Sunday, November 21, 2010

Health and the Vegan

A blog post about a vegan regressing to eating an omnivorous diet is getting a lot of attention.

Tasha at the formerly -- she's in the process of changing it to Friday that because of health problems she's had, she's no longer a vegan.

Unlike some who suspect she's a stool for the meat industry or even a fictitious person, I do believe she's real and has been going through a tough time.

But her enthusiasm for eating flesh ultimately hurts animals, not just because she's eating them, but because she has decided to continue to blog, this time about how delicious her new diet is. Unfortunately, her piece will have vegans second-guessing their decisions and possibly viewing her health arguments as a reason to go back to eating animals.

But this post isn't about criticizing Tasha's decision; it's about sharing my own health experiences transitioning from omnivore to vegetarian to vegan. I hope it helps omnivores or vegetarians not fear going vegan. And I hope it helps vegans remain vegans.

(Incidentally the question I asked Nick Cooney, author of "Change of Heart," in yesterday's blog post, about vegans going back to eating animals had nothing to do with Tasha's story. I hadn't read about her decision until after that post was published.)

I went vegetarian in November 2006, when I was 29. Around May 2007 I noticed that my hair was thinner and that some of it had possibly stopped growing in one spot in the back of my head. I also noticed that my nails were a lot thinner than they'd ever been. I do blame my thinning hair and nails on my diet. Whether the lack of hair growth in that one spot was due to my diet, I don't know. It's possible. (Only I and my hairstylist can notice it.)

But I wasn't overly concerned. In August 2007 I went vegan. At some point soon after I had my cholesterol checked. I don't like to fast, so I only got the general cholesterol test done, not the one that differentiates between HDL and LDL cholesterol. But my total cholesterol, which had been at 177 -- while doctors say anything below 200 is good, "The China Study" says anything below 150 is actually good -- dropped 38 points to 139.

I haven't had my cholesterol tested since then, but Tasha's post has inspired me to get a total blood work-up done in the coming weeks.

Aside from my thinning hair (which no one would notice) and nails, I haven't had any known health problems since going vegetarian or vegan. I've lived with depression and anxiety for decades, so that's unrelated to my diet. Animal rights has actually helped me with those because it's taken my thoughts outside myself and focused them on something bigger than I.

While many vegans talk about having an increased energy level, my energy has remained the same as when I was an omnivore. I'd say it's on the low side, but it always has been.

Health isn't the reason I went vegan. I did it because I believe that if one truly cares about animals, he or she shouldn't eat them. Saying that, though, if I did have a medical issue that could only be cured by eating animal products, I would do it; I couldn't be a good advocate for animals if I'm dealing with my own health problems. (I would begin with eggs first, and see if that worked. Eating animal flesh would be a last resort, and I wouldn't blog about how glorious it was.)

I'm not a doctor or a nutritionist, and I look forward to reading an expert's take on Tasha's situation. While I do believe it's possible to be healthy on an omnivorous diet, I also think it's just as tricky (and perhaps more so because one is tempted by an even greater amount of bad food) as being healthy on a vegan diet. But a vegan diet, in addition to being healthy, is also the best diet to choose if one cares about animals.

Update (5:28 p.m. 11/21/10): On her blog "The Vegan R.D.," my favorite dietitian, Ginny Messina, analyzes the health/nutrition claims made in Tasha's post. Check it out!

'Change of Heart' Offers Advice to Alter People's Minds, Behavior

In his soon-to-be-released book "Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change," animal-rights activist Nick Cooney examines 80 years of research into human psychology and behavior. Based on his findings, he offers advice (some likely controversial) to activists in all social movements, not simply animal rights, on how best to effect change. Cooney, founder and director of The Humane League in Philadelphia, stopped by "Digging Through the Dirt" to give us a sneak preview of "Change of Heart."

What type of research did you look at?
While writing "Change of Heart," I pored through research from a variety of fields: psychology, sociology, persuasion science, communication, diffusion (how ideas spread through society), and some of the classic literature on the topics of social marketing and social networks. Much of it was fascinating, and would often link to additional studies that broadened my understanding of these topics.

