Paul Shapiro may not be your typical activist ― he’s been working full time for animals since he was in college, and he even founded Compassion Over Killing while still in high school. But his positive attitude is fairly typical of those employed by the Humane Society of the United States, where Paul is now senior director of the Factory Farming campaign. “Not only do you get to interact with other animal advocates all day long, but it enables you to lead a very meaningful life in that you can devote your talents and resources full-time to reducing animal suffering,” Paul says about his work with HSUS.
Paul’s upbeat outlook got me wondering: how satisfied are other animal activists ― both those working inside nonprofits and those doing outreach on their own? To take a collective pulse, I recently asked animal advocates around the world to give me their thoughts on engaging in individual activism versus working for an organization.
Both approaches have their pros and cons, though from the feedback I received, activists working for organizations seem to be more stressed than advocates working on their own. On the other hand, full-time employees of nonprofits had generally higher levels of satisfaction; they feel a greater sense of accomplishment for animals than activists who engage in part-time, individual activism. I should emphasize that this was an informal survey, and I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t plenty of advocates happily leafleting every weekend or engaging in other forms of activism in their spare time. But it does appear these weekend warriors don’t enjoy the support that nonprofit employees do, and that impacts their satisfaction level. As Niranjan Amarnath of PETA-India puts it: “Working for an organization is better than solo activism because there are more chances for bringing change than working all alone.”
That’s not to say the picture with animal-rights organizations is all rosy. Most of the complaints I heard were from activists working for an organization (or who used to), and many of these people asked to remain anonymous. One US activist, for example, cited low salary, a lack of benefits, long hours and a difficult workload as some of the drawbacks to working for a group. In contrast, Erin Williams of HSUS says she’s “incredibly satisfied and grateful to be part of a movement making positive changes for animals. The sense of camaraderie is so rewarding — of being able to work alongside amazing people who share the same passion and work toward the same goal of protecting animals.”
Let’s take Erin’s lead and begin with the positives.
“I’ve worked with and for lots of the big groups, and smaller groups too,” says Sarah Baeckler, executive director of Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest. “I think banding together is the way to go to get the message out. I work for a group that I had the pleasure of helping to shape early on and now direct with two partners. It’s very rewarding to have a say in the direction of our activism.” Sarah says she is very satisfied that her efforts are benefiting animals. “Seeing our chimps play and laugh every day is the best thanks. We touch a lot of hearts just by letting people know our seven individual chimps, and they ― the chimps ― are great ambassadors for others who don’t get a voice.”
Down under, Wendy Parsons is especially proud of the work her group, Animals Australia, is doing on behalf of rabbits and animals used in rodeos. “Legally enforceable standards are increasing in Australia in regard to rodeos, and some sponsors have pulled out as a direct consequence of work I ― and others ― have done,” she says. “The rodeo industry’s reputation has suffered a considerable blow within the last few years, and that makes me happy. I distribute a booklet on rabbit care and maintain a website, which, from feedback I get from rabbit owners, is improving the way they keep their rabbits. This makes me happy.” Wendy also notes that a number of fur retailers are no longer selling fur after she contacted them. “This is not affecting the trade itself, but it is affecting the popularity of fur. This is satisfying.”
Sirma Oya Tekvar, with the HAYTAP Animal Rights Federation in Ankara, Turkey, enjoys having many activists under one roof. “Being a member or volunteer of a group brings much more efficiency and enthusiasm for reaching your ideals. United we stand and united we are stronger,” she says.
Germany’s über-activist Mahi Klosterhalfen has been taking on the egg industry in Europe as the vice president of the Albert Schweitzer Foundation and the German Food Business Rep for Compassion in World Farming. “‘Overwhelmed’ would be the best word to describe my level of satisfaction,” he says, adding that working for an organization (or two) means “the chances that my message will be heard when I reach out to companies drastically increases.”
Back in the states, four additional advocates have found that working for, or even starting, an organization is the most rewarding way to speak up for animals. “I’m very satisfied and always looking for new ways to contribute,” says Veda Stram of All-Creatures.org. “Having the credibility of an established organization is wonderful to work with and contribute to.” Veda regards the ability to reach more people as one of the main benefits of working for a group.
