Thursday, May 1, 2008

Friend to animals, friend to me & our first CanSer chap - Dan Paul!

Happy May!

Let's dance about yesterday's MAJOR advancement for our furry friends! Check it out:

"The prestigious Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production just concluded its 2.5-year study of American animal agriculture with unanimous findings from its 15 members. The panel concluded that factory farms pose unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and animal welfare. It also issued a series of recommendations, including a phase-out of battery cages, gestation crates, veal crates, foie gras, and tail-docking of dairy cows, along with inclusion of poultry under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act."

So what does all this have to do with my wonderful pal Dan? Take it away compassion rock star, activist extraordinaire and one heck of a dynamic CanSer chap...

"As an ex-control freak and a new-found believer in the “things happen for a reason” school of thought, it seems absolutely fitting that my fiancĂ© Katie and I happened to meet Kris and Brian while vacationing in Costa Rica.

Quickly let me catch you all up to speed: we were all staying in the same yoga/nature retreat, so when we initially met we all spent the first few days engaging in basic small talk and abbreviated biographies. Then, after a few days, I became interested in finding out more about Brian’s film background, as in an earlier life I had been a film major in San Francisco. This is when they dropped their bombshell and Katie and I found out exactly how Brian and Kris met- and exactly the type of project that the two of them had worked on together. More simply put, this is when I learned all about “Crazy Sexy Cancer.” Although it’s never pleasant to learn of someone’s struggle with cancer, my shock of our shared experience came upon me in an odd sense of relief, the relief of finding others who fully understand my struggle- my own bombshell, that I constantly feel the need to hide until the optimal moment for bombardment: I too am a cancer survivor.

Four years ago, while I was living in New York City, working for the New York Yankees, in what I considered at that time to be “my dream job,” I began to feel sick. I was 24 years old at the time, and up until that point I had been totally healthy (well, healthy as far as sickness, but to be honest, my lifestyle was not necessarily the healthiest example out there). The symptoms included physical things like headaches, fatigue and night-sweats, while also having crazy psychological changes like depression and as WebMd puts it “feeling of doom.” But through it all, I figured that I was just tired and maybe I had been going out and partying a little bit too often. Never in a million years did I expect anything was really the matter with me.

And then I started to get constipated. I mean really constipated. I would go two or three weeks without any major bowel movement. I began relying heavily on laxatives to get even a semblance of relief. Finally, it became so unbearable that I had to actually go and see a doctor. I had been to Africa a few months before the heavy constipation had really started so I kept rationalizing the problem to be a result of some acquired parasite or form of bacteria. It turns out that the reason why I was unable go to the bathroom was because my spleen had enlarged about five times its normal size. And the reason why it was five times its normal size was because it was being flooded with white blood cells that it was rather unsuccessfully trying to filter out. I had about 100 times the amount of white blood cells that I should have had, in addition to severe anemia. This answered the headaches and fatigue, but why was I anemic? The answer, the doctors told me, is that I have leukemia.

When he uttered that word, honestly, all I could think of was that it was some kind of bald-headed kid’s disease. I didn’t have any idea exactly what it was. So when I asked naively to put it in layman’s terms, that’s when he let me know plainly that leukemia is cancer. And in turn, that’s when the whole world collapsed to a tiny speck about the size of a pin-hole.

Fortunately, the type of leukemia that I was diagnosed with: chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) is the kind of leukemia you wanted to get if you ever were actually crazy enough to want to get leukemia. Without going too much in-depth, getting CML before you turn 66 is an extremely rare occurrence, and less than 10% of all reported cases of CML are from patients under 25 years old. Regardless, I think as we’ve seen with Kris, and probably many of your own experiences, when it comes to cancer, or survival for that matter, the last thing you ever want to do is lean on statistics. The reason why odds are never 100% either in favor or against a particular outcome is that there are always exceptions to nearly everything: sometimes you are a positive exception and sometimes you are not. So I took it on myself (and family and friends) to beat this, but in order to do so, I had to recalibrate a life that was kinda spinning out of control.

