It’s around 3 a.m. in Natalie Bogwalker’s small home at her Weaverville permaculture school, Wild Abundance. She’s just gotten her infant daughter back to sleep after being awakened by a phone call when suddenly the phone rings again.
This time the number has a Washington state area code, so Bogwalker picks up. Her family is from that part of the country — it could be an emergency. Instead, it’s just another death threat.
“It’s always something about how my throat should be slit, or that I’m a murderer, or I’m going to hell,” she says. “The local activists have been fairly civil, but there are people calling from all over the world who have been a lot more militant. They are threatening my daughter.”
This fall, vegan activists assailed Bogwalker and fellow Wild Abundance instructor Meredith Leigh with emails, telephone calls and social media messages expressing ire over the school’s early November Cycles of Life home butchering class. In the annual workshop, the instructors slaughter two sheep to demonstrate proper butchering and meat preservation techniques, then put every part of the animal to use.
Starting with the 2016 class, opponents condemned the killing of the sheep with communication ranging from urgent pleas to violent threats to Bogwalker and Leigh as well as their family members and property. One message this fall to Bogwalker read, “I reported you to child welfare for child endangerment for the cruel acts you commit, and they have numerous complaints and have opened a file for you for cruelty to animals in front of children.”
Wild Abundance employs about 15 teachers leading courses and apprenticeships on sustainability topics such as foraging, permaculture and homebuilding. The school also hosts the annual Firefly Gathering — the country’s largest permaculture and primitive skills festival. Profits from the Cycles of Life class, which typically hosts 15 participants, are donated to Earth Justice, an environmental activism organization that hires lawyers to defend environmental protesters.
Leading the campaign
Last year, protest efforts against Cycles of Life were led by the Let Live Coalition. This year’s campaign was spearheaded by the Animal Liberation Front. Both organizations connected with a global network of protesters and made public the contact information for teachers and staff from the school.
A Facebook movement opposing the class called Stop Wild Abundance garnered more than 400 followers, and a petition on Care2.com called for shutting the school down entirely. But Leigh and Bogwalker say the buzz from the protests had the unintended effect of drawing more attention to the Cycles of Life program and increasing attendance.
The ALF was founded in the United Kingdom in 1976 by Ronnie Lee and since then has spread to over 40 countries. As a decentralized movement, there is no formal hierarchy. “Any group of people who are vegetarians or vegans and who carry out actions according to ALF guidelines have the right to regard themselves as part of the ALF,” the organization’s website says.
ALF guidelines are to inflict economic damage on those who profit from the misery and exploitation of animals; liberate animals from places of abuse; expose the atrocities committed against animals behind locked doors; and take all necessary precautions to prevent harm to animals, both human and nonhuman. A manifesto on the Animal Liberation Press’ webpage states that “total liberation will not be achieved with veganism alone but coupled with an uncompromising determination for freedom through the complete destruction of civilization.” That article also includes a defense of the use of violence.
Jerry Vlasak is a former trauma surgeon turned activist and a founding officer for the ALF’s Animal Liberation Press Office, which has an office in Asheville on Merrimon Avenue. The ALPO also has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Michigan and Istanbul. “These people aren’t vandals or criminals out there breaking the law for no good reason,” he says of ALF activists. “These are people with well-thought-out ideologies, and their side of the story deserves to be heard.”
The ALF was listed as a terrorist threat by the Department of Homeland Security in 2005, following a 2004 report by FBI Deputy Assistant Director John Lewis, who testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that estimated damage by such groups number around 1,100 criminal acts, including bombings and arson in the United States. Capital damage was around $110 million.
According to The Guardian, Vlasak himself was barred from entering the United Kingdom in 2004 following controversial statements he reportedly made endorsing the assassination of scientists. Vlasak says the ban was unrelated to those remarks, but was linked to his attempts to meet with representatives from major pharmaceutical companies regarding their connections to Huntingdon Life Sciences, which he describes as a “notorious animal testing company.” He can be seen in a 2005 “60 Minutes” interview defending bombings, arson and assassination.
