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Human Rights and Animal Rights: We Are All One

10 Dec

Today is International Human Rights Day, a day that is observed across the world every December 10th.

As an animal advocate, many times before I have heard these troublesome words being articulated out of peoples’ mouths: “There are too many human problems in the world that we have to solve first before we think about animals”. And also: “Why don’t you care about humans instead of animals?”

These are phrases that can be incredibly frustrating to hear by those of us who advocate for animals, because we want people to understand that we are all part of this web of life, all human and non-human animals, and whatever we do to animals affects human-beings and vice versa, so incredibly and impact fully.

As noted, people will often scoff at the notion of “animal rights” and say that they are for “human rights” instead. Without getting into the discussion of why we can’t just all be concerned for the well-being of all animals, including human-beings, I just want to address what we mean by the word “rights”, since that’s a loaded term in itself.

When I say “animal rights” or “human rights”, what I am referring to are the rights of these individuals to be treated with respect and compassion. The “right” for these individuals to not be treated as property, as they are their own beings with their own reasons for existing here on this earth. I fully believe that every creature was put here on this planet to live a life free of slavery, free of torture, and free of oppression – both human and non-human animals – and so we must be afforded this right to live freely as such.

And to only regard the rights of one species as being important, or being the most important, is what is called speciesism. Speciesism is the discrimination in favour of one species over another, simply because it exists as that species, and for no other reasons. I think speciesism is what often counteractively creates that unflinching divide between the notions of “human rights versus animal rights”. It is all the same thing.

We are all animals. Everything that happens here on this earth to one another affects one another, and, as humans, we cannot act independently under the badge of ‘human rights’ without it affecting all those around us, and vice versa.

I’m not advocating for anti-humanism – I’m advocating for the rights of all. There are many intersectional issues that affect other marginalized groups as well – such as people of different sexual preferences, different races, or those who are differently abled.

Highly acclaimed animal rights philosopher Dr. Will Tuttle wrote an article called “The Five Universal Taboos and Animal Use”, in which he proposes five universal taboos that humans do not tolerate against each other:

  1. Physically harming or killing others.
  2. Stealing from others.
  3. Harming others through sexual misconduct.
  4. Deceiving others.
  5. Forcing others to ingest drugs, alcohol, or toxic substances.

In our society, we work hard to ensure that humans enjoy freedoms from these five taboos.

However, then why do we condone, encourage, and sometimes celebrate these atrocities against non-human animals, when it comes to food, clothing, entertainment, vanity and other purposes?

What does this say about us as humans?  What does this say about our efforts for social justice?

What Dr. Tuttle says is: “How can we as a society expect that our efforts for social justice for ourselves can be realized while we are acting so heartlessly, unfairly, and violently toward those whose vulnerable lives we hold in our hands? How can we respect each other’s interests, when we don’t respect the interests of billions of animals (and other humans), knowing that their interests are as important to them as our interests are to us?”

I want to implore everyone on International Human Rights Day to open your hearts and recognize that we’re all beings of this earth, and that every living soul deserves to be treated with respect and compassion rather than with neglect or harm.

We must all unite on the issues of the suffering of all beings, not just certain species, and recognize that we are all in it together on this Earth. We all feel suffering and pain. We all want to live. We are all here to live on this planet, and to thrive and enjoy life.

“As long as people will shed the blood of innocent creatures, there can be no peace, no liberty, no harmony between people. Slaughter and justice cannot dwell together.”

~ Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer


Film review: The Ghosts In Our Machine

12 Aug

ghosts_dogI was recently finally able to attend a screening of the hotly anticipated documentary feature film “The Ghosts in Our Machine”, which has been making the film festival circuits and plans for an American-wide release later this year. This is a truly significant film not to be missed. And I’m not just saying that for the select niches of Canadian film lovers or documentary-philes or whatever. What I am saying is that everyone on this planet should see this film, as it affects each and every one of us who live here in this world where we human animals relate to non-human animals, be it in direct forms or not so conspicuously. Non-human animals play various roles in our daily lives which must not go disregarded.

