In January, Wild Abundance—a school near Asheville, North Carolina focused on permaculture and “primitive skills”—posted an online notice for its annual class on humane slaughter and butchery. As part of it, instructor, Meredith Leigh, author of The Ethical Meat Handbook: Complete Butchery, Charcuterie & Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore, would demonstrate how to slaughter a sheep and butcher and cure its meat.
When the local vegan community got wind of the class, a handful of activists using the name of the Let Live Coalition, created a petition on Change.org, a Facebook page, and a silent vigil. Within a week of its November 10 posting, the petition had gone viral, amassing more than 10,000 signatures from around the world.
Wild Abundance Director Natalie Bogwalker began receiving as many as 50 phone calls a day, and both she and Leigh report receiving death threats. Many of the most vitriolic calls and posts came from abroad. One caller, says Bogwalker, threatened to plant a mole in the class, adding the safety of Bogwalker and her three-week-old infant daughter could not be guaranteed if the slaughter took place. Other callers, Bogwalker recalls, “said they couldn’t believe that I brought life into the world because I was such a horrible person.”
Overwhelmed by the onslaught, Leigh withdrew from part of the class, and the school found another, unnamed instructor to lead the slaughtering and butchering sections. She also wrote a blog post titled Vegan Bullying and the New World. In it she described messages from what she saw as “an international coalition of militant vegan organizations.” Leigh described “death threats, suggestions that I should be beaten, that I have only hell awaiting me, and that I deserve the worst treatment of any vile treatments imaginable.”
Leigh decided to go public, she says, because as the “humane meat” movement has grown in Asheville and elsewhere, she believes this type of behavior is growing in frequency and threat level. She has been the target of protesters “in the street and at conferences for years,” she says, but adds, “the international targeting of an individual via a harassment campaign; this feels really different.”
For its part, the Let Live Coalition asserts that its intentions were wholly peaceful and respectful from the start. The group was so serious about mounting an effective, peaceful campaign, in fact, says member Dawn Moncrief, that it turned to a Florida-based non-profit called One Protest for help. It also worked with a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm that specializes in social causes.
Soon, though, both sides were crying foul, alleging over-the-line behavior and lies to win points in the court of public opinion. Leigh pointed to an “open threat letter” from “fundamentalists” announcing plans to continue their campaign via “various methods.” The coalition took offense at an email from a Wild Abundance associate telling them that enrollment for the humane slaughtering class had gone up, “maybe thanks to you, honestly,” and that the school would be “taking the life of an additional sheep to make sure that all our students get enough hands-on experience.” (Bogwalker asserts that the plan all along was to slaughter two animals.)
On its website, Let Live responded to the threat of the slaughter of an additional animal by saying: “This is the ultimate in bullying.”
Moncrief, who is also the founding director of the hunger relief and animal protection organization A Well-Fed World, says the school’s response it felt like “a retaliation to harm us emotionally.”
The Wild Abundance protest is just the latest clash between these two groups. As awareness grows about the reality of industrial animals farms, consumers response has ranged from seeking out pasture-based alternatives to eschewing meat and other animal products altogether. And while these decisions are highly personal, the division between vegans and “conscious” meat-eaters has become increasingly tense.
Brothers (and Sisters) in Arms
It’s estimated that about 1 to 2 percent of Americans are vegan. Those who advocate for sustainable meat are limited to the 1 to 5 percent of it that is pasture-raised. In other words, these two niche groups share their opposition to 95 percent of all meat produced in America, the factory farmed kind. Yet this shared distaste isn’t enough to keep tensions from running high. The language used by many sustainable meat advocates doesn’t help, either. As Paul Shapiro, vice president of policy for the Humane Society of the United States, puts it: Words such as “humane,” “ethical,” and “cruelty-free” have become “trigger words” for vegan activists.
Lawyer, rancher, author, and sustainable meat advocate Nicolette Hahn Niman says she’s experienced heckling and harassment at public appearances “since the beginning” of her work writing about and promoting sustainable meat 16 years ago. She describes incidences of people “rushing to the microphone” as soon as she’s finished speaking, and one woman “screaming obscenities, crying and shouting, assailing us in the most vitriolic way.”
On the Facebook page for her book Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, Hahn Niman responded to Leigh’s description of her experience, writing, “Vegan Bullying, it’s real and—like all forms of harassment—must not be tolerated.”
Bryan Mayer, the former co-owner and head butcher at a restaurant and craft butcher shop in Philadelphia, was the target of vegan attacks several years ago. Online vitriol directed at him by anonymous protesters included a message from one individual who threatened to cut off his head and the heads of his co-workers and his family.
Mayer invited the critic to come into the shop to discuss the issue but no one stepped forward. Though he thought the incident “laughable” two years ago, Mayer, who is now director of butchery education at Fleishers Craft Butchery in Brooklyn, says he has started to take it more seriously thanks to recent national events. “Now you have people walking into pizza places and shooting,” says Mayer.
Leigh, too, compares vegan harassment to “other forms of extremism we’re seeing today,” and believes it’s “part of the larger political climate in our country now.”
Leigh, Mayer, and Niman’s experiences raise the question: Why do the two niche movements reserve such vitriol for each other? And why do some vegans seem to feel more hostile towards sustainable meat advocates than, say, industrial meat producers? How can this divide be bridged?
