Animal Allies


Fur-Free Friday March Chicago 2014

A few years ago I made a vehement stance on the validity of nonviolent direct action in the form of street protest. The example in that instance was an annual event called Fur-Free Friday. Local vegans were tone policing the protest over their disapproval of direct action. Last year took the gluten-free cupcake when they went so far as to try and co-opt the event with their own1. I still do disagree with these vegan interlopers but my position on Fur-Free Friday has flipped. I no longer support it and I feel such targeted campaigns are unethical.

To be clear though, I do not think fur activists involved are intentionally malicious. I believe their hearts are in the right place. I’m using the fur campaign here as an example to illuminate a fundamental issue I feel mires the movement. A movement obscured through the distorted lens of veganism.

Activists as Saviors
For the past 15 years I was doing it wrong. Of all my years as a vegan activist though, the past year with my has been the most constructive. This is primarily due to my involvement with Direct Action Everywhere2. Their adherence to a social justice stance has focused the issue for me. They strive to build a diverse movement which takes into consideration all injustices while fighting speciesism. Thinking more about injustices towards human animals has informed my thinking on the non-human ones.

Starting off as “a vegan”, the issue of animal rights was already framed for me. It was a movement about me opting out of hurting animals. Even when actually doing something for animals I wasn’t truly considering them as a person. They were always an object that I was there to rescue. It was about me even if it felt like it was about them. I failed to consider them as the persons they are and respect that accordingly.

The Betrayal of Imagery
One of the most memorable moments that helped shift my view was this post on communicating the message of animals’ personhood. I read that right before last year’s Fur-Free Friday for which I helped organize. Everybody knows the gruesome imagery fur campaigns are known for. I did insist on imagery that didn’t reinforce animals as victims. There was only so much I could do though, as a co-organizer. The posters are recycled year to year in the same tired routine.

If these were humans we would balk at using such imagery. The graphic nature violates the dignity of the victim and reinforces that role. So why then, if we are communicating animals as persons, do we act differently? It’s because, even as animal rights activists, we can be speciesist ourselves even when it’s at the root of animal oppression we’re fighting.

Discordant Campaigns
It’s hard to be an ally. To fully empathize when you never were and never can be a certain kind of victim is practically impossible. But compassion can motivate us to consider the benefit of that doubt. We can buffer in some leeway in our advocacy to account for inevitable ignorance. It helps assure the most constructive move forward. Sometimes when we are trying to the right thing we may be making the problem worse. The science denialists have taught me that well.

Focusing on an issue tied to a particular oppressed group that one is not a member can get problematic. We see this with campaigns that focus on animal use in other cultures and stoke racist attitudes. Leveraging the thread of underlying prejudice in our culture to fast-track gains for a convenient agenda isn’t justifiable. Those unfortunate embedded notes resonate and it’s an attempt to appropriate that dissonant chord. It’s the wrong tune to play though. In this day after all the struggles we’ve seen, lessons learned, we should know better.

Fur Campaigns are Sexist
Fur-Free Friday is twenty years old now. The perennial march is resurrected each year on tradition alone. Obviously that’s weak justification. The sexism behind the campaign may not be intentional, but it’s there. If you find yourself denying it, take a second look3. Women are being harassed, bullied and shamed (while men in animal skins are let off scot-free). It took me ten years to realize this4. It’s time for Fur-Free Friday to retire or reform. We cannot justify oppressing others while fighting oppression.

To sum up:

  • Be an ally in fighting for justice.
  • Actually consider the animal, not just your emotional response to the injustice. Animals are more than victims.
  • Please be sensitive in the imagery you use when advocating for other animals. Consider their dignity, express it5.
  • Recognize and respect other social justice movements. Do not appropriate. Work together even6!
  • Do not cater to dysfunctional underpinnings of the dominant culture as a short cut. If the cause is worth it, honor it with the hard work.
  1. Called it a “Compassionate Holidays Parade” but changed the time to start early
  2. Vegan Chicago Podcast Episode #004 – Activism with Wayne Hsiung & Brian Burns, DxE
  3. FUR HAGS and SELFISH BITCHES | Why anti-fur campaigns are sexist and ineffective – a privileged vegan
    PETA Commercial where a woman is beaten for fur. | Youtube
    Video upon video of bullying women on the streets. | Youtube
  4. Ten years ago I read Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement by Gary Francione.
  5. Allies and Images: The Importance of Communicating the Victim’s Personhood — Kelly Atlas, Direct Action Everywhere
  6. Appropriation and Animal Rights: The Intersectional Activist — Christopher-Sebastian McJetters, Direct Action Everywhere

