Prosthelytzing and Vilifying

Last night I went to Lincoln Center’s screening of the film Fowl Play. It is a documentary about the horrors of large-scale egg farms. You can see some scenes here, but I warn you they are very difficult to look at. I found myself in tears at more than one point in the film because of the cruel treatment the chickens were subjected to.

I was asked to participate in a panel discussion after the film, which would present alternatives to the factory egg farms. I was representing backyard chicken keepers. Matt Rice from Mercy For Animals was presenting the film and discussing how they were able to gain access to get the footage, etc. In the orange sweater was Bee from BK Farmyards. BK Farmyards is a Brooklyn-based decentralized farming network. They partner with schools, developers and city agencies to farm on underutilized land within the city. They teach organic, sustainable gardening and chicken keeping. On the far right was Jenny Brown, co-founder of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. They rescue, rehabilitate and find homes for unwanted, abused and injured farm animals. Isa Cucinotta on the far left organized the event and moderated the panel.

It looked to be an interesting evening of like-minded people sharing their knowledge and experience and I was excited (and nervous) to participate. I was totally unprepared for what ensued. The film ended with a very strong pro-vegan message. Okay. That is a very reasonable choice to make, especially when you have been in these factory farms and have seen the horrors there. What I wasn’t expecting was the aggression I met with from my fellow panelists Matt Rice and Jenny Brown. We went from left to right for introductions and I was introduced as a backyard chicken farmer. No sooner had this introduction been made than Jenny launched into an attack on all backyard chicken keepers. As background: chicken hatcheries face a huge demand for hens and can’t find homes for all the roosters. Some of them practice chick grinding, which is a horrible practice of dumping male chicks into a big blender as a means of disposal. You can ask your hatchery what their practice is and choose a hatchery that doesn’t do that. (The alternative is that they sell the male chicks to be raised for meat.) I don’t love the idea of this, but it’s illegal to keep roosters in NYC and I still believe what I’m doing is light years better than buying factory farmed eggs.

Both Matt and Jenny are vegans and they wouldn’t accept anything short of veganism as the solution. It was either black or white without any gray in between. The fact is that most people are not going to be vegan. Bee and I were there to offer another alternative, but we were squashed in our efforts at showing our way of producing eggs as a humane alternative. I am a firm believer that if we all take action toward something we believe in (even if it’s a small step), collectively we can make a big difference. Moderation over extremism is more palatable and sustainable to most people, but my voice was overpowered by Matt and Jenny’s radical views. They stated that all domestic animals are slaves, and you are enlightened if you are vegan. Our moderator was nowhere to be found during this siege.

People in the audience tried to get information about how they could get eggs from humanely raised chickens. They were told there was no way to tell if the hens were treated humanely and even told that by definition, no farm animals can be raised humanely. The audience was told a lot of very dramatic things, but the reality is that it wasn’t complete information. The Farmer’s Markets in the city have farm inspectors, who will kick out farms that don’t adhere to their standards. There are wonderful agencies such as Just Food that work to connect local farms with New Yorkers to create a just and sustainable food system. Or there’s the fabulous website LocalHarvest, that helps people find local, organic food, whether it is a CSA, farm, restaurant or farmer’s market.

I felt as though I was set-up last night. Our moderator didn’t prepare either Bee or myself for the possibility of facing the aggression we met with. I would have been more prepared with facts and lists of websites and wonderful organizations that promote local, sustainable and humane farming practices. Bee brought flyers about BK Farmyards with information about a fundraiser she’s organizing and they were stolen off the information table. One woman later told her that she recognized the people who did that as vegan activists. I had been asked to bring my hens to the event and I decided not to because it was going to run late and I didn’t want to subject them to the stress of the travel and lights going on and off after they went to sleep. Thank goodness I didn’t bring them. Could you imagine how bringing my hens in a cage would have gone over??

I was shaking onstage because besides being nervous, I wasn’t prepared to be personally attacked. I think ultimately I was able to convey to the audience how well-treated my hens are and what a great and spoiled life they lead. I said that there are many restaurants and shops that are becoming aware of and offering sustainable and humane choices as part of the growing food movement. I also suggested people go and visit farms as a way to educate themselves and their children about where their food comes from. That is a great way to decide if you agree with the practices of the farm. I’ve found that farmers are very friendly and open about letting my family come and visit. If they aren’t, a red flag should go up.

