrit. Individuals like them are butchered by the billions, but we pass them by unfeelingly–on the highways, in the stores, we pass them even if we grudgingly encounter parts of them.
How can I think about cockfighting now but through the lens of Phoenix, the most glorious rooster, who has lived with us for so many years after being rescued from inside a fighting ring with gaffes taped to his legs, along with many others I never got to meet? Or his beloved Phoebe, and their bond together?
Perhaps these names don’t mean much to you because you didn’t know them. But if you didn’t know Iris, my grief shouldn’t mean much either…except that because she was a dog, you can understand it.
But it’s also important to understand why a chicken or pig is as worthy of our respect, and our grief–is as worthy of justice, as a dog or cat. Why is “dog” more significant than “deer,” or “chicken” less critical than “cat”? I would be failing Iris if I did anything but frame our bond in the context of our sanctuary, where many beings of many species from many situations get the chance to live and be who they are regardless of prior tragedies.
This is how I see things.
I see Iris, along with Bibi, Phoenix, Jemaine the pig, Nestor the goat, Ivey the sheep. No one of these important and worthy beings in my life desired to live their life any less than another. I have seen individuals fight through layers of trauma I don’t have space to delineate and survive, or others fight valiantly but succumb. They all get names, they all become part of our emotional family, they all are valued.
The only cultural difference in all of this is how we, we humans who treasure ourselves and our valuations so fiercely and so unthinkingly, how we decide which of them matter and which of them don’t.
If you aren’t vegan already…why? Did the cow or chicken or pig in your mouth want to live any less than Iris? Perhaps their pieces wrapped in cellophane or piled on a bun with sauce and condiments did not, for you, immediately refer back to the absent being whose pieces and parts are now in your teeth. Why?
If you are vegan, is there some swelling of emotions for Iris that doesn’t happen for every one of the billions of beings who are born only to be butchered every year, who die as unknown quantities rather than as family members, who are subjected to the worst of human violation? Why?
The insidiousness of speciesism occurs, in part, through its ability to suffuse our deepest beliefs and to influence how we silently (e)valuate the world around us. If as vegans we do not see the loss of a beloved dog within the same ethical framework as the butchering of an unknown chicken, then we are as much subject to the arbitrary violence of speciesism as we are guilty of perpetuating it.
Iris, my dear: you were loved, and you will be forever missed. May you help us all to be better for the beings who need us most.
Vegan metalheads may sound like a strange, niche, and in a way almost precious community. And, admittedly, it is. But as someone who has been both for decades, I’ve watched with a mixture of surprise and diabolical joy as more metalheads are going vegan.
Although Brian Manowitz may not be RESPONSIBLE for that growth, he has played a visible role through his character Vegan Black Metal Chef. He started his YouTube show in 2012–I remember watching his first episode, laughing my ass off, and being astonished to find another vegan who was into black metal.
Since then, Brian (as Vegan Black Metal Chef) has continued pumping out material on YouTube, creating the cooking show that “he wanted to see” and showing people that veganism can be easy to do, tasty, and cheap. With his vegan-friendly black metal warrior gear and characteristic “corpsepaint,” Brian has expanded from just cooking montages to incorporate discussions on his channel. He alsohas written a book,The Seitanic Spellbook, and he travels around the world doing live cooking demonstrations.
I’ve been a fan for a long time, and I had the pleasure of meeting Brian in person at the Animal Rights Conference in 2018. He’s an intelligent, engaging, nice person (like many of us metalheads), and his passion for music and veganism remain clear in and out of character.
Brian was kind enough to chat with me over the phone about his history, his perspective, and how music and veganism coexist for him. [Editorial note: The following text has been edited for clarity.]
When and how did you go vegan?
I’ve been vegan since somewhere around 2000 or 2001. It was in my first or second year of college at the University of Florida. The fast answer I tell people is, I don’t believe in the exploitation of animals. The slower answer is, I had a girlfriend in late high school and early college, and she went vegetarian in high school. After a year or so of that, in college, I looked back and said, “Well, I recognize that as the right way to go, but I’m not ready for that yet.” So I didn’t do anything…didn’t do a damn thing. Then after about a year or so, I looked back and said, “Well…it’s been a year, and she didn’t die…so if I recognize that’s the way to go, then what am I so afraid of?” I recognized it as a fear within myself…not a fear of anything actual, just a deep-seated, conditioned fear…of nothing. I couldn’t live with myself having just this fear of nothing, so I faced that fear of nothing head on and went vegetarian for about two or three months or so. Then I went to an animal rights group at the University of Florida, saw a couple of videos, and said okay, now I’m vegan.
I also went vegan my second year of college…so it’s a good time, I guess.
I think it’s reasonable in a sense in that, that’s when I started having to buy my own groceries, in college. Before that I was far less conscious in the food-making process in general…and the lifestyle process in general.
