My freezer is jammed with vegan Indian dinners that I got at Trader Joe’s before Friday the 13th, when a declared national state of emergency sunk in (and Tom Hanks got COVID-19: that was a big yikes! moment for the jetsetters of the Philly burbs). Suddenly, frozen items started selling out as fast as staffers could stock the freezers.
Starting yesterday our local vegan restaurant SuTao closed its doors for two weeks.
Vegan restaurants are generally small, independent businesses, and will be hit hard. Their staffers are unlikely to receive any of the federal government’s weirdly patchy emergency paid leave. (The bill, just passed, guarantees sick leave only to about 20% of workers. Staffers of big corporations including McDonald’s and Amazon are left out. Staffers of companies with fewer than 50 people will be left out because of exemptions. And the bill simply wasn’t drafted with independent businesses, tip-earning workers, high-turnover sectors, or artists and educators in mind.) Point is, most vegan-run businesses are taking a heavy hit. Kindly support them when they reopen.
I’ve had to stop work on planned public presentations as the college events aren’t happening. But I’m not the worst-off here. People who sell their goods where people meet – vegan festivals or physical stores – could go out of business.
So, on top of fear of the virus itself, vegan craftspeople, vendors, educators, writers, and creators have the agony of watching event after event get cancelled around the arrival of Spring and the month of Earth Day and we have to find the ability to connect with people through videos, Zoom interviews, or the written word. The people at Patreon, which now enables all my vegan advocacy to happen, have been wonderfully supportive and caring. I mean the people running it as well as my patrons. If you are a vegan educator, writer, or artist I recommend Patreon not only for its platform but also for its efforts in creating a sense of community.
What COVID-19 TELLS US ABOUT OUR COLLECTIVE FUTURE Speaking of community, we human apes need to find ways to share our prosperity, or we’ll share our inability to survive. Real “resilience” in the face of changes in climate, and land and ocean health, must mean we become capable of widely empathetic responses. And real resilience must involve asking deep questions about why the climate, the land, and the waters are changing.
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?
My friend Lois Baum recently gave an invited sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rochester, NY. In the sermon, Lois quoted a statement attributed to an animal liberation summit, circa 2010:
Veganism is a moral and ethical way of living; the practice of non-cooperation and non-participation in anything that exploits nonhuman animals, humans, or the environment. It is a moral baseline for our conduct and how we are revealed to the world.
A spot-on description, I think, of the connected ethic of a vegan life.
Making Others Do Disgraceful Work
And it leads me to think again about the humans who do the disgraceful work of killing living animals and turning their bodies into commodities for human consumption.
I do not believe vegans should invest in undercover investigations of these employees’ actions. Some people disagree. Here is my logic.
Time and time again, the “successful” undercover investigation means:
Workers get caught, punished, and driven out (and many if not all of them are leading the most exhausted, marginal, and fragmented of lives already).
The company increases surveillance of the workers who remain.
If regulators do suspend the company’s business, the business usually tidies up and reopens.
The case against the company involves employees’ failure to follow regulations. It is never about real caring, real fairness, and it’s definitely never about justice. (Injustice is heaped on, as workers’ precarious lives slide into worse ruin.)
Arguments resume on whether “ag gag” laws should tighten up to prevent undercover investigations, as the company swears up and down that it is now adequately self-monitored.
One of the points made by early vegans is that we shouldn’t expect other human beings to do disgraceful work for us, work which we’d avoid doing ourselves.
That, I think, invokes an empathy and fairness principle. It does not assume that we should blame these employees for doing what they do…badly.
Animal agribusiness is all unfair, and so many humans are implicated. Only a few people are vulnerable enough to be cast out of society for the way they do it.
Mongolian dignitaries made an Eastertime pilgrimage to see the Trumps at Mar-a-Lago. And whoosh…By September, Donald Trump Jr. had a Mongolian permit to kill one of the world’s few remaining argali sheep.
On this day, I’d like to return to a memory related to Vegan Society co-founder Donald Watson. How interesting to find that the most well-known founder of veganism knew, and said, that the movement would be essential to any future on Earth that includes humanity.
I think it’s also very interesting to learn, as I did from Patricia Fairey, that the name “vegan” was proposed for this movement not by Donald Watson, as we often hear, but by Dorothy Morgan Watson.
For some time after visiting Donald’s and Dorothy’s gravesites, I thought it would be a nice gesture if the vegan community could come together and order headstones, and I should work on that project. Yet I’m ever more keenly aware that I’m only here for a little while. And I can imagine Donald saying, “That’s a nice thought. But go out, speak, write for the vegan cause. The churchyard will always be here. What happens to keep this work in the forefront of peoples’ conversations is the priority.”
Jack McMillan imagines a vegan future “far beyond what we can currently imagine.” Here is Jack’s description, and some back-and-forth we had. It’s lightly edited for readability.
I believe a vegan world, an authentically vegan world, does have a vision that would become a reality, but that vision is currently locked up within our species-wide archetypal memory of “Eden”.
Every culture has a deep yet deeply hidden mythology of our origins in a Garden of Eden. Deep down we know that we once resided in such a realm. A realm of peace and harmony. One where all the ugliness of this current realm simply did not exist. In my opinion, a truly vegan world would recreate that paradisical reality.
When one really thinks about it, how could it not? If we lived with a compassion and a passion for not oppressing or harming any fellow being, just imagine how different our world would be. Everything would change.
