In a few days, thousands of men and women from around the world will gather in Pamplona, Spain, to take part in the Fiesta de San Fermín—a nine-day, non-stop celebration in honor of a third-century saint. The “highlight” of the fiesta is the encierro—the running of the bulls. Each morning partygoers gather to run in front of six bulls and two steers as they make their way from the corral on one side of town to the bullring on the other. Foolhardy participants call it a thrill, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure they can go home and tell their friends about. For the bulls, it always ends in death.

Twenty years ago this week I was one of those foolhardy participants. I was neither a vegan nor an animal advocate at the time. My 1992 self knew nothing about the world of animal cruelty. I ate from the table of ignorance and wore the skin of animals without a single thought about who they might have come from.

But that summer, something in me shifted—a flickering of awareness, if you will—and it began in Pamplona.

It was a cool July morning when I stood among a throng of revelers packed into Ayuntamiento Square in front of Pamplona’s town hall. The Spaniards around me loudly prayed:  “A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición.”  (“We ask San Fermín, as our patron, to guide us through the bull run and give us his blessing.”) The little prayer imbued the event with a feeling of spiritual significance.

The course, unchanged since the new bullring was built in 1852, is a mile of narrow cobblestone streets, freshly hosed down to remove the previous evening’s detritus, and barricaded with heavy timbers to keep the charging bulls in place. Many of the runners wore the traditional white shirt and pants with a red sash and carried a rolled-up newspaper.

At 8:00 a skyrocket boomed, and workers in the corral prodded the bulls through the open gate. People around me surged forward, pushing and stumbling. Everyone was watching for the bulls, craning their necks as they moved forward. Rounding a street corner, one bull slipped and fell on the slick cobblestone and was gored in the back by the bull behind him. The crowd watching the run thought this sickening sight was wonderful, and they cheered. Runners with newspapers whacked the other bulls as they ran past.

I turned right onto Estafeta Street, the event’s main drag of a quarter mile. Looking over my shoulder I saw four bulls, each weighing in excess of a thousand pounds, charge through the crowd, their brown heads and sharp horns rising and falling. The bulls thundered by, their imposing bulk surprisingly graceful. Never had I been so close to an animal so large, and I was surprised to see fear in their eyes.

Out of the narrow street, the bullring was a hundred yards ahead, but once the last bull was inside, the doors were swung closed. I made my way inside through the main entry off the plaza and joined an arena filled with spectators watching scores of bull-runners now taunting the bulls. They smacked them with their newspaper clubs in an effort to corral them into a holding pen beneath the stands. These same bulls would die in the afternoon bullfights. The audience cheered as young men poked and teased these regal animals, mocking them in their fate.

As I sat in the arena stands, I felt a deep wave of regret. Whatever excitement I had felt at participating in the encierro was suddenly eclipsed by contrition; in experiencing the fiesta, I had become a party to this spectacle. For the first time in my life, I saw these animals not as a commodity to be exploited, but as noble individuals wanting to live as much as I do.  And so I cheered when one of the bulls caught a young man from behind with his horns and, in one adroit movement of his massive neck, threw the man up and over his back. The man sailed over the bull and landed in the dirt like a discarded marionette.

*******

It is not uncommon for horses to be seriously injured or killed in bullfights.

Bullfighting is morally indistinguishable from dogfighting or cockfighting; perhaps the only difference is that in bullfights, humans play a more hands-on role in the torment of vulnerable animals. In the bullring, men on blindfolded horses chase the confused bull in circles and repeatedly stab the large lump of muscle on his back with lances. (It is not uncommon for the bull to gore a horse, who is then dragged off.) Next come the banderilleros—men who thrust sharp, brightly colored sticks into the bull’s neck. Dizzy and weak from blood loss, the bull then faces the “brave” bullfighter for his final moments of agony. The bullfighter is actually called the matador, which is, appropriately, Spanish for “killer.” The matador’s goal is to plunge a sword between the animal’s shoulder blades. The animals almost never die instantly, and even with the tremendous blood loss, they remain conscious as the matador cuts his ear off as a trophy. Fully cognizant and in indescribable pain, the bull is dragged from the bullring by ropes tied around his back legs.

