Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Big Ag Guilty of Treason Against Planet

To the dismay of conventional farmers and those in animal "agriculture," the U.S. House of Representatives passed a climate-change bill Friday.

Despite scientists from numerous organizations warning us that we must counteract climate change before it's too late, Big Ag is threatened by such talk.

Steven Pearlstein, a business columnist with the Washington Post, found it ironic that Big Ag would be against measures to reduce climate change.
A report out last week from scientists at 13 government agencies found that climate change is happening more quickly than we thought and that by the end of the century, many farmers will face scorching summer weather, severe storms, prolonged drought and swarms of new insects.
Despite this dire information, Big Ag is more concerned about the immediate present, not the future. Furthermore, although animal "agriculture" accounts for more greenhouse-gas emissions than does transportation, all farmers are exempt from the Waxman-Markey climate-change bill. But they still aren't satisfied.
But, for farmers, it wasn't enough to get a free pass on carbon emissions. They are unhappy that the effect of the caps and pollution permits will be to raise the price of their fuel, fertilizer and electricity. No matter that other Americans will suffer similar effects. In the mind of the entitled American farmer, any increase in costs or reduction in revenue -- whether from natural causes, market forces or government regulation -- must be compensated for by the government.
These are the same people, mind you, who derogatorily label President Barack Obama a socialist.

These are also the same people who talk about family values. Yet they refuse to acknowledge that we can't sit idly by and expect climate change not to occur. We can't leave it for our children and our grandchildren to solve. By then it will be too late.

An op-ed columnist for The New York Times recently criticized the 212 House members who didn't vote for the bill.
And as I watched the deniers make their arguments, I couldn't help thinking that I was watching a form of treason — treason against the planet.
Those "family farmers" who support Big Ag are just as guilty.

(Photo of Texas drought February 2009. Michael Stravato for The New York Times.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

In Support of (Some) Farmers

For weeks supporters of Big Ag have been criticizing the new documentary "Food, Inc." for being anti-farmer.

On the contrary, no one is against farmers. Everyone -- unless they grow all their food themselves -- depends on farmers.

But different types of farmers exist: those engaged in "conventional" agriculture, those in organic agriculture and those in animal "agriculture."

The latter I consider to be a misnomer. "Agriculture" means "cultivation of land." People who raise animals and then have them slaughtered are not working the land. In many cases nowadays animals don't even see the land until they are transported to slaughterhouses. Instead thousands of them are crammed together in buildings on factory "farms."

"Conventional" agriculture -- which includes the use of chemicals in pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and fertilizer -- is so named because it's the norm. Oddly organic agriculture, which existed for thousands of years, is unconventional, unusual nowadays.

Organic farmers are the ones I have the most respect for. They realize that "progress" and technology aren't always beneficial. They value the soil, the Earth and their consumers.

"Conventional" farmers, like those who bash "Food, Inc.," talk about "feeding the world." But how many people are they killing with their use of chemicals?

Ironically they also criticize other farmers by calling organic agriculture "elitist."

I depend on farmers for my food. While I do eat some conventionally farmed produce, if I were given a choice, I'd purchase all organic foods. I prefer to give my respect -- and my money -- to organic farmers.

(Image courtesy of Treehugger.com.)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ohio House Passes Big-Ag Resolution

The Ohio House yesterday passed a resolution to put a pro-Big Ag measure on November's ballot.

The state's Senate still must vote on the resolution, which passed the House 84-13.

The measure would ask voters to approve the creation of a Livestock Care Standards Board, comprised mostly of animal exploiters.

According to the Toledo Blade, legislators moved unusually fast on this measure.
Acting at lightning speed by legislative standards, Ohio lawmakers will rush an issue to the ballot asking voters to create a state panel that would define acceptable practices for the care of livestock in the food chain.
While the resolution was clearly a response to The HSUS's interest in focusing on Ohio as the next state to ban the most extreme forms of farmed-animal confinement -- battery cages and gestation and veal crates -- some in animal "agriculture" are spinning this as a food-safety issue.

