The animal rights group Friends of Animals United (FAUN) recently hosted an education rally in Union Square to promote veganism. Although only about two dozen people attended, the group’s founders have an aggressive agenda for promoting veganism and fighting animal cruelty – despite skepticism from the medical community about whether the diet is a good idea for everyone.
Brothers Anthony Botti and Nicholas Botti, who founded the New Jersey-based group in 2010, claim 950 members who embrace their two-fold mission. “Firstly, our aim is to educate the public and help them make conscientious choices,” said Anthony. “Secondly, we want to renounce the industries abusing animals and work against them.” On a practical level, that means embracing a vegan diet – no animal products, including milk and dairy, and no leather or fur clothing.
FAUN also holds demonstrations against organizations it believes to be responsible for animal cruelty, including circuses, pharmaceutical companies and rodeos.
Veganism is on the rise. A study from the Nutrition Business Journal, a food industry resource, found that vegans make up approximately six percent of the U.S. population, compared to just .5 percent in 2008, according to a survey conducted by the Harris Interactive Group, a market research firm.
Louise Kramer, Communications Director for the Specialty Food Association, a business trade association, said that the association added a “gluten free or vegan” category to their annual specialty food awards, because of the increased prevalence of vegan products in supermarkets. “Many food makers create versions of their products that are vegan to appeal to what we see as a growing interest in vegan products,” said Kramer.
While it may be popular, the medical community is not sure that veganism is a good idea. A 2009 study by Winston Craig for the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that vegans tend to be thinner and have lower cholesterol – but also found that the exclusion of all animal products from the diet can result in nutrient deficiencies, particularly for vitamin B-12, vitamin D and calcium, which can lead to anemia, bone deformities and brittle bones, respectively.
Dr. Carla Wolper, a nutritionist at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center, said a vegan diet is generally not recommended by health care professionals because eliminating all animal protein can create health problems, although it is sometimes suggested as a short-term way to reduce unhealthy fat levels. Dr. Wolper thinks parents should be vigilant toward children who want to follow a vegan diet, particularly females. “Girls who become anorexic often start out being vegan,” she said, adding that following a vegan diet can be a warning sign of an eating disorder in young women.
Dr. Stefania Alexopoulos, an internist doctor at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, said that as with all restrictive diets, balance is key. “As long as it’s done carefully and you ensure that you are getting all the required vitamins and minerals, it’s safe,” she said.
In Union Square, members of FAUN set up a TV stand on the southern side of 14th Street to screen “Earthlings,” Shaun Monson’s 2005 documentary about society’s exploitation of animals. At nearby tables stacked with vegan booklets, FAUN members spoke to passersby about their cause, while behind them stood a large banner with the words “Animals are here WITH US not FOR US.”
Before founding FAUN, the Botti brothers attended demonstrations with other animal rights groups. Although they were not raised vegan, Nicholas said that their mother was always sensitive to animals. “My mum raised us to be sensitive to animals; she would see a dead animal on the road and cry.” FAUN hopes to hold two or three educational events each month in New York and New Jersey.
The brothers organize events in their spare time: Anthony runs a business teaching English to immigrants in New Jersey, while Nicholas works for the federal government. “My brother and I paid for everything, we spent $10,000 each and we spend our weekends working on FAUN,” said Nicholas. The brothers used their own money to buy permits for demonstrations, pamphlet materials and TVs to use at demonstrations. The group also raises money from donations, mainly through their website that sells patches with the word “Vegan” sewn on. Four years ago the ACLU won a free-speech lawsuit against the city of Newark for arresting Nicholas, who was protesting animal cruelty outside a circus.
Although Nicholas embraces his vegan lifestyle, he’s had to deal with some social pressures associated with his choice of diet. “I tell other people I work with I’m vegan and they think I eat lettuce all day and tell me, ‘How do you get your protein?’ ‘You might get sick and die,’ and ‘You need to eat meat or you won’t get hair on your chest.’” If he can clear away such misconceptions, he thinks that more people might be inclined to sign on.