Vegan strip club: these words caught my attention on the New York Times website a few weeks ago and, intrigued, I clicked on the link to learn more. In the March 27 article, columnist Kara Jesella describes entrepreneur Johnny Diablo's latest business venture: the Casa Diablo Gentleman's Club in Portland, Oregon. The world's first of its kind, its dancers sport pleather bodices while patrons munch on meat-free chimichangas.

"[It's] vixens, not veal, and sizzle, not steak. We put the meat on the pole, not on the plate," Diablo said in an interview with local news channel KPTV. When I read that the strip club would be shutting down because of lack of business, I couldn't decide whether I was relieved or disappointed.
On the one hand, being vegan myself, it's somewhat exciting to see veganism and animal rights groups getting recognition in mainstream media. On the other, I'm annoyed that such recognition comes, more often than not, for stupid reasons. Like vegan strip clubs.
While news like this is entertaining, it's also frustrating--I sympathize with the animal rights movement but find it difficult to defend its somewhat embarrassing reputation. In her piece, Jesella relates Diablo's venture to an increasingly sexist and desperate rhetoric that advocacy groups have been adopting in order to garner attention, an approach that is alienating more audiences than it attracts.
These frivolous stereotypes that animal rights groups have constructed around themselves are self-destructive--and serve only to detract from the moral validity of veganism as a whole.

What's their beef?

If you Google Image Search "PETA" (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), almost all of your first-page results will feature half-naked women. Among the images are Pamela Anderson, Alicia Silverstone and Charlotte Ross, all posing nude under captions such as "I'd rather show my buns than wear fur." In addition to ad campaigns featuring stripped celebrities, the non-profit group is also known for its eccentric forms of protest. From throwing fake blood on fur-clad models to publicly exhibiting bare-breasted women in pig crates, it has built a rather comical reputation around its largely unconvincing forms of outreach.
It's a shame, though, because PETA is onto something important: mass meat production in the US is disgusting. And needs to change. The photographs in the organization's handouts featuring abscess-ridden cattle and immobile sows may be dramatic, but they're not theatrical; they're representative of how most livestock in the United States is raised and slaughtered. Although Smithfield Foods, America's largest pork producer, announced last year that it would begin to phase out its gestation crates, the majority of pigs being raised for slaughter in the US today still remain in these two-by-seven-foot iron cages, urinating and defecating in the same position in which they sleep. The realities of raising cattle are equally repulsive. Even dairy cows, which people like to think fare better than their made-for-meat counterparts, are injected with staggering amounts of hormones (such as Posilac, banned in Canada and the EU) in order to produce ten times the amount of milk they otherwise would--100 pounds a day--causing their udders to swell to disproportionate sizes, often to the point of dragging on the ground.
Conditions for chickens are similarly repugnant. It is standard procedure of the American Poultry Association to cut off chicks' beaks at three days of age without anesthetic. This is done to prevent them from pecking out their own feathers and those of other chickens, a behavior birds often resort to in overcrowded environments. Egg-laying hens, moreover, are subject to communal battery cages that hens raised for consumption are sometimes exempt from. In these wire cages, each bird is confined to a surface area half the size of an 8-by-11 piece of paper. These will be banned in the EU starting in 2012.

Slaughter and spectacle

Not surprisingly, conditions of slaughter are even less appealing. Earthlings, a documentary that has won awards at both the San Diego and Boston International Film Festivals, examines this process in the meat industry's largest slaughterhouses. The resulting footage shows surprising violence and, to that extent, is effective in substantiating the injustices against which the animal rights movement wages.
Many people have accused films such as these of being sensationalist in a way that nude PETA ads are-- except in this case, the publicity exploits bloodshed, not sex appeal, to further its message. While brutality is prevalent in these films, it is not extraneous to the issue of animal cruelty. These videos are largely accurate depictions of conditions in factory farms and slaughterhouses--and are essential to substantiating the animal rights movement. Without this visual evidence, the movement would not only be far less noticeable, but also far less convincing and compelling. While I don't think these images should be pushed upon people, I also don't think there will ever be a time when they will be comfortable to look at. These images are part and parcel of the meat consumption in the US, and if we aren't going to shroud ourselves in ignorance about the realities of our food, we need to be able to confront them.
And yet, even though many of us recognize the existence of mistreatment in the meat industry--up to 71 percent of Americans, according to a 2003 Gallup poll by the American Veterinary Medical Association--we're having a hard time bringing ourselves to care about it. Which is strange, because as a nation, we really seem to love animals. At least our pets.

Ethics from afar

There's an obvious contradiction between the way we treat our pets and the way we treat our meat. According to a 2008 poll by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, in the last year Americans spent a staggering $43 billion on their pets, only $17 billion of which was for food. Almost two thirds of those surveyed admitted to buying their pets Christmas presents. With these levels of indulgence, it is clear that we not only respect animals, but also relate to them on a personal level. How many times have you heard someone refer to their dog or cat as being grumpy to go to the vet or being happy to come home? It's clear that many pet owners attribute to their felines and canines moods, dispositions and even personalities.
So why doesn't the same logic and empathy lend us to extend basic humane treatment to larger mammals such as pigs and cows? If a domestic dog or cat were kept in the same conditions that most factory farm stock is, his or her owner would certainly be charged with cruelty to animals.
And yet most Americans seem to be okay with the fact that the animals they're eating are raised in pathetic conditions, either dismissing this treatment as permissible or inevitable due to the reach of the meat industry.
Why the moral relativity? Quite simply, it's distance. The farther away the problem, the less we feel like we have to do something about it. Even though we're causing it. The average omnivorous American directly brings about the slaughter of 50 animals per year--animals that were raised only to fill a consumer market's need. Although many of us are disgusted by the images we see of slaughterhouses and disapprove of the conditions therein, we continue to eat meat that comes from these places. Because the reality of production is occluded by shiny supermarket packaging and appetizing restaurant presentation, it's easy for us to forget what we're really consuming. Because of the dissociation our capitalist society enables and relies on, we can eat meat without feeling guilty for the mistreatment we know is occurring. And this is cowardly.
A bone to pick
Maybe you've witnessed this scene: someone is eating a hot dog and someone else asks, "Do you know what's in that?" And the other person says something to the effect of, "Can you tell me later? I don't want to think about that now." This always strikes me as strange. If you can't bear even to think about what's in your food, you probably shouldn't be putting it into your mouth. If you're not comfortable with how your meat got to your plate, and how that animal was treated, you probably shouldn't be eating it.
I don't think it's wrong to kill animals for food--but they should be treated with decency while they're alive. And right now, given the commercial scale and financial power of the American Meat Institute, that's just not possible. Even many products that market themselves as "organic" and "free range" aren't significant improvements over industry standards.
But I didn't become vegan as an act of social protest. I don't think my own dietary choices will make a dent in the total production of the meat industry. For me, the choice to be vegan is an issue, first and foremost, of not acting against my personal beliefs. As far as possible, I don't want to be complicit in any cruelty to animals--and practicality and convenience aren't grounds for exception.
It's hard for me to understand why other people don't make the same choices. Because the issue of animal rights is such a sensitive and important one for me, I can understand how it can motivate people to do crazy things. Vegan strip clubs, throwing blood on fur? It almost makes sense. Almost.
GOWRI CHANDRA B'08.5 lobbies for ligers.