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Back in February, I blogged about Josh Hooten, who rode his bike 600 miles from Portland, Oregon, to Farm Sanctuary in Orland, California, raising funds for the organization and awareness about animal cruelty. Inspired by Josh’s feat, animal activist and athlete John Merryfield recently embarked on a three-day journey around the circumference of Lake Tahoe — 72 miles ― on his stand-up paddle board. He even invited anyone who was interested to join him. John is a great reminder that using our strengths and interests is an easy and fun way to campaign for animals. He plans to make his “Stand Up for Farm Animals” event an annual tradition, and we chatted the other day about his advocacy efforts.

What inspired you to go vegan?

I’ve been a vegetarian for 25 years and was in denial about the abusive practices within the dairy industry for 20 of those years, until becoming a vegan five years ago. Part of my denial was infused with a spiritual practice that included the use of milk in the diet as a form of spiritual connection to the cow. I now see my former practice as antiquated, and ultimately I could no longer deny the harm caused to cows as well as the overwhelming information about the effects to the dairy industry has on the environment. Oh, and not to mention the adverse affects animal fat has on our health.

Was there something you read or saw that was a tipping point regarding milk?

Some talks by Erik Marcus and Gene Baur here in Tahoe had a big influence on me. They made me realize there was no reason to use dairy products.

What was the toughest part about your 72-mile journey?

John Merryfield, third from the left, just before he set off to stand-up paddle Lake Tahoe. Photo by Michael Fish

John Merryfield, third from the left, just before he set off to stand-up paddle Lake Tahoe. Photo by Michael Fish

The logistical components. Who, if anybody will be coming with me? How far will we get each day? What if other people coming along become unable to continue? Where will other people coming with me sleep at night? Will the weather challenge us?  

Where did people sleep?

Eight paddlers started with me, but in the end only my step-daughter, Kim Kerrigan, and I completed the entire 72-mile paddle and needed to sleep overnight. I have a Eurovan, which my wife drove and followed us around the lake. We stopped at camping grounds to sleep.

How did you prepare for the event?

I prepared for the paddle by paddling and stand-up paddle surfing, which is done in the ocean. Not too grueling and a lot of fun. My preparation paddles were six- to 18-mile paddles two to four days a week for a month or so, which isn’t that different from my normal fun paddles. I also got in a couple of surfs on a nice south swell this summer down in Southern California, which I logged as “training.”

When will the next Stand Up for Farm Animals event take place? Will it be another excursion on Lake Tahoe?

The second-annual Stand up for Farm Animals will be in Lake Tahoe the first weekend after Labor Day. I have thought about this idea growing to include other locations, and in the year to come I can see how or if that idea could take shape. Stand-up paddling is a hugely growing sport that is getting a lot of attention and I thought, What better way to bring attention to what really needs our focus ― the cruelty to factory farm animals — than a cool sport people are noticing? I’ve been an athlete my entire life with many different accomplishments with some recognition. I don’t need attention anymore. I can use that former need for attention and translate it into bringing attention to these inconceivably cruel farm animal practices and bringing about change. I stand on my paddle board, paddling Lake Tahoe, while people on the beach look at me and point, [saying] “Look, I’ve never seen that before. I want to do that. Is it hard? Do you have to know how to surf?” Light bulb! Paddle the entire lake and connect the paddle to end cruelty to farm animals! People will take notice.

So how hard is stand-up paddle boarding?       

It can be very challenging for someone with no experience on the water, but the boards are large, which makes it easier to balance. Anyone who has done yoga usually takes right to it.

How can others help or get involved?    

Others can get involved by paddling the second-annual Stand up for Farm Animals with me, or starting a Stand Up for Farm Animals paddle in another location or doing something unique to their own interests that ultimately raises awareness. At next year’s paddle, I hope to have more paddle boards available for people who want to paddle the entire thing, 15 miles of it or as little as 10 minutes. The more the better.

If you’d like to support John’s work by donating to Farm Sanctuary, please click here. Every little bit helps the animals.

