Month: April 2007

Wolfgang Puck ‘not going soft, or, heaven forbid, vegan’

From my headline, I’m sure you will understand my annoyance at this Newsweek piece written by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, whose recent “happy meat” proclamation has the media all aflutter. There’s little doubt that animals raised in accordance with Puck’s “humane” program requirements will experience varying degrees of improved welfare conditions before their untimely demise–solely to appear on the menu of Puck’s more than 100 restaurants–but most of these improvements will be relatively minor.

When one considers that not eating animal-derived products in the first place completely eliminates the intentional, avoidable suffering of individual animals, the most straightforward and effective way to reduce animal suffering overall (and end your contribution to it) is simply not to eat them or their eggs and milk. Now that is taking the interests of animals into account. Instead, this allegedly benevolent “culinary philosophy” deceives the public into believing that there is a humane way to eat from the animal world. The whole thing is really a PR campaign masquerading as a show of compassion, and this article is probably the clearest proof of that.

As some have pointed out, this emphasis on “happy meat” is actually promoting an ethos that would have us believe that it’s perfectly acceptable (and, in fact good) to eat animals in the first place, as long as they’re treated better before they’re slaughtered. As Puck says, “Yes, they’ll be killed for food—but until then, they should have a nice stay on Earth.” Of course, this also promulgates the notion that a brief life of easy meals, some small semblance of a “natural” lifestyle and protection from predators is a “nice stay,” and well worth the end result: traumatic transport and slaughter to end up on someone’s plate. Forget what the animals want.

Hammering this point home is a poll that asks, “Would you pay extra for meat from animals raised humanely in a free-roaming environment?” Where’s the option to abstain from animal flesh entirely, Newsweek? Irritating.

Ironically, the cognitive dissonance is evident in Puck’s own words. “As for foie gras, my customers and I can easily live without it.” Total disconnect. He completely neglects to offer the obvious fact that we can easily live without the veal he serves in some of his restaurants, much less pigs, chickens, eggs, and so on.

It’s apparent that activism focusing on the treatment of animals will bring about many more of these frustrating “changes of heart,” a perverse sort of “progress” that makes many people feel even better about eating the products of animal exploitation. Despite Puck’s avowed disdain for veganism, consumers have the power to more meaningfully reduce the overall suffering of animals on this planet by going vegan, and by influencing eateries in their community to incorporate vegan options into their menus.


2nd Blogoversary

Today marks 2 full years that I’ve been writing at An Animal-Friendly Life about issues that affect animals, and those of us who care about them.

No fancy vegan cake celebrations around here, or anything like that (though I might cave in and bake cupcakes with my wife later), but it is satisfying to reflect back on the past 2 years and see that I’ve published well over 1,400 posts on behalf of animal interests, as well as a couple dozen podcasts. That makes it tougher to review the blog for highlights to link, but skimming through the posts, I’ve found it interesting to note the development of my thinking on the various issues over time.

In some cases, not much has changed. But, as my fellow activists in the animal protection movement(s) and I continually stimulate thought-provoking discussion amongst ourselves in such venues as magazines, message boards, blogs, podcasts, books, conferences, and interpersonal conversations, it is hard not to find one’s self growing.

Of course, there are many ways to approach one’s activism. Taking stock, I’m as opposed as ever to engaging in activities that threaten, intimidate, and are otherwise destructive, but I’m also less inclined than before to cheer incremental welfare reforms. Privately, I’m happy for any meaningful reduction in true suffering. But, at the same time, I find it difficult now to publicly applaud companies for successfully being pressured into doing something they didn’t really want to do, particularly when the change does little if anything to change society’s concept of animals as commodities. Animal exploiters really don’t need any extra help burnishing their image to look more appealing to consumers.

Still, there are victories I can heartily praise. When high schools and universities successfully offer vegan menu options in their cafeterias, for instance, we are seeing the manifestation of a major shift in thinking. This widening of options speaks to a broad-based societal change and acceptance of veganism, normalizing a compassionate lifestyle to the point where it can grow beyond the niche of dedicated people who aren’t impressed that a cafeteria’s sole nod to reducing animal suffering is switching to cage-free eggs. After all, vegan options often still amount to little more than a salad, sometimes settling for oil and vinegar dressing to avoid dairy.