A Giant Rests

Kevin Folta's Facebook Announcement

A 15-year legacy comes to end as Kevin Folta announces retirement from public science advocacy. The relentless attacks came to a fever pitch with multiple FOIA ploys launched against him with a Buzzfeed cherry on top1.  Much has been said2 and more will follow in the community I’m sure. Emotions are running high and that is to be expected. It’s testament to the impact Kevin Folta has made upon the public. The most prevalent emotions expressed are anger and despair. Those certainly are valid emotions to have. Before we react rashly though, I think some channeling and reflection is in order to help quell our discomfort.

The situation may seem dire. Personal attacks from antiGMO seem to be getting more vicious and companies are adopting cynical “no GMO” appeals as if it’s a good thing.  But I would dare to say that we have never had so many science pro-GMO advocates fighting the good fight. Interest groups are swelling with members and every day yet another satirist is born under some pseudonym lampooning somebody like Food Babe3. Social media has exploded and we are shifting the culture. This is a movement.

This burgeoning pro-science movement4 is not a fluke. It’s something, a long time coming, that science defenders have been cultivating for us. They came many years before, fighting the good fight, diligently, enduringly. It is upon the shoulders of these giants for which we can now contemplate the state of affairs for which we find ourselves. As the years pass, these champions fall away, many nameless, never lauded. But their legacy is with us. We are bootstrapped with the tools needed to carry on the fight. Like anti-vaccinationists who have the privilege of not knowing disease we too can fall in a similar trap of not seeing the forest for the trees. Pro-GMO is not new, but it is different, it needs to be.

I mean not to downplay the fall of my own hero, Kevin Folta. While I risk sounding like a Folta fanboy, I, like many others owe their illumination to his tireless efforts. It’s his inspiration that has led me to build several advocacy projects. I do know he’s human, though. He’s surprised me both in positive and negative ways. I accept him still, for we all stumble. Yet he has made a huge impact before doing so. It’s not an excuse or justification of anything. But there is a debt to repay and we all owe it. Now this giant rests. Let’s respect that and constructively regroup.

What do we do now? We organize and take action. We launch grassroots efforts to reach the fence sitters and general public. We cultivate the soil making conditions optimal for positive growth. We do the hard work as many movements before us have done. We utilize the lessons they’ve learned honed by the social science we do.

Sometimes what we don’t do is just as important. We don’t mirror our adversaries. We don’t allow them to take the lead. To win the public we maintain our ethical high ground. We exemplify the moral standards of our cause because our cause is just.

I’ve seen lamenting and lashing out. Science denialists are being called hate groups and terrorists. This is a cathartic reaction that threatens to derail a trajectory to make a positive difference. I’ve seen personally how the word terrorist is painted upon my animal rights cohorts. People who in no way threatened any lives for an agenda. Hate group is also a term that means more than the sum of its parts. It’s not just a group that hates something. Words like these have given weight beyond an appeal to definition. Hastily employing them is a form of appropriation that will cost us valuable ethical currency. Wrong is wrong and we cannot justify bad behavior.

As the movement grows there will tend to be some who are disruptive to the cause. Often it’s unintentional and they are acting instinctively. But sometimes it can be intentional, agent provocateurs. We may not know which so it is up to us to call out (or call in) unethical behavior in our own ranks. As our detractors become more and more heinous, we must show it for what it is. Returning in kind will make us look indistinguishable to the public. They will try to unravel us with anger but let it instead fuel efforts to make change.

I believe in people. I do think many anti-GMO people are victims of manipulation. I think we will win this. But it is time for everybody, not only science experts, to rise up. There are grassroots efforts being planned and getting launched. March Against Myths, I believe, showed there is interest and potential to harness.

If you’re upset about Kevin Folta and want to do something I would suggest first sending him a message of support5. Then get involved with advocacy organizations6 or start one. Participate at your level of interest and expertise. But regardless, we can all have honest conversations with people in our social circles. We’re going to have to tackle this one conversation at a time. The same way Kevin Folta did, and they can’t shut us all up.