How long have you been an animal-rights activist?
When I was 18, I learned about the horrors of factory farming from the book "Animal Liberation" by Peter Singer. I became vegetarian then and there, went vegan a few months later, and became active in the animal protection movement at the start of my freshman year in college. For the last seven years, I have run a non-profit that I founded called The Humane League, which works primarily on farm animal protection issues and educating the public about the many benefits of vegetarian eating.

Did psychology play a part in your going vegan and getting involved in animal rights?
Hmm, that's a great question. I'm sure it did, but the thing about psychology is that we usually aren't aware of what motivates us and our behavior choices. Having developed a love of punk rock music in my high school years, and an abiding distrust in what I saw as an often callous society, that probably laid the psychological groundwork for adopting what at the time was a somewhat counter-cultural idea (going vegan). Today vegetarianism and veganism are more mainstream, with everyone from former President Bill Clinton to famous athletes, celebrities, and business tycoons going vegan -- so the psychological motivations that help persuade people to make that switch today are probably different from those that motivated people in decades past. Of course, developing a compassion for others and an internal drive to do good and not cause suffering is probably the root cause of why I went vegan and why most others do as well. Unnecessary suffering is bad, so it doesn't seem right to create it when we can be just as happy, healthy, and live very enjoyable lives without putting meat on our plates.

How is the psychology involved in animal rights similar to that of other social-justice movements? How is it different?
In general it's very similar -- we need to figure out what techniques, messages, and tactics create the most behavior change and direct our efforts there. Behavior change is behavior change, whether that means forgoing a burger, forgoing a pair of sweatshop shoes, or taking public transportation instead of driving. The one additional challenge of animal advocacy, though, is that we are starting from a weaker position for influencing others. Nearly everyone already agrees (at least in principle) that we shouldn't cause other humans to suffer needlessly. Conversely, many people believe that animals were put on Earth in order to satisfy our desires. So that is one very significant difference, a very significant psychological barrier that has to be overcome by animal activists.

Based on your research, what one piece of advice would you give to animal-rights activists?
Act like normal, calm, happy, everyday people while interacting with the public. If they perceive you as something different from them (because of how you dress), or if they get the sense that you're an unhappy or bitter person, or someone who is obsessed with changing them, they are going to tune you out.

What are animal-rights activists, in general, doing wrong?
The biggest thing that animal rights activists are doing wrong, in my opinion, is not putting numbers on their advocacy work. By which I mean this: Ask yourself, how many animals have you actually helped (improved their life, saved them from euthanasia, prevented their suffering) in the past month? How about the past six months? Put a number on it. Then ask yourself, is there another issue or tactic that, if I do it, will allow me to help more animals? Look around and see what others are doing, and compare results in terms of the number of animals impacted.

If we ask ourselves this question, and answer honestly, we're going to come to two conclusions:
1) Focusing on farm animals will enable us to help exponentially more animals than any other issue;
2) We can help the greatest number of animals through vegetarian outreach and/or through creating policy or legislative changes if we have that power.

Unfortunately, most people don't think this way. They adopt causes that pique their own interest and operate under the idea that "As long as I am speaking out for animals, I am doing good. Someone has to speak for (carriage horses, circus elephants, lab mice, etc.), so it might as well be me." I understand that sentiment, but we need to realize that by choosing the path that helps far fewer animals, we are condemning tens of thousands of farm animals to a lifetime of horrible suffering -- since we know we could have spared them that suffering by focusing on farm animal issues. In my humble opinion, avoiding causing harm to animals is not enough. I think the ethical thing to do, considering we have so much power and wealth as human beings living in America, is to do what we can to help us reduce as much animal suffering as possible. It's nice to go vegan, but you can help 100 times more animals through doing vegetarian outreach.

Given your research, does one form of activism appear to be more effective than another?
Absolutely, as I mentioned earlier, activism that is focused on farm animal protection and vegetarian outreach is going to be much more effective than any other type of activism 99% of the time. And within that field, there are certain things that I've found to be most effective -- passing out Vegan Outreach leaflets, doing online veg outreach on social networking sites, buying paid online veg advertisements, and (when possible) getting policy or legislative changes made that improve the welfare of farm animals.