*******

Not wanting to witness a bullfight, I left the Plaza del Toro and made my way back to Estafeta Street and found several tourists dressed in white shirts and pants with red sashes. They were pondering the sight of bull’s blood on the cobblestone. “That’s where he got it!” said a drunken man of about 25, pointing at a smear of crimson near the curb. Was I the only person to travel to Spain, run with the bulls and then feel shame?

It didn’t happen overnight, but soon after visiting Pamplona I began regarding all animals with an abiding respect. Gradually, I stopped eating cows, chickens, pigs and sheep, and I visited farms where these animals are cared for and allowed to live their natural lives. Watching them interact with other animals, it occurred to me that compassion is my religion, celebrated in kindness toward all beings. No scripture, no rituals, not even a prayer to a patron saint—just a reverence for all life.

Today, Pamplona’s Fiesta de San Fermín is greeted with protests.

*******

Around the world, opposition to bullfighting has been steadily growing. The Canary Islands (a nationality of Spain), for example, prohibited this bloody pastime in 1991, and last year, Spain’s Catalonia parliament banned bullfighting in the region. “We Catalans do not want bullfighting anymore,” said one observer. “Finally, it’s over.” This is Spain we’re talking about—a nation for whom bullfighting has been an entrenched tradition for centuries. But other governments are also taking heed of protests. Panama banned the spectacles this year, as did Colombia’s capital city of Bogotá. Mexico City is also considering a ban. In Portugal, the municipality of Viana do Castelo demolished the city’s only bullring and built a science and education center on the site. “The defense of animal rights is not compatible with spectacles that torture and impose unjustifiable suffering,” said the city’s mayor. The mayor’s sentiment reflects an increasing abhorrence to bullfighting worldwide, yet this blood “sport” is being exported to countries such as China and South Korea.

For more information about bullfighting and what you can do about it, please visit www.stopbullfighting.org.uk and the International Movement Against Bullfights.

There’s been buzz within the animal rights community for some time regarding a work in progress called The Ghosts in Our Machine by Canadian filmmaker Liz Marshall. This will be a feature-length documentary, but it will also be an online immersive narrative experience, says Liz, a director who combines cinematic storytelling with social and environmental justice issues. (Her previous film, Water on the Table, documented the quest to have water declared a human right.) The Ghosts in Our Machine not only explores the hidden world of factory farming, but it introduces viewers to individual animals, focusing on their sentience, their beauty, and their pain. These animals are the ghosts in our machine. Liz is going full blast and is about halfway through with the project, but she took some time to give us a glimpse into Ghosts.

Your work has explored a number of social justice issues, from sweatshop labor in Mexico and Bangladesh and global water rights to corporate malfeasance and the rights of girls in developing countries. What brought animal exploitation to your attention?

Two people and one animal: My life partner Lorena Elke, a longtime vegan and a highly principled activist. Her outlook has impacted me, and she has made me rethink our relationship to animals. Jo-Anne McArthur’s photographs of animals pose the moral questions I think most people grapple with. Her images have inspired the approach I am taking with the film. My late dog Troy Celina Marshall (RIP: 1994-2011) was a deep friend who taught me many essential truths. She lives on in my heart.

I have always been sensitive to injustice and the suffering around us, which is why I became vegetarian in 1988 and vegan during the making of The Ghosts in Our Machine, and which is why I am drawn to exploring social issues as a filmmaker. I have primarily focused on human rights and more recently on the environment. The animal rights’ ethos is still relatively new to me. It’s a journey of discovery into what is a complex social issue — one that needs to be considered morally significant.

It’s great to hear that Jo-Anne McArthur has a central role in Ghosts. Why did you choose to tell this story through her lens?

