Category Archives: Vegan

The American Stew

“Meat eating in the United States is going out of style.”

That unambiguous statement opened a Washington Post piece one year ago. This new year, there’s even more evidence that cutepiganimals as entrees may be falling out of fashion.

Beef consumption has dropped to levels not seen since back in 1909. Pork as a food preference continues its steady decline.

mamaandcalfFor those of us who care about the animal and environmental impacts behind statistics like these, there is cause to celebrate in this new year.  And it doesn’t stop with the animals known as “red meats.”

Although a popular headline is that chicken is now a more popular choice than red meat, actual per capita consumption by Americans has declined significantly since 2006, although the National Chicken Council projects hopefully that it will tick upward this year.

And who could wonder if that self-interested projection came true? Chicken “nuggets” are among the first pieces of flesh thatlittlegirlandchick many American children are fed, and the fried fragments soon become a staple, if not an addiction – there is even “popcorn” chicken now for youngsters too small to handle “nuggets”; fast food restaurants featuring chickens served up in umpteen ways are ubiquitous; and humongous synthetic cows beckon from billboards telling us to eat more, eat more! (I suppose those plastic cows are happy this year, too. 2000 Cow CalendarMaybe now that the pressure is off a little they can spend some time learning to spell. )

Chickens are also perceived as healthier to consume than other animals and therein lies a nugget for future hope:  it looks like more Americans are making more food choices for health reasons! The body of evidence continues to grow that eating meat contributes to health problems like obesity, cancer, and heart disease.  Chicken carries its own particular risks, salmonella perhaps the best known among them.

Cost is one factor in food choices, of course, and chickens are cheaper to breed, feed, warehouse and kill than other animals used as food.  Part of the reason is the way most of them are “farmed.”  The suffering of these sensitive, sentient beings rivals image001any agony we’ve been able to inflict on animals throughout history.    Hate to break it to those artificial bovine lobbyists on billboard ledges, but the more the word gets out, the more I believe that one consideration will increasingly drive our consumer choices:  compassion.

Compassion already plays a part in the way many of us shop, cook, eat, and live. The number of conscious consumers is growing.  The benefits and joys of plant based diets continue to be extolled.

I see and hear it as I move through life.  One night I’ll sit through dinner heartsick at who’s on other people’s plates but the next day I’ll hear from yet another person who’s going veggie, vegan, or just beginning the journey of cutting back on animal consumption.

tofuThe single favorite remark I heard this New Year’s Eve was, “My oldest daughter is vegetarian, thanks to you.”  It is I who am thankful, for people who are choosing to make this a kinder, healthier planet.  2014 could be a very good year.

 

Peace in the Pasture

Think about your work for a moment.

Does it not only pay the bills but provide you a sense of identity? Is what you do a big part of who you are?  Are there some things about your job that you don’t like and yet you do them anyway?

peaceable kingdomharoldNow suppose that your work is a time honored family tradition.  You are following in your parents’ footsteps.  You are practicing one of America’s oldest and most entrenched professions.   You are putting food on America’s tables!  But those things that you don’t like feel so terribly wrong that you know you have to turn your back on tradition and make your own way. You must leave the home you’ve known in order to find the home where you belong.

This is the type of personal passage explored in the film Peaceable Kingdom:  the journey home.   Animal agriculturalists get in touch Harold Brown and Maxadjwith the sentient creatures they are “farming.”  That leads them to get in touch with themselves – and their own ethical sensibilities.  A cowboy goes vegan. A boy born and bred to raise animals as food instead launches Farm Kind. A couple turns their goat operation into a sanctuary.

These emotional, intellectual, and lifestyle choices do not happen overnight or easily.  They involve deep consideration, major upheaval and profound change. And in the end, they all feel really, really good.

You can share these experiences via Peaceable Kingdom, a documentary that reveals what happens on farms and invites us to reconsider our own choices.  As producer James LaVeck says, “We’ve seen firsthand how stories focused on justice and compassion can awaken the positive side of human nature…We can choose another way to live.”

pkim_wave_filmmakers

Jenny Stein and James LaVeck

LaVeck and director Jenny Stein are screening their latest film around the world – and seeing that people are making that lifestyle choice even in countries where consideration for animals is truly a foreign concept. “…people of all ages and backgrounds really don’t want to be a part of harming others, and the more they learn about who animals are and what is Sheep onTruckhappening to them, the more willing they are to include our fellow animals in their vision of social justice.”

Think back to abolition in America.  Civil rights. The vote for suffragettewomen. Social justice movements all.  Will we someday look back at what we did to animals and remember the time that justice came to them? LaVeck and Stein believe the answer is yes, for one reason or another; perhaps for many reasons.

