Summer/Fall 2018

    Issue: Summer/Fall 2018

    Table of Contents

    • by Dustin Rhodes

      Last year when my family was talking about possible vacation spots, I blurted out, “I want to go where I can see monkeys everywhere.” Of course it also had to be affordable and not terribly hard to get to.

      After endless Google searches, the advice of friends and some serious consults with the New York Times’ budget travel section, it seemed we were destined to go to Costa Rica. As a bonus, capuchin and howler monkeys—the “rulers of Costa Rica,” as I was later told by a tour guide there—are favorite monkeys of mine and you can see them practically everywhere.

      Without hyperbole, Costa Rica is probably the most stunningly beautiful place I have ever been—and not because of the influence of Western civilization but as a result of the landscape itself: There are pristine coastlines and breathtaking rainforests within driving distance of one another. And while the Central American country is small—from north to south its only 180 miles—25 percent of the land is actually protected in the form of national parks and wildlife refuges.

      Impressively, while Costa Rica takes up only .03 percent of the earth’s surface, it contains six percent of its biodiversity. There are more than 130 species of fish, 220 of reptiles, 1,000 butterflies (10 percent of the world’s butterflies are in Costa Rica), 9,000 plants, 20,000 species of spiders and 35,000 species of insects—all of which make Costa Rica a veritable wildlife watching paradise. Truth be told, that’s all I really wanted to do during this vacation.

      So with the help of a travel agent, we planned everything around seeing sloths, howler monkeys, capuchins, enormous lizards, bats and so much more. I won’t bore you with details of my perfect vacation; what I came away with was far more life-changing than relaxation and wonder. The whole week was a life-lesson in conscientious wildlife watching, which really struck me as very different from our culture here in the U.S. While we have many breathtaking national parks and refuges of our own—each with diverse landscapes and animals who reside within them—we are much more lax when it comes to preserving nature and wildlife habitat, as we tend to see ourselves as the center of the universe, rather than just a part of it.

      In Costa Rica, what I found was an intense determination to always err on the side of caution—which is to say Costa Ricans have a deep respect for the natural world that I have not experienced in any other place I have visited. Each day of my vacation, I learned a new way of respecting and preserving the landscape—ways that I can apply to my own behavior here. And here’s hoping you will, too.


      Before arriving in Costa Rica, I had read in multiple books that bug spray and sunscreen are essential items, especially now that Zika virus has arrived. However, Costa Rica’s wildlife has suffered because of sunscreen and bug sprays applied by people inside of parks and refuges.

      In one park, our tour guide told us that bug spray had decimated a rare species of frog, and in the process of trying to help the frog recover they closed down the trail for a decade and permanently banned the application of these products within the park and refuge system. In other words, you should still apply sunscreen and bug spray, but you cannot do it within the protected habitats of animals. In fact, most of the parks we went to had guards who did not allow you even possess sunscreen and bug spray beyond the entrance.


      I live in the mountains where every body of water, no matter how big or small or how fast the rapids are, is called a “swimming hole.” Some of the most famous trails, waterfalls, rivers, hikes, scenery in the world are where I live in Asheville, North Carolina, but you won’t find a body of water without people.

      In Costa Rica, there is a much more mindful approach to water. For instance, in Tenorio Volcano National Park, there is a hike to the most beautiful waterfall and shockingly azure blue “swimming hole” you’ve ever seen— except that swimming (or even touching!) the water is forbidden so that it remains undisturbed and unadulterated.

      There were even guards surrounding Celeste Waterfall, to ensure that tourists (and a few locals) complied. Again, Costa Rica does not want bug spray and chemical residues seeping into these pristine waters, which is home for many species of animals.

      And yet, as a habitual sunscreen user myself, I have never thought twice about wading or swimming in any body of water I come across at home— because it’s “just what we do.” But that doesn’t make it right.


      Straying from paths is discouraged the world over, even here in the U.S., because it destroys precious plant and animal life and habitat. I have lived near the Blue Ridge Parkway my entire life, and routinely I notice signs about not wandering from the path; but I also notice that people do and that some plants in my area are on the brink of extinction because of it.

