Meat Consumption in Croatia Seven Times Higher Than During Yugoslavia

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Luka Oman (president of the Animal Friends association, longtime vegan and an animal rights activist), the entire Animal Friends association, animal rights experts and the general public have been actively involved in amending and updating the new Animal Protection Act, which was recently released by the Ministry of Agriculture and put up for public review. Luka and Animal Friends also organized the 9th ZeGeVege Festival, taking place on September 2 and 3. This will be the largest ZeGeVege Festival to date, and it has strong support from the city and state authorities as well as health and tourism organizations. Besides educational workshops, the festival will feature exhibits by small Croatian family farms that produce healthy, organic, vegan food, whose numbers are increasing every year.

In an interview for Nacional, Luka highlighted the changes in the new Animal Protection Act, lauded the ZeGeVege Festival as a celebration of everyone's welfare, discussed how a sustainable diet transcends the borders of vegan philosophy and local economy. He also spoke out about the the food industry (a harsh reality in which humans torture millions of animals) and it's relationship with the media, prejudices about vegetarianism and veganism, and the damage inflicted on the global economy by animal farming.

Nacional: The Ministry of Agriculture is holding a public hearing on the new Animal Protection Act until September 12. Animal Friends has been working on amendments and changes to the existing law for a year and a half. What were the most important suggestions that you think should be included and have you received any feedback from the Ministry?

Luka: It's interesting how the amendment of the Act, to our amazement and shock, was set in motion to remove the ban on fur farming. It was truly unexpected for everyone dealing with that issue because the fur farming ban went into force in 2007 with great support from citizens—more than 73% according to the latest study. That was ten years ago. After a few years, the vast majority of farmers had already reoriented production to comply with the Act, and the transition went smoothly. Reason enough is that you need 200 chinchillas to make one chinchilla fur coat, but another argument in favor of this commendable ban is that many other countries have adopted a similar ban, including Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Slovenia... which is why we can't really grasp what's been happening. You would expect that after all this time, if the Act were to be changed, it would be for the better. That's what the laws of other countries in the EU and generally in the world tell us, where you see animal protection being constantly debated on the political and social level, more and more people are really starting to care about animal welfare and rights, the vegetarian and vegan movements -- it's all connected, because general environmental and ethical awareness is on the rise. However, this lineup in the Ministry of Agriculture has heeded our advice and the will of the people, put a stop to wrecking the Act, and suggested positive changes in the Act. We believe that the Public hearing, which will last until September 12, will conclude with further improvements of the Act. We invite everyone to visit our website and get involved in the public hearing to help us achieve a better Animal Protection Act.

Nacional: You have been advocating a no-kill policy in animal shelters. In Zagreb, you have strong support from Mayor Bandic on the issue, which is not the case in most cities?

Luka: Yes. We have great cooperation with the City of Zagreb. Although the new Act proposal includes a ban on chaining dogs, Zagreb has already passed that provision, and we are advocating that on the state level. Abroad if your neighbors see you tethering your dog, they call the "animal police" straight away, it's a total humiliation! When we saw that the existing law was being changed for the worse, we didn't just want to stop the process, we also wanted to improve a few things. We have very strong public backing regarding the no-kill policy in shelters. It's a Croatian farce, because unlike Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, we don't have the problem of dog packs roaming the streets, but they still have a no-kill policy. We have shelters, the number of animals is under control, but we kill them after they spend 60 days in a shelter. For shame!

Nacional: What kind of a shelter is that? That's nonsense!

Luka: Of course! We're killing healthy animals even though there's room in shelters, just because their statutory term of 60 days is up, as if they were products or things, not living beings. On the other hand, our no-kill cities and shelters have proved that killing makes no sense because of the high adoption rates. We have to abolish the "license to kill" because there are shelters that want to profit off citizens' money and exploit legal loopholes. Unfortunately, in Croatia we have veterinary clinics whose profit went up because of "good" contracts with cities. Much has been written about that. We ask that the new Act stipulate that shelters have to be non-profit as well as no-kill. We shouldn't punish the victims, i.e. abandoned animals, but their irresponsible caregivers. The law must punish criminals, this is a change that has to happen.

