Photo: Adobe Stock

Twice they gathered on the North Fork these past few months, carrying signs with provocative slogans: “IS THERE A HUMANE WAY TO KILL SOMEONE?” and “MEAT IS MURDER,” and “ANIMALS ARE NOT OURS TO EAT.” Animal rights groups used social media to organize these peaceful protests in Aquebogue and Calverton. They argued that dairy cows are cruelly used as breeding and milking machines, and that Thanksgiving turkeys deserve a reason to give their own thanks.

The first of these protests happened early last summer; then again just before this past Thanksgiving week. Hamptons Vegan, LI Animal Save, with guidance from People for the Ethical Treatment if Animals and other groups, believed quite inaccurately that animals are being mistreated at a North Fork dairy farm. And outside a local turkey farm, they charged that animals were “kept prisoner” their entire lives, only to be “brutally slaughtered.“

Among other things, these episodes illustrate how social media are unconcerned about detail, or even truth. These activists stirred up their followers on the internet by wrongly targeting two local family farms.

In fact, these particular farms stand out for their excellent and humane farming practices. But does that mean the animal rights advocates’ message, from a broader and more general view, lacks merit altogether? Is there something about the killing of sentient animals for food that we choose to overlook?

At the risk of oversimplification, the contention of animal rights advocates is that the vegetarian (and vegan) diet is not only the humane, but also the healthier alternative to meat-eating. So let’s examine each, starting with the controversial position that meat in the diet leads to poor health.

The Smithsonian Institute records that the Plains Indians lived on buffalo — and yet they had the highest number of centenarians in history. On the other hand, the U.S. Census tells us that Seventh Day Adventists, vegetarians all, are among the planet’s longest-lived people. Can this apparent contradiction be explained?

According to the National Institutes of Health’s AARP Diet and Health Study, recently published, there is a correlation of meat with heart disease, cancer and death.

But a persuasive critique of that AARP study emerged from the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, and its respected head of strategy and innovation, Dr. Mark Hyman. On his website, joined by other scientists, he described the meat-eaters used in that study as themselves “very unhealthy,” who “weighed more, consumed 800 more calories per day, exercised less, ate more sugar, drank more alcohol, took fewer vitamins and ate less fruits and vegetables.”

That AARP study, and other studies about meat-eating, have failed to refute what continues to be the hallmark research project on the issue: a 1996 study published in the British Medical Journal of 11,000 people over a period of 17 years. Fifty-seven percent were omnivores (meat, fruit and vegetable eaters, as most of us are), while 43 percent were vegetarians.

Both groups were health-conscious. Both groups had reduced death rates by over half the general population. The scientists’ conclusion: for the vegetarians, no particular health benefits were found, and for meat-eaters, there was no increased risk for heart disease, cancer or death.

Research has also shown, however, that a vegan diet cannot substitute certain, important nutrients only available from animal products. Consider just one: collagen protein, which our bodies no longer produce for us by the time we reach our 30s. Collagen cannot be found in plants; rather it is found in chicken/bone broth, eggshell membrane, and bovine and fish collagen.

According to their website, AncientNutrition.com, and their respected book, “The Collagen Makeover,” by Josh Axe and Jordan Rubin, there are several types of collagen that are essential to: skin health; connective tissue such as joints; tissues surrounding the liver, lungs, arteries, and within bone marrow and lymph nodes; tissues in the digestive system, respiratory tract, kidneys and heart; hair, articular cartilage, even the placenta in pregnant women. In this and several other respects, a vegan diet is by and large insufficient.

But the second part of the animal rights argument is a tough one indeed. Science has swept away virtually all the myths that were once so widely embraced by earlier scientists and authors, teachers, even organized religions: that animals don’t really feel emotion or even pain. Recall as well the now debunked notion that animals cannot have thoughts or memories except for rudimentary training. Even the belief that animals are color bind has recently been shown to be ridiculous.

As these myths and fables about “dumb” animals fade away, careful research has convincingly filled the void. National Geographic is replete with such stories as the humpback whales who rescued seals from hunting killer whales, and elephants who built a cage of sticks for a lost, blind woman as nighttime refuge from hyenas until she was found the next day. These kinds of things have been going on for millions of years.

In Carl Sefine’s amazing book that has been met with rave reviews, “Beyond Words: What Animals Think & Feel,” we see how new discoveries about the brain are breaking down barriers between us and animals. He tells of their thought processes, emotions and social connections. We learn the truth of how animals sense so well all that goes on around them, much more than we humans. Our senses have dulled with thousands of years of civilization and settled living.

Animals’ lives follow a pattern of a career, as do ours. They try to stay alive, get food and shelter, and raise young for the next generation. They, too, have the fight or flight, and curiosity syndrome.

Even birds will bond, play, act frightened when in danger, and relax when all seems OK. Animals clearly have the conscious, with their mental experience of play, sleep, fear and love. They may not speak in full sentences, but they communicate constantly. They know who they are, who their friends and rivals are. They have ambition for higher status, and they eagerly compete.

So advocates such as PETA ought not be dismissed. They have saved many suffering animals from misery. In India, donkeys are forced to haul backbreaking loads of bricks, often beaten and poorly fed. PETA persuaded brick kiln owners to replace donkeys with mini-tractors and pledge no longer to use animals for work. Thus were 76 donkeys moved to a sanctuary where they frolic with other rescued residents.

Then there’s Harley, an emaciated hen left abandoned near an NYC live animal market. After her PETA recovery, her rescuers adopted her, and rave about her charming ways about the house as she perches on their shoulders. She even rushes when the doorbell rings to meet a new arrival with a noticeably cheerful welcome. They say she rules the roost.

So let’s close with an amateur YouTube video. Surely it will discard any lingering doubt that animals are special, unique beings in their own right.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg