Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
I’ll be unable to post material for at least a week and, for the most part, will be disconnected from all online media. Plan on a fresh post a week from tomorrow. Also understand that, while I’ve been doing my best to regulate commentary (much of which has been amazingly good), I will also be unable to do that over the next 8 days as well. I would simply advise readers not to engage in personal attacks in the comments section and, if you are rebuked in a less than civil way, resist the urge to get into a slugfest. Makes everyone, not to mention The Pitchfork, look bad. Thanks.
On a final, note, I have long pieces coming out soon in The American Scholar and Conservation Magazine (both cover stories) and, possibly, the New York Times. There’s a chance these may come out while I’m off line, but I’ll post when they are published. Meantime, keep an eye out. Be well. Thanks, again.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that NPR’s coverage of this story was a mess. It begins by immediately belittling the issue of horse welfare, noting that one might reasonably expect the mayor to deal with “big picture problems” instead of . . . .horses. This choice of an opener raises a question. Why would a journalist begin an article on any topic by suggesting that, compared to “big” issues, the one she was covering didn’t really matter? If nothing else, this is a strange way to draw attention to a topic that is somehow important enough to warrant national coverage.
But Janet Babin’s dismissive attitude infects the entire piece. Babin explains that “horse carriage rides are a staple in cities around the country.” Really? In so far as a “staple” is a “main item of trade or production,” horse carriage rides are decidedly not a staple of the urban experience. The reporter furthers her opinion—and, in a way, what she has put together is an opinion piece–that the Mayor’s proposal is just plain weird by reporting that the mayor “raised some collective eyebrows” with his choice.
This phrase is another interesting choice. It implies that everyday folks—the collective–were similarly thrown for a loop by the fact that the mayor cares more than a whit about horse welfare. But again, there’s no evidence offered of a collective anything. And if there was, how about the possibility that a collective of New Yorkers might find the carriage trade problematic? Might it have been more accurate to note that “a collective cheer” went up when New Yorkers heard the news?
And then there’s the problem of context. The carriage horses are largely a political and horse welfare issue whose underlying motivator is economic. The money is on the side of the drivers who allegedly exploit horses. But the politics aren’t—they are more complex, including as they do, interest groups who are concerned with the welfare of horses. Babin again takes the easy way out by ignoring this context and offering only opinions (her own, the industry’s, a horse advocacy group’s) while calling it “news coverage” — which it isn’t.
The segment goes downhill quickly. Before explaining why the horse carriage industry might be a welfare problem, Babin rushes to quote a joke from the Daily Show with John Stewart. Stewart had remarked, ”Should we even be living here? ‘Cause . . . sometimes I look at their stable and I go like, what do you think that’d go for, $1,600 a month? What do you think?” Well, sorry to be a grump, but I think humor does not have a place in this story. Unless you find the prospect of horse abuse funny.
When Babin finally does get around to exploring the issue from a welfare angle she quotes Allie Feldman, the executive director of New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets. Feldman gives a great quote, but her organization is identified as an “animal rights group.” Now, maybe Feldman described her organization this way but, judging from the organization’s website, I would doubt it. It does not in any way address the issue of animal rights per se. More to the point, it allows Babin to use loaded language—yikes!, an animal rights group!—to skew the issue as one that only a bunch of crazies, oh and the mayor, cares about.
She then quotes the Horse and Carriage Association, which predictably says, ”A lot of these horses come from very, very bad backgrounds and are rescued from very abusive situations. This is not an abusive situation . . .” And then some tourists from North Carolina who are crushed that they’ll never be able to ride through Central Park behind horses that, according to a great deal of evidence that Babin ignores, suffer immensely.
Not only is the Horse and Carriage Association given the last word in this piece, but its message of sanctuary is never countered by credible and widely available information that would, if given attention, have resonance to more than the “animal rights activists” who Babin identifies as the only nuts who care about this issue in the first place.
NPR’s Grade: D.
