The smell of 40 million slaughtered turkeys basted with butter and blood wafts through kitchens across the nation on Thanksgiving Day as American families gather to acknowledge their blessings amid an orgy of excess.
But the scene is different for animal activists: Thanksgiving is both a day of mourning and an occasion to celebrate a cruelty-free lifestyle. While the pain and suffering endured by animals bred for food is deplored by people committed to changing the way we view other members of the animal kingdom, Thanksgiving also provides an opportunity for like-minded folks to get together and reaffirm their convictions.
Those beliefs are rooted in a perspective the majority of the population finds incomprehensible at best and loathsome at worst. Because animal rights groups are often portrayed as extreme or radical, they are rejected out-of-hand and dismissed as fringe elements. This depiction is only part of the story: Acceptance of the animal-rights position requires a profound shift in the way individuals view their connection to other life forms; it involves more than substituting hummus for hamburger. It requires being willing to make an intellectual and emotional move out of a comfort zone long reinforced by a culture of consumption and dominance. Despite the difficulties, a growing number of people are committed to changing minds and making a difference in the lives of animals.
Tucson activist Roberta Wright has been speaking out in support of animals for close to 30 years. In 1972, while taking a course on meditation, Wright and her husband learned a vegetarian diet would be helpful to their study. What started as a simple strategy to improve a contemplative state became a life's work after they attended a lecture presented by an activist. As they became informed about the suffering of billions of sentient beings at the hands of humans, they sought out groups dedicated to abolishing the oppression of animals.
Animal activists address a broad range of issues that include wildlife, companion animals, the legal status of animals, animals used in research, entertainment and clothing industries, and animals bred for human consumption. Billions of animals are killed for food in the U.S. annually. That number makes factory farming the most critical issue for Wright and other activists.
One of Wright's goals is to educate the public about the horrors inflicted on food animals before they end up packaged between cellophane and Styrofoam. In an effort to get her message to the public, she began knocking on doors in the early '70s. In 1990 she founded SPEAK, dedicated to Supporting and Promoting Ethics for the Animal Kingdom. From 1990 to 1997, Wright lectured at the University of Arizona's veterinary science division as part of a course on human and animal interrelationships. She recently appeared on a local cable network talk show.
From its modest beginnings in Tucson, SPEAK developed into a national organization engaged in a broad range of activities. The group sponsors conferences; provides homes for rescued animals; fills tables at lectures, rallies, festivals and conferences with informational literature; participates in protests and demonstrations both locally and as a part of national efforts; and continues to provide speakers in the U.S. and Canada for schools, colleges and civic groups.
SPEAK joins hundreds of animal organizations here and across the globe working to dispel the outdated images of cows placidly munching on grass in a bucolic setting, or chickens pecking and scratching in the farmyard. These days, corporate factory farming produces the major portion of meat, milk and eggs for American tables as well as those in Europe and most developed nations. While some people can ignore the suffering of animals for the sake of cheap meat and high profit margins, "the damage factory farming is doing to the environment will force people to become vegetarians long before they would do so of their own accord," Wright said.
Her words may prove prophetic: An alarming number of studies indicate that the industrialization of food production has devastating consequences for human health and the environment. Rivers, streams, wetlands and drinking water supplies are contaminated by runoff containing manure, pesticides and chemicals; soil erosion, deforestation and desertification are among the conditions named in a 1996 United Nations report.
These conditions are quite apparent in the United States. North Carolina is infamous for its hog manure waste "lagoons" whose presence poses a health hazard to humans and threatens water systems. Part of California's main interstate, I-5, is despoiled by the sights and smells of acres of land transformed to a mix of mud and animal excrement. Cattle grazed on Arizona public and private land is ruining riparian areas and destroying native vegetation.
Besides causing havoc to the environment, corporate food production compromises human health as well. E-coli outbreaks from contaminated meat have resulted in sickness and death. Listeria bacteria, salmonella, extraneous metal, glass and plastic particles, underprocessing, all join E-coli among the reasons listed by the USDA for scores of meat and cheese recalls last year. The residues of growth hormones, antibiotics and pesticides used by the meat and dairy industries are passed on to people. "The excessive use of antibiotics by the livestock industry is sobering," said Charles Benbrook, an independent economist and co-author of a report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Feeding antibiotics to animals from birth to slaughter may modestly improve meat industry profits, but it puts everyone's health at risk. It is time to rethink how pigs, cattle and poultry are raised in the United States."
CANCER, HEART DISEASE, osteoporosis and kidney disease, among other illnesses, have been directly linked to the consumption of saturated animal fat. When shoppers pick out a slab of marbled flesh from their supermarket's meat section, they incur these risks; when the table is set with flowers and candles for an intimate dinner of filet mignon, most people would rather savor the flavor without considering health hazards or the conditions factory-farmed animals are forced to endure. But Lila Phillips, another Tucson-area advocate, turned her taste for meat to a commitment to animals.
