The AgGag Story, Beautifully Done

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When you are a journalist, you sometimes see a story and think: “I wish I had written that.” It is the highest praise for another writer’s work, and that was exactly my reaction when I read Ted Genoways powerful and devastating investigation of the AgGag phenomenon:

Using a legal cudgel to go after critics wasn’t entirely a new tactic for agribusiness. PETA first began undercover investigations around 1981—getting video of rhesus monkeys being vivisected in a Maryland medical research lab by posing as employees—and a few legislatures responded by enacting laws to protect animal research from exposés. (Only Kansas had the foresight to expand its law to cover “livestock and domestic animals.”) Then, in 1992, when two ABC PrimeTime Live reporters shot undercover video of Food Lion workers in the Carolinas repackaging spoiled meat, Food Lion sued—not for libel, since the tapes spoke for themselves, but for fraud and trespass, because the reporters had submitted false information on their job applications. (A jury awarded $5.5 million, but an appeals court reduced it to just $2.) In 1996, at the height of the mad cow scare, the Texas Beef Group launched a two-year lawsuit against Oprah Winfreyover an episode that questioned the safety of hamburger. Recently, not only has the rhetoric heated up, but so has the coordinated legislative effort. Deeply invested in industrywide methods that a growing number of consumers find distasteful or even cruel, agribusiness has united in making sure that prying eyes literally don’t see how the sausage is made.

“If you think this is an animal welfare issue, you have missed the mark,” said Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign, who served as a representative for the whistleblowers who tipped off ABC in the Food Lion case. “This is a bigger, broader issue.” She likened activist videos to airplane black-box recorders—evidence for investigators to deconstruct and find wrongdoing. Ag gag laws, she said, don’t just interfere with workers blowing the whistle on animal abuse. “You are also stopping environmental whistleblowing; you are also stopping workers’ rights whistleblowing.” In short, “you have given power to the industry to completely self-regulate.” That should “scare the pants off” consumers concerned about where their food comes from. “It’s the consumer’s right to know, but also the employee’s right to tell. You gotta have both.”

Exactly. This is a story about animal welfare AND the first Amendment, AND democracy itself. And along the way it makes clear that abuse is both rampant and the inevitable consequence of the public lust for abundant and cheap meat.

It is hard to read this story and not come to a simple conclusion: the only ethical choice is to stop eating meat.

PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk Sits For A Profile

And explains what she is all about:

My favourite story about Ingrid Newkirk, the founder and head of Peta, the animal-rights organisation, involves her storming the dining room of the Four Seasons hotel in New York, depositing a dead raccoon onAnna Wintour‘s dinner plate and calling the veteran editor of American Vogue a “fur hag”. Wintour, a long-time Peta hate figure for her support of the fur industry, calmly covered it with a napkin and then ordered coffee…[snip]

Is it Peta’s strategy to upset everyone, I ask Newkirk. “No,” she says. “Our mission is to provoke thought. People have been taught to disregard what happens to pigs or chickens, to not think about the suffering they go through. Our job is to make them think. We’re not out to be popular.”

No matter what you think of PETA and its tactics, they have helped supercharge animal rights, and done some good undercover work:

Graphic Interlude: The Life Of “Fox Guy”

The story of an animal activist (via Our Hen House), or an ode to the virtues of “radicalism.” Inspired, and oddly inspiring (side note: why didn’t “tool libraries” take off? Great idea).

Here’s the first panel (read on from there):


Is There Such A Thing As Humane Meat, Dairy And Eggs?

PETA‘s president Ingrid Newkirk offers an emphatic “No,” in this HuffPost piece:

“Surely,” they ask, hopefully, “if I buy organic, humanely raised or free-range, that’s all good, isn’t it?”

Well, actually, no. You are just kidding yourself, I am obliged to tell them, and the animals you are trying not to hurt would tell you if they could that your valiant effort is not enough. I’m not just saying that because I object in toto to the willful consumption of meatmilk and eggs. I’m saying it because labels lie.

First, there’s no getting around the fact that, no matter whether the hen was fed pesticides or not, or whether she was given another 2 inches of space or not, she will still come to a painful and terrifying end. And her death will pretty much be a blessing, considering how distressing her daily life was before meeting the man with the knife. The labels will not mention any of that because they are a big fat fraud, as evidenced by yet another exposé that hit the news last week, this one courtesy of PETA Germany. This latest case was about “bio” foods, labeled as coming from humanely raised, “free range” chickens and revealed the hell that can lurk behind the shell.

Actually, meat consumption is destroying the planet, and so no meat, even humanely farmed meat, can truly be considered “ok.” Sorry, America (and the rest of the world that wants to eat–and die–like America).