Nacional: What about animal breeders?

Luka: On the one hand, we have shelters that are drowning in dogs, and on the other, people are relentlessly buying animals, legally and illegally. We haven't even begun to resolve this process, and on top of that, the law stipulates that only those who own three or more female animals are considered breeders. This provision is unfair because even a single female can "produce" up to two litters a year. Animal Friends always calls attention to the things that the people themselves have noticed and that can be changed.

Nacional: Wouldn't it be much easier for the legislature and executive in the Republic of Croatia to tighten some animal-related regulations, seeing as that would nicely fill the coffers? What about owners who keep dogs in densely populated city areas and don't train and socialize their dogs? Should the owners be fined?

Luka: Definitely, we support the thesis of equal laws for everyone. Let's go back to compulsory microchipping, which is required for everyone, but the implementation got stuck because 20-30% of dogs still aren't microchipped. Why would some caregivers duly pay for microchipping, vaccination and care, clean after their dogs, in other words, respect the law, when 20-30% of people are blatantly ignoring it? Harming their animals and the whole community in the process? We have to focus on imposing individual fines, not collective punishment. You're not required to keep a dog, so if somebody wants to, they have to do it in the animal's best interest and without disturbing other citizens. But it's not just about dogs. We usually talk about them because they're among us the most, but what about the work horses used for logging in Velebit or pulling 2.5-ton logs? Nobody cares about their suffering because it's out of our sight. The same goes for animal fights, exploiting animals for entertainment... If the law prohibits animal fighting, then it also means bullfighting, not just dog or cockfighting. The law forbids siccing an animal on another animal or human. Our suggestions are well-corroborated and aimed at the inconsistencies in how the law is being implemented. Dog races are also cruel and unnecessary and cause suffering. They are killed after their peak. So let's write it into law straight away, and not wait until it becomes a negative trend in Croatia.

Nacional: Do you think that globally speaking, there has been a shift of awareness, more thought that we share the planet equally with animals as our animal brothers and sisters, so to speak?

Luka: Definitely! That is exactly what's been happening and it doesn't sound too radical when we put it that way. It was previously inconceivable because it was all about man, totally anthropocentric, as if everything on Earth was in the service of man. Now that's changing, and it's connected to the consequences of our ruthless use of natural resources, the subject of sustainable development, the problem of drinking water, world hunger. People are starting to realize that it all relates to how we treat animals. 60 billion animals are raised and killed for food every year. You don't have to be a scientist to see that if there's more than six billion of us and if we have to plant crops, get water for those 60 billion animals, it directly affects our unsustainability on the planet. We don't have enough food and drinking water. Until now we viewed animals as a resource rather than somebody we have to live with. All these troubles that we're facing only contribute to the fact that more and more people are becoming aware that animals have the same rights as we do, the right to coexist. We are actually dealing with really serious and important issues for the survival of the entire planet, but sometimes it's still not seen as such, like, "Yeah, Animal Friends, those people who like dogs and cats..."

Nacional: Maybe the public is still unaware that animal protection goes further than pets, or, as omnivores, they don't want to think about it?

Luka: Yes, there's a reason why the topic of animal protection is increasingly present in public life, politics, in almost every ministry, linked with many social and economic sectors... The fact is that it defines us as humans and as a community, much like we're defined through our relationships with other people. How advanced we are as people depends precisely on our treatment of animals. If we only view them as products and ignore that they feel pain and suffering, but also joy, like people—which has been scientifically proven and is outside the sphere of belief—let's give them the right to their own purpose and survival! We modified them to fit us, it's so wrong. Let's give them the right to life, right to freedom, right to not be exploited by another species, let's not think of them as coats, meat, or shoes. We don't have an alibi. The lion, for example, eats other animals, but it doesn’t farm them, it takes from nature only what it needs to survive. The lion is part of the food chain and can't choose, unlike us—we can. Not that long ago our ancestors ate meat once or twice a month, but today we're being persuaded to eat it almost every day, some even three times a day.

Nacional: Raising animals for meat can actually alter the microclimate of entire regions?

