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EVANA Interview with Christophe Marie, Spokesman of the Fondation Brigitte Bardot (FBB)
'I find it unbearable to be forced to finance meat propaganda or subsidies for farmers'
After Brigitte Bardot had complained about the dishonest publicity of a pro-meat campaign almost completely financed by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Jury de Déontologie Publicitaire (Jury of Ethics in Advertising) ordered two spots to be withdrawn. We asked Christophe Marie, spokesperson of the Fondation Brigitte Bardot (FBB), to tell us more about this remarkable victory in particular and his work in general.
EVANA: First of all, congratulations on the FBB’s victory against the meat promotion campaign ‘Soyons Fermes’ by the French Meat Information Centre (Centre d’Information des Viandes/CIV)), which wanted to flaunt ‘ecological benefits’ of animal husbandry! However, whilst the fact that two spots will have to be withdrawn can be seen as a very important signal, it is probably realistic to expect that French taxpayers will have to continue financing massive pro-meat advertising programmes also in future?
Christophe Marie: It really is a major victory because it’s never easy to win against the meat industry and the Ministry of Agriculture. That said, there are still misleading messages being disseminated, trying to induce the public to eat rabbit, horsemeat, and dairy products. In their latest campaign, the French Meat Information Centre has really gone overboard with irresponsible claims and disinformation in their desire to convince people that pigs in France are raised on old-fashioned “family farms” and that raising cows is good for the environment. To spread such absurdities, they really must think that consumers are stupid. And what’s even more shocking, the spots are paid for by the Ministry of Agriculture—in other words, by our taxes. Moreover, I don’t know where the Ministry finds the money to pay for this propaganda, since at the same time their veterinary services agency is cutting back on oversight of farms and slaughterhouses due to budget shortages.
Have there already been any serious political initiatives to control factory farms and their impacts on the environment, especially in Brittany? Some weeks ago the NGO “France Nature Environnement” had launched an information campaign but in some circles the posters have been censured and criticized as ‘irresponsible’. How can it be ‘irresponsible’ to let the national and international community know about life-threatening pollution in some coastal areas and water too poisonous to drink? What more must happen before ecology enjoys higher priorities than economy?
CM : When you reach a dead-end, the sensible thing to do is turn around and start off again in the right direction. But in the case of Brittany, where the largest animal production facilities are concentrated, there is no willingness whatsoever to retreat. The water is no longer drinkable, the groundwater will be poisonous for a very long time, and the sea has been polluted with deadly algae. This is all extremely serious and should lead to a re-evaluation of animal production. But nothing of the sort is taking place. As long as human nature is what it is, the economy will always trump ecology. I have no illusions on that point.
What were the reactions so far after Brigitte Bardot started legal proceedings against the Agriculture and Interior Ministers and accused them of condoning killing methods in French slaughterhouse which do not respect EU regulations?
CM : Obviously, they didn’t appreciate it very much, but we’re not here to say what they like to hear. These ministers are responsible and therefore guilty of creating a shameful situation that we condemn. At present, millions of animals suffer terribly from having their throats slit without being stunned beforehand. There are national and European regulations that require prior stunning but an exception intended for religious slaughter has become the rule in slaughterhouses that, additionally to being places of death and suffering, have also become torture chambers for animals.
Last month FBB joined forces with other organizations in a battle against ritual slaughter. How has the campaign been received? Is there reason to hope that in the not too distant future ritual slaughter may become a gruesome thing of the past?
CM : Slaughter of any sort is a gruesome thing anyway but it’s important to condemn the added cruelty involved in slitting the throats of animals who are fully conscious and may, in some cases, remain so for more than 10 minutes. With this campaign, we wanted to inform consumers that more than 70% of the meat produced by kosher slaughter and 60% of the meat produced by hallal slaughter ends up in general distribution without being labeled as the product of ritual slaughter. Here, too, there is an intent to deceive consumers because the government opposes putting labels on meat that would inform them about the conditions under which the animals were slaughtered. This is why we have asked the public to stop eating meat entirely—on the principle of, “When in doubt, don’t.”
In the line of your work you have to witness ritual slaughter processes and other similar atrocities. How you manage to recuperate from such ordeals, which many people would probably not be able to cope with?
CM : You don’t come away from these ordeals unaffected. I know that. But when you are combating barbarities, sometimes you have no choice but to allow yourself to be exposed to them. During the sacrifices of Aid-el-Kebir, for example, the hardest thing to endure is not the animals’ throats being slit, but watching for several minutes before they are killed, knowing that there is no way we can save them all. The Foundation does save a good many, however, and I particularly recall one situation—two or three years ago—when we had turned some fifty sheep loose on land belonging to Brigitte Bardot. It was pure happiness to see these animals go free so soon after they had been removed from the crowded holding pen where they were awaiting slaughter.
We are always trying to find our way between depravity and hope. Last summer, at the Faeroe Islands during the campaign that we conducted with Sea Shepherd, our goal was to locate pilot whales in order to keep them away from the coast. All we found was corpses floating in the water but even so, during our four weeks at sea—which was an ordeal for all of us—the massacres stopped even though we were there in prime hunting season.