After the panel there was wine and snacks. I made straight for the wine to take the edge off. I spoke with Jenny Brown a bit and told her that I had been looking forward to meeting her because I had tried to contact her organization to offer help in finding homes for abandoned/rescued chickens in NYC. She was surprised and admitted that I am a good chicken keeper. She said that she had even visited my blog before the event, so she knew my set-up. She thought that I was in the minority of backyard chicken keepers and I kept repeating that I wasn’t. Every chicken set-up I’ve seen has been gorgeous and the chicken’s needs have all been met and exceeded.

Many audience members approached me afterwards and expressed their dismay with how the event unfolded. They were interested in what I was doing and many were wistful that they didn’t have an outdoor space where they could keep chickens. They referred to the other two panel members as “those vegans” and expressed their annoyance at the way they had conducted themselves. I couldn’t really disagree. From what little I know, Mercy For Animals and Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary seem to be admirable organizations. Without the dedication of the people at Mercy For Animals, we wouldn’t have seen the footage we saw in Fowl Play. They are working to make long-overdue change to the food system. Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary takes sick and injured animals and let them heal in a place where they can enjoy a good quality of life, which is amazing.

The trouble arises when you assume everyone is part of the problem and you immediately vilify them before you get to know them. I think in the end they turned more people off to the vegan lifestyle with their aggressive statements than they won over. I totally understand losing your faith in humanity after seeing what people are capable of doing to animals. However, I think it was a missed opportunity. There was a crowd of people who came knowing that they were going to see a difficult-to-watch film about the egg industry. Already that meant they were interested and partially on-board. The next step was to educate them and bring them over to your side. This wasn’t done. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar…

A big part of my chicken keeping has been spreading the word about the joys of keeping chickens and letting people know that it is a really great way to avoid eating factory eggs. I take my hens to local elementary schools and even have school groups come to my home. I talk to reporters and teachers and basically anyone who will listen. Several of my acquaintances have gotten chickens after seeing my set-up. I am getting known as the (crazy) chicken lady in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. This is my small-scale way of teaching about alternatives to factory eggs. Even if people don’t decide to keep chickens (and there are MANY reasons not to. See my post here) they become aware of the labeling of chicken eggs and learn about how they can avoid contributing to the problem.

Meeting Bee and some of the attendees was pleasant, so I guess it wasn’t a total loss. I really want to hear stories about your (or your friend’s) happy backyard chickens. Please email me photos as well. I want to feature you guys because I think backyard chickens are wonderful!

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20 thoughts on “Prosthelytzing and Vilifying

  1. Argh! I’m so sorry you had to be exposed to Vegan Nutjobs. I’m also astounded at the lack of professionalism of the folks who asked you to speak then failed to actually moderate the convo.

    Unfortunately, Vegan Nutjobs, because their brains are being starved for animal fats (one presumes) are just that: mentally unstable. I have never been able to have a convo with one of them that didn;t end quickly in their screaming, gesticulating, and generally looking as if they’re about to have a seizure.

    BTW, I’ve kept a small farm (homestead) since 1987 with my own goats, sheep, pigs, and fowl here in SC, so I’ve had a few of those convos.

    *sigh*

    Let it roll off your back and go on. Every little bit counts and you may have made a huge impression on some of the audience who recognised the frothing vegan psychos for what they were. :)

  2. Thanks Thrifty Mom! I’m trying to get over it, but I’m a bit of an obsessor. My hubby is going to make me one of his amazing elderberry cosmopolitans tonight, which should help. And, no I’m not a lush. Just trying to medicate the twitching eye syndrome. :-)

  3. I am so sorry ou had to go through this — on stand no less. I totally agree that these people did more to turn people OFF of the vegan lifestyle than get them interested. I too am interested in keeping chickens, but don’t currently live in a place that would allow this.

    I do want to make one comment about vegans, however. Some of them are close-minded people who believe that if you are not vegan, you are not enlightened. But I have worked with other vegans who do not take this stance. They probably wish more people would be vegan, but they would understand that backyard chickens have good welfare, and that it’s possible to avoid some of the problems by checking out where the chickens come from. So just like other groups have a variety of opinions, we can’t paint all vegans with the same brush.

