Why PETA’s lawsuit against a wildlife photographer harms animal rights activists, the animal rights movement, and ultimately, the animals themselves
Read my article in the Huffington Post by clicking here.
To worldwide press coverage, PETA recently filed a lawsuit in Federal Court against David Slater, a wildlife photographer, over photos taken in Sulawesi, an island in Indonesia, of a macaque monkey. The photos are popular and world renown “selfie” photographs taken when Slater traveled to the island, set up the camera, took some photos, and then allowed the macaque to press the shutter and take photos of himself.
In Wildlife Personalities, the photobook containing the famous macaque selfie at the heart of PETA’s lawsuit, and other equally beautiful and arresting photographs of animals, Slater asks us look at animals as individuals, often as “intelligent as a human child with the same feelings,” having unique personalities who share important traits with humans and who are deserving of “the dignity we afford ourselves.” “What do we share with wildlife?” he asks. The answer, in his words and photography, is our humanity. In a word, everything.
Let us embrace empathy for animals, he says. Let us cease persecuting them, he asks. We must recognize “that animals have personality and should be granted rights,” he pleads to us while across the world, macaques and other primates are being exploited and harmed by humans: as mother macaques are shot so that their babies can be shackled by the neck and used to pick coconuts, as primates are imprisoned for entertainment or tortured in laboratories. With photographs that speak a thousand words in their defense, David Slater is asking us–showing us–why these things must stop; demanding that macaques and other animals be afforded the dignity they deserve and the freedom from exploitation that is their birthright as members of “Earth’s greater family.”
Isn’t his an effort worthy of celebrating, rather than undermining? Doesn’t the promotion of animal rights in the most parsimoniously eloquent and universally understood language there is–photography–embody the very ethos so many people mistakenly believe PETA exists to promote?
For those of us who have been laboring for years to save thousands of animals annually from PETA’s death squads, who have struggled to reform abusive shelters or pass animal protection laws and have been actively opposed by PETA, and who believe that the suffering and killing of non-human animals is far too urgent and serious an issue to warrant PETA’s often superficial and puerile tactics, we know too well that their answer to that question is “no.” Now added to our ranks is yet another dedicated animal lover–having reported to the Associated Press that he was “very saddened” by PETA’s lawsuit because he considers himself an advocate for animal rights–who is learning the hard way that when it comes to PETA, no good deed for animals goes unpunished.
The full article is here by clicking here.
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Over 400,000 trees in the Oakland and Berkeley hills and surrounding corridors will fall to the chainsaw, including Eucalyptus, Monterey Pine, Monterey Cypress, and Acacia. Habitat for owls, squirrels, raccoons, and many other animals will simply be wiped out and thousands of gallons of toxic herbicides made by Dow and Monsanto—including those found to be toxic to wildlife, cancerous to humans, to destroy the kidneys and liver of dogs, and when cruelly tested on animals, resulted in rats being born with their brains outside of their skulls—will be applied in wildlife habitat, near people’s homes, in dog parks and other recreational corridors.
Not only does the plan threaten to poison animals and people, it will increase the risk of another devastating fire, exacerbate climate change by releasing 17,495 metric tons of greenhouse gases into our environment, poison, radically alter the appearance and therefore the experience afforded by our public recreation areas, threaten homeowners values by degrading the aesthetics upon which those values depend, eliminate erosion control for hillside homes, result in (according to FEMA) “significant alternation of community character,” as well as cause a variety of other harms that FEMA admits are “unavoidable.” Here’s my letter to the Oakland City Attorney.
