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23 posts from April 2008

April 30, 2008

The Case for Animals

Wayne Pacelle is introduced at the Wilson Center
Michael Van Dusen, the Center's deputy director, introduces me.

I had the privilege of speaking this morning at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars—a living memorial to former President Wilson. It is a setting where policy experts, authors, scholars, and others talk about the urgent issues of the day. I was delighted to have an opportunity to speak at the Center about animal protection. I prepared formal remarks, and want to share the full text of my speech with you. Video of the address will also be archived on the Wilson Center website next week.

April 29, 2008

More to the Story

Newsweek has an online story about the supposed divide between animal groups over the issue of euthanasia. It's an overly simplified and somewhat inaccurate story, and it bears some comment.

First, The HSUS does not oppose "no kill" sheltering operations as alleged in the article. In fact, we support that strategy—we just think it's easier said than done. There's a big difference between a single shelter going no-kill and a community achieving that status—and the latter is what we as a movement must strive to achieve.

Two kittens at a Mississippi animal shelter
© Bill Petros

It is a tragedy that there are about 4 million dogs and cats killed in private and public shelters in the nation each year. Euthanizing healthy and treatable dogs and cats at shelters is a failure, and it should not be accepted as a norm. While we've made steady progress on this front—30 years ago, there were 15 million or so dogs and cats killed in shelters—we still have a considerable way to go.

What stands in the way of achieving no-kill? Too few people are adopting animals from shelters; too many people are relinquishing their pets; too few animals are spayed or neutered; too many rental properties do not allow pets; and too little promotion of our ideas is reaching the public. I went into these points in great detail in a blog some months ago (you can read that here).

At this point, no-kill sheltering is our shared aspiration, but a difficult goal to achieve in more than a handful of communities throughout the nation. But that should not deter us from working diligently toward the goal of ending euthanasia, except for sick and very aggressive animals. In fact, it is a moral imperative. But achieving this goal takes more than a declaration—it's an operational state, and few communities, if any, are devoting enough resources to the task.

Again, we must stretch ourselves and find new ways to save the lives of dogs and cats. There are no shortcuts. And it's not a matter of wordplay. And while some reporters and advocates simplify the issue, we recognize the complexity of matching supply and demand for dogs and cats. But it's a challenge that every community in our nation should take on, and it takes all of us to get the job done.

Common Denominators

Tomorrow at 10 a.m. EDT, I will be speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and you can watch it live here. The invitation to speak at the Center came from its director, former Congressman Lee Hamilton, whose name should be familiar for his service on both the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group.

Silhouette of cow in field
© Constantin Jurcut/SXC

In my speech, “Making the Connection: Animal Protection as a Domestic and International Public Policy Issue,” I will take a big-picture view of animal protection and discuss its moral underpinnings. I'll talk about how animal protection is a worthy moral subject in and of itself, but I'll also discuss how its strength is further reinforced by its connection to other social issues. The Michael Vick case and the Hallmark slaughter plant investigation are just two examples of that principle at work. There is no question in my mind that the respectful treatment of animals is intertwined with some of the most urgent problems of human welfare, planetary health, and global survival. Whether the issue is abating climate change, curbing the spread of violence, assuring food safety, reducing crime rates, or mitigating the global risks of bird flu, I’ll argue, a proper regard for animal welfare must be at the heart of good public policy.

I was excited by the chance to speak at the Wilson Center, for it is known throughout the world as a center for joining the world of ideas to the world of public policy. Please attend if you are in town, or join the webcast.

April 28, 2008

Keep It Civil

I am not one who sees a conspiracy at every turn. While I have seen a fair share of greed and collusion and even corruption in observing the workings in our nation's capital, I do have a fundamental faith in our government systems and the integrity of the people in this country.

The major social and economic issues in our society—education, poverty, health care, civil rights, environment, and animal protection, to name a few—are matters that can be addressed only in a civil society. Democratic elections, a zero tolerance policy for corruption, transparency in government, and fair application of the law are the bulwarks of a civil society.

When I see corrosion in these processes in any nation, I know that these societies will not be able to address important social issues in a fundamental way—in fact, when the rule of law is disregarded, it often translates into havoc for people and the environment. To take a recent example, the autocratic actions of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe are doing irreparable harm to what was once a beautiful and promising nation. His suppression of his political opponents and his disregard for the recent election result is a prescription for impoverishment of the people of that nation, the despoiling of the environment, and the destruction of animals there, particularly the remarkable wildlife populations that inhabit this southern African nation.

