As 25 activists stormed into the New York Academy of Medicine to disrupt a presentation she was making, NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett collected her coat and exited the building, leaving event organizers and attendees visibly stunned. This was the third time in recent months that activists have shut down one of Mary Bassett’s presentations.
The activists are protesting Commissioner Bassett over her refusal to enforce the seven or more public health codes that are broken during a ritual animal sacrifice called Kaporos. During Kaporos, ultra-Orthodox Jews recite a prayer to transfer their sins to live chickens before Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. While reciting the prayer, practitioners swing the chickens around their heads three times by their fragile wings and then bring them to a slaughterer who slices their throats in illegal pop-up slaughterhouses. Each year, practitioners sacrifice an estimated 60,000 chickens, the majority of whom are bled out into the streets before being thrown in the garbage.
Some of the activists who participate in the disruptions are motivated by the public health risks because the streets and sidewalks near their homes are contaminated with the blood, body parts and feces of thousands of dead and dying chickens.
Other activists who are participating in this campaign are motivated by animal cruelty. Before being swung in the air and slaughtered, the chickens are held in crates for up to several days with no food, water or protection from weather extremes. In 2017, activists documented thousands of chickens who died in their crates from starvation, thirst and exposure before the ritual sacrifice took place.
Activists speculate that Commissioner Bassett condones the practice, in spite of the health code violations and a toxicology report outlining the public health risks, because ultra-Orthodox Jews represent one of the most powerful voting blocs in NYC.
In response to media inquiries, Dr. Bassett’s office puts out the following statement: “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.”
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.
Activists have vowed to escalate the campaign targeting Commissioner Bassett and her staff if she doesn’t enforce her own agency’s regulations.