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In yet another blow to animal agribusiness, the UK animal rights nonprofit Animal Aid recently released video footage taken inside three randomly chosen British slaughterhouses. Between January and June 2009, the group captured scenes using hidden cameras they had installed at JV Richards (Rietfontein) Ltd in Cornwall, AC Hopkins (Taunton) Ltd in Somerset and Pickstock Ashby Ltd in Derbyshire. The abuses depicted are shocking to most viewers, but apparently just another working day for slaughterhouse employees. From some 40 hours of video, Animal Aid compiled a 10-minute clip, which you can see here. Among the scenes are pigs and sheep being kicked, shoved and dragged into the stun room, which was packed with frightened animals. Tormented animals slip, fall and cry out. In one instance, a ewe is stunned and killed while her young is still suckling her. Animal Aid believes that millions of animals across the UK are suffering untold torture inside slaughterhouses, and they are calling on the government to require ongoing training and assessment for all slaughterhouse workers and for cameras to be permanently placed inside slaughterhouses. Kate Fowler, head of campaigns at Animal Aid, says the video disposes of the myth that slaughter in the UK is, or can ever be, humane.

Kate kindly took time to answer some questions about this investigation.

From what I understand, this investigation was inspired by the “humane meat” myth, which seems to be as common in the UK as it is here in the US. Who there is driving the fiction that animals can be raised for meat without suffering?

The insistence that slaughter in the UK is humane comes from a variety of sources. Unsurprisingly, the industry insists that all is well and, as the government’s agencies are supposed to monitor slaughterhouses, they also state that their checks ensure high animal welfare standards in abattoirs. They couldn’t very well tell the truth and admit that animals suffer horrifically and routinely at slaughter because that would be a tacit admission that they are not doing their job properly. Other deniers include celebrity chefs and TV companies who have, in recent months, tried to boost their profile and ratings by showing slaughter on mainstream television. Of course, the slaughter they show is typically a single animal brought into a mocked-up abattoir where time is taken to ensure standards are adhered to and best practice is observed. This is a million miles away from the chaos and terror of real slaughterhouses and gives false assurances to the meat-eating public.

Reading Animal Aid’s lengthy report on this investigation made me sick. What do you see as the most shocking animal welfare violations at the three slaughterhouses?

There are many animal welfare violations that appear to breach the law, but we didn’t set out to reveal illegal practices. What we wanted was to show a typical day in typical slaughterhouses, and the most shocking scenes weren’t necessarily those that breached welfare regulations. The images that haunt me still are of the animals ― particularly the sheep ― in the stun room at two of the slaughterhouses. Their fear was extreme and abundantly apparent: one sheep was so desperate to escape the fate she had already seen her flock mates succumb to, that she leapt through the hatch and into the slaughter area where she landed in the blood pit below her bleeding and shackled mates. Other sheep and pigs ran and ran, looking for any chance to escape. One sheep leapt up the walls while a pig attempted to climb the door. The fear the animals feel is something that cannot be “smoothed away” with increased monitoring ― it is a horrific inevitability in commercial slaughterhouses. Other shocking violations included stunning a ewe while her lamb suckled her, bringing a ewe to slaughter in a wheelbarrow because she was too sick to stand, and almost all pigs at one abattoir being stunned improperly the first time so they suffered electric shocks severe enough to floor them but not powerful enough to render them unconscious. Absolutely shocking.

Why did Animal Aid choose to install a hidden camera in each location rather than send someone in undercover to record slaughterhouse practices?

There are a number of logistical reasons for obtaining the footage the way we did but, most importantly, any person in the stun or slaughter area may change the behavior of other workers around him. We wanted no distractions, no behavior modifications, no excuses for why the workers acted in the way they did. We wanted to see what happens on a typical day ― not what happens when a new “worker” is in the room. The footage we obtained shows genuine slaughterhouse practice, and that can’t be denied.

What has been the response from the meat industry?

Extraordinary. Animal Aid has conducted many investigations over the years, but never have we had so many industry insiders queuing up to offer information about the facilities that they work in! We expected an industry backlash with denials and mud-flinging, and we did get a little of that. But by and large, the industry has thrown its hands up and admitted we did find serious issues. How could they deny it? Now, everyone is blaming someone else: farmers are angry at the way “their” animals are being killed, slaughterers are blaming the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) over its lack of enforcement and the MHS inspectors blame their management for not supporting them. We have certainly shaken things up and we’ll have to see how it all settles. But in the meantime, we are pursuing every avenue that could lead to improvements in the fundamentally flawed slaughter system.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was upset that Animal Aid didn’t report the slaughterhouse abuses to them right away. Why did you release the video evidence to the public before alerting the RSPCA?