A past president of the Ohio Farm Bureau, Bob Peterson, testified before the Ohio Senate yesterday. Asked in an interview afterward why any farmer would want more regulation, he gave this response:
"We need to assure the consumer that -- I know that we produce a safe, good product -- we need to assure the consumer, and this board will allow the consumer to have more confidence in the food we produce."
In reality, though, it's about maintaining the status quo and keeping chickens, pigs and calves in cages so small they can't turn around or stretch their limbs.
"They've come out with their constitutional power grab to enshrine their own industry-dominated council in the state constitution, ensuring the foxes guard the hen house," said Paul Shapiro, senior director of the factory farming campaign of the Humane Society of the United States in Washington.

Smithfield Reneges

Illustrating why we can't leave animal care to animal exploiters, Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer and the country's largest turkey producer, said yesterday that it won't meet its plan to phase out gestation crates by 2017.

The company announced its plan in January 2007, likely to appease animal-rights groups and to prevent legislation forcing them to do away with gestation crates.

Smithfield cited financial concerns for "delaying" the phase-out. However, this is the first year in 30 years that the company has reported a net loss.

Update 11:05 a.m. June 25: Ohio's Senate voted 32-0 in favor of the resolution.

(Photo courtesy of ChooseVeg.com.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

'Digging Through the Dirt' Celebrates One Year

Today I'm celebrating the one-year anniversary of "Digging Through the Dirt."

The goal of this blog has always been "to sift through the misinformation that various industries throw at the public and to allow my readers to know the truth about their health, the Earth and its animals."

I'm proud -- and a bit surprised -- that I've stuck with it. There have been weeks where I couldn't motivate myself to write anything and days when several blog posts flew from my fingers.

I know that writing about animal rights isn't the same as getting outside and doing something -- and I am trying to do more -- but I hope that this small contribution has helped to educate meat-eaters and to keep veg*ans informed of current events.

While not too many people post comments on "Digging," I am thankful for those who do. I am also grateful for the compliments and encouragement I receive from readers on Facebook and Twitter and in person. Thank you!

I look forward to many more wonderful, productive years of writing "Digging Through the Dirt" -- and especially to the continued growth of veg*anism and animal rights.

(Photo courtesy of me.)

Pet Store Owner on Puppy Mill Task Force

The owner of a chain of pet stores is one member of an Illinois task force on puppy mills.

Ronald Berning, owner of Happiness Is Pets, is one of 11 appointees to the Joint Task Force on Breeders and Pet Stores.

Animal advocates have protested his suburban Chicago stores, which sell puppies, for a few years. They scored a victory last year when Berning closed his Warrenville location. (I had protested there twice.)

Berning represents the pet store industry on the task force. Other members include the Illinois director for The Humane Society of the United States, two animal shelter representatives, a veterinarian and breeders, among others.

It appears that five people are animal advocates and five are animal exploiters, with the chairman likely supporting the latter, as he is from the state's Department of Agriculture.

I understand that to accomplish what one wants sometimes it's necessary to compromise and negotiate, and I don't know enough about the proceedings to criticize the task force, in general.

However, I don't expect the group's recommendations to benefit animals greatly. (Although I'd love to be proved wrong.) That's why it's important for animal lovers to continue to educate others about puppy mills.

You can learn more at The HSUS's "Stop Puppy Mills" page. Incidentally that organization has been busy this month with at least two puppy-mill raids and the closure of a Florida pet store.

(Photo courtesy of The HSUS.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Michigan on Offensive Against Farmed-Animal Reform

Rather than be forced into treating farmed animals more humanely, it seems that farm bureaus have been busy drafting legislation in at least two states.

I wrote about Ohio's plan yesterday. Now legislators in Michigan have introduced a package of bills related to the care of farmed animals.
The plan will:

Establish that the Department of Agriculture and the Agriculture Commission is the sole authority in the regulation of livestock health and welfare.

Implement science-based standards for animal care that farmers must implement by 2020.

Create an Animal Care Advisory Council that will make recommendations for changes to existing standards.

Create a third-party auditing system to oversee the program.
On the face of it, the proposal seems logical. However, we've seen from numerous undercover videos that left on their own, the animal "agriculture" industry puts profits ahead of alleviating the suffering of animals.

I don't know if The Humane Society of the United States had been planning to target Michigan for farmed-animal reform. But I'm sure the success of California's Prop 2 and The HSUS's interest in reform in Ohio are what prompted the creation of this legislation.