In 1987 Phillips was living in San Diego. One day she came across The Animals' Agenda, a magazine published by the national organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Like all inveterate readers, Phillips began casually perusing the articles. Before that day, she said, she had "no knowledge or concern for animals." She owned fur coats. She ate meat.
All that changed as she educated herself about animal issues. She read Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, Peter Singer's book on animal rights. "My God, I didn't know any of this," she said. She called PETA and connected with local activists.
Phillips moved to Green Valley four years ago and continues to work on behalf of animals through SPEAK and the Animal Defense League of Arizona. Her willingness to put herself on the line resulted in an arrest for trespassing and disturbing the peace at a Wendy's in Tucson last August when local activists gathered to protest the fast-food chain's choice of suppliers. Phillips seems unfazed. She continues to petition and demonstrate because "if people really knew what goes on with animals they would think twice."
Her thoughts are echoed by Peter Clarke, a professor of animal agriculture at Oregon State University. "For modern animal agriculture, the less the consumer knows about what's happening before the meat hits the plate, the better," he writes in Animal Welfare Issues Compendium, a USDA publication.
The commodification of food has led to horrors perpetrated by factory farming methods and well documented by numerous organizations; the industry itself makes no secret of what goes on. It's not uncommon to find industry journals advocating methods to promote profits at the expense of animals. An article in National Hog Farmer recommends that space be reduced from eight to six square feet since "crowding pigs pay." Since the pen is so small, overcrowding results in pigs standing in pools of feces and urine, and piglets often being crushed under the weight of their mothers.
Beef and poultry are subject to similar conditions. Most beef cattle spend at least a portion of their lives in crowded, dusty, manure-laden feedlots--a prime breeding ground for pathogens. There they are routinely given the controversial rBGH, a genetically engineered growth hormone many people believe to be a health risk. From the feedlot to the slaughterhouse, tightly-packed cattle may be transported hundreds of miles in conditions that further contribute to disease.
The slaughterhouse is a surreal scene of blood, gore and men working as quickly as possible. The faster the pace, the greater the profit margin. Some U.S. slaughterhouses "skin live cattle, immerse squealing pigs in scalding water, and abuse still-conscious animals in other ways to keep production lines moving quickly," according to a 1998 Reuters article quoting USDA officials.
While cattle at least get to spend some portion of their lives outdoors, the story is even grimmer for poultry. Since male chicks have no meat or egg-producing value, animal-rights sources report eyewitness accounts at commercial hatcheries where "chicks are slowly dismembered on augers carrying them toward a trash bin or manure spreader." Other kill methods include suffocation, decapitation or gassing.
Up to six egg-laying hens are confined to one battery cage. These wire cages, approximately the size of an average microwave oven, are placed one on top of the other. Confinement in such a small space results in a litany of horrors: hens that starve because they can't reach the antibiotic-laced feed; claws that grow around the cage wires and into the hens' own feet; the removal of food and water for several days, a process called "forced molting," in order to shock their bodies into more egg production.
Plump-breasted turkeys with their surfeit of white meat are a genetically-manipulated caricature of the wild turkeys so highly prized in our national mythology. The industry-bred birds become unnaturally obese under factory-farming conditions. Sometimes they collapse under the weight of their own misshapen bodies. These turkeys must be artificially inseminated; their bodies become so heavy and deformed they can no longer reproduce on their own. Jammed together in filth, they spend their lives inhaling ammonia fumes generated by the urine of thousands of birds.
Of the 9 billion animals killed for food in the U.S. last year, 268 million were turkeys, according to USDA figures. The totals for this year are expected to increase to 308 million turkeys, and a total of 10 billion slaughtered animals. These numbers do not bode well for humans: As Leo Tolstoy wrote, "As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields."
THE VEGETARIAN RESOURCE group of Tucson is one of many organizations promoting alternatives to meat. The VRGT was founded in 1992 "to educate and share information concerning the nutritional, ethical and environmental aspects of a vegetarian life choice," said Tim Schaefer, current president of the group. Their Web site at www.azstarnet.com/~spirit/ provides a directory of local restaurants with vegetarian options, recipes, membership information and links to similar sites. The public is welcome to participate in the group's monthly dinners.
While vegetarians and vegans do not eat meat, vegans also avoid dairy products and eggs. Tucson activist Gary Vella has been a vegan since 1986 when he learned about the major health risks of the typical American diet. In the late '80s he moved from Texas back to his hometown, Kalamazoo, Mich. He took his first step on the path to activism when he spotted an ad announcing a meeting for people concerned about animal cruelty.