What about black metal? When did you get into that?
I’ve been a metalhead since kindergarten or first grade. My first couple of tapes were Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood, the Skid Row album, and a handful of others. Then I got into Metallica and other thrash later in second grade or so. So I’ve been listening to metal for a very long time. I didn’t get into black metal actually until very late, until after college when I heard Dimmu Borgir’s Spiritual Black Dimensions. I was like, “What is this bullshit keyboard in my fucking metal?”…and then woke up the next day and said, “Mmm, I kinda want to hear that again.” So it was probably the early 2000s that I got into black metal in general–I was mostly into old-school thrash (which is also where a decent amount of influence comes from in my music), also Florida death metal and power metal, all sorts of stuff, but I didn’t get into black metal until significantly later.
Do you think there’s any connection between black metal and veganism for you?
The black metal veganism was sort of coincidence for me. The only real connection I see is that, with metal in general, it takes some amount of throwing off social conditioning in general to listen to these genres of music because they’re not in the pop-genre realm. And I tell people, the hardest part about going vegan is not finding delicious food to eat–that’s not hard at all–the hardest part is overcoming the social conditioning. You can take up drinking. You can take up smoking. You can take up doing all sorts of things, and people will be largely okay with it. If you go vegan, they’ll say, “You’re going to die! Why do you hate me! Why do you hate your family!” Shit like that. Every social pressure literally ever–from the advertising you see to everything else–will come down on you and try to scare you away and make you conform. I would say that that’s the closest connection of black metal to veganism is casting off the social conditioning.
I distinctly remember discovering your show as Vegan Black Metal Chef on YouTube and thinking, “Holy shit, there’s another one.” Back then in 2012 it was literally like, oh my god there’s another one. And now it’s changed so much.
That was somewhat of a frequent comment, actually.
I can imagine… So let’s start with the character, what made you want to create a Satanic vegan chef set to black metal?
It sounded like a lot of fun to me, and it’s a facet of me basically. With the Vegan Black Metal Chef stuff it was just the music that I liked and the cooking show I wanted to see. I was combining my passions for making music and cooking. When I started it, I’d been vegan for eleven or twelve years, and I thought, my food tasted pretty good, it’s not that difficult to make, and it’s really cheap. It was kind of three things that people think veganism isn’t. So I was like, I need to tell the world about this because I think it’s a very doable form of veganism for a lot of people. I thought about making a cooking show, but cooking shows kind of bore me and put me to sleep. So I just combined my passions for making music–black metal music in particular–and made the cooking show I wanted to see, and luckily a few other people wanted to see it, too.
What sort of educational and advocacy aims do you have with Vegan Black Metal Chef? In addition to the practical stuff of how to cook plant-based meals, do you have any other goals?
I guess I’d consider myself a light vegan activist, more or less…sometimes more, sometimes less over the years. I’m all for circus protests, and I think that was actually one of the protests where, during the protest, you could see it working, and ultimately it led to the closing of Ringling Bros. circus. There are a few protests like that, where you could see it working–even as people were railing against you, you could see it working. I’ll never tell anyone how to do or how not to do their activism. I think there’s a place for everything. Different people feel called to different activism, and we all have a role.
With myself, a large amount of my activism I call passive-ism, in the sense of just showing people what to do, not just what not to do. I think both have their place–telling people what not to do can be fantastic. But it takes a whole other skill set, mind set, and approach set to show people what to do instead of what not to do. When you tell someone not to do something, it sort of leaves a void that was filled and had a practical reason in their life. It wasn’t some extra action that they did–it filled a purpose. Now that purpose still needs to be filled, and they don’t know how to fill it, or it’s not easy for them…and if it’s not easy there’s a higher chance they just won’t do it and will just find another way.
In my book as well, there’s a lot of sidebars of what I call “practical mysticism” and personal development and things like that, because that’s a big part of my life. I guess I’ll always be showing those things: doable veganism, personal development, and activism by feeling whatever your call to activism is.
It sounds like you’re doing a lot of important activism by dispelling some of the myths about veganism and doing a cooking show in a way that’s amusing and fun and engaging. I think that’s really cool and important.
It’s one way to sort of either yell or speak forcefully at someone that “Veganism is cheap! It’s easy to do! And it tastes good!” And show them that in a longer format through the videos, and convince them of that.
Speaking of the show and the character, what would you say has surprised you the most with Vegan Black Metal Chef?
Well I’m honored and humbled that anyone still gives a damn. That’s been pretty cool. And I’ve traveled the world, doing live cooking demonstrations in front of tons of people all over the world. I’m surprised anyone liked it to begin with. I’m gonna do it no matter what to answer the question of what do vegans eat. At every job I’ve ever had, it’s the question at every lunch period: “What is Brian eating…?” You can’t just say, “I eat chickpeas and onions and other things,” you have to show them entire meal ideas. Some people may have never heard of chana masala or other things, and it’s like trying to explain a hamburger or a hot dog to someone who’s never seen a hamburger or hot dog before.
