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Conferees Ponder: ‘How Vegan Is Enough?’

Times Staff Writer

There are no easy answers when it comes to insect rights.

That’s what activists attending an Animal Rights Conference on Saturday found out after a short debate over how people treat bugs.

“We’re just walking around on the ground, and they’re very tiny,” said one woman while trying to explain that accidents do happen. It’s a whole other thing, she said, when intent is involved in a squashing.

Talks over ethical conundrums involving animals and their often rocky relationships with humans were common at the conference, which runs through Wednesday at the Westin Hotel near Los Angeles International Airport. It features 130 animal rights groups from across the nation.

The conference’s main goal is to stop the exploitation of animals. Most of the groups are small, and the meeting presented a chance to devise strategies for persuading the masses to treat animals better.

The participants were particularly concerned about the plights of farm animals, laboratory test animals and wildlife.

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Ethical discussions ranged widely. For example, should insects be granted the same rights as a cow, chicken or lab rat?

“The stark reality is, there’s a lot of animal cruelty in the world, and this conference is about strategizing to end it,” said Brian Vincent, 41, a program advocate with the Animal Protection Institute.

“The old aphorism that ignorance is bliss is true” when it comes to animals, he added. “But the more you learn about these issues, the more you’re affected. I could stick my head in the sand, but I wouldn’t feel good about it.”

Booths lining the hotel hallways offered enough graphic literature and videos to turn most people off cheeseburgers or chicken nuggets, at least for a few hours. There were calendars adorned with photos of dead animals, videos showing chickens being slaughtered and pamphlets with gruesome images of dogs being used in medical tests.

The sessions ranged in topics, including “How Vegan is Enough?” “Coping With Law Enforcement” and “My Son or the Rat?”

Products for sale included leather-free high-heel shoes -- sold with a guarantee that they had not been produced in a sweatshop -- and numerous T-shirts with catchy vegan slogans such as, “Corpses are not on my menu.”

Most of the participants were already in the activist movement, so they were mostly preaching to the converted. Nearly everyone in attendance was either a vegetarian or a vegan -- someone who doesn’t eat or use any product made from an animal. But the goal was to persuade others.

“I put this shirt on once a week and just stroll up and down the meat aisle in my local grocery,” said Miriam Vigoa, of Winterhaven, Fla., who was selling organic olive oil.

Her shirt’s message: “Beef: It’s What’s Rotting Your Colon.”

Animal rights activists are used to being called extremists and some embrace the label, even when it’s intended as an insult.

“I am an extremist,” said Karen Davis, 59, of Machipongo, Va., who runs a group called United Poultry Concerns, dedicated to ending the slaughter of chickens. “I am extremely against animal abuse.”

One of the more outspoken participants was Steve Hindi, 48, who owns a factory that makes industrial fasteners in Elburn, Ill., near Chicago.

Raised in Minnesota, Hindi used to hunt and fish. At a pigeon shoot in 1989, Hindi said, he realized he was on the “wrong side.” Within a year, he was an animal activist.

He now runs a group called Showing Animals Respect and Kindness. One of his favorite targets is bullfighting, which he thinks is beyond cruel, and he said he once challenged a matador to fight him instead of the bull. The matador declined.

He spends much of his time outside work driving a truck around the country adorned with four huge video screens that display graphic images of animal abuse. He targets places with a lot of street and pedestrian traffic. Las Vegas is a favorite.

A question at the conference was whether the world is becoming a friendlier place for animals.

Terra Dahl, 26, is a vegan and thinks that times are changing. Her parents were vegetarians. If she has a child, she said, the child will be a vegan.

Dahl is the operations manager for Eco-Animal Allies, of Minneapolis, and rails against the corporations that she believes encourage the industrialization of the food supply.

Still, she marvels at the many “mock” meats now available at many groceries. Burger King has even introduced a veggie burger. Finding organic clothing is not difficult.

“It’s not too late. We just need to speak up,” she said. “So many people do care about the animals, but they just don’t know anything.”


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