Friday, September 7, 2012

Adams State College

Tonight I got to give two talks at Adams State College, one on body modification and women and one on animal bodies. Someone who attended shared with me a picture his student drew to promote my talk. Here it is--super cool!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Anmal-Centered Vacationing

I just got back from a two-week vacation. My husband, our four dogs, our parrot, and three of our rabbits packed up our little trailer and took off to visit state and national parks in Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. We visited Rocky Mountain National Park, Cheyenne Mountain State Park, Garden of the Gods, Great Sand Dunes National Park, and Arches National Park, but our favorite spots were those areas where we saw wildlife: Yellowstone National Park and Antelope Island State Park.

 At Yellowstone, we saw—and photographed—coyotes, marmots, a long-tailed weasel, countless bison, eagles, and elk, and at Antelope Island we saw antelope, jack rabbits, and had bison walk right by our campsite. It was heaven for animal lovers like Tom and I, and the dogs were thrilled with seeing and smelling so many animals.


After I got home, and went through all of my photographs, and those taken by Tom, I noticed that we hardly had any of each other. We had lots of beautiful scenery shots, and a lot of pictures of the animals enjoying their vacation, but we took a huge number of photos of the wild animals that we saw. I had to ask myself, why?


I know I’m not unusual. People love watching animals. At Yellowstone, there were a number of times when a half a dozen cars would be pulled off to the side of the road, as other tourists just like us were pausing to watch, and photograph, the animals grazing alongside the road.  There is something thrilling about seeing wild animals up close, engaged in their normal behaviors, but letting us see them as well.


But it goes beyond just watching them. I know I’m not the only person who was trying to figure out how I could possibly steal a baby bison and bring him home to raise in my house. While of course I would never do such a thing, I won’t lie: I thought a lot about how my new companion would littertrain himself (of course I would have to get him a very big box), and would watch TV with us at night.


Clearly, one reason Americans are so captivated by animals today is the disappearance of animals from our lives. In our post-industrial world, companion animals remain the only form of physical connection that Americans have with animals. But apparently, the dogs, cats and rabbits we share our homes with are just not interesting enough for many of us.


One problem with this intense need to get close to wild animals is that most of us can’t regularly go to Yellowstone to watch bison in their natural habitat. The result is that for most people who want to get close to wild animals, they will instead visit zoos, marine mammal parks, and circuses, which keep animals confined in small spaces and in unnatural conditions, so that the public can more easily see them. Visitors also like to see animals move. They become bored when animals are sleeping, even when they are nocturnal and should not be awake in the daytime. This leads to zoo patrons yelling at animals or pounding or tapping on enclosure windows.  Because just watching animals is often not enough, many zoos and marine mammal parks also provide exhibits and events that allow the public to ride, touch, feed, or get very close to animals. And of course for many people, the fantasy to own a wild animal is not just a fantasy. It is legal in most states to own wild animals, even when the conditions in which these animals live are entirely unsatisfactory, and may even pose dangers to animal and human alike.


Even the kind of vacation that I took is not necessarily benign for the animals. In Yellowstone, we were told that countless animals die every year when they are hit by tourists’ cars in the park. Bears who are attracted to human food and garbage are often killed when they get too close to humans. And the same bison that are protected and venerated within the park boundaries are then subject to being killed by hunters when they wander outside of the park into Montana or Wyoming. In addition, some preliminary research is beginning to emerge on whether or not animals can be harmed by ecotourism itself; one recent study, for example, found increased levels of aggression in Tibetan macaques who interact frequently with tourists; scholars think that the feeding of the animals may be the cause of the aggression.


Women’s studies scholar Chilla Bulbeck has studied ecotourism sites, and has interviewed attendees, and has found that many visitors experience some guilt about visiting these sites, knowing that the presence of humans is not good for the animals. Ultimately, though, self-interest (the desire to see or touch the animals) wins out, even for the more conservation-minded of the tourists—like myself. The irony is that the more wild the site, the less the animals’ movements and behaviors are controlled but the more that the visitors’ activities are constrained, increasing the animals’ freedom (including their freedom to not be present) but for many, decreasing the visitors’ pleasure.  While I was thrilled to see a herd of wild antelope on Antelope Island, I have to admit that I was frustrated that they were so far away that I could not see their faces. Obviously, they did not want me to see their faces, but I was frustrated nevertheless. But the animals grazing right alongside of the road, the ones that we got such great photos of, were those that were in the greatest risk of being hit by cars. 
I still wonder about the coyote that we saw wondering down the road one day in Yellowstone, weaving in and out of traffic as we all furiously snapped pictures of him. Is he okay? Did he make it where he was going? And did our presence in the park that day put his life in danger?