By 1989 Vella helped found the Kalamazoo Animal Liberation League. KALL still exists and is one of the most active animal rights organizations in Michigan, he says. From 1991 to 1999, the year Vella relocated to Tucson, he served as president of the Kalamazoo group. Once he made his move to the Southwest, he knew what to do to connect with animal activists: "I knew if there was a circus going on, animal rights groups would be there." They were, and before long Vella took a leading role in the Tucson wing of ADLA, a statewide organization with other chapters in Phoenix, Flagstaff, Prescott and Graham County.
Established in 1996, ADLA members have helped start low-cost spay and neuter programs in several Arizona cities, aided passage of the state's animal-cruelty felony statute, closed a Nogales bullfighting ring and helped pass restrictions on leg-hold traps and poisons used on public land.
Jamie Massey, an ADLA founding member and Tucson teacher, is currently heading a statewide initiative campaign aimed at approving a one-cent sales tax on dog and cat food. Funds from this tax would support mandatory pre-release sterilization programs for animals being adopted from shelters. This summer, ADLA joined other animal organizations protesting the Ringling Brothers Circus. Members recently converged on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices in Phoenix to encourage the service to reject a proposal that, if enacted, would allow the killing of up to 36 mountain lions in the Tonto National Forest.
Rodeo and greyhound racing are other protest targets for SPEAK and ADLA. Wright was 9 when she attended her first and last rodeo, recalling now, "I knew at that age that there was something very wrong with what was going on in the ring." She hopes the city council will outlaw rodeo because the money it generates is the result of "inhumane and unconscionable" animal treatment.
During the bull riding event at last year's rodeo, Vella says he filmed undercover video footage of bulls being electrically shocked. The cinch strap used to generate horses' bucking behavior is a source of pain and irritation Vella said, and roping calves can result in their injury or death.
Greyhound racing, another local animal issue, is the "epitome of dollars over lives," Wright says. The dogs are "thrown away like so much garbage" when their racing days come to an end. According to Wright, puppies that don't exhibit a propensity to run may be simply bashed to death with a heavy object. In Tucson, ADLA's top priority is the end of greyhound racing and the track's closure, said Vella. "Taxpayers are giving the track a free ride due to the fact that Tucson Greyhound Park pays no taxes," he added.
ALTHOUGH VELLA HOPES TO SEE the end of animals used for human entertainment, he agrees that the largest number of animals suffer as a result of factory farming. Despite those numbers, he is most affected by what he calls the "bizarre and grotesque" research experiments that take place in government, university and private labs. An estimated 25 to 40 million animals in the U.S. suffer and are killed each year for biomedical research, education and product testing including cosmetics, according to the New England Anti-Vivisection Society. Some groups estimate the figure is as high as 70 million. And while some researchers claim animal experimentation is a legitimate endeavor expanding the store of human knowledge, many scientists question the necessity or validity of such research.
A report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine states: "Non-animal research methods ... have proven to be more accurate, more applicable, and often less time-consuming and less costly. Unfortunately, vested financial interests and adherence to tradition are stumbling blocks on the road to change."
But activist efforts have resulted in some change. As a result of a major campaign, use of the Draize eye-irritancy test has been reduced, though not abolished. During the test, concentrated toxic solutions are dripped into the eyes of conscious rabbits in order to observe damage over a specific time period. Some rabbits break their necks or backs in an attempt to escape from the restraining stocks used to immobilize them.
"Noted toxicologists and health professionals agree that the Draize test is crude and imprecise because it is strictly observational. No treatment is ever administered nor are any antidotes ever sought," according to PETA. Stephen Kaufman, an ophthalmologist with New York University Medical Center, quoted in a PETA factsheet, said: "I have no use for Draize test data because the rabbit eye differs from the human eye. ... I know of no case in which an ophthalmologist used Draize data to assist in the care of a patient." The Draize test is fast becoming an anachronism, but not so for the lethal dose test.
Lethal dose, or LD 50 tests, measure the amount of a substance needed to kill 50 percent of the animals in a test group. The experimental substance is forced down throats, pumped into stomachs, injected in various parts of the body or administered through forced inhalation. Both activists and professional researchers question the accuracy of LD 50 results. Scientists with the Medical Research Modernization Committee state: "Animal toxicity tests are extremely unreliable due to significant metabolic and physiologic differences between humans and non-human animals ... and the inability of animal experimentation to predict many common side effects in humans."
The unreliability of animal testing is substantiated by drug recalls and warnings issued by pharmaceutical companies and the FDA. Animal-tested substances have proven dangerous or lethal to humans long after they've been deemed safe and left the lab for the marketplace. These instances are so numerous that product liability lawyers create Web sites dedicated to potential litigants. According to a 1990 General Accounting Office report, more than half the prescription drugs approved by the FDA between 1976 and 1985 were dangerous enough to be withdrawn or relabeled.
