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An interview with NO WORD FOR WILDERNESS author Roger Thompson

If you were asked where the rarest bears on earth lived, would your first guess be an hour’s drive outside of Rome?

That wasn’t our first guess, either — but it’s the truth, and these bears are fighting to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds. Author Roger Thompson has documented their struggle in his fascinating new book, No Word for Wilderness: Italy’s Grizzlies and the Race to Save the Rarest Bears on Earth.

In Italian, there is no word for wilderness. Yet in the mountains of Italy, brown bears not only exist, they are fighting to survive amid encroaching development, local and international politics, and the mafia.

This meticulously researched and eye-opening book tells the incredible stories of two special populations of bears in Italy—one the last vestige of a former time that persists against all odds, the other a great experiment in rewilding that, if successful, promises to change how we see not only Italy but all of Europe.

The Abruzzo bears of central Italy have survived amid one of the oldest civilizations on earth—but now, with numbers estimated at as low as fifty individuals, they face a critical future as multiple forces, from farmers to the mob, collide within their territory. The Slovenian bears of northern Italy, brought to the Alps at the turn of the century, have sparked controversy among local and international interests alike.

The stories of these bears take readers on a spectacular journey across Italy, where we come face-to-face not only with these fascinating species but with embattled park directors, heroic environmentalists, innovative scientists, and a public that is coming to terms with the importance of Italy’s rich natural history.

“Full of drama, adventure, tragedy, and heroes fighting against the most daunting of odds, No Word for Wilderness shows us what nature writing can be.” — J. Scott Bryson, author of The West Side of Any Mountain: Place, Space, and Ecopoetry

Award-winning author Roger Thompson has traveled throughout Italy documenting the history and current crises of these bears, and the result is an engaging and in-depth examination that resonates across all endangered species and offers invaluable insights into the ever-evolving relationships between human and non-human animals in a rapidly changing world.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and how long did it take you to write it? Did you have a special routine or place in which you wrote?

A: The initial idea for the book came after I first visited Abruzzo to find out about the bears. After being in Italy and hearing their story from people there, I felt the story needed to be told. The book, though, has changed during the process of researching and writing it. It has been a project that has shifted and changed over a six-year period, but the actual first draft I wrote in six months. I’ve done most of the writing at home, but I did do a fair bit in Italy as well as in Minnesota at a cabin where my family has vacationed since I was a child.

Q: Why should we care about these particular bears?

A: We should care because unlike most grizzlies, these particular brown bears have evolved alongside people, growing with communities over a millennia, and thus have adapted to life with man — and locals in Italy have adapted to the bears as well. The result is a remarkably symbiotic and peaceful relationship — a thousand years and no attacks.

Q: How many are there, and why are you concerned about them?

A: The best estimate is between 40 and 50. Some say it may be down to 30. Others say it may be higher. One former park director insists that until recently, there were at least 100, but there is no credible evidence of that. It’s clear that these bears are at a pivotal juncture because of new pressure on their habitat.

Q: What kind of pressure?

A: It’s mixed, but at the heart of it is organized criminal activity — some believe (and I think it likely) that it is mob activity. The bears live in a region that is highly valued for its agricultural potential — specifically, it’s valued because it presents great opportunity for cattle grazing. While that may not seem important, cattle grazing in Italy enjoys significant subsidies from the EU. Those subsidies are what organized crime is interested in. The bears, though, are in the way.

Q: How are they in the way?

A: The bear population lives primarily in Italy’s national parks in Abruzzo. Those parks have prime grazing lands. They also have almost no resources for enforcement of park rules and regulations. So, mafia can essentially underwrite people to come in and graze cattle on the parkland. As they do so, they come into contact with the bears.

Q: What happens with that contact? Is it dangerous?

A: No. Hardly, anyway. There are few, if any credible, reports of bears attacking cattle. There are no attacks on humans. These bears have an almost 100 percent vegetarian diet. And yet, the new land grazing interests have a habit of poaching and poisoning the bears.

Q: How is this being combatted?

A: Well, the key thing right now is that scientists are amassing huge volumes of data to demonstrate definitively how special these bears are and why they should be protected more aggressively. That data is the foundation of activism by a group of conservationists and scientists. It is, however, a race against time. Without international pressure, these peaceful bears and their local advocates have little chance in preserving the animals.

