On Nov. 14, local writer, butcher and farmer Meredith Leigh published an article titled “Vegan Bullying and the New World ” to her blog. It was a reaction to a week’s worth of emails and phone calls from vegan activists protesting her involvement with Barnardsville-based permaculture school Wild Abundance .
Run by Natalie Bogwalker and Emily Bell, Wild Abundance teaches everything from foraging and cooking to natural building and primitive skills, including the object of the activists’ concern — the weekend workshop on animal slaughter techniques, which took place Nov. 19-20. Cycles of Life: Humane Slaughter and Butchering, a course offered periodically by the school, is aimed at instructing homesteaders on the proper techniques for slaughtering and butchering their own animals for consumption.
“I have been avoiding the militant vegan rhetoric for a decade or more,” Leigh writes in her blog. “As of today, that has changed.” Her reaction stems from a campaign by the Let Live Coalition, an Asheville-based organization set on convincing Wild Abundance and Leigh, a former vegan and the author of the Ethical Meat Handbook, to stop educating homesteaders on slaughter techniques.
In a Nov. 19 press release distributed by Let Live, Adam Sugalski, executive director of One Protest — a national protest organization contracted by Let Live — says, “We’re deeply disturbed by the DIY animal slaughter and butchering class at Wild Abundance and appalled by Wild Abundance’s effort to put an ethical and ‘sacred’ spin on for-profit, gruesome backyard slaughter for inexperienced hobbyists.”
Bogwalker takes issue with the rhetoric of Let Live, particularly the phrase “inexperienced hobbyists.” The Cycles of Life course, she says, is intended to educate small-scale farmers and homesteaders about the realities of producing meat. “What we are doing with this class is actually showing people how to expertly and confidently butcher animals themselves, so that they can do so on their own self-sufficient farmstead,” she says, “and so they can make an informed decision as to whether they do want to continue eating meat in the first place after seeing what goes into the process.”
Through email chains, social media and a series of updates to the Let Live webpage, Let Live and One Protest worked to organize a protest at the site of the Wild Abundance school, a small group of cabins in the hills of Barnardsville. Through a petition at change.org, Let Live acquired more than 9,000 signatures from around the world (that number has since risen to more than 11,400) in support of its request that the school cancel the class and release the two sheep intended for slaughter to a sanctuary. The planned protest was later canceled in favor of a candlelight vigil that was held Nov. 19 at the Vance Monument.
Bogwalker says the group also published both her and Leigh’s personal cellphone numbers and email addresses, which also function as their business contacts. The release of that information, says Bogwalker, resulted in dozens of emails and phone calls from people opposing the workshop to both women, many of which they claim were profanity-laden, some sexually suggestive and others threatening assault. “I just got a phone call this morning,” says Bogwalker holding, her 4-week-old baby. “They called me a whore and said that they couldn’t believe that I’d bring a child into this world.”
On Nov. 19, the first day of the class and the planned protest, Bogwalker gathered with a dozen or so friends, counterprotesters and supporters in the small cabin at her farm. “That’s what is disturbing to me with these protesters,” says Bogwalker, “is this mob mentality and outright fundamentalism. For folks who are supposedly environmentalists to be choosing to expend their efforts on us — who are really focused on doing good things in the world and bringing permaculture into the mainstream and focusing on how to create closed systems that are truly sustainable and reduce factory farming — it’s just really frustrating.”
The Let Live Coalition brought in Chapel Hill animal rights activist Justin Van Kleeck to offer a presentation on the “Myth of Ethical Meat” at a discussion the group scheduled at The BLOCK Off Biltmore following the candlelight vigil the night of the Cycles of Life class. “It’s hard when you do an online campaign like this,” says Van Kleeck of the harassment Bogwalker and Leigh say they experienced, “because it is nearly impossible to control what people do with the material. So whatever violent threats may have been made, that wasn’t anyone involved with the coalition at all.”
Van Kleeck says Let Live did not purposely publicize Leigh’s and Bogwalker’s personal contact information. “We published what was available online. It’s a public business, so it is no different than if you were not happy with your service at a restaurant,” he says. “We were reaching out to these places as businesses, asking them to change their mind about the class, and the online petition was just to show that there are other people out there that want them to change their minds. I don’t know who was threatening them, but that is not OK. That is not anything that I would ever support, nor would I support harassing someone at home.”
A Nov. 15 Facebook post from Let Live backs this up: “Wild Abundance, whose ‘sacred and humane’ do-it-yourself slaughter classes are the subject of our first campaign and protest, is telling their supporters that we have threatened them. We would like to clarify that we have done no such thing. Our posts have ALWAYS asked people to POLITELY and respectfully contact the PUBLICLY listed company phone numbers and emails.”
Let Live organizer Leanne Johnson says the group reprinted the fliers intended for distribution at the Nov. 19 vigil, removing direct references to Wild Abundance, Leigh and Bogwalker. The old batch, she says, was destroyed, but one card that was offered at the follow-up discussion and presentation at The BLOCK still featured both contacts. Johnson says it must have been one of the old fliers that slipped through.