Oakland City Attorney
1 Frank H Ogawa Plaza 6th FL
Oakland, CA 94612
Dear Ms. Parker,
As you are no doubt aware, the City of Oakland, in partnership with the East Bay Regional Parks District and U.C. Berkeley, is embarking on a catastrophic plan to deforest and poison East Bay public lands. Although billed as a fire abatement plan, the plan will actually increase the risk of ignition and the spread of fire, endangering firefighters, residents, and property. Indeed, various agencies and individuals with relevant expertise have been highly critical of this plan, including:
- URS, FEMA’s environmental consultant, which stated that “there is no scientific evidence to support the project as proposed;”
- The U.S. Forest Service which objected, saying it would “increase the probability of [fire] ignition over current conditions” because “removal of the overstory trees can introduce changes to the environment which increase fire behavior in undesirable ways;”
- David Maloney, a former Oakland firefighter, Chief of Fire Prevention at the Oakland Army Base, and member of the Task Force for Emergency Preparedness convened after the 1991 fire, who stated that this plan “turns fire science on its head” and called it “a land transformation disguised as a wildfire hazard mitigation plan,” that “will endanger firefighters and the general public; and … be an outrageous waste of taxpayer money;”
- Former Oakland Fire Department Battalion Chief Tyehimba Peyton who stated that “removing the trees does not reduce, but in fact increases fire danger to the Oakland hills;”
- A U.S. Forest Service study which found that reducing the risk to homes from a wildfire does not involve clear cutting vast amount of trees: “home losses can be effectively reduced by focusing mitigation efforts on the structure [such as requiring a fireproof roof] and its immediate surroundings;”
- The Environmental Protection Agency which stated that, “the project could result in degradation of natural resources,” is not likely to “provide for natural regeneration,” and is predicated on “extensive use of herbicides” and “risks posed to human health and the environment from that use;” and further expressed concerns about the “potential impacts of climate change on the Project area,” including “the length and severity of the fire season,” “stressed water supplies,” and “the rate and distribution of harmful timber insects and diseases;” all of which would further elevate the risk of fire posed by this plan;
- And FEMA’s admission that the plan will result in “unavoidable adverse impacts … to vegetation, wildlife and habitats, protected species, soils, water quality, aesthetics, community character, human health and safety, recreation, and noise.”
In addition to increasing the risk of fire, it will also expose citizens to large amounts of dangerous chemicals, exacerbate climate change by releasing 17,495 metric tons of greenhouse gases into our environment, poison, displace and kill wildlife (including several protected species), radically alter the appearance and therefore the experience afforded by our public recreation areas, threaten homeowners values by degrading the aesthetics upon which those values depend, eliminate erosion control for hillside homes, result in (according to FEMA) “significant alternation of community character,” as well as cause a variety of other harms that FEMA admits are “unavoidable.”
In proceeding, the City has failed to consider whether these many and varied certain harms are worth the cost of implementing a plan to reduce the risk of one—fire—that may or may not ever occur with a plan that many experts claim will in fact exacerbate, rather than reduce, that very risk. Moreover, alternative fire abatement proposals which would decrease fire risk through the cleanup of ground fuels and which do not require destroying our forests, eliminating wildlife habitat, or exposing citizens and wildlife to large amount of toxic herbicides have been summarily rejected.
The increased risk of fire created by replacing forest with brush and reducing moisture rich trees to piles of shredded leaves and wood chips as this plan prescribes is very real and immediate. Not only did three brush fires ignite in the Oakland hills this summer, but on Friday, September 4, Oakland Fire Department Vegetation Manager, Vince Crudele, was witnessed standing in front of a large pile of mulch on Skyline Blvd., just west of the Redwood Regional Park entrance. Subsequently, a fire truck arrived and firefighters were seen dousing the mulch pile with water due to the risk of combustion. A firefighter on the scene explained that the mulch pile was from a recently felled and chipped pine tree which had started to compost and had become so hot, it had begun to let off steam.
We subsequently asked how it made sense from a “fire abatement” standpoint for the City of Oakland, U.C. Berkeley, and the EBRPD to cut down hundreds of thousands of trees and spread their chipped remains in thick carpets of decomposing mulch of up to two feet throughout the hills as they are planning to do and a firefighter responded that in fact it did not make sense, that he agreed the plan was reckless and dangerous, and that as a resident of the hills himself, the plan was a source of great concern to him. When asked if he was alone in that opinion, he stated that no, in fact, many of the Oakland firefighters opposed it as he did and for the very same reasons. When further asked why they did not speak out against it, he stated that they had tried to do so, but that their comments were dismissed by upper management as the complaints of “disgruntled union employees” and ultimately, ignored. But he and they are right.
The plan doesn’t make sense, for all the reasons documented and expressed by the U.S. Forest Service, URS, and several others, to wit,
– Fire Science:
- According to David Maloney, former Oakland firefighter and Chief of Fire Prevention at the Oakland Army base, “Fire Science has proven that every living tree—regardless of its species—due to its moisture content and canopy coverage of ground fuels, contributes to wildfire hazard mitigation.”
- The U.S. Geological Survey notes that only about 3% of fires occur in forests. The remainder—97%—burn mostly in shrublands and grasslands (and urban areas), the exact environment in which the 1991 Firestorm ignited and which native plant ideologues want to recreate in the hills.