We must be vigilant about people and corporations that tamper with the levers of democracy and civil society in our nation. It's no Zimbabwe for sure, but I have nonetheless been disgusted by what I've been witnessing in Florida in recent years in the realm of voting rights. Today, Damien Cave of The New York Times has a front-page story about efforts by the state legislature to impede voter registration efforts and citizen participation in elections.

For me, this information is disturbing on its face. But I've been watching this same state legislature, conspiring with the Florida Chamber of Commerce, dismantling the ballot initiative process in the state over the last few years. They have passed a series of laws to weaken the process of citizen lawmaking and make it unusable by the people, as a way of consolidating their own power and shielding corporations from the perceived whims of the electorate (the same electorate that puts these lawmakers in office). State lawmakers have passed measures to shorten the signature gathering period to make it more difficult to qualify an initiative petition. They have pushed a supermajority (60 percent) passage requirement for citizen ballot measures, even though lawmakers themselves only need a plurality or majority to win. They have attempted to impose criminal penalties for people who do not turn in petitions in a timely manner. Seen collectively, their actions amount to a brazen attempt to destroy the initiative process and concentrate state lawmaking power in Tallahassee.

While The HSUS is first and foremost concerned about protecting animals, we cannot separate our social reform work from the larger political context. We can only succeed if we operate within a civil society. We will raise our voice against political corruption, collusion, secrecy, and the erosion of voting rights. I hope you, too, pay attention to these issues because they are the substrate on which all social reform is built.

April 25, 2008

Art, Examined

During the last month, I've received a torrent of email about Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas featuring a starving street dog as “art” in a Nicaraguan gallery. According to accounts we've received, Vargas picked up the poor creature and displayed him in the gallery—attempting to make the point that such an animal on the street would go unnoticed, but in a gallery setting would be a spectacle. A local animal welfare group says the dog escaped after a day in the gallery.

Street dog used in art exhibit
This and other widely circulated photos show the dog
purportedly used in the exhibit.

Vargas's supposition about the shock value of his exhibit was prophetic. But even more so than he could have imagined, or bargained for. The image of the plaintive dog, presumably left to languish and suffer in the presence of gallery visitors and Vargas himself, was too much to fathom for many people who learned about it on the Internet. There was a spontaneous outburst of online petitions and condemnations of the supposed artist—a not uncommon phenomenon in the Internet age when shocking information goes viral.

Two observations. First, this circumstance underscores that there must be some limits in artistic expression, even if they are self-imposed by the artists themselves. Free expression is itself a moral imperative, but it is not absolute. It's one thing to document cruelty, but another matter to play a part in it, to exploit the suffering of other creatures, and to fail to provide any social context for it. Art and other cultural forms can be powerful media for promoting awareness of animal suffering and abuse, and for celebrating animals as creatures who deserve our admiration and respect, but this was not one of those cases. Obviously, if Vargas had taken photographs of starving street animals and called attention to the problem, then his art or documentary would not have provoked any calumny.

This controversy comes on the heels of a similar debate that erupted last month over an exhibit at the San Francisco Art Institute by the Paris artist Adel Abdessemed titled "Don't Trust Me." According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "the show included a series of video loops of animals being bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer in front of a brick wall. The animals killed included a pig, goat, deer, ox, horse and sheep." An outcry ensued, and the Art Institute pulled the exhibit, and rightly so.

My other reaction is that we should rechannel our anguish and anger about Vargas and direct our energy to combat street dog problems in the developing world. Vargas is probably no more than a struggling artist, and we need not waste our time with further denunciations. But let's focus our energy on fighting the street dog problem and working to develop programs and infrastructure that can bring some relief to these creatures. This is a massive problem in the developing world, affecting hundreds of millions of animals, and our global affiliate Humane Society International has a Street Animal Welfare program to develop humane care, spay and neuter, and vaccination programs. Please do get involved with HSI. Get on our email list and get plugged in to our many international activities to help street dogs, to fight factory farming, and to stem the wildlife trade.

We cannot turn our gaze from this terrible problem throughout the world. And when we do focus on the problem, we must turn our anger into action, and select the right targets. Let's pivot from Vargas and focus on the ongoing cruelty, rather than seek retribution.

April 24, 2008

Changing of the Guard

It is a special privilege to advance the work of The HSUS and to be able to serve our members and supporters, whose generous support and active participation in our programs enables the work of the organization. It is also a distinct privilege to serve the 27 members of the board of directors and the 15 members of the National Council—all of whom as volunteers devote extraordinary amounts of their time to govern, grow, and guide this organization.