Let’s talk about whaling, please. Sea Shepherd managed what diplomacy, threats and boycotts never achieved, namely to cut the present Japanese whaling season short. However, in spite of this victory, the annual dolphin massacres in Japan/Taiji continue and the Faeroe Islands still celebrate a bath in blood each year, Norway has not the slightest intention to abandon harpooning whales and Iceland even wants to become a member of the EU without respecting its no-whaling-policy. What can NGOs do against such ruthless environment bullies?
CM: I have a lot of admiration for the Sea Shepherd volunteers and for Paul Watson. Their victory in the Antarctic this year shows just how necessary it is to confront the enemy on his own turf without wasting too much time on diplomacy that goes nowhere. Every year, Norway, Iceland, and Japan are guilty of killing hundreds of whales and Denmark is guilty of allowing the massacre of cetaceans to take place in the Faeroe Islands. We can take action by boycotting the products of these countries, but we mustn’t expect anything from the governments because—as I said at the beginning of this interview—as long as human nature remains what it is, the economy will always trump ecology and the preservation of species.
Even though, fortunately, the export of Canadian seal pelts to EU member nations could be stopped, sealing is going unabatedly in other countries, especially Namibia, where the second highest seal massacre is taking place. Do you know of any ongoing campaigns to protect seals internationally and not only in Canada? Has something been initiated by NGOs or politicians?
CM: The regulation adopted by the EU addresses products made from all pinnipeds, including eared seals (otariids) from Namibia, not just Canadian seals. Brigitte Bardot was one of the first to condemn these massacres. More than 20 years ago, she went on the news of the French TV channel TF1 to condemn the mass killing taking place in Namibia. At the time, it created such a scandal that the Namibian authorities made a commitment to not killing the seals. But later we learned that the seals had been herded along the coast to South Africa and massacred there. . . Brigitte Bardot’s numerous appeals to Namibia and South Africa have changed nothing, and so we are currently considering a direct action campaign to be conducted jointly with Sea Shepherd. It’s still in the early planning stages, so there’s nothing more I can say about it.
European decision makers are interested in the form of bananas and other matters of similar non-epochal importance, but so far they have preferred to disregard the problem and enormous suffering of stray animals. Last September the Belgian Presidency made efforts for a common strategy on dog welfare but there has not been any follow-up, or so it seems. Is no news bad news in this case, considering the threats hanging over strays in Romania and other countries? What is the situation today?
CM: We have to remember that the European Union was set up solely to facilitate and standardize commercial transactions—the celebrated or notorious Common Market. The problem of stray dogs has nothing to do with that. It’s a national problem that has to be dealt with by each member state that is faced with it. For the same reason, the EU has no ability to deal with bullfighting and other barbaric “traditions” that persist in some European countries including France.
The plight of animals in Romania is especially troublesome because every initiative on their behalf is rebuffed. We learned something about this when the Foundation opened a branch in Bucharest about ten years ago to conduct an extensive campaign to spay and neuter dogs. I took part in several meetings with the then mayor of Bucharest, who is today the president of Romania. Brigitte Bardot even went there in person to sign a contract with him authorizing us to spay and neuter dogs and then release them back where they had been caught. But just a few days after signing the contract, the mayor sent crews of city employees to capture dogs and kill them under horrific conditions. This was even more despicable because they zeroed in on the dogs we had operated on—and on whom we had placed collars showing that they had been sterilized. We have since closed this branch, but we are continuing to help Romanians by financing spay/neuter campaigns in smaller cities, such as Brasov. And every month the Foundation supplies food to more than 20 shelters in Romania.
Your organization is launching and/or is taking part in a multitude of campaigns in France and abroad. What are the criteria for your involvement and what are the most important projects at the moment?
CM: All of the projects are important, and our criteria for selecting projects have to do with their relevance and prospects for success. The Brigitte Bardot Foundation has established partnerships in some fifty countries on every continent. In Africa, Asia and South America, we assist a number of organizations that specialize in the care of primates. And in Thailand, we contribute to the operating expenses of a hospital for elephants. We conduct extensive spay/neuter campaigns for dogs in India, South Africa, Mexico and just about everywhere in the world. In Bulgaria we created—in partnership with Vier Pfoten—a sanctuary for “dancing bears” that has made it possible to bring this cruel tradition to an end. It’s a marvelous place where the bears have regained their natural instincts despite having been exploited all their lives in horrible conditions. This past winter, they all went into hibernation, some for the first time in their lives. In France, the Brigitte Bardot Foundation conducts extensive campaigns and provides concrete assistance on site. We are, for example, the organization that finances the most spay/neuter programs for feral cats. We sponsored more than 9,000 operations in 2010 alone, and this year the number will exceed 10,000. These programs have made it possible to end the capture and killing of homeless cats in our country.