I truly hope not.   But maybe the more important question would be: would my behavior have changed if it did?

 All photos by Thomas Young.


Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Chick-Fil-A: Bad on Every Front

Chick-Fil-A has been in the news lately after the company’s president, Dan Cathy, gave his and his company’s views on gay people’s right to marry. He said, “I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.'"

People who believe that gays have, just as straight people do, the right to marry were outraged that Cathy could publically support bigotry and homophobia. (Followers of this issue already knew of Cathy’s stance, as the company had donated millions of dollars to anti-gay groups previously.) Marriage, as many religious conservatives don’t realize, is much more than a religious practice. In the United States, it’s a civil practice, and it comes with thousands of federal rights which are denied to gays. Conservative figures like Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Billy Graham, and Sarah Palin have weighed in on the debate, publically supporting Cathy’s views, and asking their supporters to eat at Chick-Fil-A. On the other end of the political spectrum, politicians like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, have told the company that it is unwelcome in their cities, and gay rights activists have called for a boycott of Chick-Fil-A.

For animal activists, there is much more to dislike about Chick-Fil-A than their position on gay marriage. It has gone unmentioned in the current debate, but Chick-Fil-A makes its profits—Chick-Fil-A is valued at $4.5 billion—off of the sale of slaughtered chickens. In 2010, the company sold over 282 million chicken sandwiches, which equals to 537 sandwiches a minute or 9 per second. Because each sandwich contains one full breast, and a chicken has two breasts, that means that 141 million chickens were killed in 2010 for Chick-Fil-A sandwiches. In other words, 268 chickens per minute or 4.5 chickens per second lost their lives to meet the demands of Chick-Fil-A’s hungry customers and to increase the profits for the Cathy family.

Obviously, Chick-Fil-A is just one of countless fast-food and regular restaurant chains to sell chicken. Americans eat 7 billion chickens per year, and as most educated consumers know, these animals spend the majority of their lives in confinement, never experiencing fresh air, green grass, or an afternoon kicking up their feet in the sun. Instead, they live and die in misery, and are not even protected by a single federal law; they are excluded from all federal animal protection laws. If you’ve ever spent time with a chicken, you probably know that they are smart, inquisitive and funny animals, who enjoy the most simple pleasures—pleasures which are denied to billions of these animals per year.

Boycotting Chick-Fil-A probably won’t do much to further the cause of marriage equality for all in this country. Chick-Fil-A has enough socially conservative customers, especially in the southern states, to make up for those who no longer give the company their business. But no longer eating chicken sandwiches at Chick-Fil-A, or at McDonald’s, KFC, or any of the countless other restaurants and establishments that serve chicken, could make a serious dent in the number of chickens who die each year.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

How Much is One Life Worth?

One of the differences between animal rights and animal rescue is that animal rights philosophy and activities tend to focus on large numbers of animals, while animal rescue focuses on individual animals. Obviously, for those who care about animal welfare, both focuses are important.

Just focusing on individual rescues does nothing to change the public’s perception about animals or any of the countless ways that humans exploit animals. For long-term change, we must rely on those who work to change the structural conditions that allow for and enable animal exploitation.

At the same time, most people who promote animal welfare or animal rights cannot stand by while individual animals suffer, and many go out of their way to help some of those individuals. The story of animals who have suffered greatly under human control or lack of care often serves to motivate other people to see animals differently, and all of us love stories of animals who survived hardship, and then learned to thrive in a new environment filled with love and care.

But how much time, money, or effort should we spend on individual animals?