Learn more about No Word for Wilderness here

Roger Thompson is an award-winning nonfiction writer and director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. A former wilderness canoe guide for a Minnesota camp and the founder and director of an environmental program in Banff, AB, he currently lives in New York with his wife and son. No Word for Wilderness is now available; visit Roger’s website and Facebook page for tour dates and events.

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Book Review: Clean Meat by Paul Shapiro

Paul Shapiro’s book Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World explores the fascinating — and potentially planet-saving — world of cultured meat.

While the notion of “cultured meat” or “lab-grown” meat may sound odd to many, Shapiro’s book makes the case for why this new industry is among our best hopes for, quite literally, saving the world. He notes, “Our species truly is at a crossroads. It’s not hard to imagine the global instability that could ensue when we have billions more people on the planet, including billions more who expect to eat meat regularly. We just don’t have the resources to satiate that demand without destroying our planet and inflicting an enormity of suffering on animals, both domesticated and wild, in the process.”

As a decades-long vegan and the founder of Compassion Over Killing, Shapiro, who has also served as a vice president for the Humane Society of the United States, knows firsthand what’s at stake, and in Clean Meat he takes us behind the scenes of those who are about to change the world for the better.

As Yuval Noah Harari notes in the book’s foreword, “The world’s animals are not the wildlife we think of when we think of animals.” Rather, most animals that exist on the planet are bred for our consumption. For example: There are forty thousand lions in the world to one billion domesticated pigs, fifty million penguins to fifty billion chickens—and for these animals, life is horrific: “Judged by the amount of suffering it causes, industrial farming of animals is arguably one of the worst crimes in history.”

Cultured meat is the answer not only to the problem of animal suffering but to the issue of greenhouse gases produced by animal agriculture (responsible for more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined); the massive water consumption required (“you’d save more water skipping one family chicken dinner than by skipping six months of showers”); and the destruction of rainforests to raise animals (“animal feed is the leading cause of rainforest deforestation, essentially killing the lungs of our planet”). In Clean Meat, Shapiro writes about start-up pioneers who envision “a world in which we can have our meat and eat it, too: where we can enjoy abundant amounts of meat and other animal products without all the environmental, animal welfare, and public health costs.”

Shapiro details the fascinating science behind cultured meat as well as shows us the history of meat consumption in the U.S. and other countries, and why it’s becoming unsustainable.The science of clean meat is explained in both technical and layman’s terms, which makes the industry’s concepts accessible to all readers — and the sections outlining the technology are remarkable, showing us how real animal products such as meat and leather are being produced from microscopic animal cells, and even from yeast, bacteria, or algae.

The book also demystifies many of our perceptions of cultured meat (one major point being that clean meat is not as wild an idea as we think because nearly all the food we currently eat is scientifically engineered, from packaged foods such as protein bars to vegetables and fruits such as seedless watermelon). In addition, the very term “clean meat” reflects the improved food safety of these products; whereas meat from animals raised on farms contains antibiotics, hormones, fecal matter, and diseases such as avian flu, cultured meat, which is produced in a completely sterile environment, will be far safer to eat than the meat being produced today. “Imagine choosing between an egg white that might have salmonella and one you know doesn’t,” says Arturo Elizondo of Clara Foods. “Or milk with pus versus milk without pus, which all cow’s milk has. Which would you choose?”

Perhaps most surprising is that the concept of cultured meat is not as new as it seems; as far back as 1931, Winston Churchill wrote of “the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing” — and even he was not the first: “As early as 1894 … French chemistry professor Pierre-Eugène-Marcellin Berthelot claimed that by the year 2000, humans would dine on meat grown in a lab rather than from slaughtered animals.” Shapiro outlines our history of attempting to improve the way we eat, from hunting and foraging to culturing such foods as beer and yogurt, and how technology has brought us to where we are today. In the pages of Clean Meat, we meet scientists, idealists, and businesspeople, all working toward bringing this science to the mainstream. Having met representatives from many of the companies in this emerging field — among them Memphis Meats, Modern Meadow, Hampton Creek, Mosa Meat, Finless Foods, SuperMeat, Future Meat Technologies, Perfect Day, Clara Foods, Bolt Threads, VitroLabs, Spiber, Geltor, and others — Shapiro notes, “Interestingly, for the most part they don’t consider one another rivals as much as they do friendly competitors, all working toward the same goal.”