Says LaVeck, “We’re living in an era when the growth of the human population, expanding material consumption, and the use of our fellow animals for food are producing devastating environmental consequences.  This crisis is forcing more and more of us to grapple with a basic moral question:  is what I get from the way I live worth the harm it is doing to others, not just now, but in the generations to come?  Many people who seriously ask themselves this question end up renouncing participation in the harm of others or wanton damage to the environment.  What’s great is that making this change is not that hard, and it’s good for us – it’s good for our physical and psychological health, and for our spirits.  When we stop taking part in harming others, we also stop harming ourselves, as we are all connected. This is something more of us are Poster with text[15][1][5]understanding every day.  So this is an exciting time to be alive, one in which our efforts have the potential to make a level of difference that is truly amazing.”

Torn about whether to watch Peaceable Kingdom? Don’t be. You don’t have to change just because you get informed.  It’s a choice.  But take it from me, a girl who grew up on a hobby farm and whose parents passed off my teenaged refusal to eat animals as a passing fad:  if you do make that choice, LaVeck is absolutely right.  It’s so good for us that we want to share it with you. If you haven’t already, how I wish for you to make that journey home.

The film Peaceable Kingdom airs on WEDU+ Sunday, December 22nd at 8:00 pm and again on Sunday, December 29th at midnight.

You can purchase the DVD here.

Watch my interview with Peaceable Kingdom’s director and producer on WEDU Thursday, December 19th, at 8:30 pm.  Additional airdates and times can be found on wedu.org. The show will be posted on the website after air.

Jenny Stein, James LaVeck and Cathy Unruh Upclose with Cathy Unruh WEDU

Jenny Stein, James LaVeck and Cathy Unruh

 

Furballs and bits

How do you get a 9-year old Rottweiler and her six puppies adopted out?

Easy! You put up the headline, “63 year old gives birth to sextuplets!”

That’s just one marketing nugget shared by Mike Arms of the Helen Woodward Animal Center. Mike is an apparent maestro at managing media and message in order to find homes for animals.

Getting animals out of – or better yet, never into – shelters was a strong theme of the Alley Cat Allies conference.  It’s a goal widely shared by companion animal advocates, and expressed as “no kill,” or more recently, “Save Them All,” coined by Best Friends Animal Society.

Close to 400 of us, from 37 states, Canada, and Israel gathered with ACA to talk strategy for saving cats.  (Israel’s government is joining feralstreetcatthe movement, with a cash infusion to Trap-Neuter-Return 45,000 street cats there.) And when you save cats, you save other companion animals, because you free up space in rescues, shelters, and hearts for them to find homes.

Favorite conference quote:

“The animals have your hearts, but it’s your minds they need.”  Mike Arms

Okay then, let’s play “I Spy:”

When Spartanburg Animal Services wanted to prove that free-roaming cats pose no dramatic danger to birds, their FBI National Academy alum, criminal investigator, used-to-do-narcotics-busts chief, Major Steve Lamb, targeted a cat judgecommunity with a bunch of birds around and then put up surveillance cameras to watch them. No murders were witnessed.  Case closed.

Common cents:

Also put your mind around this, Bonney Brown of the Humane Network reminds us.  When you save a cat, you are having a positive economic impact on the community, through purchases of DOLLARSIGNKITTYfood and other supplies the cat will need. So money is being pumped into the economy, as opposed to killing, which costs taxpayers money.

Save statistics:

Expenses associated with shelter intake, animal care, and euthanasia all go down when spay/neuter goes up.  There are statistics and stories (because every “euthanasia” is an animal who would like to live) from around the country proving this.  It’s even happening in that hub of hedonism, Las Vegas, at the Heaven Can Wait Animal Society. (Love that name!) And in the areas where it’s happening most dramatically, Trap-Neuter-Return of community cats is one big reason why. I’m seeing this in my own home area; check this out from the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.

And by the way:

Why are we calling them “shelters” anyway? Too few animals get out of “shelters” alive. We are working to change that, and one way would be to change our shelter names to “Pet Adoption Centers,” or “Pet Villages” – several names were thrown out, all of them designed to get adopters in and animals out. (See “Heaven Can Wait,” above, for creative nomenclature!)

The Let’s Go Get It Goal:

“Let’s put catching and killing in the history books and file it on the  shelves.”  Becky Robinson, president of Alley Cat Allies.

