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Published August 17, 2009, 03:26 PM

Famed vegan cowboy now lives in Ellensburg

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — Beef: It's not what's for dinner.

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — Beef: It's not what's for dinner.

At least not for Ellensburg resident Howard Lyman, aka "The Mad Cowboy."

Lyman, 70, is a fourth-generation Montana cattle-rancher-turned-hardcore-vegan whose approach to activism — and food — is strictly no nonsense.

"I don't eat anything that has a face, liver, or mother," Lyman said.

Decades before cult foodie books "Fast Food Nation" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma" topped best-seller lists, or this summer's shock documentary "Food, Inc." hit theaters, Lyman was speaking what he calls "the straight facts." The message was this: Corporate greed is killing American agriculture, and we're digging more graves with our forks than any other tool.

You may remember him for scandalizing "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 1996. He told Winfrey that mad cow disease in humans could make AIDS look like the common cold if we didn't stop grinding up sick downer cattle, roadkill and euthanized pets to feed to cows meant for human consumption.

Winfrey's response to Lyman's claim: "It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger."

The talk show queen swearing off America's barbecue favorite outraged several Texas cattlemen, who sued Winfrey and Lyman for $180 million in what the media sensationalized as the "Veggie Libel" case. The charges? "False defamation of perishable food" and "business disparagement."

Yet even in a courtroom in Amarillo, Texas, smack in the heart of cattle country, Winfrey and Lyman were found "not guilty" under the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech several years later.

Court researchers proved Lyman's claims were true.

"They spent well over a million dollars to try and convict us. Do you think they did that because they wanted some poor kid in the ghetto to get more hamburger?" Lyman said. "Or because they thought they'd make more money in their corporate coffers?"

A year after Lyman's appearance on "Oprah," the U.S. Department of Agriculture outlawed the primary practice that causes the spread of mad cow disease — the feeding of cows, who are herbivores by nature, the remains of other cattle in the form of meat and bone meal.

Yet the ban came too late.

Around Christmas in 2003, on a farm in Mabton, the first cow in America was diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy — the fatal brain and spine-deteriorating disease commonly known as mad cow disease.

The dairy cow, which had been illegally imported from Canada, tested positive for the disease 13 days after the animal had been sent to slaughter, though no contaminated parts were processed for human consumption, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Then in 2004, the first human case of mad cow, known as new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, was discovered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"It takes the amount of material to cover the sharp end of a pen to cause mad cow disease in a human, and you've got anywhere between 200 and 1,000 different animals in one 4-ounce burger?" Lyman said. "Not a good idea to me."

Washington Cattlemen's Association Executive Vice President Jack Field said that due to extensive illness testing and surveillance and careful monitoring of imported animals, there's little fear of the disease in the cattle industry today.

"Never in my five years have we ever had any gross violations on a cattle operation that I'm aware of," Field said.

Today, Lyman sits in the cozy sunroom of his home, surrounded by blossoming houseplants and quilts made by Willow Jean, his wife of more than 40 years. As the tagline of his T-shirt says, "Life is good."

Just don't let the gray hair and glasses fool you.

Even at 70, the grandfather of seven cuts an imposing figure. Lyman, who once played college football at 300 pounds, stands well over 6 feet tall. His voice rumbles when he tells you that he's 140 pounds lighter than when he became a vegan, and to lose the first 100 all he had to do was quit eating meat and dairy.

"I always bet people that I can go into a truck stop and get a vegan meal," Lyman said. "Bring me a bowl of oatmeal, a glass of orange juice, an apple, and I'm a happy camper."

In 1961, Lyman graduated from Montana State University with a degree in agriculture, where he hopped on the bandwagon of "better farming through chemistry."

Lyman spent two decades denying the pesticides he used could be dangerous, until they nearly cost him his farm — and his life.

"When I saw the birds die and the trees die and the soil change, I was unwilling to admit I was the problem," Lyman said. "Until I was paralyzed."

In 1979, a tumor in his spine paralyzed Lyman from the waist down. Doctors told him he had a one-in-a-million chance of ever walking again.

"It was like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat," Lyman said. "I wondered, 'What kind of an invalid am I going to be? Am I going to sit in a wheelchair and feel sorry for myself, or am I going to try and do something to make the world better?'"

Lyman vowed to get healthy and get his family farm back to the way it was when he was a kid — before he began using chemicals and pesticides.

Then, there was a medical miracle. Doctors removed the tumor, and Lyman walked. He used his legs, and his backbone, to turn his farm organic.

In 1983, he sold it and moved to Alexandria, Va., where he spent the next 18 years lobbying in Washington, D.C., on behalf of farmer's rights.

"They're the hardest-working, most caring, tremendously gifted individuals," Lyman said. "Then you look at factory agriculture — and it's terrible."

Lynda Larsen, president of the Kittitas County Farmer's Market Board of Directors, agrees.

"It's scary what's being put in our food," Larsen said. "Why not fresh food, local food, food that hasn't been trucked, where you can meet the person who grew it, face-to-face, and ask them what's in it?"

Lyman's research on agriculture, human health and the environment steered him to swear off animal products altogether. He ate his last hamburger in 1988.

Lyman regularly travels the country speaking his simple message: If we don't watch what we feed ourselves, and how we utilize our planet, we're going to go just like the dinosaurs.

"The more I learned about it, the greatest feeling I had was knowing that no animal had to die for me to live," Lyman said. "But when I stopped and looked at it, my health, or the health of the animals, is insignificant compared to the health of the planet."

Lyman has written two books, the best-selling cattle industry expose "Mad Cowboy," and "No More Bull," a book of vegan recipes. He also founded Voice for a Viable Future, a nonprofit organization that promotes education on health, agriculture and the environment. His next big goal: to live to be 120.

"When I die, I hope they put on my tombstone, 'He was a crazy old coot, but he did what he thought was right,'" Lyman said. "If I can do that, I've had a successful life."

After Lyman spoke at Central Washington University in 2004, he and his wife fell in love with Ellensburg's small-town charm and bought a house, relocating from Alexandria.

In 2005, he and Willow Jean co-founded the Ellensburg Vegetarian Society.

Lyman calls Ellensburg the best place in the world to live — even if it happens to be home to the Washington Cattlemen's Association.

"Do I think that everybody out there is going to become a vegan? Hell, no.

"Am I saying you're the worst person in the world because you have a bite of meat? No," Lyman said. "But I'm gonna say that if you really care about the future, you ought to take a look at it."

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