But I completely agree with Newkirk that the labels used on our foods are a scam to try and fool us into thinking an animal has been raised on a bucolic small farm, with lots of fresh air, pasture to roam, and love. The labels have been completely corrupted by Big Food, and its army of lobbyists waving fistfuls of cash. So anyone who thinks “cage free” or “free range” or “organic” means you are dealing with a happy, humanely treated animal, better wake up. Those are just labels which indicate a slightly different form of factory farm torture.

That, however, doesn’t mean that all labels are misleading or unreliable. I think about this question of “humane” farming quite a lot, because while I am a vegetarian I am not a vegan. I could almost get there, but I can’t stand to drink coffee without a splash of Half And Half (I’ve tried every soy and almond milk alternative, believe me, and it is horrible in comparison). And I eat eggs for protein. (I also eat cheese and butter, but I could give those up easily).

So I have looked into labels and whether there are any that can be trusted to help me find eggs and dairy from humanely treated animals. After researching the question (and discovering that there are multiple contradictory and confusing standards) I have come to rely on one that I trust: Certified Humane (argh, website appears to be down for the moment). The eggs that I eat, for example, are “Certified Humane,” which basically means that the chicken lives like you would expect a chicken on a mythical fram to live–free of preventive antibiotics, and with acces sto plenty of light, chicken entertainment, and pasture. Yes, they cost a little more, but $3.50 a dozen seems a reasonable price for what in my house we call “non-torture” eggs.

Finding “non-torture” milk is a little harder. Happily, “Certified Humane” has just produced an app that you can use to find where you can buy Certified Humane products near you. You will see that its main limitation is that there just aren’t that many products, or choices (Whole Foods looms large). But this is a process, and we are dealing with a food production system, as Newkirk points out, in which 95 percent of the products sold to Americans come from tortured animals. Certified Humane is slowly but surely adding farms and their products to the Certified Humane label, but farmers and producers need to know there is a market out there for Certified Humane food. So it never hurts to let your grocery store manager know that you would like to see “non-torture” products on the shelves, though feel free to use other language.

One last note about this dilemma. I actually quizzed some PETA employees on this last summer. I wanted to know whether there was a moral problem eating an egg from a happy chicken that wasn’t on hormones or antibiotics, and spent its days running around like normal chickens do. At first they explained that as vegans, and as PETA employees, they don’t believe that humans should be exploiting animals, or using animals for human purposes. Fine, I said, but pressed them to identify a moral problem with a “happy” egg. There really isn’t one, they conceded.

Reassured, I moved on to milk, and asked about the moral questions around consuming milk or cheese from a dairy cow that was treated to a normal life in a pasture and was producing milk as a result of pregnancy, and not as a result of artificial hormones. The cow gets pregnant, gives birth to a calf, and the milk flows. “Ah,” they responded. “That’s fine when the calf is a female and can grow up to be a dairy cow. But what do you think they do with the male calves?”

Damn, I hadn’t thought about that. Of course, they end up being sold for slaughter. So even if the cows are treated humanely, and the milk production is natural, the process doesn’t work out so well, or humanely, for the male calves.

That sticks with me as I splash Half And Half into my coffee every morning. And I’ll keep trying to develop a taste for black coffee (or, more likely, I’ll make a switch to black and green tea). But for anyone who is not (yet) vegan, the least you (and I) can do is take the trouble, and pay the extra costs required, to find products from humanely treated animals. Laziness or saving a few cents on a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs can never justify the extreme cruelty of industrial farming.

At least these cattle from North Woods ranch look like they are enjoying life.

In the end–for health, environmental, and moral reasons–I think Newkirk is entirely correct that humanity should move toward learning to feed itself without exploiting animals. But that is a huge leap, and it is probably counterproductive to tell people that there are no humane alternatives to veganism when there are.

They aren’t perfectly “humane,” as I discovered, which is why I’ll keep trying to make that final leap to veganism. But anyone who adopts a Certified Humane Standard for whatever animal products they happen to eat will be doing a lot to relieve some of the simply incomprehensible suffering that human food production (and consumption) inflicts on animals.

Was Nakai Bitten? Another Take

It may be that we never really know how Nakai injured his jaw (though we do know–and SeaWorld has confirmed with their euphemistic language about him having a “normal social interaction” with two other whales immediately prior to the injury–that a fight was involved). For what it is worth, I am told that even SeaWorld San Diego can’t determine exactly how the injury occurred, even though they have reviewed all the video they have of the show.

So we are left trying to pull a CSI-style forensic analysis on the injury photos, like this photo taken by Ingrid Visser of the Orca Research Trust:

(c) Ingrid Visser

As I noted yesterday, Visser said of this photo: “Of note is that in [this photo], at the bottom right of the wound, near the trainers shoe in the photo, there are four puncture marks – and the spacing matches that for orca teeth – as you can see from Nakai’s teeth in this same photo.”

I don’t think this is definitive, but because I posted it a number of readers complained that I was drawing a conclusion without sufficient evidence. I agree that there is no conclusive proof one way or another how the injury occurred, and remain agnostic on the question pending any additional information or evidence (if it ever emerges).

