Friday, February 20, 2009

Ducking the Truth

If you shoved a metal pipe down my throat, all the way to my esophagus, and then pumped food into me until my liver expanded 10 times its natural size, and then served my disease as a “luxury,” it would probably taste really good and sell really well for those who could afford to bask in the glory of my misfortune. My point is that I’m sure any of us taste like heaven when you deprive and mutilate our bodies just-so, and then top it off with the perfect sauce, or put our remains on a cracker. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Topping the list of perverse things that we, as privileged people, can inflict on others (without legal ramifications) are: boiling a lobster alive; wearing a coat lined with the skin of an animal who was genitally or anally electrocuted; concocting a sandwich from the chopped up muscles of a dead cow; and eating foie gras, a French “delicacy” that comes from force-feeding ducks or geese to the brink of death. For foie gras birds, the forced-feeding torture lasts roughly 21 days, until their liver becomes hugely bloated and diseased. It’s the diseased liver that makes the food. And it’s the egregiously-cruel production method that makes the controversy.

It’s so controversial, in fact, that the production of foie gras by force-feeding has been banned in 14 countries, including Israel, a country whose decision was particularly important since it was the Supreme Court – not a regulatory agency or a legislature – that made the decision to ban it… based on an animal cruelty statute. California has also banned the sale and production of foie gras, effective 2012.

Earlier this week, the Village Voice came out with a front-cover article titled “Is Foie Gras Torture?” The reporter – Sarah DiGregorio – (who, incidentally, also penned another article recently in which she called vegetarian food “joyless, virtuous, and under-seasoned”) – decided to visit Hudson Valley Foie Gras (“HVFG”) to “objectively” determine if foie gras production is, in fact, abusive. DiGregorio includes one interview from an animal-rights perspective: that of veterinarian Holly Cheever. Cheever’s is the first quote you’ll find in the article, and not surprisingly, she is strongly against foie gras production, based on scientific findings and her own observations:

Cheever says that the esophagi are often "blown open" and that the fattened liver becomes profoundly diseased, which causes the birds to die a slow death, beset with seizures and unable to walk.

DiGregorio fills the rest of her piece with interviews with the owner of HVFG, a vet from HVFG, and the chef from Knife & Fork, a restaurant in NYC that has recently been the target of anti-foie gras protests. What struck me most was that she included an entire section bashing animal rights activists – in particular, those who protest outside of Knife & Fork. Yet she failed to interview a single one of these vilified activists. DiGregorio even includes a remark from the miffed chef, criticizing these activists for “standing out there with Ugg boots and leather jackets” – an unfair statement that I know for a fact is untrue. But it’s so telling, isn’t it? People would so much rather find some sign of hypocrisy in the activists than look into their own hearts for what is right.

I know these activists. I organize these activists as my career, and as my passion. I’ve been on the frontlines with these activists, and I can tell you without hesitation that 1) these activists are nothing but professional, law-abiding, respectful, and empathic – toward both animals and people; 2) all of these particular activists are vegan and wouldn’t be caught dead in Ugg-ly boots; 3) this chef talks a lot of bullshit, and the fact that he goes so far as to thrust foie gras in the activists’ faces (“which did not amuse them,” he gibes) is nothing short of abusive; and 4) this journalist would have presented a much more well-rounded story had she bothered speaking with the activists her article attacks.

DiGregorio’s article might also have been a bit more fair had it even touched on the fact that the Pew Commission released a report less than one year ago recommending an end to the production of foie gras; or that just a few weeks ago, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus recommended that the largest foie gras distributor in the U.S. discontinue illegitimate claims about the “humane” treatment of birds used to produce foie gras.

There was a time when dog-fighting was considered an acceptable form of amusement, where people tossed dogs (usually pit bulls) into a fighting ring and placed bets on who would die first. Many people still find that fun – the infamous Michael Vick case might ring a bell. Now, in light of the Vick case and a growing social consciousness around such unnecessary cruelty, people are being awakened to what truly awesome animals pit bulls are. (My rescued pit bull, Rose, says that you can come over any time and give her a belly rub.) I actually visited the rescued pit bulls from the Vick case last summer at the Utah sanctuary, Best Friends, which was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

I had a similar experience when I was at Farm Sanctuary recently and got to hang out with Julep, a duck rescued from a Canadian foie gras production facility, the fluffy bird pictured at the top of this blog entry. Julep and several of her siblings were rescued from the dumpster after a sympathetic farm worker heard her peeps and found her still alive atop a heap of dead ducklings. At this facility and others in Canada, the female ducklings are gassed or suffocated in plastic bags because their livers are deemed unsuitable for the foie gras industry. Other rescued foie gras ducks at Farm Sanctuary – those who clearly endured the torture of force-feeding – continue to suffer debilitating health issues: Harper is blind in one eye and holds his head at a constant tilt; Kohl is crippled, and hobbles along the ground, no doubt from abusive handling. They are damaged, but have been given a second chance, just like the dogs and cats at Best Friends. They are thirsty for love, clearly happy to be alive each day in spite of their wounds, and they are true ambassadors. I hope that one day people see foie gras as the cruelty it is – an unnecessary, egregious, and barbaric activity that deserves to be banished to the dustbins of history alongside dog-fighting and other barbaric, so-called “traditions.”

One more thing: If you are ever lucky enough to encounter an animal rights activist, don’t fall into a trap of unfounded assumptions and foregone conclusions. Stop and have a conversation. Ask questions, and keep an open mind. Even if you don’t see eye to eye on everything, you might learn a thing or two.

There is no doubt that articles like DiGregorio’s will only energize activists further to speak up for the marginalized, oppressed and abused among us. There is also no doubt that these same activists will continue to be the target of people who are too busy swimming in the mainstream to have the moral courage to give issues like animal rights a second thought, or who love their foie gras too much to care.

But real social change was never made without grassroots activists who were brave enough to fight on against the odds, despite the accusations, despite the preconceived notions, and despite the ridicule of others. Among activist circles, there’s a well-known maxim taken from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

As we go about our daily lives taking care of our business, as it were, it’s an idea that we would all do well to store away in the backs of our minds and, when we get a chance, pull it out, mull it over, and ponder it.