- The stated aim of the deforestation effort is to replace the East Bay’s Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine forests with shallow grasses, grasses that are highly susceptible to fire and which even the EBRPD has admitted on their website are “one of the most dangerous vegetation types for firefighter safety due to the rapid frontal spread of fire that can catch suppression personnel off guard.”
– Expert Testimony:
- During the FEMA environmental review process, the U.S. Forest Service weighed in, objecting to the plan to remove all Eucalyptus trees for the following reasons:
- Removal of the trees would lead to growth of highly flammable brush species: “the removal of the overstory, is likely to result in rapid establishment of native and non-native herbaceous and brush communities, bringing an increase in available surface fuels;”
- Increase in “available surface loads” would “result in increases in potential surface fire behavior” and thus, “a dramatic increase in fire hazard;”
- The U.S. Fire Administration Technical Report on the 1991 Fire noted that “brush fuel types played a significant role in the progression of the fire” and that brushland made up “a large portion of the available fuel;”
- Cutting down tall trees “does little to address the surface fuels which are typically the primary carrier of an advancing fire;”
- “Removal of the eucalyptus overstory would reduce the amount of shading on surface fuels, increase the wind speeds of the forest floor, reduce the relative humidity of the forest floor, increase the fuel temperature, and reduce fuel moisture;”
- These factors would increase the probability of a fire starting and once started, the probability of the fire spreading faster and burning more intensely, the exact opposite of the stated aim of this plan. Doing so would “result in a more severe range of fire behavior effects.”
- The Scripps Ranch fire of 2003 burned 150 homes, but not Eucalyptus trees abutting many of those homes:
- When Angel Island erupted in flames in 2008, it was the areas where the Eucalyptus trees were cut down that burned; burned to the very edge of the Eucalyptus forest, then stopped for lack of fuel: “At the edge of this burn belt lie strips of intact tree groves… a torched swath intercut with untouched forest…” (Fagen, K., “After fire, Angel Island is a park of contrasts,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 15, 2008.)
- The 2007 Oakland fire in Broadway Terrace ignited in and burned brush, but none of the Eucalyptus trees:
- The fires currently burning in Western states started in dry grass, which ignites easily and spreads rapidly, and generated more heat as they reached shrubs. In other words, they all began in “grassland with islands of shrubs” which FEMA admits is the goal of the East Bay project.
- And as a Firestorm survivor writes: “I was a student at Cal during the 1991 fires. I lived in the Berkeley hills above campus near Strawberry Canyon. The eucalyptus and other trees saved the houses on my street by serving as a barrier between us and the fire.”
Finally, a study published by the U.S. Forest Service, “Reducing the Wildland Fire Threat to Homes,” concludes that reducing the risk to homes from a wildfire does not involve clear cutting vast amount of trees. It shows that “home losses can be effectively reduced by focusing mitigation efforts on the structure [such as requiring a fireproof roof] and its immediate surroundings.” The study notes that “ignitions from flames occur over relatively short distances—tens of meters not hundreds of meters.” If there are no trees within about 30 feet of a home, there is upwards of a 95% chance the home will not burn. At about 50 feet, there is virtually no chance. It goes on to conclude that cutting down trees not adjacent to homes does nothing to protect those homes: “Extensive wildland vegetation management does not effectively change home ignitability.”
And yet his plan does not focus on residences or their immediate surroundings, but rather our public lands and parks. Why is a plan which claims to be about reducing fire risk for East Bay homes also targeting areas where no homes exist? Given public statements by Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb, the chief proponent of the plan, and Mr. Crudele, it is clear that fire abatement is a ruse for a different underlying motivation: to remove those trees which were not here during the pre-Colombian era, even though this would increase the probability of a fire starting and once started, the probability of the fire spreading faster and burning more intensely, without regard to public safety.
According to the former head of the University of California environmental compliance office, “While purportedly for the purposes of fire management, the proposed actions appear to be mostly motivated by a dream of restoring the EB Hills to some imagined Eden prior to the European and American colonization of California.” In order to achieve that, he writes, proponents failed to apply “scientific and policy analysis to the impacts of the proposed actions” and instead “cherry-picked evidence” to support their contentions while rejecting “out of hand fire management alternatives that do not involve clear cutting and massive application of herbicides.” (Adams, C., Comments on Hazardous Fire Risk Reduction, fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/100411.)
