Maybe she read Charlotte's Web one too many times as a kid. Maybe she got a bad slice of veal shank. Whatever the reason, Kari Nienstedt is devoted to saving cute little farm animals (and big, ugly farm animals) from being mistreated on their way to slaughter. Kari's the Arizona spokesperson for Farm Sanctuary, the nation's leading farm animal protection group, and if she had it her way, our only interaction with a pig would involve bringing him flowers on his birthday. As she and her fellow farm animal activists gear up for the annual Phoenix Walk for Farm Animals on October 11, Kari joined me to discuss life without meat, turkey adoption, and why milk is murder.
New Times: So you're a farm animal rights activist. What kind of person does this sort of work?
Kari Nienstedt: Anyone with a conscience. It's a matter of becoming educated about farm animal cruelty and then acting on it. A lot of people don't put much thought into where food comes from, but once you start investigating and you understand what goes on behind the scenes, you have to take action to alleviate the suffering.
NT: How is it that we never think about cute little barnyard faces when we eat steaks?
Nienstedt: There's a lot of money spent on encouraging us not to think about where the meat was before it showed up on that little Styrofoam tray. We've even been given a language that keeps us from thinking about how we're eating flesh: We call it "beef" when it's really a cow. It's "pork," not a pig.
NT: I'm guessing you're a vegetarian.
Nienstedt: Right. I found out about the process called factory farming, which involves confinement and terrible amounts of cruelty, and I went vegetarian almost immediately. Three years later I went vegan, which eliminates the other animal products from your diet.
NT: Are farmers just plain evil?
Nienstedt: People who work in slaughterhouses aren't necessarily bad people. They love their pets, and their families. But they've become desensitized; trained to think of the stuff on their plates as something other than an individual. It's some sort of product, not an individual who can feel pain or fear.
NT: But they're farm animals! They're there to provide meat or to produce milk!
Nienstedt: The animals would disagree with you. They have every right to live free from suffering, every right to their own bodily integrity. They have the right to not be murdered. There's a huge difference between growing plants and growing animals for food. Plants don't have a central nervous system; they're not capable of feeling emotions. Animals do.
NT: Is that what it comes down to? A head of lettuce doesn't have a central nervous system, and so there's no cruelty involved in eating it?
Nienstedt: Pretty much. If the being can suffer, it's up to us to make sure that it doesn't.
NT: Should we just wait until animals die of natural causes, and then eat them?
Nienstedt: I guess if you really needed meat that bad, you could do that. But many would argue that you can live more healthily without meat. It's an easier solution to work away from a meat-centered diet than to figure out a way to convince factory farmers to be kind to sheep.
NT: You don't eat eggs or cheese. But is it really harmful to the animals when they lay eggs or give milk?
Nienstedt: Actually, it is. I mean, there's no moral dilemma in having a pet chicken and eating her eggs, although it's kind of gross. But with cows, there's a certain amount of cruelty. Cows are kept impregnated, which keeps them producing milk, and then after the mother gives birth, the baby is taken away so that it won't drink her milk. The female calves are put back into the milk industry, and the males become veal. The dairy and veal industries are inseparable, and so a great amount of suffering is caused by the milk industry -- more than steak or chicken. Sorry.
NT: Do you guys just call the cops on Farmer John when there's blatant, documented farm animal abuse?
Nienstedt: No. Farm animals are exempt from the Animal Welfare Act. Turkeys and chickens are also exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act. So pretty much anything goes with farm animals.
NT: The Humane Slaughter Act?
Nienstedt: It requires that animals be stunned before they're killed. Which is difficult to enforce when you're talking about 10 billion animals a year.
NT: But domesticated animals are protected.
Nienstedt: If you did to a dog what is routinely done to farm pigs today, you'd be put in jail for it. But you can do whatever you want to farm animals.
NT: I'm opposed to animal abuse, too. But is there really a humane way to raise animals for meat?