But to broaden to the mainstream, the less committed diners need to see vegan options everywhere they turn. Seeing vegan options for sale helps to validate a dietary choice rooted in compassion. When a cafeteria offers vegan options, not only do the vegans feel better respected (and eat better), but every non-vegan who sees these dishes starts getting used to the idea of veganism, and may even be enticed into trying more of this healthy vegan food they keep hearing about. And since this is happening more and more often, and since products geared toward vegan eating (even if flexitarians account for a major chunk of the consumer-base), we are seeing growth in an area that was quite new when I started this blog only two short years ago.

I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen in the news since I began AAFL, despite the occasional mind-bogglingly backward editorials and fluff pieces that encourage animal exploitation and suffering for trivial matters of fashion and the culinary arts. After all, I started this site because I was surprised by just how much daily news I was seeing about animal issues, and this trend has only picked up over the past two years, both in smaller, local papers and in the major newspapers.

So, obviously I’m not posting less lately because there’s less news, but rather because we’ve gotten to a point where it feels redundant to dissect certain stories. Foie gras again?, I think to myself. While it might be titillating to joke about a hot dog vendor getting fined $250 for violating Chicago’s ban on the stuff, that’s not really my modus operandi here. If the U.S. Congress votes to ban foie gras, then you can bet I’ll be commenting on it. Heck, even if Chicago’s ban is reversed, you’ll hear about it, but I’m getting too busy with other projects to comment on every animal or vegan story that comes my way. There were some days where I posted more than ten times, and I don’t think either blogger or reader gained from that.

If you want witty banter highlighting the ridiculousness in the day’s events, visit Vegan Pr0n and SuperVegan. They specialize in those brief, sarcastic posts that seem to be the mainstay of modern blogging. If there’s anything I’ve gathered from this 2007’s slow-down in posts, it’s that I want to focus more on major trends, the uniqueness of what I’m covering, and the quality of what I’m writing. Considering that there’s a plethora of blogs and podcasts all covering a non-story about Jamba Juice’s mysterious non-dairy blend that I don’t think is currently even being used, I don’t see the added value in contributing to the noise.

Plus, I don’t want to let the news cycle rule my life. I have projects that don’t respond well to the constant interruption, and they are really crying out for my attention. Fortunately these other projects are animal-friendly, and perhaps I will be writing about those, and maybe even podcasting or vodcasting about those when they get to a place where that makes more sense.

In the meantime, stay subscribed through the RSS feeds (gotta love or email via the Subscriptions box in the sidebar, and I will continue to post when the mood strikes or some particularly interesting news or events spark a post. Sometimes I won’t post for 2-3 days, perhaps, and other days I may post 4-5 times or one of those lengthy compendiums where I catch up on the news. Regardless, I’ll still be posting.

And, as ever, I will continue to syndicate Totally Not Vegan. I’ve gotten a few emails over the last few months, in which readers have told me that they don’t think the strip is funny (where’s all the appreciative emails?). I do get you, people, but there are two reasons why I run Totally Not Vegan: 1) It is vegan, so we have a strip of our own, and that’s worth supporting; 2) I think the strip is more about recognizing the everyday nonsense vegans deal with and, while it may not always come off laugh-out-loud funny, when we see situations we recognize reflected in those panels, we realize we’re not alone in our frustrations, and that’s cool.

Speaking of frustrations, I have to tell you, it sucks going to other animal- or veg-friendly blogs and seeing 18 or more reader comments, or going to a blog on other political topics and seeing dozens upon dozens of comments, then seeing my own page, which gets hundreds and hundreds of impressions every day, and only seeing the occasional comment or two, and that includes the anti-animal rights types!

I know you’re out there, I know you’re reading, and I know you have some thoughts on these issues. Speak up! I’m not whining here, I’m encouraging you to participate. It really helps me to know what readers respond to. If you prefer, hit me up with an email. Either way, let me know what you think of the site, other than, “Hey, can you fix this link?” If you have no idea how to comment, just scroll down to the gray footer bar at the end of each post. You’ll see an icon that looks like this: Just click on that, and you’re good to go. Talk to me!

