Category Archives: More than human world

text for “6 Minute Speech Project” Rio+20: end factory farming

I made a video for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20. It will be part of “The 6-Minute Speech Project“, a unique speech built by people from all over the world through the power of social media which will be delivered at Rio+20 later in June.

Here’s the text of my video:

Hello my name is Julie Comber. I’m a singer-songwriter, activist, dancer, capoeirista, writer, Dreamer, and PhD candidate in environmental education. But more than anything else, I’m just someone who cares deeply about the world, and I truly hope that I can contribute to making this world a better place. Our World is so beautiful. But there is so much suffering and injustice, and the destruction of our natural world seems relentless.

So I felt compelled to share my thoughts for the 6 minute Speech project for the UN’s Rio+20 about “The Future We Want”. I will just quickly situate myself so you know where I’m coming from. First of all, I wish to acknowledge that I have created this video in Ottawa, Canada which is on unceeded, unconquered and unsurrendered Algonquin Land. I have lived in Canada, Guyana, Australia, and Tanzania, and traveled through Europe and the Caribbean. My background is in zoology, genetics, bioethics, and animal welfare, and my current research is on Wildlife Clubs in Guyana with the Makushi, one of the indigenous tribes there.

There are so many issues we need to work on, but I will focus on an important issue I feel is still neglected: factory farming. Also called intensive livestock farming or intensive animal production. This is an issue that I first found out about when I was 15 years old, right at the time of the first Rio Summit. I was a kid who loved animals, and not just cats and dogs, I had a lot of experience caring for horses, rats, and cockatiels, too. So someone gave me a book about animal welfare and that’s how I found out about factory farming. I was shocked. I couldn’t understand how humans could treat nonhuman animals so horribly. And I knew immediately that there was no morally relevant difference between a horse and a cow, a dog and pig, or a cockatiel and a chicken. So why was our society allowing so many millions of these animals to suffer? And what does that say about us as human beings?

Over the past 20 years, I’ve come to understand this really is a crosscutting and essential issue for us to deal with as a species. Factory farms are not only horrible for the animals that are raised within them, they have a huge impact on our environment and a terrible impact on human health and well-being. The numbers are truly appalling, and I think many of us numb out or tune out. We humans don’t seem to be very good at responding appropriately and compassionately to large numbers of “others” that do not seem close to us, to our daily life and family. As Stalin said, one death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic. When we hear of one animal, one cow escaping from the slaughterhouse, for example, most people cheer.  But the fact that 9 billion chickens are raised and killed for meat each year in the U.S. alone, is not discussed. 112 million pigs are killed in the US each year. And the list goes on and on.  So worldwide, billions of animals are raised in horrendous conditions and then don’t even get a good death. And we don’t do enough about it. So I’ll move on to ideas about how to eliminate factory farms.

Ten years after the Rio Summit I was doing my Master’s in bioethics and my interest was in the HIV AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. It just so happened that Dr. Solomon Benatar, a doctor and AIDS activist from South Africa, came to McGill University, and he gave an incredible talk and was a guest at one of our classes. I’ll never forget one of the things he said, which was directed at those of us in the West, in Developed Countries: “We have to stop living our privileged existence based on the suffering of unseen others.”  He was speaking about the social and economic inequality that fuels the HIV pandemic. But I could see how his comment applied to so many other problems in our world. Especially to factory farming.

But a positive way to look at this is that when we truly see and appreciate “Others”, then we can heal ourselves and the World. When I say “Others” I don’t just mean other humans. I mean other species, too. We are not fully human except in relation to other species. Animals, plants, bacteria, all forms of life have a distinct and unique way of being in this world. Through appreciating them, spending time with them, we expand the realm of possibility for ourselves.

There certainly is scarcity of some natural resources, but one human resource that seems scarce is actually completely renewable, and inexhaustible: empathy.  Empathy and compassion for our fellow humans and for all other species. I had the privilege of meeting Jane Goodall in Tanzania 15 years after the Rio Summit. And what really struck me about her is that she has a warm heart and a sharp mind. She also has a very strong sense of purpose, of what she is trying to achieve with her life. She embodies the characteristics that we are trying to nurture within children through humane education. By humane education I mean the broad definition which emphasizes the interconnectedness of social justice, the environment, and animal welfare.