That is not only dangerous, it is illegal. It also may constitute fraud, as it is being paid, in part, using federal funding for non-permitted uses of a FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant. The Stafford Act “authorizes FEMA to provide funding for the purpose of reducing or eliminating risks to property and human life from future hazard events, including wildfire.” To do that, FEMA is mandated to focus on “at-risk structures” only, not forests. Specifically, “FEMA hazard mitigation assistance for wildfires is ONLY focused on long-term and cost-effective actions taken to reduce the risk to specific property or structures from future wildfires.” They are only authorized to do this “through creating defensible space, structure protection through the application of ignition resistant construction, and limited hazardous fuels reduction to protect life and property beyond defensible space but proximate to the at-risk structure…. Funding under these programs is not available for wildfire mitigation in an extended range beyond the parameters described in this policy.” And yet, the plan prescribes action which violates these various limitations. There are vast and contiguous acres of forest to be targeted under this plan. For example, the FEMA EIS notes that the southern area of Anthony Chabot Regional Park which is to be targeted is parkland: “184.108.40.206.2. There are no adjacent communities because the proposed and connected project areas are entirely surrounded by parkland.”
Ms. Parker, because the multiple warnings by various experts and agencies highlighting—to quote Chief Maloney—the “prominent self-contradiction” of the City’s so-called “fire abatement” plan have thus far fallen on the deaf ears of our public officials who seem intent on forging ahead with this dangerous plan despite pressing public safety concerns, I am writing for two reasons. First, with the hope that as the city attorney, you will advise them of the legal and public safety pitfalls of their planned actions. Failing that, this letter will serve to create a public record documenting how our concerns and those of others have been brought to the City’s attention and ignored.
Should the City proceed with this dangerous plan and should a disastrous fire from combustion of mulch piles or of resulting grass and brush occur, this letter would serve to demonstrate to the public that their elected officials were forewarned time and again about the potential for just such a fire, but that those concerns—just like those of Oakland firefighters who bravely and willingly put their lives at risk to protect public safety and do not deserve to have the need for such sacrifice intentionally nurtured—were ignored in favor of seeing to fruition the reckless, dystopian vision of a small but vocal group of zealous, native plant ideologues. When the fire subsides and the search begins for who is to blame, we want the public record to reflect that like Captain Edward John Smith of the Titanic, City officials had the iceberg warning in their hands and yet rather than proceed with caution, ordered “full steam ahead.”
Very truly yours,
Nathan J. Winograd
Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed
Mayor Libby Schaaf
Oakland City Council members
 FEMA states that, “The proposed and connected actions would take place in regional parks and other open space areas used for recreation. Visitors and campers in these areas could be exposed to herbicides directly during application and indirectly after application. In addition, because residential neighborhoods are adjacent to the parks and open space, residents could also be exposed to herbicides directly during application and indirectly after application. Because a university, a high school, three elementary schools, and a preschool are also close to project areas, students of all ages have the potential to be exposed.”
While the EBRPD tells reporters, and those reporters repeat the claim, that “less than 20 gallons a year” of herbicides would be used, a simple review of the FEMA EIS shows that they will, in fact, use more than ten times that amount: a total of 2,250 gallons. Made by Dow Chemical, Garlon has been linked to breast cancer and genetic damage called dominant lethal mutations. It has been found to cause severe birth defects when tested on poor animals including rats born with their brains outside their skulls, to harm birds and aquatic species and to damage the kidneys, liver and the blood of dogs, the latter being an issue of particular concern to the legions of dog walkers which regularly visit our public parks. It not only contaminates groundwater and persists in the environment for a year, but, ironically, alters the soil by killing fungi essential to the health of oak trees, one of the species of trees proponents of the plan will not be chopping down, thereby imperiling even those few trees that will be left behind. And this does not even include the herbicides to be used by the City of Oakland and U.C. Berkeley which will add hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons of Monsanto’s Glyphosate, associated with an increased risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and which the State of California just reclassified as “cancerous,” as well as Imazapyr, which increases risk of adrenal, brain, and thyroid cancer.
 FEMA EIS, Sec. 6.5, Climate Change and Greenhouse Gases. This is in addition to the loss of over 9,600 tons of CO2 absorption per year by the trees.
