My latest article for CounterPunch is provocatively titled, yes. Because while it’s right to improve life for a confined elephant, focusing on a being in permanent captivity makes a problematic case for personhood.
On social media, the elephant personhood case is tagged #FreeHappy. This confuses the humans-in-charge regime with freedom. Moving Happy might be the best we could do under the circumstances, but it wouldn’t create freedom; Happy would remain a refugee. This needs to be said. We need to be serious about freedom if we’re claiming to struggle for it. We must defend other animals’ interests in thriving independently of human supervision before it’s too late.
Understanding climate disruptions on bees, say researchers, is also vital. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature says one necessary step is to create a global database of bee records. Fine, but let’s do what we can now, before it’s too late to apply anything we might learn in the future.
Beekeeping is not the answer…
Avoiding the products of animal agribusiness is. Animal ag consumes massive amounts of feed crops—and is thus responsible for most bee use. Dairy companies use alfalfa feed crops, pollinated by bees. Those bees, like the beekeepers’ honeybees, are commercially trafficked to the United States.
Devote a simple patch of garden space to the cause. Choose bee-friendly, indigenous flowering plants, like liquorice mint, joe-pye weed, sedum, bee balm, beardtongue and native asters. Buy them from dedicated native plant sellers.
The growers at the Vegan Organic Network advise us all to do some gardening. Even a little. It’s a life skill, and a matter of animal liberation.
…In my nearby national park at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, white-tailed deer have been baited and shot for many winters. A decent policy would call us to respect both the deer and the area’s free-living predators. They are the Eastern coyotes—animals trying to fill the vacuum we created by extirpating the wolves—and the bobcats. Long ago, bigger cats roamed this same land.
Beneath Valley Forge National Historical Park, in an ancient fissure, is a trove of fossils. In Pleistocene times, the land was home to Miracinonyx inexpectatus, or American cheetahs, and Smilodon gracilis—sometimes called sabre-toothed tigers.
These cats died out in a major extinction event some 12,000 years ago. The event is sometimes attributed to climatic change and the cats’ narrow range of prey. But some researchers believe the die-off resulted from the pressure of Homo sapiens, who arrived on the continent around then, and likely dreaded the trouble and risk of competing with these apex carnivores. We are not at the top of the food chain, except through artifice, deliberate cruelty, and sprawl.
Unlike the sabre-toothed cats, the tigers of the world are still with us. Barely.
And now, we’re officially into the Year of the Aurochs. My mind keeps wandering back to the day when, courtesy of Theresa Sarzynski in New Jersey, I met Herbie, a bovine refugee at a sanctuary for rescued farm animals.
It’s odd how we have this sort of meme image of the happy cow, instilled in us from childhood. Herbie and friends were as happy as cows can be, but they were some of the scant few to receive protection from what nearly always happens to cows. So, what’s up with the whole happy-cow concept?
We take their milk. Notoriously, after farmers pull their infants away, they bellow for days. They mourn as their offspring are prepared to become the veal special on a diner’s menu. Ultimately, all the dairy cows, like the beef cattle before them, wind up in slotted trucks, bound for slaughter. These are not secrets. It takes very little effort to put two and two together. Why don’t we?
Most people have no idea about that part. They never knew cows came from animals, now extinct, called aurochs, who lived on their terms until humans hunted them down to the very last one. They didn’t learn about the selective breeding that deprived cows of their freedom, one generation at a time, so that dependence on the human environment is now etched into their DNA.
In fact, many vegans don’t know. I’ve been told by a number of vegans that the ideal “vegan world” includes happy cows, and looks like a sanctuary. We’d learn to pet cows and not eat them.
When I was preparing The Year of the Aurochs for publication at CounterPunch, Harold Brown pointed out that dairy cows are the most docile. They were bred to be as gentle as pets, so they could be walked and milked. The ones who chase people across fields are the beef cattle. They don’t need to be completely docile, Harold said. They only need to be driven.