      In Costa Rica, trails are routinely closed to humans— sometimes for many years—because even when humans stay on a trail, eventually the animals around it choose to move away from heavily trafficked areas.

      In one particular park we went to, Costa Rica was preparing to close a particular trail in the coming spring for a minimum of seven years so, as my tour guide communicated, “The animals would return.”

      BE QUIET

      One popular park in Costa Rica— Manuel Antonio National Park, on the Central Pacific coast—was also the most crowded. The lines to get in were long, and once inside there were people everywhere. But what was striking: It felt like being inside a library— completely quiet.

      People moved slowly, talked quietly, if at all. Our tour guide spoke to us in a hushed voice. Why? So the animals would not be disturbed (and also so the tour guide could hear them). Our tour guide told us plenty of people come from all over the world to experience Costa Rica but can’t put down their cell phones and stop checking email long enough to connect with nature. I saw that, too.


      It’s hard to leave the modern world, but I was surprised when I came home to discover that I had taken less than 20 photos during the whole trip. Instead, I returned with incredible memories and life lessons—the most important of which still seems to be: Be quiet, keep your eyes open, tread lightly, literally and figuratively, and pay attention. We were rewarded for our quiet attention by seeing sloths, bats, butterflies, birds, howler monkeys, capuchins and so much more. And the quiet itself was restorative. Costa Rica was restful, relaxing, beautiful, exciting and, more than anything, inspiring. I learned how to be a better steward for animals and the environment wherever I visit.


      Why a photographic safari with Craig Berger is one of the best ways to experience African wildlife. 

      Craig Berger found his calling in the late 90’s after being asked by a travel agent friend if he would be interested in guiding a group of senior travelers on an excursion to Africa.

      “I loved it immediately and became a guide within a year,” said Berger, who spoke with Friends of Animals from his office in South Africa where he now runs his own company, Oasis Africa Photo Safaris.

      Berger’s company only offers small-group custom African photo safaris throughout southern Africa, which provides the best opportunities for the trip of a lifetime. He works one-on-one with interested travelers to customize their experience and fit their needs and budget, and travels with them—doing everything from driving and setting up the perfect photo opportunities to cooking meals.

      Berger has a true taste for adventure and always advises his clients to stay away from so-called “luxury resorts,” which are typically small and actually keep animals fenced in. Instead, he steers them towards experiencing the beauty of South Africa’s bountiful nature reserves and national parks.

      “It’s not every day that you can drive down a dusty bumpy road and see amazing zebras or kudus or wildebeests,” he said. “It is pure excitement, especially when that big bull elephant shakes his head and trumpets at you for being in his space.”

      During the interview, Berger, who is from Weston, Connecticut, shares more about why he continues to answer the call of the wild and why he lives by this motto: “Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but photos. Waste nothing but time. Love and respect nature or it is gone forever.”


      It is so rewarding on many levels. I get to spend quality time in wildlife reserves hunting for another perfect view. I am always thrilled to give my clients more than they ever expected to get from a safari. In truth, my job is quite easy because the product I’m selling (experiencing African nature and wildlife) is so superb. What is challenging? Ha! Everything about doing business in Africa is a challenge. You get used to it, and when things go wrong, you just have to use the ancient expression, “Hey, it’s Africa.”


      Maybe because I am a one-man show most of the time. I market and run my tours without using travel agents or safari outfitters. I will only have, at most, four clients in the vehicle. These days, I think most people view a safari as part of a large group of strangers. They travel in large buses then do game drives in Open Safari Vehicles (OSVs). I see few other safari companies providing the bespoke service of a small-group safari. People seeking a safari adventure should do their homework and find out what is best for them.


      Oh, gosh, don’t get me started with stories! I’ve only had a couple of clients I regretted, and the rest of my clients helped create great moments. I’ve had many dozens of sightings that make amazing memories. Last October, I came upon 10 or 12 resting wild dogs (also called the African hunting dog) and then I noticed a lone male hyena with them. They are enemies, traditionally, but these guys were buds. I asked a few friends but no one had ever seen this before. I’ve seen an elephant give birth. I’ve also seen a mama elephant attack a small car sensing danger to her wee one because there were two people sticking out of the skylight taking snaps (a big big no no in most wildlife reserves).