 The City is already the subject of two lawsuits. If the City’s CEQA review whitewashes these concerns or if a catastrophic fire should occur, another lawsuit would require the city to expend general funds litigating the matter and, in case of the latter, put the City at risk of significant liability.
 The strategy for the 2,059 acres of public lands to be deforested in any of the many areas to be targeted in seven Bay cities is exemplified by the FEMA EIS language for the North Hills-Skyline area near the Caldecott Tunnel in Oakland which reads: “220.127.116.11.1 North Hills-Skyline – This proposed 68-acre proposed project area is on the southwest side of Grizzly Peak Boulevard north of State Route (SR) 24 and above the Caldecott Tunnel. It includes eucalyptus, pine, and brush… Oakland’s goals are to remove eucalyptus and Monterey pine and to convert brush to grassland along Grizzly Peak Boulevard … Eucalyptus would be chipped, and the chips would be spread over a maximum of 20% of the site at a maximum depth of 24 inches…”
But according to URS, these mulch layers would pose a fire risk both from sparks that can lead to a subsurface smoldering fire and through spontaneous combustion when decomposition of organic materials creates enough energy in a pile to ignite a fire. Moreover, they not only pose a threat to sustain a localized burn, but they can also connect fuels in vegetation types located adjacent to the treatment areas. Therefore URS recommend against chipping Eucalyptus and to avoid spreading mulch in areas like the East Bay Hills which are subject to long, annual periods that are hot and dry. Aside from these concerns, URS also states that the recommended depth for mulch is less than four inches, well below the 24 inches the City and its partners are planning for which not only increases the threat of fire, it extends the length of time the threat persists: in this case, at least a decade, if not more.
 Federal law requires that the City “Rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives and for alternatives which were eliminated from detailed study, briefly discuss the reasons for their having been eliminated.” The City must also “Devote substantial treatment to each alternative considered in detail including the proposed action so that reviewers may evaluate their comparative merits.” (40 CFR 1502.14.)
 Though the small number of native plant ideologues who are the primary driving force behind this plan are just that—small—and in no way representative of the views of most residents who actually oppose this plan, their influence with our public officials—the result of nearly two decades of intensive lobbying for their destructive, native plant agenda—is to credit for their success, and not the validity of their objective nor the number of individuals they represent. This is evident by the 13,000 comments submitted to FEMA during its deliberations, 90% of which were in opposition. It is also evident by the fact that over 65,000 people signed a petition to the Oakland City Council urging that they abandon this reckless plan.
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Me at the shelter with feline friend, back in the day…
“How many cats did you get?”
“All of them.”
For shelters that kill, empty cages mean more killing, but they do it anyway because it means less cleaning, less feeding, less work. In lieu of putting in place the lifesaving alternatives of the No Kill Equation killing remains the default, and habit and convenience, rather than a dedication and respect for the rights of shelter animals, take precedence. As I note in the closing of Redemption, my book which challenges all of the traditional excuses about why shelters kill: “Animals in shelters are dying for primarily one reason—because people in shelters are killing them.”
At No Kill shelters, empty cages are also a lost opportunity. When I ran a No Kill animal control shelter, I had a love-hate relationship with empty cages. Love, because it meant animals were getting adopted and I had a place to put animals as they came in. Hate, because an empty cage meant a lost opportunity to rescue an animal from another shelter that did not embrace the No Kill philosophy like we did. Even though we were not the ones doing in the killing, I wanted my staff to feel the same sense of urgency about animals dying in surrounding communities as they would if the animals were in our shelter. Moreover, when people came to adopt from us, I’d want them to have plenty of animals to choose from so that they would always come back.
If we had empty cages, I’d send someone from my staff to a shelter in a neighboring county to get animals. Although I once called a nearby kill shelter and told them they could bring me cats—20 or 30 of them—no one working there was willing to make the drive. We were told “it was too far.” Tragically, it wasn’t “too far” for the head of the shelter who did make the drive to ask me in person to stop promoting our shelter as No Kill because it was making them look bad. So much easier to just kill them.
So my operations director would drive an empty van to their shelter, load up with cats, and come back. While it was gratifying to save those cats, it was often difficult for her to leave cats behind, knowing the fate that they faced. So she stopped.
She didn’t stop going. She stopped leaving cats behind. Once when the van pulled into our parking lot and the intake team went out to retrieve the cats, I asked her how many cats she took from the shelter. “All of them,” she said.
