Saturday, October 23, 2010

Palate Cleanser #127

Ashokan Reservoir in Autumn
Image Credit: La Belle Nymphe Cynique

Merci pour le présent visuelle!

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

Palate Cleanser #126

Morning Glory
Image credit: Randy Epperson

visual palate cleanser concept © Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Nima Elbagir's Tuesday Report from Congo

You can see Panzi Hospital and Dr. Denis Mukwege in this video.

One of the Comtesses and I are planning to do the Run for Congo Women next year. Want to join us?

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Eating Animals, Part 3

Eating Animals is a three part series by Thelma Lee Gross, DVM. What are our options? is the the third and final article. 

Eating Animals, Part 3: What Are Our Options?

In the first two posts I outlined the problems of factory farming systems as they relate to animal welfare and discussed the practical and moral reasons for change.  Vegetarianism and veganism provide only partial and impractical solutions, largely because they do not provide a rapid enough correction.  What else can be done?

Dairy Cow
Image credit: Lisa Kyle for the Los Angeles Times

Organic farming 

The USDA has established guidelines for organic food in the National Organic Program (NOP) that were implemented in 2002. As some of these guidelines deal with behavioral needs of the farm animal, including outdoor access, and there is third party oversight by the USDA, organic farming offers improved welfare over conventional systems, particularly for pork and eggs.  (Farrowing crates and battery cages are not used.)  However, there are some loopholes in the guidelines.  There are several exceptions to allowing outdoor access for ruminants, notably “inclement weather,” which in parts of the Midwest may stretch over many months.  Organic beef also may be fed in feedlots for fattening toward the end of their lives.

It may be difficult to detect substantial differences in welfare as organic farms increase in size.  In a discussion of large-scale organic farming Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (p. 161): 
“The industrial values of specialization, economies of scale, and mechanization wind up crowding out ecological values such as diversity, complexity, and symbiosis.”  
Nevertheless, the organic movement is certainly in a welfare-positive direction, and should be encouraged and promoted on small and large farms alike.  Obviously, welfare improvement on larger farms is critical because it impacts a larger number of animals.

One problem with organic farming, in my view, is the inability of the farmer to administer antibiotics.  Although the USDA forbids withholding necessary treatment for sick animals under Section 205.238 of its NOP code, in practice, farmers often withhold treatment because it is impractical.  Treating sick animals with antibiotics sometimes is avoided since it involves separate housing and handling of the animal, as reported recently in The Des Moines Register. Similarly, organic dairy cows with foot abscesses, a common problem, cannot be treated with antibiotics and kept as organic.  Treatment may be withheld if lameness is not severe enough to affect production, or the animal may be destroyed.  For this reason it seems preferable to purchase from a company with both organic and conventional farms; sick animals from organic farms can be shuffled to the conventional side if treatment is needed. 

Image credit: Sustainable Grub

A practical approach to research in farm animal welfare: the Farm Animal Initiative

Instead of adopting the anthropomorphic approach of some animal rights groups, it is important to discover what an animal actually desires if given a clear choice and to adapt those choices to a practical farm setting.  These welfare needs are species-specific and require research to discover and implement.  For example, laying hens will learn to push a heavily weighted door to be able to dust-bathe and perch. However, an outdoor environment is not something that chickens will invariably seek, being naturally avoidant of inconvenient weather (“weather weenies” as one animal welfare scientist of my acquaintance puts it).  In fact, laying hens often choose to be in shelters but must have access to other welfare enhancements such as litter for dust-bathing, nest boxes, and perches (“furnishings”).  Chickens raised indoors for the first five weeks will often not venture out of doors into grassy areas when they are provided.  Thus “free range” may be more of a marketing tool than a real enhancement for poultry. 