Okay, this has been a suitably self-indulgent post. If you can’t be self-indulgent on an anniversary, then when can you?

I’m looking forward to another year of writing about the exciting developments in animal protection at An Animal-Friendly Life. I know there will be much to report and comment on. Also, don’t forget to look for my reviews in VegNews Magazine, including an upcoming feature review on the movie Sustainable Table, and a brief review of the book Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of Mother Earth.

Finally, look for me July 19-23 at AR2007, “the world’s largest and oldest animal rights conference.” I hope you’ll attend. While the online world is great for sharing and disseminating ideas and information, face-to-face interaction and networking is really important to growing the movement. You’ll find animal activists of all stripes there. So, even if you disagree with one person, you may find a “soul mate” of sorts later in the day. Part of the excitement and vitality at this event is the difference in opinions. I think the generally healthy debates and discussions are good for personal growth and development as an activist, and it would be a shame to miss such an opportunity simply because there are people at an event with whom you disagree.

Thanks for sticking with me through this post and through the past two years, for those of you who’ve been here all along. I will endeavor to continually merit your time and consideration.

Rethinking pets as property

An article in the Los Angeles Times considering the aftermath of the massive pet food recall asks: A dog’s life: What’s it worth?. Of course, the story focuses on cats, too, but the point is, with the threat of lawsuits somewhat negated by the property status of animals, this incident provides the most thought-provoking examination of our relationship with domesticated animals since Hurricane Katrina.

Animals are more a part of our lives than ever, and many people are making closer connections with their companions than some skeptics imagine to be possible. One elderly couple in Hyderabad, India even went so far as to commit suicide after losing their “only child,” their dog companion whose death they apparently could not overcome. While this may be a particularly alarming example of devotion to one’s non-human companions, it’s not uncommon for U.S. citizens to consider dogs and cats (rabbits, ferrets and others, too) part of their family.

Unfortunately, when an animal is killed, the law treats animals as personal property, hardly different from the laptop computer upon which I am currently typing. It seems almost insane that this is still the case, when it is readily apparent that animals are autonomous sentient beings rather than merely objects, yet it takes major incidents like the food recall to force this conversation to the table and to get The Los Angeles Times to publish articles that deliberate the issue seriously, noting that pet “owners” seem more and more to expect damages for emotional distress in lawsuits against those who harm their companions. [Jon] Katz calls this “a seismic shift in humans’ relationship to pets that has occurred in recent decades.”

Unfortunately, the story’s writers quote this author and others critical of this shift liberally in the closing paragraphs, ending the article on a rather negative note:

As far as Katz is concerned, those human-pet bonds can be too intense. He’s troubled by people who consider their pets “fur children” or insist that losing a pet is similar to losing a child.

“As the father of a child and a dog lover, I know it’s not the same thing,” he said.

Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn., a Greenwich, Conn.-based trade group, calls the pets-as-people trend “nonsense.” Vetere, a dog owner himself, said, “That guardianship stuff drives me crazy because there’s so much confusion that will result.”

For Barry Baum, a West Los Angeles veterinarian, the worry is that the legal changes regarding animals’ status could translate into higher malpractice insurance premiums. “More insidious,” he added, “will be the need to practice more defensively.” That may mean doing more tests on a pet and hiking the owner’s bill.

Giving animals a human-like legal identity might lead to higher liability awards if, for instance, a dog chokes on a chew toy, an airline misroutes a cat or an animal dies in a car accident, said law instructor Calnan. He also worries that “parties who want to represent the rights of pets could step in and object to euthanasia.”

Said Katz, “I don’t think people have thought through the consequences here.”

I can think of a number of people who might disagree and, in fact, the writers point to a 2004 survey in which half of North American pet “owners” responded that, if they were stranded on a desert island, they would pick a dog or cat as their sole companion rather than a person. I imagine most if not all of those people are single, or simply aren’t as happily married as I am, but I can certainly see where they are coming from!