Luka: That's right. Millions of people who have chosen to live as vegetarians and vegans live a better and healthier life. But let's go back to the problems of fur farming and our health. It's been proven that wearing fur can cause cancer because fur processing uses dangerous chemicals.

Nacional: Not many such facts reach the media.

Luka: Of course, it's not written about. It has been studied recently in Italy and Poland. We knew that the tanning of pelts and skins uses an awful lot of water, but it also uses dangerous chemicals and heavy metals. All of that leaks into waterways, people who work in fur and hide processing get sick, as well as the local population. However, what's come to light is how fur affects those wearing it, because those chemicals stay in the fur, and it rubs against the neck, back... It only takes a few seasons to be at risk of cancer.

Nacional: Do you advocate draconian penalties for poaching and harvesting protected animal species, such as date mussels, wolves, otters and songbirds? And what should we do about the individuals who "get off" on hunting what's forbidden?

Luka: We're aware that sometimes punishment just breeds defiance, but punishment is still very educational. If you know that you're really going to be punished, you'll think twice, especially if you could end up in prison -- but that's being neglected in Croatia. How's it possible that a ton of songbirds gets confiscated at the border just so that someone in Italy can eat only their tongues? This Italian surely didn't come to Croatia by himself. Somebody must have prepared him, welcomed him, informed him, helped him poach. Groups of people from Croatia obviously participate in the smuggling, and hunters all too often turn into poachers.

Nacional: So we should also ban hunting tourism in Croatia?

Luka: That's right. It does more harm than good in the long run. Let's start developing tourism that will promote environmentalism, protection of the environment and nature, as well as animals. Because if we're to develop that kind of tourism, we can't at the same time encourage the tourism where we say, "come kill innocent animals!", or even worse: raising wild animals so that people can come and kill them. That’s promoting sadism toward animals and counteracts all other efforts.

Nacional: Maybe the state would earn more in the long run if it hired more rangers and guards to levy hefty fines?

Luka: That's right, that's what I wanted to point out. Let's protect our animals and charge for the protection, since a lot of tourists will gladly visit our national parks and take pictures of animals outside zoos, in their natural environment. More and more people are starting to feel that zoos aren't homes of living beings. They're imprisoned there and it isn't true that we need zoos to educate children. Today, when we're able to watch documentaries about animals in their natural environment, acting naturally, shot with HD cameras, what do we need zoos for? To watch a sick lion shake its head? Is that a message we want to send our children? That it's okay to mentally torture animals? Animal Friends has the same attitude toward circuses. The circus isn't fun, it's torture. The circus can and should exist without animals. We come to the subject of exotic and dangerous animals that are kept in apartments, the law should be very strict about that. Unfortunately, the Animal Protection Act looks more like a manual for torture than a regulation that should protect them. That's what we often hear from citizens, and it has to be changed.

Nacional: Last year the world was shaken by the horrible execution of Cecil the lion from a national park in Zimbabwe by poachers and it seems that the incident brought together the media, celebrity bloggers, fashion designers to write more about wearing fur, trophy hunting, and animal testing? Everyone is appalled all of a sudden...

Luka: Yes, something has definitely changed and keeps changing. It's "in" to be environmentally and ethically aware. Politicians wearing furs get denounced from the get-go, not by animal rights activists but the media and public, the people themselves. Citizen attitudes are already on a high level, but because of the industry that is still controlling everything in the world, their positive thinking is hard to put into practice. Everybody's becoming aware that animals feel pain. More and more companies are renouncing animal testing because it's been scientifically proven that you don't get equivalent and reliable efficacy parameters and results for neither cosmetics nor drugs. A team of world scientists has been successfully working on that, the so-called anti-vivisectionists, who are fighting against animal testing not for ethical, but scientific reasons, because they maintain that animal testing is bad for science. There are plenty of methods of development that won't be harmful to either humans or animals.

Nacional: Why can't we consult some excellent animal protection laws, such as the one in the UK? Why are we wasting so much time on public hearings?

