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Column: Emancipate Animals From Bondage

Miriam Jones feeds grain to Napoleon, who was brought to the VINE Shelter in Springfield, Vt., when his owner could no longer afford to feed him. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Miriam Jones feeds grain to Napoleon, who was brought to the VINE Shelter in Springfield, Vt., when his owner could no longer afford to feed him. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Tucked in the hills of Springfield, Vt., is a 100-acre oasis for animals called the VINE Sanctuary. It is here where neglected and former farm animals rescued from the horrors of the meat, dairy, poultry and egg industries — some of the world’s largest sources of environmental destruction — are brought to heal and roam the fields in peace.

The sanctuary exists because its founders believe that animals were born to be free. It’s a belief that’s likely to gain greater currency as more and more people recognize that promoting animal welfare is essential not just to our fellow beings, but to humans, too. Animals are sentient beings — they suffer, bond, love, plan, remember, grieve, and they have memories, families and friends. By protecting them, we humans can heal our spirits, create more humane economies and begin to restore the environment on which we depend.

VINE began in 2000 in the garage of Miriam and Pattrice Joneses’ home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the peninsula on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay famous for the bygone-era charm of towns like St. Michael’s and the wild horses of Assateague Island. Less known is that the Eastern Shore is also the heart of industrial-scale chicken farming in the U.S., a place where factory farms “manufacture” hens for eggs and meat, and male chicks are discarded to be crushed or ground up alive because they do not produce either. Miriam and Pattrice sheltered roosters rescued from cock fighting and broiler hens who fell off semis hauling them from overcrowded, filthy factory-farm sheds to slaughter.

Then in 2009, the Joneses moved north and purchased property in Springfield, which now provides sanctuary to 400 animals that have been rescued or have been dropped off anonymously, including chickens, sheep, emus and cattle.

The animal caretakers at VINE live and work by vegan principles — described by the Animal Rights of Upstate New York as “a moral and ethical way of living in the world with non-cooperation and non-participation in anything that exploits animals, humans and the environment.” That ethic is embedded in VINE’s name, an acronym for “veganism is the next evolution.”

Miriam’s involvement as an animal-rights activist began years ago in Michigan while visiting an animal preserve. Watching the deer, she asked, “Who would hurt these beautiful creatures?” Her friend responded, “You eat meat, don’t you?” And that was the aha moment that set off Miriam’s journey toward becoming a vegan abolitionist in the animal rights movement. Whereas abolitionists in the 19th century sought the end of human slavery, 21st-century vegan abolitionists seek the emancipation of animals from bondage.

Their goal is to end the cultural and economic mechanisms that thrive on enslaving and killing animals for human gain: agriculture; entertainment; research; military experiments; product testing; clothing; beauty; and medicine. They understand — as did vegetarians and vegans Gandhi, Tolstoy, DaVinci, Thomas Edison and Isadora Duncan, among many others — that for the planet’s health and our own physical and spiritual welfare, animals must exist for themselves, not to serve our desires and pleasures.

Not surprisingly, such a declaration frequently triggers a snicker and rolling eyes.

The belief that animals exist to serve humans is, after all, as old as the story of Genesis. Worldwide, animal-rights activists confront entrenched convictions, including the false ideas that humans require animal protein and milk for strong bones, product safety and research require animal testing, and weapons testing and battlefield preparedness require the sacrifice of live flesh. Miriam points out “that until everyone — creatures, too — is seen as worthy and entitled to fulfill her and his life without abuse, fear, and premature death, we will never live in an ethical, just society.”

Thomas Edison put it simply: “Until we stop harming all living beings, we are still savages.” That raises the question: Who gives us the right to harm and kill others?

Factory farming — from which comes the overwhelming majority of the meat we eat, including fish and seafood — is history’s most ruthless form of animal brutality. It thrives on violence and secrecy. In this country alone, according to the Farm Animal Rights Movement, approximately 10 billion animals, held in heartbreaking captivity, are slaughtered annually in horrific ways, as was gruesomely revealed in the 2005 award-winning documentary Earthlings. Globally, about 58 billion land animals and 51 billion sea animals are killed each year for human consumption. Eating meat, wearing leather, fur and feathers, using products made from and tested on animals, frequenting circuses and marine parks with enslaved animals amounts to nothing less than perpetrating a holocaust against our fellow Earth inhabitants.

With violence as our culture’s norm, empathy seems an unpromising argument for persuading those who eat and wear animals, use animal-tested products (detergents, health and beauty products) and animal-based products (glue, crayons, fabric softener, gel caps and medicine, jewelry and paintbrushes, among thousands of others) to stop.

But the extinction of our own species is the argument that wins attention.

So consider: Factory farms are among the biggest polluters on the planet. They produce billions of tons of toxic, raw and mostly unregulated sewage annually, much of which ends up in rivers, streams and oceans and sprayed into the air. Land-based factory farms produce increasingly alarming quantities of greenhouse gases — including methane (23 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) and nitrous oxide (310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide) — most of which comes from livestock.

Animal rights and Earth justice movements are gathering steam as people connect the dots between breeding animals for human use and the planet’s destruction. The push to protect animals grows stronger as witnessed by protests, online petitions, films, books, and this country’s decreasing meat consumption.

As Miriam points out, factory farming and traditional farming depend on our ability to deny and justify appalling truths — to create reassuring beliefs such as “happy meat” and “contented cows,” that cause the least psychic discomfort. Try as we might to justify eating, wearing and using animals and their products, we are complicit in ruthless brutality by taking what belongs rightfully to other beings while stealing the future from our children.

The vegan ethic is the only way to save ourselves. But can we transition quickly enough to a sustainable, plant-based world?

Miriam thinks perhaps. The United Nations Environment Programme released a 2010 report urging the world to go vegan to save the planet and to reduce starvation, pollution, and the use of fresh water and fossil fuels — two resources that ignite wars. If we live by the Hippocratic Oath’s do-no-harm ethic and the Golden Rule and transform to plant-based societies, then maybe we can save animals, the environment and ourselves.

Margaret Dean Daiss Hurley, a writer and English teacher in Rochester, N.Y., grew up in Norwich and plans to return to the Upper Valley.