It's a feel-good proposal that likely won't help animals. In fact, it has the support of the major animal exploiters in Michigan's farmed-animal industry:
Michigan Allied Poultry Industries, Michigan Cattlemen's Association, Michigan Equine Partnership, Michigan Milk Producers Association, Michigan Pork Producers Association, Michigan Sheep Breeders Association, as well as Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan Agri-business Association, GreenStone Farm Credit Services, Michigan Corn Growers Association, Michigan Soybean Association, the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association and Dairy Farmers of America.
(Photo courtesy of enceladusj's Flicker account.)

Monday, June 22, 2009

HSUS: Ag Proposal a Special-Interest Power Grab

A board comprised of animal exploiters may choose how animals are treated in Ohio.

A proposed resolution has been introduced in the Ohio legislature that, if passed, would put a measure on the November ballot. Voters would then choose whether to create the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board.

This resolution was created in response to The Humane Society of the Unites States' interest in putting a Prop 2-type initiative on the November 2010 ballot.

California voters, of course, overwhelmingly voted for Prop 2 last November, allowing for the phasing out of battery cages and gestation and veal crates.

The HSUS called the resolution "a special interest power grab that is designed to circumvent the input of all Ohioans into the process and divert attention from serious reform."

Not surprisingly the Ohio Farm Bureau backs the creation of the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board.

Jack Fisher, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau, used a popular Big Ag phrase -- which I wrote about in my previous post -- to spin the resolution.
"It's time for Ohio to take control of the animal care issue by supporting proactive steps to protect both our food supply and our flocks and herds, while also ensuring we can produce the amount of food necessary to feed Ohio and the world."
The board would be comprised of 13 people, most of whom are "farmers."
(1) The Director of Agriculture who shall be the chairperson of the Board;

(2) Ten members appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. The ten members appointed by the Governor shall be residents of this state and shall include the following:

(a) One member representing family farms;

(b) One member who is knowledgeable about food safety in this state;

(c) Two members representing a statewide organization that represents farmers;

(d) One member who is a veterinarian who is licensed in this state;

(e) The State Veterinarian in the Department of Agriculture;

(f) The dean of the agriculture department of a college or university located in this state;

(g) Two members of the public representing Ohio consumers;

(h) One member representing a county humane society that is organized under section 1717.05 of the Revised Code.

(3) One member appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives who shall be a family farmer;

(4) One member appointed by the President of the Senate who shall be a family farmer.
Most of the "farmers" would likely be those engaged in animal "agriculture." I put "farmers" and "agriculture" in quotes because I don't consider raising and killing animals to be farming or agriculture.

The HSUS is understandably upset with this initiative. If the board is created, members will be more concerned with profits than with the treatment of animals', just as they are now. Nothing would change -- except perhaps that animal ag would have even more power than they do now.
This proposed council is a blatant attempt to stall efforts to halt inhumane confinement practices for veal calves, pigs and other animals on factory farms — systems that are so restrictive that the animals are often prevented from engaging in basic movements such as turning around and extending their limbs.
(Image courtesy of "RaisingMaine.")

Big Ag Steps Up Spin Campaigns

With the new documentary "Film, Inc." criticizing conventional (read "chemical-laden, unsustainable") farming methods and the success of Prop 2 in California, Big Ag is looking for ways to garner the public's sympathy.

The Indiana Farm Bureau is interested in hiring a public relations firm "to diffuse what IFB president Don Villwock called one of the biggest issues of his career."
"Our world really turned upside down a few months ago, and the Humane Society of the United States became a top priority for all of us," he said. "The good news is it's a wake-up call for agriculture. Through this threat to our industry, we've learned we all have to step it up a notch."
Villwock is referring to Prop 2, in which California voters chose to phase out gestation and veal crates and battery cages by 2015, which would allow pigs, calves and chickens room to stretch their limbs. Propelled by this victory The HSUS is eyeing a similar ballot initiative in Ohio in November 2010.
"The HSUS knows what it's doing when it gets into the political arena, and that's what we're trying to preempt in Ohio," [said Andy Dietrick, IFB's director of public relations]. "We will talk about whether we should be doing something on a multi-state basis."

"Ohio is the battle ground," he said. "The day may come not when they ask for our money, but for six busloads of volunteers to go to Columbus, knock on doors and teach people what this proposition means that they want to vote on in 2010."
Big Ag fears The HSUS so much that, through David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom, they are encouraging Louisiana's attorney general to reopen an investigation regarding contributions made to the group during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They are also trying to get people to stop supporting The HSUS by spreading the notion that the group misleads people into thinking it supports local shelters. (You can read The HSUS's rebuttal to both issues here.)