Note to readers: I’m in the process of beginning an on-line project with the journalist Vickery Eckhoff that evaluates the media’s coverage of animal issues. A more thorough statement of purpose, as well as a web address will be forthcoming. For now, though, please note that the kind of piece published here is the sort of work that Eckhoff and I (and an assemblage of writers) will be doing. Needless to say, when we launch, I hope to count on readers to spread the word. –jm
I think anyone who eats animals—and thinks about eating animals—is at least somewhat cognizant that the choice to do so is, on some level, an ethical one. Of course thoughtful meat-eaters are not walking around with their noses buried in Bentham, but they do, by virtue of being thinking meat-eaters, at least entertain the idea that there’s a basic difference between eating a pork chop and a piece of toast. A moral difference, no less. Put simply, for anyone who is honest with himself about the decision to raise and kill animals for food we don’t need, there’s a vague idea that eating animals under certain circumstances might very well be morally wrong.
It all comes down to the realization that an animal, like us, has interests—the most basic of which is avoiding pain. Because we cannot, as decent people, go through life thinking that our interests matter more than other interests simply because they are ours, we thus tacitly grant to other humans and many non-humans—basically anyone with an interest in avoiding pain and seeking pleasure—what philosophers call equal moral consideration. We may not even be aware that we live our daily lives according to this standard but, in most cases, we do. We often just call it the Golden Rule or some such and get on with the business of being decent folk.
Adherence to this fundamental notion of fairness actually requires a lot of us—and it structures the workings of everyday life. Notably, it means that if we are going to inflict intentional pain on another sentient being, we need to justify that painful act with a competing moral consideration. For example, when I affix a leash to my dog before walking her down a busy street, I surely cause a nominal amount of suffering. She hates her leash and is much happier left untethered. But of course I justify my decision to leash my dog with the competing moral consideration that, without that little torture device, she would dart into traffic and suffer far more serious harm, if not death.
That’s a relatively easy case. Where this scenario causes many meat eaters problems is when it forces them to highlight the rather unfortunate fact that the only competing consideration against killing an animal for food we don’t need is lame: our taste for the texture and flavor of that flesh. And, by any moral standard, that won’t cut it. After all, is it a standard you’d ever want applied to your own life? Or the society of humans you cohabit?
It’s for this reason that whenever I read contorted defenses for raising and killing animals I find myself thinking, “stop with the half-baked rationalizations and just admit you love meat too much to give it up.” I find this answer—I just can’t stop eating meat—to be far more refreshing than the pseudo-philosophical junk often brought in to justify the causation of terrible but unnecessary suffering. ”I know I shouldn’t eat meat but . . . .” strikes a more honest chord than “we evolved to eat meat.” Not that I agree with the “I can’t help it” assessment, but at least it doesn’t cheapen the importance of equal consideration of interests, which is at the foundation of leading an ethical life.
The looming nature of this conundrum—how can something as arbitrary as taste ethically justify killing animals?—may also help explain why so many consumers react to eating meat with such visceral enthusiasm. I know people who, at the mere mention of eating bacon, will veritably growl and twitch and say “mmmm. . . bacon,” as if there was something primal stirring in their gut. Nobody acts that way about broccoli. But it could it be that what’s primal is the subconscious effort to excuse ourselves from the moral standard we know deep down, as thinking meat eaters, we fail every time we eat animals? Could that expressed inability to stop eating meat be a way to avoid the conclusion that, to live an ethical life, we must do just that?
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Good news first: the media is covering animals to a greater extent than ever before. A fortuitous convergence of responsible advocacy, advanced science (animal ethology), and consumer demand for animal-related content has fostered a more sustained emphasis on a wider range of animal issues. The bad news, of course, is that most of it stinks. I mean, to high heaven.
There are two main ways animal advocates can react to this stench: with anger or with sympathy. Anger sure feels good, and I’ve been guilty of indulging it. But it leads to snark and snark leads to divisiveness and divisiveness means that the mainstream writing on animals will never improve. After all, if I send a “you suck” letter to every reporter who gets the animal story all wrong, I create a situation for the reporter in which ameliorating the problem validates her own abuse. Not a promising strategy.