Becky, John, Cathy

Becky Robinson, president Alley Cat Allies, John Fulton, host of “Must Love Cats,” (Animal Planet) and Cathy Unruh, Animal Advocate, Author of TAMING ME: Memoir of a Clever Island Cat

The Future is Now and she’s named Kimberly:

11-year old Kimberly Hernandez learned about TNR from a neighbor, cares for outdoor cats, and wants to be a vet.  Here’s an excerpt from what she had to say:

KimberlyI am Kimberly.

I am the future.

I am an animal lover.

I believe that I can reach all my goals because I am me.  I don’t have to change.

I believe that cats are a gift.  To live is to give them some love.

I will do my best and nothing less to help cats…my best and nothing less.

Side note on conference chow:

The all vegan meals served up by the Hilton Crystal City   had non-vegans vowing to convert on the spot.  The food was beyond fantabulous.  Crowd favorite:  Gardein Beefless Strips served up asbeefless a stir fry/fajita filler.  I saw more than one person going back for third and fourth helpings.  (Another beauty of balanced veganism:  you can do that!)

And a non-conference thank you:

bloglucymiracle

A young Lucy Miracle and Cathy Unruh

To My Three Moggies   for naming Lucy Miracle their November Fur Friend of the month.

“Moggie” is a colloquial British word for an everyday cat – Lucy loves her friends across the pond.  They are a furry friendly bunch!

Snippets from the Front

Working on behalf of animals can often hurt the heart…

there is so much suffering and so far to go.  But every once in a while, a stretch of days comes along that gets the heart pumped up again and practically shouts, “HOPE! PROGRESS! POSSIBILITY!”

That’s been the case in my world the past week or so.

The No More Homeless Pets Conference Best Friends Animal Society 2013

The Best Friends Animal Society No More Homeless Pets Conference

First, the rallying cry of “Save Them All” from the 1,300 people gathered for the No More Homeless Pets conference.  “Save Them All” is a positive way of saying “no kill,” and it reflects the philosophy of Best Friends Animal Society, the conference organizer:  be positive, because we can do this.  We can stop the millions of deaths in animal shelters each year.

Want to help?  Adopt, foster, volunteer, advocate for spay/neuter.  All are key to making it happen.

Francis Battista and Cathy

Cathy and Francis Battista: The Best Friends Animal Society No More Homeless Pets Conference

For the Best Friends folks, saving the animals is not just a cause, it’s a calling – to which they’re devoting their lives.  As co-founder Francis Battista – whose sense of purpose is matched by his sense of fun – put it, “The spiritual expresses itself as kindness and the most basic expression of that is kindness to animals.”

Vegfest Florida Voices for AnimalsTampa Bay Vegfest celebrates kindness toward all animals, from farm to family room.  Sponsored by Florida Voices for Animals, Vegfest is a day during which you can soak up info on why a vegan diet is good for both your health and the environment, along with the animals.  You can learn in the Vegfest  Tampa bay - the day was filled with musicspeakers’ hall, via videos, or handouts from a plethora of organizations.  But perhaps the best testament to the joys of veganism is the bountiful selection of delicious dishes served under a Vegfest Tampa bay offers great food sunny sky in a downtown park. It was one of those autumn days that feel more like August in the sunshine state but people lined up to sample and savor the culinary creations.  Yum!

Passion for Pets - Humane Society of Tampa Bay

Cathy Unruh and Lucy Miracle: Passion for Pets – Humane Society of Tampa Bay

And finally, it’s always a good day when Lucy Miracle gets to step out as an ambassador for companion animals.  She did so for the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, one of our hometown organizations working to Save Them All.

Together, we can.  I believe that together, we will. And it doesn’t hurt to hear it every once in a while from a few thousand of your fellow believers. Thank you.

Fur? Seriously?

I hope you don’t mind receiving this blog post again. We received such a positive response that we are re-posting. Thank you for your support!

That question fired up my brain when an acquaintance mentioned an item in her new “luxury” product line – a sleeping bag lined with the coat of a silver fox. I stepped away from the conversation quickly, before my grief and dismay could move from my mind and escape my mouth. This was the socially acceptable thing to do at the time, but the sorrow of that moment has refused to leave me. Take a look at just one reason why. silver+fox+5

This is a silver fox. He’s beautiful, isn’t he? And smart.  And conscious, sharing many of the sensations we humans experience, including pleasure, fear and pain.  And yet the silver fox and dozens of other animals graced with what should be their own personal furry protection are made to suffer horrendous fates in order that we might usurp their skins.