I started with Jo’s photographs as an entry point and visual compass to anchor the film. As I zoomed out, I saw the person and realized that she would make a compelling human entry point to help tell a complicated story. As a filmmaker, I am drawn to character-driven narratives, and several individual animals are central in the film, but I also wanted a strong empathic human at the center, and that’s Jo.  She is full of hope, empathy, courage, and she is a free spirit with a good sense of humor, too. She is also a woman on the precipice of breaking out into the mainstream as an important activist-photographer, and the film captures this arc as a symbolic backdrop.

Liz Marshall with Farm Sanctuary resident Fanny, a former “dairy” cow who was rescued before she could be sent to slaughter.

In working on this film, have you encountered any animals who had a special impact on you?

Yes. In the summer of 2011 we were in development and we travelled to upstate New York to film the first story of the film: the rescue of Fanny and Sonny by Farm Sanctuary. Fanny and Sonny were “downed” factory farmed food animals destined to be sold to a rendering plant, but they now live happily at Farm Sanctuary and continue to be featured in the film. Fanny was a “spent dairy” cow and Sonny a one-day-old dying “veal” calf. Through this story, my eyes were opened to the realities of the dairy industry, and I became vegan. Cutting out dairy continues to make sense to me, and now that I have a distance from it, I can see just how collectively ignorant society is about the dairy industry. There is a myth that cows naturally produce milk for humans. I look forward to the extensive discussions and “a-ha” moments that are sparked for people.

You’ve described The Ghosts in Our Machine as a cross-platform documentary. What platforms will it incorporate?

The Ghosts in Our Machine project offers many interactive possibilities and a community building environment that is attracting a broad spectrum of animal lovers.

On June 5th we are excited to unveil a new magazine themed website: www.theghostsinourmachine.com. Join our Facebook page — it is an active and diverse space for sharing and for dialogue. Although we are just halfway through production, we have over 2000 fans from around the world.

Here are some selected examples of our online presence:

The Ghost Free Journey (GFJ) is a bimonthly online interactive blog that to date has taken place exclusively on our Facebook wall. It has been an educational, supportive and community building initiative, and now we are pleased to announce that in July of 2012 we will officially kick off the GFJ on our website, to give it more prominence and to give it a home!

A flash-based immersive story will be prominently featured on our website in 2013 created by the Webby award-winning interactive art directors The Goggles. It will provide a full-screen interactive experience that follows me and Jo-Anne McArthur on a journey of discovery through the questions and issues of animal rights. What excites me the most is that it will be a powerful vehicle to inspire our audience to go further with the subject matter.

People can also check out our Ghost Stories and Trailers on our Vimeo channel.

What do you hope to achieve with The Ghosts in Our Machine?

A lasting awareness that as individual consumers we can make a difference for the Ghosts, each and every day.

When will people get to see it?

The feature-length documentary and the online immersive story will premiere together in early 2013. A double whammy!

How can people get involved in the discussion?

Join our Facebook page. Comment on our blogs, pose questions, share information, and your experience on our website. Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GhostsMovie

Please tell your friends about us.

UPDATE: I saw this film on September 28, 2013, and found it to be incredibly beautiful and powerful.

Since 2006, aboveground animal activists in the United States have had to worry about a sweeping piece of legislation called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which is intended to suppress speech and advocacy by criminalizing First Amendment-protected activities such as protests, boycotts, picketing and whistleblowing.

Today, animal rights activists who say their freedom of speech has been violated by AETA filed a lawsuit asking the court to strike down the statute as unconstitutional.

Sarahjane Blum, Lauren Gazzola, J Johnson, Lana Lehr and Ryan Shapiro, all of whom have long histories of participation in peaceful protests and animal rights advocacy, say that fear of prosecution as “terrorists” has led them to limit or even cease their lawful advocacy.

Sarahjane Blum and one lucky duck.

“I spent years uncovering conditions on foie gras farms and educating the public about the way ducks and geese are abused,” says lead plaintiff Sarahjane Blum, who co-founded the site www.GourmetCruelty.com with Ryan Shapiro. The two openly rescued animals and created a documentary exposing the horrors of foie gras farms. “Today, due to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act’s unconstitutional assault on free speech, I am afraid to even publicly screen the documentary we produced.”