Sympathy is different. Have you ever been in over your head and had someone throw you a rope? Have you ever had this rescue happen without the person reprimanding you for getting into that situation but, instead, helping you figure out how to avoid it in the future? That’s the approach I’d like to take–the tone I prefer to assume–as I go about deconstructing a recent story, a real stinker, by New York Times reporter Lisa W. Foderaro. In any case, I’ll do my best.
Before proceeding, take a moment to read the piece here. Virtually every sentence in the article is marked by a problem–and often a fundamental one–but for the sake of brevity and readability I’ll focus on a few clunkers, doing so in an effort to highlight issues that, as they’re circulated in the social media, might bubble up to the reporters who make these mistakes and, one hopes, motivate them to write in a way that at least acknowledges they’re covering the lives of emotional and sentient beings, not objects.
Trouble begins in the first sentence, when Foderaro frames the issue in terms of swans being “an invasive species.” The problem with this characterization is that there’s never any indication of what it is that makes swans invasive–other than the fact they are not native to the region. Of course, by that standard, most of New York’s flora and fauna–not to mention citizens–would also be invasive and, in turn, have to be “destroyed”–the word Foderaro uses to describe what might happen to urban swans–on that basis. So, right off the bat, the article quietly tilts in a pro-slaughter direction, doing so based on an undefined but quite loaded term.
Perhaps by “invasive” Foderaro is implying that the 2,200 or so swans are creating substantial economic or ecological havoc (or both). If this were the case, she needs to make that premise crystal clear and, given that slaughtering sentient creatures is at stake, thoroughly back it up with factual data. (Of course, then we would ask another set of questions.) Instead, she merely writes that the swans are seen as “nasty” for “destroying habitat for native ducks and geese, attacking other waterfowl and people, and posing a risk to passenger jets.” This kind of statement creates compound interest for insidious cynicism: by assuming what you refuse to ground in the data of reality (the actual consequences of invasion) you perpetuate the idea that animals don’t have moral worth, despite the fact that all but psychopaths and Ted Nugent know they do.
Anyway, these claims are too casually made. Every animal has an impact on the environment. So, to what extent, we need to know, are swans destroying habitats for native ducks? Give us perspective on this–say, by referring to how this kind of issue played out in the Chesapeake Bay or elsewhere. Moreover, are other organisms interfering with the ducks as well (uh, humans)? This possibility goes unmentioned, although the piece notes that the swans are yanking up aquatic vegetation and clouding the water and disrupting food chains (but, again, is that such a big deal, really, given that ships and barges are plowing through the Hudson as well?). As far as attacking other animals goes, well, is New York planning to “destroy” other animals that become aggressive with their peers? Or will the city implement a policy that protects native bullying? As for passenger jets, are swans the only birds that pose a threat to airplanes? And if so, to what extent? And how does that alleged threat to flight safety compare to other threats, such as overworked air traffic controllers or old airplanes with freaking table trays that won’t properly lock? Aren’t there other, less lethal ways, to make flying safe? And as far as swans harming people, well, please. How many people do you know who have been assaulted by a swan?
The failure to address any of these questions dooms this piece from the start. What this false start means for the reader is that, before getting past the second graph, he’s already convinced, albeit without any evidence, that swans are an invasive animal destroying the Hudson, driving out native ducks, harming people, and posing a threat to airplane traffic. Get over your romantic attachment to these menaces! They deserve to die! All of this without a shred of context or supporting data. Those omissions strike me as bad journalism, the kind you could only get away with if you were writing about an animal without a formal voice on the matter and an editor who knew that geese weren’t going to picket his office or call his boss and complain. (Yeah, I know, I got a bit snarky in there.. . . )
The article gets worse when Foderaro recruits quotes to buttress what she implicitly presents as a fair article on a tough ecological issue. To support the “destroy” perspective, she quotes what appear to be a phalanx of expertise: a State Department of Conservation authority, an Audubon Society expert, a wildlife scientist at Cornell. Representing the anti-destroy position are, by the reporters own admission, “animal rights activists and park goers.” Needless to say, the use of the term “activist” here is code for “loony tunes” and, as for those park goers, these vagabonds are presented as sitting around “tossing bread and pizza crusts” to the swans. (Although one guy had a great comment comparing human immigrants with non-human ones, a point Foderaro might have explored). But, you know, how about quoting an animal ethologist who might be able to provide another explanation–a behavioral one–for what Foderara sees as so “nasty”?