Over the years, we have interrupted our investigations (and by so doing increased the risk to our investigators who were still filming inside facilities) to report the most shocking cruelties to the RSPCA. Not only have they never prosecuted on the basis of our evidence, they have publicly given the “all clear” to the farms involved. We even filmed inside an RSPCA-approved chicken farm ― a so-called “Freedom Food” farm, where tens of thousands of birds were crammed into a squalid unit in the same way that “standard” birds are reared. The level of leg and hip deformities in that shed was extreme, and I think it is probably the most shocking chicken farm I have ever seen. Even then, with its own reputation at stake, the RSPCA did not prosecute. I have little faith that the RSPCA would have stepped in to help the animals in the slaughterhouses. But aside from that, I believe what we filmed is typical of slaughterhouses right across the country. It is not the case of a “bad apple” that can be prosecuted and then everything will be well. The problems, the abuses, the suffering, are endemic and inevitable and the RSPCA feeds into that by sanctioning farms and promoting meat consumption.

How does Animal Aid want slaughterhouses or legislators to respond to this investigation?

What we have shown is that the system currently in place does not protect the welfare animals at the time of slaughter ― and there is no way that it could. (And of course, by the very nature of slaughterhouses, it does not protect the rights of animals ― quite the opposite.) The MHS is clearly failing in its role to protect the welfare of animals in abattoirs and that is why CCTV needs to be installed in all slaughterhouses. Even then, it is unlikely that the authorities would agree to release the footage to an independent board who has the welfare of animals as its primary motive. But I believe it would be a good step towards ensuring best practice. And there must be ongoing training and independent assessment for all stun operators and slaughterers. Currently, training and assessment is usually done in-house and there is no re-training or re-assessment ever. I would also like to see people who have violent or sexual convictions barred from working in slaughterhouses.

What can the public do to help?

Their role in eliminating animal suffering is much clearer and is guaranteed to be effective: stop eating them.

For more information about this investigation, and to support the work of Animal Aid, please visit animalaid.org.uk.

It’s been a bad month for the egg industry. Only weeks after Mercy For Animals released damning video footage taken at the Hy-Line Hatchery in Iowa, Compassion Over Killing has announced details of their investigation into an egg farm owned by Minnesota-based Michael Foods. While employed at the facility in August, a COK investigator used a hidden camera to document conditions for hens in this factory farm, which confines more than one million birds inside barren wire battery cages.

COK_henCOK’s video reveals hens immobilized in the wires of their cages, unable to access food or water; decomposing corpses left in cages with live birds; a Michael Foods employee decapitating a hen; and birds suffering from overcrowding, severe feather loss and untreated injuries. Thanks in no small part to the Internet, the public is able to see more and more of this indefensible cruelty, which is clearly routine and unchecked within agribusiness.

Michael Foods is one of the country’s largest egg producers, supplying eggs to several national restaurant chains, including Dunkin’ Donuts. COK has asked Dunkin’ Donuts many times about the treatment of hens in its supply chain and encouraged the company to make meaningful changes for hens ― and consumers ― by offering vegan doughnuts. According to COK, there are an estimated 6,400 Dunkin’ Donut stores in the U.S. alone, offering more than 52 varieties of doughnuts ― all of which contain egg and dairy products from animals forced to endure miserable conditions inside massive and mechanized factory farms like the one COK investigated. After getting no action from Dunkin’ Donuts, COK launched DunkinCruelty.com, which has prompted thousands of concerned consumers to contact the doughnut maker about this important issue.

Several animal welfare experts viewed the new video. Dr. Ian Duncan, Chair of Animal Welfare in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at the University of Guelph, said the hens were clearly enduring enormous suffering. “The most striking feature of the video is the large number of dead birds that are taken out of the cages,” he said. “[B]irds are removed that have been dead for a considerable time. The carcasses are covered in feces, and are rotting. In some cases, the carcasses are actually disintegrating which suggests that the birds have been dead in the cages for well over a week. In many cases the carcasses are very difficult to remove from the cages. This suggests that the hens may have been trapped while still alive and had a slow lingering death because they could not reach the food or water.”

“No responsible company should support this animal cruelty,” says COK’s executive director Erica Meier. “Dunkin’ Donuts can ― and should ― make the right decision by removing eggs from its doughnuts and offering more humane vegan menu items.”

What You Can Do:

Compassion Over Killing is asking people to contact Dunkin’ Donuts and urge the company to stop using eggs and dairy. You can call them at 1-800-859-5339 and send them an email using COK’s form.

Click here for additional ways to help COK.