Yeah, and it’s so funny too how your food landscape expands once you go vegan. I had never heard of so many foods before that I found after I went vegan–like, oh my god what’s hummus? What are chickpeas?
Oh yeah I eat a wider variety of stuff now than I ever did. And better stuff now than I ever did.
Back to the veganism and black metal, it seems that more and more vegans in black metal–and extreme metal more generally–are self-identifying as vegan and being unabashedly open about it and promoting it. And people I never knew have been vegan for years are now happy to talk about–they have no qualms about saying, “I’m vegan and fuck off.” Since you’re a well-known figure in this weird center of the Venn diagram of veganism and black metal, do you feel like there’s a quiet movement happening, and a growing interest? Or is it still mostly kind of random?
It absolutely feels like it’s growing. It’s awesome that it’s far more talked about now. For example, I’ve done cooking demonstrations the last two years in a row at Wacken Open Air in Germany.
The reason for that is that Wacken is really awesome, and they listen to the people and the fans, and the people demanded more vegan stuff.
Yeah, and the first time that they booked me they hadn’t even seen my cooking shows. There was a random German Wikipedia page on me. It was a week or two before the festival and they were like, “Hey, do you still do this? We need more vegan stuff.” So they flew me over. Then they had me back again last year as well. It’s an absolutely growing thing there. Even at the veg fests and things where I typically do cooking demonstrations, you see little old grandmothers and then some metalheads sitting next to them…it’s an interesting mixture. I absolutely see it as a growing thing in the movement and not just being uncovered a little here and there.
One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you right now is that I’m sure you’ve seen studies and things on the news saying that we don’t have long before we’re past the climate tipping point where we’re totally screwed. So much is pushing climate change, but over and over again it’s clear that our dietary choices and the animal agriculture industries are huge players in what we’ve done to the planet and are continuing to do to the planet. It’s frustrating because I feel like that conversation so often dances around the topic of going vegan, minimizing individual action. I feel like whatever else is going on, you can go vegan right now! And that’s going to make a difference the more people do it! Do you foresee the Vegan Black Metal Chef addressing that bleak climate issue at all?
I touch on it in the book a bit, but especially with the new format of videos I’ve been making, more of a vlog style instead of just pure cooking instruction, I would absolutely talk about that.
For myself, I like to focus on things that are obviously true and not rely on statistics and things that can go back forth between being “true” and “not true.” I have a science background myself–I have a degree in behavioral neuroscience, I worked at a brain lab as a computer programmer, and I had weekly scientific article discussions. I think science is fantastic and statistical analysis has its place. But I really want to focus on things that will be timelessly true and are obviously true. Like it’s obviously true that there’s huge waste in the animal agriculture industries, even in terms of the amount of food that one has to feed animals before you obtain food from them, as well as all the fuel and other processes. At every point there’s a loss of energy in animal agriculture, as opposed to just eating plants. In a sense, the exact numbers kind of don’t matter, because it’s obvious that there’s huge waste there. As opposed to having the specific numbers being attacked or challenged, if we could all just recognize that it’s obvious there is huge amounts of waste happening, then to me it becomes pretty plain.
I tell people, veganism is the easiest solution to so many of these things. It doesn’t require policing anyone; it doesn’t require any action besides your own. No one has more decision over what they put into their mouth or wear or buy than themselves. A lot of these articles that beat around the bush with this are part of that social conditioning. If people just flat-out said the elephant-in-the-room truth, these articles wouldn’t make money–they exist to make money and have people purchase them. It’s like the third rail of social conditioning that they’re not ready to touch yet. Their amygdala acts as if it’s a personal attack…even though it’s just an idea, the brain reacts like it’s an attack on the person and throws up every defense mechanism possible. Until that whole system gets acclimated to a new reality, it will still be the third rail of social conditioning, and people will fight back as if you attacked their very being.
Yeah, for sure. I wanted to frame all this in the context of black metal because, as you know, black metal is quintessentially bleak (in sound and philosophy), it’s often misanthropic, it’s very much about creating an atmosphere of dread and dark emotions. And that can be a good thing for those of us it resonates with…it can be cathartic. I find it very therapeutic when I’m feeling down to throw on some black metal and get that combination of the visceral jolt of the energy as well as the dark atmosphere that helps me experience and process my emotions.
Yeah, if they don’t come out in a healthy way, they’ll come out in an unhealthy way.
