On Friday, November 8th, Actress Elizabeth Lail participated in a ceremonial lighting of the Empire State Building to commemorate Sea Shepherd’s Blue For the Oceans Campaign.
Lail, who is best known for her role in the Netflix series You and is starring in the new film Unintended, spoke to TheirTurn about why she is using her celebrity platform to speak on behalf of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society: “I think they’re incredible. Sometimes it’s so overwhelming to think about the environmental crisis and what we can do, so it gives me a lot of hope that there are organizations on the water doing the protecting, making it happen.”
Elizabeth Lail pulls the lever to symbolically activate blue lights on the Empire State Building ignited in honor of Sea Shepherd
Sea Shepherd volunteers, staff, and board members with Elizabeth Lail at the Empire State Building
Since 1977, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been defending, conserving and protecting the seas and marine life through campaigns and direct action on its fleet of ships. In October, the Hamptons International Film Festival screened Watson, a documentary film by director Lesley Chilcott which chronicles the extraordinary life of Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson.
In spite of being heralded as one of the most progressive cities in the United States, New York has lagged behind several other major cities in advancing the rights of animals. In fact, from 2006 to 2013, at a time when animal rights was beginning to be embraced by the mainstream public, the most powerful lawmaker in New York City, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, blocked every meaningful legislative effort to improve even the basic welfare of animals. In recent years, however, a new crop of lawmakers in New York City has championed both animal welfare and animal rights legislation.
The City Council passed its first signature animal rights bill, a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses, in 2017. To the delight of animal rights activists and many City Council members, that historic moment was upstaged on October 30th, 2019, when the Council passed a package of 11 bills and resolutions to help companion animals, wild animals and animals killed for food. During the vote, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, the most animal-friendly Speaker in the Council’s history, gleefully stated, “The Council will be voting on a lot of bills – a lot of bills and resolutions that will strengthen our existing animal welfare laws in New York City.”
PETA president Ingrid Newkirk is force fed during a foie gras protest at Fortnum & Mason, a gourmet food store in London
The most controversial of the bills was a ban on sale of foie gras in restaurants and stores. According to the New York Times, an estimated 1,000 restaurants sell foie gras in New York City, which is arguably the gastronomic capital of the country. In spite of the risk of criticism from the prominent chefs and the media, City Council Member Carlina Rivera introduced and championed the legislation.
In addition to being force fed until their livers swell to ten times their normal size, ducks and geese killed for foie gras are raised in factories where these aquatic animals have no access to water.
In 2006, Council Member Alan Gerson attempted to introduce a foie gras ban, but Speaker Christine Quinn, who notoriously controlled the city’s legislative agenda, blocked it before other Council Members could even weigh in. A 2007 New York Times story about foie gras protests at Fairway made reference to this incident. In stark contrast to Speaker Quinn, the current Speaker, Corey Johnson, supported Council Member Rivera’s bill to ban foie gras sales.
Matt Dominguez and Allie Feldman Taylor from Voters for Animal Rights flank Carlina Rivera, the NYC Council Member who introduced the bill to ban the sale of foie gras.
While the animal rights community credits the current City Council for passing laws to protect animals, the historic foie gras bill would not have been introduced, much less passed, by the City Council, were it not for a two year campaign waged by Voters for Animal Rights (VFAR), a group that advocates for animal rights legislation in NYC. With the support of hundreds of grass roots animal rights activists, VFAR organizers Allie Feldman Taylor and Matt Dominguez partnered with animal rights groups, veterinarians, and restaurants to create a coalition of supporters who lobbied City Council members and educated the public about the cruelty associated with the production of foie gras.
David Chang, the founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, criticizes the City Council for passing the bill to ban the sale of foie gras.
After working with Council Member Rivera to get the bill introduced, VFAR supporters, led by Taylor and Dominguez, lobbied the members of the City Council’s Health Committee, which is where the bill was assigned for review. On the day of the Committee vote, the Chair, Council Member Mark Levine, made an impassioned speech suggesting that lawmakers have an ethical mandate to protect animals: “As society evolves, we have a right to expect business practices evolve as well. I am incredibly proud that this City Council has begun to put empathy for the suffering of animals front and center on our agenda, and, more importantly, that we are translating that empathy into tangible policy, smart policy for the animals in this city and beyond. And that does mean changing the food we consume and changing the food production system.”