The Farm Animal Initiative (FAI) in the U.K. tests animal welfare-enhanced systems on their for-profit farm, using field research in a commercial setting, and with industry backing (including TESCO and McDonalds Europe). This approach keeps practical issues for the farmer, such as ease of management and economic feasibility, on the table from the beginning.  As described in The Future of Animal Farming, the FAI studies welfare systems that can be adapted to economies of scale.  The FAI farm has studied environmental enrichment for pigs in group systems in which aggression is minimized and therefore tail docking is not needed.  They have found that tree-enrichment of pastures for broiler chickens attracts more birds outdoors without increasing exposure to bacterial disease (although birds still avoid extreme weather).  The farm’s breeding program also selects for animal welfare-enhancing traits in balance with production traits; e.g. broiler birds with slightly smaller breasts and lower-maintenance sheep that can lamb successfully outdoors in all weather.  The FAI farm always emphasizes cost-effectiveness of implementation by the farmer, thus ensuring long term success.  Such practical, farm-based programs as these are sorely needed in the U.S. and could be funded by industry and animal welfare groups alike. 

Image attribution unknown

Third party inspection and certification programs

An important way to avoid marketing as a substitute for committed improvement of farm animal welfare involves third party independent inspection and certification programs.  Several such systems exist in the U.S. and abroad.  In 2000 the American Humane Association established Free Farmed Certification (now called American Humane Certification). I was unable to find a description of their standards online; access appeared to be restricted to prospective or active producer-members.  This organization is currently being criticized for its support of furnished cages (cages with nests, perches, and scratching areas, as well as more space per bird).  Nevertheless, these certified farms practice a higher level of welfare than conventional factory farms.

In 2003 the Human Farm Animal Care organization was formed, which certifies products that have been reared according to its strict guidelines (“Certified Humane”).  Their standards are clearly presented online for the consumer and producer and are considered by some groups as the “gold standard” of its type. These standards can be adopted by large farms. 

The Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) program was begun in 2006.  Standards are the most stringent of the three programs; however, only farms owned by individuals or families are accepted for certification, which largely restricts membership to small farms.  Although the standards are laudable, it is also critical for large farms to improve their welfare standards in order to affect the greatest number of animals possible.  Moderate, incremental improvements are more easily accepted by large producers.

As consumers we can send a clear message to retailers, and thus indirectly to producers, that there is a demand for animals that are raised as animals and not widgets.  Consumers are the ultimate supporters of welfare improvements because increased demand in the marketplace sends a strong message to the retailer, which drives demand for these products back up the line to the farmer.  This explains TESCO’s support of FAI in the U.K., for example.  If we are serious about animal welfare, then we must strive to eat humanely by purchasing food for which production is welfare-driven.  Increased cost is often less than anticipated, and seems a fair price to pay to the farmers who are willing to make these changes in their production methods.  

Steady advancement in food animal welfare, occurring in the setting of persistent food animal product consumption, may be in conflict with more aggressive groups such as PETA, rejected by many due to positions and actions that are deemed extreme, despite their laudable goals.  On the other end of the spectrum of animal welfare consciousness, increased cost of organic and other higher welfare products often is at odds with a fast-food nation mentality.  Many people say one thing but pay another.  But there are signs that the consumer is coming along.  In 2009 voters in California passed Proposition 2, which required all farm animals to be able to stand up, turn around, and stretch their limbs, thereby curtailing the use of swine gestation and farrowing crates, as well as battery cages for laying hens.  Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger later closed the loophole for egg producers by requiring all out-of-state eggs to be held to the same housing requirement. 

The only practical and humane solution is to consume fewer animal products and to be sure they are produced as humanely as possible.  This is not a perfect solution—but neither is trying to feed everyone on grains and legumes.  Actively influencing others to consume less and make better welfare choices, as advocated by Michael Pollan, may be the most practical and timely option we have.  Try to purchase products that are third party certified, or, at the very least, organic.  Factory-farmed meat and other products should be shunned, including eggs and milk.

If we, as moral beings, eat animals and their products or live in a world where others do, then we must strive for animal welfare systems that give them more of what they want.  In other words, we must honor them with as good a life as possible, even if we personally do not eat them. 

Thelma Lee and I will be doing a question and answer discussion about some of the issues that she has written about in this series. If you would like to add your question to the list, email me at

The main text portion of this post is ©Thelma Lee Gross, 2010.