Much of this work is done through Twitter.

Those supportive of animal "agriculture" have networked themselves into a like-minded group on the social-networking site, where they shun the term "factory farm" in favor of "family farms" and talk about "feeding the world." In fact, the Twitter account TysonFoods solely tweets about feeding the hungry.

Who can argue with such a noble cause? But this talk is all spin. If people involved in animal "agriculture" were really concerned about feeding the world, they wouldn't be producing animal flesh, an inefficient way to consume nutrients. Instead of feeding water and grains to cows, chickens and pigs, they should give those things to people directly. Animal "farmers" argue, though, that the grains fed to animals can't be fed to humans, and in some cases that's true. So land currently growing those crops should be used to plant foods that people can eat.

These arguments fall on deaf ears, though. Those involved with animal "agriculture" don't actually care about the world's hungry. They just want to give the appearance of caring. After all, they aren't going to voluntarily stop exploiting animals. As Dietrick said, "Farm animals are our bread and butter, our livelihood."

Biotech giant Monsanto, which has a few Twitter accounts with Big Ag followers, has bought radio ads to improve its image. The company is upset with how it was portrayed in "Food, Inc." Creators of the infamous Agent Orange as well as Roundup weed killer, the company touts its "sustainable" crops before "Marketplace," American Public Media's business show heard on public-radio stations across the country, and during the "Noon Show" on WGN Radio in Chicago.
"Marketplace is supported by Monsanto, committed to sustainable agriculture: creating hybrid and biotech seeds designed to increase crop yields and conserve natural resources."
Of course, the ad fails to mention that the safety of Monsanto's genetically modified crops is in doubt to such an extent that the European Union has banned all but one kind, a type of corn. Even that, though, has been banned from many European countries.

So be skeptical of ads that promote animal and non-organic agriculture and go see "Food, Inc." if it's at a theater near you. (Check here.)

As for me, I've put off renewing my membership to The HSUS. But if they have Big Ag this scared, they're doing something right. It's time to renew.

(Image courtesy of UrbanBranches.)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Group Protests on Behalf of Zoo's Lone Elephant

About 25 people -- of which I was one -- protested on behalf of Christy, Brookfield Zoo's lone elephant, today.

Unfortunately, we were relegated to the zoo's south entrance, which doesn't see nearly as much traffic as the main entrance at the north end of the zoo. But I think the protest was successful. At the very least, it made people realize that an issue exists regarding elephants in zoos.

To counter our protest, though, at least one zoo official handed leaflets to people as they entered. The zoo's Web site also promoted a Rally for Elephants.
You can see Christy in her new expanded outdoor yard (click here for video) and watch her enjoy her new mud wallow and large sand pile. There will be elephant-themed activities for kids at Hamill Family Play Zoo (FREE all day) starting at 10:00 a.m. and an "elephant parade" from Hamill to Pachyderm Yard at 11:00 a.m.

The rally will take place at the Pachyderm Yard (SE Corner) shortly after 11:00 a.m. and will include an elephant Zoo Chat with keepers and Christy.

Please note that there are national protests planned for June 20 by activists calling for all zoos to shut down their elephant exhibits. We are expecting to see a group of activists outside the zoo that day as well. Please join us for an informative and fun day and show your support for Christy and the elephant program at Brookfield Zoo.
I wonder how good the parade was considering Christy is the only elephant at the zoo. Her companion, Affie, died May 15, and despite the urging of animal-advocacy group In Defense of Animals, zoo officials refused to close their elephant exhibit, as several other U.S. zoos have, and send Christy to an elephant sanctuary.

The video on the zoo's Web site actually highlights how lonely Christy must feel. Can you imagine being the only one of your species day after day, having others gawk at you?

Despite zoo officials' apparent belief that the protest would get out of hand -- several police officers remained with us, and a zoo representative filmed the entire demonstration -- we "animal rights extremists," as Brookfield Zoo Director Stuart Strahl has called us, were peaceful. We simply held signs and handed out leaflets. One police officer actually thanked us for protesting, as he was earning an easy day's pay.

Demonstrations also were held at other zoos across the United States on behalf of the International Day of Action for Elephants in Zoos.