Luka: If we're not asked to do something by the EU, we go: "Well, we're not asked to do that, so why do it?", as if we can't think with our own heads. Yes, why don’t we simply look at other countries' good legal solutions and apply them here? The EU encourages a lot of things on the national level, which means that we don’t have to wait for the EU to make us do something, we should take care of our progress by ourselves.

Nacional: Are you for introducing the animal police in Croatia? There was talk that it would put a burden on the existing police forces, the budget...

Luka: It would pay off in the budget. Better regulation and enforcement of the law always pays off. Would it be so hard for a municipal services officer to go into city districts and check who has microchipped their dog? If he only took a walk down one street every day, in a year he would not only earn his pay, but also solve a problem for everyone else, as well as city services. The same goes for the police. The criminal code does cover animal abuse, but there's no police department to gather information and deal with that issue. The cooperation between municipal services officers, the police and veterinary inspectors has to improve. In 2007, we got a new Animal Protection Act, but no Animal Protection Inspectorate. The Veterinary Inspectorate first and foremost enforces the Veterinary Act. Then in the 2013 amendment to the Act, it was partially carried over to municipal services officers, who are understaffed and most of whom don't even know that it's under their jurisdiction. We should start by organizing an animal police, I believe that the City of Zagreb will again be the first to do that. Better animal protection means greater savings, which is easy to prove mathematically -- take the spay/neuter programs as an example. We also need education programs, because an educated society won't abandon or mistreat animals. Farm animals are actually the least protected by law and people know the least about their living conditions; starting with egg-laying hens who spend their entire lives in cages and are subjected to artificial light to make them lay eggs, killing off male chicks as soon as they hatch, modified poultry that in two months develop big thighs for meat... we've become a monstrous society, but people don’t want to know or hear about it.

Nacional: What is your position on GM food and GMOs in this context, seeing as the former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic signed a regulation in 2011 which authorized the import of GM corn, soy, fish meal and potatoes for animal feed? It's been our reality for quite some time.

Luka: That's right. People don't know about it, and they especially don't know why GMOs and pesticides are being shoved down our throats, poisoning and altering our food. Meeting the enormous demand for animal source foods instead of planning sustainable production. At the UN World Food Summit, people realized that the only option for our survival is to produce more food, but let's look at the catch: where does more than 90% of the soy and grains we produce go? To feed animals that we raise for food. In order to produce all those crops for them, we have to use pesticides, hormones, animal antibiotics, and, finally, GM food. If we were to use our resources rationally, we wouldn't need GMOs. Imagine the world without 60 billion imprisoned animals that we have to feed, the sheer size of the area where we could grow organic food! However, nobody wants to talk solutions, only profit. Rainforests are being cleared for cattle grazing and soy production.

Nacional: Do you have any knowledge about the increasing number of pets that get sick because of GM corn, potatoes, soy, and rice in their food?

Luka: Well, it's all interconnected! Cows eat wheat, soy, and fish meal, which they haven't evolved to eat. We feed animals wrong food and it's better we don't know where the slaughterhouse waste ends up, or what's with the hormones... 80% of antibiotics globally ends up in animal husbandry, they're not used for people, but cows, pigs, and chickens, so that they can even make it through the physically intensive farming. In Croatia, we eat seven times more meat than during Yugoslavia. Let's not even mention milk, eggs, cheese... vegetables are in the last place in our diets, but we rank very high for cardiovascular disease. You don't get blocked veins from broccoli or cabbage. We're suffering as a society, which is linked with our violent treatment of animals. Why's it bad to talk about empathy for animals? If you stop eating meat, i.e. animals, you save 10,000 animals during your lifetime. Isn't that beautiful? Live and let live. That's why we hold the ZeGeVege Festival, to give information to people to help themselves and others, humans and animals. 40,000 people visit ZeGeVege during two days each year.

Nacional: This year you've raised the ZeGeVege Festival to a high level, it's sponsored by the President of the Republic of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Croatian Parliament, City of Zagreb and Mayor Milan Bandic, various ministries, and Andrija Stampar Institute of Public Health. The number of physicians who are vegetarians and vegans is also increasing?