After the votes for the foie gras ban were counted, the animal rights activists in the City Council chambers rejoiced, not only because hundreds of thousands of birds will be spared from force feeding, but also because the City Council sent a strong message to the public that lawmakers are now recognizing the plight of animals and the need for laws to protect them. “We’ve seen a tremendous shift in the compassionate consciousness of our City Council Members,” said Taylor. “It’s a new day for animal rights in New York City.”
On September 21, youth climate leaders from around the world converged at the United Nations in New York to participate in the Youth Climate Summit. During the summit, TheirTurn asked them why the youth climate movement isn’t using its platform to encourage grass roots climate activists and the mainstream public to make lifestyle changes to reduce their own carbon emissions.
One day earlier, tens of thousands of New Yorkers, most of whom were students, took to the streets of downtown Manhattan to participate in a youth climate strike with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Neither their posters nor the information they distributed focused on what individuals can do to reduce their own carbon footprint. Frustrated by the fact that youth climate leaders are not proactively encouraging the public to take steps to reduce their own emissions, a contingent of several dozen adult activists joined the climate strike to promote plant-based diets.
Adult climate strikers promote plant-based diets as a strategy to reduce carbon and methane emissions
“Eating animals is the elephant in the room of the climate change movement,” said Nathan Semmel, an attorney and activist who participated in the climate strike. “How can youth climate leaders expect world leaders to take action on the climate crisis if they aren’t encouraging their own constituents to stop engaging in environmentally destructive activity that can be easily avoided?
Ranchers are deforesting the Amazon in order to graze their cattle and grow cattle feed (photo: National Geographic)
During the interviews with TheirTurn, every youth climate leader mentioned meat reduction or elimination when asked what steps individuals can take. None of them, however, indicated that they are proactively conveying this message to their constituents. They are instead pressuring global leaders to make systemic change.
“It’s not an either/or,” said journalist and climate advocate Jane Velez-Mitchell of JaneUnChained. “Youth climate leaders can demand accountability from our leaders and ask their constituents to reduce their own carbon footprint by making the switch to a plant-based diet.”
Waste lagoon at a cattle ranch (taken from above)
Unlike youth climate leaders, who understand the impact of animal agriculture on the climate and are reducing or eliminating their own consumption of animal products, grass roots participants in the youth climate strike were largely unaware. When asked what steps they can take to reduce their own carbon emissions, most recommended reducing single-use plastic and recycling.
Youth climate leaders speak about their advocacy at the United Nations Youth Climate Summit
In an effort to determine whether or not climate strikers are aware of the impact of meat consumption on the planet, TheirTurn asked participants at the Youth Climate Strike what steps individuals can take in their day-to-day lives to reduce their carbon footprint:
Angered by the government’s failure to address the global climate crisis, an estimated 250,000 New Yorkers took to the streets of lower Manhattan on September 20th to demand climate action from elected officials. Absent from this and previous Youth Climate Strikes was messaging about what individuals can do to reduce their carbon footprint. While youth climate leaders are demanding accountability from world leaders, they are not using their platform to encourage their constituents to take personal steps, such as switching to a plant-based diet, to mitigate their impact on the planet.
The failure of youth climate leaders and mainstream environmental groups to address the impact of animal agriculture on the planet and promote a plant-based diet has been a source of great frustration for the animal advocacy community.
“Going vegan is the most impactful step individuals can take to reduce their carbon footprint, yet the youth climate strike movement, like the larger environmental movement, is turning a blind eye,” said Edita Birnkrant, the Executive Director of NYCLASS, a NYC-based animal rights group that participated in the Climate Strike. “Until the environmental movement embraces and promotes plant-based diets, vegans need to come to these marches in large numbers to deliver the message directly to consumers that animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change.”
