Monday, March 21, 2016

SeaWorld ends orca breeding; phasing out orcas altogether

Big news happened last week! SeaWorld announced a comprehensive program to ultimately end the use of live orcas for entertainment. Just as Ringling Bros. caved to consumer pressure last year and announced its plan to stop using elephants in their traveling circus shows, SeaWorld has seen the writing on the wall and is finally phasing out the exploitation of these sensitive sea mammals, in partnership with the Humane Society of the US. It will be a fairly long process, since they are not releasing their current orcas into the wild but they have committed to not grabbing new orcas from the ocean, ending their orca breeding program and not including orcas at any new parks. All really great news! (For orcas, at least.)

[See the HSUS article here]

Of course, this whole end result was a direct consequence of the documentary film Blackfish, and the amazing amount of public attention it received. The film uses a mix of anecdotal, factual, and emotional arguments to make its case that the use of killer whales in entertainment is bad news for both the people and the whales involved. The scientific evidence is what really spoke to me. One example is where the film mentions statistics on life expectancies of whales in the wild versus those in captivity. Wild female orcas have a mean life expectancy of 50 years, but most in captivity die in their teens or 20's. This fact is just appalling to me. (Unfortunately, the life expectancy of many wild animals - not just orcas - is drastically reduced in captivity. I'd like to see an expose documentary on for-profit zoos in this country next.)

The film included interviews and testimony from biologists and behavioral scientists as well. To me, this points to a growing paradigm shift in the way that logic and facts influence the decisions of American public. Perhaps much of the rest of the developed world is farther ahead than us, but I do think we're catching on. As of late, documentaries such as Cowspiracy, Blackfish, The Cove, Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, and Forks Over Knives have been hugely popular with the general public. These all have an element of logical fallacy in that they employ 'appeal to emotion' as a main argument of each cause. However, they do all dedicate a significant portion of their run-time to scientifically-based facts and data.

Watch any one of the documentaries listed and compare to the most popular documentaries of 10+ years ago, such as An Inconvenient Truth or Bowling for Columbine. Al Gore may be a champion to some for inserting the reality of global warming into the public dialogue, but that movie was largely hype. Many of the facts presented were shown later to be grossly exaggerated, and some of the inflammatory statements made just sounded ridiculous, even at the time. (e.g. the tagline: "If you love your children, you have to see this film.") And Michael Moore's tongue-in-cheek style is entertaining (to some) but never carries a great, logical argument by any stretch. These days, I see less hype and more facts in the documentaries - and that's a very good thing. Maybe it's because of the Facebook and Twitter age we're now in. 140-character statistics are much easier to share online than the entire emotional tone of a film. But I also like to think that the internet is making us more interested in statistical data and real evidence for any given argument. Everyone can check facts now in a few minutes online. And everyone has access to photos and videos that leave very little room for interpretation when it comes to animal cruelty and exploitation.

For awhile there, SeaWorld was really pushing against the obvious turning of public opinion. They launched websites and campaigns to discredit the testimony and science presented in Blackfish.

SeaWorld's misguided attempt to rebuke the Blackfish claims

But they just could not escape the backlash of the film, and with the new announcement they have finally done what should have happened many years earlier. They realized that the trend of animal exploitation in this country is dying out; and the future is a much brighter and more compassionate one.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Need a resolution? Eat less meat & dairy!

Even better: stop entirely! I started down the vegan road as a trial run: "one month, then we'll see." I doubted that I could deny my need for cheese for a whole month. As it turns out, I could. And I felt so awesome, that I never went back. I learned to cook with delicious things I'd never tried before (e.g. nutritional yeast), found yummy cheese substitutes, and even learned to make my own cheese using soy and nut milks and age-old techniques. I stopped feeling like taking a nap in the middle of the day, and my energy level went way up. My health got better almost immediately (more on that some other time), and my mood even improved. The best part: one of my daily life habits, eating, was no longer in conflict with my moral convictions. I was hooked.

"Eating healthy" is a common New Year's resolution - but it's also conveniently vague and noncommittal. For a more specific, more beneficial plan that you can actually stick to, try 30 days of veganism. Apparently, there's even a movement surrounding this idea of trying out a vegan January: Veganuary. (I just found this out right now on Google, and don't ask me how to pronounce that.)

What is my New Year's resolution? Read (or listen to) 40 books this year and start swimming laps (again).

