About the Bird Flu, Elephant Seals, Spring Lambs and Vegans as the Enemies of Fun

Animal agribusiness snares so much in its wake and someone has to be the messenger. I guess it’s us.

Marla Rose
6 min readApr 26, 2024

On Monday, John and I were running an errand so we listened to an episode of The New York Times podcast, The Daily. This episode, released on Earth Day, was about the reverberations of 2020’s avian flu strain outbreak, ongoing, morphing and the worst in U.S. history. It has been ripping through farms and, more recently, crossing into new species as well as reaching wider than ever, found as far away as Antarctica, where the bird flu had never been seen before but now it is reaching penguin populations, already challenged by other human-made or exacerbated catastrophes.

The bird flu, known as H5N1, is spread when waterfowl, like geese and ducks, shed the virus as they roam and migrate, spreading to chicken and egg-laying facilities, where it is much more fatal. So far, more than 90 million farmed birds in the U.S. have died as a result of this iteration of the avian flu, mostly due to mass culls on farms, which are reimbursed by the government for chickens that are preemptively slaughtered but not those that died on their own of the virus. This incentivises culls rather than taking the risk with razor-thin profit margins and it was why the cost of eggs was so high a couple of years ago.

As those of us paying attention know now and as The Daily dives into, H5N1 is spreading to other bird species that are also vulnerable to it in ways that geese and ducks are not, having adapted to the virus: Not so fortunate are the eagles, condors, pelicans, owls and seabirds that were referenced in the array of news clips shared on the podcast. Some of us also know that there is now bird flu found in cows on dairy farms in eight states, where it has been mild to the carriers so far but transmitting quickly due to the crowded nature of many farming facilities, and a dairy farm worker has tested positive.

It has also been found in foxes, bobcats, bears, even a bottlenose dolphin, as well as reaching South America, where it has devastated sea mammals that cluster together in colonies, like sea lions and seals. The bird flu was so deadly to elephant seal pups, which have no immunity, that it is estimated 17,000 died in Argentina last year alone, losing almost an entire new population of pups to this virus, a mortality scientists estimate to be 95 percent. As the bird flu expands its reach, it gets more virulent and adaptive, more likely to spread to companion animals and, indeed, to us.

John and I create new content every week to try to expose the hidden corners of animal agribusiness and promote alternatives to the expansive harm of eating animals and their co-products. We create memes, recipes, essays and guides in our outreach, and have specifically addressed the particular ecological nightmare of this strain numerous times. My point is not to get acknowledgement but to say, this is our life’s work, this is what we do.

Despite that, despite being vegan since the 1990s, there are times, like when hearing about the wiping out of an entire new generation of elephant seals, makes me wonder what good any of this effort is when we are just viewed as sanctimonious vegans, the finger-wagging enemies of fun nobody summoned.

I have this thing where when I immerse myself in stories like this, even when I already know what is happening, it feels like there is a weight on my chest that is just pushing and pushing. There are some ways to relieve some of that pressing weight: Taking walks, suspending myself in water, kissing my animals. One of the trustiest, though, is creating more content. If I can just say it the right way, if I can just create the recipe that would make someone consider leaving animals off their plates, if I can expose people to veganism with a conference or free festival, imagine t-shirts with the perfect marriage of text and image, maybe that weight on my chest will lift a bit. It’s temporary, I know that now, but it’s something, until the next time I get pressed and find relief. In those fleeting moments, it’s a feeling of lightness, freedom and alignment that is hard to describe but I am forever in pursuit of it.

After the podcast, that familiar weight on my chest was pressing down hard. I said to John, “What can we do? I mean, other than letting people know that it’s happening and there are other options, what can we do?” “I don’t know,” he said, in a plaintive tone. “Keep doing what we do, I guess. Keep trying.”

The vegans I know don’t especially enjoy being the messenger, but when the world is in free-fall, someone has to be. Because we know what we know and we feel what we feel, we are often the ones who take on this role. We have to: We want people to know, thinking, perhaps naively, that if people knew what was happening, they would act, they would stop being complicit. Nobody likes a scold, though, nobody likes a complainer. I don’t enjoy being doom-and-gloom but it is either expose myself and try to advocate for change or just put blinders on, keep my head down and keep it moving. I also don’t want to sound like a martyr: This is just the weight we carry in knowing what we know and trying to do the responsible thing by trying to open eyes and create change.

I don’t want anyone to think this is my normal state. It is not. I am genuinely happy most of the time. But on days like Monday, the weight and the responsibility of that weight can feel unbearable.

The other day, I was scrolling and I saw an image of the most adorable lambs. (Is there any other kind?) The caption read, “It’s that time of the year when my local farming friends send me photos of Spring lambs.” The lambs, their innocent eyes and knobby knees, mouths curling up in natural smiles, who could possibly see something ugly in that? I could. First, they were identified as “farming friends,” not animal rescuers, so I generally am going to assume these farming friends were in meat production. Maybe, maybe not. Second, Spring lamb refers to both the animals and the flesh: Spring lamb, the body of a three-to-five-month-old baby sheep, is considered very tender flesh, a delicacy. Third, the lambs had ear tags, which are used by farmers for identification purposes and to link the lambs to their mother ewes, to figure out who produces the most prolifically and had lambs at the highest slaughter weight.

I tried to scroll on, I usually do, but the pressing was there on my chest. I had to comment.

I commented on the post to the effect of, yes, they are beautiful but it is sad that they are likely going to be slaughtered like so many other lambs called Spring lambs. Yes, I could be wrong. Yes, they could be at a sanctuary. I admitted that this was an assumption but, not knowing the details, a fairly safe and educated assumption to make. I commented, though, not to be a party pooper but to help people connect the dots to the adorable lambs and other animals they eat. Before long, I was told by one person to just enjoy the picture, stop making assumptions and projecting negativity. Someone else told me to enjoy a 10-calorie head of cabbage. (???)

It wasn’t surprising. I was crashing the party of the better-not-knowing. I expected it.

I know how to have fun and actually I prioritize it because otherwise, I would have burned out long ago. To the people who think in binaries, that you are either a joyless scold or an empty-headed fool, there is a vast middle ground. It’s not either/or. When you know, though, there are some dark times that are unavoidable. It is the price of connecting to what motivates you. Then you — or at least I — have to do something with the weight of it. For those who will command “Lighten up!” after a post like this, I’d ask you to please care as much as we do. Maybe then we can be lighter. I don’t want this weight, either.

Sometimes it is the crushing heaviness of it that relieves the pressure, at least a little of it. It’s become too much to carry so I escape into blanking out, into some sheltering numbness. The pressing on my chest will return, as will healthier, more productive coping mechanisms. For now, between numbness and finding my power again, I am hanging out in this liminal, limbo space. Perhaps you are as well.

You all. It is just so sad sometimes.

Marla Rose is co-founder of VeganStreet.com.