Yes, this is a Canadian film, directed by Liz Marshall (who we interviewed on the Animal Voices radio show earlier this year), and told through the eyes of Torontonian photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur (who we also interviewed on the show, last year). Jo-Anne makes it her life mission to “make people aware of what is happening to animals”. She is a true animal rights activist who has dedicated her life to this cause in such a unique way. That way is by documenting the atrocities that happen to animals, by humankind, via the medium of still visual images. She is a photographer who risks whatever it takes to capture the images so that they can make it out into the world for all to see and learn from.

In this film, we follow Jo-Anne throughout her work of capturing the experiences of so many different kinds of exploited animals from the perspective of an observer (via her camera lens). The film does not discriminate in presenting a myriad of different animal images, and thus issues, from the beagles from research labs, to foxes on a fur farm, to farmed pigs for consumption, to marine animals at an aquarium. The lack of discrimination between species sends a discerning message that all animals deserve the right to be free from human exploitation. Species doesn’t matter; what matters is the basic right to respect. And looking into the earnest eyes of any of these creatures, as we do in the film, should certainly send that message as we connect and relate, being to sensitive being. The images are poignant, thought-provoking, and memorable.

ghost_jo-anneBy way of her camera and pursuing her mission, Jo-Anne has seen some terrible barbarities in her life, and she speaks of her PTSD and work as a “war photographer” when it comes to documenting the war inflicted on non-human animals by us humans. She says that there is a real inequality between the treatment of human vs. non-human animals, and this statement is starkly supported by the film’s insights into the dark and dirty industries that use animals for profit, soaking up their worth of body parts and services and then spitting them out like they are garbage. The ghosts are the animals who are lost in the mechanisms of the man-made “machine” of use and abuse.

The premise of the film sounds dismal, but there is some light in this fury of sadness. Several visits to the beloved Farm Sanctuary are the highlights of the film, where we get to observe many rescued animals in a happy setting, who have been broken out of misery in order to live out the rest of their lives in peace. Jo-Anne returns to this animal haven many times, and it is her place of solace, to regroup and renew her strength as she continues back onto the path of war.

ghosts_coverGetting her photos out there into the public makes up another facet of the story. In a meeting with a photo agency, the agency reps tell her that there isn’t much of a market for such photos as long as no one wants to cover the stories (and this is what she is repeatedly told). So how are you supposed to get the pictures out there if no one will take a step forward in that direction?

Fortunately, Jo-Anne has a book deal with a sympathetic publisher who is ready to put out a volume of her photographs called We Animals (to be published later this year). Plus, this film is out and will be making the major circuits in the near future, with plans to be pursue a Best Documentary Film Oscar award.

It’s media like books, photographs and films that are the key to making change in the world, because as enormous of a cultural shift it may seem to stop so much exploitation of animals, I believe that it happens with people and it starts with education. The tides are rapidly changing in the realm of the mistreatment of animals, and we can take it further by encouraging people to watch engrossing and enlightening films such as this. You feel for the animals, and you feel for Jo-Anne as you follow her journey throughout, and this documentary has the power to convert attitudes towards our fellow creatures as their plight and harm is captured for our eyes to see, our minds to ponder, and our hearts to open far and wide.

Update: The film can be seen here on YouTube now!

Film review: Blackfish

6 Aug

I saw the newly released documentary film “Blackfish” last weekend, directed by filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite (who we interviewed on the Animal Voices show about a month ago – you can listen to that podcast here). And if you’ve ever attended any kind of marine animal entertainment facility before (hello, SeaWorld or the Vancouver Aquarium), or would consider doing so, watching this film first should be mandatory for any patron of these places, which I like to facetiously call “whale jails”. (and you’ll know why, after watching this film)

Blackfish_documentary_banner“Blackfish” is a gripping and thoroughly researched presentation that tells the stories of the histories of orca killer whales in captivity at various Sea World (and Sea World-esque) facilities around the world from the 1970s to present day. Even the local and now defunct Sealand of Victoria plays a role in this never ending tale of abuse and dominance of humans over these sentient beings.

When it comes to learning about what goes on behind the scenes in this animal entertainment industry, we are given indisputable information via legal documents, graphic video footage of orca attacks, and first hand accounts as reported by a collection of ex-Sea World trainers throughout the film. As they tell their stories of working with the orcas, you can see that these trainers feel regret, shame, and sorrow for the way the creatures were treated during their tenures, and the way they are still treated now, years later.