(Video of Christy courtesy of YouTube.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Government Officials Set to Advise Animal Exploiters -- Again

Last month I wrote about an official with the U.S. Department of Commerce who gave animal exploiters advice about how to minimize threats from animal activists.

In November representatives from the Justice Department will do the same.

They are just some of the people signed up to speak at the National Animal Interest Alliance's 2009 conference Nov. 1-4 in Washington, D.C.

While the NAIA sounds like an animal-advocacy group, its board is comprised of people who make their livings from exploiting animals: dog breeders, animal experimenters, a rancher and even a vice president for Feld Entertainment -- the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

In addition to the Justice Department officials speaking at the conference, "select members of Congress and federal agencies" will discuss animal welfare and agriculture.

Animal exploiters have recently criticized The Humane Society of the United States for its lobbying efforts, but given the cushy relationship animal exploiters have had with the U.S. government for decades -- and continue to have -- The HSUS has no choice if it wants to make inroads to help animals.

The CEO of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Ron DeHaven, will also present at the conference. As we saw last week with the AVMA's plan to toss around fish corpses at its annual conference, DeHaven doesn't have the well-being of animals at the forefront of his mind. Ironically he'll be giving an "overview of animal welfare concerns."

Former U.S. Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-Texas) will talk about "the unintended consequences of banning horse processing in the U.S." with Cindy Schonholtz, an NAIA vice president and an official with the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association.

The founder of the pro-animal exploitation group Animal Agriculture Alliance, Steve Kopperud, will present "Unity in pursuit of freedom: The answer to animal rights." Just based on the title, I'm assuming this speech is about how all animal exploiters must band together, which they seem to be doing well from my vantage point.

As if they didn't have enough government officials on their side, attendees will lobby their representatives on the final day of the conference.

(Photo courtesy of Soystache.com.)

Are Animal-Rights Advocates Really Extreme?

People who profit from animal exploitation like to call animal-rights advocates "extreme."

But what's extreme about not wanting to see animals suffer?

What's extreme about eating a plant-based diet?

Eating plants is innocuous, but hanging a chicken upside-down, slitting her throat and throwing her into scalding-hot water are extreme.

Banging a piglet against a concrete floor and tossing him into a garbage can while he's seizing are extreme.

Pumping a cow full of hormones so she produces 10 times the milk she'd naturally produce is extreme.

Tearing a calf from his mother's side and locking him in a dark crate for 20 weeks before slaughtering him are extreme.

Supporting these acts by purchasing animal flesh and animal secretions (ie. milk) is extreme.

Eating plants and volunteering on behalf of animals who cannot speak for themselves are compassionate, rational acts.

(Photo courtesy of Mercy For Animals.)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

'I Am an Animal' Achieves One of PETA's Goals

In keeping with today's theme of reviewing work about PETA employees, I offer you "I Am an Animal."

This 2007 documentary about Ingrid Newkirk, the co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, originally aired on HBO.

Just as "Committed" gave readers a behind-the-scenes look at PETA, this film allows viewers to watch their meetings and strategy sessions.

I agree with much of what Newkirk says. For example, I agree with the comparison of animal slaughter and the Holocaust and of animal exploitation and African slavery -- even though both campaigns were accused of downplaying the horrors of the human atrocities.

But, like Priscilla Feral of Friends of Animals and Wayne Pacelle of The Humane Society of the United States who criticize her tactics in the film, I do sometimes think that Newkirk (as PETA) goes too far to garner publicity. However, PETA has done more to help animals than I likely ever will and more than Friends of Animals has done. (How many people have even heard of that group?) And, as Newkirk says in the documentary, she can criticize other animal groups, but there are far more important people to condemn: animal abusers.

While Newkirk isn't always portrayed in a positive light, the movie gives audiences a look into the abuse animals endure daily. And in the end that's what Newkirk's tactics are all about.

(Image courtesy of PETA.org.)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

'Committed' a Comedic Memoir of Animal Activist

"Committed: A Rabble-Rouser's Memoir" is unlike any animal-rights book I've read.

Written by 24-year PETA employee Dan Mathews, it chronicles his life from a bullied child through his escapades with the animal-rights group.

Instead of detailing the various atrocities animals face, though, the book's style is comedic. Mathews has a cheesy, un-PC sense of humor. After he lost his virginity in Rome in his only foray into prostitution, he thought, "I'm here to study history and this is the world's oldest profession."