Exactly. And that’s one thing I don’t think a lot of people understand about black metal, the function it serves for those of us who listen to it. [Click here and here for some interesting scientific discussion of metal and positive emotions.] So when you’re faced with all this stuff, how do you use this music when you’re confronting all the bad shit that humanity does and the bad shit that’s going on…do you find a similar sense of using the music you make and listen to for help in what we’re facing as a species and as a planet?
Oh yeah, yeah, absolutely. That’s a huge amount of the reason I make music in general and make that music is to express those kinds of things and feel those emotions and be in that space in a way that I can be in that space and then not be in that space–I can experience that and do what I need to move forward. It’s an amazing, cathartic experience for that. It’s essential to feel and express all the aspects of emotion, not just the ultra-positive ones…though it sort of leads to positivity in a sense, by truly feeling the problems and the issues with the world and then being able to do something about it.
On the same note, it’s really hard to be vegan sometimes…with all you see going on, not just related to climate. Having black metal as something you listen to and create yourself, do you tie that in closely to your experience as a vegan? I’m sure you get frustrated a lot being vegan in the world. Is music something you use as an outlet to deal with that frustration?
Yeah I mean that’s largely what I’m into music for. If I wasn’t making music, I don’t know what the hell I’d be doing at the moment…
Hope isn’t something that we talk about in the black metal world, understandably, but what if anything do you feel hopeful about?
I mean you don’t see fewer vegan products in the stores these days. Like you can focus on numbers and things, or you can focus on the fact that it only seems to be growing in the stores for people to buy. It’s not like the vegan section is shrinking and shrinking… It’s an absolutely growing movement. Every veg fest I go to around the US and around the world, every year is bigger than the last. On the socio-political spectrum, both people on the “left” and the “right” hate it because it’s one of the last bastions of rational thought and truth, of speaking truth to power. Arguments just become weak against it and become silly. So the hope comes because the truth is on our side. You can only ignore facts and ignore truth for so long.
To wrap this up, do you have any words of seitanic wisdom for everyone reading, trying to manage the deep despair and bullshit that we’re dealing with?
It’s all about bringing consciousness to your actions. The more all of us do that, the more the world will suck a little bit less.
While there are some excellent exceptions to the rule of factory farming … (selling ethically raised meats, eggs, and dairy), being a veg*n in Virginia is an important way to avoid benefiting from the suffering of animals–directly or indirectly.*1
This is a terrible thing to say about animal agriculture. Not only dangerous and harmful, but just blatantly wrong as well.
Now, you are probably anticipating, perhaps almost reflexively at this point, one of my cutting assaults on the myriad problems contained, both explicitly and implicitly, in this quotation–a mildly abusive disabusing of any notion that there can be any such thing as “ethically raised” animal products, based on biology, history, and my experiences rescuing animals from any number of farming situations.
And you are right. But there’s a catch:
I wrote this.
This utterly shameful utterance is mine, and not from distant times before I was vegan and while I still held fanciful notions that animals and animal products were ours to eat. No, I was vegan when I wrote this in 2010…
One of the problems with writing is that at some future point you may find yourself performing a retrospective, either by will or by force. Sometimes that can be illuminating, sometimes it can be a foray into the warmth and fuzziness of nostalgia, and sometimes that can instigate a moment of growth. Sometimes it can also be fucking painful, filled with embarrassment and dismay that you could ever have believed–let alone stated–such nonsense.
I had occasion recently to look back at some old blog posts and articles of mine dealing with animal agriculture, and I found myself thoroughly appalled at sentiments like these, which betrayed not only a lack of consistency with my own then-professed vegan ethics, and not merely an easy acceptance of animal exploitation and consumption as societal givens, but also a pervasively ridiculous lack of understanding of the very animals I was attempting, so I thought, to defend.
All of this, while still forcing me to shake my head in disbelief (I’m doing so as I type, mind you), is in a certain degree explicable. Don’t get me wrong: my viscera scream out at the inexplicable attempt by anyone to talk about “ethical” animal products in earnest, and it makes this entire trip down memory lane rather agonizing. Still, it is by no means an aberration of how we, generally, both vegans and non-vegans, deal with basically every instance in which the interests of non-humans and the whimsies of humans collide: we get what we want and find ways to make ourselves feel better about hurting others in the process.
I don’t mean that as a cop out. I don’t want to walk down this lane, but I believe it is both instructive and illustrative of just how easy it is to be vegan without also committing to an anti-speciesist fight for liberation and the end of oppression, and thus not really getting at the root causes of why we oppress other animals.
In other words, there is no lack of examples of vegans hedging their bets when discussing veganism and animal rights, wanting to “stop cruelty to animals” and to “choose compassion” whilst simultaneously being terrified of offending, angering, or otherwise disturbing their interlocutors–or, even worse, not actually believing that animals deserve autonomy, not nicer management. This is one reason why “factory farming” is such a useful bogey in the realm of debate: vegans can avoid stepping over the “extremist” line by allowing all sorts of exploitation, as long as the meat (or milk or eggs or whatever) isn’t from a “factory farm”; and, without having to stop enjoying meat (or milk or eggs and so on), a non-vegan can list the many reasons why and methods by which they DO NOT support “factory farming.” Isn’t that great? We all get to enjoy the low-hanging fruit!
Because I’m feeling masochistic (when aren’t I?), let’s consider another example of my mistaken prior arguments:
The lack of widespread, reliable protection for farmed animals makes it an ethical imperative that we become conscientious consumers of animal products. Unless we buy direct from the farmer, how can we be sure we are not paying for factory-farmed animals. Even if we don’t opt for the most humane step of going vegan, and so refusing to turn animals into mere commodities, we can become vegetarian. Or if we do use animal products, we can shop compassionately, researching the producers of them.*2
There’s a lot to unpack here, but the central issue is a mindset that feeds the Humane Myth–and shows how vegans perpetuate the Humane Myth constantly. There’s almost a grudgingly fleeting effort to broach the possibility of veganism as the only acceptable response to animal exploitation, and it gets lost in the distracting gesticulations that seek to steer people away from “factory farming” rather than from what matters: the systemic oppression of non-human beings.
This example is so useful, and damning, because of how visibly ethics–which demand considerations of justice and autonomy of other beings, regardless of species–are buried under the miasma of “humane” exploitation. Indeed, “humane” is a particularly revealing device in this case because it is so clear that it’s all about us, about humans, and not about other animals. The fact that “humane” elicits a spontaneous overflow of feeling that something is approximating humanness is exactly why it’s so problematic: calling exploitation “humane” is only possible when it’s really about us, and what we want, and what serves our ends. In fact, “human” plus “e” does not equal “happy animals.”
Thus, it is irrelevant how much we know about a farmer or a farm, just as it is irrelevant where, how, and by what methods or with what intentions a non-human animal was born, raised, used, and killed. These are all trappings of human solipsism, a speciesist selfishness that allows us to believe that treating another being, who isn’t like us, sort of like us, means we can pretend they aren’t being meaningfully harmed by our actions. Because of our privilege as humans who benefit from a system of domination, we are able to pick and choose what aspects of their experience we want to trouble ourselves with…a mental prestidigitation that is absolutely necessary for us to perform in order to even conceptualize the word “humane” in regards to animal agriculture.
And that’s exactly what I was doing, which I see so clearly now provided more than enough material for anyone to believe they can find a way to eat animals and still be a swell human(e).
In the ensuing eight years since I wrote those terrible things, a lot has happened. Marriage, animal rescues, a move, and being battered about by the tide of public awareness. Also many new family members have come, and gone–so many individuals who have made me understand what it means to care enough for someone else that your own self-interest seems less of a scream and more of a whisper.
And loss. So much loss.
I feel very little for the person I was back then, with that mindset: no anger, no sympathy, nothing really beyond shame at what I said. If I’m to be honest, I think it best he is a thing of the past, and I don’t have to deal with him much anymore. Perhaps you’re thinking that I should extend some compassion to the him who was me. Perhaps you’re right. I won’t, however, though you are welcome to.
Reading my own words, I feel as if I’ve betrayed every animal who is living and has lived with us here, as family…the time and context of that other person-I-was don’t matter. All that matters is how seriously wrong I was.
So what I needed then is not compassion but a good talking to, a firm nudge towards the fact that all forms of animal exploitation are inherently unethical and irrevocably harmful because they happen most significantly in the biology of these beings, not just on the farm or in the slaughterhouse. Even more, I needed to meet those individuals who actually endure the violence of domestication and exploitation, to experience for myself who they are and what their lives are like and how trivial the supposed distinctions are between one method of animal farming and another, between one species and another. Even more still, I needed to feel how priceless they are in order to understand the absurd offensiveness of how little we value them. For therein lies the strongest rebuttal to all my bullshit about ethically raised this and conscientiously consumed that. All my human(e) hot air is revealed to be nonsense in the face of their fates as beings bred to be consumed by us.
My wife and I have rescued hundreds of animals in the ensuing years, and every one of them has meant something deeply to us. Every time we lose someone, I get another peek behind the curtain of the Humane Myth, and I see yet another way human actions have harmed these beings under human oppression. I see all the things we could not save them from: reproductive diseases, compromised immune systems and pathogens waiting to pounce, hormonal imbalances, muscular and skeletal abnormalities, injuries, negligence, cruelty, apathy…all for the convenience and pleasure of humans. I also see all the ways in which “sanctuary” is as much about giving dignity to them in death as it is about giving them an opportunity to experience life, and letting loss inform how you live with the ones you still have: the loss of loved ones brings with it the cruelest and most unforgiving insights into what they suffer at human hands.