During my four years at the helm, I have truly been blessed to serve with David Wiebers as chairman of the organization. David is emeritus professor of neurology and former division chair, professor, and consultant in neurology and clinical epidemiology at the Mayo Clinic and Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minn., and the chairman and chief medical officer of Preventive Medicine Inc. in Bethesda, Md. He is the author of more than 330 papers on medical topics, and the author of seven medical textbooks. But for all of his professional achievements, his greatest passion is animal protection and combating human-caused cruelty, and that's been a common bond that has made for a special relationship between him and me.

HSUS logoThis past weekend, David stepped down as chair, after helping to triple revenues and quadruple assets of the organization during his tenure. He and I worked closely on corporate unions with The Fund for Animals, Doris Day Animal League, and the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights during his tenure. Upon relinquishing his role, he urged the election of Anita Coupe as chair and Jennifer Leaning as vice chair. It was not a hard sell. The board unanimously elected these two extraordinary women to these important posts, and when they walked back into the room after the election was completed, a room full of directors broke out into a standing ovation. In attendance were the other two living board chairs of The HSUS—K. William Wiseman, who served from 1987 to 1994, and O.J. Ramsey, who served from 1994 to 1999. Bill Wiseman and Joe Ramsey had served with the two new elected leaders, and they could not have been more thrilled with the outcome.

Anita is a person of very uncommon compassion for animals, strength, character, and judgment. A former partner in the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, she practiced labor and employment law in Washington, D.C. and New York City, and served in executive management in Philadelphia. Anita has been involved in various international, national, and local efforts to protect animals and preserve wildlife habitats. She told the board that “Being elected to chair the nation’s largest and most effective animal protection organization is an even greater thrill than the day I made partner at one of the nation’s leading law firms.” She joined the board in 1990, and became vice chair in 1999.

Jennifer, who has served on the HSUS board since 1991, is a professor of the practice of international health at the Harvard School of Public Health, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Senior Advisor on International and Policy Studies at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and co-director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. She has been immersed in international disaster relief and human rights programs, and brings her vast experience in those areas and more as The HSUS makes the connection between its work and the health of people and the future of the planet.

With two women now serving as the board leaders, it is a historic moment for The HSUS. And to all members of the organization throughout the nation, I assure you that with these fine people at the helm, we are in a position to continue our growth and to confront the many challenges that lie ahead.

April 23, 2008

Response Required

Every animal protection organization worth its salt has known that trafficking in "downed animals" is inherently inhumane. This moral question was brought to light in a dramatic way with The HSUS's Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. investigation—with large, ailing downed cows being tormented in the most barbaric and cruel ways to move them in the direction of the slaughter area.

Cow struck in head at Hallmark/Westland
© The HSUS
A cow is struck at Hallmark/Westland.

But as we saw the costs associated with this case roll up—the largest meat recall in the nation's history, the dissolution of Hallmark itself (a $100 million company), the strained U.S. trade relations with beef-purchasing nations, the further loss in consumer confidence in the food supply and the regulatory systems that oversee it—it has become obvious that mistreating downed animals does not make good economic sense, either. The industry was trying to squeeze more profits out of these hapless animals, but the costs of this practice far exceeded the profits from slaughtering sick and crippled cows. The accountants within the meat industry had to rise up eventually and trump the lobbyists and corporate kingpins.

Finally yesterday, some of the most recalcitrant forces within the livestock sector—the American Meat Institute, the National Meat Association, and the National Milk Producers Federation, which had long worked to keep legal a trade in downed cattle, thwarting repeated efforts for a ban in Congress—made an emphatic statement urging a complete ban on slaughtering downer cows. They're awfully late to the game, but their central role in the trade in downers makes their statement important and significant. But it's also not enough.

The Hallmark case has made it plain that a series of reforms are needed within the slaughter plant industry. It starts with a ban on downers. But we also need criminal penalties for egregious abuses—ramming animals with forklifts, jabbing them in sensitive areas with electric prods known as “hot shots,” dragging them with chains, subjecting them to high-pressure water hoses to simulate drowning, and the like. We also need more meaningful civil penalties for plants that are defying the law; the current enforcement tool of simply suspending the plant's slaughter lines for very short periods is not enough. And we need greater oversight and transparency, achieved in part through the use of video cameras in the off-loading and handling areas.