All other components are by Bright Nepenthe, 2010

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Palate Cleanser #125

attribution unknown

visual palate cleanser concept © Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Emergency McAvoy

Comtesses devons être solidaires ...

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

The Road to Traffik

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010


my youngest child legally changed his name to that of my husband's surname. It was the end of a six and a half year process. When he was adopted, he wanted to keep his biological mother's name. We let him. About two years later, he told us he wanted to legally hyphenate his name. We let him. About a year ago, he started telling us he wanted to just use my husband's surname and finally that he wanted to change it legally to just that name.

Those of you who read the blog must know how powerful this moment is in our family. When he arrived, he had lost so much, the very last thing we could do was also take his name away.

Welcome home, little one. Welcome home.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010


Comet 103P/Hartley 2
Image credit: Michael Jager

Why do you hide yourself from me, oh luscious green comet? Why?

Sky and Telescope's track.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Eating Animals, Part 2

Eating Animals is a three part series by Thelma Lee Gross, DVM. Food for Thought is the second of three parts. 

Eating Animals, Part 2: Food for Thought

In the previous post I addressed the problem of factory farming and the welfare issues it creates.  In response to the overwhelming weight of the problem and its seeming insolubility, many of us have chosen to reduce or eliminate our consumption of animal products.  But is this the most moral choice?  Is it the most practical one?

Image Credit: NIH/National Library of Medicine

The problems of vegetarianism

Vegetarianism tends to ignore the barbaric conditions of most conventional egg and milk producing operations in the country today.  In truth, a strong argument could be made for the intrinsic inhumanity of any milk or egg producing system, no matter how welfare-oriented.  Male chicks are destroyed as hatchlings; on conventional factory farms, egg-laying hens are crowded into battery cages.  Even the Human Farm Animal Care Association permits slight beak trimming on its certified farms.  Male newborn dairy calves are removed from their mothers, and are destroyed or siphoned off into baby beef or veal production.  Cows have been bred into walking udders that are milked three times a day, and are always eating in an attempt to keep up with such a huge caloric demand.  Thus, a vegetarian must consider sourcing eggs and milk from welfare-intense systems to be eating humanely. 

Image credit:

The problems of veganism

TThe clearest ethical argument is that killing animals for food is wrong, no matter how they are raised.  From the point of view of the individual, how can this be an arguable position?  However, seen from the point of view of our species as a whole, it becomes less clearcut, less black and white.  Certainly, there are evolutionary reasons that we eat meat; losing our dependence on fibrous leaves and switching to meat may have coincided with the weakening of our jaw muscles, allowing our skulls to expand and our brains to enlarge. (To learn more about this concept, see here.) It is ironic that meat consumption may be coupled to the development of brains that are big and complex enough to consider the ethical problem of eating meat! 

Should we override our omnivorous genetic imperative?  Or are there are other reasons besides evolution to justify the consumption of animal products in a morally conscious modern society? 

Certainly health concerns surrounding veganism abound in the literature.  But, even if every vegan could manage a healthy diet, a totally vegan world is not a viable solution.  Healthy veganism simply is not attainable in third world countries where sources of grains may be limited due to inhospitable soil or climate.  One hopeful opportunity to reduce our dependence in the future is synthetic meat production, such as the recent creation at the University of Missouri of a soy chicken that not only tastes like poultry meat, but has a similar texture.  The practical employment of universally available, palatable meat alternatives unfortunately is still years away.

Grain production is not a kill-free proposition.  Steven Davis from Oregon State University makes a convincing argument that consumption of grassfed ruminants will result in fewer animal deaths than veganism, which requires a heavier diet of grain. As fields are turned over during planting and harvesting, nests of small mammals, such as field mice, are disrupted and babies destroyed.  The counterargument is that death from grain production is accidental, whereas animals reared for food are deliberately killed. 