What surprised you the most in your research?
I was constantly surprised by the things that motivate human behavior, but one that particularly sticks out is the human tendency to blame the victim. We like to say that we value the innocent most of all. ... But in reality -- and here is the shocker -- studies have repeatedly found that for those who have been victimized in some way, the more innocent they are the less we like them.

For example, stabbing victims who were not to blame for their fate were looked on with less sympathy than stabbing victims who were stabbed because they acted irresponsibly. People who were been beaten by the police but were unable to sue were liked less than people who were beaten by the police but had the ability to sue. And so on and so forth. In particular, knowing that someone is suffering so that you could benefit makes you much more likely to denigrate that person and think they are a flawed individual who does not deserve your sympathy.

The reason we tend to blame the victim and degrade the innocent is because many people cling to what's been called a "just world" theory. People want to believe that the world is just and orderly, and that individuals get what they deserve. It's a way to weave a comforting structure onto an obviously chaotic world. When you hear that someone who is innocent has met with a cruel fate, there are two ways to interpret what happened: a) the world is inherently unjust, and the same thing could happen to you; or b) there must have been something wrong with that person, so they in some way deserved what they got (or, at the least, they don't deserve you worrying about them). Of those two choices, "b" is much more psychologically comforting -- thus, the degradation and devaluing of victims.

This tendency adds an additional psychological barrier that activists need to get past. Often we are fighting for those who are most exploited -- child laborers in sweatshops, those in crushing poverty, animals in farms or labs, etc. -- which means that the public is going to have an inherent tendency to degrade those individuals.

Incidentally -- and I'm just going to throw this out there because the New York Times blogged about it today [Nov. 18] -- Republicans scale much higher on the "just world" theory test than Democrats, by which I mean they are much more likely to cling to that type of worldview. It no doubt influences their politics.

Did you come across any studies about what prompted people to go vegetarian or vegan?
There are a few polls that have been conducted on that topic, which overall found concern for animals to be the top reason, with health and environmental reasons lagging only slightly behind. But as for specific turning points that made people go vegetarian -- a friend went veg, they read a book on animal rights, they saw a video like PETA's "Meet Your Meat" -- I've never seen research on that. I think it's one of several areas of research that's sorely needed in the animal advocacy movement.

Do graphic images work, or do people put up a mental wall when they see them?
The scientific record shows that, yes, graphic images do work, as long as people receive the message that goes with them. There needs to be a constructive message about how people can alleviate the problem -- for example, by going vegetarian, or by adopting a companion animal instead of buying one from a pet store. But if the imagery is so graphic that people throw your flier in the trash, change the channel, or exit your website without receiving the message that goes with it, then such imagery has done a disservice to your cause. So it's somewhat of a balancing act. When you have a captive audience (like a classroom), you have much more leeway in showing graphic imagery because it's harder for people to ignore the message that goes with the imagery -- they can't leave the room!

Based on your research, do animal-welfare measures like California's Prop 2 or Whole Foods' new animal-welfare program do more to advance animal rights or to hinder the movement?
Excellent question. As you may be aware, there is a small subsection in the animal protection movement that refers to itself as "abolitionist" and refers to most other animal advocates and animal advocacy organizations as "welfarist." They believe that laws or policies that improve the welfare of animals are bad because they re-instill the idea that it is OK for us to control and kill animals -- as long as we do it "nicely" (or "less horrifically"). They believe that by working for or welcoming welfare improvements, like Prop 2 or Whole Foods' program, we teach the public to be complacent and give them the sense that they have done enough and can go on consuming their "happy meat," "happy eggs," etc.