Friday, August 14, 2015

Vegan Travel: Prague, Czech Republic

One of the things about being a research scientist is that you travel A LOT. This is perhaps not that well known, but it ends up being a ridiculous amount of travel for team meetings, proposal reviews, conferences, workshops and (for some) field research. These trips are where tons of great science gets initiated. But I'd say you really have to love to travel if you want to be in research or academia. Luckily I do!

Being vegan at the homestead is easy: you know where you love to eat out, and you mainly cook delicious foods at home. It's a bit challenging to eat when you're not at home. I always manage it one way or another, but Prague had some particularly unexpected gems that I wanted to share.

The best resource in Prague & Cesky Krumlov was the prevalence of bioshops. These are essentially health food stores, and always have the word "Bio" in the name somewhere, so they are easy to identify. The one I found in Krumlov had gluten-free crackers, and tins of seasoned tofu pate that became a wonderful picnic lunch. And Prague had several locations of Country Life with packaged vegan options and takeaway buffet style food; one also had a real cafe attached. Very delicious foods!

My favorite travel experiences always involve random wanderings. I love blending into a cityscape, alone, just observing daily life in a different culture and picking my way around neighborhood streets. One of these kinds of journeys in Prague one day led me to a small island over by the Little Quarter, upon which a street fair was taking place. As it turned out, it was a family fair led by (as I could discern) a children's camp group. But it did have a little stand with the word "VEGAN" pasted across the front, so I stopped and inquired. I can't recall the name of the shop or find it online now, but they had just started up and were trying to advertise. I bought a cone of the best soft-serve ice cream I've ever had. They took out a hockey puck of almond-based vanilla ice cream, asked me which mixers I wanted to add in (I chose raspberries and blueberries) and then put it all into a machine which churned it up into a delicious purple-colored ice cream treat, which wasn't overly sweet and creamy as could be.

Next, as I was winding my way through a neighborhood towards the main castle area of Prague, I looked up a steep street and saw a "Vegan Restaurant" sign just up the way. It was LoVeg, which was simply a lovely place. It's a stone's throw from the castle, at the top of a building with a small outside patio overlooking the rooftops and the most delicious vegan food. I was able to try a traditional Czech dish - Svickova: 'meat' pieces in a sauce with bread dumplings on the side. A small piece of raw berry pie was the perfect finish. Here are some pictures of this amazing place.

Upstairs seating: an adorable space!

Outdoor patio among the rooftops

I also found a nice, cheap buffet style vegetarian place that had many locations around Prague called Dhaba Beas; they had lots of vegan options. And on my last day in Prague I tried a Loving Hut, a dependable international vegan chain restaurant; each one is surprisingly unique as far as menu options. On my side trip to Cesky Krumlov, I found a veggie restaurant (the only one) called Laibon. There were plenty of vegan options to try, so I ate here both nights of my trip. The staff was so very, very nice which was a welcome change, and they even made me special rice pudding with coconut milk instead of cow milk. There was an outdoor patio overlooking the river under the castle, complete with a neighborhood cat that snuggled with me at my table one evening. The restaurant is a true haven for vegetarian and vegan travelers to find in such a rural place!
My kitty friend hanging out while I ate

Vegan food on a summer evening by the river

I don't think of my dietary preferences as a hindrance to traveling. Particularly since they lead me to find wonderful hidden nooks where I can meet others that share my lifestyle choices and experience delicious nourishing foods that keep me energized and healthy during my travels. Vegan food is everywhere, and only getting more so with each passing year. On my way through the Frankfurt airport going home, I passed multiple airport food kiosks that had signs with "vegan!" and "veggie organic!!" on them. As I was running for my connecting flight, I couldn't stop to investigate, but was shocked just to see the V word plastered multiple places in any airport. The tide is turning, friends. Happy vegan travels!

Friday, May 29, 2015

Peaceful Prairie's Walk for Peace a major success!

Yesterday, I participated in my first ever walk for a charitable organization. I raised over $200 for Peaceful Prairie Farm Sanctuary (mostly by shameless email begging) and walked a leisurely mile in the sunshine with tons of people, dogs and even a goat! There was breakfast, gift bags, free samples of delicious vegan "cheese", a raffle and lunch served after the walk. It was a ton of fun, and I was so happy to contribute at least a small amount of the thousands of dollars Peaceful Prairie raised for their animals. A huge thanks and hugs to all my friends and family that helped out in that effort.

Me and some Boulder vegans after the walk!