With time, a curious and beautiful thing happened to that shelter. The pressure they were under as a result of our success meant that eventually, instead of us taking their cats, they took our staff. My-then shelter manager and dog behaviorist went to work for them and some of our volunteers joined their Board of Directors. They are now No Kill, too.
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A new study has two major implications for saving the lives of dogs in shelters.
Bully with foster mom: Bully came to the shelter when his person, who was homeless, could no longer keep him. According to Kristen Auerbach, the study author, Bully and his person cried in the lobby. After his person was gone, Bully would stay at the back of the kennel and wail. He would also growl at people and stare at them. In the past, dogs like Bully would have been killed. Thanks to a new policy, he is now in a loving home.
I was able to get my hands on a draft of a new study, to be released soon, that tracked dog adoptions at an open admission municipal shelter. It has two major implications for saving the lives of dogs. The first is that adopting a breed neutral adoption policy led to an over 800% increase in pit bull adoptions. The second is that sending dogs who failed an evaluation for aggression into foster care, instead of killing them, saved 90% of those dogs. These are dogs who would have all been killed in years past.
It is also worth noting that because the shelter fell under the jurisdiction of a police department, the program maintained public safety as a primary concern, debunking claims that “liability” and “public safety” require shelters to have stricter rules for dogs visually identified as pit bulls or for medium to large dogs who fail initial temperament evaluations.
Breed Neutral Adoption Policy
The study found that removing adoption restrictions for dogs identified as “pit bulls,” such as requiring mandatory training and home ownership or that the dogs had to be perfect (“ambassadors of the breed”), along with simply treating them like other dogs in the shelter increased the number of pit bulls adopted out. That, in and of itself, is not surprising. What is surprising is how much impact it had. The number of dogs visually identified as pit bulls who found homes after the shelter adopted a breed neutral adoption policy that treats all dogs the same increased by 852%, a nearly ten-fold increase.
Foster Care for “Aggressive” Dogs
Moreover, prior to implementing a foster care policy for dogs of any breed who failed their temperament evaluation, these dogs were also labeled “unadoptable” and killed. Starting in 2013, medium to large dogs who failed their temperament evaluation, but whose aggression was not severe, were instead sent to a foster home for further evaluation to assess whether the behavior was related to being housed in the shelter. This included dogs with, among other things, barrier reactivity, fear-based aggression, resource guarding, kennel stress, prey drive, and bite history. Some of the dogs also had secondary issues including extremely high energy, possible dog aggression, dog selectivity, fear of men, undersocialization, separation anxiety, and reactivity.
Foster homes received training in handling challenging dogs, understood that the dogs they fostered could be killed if the aggression did not resolve, agreed to fully disclose any behavioral issues witnessed and to complete an evaluation at the end of the foster period, and agreed not to use dominance-based behavior modification with foster dogs.
40% of the dogs were in foster care for up to one week, 48% were in foster care between 8 days and one month, and the remainder were in foster between one and eight months. The end result: 90.4% of the dogs were successfully adopted.
The study was conducted at the Fairfax Animal Shelter in Fairfax, VA, under the direction of Kristen Auerbach. Auerbach is now the operations director at the Austin Animal Care Center, which last month reported a 95% save rate.
Bully in foster care.
Bully in his new home, with his new sibling.
When the final study is published, I’ll post it.
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By Jennifer & Nathan Winograd
A lot of attention has been paid within the vegan community to the terrible harm associated with the production of palm oil. With a food industry that has recently begun to move away from the use of partially hydrogenated oils in light of the serious hazard they pose to human health, the demand for trans-fat free oils has caused a boom in the palm oil industry—an industry which was already thriving given the many applications for palm oil and its derivatives in the cosmetic, cleaning supply and chemical industries, among others. Many vegans are now aware that in response to this growing demand for palm oil, tropical rain forests in Southeast Asia are being decimated in order to make way for palm oil plantations, destroying vital habitat for the animals living in these forests. The United Nations Environment Programme has announced that palm oil plantations are now the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia. Deforestation for the establishment of palm oil plantations is responsible for habitat loss of the Asian elephant, tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros and the orangutan. But even worse is the fate suffered by those animals who are found eating palm fruit on these plantations, cutting into plantation profits. They are shot, beaten to death and even set on fire.
News of the atrocities associated with palm oil production has inspired some vegans to reject the use of palm oil, and that includes the use of vegan butters which contain it. With a compassionate, DIY spirit, many intrepid vegans have experimented with making homemade vegan butter, based not on palm fruit, but that darling of the vegan and raw food communities alike, coconut oil.
