Chris Huriwai: Animal Activist
by Philip McKibbin
In this article from the Summer 2019 issue of Vegetarian Living NZ, animal activist Chris Huriwai (Ngapuhi, Ngati Porou) talks about his journey toward veganism, the harmful practice of winter crop grazing, and why he believes Maori should ditch dairy.
Chris Huriwai grew up in Otaua, a very small valley west of Kaikohe. ‘We lived on a gravel road, the very last powerline.’ The only people who would go past their property were pig hunters – and those who were probably growing weed, he laughs. He was homeschooled, which meant he didn’t have much interaction with other children. ‘I was very isolated as a child, and all of my social needs were met by our pets and our companion animals that we had on the lifestyle block. So I think it was a natural progression for me to start to identify them as individuals, rather than as lawnmowers and milk machines and things like that.’
He went vegetarian when he was 13 years old. Looking back, a number of factors influenced that decision – he used to trap rats and go possum shooting; they also had roosters who would fight each other, and when there were too many of them they would be killed. He recalls the sadness he felt when the family’s pet cats died (they had some bad luck); and he used to rescue and rehabilitate animals, like sparrows and hedgehogs. ‘So there were lots of little things that led up to me having an appreciation for animals,’ he explains. But the moment he decided to go vegetarian was when he found out that his parents would be killing the family cows, Clara and Maisy, who they had bottle-raised since they were calves. They had reared them to be dairy cows, but eventually they realised that they didn’t have enough space on their property, or enough time to properly graze them.
As an adult, Chris’s awareness turned into activism. He went vegan 10 years after becoming vegetarian, when he watched the documentary Earthlings with his partner Sam. (She’s vegan, too – and, like Chris, she’s a world unicycling champion.) Most recently, he ventured to the South Island with a group of activists to document the abusive practice of winter crop grazing. They stayed in Mossburn (between Queenstown and Invercargill), and what they witnessed was appalling. ‘It was the Wild South down there,’ he tells me.
In winter, farmers have to use different means of feeding cows, Chris explains. Grass doesn’t grow fast enough down there, so they use crops like kale and fodder beet. They can’t let the cows eat as much as they want, though, because the crops have a high caloric density, and if they overeat they could die. So they allow the cows a small area, which they slowly expand to give them access to the new crop. But because the cows are constantly trampling the same ground – rather than being moved regularly from paddock to paddock – it becomes very muddy. ‘There are obvious environmental concerns,’ Chris says, ‘because of creating all of that mud, the soil compaction, the excess amount of nutrients coming out of the cows – mainly the nitrogen – that gets concentrated in this very small spot of land, and then when it rains it all goes into the waterways.’ There are welfare concerns, too. The cows don’t have anywhere dry to lie down, and because they’re constantly in the mud, their wet hooves can lead to hoof rot and lameness. But the main issue is that the cows are mostly dairy cows who are about to calve. ‘These are pregnant mothers who are about to give birth, and their comfort is compromised,’ he says. This violates the five freedoms, one of which is being able to express natural behaviours. ‘Giving birth in mud is not a natural behaviour.’
Although the group didn’t interfere with the cows – their aim was to capture footage to send to animal activist groups who campaign for better welfare standards for cows, as well as environmental groups – the farmers decided to interfere with them. One farmer approached them early on in the campaign and asked what they were doing. When he saw that they were taking photographs of ‘his’ cows, he wasn’t happy. He decided to take a photograph of their van, which he then shared on social media. That’s when the harassment started. One farmer rammed their vehicle while they were inside it; the activists were threatened, and told to get off the farmers’ property, even though they stuck to the main road, and only took footage from there; and on several occasions, they were followed, even as they travelled between towns. One night, when they arrived at the home of the person they were staying with, their van was boxed in by three other vehicles. At one point, one of the farmers even threw a rock through one of its windows. And – as if to make a point – they even staged a barbeque nearby. ‘Everything we did was completely above board, completely legal,’ Chris tells me. He thinks that the actions the farmers took indicate that they are well aware their practices aren’t as good as they should be. ‘We highlighted particularly bad farms,’ he admits, ‘but, without exaggerating, those that were breaching welfare and environmental standards were probably about 80% of the farms we saw.’