USDA had a "no downer" policy on the books from January 2004 through July 2007, but it subverted it with orders to its on-the-ground personnel to allow downers to be slaughtered. It was a thoroughly dishonest maneuver by the agency. Maybe under new Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer there will be an honest application of the law, if the USDA does indeed modify its current pro-downer policy and accede to the chorus of voices demanding a ban on the slaughter of all downer cattle. But there's no substitute for congressional action—the kind of comprehensive congressional action that constitutes a proportional response to the raft of policy and regulatory and industry "best practice" defects that came to light from the Hallmark investigation.

If a downer ban is the only significant policy outcome, then the nation will not have responded properly to Hallmark. Congress and the USDA must do more.

April 22, 2008

Put a Fork in Global Warming

It's Earth Day, and we rightly hear exhortations on recycling, responsible energy use, and lightening our step on the planet. This year's celebration of Earth Day is dominated by discussions of climate change, and the personal and public policy responses to the crisis. Indeed, the matter has become a top tier public policy matter, since the effects of climate change may have life-altering implications for animals, human settlement, business, and the global economy. But still, there is a nagging lack of attention on one of the primary generators of greenhouse gases: farm animal agriculture (cartoonist and animal advocate Dan Piraro dedicated today's strip of his popular comic, Bizarro, to the subject, and it's worth a look).

HSUS animal agriculture global warming ad
This HSUS ad makes the link between
animal agriculture and global warming.

I've asked one of our specialists, Danielle Nierenberg, to offer some comments on the issues. I also urge every HSUS supporter to study the issue, to modify your own consumption habits appropriately, and to spread the word, whether through conversation, letters to the editor, or other means. Also, please make a donation to our campaign to run the advertisement you see on this page and support our other efforts on behalf of farm animals. Danielle's thoughts follow:

Recently I attended two meetings that made me more hopeful about agriculture, and particularly the state of the world’s farm animals. They focused on how agriculture can feed the world in the face of threats from population growth and climate change, while also reducing poverty and environmental degradation.

The important nexus of the two gatherings was the acknowledgment that past policies promoting agricultural “productivity” have come at huge environmental and social costs, including extraordinary contributions to climate change. According to a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the animal agriculture sector contributes a larger share of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions than all transportation combined, and farm animals are “one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems.” And, of course, the billions of animals raised and killed each year for milk, meat, and eggs—increasingly confined intensively in barren factory farms—suffer enormously.

We cannot continue to support today’s animal agricultural practices, which are increasingly degrading the land and the water, and harming citizens. For the Earth, the people, and the animals, we must address the harrowing consequences of factory farming.

This Earth Day, in addition to celebrating the planet and pledging to improve your individual efforts to live more lightly, each one of us can—and must—also commit to making more environmentally sustainable and animal welfare-friendly food choices. It is one of the best ways to lessen your individual environmental footprint.

For comparison, as reported by the New York Times, a 6 oz. beef steak requires about 16 times more fossil fuel energy to produce than a dish of vegetables and rice, and generates 24 times more greenhouse gases. And an article published last year in The Lancet, one of the world's most prestigious medical journals, advocates a 10-percent reduction in meat consumption—to 90 grams (or about 3 ounces) per person, per day—in order to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions from this sector.
The authors write, "For the world's higher-income populations, greenhouse-gas emissions from meat eating warrant the same scrutiny as do those from driving and flying."

Please make a personal pledge to reduce your consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs. If each American cut back on animal consumption by just 10 percent, approximately 1 billion fewer animals would be raised for food. Our online guide to reducing, refining, and replacing animal products can get you started.

April 21, 2008

Talk Back: Save Our Seals

Readers have responded full force to Canada's slaughter of baby seals and to Rebecca Aldworth's dispatches from the ice with calls for the killing to come to an end. Since the hunt began, messages of outrage, sympathy, encouragement and despair have poured in. Among those we received:

I found myself following the seal hunt with more attention than usual this year. Thanks in no small part to Rebecca's undying loyalty to this cause, her passion and her articulate, yet insightful journals. The photos by Nigel Barker are stunning—literally taking my breath away whether the subject was a peaceful pup or one being slaughtered. Let's hope the EU ban on Canadian seal products actually becomes a reality. Let's get the fishermen back in their boats and away from the pup nurseries. —Lisa J.

