THE BLOG
12/23/2014 10:39 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Have Yourself a Cruelty-free Christmas

Peace on earth, "Goodwill to Men" - and women, we would hasten to add. But what about animals? Christmas is a time of year when we celebrate the gift of life, of our sense of oneness and fellowship. So what would it do to your celebration if you knew that gathered round the tree and the table were the artifacts of intense and needless suffering and cruelty? You would avoid this if at all possible, wouldn't you? You would not turn a blind eye.

I interviewed author Mark Hawthorne, a passionate advocate for the compassionate treatment of animals as living beings. Hawthorne believes that most people would choose to avoid being needlessly cruel to animals, and he has written a book so that the average person can be well informed about these issues, Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering. Here's Hawthorne's advice for a cruelty-free Christmas:

Question: Bleating Hearts brings to our attention many areas where we don't often think about animal suffering. What are some of the unexpected places we should be watchful for around Christmas time?

Hawthorne: This is one of those times of the year that parents misguidedly give their children small animals -- often buying them from pet stores. I am all for having companion animals, but first make sure your family is ready for the responsibility, and if you're bringing home a rabbit, educate yourself about them; they are more work than a dog or cat and can live 10 years or more. Too many rabbits end up getting dumped at shelters or, worse yet, in parks, where they will not survive. If you do end up getting an animal, please adopt, don't shop.
Question: Could you provide a short list of kinds of gifts to avoid, because they use animals in ways that create suffering?

Hawthorne: Anything made from leather (including purses, wallets, and expensive books), wool, fur, or silk caused suffering. I would suggest not even buying faux fur, even if it's labeled as such, unless you are absolutely certain it is not real; there are many "faux fur" products made from animals. If you're buying someone perfume, cologne, or cosmetics, make sure it wasn't tested on animals (visit www.leapingbunny.org). I would also encourage people not to give farmed animals, like goats and pigs, via charitable organizations such as Oxfam and Heifer International. Helping a family in a developing nation is a wonderful gift, but you can do so without exploiting animals. Vegfam, Feed More International, and Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, for example, help relieve humane suffering without exploiting animals.
Question: On the Christmas table, what would you say are the foods most to be avoided - especially foods that we might not consider harm animals?

Hawthorne: As an ethical vegan, I avoid anything that comes from an animal or insect, which means no animal flesh, dairy, eggs, or honey. But there are many foods we often don't make that connection with. Marshmallows and Jell-O, for example, are made with gelatin, which comes from bones and hooves. And we sometimes forget that desserts are often made from eggs, milk, or butter. Many people don't consider eggs and dairy products to be harmful to animals, but there is actually more suffering in these industries. Also, most people don't realize that wine and beer are often produced with animal products, especially in the clarifying process. Fortunately, plant-based alternatives are available for all these foods, and there are plenty of vegan beers and wines (check www.barnivore.com), so making compassion the centerpiece of your holiday is easier than ever these days.

Question: What about only eating animal products from farms where they have been sustainably and humanely raised?

Hawthorne: This is a hot topic these days, and it's one of those "solutions" meant to minimize the guilt of compassionate consumers. Many people who are understandably disgusted by factory farming practices are turning to non-industrial sources for their meat, eggs, and dairy products. These alternatives typically come from small farms using such marketing labels as "free range," "cage free," or even "humane." But the reality is even small systems unavoidably involve animal suffering. A lot of the cruelty has been built right into the animal: chickens raised on pastures, for instance, have been bred to grow at an abnormally fast rate, leading to crippling leg injuries and heart failure, and cows used in the organic dairy industry -- just like those in large-scale farms -- have been so relentlessly manipulated for maximum milk production that their udders become infected, yet cows on organic dairies may not receive antibiotics to ease their suffering. Moreover, these cows are still impregnated and their babies are taken away at birth so humans can steal their milk.

Chickens in the egg industry, meanwhile, don't fare any better. "Cage free" eggs, for example, usually come from thousands of hens who are crowded into large, filthy sheds with no access to sunshine or fresh air. And whatever the label may say, male chicks are deemed useless to the egg industry, so millions of them are ground up or otherwise disposed of like garbage every year.
No matter how "humanely" they are raised, nearly all animals killed for food end up transported in cramped trucks to exactly the same slaughterhouses used by factory farms, where they are hung upside down and their throats are cut, often while they are fully conscious and fighting to escape. They die kicking and screaming. All these animals want to live, and there is nothing humane about their deaths.

Question: Are there gifts you can think of that animal activists could give to others that could encourage them to engage the issue more thoughtfully?

Hawthorne: Books and documentaries make wonderful gifts and allow family and friends to absorb the information at their own pace. Recent documentaries I'd recommend include Cowspiracy, which links meat consumption to the destruction of the environment; The Ghosts in Our Machine, which explores animal issues through the lens of activist and photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur; and Forks Over Knives and Live and Let Live, both of which are about veganism and health. Many of the horrible realities of the animal captivity industry are examined in Blackfish and The Cove.

A gift I wish I could give everyone, especially to non-vegans, would be a tour of a sanctuary for farmed animals. These sanctuaries have become popular around the country, and many of them are open to the public on a limited basis. These are not petting zoos; rather, they teach people about the lives of cows, chickens, pigs, rabbits, and other animals who have been rescued from the meat, egg, and dairy industries. Treat someone to one of these tours and you may be amazed how it impacts them.

And, of course, I think Bleating Hearts does a good job of presenting all the issues, from factory farming to animals used for entertainment.

Question: Finally, do you have any advice for those seeking to promote animal welfare at Christmas time with their friends and family that could start a conversation, but not a fight?

Hawthorne: Like many holidays, Christmas is a time for family and friends to gather around the dinner table, and our eating habits are loaded with cultural traditions. I don't recommend this as the ideal time to bring up animal welfare, since people can be really defensive when they're eating animals. Of course, be truthful if someone asks about your ethics.

Bringing a vegan dish to a gathering is one way to casually broach the topic (and ensure you have something to eat). If you enjoy baking, you can make vegan cookies or other treats and present them along with the recipe and a little note explaining they are free of animal ingredients because you don't want to support any animal suffering. You can do this even if you don't enjoy baking. Many stores these days sell vegan baked goods.

My own recommendation for the best gift you could place beneath the tree this year would be Hawthorne's Bleating Hearts. Wishing you a Merry -- and a cruelty-free -- Christmas, from Tim Ward

Mark Hawthorne is the author of Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering, which examines the many ways humans exploit nonhumans, and Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism (both from Changemakers Books), which empowers people around the world to get active for animals. He blogs about activism on his website, and you'll find him tweeting @markhawthorne. Check out his author page on Facebook.

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