Perhaps being pressured to lend at least some anecdotal support to her earlier suggestion that New Yorkers are under grave threat of swan attacks, Foderaro ends her piece by quoting a bird watcher who “recalled the time she was canoeing with her husband and young son and was attacked by a swan. She fought it off with a paddle.” But was this woman actually attacked? The terrorized woman explains, “It was hissing like crazy and tried to get in the canoe with us . . . they make themselves look huge.”
As do the misrepresentations in this poorly written article.
New Mexico’s Valley Meat Company (VMC) is currently seeking a permit to discharge daily 8000 gallons of water used for slaughtering and processing horses (Discharge Permit Renewal, DP-236). In case you need another reason to oppose horse slaughter, consider a recent report relevant to this permit (see pdf below).
Also note that VMC is located on the Roswell ground water basin, a location that, according to the report, “increases the likelihood of contamination from wastewater discharge.” Testimony during the comment period for this permit renewal, according to the report, revealed scores upon scores of concerns. Many of them especially horrifying.
To name a few: VMC’s monitoring reports were incomplete but the ones that were available showed frequent violations of the 8000 gallon limit; there are no NM ground water regulations dealing with the pharmaceutical contaminants generated by horse slaughter specifically; VMC records show concentration of nitrates in lagoon wastewater that exceeded legal standards for NM groundwater; USDA reports revealed piles of “rotting” animals at VMC that its CEO said were “composting”; dozens of other violations have led to untreated slaughter effluvia going into the Pecos River, dead animals being thrown in the trash, and eventually VMC’s removal of the device that would measure the amount of water discharged.
I could go on, but the report is here: http://equinewelfarealliance.
The Valley Meat Company: 575-622-1214
VMC’s attorney, Blair Dunn: 505-881-5155
Well folks, I suppose it was bound to happen. I wrote a dozen pieces for Forbes.com and enjoyed it very much. But the 13th–an article critical of SeaWorld (a 2.5 billion dollar company partially owned by the Blackstone Group) and praiseworthy of ‘Blackfish” (made on a small budget)–rattled some corporate cages.
After I posted, editorial management demanded changes that I could not, in good conscience, make. So the article got pulled (after 77,000 hits in one day) and I left my position. Honestly, the experience, brief as it was, was a good one. Until today, when it wasn’t. My immediate editor was terrific.
But, in the end, McWilliams and Forbes.com: mismatch.
So, for the record, here’s the offending piece:
Obedient killer whales doing heroic leaps and splashing patrons with cold tank water are a cash cow for SeaWorld, the 50-year old entertainment company. The spectacle is such a crowd-pleaser that there seems little reason to imagine that these majestic mammals—who appear to bask in the glow of their own performance—are so distressed that they’d attack humans.
All that changed in 2010, when a 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum dragged his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, into the stunt pool by her hair and drowned her in front of an Orlando audience. SeaWorld officials suggested that Brancheau’s ponytail was to blame for her death.
But the 2013 documentary “Blackfish“—my vote for the best documentary of the year—convincingly argues otherwise. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and aired a dozen times by CNN over the past year, “Blackfish” makes the case that Tilikum attacked Brancheau because of mounting frustration induced by captivity. SeaWorld calls the film–which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival– “shamefully dishonest.”
But David Kirby, the author of “Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity,” believes that “Blackfish’s” interpretation of Brancheau’s death is right on the mark.
In a recent interview, he explained that killer whales, which can cover 100 miles a day in open waters, don’t bother humans in the wild. Indeed, there’s only one documented case of an orca biting a surfer (in 1972), and even that incident was more likely an accident than an attack (the surfer was wearing a wetsuit and may have resembled a seal).