The fur trade is a ghastly, grisly business.  I will not be too graphic here (the links are more explicit), because if you care one iota about animals, the reality of it is terribly difficult to stomach.  But – the weather is turning chilly and we’re reaching for warm garments, fashion continues to include fur, and new “luxury” lines are being launched that may increase the number of animals currently being skinned in the name of human indulgence.  I want you to know about it.  I want you to be able to make a conscious decision on whether you will participate.

And it is a choice:  we do not need fur.  We are not cavemen headed out with our clubs to try and score a pelt in which to survive the winter. We have a plethora of stylish synthetic fabrics available to keep us warm – I wear them in winter temperatures that sometimes reach 30 below.  Yet an estimated 50 million animals die each year solely for their skins.  These animals include dogs and cats. Some of them – and this is one of the most horrible things to think about – are skinned alive.  Most of them are bred, born, and butchered on fur farms.  The housing here is commonly a stack of barren wire cages. Clausen8 Their captives may be housed individually or crammed together. Conditions can be so horrendous that many of the animals go insane before they meet their ends.  And their ends are brutal – humans don’t want to damage their “product.”  So slaughter methods that leave the animals’ pelts intact are used, such as electrocution via a rod in the anus, and gas chambers.  (And remember, these are the more fortunate ones.  They are dead before their skins are sliced off.) Sometimes, if it’s not deemed too costly for the eventual bottom line, lethal injection is used.  The animal may be paralyzed but still conscious when the skinning starts.

Furry animals in the wild don’t fare much better when it comes to the end of their lives. Traps range from the purely terrifying to the exquisitely torturous.  lynx in trap You’ve probably heard stories about animals who will do almost anything to escape, including chewing off their own legs.injuredfox And then there is the annual wholesale slaughter of baby seals in Canada; this is done pretty much caveman style.

Heard enough? There is faux or fake fur on the market, for people who want to make a more ethical or even a less expensive choice.  But beware:  not all the fur is actually fake.  Sometimes the labeling is simply false. There are ways that you can discern the truth before you decide whether to purchase. And if you want to steer completely clear of the issue, you can patronize fur-free retailers.

We humans enjoy many luxuries.  Among them is the ability to make considered, conscientious decisions about what we will and will not indulge in for the sake of fashion (and food, and fun, and so forth).  The ultimate luxury may be living in a place and time (Here! Now!) where we are free to make the compassionate choice.  I hope you will.  I hope you do.  Because I promise you:  a clear conscience feels a whole lot better than fur.

“You can judge the morality of a nation by the way the society treats its animals” –Mahatma Gandhi

Note:  I appreciate all of you who e-mail me with your comments – but if you are comfortable leaving a reply here, please do so.  It contributes to community discussion. Thank you!

September 11th: Sit. Stay. Enjoy.

CathywbabiescouchWhen this photo was posted on Taming Me’s Facebook page, I was struck by the ferocity of the following comment, including the capitalization of the imperative:  “DON’T MOVE!  Stay right where you are!”  I thought that Paula Booth, the follower who wrote it, must be a woman who knows the value of being in the moment, especially a moment in which one is cuddled up with loved ones, and perhaps even more so a moment when those loved ones happen to have four legs.

In this world of constant connection and a non-stop barrage of news, opinion and information, chores by the score and a plentitude of places to be and people to see, it can be difficult to stop and savor the moment – whether it’s an active moment or one like this, pinned on the sofa by pets. Lately I have found myself counting the days until something I’m looking forward to – and even as I do so, I know that I am detracting from the day at hand.  So I thought that this anniversary of one of the most grievous days in our nation’s recent history might be a good time to remind myself to Sit. Stay. Enjoy. Because who knows how many moments more there will be?

A friend was recently on vacation with her family in one of her favorite places – a house beside the ocean.  She sat on the beach, chattedJuliecropped with her sisters, enjoyed dinner with the entire clan, spent the evening teaching her little niece and nephew to play Chinese checkers and promised that they would play again in the morning.  It was a promise she didn’t mean to break, but the morning she imagined didn’t come. She was buried, dressed in her cheerful orange cardigan, on her 48th birthday. Julie had danced with cancer and its consequences for 30 years, and during those years, between hospitals, treatments and transplants, she gathered all the joy she could muster from life and spread a bunch of it around to the rest of us.

Focus Magazine photo DottieDottie – another friend – was, quite frankly, supposed to be dead by now. But she vowed, “I will be the miracle,” and she is.  Her passion in life is making homes for kids who don’t have them, kids caught up in a foster care system that doesn’t always have enough foster parents to go around.  She’s still busy raising money and building space to offer what is sometimes the most loving environment the kids have ever known.  Oh, and she also spends a fair amount of time sending little love notes out to her friends and relatives.  Dottie knows how to make the briefest moment meaningful. Karyn withmask

And then there’s Karyn.  She got a diagnosis last winter that would have put some of us under the table. But not Karyn. You’d go to visit her in the hospital and she’d give you a gift that she bought for you, in the hospital shop. She’d send you jokes via e-mail and text. KaryngreenbowlhatShe’d make funny faces and pose for pictures, sometimes with her room so packed with visitors you couldn’t find a place to sit down. Right now she’s planning a girls’ weekend and already has special bags waiting for each guest, stuffed with goodies. And she’s busy mothering her six dogs, all of them rescues; she created a special dog park at the shelter where she volunteers, for the ones she couldn’t take home.  Her household canines get hot cooked meals twice a day Kerynwithbroodand the entire pack is welcome in her bed – even if her husband has to get out of the way.  (He’s entirely good-natured about it.)

You know, my intent as I started writing this was to talk mostly about the proven health benefits of pets – lower blood pressure and cholesterol, healthier hearts, quicker recoveries, improved spirits and Lucy Fred and Willie copysocialization – and how animal companions can prolong and enrich our moments. But as I remembered the lives lost in the Twin Towers and the many souls worldwide suffering from conflicts, poverty, illness and disasters even as I type this, my fingers just seemed to want to talk about the people who endure, inspire, and continue to bless us even when they’ve passed on, as we all must do. I think I’ve been giving myself a little sermon. Thank you for sticking with me.

And please allow me one final mention of (another) friend. She recently gave me a book on mindful meditations, arranged by month.  September’s opening quote is from the Buddha:  “Be where you are; otherwise you will miss your life.”  Thank you, Buddha.  I’ll try harder. Thank you, my friends, for your generous spirits. Thank you, PAULA BOOTH! I think I’ll go round up the critters so that we can Sit. Stay. Enjoy.LucyCathyeveryday

Food for Thought

The Fourth of July.

imagesThe star spangled holiday is upon us, the zenith of summer for many Americans, a long leisurely day of outdoor play and picnics, family and friends. Even those who use the holiday to catch up on yard work or home improvements may find themselves drawn at dusk to the nearest fireworks display, where the rockets’ red glare does not signal bombardment upon our homeland, but instead joins a glorious profusion of colors to peacefully burst in the air and sprinkle downward like stardust, reminding us of our country’s foundations and freedoms.

This year, many will reflect upon the expansion of freedom in America, decided last week by the Supreme Court. Some rejoice. Others regret. Still others resolve to fight. But all must surely recognize the inevitable onward march toward parity, slow as the footsteps sometimes are. On the 4th of July, we commemorate the year 1776, when the United States patriotic-pups-pictures0proclaimed its independence and the founding fathers declared that “all men are created equal.” Well, not so much. It took 89 long years tarnished by bloodshed and teardrops before every slave in the republic was declared free – but still not equal. Half a decade later, slaves were allowed to vote, courtesy of the 15th Amendment, which mandated that “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” could no longer stand as barriers to the ballot box. But hold on: they were still talking men here. A full half century later, women long considered chattel (including the non-black ones and the ones presumably loved by the husbands who were writing the laws) finally won the right to vote. To this day, the Equal Rights Amendment, first considered by Congress back in 1923, has not been ratified. But the campaign continues.

Heartbreaking and hard to believe as it is, the reality that human beings could be deemed property – even saleable goods without thoughts or feelings worthy of contemplation or consideration – gives me hope. It gives me hope when I think of the sentient beings still suffering similarly today, the thinking, feeling, living creatures treated as property – saleable mommy and baby goatgoods not worthy of contemplation or consideration as we throw another chunk of one of them on the grill in celebration of the 4th. It gives me hope because history tells us that thoughtlessness can be teased into consciousness, compassion and change – and sometimes, it takes time.

So let me reassure you right here and now, my carnivore friends, that I love you even though. I trust in time and I hold out hope: that someday the infants ripped from their mothers so that we might eat or dispose of norman_1their bodies while we ingest the milk meant for them, that someday the sensitive, intelligent creatures forced to endure all manner of physical torture without anesthesia or any other means to ease their pain, that someday the beings driven to insanity by their forced confinement and inability to so much as turn around or lie down, that someday our fellow animals who endure dismal lives ended by dreadful deaths will rise up in our mass consciousness and that compassion will win the day for their descendants.