    I’m sorry that these particular vegans attacked you, however, and think the moderator did an extremely poor job of controlling the situation. Maybe sometime you can give a presentation of your own that will concentrate just on backyard chickens, since obviously a number of people in the audience were interested.

  4. For the record…I have absolutely NOTHING against vegans. I think it is amazing to be so dedicated to something you believe in. It just happened that the people who attacked backyard chicken keepers were vegans. I think that if they were less aggressive, they could have gotten more people to join their cause. I was all ready for the love fest and was totally taken aback when it didn’t turn out that way.

  5. I can’t tell you how angry I was reading your dreadful experience. Just so you know, your report will do some good. More and more of this is happening, and when these cruel anti-human, shameful and clinically depressed people expose themselves for what they are, it does help bring some people to their senses – as some in your audience clearly were affected. Give them enough rope, as they say. I am still sorry to hear that you were so dreadfully unprepared for this vicious attack by a so-called “moderator”. Keep up the good work, many more of us will have your back from now on.

  6. My sympathy to you for your treatment at this screening. Animal rights believers can be very scary.
    I’d like to say, gently, that we who believe in modern agriculture feel the same way when you fling the term “factory farm” at us. The film you watched is one of many “propaganda pieces” designed to make you feel guilty about food.
    Good luck with your flock.

  7. Not to sound unsympathetic but what did you expect going to an event laid on by folks and groups who are simply & fundamentally opposed to ANY use or consumption of animals which they consider immoral.

    It’s about time that foodies and those concerned with sustainable food systems stopped seeing the animal protest industry organisations as allies.
    The Animal Rights lobby is going out of its way to hijack the battle for food just as they have previously done with Environmentalism and Conservation.

  8. I take blame for not doing more research on the film. I realize now that I was totally naive to think I was an ally. I admire the people who are exposing these awful factory farms. No creature should be subjected to the torture that they depicted in the film. I want them to keep up their good work. I just think that by being so aggressive, they are alienating many like-minded people.

  9. You must understand that as far as the Animal Rights industry is concerned “factory farms” almost take care of themselves.
    It’s animal using folks with real world positive solutions that must be undermined.
    You are the bigger threat to them.

  10. I always find it puzzling when people have such great compassion toward chicken, and none at all toward people. Too bad this was such a bad experience for you, but I still believe just your presence there made a difference and made people think about raising chickens humanely.

  11. I’m so sorry, I applaud what you tried to do, but I agree, you were royally set up. Our chickens are not ‘slaves’ any more than yours are. I have little tolerance for anyone with views that are so myopic, so uneducated, and so misinformed, especially when they attack others with no basis in fact. There is only grey, no black and white. Good thing I wasn’t there. Yes there are numerous atrocities THROUGHOUT the food production industry. Being a self-righteous vegan isn’t the answer, and doesn’t actually solve any of the problems. To be fair, maybe they should equally attack the corn and soy producers too? Let’s be honest, there are atrocities in vegan food production too. Maybe some of these vegans just choose not to see those.

  12. I really feel for you in this situation. I am sorry you experienced that, and I can only imagine the worst part was feeling so blindsided when you expected a warm reception of like-minded folks.

    I spent years as a vegan, for a multitude of reasons and I am still a strict vegetarian, but I decided ultimately that it was more healthy and more ethical to eat proteins from well-cared-for animals (eggs, milk, cheese) than to participate exclusively in the mass production & carbon footprint of highly-processed vegan food. I know that vegans likely didn’t read it, but Barbara Kingsolver makes the point in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that even tofu costs animal lives (insects murdered by machine harvest, for example).

    Anyway, I am sorry you had an upsetting experience. I wish more people saw that there are many paths to a better world and we’re all developing our own.

  13. Too bad that the vegan activists weren’t more tolerant and respectful. It sounds like the moderator disappeared? I hope it doesn’t dissuade you from doing more speaking engagements because people (like me!) are so eager to learn more about backyard chicken keeping. Seems silly to attack a you when there are such bigger fish to fry ….

