If you're anything like me, Christmas decorations going up in shop windows and gift catalogues coming through the door have largely failed to grab your attention, let alone capture your imagination. My own disinterest in the festive season partly stems from the nauseating excesses of our consumerist societies, which seem strangely at odds with the spirit of Christmas. As we lavish heaps of – increasingly uninspired – purchases on family and friends (what can we get them this year?) and indulge in silly amounts of junk food and drink (by the time Christmas comes round, I've long reached the point where I never want to see another mince pie), we stray further from the values of peace, love, compassion and togetherness that should make Christmas a truly special time.
If I'm beginning to sound like a bit of a party pooper, please bear with me as I get to the heart of my objection: the satisfaction of our seemingly insatiable appetite for material gratification comes at the expense of vulnerable others. Some better qualified than myself might tell you about the sweat shop workers that slaved away manufacturing the plastic tat that will briefly amuse our guests before being tossed aside, forgotten about and eventually binned. I'll concentrate on my own area of expertise – the animals that are deprived of everything that might have made their lives worth living, in order to provide cheap entertainment for the revelling human race.
Yet with a little discernment, there are simple things we can do to reconnect with purer values at Christmas time. Here are six examples:
1. Keep foie gras off the menu.
I'm afraid Christmas symbols don't come much more French than this. They also don't come much more violent or compassionless. Foie gras production has been shown to cause such extreme animal suffering (both through brutal force-feeding and severe confinement in barren, unnatural conditions) that 16 countries including the UK have banned its production (though not its import) on animal welfare grounds. And while France continues to be the largest producer of this so-called delicacy, it is using production methods that contravene every bit of EU legislation relating to the treatment of animals.But while the foie gras industry fights tooth and nail to protect this tacit exemption, international consumer pressure is mounting. Major supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsburys and Waitrose, department stores such as House of Fraser and Harvey Nichols, and online retailers such as Amazon UK, have all discontinued the sale of foie gras in response to their customers' animal welfare concerns.
As well as being unethical and unprogressive, foie gras consumption is, frankly, rather odd. Foie gras, which translates as "fatty liver", is essentially diseased liver: when a duck or goose is force-fed, it develops steatosis of the liver. This means that, as it inflates to 10 times its normal size and fat globules form within its cells, the animal's liver degenerates. What a delicacy indeed. "How about a slice of sick duck?" Err, mind if I don't.The arguments are always the same. "But it's a cultural tradition" – well, if we continue to do wrong on the basis that we've being doing wrong a long time, I fear for the progress of our civilisation. "But it tastes so nice" – so nice that our ten minutes of pleasure are worth putting a sentient creature through months of absolute hell? If so, we'd better hope never to find ourselves at the mercy of someone with our standards of compassion or morality.
2. If you must, make that turkey an organic one.
The vast majority of the turkeys that will end up on people's plates at Christmas will have come from factory farms. They will have been raised in filthy sheds containing tens of thousands of birds (an ideal breeding ground for disease – remember the H5N1 outbreak at Bernard Matthews' a few years ago?) and never seen the light of day. They will have had part of their beaks and toes amputated (without any form of anesthesia or analgesia) so that they didn't hurt or kill each other in these stressful overcrowded conditions. They will have suffered from lameness due to intense genetic selection for fast growth and unnatural body weights. And they will have been slaughtered around 12 -26 weeks of age (contrasting with the 10-year natural lifespan of a healthy turkey).
I know, organic meat costs more. But if we need to save a few dollars this Christmas, does it really have to be on the meat, i.e. at the expense of our fellow sentient beings? In all honesty, is there nothing else in our trolley that you could compromise on? Crisps? Chocolate? Fizzy drinks perhaps? Those are certainly not cheap (and they're bad for us anyway). If not organic, perhaps we could go free-range. It's not as good a standard (for example, mutilations are only prohibited in the organic systems), but it's still a step up from industrial.Or we could save ourselves a lot more money, by not buying a turkey at all – because with just a little bit of imagination, you can have a feast without one.