In light of the footage they captured – and in spite of the farmers’ dirty tactics – Damien O’Connor, the Agriculture Minister, has put together a task force, the aims of which are to highlight the problems with those farming practices and ensure that the same violations don’t happen next season. The activist who led the campaign in Southland, Angus Robson, is on that task force. Chris tells me he’s very pleased with that outcome.
While Chris admits that he found his trip to the South Island exciting, most of his activism is done in Auckland. You may have seen him at the Animal Rights March in August – he was the opening speaker. He also co-founded and coordinates Auckland Vegan Actions, a group which runs animal rights campaigns. One of their actions is called Make the Connection: they use graphic images of animal agricultural practices to draw people into conversations ‘and push them toward a vegan lifestyle’. This is necessary, Chris explains, to lessen demand for animal products, which in turn affects supply. He assists with animal rights campaigns whenever he can, and if there’s something on the news, he’ll call the radio stations and give his perspective. But most of his impact is online. He produces content that makes people aware of what’s going on in the animal agriculture industries. His main focus is on the ‘greenwashing’ that companies like Fonterra and Dairy NZ engage in.
Unsurprisingly given the memory of Clara and Maisy, Chris is especially passionate about New Zealanders’ treatment of cows. He is from Ngapuhi and Ngati Porou, and he tells me that he believes Maori, especially, should be ditching dairy. He cites the high rates of lactose intolerance among Maori – between 30-60%, compared to 9% for Pakeha – as one of the main reasons for this view. It makes sense, he says: cows have been in Aotearoa for 200 years, whereas Europeans have been consuming milk for thousands of years. It is for this reason that Maori and other indigenous people, unlike many Pakeha, are unable to continue producing the lactase enzyme which is required for properly digesting lactose – an enzyme that most of us gradually lose after infancy. Not only that – the primary chronic diseases Maori suffer from, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure, result from foods containing saturated fat. The Ministry of Health reports that most of the saturated fat New Zealanders consume comes from dairy products like cheese.
I say to Chris that when I talk to Maori about vegetarianism, I often find that we’re very concerned about hauora (health) and te taiao (the environment), but generally less interested in animal rights. Chris says he’s noticed the same thing. ‘It’s very tricky, because hunting, fishing, kai moana [seafood] are central parts of modern – and probably traditional – Maori diets.’ We know we should be taking care of the environment, and there are clear reasons for avoiding industrially-produced animal products, but a life without killing or eating meat tends to go against typical narratives of “living off the land”, which Maori identify with.’ He points to killing possums as an example. ‘This is the role of a kaitiaki [guardian], many would argue. If you accept that possums are causing harm to native trees and are okay with trapping and killing them, it makes no practical sense to not eat the dead animal’ – although this is rare, he says, because most are killed in areas where poison is used.
Chris tells me he understands why many Maori find the idea that you should never eat meat a joke – because traditionally, for a lot of iwi, nothing was wasted. ‘In reality,’ he says, ‘the majority of food Maori purchase is industrially produced, so I see it as my job to reiterate how important it is for us to make dietary decisions that align with modern life, instead of relying on ingrained behaviour.’ There are numerous complex considerations. ‘The wider argument around consuming an animal product being objectively wrong is such a foreign concept to people who seek to live a kind of symbiotic relationship with nature,’ he says. Most Maori love animals, and we do sympathise with animals in factory farming; we’re also very critical of modern fishing methods. ‘But, yeah, that wider argument about animals inherently having rights that we should respect is a difficult conversation to have.’
What does he think is the biggest issue facing vegetarians and vegans today? All of us – not just vegetarians and vegans – should be focusing on the impact our actions are having on the environment, he says. As vegetarians and vegans, we should also be concentrating on coordinated campaigns that have measurable outcomes, and finding ways to work together. ‘There’s a lot of different groups that have different opinions on the exact way to advocate for animals, and we spend a lot of energy arguing amongst ourselves and criticising each other.’ In light of this, his main focus right now is on fostering solidarity – ‘because all the energy we spend criticising each other is energy that we could be putting towards animal rights.’ He thinks that vegans should try to support new vegans, and those who are open to veganism but aren’t quite there yet – like a lot of vegetarians. ‘As important as it is to understand the intricacies of veganism, and to make that clear to people, I think when we focus on perfectionism, we scare a lot of people away, and we actually hinder the goals that we have.’ If we can find ways to work together, our activism will be much more effective, and sooner or later we’ll succeed in creating a better world not only for us as people, but for other animals as well. ‘But better sooner rather than later!’ he says.
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