In November 2009, EVANA co-signed FBB’s Open Letter to EC President José Manuel Barroso: “The launch of a 'European Vegetarian Day' would be a strong signal”. Did you ever receive a reply from Mr. Barroso or any other EU official in this matter?
CM: Yes, the European Commission responded by acknowledging that “agricultural activities have an undeniable impact on the environment and contribute to climate change, notably through deforestation.” But there has been no commitment regarding a Vegetarian Day. That’s why we are asking the public to adopt a vegetarian, or even better a vegan diet, not just one day, but 365 days a year.
There are many million vegetarians right across Europe but so far there has not been any official acknowledgement of our existence. No nutritional guidance, assistance and advice is provided for this huge and fast growing minority. Do you see any reason for this deafening silence? Are European veggies too shy and peaceful or did we just not yet find the right way to make our voices heard?
CM: I’m not sure how to answer that because personally I don’t need official recognition to know that I exist. I don’t believe it is useful to always be waiting for others to accept what we are, and that’s true in all areas of life. When I decided as an adolescent to become a vegetarian, I didn’t wait for anyone to tell me what I should or should not do, or whether my decision was a good one or not. We have to make choices in life and take responsibility for them, but whether or not they are recognized by society is very much secondary to me. In fact, I couldn’t care less. However, 'I find it unbearable to be forced, like all taxpayers, to finance meat propaganda or subsidies for farmers'. Again another 20 million Euros will be made available for the egg and foie gras industry, which does not even meet European cage standards. All French citizens, vegetarian or not, are tricked into supporting farmer crooks who ought to be punished.
Meat has a very bad press and it’s getting worse by the day when more and more details about its impacts are being uncovered, thus making “meat the new tobacco”. A growing number of people are reading the signs on the wall and adapt by going veg. How do you see meat consumption in 2020?
CM: There is probably a good chance for vegetarianism to take hold in the rich countries, in part because so many alternatives to meat are available. But the big worry is the rapidly developing countries, like India and China, which have enormous human populations that are consuming more and more animals. If we take a global perspective on meat consumption, then I am very pessimistic because shrinking markets in Europe will be made up elsewhere. You can be certain that the meat industry will expand in those countries even if it means putting out blatant disinformation, just as they do everywhere.
There are indications that the number of vegetarians in France is smaller than in some other European countries. Is that that case and if so, why? Is reliable information about the number of vegetarians and vegans in France available?
CM: I don’t think there is a precise count, but it is true that there are not many vegetarians in France and still fewer vegans. That’s probably because of the famous “French cuisine,” which is very meat intensive and one of the worst national cuisines in the world for vegetarians—a real horror story. Generally speaking, we have been very slow to accept vegetarianism. The comments you hear reflect a mind-boggling ignorance. Many people believe that not eating animal products necessarily leads to nutritional deficiencies, when just the opposite is true.
And now a personal question: How long have you been working for the Fondation Brigitte Bardot and what have been your most uplifting and most depressing events during that time.
CM: This makes almost exactly 20 years that I have worked at the Brigitte Bardot Foundation—which this year is celebrating its 25th year in existence. I have a tendency to push memories aside in order to focus on what remains to be accomplished, but among the inspiring moments, I recall one particular day in Serbia, where we had gone to organize a spay/neuter campaign for homeless dogs. That morning I had visited a pound in Belgrade that was an absolutely unimaginable death camp. The dogs were crammed into a vile building, shut up in small cages, one of which held at least 40 puppies. This hell was connected to a crematorium with a tall smokestack that belched out smoke from the charred bodies. It was a nightmarish sight and several hours later we went to City Hall with Patrick Sacco of the organization Respectons—who is an outstanding activist—where we made it clear that we would not fund a spay/neuter campaign unless this pound was closed and all of the animals turned over to us. This was a bit of a bluff, but the mayor took us at our word and literally overnight we had to organize a network to line up foster homes for the 140 dogs that we picked up the next morning when the pound opened. The shelter was then shut down and the animals placed in a sanctuary that we built in Belgrade.
Among the sad moments, I remember a direct action in Italy, on the border with Slovenia, where we had gone with Brigitte Bardot to expose the way animals are transported. At one point, BB stationed herself in front of a truck in which hundreds of lambs were stacked up on three levels, one above the other. Inside, the heat was stifling and the lambs, completely dehydrated and weakened by their ordeal, tried to lick our hands. Frankly, I was overwhelmed by this scene because I knew they were all on their way to the slaughterhouse. But Brigitte showed incredible strength. She climbed into the truck and made the driver unload the animals at a rest stop. There were quite a few dead bodies in the truck, but she took two lambs who were not moving, but who were still alive, and carried them away in her arms. No one could stop her.
The hard part of this struggle is that it offers no rest, no respite. Inevitably, it isolates you, because you don’t feel like the people around you understand your total commitment. But you have chosen to give meaning to your life by placing it in service to a cause. Although, truth to tell, it’s not really a choice at all. It’s simply a reality, an absolute necessity.
Christophe, we thank you very much that you took the time to answer our questions and wish you and your work much success in the future, in France and everywhere.