TORONTO—A confrontation between animal rights activists and the owner of a restaurant who protesters say cut up and ate a piece of meat in front of them has inflamed tensions between vegans and sustainability-minded omnivores over which diet is best for ethical eating.
Grassroots animal rights activist Marni Ugar said demonstrators returned to Antler Kitchen & Bar in Toronto on March 31, about a week after she said co-owner and chef Michael Hunter responded to a similar gathering outside the west-end eatery by carving up a large animal leg and eating the cooked meat in full view of protesters.
Ugar said the “sensationalized” confrontation on March 23 was the culmination of a series of protests against Antler, which according to the restaurant’s website, uses regionally sourced, seasonal ingredients and wild foods on its menu of Canadian cuisine, including offerings such as deer, wild boar, and bison.
The incident drew international headlines and words of support from American comedian Patton Oswalt, who tweeted that he planned to patronize the restaurant during his next visit to Toronto.
Hunter could not be reached for comment on the matter. A spokesperson for Antler said in an email that the restaurant is “taking a step back from media” and “re-focusing all efforts to servicing our customers.”
Amid the media frenzy, Ugar said she feels the message of the demonstrations has been distorted.
She does not see the conflict as one between a small-business owner and a group of protesters, but rather a moral battle to dispel the biases that lead people to value the lives of certain species of animals over others, which she sees as a form of discrimination called “speciesism.”
“It’s like there’s a hierarchy,” she said. “You’re a pig, so you’ll be in a little crate in the darkness and then be killed for food. But you’re a dog, so we’ll put a jacket on you and cuddle you at night.”
She said she also objects to Antler’s promotion of the “humane meat myth,” which she characterized as a fallacy consumers use to justify a carnivore diet based on the conditions in which the animal lived before being sent off to slaughter.
“The humane meat myth is to say this animal had a better life than the one that was factory farmed, so well, it’s all in increments,” she said.
Antler an odd target
Chris MacDonald, director of the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre at Ryerson University’s school of management, said Antler is an odd target for protest because the restaurant seems to make an effort to source their meat sustainability and reduce animal suffering.
MacDonald, who does not eat meat, said the restaurant’s business represents just a “tiny drop in the bucket” compared to the mass slaughter of animals at the hands of multinational food companies.
“If you’re going to sell meat, [Antler] is probably pretty close to doing it right. … It’s hard to imagine what a company would look like that was trying any harder to get it right short of just going out of business,” he said.
“From the activist point of view, the question is what are the right targets in the short run in terms of winning people to the cause rather than pushing them away?”
Ugar said she chose to protest Antler because, unlike fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, the owners may be receptive to a dialogue.
“I’m choosing smaller restaurants where people always feel good about going in to support the small businessman,” she said. “There’s no ethical way to eat an animal.”
Lana Joe Salant, a former vegan in Calgary, said she founded the Ethical Omnivore Movement in part to deconstruct the “black-and-white” thinking that leads some people to think that veganism is the only option for those who want their diet to reflect their values.
Not only is it possible for people to eat meat in a way that respects their bodies, the lives of animals, and the environment, said Salant, but omnivorism can be essential to promote biodiversity if practised sustainably.
Ethical omnivores advocate for regenerative agriculture through holistic land-use practices, which include the use of livestock for grazing, said Salant.
By protesting small businesses and farmers, she said the vegan movement is attacking “the guys who are actually doing it right” rather than focusing on “big agriculture.”
MacDonald said conversations about ethical eating are usually confined to rarefied corners of the internet, and while there may not be an easy way to reconcile the conflict between these “entrenched world views,” he thinks it may be useful to have the conversation play out in the public square.
“I think an awful lot of people use diet as a way of sending the world signals about themselves,” he said. “The conversation is a good one. We can perhaps agree to disagree over what the most productive way to have that conversation is.”
From The Canadian Press