So I think if we really do want to have a future that is fair, and beautiful and joyful, and where everyone can flourish to his or her full potential, then we need to get very clear as individuals and collectively as communities and societies about what is our purpose. Why are you here? What is the Gift that you want to give the World? And when you know that, then every day it’s a matter of seeing if your actions are aligned with your purpose and your values.

But I also don’t want to get stuck thinking that it’s just an individual’s responsibility. Our societies, especially in the West, are currently structured so it’s very difficult for individuals to make the choices that are better for themselves, other species, and out Planet. For example here in Canada $1.4 billion of our tax payer’s money subsidizes the already rich oil and gas companies. Imagine what we could do with $1.4 billion! We could invest in children and youth, in green jobs, in honoring our Treaties with our indigenous peoples. There are so many possibilities that would better reflect our values as Canadians. That is just one small example, well, 1.4 Billion is pretty big! But one example of how our collective decision making is so off—base.

So in closing, one thing that those in Developed countries can do is to reduce our consumption of animal products in general, and to categorically refuse to buy factory farmed animal products. Of course we can use our reason to know this is the right thing to do by taking a hard look at the numbers. For example, we know climate change is a huge threat, and livestock account for nearly 20 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. But I’m also arguing we need to do this because that allows us to be aligned with our life’s purpose and values, to take our sharp, critical mind and link it to our warm heart. We might be able to fool our rational mind that it is Ok to buy factory farmed products, but do you really thing you fool your heart and soul when you consume those product? Do you really think your body doesn’t know, doesn’t feel the suffering and destruction contained within the meat, milk, or eggs that comes from animals that suffered? Would you raise an animal the way they do in a factory farm? If not, why are you willing to pay someone to do it for you?

Every dollar is a vote. When we buy a factory farmed meat, milk or eggs, we are saying with our actions “Yes. I like that. Do it again”. Tell me, do you really like the horrors within factory farms? The pollution and contamination of our drinking water? The terrible soul-crushing working conditions for workers? That our landscape is being turned into a soy and corn monoculture to feed miserable animals hidden away from our view?

Or would you rather more compassion? More kindness? Better health? Soul-enriching jobs? To spend time in intact ecosystems where you can appreciate other species in all their beauty and splendor?

I know the future I want: a future where each of us humans, and all other species, can thrive, shine, and flourish in our own unique, beautiful, and irreplaceable way. I think shifting away from factory farming helps us get to that future.

Thank you, Merci, Obrigada, Asante, Miigwetch for listening.

Green Heron Rescue at South March Highlands

Pressed gently to my heart, swaddled in my sweater with only her head visible, the young Green Heron’s startling yellow eyes seem to hold ancient understanding of this land. She must be in pain, with two broken legs, but those eyes betray nothing. No hope, no fear, only an intense interest.

injured green heron just before capture. photo credit: Bertie Xavier

I brought my Guyanese friend, Bertie, to the Beaver Pond Forest part of the South March Highlands in Ottawa the morning of our Panel Discussion on Research, Transformation, and Indigenous Societies. Bertie, from rural Guyana, S.A.,  is his village’s leader (amongst many other roles!). It was important to bring him to this beautiful and vibrant old growth forest which is slated to be cut down by Urbandale and Richcraft to build yet more houses.   Bertie has faced similar struggles. I hope his visit will make more connections between North and South to help find ways to protect vital, irreplaceable land like the South March Highlands.

We only have time for the loop around the Beaver Pond (sadly for Bertie, no beaver to be seen). We reach the road and head back towards the parking lot when we notice a small commotion in the forest just off our path. We investigate: it is an injured bird. Bertie identifies it as a kind of heron. At first it seems like a wing injury, then it becomes clear it is the legs.

What to do?  Should we intervene?  Or let Nature take her course?  I struggle with this question. If we don’t help, is it really because “we shouldn’t intervene”, or just because we have a lunch appointment and are looking for an excuse to walk away from a fellow creature in pain?