“As I have done in the past, I would like to document conditions on factory farms and educate the public about this animal cruelty, so that individuals can make informed decisions about whether they want to continue paying people to abuse animals on their behalf,” says Ryan, now a doctoral candidate at MIT. “The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act prevents me from educating the public about what goes on behind the closed doors of factory farms. Affecting the profits of an animal enterprise, even by exposing animal abuse on factory farms, or by encouraging people to become vegan, is now prosecutable as a terrorist offense under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.”

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was pushed through Congress by well-funded industry groups that profit from animal exploitation, including the Animal Enterprise Protection Coalition, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the deceptively-named Center for Consumer Freedom, with bipartisan support from legislators like Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative James Sensenbrenner. The new law replaced its predecessor, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA), which had become law in 1992. Proponents of the AETA argued that the AEPA did had not provide a sufficient deterrent, and that “animal rights extremists” were using new tactics such as making threats and targeting anyone affiliated with animal enterprises and called for an expansion of the federal law to address such acts. Yet in reality, the language of the AETA covers many First Amendment activities, such as picketing, boycotts and undercover investigations, if they “interfere” with an animal enterprise by causing a loss of profits. So in effect, the AETA silences the peaceful and lawful protest activities of animal and environmental advocates.

Specifically, the AETA creates the terrorist offense of traveling in interstate or foreign commerce, or using the mail or any other facility of interstate commerce, “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise,” when in connection with such purpose, an individual (A) intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property used by an animal enterprise, or by a person or entity with a connection to an animal enterprise; (B) intentionally places a person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury through a course of conduct involving threats, vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment or intimidation; or (C) conspires to do so. (Investigative journalist Will Potter has an excellent analysis of the law on his site.)

The first use of the AETA to prosecute activists came in 2009, when four people in San Jose, Calif., were accused of chanting, making leaflets and writing with chalk on the sidewalk in front of a biomedical researcher’s house, as well as using the Internet to research the company whose actions they planned to protest. Under the AETA, they were charged with acts of animal enterprise terrorism. Last year, the court dismissed the indictment.

“Some of my clients want to engage in simple public protests — perhaps in front of a fur store — to change public opinion about fur,” says staff attorney Rachel Meeropol of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the five activists in today’s lawsuit. “But they feel restricted from engaging in that clearly lawful activity because under the plain language of the law, if that protest is successful in convincing consumers not to shop at that fur store, they could be charged as terrorists.”

Co-plaintiff Lana Lehr, who founded the advocacy group RabbitWise, says the AETA has clearly put a chill on lawful, peaceful protests about the maltreatment of animals. “It has done this by making it legal to charge a lawful protestor with a felony, a fine and possible jail time if an animal enterprise decides that the activities of the protester caused a loss in their profits.” The law, she argues, “is too broad:  An ‘animal enterprise’ can include any company that sells an animal product, a 7-Eleven that sells beef jerky, for example. Also, AETA does not spell out exactly what behaviors by the activist are unlawful so they can’t adjust their actions accordingly.”

“Though now a scholar behind a desk,” adds Ryan, “I just as easily could have found myself a supposed terrorist behind bars. Corporate power should not dictate the limits of free speech. It’s time to strike down the undemocratic and un-American Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.”

 

 

Back in 2009, I wrote about the value of “one-click activism”; that is, using the Internet to participate in positive changes for animals. Since then there have been a number of headline-grabbing stories that involve activists using the Internet, from the more than 31,000 Change.org community members who helped convince the Food Network to stop featuring sharks as food to an online protest that led to the cancellation of a dog-meat festival in China last month. Now, I’m not suggesting that such armchair activism can ever replace more traditional avenues of campaigning. But as a tool for change, Web 2.0 activism is becoming undeniably important.

