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After Months of Protests, NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett Resigns with Over Three Years Left in Her Term

August 7, 2018 by Leave a Comment


The News

Ten months after animal rights and public health advocates launched a campaign to hold her accountable for failing to enforce health codes violated during an annual ritual animal sacrifice called Kaporos, NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett resigned, announcing that she is moving to Boston to teach at Harvard.  Dr. Bassett is vacating her position just eight months into a four year term as NYC’s top doctor.  The announcement comes on the heels of several protests inside of the headquarters of the NYC Department of Health.

“Commissioner Bassett’s decision to resign and wash her hands of this scandal does nothing to help the tens of thousands of people and animals who she betrayed while in office,” said Nathan Semmel, an organizer in the campaign. “She had the power and legal obligation to stop a public massacre of baby birds that exposes some of NYC’s poorest residents to infectious diseases, but she chose to prioritize politics over public health. Quitting her post and moving 200 miles away from us doesn’t make her any less accountable.”

In October, 2017, NYC activists began to protest Commissioner Bassett over her support of Kaporos, a ritual animal sacrifice that takes place before Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. From October 2017 to July 2018, the activists disrupted six of her public speaking engagements and staged five protests in the lobby of the NYC Department of Health (DOH). The activists allege that Dr. Bassett is turning a blind eye to the health code violations because the ultra-Orthodox Jews who practice the ritual represent a powerful voting bloc that helped to elect her boss, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.

During Kaporos, an estimated 60,000 six-week old chickens are intensively confined in crates without food or water for up to several days before being slaughtered and discarded. Many die of starvation, thirst and exposure before the ritual takes place. A toxicology reported submitted to the court as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the DOH states that the ritual poses a risk to public health in the neighborhoods where it takes place. While Commissioner Bassett has not publicly disputed the findings from the toxicology report or the activists’ and lawyers’ claims about the health code violations, she has issued a public statement asserting that “there remains no evidence that the use of chickens for Kaporos poses a significant risk to human health.”

Activists protest NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett over her ongoing refusal to ban a mass animal sacrifice that violates at least seven public health codes.

In anticipation of a protest during a talk that she was giving at the Boston University School of Public Health, Dr. Bassett attempted to defend her inaction on the grounds that her boss, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, would not allow it:  “Those of us who work in government face the reality of the fact that the people who appoint us have to go back to the public and back to the ballot box to be reappointed, so there’s always going to be a need for advocacy from people outside of government. For someone who is passionately committed to many issues embraced by advocates, it can be difficult to acknowledge the role that I play as a political appointee. I can’t always be at the barricades!”

“Dirty politics does not give Dr. Bassett a free pass to ignore a ritual that violates health codes, puts New Yorkers at risk of infectious disease and terrorizes baby animals,” said Donny Moss. “If Mayor de Blasio is instructing her to turn a blind eye, then it is her legal and moral duty to push back and assert her authority has NYC’s health czar.”


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At Press Conference, Advocates Demand That NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett Enforce the Law

June 19, 2018 by Leave a Comment


The News

As part of an ongoing campaign to shut down a ritual animal sacrifice that violates multiple health codes, dozens of activists with The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos held a press conference at the headquarters of the NYC Department of Health (DOH) on June 6th to demand that Commissioner Mary Bassett enforce the law. NY1 News covered the story.

The press conference, which was held during the lunchtime rush, attracted the attention of hundreds of city employees. While many expressed their support with a “thumbs up,” others averted their eyes.  According to supporters at the DOH, city employees refer to the protesters as “the chicken people.”

During Kaporos in NYC, an estimated 60,000 chickens are slaughtered, and their blood and body parts contaminate the streets, jeopardizing the public health.

In October 2017, animal rights and public health advocates launched a campaign targeting the Commissioner Bassett after she defended the use of live chickens based on the absence of “disease signals” without acknowledging the health code violations or the warnings outlined in a toxicology report that was submitted into evidence as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the Dept. of Health.  Activists say that, to date, Commissioner Bassett has neither refuted the findings of the toxicology report nor challenged the activists’ assertion that multiple health codes are violated.

The lawsuit filed by attorney Nora Marino on behalf of residents in the neighborhoods most affected by the animal slaughter is pending in the Court of Appeals, which is NY State’s highest court.

The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos has been attempting to engage with Commissioner Bassett for the past several years.  Her refusal to meet with this organization or address the Kaporos controversy triggered grass roots animal rights activists to begin disrupting Commissioner Bassett at her public speaking engagements. Since October, 2017, they have disrupted four of her presentations. In three cases, she left the venue.

