je suis cecil

pig cratesSocial media outrage can reach such a pitch that mainstream media pick up the story. This is what has happened with the story of another trophy hunter, someone who paid more than twice the average salary in the UK to go and hunt a lion, kill him, skin him and behead him. I imagine it is not easy hunting a lion, but the skill of this is surely diminished since this lion was baited, i.e. tempted into an area that would make him an easy target. Male lions are majestic creatures and this lion bore a human-given name as he was a familiar inhabitant of a National Park in Zimbabwe and one of the subjects of an Oxford University research project.

A similar wave of outrage swept through social media in April this year at the offensive photographs trophy hunters publish on social media sites. Typically they stand or squat victorious over their prey, shiny weapons and shiny smiles on display. At the time, I made reference to the Tory government’s push to repeal the Hunting Act in the UK which would legalise once more the hunting of foxes with packs of hounds and their retinue of scarlet and black coated hunters on thundering horses. All this under the guise of ‘vermin’ control while video footage circulates strongly suggesting foxes are being bred for hunting, as well as showing fox baiting activities.

A commonplace fox does not have the stature of a lion so the outrage does not swell globally, but swell it does because there is something in the human ‘spirit’ that is outraged by cruelty to animals. When you look into the eyes of another animal an un-namebale connection is made. It is not dissimilar to the connection we make through eye contact with each other, something arrests us in that moment as we share the magnitude and intimacy of actually being alive, awake and aware.

Interestingly, somewhere along the line, the animals raised for eating are removed from our view, we not only never look them in the eye, we rarely see them in the fields around us. The food on display in the supermarket is called meat not animal, and there is no imagery on the packaging that relates the body parts to a whole creature, like the ones we remember from our childhood picture books. This is because these animals are usually bred and raised in huge, huge numbers in factory farms, living short and tortuous lives, the sight of which is somehow deemed unfit for human consumption. (Aside: in certain US states it is now illegal to take photographs or make video footage of the conditions inside factory farms as these firms are “private”, and whistle-blowers will face prosecution.)

I am utterly convinced, however, that the vast majority of humans would not be able to bear witness, not be able to hold eye contact with any of these animals, without it touching their hearts and minds, without it impacting the way they choose to eat and live. It might not be an overnight sweeping change, perhaps like me it is a one day at a time effort, even a one meal at a time effort, but collectively we make a big difference to the animals and to the wider environment affected by these farming methods. This is why I chose the title for this piece: je suis Cecil, with all due respect to those affected by the events in Paris in January of this year, to name a connectedness and shared responsibility to all living things however majestic, however commonplace.

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Image via farmsnotfactories.org, shows pig crates. About only 1/4 of pork produced and eaten in the UK comes from outdoor farms. Nearly 70% is imported from farms outside the UK with standards not permitted in the UK.

Yulin

cow loveI had never heard of this place, Yulin, until a couple of months ago. I believe, translated it means Jade Forest. It is a city in the north west province of China once associated with coal mining and now with fracking for natural shale gas. What it seems to be most famous for however is a summer solstice tradition for eating dog (and cat) meat that has kicked off a flurry of aggrieved and shocked petitions all over the internet. Tradition seems to be a rather generous term since, in all the articles I have read, it appears to have begun in about 2009/10.

Issues arising from the widespread publicity about the festival are largely around animal cruetly and slaughter, animal theft and smuggling, and public health issues for although you cannot contract rabies from eating dog, you can from handling infected animals, and approximately 10,000 dogs are traded to support the festivities. China has the second highest incidence of rabies in humans in the world, according to the WHO.

I have signed all the petitions. I live with a dog. I am part of a culture that on the whole is dog-loving (I leave aside the horrors of illegal dog fighting, and fox hunting – how far removed is a fox from a dog as a species anyway?) but I am curious about the horrified feelings of my co-petitioners, because while the suffering and slaughter of 10,000 companion animals is a staggering amount it is a small number when the number of farmed animals slaugherterd in the UK alone is considered. These are the latest figures I could lay my hands on, they don’t account for the thousands of deaths on farms due to disease, accidents, transportation or neglect.

“In 2013, more than 989.6 million farmed animals were slaughtered for meat in the UK, according to official figures. Of these, 2.6 million were cattle, 10.3 million pigs, 14.5 million sheep, 17.5 million turkeys and nearly 945 million chickens.”

That is a lot of animals.

This has all left me a bit bewildered about the consensus view of farmed animals and companion animals, for there is something intriguing about the way our minds have been conditioned to find it OK to treat one member of species with love and affection and another member of a species as OK to eat for dinner.  And going back to foxes and internet petitions, intrigued I am again about how the UK government would react if there was a worldwide push from Chinese animal acitvistst against the proposed repeal of the Hunting Act. Now that’s something to think about over my sweet potato pancakes this morning.