Lastly, vegetarianism and veganism are also unlikely to be adopted by a majority and thus are slow and ineffective ways to bring about change in food animal welfare.  A recent survey conducted by a Harris Poll for Vegetarian Times in 2008 showed that “3.2 percent of U.S. adults, or 7.3 million people, follow a vegetarian-based diet.  Approximately 0.5 percent, or 1 million, of those are vegans, who consume no animal products at all.”  A personal choice to become a vegan certainly gets one off the ethical “hook” but it does not address the fact that most of the world will never be vegan, at least not for generations to come.  We must seek a faster solution.  We must consider the right of all food animals to a decent life.  This is as much a moral imperative as is the avoidance of consumption.

Next:  What are our options?

The main text portion of this post is ©Thelma Lee Gross, 2010.

All other components are by Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Palate Cleanser #124

Image credit: Ezra Freelove by way of Indiana Public Media

In a shout-out to [Redacted] Comtesse, this thing of beauty is an almost ultraviolet blue cornflower and I'm sharing it with you on #124. Share. Got that? 

I grew Bachelor's Buttons, or cornflowers as a child. They no longer thrive in the extreme conditions here in Florida but they evidently bloom big elsewhere, which is where this beauty was being touted... elsewhere, not *sob* in Florida. (TL if you start telling me that they grow like weeds in California, I will just cry...)

Also from Master Gardener Moya Andrew's article, Cicely Mary Barker’s Song of the Cornflower Fairy.

Mid scarlet of poppies and gold of the corn,
In wide-spreading fields were the cornflowers born;
But now I look round me, and what do I see?
That lilies and roses are now neighbors to me!
There’s a beautiful lawn, there are borders and beds,
Where all kinds of flowers raise delicate heads;
For this is a garden, and here, a Boy Blue,
I live and am merry the whole summer through.
My blue is the blue that I always have worn,
And still I remember the poppies and corn.

 I'm thinking that #124 is now in fine form, no?

visual palate cleanser and partial text © Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Today is Spirit Day

Today is Spirit Day.  

We stand together as one. We are all just people. Right?

I'm wearing purple and of course, you, my reader, are also wearing purple. Right?

Because we all believe that

Tyler Clementi

Seth Walsh

Justin Aaberg

Raymond Chase

Asher Brown

Cody J. Barker

Harrison Chase Brown

Caleb Nolt

Billy Lucas

Jeanine Blanchett

Chantal Dube

Should not be forgotten. 

These young people all committed suicide because they were bullied, maligned and because they despaired that it would ever get better for them.

You know what will make it get better for young people who are suffering because of their sexuality?

Not bullying them and not standing for anyone else bullying them either.

Not proselytizing that "they can change", because really, their sexuality is just none of your business.

But most of all:

Wear purple in your heart. Not just today, but every day.

We're all just people. 

So let's be kind to each other.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The New Face of Homelessness

Earlier today the [Redacted] Comtesse sent me this article which posted this morning on AOL News. It was about the new face of homelessness. The young face of homelessness.  Article author Carol West, of InvestigateWest, notes that the record number of homeless young adults is:
 "... driven by two large converging forces: an economy that has been especially brutal on young people, and the large numbers currently exiting foster care." 
~ Carol West  for AOL News 

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts report Time for Reform: Aging out and on their own, as of the year 2007, nationwide, one in four youth aging out of foster care will be incarcerated within two years. One in five will be homeless, and only 58% of youth aging out of foster care had high school diplomas (compared to 87% of youth with families) which would clearly diminish their chance of getting a job that would support them sufficiently to prevent homelessness.

Homeless children and youth strike a really personal chord with me. My youngest child was homeless until age 5. But he's safe now. (Well, until he finds out what trouble he's in because of the state of his room...) However, two of my three recently aged out Guardian ad Litem youth, with whom I'm still in fairly regular contact, are homeless. One is homeless at 19, after a former lover, who had a mental breakdown after the death of a parent, stabbed him multiple times. He was released from the hospital after three weeks and had lost almost all his possessions and didn't even know where to go. He roams from one friend's to another's house. He stays until he wears out his welcome, which sadly isn't very long. He's a big kid and eats a lot. He's learning disabled and can't hold a real job. His sibling, who is 18, is also homeless. And she's five months pregnant. I'm hoping the third youth, also 18, who is now at risk of homelessness because of the threat of losing her Road to Independence funds, can hang on while we get things straightened out for her, and for her toddler. Sadly, I've heard of quite a few teens who age out of foster care and go homeless. Shelters are jam-packed in these times. Seattle is one of the few cities in the US with youth shelters. But even there, things are stretched to the limit.