The next year was filled with doctors and hospitals and blood tests and giant needles digging into my hip bone, extracting marrow, and chemotherapy and pain and loneliness and exhaustion. It’s the details of the story that are far too massive to sum up in this blog. But on that note, this is why I think all of us can find inspiration and strength from Kris and Brian’s film. It is virtually the story that we have all gone through but rarely are able to observe from an outside perspective. However after a successful bone-marrow transplant (actually stem cells from my brother, Dave) and another year living a basically hermetically sealed existence, I was free to carry on as before. At least that was the intended plan. But after that re-awakening, something in me had changed. I had gone through so much- the highs and lows, the pain and the relief, and through it I had come out differently on the other side.

I could no longer just assimilate back into the same life as before. I now understood suffering, I felt what it was like to be totally vulnerable and without any control over my own fate. To me, nothing seemed stupider than to ignore all of this insight and escape back into the fairytale world of peanuts and cracker jacks- where life is separated into spring training and fall classics. During my recovery, Katie and I adopted a golden retriever named Sam from the local Humane Society. What now seems like a totally lopsided exchange for a warm bed and dry food, in return he offered a salve for my heart. He became instrumental in my recovery, as I was on medical imposed exile for the first few years of recovery. I have always liked animals, but it wasn’t until really getting to know Sam that I understood what that really means.

A little over a year ago, I had a dream in that Sam was standing in a kill chute at a slaughterhouse. He couldn’t know that on the other side of the swinging doors his body would be sliced and diced and turned into hamburger, but regardless, he desperately wanted to escape, and was powerless to do so. His eyes were screaming to be heard but he made no sound. It chilled me all the way down to my newly replaced bone-marrow because in some ways I could fully relate to that feeling. When my body was literally in the process of killing me, when I had no idea that I was weeks away from massive heart failure or stroke from the massive buildup of blood cells, my body was silently screaming at me to “get the hell out of here!”

That’s when I connected it all to a quote by the Nobel Prize winning philosopher Albert Schweitzer: “Think occasionally of the suffering from which you spare yourself the sight.” I began to think of such tiny little connections such as: If I punch Sam, it will hurt him, if I kiss Sam, it will feel good to him. Then I thought of all the times as a kid when I had heard that “a pig is smarter than a dog.” Well, to me Sam was pretty amazingly smart. Sure, he isn’t solving advanced calculus equations or writing a dissertation on Gertrude Stein, but he is aware of himself, like me, and my struggle to survive cancer at all costs is identical to his interest in self-preservation. Even more importantly, however, is that he has the ability to suffer just as I do.

That is when the light bulb went off. The feeling that I had awakened after all these years, is compassion. In my estimation, this is an emotion that everyone is born with, but more often than not, for any number of reasons, this instinct is shamed, ignored, and eventually forgotten. We live in a society where the number one priority is to take care of your own best interests. But now that I had received a new lease on life, I wanted to do it totally different. I had the unique opportunity to start over, and at the foundation of this rebirth is compassion.

In fact, I don’t know what made my heart smile more, when Brian told me that Kris is a cancer survivor or when he told me Kris was a vegan. I have been vegan now for a year and it has been the most rewarding decision that I have ever made. Every single morning, I wake up and my heart feels joyous, I know that I am truly living my ethics. In addition, about 4 months ago I was hired by the Humane Society of the United States, and now work full-time in spreading the message of compassion.

I’m sure by now, most of you have read or seen footage from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, California. For those that have no idea what I’m talking about, you can visit and on the homepage there are links to both the story and the undercover video that a Humane Society undercover investigator shot over a few weeks at the slaughter facility.

What is most shocking, is that the HSUS randomly selected this facility with no prior knowledge or information on their treatment of cattle. Hallmark/Westland isn’t particularly egregious, nor is it particularly negligent. The sickening reality, is that with almost total certainty, whichever of the thousands upon thousands of CAFOs (factory farms), feedlots or slaughter facilities, that currently operate throughout the United States of America and are governed by the USDA, the resulting footage would look nearly identical.