      Another time, I ran out of film one time while in a hide (a secluded area used for taking pictures of wildlife). I went back to the car for another roll, and while returning I saw something out of the side of my eye—two large male lions walking next to me at 20 feet. Be still my heart! The lions couldn’t have cared less about me. They changed course and headed down to the waterhole.


      My safari clients come with all skill levels. Some are super photographers who need no help, but others have never made a good photo in their lives. Most are in the middle level with their talent. There are dozens of small tips I can share but some want no help at all while others really appreciate it. I want my clients to take home great photos (trophies?). I love it when clients take a super snap. They did it themselves and they love what they created. I love it because I helped by finding that beautiful creature to shoot (meaning click click, not bang bang).


      Trophy hunting is very big business in Africa. Hunting advocates make wild claims that only hunting can save the creatures. I have led African safaris for over 25 years. I have witnessed the ever increasing numbers of Americans and Europeans coming to South Africa for the sole purpose of killing animals who are fenced in on game farms or private reserves and who have never been wild and have no fear of humans. Not all trophy hunting is “canned.”

      In other parts of Africa, like Zimbabwe, big game areas are classified as Game Management Areas. They are protected open wildlife areas on land belonging to local communities in which animals are protected and mainly used for organized hunting and tourist safaris. I made it a policy to refuse to sell any hunting safaris, and I even refuse to sell a wildlife safari to anyone also going on a trophy hunt with someone else. It hasn’t happened many times, but I could not be an accomplice in any way to animal murder.

      It is a mystery to me why trophy hunting is so popular. Do people who spend so much money for a hunting trip to Africa really envision themselves as the great white hunter of lore? Are they brave men and women who put their lives at risk in order to save mankind from this evil creature?

      The truth is that very few canned hunts are conducted on foot; most are done from the back of a pickup truck while seated in a nice chair with a shooting platform. And at their feet, of course, is the cooler with cold beers and Jack Daniels. Places like YouTube and Facebook have many shared trophy hunting accounts.

      The brave white hunter, ear to ear smile, fat gut, and gun in hand, blood purposely smeared on pants, attempts to show all of his besties and neighbors what a hunter he or she was (and there are lots of women going hunting). Trophy hunting is another topic that could be discussed ad infinitum. I’m never going to convince a hunter that he is wrong to kill for pleasure.

      He’s not going to convince me of anything because I wouldn’t give him the time of day to start with.


      For sure. On one of my favorite roads in southern Kruger National Park, I often had multiple rhino sightings along the 20km route; six here, two there, one here, four there, and two near the end of the dirt road. I’ve only seen one rhino on that road in three years. I see far fewer rhinos all over.

      Over all, I do think the numbers have decreased. Several years ago, overpopulation was openly discussed in southern Africa. Many people in the industry called for a massive culling of the elephant numbers, but there was such an outcry that this never happened. Perhaps one way they did manage the numbers was to decommission many dams and water holes. The reasoning was that man was artificially supporting wildlife and that it was best to let nature return to what it was 100-plus years ago. My problem with that concept is that 100-plus years ago, there were no fences or towns creating barriers to natural wildlife migration.

      Man has, for the most part, put the wildlife in a reserve and prevented them from roaming as they have always done.


      Sort of, but mine is the easier job compared to the dedicated people I know in the animal rights field. You guys do great work, and you invest much more emotional energy than I do. I try to do what little I can to make people aware of the many threats against wildlife worldwide from poaching to trophy hunting. But I’m glad there are better people than me doing the heavy work of animal advocacy. For more information about Craig Berger and his company, Oasis Africa, visit


      It’s hard to admit, but I’d never thought of coral as a living, breathing animal, until my eyes brimmed with tears while I was watching a screening of “Chasing Coral,” the documentary that puts a spotlight on coral bleaching—the mass ocean epidemic where coral polyps release too much of their algae and starve themselves.