"We're turning people away in record numbers," said Kristine Cunningham, executive director of ROOTS in Seattle, one of the pioneering young adult shelters in the country. ROOTS expects to turn young people away more than 2,000 times this year, compared with about 200 times five years ago. This year, the 27-bed shelter expects to provide a place to sleep for 542 young adults."

The article notes that unemployment has soared among young adults, which I say I've definitely noted in my own household. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said in late August that employment among youth 16-24 years of age is the lowest it's ever been, since they started keeping records in the youth employment series back in 1948. The unemployment rate in July 2010 was 19.1% for youth ages 16-24, the highest rate ever noted, and most significantly, at the peak of the summer, when youth normally have the highest rates of employment. Opined one youth, Shane, on his circumstances:

"The thing about being homeless -- you get stuck in one spot," he said. "Might get a little more money in your pocket the next day, but you're still going to be broke."

Stuck. They are stuck in the cycle of homelessness, which ironically may be tied into the cycle of dependency, i.e. the child welfare cycle. How many of these homeless youth will become homeless parents and then parents who lose their children? Public will and public dollars will likely be required to break that cycle. Better programs for parents who want to regain custody of their children and for youth aging out of care.

There was this other photo in the article that just slays me. 

The thing is, I know one youth, a now deceased TPR'd parent, and my son's biological mother do, or did, just that same thing. I know it must be commonplace. Still, that photo hit me hard. And then I got to the paragraph that made me have to take a break from reading...

"Children born to homeless mothers, or who experience multiple episodes of housing instability -- couch surfing, staying in motels or shuttling between households when they are young -- often mirror that in their own adulthoods."

I'm trying to just let go of that idea entirely. I'm trying to envision deconstruction of that idea into random quarks and gluons and to reassemble them into fluffy kittens and bunnies and puppies and a whole lot of otters.

I can't tell you the number of times that I have wondered what the baby or toddler or child's mind retains from those early years when so much must have gone wrong for a child to be in foster care. I see corners of it in my child from time to time, with reactions to things that appear to be so innate and deeply instilled that it scares me. What was done to my child? Could stuff that happened so early on be so very profound? But then I look at my three aged out GAL youth and think maybe I have my answer. I'm just hoping that a decade of good, of love, will drown out whatever was built into that neural network in my child's mind. That a flood of positive will outweigh the way his baby and toddler and young child brain got built.

It still scares the bejeezus out of me.

Please watch Mike Kane's short documentary and listen to Tony Torres's moving words. 

Generation Homeless: Voices from the Street from Mike Kane on Vimeo.
Two young adults from Seattle share their insights and experiences with being homeless.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Palate Cleanser #123

Cerinthe major

This palate cleanser is a total shout-out to the Nymph.

"Yada yada yada... cerinthe blue. Yada yada yada."

"But... wait a minute. Cerinthes are purple, mom."

"The color is called cerinthe blue."

"Well, now that's just plain dumb because cerinthes are purple."

"But the color is called blue."

"Yeah, I get that. But it's purple."

"Remember the color blue violet in the Crayola 64 box?"

"Yeah, mom and I remember the color violet blue, too, okay? Cerinthes are purple and I'm calling the color cerinthe purple."

"Well that's fine. Except for the fact it's cerinthe blue."

"Can you just show me the damn cerinthe already?"

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010

Eating Animals, Part 1

Thelma Lee Gross, DVM, is a regular contributor to Bright Nepenthe. This week she is sharing her thoughts on humane farming in a three part series, Eating Animals.