I spent some time enjoying the company of the Boulder Vegan meetup group; great people whom I love to see at all these events. It's nice to spend time with people that share the same values as you (an obvious human need that drives much of our grouping behavior); but it's even more awesome to use that time to help out in a larger capacity. Hooray for the people who have dedicated their lives to places like Peaceful Prairie - they are my heroes!
(More pictures below)

Somebody (not from Peaceful Prairie) brought their pet goat on the walk! The goat walked right by her side without a lease, and was super friendly.

Tons of adorable dogs!

And tiny, tired puppies!

And of course the feast after, where they served Field Roast 'burgers', Follow Your Heart 'cheese', salads, baked beans, and So Delicious ice cream bars

The start of the walk - what a beautiful day

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Watch Cowspiracy

Starting yesterday, in honor of Earth Day, the groundbreaking film Cowspiracy is available to watch for just $1 throughout the week. I absolutely loved this film and think everyone, vegetarians and non, should watch it. Don't worry, it's not full of gore and animal violence caught on tape. There was only one place where I had to avert my eyes, and I'm sure most people won't even need to do that much.

The filmmaker goes on a personal journey of revelation as he attempts to understand the reasons that his beloved environmental groups seem to ignore the effects of animal agriculture in all forms. He eventually comes to the conclusion that you can not truly be an environmentalist and still consume animal products. The processes are detrimental to the earth - even the so-called sustainable small farm businesses. The film is littered with facts, plots, numbers and formulas - which I really appreciate. There's the emotional component too, of course. Not only does the filmmaker come to believe in the logic that he's developed over time, but he also starts to question the very morality of using animals for food. It's so interesting to watch his conviction evolve throughout the film, and I found myself making parallels to my own journey and remembering when I came to these very same conclusions on quite a different path.

This film is particularly relevant in the context of the California drought debate that is taking place currently. Of all the media coverage on this historic drought, I've rarely heard explicit mention of animal agriculture practices, although that is what uses the vast majority of California's fresh water. Instead they blame it on the almond trees! I can already envision the ads against buying almond milk... sigh.

If you're a Californian, an earth-loving hippie, a lifelong vegan or a curious vegetarian - watch this movie! It's also super entertaining and funny - much more upbeat than, say, Blackfish. Take a night this weekend and check it out - it's only $1 after all.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Tech comes to the defense of dwindling elephant and rhino populations

Today I wanted to share an amazing Indiegogo campaign that has the potential to end much of the illegal poaching of elephant and rhino populations in Africa. Air Shepherd Drones is proposing a system of predictive analysis to estimate where animals and poaches will likely be, drone fliers with mobile command vans that will locate possible poachers by air, and teams of ranger crews that will arrive on the scene ideally before any poaching takes place. The plan also includes post-operation data that will be beamed to the command vans and integrated into the code, helping to strengthen the analysis over time.
Population map from the Air Shepherd campaign

The computer models will be designed and maintained by the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, who will then be offering their open-source software to other vetted universities who can run the model and support other anti-poaching efforts.

I think this is a fantastic blend of science, technology, and animal welfare. Not only could this type of effort help to end poaching, but it could also provide the video to bring awareness to who these poachers are and what devastation they bring to a declining species. Video is the only media format that gets attention these days. Print is almost dead (including long-form blogs like this one, sadly), photos can go viral but also easily dismissed as "photoshopped", but video has truth to it and also great emotional impact.

Elephants are one of the most interesting lifeforms on the planet, to me. They are emotional. They have complex social rituals after death, including what humans would consider a mourning period and funeral. They are highly sensitive and even vengeful creatures. Elephants are our kin, in so many ways. It is deplorable that they have been brought to the verge of decline, and it's so heartening to know that many countries are asking for help to stop the poachers and save these species.

Of course I donated. Who can resist geeks using supercomputers to save the world? There are just four days left for Air Shepherd to reach their funding goal. Click here to donate or check out more about their campaign.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Let's begin with an infographic

Science is all graphs and equations, right? I want to share this super science-y pie chart that pretty much says it all.

Believe it or not, I've actually had people ask: "But if everyone goes vegan, what will happen to all the cows and chickens??" Uh, they will live out their lives until they die of old age and meanwhile we won't be force-breeding millions more to take their place in the slaughter line. Obviously.

The transition would be phenomenal and world-changing, but I don't see it as being traumatic for anyone, human or animal. The animal agriculture industry as a whole would feel the most harm if everyone began to stop eating animal products. The individuals who run independent farms would have to slowly transition to a different kind of farming (ideally organic vegetables and sustainable crops). Even better, let's fully legalize the growing of hemp crops in this country and give farmers a profitable, ecologically-sound option to livestock.