The wilderness vegan: Hold the cheese ‘n’ skeeters, please!

Hiking the beautiful Beartooths

Let’s say a couple–fairly new at describing themselves as vegan–is backpacking with friends in the Beartooth Mountains along the Montana/Wyoming border. Let’s say the mosquitoes are so thick–zillions of them, dense clouds of them–that they risk inhaling them (check), swallowing them (check), and swat them by the tens in their tent (check, check, check!). They find them floating in their oatmeal and coffee, and plastered into their couscous (check, and check). In spite of the blood-letting, they have a glorious hike above 10,000 feet elevation, are appreciatively reminded of their place in the food chain (this is grizzly country), celebrate one friend’s final-chemo-treatment first-year anniversary, and return happy and rejuvenated with over 100 bites each.

Time slipped away and before we knew it, three or four years had lapsed since our previous backpack trip. During that same interval, we shifted from vegetarian to vegan. Turns out that backpacking as a vegan isn’t significantly different from backpacking as a vegetarian. Macaroni and cheese was the most notable absence, and powdered soy milk replaced powdered cow’s milk. In hindsight, I realize that our bulk-purchased trail mix had some milk chocolate in it. Oops! OK, so we weren’t the perfect vegan backpackers, but we aren’t perfect anyhow, even at home. We are practicing veganism, and willing to cut ourselves some slack. Our hiking boots, after all, were purchased several pre-vegan years ago and are leather. We might never be “perfect,” but the way I see it, that’s not really the do-or-die point.

I think back to the early ’80s when I enlisted a friend to hike the Appalachian Trail. That’s right, never backpacked a single step but decided to walk the 2100 mile AT. We scrapped it due to over-use injuries (mine) after four months and 1400 miles. In those pre-vegetarian days (1985 was my turning point of conscience; I had never even heard the word vegan back then), I was unconcerned about animal ingredients and never thought about animal suffering. Factory farming? Not a clue. We ate canned Vienna sausages on that trip. What a difference 28 years can make!

Nearly three decades later, my husband and I are in our REI Half Dome swatting skeeters with intent to kill and remove. I wonder aloud about this, about ethical vegans engaging in wholesale slaughter of another life form. We momentarily stop, look piercingly into each other’s welt-covered face, and return to swatting inside as the droning hordes outside cover the thin mesh and nylon, seeking blood. Our blood.

Mosquitoes aren’t mice, after all. When our house was built nine years ago, mice were built into it along with a then-undiscovered port of entry. We bought a live trap and could have caught and released mice as many times as we cared to set it in a night. We’d turn out the light, start drifting off, and “CLAP!” the trap doors clanged shut. “It’s your turn to empty it.” “No, I’m sure it’s your turn.” One of us would stumble out into the black Montana night, pondering the mountain lion that might prey on us while we compassionately released a field mouse. We bought another trap and ran two simultaneously. When all was said and done and the entry point found and sealed, we’d trapped and released just under 200 mice. We’d long since given up trying to explain to others why we were sleep-deprived zombies. “You’re catching them–and letting them go??? WHY? Surely you know they follow you right back into the house!?!” You can have that fruitless conversation only so many times.

Google just about anything and you’ll find that a) someone has already asked it, and b) someone has answered it, however authoritatively. Do vegans kill mosquitoes? Turns out some do, some don’t. Turns out the line is pretty much where you draw it. Respect for ALL life? Let ‘em live. Concern for SENTIENT life? Your call. Compassion Over Killing has this to say at its Frequently Asked Questions page:

Where’s my line? I remind myself that even the Dalai Lama–the enlightened compassionate one–is not a vegan and not always a vegetarian: ”His Holiness’s kitchen in Dharamsala is vegetarian. However, during visits outside of Dharamsala, His Holiness is not necessarily vegetarian” (official website). I realize that mosquitoes hatch by the gazillions, and their eggs can remain viable for years–even without water. I have to admit, though, that in this case, it’s really not about the individual skeeters, but about me.

Native American legends (Tlinget, for example; Tuscarora and Iroquois) explain how mosquitoes came to be. One typical scenario offers up a giant or monster who preys on the people until killed–cut into pieces, splattered, or burned. Those pieces, blood drops, and ashes become mosquitoes who continue to torment humans.