I ask this question because I recently played a role in rescuing a small rabbit named Peanut from California. Peanut, a dwarf white rabbit with striking blue eyes and deformed legs, was seen being thrown out of a window near the San Francisco Airport. The person who witnessed this horrific act got out of their car and picked up the bunny, bringing him to Peninsula Humane Society in San Mateo. There, a kind volunteer named Aida, knowing that Peanut would soon be euthanized thanks to the condition of his legs, brought him out of his cage to let him play once in the grass on the shelter grounds. Peanut was slated to be euthanized before his stray period was up.

Aida posted Peanut’s picture on her Facebook page, where it caught the attention of Donna, a long-time fosterer for House Rabbit Society, and a friend of mine. Donna knew that I was looking for a disabled rabbit to be a companion to Junior, a rabbit with a severe neurological condition that makes him fall over. Donna emailed me about Peanut, and I told her if she could get him out before he was euthanized, I would take him.

Once Aida pulled Peanut and transferred him to Donna’s care, we needed to find a way to get Peanut from California to New Mexico where I live. Once again, Facebook played a major role. I posted the story of Peanut on the House Rabbit Society and Harvest Home Animal Facebook pages, and thanks to that coverage, dozens of people volunteered to help get Peanut to me. Ultimately, it only took two very generous souls: Kim, who picked Peanut up from Donna’s in South San Francisco and drove him to Santa Barbara where Diane, who was flying to Santa Fe for a conference, would bring him on the plane with her.

Peanut is now safely living with me, and bonded with Junior even before he was neutered. He’s now been neutered and been given a clean bill of health by my veterinarian, Dr. Levenson, who donated the x-rays of Peanut’s legs and spine.   When he’s not snuggling with Junior, Peanut scoots around my floor in a diaper, which keeps his private parts safe, and interacts with the dogs, the cats, the birds, and the other rabbits in the house. He follows my husband and I around, and spends a lot of time in the kitchen where he quickly learned all snacks come from.

It took a metaphorical village to save Peanut’s life. From the woman who saw him thrown out of the car, to Aida to Donna to Kim to Diane to Dr. Levenson, and to all the people who sent Peanut good wishes and who volunteered to help, his salvation was only thanks to the money, time, and energy of lots of people.

Was it worth it?

Well, clearly, for Peanut it was. He lives a happy life with companionship, good food, freedom to play, and explore, lots of adventures—he took his first camping trip with us last weekend, visiting Bluewater Lake in western New Mexico—and all the love and care that he could ever desire.

It was also worth it for Junior, who had been left alone back in April when his previous companion, Audrey, died suddenly. Junior can rarely stand up, so his life experiences are very narrow. Having a companion who he can lick, snuggle with, and even lean on, has improved his life dramatically.

It’s also been worth it for me. Even though I live with dozens of animals, having someone who is “special needs” is immensely satisfying for me. Caring for someone who needs me brings me a lot of joy. So having Peanut here has made me very happy.

Ultimately, I feel that every life saved is a life worth saving. While every animal rescuer knows that we cannot “save them all,” there’s just no question that saving even a single life is worth it.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Audrey the Star

This morning I said goodbye to Audrey. She didn’t say goodbye to me, though, because she was already dead.

Today, and for a very long time to come, I will mourn her death. People who know me know that I have a house full of animals. At this count, 4 dogs, 2 cats, 1 bird, and 34 rabbits. That means that death strikes this house much more often than I would like. On the other hand, and I am not ashamed to admit this, some animals are a much more important part of my life than others, and yes, some animals I love more than I do others. That means that I grieve some more than others. Audrey was one of those animals.

Audrey was a small white rabbit with pink eyes who came to me a little less than a year ago. She was dropped off at an animal shelter with a broken back, and was rescued by a rescue group called Zooh Corner Rabbit Rescue. Zooh arranged for one of their volunteers to drive Audrey to my home in New Mexico.

Since arriving here last year, tiny Audrey has played a huge role in the life of this house. She was a brave, big-hearted, and fierce girl. Afraid of nothing, she explored the house with her custom-made cart, and, when the cart was unusable because she chewed through its harness, she simply crawled everywhere in her little athletic sock which protected her trailing feet and back end.
She loved to tease Igor, one of the living room rabbits, because she knew that he had a crush on her and that it pissed his girlfriend Charlotte off when he spent time with her. She also teased the guest room bunnies, Max and Maggie, because Maggie used to go wild with anger whenever Audrey slipped into her room in her cart. She also loved to go out into the courtyard, where the big group of rabbits plays, and watch them from her side of the rabbit gate.