As with any major disruption in our social, cultural, and economic lives, clean meat will have a tremendous impact on everything from jobs to food to animal welfare, and in the end, it will likely succeed if it improves the lives of humans. As Shapiro points out, much of animal protection is accidental — whaling only stopped in the mid-nineteenth century because kerosene was discovered to be a better and more affordable alternative to whale oil; horses were replaced with cars only thanks to Henry Ford’s innovation, not animal advocates (though wonderful advocates did exist, they were not the reason Americans exchanged horses for cars).

So there is reason for hope for clean meat, especially “given that mainstream meat consumers (i.e., most people in our society) rarely think twice about buying meat from animals who’ve been raised in unsanitary and inhumane conditions … it’s difficult to imagine most of us having a problem with clean meat that (aside from being safer, eco-friendlier, and more humane) is pretty much the same meat that we’re used to eating.”

The biggest question of all — how does it taste? — will ultimately be answered by consumers themselves. As you’ll read in Clean Meat, the reviews so far are quite good. Shapiro was invited to try several foods in process, from “steak chips” to cultured foie gras to clean duck. A vegan for more than two decades, he writes, “I had little ethical concern about eating the [cultured] meat, but it still felt bizarre to be on the precipice of ingesting animal flesh.” He reports that the taste of the products he sampled was authentic; the duck “was exactly how I remembered duck tasting from my youth.”

Clean Meat should be read by anyone who cares about the planet, but most of all by those who currently eat and wear animals the way these products are made today. This book provides a detailed, well-rounded examination of a new industry that highlights the challenges — and the incredible possibilities — of feeding and clothing us all in an increasingly populated and demanding world.

“I’m convinced that when we look back in thirty years on today, how we raise and slaughter billions of animals to make our hamburgers and handbags, we’ll see this as being wasteful, inhumane, and indeed crazy,” Andras Forgacs of Modern Meadow tells Shapiro. “We need to move past just killing animals as a resource to something more civilized and evolved. Perhaps we’re ready for something literally and figuratively more cultured.”

Learn more at www.cleanmeat.com as well as www.cleanmeat.org. And check out my interview with Paul Shapiro at VegNews.

 

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J. M. Coetzee (and many others) push for an end to animal testing

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The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics has issued an important report that calls for the “de-normalisation of animal experimentation.” The report is backed by numerous scientists, scholars, theologians and writers, such as Coetzee.

You can view the report here.

According to the report:

The deliberate and routine abuse of innocent, sentient animals involving harm, pain, suffering, stressful confinement, manipulation, trade, and death should be unthinkable. Yet animal experimentation is just that: the ‘normalisation of the unthinkable’.

It is estimated that 115.3 million animals are used in experiments worldwide per annum. In terms of harm, pain, suffering, and death, this constitutes one of the major moral issues of our time.

‘The moral arguments in favour of animal testing really don’t hold water’ says Professor Andrew Linzey, co-editor of the report and a theologian at Oxford University. ‘We have looked at the central arguments in official reports and found them wanting. If any of them were morally valid, they would also justify experiments on human beings.’

To those who argue that animal experimentation saves human lives I point to the following:

Overall, in the US, 92 per cent of drugs that pass preclinical tests, mostly animal tests, fail to make it to the market because they are proven to be ineffective and/or unsafe in people

1. Stressed animals yield poor data. The unnatural laboratory environments and procedures cause animals substantial stress. Their distress causes changes in their physiology (Garner, J. P., 2005) that affect research data in very unpredictable ways.
2. Animals do not naturally develop most human diseases. The inability to recreate human diseases accurately in other animals is a fundamental flaw in the use of animal experiments.
3. Animals are not miniature humans. Despite attempts to genetically alter animals to mimic human physiology or use closer genetic species such as NHPs, physiological and genetic differences that are unalterable and inherent to species diversity remain an insurmountable obstacle to using animals to predict human outcomes.

I’m not suggesting that tests on animals have not saved human lives. But the price we as a society pay is too steep. We now know too much about how animals suffer to look the other way. And we also have the technologies today to avoid animal testing entirely — using computer models, lab-grown tissues, and so forth. Note that L’Oreal already “farms” fake skin for testing cosmetics with plans to created plans to use 3D printed skin.

I believe that if most people understood not only how ineffective animal testing is but also how it delays, often by years, drugs coming to the market — they might be eager to bypass animal testing entirely.

Animal rights is one of the major social issues of our time — yet one that still exists on the periphery of society. However, this is changing.

Animals can’t speak up for themselves. That’s why writers are so very important.

Writers have an opportunity and responsibility to push our society forward in how we view and relate to animals. I’m happy to see Coetzee lending his name — and his writing — the cause.

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