Nienstedt: Well, there's a lot of talk about free-range chicken. But free-range animals suffer some of the same cruelties, because there are no standard guidelines for free-ranging. The only difference is that the chickens are supposed to be given a certain amount of time outside. But they can still be kept in pens; they can still be de-beaked; they're still slaughtered under the same horrible conditions. Chicken warehouses often have 25,000 chickens in them, so it's impossible to ensure humane treatment for that many animals.
NT: Wait a minute. Did you say "de-beaked"?
Nienstedt: De-beaked. Five chickens are usually kept in a 14-inch-square pen, and they just sort of go nuts. They get stressed out and start attacking themselves or their pen mates. In order to minimize the loss, chicken farmers often slice off the tips of the chicken's beaks so they're blunt and can't pierce the skin.
NT: Okay. Stop. Enough. So you're saying that farm animal rights activism is about making sure the animals live full lives before they're slaughtered.
Nienstedt: It's really about how you can live your life without contributing to suffering, without harming animals and causing them pain. It's not going to happen tomorrow, but in the meantime, it would be better if farm animals were treated nicely.
NT: But is a chicken really sitting there thinking, "God, my life really sucks. I have to share my pen, and eat this shitty grain, and then some asshole's going to cut my head off"?
Nienstedt: No. But they're aware they're being tortured. When you get to meet an animal, one-on-one, you get to see that they do have personalities. I met a chicken, and she had a sense of humor! But she was being tortured. Factory farm animals are in a constant state of torture. It's really horrible.
NT: But for every head of cattle that you save from cow abuse, there are millions that don't get rescued. So what's the point?
Nienstedt: Not millions, billions. Ten billion farm animals are slaughtered every year in the United States alone. About eight billion of those are chickens and turkeys. Those sorts of staggering numbers are why you see so much burnout in the farm animal rights activist community. These issues are so overwhelming.
NT: Did you just say the phrase "burnout in the farm animal rights activist community"?
Nienstedt: Yes. It's a big problem, and there's no organization in place to address it. It happens when you start thinking about how many people on the planet eat meat, and how your family doesn't understand your position, and pretty soon you're depressed and ready to go back to eating meat.
NT: What's all this about turkey adoption?
Nienstedt: Well, you can sponsor a turkey at Farm Sanctuary. You're not actually taking him home with you; it's a Thanksgiving program where you send us money, and we send you a photograph of the turkey and his name and a little background on him. The money pays for his feed and care during his stay at Farm Sanctuary.
NT: Or so we're told. I visited adoptaturkey.org, and read about Lydia the hugging turkey, who likes to give turkey hugs to shelter visitors, and Megan the Cuddling turkey, who gives turkey kisses. But I still wonder what Thanksgiving dinner would be like without a pile of dark meat.
Nienstedt: Well, there are substitutes, like Unturkey and Tofurkey, but you're right, we tend to think of the holiday as being about eating turkey.
NT: Excuse me. Tofurkey?
Nienstedt: It's really good! You should try it.
NT: I promise I will. So, you guys operate farm animal sanctuaries. Is this a place where goats can go to recover from being fed the wrong kind of garbage by Farmer John?
Nienstedt: Not entirely. We go to slaughterhouses and go to the dead piles and look for movement among the rotting bodies. We oftentimes find live animals, and we take them back to Farm Sanctuary and rehabilitate them and they either live out their natural lives there or we adopt them out.
NT: If I were a goat, and I went to Farm Sanctuary, would there be turndown service? Instead of a mint on my pillow, would there be a tin can?
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Nienstedt: No, but it's really great there. The pigs get to roll in mud, and the cattle get to graze, and the ducks get to run up a hill. The only real trauma there is when one of the animals gets adopted out, and then the other animals get sort of sad.
NT: Farm animal adoption? Do you place sheep with inner-city kids?
Nienstedt: No. In order to adopt, you have to have farmland, and you have to be vegan, and you have to be committed to unusual pets. Chickens and ducks and pigs are funny and moody, and Farm Sanctuary is a great place to meet them and discover that they have these great personalities. We host "pignics" where you can meet pigs and give them belly rubs. And I promise you, once you get to know a pig, you'll never think of him as ham again.