But captivity is a different story. Killer whales are kept in tight quarters, fed a diet of thawed fish, and routinely separated from their calves. These circumstances, according to Kirby, “create stress in these animals,” often to the extent that they lash out.
There have been 114 cases between 1960 and 2012 of orcas attempting to harm their handlers. Just two months before Brancheau’s death, a killer whale owned by SeaWorld and on loan to Loro Parque in the Canary Islands killed his trainer, Alexis Martinez. Tilikum himself was previously implicated in two other human deaths, one in 1991 (a trainer) and the other in 1999 (a swimmer who snuck into the tank).
“Blackfish,” for all its gravitas, has had surprising resonance with an unlikely cohort of viewers. Cowperthwaite said, “I saw firsthand how the film resonated with people, especially younger people. I never imagined we’d get such a young demo.” (Indeed, I was pushed to watch the film by my 11-year old son, who vowed to write SeaWorld a “carefully worded letter.”)
How such a film–one that’s devoid of sensationalism and presented in the soberest of tones– made it onto the cultural radar of his demographic remains a mystery. But with apolitical preteens now talking about boycotts, SeaWorld is no doubt working hard to solve it.
Perhaps to that end, SeaWorld, in what Kirby calls “a desperate move,” recently took out a full-page advertisement in seven major newspapers condemning “inaccurate reports” while reiterating its purported advocacy for killer whales and their humane treatment. Whether or not these ads will save SeaWorld’s sinking stock price, which has dropped as much as 25 percent in the wake of “Blackfish,” remains to be seen.
What’s more assured is that, in an era of increasing corporate dominance, a low-budget investigative work can still send shock waves through an established corporation with a once pristine reputation. “SeaWorld used to be the darling of the media,” said Kirby.
“Blackfish” seems to have taken its place.
I got around to reading the Times late today. On the front page you will find this.
It’s a piece on the popularity of massive turkey legs as a snack at amusement parks. These turkey legs, we learn, have 36 grams of fat and 700 calories. Concerns are rampant over human health!
What we don’t learn—or at least what we’re never reminded of—is that these snacks are the legs of turkeys! It’s an absolute shitty piece of journalism for many reasons, but more than anything else is the fact that it not once includes a reference to the interest of turkeys. Not a hint.
I’ve been noticing and wondering for a while now how journalists get away with such articles without including as a matter of course an animal rights perspective. So, I urge you: write a short letter (no more than a 100 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. Ask them why, in the age of objective journalism, the perspective of the turkey was never considered. Demand an answer. Tell the Times to at least quote an animal advocate.
In the November 11 issue of The New Yorker, Michael Specter (one of my favorite staff writers) has a superb piece on crop insurance. I know, it sounds dull but, trust me, this piece is a thrill. My intention here is not to summarize the piece, but only to highlight the critical thoughts presented by the piece’s leading character, a man named David Friedberg.
Friedberg began a company called climate.com. It uses high tech algorithms and information technology to predict climatic factors that bear on crop yields. He builds insurance policies on this information. Friedberg is a man obsessed with numbers and seems deeply knowledgable about the intersection between farming and the environment. It thus caught my eye when Specter wrote, “He would like to open a restaurant that serves only quinoa.”
Listen to Friedberg:
The ratio of protein to energy used to produce quinoa is the highest of any food source . . . The net energy utilization of the protein production of beef in fifty to one; for fish it’s ten to one; and for chicken it’s four to one. Soybeans are two to one—they’re pretty efficient, but quinoa is less than one and a half to one, and quinoa grows in all these drought-hardy conditions. There is all this land that’s undeveloped—in Saskatchewan, in Colorado, in large swaths of Peru—and the yield that you can start to get on quinoa if you start to invest in production would be substantial.
Specter writes that China ate half the world’s pigs last year–500 million of them. In response to this fact, Freidberg says,
We need to change that or we are not going to get the eight hundred million people out of starvation that are starving right now. Think of it: we are sending millions of tons of protein to China to feed hogs. we should really just skip the hogs and grow the quinoa.