Mathews does write about animal issues, but they are peppered throughout the book. Readers turned off by graphic descriptions will have an easy time getting through "Committed," as the references to animal issues are incorporated in very small doses.

Mathews' memoir also gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He explains why the group uses sensationalism and how it has worked for them.

But this book isn't only for people interested in animal issues. Mathews' homosexuality is mentioned throughout, and the first part of the book is a must-read for teens. Especially important for gay teens, this section is relevant for any adolescent who lacks self-confidence, who feels different from his or her peers or who is bullied. Mathews shows that being true to one's self and one's beliefs will pay off.

(Image courtesy of Better World Books.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ethics of Veterinary Association Fishy

The American Veterinary Medical Association has come under criticism from an animal-rights group over a planned team-building exercise.

The AVMA had invited employees from Pike Place Fish Market to lead an activity at its convention in July in Seattle. The event would include what the workers are famous for: throwing dead fish around the store while customers watch.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals pointed out that "[t]he fish toss celebrates cruelty to marine animals."
Surely the AVMA would not describe an event as "fun, educational and inspiring" if the animals being tossed around were lambs, hamsters, or cats.
One would assume that the people at the AVMA, an organization devoted to the well-being of animals, would have animals at the forefront of their minds. However, it took a letter from PETA for the chief executive of the AVMA, Ron DeHaven, to even entertain the notion that perhaps throwing around animals' corpses is antithetical to the organization's mission.
"If there is criticism that we're being disrespectful, we need to be sensitive to those concerns."
Coincidentally during a training session at work a few months ago, our instructor showed us a video of the Pike Place employees tossing the dead fish. Evidently having fun with corpses is good for customer service. Not wanting to be dramatic, I simply averted my eyes and waited for the piece to end. One of my co-workers -- who eats meat -- turned her head away and said something about being disgusted by the video.

When I rated the instructor's presentation at the end of the class, I did mention that the video was offensive. Hopefully she rethinks using it in the future.

Unfortunately, the AVMA's fish gaffe isn't an isolated incident. Rather the AVMA on numerous occasions has actively lobbied against bills to help animals.

A recent example is Prop 2 in California, which phased out veal and gestation crates and battery cages. According to the AVMA's own Web site, the bill -- which passed in November -- "would require that egg-laying hens, veal calves, and pregnant sows have room enough to lie down, stand, turn around, and fully extend their limbs," a very modest proposal. But while the California Veterinary Medical Association supported the initiative, the AVMA spoke out against Prop 2.

(Photo courtesy of HappyVegetable.com.)

Friday, June 5, 2009

'Animal Investigators' Showcases the 'CSI' for Animals

"MacGyver" was one of my favorite shows while I was growing up. I watched reruns every evening on the USA network and tuned in to the new episodes on Monday nights. I loved the show so much, in fact, that when I got a dog in eighth grade, I named him MacGyver.

But there was one episode that I refused to watch: "Black Rhino." From commercials for it, I knew it was about poaching, the killing of rhinoceroses for their ivory horns. I couldn't bear to watch even the fictitious murder of an innocent, unsuspecting animal, even if MacGyver did catch the bad guys at the end.

After going veg a few years ago, however, I realized that ignorance is not bliss, that ignoring a problem wouldn't make it go away. Awareness and outspokenness are key to solving the problems that plague our society.

That sentiment is stated early on in the new book "Animal Investigators: How the World's Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species" by Laurel A. Neme, Ph.D.

In the foreward by Richard Leakey, a renowned paleontologist and conservationist, he writes that illegal wildlife trafficking "cannot be stemmed without both greater investment in enforcement and increased awareness." He goes on to say, "It is my hope that the telling of [wildlife enforcement officers'] fascinating stories will help generate the public support necessary to expand both their efforts and the work of their colleagues and allies around the world."

Indeed "Animal Investigators" tells three distinct stories about wildlife killings and smuggling, with one of the common threads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, OR. The "Scotland Yard of wildlife crime," it opened in 1989 and is like a "CSI" for murdered animals.

The three stories focus on walrus in Alaska, bear bile in Canada and the United States and tropical birds from Brazil.

To be sure, this is not an animal-rights book. While Neme and the officials with the forensics lab take poaching seriously -- with the lab officials devoting their lives to fighting it -- they look at the killing of animals from a conservation/extinction perspective, not from a view that each individual animal -- regardless of endangered status -- has a right to live.

