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Our choice, their misery: A taste of animal rights

By Alka Chandna

Okay, here's my confession. I'm a vegetarian. More than that, I'm a vegan. I don't do meat (any color - red, white, green, blue, or polka-dotted), and I don't do dairy. There are no eggs on my plate, no fur on my back, no leather on my feet. I avoid wool, silk, and other stuff that comes from animals. I don't patronize zoos, circuses or marine parks. The makeup that I wear contains no animal-derived ingredients and isn't tested on animals, and the few times a year that I actually clean my house or lug my clothes down to the Laundromat, I make sure that the products that I use are similarly cruelty-free. In short, I'm a freak.

I wasn't always this way. I mean, I was always some kind of freak, but I wasn't always an animal rights freak. I grew up eating meat (although very occasionally, since my mother was, and is, a vegetarian for religious reasons; interestingly, one finds that many of the Eastern religions have a deeply-rooted ethic of compassion which embraces all of creation, and not just the bipeds) and when we dissected cats in high-school biology, the biggest issue for me was the nauseating smell of formaldehyde. I didn't have any special affinity for animals, and didn't give them very much thought.

Everything got turned upside down when I joined the student paper during my undergraduate years at the University of Windsor. I'd been assigned a feature story on animal-based research. Being a responsible journalist, I decided to get a real understanding of the issues involved. I interviewed people with various perspectives, obtained the propaganda of a variety of groups, read books, and watched films.

At first, I was struck by how much I hadn't known. I'd always been an information junkie, and here, the most fundamental things about the way we treat animals were revelations to me. The confinement, routine mutilations, and high-stress environments endured by factory-farmed animals; the gassing, beating, stomping, electrocuting deaths of animals slated to the death rows of fur ranches; the horror of animals struggling in steel-jaw leg hold traps, gnawing off limbs in wretched attempts to escape; the archaic toxicity and irritancy tests used in testing the safety of new lip shades; and the absolute irrelevance of anti-cruelty laws in institutionalized forms of abuse were discoveries that forced a gestalt shift.

The shock induced by knowing what misery we humans impose on animals (an insightful person once noted that if animals believed in God, the Devil would look like a human being) forced me to confront the fact that animals do matter. My world expanded k'zillion fold. Happily, the world around me changed as well.

Witnessing environmental disasters of mammoth proportions, our species has been forced into a consciousness that acknowledges the rest of the natural world. Everyone from politicians to multinationals have scrambled to get onto the environmental bandwagon. Pundits of the future have referred to a transition from "me-generation" thinking to "thee-generation" thinking ("What can I do for me? becomes, "What can I do for thee?"). Even Newsweek magazine has acknowledged the animal rights movement as being the fastest growing movement of the decade.

A 1991 Teenage Youth survey conducted by Gallup found that two out of every three teenagers in the U.S. supports the goals of the animal rights movement, while one out of three strongly supports the movement. Interestingly, this approval cuts across regional, socioeconomic, gender, and racial demographics. Meanwhile, two thousand people worldwide make the vegetarian transition every week. In Canada, the killing rampage of the fur industry has waned from 4.5 million back in 1984 to under 2 million as of 1993.

A mathematical analysis of these figures identifies two sets of numbers: the numbers of humans that are concerned about animals and the number of animals being brutalized and killed by humans. The fact that there is a correlation between these numbers (that is, as the former goes up, the latter goes down) is central to understanding why the animal rights movement has done so well, and why it is proving to be an unstoppable force.

The choices made by individuals -- my choices and your choices -- carry with them the fantastic power to determine the fates of billions of animals' lives worldwide. And if, after you've done your homework, you decide that you too would like to exercise your political muscle and go vegan (realizing, of course, that far from being a chore, veganism is fun, exciting and sexy), perhaps we can all be freaks together.