3. Don't send a goat.
If you've already got all you need this Christmas, asking your family and friends to donate to a charity of your choice rather than buy you unnecessary gifts certainly sounds like a wonderfully selfless, loving idea. But before you suggest they have a cow or a goat sent to an African family on your behalf, you may want to think twice. Clever marketing by the likes of Oxfam and Christian Aid may make the schemes appealing, but in terms of their impact both on the animals and on the developing world, these schemes have simply not been thought through.
Sending farm animals to communities in areas which are prone to extreme weather events such as droughts and floods, where veterinary care isn't readily available or affordable, and where food and water are scarce enough without being fed to animals rather than humans, makes little sense. If you want to help feed people, by all means do donate to a crop or water project, but not to a farm animal one: given their inefficient conversion rates, the animals will require more feed and water than they will return in the form of meat or milk, and so they will just cause more hunger and food insecurity.
4. Don't steal coats.
As you hurry down the high street, rushing from shop to shop to avoid the biting cold, what more natural gifts to pick for your loved ones than something for them to wrap up and keep warm in? Please just make sure that, when you buy gloves, scarves, hats, coats or boots, you're not stealing them off someone else's back. I'm not just talking about fur here; in fact I'm essentially thinking of fur trim.
Many people seem to assume that, as ethical standards progress, the trim around cuffs, collars, hoods and boots must be fake. But rabbit fur is frequently used (as you will know if you've read my recent article on industrial rabbit farming), and 90 percent of fur from farmed foxes end up as trim. Domestic cat and dog fur from Asia can also be found on cheaper garments. Needless to say those animals live and die in unimaginable conditions. Confined in bare wire cages, they are unable to express any kind of natural behavior and receive no veterinary care. At the end of their miserable existence, they are killed using such inhumane methods as anal electrocution, or even skinned alive. So once again, do check the label. Or just go fur-free – who wants to look like a caveman anyway.
5. Leave Rudolph alone.
One of my local shops recently started advertising reindeer hides (perhaps people round here do go for the caveman look after all). In a nutshell, these are the issues as documented by investigators: in countries such as Sweden and Finland, hundreds of panic-stricken reindeers are herded into corrals by snow mobiles, motorcycles and helicopters and forced onto lorries for transport to slaughterhouses. During the crowded journey, they suffer injuries as their antlers become entangled and trap their heads against the sides of the vehicles or they accidentally gore each other. Upon reaching their destination, they face inhumane slaughter using methods which contravene Swedish and Finnish legislation.
Go explain that to Father Christmas – "Dear Santa, I'm afraid I've been a bit naughty this year. Basically I paid for someone to skin Rudolph. I'm not sure why I did it. I guess the cave looked a bit bare without fur in it. But, if you've got any spare reindeers, do you think you could visit anyway? There are a few things I really quite fancy this year."
6. Pamper responsibly.
The past two years have brought significant advances in the field of animal testing for cosmetics, with the marketing part of the EU ban coming in (meaning that companies can no longer carry out tests outside the Union and rely on the results for safety assessment inside), India also banning all animal testing for cosmetics, and China ending mandatory animal testing for cosmetics manufactured nationally.But animals continue to be repeatedly subjected to atrocious procedures (involving poisoning, burning and blinding) in American labs, for example – despite non-animal alternatives being available. Some international brands also have inconsistent policies, testing in one region of the world but not another. So when you buy make-up, perfume or other assorted smellies this Christmas, please look for a cruelty-free logo such as the leaping bunny – you'll really be making a difference, because consumer pressure works.
By the way, the same goes for household products. You're probably less likely to end up wrapping toilet cleaner, I know, but don't forget to be picky when it comes to those scented candles.
A shocking amount of suffering is inflicted on animals in the name of our end-of-year celebrations. I've given a few examples; there are more. Let me leave you with one question: would it hurt us so much this Christmas, to hurt others a little less?
I wish you peace, joy and love at Christmas time, and I look forward to bringing you more articles in the New Year.
Hélène O'Donnell, www.heleneodonnell.com