Change.org is one organization in an emerging field that is using the Internet to help people turn clicks into social change. To get an idea just how valuable online petitions have become, I asked two Change.org editors, Sarah Parsons and Stephanie Feldstein, to offer their insights. Sarah writes about food-related subjects on the site, and Stephanie is focused on animal issues. I began by asking Sarah how petitions on the site are created and who can create them. “Anybody, anywhere can create a petition,” she said. “We’ve had everyone from individuals to national non-profits. We try to promote petitions that have broad appeal to a fairly sizable audience. We do feature local campaigns as well, but they should be something that people in other parts of the country can relate to. We also want to make sure it’s something that is timely — that we feel can make an impact in the immediate future, rather than something that might take several years to accomplish.”

In addition to the recent success story about the Food Network, Change.org features a number of victories for animals, such as Urban Outfitters apologizing for selling real fur and a town in the UK halting a factory farm. But are all such victories directly linked to petitions, or are other factors involved? “It depends,” said Sarah. “Sometimes the online petition is the driving factor that creates the change; other times it’s just one piece of the puzzle. There could be an organization or individuals who are doing some on-the-ground organizing, who are holding protests or rallies or who are working with other groups to apply pressure. Sometimes the online petition is the main pressure point and other times it’s just one tool that is being used as part of a broader effort.”

I asked Stephanie how animal issues rank with Change.org’s members. “While we don’t have a ranking system among our causes,” she said, “animal issues are consistently among the most popular, both in terms of people coming to Change.org to sign campaigns and to start campaigns.” Okay, I responded, tell us a little about those campaigns. Which petitions for animals strike you as particularly meaningful? Stephanie said that one of the biggest victories they’ve had was working with the Ian Somerhalder Foundation (ISF) to push for reform to British Columbia’s animal cruelty laws. (Ian Somerhalder is anactor best known for his roles on Lost and The Vampire Diaries.) “When the story broke earlier this year that 100 sled dogs had been executed after a slow tourist season, animal activists around the world were furious,” explained Stephanie. “Ian wanted to make sure this kind of cruelty didn’t happen again, so ISF started a petition on Change.org, which laid out an ambitious list of improvements to British Columbia’s laws. More than 60,000 Change.org members joined the campaign. When the Sled Dog Task Force — which had been appointed in the wake of the public outcry about the 100 slaughtered sled dogs — submitted its final report to the government, it cited ISF’s Change.org petition, and nearly every recommendation from the petition was adopted by the provincial government.” She is also proud that their petition in support of the California bill on the sale and possession of shark fins attracted more than 27,000 signatures. The governor signed the bill into law last week.

One of the most encouraging aspects of online petitions is that they don’t take a lot of signatures to become an agent of change. “We had one campaign targeting Citibank Singapore, which was offering an incentive for new members to get a discount at a restaurant that served shark fin soup,” said Sarah. “The petition had about 75 signatures in 24 hours, and that was enough to get them to pull that promotion. So it’s not necessarily the number of signatures; sometimes just bringing it to a company’s attention is enough to get them to move on something.” But, I wondered, when a company like Citibank makes a change, how do you know it’s because of the petition? “You have to look at what else is going on in the space. If there are other organizations working on the same issue then you can’t say it was only because of this petition. But in the Citibank case in particular, there was really only this online petition that was calling them out to stop running this promotion. And as soon as the petition started, they ended up pulling the offer. We’ve also had companies respond to our petitions, and sometimes we work with them. It’s not always an antagonistic relationship. Sometimes a company is very willing to work with you as long as you bring it to their attention.”

Sarah acknowledged that a lot of activists consider social media activism to be a waste of time. “Certainly there’s this criticism that just signing an online petition is slacktivism, and that criticism will probably always exist,” she said. “But I think what our platform shows is that online petitions can be very powerful, and as we move into an increasingly technological age, communications via the Internet is really the wave of the future. It’s not slacktivism; it’s just modern.”

Sarah ended our conversation with this advice: “Don’t ever feel there’s nothing you can do. If you see a problem in your community or the country at large, there is a way for one person to make an impact. There’s no issue that’s too big or too small. It doesn’t cost any money. All you need is an Internet connection.”