These beliefs, however, are based on a gut instinct of how the human mind works, a gut instinct that (like many gut instincts) is wrong. The scientific research paints a much different picture. There are several strains of research that show why this perspective is not accurate. To name a few:

a) Hundreds of studies have found that when people made a small change, they became more likely to adopt a larger change when later asked to do so. This goes completely against the central tenet of the abolitionist theory on social change. It is called the "foot in the door" phenomenon, and it's been demonstrated in literally hundreds of studies. One thing I need to point out, though, is that people won't automatically engage in ever-more-compassionate behavior. They need to be encouraged to do so. So we should always be pushing people to take the next step.

b) There is a great deal of research on what's called "message discrepancy." The central question addressed by the research is, if you're speaking to an audience (in person, in one-on-one communication, through a pamphlet, etc.), how different should your message be from your audience's current viewpoint in order to achieve the maximum amount of behavioral change? Should you ask for a little (say, slight meat reduction), so as not to turn them off? Should you ask for a lot (such as, go vegan) so that, even if they don't do that, they'll do something closer to that? The research indicates that our request should be within our audience's "area of acceptance" -- the range of beliefs that they could possibly see themselves holding in the future. If we stray outside of that area of acceptance, our influence over behavior begins to drop dramatically. Because most people in the U.S. could not see themselves going vegan (at this point), to create the maximum behavior change then for most people we should initially advocate something less -- like meat reduction or vegetarianism. Then, once we get our foot in the door by having them make that switch, we can steer them towards veganism. This is also something that can be proven empirically, and in an informal way already has been. Some groups hand out booklets that encourage vegetarianism or meat reduction. A few of the self-described abolitionist groups hand out tracts that talk about the philosophical rights of animals and the need for people to go vegan. If you hand out 10,000 of each to the same target audience and then track the results (in terms of behavior change), you can get a pretty clear idea of which works better at creating behavior change and reducing the number of animals being killed and eaten.

There are some other areas of research that also highlight why the "abolitionist" theory on social change just does not square with the scientific record, and I do mention them a bit more in my book. But the book itself is not there to proffer my own opinion -- just present the facts of what the research record shows.

Are there different tactics one should use for different people, in an effort to get them to go vegan?
Generally speaking, yes. If the primary goal is behavior change, it's obvious that different people are motivated by different messages and different techniques. I personally don't push for a "0 to vegan" switch -- I think it's more effective to get people to go vegetarian first (which does 97% of the good anyway, in terms of number of animals impacted), and then once they've got that down, encourage them to go vegan.

In terms of what message to use, I'm unsure myself as to the overall impact of using environmental or health messages versus messages about reducing the suffering of animals. The first two can in some cases lead to people actually making decisions that hurt more animals (for example, someone might switch to eating chicken for health reasons, which results in numerically more animals suffering and being killed). On the other hand, I've met hundreds if not thousands of people who have gone veg for solely health or environmental reasons. I almost always focus on the animal cruelty issue myself, unless I'm in a one-on-one conversation that gets steered towards one of those other areas. But that's just my personal experience. Hopefully someone or some organization will do some definitive research on this issue in the future.

Are there different tactics one should use for different animal-rights issues -- for example, encouraging someone to switch to a vegan diet vs. urging someone to buy toothpaste that hasn't been tested on animals?
Certainly, because those two decisions are vastly different in terms of how hard and how easy they are. For the former (going vegan), to better succeed we need to provide people with a whole host of resources: vegan recipes, health info, guides to local veg restaurants and grocery stores, etc. Buying toothpaste not tested on animals is much easier, so fewer resources are needed. In both instances, though, there are two fundamental parts: showing the cruelty that's going on and providing practical resources so people can avoid being a part of that cruelty.

Why is it more difficult to get a family member to go vegetarian or vegan than it is to get a stranger to make the switch?
That's another great question. There are likely several reasons why, but one of the main ones is that we all want to feel intellectually independent. None of us want to feel like we've adopted a particular belief -- especially an important belief, like our ethics regarding animals -- because someone told us to. And if you have a family member who's gone vegetarian and is trying to get you to do the same, if you're like many people you'll essentially recoil back and resist changing. It's tied in to the psychological phenomenon called "reactance" -- when someone wants to take away a perceived freedom (like the freedom to eat meat), we tend to begin embracing that freedom even more so, and valuing it even more highly.