      Seeing their brilliant colorful polyps and tentacles moving around, and teeming with life—one quarter of all ocean species depend on coral for food and shelter—turn ghostlike from bleaching was unnerving.

      The goal of the film, which is available on Netflix, is to educate the masses on why coral bleaching happens: Our oceans are warming as they are forced to absorb massive, harmful amounts of carbon that humans release into the atmosphere.

      During a Q&A after the screening of the film at Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut, I learned that in addition to climate change, other stress factors include pollution from urban and agricultural pesticide runoff and sedimentation from undersea activities like dredging.

      Compounding the problem, according to a new study published in the journal Science, is the 11.1 billion plastic items that entangle the Asian Pacific’s coral reefs, including discarded fishing equipment. But all is not lost.

      The biggest takeaway for me was that whether you live near a coral reef or not, you can prevent stress factors and plastic pollution in your local waterways, some of which empty into the sea, and that’s empowering. Because in doing so, you will be keeping an untold number of marine animals out of harm’s way.


      There is a substantial body of evidence documenting the harmful effects of aquatic plastic debris on river and marine organisms, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It has been estimated that plastic marine debris adversely affects at least 267 species globally, including 86% of sea turtles, 44% of seabirds and 43% of marine mammals.’

      Sea turtles, for example, readily consume plastic bags because they look so much like jellyfish. And seabirds are prone to ingesting microplastic debris that floats. The ingestion of plastic particles can lead to impairment of feeding due to blockage of the digestive system, decreased mobility, reduction of reproductive capacity, infection, suffocation and starvation.

      Microplastics come from large pieces of plastic that eventually break up or from health and beauty aids like exfoliating facial scrubs and toothpastes that use synthetic microbeads. While microbeads are only a portion of the problem, thankfully Congress passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. 

      The deadline to stop manufacturing rinse-off cosmetics was July 1, 2017 and the deadline to stop the introduction of these products into interstate commerce is July 1, 2018. Rinse-off cosmetics that are also considered non-prescription drugs cannot be manufactured after July 1, 2018 and cannot be sold after July 1, 2019.

      Aquatic plastic debris not only affects animals, it can alter their habitat. As debris accumulates, habitat structure may be modified, light levels may be reduced in underlying waters and oxygen levels depleted.

      Friends of Animals’ headquarters happens to be near a plethora of important coastal habitats, including beaches and dunes, coastal wetlands, shellfish reefs and freshwater wetlands. That’s because we are located along Long Island Sound, a tidal estuary of the Atlantic Ocean. Estuaries are places where saltwater from the ocean mixes with fresh water from rivers draining from the land, and they are among the most productive ecosystems on earth.

      Long Island Sound was declared a National Estuary of Significance by Congress in 1987. But estuaries can become dumpsters for human waste.

      “The biggest threat to Long Island Sound is the pressure of people living on it. You have 20 million people living within 50 miles of the coast. All of that activity backs up into the Long Island Sound,” said Leigh Shemitz, president of Soundwaters, a nonprofit established to protect the Sound through education and action.

      Shemitz points out that pesticides from people’s lawns negatively impact the Sound, but old-fashioned litter is one of the biggest issues—after a big rain, the coastline will be scattered with litter. Items such as coffee cups, single-use plastic carry-out bags, produce bags and deflated balloons that didn’t make it to a garbage receptacle or that overflowed will eventually flow to Long Island Sound. And microplastics are assaulting the Sound too.

      Likewise, at any given time, an estimated 165 million plastic particles are floating in estuaries that stretch from the Tappan Zee Bridge, along the lower Hudson River, south to Sandy Hook Bay in New Jersey, according to a 2016 study released by the environment group NY/NJ Baykeeper. Eight-five percent were microplastics, about the size of a grain of rice.


      The best way to stop plastic pollution is at its source, says Sandra Meola, outreach director for NY/NJ Baykeeper. She points out that Americans must do something about their plastic addiction because it just doesn’t make sense to use single-use products of an indestructible material for minutes and then discard them when they stay in the environment for hundreds of years.