Guardian article November 2014, concerning unreported farm animal deaths

Guardian article March 2015, concerning Tory government backing for repeal of Hunting Act

treading lightly

hands painted as planet earthSometimes you get more than you bargained for. In January, I started this enquiry about switching from veggie to vegan in response to my growing awareness of the scale of industrialised methods in dairy and poultry farming. I gave myself a get out clause in that if I wasn’t able to manage my nutrition well, there were ethically run dairies and egg producers that I could support, but four months on, several books later, and a collection of browser bookmarks too numerous to count, the key learning is about the interconnectedness of my habits and choices.

At the same time as researching nutritional requirements and reestablishing the cooking habit after months of coping with family illnesses and bereavement, I added a few vegan FB page likes, subscribed to blogs and twitter feeds, and headed to the bookshop to replace my cookbooks and gather some associated reading. This for the most part has been a blessing as fellow vegans point me to their tried and trusted recipes, to stories about successful animal sanctuaries, and to answers to questions like, where do you get your protein? However, the other part of opening up the window on veganism is an exposure to the unadorned and brutal facts and practices of livestock farming from gender selection to slaughter, information that has driven me to tears of horror, disbelief and despair on several occasions.

Over and beyond the farming and welfare issues, I have learnt about the knock on effects of the contemporary globalised western diet with its links to poor public health; to pollution and degradation of localised water supplies and soil; to the blanket use of antibiotics in animal feed with its potential connection to untreatable superbugs; and to the concept of BigAg that along with other supersized lobby groups shapes global trade agreements that seek to ride roughshod over sovereign and local interests. The final connection that is gradually coming into focus is between large scale livestock farming and climate change. I can put my hand up now and say that I had not spent anytime in recent years contemplating in any depth the matter of climate change. I know that at home we take more showers than baths, only fill the kettle so far, have changed our lightbulbs, etc but the imperatives of climate change had been lost on me. Of course it is much more complex than farming and lightbulbs, after all there are vast sums of money spent on denying the climate change scenario. Only time will tell who is right, but looking through the vegan window is helping me shape a strategic vision for my household where we tread as lightly as possible on this little blue ball that revolves around the sun.

Image Source via thethoughtvox.com

looking good

isabella rossellini via www.rsi.chDelving deeper into this vegan enquiry, thoughts seem naturally to turn to items other than food that I buy or have bought courtesy of the life and service of a non-human animal. I have never been a big cosmetics user, I subscribe to the view that the less stuff you put on your skin the better, but I suppose I have been a bit a bit of a snob in my time for what I did buy was the best that I could afford. Best I interpreted as higher-end products that had sophisticated ingredients and were backed by some kind of branding or celebrity that I somehow aspired to. Isabella Rossellini was the face of Lancome for 14 years and I couldn’t imagine a more sophisticated looking woman to emulate.

I have been passively aware that animal testing for cosmetics was a continuing practice but along with farmed animals, was not aware of the extent or, not to put too fine a point on it, the torture that is endured. Fortunately since March 2013 there has been a European-wide ban on companies testing new cosmetic products or ingredients to be sold in the EU. The Leaping Bunny stamp gives consumers the peace of mind that not a single commodified creature has had their skin or eyes irritated, burned, scarred or damaged for the sake of what is in their make-up bag or in the bathroom cupboard.

As with most things in life their are exceptions and loopholes, that’s why we have discussions around corporate tax avoidance and evasion (is there really a moral difference?). Cosmetics companies who have markets beyond the boundaries of the EU can continue to test on animals outside of the EU and then sell those products everywhere, including inside the EU (all smacks of something similar to the dreaded TTIP). This let’s off the hook the global  brands especially those who sell to China, a market that has created a bit of gold-rush fever among multi-national corporations who are greedy for the massive profit potentials. The Chinese, you see,  insist on a variety of tests, including those on animals, before a cosmetic product can be launched into their expanding market. So if you want to sell a mascara or a moisturiser in Brighton, Berlin and Beijing you have to animal-test.

Moral of the story is that I look for the Leaping Bunny stamp and check brands on their website. Happily there is a great range of products from specialised brands to supermarket and drugstore favourites. Now, as I run out of a product I replace it with something from a UK or EU  firm that puts compassion at the heart of its business or at least is beginning to realise it’s important to some of us.

PS – Isabella Rossellini is now an active conservationist, board member of Wildlife Conservation Network and a completely wacky film maker – see Green Porno clips here.