One of the agribusiness cruelties that has always made me shudder is the practice of killing newborn male chicks, whom egg producers deem as having no monetary value. Each year in the US, 200 million male chicks are killed shortly after hatching, and many of these birds are ground up in large machines called macerators while still alive. Taking these innocent babies, fresh from their eggs and searching for their mothers, and subjecting them to such a callous execution is one of the dirty little secrets of agribiz. The hens, meanwhile, are born into a bleak life of intensive confinement and suffering; they will most likely spend up to 24 months crammed into a battery cage and laying eggs for human consumption until, their bodies depleted, the hens will be yanked out of their wire prisons and slaughtered for dog food or some other low-grade chicken product.

HyLineChicksinCrateInspired to help these sensitive beings, activists from Mercy For Animals have been quietly engaged in an undercover operation inside the world’s largest breeder of egg-laying hens. At a press conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, today, Mercy For Animals executive director Nathan Runkle released video footage shot covertly inside the Spencer, Iowa, location of Hy-Line International. Taken with a hidden camera by a Mercy For Animals investigator who worked at the hatchery from May 20 to June 6, 2009, the disturbing video depicts newborn chicks being dumped onto a swiftly moving conveyor belt and hanging by their beaks in a de-beaking machine. But it’s the haunting scene of chicks being dropped into a high-pressure macerator that will probably upset viewers most. And rightly so: Each day at this Hy-Line facility, nearly 150,000 male chicks are grabbed by their fragile wings, separated from the females and tossed into chutes that eventually lead them to a machine that will tear their tiny bodies to pieces. Every inch of the way the baby chicks are fully conscious.

Keeping a detailed written record, the Mercy For Animals investigator reported numerous instances of inhumane treatment and animals denied food and water. “I saw a bloody chick on the floor slowly twitching and breathing,” he writes. “I asked a worker if the chick would live, and he told me to throw it away. Like every day, dozens of chicks from broken eggs were left to die in trashcans.”

Nathan says Mercy For Animals selected the Hy-Line hatchery for its investigation because it is the world’s largest and the conditions documented there ― including throwing, mutilating and grinding up live animals ― illustrate the harsh and brutal nature of the entire egg industry, which treats animals as mere egg-producing machines, placing profit over animal welfare.  “If egg producers threw, mutilated and ground up puppies or kittens in the manner they do baby chicks, they could be prosecuted for animal cruelty,” he said.

Several animal welfare experts have viewed the video footage and remarked on the cruelty exhibited by Hy-Line workers.

“The video depicts compromised chicks struggling on the floor,” observed Dr. Sara Shields, an animal welfare scientist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “Some are undoubtedly still alive after falling through the separation machine…. These animals are in need of immediate attention and should have been euthanized without delay or given care to assist their recovery. It is disconcerting that these animals are simply left on the floor with dead chicks and egg debris.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns, stated that “Based on the most up-to-date scientific knowledge of the neurological and behavioral complexity of birds, including chickens at the time of hatching, … my opinion of the hatchery footage I observed is that the chicks shown in the footage are experiencing extreme mental and physical trauma at the hands of the workers and in the devices of the machinery designed to mutilate them.”

Nathan also used the press conference to announce that Mercy For Animals will be sending letters to the 50 largest Hatchery_Warning_Colorgrocery chains in the US asking them to voluntarily require that all eggs sold in their stores bear a label that reads “Warning: Male chicks are ground-up alive by the egg industry.” These egg retailers include Wal-Mart, Kroger, Safeway, Costco, Albertson’s, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s and Meijer.

“To the shock of most compassionate consumers,” Nathan said, “each year egg producers kill hundreds of millions of male egg-laying breed chicks at hatcheries because they will not lay eggs and do not grow large or fast enough to be raised profitably for meat. This is another violent and cruel side of the industry that consumers have a right to know about so that they can make informed and compassionate purchasing decisions.”

What You Can Do:

  • If you’re still eating eggs ― even “cage free” or “free range” eggs ― please go vegan. You’ll be amazed how easy it is to enjoy a delicious, nutritious plant-based diet. I bake all the time, for example, and never need to use eggs, thanks to the many alternatives now available. And who needs more cholesterol? For some great advice on going vegan, visit ChooseVeg.com.
  • Share this information. Most people ― even many ethical vegetarians ― are unaware of the cruelties behind egg production. The abusive practices at Hy-Line are common throughout the industry and, in the case of grinding up live male chicks, considered standard. Let family and friends know what’s happening by sharing this story with them.
  • Support the work of Mercy For Animals. This is an outstanding organization that relies on the generosity of compassionate people to help fund investigations like the one announced today.

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