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Does a Duck Have a Soul?


Michael Ginor at Hudson Valley.  

The answer comes from a young woman standing a few feet away who, until now, has conducted her vigil in silence. “Baby steps,” says the woman, an animal-behaviorism student named Michelle Redman. “Baby. Steps.” Redman has an indie-waif haircut, a silver piercing in her bottom lip, a Jamiroquai T-shirt, and a button that reads BUSH IS A POO POO HEAD. The suspicion muscle in the center of her brow is well developed, and she speaks every word in an angry staccato. “All fauna are equal,” she says. “A duck can’t add two plus two—but we can’t swim and fly and walk. It doesn’t mean they don’t have a soul. I believe in the food chain. But I also believe in peace. And this”—here, she juts a finger at one of the grotty bird photos—“this is not okay!”

Seasoned activists, of course, are more studied in their assertions. Bryan Pease—co-director of the San Diego–based Animal Protection and Rescue League, which filed the lawsuit that resulted in the bill that will banish foie gras from California—is particularly enraged by the stress analyses Daguin and others cite. “Yeah, I’m aware of that study, and they always refer to it,” he says. “But it was conducted by the foie gras industry, by a huge government infrastructure that wanted to show it isn’t inhumane. All you need to do is look at the injuries caused to ducks by force-feeding: the inability to walk, the filth, the incessant panting.”

Pease may not paint in the broad strokes of peace and war, but that doesn’t mean he’s unwilling to drop a bomb or two. “The foie gras issue is separate from whether people should eat meat,” he says. “These people are animal-torturing, psychotic extremists. They should be locked up.”

The man most detested by the animal-rights advocates, arguably the driving force in what made foie gras the sensation it is in America, is Michael Ginor.

At 41, Ginor is burly and built low to the ground, a fighter unmistakably. The eldest of three brothers, Ginor was born in Seattle, where his father was chief engineer for the Boeing 727 project. In younger days, he was a successful Wall Street bond trader, then (as the son of Israeli parents) he spent two years volunteering as a squad commander in the Israeli army, patrolling the Gaza Strip.

It was near Tel Aviv, 22 years ago, that Ginor first tasted foie gras. He recalls the event as “a magical experience,” the beginning of “a love story.” After returning to the States, he was stunned to sample foie gras from what was then America’s only producer, California’s Sonoma Valley—for this foie gras didn’t enrapture him the way overseas foie gras had. On a culinary mission, he sought out Ariane Daguin, who introduced him to an animal-science expert named Izzy Yanay. The two men founded Hudson Valley, keen to produce the high-quality foie gras Ginor had experienced abroad. While Yanay ran the agricultural side of things, Ginor took up with world-class chefs and traveled the globe, spreading the foie gras gospel. He likes to say that there is no major food festival on Earth in which he is not involved; in only the past six weeks, he has lectured on foie gras preparation in Singapore, South Africa, Vietnam, and Toledo, Ohio. His 1999 book, the 350-page Foie Gras: A Passion, won the Prix la Mazille for best culinary book in the world.

Oddly, unlike Ariane Daguin, Ginor makes no claim to being an absolutist on gavage. He says that, as he has entered his forties, the world is no longer so black-and-white to him, and people should be allowed to draw their own lines. “I wrestle with this,” he says equably. “I believe in karma. If I see an ant on the floor, I avoid it. I don’t needlessly take a life. I am not making the argument that ‘we’re humans and they’re ducks, so who the fuck cares?’ ”

What vexes Ginor, he says, is that the protesters are simply wrong in their most incendiary claims—mainly, that gavage induces disease. “We are not greedy farmers using leaky roofs and dirty conditions,” he says. “The problem of foie gras is one of imagery—the image of a tube being forced into a duck. That’s the one thing they go after, and it’s the one thing that can never change. No gavage, no foie gras! Seeing those pictures, you get this idea of a duck with a tube down its throat for a lifetime. In reality, it’s two or three times a day, for a few seconds.”

Bryan Pease openly calls Ginor a liar. Ginor insists there is no such thing as an “exploded liver”; Pease says his investigators have seen “truckfuls” of them at Hudson Valley. Pease also scoffs at Ginor’s claim that ducks, if released in the late stages of gavage, can recover. “These people are inducing a pathology,” Pease says. “The ducks don’t go back to normal. We’ve rescued ducks in those late stages, when they can no longer even walk, and they don’t survive.”

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