  14. Dear Martha,

    I am sorry you felt attacked during the Q&A session of the Fowl Play screening. I believe that you are a kind person. As I said several times during the discussion, my goal, the goal of Mercy For Animals, and the point of the film, is to give people honest and accurate information so they can make informed choices.

    I believe that most people are compassionate and do not want to support needless cruelty to animals. Horrified by the shocking cruelties involved in industrial egg production, compassionate consumers naturally turn to alternative egg producers who market their products as free-range, cage-free, humane etc. From my experience, these marketing claims are inaccurate (and in many cases dishonest), and I believe the public has a right to know that.

    When people purchase eggs from backyard chicken farmers who show pictures of healthy, happy hens with plenty of space (admittedly a much better situation for the hens than a battery cage), they have a right to know what happens to the male chicks at the hatchery. For every egg-laying hen, a male chick is either ground up alive in a giant macerator or thrown into a dumpster and allowed to suffocate (being sent to a slaughterhouse is not a humane alternative to either of these practices and is not standard practice). The more the demand for egg-laying hens, the more male chicks will meet this fate.

    I believe people also have a right to know that many backyard hens are shipped through the mail from a hatchery to people’s homes or to Ag stores as if they are mere postcards. Sadly, many of the hens die from dehydration and/or rough handling during shipping. Visit any farm animal sanctuary and you will meet some of the survivors of this cruel process.

    While I agree that your hens have a much better life than hens on factory farms, and I can understand why people would be interested in giving you their business over an industrial egg producer, I believe that consumers have a right to know ALL of the facts – including the inconvenient truths we discussed at the screening of Fowl Play.

    And while discussing these facts understandably made you feel uncomfortable, my concern remains with the chickens who suffer and die because these facts are kept hidden from the public. While you were given a microphone and an audience to voice your views, the chickens have no voice. My goal is to give the chickens a voice and I strive to do so with the utmost honesty and integrity – even if that means ruffling the feathers of a few chicken farmers in the process.

    I suspect that you are a very compassionate person and that your attempts to offer a humane alternative to industrial egg production are pure and honest. I also believe that your customers and many of your colleagues are also making an honest attempt to remove their support from factory farms. I believe we are very much on the same side in the fight against cruelty to animals and I would value the opportunity to learn more about your views and goals. Again, I believe that knowledge is the key to building a better world.

    Please feel free to contact me at MattR@MercyForAnimals.org. I would be happy to buy you lunch or coffee or tea so that we might be able to reach a more congenial and civil understanding.

    Warm regards,

    Matt Rice

  15. “When people purchase eggs from backyard chicken farmers who show pictures of healthy, happy hens with plenty of space (admittedly a much better situation for the hens than a battery cage), they have a right to know what happens to the male chicks at the hatchery. For every egg-laying hen, a male chick is either ground up alive in a giant macerator or thrown into a dumpster and allowed to suffocate (being sent to a slaughterhouse is not a humane alternative to either of these practices and is not standard practice). The more the demand for egg-laying hens, the more male chicks will meet this fate. ”

    The best way to prevent this: buy unsexed chicks and eat the roosters. Or breed your own chickens. There are several NYC backyard chicken keepers that do this. Rooster meat can be a little tough sometimes, but I find it delicious.

    Unlike Matt, I don’t think you would lose your market. Animal rights is an extreme position. Most of your customers would be happy to buy rooster meat.

  16. Hi,
    I want to thank you guys for not getting nasty. We have people with different opinions and I think it is great that we can voice them in a civil manner. Just to set the record straight, I only have 3 hens, so I don’t sell my eggs. I think Matt might have mistaken me and Bee, who has an egg CSA.

  17. Hi Matt,
    Thanks for adding your voice. I think having more information is the best way for people to make decisions. The way the information is delivered can make the difference between being heard and being shut out. I agree that we are both wanting the factory farms shut down, which should/could make us allies.

    I will be in touch to grab a cup of coffee.
    Martha

  18. Whew! that sounds like quite a night, and I wish the audience could have heard you all. Lisa sent me, and I only started raising chickens after deciding not to be a vegetarian any more.

    Your post is beautifully written, and I think you’re right about moderation making very large changes over time. Temple Grandin’s latest book seems to make that point forcefully.

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