I've been following your work on Canada's seal hunt. Your work is so necessary and extremely commendable. It must be challenging to remain focused and retain the stamina needed to keep up with the intense nature of this work. We're all behind you in spirit! Your commitment, determination, and cause must triumph if we are to set foot into a better future. Keep up the remarkable work! —Debby

I am so ashamed of the country of my birth. How can I be proud of a country with no integrity or no compassion, to allow the slaughter of these beautiful, HELPLESS baby creatures? Shame on Canada… I am ashamed to be Canadian! —Daniel Land

Every year I just pray for this slaughter to end. To call it a hunt is a joke. These small seals have no chance to survive against these brutal human killers. At times I am embarrassed to be a Canadian. I don't understand how the government allows this to go on. Sustenance hunting by Inuit is one thing but this commercial hunt for vanity fur is a disgrace. I pray that the EU will ban seal products and put an end to it once and for all. —Adione

Thank god that The HSUS got involved in this campaign many years ago. I do truly believe much of what has been achieved on this campaign is the direct result of your pressure. We thank you here in Ireland. —John Carmody

I am repulsed. Saddened. After viewing the footage of the seal hunters screaming, 'Get him!', chasing down a fat, stationary baby seal, my life has forever changed. I've donated money today. I've gotten my company to match my donation. I've emailed the campaign to my friends and emailed the groceries and restaurants in my area that ban Canadian seafood, congratulating them on their show of compassion and that I would support them as long as they supported the humane treatment of animals. But none of this is satisfying. All that I do can't take away the image of a hook coming down on a little fat body staring up at the gleam of the metal and at the violence that stands over them. Animals are not ours for food, entertainment, research or clothing. The men who kill the seals lack a sense of compassion, a proper sense of right and wrong. All living things deserve to live and breathe, just as they are, without being chased, hooked, skinned, clubbed, mutilated, killed. —Michelle McAlister

Dear Rebecca, to you and to everyone who is out there dedicating your time and your spirits, and bearing the grief that goes along with witnessing and chronicling this hunt, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I was reminded again of how much I want to go and see the baby seals when all this is over, to celebrate that day when Canada does the right thing at last. I know I will be crying too. —Lorraine

Continue reading "Talk Back: Save Our Seals" »

April 18, 2008

Historic Crossroads for Seals

©The HSUS/Marcus Gyger
Alternatives to the seal slaughter make more sense.

We've known for a long time that Canada's mass seal slaughter makes no moral sense. In looking at the revenue generated by the kill, and the many costs associated with it, we now know it makes no economic sense. No sense at all, in fact.

Given these moral and economic realities, it's no surprise that people in Canada and throughout the world are demanding an end to this reprehensible slaughter. I've asked Rebecca Aldworth, our director of Canadian issues, to offer additional perspective on these questions:

Over the ten years I've witnessed the annual slaughter of baby seals in Canada, what has frustrated me most is that the killing is not only inhumane, it's completely needless.

Economists have repeatedly concluded that the commercial seal kill costs Canada's economy nearly as much—or more—than it brings in. In 1997, Professor Clive Southey found that the seal kill provided the equivalent of only 150 fulltime jobs, and that Canadian taxpayers were subsidizing those jobs to the tune of $30,000 each. At the time, many people began to ask why we didn't just pay the sealers to stay home.

The Canadian Coast Guard during the 2008 seal slaughter.

Today, a National Post article detailed the hidden costs posed by the seal slaughter to Canadians—including millions of dollars for Coast Guard icebreaking and search and rescue services, government funded delegations to Europe and the United States to lobby on behalf of the sealing industry, and the economic losses resulting from the HSUS ProtectSeals boycott of Canadian seafood products. With the value and volume of Canadian seafood exports to the United States in a serious decline, it is clear that the boycott alone has cost the Canadian economy many times what the seal slaughter is worth.

And even as the costs resulting from the seal hunt escalate, the revenue generated by killing seals is falling. This year, the low prices offered for the skins of baby seals convinced many sealers to stay home. They said the low returns this year wouldn't allow them to break even if they participated in the hunt. Canadian media has just confirmed that European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas intends to ban imports of seal products in the European Union—a move many believe will cause the prices to plummet further, and potentially spell the end of the commercial seal slaughter.

Now, Canadian politicians are speaking out about the senseless situation. Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, issued a statement yesterday calling for an end to the commercial seal hunt. She said it brings in few economic returns, risks human lives, and costs Canadians too much in subsidies.

The Canadian government is at a historic crossroads. It can continue this slaughter in the face of global condemnation, costing the Canadian economy far more than the sealing industry will ever contribute, and causing the suffering and deaths of millions of defenseless wild animals. Or it can live up to Canada's progressive reputation by ending the slaughter and providing a generous compensation package for sealers.

Common sense and humanity demand the latter.