Although one statement in the book comes close to animal-rights philosophy and could be applied to all animals.
When consumers and sellers value animals only for the products they can provide, wildlife will continue to be exploited and possibly endangered.
Nevertheless this is an important book and one worth reading. I liked how Neme characterized the murdered animals as "victims," just as police do with murdered people.
The lab handles over 30,000 species of victims, which makes a regular police lab, with a mere one species to worry about, look like a vacation spot.
One of the most difficult aspects of the investigation is determining which species has been killed. This issue is especially true when investigators only have part of the victim -- a tusk, a belt or medication made from some part of the animal.

It's also interesting to shadow lab scientists as they work through the scientific method and the chain of custody of evidence. Their work is so methodical that sometimes I wished they'd make assumptions and skip a few steps to save time. However, doing so would only hurt the animals in the long run, with courts not allowing testimony from the scientists if mistakes are consistently made.

Unfortunately the weak punishment for wildlife murders and smuggling encourages the crimes to continue. If these people were murdering people instead of walrus, bears or birds, they'd be considered serial killers. Instead of blaming the slaughter on psychopathology, we blame it on greed. And capitalism honors greed. So instead of being sentenced to decades in prison, they get a slap on the wrist.
In the United States, a 1994 study on the FWS wildlife inspection program by the General Accounting Office (GAO) noted that only a quarter of violators of the Endangered Species Act received any penalty, with a far lower percentage sentenced to probation or prison. Even repeat offenders rarely received substantial fines or jail time.
As Neme writes, "The victims of wildlife crimes are silent, but the wildlife forensics lab gives them a voice--one that grows stronger every day. Yet it's up to us to sustain their ability to speak."

Maybe now it's time I watched that episode of "MacGyver."

You can find "Animal Investigators" (Scribner, 2009) at any bookstore, including online at Better World Books, where a portion of the proceeds funds literacy projects worldwide.

(Image courtesy of Better World Books.)

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Animal Rights 'Terrorism' Used to Deflect Focus From Tiller Murder

With the murder of an abortion doctor last weekend, it was a given for Fox News to publish a story about "animal rights terrorism."

Although alleged murderer Scott Roeder had ties to the right-wing militia group the Freemen in the 1990s, neither law enforcement nor the media have referred to him as a terrorist.

Yet animal-rights and environmental activists -- who haven't killed anyone -- continue to be labeled as such.

The Fox News story focuses on activists vandalizing property in an effort to deter experimenters from torturing animals.
Much of the recent activity has been focused in California, which has seen labs destroyed, scientists' cars firebombed, public officials' cars vandalized and animals kidnapped [...]
Perhaps the station wanted to deflect attention away from its host Bill O'Reilly, who was fond of criticizing Dr. George Tiller and making ambiguous threats.
And if I could get my hands on Tiller -- well, you know. Can't be vigilantes. Can't do that. It's just a figure of speech.
Unlike right-wing crimes like Tiller's murder and the Oklahoma City bombing, no one has been killed in the instances cited in Fox News' story.

Yet federal law enforcement is more focused on animal-rights and environmental activists than on right-wing militia groups.
In recent years the FBI has increased its attention on animal rights activists and environmental groups, which they estimate have caused over $110 million in damage since 1979. While agents have achieved some success, with indictments against 30 individuals from 2005 to 2008, halting the attacks is a near impossible task.

"It's one of our biggest problems in terms of domestic terrorism. It's not just California, its everywhere," said Rick Kolko, an FBI spokesman. "Our best defense is to disrupt them, getting into these groups before these crimes occur."

In April the Department of Homeland Security issued a report that warned of a possible increase in recruitment in right-wing groups due to the election of the country's first African-American president and to the poor economy.
DHS defines "rightwing" as "broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration."
After conservatives went berserk over suggestions that returning military veterans may find these right-wing groups attractive, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized for the report, saying "the report was poorly written. It didn't pass the standards of an internal review and therefore it shouldn't have gone out the door."

A similar report was issued in January. That one, though, focused on left-wing groups and warned of a possible increase in cyber attacks. Unlike the right-wing report, it was never retracted.

(Image of Roeder via video link from jail courtesy of The Huffington Post.)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Protest Planned for Brookfield Zoo's Lone Elephant

Animal-rights group In Defense of Animals plans to protest a Chicago-area zoo's decision not to send its lone elephant to a sanctuary.