“She’ll be fine,” offers Bertie. But I don’t think so.

“I think we should catch her.  I’m pretty sure there’s a wild bird rescue place.”

“You have things like that here?!”

So Bertie wades further into the bush and grabs the heron, which I wrap into my sweater.  It goes so smoothly, you could ALMOST be fooled into thinking we know what we are doing.

The sun shines but the breeze is cool as we walk to the car. I don’t dare take a hand off my charge, so Bertie mans the cell as I try to figure out where to take the heron.

who’s afraid of a little “incredible recoil action”? photo credit: Bertie Xavier

“Hi, we’ve just rescued an injured bird, some kind of heron…”

“OK, where are you?”

“Well, actually, I’m calling for directions so we can bring her…”

“You mean you caught the heron?!”

“Um, yah…”

“Watch the beak, they’ve got incredible recoil action!!!”

I’m not exactly sure what the volunteer means, but it sounds worrisome that only my sweater is between my heart and this “incredible recoil action”.   However, her beak is actually facing Bertie, on my left holding the cell to my ear.  I warn him, but he’s pretty confident the heron is too injured to “fight up”.

The heron is calm for the 10 minute drive to the Wild Bird Care Centre.  Once brought inside, it turns out she is a Green Heron, only the third to be brought into the Centre over the past 5 years.  I find out about the policies there: they only rehabilitate if it looks likely the bird can be released back to the Wild. Two broken legs is not good. But the volunteer tells me to call back in a few days. At the very least, our intervention means the heron will get a gentle death.


I call the Centre on 14 Sept, anxious to find out the green heron’s fate.

Good News!  The heron is doing well!!!   The volunteer thinks the heron will recover in time to be released for the fall migration.

But will she have a home to return to?

It’s up to you.   Ottawa City Council votes on 6 October 2010 on whether to save this land.  Please tell your City Councillor to vote FOR buying/expropriating the Beaver Pond Forest.

Beaver Pond in the South March Highlands, Kanata, ON. Photo credit Rob Hambly, HamblyPhotography

Thank you.

goodbye cathy

i offer her food


even El Dorado & honey

she won’t take anything,

slight tick of her head like a gentle no

cathy resting on the day she died

she is emaciated,

can barely move

i see in her eyes

she has decided.

i will leave the next day,

don’t want her to suffer

try to get the vet assistant to come to kill her, but

he doesn’t come.

* * *

i don’t see her the next day.

i think “she must have gone off on her own to die”

i feel bad i couldn’t give her a gentle death

hope she didn’t suffer.

* * *

stuck at Bina Hill an extra day

we go to a friend’s wedding

when i come back, Gilly’s voice in the dark

“your dog is dead.”

it hurts, but i already knew in my heart, “i thought so.”

” i found the body.”

“where is she?”

“by the tourism office.”

and there is her body, stretched out on her left side

light mist of raindrops on her fur.

* * *

i want to bury her.

find wheelbarrow, struggle with gate

then the surprising weight and difficulty

to get her body into wheelbarrow

i nearly vomit twice from the putrid stench

she probably died the night before

its dark, i’m tired, the ground is too hard

don’t have it in me to bury her

so i find a young tree

lay her out, running, head thrown back

howling to the moon.

i wish i could have done better for her in life and now in death

but it is peaceful

i thank her for coming briefly into my life,

and to know, just before i leave,

that she is beyond pain, hunger, and fear

her timing is impeccable.

a dog

“who’s dog is that?”

“no one’s.”

“what will happen to her”

“that kind of dog should be shot so other dogs won’t get the sickness.”

Light brown, painfully thin, coat rough and patches of fur missing, she spent most of her time lying down, scratching her mange infested ears and rump so the open sores bled.  One story was that while the other dogs were considered to be Bina Hill’s, she was considered a stray.  No one’s responsibility.   Her ears were so bad, they were kept at a strange half-mast position, making her look a bit like a gremlin.  So I dubbed her Gizmo.

“you’re worried about that dog.”



“she’s suffering.”


“so I care about suffering.  anyone’s suffering.”