  1. The Buzzfeed article with the clickbait title “Seed Money: Confessions of a Monsanto Apologist” might be better titled as: “10 Things Kevin Folta Did and You Won’t Believe #7!”
  2. Respectful Insolence: A sad day for public science advocacy
    WIRED: Anti-GMO Activist Seeks to Expose Scientists’ Emails With Big Ag
    Neurological Blog: How To Attack a Public Scientist
    Pharyngula: Harassment by FOIA
  3. Whether or not it’s helpful for the broader cause I would still consider it a measure of interest.
  4. Not just pro-GMO mind you, it’s pro-science including issues of vaccinations, climate change, etc.
  5. Facebook Page, Blog comment, email
  6. Biology Fortified
    Sense About Science
    Alliance For Science
    March Against Myths

Disease Dangers in the Vegan Community


Maybe consider a protective suit at vegan events.

Lack of vaccine awareness and acceptance is a largely unaddressed issue that threatens the vegan community. It’s particularly iskelevant now, in light of the vaccine crisis we are experiencing. Influenza hit us hard last year in 2014. Infectious diseases that were nearly eradicated, like measles (in the Chicago area!) and whooping cough, are making a comeback. These are life-threatening diseases that a simple vaccination can help curtail. Now as a parent with a new baby, I have a revitalized concern. This is (some of) the story of our struggle in tackling anti-vaccination in our vegan community.

Vegan Chicago Advocates for Vaccination

Vegan Chicago is a vegan support and social group I organize. In 2012 we started promoting the idea of vaccinations to members. We have an interest in creating a safe space for our members. We also noticed a growing contingent of anti-vax sentiments within the vegan community. This was something we felt compelled to address and sought out an expert to speak at one of our speaker events.

We searched high and low for a credible expert to talk about vaccination. With the generous help of our science allies we found a good candidate. It wasn’t without controversy though. The event page started getting swamped by vegans peppering fear, uncertainty and doubt1 throughout. With the well poisoned, the event did end up having a reduced attendance unfortunately. The recording made a good podcast episode though2.

The doctor made an interesting point during the talk. He said herd immunity is a myth. People susceptible to infectious disease are not necessarily evenly dispersed throughout the population. They tend to cluster in communities (like those who tend to avoid vaccines). So there is a lack of any protection for an increased chance of exposure. On top of that, infectious disease is just a plane trip away. So our efforts in bringing together a vegan community may be putting individuals at a higher risk!

The Flu Vaccine

Vegan Chicago poster promoting flu vaccine.

Vegan Chicago poster promoting flu vaccine.

Fast-forward a year, 2013 and we’re tabling the Chicago VeganMania fest. We’re featuring a poster that’s reminding people to get their flu shot. Now, we know influenza vaccines use chicken eggs in their production. And eggs, as an animal product, are something vegans avoid. But we take the qualification of “as far as is possible and practicable”3 to heart. We advocate for this medical prophylactic over the modicum of egg used. Still though, many vegans balked.

But ok, since so many vegans had this hang-up, we rolled up our sleeves and sought out the rumored eggless version.  We soon discovered that a new vaccine used an insect cell line instead of chicken eggs4. “ANIMAL INGREDIENT, NOT VEGAN!” you say. Well, it’s more wonderfully complicated than that.

The fall armyworm is a common agricultural pest, which makes it a much-studied organism. From this organism there is a continuously cultured cell line for use in scientific research. It was originally procured in 1970 from the ovarian tissues of fall armyworms. Specifically this flu vaccine uses a cloned substrain of these cells (Sf9). A virus is genetically modified to infect these cloned insect cells. The result is the creation of the appropriate hemagglutinin protein required for the final vaccine.5

Fall armyworm.

Fall armyworm.

A similar biotech process is used in creating synthetic insulin. We used to rely on mashing up tons of pig and cow pancreases for insulin. Now we now can create it using genetically modified bacteria. Technology has this potential to help reduce our reliance on animal bodies.6 The same is true here with this vaccine. This can help displace millions of eggs each year. Isn’t that an amazing wonder of biotechnology? The vegan concerns that fall armyworms in 1970 died in the development of this vaccine are absurd. Consider the number of armyworms killed with insecticide every year for vegan food (Organic too btw).