Luka: Yes, a plant-based diet has been proven effective for cardiovascular disease, lowering cholesterol and arterial plaque, autoimmune diseases, diabetes... On a vegan diet, it's almost impossible to get type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, stroke... It's not just about longevity, it's about the quality of life. But the industry is forcing us to eat meat, milk... to eat what they want us to, not how nature designed us and is good for us. If you get cancer, doctors tell you to stop consuming animal source foods and focus on eating plant foods, but they don't want to talk about it publicly.

Nacional: Many world-renowned physicians have come under fire from the food industry for advocating a vegetarian or vegan diet, or organic food in general, such as Dr. Oz and Dr. Weil. However, many prominent cardiologists are still speaking the truth and won't be silenced, insisting on healthy organic food for themselves.

Luka: That's right. I've often witnessed it personally in our country. The data is very clear and doctors know it. They know that your health can't be viewed in isolation. For example, it's well known that the meat industry is bad for the environment. Its emissions of harmful gases contribute more to global warming than all vehicles combined. A vegan diet has the least impact on the environment, and this has been proven. Also, we can't develop a non-violent society if there are slaughterhouses that kill 10,000 animals a day! Could we be a mentally and emotionally healthy society? What's the difference between a slaughtered pig and a slaughtered dog? Pigs too have emotions and can communicate. People are awfully opposed to killing seals in Canada, but if you tell them that the same thing happens to pigs or ducks—then it's something else. People don't like change! I know that our topics are unpopular and that people run from them, but that's a reality that we want to put a spotlight on no matter how unpleasant it is.

Nacional: The Italian media recently reported that some MPs want to pass a bill that would make it possible to prosecute and imprison parents who force a vegan diet on their children younger than 16, because several vegan children have died of malnutrition. What are your thoughts on this?

Luka: It's a matter of education and lack of information. There was one such case in Slovenia also, but later it was discovered that the child and its diet weren't even vegan. All children are vegans when they're born. We only introduce some fruits and vegetables when they're 6 months old, and meat and fish around 12 months. A vegan diet doesn't include only apples and cabbage. The diets of those children were severely lacking, so let's not talk about it superficially. Why not punish parents who raise their children on fast food or feed them junk? The vegan diet is accepted by all serious nutritionists, and we know today what are some good ways to get omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D3, vitamin B12, as well as all amino acids. The vegan diet has its standards, so let's not conflate excesses with it, let's rather encourage education. There are 160,000 vegetarians and vegans in Croatia at the moment according to the latest research. In Germany there are millions. We can't say that all those people abuse their children because most of them eliminated animal source foods in the first place to protect their health and the health of their children. Basically, people want to eat meat but not animals, they want to keep their habits even when they're bad. At the ZeGeVege Festival, everyone will be able to see the sheer number of incredible, fantastic-tasting egg, meat and fish substitutes...

Nacional: Not many people in Croatia know that in the world there are successful bodybuilders who are vegans, Olympic athletes who are also vegans...

Luka: That's exactly right. Novak Djokovic also fully transitioned to a vegan diet. A lot of athletes change their diets to improve their results. Everyone should try eating a good vegan diet for a month and see the results, few would return to their old habits. You have to learn to prepare food differently, discover the wealth of plant foods that are extremely varied and appetizing. People go vegetarian or vegan for their health, and when you bring environmentalism and ethics into the equation, you get a better society and better world. Sure, you don't have to immediately become vegetarian or vegan, but at least take one good step forward, come to ZeGeVege, get informed about a sustainable diet, it's a good start.

Nacional: And to lift the veil off another great truth, do you think that it's a coincidence that global political and social elites, celebrities, media personalities, and some of the most stunning models have proudly proclaimed that they eat healthy organic food and that there's a surprising number of vegetarians or vegans among them, some even boasting their own little health food plantations and gardens?

Luka: Yes, people should think about why more and more of those people are switching to vegetarianism or veganism, while the masses should eat the cheapest, most dangerous food. The drug industry likes sick people. The industry needs people that are sick, but still alive. A bad diet makes us into that. It's the absurdity of our time, but every person can change that and we have to believe it. Together we can make this world a better place for humans and animals.

Interviewed by Ivana Körbler for Nacional

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