Conversely, if I were to get a booklet about reasons to go vegetarian, or read a great book like "Skinny Bitch" (or "Skinny Bastard," since I'm a guy) that discusses the cruelties of factory farming, the person who wrote that message isn't anywhere near me in space and time. If I decide to go vegetarian, clearly it's because I wanted to of my volition -- not because some person was trying to make me do so. There is research that actually shows people are more receptive to a message when the speaker is absent than when he or she is present. (Of course, many people do go veg in part because a friend did -- and that speaks to the power of social networks and peer relations. But that is different from family members.)

And to answer your question one final way -- like any behavior change, it's a numbers game. You have maybe 10, 20, 30 members in your extended family. On the other hand there are tens of thousands of people walking around on your local college campus or downtown area. So you have an exponentially larger pool of people to work with.

Did your research provide any insight into why some people who once called themselves vegan went back to eating animals?
No, to my knowledge there is little, if any, data out there about this other than very small-scale or anecdotal reports. This is another area where research is sorely needed: How can we lower the recidivism rate of people going back to eating animals? As Ben Franklin said, "A penny saved is a penny earned." Getting someone to stay vegan does just as much good as getting someone to go vegan. I personally think that making vegan eating as easy as possible, and making sure people eat healthy, are two keys, but I hope that sometime soon research will be done to give more concrete answers.

Based on what you learned, have you changed how you or The Humane League advocates for animal rights?
Yes, in some small ways, and I'm sure it will change what I do in larger ways as the years go on. Picking which issues to work on and which tactics to use is, I think, the biggest battle in terms of being effective as an animal activist, and I feel like we already do a good job with that. But we want to help as many animals and reduce as much animal suffering as possible, so learning more about human psychology and learning these many techniques and methods that can improve our efficiency -- even if it's just by 15 [percent] or 20 percent -- represents a great step forward and spares many, many more animals from harm.

"Change of Heart" (Lantern Books, 2010) goes on sale Wednesday, but you can pre-order it now.

chicken photographs for sale

dragonfly photographs for sale

dragonflies photographs for sale

Friday, November 12, 2010

"Animal Camp" Inspires, Teaches Through Its Profiles

In "Animal Camp: Lessons in Love and Hope from Rescued Farm Animals" (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010) Kathy Stevens describes an aspect of animals that we rarely learn about: their negative personality traits.

We read about a sheep so jealous of her crush's girlfriend that she head-butts her. And about a horse who makes friends with a cow but then shuns him when she's accepted into a new clique.

But the book mostly chronicles the positive characteristics of the animals Stevens has taken in at Catskill Animal Sanctuary.

We stare in suspense and wonder as an abandoned, emaciated horse gets his life back. And we watch a friendship develop between a cow and a pig.

"Animal Camp" is Stevens' second book. Her first, "Where the Blind Horse Sings: Love and Healing at an Animal Sanctuary," was published last year. At least one animal from the latter makes a reappearance in "Animal Camp."

Each chapter of "Animal Camp" can stand alone, so it sometimes gets a bit repetitive with descriptions of animals we've already met. But that's a small complaint.

I liked how Stevens dared anyone to call her anthropomorphic, who accused her of giving "human" traits to animals.
In my view, the term anthropomorphism is used either malevolently, for instance, by scientists trying to assuage their guilt or deny their humanity as they justify horrific experiments performed on animals, or mistakenly, by people who know little about animals and thus accept the popular notion that they are fundamentally far more emotionally limited than humans.
Throughout "Animal Camp" we see just how similar animals are to people.

I loved how Stevens described the most difficult aspect of her work:
Yes, absolutely, this is the hardest part of my job--encouraging people to look at animal consumption squarely in the face, to have the courage to address their role in the suffering, and to assess honestly whether they can still legitimately call themselves kind if they're knowingly contributing to such horrific suffering.
Indeed at several points in the book Stevens reminds readers of the abuse animals endure at the hands of agribusiness because so many people continue to eat them.