Sources inside the administration say that Commissioner Bassett is refusing to enforce the health laws because the ultra-orthodox Jews who violate them represent a powerful voting bloc that helped to elect her boss, NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio. In fact, Commissioner Bassett publicly addressed her need to prioritize politics ahead over public health in an interview with the Boston University School of Public Health.

Commissioner Bassett admits that she must sometimes prioritize politics ahead of public health.

During the ritual, called 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 erected without permits on public streets.

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.

NYC Health Commissioner ignores the multiple health code violations that take place during Kaporos.


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NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett Abandons Presentation During Animal Sacrifice Protest

March 29, 2018 by Leave a Comment


The News

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.

Activists shut down NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett’s presentation at the NY Academy of Medicine

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.

Mary Bassett, the Commissioner of the NYC Dept. of Health, refuses to enforce the the health codes that are violated during a ritual animal sacrifice called Kaporos. (photo: Unparalleled Suffering Photography)

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.

The blood, body parts and feces of thousands of chickens contaminate the streets for several days, which, according to a toxicology report, jeopardizes the health of people who live in the neighborhoods where the ritual sacrifice takes 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.

Kaporos practitioners swing live chickens in the air by their fragile wings and then slaughter them on public streets

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.”

Activists protest Mary Bassett in front of her home over her refusal to enforce the seven health codes violated during the annual Kaporos massacre of 60,000 chickens in NYC.

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.


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Activists Shut Down NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett’s Presentation

March 19, 2018 by Leave a Comment


The News

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.

Mary Bassett exits the stage at a global public health conference as activists unfurl “Do Your Job” banner behind her.

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.”

Kaporos practitioners in Brooklyn swing and slaughter an estimated 60,000 chickens (Photo: Unparalleled Suffering Photography)

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.

Mary Bassett is turning a blind eye to Kaporos, an annual ritual massacre during which 60,000 chickens are slaughtered in Brooklyn alone.

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.” 

The NY Daily News reports on a protest targeting Commissioner Mary Bassett

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.”


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NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett Protested Over Religious Animal Sacrifice

March 12, 2018 by Leave a Comment


The News

As part of a growing campaign to compel NYC’s Health Commissioner Mary Bassett to ban a religious animal sacrifice that violates seven public health codes, over twenty activists staged a 45-minute disruption in the lobby of the Department of Health’s (DOH) headquarters as several thousand city employees entered the building during the morning rush.

During a similar disruption that took place two weeks earlier, DOH employees informed the activists that the protest could be heard throughout the building and was the subject of conversation among city employees. This feedback, coupled with a desire to ensure that all DOH employees are informed of their employer’s negligence, triggered activists to return for the second disruption.

Photo: Unparalleled Suffering Photography

“The system is broken,” said Jessica Hollander, an activist who participated in the protest. “What does it is say about our city government when New Yorkers are left with no choice but to stage a ‘die-in’ on the floor of the Department of Health to compel the agency to enforce its own regulations?”

A reporter and photographer from the NY Daily News attended and reported on the protest in an article entitled, “Protesters Slam Health Department, Implore City to Ban Jewish Chicken Slaughter Ritual.”

Protest coverage in the NY Daily News

In a statement provided to the Daily News for the article, the DOH dug in its heels, stating, “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.

Following is an excerpt from a 25 page affidavit submitted by Dr. Michael McCabe to the court in connection with an ongoing lawsuit about Kaporos:  “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 when the animals are killed, the streets in my neighborhood become a giant petri dish of pathogens and toxins that expose not only the practitioners to disease but also members of the general public,” said Rina Deych, a 62 year old nurse who lives in Brooklyn. “I can’t walk my grandson around my own neighborhood because there’s a makeshift slaughterhouse on every other block and chicken body parts in the streets.”

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 and sidewalks, which contaminates public spaces with blood, body parts and feces.

“We are not asking Commissioner Bassett to ban Kaporos,” said Nathan Semmel, an attorney who participated in the protest. “We are merely asking her to prohibit the use of live animals. Thousands of Jews around the world perform Kaporos by swinging coins around their heads and then donating the money to charity. There’s nothing in religious scripture that mentions, much less mandates, the use of live chickens.”

The 45-minute disruption at the Department of Health, which was staged during the morning rush hour, was the fifth action taken by activists to compel the city agency to enforce its own regulations.

Activists protest in the lobby of the NYC Department of Health during the morning rush to pressure the Commissioner to ban the use of live chickens during a religious ritual called Kaporos (photo: NY Daily News)

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. 


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