And don’t worry. We won’t go hungry or feel deprived. Alternatives to animal flesh abound. Want a burger, a “beef” tip, a slab of “chicken” or hot dog to throw on the vegetable-grill-lgbarbecue? All of these and more are in the grocer’s freezer. New delicacies are created regularly, in addition to the variety of fruits, grains, and vegetables already gracing the earth. A vegan diet can be diverse, delicious, and is considered by many health professionals to be the best for the human body. Oh, and did I mention that by not eating animals we help to save the planet also?

But let me save that for another day so that we can all get back to celebrating. Perhaps you will, however, take just a second to consider whether you’d toss Fido or Fluffy on the grill – and if not them, then why their cousins? If the time is now for you to contemplate these questions, click here for a great starting point. We enjoy the freedom to choose. May we choose wisely, compassionately, and well.

Happy 4th of July!flag-fireworks

 

DEMOCRACY, ADVOCACY – AND YOU?

Warning:  I am about to use a word that often carries negative connotations.  A word that makes some people cringe.  Ready?  Here it is:  lobby.  Not as in the room where you wait, but as in the activity that you do.  As in lobby your legislators.  As in be a lobbyist.  These words can conjure up images of back rooms, money sacks, quiet handoffs, handshakes and secret deals – and evoke aversion, even derision.  But I would like you to know that I am a lobbyist.  I lobby.  And furthermore, I hope that you do too – or will.

Lobbying is part of our precious democratic process.  Lobbying can be wholly above board, Gathering en massehonorable, out in the open…“in the sunshine,” as we say here in Florida about our government and the way we’re supposed to run it.  It can be a personal phone call, letter or e-mail to your legislator; it can be a petition; it can be an appearance en masse with others on your Capitol steps or at your legislator’s door.  It can be on any issue that you care about – you won’t be surprised that I am going to address the issue of animal welfare.

Humane Lobby Days are conducted around the country under the auspices of the Humane Society Animals don't have a voiceof the United States. It’s a time for those who care about animals to converge on their statehouses and give voice to the voiceless.  The other animals don’t get a vote.  It’s up to us humans to find votes for them.

In Tallahassee, where I participated in Humane Lobby Day, there is a great chance that an animal cruelty bill will pass both chambers this year.  The bill would crack down in several ways on variousAnimal Cruelty Bill acts of animal cruelty and organized crime at staged animal fights. A measure that would require animal shelters to put their numbers out in the sunshine – how many animals taken in, how many adopted out, how many euthanized – is destined for the governor’s desk.  Humane lobbyists have several goals in my state:  ending greyhound racing, endorsing Trap Neuter Return, protecting both dogs and consumers from puppy mill sales. And we have reason to hope.  We are the people who collected enough signatures to put gestation crates for pregnant pigs to referendum – and abolished them. We showed that when you bring animal cruelty to light, a majority of the citizenry may choose to end it.

But you need not go out and gather signatures, travel to the seat of government, or even leave your seat to help animals.  Click here to learn about pending legislation in your state and here  for bills at the federal level, where many of the issues with the most impact on animals – along with consumers and taxpayers – are considered. And then there’s your own backyard, with issues like exotic animals as outdoor pets, dog tethering, free-roaming cats and TNR, backyard chickens:  many ordinances affecting animals and you are enacted at the local level, in municipal and county governments.

Wondering whether your voice matters?  It does. Lawmakers know that citizens who care enough to contact them are likely citizens who vote – so they listen. To learn who your representatives are, visit www.votesmart.org. You can also get on the e-mail lists of animal welfare groups who will alert you to Democracy is a privilegelegislation and ask you to contact your representatives. These alerts often make it easy with summaries of the issue at hand and suggested verbiage when you write your lawmaker.  Your chance to be an advocate is just a few clicks away! As a spokesperson for Grey2K USA – a greyhound advocacy group – reminded us in Tallahassee, “We have the power to do tremendous, amazing things.”  We just have to unleash that power.

Democracy is a privilege. Employing its processes is a choice. Using our system for the betterment billboardredo1of others is what the founding fathers intended.  Defining “others” as all sentient creatures means embracing a lifestyle of conscious compassion. That lifestyle has my vote.

WANDERING CUBA

I’ve just returned from Cuba, a trip endorsed by the U.S. government as a people to people educational exchange. The Cuban government (“state,” to Cubans) provided our local guide. We saw what the government wanted us to see. We stayed where the government wanted us to stay. We visited rural areas, mountains, beaches, small towns, the capital.Havana apartment building copy

The first and relentless impression is that Cuba’s clock stopped ticking somewhere circa the late 50’s or in many cases, decades earlier. Technology, modern means of production, and residential comforts as we know them seem truly foreign concepts here. In nearly every locale, the poverty is soul deadening. And that is just in looking at it, not living it.