But what she really loved was to go camping. I’ve written here in the past about bringing Audrey with us on camping trips, where, thanks to the protection of her sock (and a 70 square foot play area created by a set of collapsible ex-pens that we bring) she gets to explore each new campsite. In the past year, Audrey’s been to the desert, the snow, the beach, and even the Rocky Mountains, and relishes each new set of smells, sights, and experiences. Her joy on these trips adds immeasurably to my and my husband’s joy, as we watch her sniffing, eating, meditating, and even binkying in each new place.

I still can’t believe she’s gone. As a writer, my first impulse when someone close to me dies is to write about it. I don’t know how healthy it is, or whether I do so to stave off the intense pain of the grief which I know is coming, but I feel like I need to immediately put into words some of the life of the one who just left. I want everyone to know that she was here, and that her life mattered.

In the case of Audrey, she was so full of life that it seemed at times like that 2 and a half pound body just could not hold it all in. Rabbits don’t normally vocalize, but Audrey did, all the time. She wanted us to know who she was, how she was feeling, and what she wanted.
But now she’s quiet.

I have always told people that Audrey was a star. She had loads of friends on Bunspace, the social networking site for rabbits, and recently we had just signed with a new literary agency; my new agent is pitching a book about Audrey to publishers. I pictured us traveling to the Today Show and having Audrey grunt at Al Roker.

Audrey really was a star, though, even though she’ll never get to be on tv now. She was a shooting star—bright, full of light, and now gone.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

47,000 Dead: Does Anyone Care?

Just this week, 47,000 creatures lost their lives and almost no one noticed.

A&L Poultry, the owner of an egg farm in Turlock, California, decided to close down its egg operations and simply left to starve all of the chickens at their plant. 47,000 of the chickens, left with no food and no water for over 2 weeks, died of starvation and dehydration. This kind of a death is slow and agonizing; according to doctors who have witnessed starvation and dehydration among children in Africa, it results in dizziness, weakness, cramping, nausea, and dry heaves. It is a horrible way to die.

And yet 47,000 chickens died this way this week. A&L Poultry said: “An attempt to arrange for delivery of the chickens to a third party in order to avoid the usual business practice of euthanizing the chickens resulted in an unacceptable situation A&L Poultry did not intend, and profoundly regrets.”

The “usual business practice,” then, when an egg-laying farm is to shut down, is to kill all of the birds. In this case, the unacceptable situation was that the birds starved slowly to death, while not a single employee of A&L Poultry noticed, or cared. A video taken inside the abandoned facility showed tens of thousands of dead and dying birds; because egg-laying chickens are stuffed tightly into cages with other hens, the survivors were sharing quarters with their dead sisters. Watching this silent, eerie video is enough to make a grown man—or woman—weep. I know I did.

This horrifying story, which has received just the tiniest bit of press, has a happy ending for some of the birds, however. Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary and Animal Place, animal sanctuaries in Stockton and Vacaville, stepped in, negotiated with the owners (who initially told the rescuers to leave the property) and rescued about 4,600 of the survivors. Farm Sanctuary will be taking some of the birds as well.

Many of these survivors are unbelievably weak; some can barely stand, but all are getting stronger and healthier thanks to the love and care of the volunteers at Harvest Home and at Animal Place. The sickest of the birds, now at Harvest Home, were left to suffocate under the manure pits at A&L. These birds will get to live the rest of their lives walking around on the grass, pecking for grubs and roots, and enjoying the California sunshine.

Is that too much to ask for the rest of this country’s chickens? If eggs are going to be enjoyed by millions of Americans, is it too much to ask that the chickens who provide them get to live a life of contentment, of peace, and of happiness? Or are we so greedy and selfish that even animals who provide so much to so many should get denied even the simplest pleasures, and must live short hellish lives of misery? And then die in agony?