 

Last weekend in Vancouver, nearly 100 people gathered at the city’s public library to hear lauren Ornelas, founder of Food Empowerment Project, speak about food justice. The talk was organized by the Vancouver-based group Liberation BC, a grassroots organization I’ve blogged about before. lauren’s talk was so in-depth that I couldn’t possibly cover everything in a blog post, but I will offer some highlights along with some background on her nonprofit organization.

lauren has been active in the animal rights movement for more than two decades, and in that time, she’s not only learned how to be a very effective advocate, but, as she explained to attendees Saturday night, she’s come to realize how many social injustices revolve around food. Although she is at heart an animal rights advocate, lauren began her activism campaigning against apartheid and the oppression of farm workers when she was still in high school and looked to role models like Steven Biko, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to inspire her. Then she learned about factory farming.

“I was a vegetarian by age 16, but I knew absolutely nothing about how animals were raised for food,” she told the audience. “I just knew I didn’t want to take a life. I’m from Texas, so every time we’d drive around and see the cows, I’d think, ‘How sad would it be for that baby calf to come home one day and the mom’s not there.’” She eventually learned about animal agriculture, and with her mother working two jobs to raise three daughters by herself, lauren and her family frequently dined on fast food and TV dinners. “It was what was convenient,” she said, explaining that it planted the seed that would come to be Food Empowerment Project, an all-volunteer organization that looks beyond single issues to educate people not just about the abuse of farmed animals, but about a community’s lack of access to organic produce, factory farms destroying the environment and even injustices perpetuated by large corporations, such as Coca-Cola privatizing and commodifying water.

lauren always struggled with wanting to tackle both animal rights and human rights. “A lot of animal rights activists were upset with me because when I would do radio interviews, I would talk about the grape boycott, or I would talk about another issue — not just animals. They felt I was doing the animals an injustice.” In 2006, she addressed the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela. “I spoke about all the different ways corporate animal farms exploit animals, workers and the environment.” But when attendees at the forum asked who was working on these issues internationally, there was no one lauren could refer them to. “I realized that every single thing that I cared passionately about revolved around food. Water privatization, animals killed for food, immigration, labor issues — everything. That’s where the concept for Food Empowerment Project came to me.” By talking about food and seeing it as a valuable outreach opportunity, lauren believes Food Empowerment Project can have a powerful impact.

After an enlightening discussion of animal cruelties — including the killing of sharks for their fins — lauren addressed a number issues that are probably new to many animal activists.

“Food Empowerment Project recognizes that eating cruelty-free is not just about being vegan,” she said. Because vegans encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables, we have a greater responsibility to lend our support to the farm workers who help put that produce on our tables. These workers — many of whom are migrants struggling to eke out a living for their families — are without many of the rights other workers enjoy, they spend countless hours bending over in blistering heat and may even die from sun stroke. Even reaching a farm to work on can be dangerous for these workers, said lauren. “Workers coming up from Mexico have to cross the border, and it’s becoming more regular for the women to start taking birth control pills in advance because of all the rape that is happening.”

Another issue lauren addressed on Saturday evening was related to the chocolate industry.  “We encourage people to only buy vegan chocolate that does not come from the slave trade,” she said. “Fair trade isn’t enough.”

“In our investigation of the chocolate industry, we’ve found that the majority of chocolate is coming from Ghana and the Ivory Coast.” Kids are kidnapped, some are sold, she said, for chocolate. “What I mean by sold is that the mom might have her sister’s husband watch her kids for an afternoon. When she comes back, the kids are gone because the kids have been sold into slavery. There are also other people who choose to work in the cacao farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast because they are promised — kind of like migrant farm workers are — a good wage, a good living, that they’ll make some money. What happens is, when they get to these farms they’re locked in at night. … If they try to leave, they are beaten or killed.”