      She’s encouraged when she sees local governments and schools taking a stand against Americans’ obsession with convenience and single-use plastics.

      For instance, Rahway, New Jersey, has long banned plastic-foam containers, and New York City has eliminated styrofoam trays in all of its public schools. That decision in 2013 eliminated 860,000 styrofoam trays used per day in 1,800 schools. Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Orlando, and Dallas public schools have followed suit. NY/ NJ Baykeeper is currently advocating for a New Jersey bill that would ban styrofoam in all public schools and universities in the state.

      Other foot soldiers in the movement to reverse Americans plastic addiction are notable cities such as Austin, Cambridge, Chicago and Seattle that have banned single-use plastic carry-out bags (unfortunately this doesn’t include plastic produce bags), and so have the entire states of California and Hawaii.

      November marked a year since the ban went into effect in California. Preliminary data showed that plastic bags, both the banned and still legal variety, accounted for 3.1% of the litter collected from the state’s beaches during the 2017 Coastal Cleanup Day, down from 7.4% in 2010, according to the Los Angeles Times.

      “It’s an evolution of the consumer that we are really focusing on, combined with education and legislative efforts,” Meola said. Shemitz concurs: “In terms of the Long Island Sound, the challenge with education is getting people living along it to see that small daily actions add up to incredible impact, positive or negative. That’s a pretty powerful story.”

      FoA couldn’t agree more. That’s why we’ve rounded up the best tips from Soundwaters, NY/ NJBaykeeper and the EPA for anyone wanting to lighten their impact on the aquatic ecosystems in their own backyard this summer.

      Use reusable cloth carry-out bags, (like FoA’s tote bag) when shopping for groceries, takeout, clothing, etc. and reusable produce bags
      Each person uses on average more than 700 plastic bags a year, according to Sandra Meola of NY/NJBaykeeper. Whether it’s single-use or thicker plastic bags, or even paper bags, all of them end up as waste. Interestingly, single-use plastic grocery bags were not introduced into the U.S. until 1979 and didn’t become mainstream until 1985, according to “How Plastic Became So Popular,” an article published in The Atlantic magazine in 2014. Society can survive without them! Some reusable cloth and mesh produce bags we found that can be purchased online are: Ecobags;;;;

      Carry a reusable water bottle
      Each week Americans buy enough plastic water bottles to circle the earth five times, according to the EPA. Reusable glass or stainless steel bottles are better for our waterways. There are plenty of water filtration systems to ensure water from your tap is healthy and tastes great. And since a lot of places have refillable water stations now, you can save money too. Here are a few bottle recommendations from NY/NJ Baykeeper: Love Bottles; Faucet Face; Life Factory; bkr; Klean Kanteen and Pura Stainless. 

      Skip the straw
      Americans use 500 million plastic straws per day. Meola reports that straws are one of the most common items found during their cleanup efforts. Say, “no straw please” when ordering a drink at a restaurant. Contact the manager of your frequented food service establishments and ask them if they would be willing to only provide straws upon request. She offers these glass straw options: Glass dharma; Simply Straws and reuseit.

      Pack a waste-free lunch.
      Do away with throw-away lunch packaging. Each child who brings a brown bag lunch to school every day generates 67 pounds of waste each year. Replace juice cartons with a thermos. Friends of Animals Insulated lunch bag with Velcro closure and a handle to carry is just $7.

      Bring your own to-go mug with you to the coffee shop, smoothie shop or restaurant.
      It’s a great way to reduce lids and plastic cups.

      Ask your community to support a single-use plastic carry-out bag ban or plastic foam container ban
      On March 12, 2018, Greenwich, Connecticut, a town right in FoA’s backyard, became the second Connecticut municipality (Westport was the first) to ban single-use plastic carry-out bags. Jurisdictions that have instituted similar bans have seen significant changes. One year after Los Angeles County implemented its single-use plastic carry-out bag ban, there was a 95% reduction in the distribution of all single-use bags, including a 30% reduction in paper bags. San Jose has seen an 89% reduction of plastic bag litter in storm drains, a 60% reduction in creeks, and a 59% reduction in city streets. You can find LA County’s legislation here and if you would like to introduce it in your own city or town. 