The founder of the Mayo Clinic, Charles Mayo, stated: "I abhor vivisection. It should at least be curbed. Better, it should be abolished. I know of no achievement through vivisection, no scientific discovery, that could not have been obtained without such barbarism and cruelty." Given this history, and the proven viability of alternative research such as epidemiology, clinical research and cellular methods, people who support animal testing may find it increasingly difficult to defend their position.
THE RANGE OF OPINION IN THE animal protection movement is so wide that some members may, under some circumstances, condone research on animals. Wright explains this seeming anomaly by pointing to a crucial distinction between animal-welfare and animal-rights organizations.
The Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are two well-known animal-welfare organizations. Such groups advocate for the well-being of animals, but their members often view the relationship between humans and other species differently than do animal-rights advocates. At the other end of the spectrum, the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front are dedicated to animal rights and are known to engage in direct action--that is, illegal action--in an effort to end animal research or rescue animals from conditions the groups deem abusive.
Welfare and rights groups engage in a wide range of activities that sometimes overlap; one distinction between them is how far they are willing to go in their support of animals. Welfare organizations believe humans have an obligation to treat animals with benevolence and compassion; many members of animal-rights groups believe humans share the planet on an equal footing with other animals and any use of animals is ethically untenable. So, for example, while members of animal-welfare organizations are writing letters in support of humane treatment of lab animals, ALF members may be liberating the animals and burning down the labs.
Although this differentiation is useful, it should be noted that not all animal-rights supporters promote direct action, some welfare advocates privately applaud sabotage in defense of animals, and the majority of animal advocates fall somewhere in between.
While animal protection groups have made inroads in their efforts to curb or eliminate animal research, the case for animal rights is increasingly being argued in courtrooms and debated in legislatures. "Rights" began as a philosophical notion that over time expanded to include legal and political dimensions. Jamie Massy points to the distinction between inherent--that is, inalienable--rights, and those politically granted. In the U.S., the property and rights are historically linked. Many animal-rights activists believe that until humans cease to see animals as property, the cruelty and abuse non-human species endure will continue.
In Defense of Animals, a national organization headquartered in California, initiated a campaign several years ago to abolish legal language that permits pet "ownership" and replace it with animal "guardianship." Several cities across the U.S. have done so, and in Rhode Island the state legislature has passed a law allowing "guardian" to be used interchangeably with "owner."
GUARDIANSHIP AND stewardship imply a relationship and level of care absent from ownership. "This is mine and I can do anything I want to it" is a common American refrain. This entrenched attitude extends from animals to land to things. It once included women and enslaved Africans.
When animal advocates argue that the case for animal rights should be considered as an extension of the rights once denied slaves, women and anyone else not a property-owning white male, even the most liberal are apt to balk. But the idea of animal rights, when stripped of all the verbiage designed to make it logically defensible to the rational, Western mind, is quite simple: Animals have the right to their own lives separate from humans and what humans want. As one activist put it, "Once humans thought Earth was the center of the universe. We got rid of that misconception. Now we need to come to grips with the fact that humans are not the centerpiece of God's creation."
But many people would argue that humans are indeed the dominant species, a position activists label "speciesism." Rationalists claim the human ability to reason sets people apart from other animals; those with a religious argument believe only humans have souls and this entitles them to a special place in the scheme of things.
Wright quickly answers the religious argument. She points out that Eastern religions regard all life as equally sacred. Jeremy Bentham, an Enlightenment-era philosopher, ironically gaves pause to the rationalists when, in 1780, he wrote, "The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but can they suffer?"
It is this suffering that prompts some activists to don camouflage and engage in actions demanding a high level of personal risk. "Moral enlightenment does not change society; it's a loss of profits that brings about change," said a member of an animal liberation group who opted for anonymity in explaining the rationale behind direct action. The articles in agribusiness magazines lend credence to this belief; they are dedicated to maximizing profits regardless of the cruelty inflicted on animals, the destruction of the environment or the consequences to humans. But there are exceptions, and some individuals forsake profits for principle.
John Robbins did. In 1988 Robbins founded EarthSave, an organization dedicated to "healthy people" and a "healthy planet." Robbins, of Baskins Robbins fame, had little to gain and everything to lose when he wrote his 1987 book, Diet for a New America. In it he promotes a plant-based diet and exposes the abusive conditions common to the meat and dairy industries. Standing to lose a substantial inheritance, he did it anyway. At least in this instance, moral enlightenment triumphed over economic interest.
Religion, culture and economics contribute to the deeply ingrained belief that non-human animals exist for people's use. Supporters of animal rights promise to continue their work until a new ethos replaces the one that views animals as a lesser species. Some of them are willing to put their freedom on the line to do so.
If the millions of turkeys on their way to death in the name of Thanksgiving could speak, they might echo the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the author and Nobel prize winner who wrote, "Even in the worm that crawls in the earth there glows a divine spark. When you slaughter a creature, you slaughter God."