But to balance the scales I thought I would post this counter-analysis of the photo (as well as some other photo evidence I shared but have not posted) from someone who knows a lot about orcas and who is reliably insightful about orca matters:

“There is no way this is a bite. An orca’s jaws just aren’t precise enough to make such a clean cut in such a specific area without leaving trails (rake marks Continue reading “Was Nakai Bitten? Another Take”

Nakai Makes The Today Show Too

Watch it here.

Just to be clear: SeaWorld’s statement that Nakai was engaged in “normal social behavior” with two other whales immediately prior to the injury is SeaWorld’s way of saying Nakai was in a fight.

Killer Whale Breeding: Artificial Insemination From The Female Perspective


Tommy Lee
Cover of Tommy Lee

Thanks to Tommy Lee and PETA, the methods used to extract sperm from killer whales for the purpose of artificial insemination are getting plenty of attention. Now the world probably knows a lot more about the mechanics involved in working with male killer whales than it probably ever wanted.

Well, for those of you who can handle it, and who want to know even more, here is what goes on from the female side of the equation. The pics in the slideshow below show Orkid, a 22 year-old female at SeaWorld San Diego undergoing recent training for the procedure, and an up-close of the actual procedure being performed (this picture was taken in 2005).

As background, Orkid is the only mature female at SeaWorld’s parks who has never given birth to a calf. She has been inseminated many, many times without success, and these training pictures–taken in August–seem to indicate that she is being prepared for insemination yet again, or perhaps has already been inseminated.

I was also tipped to a YouTube video clip from Animal Planet that also gives a very up close view of what is involved in inseminating a female killer whale. In this case the killer whale is SeaWorld’s Kasatka, who was SeaWorld’s first female to be artificially inseminated with success (using Tilikum’s semen), in 2000.

Here’s a description of what the video shows, from a friend who follows the AI program closely, and sent me the link to the video:

Basically, they push that tube down into the vagina, through the cervix, and a camera is threaded down it to see what they are doing. They actually inject semen directly into the womb, using the camera to help get it into the uterine horn that they detect is ovulating.

The video embedding has been disabled, which seems increasingly common with videos which show the husbandry practices behind killer whale shows. But click on the video image to be taken to the video.

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Tommy Lee Started With Cow Vagina–But He Raises Serious Questions

At first it was a classic PETA/Celeb/SeaWorld dust-up that allowed a rock star to get some (non-tattoo) ink, PETA to stir the pot, and writers at TMZ to have a laugh by writing headlines like: Tommy Lee Explodes Over Whale Sperm (get it?) and SeaWorld–We DON’T Use Cow Vaginas! (I guess it was the marine park equivalent of the old political trap: “When did you stop beating your wife?”).

Now, before I get flip myself  I want to emphasize that SeaWorld’s breeding program is a critical issue which does deserve attention, since SeaWorld relies on captive breeding to keep its marine parks stocked with the performing Shamus that are so highly effective at parting tourists from lots of dollars. Breeding, in short, is what keeps the show going year after year, decade after decade.

But it’s not really news, or even surprising, that in addition to breeding orcas by shipping the males around for stud duty, SeaWorld has devoted time and research to developing techniques for artificial insemination (or AI). And when I wrote about SeaWorld’s biggest, and most prolific breeder, Tilikum, in The Killer In The Pool, I touched on AI briefly and in somewhat graphic terms. John Hall, a former scientist at SeaWorld San Diego recalled the early years of SeaWorld’s AI efforts by telling me:

Early in the morning, the animal-care crew would take hot-water-filled cow vaginas and masturbate the males in the back tanks,” says John Hall, a former scientist at SeaWorld. “It was pretty interesting to walk by.

That’s where Tommy Lee, as he notes in this letter to SeaWorld, started getting cow vagina on the brain, and decided that the man-orca-cow part combo was too much for his refined sensibilities. Now, SeaWorld long ago gave up using cow vaginas to assist their bull orcas to a happy ending, and it could be that they were in fact using artificial vaginas (which really do exist–“Can be held with one hand!”), as if that really makes a difference.

Instead, the methods evolved so that the trainers, using highly unsophisticated equipment (rubber gloves, KY jelly, and a Nalgene bottle) could get the job done. I’m sure SeaWorld doesn’t put that duty in the job description, but you can read more about AI at SeaWorld at The Orca Project.

Now Tommy Lee has smartly upped the ante (and kept the story rolling), by demanding that he be allowed to make a “sex tape” of the whole process. Of course, the last time he had such a good publicity run another sex tape was involved, and he clearly hopes an orca sex tape might be similarly shocking, writing: “[The public] has undoubtedly never seen a sex tape like this.”

Continue reading “Tommy Lee Started With Cow Vagina–But He Raises Serious Questions”

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