While weaving pieces of captive whale history together, the film focuses on the story of Tilikum the whale, who has now murdered 3 people in his time of servitude, and we learn about the little before known details of exactly what led up to these 3 incidents of death. The industry PR heads try to spin tales of trainer fault to the public, but upon further investigation, by the film itself, a picture is painted of gross mistreatment of these animals who should be living in expanse oceans and not tiny pens, swimming freely with their pods and not being forced to do tricks for food. Their conditions are miserable; their freedom is non-existent.

We see that living in captivity for the rest of their lives leads to extreme frustration and psychosis of being trapped in these jails, and this leads to the orcas purposely lashing out to the trainers, as they have no other outlet for expressing their anguish. (and, interestingly enough, we learn that the average life span for an orca whale in captivity is 25-35 years, whereas in the wild, their life span is the same of that as for humans) Don’t accuse the storytellers of anthropomorphizing the situation for the whales – watch the film and you will see for yourself that this despair is really the case.

So why would an animal, such as Tilikum, even be kept to continue to “perform” if he has now a serial track record of killing people? It’s because they need him for his very valuable sperm, we are told, and a pictorial graphic emerges on the screen that shows the family tree of the many other captive orcas that Tilikum’s sperm has created – all for the profit of millions, and totaling to 50 per cent of Sea World’s orca flock. I guess the lives of some humans here and there are worth the cost of running the business.

It is interesting to note that many marine mammal entertainment facilities (ie. Sea World) were contacted for interviews in the making of this film, and all declined. So they were not given a platform to tell their side of the story, because they turned that offer down. However, now Sea World is arming a backlash upon this film as it debuts in theatres across the continent, in a futile attempt to cover up the truths that we know are so wrong. There is no way that a person watching this film will leave uninformed with the stark knowledge – and thus with consumer power – on what this dirty animal entertainment industry is really all about.

It is said in the film (and it is also my opinion) that in 50 years, we will look upon this time in our society as a barbaric culture that treated these sentient creatures in a way that will seem unfathomable to the thoughtful human mind. The content of this film presents in depth and irrefutable evidence of what really happens in this marine animal entertainment industry, and exposes the industry for its true unscrupulous nature.

Continued public education such as the documentary “Blackfish” will mean the eventual extinction of this animal exploitation industry as we know it today. Watch this film to get the process started!

Honouring all Mothers for Mother’s Day

12 May

Happy Mother’s Day!

Mother’s Day is today, and it’s a time to celebrate mothers and everything they’ve done for us to bring us into this world. Mother’s Day is a day to celebrate and honour all mothers, including a special group of mothers known as dairy cows. These are mothers who are kept by us human-beings with the purpose of producing 704 million tonnes of milk per year – milk that is naturally meant for their calves, but, of course, is produced all for the consumption by human-beings.

Please take a look at this awesome short video that actress and animal advocate Emily Deschanel has made for Mother’s Day, which explains facts about dairy cows and their mothers that you may not be aware of:

As Emily says in this video, dairy cows are kept constantly pregnant during their 4-5 years of “milking” (after which they are considered “spent” and then sent to the slaughterhouse – did you know a cow’s natural lifespan is 20-25 years?), in order to facilitate the lactation that is needed to produce milk. (Yes, that is right! A cow needs to have a baby in order to produce milk! (just like human-beings!)) And within 1-3 days of giving birth to her calf, her baby is immediately taken away from her, so that the dairy operation can start using her milk for human consumption. This happens time after time during the mother cow’s short life, and if you are a mother yourself, I wonder: how would you feel if the same thing happened to you every time you gave birth? A mother cow carries her unborn child for 9 months, just like a human mom does.

A strong bond is formed within 5 minutes between the mother cow and her calf. The bonding process begins when she licks the birthing fluids off her baby, and a cow will only let her baby nurse off her. She instinctively licks her calf’s fur to stimulate circulate and facilitate nursing.

Just like any mother and child, the cow/calf bond intensifies over time and delayed separation can cause extreme stress on the calf, which is another reason why they are separated so soon. And did you know that the casein in cow’s milk actually contains casomorphin opiates that release dopamine into the system? Once consumed, this dopamine has an “addictive” effect, you could say, which makes the baby calf have a natural strong desire to be attached to his mother and keep drinking her milk (which infants need to properly grow and be healthy – just as a human infant needs his mom’s milk). And this is why so many people are addicted to cheese – it’s the dopamine’s effect!