To me, what makes it worse, is that these particular cows did not get to spend the first 18 months of their fated existence on pasture land- free to essentially be a cow, like most cattle raised for beef, before being shipped off to the high-density feedlot to be fattened up on an unnatural diet of corn. No, these are dairy cattle- animals that are impregnated against their will, only to have their babies taken away from them within days of birth, and re-impregnated again and again.

You see, cows are mammals, like us, and mammals can only produce milk after gestation. When I fist discovered this, I was a bit shocked: cows don’t magically make milk- milk is made for their own babies, and if they aren’t new mothers than they don’t lactate.

Not to get too off topic, but let’s focus on their babies for a sec- the females are taken to ’replenish’ the herd, while nearly every single male calf or veal calf (roughly half) are taken from their mothers, days from birth, tied up inside a tiny box- so small they can not even turn around or lay down comfortably, and fed an iron deficient diet for the few awful weeks that they will exist on this planet.

Now back to the mother- after a constant cycle of birthing and milking (about 5 times the amount a calf would naturally nurse), these cows are considered “spent” and no longer serve as cost-effective milk-producing machines. Their bodies and hormones are so cached from giving and giving and giving that there becomes only one more possible way to exploit these beleaguered animals for more money: send them to slaughter.

And this is where Hallmark/Westland comes in to play. How do you get a thousand pound animal, broken and ruined, to walk willingly down a kill chute? I know myself, as a cancer survivor who was exposed to massive doses of Cytoxin and Busulfan, whose bone marrow was completely destroyed by this poison, and spent weeks without any trace of an immune system, that I would not just give up and walk down the kill chute to my death. And why should we believe that these cows are any different?

The commercial egg industry is no better, often times even worse. Female laying hens are locked tiny wire cages in darkened sheds, stacked one on top of another by the thousands. Each hen is given less than 67 sq. inches or about 2/3 a sheet of paper to live their entire, wretched lives. And about 5 to 8 birds are crammed inside every cage. The “unlucky” birds on the bottom of the cage stacks are defecated on for their entire lives as well. If there is a wane in productivity, these birds are “force molted” or starved for a week of two, until their body is tricked into laying more eggs. The toll is so great on their bodies, as so much calcium is lost that they often break their legs and wings from the cramped, wire cages.

Like veal calves, the “unproductive” male chicks have a similarly brutal fate. They are sorted out and then either left to suffocate, stacked several thousands deep in trash dumpsters or for a quick disposal, they are fed into a wood-chipper while fully conscious.

I understand that this is all very gruesome, shocking, and extremely graphic, but unfortunately this is the outcome of our food procurement system that has so far been completely tolerant of institutionalized cruelty. Slowly things are beginning to change, the citizens of Florida, Arizona, have passed successful ballot initiatives to ban gestation crates on pregnant sows and confinement crates for veal calves. Oregon and now Colorado have passed successful legislative bans on the same practices, without even relying on citizen-led initiatives. And California residents have currently gathered enough signatures to add to the November elections legislation to address gestation crates, veal crates, and battery cages for egg-laying hens (for the first time in US history). And now, with all the attention the USDA has faced from the Chino slaughterhouse, there may be even more legislation written in favor of farm animals.

But even more importantly, this doesn’t have to be decided by rules or regulations. By the very act of reducing a living, feeling, sentient being into a mere unit of production- whether it be as an egg-laying machine, a flesh-giving machine, or a milk-producing machine- these beings are forced to endure suffering and desolation that none of us could even begin to comprehend. Instead, we can pull from Albert Schweitzer and take a moment to reflect and relate to their suffering. Suffering that is more different in degree than in kind to what we as cancer survivors have faced.

As Kris has shown you, through her neighbors at Woodstock Animal Sanctuary, if given a chance these animals such as Olivia want to live. They want to live because that is what life does. When all was said and done, this is exactly the same primal source that I utilized when I was knee-deep in my own struggle.

I hope that one day the world can go from A to Z, and Z is a place that institutionalized cruelties are a thing of the past, I do, however, realize that it is a huge step to just get to B. And that alone gives me cause and purpose to wake up and take action. Because I know that with all my effort, and the effort of like-minded survivors, the world can’t possibly be worse off, and we just might reach our goal."

Peace & Freedom for all,

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