Sunday, February 26, 2017

I Stood Up For a Fish and Lost My Job

The Vegan Vine
Work is where we spend a large chunk of our time, unfortunately, and unless we own a business, whom we work with is not up to us. Working with strangers in a constricted environment for many hours every day over the course of a week is challenging in itself, but add veganism to the mix and you've got a whole new set of hurdles.

As an ethical vegan, I'm always looking for opportunities to educate people on issues affecting all animals, including human animals. Since animal exploitation and abuse is so culturally pervasive, I make a point of challenging unconscious assumptions. I also seek to be a voice for those whose own voices go unheard. Needless to say, I don't check my ethics at the office door.

For example, a couple of years ago, my former employer decided to hold their annual staff outing at the local racetrack for an afternoon of horse racing. I promptly told my supervisors that I would not be attending. When they and other coworkers inquired why, I elaborated on the cruelties inherent in the horse racing industry, including doping, electrocution, and death.

Like the majority of unglorified female secretaries in the pink-collar ghetto, I am typically asked to obtain food for meetings and events even when it is not in my job description. I was summoned to regularly take and pick up lunch orders for committee meeting members. Even though I was neither eating nor paying for the chicken salads and pig (ham) sandwiches, I took issue with the entire process because I felt like my actions implied complicity with torturing and killing animals for food. Soon after, I informed my supervisor that I didn't feel comfortable confirming or acquiring orders of various animal parts and products begot of violence and indifference. She expressed disdain at my response but ultimately removed me from the task.

A year later, I had a more contentious interaction with a coworker regarding her office pet fish...actually, her second office fish. Shortly after Mary was hired, a small fish tank showed up on her cubicle desk. I thought little of it at first and asked for the fish's name, which I learned was Cici. I frequently visited Cici's tank to say hello and talk to him, at which time he would venture over to the side nearest to me and swish his tail back and forth in a seemingly playful way. I felt sorry for him for having to subsist in such a small tank and because no one seemed to pay him much attention, including Mary.

One day I started noticing that Cici wasn't doing too well. I occasionally found him hovering at the top of the tank somewhat listlessly. I voiced my concern to Mary when I saw her and she didn't seem to have an answer. Some days later I walked passed her desk and saw that Cici was gone; a note was left in his waterless tank which read "RIP Cici." I was saddened and asked Mary what happened. I was stunned when she told me, somewhat nonchalantly, that since Cici didn't seem to be doing well she put some additive into his water to stop his breathing so he would die. I wondered if Cici suffered and whether Mary had committed murder or administered euthanasia.

I had hoped that that was the end of her buying—thereby encouraging the profitable breeding and exploitation of—animals for her work entertainment but then a few weeks later there was another fish in the tank. I was indignant and asked her why she brought another fish into the office when he's more than likely going to suffer the same fate and die like Cici. She countered, very smugly, "WE ALL DIE!"

The next day was Friday and Mary was out of the office for a long weekend. Concerned about the fish, I sent her an email inquiring as to who was feeding and watching over her fish for three days while she was away. She didn't respond but on Monday the fish tank was gone, and I was swiftly called into a meeting with HR and the executive director. After explaining my worries, I was told to keep my "beliefs" to myself and that my coworker's fish was "none of my business." I felt otherwise and said so. Having taken into consideration the outcome of the first fish, I explained to my supervisors that I felt a responsibility to speak up for the second fish. I reasoned that most of my coworkers would consider it equally cruel and unacceptable to leave a dog or any other animal alone and confined to an office without food for three days. Furthermore, I contended that it is deeply speciesist to care for some animals like dogs (or the children our organization serves), while overlooking the well-being of others. Since Mary's fish, like most domesecrated animals, are considered property, my supervisors felt I had no cause to interfere. Once again, I was admonished for imposing my beliefs and "proselytizing."

I've since noticed how quick people are apt to throw out the belief card in response to ideas they choose not to understand so as to eliminate any further discussion or examination. As soon as I said the word speciesist, I saw the look of horror on the director's face, as if I had used profanity. She was clearly defensive and my concerns were immediately criticized and dismissed.

Speciesism is a form of discrimination, no different than racism, sexism, ableism, or heterosexism. Speciesism, more than any other 'ism, is deeply rooted in society and culture and is therefore made invisible, but that doesn't mean it does not exist.

A few weeks later a coworker sent an email to the entire office promoting a non-work-related "Pony Party" and petting zoo event at the local library. In addition to contacting the library, I responded to the email with my concerns, detailing the hidden suffering and abuse ponies and petting zoo animals often endure. Lastly, I urged our organization not to promote similar events in the future. For this last action, I was fired.

Some coworkers quietly came to me in support of my email, but it didn't matter. What I hadn't anticipated was that throughout my employ a Nixonian file was kept on me that even included a passing comment I made almost a year earlier to another coworker critical of the organization's annual donation of turkey corpses for Thanksgiving.

Veganism was never mentioned in my former employer's reports; instead, they reiterated words like "belief" and "proselytizing," as if treating animals as living, feeling beings and moral equivalents is something one has to be convinced of. I don't understand how care and concern for another creature or intimating factual data on animal suffering can be considered "proselytizing" or sharing of "personal beliefs." If I had been advocating for dogs and cats only (those animals we pet and call family) instead of horses, fish, turkeys, pigs, and chickens (those animals we exploit and eat), I might still be gainfully employed.

People have a personal choice to their own religion, their own politics, their own style of car, and what color they paint their walls; however, their sense of entitlement to the lives and bodies of other animals is morally bankrupt and baseless. It is self-deceptive to argue that one has a right to personally harm another being, which is why murder, assault, and rape are not considered personal choices in our society. The distinction typically arises from arbitrary notions as to who is deemed property and who is not, and what is considered socially acceptable by the masses. A bloody Civil War was once waged over similar property status and inequality.

My former employer acts as though they operate in a vacuum. If anything, the organization and office environment continued to foster and endorse mainstream carnist ideologies and personal beliefs, condoning the systematic abuse and exploitation of animals through food selections, events, and discussions, which I nevertheless abided despite my contrary views. My former employer continuously engaged in and perpetuated prejudiced and speciesist beliefs in alignment with the zeitgeist that made it a hostile work environment. Despite my excellent work and frequent raises, a quota was placed on my conscience. In my attempts to edify, I came face to face with a brick wall, a microcosm of our society that upholds policies promoting violence and injustice toward other animals.

Vegans have an uphill battle, especially outspoken ethical vegans who will not accept status quo thinking. "I think there is anathema associated with both ethical veganism and anyone who doesn't buy [into] the Just World Theory," said my friend Jude Berry. "And I think it can be more depressing trying to suppress your own ideas for the fear of that anathema. Voicing it is necessary and healthy."

Silencing my conscience was not a solution for me and speaking up for other animals like Mary's fish required immediacy. I believe my former employer's reasons for terminating my employment and denying me benefits were based on bigotry and personal biases. It has presented me with challenges, but no social justice movement ever emerged by people caving in and acquiescing to socially accepted wrongs. If not us, who? If not now, when?

"Society organizes itself very efficiently to punish, silence or disown truth-tellers," wrote Rachel Cusk. That it does, but I will continue to speak truth to power. I may have lost a job, but my soul remains intact.

Vegan Starter Kit

Photo: Fish no. 231 courtesy of pacman23.

Update: Shortly after I was terminated, I learned that Mary's fish was doing well at home, presumably seeing the same faces and getting fed regularly. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, awesome courage and conviction, well spoken