The Activists' Dilemma: How Animal Rights Groups Miss the Big Picture

August 27, 2017

"It's not food, it's violence." 

"Together, we will change the world for animals." 

"Recent marketing campaigns use labels like 'grass-fed,' 'locally sourced,' 'sustainable,' 'humane,' and 'cage-free' to appeal to people's belief that animals should not be harmed. Corporations are noticing that people don't like to see animals being abused so they are using the "humane" marketing scheme as a last ditch effort to try to save this inherently violent industry."

These are the manifestos of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), an international animal rights group that recently targeted Berkeley's The Local Butcher Shop and made headlines when the shop's owners, Monica and Aaron Rocchino, agreed to post a sign in the window that reads: “Attention: Animals’ lives are their right. Killing them is violent and unjust, no matter how it’s done.” in order to have them stop protesting in front of the shop. (To hear Monica talk about the incident on The Meat Block podcast, click here.) 

DxE's sound bites over megaphones and graphic displays of naked, bloody bodies miss the point so completely that they actually harm their own mission to change the world for animals and end speciesism. (Had to look that one up: speciesism |ˈspēSHēˌzizəm, spēsē-| noun; the assumption of human superiority leading to the exploitation of animals.) 

I respect vegans for their passionate adherence to what they believe. Like many groups, however, there are extremist factions that distort the truth and vilify opposing viewpoints.  First, don't try to impose your beliefs on others. Respect the diversity of people's eating preferences, cultures, and nutritional needs. Second, tell the truth. 

To call butchers and meat producers an "inherently violent industry" does a disservice to people who have dedicated their lives to providing nutritional and environmental benefits to their neighbors and the larger community.  Fortunately, the protest did not harm The Local Butcher Shop's business. Supporters far and wide defended the shop and showed support for the Rocchinos with their wallets. 

"Once DXE released the press release, it was like Christmas for a week!  We sold out of everything – so many people came to support us.  People out of state bought schwag online to show their support for us. It was pretty awesome," Monica Rocchino said. 

Aaron and Monica Rocchino, Owners of The Local Butcher Shop  photo credit:

Aaron and Monica Rocchino, Owners of The Local Butcher Shop

photo credit:

Painting meat eaters with the wide brush of animal abuse is untrue and may actually harm the lives of animals. Most butchers and ranchers do not abuse animals. In fact, they honor and appreciate them. As a rancher, I know that our animals are taken care of daily, treated with respect, loved, and honored up until they are killed in a non-violent and humane way. I hope I die as quickly and painlessly. Our animals live peaceful lives on green pastures with clean air and water. I would argue it's a more humane experience than some city dwellers experience. Animals, like humans, plants and microbes are all part of the whole system, the carbon cycle. We all depend on the oxygen that flows through it. Think of it as a huge, constantly moving circle: beginning deep underground (or sea) flowing upward through the roots of plants, their leaves, up into the air, the clouds, back down through rain, absorbed into the soil, and back into microbes feeding plants' roots to start all over again.

The Carbon Cycle Photo credit:

The Carbon Cycle Photo credit:

Until animal rights activists understand this whole system, they will continue to do a disservice to the environment, to humans, and to the animals they love by denying our role as the only beings with the ability to manage this system in a way that protects all life and ignoring the powerful role animal agriculture has in restoring our ecosystem.

Well-managed livestock are the single most effective tool in reducing global warming. It is only through animals that humans can restore millions of acres of rangelands that have the capability to suck massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into oxygen through photosynthesis. Animals raised for human consumption have the added bonus of nourishing humanity and providing byproducts that improve the lives of millions of people. 

Small scale butchers like The Local Butcher Shop also pride themselves on a zero-waste philosophy, no part of the animal goes unused. That means the animal's life is honored and appreciated by having its parts returned and recycled, either in the form of essential nutrition (meat) that creates life or byproducts, such as medicines, hides and other material products that improve lives. 

In her masterful book, "The Ecology of Care" the nutritionist and healer Didi Pershouse eloquently describes the biosphere in terms we don't normally think of: microbial. "The higher fungi are actual proto-animals in their genetic heritage, and they have similar nutritional needs. ... when mycorrhizal fungi search out nutrients they act as intelligent filters. As they move through the soil, they are actively seeking out, selecting, and absorbing essential nutrients at the right concentrations, in the right forms, in the right ratios, and in the right balances.  ... Mycorrhizal fungi are like a huge membrane in the soil: an intelligent interface between the chemical, inert, toxic, mineral soil and the living healthy cytoplasm of life." She goes on to say "Plants are essentially symbiotic organisms." Where are the animal activists when mycorrhizal fungi are being killed by applications of pesticides across thousands of acres in the Midwest's soybean and corn fields? (That's you tofu eaters and veggie burger lovers.) Do they protest when prime farmland is paved over by strip malls? If you love animals, protect the soil.