What I wish for my then-self is not a vague and coddling compassion, no, but that I had been able to know before opening my mouth the individuals whom I have known since then. How they live both under and despite human domination is more than sufficient an argument for us to stop harming them, and really all we need to do to see this is to shift our focus from ourselves and onto them.
This past Saturday, 17 February 2018, the 35th annual Ridgeland Winter Pioneer Days event took place in Ridgeland, Wisconsin. You probably haven’t heard of it, but let me save you the trouble and get to the point: along with a “greased pig” catching event, this celebration of “pioneer” spirit features a “chicken toss.”
The “toss” is not as banal as it might sound, though. Chickens, who have spent hours in cages with no protection from freezing weather, are carried up to the roof of a one-story building and thrown out to the crowd. Tossing isn’t enough entertainment, of course, so part of the fun is chasing the terrified chickens en masse and grabbing any you can. You catch ’em, you keep ’em.
I’m hoping at this point that you’ll grasp the severity of the problems wrapped up in the basic premise and plan of this “family” event. But let me clarify a few things that might help: 1) most chickens are not capable of flying very well or far, so being hurled from a high spot (onto concrete, no less) is not going to end well for them; and 2) chickens are prey animals, so being handled by strangers and landing in a scrambling crowd of large (mostly drunk, entirely clumsy) mammals is surely even more terrifying than hurling through the air as you struggle to “fly.”
My friend and colleague Quincy Markowitz took part in an effort not only to stop the event and protest as it went on, but also to save as many chickens as possible. They were able to wrest four sick, maimed, and stressed chickens from the crowd… Her firsthand account after the event and accompanying photographs are heart crushing:
Today, I am going to tell you all some horrible stories and share some awful images. I am so sorry to have to even make this post, as I know it will bring tears and frustration.
All four of our rescued chickens are doing well and recovering from their abuse. We will have more follow up on them this week.
For now, we need to talk about the victims we couldn’t save. I will tell some stories of pictures I did not get, and some that have pictures to accompany them.
We arrived yesterday at Ridgeland Pioneer Days at 11am. Almost immediately, I heard a child telling his dad about the chicken he will catch, and how he will feed him grass until he dies and they eat him.
We stood in the crowd as we waited for the event to begin. Most people were drinking beer, there were many children. Right as the throwing was about to happen, people started chanting “feed us!”
It was a whirlwind. The crowd was ferocious, battling for chickens, grabbing them by their necks and wings. When one would fly into the bar wall across the street out of panic, the crowd laughed.
I saw a rooster on an awning, terrified, trying to stay away from people. Children threw snowballs at him until he fell off.
I saw two children and an adult stuff their chicken into a plastic bag. These chickens are said to be pets and well taken care of, but we watched them die there.
I saw two women force-feed a chicken beer for a photo op before posing for the picture kissing her on the beak.
A friend told me of a rooster caught with a broken foot. I found the man who caught him and asked for him to be surrendered to us. The man told me that he will be kept if he can mate with his hens, and then he will be eaten. They would not give him to me.
My friend, Steph, saw a rooster with severely swollen feet and wattles consistent with fresh frost bite. These chickens suffered frostbite within the 24 hours before the event.
We have so much more evidence and so many more stories to be revealed, so please keep following us and PLEASE, start planning to come to Wisconsin next year and show up wth us to stop this event.
The icing on the cake was, as I was leaving with my sweet Dolly in my arms, crying and frustrated, a group of men catcalled me. They asked if I was single and what I was up to later. I should not be surprised at any level of degradation these monsters are capable of, but somehow I was taken aback, not expecting myself to be victim to their abuse.
This is a so called “family friendly” event. I feel sick for the children being raised in this environment.
I’m grateful to Quincy and others for braving that horrible event and saving those they could.
Is any of this worse than what happens to chickens and other farmed animals in animal agriculture? No, it isn’t. Is it more wrong and violent and exploitative than so many other forms of so-called “entertainment” that use the bodies of animals for human titillation? No, it isn’t.
Still, I am utterly dumbstruck at this ridiculousness not just because it shows some of the worst side of humanity. Ridgeland Winter Pioneer Days’ “chicken toss” event also reveals just how little value chickens have as commodities for humans; as commodities, there really isn’t anything humans can’t do to them.
If you look closely, what you see is that people who have already neglected their chickens (see Goby’s untreated sinus infection and Shrimp’s untreated frostbite?) dumped unwanted (not primarily useful/profitable) animals knowing full well what would happen to them…and not caring.
Not even not caring: DEFENDING what happens to them. As amusing as the flying, terrified chickens were to some people, even more hilarious was the effort to speak out against this absurd cruelty. Indeed, chicken farmers specifically wanted everyone to know how well the chickens are treated, and since they’re just food anyway what does it matter? That’s what chickens are FOR, right?