      Rid your school of Styrofoam trays
      In 2013, NYC announced the decision to eliminate 860,000 Styrofoam trays used per day in all 1,800 public schools, sparking the formation of the 6-City Urban School Food Alliance for collectively purchasing compostable plates to drive down cost and maximize purchasing power of the six cities. As of September of 2015, NYC, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Orlando, and Dallas eliminated half a billion Styrofoam trays per year from landfills. Take the first step to rid your school of Styrofoam by starting a Cafeteria Ranger program. Get started here.

      Check labels on personal care products and non-prescription drugs.
      President Obama signed the Microbead Free Waters Act in December 2015 that is phasing out all plastic microbeads by July 2019. Until then, avoid products that say polyethylene and polypropylene on the ingredient label. Check out NY/NJ Baykeeper’s plastic free product database.  

      Participate in the next International Coastal Cleanup, Sept. 15, 2018, or start one of your own.
      Every year during Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, hundreds of thousands of volunteers comb lakes, rivers and beaches around the world for trash. For over three decades, more than 12 million volunteers have collected over 220 million pounds of trash. Visit this site for more information. And Surfrider Foundation Chapters often hold cleanups monthly or more frequently. Visit this site for more info.

    • by Fran Silverman

      As if hunting wasn’t gruesome and immoral enough, California has reversed a long-standing ban on allowing dogs with GPS collars to assist in hunting mammals, a move Friends of Animals is challenging in court.

      California prohibits the use of dogs to pursue bears and bobcats, but allows hound dogs to pursue pigs and deer. It had prohibited the use of GPS collars on hound dogs, but in December 2017 the California Fish and Game Commission, bowing to sport-hunting interests, moved to lift the ban claiming the prohibition was no longer necessary, would aid in the retrieval of lost dogs and would have no harmful effect on the environment.

      But GPS collars create far more threats to wildlife and dogs themselves than hunters care to admit. 

      “Hunters can use GPS collars to release more, and often untrained dogs, farther away where they do not have control over the dogs. This will result in increased wildlife encounters where dogs may kill or maul non-target wildlife and may be the target of an attack themselves,’’ Jennifer Best, assistant legal director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program, wrote in a statement to the commission.

      GPS collars also disrupt the natural behavior of non-targeted wildlife. Releasing a large pack of unleashed dogs will lead wildlife to abandon foraging areas or nesting sites and will increase stress and risk of predator attacks, FoA noted.

      Additionally, the collars increase poaching opportunities. California’s Turn in Poachers and Polluters program found that some of the most commonly poached species are deer and most poaching occurs in rural areas.

      Smart phones and GPS devices enable poachers to find their prey more easily and provide opportunities for hunters to signal others that their hounds have treed a bear or other wildlife that poachers may want.

      “GPS collars/treeing switches enable poachers to easily reach cornered, treed, or indiscriminate wildlife,’’ Best said. “It also allows poachers to release dogs in more remote areas, where it is easier to evade law enforcement. Poachers can kill vulnerable wildlife and then delete any data stored on the GPS tracker device to ensure they escape detection. GPS collars also make it easier for hunters to collude with hounders or guides to participate in hunts of species that are illegal to hound hunt, such as bears or bobcats.”

      FoA, along with the Public Interest Coalition (PIC), has been fighting several previous attempts by the Commission to lift the ban.

      “GPS collars will allow hunters to release untrained dogs that range out of control for many miles, and follow the dogs on a digital screen,’’ said PIC Chair Marilyn Jasper. “Hunters are no longer physically involved in the actual hunt or chase. When GPS signals indicate dogs have stopped, hunters cannot know what the dogs are up to, nor can they immediately stop dog attacks on vulnerable wildlife, such as fawns or endangered species. The dogs, themselves, will  be at greater risk of being attacked by predators without hunters being able to intervene in time.”