“The owner of Wild Abundance is also exploiting her status as the mother of a newborn to deceptively harness sympathy and deflect attention from the actual victims in this situation: the (now 2) defenseless sheep who will have their throats sliced open this weekend,” the group’s Facebook post continues. “The animals are the real victims. The real bullies are the ones using deception, using their own newborn child as a weapon of deflection and now threatening to kill a second sheep. How ethical and honorable. While obviously we and others feel strongly about their actions, we regret that anyone has contacted them in inappropriate ways, and we condemn in the highest terms the use of abusive or threatening language.”
Leigh says one of the emails she received said, “I should slit your throat the way you do to the lambs.” Another one was “threatening to beat me with a ham. The bulk of it isn’t the threat of physical violence, but a lot of it saying, ‘You’re going to burn in hell. You are obviously a horrible person. There is no redemption for your pitiful soul,’ kind of stuff. And some of them just ask me to sit down and think about this. … As though I haven’t spent 15-20 years thinking about this day in and day out — it’s my job. Even the ones that aren’t violent or threatening, it’s still harassment.”
Leigh eventually bowed out of the slaughter, leaving it to an undisclosed expert to carry it out in her stead, but she still taught a class on the second day of the workshop. “I’m just not in the right head space to do it,” she said before the event of her decision not to lead the slaughter demonstration. “I’d be doing it for the wrong reasons.”
Leigh shifted her own eating habits and the focus of her work from veganism several years ago in hopes of fostering a culture that is no longer dependent on factory farming for its meat production. “All of my education is based on the fact that I used to be a vegan, and I understand that choice. And that it is an important choice, and we need people to make that choice in order to inform positive change,” Leigh says. “But I honestly don’t know anyone in the ethical meat community that is making more room for the vegan choice than me right now. So it is fascinating that me speaking my truth about ethical meat is more of a threat to them than factory farming.”
“Whether or not there is one pig dying or a thousand, it’s still about animals being killed, and that is what is wrong with it,” says Van Kleeck, who has been a vegan activist for 18 years. “It’s not wrong because we kill so many of them, it is wrong because we kill individuals. We’re not saying that factory farming is OK, and small-scale farming is terrible. We’re saying that we all know factory farming is terrible, but let us help you understand why small-scale farming is a problem too.”
North Carolina is home to the largest animal processing facility in the world. Smithfield Packing Co., based in Tarheel, processes nearly 27 million hogs annually and slaughters over 114,300 per day. A 2010 report by the Humane Society of the United States cites animal welfare concerns with the Chinese-owned company, which had also experienced a labor strike in 2006, according to the Associated Press. North Carolina produces 9.87 billion pounds of livestock per year according to USA Today, making up 7.5 percent of the more than 50 billion animals slaughtered annually in the United States. In the Old North State, the business of slaughter employs nearly 31,420 people.
Also according to USA Today, the average American eats 265 pounds of meat per year. Homesteaders who use whole animals will understandably consume less than the average. A major driver among much of the whole-animal movement is the fact that factory farming unnecessarily slaughters animals for luxury cuts. There is only one tenderloin in each pig, so when that cut becomes trendy, a lot of pork chops and trotters go to waste to supply the buzz cut.
“When one buys food from a restaurant or the store, even the health food store or local co-op, there is a massive amount waste that results,” notes Bogwalker. “I know this because I have worked in the food industry. This is a big part of why I am such a fan of close-looped, self-sufficient farming.”
“There is a difference, but it is mostly about aesthetics,” insists Van Kleeck, when asked about why he believes factory farming and homesteads are guilty of the same sins. He often uses the term “person” when describing a chicken, rooster or pig. “The conditions that they live in are different, but at the end of the day, that animal is still being killed and that they don’t want to die.”
He contends that the bulk of the money spent on animal activism is aimed at factory farming. “There’s a need for that conversation to happen. People don’t need a lot of talking to understand why factory farming is bad, but it’s a lot harder to understand why chickens out in the field are still bad,” says Van Kleeck. “If you can help someone understand why raising an animal on a small farm in order to kill it is bad, then you don’t even have to talk to them about factory farming because that is purely about conditions. Conditions are not the core of the problem, conditions are just a part of it. But that’s not what matters when it comes to the fact that we shouldn’t use animals for food.”
In the end, the Cycles of Life class continued uninterrupted in an alternate location. Two sheep were slaughtered, drained, quartered and separated by over a dozen students, some locals and some from far away. A host of friends of the school, including Cherokee community leader Yona FrenchHawk — there to contest Let Live’s insistence that the death of an animal could not be sacred — kept Bogwalker’s boyfriend and newborn baby company while she taught the course. At the Vance Monument downtown, about a dozen protesters waved signs and held candles at the vigil for the slaughtered animals, and Van Kleeck gave his speech to a room of 15 or 20 people.
Let Live plans to continue its work but in a broader sense. “As things wind up with this specific campaign, our plan is to turn the Let Live website into an education and advocacy resource that provides greater information on the harm of do-it-yourself, backyard slaughter more generally,” Johnson said in an emailed statement. However, the fact that the group has bought the domain name wildabundance.org and routed it to the Let Live webpage is an investment that suggests its fight with the small school is not finished.
“I applaud Wild Abundance on all the classes that they do on foraging and permaculture,” says Van Kleeck, who insists on a zero-tolerance policy for the killing of any animal. “I would love to take those classes. But animal slaughter doesn’t have to be a part of that. I am on the same wavelength with them except when it comes to that because I don’t believe that it is either ethical or sustainable.”