In the country, the people live in shacks, primarily of wood. Holes gape from their sides, not all of them windows. We visit two farmhouses which by comparison are luxurious. They feature several rooms, glass windows, porches. One is the home of a third generation tobacco farmer and his family. He is matter of fact with an occasional smile. The state allows him to entertain tourists because he is a top producer. He knows that should he slip, the state might take his land. Currently, the state claims 95 percent of his crop and pays him what it wishes. As is common across Cuba, the money is not enough to live on. The other farm is open to us as a model of organic farming and Cat eating cucumberecological sustainability. Its stewards appear happy, energetic, enthused. Learning of my veganism at lunch, the wife requests a “momento ecological,” and returns holding Gato, a cat who enthusiastically crunches cucumber.

In the towns, attached single story buildings line the cobblestone streets like dormitories, housing small apartments. Doors hang open, grabbing breaths of air. We can see the interiors, windowless multi-function rooms that hold what passes for a kitchen, a table, a sitting area, sometimes a bed. Some thoroughfares blossom with modest stand-alone homes, even patches of lawn and flowers. The houses are generally uniform, box after box of the same size and shape.

In the capital, 20 percent of the island’s population crowd together in antiquated high rises, low rises, dilapidated houses. Buildings literally collapse here Havana housing2 copyoccasionally, taking their occupants with them. These are called “derrumbes,” for a giant rumbling followed by rubble and grief. Even landmark structures – museums, government agencies, embassies – are bruised and decaying, although the state is now undertaking a Havana overhaul in an effort to rehabilitate the largest tourist attraction in the country. We are driven through the grandest residential section, large homes from which we are told the wealthiest citizens fled Fidel. It resembles all the rest: the entire country seems to be crumbling, in need of shoring up or at least a coat of paint. Rotting wood and dingy cement glare through splotches of long-faded veneer. Hand-washed laundry on lines is part of the scenery from coast to coast, hanging from the yards of country hovels to the windows of city apartments.

Machines are relics, from the 1950’s American cars miraculously maintained to the Soviet era tobacco farmer’s tractor to the diesel operated water pumps that Radio copycould well date back to World War II to this radio, the property of a potter’s family. The occasional rusting air conditioner graces a window. 15 percent of the people, we are told, have access to the internet. Public phones are a primary means of Public phone copycommunication.

We actually converse with very few Cubans, shepherded through our stops. Our guide, a vivacious woman in her thirties, shares what she says is “her reality,” as she has never left the homeland. She is happy with “the triumph of the revolution,” the repetitively uttered term for the 1959 Castro coup – the state provides health care and education. She claims to be both ignorant of and not curious about where or how the brothers Castro live. She knows only how they travel: in caravans of luxury carsOld car copy with ambulance and police escorts. But she is openly frustrated at the subsistence salaries, the inability to buy or even find a car, the irony of being permitted to travel abroad when she doesn’t have the money to do so.

Food rations doled out by the state do not fill the table. Soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toilet paper are all expensive extras. Remittances – money sent from relatives and friends in America and elsewhere – prop up the official economy and fuel the black market on which Cubans depend. A good job is one that has something you can pilfer to sell on the black market in exchange for food, clothes, toiletries, household needs.

Are people happy, we ask? They’d better be, says a Cuban citizen we meet one morning at breakfast. Because people still disappear, he says. Perhaps they go to prison and then their families hear they died there in an “accident.” They never see the body, he tells us. There is no autopsy report. Nonetheless, his family likes it here. He doesn’t. He’s just visiting. He’s also an American citizen, an ocean borne escapee 21 years ago.

Cathy with street cat copyAnd then there are the animals. Everywhere. Oxen plow the fields, planted and harvested by hand. Goats work as lawnmowers. Cattle graze on the brown grass of dry season. Horses do it all: farm chores, family transportation, cart rides for cash. Roosters, chickens, guinea fowl and turkeys rake yards and fields. Pink piglets frolic on a lawn. A few doors down, a fattened adult lies on a platform being skinned. I try to take comfort in the relative freedom many open air “food animals” are given until they meet their grisly ends. (Guns are tightly controlled here. Few farmers have them. Tools are largely antiques. Your imagination can complete the slaughter scenarios.) Circling vultures are ubiquitous.

bullSaddled Brahman bulls with ropes piercing their noses offer transport and entertain tourists. Cocks are bred for fighting. Horses and donkeys are whipped with ropes and chain link. Many of their beaten backs are bony, underfed. A muscled man, cigarette in hand, simultaneously spurs and reins in his horse, sending it into a tailspin for the amusement of onlookers. Caged birds hang from doorjambs like decorations.