After researching the chocolate industry, Food Empowerment Project offers a list of chocolates on its web site. The list is broken down into companies the nonprofit can recommend, companies it cannot recommend but that are working on the slavery issue, companies it cannot recommend and are not working on the issue and companies that either won’t divulge where their chocolate comes from or simply refused to respond to queries from the nonprofit. “The worst part of that list?” said lauren. “The majority of the companies are vegan. We encourage you to write them and not only ask, ‘Where do you get your chocolate from?’ but say, ‘I’m not going to buy your products until you tell me.’”

lauren noted that Martin Luther King, Jr., became the most powerful (and thus was followed and tracked by the U.S. government) not when he was just talking about civil rights, but when he began bringing other social justice issues together. “When he started talking about the janitors struggling in Chicago, when he started talking against the war in Vietnam, that’s when they got scared of him, because he was widening his circle of people he was working with. He was expanding that circle of compassion to other beings. I feel that when we do that, we will be so much stronger.”

Nikki Benoit leafleting without incident at Glendale Community College in California.

Leafleting has long been a standard form of activism in the animal rights movement. Indeed, it’s considered so effective that at least one nonprofit — Vegan Outreach — has been built around the premise that reaching out to the public, especially college students, with free information on the plight of animals used for food and encouraging people to go vegan is an easy and generally non-confrontational model of speaking up for animals. We’re not terribly surprised to hear when an activist is arrested at a demonstration, but leafleters have always enjoyed a lower profile, offering pamphlets and other literature to passersby; in fact, the Vegan Outreach site touts, “None of us have ever been arrested.”

Looks like they’ll have to update that page. This week, activist Nikki Benoit of Vegan Outreach was arrested as she was handing out leaflets at Orange Coast College (OCC) in Costa Mesa, California. “Numerous attorneys have reiterated that we have a constitutional right to hand out free literature — drama-free — and anywhere, really, especially in California, which has very inclusive free speech rights,” says Benoit, adding that the campus security officer “manhandled me, even while I was handcuffed.”

Although this arrest is rare, it is not unheard of, and the law supports the rights of activists leafleting on public college campuses. In fact, in the case of Jones v. the Board of Regents of the University of Arizona (1970), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that non-students not only have the right to exercise free speech on campuses, but that colleges and universities are obliged to provide these individuals with police protection to ensure their rights are not violated. Not that campuses always obey the court. In 2008, for example, an employee with Jews for Jesus was arrested for handing out leaflets at San Francisco City College. The employee successfully sued the college in 2009, with the court ruling they had violated his freedom of speech.

A lawsuit is also what Benoit’s lawyer has in mind. “I will first get the criminal charge dismissed, and then we will sue the police for violation of her civil rights,” says attorney Bryan Pease. “Nikki was well within her constitutional rights, and the crime she was charged with requires interfering with the peaceful conduct of activities on the campus. Passing out leaflets does not meet that test and is quintessential free speech.”

The larger question for activists, though, is should they be worried about leafleting? Benoit was making a stand at OCC; she was tired of being told by faculty and campus police at some colleges that she had to sign in before leafleting, limit her leafleting to a designated “free-speech zone” or be restricted to a table, where students could approach her. But that doesn’t mean activists need to risk arrest. According to the Legal Questions about Leafleting page on the Vegan Outreach site, if you have a problem with campus security, stay calm and polite. You can either stop leafleting immediately and leave, or you can remind authorities that you have a constitutional right to distribute literature. Pease cautions that “the police may make up a charge like they did in Nikki’s case,” but authorities “should recognize there is no chargeable offense for handing out leaflets in a public forum.”

Benoit says she’s been standing up to campus bullies for some time now and that police are usually unable to cite her and other activists who refuse to give up their constitutional rights. “At Southwestern College in Chula Vista a couple weeks ago, the security guard was writing my citation and learned there was nothing to cite me with,” she says.

Whenever I consider the power of leafleting, I am reminded of Nathan Runkle, who not only went vegan but later founded Mercy For Animals (MFA) — an organization known for exposing the suffering of animals in factory farms — because he was inspired by a piece of animal rights literature someone had given him when he was 11 years old. For additional information on leafleting, check out this video from MFA.

