Mackensy Lunsford , email@example.com
ASHEVILLE – An argument over the value of human and animal life has grown contentious in Western North Carolina as members of a sustainability school say animal rights activists have threatened their lives.
Wild Abundance, a small, woman-led school for sustainable living skills in Barnardsville, has fallen under scrutiny of animal rights groups Let Live Coalition and OneProtest.
The source of the groups’ ire is an upcoming workshop in which a sheep is to be slaughtered and processed into food. Taking place this weekend, the Cycles of Life: Humane Slaughter and Butchering demonstration is part of a weekend of intensive focusing on meat preservation, geared toward small-scale family farms.
The Let Live Coalition is pressuring the 8-year-old school to cancel the class and release the sheep to a sanctuary, launching a call to action on social media. They said they have asked supporters to be respectful when contacting Wild Abundance organizers, and maintained they have not made public personal contact information.
To date, nearly 8,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling for the class’s cancellation. Let Live has scheduled protests at the school should the class go on as planned.
Meanwhile, author and butcher Meredith Leigh has stepped down as lead teacher of the workshop after receiving death threats. She’s been replaced by another teacher who requested anonymity to avoid similar action.
“My M.O. for years has been to not give this sort of rhetoric energy, but it’s hard not to when you have your children sleeping next to you and people from all over the world are calling your personal number every five minutes,” she said.
Not all calls and emails have threatened violence, but those that do are graphic, Leigh said. “They say I deserve to die, ‘I should cut your throat’, ‘I should beat you with a ham’.”
Leigh said her primary reason for dropping out of the class is because she didn’t think she could be centered enough for the animal. “My emotions and purpose were becoming clouded by everything that’s going on.”
Natalie Bogwalker, director of Wild Abundance, has called the harassment a hate crime, saying people should be focusing on issues like climate change, not “squabbling over personal dietary choices.”
The butchery class will go on as scheduled, despite the flood of emails and phone calls demanding she cancel it.
Bogwalker, who spoke as her 3-week-old daughter napped on her chest in a sling, said she fields up to 50 phone calls a day, including one caller from England who threatened to slit her throat.
“I am worn down,” she said. “I am afraid for my peace and ability to be with my child.”
But she defended her choice to continue with the class. In a grocery-story dependent culture, most people rarely see where their food is grown, let alone the factory settings that produce the vast majority of animal products sold on the market.
These types of classes help people make more informed decisions about how, and even if, they want to consume meat, she said.
“This is integral to living a sustainable life, and it’s disconcerting that they are focusing their energies on us,” she said. “How many thousands of pigs get killed in North Carolina in industrial agriculture? They’re choosing to focus on our workshop where we’re killing one sheep.”
But Adam Sugalski, executive director of animal advocacy group OneProtest, said the group doesn’t think sustainable harvest of meat is on a higher ground morally than factory farming.
“We’re deeply disturbed by the DIY animal slaughter and butchering class at Wild Abundance, and appalled by Wild Abundance’s effort to put an ethical and ‘sacred’ spin on for-profit gruesome backyard slaughter for inexperienced hobbyists,” he said in an emailed statement.
Some of Wild Abundance’s classes focus on skills like carpentry, gardening, cooking, and permaculture. Bogwalker said vegetarians and vegans comprise up to a third of class participants.
Gary Smith, in charge of PR for the Let Live Coalition, acknowledged the school’s less meat-focused classes in an email. “Wild Abundance teaches some truly worthwhile classes in gardening and other sustainable skills, so this campaign is not intended to be entirely antagonistic,” he said. “The group would like the business to set an example of sustainability and understand the way to treat animals humanely is to not kill them.”
But Leigh, also the author of “The Ethical Meat Handbook,” said she withdrew from the event specifically over antagonism from vegan activists. She acknowledged that not all of the calls are threatening; some call her just to voice their disagreement. “But at the end of the day it’s all harassment,” she said.
A former vegan, Leigh questions whether scare tactics are the best path for animal-rights activists.
“Harassment of individuals is not the way to make changes around this topic,” she said. “It inflames the issue, creates anger and I think it’s really spurs on an urge to do things just out of defiance of those who disagree with you.”
Furthermore, she said, despite the assertions from animal activists, she has no passion for death, but rather a drive to offer more sustainable choices for those who choose to eat meat whether for health reasons or otherwise.
“I’m speaking my truth and saying there’s room for you,” she said. “Spending so much energy on disagreeing is not doing anything constructive.”
But longtime animal rights activist Stewart David said the planet suffers from a lack of activism, and we should applaud those who care enough to speak out.
“Regarding the less than flattering communication Ms. Leigh is receiving from some individuals, I will only say that I understand and share the passion of those upset with this senseless slaughter,” he said, noting Wild Abundance’s statement that the protests amounted to squabbling over personal dietary choices “remarkably arrogant and condescending.”
“To me, it simply comes down to the fact that we can choose kindness, or we can choose cruelty,” he said. “Animals are different from us in many ways, but that doesn’t give us the right to abuse and kill them, any more than it gives us the right to abuse or kill other humans because they think, look or act differently than us.”
Leigh said her choice to return to meat has inflamed some of her critics. “They’ve been direct about the fact that that makes me even more of a threat to their agenda,” she said.
She bemoaned a growing sense of entitlement, a digging in over divisive issues. “This general sense in the world that, if I disagree with you, I’m undermining you and your work,” she said. “Just because we disagree with each other doesn’t mean we need to be dangerous to each other.”