by Amy Josiane Whiting
April 23, 2015
In 2013, Amy Meyer visited a slaughterhouse in Draper, Utah and photographed a live, sick, and obviously-in-pain cow being dragged across the ground in a tractor. She took this photo through a barbed wire fence and on public easement, but the manager of the slaughterhouse insisted that she be prosecuted through a Utah agriculture law that forbids the recording of a slaughterhouse or farm without explicit permission. (To see the video she filmed, click here.) These charges were later dropped, but this case is only a small example of the battle for animal rights in Utah. This experience also demonstrates one of the main factors motivating Amy to be a vegan.
But Amy is not alone. As a Google search trend confirms, the incidence of people searching for topics relating to veganism has more than doubled since 2010. A number of celebrities also endorse a vegan diet, among whom are Ellen Degeneres, Joaquin Phoenix, and Ariana Grande. Aziz Ansari did an entire stand-up comedy routine based around the horrors of the modern meat industry. Justin Timberlake did a skit on Saturday Night Live in 2013 glorifying the benefits of tofu through hit songs. Even famous historical figures like Albert Einstein and Susan B. Anthony promoted vegetarianism. (The difference between being a vegan and a vegetarian is simple – basically, vegetarians don’t eat meat. But vegans don’t eat meat or any byproducts of animals, which includes dairy and eggs.) So, aside from sheer popularity, what motivates someone to cut out any dairy, eggs or meat from their diet? To many people, the idea of going vegan is beyond impossible – it’s just straight up crazy. What could possibly scare people away from lazy morning bacon, ice cream shakes, and seemingly eternal stacks of nachos?
One of the most obvious and prominent reasons people choose to be vegan is animal abuse. This reason is backed up with the increase of food-industry-related documentaries. These include everything from “Vegucated,” which follows the lives of three New Yorkers as they make the transition to veganism, to “Food Inc.,” a comprehensive guide to how we’ve become separated from the source of our food. Perhaps the most convincing of these documentaries, however, is “Earthlings.” This award-winning documentary is a graphic representation of animal abuse occurring in the meat and dairy industry, shown through hidden cameras. The trailer alone includes scenes too graphic for some viewers. One shot shows a worker saying “make it scream” to another worker handling a cow. An internet movie reviewer aptly said “this film will be emotionally intense for perhaps the majority of humanity.”
So how do animal rights issues relate to Utah? Amy Meyer, a representative for the Utah Animal Rights Coalition (UARC) said that the biggest problem is “the jaw-dropping number of animals inside factory farms in Utah and the fact that the government is helping this large industry hide from the public.” Other current local animal rights issues, she said, include “terrible conditions for wild animals at Lagoon, rodeos, pig wrestling, [and] circuses.”
Factory farming, otherwise known as “intensive animal farming,” involves keeping livestock (including pigs, poultry and cows) in huge quantities. It evolved with the Industrial Revolution, and turns raising animals into a scientific series of checkboxes – feeding animals growth hormones to create maximum amounts of desirable meat, storing animals in “battery cages,” inside a building, and then transferring them to a slaughterhouse where workers are trained to each do only one task, repeatedly, to terminate the animals. This practice is by far the most common method for raising and slaughtering livestock as well as farming eggs and milk cows, and Utah has millions of animals in such factories. When it comes to commercial farms, images of green grass farms and animals roaming freely are now nothing more than marketing.
The biggest issue facing Utahns concerned with animal rights, says Meyer, is a piece of legislation known as the “Ag Gag Law.” This law makes it illegal for outsiders to take photos or videos inside a farm unless previously given permission, making undercover investigations illegal. Meyers said that this law “threatens whistleblowers and has been improperly used to intimidate people who actually are within their legal rights to record animal cruelty.”
The awareness of animal rights brought by documentaries and activist groups has formed a small revolution in how Utahns eat meat. There is an increasing demand for humane farming – bringing the animals out of the factory and back to where it all began.
Said Tony Blakham, a local turkey farmer, “A good grower is continuously concerned and evaluating how to ensure the safety and welfare of his animals.… Most people don’t realize the amount of focus and attention paid to the little details to properly raise turkeys.” He described being taught as a child and teenager that the health of his animals was more important than anything else. Tony refuses to use growth hormones and avoids antibiotics as much as possible. When it comes to newborn turkeys, his workers are instructed to personally alter all temperature, feeders, and heaters to ensure their comfort. He emphasized that these practices are designed to prevent disease and stress on the animals, even up to the moment they are slaughtered. “A good grower is in tune with his animals. He can sense through the sounds, activity levels, and [even] poop how the turkeys are doing. A stressed, injured or ill turkey doesn’t do anyone any good.” His turkeys are typically kept for 18 to 20 weeks and killed via electrocution.