Princeton philosopher and bioethics professor Peter Singer—whose 1975 book Animal Liberation influenced animal rights organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)—asserts that “abolitionist” vegans are far from the norm, and that their outbursts give a “distorted sense” of the movement. This faction’s approach may represent “an excess of moral fervor,” he says, adding, “It’s not the way to win friends and influence people, and that’s what vegans ought to be doing.” Criticizing and rejecting factory food is “a positive step,” he adds, even for people who “are not one hundred percent pure.”
Singer suggests that both sides focus on what they have in common. “We’re fighting an enormous enemy with incredible resources and incredible strength building on the back of habits that Americans don’t even think twice about. “
Yet many purist “abolitionist” vegans feel that the more immediate threat comes from former vegetarians who have embraced sustainable meat. In their eyes, all meat-eating is equally immoral and “humane slaughter” is an oxymoron.
“It’s a narrative telling us that it’s okay to kill animals this way,” says Moncrief, who believes folks like Leigh and Bogwalker are “leveraging their status” as ex-vegans and -vegetarians to make new converts to humane meat eating. She adds, “People go into [the humane slaughter class] feeling good about themselves. We didn’t want to let that go unanswered.”
However, Bogwalker says that in fact, she “wouldn’t be surprised if some [who come to the humane slaughtering class] choose to be vegetarian after it, thinking, ‘That’s really heavy, I don’t want to do this any more.’” She adds, “I respect people’s ability to make choices.”
HSUS’ Shapiro dismisses the claim that former vegans touting their conversion to “humane” or “cruelty-free” meat are somehow hoodwinking practicing vegans into eating “guilt-free” meat. “There’s not much evidence for that,” he says, noting that what data is available “shows that people who start buying products like cage-free are more likely to reduce their consumption of meat. There’s just no evidence that these products are somehow preventing people from eating less meat.”
The Internet is Complicating Matters
Susan Benesch, a faculty associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, Benesch says, “It’s unfortunate that it’s the people who are most willing to threaten, or resort to violence, who get the most airtime … but it’s important to remember that there’s a big difference between threatening violence in a tweet or online and carrying it out.”
While no non-governmental actor can control these kinds of extremists, she adds, “the immense majority” of people who make such threats from the safety of Internet anonymity “wouldn’t dream of carrying them out.” Still, she acknowledges, such threats are still extremely frightening, and “we know that inciting content online does inspire other people who are much more willing to threaten violence and carry it out.”
For those who want to keep the discourse civil, she recommends that “people who are absolutely not in favor of harassment … distance themselves from other people who may support the same cause, but who don’t disavow violence.” This includes publishing and disseminating very clear guidelines for conduct. Doing this, Benesch explains, “opens up some space for civil exchange between people on both sides who are clearly opposed to threats and harrassment,” though she notes that “drawing the line between protesting and harassment is not always easy,” and is something American law has struggled with.
The Wild Abundance dust-up and others like it aside, it’s safe to say that vegans and sustainable meat advocates more often than not see themselves on a continuum of fighting for more ethical treatment of animals, an improved environment and improved diets and health for all.
“I know a lot of really smart, thoughtful vegans,” says Niman, noting that many are uncomfortable with the radical fringe. Bogwalker too, notes that many of the calls and emails she received were civil and thoughtful. One was from a 15-year-old boy who asked if he could visit her with his mother. “We talked about factory farming and he asked me about how to make change in the world,” she says. “It ended up being this really sweet, sweet thing.”
Finding Common Ground
There are a number of people working to shore up the middle ground. Gillian March, a vegan, humane meat and dairy activist in Atlanta, says she became vegan because she was “sickened by factory farming.” But she also realized that the U.S. “is a big meat-eating culture and the more we say ‘eat vegan’ the more people are going to close their ears and eyes.” So she and her daughter started an education campaign about factory farming and the alternatives. Her latest effort, in conjunction with Humaneitarian blogger (and Civil Eats contributor) Caroline Abels and other activists is Buy Better Dairy, to promote high-welfare dairies and farms.
Back in Asheville, Meredith Leigh and local soil scientist and author Laura Lengnick have been involved in exploratory talks with members of the local vegan community in an effort to ease the tension. Lengnick was the object of vegan protests over her 2015 book Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate; protestors took issue with her contention that animal agriculture can help fight climate change, calling her a “fraud,” she says, and claiming that “the only solution to climate change is veganism.”
Since then, Lengnick has become interested in how the two sides could “get better at [talking about] divisive issues.” She and Leigh have so far met twice with Asheville vegan activists Rowdy Keelor and Dustin Rhodes, with a local food community leader, Lee Warren, acting as a mediator. Neither Keelor nor Rhodes were part of the Let Live Coalition.
Moncrief says she hopes the discussion will be positive and adds, “We would still like to have constructive dialogue.” The group plans to bring on more members in 2017, and Leigh is open to including members of the Let Live Coalition, she says, as long as they are “able to flow with the intentions of the group.
Leigh reports feeling both discouraged and hopeful after the discussions so far. She says she’s “not working toward common ground, but ‘new ground,” and adds that the will to “transcend the disagreement … feels really positive.”
Lengnick is also hopeful. “If we could get militant vegans and sustainable agriculture advocates to agree to disagree, we could go a long way toward our goal of stopping CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation] production.”