IDA had urged Brookfield Zoo Director Stuart Strahl to send Christy to an elephant sanctuary after the zoo's other elephant, Affie, died May 15.

The zoo is awaiting results of an autopsy. (I don't like to use "necropsy" because it implies a difference between people and animals.)

IDA has speculated that a foot ailment that resulted from walking on hard concrete was the cause of death. A zoo press release stated that the facility had created a sand pile Affie could lean on indoors and had installed special flooring. Veterinarian Elliott Katz, who founded IDA, said both "are often prescribed for elephants suffering from serious foot and joint ailments." Strahl denies a foot ailment caused Affie's death.

Some dispute also exists over how "old" Affie was. Her age isn't in question -- she was either 39 or 40 years old, depending on reports -- but rather if she should be considered "geriatric."
Geriatric care is an increasing emphasis of CZS [Chicago Zoological Society] because animals, on average, are living longer in the care of zoos. The expertise gained from caring for Affie during the past several years will contribute to the zoological community's care of geriatric elephants.
This part of the zoo's press release makes it sound like zoo animals are healthier than ever and that Affie's death has a bright spot.

The press release also implies Affie lived much longer than typical elephants.
According to a 2004 scientific study conducted by Robert J. Wiese, Ph.D., and Kevin Willis, the average life expectancy for female African elephants in North American zoos is 33 years. The report further states that this life expectancy value is similar to the life expectancy of wild elephants.
While these statistics are true -- poaching is often the reason for the low life expectancy of wild elephants -- a 2008 study in the journal Science reported that the median life expectancy for elephants in a national park in Kenya is 56 years old.

If Affie had had the proper amount of space and an earthen floor, perhaps she could have lived another 10 years.

Elephants travel 30 miles a day. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is 2,700 acres. In contrast, the animals' exhibit at Brookfield Zoo is only a quarter-acre, according to Katz, and the elephants spend winters indoors.
Sixteen U.S. zoos have closed or plan to close their elephant exhibits. In recent years, zoos in Los Angeles, Anchorage and Philadelphia joined a growing list of zoos that have opted to send elephants to sanctuaries.
Instead of following this trend, Strahl has spoken out against "animal extremist groups" and has vowed to expand Brookfield Zoo's elephant program.

The IDA protest of Brookfield Zoo is planned for 11 a.m. Saturday, June 20, at the north entrance of the zoo, at 31st Street and Golf Road in Brookfield.

(Photo of Affie courtesy of Brookfield Zoo. Photo of Sissy courtesy of The Elephant Sanctuary.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Legislator's Appeal for Slaughterhouses Horsefeathers

A state legislator from Wyoming has formed a group to bring horse slaughterhouses back to the United States.

The last three -- two in Texas and one in Illinois -- were closed by their respective state legislatures in 2007.

Wyoming Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, a rancher and writer who co-founded The United Organizations of the Horse, would like to see slaughterhouses reopen.
"The end result is the only market for unusable horses or unwanted horses is in Canada and Mexico now," Wallis [told the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune].
While her organization sounds like it cares about horses, it -- just like any other animal-exploitation venture -- is focused on dollar signs.
At one time horse owners knew they could always get at least 40 cents per pound at the bottom of the market.
Two bills are pending in Congress that would close the transport loophole. Wallis' group will likely fight those, as well as a bill designed to protect wild horses.
Another bill before Congress would make it impossible to send a wild horse to slaughter, she said. The bill also requires the federal government to exclude all other uses of the federal land where the wild horses live.
While Wallis cited environmental reasons to kill wild horses, the truth is that ranchers want the horses killed to give cattle more room to graze.

At the Animal Rights Conference last year Greg Lawson, a National Park Service ranger, said that for every one horse on public land, there are 160 cows there.

According to Meatingplace.com, Wallis gave another reason for murdering horses.
Furthermore, as most other countries routinely include horse meat in their diets, the prohibition on horse slaughter is denying those cultures a source of protein.
So by not slaughtering horses we're disrespecting other cultures and denying people a source of food. To that I say, "Horsefeathers!" I don't, for a second, believe she cares about other cultures. Not to mention that other countries are supplying the demand for horse flesh. The only problem is that Wallis and her cronies aren't reaping the financial rewards.

(Photo courtesy of hedweb.com.)