Will skeeter-swatting for self-preservation in the Beartooths have some similar karmic outcome? Is it substantially different from participating in, say, a coyote killing contest or blasting prairie dogs into a “red mist“? I believe it is, both in complexity/sentience of the target and intent of the agent. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy it…or even have to like it.

This post also appears at animal law blog Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.

Save a hog, eat a teacher: Challenging animal agriculture


From Ethical Eating

What happens when you criticize animal agriculture? I’ll tell you. You’re called a “complete moron.” A “libtard.” An “idiot” and an “a**hole.” You’re told to “shut the f up.” Oh, and look, here’s Yoda in an Internet meme: “The retard is strong with this one.” The local newspaper is labeled a “commie” for printing your guest column (a “direct assault on our culture”), and further accused of printing “a bunch of propoganda [sic] stuffed with opinions.” OK, I’ll cop to the opinions…my column (read it here) appeared on the Opinion Page.

Missoula County (Montana) voters are being asked to pay for a multi-million dollar high school bond to make significant, needed upgrades to infrastructure, Internet capacity, and school security. Included along with these vital necessities is nearly $600,000 for a “full meat-processing center” for the Vocational Agriculture Program. For me–a former teacher–that’s the deal-breaker, and my column outlines why. The reasons are larger than “just” the exploitation of animals, though that alone would suffice.

I didn’t expect to feel the love, but the vitriolic, sometimes apoplectic response was a stark reminder that–in spite of its unsustainable and devastating excesses, its out-of-proportion resource use, its inability to address world hunger, its violence and the human health woes that result from consuming its products–animal ag is not going to go gently into that or any goodnight. The status quo hates change, doesn’t wanna change, and won’t change without a fight. But “status quos are made to be broken,” quips author Ray Davis, and evolving consumer values and advances in humane alternatives just might supplant the fight anyhow.

“Because violence has no place in schools,” I wrote, “taxpayers are asked to fund security upgrades to thwart those whose intentions are violent. Fair enough. At the same time, we’re asked to fund a program that promotes violence against sentient nonhumans (and inures students to it) as part of the curriculum.” And here’s where a major disconnect comes into play: it seems that animal ag people don’t consider it violence to take the life of another who wants to continue living. Said one commenter, disputing a couple of my claims, “Their sole purpose is not to be raised for slaughter. They are learning tools, companions, and teach students responsibility. Animals are not treated as commodities, but as friends.” Though I don’t doubt the sincerity of this response, where do you go with that? (Yes, yes, I know…with friends like that, etc.)

If so inclined, peruse the 100+ combined comments posted to the column at the newspaper’s website (some of the more civil comments appear to be from ag students and industry people) and at the newspaper’s Facebook page (“save a hog eat a teacher”) to see what happens when you challenge animal agriculture and the ag program in your local school. Keep in mind that Missoula recently became the first city in Montana to pass an ordinance banning wild and exotic animal performances (article), meaning that folks around here are just like humans everywhere: they possess well-honed compartmentalization skills that enable us to place some sentient nonhumans (e.g., wild, exotic, and companion animals) in one protective box while relegating others (e.g., “market” animals; “livestock”) to another less compassionate and entirely utilitarian box.

Learn more:

  • “Is meat sustainable?”Worldwatch Institute
  • “U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat, Cornell ecologist advises animal scientists,” here
  • FAQ: Processed meat and cancer, AICR (my guest column was written just before the WHO report was released)
  • “Meat-eaters may speed world-wide species extinction, study warns,” Science, AAAS
  • “Cowspiracy,” website; see “facts” for animal ag facts and their source citations
  • “The dangers of industrialized animal agriculture” a must-see short video

Head on over toAnimal Blawgto comment on this post!

First Amendment rights and the pursuit of animal rights

Many decades have intervened since my First Amendment rights were trampled by the FBI. The year was 1970 and Richard Nixon was appearing at the Fort Wayne (IN) War Memorial Coliseum. A group of us from a small, nearby college with a long history of peace activism decided to take in the spectacle; I suppose our clothes and hair tipped off The Man that we weren’t enthusiastic supporters of the Viet Nam war. We were detained, our tickets confiscated “for verification” and never returned.