Human beings rationalize, justify, and excuse many of the things we do to animals via arguments about necessity–biological, financial, cultural, ecological. There’s no justification that holds water, in my mind, but ideally it’s a conversation that can happen with a reliance upon a wide set of facts and experiences.
It is also important to realize that an extension of our commodification of living beings under our domination for food (and so on) is a sense of free reign and impunity. We lock chickens and other “food” animals into the ontological position of being consumables, and doing so guarantees that many humans will feel entitled to use them in any way whatsoever, for whatever reason.
Shit like this “chicken toss” is scarily irrefutable, though, because its absurdity lies in the fact that it has nothing to do with our needs or the animals’ lives and everything to do with human callousness, with our willingness to abuse our power over others in ways that have no actual “value” or purpose other than diverting us from our boredom. This event is the equivalent of a child burning ants with a magnifying glass and sunlight.
There were children here, yes, but this time the metaphorical magnifying glass was being held by adults who bear the full moral responsibility for their actions. There is no situation in which this event cannot be considered cruelty to animals, something that would get you arrested had you been chucking chihuahuas onto the concrete below…
It’s worth mentioning that there were law enforcement officers at the event on Saturday.
There have been times in my life when I spoke truth to power loudly and publicly. I felt my anger like a star, burning and bright. The embers are still glowing, but I have been tired. I am so much water.
Addressing the wounds of the world takes a kind of strength I started to lose as the wounds of my family and my own tender being burst open. There is no clear delineation between these pains as they’re felt – the pain of living with genocidal systems operating all around us, the pain of loss, of intergenerational trauma, illness, abuse… they bleed into each other. So many wounds eventually look the same regardless of how they were made or the intentions of those who made them.
Someone very close to me has been abusive for years. He is a writer too, and he sometimes sends long letters full of manipulative, threatening language. I have written countless drafts back to him, detailing everything he’s done to me and everything I’ve witnessed him do to people I love, foolishly hoping he will see the truth in my words and desire to make amends, my dream of restorative justice.
I learned the hard way that any communication with him backfires. He will select one word and twist it to suit his toxic narratives. My communication is an invitation for him to attack with more intensity, and he’s made it clear to me, at times even saying so explicitly, that he does not care to hear what I have to say. He is not interested in understanding or accepting responsibility. He has exhausted my anger.
I’ve found it difficult to write as a result. Not only have I felt on a deeply personal level a horribly frustrating futility in my words, but I am terrified of replicating the language of abuse. I share genes with this person. Our demons are close. The slightest hint of his voice in my own silences me quick. I have felt this in other ways. The poisons of our world infect and confuse. The fear of irrevocably fucking up, the fear of turning into the very thing I am fighting… it can be debilitating.
Even when I manage to move through those fears and channel again the righteous rager, I eventually come to a stillness that asks, then what? And the answer from the wise, always, that we need to heal and build.
I suppose in some ways that’s what I’ve been trying to do, starting small, starting with myself – build from the ground up, build something from a place of understanding and care. It’s not as glorious as the fire-breathing dragon I can be, so adored. Healing is not glamorous. It’s painstakingly picking through a trash heap. It’s all the things that no one is going to applaud me for doing, that no one may see at all. It’s having to just keep moving forward, keep waking up, keep doing what I have to do to stay alive despite the parts of me that feel defeated and despaired. It’s finding the good not just in spectacle, but in intimacy.
My abuser isolates himself, and I know it’s easier for him to maintain his illusion of power that way. At times when I have tried to reach him, I get a glimpse of someone vulnerable, and then that person is locked away, and the tyrant appears. This happens too when we create nations and borders and hierarchies, constructed inequalities to prevent the intimacy that would reveal our shared vulnerability: what it is to be alive on Earth, to feel fear and pain. Even the work of healing is painful. It can feel like there is no escape, no relief, and I too have chased those twin pillars to destructive ends, seeking power and simply finding more pain.
I cannot escape my fear and pain, but I can manage them. Just as I must continually combat manifestations of oppression in myself, the work of healing my own trauma and illness is an ongoing process. I can’t say I acknowledge my white privilege and understand the system of racism and then be done with it. I must be attentive, always listening, checking in, reflecting.
I have been writing this for months now. I keep coming back and making adjustments, but I know I am in many ways just avoiding the moment of reaching out. I am so practiced now in seeing my words atrophy, in reaching out a hand to have it slapped away. It’s heartbreaking as someone who cares so much about connecting and believes so deeply in the power of language to help us do that. I don’t want to let an abusive person take that away from me. I cannot write a letter to him, but I can write one to myself and to you. And my hope in this for understanding, connection, and healing is not so foolish.
The domestic laying chicken has been intensely selected to be a persistent ovulator. That is, the tendency for broodiness has been nearly eliminated and, given the appropriate lighting and nutrition, many strains of laying hens produce an egg on almost every day. […] Commercial laying hens also spontaneously develop ovarian cancer at a high rate, and susceptibility to this disease has been associated with ovulatory events in women.
Think about all that for a second.
Hens are forced by genetic manipulation to lay eggs so frequently that they are highly predisposed to reproductive cancers. The thing they were bred to do for humans will likely kill them.
As is the case with all animals humans share space with, chickens can occasionally carry zoonotic pathogens that may transfer to humans and other animals. Sadly, many health organizations are zeroing in on this as a public health threat, and in the process they and the media are creating a skewed picture of chickens as dirty, diseased enemies of public welfare. And apparently cuddling is the problem!
So when HuffPost Lifestyle shared an ominously headlined article about chickens making people ill, Vegans with Chickens showed up to defiantly support chicken companionship and cuddles in the context of rescue and non-exploitation, pointing out along the way the hypocrisy of targeting chickens as too nasty to cuddle but perfectly okay to eat.
One of the most common discussions I get drawn into these days is on the ethics of keeping chickens for eggs in supposedly “humane” situations, like a suburban backyard. The details vary from time to time but always deal with humans wanting to eat hens’ eggs and feeling justification in doing so because the hens are not in a cage, a shed, or a slaughterhouse.
But there is much more to those “happy eggs” than is immediately apparent, and so I am hoping this post can serve as a handy guide for vegan advocates who have gotten beyond the “factory farming” horizon and want to talk about all forms of animal agriculture…and maybe for some non-vegans who think backyard eggs are better (they are not).
Just because a hen is not in a cage, shed, or slaughterhouse does not mean she is free from exploitation. One of the hardest parts of talking to people about the problems with “humane eggs” is that culturally, we tend to focus on treatment (cages are bad, sheds full of sick hens are bad, slaughterhouses are bad, beating an animal is bad), so under the prevailing standards a little flock of hens in someone’s yard looks nice and bucolic. But that focus on treatment is really dealing with aesthetics, not ethics.
The crux of the problem with the whole idea that chickens’ eggs can ever be ethically neutral as a foodstuff for humans is: domestication. Modern domesticated hens lay about twenty times more eggs each year than their wild ancestors, the Red Jungle Fowl of southeast Asia, who lay 10-15 purely for reproduction. Read that again: TWENTY TIMES. That averages out at around 250-300 eggs per hen every year from about six months until their laying gradually declines (sometimes ceasing completely) with age.
Selective breeding and genetic manipulation through thousands of years of domestication have thus completely hijacked the bodies of chickens: the ramping up of sex hormones and the physical process of laying takes a devastating toll, causing all sorts of problems (egg yolk peritonitis, impacted egg material, cancer, osteoporosis, prolapses…). These will usually kill a hen before she stops laying on her own; however, if kept healthy they can live into their teens.
The roosters suffer too–not only by being killed as chicks or once they crow because nobody wants male laying-breed chickens. They also have jacked up sex hormones that take a toll on their bodies as well. Simply put, no matter where they came from, virtually every single hen had a brother who was killed for no good reason.
It is also worth noting that whenever a chicken-keeper says their hens are all perfectly healthy, keep in mind that laying and other health problems happen in all breeds, not just the two most frequently used on industrial farms (white Leghorns and reddish brown Sex Links). Most people aren’t aware of the subtle signs that a chicken is ill (as prey species they are amazingly stoic) and get no vet care at all. The hens our sanctuary takes in from backyard situations are almost always sick with something, and/or have been the sole survivors of predator attacks due to negligence.
Along with all these physical consequences for chickens is the issue of bodily autonomy. When a hen lays an egg, why on Earth do we feel we have a right to something her body has created? Instead of stealing what is theirs, the best thing to do would be feed eggs back to the hens–eggs are usually their favorite treats, and doing so returns depleted vital nutrients in the eggs to the bodies they were pulled from.
For some reason humans think you can exploit and manipulate the bodies and very genes of non-humans over millennia, and then when those exploited bodies function as humans want them to, we can claim that what they do is “natural” and continue using them (dithering about welfare and treatment is often as far as we’re willing to go…).
That is fucked up, a tactic right out of the Humane Myth playbook…and that is why eggs are inherently unethical for human consumption, regardless of where they come from.
Eating hens’ eggs or allowing other humans to do so is perpetuating that system of exploitation and normalizing violence, including violence that is embodied as a result of domestication.
We adore our family of rescued chickens, and it is agonizing to get them to the safety of a vegan sanctuary and then see all the health problems they have due to their biology and breeding. Even with access to great veterinary care, far too often our hands are tied by their genes. We have lost so many beloved family members because of this, and I will never pretend that humans eating eggs and exploiting chickens to do so is nice, happy, or humane. No other vegans should either.