We “believe” it is not possible to have our dreams of peace and harmony become a real reality. Thus we give up, as a collective society, before we even try. If everyone would embark on the vegan path, soon we would begin to rediscover, as individuals and as a society, the vision and the possibility of a (return to) an Eden on Earth. Much like we remember via mnemosyne deep within our consciousnesses.
Our mythologies began as realities, which we left behind, and, in our shame over creating a world of such abandonment of love and beauty, we have excused ourselves with the myth that they are mere “myths”.
The themes of “I can’t” or “we can’t” or “it’s not possible” keep us on this downward spiral. And..”that’s just ‘childish’ fantasy”, or “that’s just not reality”. Or any number of other “reasons” why we can never have the world we envision. But a world that takes the chance to step into that possibility, a world that decides to take that first step by going on the vegan path, would quickly see that all things are possible, that all our yearnings for peace on Earth, for all, is not just a pipe dream but easily and naturally attainable.
We can only begin to imagine how it would eventually transform everything in our societies, and in our species.
We have the inkling, the desire, the wish, and even the (faint archetypal) memory of such a world. Why not go with that?
We may not be able to imagine how such a Eden-istic world is possible, but just because we can’t imagine it now doesn’t mean that once on that path the imaginings and the possibilities would be revealed to us. If we could only convince the world to take that leap of faith. And, really, it’s our only chance, our only hope to flip this current terribleness upside-down.
I asked whether Chapter 7 in On Their Own Terms: Animal Liberation poses a challenge to Jack’s Edenic ideal. In Chapter 7, Connecting Dominion’s Dots, I posited that the Eden story is widely understood as the ideal, whereas I think it’s better understood as a social commentary on human dominion.
I’m talking about the archetypal memory in us all, as biological and Earth-based beings, that remembers a true Eden, one with no dominion mentality. Your insightful chapter discusses the perversion of our memory, to serve a post-Eden rationalization of our will to dominate.
And you are perfectly right, how, when seen for what it is (which you reveal), it is a social commentary on our flight from Eden rather than a genuine attempt to return to the eternal truth of it. In no way was I talking of the mythologies that contain only half truths leading to whole lies regarding our relationship with the Earth and Earth’s beings.
The Eden story I was talking about is that which resides in us all, that what we all know deep down as to what it was and can be…instead of, as you say, the stories that “defy messages from the natural world that all is interwoven, overlapping, interdependent…”
Any deep challenge to dominion, I said to Jack, would mean remembering our primate identities. And we then have to understand that we are not superior to the big cats. We’d instead live with the risk their existence presents. This is not everyone’s thought when Eden is invoked! I suppose some would call us traitors to humanity for even suggesting it!
And Jack replied:
Lee, that is spot on.
But remembering our primate identities would in fact liberate us from fear. We have exaggerated the risks of the metaphorical big lion. Way back when, we wanted to escape those minimal fears of nature. We decided to subdue nature to eliminate all risk. But in so doing, by creating an artificial world insulated from nature, we have created risks 1,000 times more risky and dire. Instead of the occasional risk or tragedy befalling one or a few, as is natural, we have created endless tragedies and risks at every turn, befalling all.
We were far safer then.
Then, factor in the risks and tragedies to the more-than human world that flow in the wake of our decision to be at war with nature and life instead of remaining at equality and peace with it, well…all I can say is, how dare we do that, not only to ourselves but to the rest of the natural world.
There are no words in our limited, linear languages to adequately convey the tragedy of it all. And since we do not seem to know how to do that, we will have to leave it up to Gaia to express it for us, as it is doing, with a proper vengeance.
Well, said I, the struggle was real for primates. It was not all sweetness and peace, of course.
Aurochs, the ancestors of cattle, would run over a village, too.
So it wasn’t just the carnivores that kept us running. Most people think of their locked doors and fenced yards and genetically subdued animals and processed foods and pharmaceuticals as the bases of modern safety. But we don’t die well if you ask me.
Is it weird to say I should prefer to die by tooth and claw than on a rented gurney with tubes in my arms and a legal mess on someone’s desk? We are not allowed by civilized society to ask the question. But we might as well ask. We haven’t figured out how to die in harmony with nature or live within the constraints of a planet’s realities.
Not weird at all to rather die by tooth and claw than by modern infirmities. Yet I’m not so sure the dangers then were all that severe. That Red in Tooth and Claw story of nature being just another exaggeration to justify the path we have chosen. As we know, predation only takes a very small percentage of a prey species. And as for all the other dangers, like disease, etc., clearly we have way more of that now than then. And when factoring in quality of life then vs now… well…. game.. set.. match.
So, yeah, we don’t die well or live well or in harmony with nature.
Once prey animals get to a certain age, I said to Jack, if the natural balance exists, they will quite likely get eaten.
I’m not assuming this is pleasant. Yet I do think the final release came more quickly in the the course of nature’s trophic conversion than it does for most of us primates today, when medical ethics oblige our caregivers to keep us contained in the mortal coil for as long as they can possibly stretch the situation out, beyond what we could reasonably be called natural.
I know this is fraught territory, and I’m not making a moral statement. I’m simply noting that we overshoot the line at which quality of life is exhausted in many, many lives thanks to the wonders of modern medicine!
And Jack responded:
Yes and yes. What is better, a life of disconnect, then protracted beyond sensation, or one fully lived then a quick release, by natural expiration or fast flash of nature’s attack? The latter is a life more fully lived. And a life not at war with the rest of life.