The Butcher Shop
Attribution unknown

Eating Animals, Part 1

When humans were hunter-gatherers and food production was the business of small farms and family units, the concept of animal ethics was moot: if you didn’t care for your animals humanely, you would not survive.  In the modern world, productivity has become separated from welfare.  This is because we have found ways to keep animals healthy enough to produce without also considering, as Marian Stamp Dawkins says simply in the superb book, The Future of Animal Farming,  “what animals want.”  Technology and science have allowed us to raise animals in an industrial setting that does not necessarily consider the need for a decent life, which includes positive aspects like fulfillment of natural behavior, but also avoidance of negative factors, such as stress, boredom, and fear.  

The problem of factory farming

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma (p. 318), Michael Pollan states that 

“…..tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency……..and the moral imperatives of culture…. [There is a] tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society.  Mercy towards animals in our care is one such casualty.” 

The industrialization of food animal production has eroded our mercy towards the creatures that supply our food.  We buy it neatly packaged in the supermarket and look the other way.  High demand for food animal products in wealthy and emerging countries is accentuated by the steady force of increasing population.  With the economies of scale at work, farms have become larger and the individual attention to animals has weakened.  Animals are raised in denser populations to maximize the number per unit of human labor.  This decreases the opportunity that the farmer has to know individuals, while emphasizing the herd approach.  Even at the level of the farm, therefore, food production has become impersonal.

 The “healthy” closely confined, productive, factory-farmed animal is often achieved only by grace of the recurrent administration of antibiotics, without which closely confined animals cannot survive exposure to disease.  This intense confinement may result in the need for preventative surgical intervention (tail docking in pigs, beak trimming in poultry), as well as the loss of natural behavior.  This leads to boredom, stress, stereotypic behavior (snout nesting movements in crate-confined sows), pain (from confinement-related injury or surgical procedures), and fear.

The problem of the American Veterinary Medical Association

Farmers are a vital and industrious part of our community who care deeply about feeding their nation and often the world.  So why don’t farmers care more about animal welfare?  In essence they do, but by a narrow definition.  Many farmers, particularly those who are involved in the larger operations of industrial food production, believe that if the animal has good physical growth and/or production, and an absence of organic disease, then their welfare is good.  This ignores or subjugates the behavioral choices an animal might make in an optimal environment in which it would be free to decide what it would like to do.  Stress from confinement and the impedance of desired and natural behaviors are simply overlooked because they are not believed to negatively impact profit, and because the animal is not overtly ill.  Animals don’t have to be content and fulfilled, just healthy and productive in this model. 

Motivational studies can reveal what natural behaviors are most important to each species of animal we raise for food and these can be incorporated into new and more humane systems of animal production and housing.  However, there are seemingly persistent health, safety, and economic arguments against the alteration of current systems of factory farming.  These are promulgated by groups that believe that natural behavior and animal contentment are not more important than production, physical health, and food safety.  This was underscored in the 2005 AVMA Welfare Forum: Sow Housing and Welfare, in which the industry, animal scientists, and animal welfare representatives met to discuss the current highly confined system.  The AVMA unfortunately concluded that no current system was better than any other for housing sows.  They stated that their assessment (indicated as a “revision” of policy) was based “...on consideration of animal welfare as assessed through the scientific literature and professional judgment and experience.” 

In the recent Pew Commission’s 2008 report on Industrial Farm Animal Production,  the commission stated that “good animal welfare can no longer be assumed based only on productivity or absence of disease.”  They cited battery cages for hens; gestational and farrowing crates for sows; and crates or tied confinement for veal as the most glaring examples of inhumane practices in factory farm settings.  The American Veterinary Medical Association subsequently published a response to the report,  in which they diminished the findings of Pew by criticizing the commission’s emphasis on confinement housing.  They stated:  

“In fact, simply increasing the space allotted to animals will always have both positive and negative effects…..Furthermore, increasing space while maintaining a barren environment is unlikely to substantively satisfy an animal’s behavioral needs.”