So, sensible words from a sensible guy who was raised by vegetarians. But, before you get carried away and think the food world has a new voice of agricultural wisdom, do note: Friedberg just sold his company to Monsanto for a cool billion.
Six-thirty on a sub-freezing Saturday night in Northampton, Massachusetts hardly seems like the ideal moment to deliver a talk on animal rights. But Smith College, led by the Animal Advocates of Smith College, delivered. Close to sixty bodies filled the room. I’ve never been a huge fan of public speaking, preferring to fire away on the keyboard, but I’m getting more and more comfortable with “the talk.”
One concern that I’ve been having about my little lecture tour is that I seem to do a lot of choir preaching. What I mean is that most people who attend are already vegan or vegetarian. As a result, they seem predisposed to do little more than nod and clap and agree wholeheartedly with what I say. I mentioned this point to some friends before the event. But then, as the Q and A period unfolded, something occurred to me.
Basically, as I assessed the nature of the questions from the audience, I realized that vegans were coming to hear me in part to develop better arguments to present in the course of their own advocacy. It gives me some comfort to think that my arguments against “humane meant” are providing grist for hundreds of vegans to bring to their own work, wherever and however it happens. Ripple effects matter, and I feel privileged and proud to be able to toss a stone in the water every couple of weeks.
This morning I was also able to realize how much I like this town. I ran on a great bike trail and, even in 18 degree weather, enjoyed the experience. Then I watched a friend run by during a festive 5K, kept vibrant by cowbells and drums. And then I had a tofu scramble, a coffee, and an oatmeal at Haymarket. Northampton: running friendly, vegan friendly, and friendly.
Hard to beat.
As Steven Pinker notes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, we humans have inherited a deep evolutionary heritage of violence. Our natural predilection for dominance, predation, and revenge has not only served us remarkably well over the course of evolutionary time, but it manifests itself today in tangible expressions of inner inequity. The evidence is etched into every cranny and crevice of our brain. We have the capacity to wreak violent havoc. Read the news.
Does this macabre heritage imply that humans are inherently, irrepressibly evil? Of course not. It only means that we harbor in our neurological nutcase a hoary apparatus that, without proper re-purposing, could, with adequate propagation, send us—well, men mainly—into unchecked orgies of decapitation, disembowelment, lynching, and quartering. Followed by a celebratory banquet. If this assessment sounds hyperbolic, I advise you to consult recent history. We all have it in us to turn violent.
We’ve thus erected culture and civilization in part to mitigate these excesses and, ideally, obviate the need for quick-thinking resorts to force. But culture and civilization, for all their potential to diminish violence, can exist ahead of the evolutionary curve. One way to think of the peaceful-minded civilization we try to create is as a mansion that we live in but have yet to furnish. We’re wandering through this unfurnished edifice a little confused, grasping weaponry out of habit and preparing to indulge a mentality we no longer need. But, ray of hope, we also sense, because of the walls that protect us, that cooperation and empathy—which also have a deep evolutionary heritage—have the capacity to render our violent inclinations obsolete. Or at least some of us get that.
This realization is perhaps the most awe-inspiring aspect of humanity. We are a species that has reached the ability to eliminate all expressions of unnecessary violence. Consider that prospect. I have no idea how such a revolution would happen, but I know that, biologically and culturally and intellectually speaking, it could happen, or at least a surge in that direction could take place. That fact alone renders commonly sanctioned expressions of unnecessary violence—farming animals, hunting for sport, wearing leather clothing—residual habits of a lost age when violence was required more than it is today. Soon, I fantasize, these behaviors will become the stuff of mockery and shame, like whacking old ladies on the head and stealing their groceries.
Looked at from this perspective, the imperative to keep putting pressure on these normative violent behaviors becomes more intense. Advocates for a more peaceful world need to bang away at these behaviors not only because they are unnecessary forms of violence, but because they are quite simply on the wrong side of history, sloping downward toward an abyss. They can gather steam, slide in, and leave us standing on a pedestal of success, triumphant and proud of being human.
Note: please visit and share my latest Forbes piece on welfare ranchers here. Thanks!