That a dog should count in our moral calculus was politely tolerated in public, who knows what was said later.  Like with the glue traps and mice in Georgetown, me caring about the suffering of an animal was considered weird. 

“so no one will care if i get the vet to either treat her or kill her?”



The vet assistant showed up to use the phone.

“i have a dog for you to see.”

“OK, just now.”

Diagnosis was severe mange that was getting secondarily infected, and worms to explain her skeletal frame.  He gave her a subcutaneous injection of Ivermectin for the inner & outer parasites and a Vitamin shot, then an intramuscular injection of antibiotic.  The whole veterinary intervention cost $600 GYD, about $3 CAD.  I also learned about the recommended vaccinations for dogs in this area, and confirmed the epidemic I saw in Yupukari n 2006 was distemper.  The antibiotic had to be jabbed into her rump muscle, which hurt and caused her to yelp and escape from these treacherous humans.  She forgave me later when I fed her. 

That afternoon, she became the focus of my lesson on Observation.  One type of observation relevant for budding wildlife managers is to be able to observe an individual animal carefully.  We went through what to look for to assess an animal’s health.  Most of the students said she was just an old dog, but I pointed out how her eyes were clear, nose good, and teeth in great condition.  She didn’t look old to me, just sick.  Turns out she is quite old for a dog here, 5 ro 6, maybe even 9 yrs old, and survived the distemper epidemic in 2006.  The students took more interest in this ignored dog now that they had to observe her carefully.  I got them to compare her to a healthy dog.

Now I wait to see how the treatments go, which can also teach my students about measuring change over time.  I wonder if my $3 investment will have a Lazarus effect on her, and increase empathy in the students.

the once and future mouse

There are times in life when you feel like you have utterly failed. Today there was terrible suffering and I failed to prevent it, failed to alleviate it quickly enough, and failed to do anything decent and respectful afterward. Taking a hard look at yourself and your world can come from anywhere, from a tragedy, from a beautiful experience, from a conversation. For me, the spark has often been: a mouse.

I started my PhD in the hopes of studying humane education. The broader way to think of humane education is it is intended to increase empathy and compassion towards all living beings. This view encourages us to see the inextricable links between social justice, animal welfare, and a healthy environment. But I knew the setting where I wanted to do my research and eventually, to live: Guyana, South America. But I have not found any humane education programs here, and over time I made connections to an inspiring environmental education program developed and maintained by indigenous Makushi people. And so by the time I came here on this reconnaissance visit in preparation for the eventual research, I had to put aside my dreams of learning what effective humane education looks like, and focus on understanding the forms of environmental education that already exist here.

But there is a tiny corpse in the left part of my peripheral vision that must hold me to not stray too far from my dream. Because it is clear that it is suffering that I want to reduce. Anyone’s suffering.

The more I live, the more baffled I am that human beings have been given such extraordinary power over other life forms on this planet. Once we toiled to obtain our food and shelter, which came from animals and plants. I don’t want to romanticize that past, but it did involve a deep understanding and respect for these other species, these other ways of being in this world. Now, upon a whim, to satisfy wants and not needs, millions of animals suffer in factory farms, and thousands of plant & animal species have become extinct due to habitat loss and the bushmeat trade.

So much suffering is so unnecessary.

There is the inescapable truth that every human, just like every other living being, needs a certain amount of resources to survive, and ideally, to thrive. Each of us takes up a certain amount of space, and we humans can choose both the quantity and quality of that space. When it comes to the physical resources needed to sustain us, each day is full of decisions: Will I buy fruit from a local farmer who takes good care of her land, or from some nameless agribusiness? Turn off the tap while I brush my teeth or leave the water running? Refuse to buy meat produced by factory farms, or buy the cheaper fast food? Buy that cheap plastic gadget from China that will be thrown out, or the locally made handiwork? Each of these choices may seem, individually, to be trivial, of no consequence. But collectively, our individual actions have created the world the way it is now.

Are you happy with the way the world is now? I’m not. There is so much suffering, so much inequality.

But the world is also a beautiful, marvelous, and inspiring place, and so I have hope. Hope that not only can much of the suffering today be ended, but hope also that all of us can live more, can thrive and flourish. In other words, I believe it is possible to reduce suffering AND increase joy.