The Pew Report had not concluded that space changes should be made in a void, or that the environment should be “barren.”  In fact, the commission cited the European Union’s animal welfare program that calls for several basic categories of farm animal welfare: optimal feeding, comfortable housing, a good thermal environment, freedom to move, health systems that prevent injury, and the means to allow expression of non harmful social behavior.  In the sow housing welfare forum, mentioned above, Dr. Harold Gonyou of the Prairie Swine Centre of Saskatoon indicated that there were at least 72 possible combinations of sow group housing systems to consider, certainly not an either-or proposition.  Although the AVMA was careful to point out that intensive systems support health while extensive systems support behavior, and that it is erroneous to focus exclusively on only one these factors, they further stated: 

“People, including veterinarians and other scientists, approach animal welfare from different viewpoints and attribute various degrees of importance to different measures of animal welfare on the basis of their education, training, experience, and personal values and the perspectives, morals, and ethical constructs of the society in which they live and work. The Pew report, like all assessments of farmed animal production systems, reflects its authors’ views and prejudices.” 

By categorizing the effort to improve farm animal welfare as a “viewpoint” or “prejudice”, the AVMA fails in one of its duties to animals as outlined in the Veterinarian’s Oath: the relief of animal suffering.  The organization has an allegiance to the food animal industry, which includes food animal veterinarians and animal scientists.  But their caution at a time when bold leadership and action are needed is shocking, particularly in the context of increased public awareness of the AVMA’s weak position on animal welfare. (See the full page advertisement in the New York Times.)

Caulfield and Cambridge of Animals Australia take this science-based welfare approach to task eloquently in their 2008 article in the Australian Veterinary Journal.  They question why scientific method must always trump moral and ethical considerations in the rearing of our food animals and why the status quo must always be maintained until there is irrefutable scientific evidence; in other words, they question the position of organizations like the AVMA. If classical scientific method is not allowing us to rapidly improving welfare, then we must broaden our approach and escape such a “reductionist” position.  As an example of scientific obfuscation on the subject of animal welfare, an article in 2002 Journal of Animal Science  proposes a model that “contains 37 attributes that describe the welfare-relevant properties of housing and management systems….these attributes are linked to scientific statements and a list of needs to provide a scientific basis for welfare assessment.”  Animal scientists and others in the industry speak of “perceived” welfare, as if human beings cannot determine a clearly ethical way of raising an animal by their own observations and the use common sense.  The Farm Animal Initiative in the U.K. has implemented such practical systems of investigation of farm animal welfare, and will be discussed further in the final part of this series.

Next:  Why avoiding farm animal products is not a global solution.

The main text portion of this post is ©Thelma Lee Gross, 2010.

All other components are by Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Frans de Waal: Morals Without God?

Frans de Waal's wonderful column Morals Without God? How primate behavior sheds light on the origins of our sense of right and wrong, in yesterday's New York Times is a must read. Among quotes of interest:

"Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago."
And the thought provoking:
"... the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and  we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion."

You can take a glance at the premise that lead to this discussion in this video trailer of his discussion with Robert Wright about morals, religion and primate altruism.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Palate Cleanser #122

Lake McKenzie

Photograph by Peter Essick, National Geographic
This Month in Photo of the Day: National Geographic Magazine Features
One of dozens of lakes on the island, Lake McKenzie shimmers in the starlight. During the day the lake's sugar white beach and windowpane water attract hundreds of visitors. Like the painters and poets who celebrated Fraser's otherworldly allure, they return home with stories and images of soul-stirring beauty.
See more photos of the September 2010 story "Sands of Time."

visual palate cleanser concept © Bright Nepenthe, 2010

A Good Life

Linda Norgrove
attribution unknown

I've been thinking about writing about Linda Norgrove since last week. Her courage and her good work resonated so deeply in my thoughts. With a happier outcome of her kidnapping, she would surely have been counted an Uppity Woman on this blog. She did amazing things, all over the world in her brief 36 years. Sadly though, so many media accounts, instead of focusing on her amazing good works, have focused on the tragic mistakes that led to her death.