“For as long as I’ve been an activist, I have been involved in group efforts on behalf of animals and found it some of the most satisfying work I’ve ever done,” adds Jenna Calabrese, who founded the L.O.V.E. Collective last year. “The saying ‘two heads are better than one’ definitely applies when it comes to activism, and I’ve always appreciated the contributions and criticism from fellow animal advocates.”
Gil Schwartz was a volunteer with Compassionate Action for Animals (CAA) for five years before being hired as their director of volunteer programs. “Working for an animal advocacy group as a volunteer coordinator changed my involvement and perspectives from when I was just volunteering,” says Gil. “I now engage in recruitment, interviews, orientation meetings and provide guidance and resources for volunteers running the group. Due to the small staff at CAA ― myself and one half-time development/fundraising coordinator ― we place great emphasis on delegation of responsibilities that other nonprofit advocacy organizations often pay staff to do, such as accounting, graphic design, media work and outreach. Being a paid staff versus a volunteer means higher accountability and reliability on my part, as well as good people skills ― including people you may not otherwise want to work with ― and knowledge of all aspects of the group.”
Over at HSUS, Josh Balk says he’s never been happier. “I work alongside my best friends and my heroes. More importantly, I feel like I’m making a tangible difference for animals.” For Josh, that difference is made tangible because his work is backed by a large nonprofit. “It’s tremendously beneficial to have the power of HSUS in campaigns to help farm animals,” he says. “We’ve made history in banning battery cages, gestation crates and veal crates in many states, changed the purchasing policies in major American food companies and added vegan items to menus and grocery stores across the country.”
Mark Middleton, creator of the Virtual Battery Cage, is typical of activists not working for an organization. “I’m somewhat satisfied, in that I know a few things that I’ve done have benefited animals in some way, but it’s hard to be satisfied when you don’t really know how much your efforts have helped animals and don’t see the effects of it yourself,” he says.
Tim Martin, whose activism centers around letter- and article-writing, agrees. “I hope my writings are opening some minds, although I’ll never know how much and realize it can never be enough,” Tim says.
Though there aren’t many letter-writers as prolific as Tim, a growing number of advocates are relying on their writing to become active for animals. This is nurtured by organizations such as Animal Liberation Victoria, Compassion Over Killing, Mercy For Animals and PETA, which offer writers groups that assist solo activists. Dian Hardy is a longtime activist who has moved away from leafleting and demos to the written word. “Writing allows me to put my theories to the test,” Dian muses. “What is it at bottom that is the cause for my activism? I say it’s my burning thirst to see justice done, but is it only that? When I look into my past I see the beginnings of that thirst. That thirst fires my imagination and when there’s combustion, I’m satisfied and can rest for a while.”
“Getting letters published on behalf of animals is very rewarding,” says Patti Breitman, another name you’re likely to see on the Letters page of newspapers across the US. Although Patti founded a small organization, Marin Vegetarian Education Group, in 1991, most of her activism is writing; indeed, she recently co-authored the excellent How to Eat Like a Vegetarian, Even If You Never Want to Be One with Carol J. Adams.
I agree with Patti that getting letters published ― or articles, opinion pieces or books ― in support of animals is very satisfying. But I also really enjoy the one-on-one aspect of activism, such as when I leaflet at a college or bring a vegan dish to work. I believe this face time is crucial to helping solo activists stay engaged, in part because feedback is immediate. I also encourage activists to volunteer at farmed animal sanctuaries; there is no substitute for working directly to help animals.
Activist Erik Marcus estimates he’s written 60,000 book- or web-published words in the last year (his latest book, The Ultimate Vegan Guide, was published in November). “I’m fairly satisfied that I’m making a difference,” he says. “But I think often in life you hit a threshold and suddenly make 10 times the difference you’ve made previously. I expect to hit one of those thresholds soon.” Erik blogs regularly at Vegan.com, and he features some of activism’s most interesting voices on his VegTalk podcast. “I write my blog mainly because I’m obsessed with vegan and animal protection topics,” he says. “And I think animal-friendly people who aren’t obsessed with these topics can benefit by spending a few minutes each day reading my blog.” As for his podcast, Erik says he often chats by phone with people in the movement who are doing big things. “So why not record these calls so that a few hundred more people can listen in?”
Long hours, frustration
Many people working for groups have discovered that it can have its downsides, and activists were not shy about sharing their complaints with me. “I am very dissatisfied and have regrets for helping an organization that diverts tens of thousands of dollars of donation money to pay off former employees who threaten to sue for EDD violations and to pay attorneys to sue other organizations or other nonsensical lawsuits that go nowhere and general wastefulness,” says one former employee of a US-based group. “Very little actually goes toward benefiting animals.”