So let me tell you about Today’s mouse. Georgetown, Guyana, 2010. I’d been in the backyard with my host as he fed the two dogs, which included a complex array of supplements, and picked pawpaws. I ate one of the pawpaws, then settled in at the kitchen table to do some work before dinner. When finally a tiny figure caught my eye. The mouse lay on her side, fur torn out in places, covered with a sheen of glue, and with a sickening feeling, I realized what those cardboard rectangles in the kitchen were: glue traps. This must be one of the most ghastly inventions, and one of the cruelest ways possible to kill an animal. Once caught in the glue, the mouse struggles to get free, losing fur, possibly ripping of skin too, until, terrified but exhausted, the mouse is still. Based on the number of droppings behind this mouse, I could tell she had been terrified and stuck there for some time. Time slowed, the only movement was her labored breathing, as I tried to figure out what to do, while simultaneously my cell was ringing. My host returned and I showed him. He was about to leave, and said he would deal with it later. “But the mouse is still alive. Its suffering.” I considered a cervical dislocation (neck-breaking), but would need a glove for my own safety and realized I may do a bad job since the mouse was stuck in the glue. “What do you suggest?” he asked. “Blunt trauma.” A nice way to say bash the little skull in. So my host got a shoe. 

When the cardboard rectangle was moved out in the open, the mouse began to struggle again, to try to escape. The first strike was mislaid, the glue making it difficult. So was the second. The third may have cracked the skull, but it was finally the fourth that was certain, and the convulsive kicks off the hind legs confirmed death. “His life is ebbing away,” commented my host, who seemed bemused though sympathetic to my obvious distress about the glue traps and the suffering and death of this particular mouse. I learned the glue traps have become popular here. What can I do? Why aren’t the more humane snap traps being used? And why haven’t ultrasound deterrent technologies been perfected as a humane way to keep mice and rats away?

The image is so terrible, let us take a break from it.

So now let me tell you about Yesterday’s mouse. Montreal, Canada, 2002. I was just about to move out of my downtown apartment to live with my then boyfriend in Ottawa. I woke up, drifted into the kitchen without my glasses on. I noticed a brown form in the water in the sink, and, squinting at it, realized it was a mouse. “That’s sad,” I thought, “a mouse drowned in my sink.” Then she moved, and I realized the tiny creature was still alive and had survived by clinging to a yogurt container lid. I awoke my boyfriend, we put tissue in a big ice cream tub, found a glove, and I offered my gloved hand to the little soaked creature. She climbed onto my hand, and I placed her gently into the container.

We had three choices: kill her, release her to be vermin in someone else’s apartment, or keep her.

We kept her.

I learned so much from her and the tame friend we got for her, and put my prejudices aside based on real experience with her, rather than on my assumptions.

Now back to Georgetown, where I try to write with Today’s bedraggled dead mouse in view. My host’s granddaughter begins to watch Ratatouille, and I am drawn into the story, a funny and clever account of a gifted rat who longs to be a chef. I wonder if it improves viewers attitudes towards rats? The film puts them in a positive light, and the message is important: not to write anyone off, and to have an open mind. And so that same old question again: why am I researching humane or environmental education when the arts are probably our best bet to promote humane treatment of animals? Why not write anti-glue trap songs and try to become a pop star? Is it possible that exposure to a few minutes or hours of art can do more than days and months of classes?

Then Ms. E comes back with a mission: to fry bakes tonight for breakfast tomorrow. Her method is a bit different from the way I was taught, and I enjoy learning from her. Then another bedraggled mouse appears, stumbling and confused, in the brightly lit kitchen. I steer this mouse towards a closed door to the outside, and she is able to escape. But I say to Ms. E that this mouse must be sick or injured, a mouse would never come out in the light like that, and she seemed to be limping and confused.

And this leads us to Tomorrow’s mouse: will it be Ratatouille or the poor little injured sick mouse slipping out the kitchen door? Will we use our human ingenuity to work on humane ways to control nuisance animals, or continue the cruel status quo? It’s our choice.