Purpose-breeding gradually transformed the aurochs into sources of edible substances which humans could have just as well done without. We can make burgers from beetroot and ice cream from oats. Why didn’t we simply do that all along? Why did we cultivate a taste for blood and for the liquid produced by other animals’ mammary glands? And how could we laugh?
For a vegan, caring for a cat is no easy feat. Dogs have broader diets, so the case seems easier. Many vegans buy or make vegetarian dog food.
But how do we feed our cats? Products have been created and called vegan cat food, but are they safe?
Christina M. Gray, et al. published “Nutritional Adequacy of Two Vegan Diets for Cats” in 2004 in the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association. The study tested two products, which proved nutritionally inadequate. The study also discussed in biological terms why cats are strict carnivores.
(The makers of the tested cat foods later vowed to improve quality control.)
Thousands of cats may be fed plant-based foods (although the product makers run into complications applying the nutritional rules), but comprehensive nutritional data attesting to safety continues to be lacking. And there’s an ethical problem in trying to make that data sufficient. Frankly, it’s testing on cats, which itself is not vegan.
We Can Apply the Vegan Principle to Our Diets, and Cats Can’t
Imagine we’re feeding a child. When asked if the vegan meals we serve are safe and nutritious, we confidently quote the Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: “Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.”
Now, what about the animals in our homes? Shouldn’t we be able to confirm we’re ensuring appropriate nourishment for them as well?
The most current and comprehensive study of the daily dietary needs of dogs and cats is Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats, National Research Council (2006), published by the National Academies Press. Here are two excerpts, from page 313:
Dogs differ from cats in that they are not strict carnivores but fall more into the omnivorous category. This fact allows a great deal more latitude in ingredient selection and formulation. It is entirely feasible to formulate an adequate dog diet using no animal tissue-based ingredients.
Generally speaking, strict vegetarian diets, when fed alone, are not nutritionally adequate for cats, even though such diets can be made sufficiently palatable to be readily consumed.
What’s in Your Cat Food? Maybe That’s Not the Real Vegan Issue
Cats and dogs have been changed from wildcats and wolves. Selective breeding separated them from their potential to evolve in nature. It also made them dependent on human care. These are the unpleasant facts.
The vegan principle—and honest love—calls on us to end the selective breeding of other animals. Not to assume wildcats and wolves should be ours to have and hold, or that they must participate in a vegan ideal.
We go to great lengths for the animals we know and love, yet many people will not or cannot. That’s why dogs, cats, and other animals raised as pets are steered to shelters by the millions annually—and many don’t come out.
Furthermore, no dog or cat is vegan, as veganism is an anti-domination principle—not simply a list of allowed ingredients.
Social justice is elusive in human relations; but we strive for it. We need to also strive to be fair members of the community of life on Earth.
Selective breeding and forced dependence aren’t fair, nor can they be.
What Can We Do, Then?
Let’s understand pet breeding for what it really is. Until the 1800s, keeping animals as pets was an aristocrat’s hobby. Relatively recently, it exploded into a multi-billion-dollar industry. How can vegans deal with this situation? Rather than try to make cats eat plants, we can consider:
Talking about pets. Calling out the custom. Defending the life and freedom of undomesticated cats and dogs, including the wildcats and bobcats, the wolves and coyotes. They are the ones being erased as selective breeding becomes the norm.
Speaking out against pet breeding—whether done through high-volume companies, local businesses, or someone’s home.
Supporting local trap-neuter-return (TNR) groups that care for, while gradually phasing out, groups of cats outdoors.
Some will say this challenge could ultimately lead to a society without “companion” animals.
Is that so bad? I’m not asking a glib question.
Can’t we care about other animals, and derive joy from their presence on this Earth, without controlling, having and holding them? Doesn’t the feeling that we could do that make us empathetic—and vegan—in the deepest sense?