We were angry. We felt powerless. We returned to school and told our story. It found its way into the Peace Studies bulletin, and that was the end of it. Today, older and wiser and again confronted with a suspected infringement upon First Amendment rights, I knew exactly what to do: Contact the American Civil Liberties Union.

Getting the runaround at the Shrine Circus

2012 Shrine Circus outreach – click image for an account

The Shrine Circus arrives in Missoula, MT for five performances over two days in April. In 2012, a group of us–larger than any other circus outreach up until then–assembled at the Adams Center field house on the University of Montana campus. We were well over the required 100 feet from the entrance, lined up along a plaza-like area and well out of the flow of foot traffic (see picture above). Still, we were highly visible to everyone entering and could offer Break the Chain flyers to any takers. Adams Center officials told us we’d have to leave and stand in the Free Speech Zone elsewhere on campus–nowhere near the circus venue. We protested and were then told we needed a permit. Persistent if nothing else, we tracked down a university vice president; he kindly called in a permit. Campus police made it starkly clear that the Shriners were the paying customers, and we would be tolerated only as long as we complied with demands.

Fast forward to April 2013. Three weeks before the circus, I contacted the Adams Center to set the permit process in motion. “We’re prepared for you this year,” I was told. “We’ve designated a Free Speech Zone for you at the venue.” Cool! I imagined the same perfect location, but now with the First Amendment’s blessing. “Can we approach people to distribute fliers?” A rather reluctant “yes” was followed by, “as long as you don’t shove them in people’s faces.” I assured the administrator this would not happen.

When the day arrived, we found that our Free Speech Zone was far removed from our 2012 location; now we found ourselves well south of the main entrance, which circus-goers approached from the north and west. The required 100-foot mark was even behind a tree! We protested, and the boundary was moved up to just in front of the tree. Many of our signs were no doubt unreadable from our distant position on the grassy knoll, and only if they yelled could we hear the attendees tell us to “get a life.”

Not wanting to jeopardize our ability to deliver even a limited message, I entered the Adams Center to confirm what I had been told by the administrator about flyer distribution. But the rules had changed–handing out flyers couldn’t be allowed as this would impede foot traffic. Hmmm. It was looking more and more like the First Amendment–and even the Adams Center’s own policy–aren’t worth much when the circus comes to town.

Who ya gonna call? ACLU.

Feeling some of the same anger that the Nixon incident produced–but not the same powerlessness–I contacted the Montana American Civil Liberties Union legal division with the story. Six weeks later, I got word that an intern had been researching the issue and legal counsel had determined that the university improperly infringed upon our free speech rights. The message concluded with, “You may be interested to know that some of the leading cases on the subject (of free speech) arise from plaintiffs who are demonstrating/leafleting/educating for more humane treatment of animals!” Interested, yes…but not surprised. To suggest that species other than Homo sapiens are owed consideration if not (shudder) rights themselves is a threat to human supremacy and all that implies–from the very personal (the food we eat, how we are entertained) to the domestic and global economies built on the institutionalized cruelty of animal exploitation.

Our legal counsel pointed out that the University didn’t follow its own policy in dealing with us:

For those with a primary interest in the associated case law:

This is not a large victory for animals. In fact, I’m not sure that it’s rightly called a victory at all; we are merely looking for a prospective remedy, not a judicial finding. But justice for animals cannot be won if their advocates are silenced, and the Fourth of July is the perfect time to celebrate (and demand and safeguard) free speech and our right to protest. Animals have a nearly imperceptible voice on our human-dominated globe, and none in the halls of justice. Supposing those of us who speak in their stead were rendered mute?

The ACLU gets the last word:

Update: When informed of the problem by the ACLU, the university’s lawyer worked with the venue staff to ensure that no further First Amendment issues occurred. Since that time, we’ve conducted outreach and offered brochures to circus-goers as they enter the venue. Friendly security staff is present to ensure that safety–including ours–is maintained. From my perspective, it was a civil and satisfying outcome.

Comment on this post at animal law blog Animal Blawg.