One woman who puts in more than 40 hours a week volunteering for three separate animal groups, in addition to being employed part time for yet another, clearly has a lot on her plate. “Honestly, I am frustrated, often, with the amount of work that I have to do and how little it seems to matter,” she says. “It seems, very often, that I’m doing everything I can, and that none of it matters even a single bit.” (I think this illustrates the danger of tackling too much at one time.) “It’s just frustrating all around,” she continues. “There are either too few people doing too much work, or the people who are doing the work are constantly fighting. As you know, the level of contention in the animal movement is just terrible, and it wears on you after a while. And of course the feeling that nothing you do ever actually matters.”
Some negative aspects of nonprofit work simply cannot be avoided. “While euthanizing older or sick animals is always tragic, it is the animals we cannot save who weigh heavily on my mind,” says Marji Beach, who’s been with Animal Place, a sanctuary for farmed animals in California, for five years. “When we pull birds from a battery cage on an egg-laying farm, I cry for the 300 million hens languishing inside cages in buildings across the country. When we save a pig from a cruel situation, it’s the millions of sows in gestation crates, the millions of intelligent, social piglets in concrete pens, who my heart aches for. For every animal we save, there are billions whose only escape is a frightening, bloody room. That’s almost as hard as trying to get past the defensive roadblocks people put up in regard to how their dietary choice is causing harm and suffering.”
An activist in Australia notes that long hours, reviewing cruelty evidence and apathetic people are some of the drawbacks when working for a group. “Sometimes there can be a culture where people are not looked after, especially in volunteer organizations,” he says. “Both the volunteers can be unappreciated and the paid workers can often have to live up to unreasonable expectations. Dealing with cruelty cases in isolation can be very taxing.”
Meanwhile, a paid campaign worker in the UK expressed her frustration with management, “who seem out of touch with normal people and therefore can take some campaigns in the wrong direction.”
To put these comments into some context, it’s important to remember that no organization, whether it’s a small nonprofit or a large corporation, is perfect. Organizations are run by people, each influenced by their own idiosynchrocies. Of course, it is troubling and sad when anyone lets his or her personal agenda conflict with the needs and rights of animals ― human and nonhuman alike. (One activist told me of another advocate who organized a protest against an animal-rights group because their veg event was not vegan. I can’t help thinking the protesters’ time would have been better spent leafleting somewhere.)
“I actually find that there are a lot of downsides anytime you try to work with a wide variety of people,” says lauren Ornelas of the Food Empowerment Project. “Sometimes responsibilities fall through the cracks; people have different ideas on how things should be done.”
Activists are animals too
Is it not surprising that being employed by an animal advocacy group is loaded with trade-offs: great support coupled with management and personnel issues (notwithstanding the happy folks at HSUS). But doing animal activism on your own has its share of challenges, too. The trick to a lifetime of rewarding work in animal advocacy, I think, is negotiating the delicate balance between doing what your ethics dictate and not taking on too much at once. I hear from activists who are so overloaded with commitments that they actually get very little done ― or at least they feel unfulfilled. Yet as activists we’re faced with a social injustice so blatantly reprehensible that our conscience demands we do everything we can to rectify it; unfortunately, in doing so we run the risk of depression and burnout.
Jane Easton, for example, is an activist in the UK who juggles her time between individual advocacy and working for two groups. In addition to being the food and cookery coordinator for the Vegetarian & Vegan Foundation and Viva! in the UK, Jane engages in solo activism. Her biggest hurdle will come as no surprise: “Time! I’m fortunate that I have access to resources, technology, expertise and so forth to help me with the vollie [volunteer] work,” says Jane. “But I also have a relationship and friends, so I try not to get burned out.”
Clearly, everyone must find their own approach to activism, and we don’t all have to devote 50 or more hours a week to feel we’re making a difference. But whether you work for a nonprofit, are out there doing activism on your own, or both, please be sure your time and efforts are actually benefiting animals. Erik Marcus recalls a few months 15 years ago when he interned for a veggie organization. “It was frustrating to me because I didn’t feel the group was effective,” he says. “And if your group isn’t effective, you’re wasting your time.”
If only we could all be as happy ― and effective ― as Paul Shapiro.