But, those of you who haven't made the change to veganism, don't be scared off. Most of the book centers on the transformation individual animals undergo at Catskill Animal Sanctuary. Once neglected, abandoned, starving, these animals show us their strength, their resilience. They show us how important love is.

And it appears that the employees and volunteers at CAS have that resource in abundant supply.

Note: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of reviewing it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Two Trucks Hauling Pigs Crash This Week

Photo courtesy of the Indiana State Police.
Twenty-three pigs died Monday after the tractor-trailer they were riding in fell from an exit ramp in Indiana.

Only two days later a woman died after a tractor-trailer hauling pigs crashed into her car in eastern Illinois.

In the first accident, 79 pigs were being transported from Manitoba, Canada, to Bob Evans Farm in Hillsdale, Mich.

Photo courtesy of
The driver, who was later cited for driving too fast to avoid a collision, took the Indiana Toll Road exit ramp too fast, causing his vehicle to fall 25 feet to another ramp below. Some of the surviving pigs got loose but eventually another truck transported them to Michigan -- and likely to their deaths in a slaughterhouse.

Take a look at this second photo. Can you imagine how happy those two pigs must have been -- scared and confused, too, I'm sure, but happy to be in the sunshine, to be free? And then imagine how they were feeling on that second dark, crowded truck as they drove to their deaths.

Warren Skalski / for the Chicago Tribune.
In this morning's accident a man driving a tractor-trailer of pigs blew a red light and slammed into a car turning in front of him. The 32-year-old woman was pronounced dead on the scene. The truck driver was ticketed for "failure to reduce speed to avoid a personal injury accident and disobeying a traffic device."

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.
Glenn A. Friesen "was hauling hogs for his own company in Goshen," Ind. It doesn't appear that any of those pigs got loose. News reports don't say if any died in the accident.

In August I wrote about a semi carrying 34 bulls that had caught fire after the driver rear-ended another semi.

If those tractor-trailers had been school buses carrying children instead of animals, people would be outraged. Instead some laugh at how bizarre it is to see a pig on a highway or curse because they have to take an alternate route.

Let's avoid one more accident like this by refusing to take part in the objectification of animals. Please don't eat them.

Missouri Dogs Big Winners in Election 2010

Voters came up big for animals in Missouri and Arizona yesterday, approving a measure to regulate Missouri puppy mills and defeating a proposal to give hunters and fish killers more power in Arizona.

It's still too close to call the Illinois governor's race. Republican Bill Brady is trailing Democrat Pat Quinn by only 8,000 votes -- although the chance of Brady pulling out a win is looking slim.

As a state legislator Brady sponsored a bill that would allow the mass euthanasia of dogs and cats in gas chambers, where animals watch their companions convulse and die and where some suffer slow, stressful deaths. After being hit with a torrent of criticism, Brady withdrew his sponsorship and another colleague picked it up, but the measure has been tabled.

Here's a rundown of animal-related measures from Election 2010:

Good for Animals

Despite efforts by the Tea Party and Joe the Plumber to quash it, Missouri voters passed Prop B, a measure that limits breeders to no more than 50 breeding dogs. The state has 3,000 puppy mills -- the most of any state, according to The Humane Society of the United States. And the nation's largest puppy broker, The Hunte Corporation, is based in that state.

Arizona voters gave a big win to animals by rejecting Prop 109. If it had passed, hunting and fishing rights would have been amended into the state constitution and hunting and fishing would have been the "preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife."

Voters in Oklahoma narrowly approved a measure that makes it easier to get an initiative on the ballot. This change could be good if activists want to introduce a pro-animal proposal but bad if used by anti-animal people. Nevertheless I'm glad it passed.

Bad for Animals

North Dakota
Voters in North Dakota failed to pass a measure that would have banned captive hunting, such as game preserves where people pay to kill large animals.

Arkansas, South Carolina and Tennessee
A large percentage of voters in Arkansas (85%), South Carolina (89%) and Tennessee (90%) chose to amend their state constitutions to include the right to hunt and fish.

Thanks to everyone who voted on behalf of those who can't!

(Image courtesy of