Utah Natural Meat, located in West Jordan, has also seen an increase in demand for their humanely-raised meat. Kristen Bowler, a spokesperson for the company, says that devout vegetarians have even begun eating meat again thanks to how this farm treats the animals. And long-time meat-eaters are also attracted to the brand, due to the health benefits that come from eating meat from animals that are fed grass rather than antibiotics and growth hormones. When asked about the difference between their “humane” methods and that of factory farming, Bowler replied that the differences start the minute the animals are born. A mother pig in a commercial farm is typically kept indoors for the majority of her life, in a crate that completely restricts her from moving any more than standing up, separating her from the newborn piglets. Utah Natural Meats, on the other hand, keeps the animals outside in muddy pastures. The mother pigs are given their own space and shelter to raise their piglets in and give birth in the sun, dirt and grass – where and when they want to. The chickens can forage for food naturally and do not have their beaks cut off like those in a factory farm. The poultry is killed in their own facilities, using what is called a “kill cone.” This basically entails the chicken being held upside down with their neck hanging out of the “cone.” It is then pierced through the main artery in its neck and bled out. As far as slaughtering red meat goes, UNM have to employ an outside butcher. They monitor the butcher themselves to ensure that the animals are killed as humanely as possible. (For example, the animals are kept outside, and one by one brought in to be instantaneously killed with a rod through the brain. Because this process is done one-by-one and in such small quantities, the animals can live most of their lives without the panic seen in commercial slaughterhouses, where animals are all killed in a group.) Bowler stressed that throughout the entire process they attempt to keep the animals as calm as they can.
Some animal rights activists still feel that “humanely” raised meat is not a good enough excuse to be an omnivore. Many believe that animals should not be used for human benefit or pleasure at all. Devin Rasmussen, a vegan student from Brigham Young University, says that the issue is not how people eat meat or where it comes from, but that they’re using animals in the first place. “If animal rights means anything, it means that animals have at least one inherent right – not to be treated as property. As long as animals are property they can and will be exploited by humans for our pleasurable ends.”
Many brands that label their eggs “cage-free” or “organic” have loopholes that allow them to label their products in attractive, marketable ways, while still giving little thought to the animal’s quality of life. For example, even among “humanely” raised egg chickens, if a male chick is hatched, it will be quickly killed after it is born through a gas mixture or fed, alive, into a macerator (a high speed grinder), and in some cases even thrown away or crammed in bags to suffocate, because it does not have the ability to lay eggs, and therefore has no monetary value. A male chick will not grow up to lay eggs, so it’s not convenient for commercialized farms to keep them alive. (This practice is called “chick culling.”)
Animal welfare is not alone on the list of motivations behind veganism. According to The Vegan Society, a website hosting various resources for those making a diet change, other major reasons to make the change include lessening harm to the environment, personal health, and even human rights. The meat industry contributes so much to global warming and water usage that a large number of scientists agree that the greatest way to personally slow down climate change is to stop eating meat and dairy products. A study from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the combined exhaust of all transportation. And they’re in good company. Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” Barbara Matheson, president of the Utah Society of Vegetarians, has stated that since she stopped eating meat and dairy products in 2007, she has beaten cancer, crippling depression, suicidal thoughts, high blood pressure, obesity, blindness in her left eye, and numerous other disabilities.
Thanks to “grassroots activism,” Salt Lake City is already becoming one of the most vegan-friendly cities in the country, says Meyer. Popularity of farmers markets in Utah is constantly growing, combatting factory farms and slaughterhouses alike. Matheson says that meat sales are already dropping. Countless clubs and foundations in Utah host screenings of documentaries, plan meetings to share plant-based food, and fight for the rights of animals on a local scale. Vegan restaurants are growing in popularity (such as Omars and Bud’s Cafe in Salt Lake City) and other restaurants are quickly learning to add vegan options to their menus.
Many people will point out that simply changing one element of the way you eat will not change an entire industry. But to Meyer, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In her opinion, the easiest way to fight factory farming and animal abuse is to completely cut off the consumption of meat and dairy products. “As the demand for meat goes down (as more people are cutting back or eliminating it from their diet completely), supply goes down, meaning less animals are bred and forced to live a miserable life on factory farms.”
It is clear that this will not be an overnight battle. It may take generations of fighting, but farmers and activists alike are determined to revolutionize the way the world eats food.
(Additional information on Amy Meyer’s ag-gag case from greenisthenewred.com.)
Amy Whiting is a student, rock climber, film junkie, and vegan. She believes in Harry Potter marathons and mismatched socks. Find her on the internet at @amyjosiane.