In 2014 we hoped to bring this eggless flu vaccine to Chicago VeganMania as a pop-up clinic. It was a natural fit and what an opportunity for vegans! There would be a ton of people there from all over the place and the timing was at the start of the flu season. We worked throughout the year to establish a relationship with the vaccine developer and all the people involved in doing a pop-up clinic. Ultimately we were told that the Chicago VeganMania board7 wouldn’t allow us to bring in the pop-up clinic.

What they did allow was the usual hodgepodge of charlatanry. Reiki, chiropractic, organic food, and anti-GMO are examples of such allowed vendors8. It was disappointing and frustrating. Withholding access to this amazing medical innovation doesn’t seem to me supportive of the vegan community. It’s a missed opportunity, at best, to promote true evidence-based health and wellness.

In looking for alternative venues to bring this vaccine to our community we talked to many people. From the Chicago Department of Public Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, hospitals, alderpeople, and park supervisors, everybody was encouraging. There was a hint of: “You privileged vegans won’t get vaccinated when we have underserved populations clamoring for vaccines?!” Yep, I’m living an Onion article.

Vegan Chicago did send out a poll9 to our nearly 3,000 Vegan Chicago members to gauge interest in the vaccine. Over 50 replied in the affirmative and that was a nice surprise! I didn’t expect even that response. So it could be that vegans aren’t so anti-vaccine after all (or that our Vegan Chicago members tend to be more scientifically minded). The original Vegan Society sent me this page regarding their stance on medicine10 and paper11 on their stance on medicine.

Anti-Vax is Not Vegan

The eggless flu vaccine is relatively easier to find this year. When people’s lives are at risk a bit of egg isn’t worth avoiding. But isn’t it damn cool that we can have our kale and eat it too?  Veganism is a loose guideline on avoiding the exploitation of another. Fear mongering over puritanical and dogmatic standards is not in the spirit of the movement. Nitpicking something for containing a molecule of animal can cause more harm than the originating vegan intention. It misses opportunities to displace animal products, and it puts animals (human and other) into harm’s way. As we saw with anti-GMO12 animals are now being tortured13 looking for any tenuous confirmation. Animals have suffered enough over this anti-vax nonsense. We are better than this.

It is our moral obligation to impede the spread of infectious diseases. Vaccination is an important tool in the toolbox to do that. Forgoing vaccination is a threat to the bodily integrity of others. This unethical practice has no place in the vegan community (and society at large). Be the immune response to this junk info viral invader. Let’s not offer anti-vax a refuge to fester and perpetuate. It does so when we are complicit in our idle silence. 

Further Info:
Vaccines, Vegans, & Autistic Puppies, Oh My! | Skeptical Vegan
Vaccine “Controversy” | Vegan Skeptic
Anti-vax and Veganism | Reasonable Vegan
Vegan Flu Shots: A Guide | Ed v. Food
DNA – Playing God (PBS Documentary) | YouTube

  1. FUD – Fear, uncertainty and doubt | Wikipedia
  2. Vegan Chicago Podcast: Episode #003 – Vaccines with Kenneth Alexander, MD
  3. “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” | The Vegan Society
  4.  The vegans arent going to kill us! Thanks to a GMO virus 😉 | erv
  5.  A Worm’s Ovary Cells Become A Flu Vaccine Machine | Health News : NPR
  6. Celebrating a Milestone: FDA’s Approval of First Genetically-Engineered Product | FDA
  7. Organizing committee for Chicago Vegan Mania 2014: Josh Alper, John Beske, Kevin Cooney, Mike Durshmid, Anne Marie Fosnacht, Robinlee Garber, Gill Gillono, Jim Glackin, Kristin Konrady, Jeff Olichwier, Marla Rose, Rob Sax, Robin Plotter Sax, Rachel Shippee, Minku Sharma, Sandi Swiss.
  8.  Are veggie festivals worth putting up with pseudoscientific trinkets and petty fraud? | Reasonable Vegan
  9.  Vegan Chicago email vaccine poll.
  10.  “Currently all medicine in the UK must be tested on animals before it is deemed safe for human use, but please note: The Vegan Society DOES NOT recommend you avoid medication prescribed to you by your doctor – a dead vegan is no good to anyone!”| The Vegan Society
  11.  Suitability of common drugs for patients who avoid animal products | The BMJ
  12. Vegans Exploit Tumored Rat Victims | Pythagorean Crank
  13.  Antivaccine activists fund a study to show vaccines cause autism. It backfires spectacularly. « Science-Based Medicine