For both the ALF and its sister organization, the Earth Liberation Front, a common means of economic sabotage is arson. Vlasak justifies this approach by specifying that ALF workers “take precautions to make sure that no one is harmed” and references a New Mexico horse-slaughter facility that was burned down in 2013 and never rebuilt. “So there is no evidence that it doesn’t work,” he says. “We don’t consider it extreme. What we consider extreme is that someone would take perfectly healthy animals and murder them.”
Vlasak takes issue with Wild Abundance for profiting from the death of animals. “They’ve admitted to being former vegans, but that they found a better way to make money by charging people to come and watch them kill animals,” he says. “The bottom line is that people who hurt animals need to be stopped by any means necessary, and the ALF is willing to use tactics such as economic sabotage — including arson — to stop these people, and we support that 100 percent.”
Leigh, a former vegan who is also a veteran farmer and author of the Ethical Meat Handbook, sees great value in teaching home butchering skills. “People who take the Cycles of Life class really want to understand where their meat comes from, and they want to take apart the whole process because they believe that if they are going to eat an animal, they need to understand how the death happens, how the butchering happens and how the animal is used,” she says. “I think they want to know that because they are aware that, in general, this has not been a process with integrity in America. So they need to figure out if it can be done in a way that they agree with.”
But Vlasak isn’t buying it. “The message they are sending is that it is OK to eat meat, and that is why they are teaching you how to do that,” he says. “They are teaching a select few privileged individuals that happen to own enough land to raise their own animals and happen to have enough money to pay them to show them how to do it.”
Bogwalker notes that only a quarter of the students in this year’s program were landowners. “The rest are people who want to know what goes into eating meat and take responsibility for their choice to eat meat,” she says. “In fact, buying a whole animal yourself and butchering it can save a lot of money. This makes high-quality ethical meat more accessible to people who have these DIY skills.” The class is offered on a sliding tuition scale of $200-$500.
On Nov. 4, the sheep were slaughtered and skinned. Students learned how to process their bodies and make charcuterie. “One student told me that since the class, he has been feeling a loss [of appetite] for meat, which is good — it is good for people to be able to make their own decisions like that,” says Bogwalker, noting that it’s not uncommon for students to give up meat after experiencing the slaughter.
Despite all the threats, the protests were mostly confined to the internet. Rallies were planned for Pack Square Park, but those drew only about a dozen activists with signs. Bogwalker’s partner, Frank Salzano, attended one of the Pack Square gatherings with a handful of friends. “We just wanted to have a conversation and let them know that we are listening to them,” he says, echoing Bogwalker’s observation that, for the most part, the local protesters “have been pretty civil.”
Bogwalker notes an offer from local animal rights organizer Jeremy Sagaribay to donate 200 hours of work trade to the school in exchange for releasing one of the sheep to a sanctuary. “I was very impressed by that passion, but part of me was puzzled by the fact that there are thousands of animals raised for meat,” she says. (North Carolina is home to Smithfield Foods Inc., the largest slaughter facility in the world, which processes over 27 million hogs every year.) “I found his offer very sweet and heartfelt. But those sheep would be butchered whether we have a class or not — that meat feeds our family all winter.”
She also adds that Wild Abundance’s assistant director, Emily Bell, has received some encouraging messages. “She’s been getting a lot of emails from vegans in support of what we are doing, saying that if people are going to eat meat, this is how it should be done,” she says.
Wild Abundance doesn’t have a strategy in place at this point for how to deal with potential strife surrounding the 2018 Cycles of Life program, aside from looking into possible legal avenues. But Bogwalker says, in spite of all the hoopla, this class is just one part of the bigger picture. “We’re just a school that teaches natural building and permaculture, and this is just one small piece of what we do.”