Give Praise to Seitan: Interview with Brian Manowitz, Vegan Black Metal Chef

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 also has 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.

Oh…wow…

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.

No shit…?

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.

Vegan Black Metal Chef with Michael Winslow.

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.

Hail Seitan. Thank you.

 

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To Err Is Human(e)

i.

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!

ii.

Life with (rescued) chickens…

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

Sigh.

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).

Fuck.

iii.

Godric was found with a necrotic food, probably from a tether wrapped around his leg, which required amputation.

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.

Frost (at top) was dumped in a state park and was sleeping on a parking sign in the cold, rainy winter weather when I caught him.

Quotation Sources:
*1: https://insteading.com/blog/virginia-license-plates-vegetarian-vegan/ (2010)

*2: http://hopeful-ink.blogspot.com/2010/12/cruelty-of-factory-farming-by-justin.html (2010)

“Persistent Ovulator”

Many people who don’t understand why eggs can never be an ethical foodstuff for humans are surprised to learn that selective breeding for egg laying has made modern hens prone to cancer and other reproductive diseases. As such, medical researchers are using hens as models for studies into ovarian cancer in humans.:

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.

Of course, hens die from lots of other things, too, as their reproductive system breaks down; this is why most hens do not live beyond 4-5 years…which is also the age they mostly stop laying. Those chickenly problems aren’t quite as useful for humans, apparently…

Equally awful, as the Poultry Science abstract cited above also makes clear, humans have bred OUT the mothering instinct in most hens because it interfered with egg laying.

Put another way, hens don’t even get the chance to experience motherhood…because nothing in their hijacked biology compels them to.

Every time someone eats an egg, these are the things that are being supported and normalized.

That’s part of why eggs don’t “just happen,” and why laying hens can never be truly “happy” when you steal the object of their suffering.

When HuffPo Misrepresented Chickens, #VegansWithChickens Responded…

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.

It was brilliant…

This is only the beginning…

A Handy Guide for Vegan Advocates Discussing Chickens and Eggs

By Justin Van Kleeck

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.

17498494_1064512856988273_354737982175706250_n
Althea was the sole survivor after a predator broke into her coop one night and killed her sisters, who like her were hatched as a school project and were living at the school. She was blinded during the attack and nearly died from improper care.

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.

Trudy was so excited about an egg treat she leapt up to eat it out of my hand!

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.

Further Reading

“Backyard Eggs”

“Backyard Eggs: Expanding Our Notion of Harm”

“What’s Wrong with Backyard Eggs?”

“Eggs: What Are You Really Eating?”

“No Such Thing as a Harmless Egg”

“Eggs. Period.”

“‘Persistent Ovulator'” 

“Eggs: The Leading Cause Of Cancer Nobody Talks About”

“Lessons in Applied Speciesism”

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

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

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

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

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

Natalie of Wild Abundance “honoring” a sheep.

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

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

Let’s be clear about this: What we humans have done over thousands of years is create a situation, a system, in which domesticated animals are victims by design, from birth. In particular, “humane,” small-scale farmers and so-called “ethical butchers” (see photo below) play off of the public’s admittedly wishy-washy concerns about animal welfare by portraying their actions—birthing and raising animals for the sole purposes of using, killing, and eating their bodies—as the best possible life for these beings. “ethical-butcher” From Meredith Leigh’s Instagram account, at the scene of a planned “ethical slaughter”; she later denied using the “ethical butcher” epithet for herself, possibly after realizing it is even more fucking ridiculous than “ethical meat”: see http://www.mereleighfood.com/blog/2016/11/14/vegan-bullying-and-the-new-world, paragraph 5.

“ETHICAL BUTCHERS” & THE ULTIMATE BETRAYAL

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

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

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

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

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

“COMPONENTS”image credit: http://3x39fmt0aja34zifjfnu4695x.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/mere-w-newborn-lamb-1-e1464302032302.jpgWe must be honest in seeing what Leigh sees when she looks at an individual non-human. Her language is deeply disturbing in how it positions living beings as already-dead bodies, “components,” not-yet-divided morsels of flesh, calling to her and her tools to be separated and consumed. To her, the murder of the individual is merely a momentary passage to what they always were…

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

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

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

“pig-writing”

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

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

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

EAT YOUR PRIVILEGE

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

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

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

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

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

 

Microsanctuaries: A Micro-Manifesto

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By Justin Van Kleeck

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

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

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

In every moment since then, the individuals who reside here with us remind us of the value and importance of every life—even the lives that a speciesist, commodifying, cravenly capitalist society tells us are worthless. Baby chickens cost a few bucks at most, and roosters are “worth” even less; in a throwaway culture that concocts all sorts of selfish notions about what is “good,” these beings are the lowest of the low.

But to us they are everything.

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

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

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

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

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

Seen in this light, veganism is no longer so much a negative orientation, in the sense that we are trying to not cause harm or not be part of exploitation. It feels so much more positive to have a direct role in the care of the very individuals for whom most of us went vegan.

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

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

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

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

Go do it.

Originally published in Barefoot Vegan magazine, July/August 2016. Download a PDF version of the article here. This version has been edited from the original.