Over 50 animal rights activists staged a protest at the Manhattan home of Dr. Mary Bassett, the Commissioner of the NYC Department of Health, over her ongoing refusal to enforce the seven health codes violated during a religious ritual sacrifice called Kaporos. During the ritual, ultra-Orthodox Jews swing 60,000 chickens around their heads and then slice their throats in pop-up slaughterhouses on public streets. Practitioners perform the ritual to transfer their sins to the animal before Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.
The activists decided to protest in front of Dr. Bassett’s home after she sent organizers a letter dismissing the evidence they provided demonstrating that the ritual violates public health codes: “Her tone-deaf response sent us a strong message that we are not going to win the battle to shut down this illegal and unsafe practice based on the merits of the issue,” said Nathan Semmel, one of the protest organizers. “Dr. Bassett has therefore left us with no choice but to disrupt business as usual until she enforces the law.”
The protest at Bassett’s home, which attracted the attention of hundreds of area residents, was staged three months after a smaller group of activists disrupted a presentation she was making at Columbia University over her refusal to meet with them about the issue. In order to end the disruption and resume her talk, Dr. Bassett agreed to meet in person with the activists.
During the meeting with advocates and in a subsequent letter, Dr. Bassett rejected the independent toxicology report outlining the catastrophic public health risks associated with the ritual massacre: “There remains no evidence that the use of chickens for Kaporos poses a significant risk to human health.”
In her follow up letter, Dr. Bassett also refused to address the seven public health codes that are violated during Kaporos. “Her decision to ignore the laws that her department is charged with enforcing speaks volumes about the political power wielded by the communities that engage in the illegal animal sacrifice,” said Jessica Hollander, a NYC-based activist. “Ultra-orthodox Jews deliver tens of thousands of votes in a bloc, so elected officials, including Bassett’s boss Mayor Bill de Blasio, turn a blind eye to the crimes.”
While many of the activists working to end the ritual sacrifice are motivated by the public health risks, others are focused on the cruelty. The chickens are intensively confined in crates, stacked one one top of the other, for up to several days with no food, water or protection from weather extremes. In 2017, thousands of chickens died from hunger, thirst and heat exhaustion before the ritual even took place. Activists documented the illegal neglect by taking video footage of garbage bags filled with dead chickens whose throats had not been sliced because they weren’t used in the ritual.
“While we know that Dr. Bassett isn’t charged with enforcing animal cruelty laws, we have been disappointed by her lack of compassion for the victims, especially in light of her background as a social justice advocate,” said Donny Moss, a grass roots animal rights campaigner in NYC. “Several of our contacts at the Department of Health warned us that she doesn’t care about animals, but we thought that she, like other government officials with whom we have met, would have at the very least been disturbed by the egregious abuses shown in the videos.”
In 2015, The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos and 19 NYC residents sued the NYC Department of Health and the NYPD for failing to enforce the 15 public health, sanitation and anti-cruelty laws and regulations that are violated during Kaporos.
The case centers on whether or not courts can mandate that the police enforce the laws that are violated during Kaporos. According to the plaintiffs’ complaint, the police are not only ignoring the violations, but they are also “aiding and abetting” in the crimes by providing the ritual practitioners with flood lights, barricades, security and the orange cones in which the chickens are bled out.
With respect to Commissioner Bassett’s claim that “We have no disease signals associated with this practice,” Nora Constance Marino, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, noted the evidence to the contrary. “We submitted an affidavit from a respected toxicologist to the court. The Dept. of Heath should have read it. It cites the ‘likelihood that the influx of thousands of chickens into the subject locations for Kaporos activities likely carries with it the influx of an exceedingly high level of bacteria (e.g., Salmonella, Campylobacter, etc.) as well as other pathogens, toxins and bio-hazards.’ Clearly, there are health risks.”
The case is pending in New York’s Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.