Likewise concerned about issues relating to palm oil production and inspired by their example, we created a recipe for our own palm oil-free, vegan butter in the third edition of our cookbook, All American Vegan. But before we did so, we did a little research to ensure that in offering people an alternative to vegan butter based on palm oil with one based on coconut oil, we weren’t simply encouraging the use of one ethically problematic tropical oil for another. Sure enough, what we discovered about the production of coconut oil is deeply troubling: the use of monkeys to harvest coconuts; pig-tailed macaques to be exact.
Agile and adept climbers, such monkeys—native to coconut growing regions in Southeast Asia—are capable of harvesting several hundred more coconuts a day than a human can; reports vary widely has to how many coconuts a day one monkey can pick, ranging from 300 to 1,000. Monkeys are chained by the neck and trained to pick only ripe coconuts and are then forced to do so, day in, day out and all day long. They are trained at monkey training facilities one visitor described as such, “The primitive, primate campus, a simple, open sided shed,” contains, “individual, meter high stakes, driven into the dirt floor… Onto each perch is tethered a solitary monkey by collar and chain. There are a dozen such perches, each one just out of reach of its neighbor.” During training and beyond, the monkeys are tethered or caged 24/7, sometimes with little to no opportunity for socialization. Where do these monkeys come from? According to one monkey handler, “Sometimes the monkeys are offspring of berok (already trained monkeys); sometimes they are caught on the forest with nets or traps. Often though, nursing mothers are shot and their babies are taken.”
Harvesting coconuts with this method is prevalent throughout Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, nations that together account for much of the world’s coconut production. Indonesia is the number one coconut producing nation in the world, producing over 18 million tons of coconuts annually. Some reports also suggest that due to a labor shortage in Kerela, India where coconut palms are grown, harvesting coconuts with monkeys may begin occurring there, as well. Picking coconuts is difficult, dangerous, labor intensive work, something younger generations of Indians are becoming increasingly unwilling to do.
Unfortunately, much of the reporting you will find on this issue approaches it from a disturbing “entertainment” angle in which the subjugation and forced labor of primates is treated as a curious, amusing oddity rather what it really is: exploitation of highly intelligent individuals. Instead of living fulfilling, autonomous lives in deference to their natural instincts and will—lives that would include social interaction with others of their kind, mating, raising young, moving about freely and resting whenever they choose—these monkeys spend their lives in endless toil and forced obedience to the will of humans. Monkey training facilities are popular destinations for tourists, so much of the information available about the lives of these monkeys is whitewashed for the purpose of encouraging that tourism, glossing over the grueling labor and often dangerous conditions the monkeys are forced to endure, including climbing tall trees over and over again during the course of a day, retrieving fallen coconuts from thick brush, retrieving coconut cutting tools for their handlers that include long, sharp blades, and loading hundreds of coconuts onto trucks which then transport them from picking location to picking location. And though many articles about these monkeys contain quotes from handlers who state that they care about their animals, it is impossible to square such assurances with the long hours, hard labor, constant shackling and lack of autonomy these animals are forced to endure day in and day out for no personal benefit. It is, in a word, slavery. And as human nature and history demonstrate again and again—where there is a profit to be made on the backs of non-humans, those backs are strained and often broken.
And by all accounts, the increasing popularity of coconuts, coconut oil and its various derivatives means that things are only going to get worse for these animals. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, “World coconut oil production has been increasing over the past decade” and coconut production worldwide now stands at 62 million tons a year. Nor has this trend escaped the vegan and health food communities, in which the use of coconuts has become ubiquitous: in raw food dishes, vegan cheeses, and the current rage for coconut water.
In light of the conflict between the humane values motivating so many to embrace a vegan diet and the treatment coconut harvesting macaques are forced to endure, we wanted to bring this issue to greater attention and to welcome any additional information about this issue that might exist. We also wanted to report that unless our current search for coconut products made exclusively from coconuts exported by countries where there are no macaques—such as Mexico—bears fruit (we will post on Facebook if it does), our upcoming third edition of All American Vegan will no longer include recipes for Coconut Cream Pie and Coconut Whipped Topping. We welcome your input.
To see photos and video of coconut-picking monkeys, click here and here and here and here.
The following companies state that they do not use monkeys:
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