I can't even being to process just how brave Linda Norgrove was. 2010 has been a very bad year in Afghanistan. Deaths in the military have certainly risen. But, in recent months, it's especially been bad for humanitarian workers. In July, Shaun Sexton, a 29 year old security guard working with her at Development Alternatives, Inc., was killed along two Afghans and a German, in DAI's offices in Kunduz. In August, Dr. Karen Woo, who had been providing ophthalmological care to local villagers was killed along with nine other aid workers when gunmen attacked a village. Against this backdrop, Norgrove persevered until her kidnapping by Taliban militants in late September.

Linda Norgrove was a dedicated and very experienced humanitarian aid worker. She appeared to have a great love of learning. After earning a doctorate in ecology, she was completing an MBA with the University of Warwick, through "distance" learning, while she worked in Afghanistan. Norgrove knew Afghanistan very well, having worked with the UN there from 2005-2008 before returning to become the Jalalabad-based Regional Director of Development Alternatives, Inc. in 2010. After earning her doctorate she had first worked with the World Wildlife Fund before joining UN projects. She had worked in Peru, Mexico, Laos and Uganda, in addition to Afghanistan. She was fluent in Dari and Spanish and was learning Pashto. At the time of her death, Norgrove was directing DAI's implementation of the USAID project for rebuilding businesses and infrastructure in Afghanistan.

The best piece I've seen on Linda Norgrove was by Trudy Rubin, for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Rubin met Norgrove this past spring, while traveling in Afghanistan. She describes a photo she took of Ruben:

"I have a photo of her dressed in a long, black skirt and loose tunic, her hair under an enveloping shawl, as she stood beside several Afghan elders. I recall the respect those grizzled men showed her as she discussed their new crops, which had replaced opium poppy fields."
~ Trudy Rubin, Philadelphia Inquirer 

As Rubin points out, Norgrove's projects were successful while those of many others failed. One of the reasons for her her successful work with the Afghani people was that she  really lived among the Afghan people. She lived in a simple villa, not a razor-wired UN compound. Instead of driving around in Humvees with a string of guards, she went with a driver and a guard. She wanted to be able to freely communicate with the local people and while she realized they couldn't offer guarantees, the tribal elders in her area evidently really did try to safeguard her.

At the time of her tragic death, those same tribal elders were evidently bartering desperately for her release. They wanted her back, safe, because she had done so much good. However, intelligence reports had suggested that the Taliban militants holding her might either execute her or take her into Northern Waziristan (Pakistan), where there would be little chance of rescuing her. Reportedly, both locals and the US forces in the area were simply astonished that the Taliban had kidnapped "such a good person". I am still not quite sure that I comprehend their astonishment, since if you're going to kidnap someone to barter with or make a big display with, clearly taking someone who is a prize makes the biggest statement. The Taliban may be a group of barbarians but they're not stupid barbarians.

It really doesn't matter much how she ultimately died, whether because of a Taliban suicide vest or a misguidedly tossed US grenade. She's dead and the people who loved her, both at home in Scotland, and in the villages she helped, are much the poorer for her loss.

Days after Norgrove's death, there were a lot of announcements (see one example) that the Afghan government and the Taliban are in negotiations, that the Taliban are trying to reconcile with the Kabul authorities.

I really want to believe that the Taliban will be done mutilating women, stoning people to death, and kidnapping brave and goodhearted souls who wanted nothing other than to do good for the Afghan people.

I really want to.

Once again, I look at the past decade in Afghanistan, and even the role the US has played in the country for the past thirty years and I'm just so saddened. For the Afghani people, and for Dr. Norgrove's family and for all the aid workers who will look at recent months in Afghanistan and think no matter how much they want to help, or how much good they could do, that it is just not worth the risk.

There are a lot of things that I don't like in the Qur'an or in hadith. But one thing that I'm pretty certain of is that if we were to ask What Would Muhammed Do? it wouldn't be kidnapping female humanitarian workers, dragging them all over Afghanistan, doing who knows what to them in the process, and ending up, no matter who detonated what, responsible for the death of someone who had only done good for this planet.

I hope that the Taliban are as God-fearing as they say they are.

Because if they are right and there is a God, they should be.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010