      The commission’s actions in favor of hunters, who represent less than one percent of the state’s population and whose numbers continue to dwindle, are out of step with the wishes of most state residents and wildlife watchers, who have pumped more than $3 billion into the state.

      Most states don’t even allow hound hunting of deer—only 11 do currently and most are in the South. California is among many states that also don’t allow drones in hunting.

      “Here we have a small group of public officials that are beholden to hunting interests willing to disregard the fact that most Californians find the practice of killing these animals senseless and barbaric,’’ said FoA’s Wildlife Law Program Director Michael Harris.

      In the lawsuit filed in Superior Court in California, FoA, along with the PIC and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, contend that allowing the use of GPS collars on hounds violates state regulations that require hunters to be in control of their dogs at all times. Lifting the ban violates penal codes that make it a misdemeanor to cause any animal to fight with any other type of animal for the person’s amusement or gain and the rules of fair chase.

      The Game Commission also failed to conduct adequate environmental impact reviews when it announced notice it was lifting the ban, the lawsuit states

    • by Fran Silverman

      In a busy dining hall at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Jolene Leuchten, 19, was camped out at a table with four friends, tucking into noodles with peanut sauce. She had waited online quite a while for her lunch. That’s because that pasta is popular with all the students at Wesleyan and lines for the meal snaked around the cafeteria.

      Leuchten and her friends were enjoying not only the peanut noodles that day, but an array of vegan options—steamed broccoli and wild rice salad were also being served, as was steamed quinoa, French lentils, marinated locally-sourced tofu, and roasted red beets, which were side dishes at other food stations.

      Like many freshmen, Leuchten had chosen her college carefully, and one important criterion was whether plant-based entrees would be plentiful on campus.

      “I knew Wesleyan had vegan options every single day and lots of them,’’ she said. “In fact, a lot of people find it easier being vegan at school rather than home.”

      Sophia Korostoff-Larsson, 19, agreed. She said she had been considering becoming vegan for a while but when she arrived at Wesleyan, she made the commitment because vegan options were so available.

      The students said they found the campus culture very supportive.

      “I feel like at Wesleyan it’s so common to be vegan. If you sit down at any table at lunch, there’s bound to be a vegan,’’ said Leuchten. 

      Every other Tuesday, the entire dining hall offers only meatless options, a request by vegan and vegetarian students. And while Veg Out Tuesdays met with some pushback from some students—including many athletes—other students are gravitating toward the plant-based meals.

      And student groups are trying to spread the word about veganism. The campus group Veg Out sponsored a sign out front of the dining hall that describes in detail where to find protein in a plethora of plantbased foods. The campus dining service, Bon Appetit, a food company dedicated to locally-grown plantbased meals that services Wesleyan, also held an information session on the social and environmental impact of food production and the sources of Wesleyan’s food, some of which comes from campus gardens.


      Chef Stephanie Zinowski, a vegan, has been at Wesleyan for 15 years. She said in that time, she’s had to double her orders from vegan-based ingredients to keep up with demand. When Wesleyan hired her to cook vegan meals, she said, the administration thought she was going to need to cook for just a handful of students to keep them happy. Zinowski, who became a vegan almost 40 years ago, said so much has changed since then, when the only options for vegan on-campus meals were peanut butter and jelly and the salad bar.

      Now cultural awareness, an ever-increasing array of vegan ingredients and increasing demand by students has changed college dining halls.

      “Forty years ago, it was, here is your one option for lunch, eat it or don’t,’’ said Zinowski. “Things have changed so much since I became vegan.”

      There’s no doubt colleges have been paying more attention to their dining halls and food options as they compete with each other for students.

      Just four years ago, only 28 percent, or 225, of 1,500 four-year colleges and universities surveyed in the U.S. served vegan menu items. Now 62 percent—960—serve vegan food, according to a recent survey.

      Maisie Ganzler, chief strategy and brand officer for Bon Appetit, which services 75 colleges nationwide, said so many students are eating less meat that campuses have to respond with better, more attractive vegan and vegetarian meals. Six percent of U.S. residents identify as vegan, up from one percent in 2014, according to a Top Trends in Prepared Foods 2017 report.

