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PETA: Vegan options not everything

Published: October 28, 2011
Section: Front Page


The university is again a top contender for the title of “Most-Vegan Friendly College” among all small schools, a title awarded annually by the scholastic arm of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA2. Brandeis placed third in the competition last year, losing to Brown, who in turn lost in the final round to what the organization calls “the team to beat,” Northwestern.

Thus, PETA has given Brandeis reliable vegan—and animal rights—credit before. Its manager of all college campaigns, Ryan Huling, told The Hoot that Brandeis is a top contender this year in the wake of recent, positive progress. The university has expanded its meatless Monday program and, more prominently, moved to an entirely cage-free egg program at a higher cost for students.

The assessment may be at odds with some vegan students who actually eat the food prepared by Dining Services and are most affected by the menu of vegan and vegetarian options available. Some have also taken issue with the methodology of the contest, saying it places too much weight on an online vote on PETA2’s website.

“I think what we have is a good start,” Megan Elsayed ’14 said, but “my main issue with the survey is that it isn’t metrics based.”

Huling of PETA defended his view, saying that the student online vote, while a celebrated part of the contest that all can participate in, “is just one component and is a way that students can make their voices known.”

“But ultimately it comes down to us,” he said. “PETA looks at both the quantity as well as the quality of the vegan and vegetarian options offered on campus,” Huling said. “We contact students and school administration, and relationships students have with dining services is a very important factor.”

According the contest rules on PETA2’s website, the other components of the contest take into account student feedback in the form of contact with the organization, school administration support of vegan issues, and PETA’s own assessment of positive change and activism. In recent years, Huling said, “More and more schools are working on getting ahead of this trend,” and so fine-tuning results for a contest becomes even more important.

The trend Huling refers to is the animal rights cause, which is something many vegans, even if their school could do with some improvement, are sympathetic to as well.

“I even think it can be defined as going past cruelty and into things like socioeconomic or environmental responsibility,” Elsayed said.

PETA believes that “animals are not ours to eat,” and not ours for entertainment, according to their mission statement.

In the contest this year, which will run until a winner is named Nov. 21, Northwestern is again a favorite and the competitive reason is clear. According to PETA, the Northwestern “dining services department reports that between 35 and 55 percent of students select a vegetarian or vegan entree every day.”

Huling stressed though that PETA sees positive change—like that at Brandeis in the last year, as a value. Indeed in Brandeis’ blurb on the contest’s website, the organization lauds Brandeis for “a vibrant streak of progressive activism dating back several decades. Brandeis students are known for setting the bar high and waging high-profile campaigns when their demands aren’t met.”

(In a bit of publicity perhaps negated by this investigation, they also assert that “thankfully for the campus chefs, vegan food is one area where students have nothing but kind words.”)

PETA sees the Brandeis menu as a step toward the positive.

“We’re looking for vegans to be able to have the same choices—strong, savory flavors—and you can finally have more of these on college campuses of today,” Huling said, adding that “more and more students are choosing vegan versus traditional dishes,” perhaps because of a growing sympathy with PETA’s goals.

He also said that by tapping into other movements and types of activism, PETA is expanding the numbers. Pro-environmental protection or “green” activism is perhaps one of the most “in” causes of the current college generation, and Huling said that pro-animal policies are also “good for the environment, and come to institutions [that] are putting a higher priority now on sustainability.”

According to Huling, “many of the same companies that are hostile to animal rights are these same ones both destroying the environment and even the one treating their workers abysmally—often they go hand in hand.” In this way the animal-rights cause can co-opt labor movements as well.

On college campuses, PETA also looks at the issues of dissection in science and medical research and other ways that colleges interact with animals. Huling happily regaled an anecdote from the University of Michigan where students rallied to remove a tradition of bringing a circus—with trained animals either in cages or performing stunts—to school, which successfully helped ban the entertainment.

“Schools don’t revisit the core issue until students press them on it,” Huling admitted, which is the point of this core issue to PETA. While PETA makes use of other causes like labor or the environment and sells its policies to schools when a fiscal advantage argument can be made, his organization sees these as incidental steps to try and diminish animal cruelty regardless of method.

To PETA members the issue is a moral, philosophical decision to combat cruelty, barbarism and destruction of life. Not eating meat is only the easiest step to take in a moral lifestyle shift.

“It takes 16 pounds of grain to feed a cow enough to produce one pound of meat and, even if people aren’t performing acts themselves, they’re often paying someone to do it for them,” Huling said.

PETA would have all animal uses, from food and agriculture to medical research, disbanded on the view that all animals are capable of feeling pain. It calls the use of animals for food not only unsustainable, wasteful and fiscally unsound—arguments that are at times not wholly supportable—but more importantly, simply wrong. Even if the current, consensus system of eating meat and using animals for human progress were cheaper, sustainable and more efficient, the moral issue trumps, according to PETA.

Huling was asked at the conclusion of the interview if he supported PETA’s recent spectacle of a lawsuit against Seaworld for its treatment of the orcas who famously perform there. The suit, the latest in a history of famous suits by PETA, claims that Seaworld is “violating the 13th Amendment to the Constitution’s prohibition against slavery.” PETA claims that because the article does not specifically hold illegal slavery to persons, Seaworld is violating the law of the land against involuntary servitude.

Huling proudly defended the quixotic claim: “It should be tried; these animals are kept in terrible conditions. And by any natural definition, the animals at Seaworld are slaves.”