The Ecology of Care by Didi Pershouse describes the carbon cycle and its relation to health. 

The Ecology of Care by Didi Pershouse describes the carbon cycle and its relation to health. 

Soil health is the key to all health: microbes, humans, and animals. Recognizing abuses do occur and should be stopped, killing animals in itself isn't violent, it is part of the whole system we are all a part of.  DxE is wrong when they say that marketing claims such as "grass-fed" and "humane" are marketing schemes and that animals were harmed. If they want to "change the world for animals," they should support policies that clean the air and water animals depend on.

The sign they forced the Rocchinos to post in their shop window is also wrong. It should be amended to read: "Animals’ environment is their right. Killing the soil they depend on is violent and unjust, no matter how it’s done."


Welcome to the Big Leagues

April 24, 2017

I ask people who read my first novel, Exit Strategy, for honest feedback. What novelist doesn’t want to know if her story resonates with readers? I think the goals of good fiction writing should be 1.) To entertain and offer an escape from readers’ everyday lives and 2.) To tap in to the human experience and allow your readers to exclaim, “Yes! I know exactly what that feels like!”

Art — in all its forms — is an accessible medium to express universal truths and share them with others. It’s a doorway to our collective consciousness. As a language and literature student in Florence, Italy in the late 1980s I was so moved by the fresco paintings on the walls of churches that I started attending Mass again.  In one church, San Miniato, which sits atop Piazza Michelangelo and overlooks the Arno River and glorious Florence below, Catholic monks practice their Gregorian chant in the afternoon. If you’re lucky enough to catch them, you stumble across a world-class concert with acoustics that rival Carnegie Hall. The music is a meditation, haunting and beautiful all at the same time. It was so beautiful, I cried. Song, painting, writing — all of these forms are the artist’s way of communicating what he or she has discovered along their own path.

"Exit Strategy" has several themes running through it: immigration, income inequality, corporate greed (not to be confused with capitalism, as not all corporations are greedy) sexual harassment, feminism, and liberation to name a few. Inevitably, there will be differing points of view and legitimate, thoughtful arguments as to whether or not I described the characters’ experiences well. I expected that. I am used to being edited, and even appreciate it. A good editor makes your writing tighter, more descriptive, better. My editor at Thomson Newspapers, Bill Sternberg, once told me that he would only run a column I had written after I could prove to him that “crockety” was a word (it’s not, I meant “crotchety”). I changed the word and he published it. Another editor, Dennis Taylor at McClatchy Newspapers, once told me that my job was to “peel the skin layers off an onion” if I wanted to really delve into my stories. That image remains in my mind when I am interviewing sources and trying to get to the core of a good story. Constructive criticism is a writer’s friend. It makes us better writers. The book has received praise from many people, which makes me happy. Those are the reviews I love to read. 

Putting your writing out in the world opens you up for criticism, especially fiction writing because you’re no longer dealing with facts. A reporter can always turn to truth for a defense. In fiction, the story is just that: a story. The plot, setting and characters are part of the author’s imagination. Some readers assume fiction is autobiographical and mistake the characters for the author, people they know, or themselves.

Author Jami Attenberg recently wrote about this in her column titled, “Stop Reading My Fiction as the Story of My Life” in the New York Times:

"Like me, though, Ann Patchett is more wary of the question. “I have a real fear that the whole publication of this novel is going to center around questions of autobiography, which isn’t nearly as interesting as whether or not the book is any good,” she said of her novel “Commonwealth” in Literary Hub. “Most of the things in this book didn’t actually happen, but the feelings are very close to home. Or, as my mother said, ‘None of it happened and all of it’s true.’ ”

I expected constructive criticism. I’m eager for it so I can write a better novel next time. What I didn’t expect were the mean, personal attacks from anonymous critics. (I say ‘critics’ because I’m not even sure they read the book.) I can’t help but think these are the people who are offended by the story. I’ve definitely hit a nerve. Perhaps they are the readers who see themselves in the characters and instead of exclaiming, “Yes! I know exactly what that it is!” react with, “That bitch is talking about me!” 

In one review I am accused of being “perverted, twisted,” (those adjectives may actually sell some books!) and exploiting families who have suffered from E.coli, even though I dedicated the book to those who have suffered through such tragedies. It could just be that they don’t like my writing. Fair enough. I can take the heat. I’m a big girl. Still, the negative comments feel more like mean tweets than real reviews to me.  A one-star review on Amazon and Barnes & Noble won’t silence Stella’s story, or Ruth’s, even if they do sting a little bit. The haters diminish their own power by hiding behind faceless, anonymous posts like trolls on the internet. Just as facts are a journalist’s best friend, universal truths are the novelist’s. Ann Patchett’s mother is right: “None of it happened and all of it’s true.”