Dog with teats-RecoveredCats and dogs roam both rural and urban areas. Street dogs survive on scraps and handouts, grateful for the occasional ear scratch. CathyScratching dog copyProminent teats and swollen milk sacs attest to hidden puppies. Spaying, neutering, vaccinations – these are rare except for some lucky pets and in Havana, street dogs who are collared and claimed by restaurants as mascots. Cats hunt to survive. Tourist stops and table sides are fertile grounds. A lucky few make their living in open door hotels.Cat in restaurant-Recovered

We leave the plight of the land animals to spot birds in the woods: warblers, hawks, woodpeckers, the bee hummingbird – smallest bird in the world – sap suckers, the Cuban parakeet. Our hiking guide says the parakeet will kill itself if caged; it wants its independence. This is the national bird.

Lunch is an intact pig, his lively brain roasted along with the rest of his body. “It is cruel,” the hiking guide concedes to me in an aside. “But we need it.” My American companions are apparently unfazed. They stop for photos. They eat the freshly shredded corpse with gusto. I slip away and have a little cry. For the pig, for all the animals, for the poverty of the people, for Cuba, for the cruelty which spans our world from dictators to diners.

What does the future hold for Cuba? Who knows? Years more of socialism? A shot at capitalism? Official relations with America? KFCs and factory farms? The right to openly earn one’s own money? The breeze of change is whispering. Small private businesses now dot the landscape, licensed and taxed by the state. Many citizens can now travel abroad. Raul has given his presidency a deadline.

On the day we head home, the wind is whipping – toward the north. I am glad to go with it.

 

 

 

 

 

ANIMALS, EMOTIONS, AND THE FISHBOWL

Do animals have emotions?

I’d like to say that is purely a rhetorical question, because is the answer not as clear as the snouts on their faces – or am I missing a third eyelid wink (wink, wink)?

Apparently Mr. Peter Ogburn of Media Bistro’s FishbowlDC thinks I am missing more than that – a brain, perhaps. In a piece called Dumbass Pitches (yep, that’s really the link), Ogburn basically asserts that I must be a misguided moron – or perhaps “some sad person who calls their 27 cats their ‘animal children’ and would breast feed their kittens if they could” – to suggest that animals experience emotion.

Now I could pause for a sentence here to point out such trivialities as Mr. Ogburn being mistaken on where the “beautifully stupid” pitch actually originated or some of the points it makes, but let’s get straight to some more of his commentary because it is so deeply considered: “Animals…shit when they have to.” “Animals live on base instincts.” “The perceived LOVE that they are giving you is a way to tell you that they want something…a leg to hump.”

As I was reflecting upon how a person who says he has pets could so crassly conclude that they don’t emote, I helpfully received a piece by Gene Weingarten which describes Mr. Ogburn’s worksite as: [a] “vicious, sleazy, snide, disreputable, unscrupulous, vacuous, wildly immature, gratuitously cruel, malicious and mean-spirited media-gossip website that specializes in innuendo, reckless character assassination and unconscionable, wanton defamation.” (Click here to read his full article.)

But hold my horses! Weingarten goes on to entreat Mr. Ogburn to continue to feature him weekly, as is apparently FishbowlDC’s custom, because “I have come to enjoy the abrasive work…It hurts so good.” If this two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist wants to stay in the Fishbowl, then please…have me back! Let’s talk animals!

After all, I like to swim with the fishes – that’s me in the scuba suit. The other Bull Run 032 swimmer is Larry the grouper. Whenever we would descend to his reef in the Bahamas, Larry would fishtail it over to us to engage in long soulful eyelocks, slurp at our regulators and get petted. He would roll from side to side and front to back to make sure we scratched every accessible scale. Now Mr. Ogburn, I can’t tell you exactly what Larry’s emotions were when he saw our air bubbles heading his way, but I imagine they were something like, “Hot diggity divers! This is gonna feel good!”Bull Run 035

And yes, “Larry” is my own humanly imposed nomenclature for our grouper groupie. Call that crazy cat/fish/animal lady stuff if you’d like. I don’t mind. And finally, Mr. FishbowlDC, if I ever start breast feeding kittens, I’ll be sure to let you know. That would make a great column.

But excuse me right now, I have to go. Lucy Miracle is meowing against my ankles, which means she’s feeling affectionate and wants a little together time. I like to respond when the moment is right.

–Readers, please tell us what you think. Do animals have emotions – or not?