During the opening session of a global health disparities conference at the New York Hilton, 20 activists stormed the stage and shut down the presentation of NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett over her ongoing refusal to enforce the multiple health codes violated during a mass animal sacrifice that takes place for one week each year on public streets.
As the activists unfurled a banner behind her, Dr. Bassett apologized to the audience and forfeited her presentation. The disruption, which continued for about seven minutes after Dr. Bassett exited the ballroom, took place just 15 hours after many of the same activists shut down another presentation she was making at the New York Academy of Medicine.
While some of the protesters are participating in the disruptions because they live in neighborhoods that are contaminated with the blood, body parts and feces of dead and dying animals, the majority are animal rights activists.
“The tens of thousands of animals who are mercilessly tortured each year during the Kaporos ritual sacrifice owe a debt of gratitude to their allies at the Department of Health and in law enforcement who helped us orchestrate this complicated disruption at the Hilton,” said organizer Donny Moss. “Once caring people see the footage of six-week old chickens crying in crates where they slowly die of starvation and thirst, they want to help.”
During Kaporos, ultra-Orthodox Jews swing live chickens around their heads in a symbolic transfer of their sins to the animals prior to the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur. After the ritual, the chickens are killed in pop-up slaughterhouses. While most of the dead and dying chickens are stuffed into garbage bags and hauled away by the NYC Dept. of Sanitation, many end up in the streets, on the sidewalks and in the sewers.
In a statement provided to the media in early March, the DOH defended the practice. “We have not found Kaporos to be a significant public health threat — our surveillance has shown no increase in illness — and this ritual is an important practice for some Orthodox Jews.” The DOH did not address the health code violations or the toxicology report which explicitly warns the city of the risks that Kaporos poses to the public.
In a 25 page affidavit submitted to the court in connection with an ongoing lawsuit about Kaporos, toxicologist Dr. Michael McCabe provided the following expert opinion: “The high levels of total coliform bacteria and E. coli present confirm that the Kaporos activities produce unsanitary conditions in . . . public spaces . . .. It is my opinion with a reasonable degree of toxicology, immunology and environmental health sciences certainty, that based on the evidence set forth . . . that the Kaporos activities taking place in the subject locations as described constitute a dangerous condition and thereby pose a significant public health hazard and could be catastrophic.”
During the week of Kaporos in 2017, a group of activists discovered garbage bags filled with hundreds of chickens who died of starvation and thirst before being used in the ritual sacrifice. Many vowed in that moment to hold Commissioner Bassett accountable for failing to enforce the many laws that would prohibit such extreme cruelty.
Ironically, the activists disrupted Dr. Bassett’s presentation at the health disparities conference just as she was making remarks about the need to fight for justice.
“Dr. Bassett publicly critiques disparities in health systems, yet she sends her lawyers to court to defend health code violations that jeopardize some of New York’s poorer residents,” said activist Nathan Semmel. “I doubt she would defend these violations if they occurred on her own block.”