Once her calf is taken away, she will frantically bellow for days for her baby calf, which is a common occurrence to take place. Studies have actually been done in which the calves remain with the mothers for up to 14 days after birth. Cows whose calves were removed longer than one day after birth showed increased searching, sniffing and vocalizations. You can actually see a short video here of a mother cow being separated from her baby. Watch how she reacts:

Once the calves are whisked away, they are taken to their dismal fates: female calves are raised as dairy cows, and the male calves are kept in tiny crates for 5 weeks where they are malnourished in order to keep their meat a pleasant white (lack of iron) and can’t even turn around in their confinement, and then they are slaughtered for veal – while still infants.

On the topic of mother cows and their babies, I want to share this special story with you that I read some time ago and it has always touched me. This is a story told by a veterinarian named Holly Cheever:

 “One of my clients called me one day with a puzzling mystery: his Brown Swiss cow, having delivered her fifth calf naturally on pasture the night before, brought the new baby to the barn and was put into the milking line, while her calf was once again removed from her. Her udder, though, was completely empty, and remained so for several days.

As a new mother, she would normally be producing close to one hundred pounds of milk daily; yet, despite the fact that she was glowing with health, her udder remained empty. She went out to pasture every morning after the first milking, returned for milking in the evening, and again was let out to pasture for the night, but never was her udder swollen with the large quantities of milk that are the hallmark of a recently-calved cow.

I was called to check this mystery cow two times during the first week after her delivery and could find no solution to this puzzle. Finally, on the eleventh day post calving, the farmer called me with the solution: he had followed the cow out to her pasture after her morning milking, and discovered the cause: she had delivered twins, and in a bovine’s “Sophie’s Choice,” she had brought one to the farmer and kept one hidden in the woods at the edge of her pasture, so that every day and every night, she stayed with her baby — the first she had been able to nurture FINALLY—and her calf nursed her dry with gusto. Though I pleaded for the farmer to keep her and her bull calf together, she lost this baby, too—off to the hell of the veal crate.

Think for a moment of the complex reasoning this mama exhibited: first, she had memory — memory of her four previous losses, in which bringing her new calf to the barn resulted in her never seeing him/her again, which would be heartbreaking for any mammalian mother. Second, she could formulate and then execute a plan: if bringing a calf to the farmer meant that she would inevitably lose him/her, then she would keep her calf hidden, as deer do, by keeping her baby in the woods lying still till she returned. Third — and I do not know what to make of this myself — instead of hiding both, which would have aroused the farmer’s suspicion (pregnant cow leaves the barn in the evening, unpregnant cow comes back the next morning without offspring), she gave him one and kept one herself. I cannot tell you how she knew to do this.

All I know is this: there is a lot more going on behind those beautiful eyes than we humans have ever given them credit for, and as a mother who was able to nurse all four of my babies and did not have to suffer the agonies of losing my beloved offspring, I feel her pain.”

I have one wish for you for this day. Today, on Mother’s Day, I would love for you to honour all mothers. If you are a mother yourself, I hope you can relate to the above story and the info I’ve shared. And if you have a mother (everyone!), I hope you can relate as well to the experience of love and bonding between mother and child. All mothers inherently want to be with their babies, and nurture them and care for them. And to take that primal right away from them strips these fellow creatures of their fundamental being – that is, the intrinsic need to bond with and nurture their children. When we support the dairy industry by buying and consuming milk products, we deny these creatures these rights.

Please, for the mothers, honour and respect them. You can do this simply and easily by not supporting the dairy industry. Cow’s milk is for baby cows (we are the only species that drinks the milk of another species!), and we can easily enjoy the plethora of different plant-based milks and dairy products that are available today, or that you can even make yourself at home. If you have any questions at all on how to make this transition, please ask me, and I am happy to help you. (that’s what I’m here for!) Here is a good resource as a starting point.

loving-mother-cow-and-calf1A Mother’s love is something
that no one can explain,
It is made of deep devotion
and of sacrifice and pain,

It is endless and unselfish
and enduring come what may
For nothing can destroy it
or take that love away . . .

~ Helen Steiner Rice