A contingent of vegan adults participated in the Youth Climate Strike in an effort to educate strikers about the impact of animal agriculture on the planet.
In recent weeks, the burning of the Amazon rainforest to make more space for cattle grazing has started to create public discourse around the impact of animal agriculture on the planet. Before the fires, the leading environmental groups skirted the issue out of fear of alienating meat-eating donors. This conflict of interest was exposed in the award-winning 2014 documentary film Cowspiracy, which follows filmmaker Kip Andersen as “he uncovers the most destructive industry facing the planet today – and investigates why the world’s leading environmental organizations are too afraid to talk about it.”
On October 20th at 1:00 p.m., the Chelsea Film Festival in New York City is hosting the world premiere of another documentary that addresses the impact of animal agriculture on the planet. The film, Countdown To Year Zero, is directed by journalist and animal rights icon Jane Velez-Mitchell.
Before Yom Kippur in 2018, an Orthodox Jewish man in Brooklyn recorded himself criticizing a ritual animal sacrifice called Kaporos while standing in front of hundreds of chickens who had been abandoned for the night with no food or water. While many Orthodox Jews are willing to speak off the record about their growing discomfort with Kaporos, few speak out publicly out of fear of retribution.
During Kaporos, practitioners swing six-week old chickens around their heads while reciting a prayer to symbolically transfer their sins to the animal before the Jewish Day of Atonement. They then bring the chickens to ritual slaughterers who slice their throats in makeshift slaughterhouses erected for the holiday.
While reciting a prayer, a Kaporos practitioner swings a chicken around his son’s head in a symbolic transfer of his son’s sins to the chicken. The chicken is then killed in a makeshift slaughterhouse erected before Yom Kippur. (photos: Unparalleled Suffering Photography)
During a previous Kaporos, an Orthodox man in Brooklyn told TheirTurn that he felt that the ritual could not be conducted humanely on a mass scale in urban areas. “It used to be, once upon a time, you lived in a little shtetl [small Jewish village in Eastern Europe]. You used to go before Yom Kippur. You used to take your chicken out of your backyard. You used to take it and do it, but not to bring as a mass slaughtering on the streets. And that’s why I think it’s not right.”
In recent years, resistance to the use of live chickens has been building in Orthodox communities. In discussions with animal protection advocates, many Kaporos practitioners have acknowledged that the animals are mistreated in the days leading up to the ritual due to their intensive confinement in crates. While some say that the problems can be fixed, others in the community argue that the industrialization of the ritual has led to systemic abuses that violate “Tza’ar ba’alei chayim,” a Jewish commandment that bans causing animals unnecessary suffering. In 2017 and 2018, thousands of crated chickens died of hunger, thirst, sickness and heat exhaustion before the ritual even began.
Before Yom Kippur, tens of thousands of chickens are trucked into Brooklyn, and the chickens are held in crates for up to several days with no food, water or protection from weather extremes.
A least a dozen Orthodox Jews have told TheirTurn that online videos about the cruelty have compelled them and/or family members to stop using chickens. Others say that, because the ritual takes place just once a year, they begrudgingly continue to use chickens in order to avoid family or community strife.
Advocates say that holding chickens by their wings instead of their bodies causes them more pain as they’re pulled from the crates, transferred to the Kaporos practitioner and swung in the air.
In New York City, animal rights activists have been protesting the ritual for decades, but they have seen few tangible results. “In candid discussions with Orthodox Jews, we have learned that the community doubles down on something when outsiders ask them to stop,” said Jessica Hollander, an activist who has been protesting the ritual since 2014. “We were trying to help the chickens, but, in the end, we were doing more harm than good.” In 2018, the activist community stopped protesting and instead focused on providing food and water to the beleaguered chickens.
Advocates provide water to chickens in crates who are intensively confined for up to several days with no food, water or protection from the extreme heat.
To the surprise of animal rights activists in the United States, Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture released an animated public service announcement encouraging Kaporos practitioners to use coins instead of live animals. In New York City, the government not only refuses to speak out against the use of chickens, but also provides City resources for ritual, in spite of the 15 city and state public health and animal cruelty laws that are violated.