Image via rsi.ch

 

 

 

 

Emily Davison RIP

Suffragette Emily Wilding DavisonIf ever I need retail therapy, my drug of choice is books with stationery, especially notebooks, a close second. Time stands still when I am browsing in a bookshop which makes it best as a solitary activity, any sense of someone else getting fidgety and bored curdles the moment like cider vinegar in soy milk. I use online bookshops if I am looking for particular titles or want to send books as gifts, but as the high street has become a homogenous, culture-free, theme park of shopping with the demise of small independent retailers of any sort (and the demise of real choice), I feel I am doing my bit to try and keep books available. I have never bought an e-book for myself; they are the meat-substitute of the literary world.

Since January, when this vegan enquiry began, I have acquired five new cook books, two books on nutrition and another five books on veganism with reference to agriculture, food production and climate change. I have never learnt so much in so short a time. I am clued up on nutrition sufficiently to know that the global western diet as a piece, not just the eating of non-human animals and products, is harmful to health and shortening the lifespan of adults and children everywhere, and  I understand better than ever that all the choices I make in my everyday life, all of them, are interconnected and affecting an entire ecosystem, namely this blue planet.

I am also acutely aware that I can’t stand on my own  in front of the galloping horse of global capitalism like Emily Davison and stop 57,000 cows a day being slaughtered and going through the golden gates of just one fast food chain, or turn the Earth’s thermostat down as easily as I turned down the one in my own house to save resources, but I do know that I can use the vote Emily and other women fought for me to have. No vote is a wasted vote. And if the choice is hope over fear, then there is only one choice.

on hunting

Riders and hounds on fox huntThere has been some collective outrage this week on social media sites as big ‘game’ hunters publish their victory selfies. Posing next to the recently murdered corpse of an animal is at the very least tasteless, in my opinion. I had also thought that hunting was the domain of poachers but it seems it is a leisure activity enjoyed by the wealthy who pay large sums of money to bag a prize specimen. It isn’t without risk of course as a story  broke this week testifies to a professional hunter and tracker being trampled by the bull elephant they had been stalking.

There isn’t anything like big game in the UK but there are seasons for hunting certain animals like deer, and ‘game’ birds like pheasant and grouse. Hare coursing is outright banned, while rabbits, hares and foxes can be hunted all year round except for a reprieve for all but the foxes on Sundays and Christmas day – bizarre.

There are 45,000 hunt members in the UK, according to the Countryside Alliance, and 186 dog packs recognised by the Master of Foxhounds Association, so fox hunting is still popular among those that take pleasure or prestige from such activities even though the Hunting Act of 2004 restricts pack dogs to stalking and ‘flushing out’, not the kill. This is done by gun or bird of prey. Boxing Day meets are big events and flush out hunt supporters who are striving to overturn the legislation and allow dogs to complete the kill. Last year a staggering 250,000 supporters turned out. That’s a quarter of the number of people who turned out in London in 2003 to protest against the Iraq war!

This all has very little to do with a vegan diet, but it does have a lot to do with the discussion around the role of non-human animals in entertainment, and the persecution of a single animal for pleasure either by a professional hitman, aka hunter, or by a group of well-bred horses and riders and their baying hounds..

 

 

 

plant-based v. vegan

labelIt’s important to be clear when sticking another label on yourself as they have the habit of being self-limiting. Yesterday, I confessed to being an introvert by which I mean I am very happy with my own company not that I am a predominantly self-interested person, quite the opposite, but I do need regular doses of one-time and concentrate best when it’s quiet, unlike DD who concentrates best with youtube and netflix.

On the subject of labels, I’ve been wondering about “plant-based” and “vegan”. Are they interchangeable?  A little bit of googling later and it seems the former is typically used when referring to a diet that is completely drawn from plants and their products, usually as unprocessed  or as “whole” as possible. This means obviously fruits, vegetables, grains, pulses, and seeds. The term does not always drive other lifestyle choices like the shoes you wear or the political party you vote for e.g. you could wear a plant-based-Tory label. The latter seems to motivate choices that go beyond diet, which makes it uncomfortable for me to be writing this as I sit on my old leather sofa. Vegan dietary choices do of course include the plant-based components but also processed products like tofu, almond milk and (for me) gingernut biscuits, which of course don’t grow on trees but contain no ingredients derived from animals.

With all this in mind, I have to hang my hat on the vegan tree even though I sort of like the sound of ‘plant-based’ better, for I wouldn’t buy another leather sofa, would buy a vegan pair of shoes, and will vote for a political party that puts the greater needs of the world at the top of its agenda. But, and this is why labels are so limiting, what label do you choose for yourself if you’ve made dietary choices wider than plant-based, you buy handmade shoes from Church, and TTIP is not something overly concerning you?

PS – i wonder if Church could ever be challenged to make a vegan edition of their fantastic brogues?