Friday, September 28, 2007

"Selling out" with cage-free eggs?

Recently – and quietly – Princeton Dining Services started serving liquid cage-free eggs in the dining halls on Sundays.

This change came after years of pressure, first from Greening Princeton and then from PAWS. Last year, Dining Services switched to cage-free shell eggs, a huge victory for us. Dining Services proudly advertised that they “kindly” served cage-free eggs. Yet the majority of the eggs consumed on campus, in the form of liquid eggs, still came from hens cramped in battery cages so small that they can barely move. Because of price and packaging issues, they resisted switching fully to the cage-free eggs.

Out of the blue, Dining Services told us that they would begin introducing cage-free liquid eggs for Sunday brunch, and we have a verbal commitment that they are phasing out the battery cage eggs completely. When this finally happens, Princeton will be the first Ivy League school to switch to the exclusive use of cage-free eggs. Finally, Princeton is leading other Universities in its progressive practices.

I think Dining Services deserves to be praised for this action. But Peter Singer's and my oped in the Daily Princetonian which does just that received mixed reviews from PAWS members. Many of you think that (1) Dining Services has done squat for the vegetarians and vegans on campus, and we shouldn’t be praising them, and (2) we should not endorse cage-free eggs as a matter of principle.

Let me first address the concern that Dining Services is basically ignoring us. While it may seem like that, we are in productive, professional discussions with them. Just having them talk to us is a positive step, and we don’t want to do anything to hurt this relationship. Purchasing decisions take time and we can and will be patient. I am pleased with the progress we are making: The new Whitman dining hall is extremely vegetarian and vegan friendly (in fact, I wish I could eat there all the time.) Alex Barnard, the PAWS Vice-President, just met with Wilson/Butler dining hall director, and the director promised to try out new vegetarian entrees. We are still waiting on the soy yogurt and margarine, and we will continue to pressure Dining Services to adequately feed us. But there is no harm in praising the progress they have made, and their willingness to talk to us. And let me tell you, vegan Dining Hall food is far superior to vegan Terrace food, which is my next target.

The second critique of my oped is more complicated. I am very sympathetic to those of you who believe that PAWS should not singing the praises of cage-free eggs. “Cage-free hens” after all, do not have the best life in the world. They are still cramped, just in sheds not cages. They are often still debeaked, and the male chicks are still no use to the farmers, and often disposed of immediately after birth. This blog sums up the problems of cage-free nicely.

But I would argue that cage-free eggs are still better. Battery caged hens cannot do any of their natural behaviors. Living in a space smaller than a standard sheet of paper for their entire lives, they can't even spread their wings. The size of battery cages in the United States is so small that they would be illegal in Europe. I strongly believe that an average bird would much prefer to be laying eggs in a shed where she can walk around rather than a wire cage she will never leave. (Then again, what do I know? I’d like to organize a trip to a cage-free farm, and battery cage farm if they would let us in, which they wouldn’t.)

But that begs the question – why should we accept or promote either of those options? There is a third option, veganism, that would make both of those unfortunate choices unnecessary . As Gary Francione would argue, cage-free eggs simply reinforce the property status of animals. True animal rights advocates, he would say, cannot endorse any reform that maintains that animals can be used as means to our ends.

This is a very appealing position for me. I am a happy vegan (except when there is no vegan food in Terrace…) and I agree with Francione that promoting veganism is the one of the most effective ways to bring about animal rights. However, I’m not going to spend all my energy trying to get people to go vegan who never will when I can use that energy to improve the lives of animals now. After years of talking to people about vegetarianism and veganism, I’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that there are many, many people who will just never go vegetarian. I strongly believe that will change in future generations, but for now, the world is not going vegan overnight, and I’ve accepted that.

Fighting for cage-free eggs is not perfect, but it is a reform that does make a difference. Not only does it make a difference for those hens, it let’s Dining Services know that Princeton students care about the humane treatment of animals. Talking about cage-free eggs opens up other discussions about animal treatment and dining services purchases. And the switch to cage-free eggs—part of a highly successful campaign led by the Humane Society of the United States—has generated tons of publicity and heightened awareness on the treatment of hens, and factory farmed animals in general.

That said, PAWS members certainly don’t have to agree with me that cage-free reform is the way to go. The PAWS constitution states that its members do not agree on any particular ideological framework; we just agree that the current state of animal exploitation is morally unacceptable and we have an obligation to do what we can to change it. If that means not supporting cage-free eggs, feel free to write a letter to the editor explaining why you are a PAWS member yet do not support cage-free eggs. If there’s one thing I like, it’s discussing these issues. Maybe you’ll even convince me that my op-ed was out of line.

I very much appreciate the comments I’ve received on my oped, no matter how much they derided me for selling out. I believe that working within the system, bringing about substantial reform, and establishing professional relationships with people who buy meat and eggs does not mean I’ve “sold out,” just that I have made the pragmatic choice to work within the system and not outside of it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Those automatons...

"[Animals] are destitute of reason . . . and . . . it is nature that acts in them [mechanically]." - Rene Descartes (Discourse on Method, Part 5).