      “In general, chefs are more open to concentrating on non-meat dishes as being the center of the plate, as being something that can be a great outlet for culinary creativity and skills,’’ said Ganzler.

      Bon Appetit supports a farm-to-fork program and requires its dining halls to locally source a percentage of its foods. Chefs share recipes and they do not have to follow a corporate menu. Eric Pecherkiewicz, a registered dietitian at Oberlin, said the college has been exploring vegan meals from a variety of cultures and countries. Students, he said, keep the dining staff on their toes, telling the vegan chefs what they want more or less of during meals.

      “We have a lot of feedback mechanisms,’’ said Pecherkiewicz. “A lot of times they will tell us things we don’t think about, like can we get a vegan cream cheese alternative.”

      At MIT, chef Brian P. McCarthy knows intrinsically what vegans want because he is one. He has experienced his own struggles of trying to find meals at a company or college that had meager vegan options. At college campuses, where vegans are paying the same amount as meat eaters for their food service, it’s a question of fairness, he noted.

      “My first year at MIT I put in a soy milk dispenser. I knew as a vegan that was a magical thing because now you can have cereal. Now students are asking for the soy milk dispensers at other dining halls on campus,’’ said McCarthy, who joined the cooking staff at MIT five years ago.

      “I started buying vegan burgers instead of vegetarian burgers and all vegan bread and Hampton Creek mayonnaise if I make potato salad.”

      Public colleges and universities are also making vegan options more available. At Salisbury University in Maryland, which contracts with Sysco for its dining service, Plato’s Plate, which opened three years ago, is a popular dining station in the main cafeteria.

      “In years past, there was less participation and less options to offer students and students would eat less of the vegan entrees. Now we don’t have any leftovers,’’ said Susah Noah, assistant director of Salisbury’s dining services.

      The dining hall has also instituted meatless Mondays. “Students are very conscious about what they are putting in their bodies,’’ said Noah. “The need for (vegan food) is going to increase. I think this is going to become the norm.”


      While many colleges and universities are increasing vegan options, others are still lagging behind.

      Only 135 campuses of the 1,500 surveyed in the recent study have entirely vegan dining stations. Harvard offers vegetarian options at all meals but not always vegan options, said sophomore Joseph Winters, who is a member of VEGITAS, an undergraduate vegan group on campus.

      This despite the fact that students are required to pay for a mandatory dining room plan, which costs upwards of $6,000.

      “Harvard definitely still has a lot more work to do,’’ said Winters. (Harvard did not respond to a request for comment by Action Line.)

      But students like Winters who attend colleges that aren’t as plant forward as others are still working to change the food culture on campus and have figured out ways to sustain their preferred lifestyle. Winters opted to live in a co-op that is not part of the Harvard meal program so he can cook vegan meals.

      The Harvard’s Vegan Society hosted an Ivy League Vegan Conference and VEGITAS, the undergraduate group, has held sampling events on campus and distributes flyers about vegan restaurants nearby, hoping to raise awareness and educate students.

      “Universities are not change makers, it’s the culture and what people will demand of their universities,’’ said Winters.


      Students whose first-choice colleges don’t have great plant-based entrees can start teaming up with animal rights, environmental and food groups on campus and request meetings with dining staff. At the meetings they can discuss the need for more vegan options, present specific recipes and offer a list of condiments and non-dairy alternatives the dining service can purchase.

      “My advice to students is to approach campus chefs in a friendly and collaborative manner and ask how they can support them in increasing vegan options,’’ said Ganzler of Bon Appetit.

      “Start with the assumption that the chef wants to serve food that customers like and they need information.” McCarthy, of MIT, said students must keep up the pressure. Vegans may have the reputation of being vocal about their diets but students need to do more. “They think, I don’t want to be that person, but really, be that person. Speak up,’’ said McCarthy.

      “Vegan students pay the same amount of money and deserve a good meal.”

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