This year, I decided to take EEB 311. Although my primary motivation in taking the class was perhaps less than intellectually rigorous - who, after all, would pass up an ST-X that fills a science distribution requirement without a lab - there was certainly an element of me that hoped the class would be an opportunity to connect with like-minded supporters of animals and perhaps arm myself with new ammunition with which to argue that animals are sentient, can feel pain, and can suffer.

Given this goal, the first lecture was sorely disappointing. The professor opened the class with a long admonition against anthropromorphism, and numerous cautions about never imputing human emotions to animals. She showed us a video of a water-buffalo calf being taken by lions and then a mass of adult water buffalo returning, surrounding the lions, and driving them off, saving the calf. She cautioned us not to explain the animals initial flight, and then return en masse, as animals first in fear then mustering up their courage to save one of their own. Instead, what we viewed was an environmental stimulus that triggered genes and hormones in the water buffalo, which eventually built up to the point that they triggered other areas of the brain, which in turn led the water buffalo to return. Descartes was certainly alive and well in the class.

What I see in this is a double standard. While I certainly don't agree with the characterization of animals as furry people, it is disingenuous to treat animals as driven purely by evolutionary characteristics and humans as capable of emotion. At our most basic level, animals and humans are both bags of genes and proteins sloshing around. Yet if I observe humans running from danger than returning to save a family member, I can explain their actions in terms of thought, awareness, and emotion - even though I am not inside their heads and cannot experience what they are thinking. So why, exactly, is it that in the name of science we must set up arbitrary distinctions between animals and ourselves, despite our evolutionary history?

Perhaps the simplest explanation for all these unscientific contradiction is that biologists, just like environmentalists, are the most morally hypocritical with respect to animals. Those that study animals the most, seek to preserve their habitat, and define themselves as "animal lovers" still overwhelmingly continue to consume them. So, I tried to point out that hypocrisy: when our preceptor asked us to bring in a picture of our favorite animal and explain how that animal related to our interest in our class, most people brought in timber wolves or panda bears, and told us how much they loved cute animals. I brought in a picture of a cow, and said I was interested in the class because I wanted to know how scientists and EEB students rationalized denying that this organism did has feelings, self awareness, or a capacity to suffer, yet ogle a panda for hours.

Fortunately, the fire alarm rang just then, so I didn't have to listen to the awkward silence.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Be Nice

I had the pleasure of hearing Bruce Friedrich of PETA speak at the Taking Action for Animals Conference I attended at the end of July. Friedrich is the Vice President of International Grassroots Campaigns for PETA; he knows a thing or two about being in your face, being aggressive and most important, he knows how to influence people. Friedrich’s talk was about how to deal with people. His message: Be nice. This is Bruce Friedrich, a Vice President of PETA, the in your face, fanatical, communist, pinko, liberal organization. And here is their VP saying “Be nice.” What could his explanation for this credo be? To illustrate his point, Friedrich includes in his PowerPoint presentation a photograph of a shaggy, long-haired, bearded, grizzled man. He points at the picture and says something to the effect of “Nobody wants to listen to this guy. Nobody cares what he has to say.” He then informs the crowd that the man in the picture was him 15 years earlier. He learned that by looking like a member of the Young Republicans club rather than someone fresh off the commune, people were more inclined to listen to him. How does this kind of philosophy affect daily interactions?

Most vegans have had a similar experience:

When at a family function, barbeque, or any other mass meeting where dead animal is served, you are sitting at the table eating salad and tortilla chips, when someone offers you a charred cow rib, turkey leg, or chicken wing. You politely refuse, but your acquaintance persists—he has an indelible need to know why you will not partake of meat. You say, “I don’t eat meat.” This should be sufficient, but undoubtedly there are numerous follow-up questions: Really? What do you do for protein? But you eat fish, right?

Sometimes, people become belligerent, defensive, or just downright nasty. “Oh, so you’re saying I’m a bad person?! Do you think I’m going to Hell?” It is at this instance, when the carnivore leans over the table to yell at you, that the message of Bruce Friedrich should resonate most strongly.

If you yell back, then the 20 people in the lunchroom will think that the vegan is as crazy as the carnivore. They will come away from lunch confirming their stereotype that vegans are loud, obnoxious, and accusatory.

The point of his message is that being a vegan is not about you. It’s not about being an outsider and pissing people off. It’s about the animals. If you are a vegan for the right reasons, it’s about the suffering. The constant, round the clock, lifelong suffering of animals. And this is why you should suck it up, shave the beard, cut the hair, and buy a suit. It is why you should not yell back at the offensive carnivore. Even if you are correct to want to yell, and you feel that your image is taking a beating, the veal calf does not care about your ego. For that matter, neither does the chicken in the battery cage, or the sow in the gestation crate. And I can personally guarantee that the goose, if he were informed of your verbal assault, would not be thinking about your hurt feelings during his forced feeding. It’s not about you. Whatever kind of verbal abuse you have to take, it’s nothing compared to the suffering animals endure. And if you retaliate in kind, then you may lose the respect of many onlookers, thereby negating any chance of them taking your arguments seriously.

For some people, you may be the only vegan they will every meet. And if you answer an innocent question rudely because you’ve been asked it 1,000 times, then that person comes away thinking that all vegans are rude. This is not fair, but it is true.