Undercover videos and other images taken inside factory farms are unquestionably among the most powerful tools activists have in the campaign for animals. But if lawmakers and animal ag interests in Iowa and Florida have their way, they could earn investigators prison time in those states. Last month, Florida state senator Jim Norman introduced a bill at the request of one of the state’s largest egg producers that would make it a first-degree felony to take a photo or video recording of a farm without the farmer’s permission. The law would carry a penalty of up to 30 years in prison. Norman told The Tampa Tribune that his bill, which even Drovers CattleNetwork calls “extreme,” is aimed at animal rights activists who secretly photograph or videotape farm conditions and post disturbing images on web sites. “It’s been a problem nationally,” said Norman. “I’m talking about an assault on the agriculture industry.”      

MFA’s undercover video showing animal abuse at an Ohio dairy farm in 2010 made national news.

At the vanguard of this “assault” are animal advocacy groups like Mercy For Animals (MFA) and PETA, which have secured video evidence of horrific cruelty inside many of the nation’s pig farms, egg facilities, dairy farms, hatcheries, and slaughterhouses. Video taken by an MFA investigator using a hidden camera inside an Ohio dairy farm last year, for example, showed employees violently punching young calves in the face and slamming them to the ground, using pitchforks to stab cows, beating “downed” cows (who are too sick or injured to stand) — and bragging about it. MFA’s video made headlines across the country and resulted in the arrest of a dairy employee, who was convicted of animal cruelty. (That he was sentenced to a mere 8 months of jail time — and that his crimes were only considered misdemeanors — is a depressing commentary on the lack of laws to protect farmed animals.) Incidentally, MFA has done 10 undercover videos since 2007, and for every one of them, the facility investigated was chosen at random.

Agriculture committees in the Iowa House of Representatives and Senate, meanwhile, have just approved a bill that would prohibit recordings like those by Mercy For Animals and punish people who take agriculture jobs just so they can have access to animals and record their treatment. Proposed penalties include fines of up to $7,500 and up to five years in prison. The bill passed the House vote on March 17 and still needs to go on to a Senate vote and then to the Governor.

Not a single federal law protects farmed animals from cruelty during their short lives in factory farms, and Iowa specifically excludes these animals from anti-cruelty protection. “Without undercover investigations, there are no meaningful watchdogs protecting animals from egregious cruelty in these facilities,” says MFA’s executive director Nathan Runkle. “This bill is a blatant violation of free speech and freedom of the press. It keeps consumers in the dark, threatens public health, and hurts animals by shielding animal abusers from public scrutiny.”

Animal law expert Bruce Wagman says these laws will have a chilling effect on the ability of animal advocates to expose abuses. “At this point, it’s singling out one specific type of speech and opinion in an effort to silence the rising protest in America over the way animals are treated for food,” he says. “It will affect animals because if we’re unable to document these practices, then they will continue to suffer alone and in terror without any of the watchdogs who have provided a benefit to not just we Americans but the animals inside factory farms and slaughterhouses.” Wagman notes that exposing the cruel practices of industrial agriculture can lead to new legislation and litigation that protects the animals in the future.

As Mark Bittman observed in his blog this week, activists shouldn’t need to sneak cameras into slaughterhouses and factory farms: the cameras should already be there. That’s exactly what is happening in the UK, where the nonprofit Animal Aid installed hidden cameras in seven randomly selected slaughterhouses and videotaped workers in six of them kicking, slapping, and stomping on animals. One worker is seen cutting off the heads of sheep while they are still alive. The results of Animal Aid’s investigation caused an outcry in England, and supermarket chains are now demanding that CCTV cameras are placed inside the slaughterhouses that supply their meat.

Agribiz has complained that those who make undercover videos often wait weeks or months before releasing the tape, rather than immediately bringing abuses to the attention of farm owners or the USDA. In response, Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, says that if undercover investigators shoot just a single day of footage, the company involved will claim it was an isolated incident. So activists have learned they must document that a practice is a pattern known by management and accepted by the company.

In other instances, authorities see the evidence long before it’s released to the public, but they want more time to investigate. Such was the case in 2007, when the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) collected evidence of abuse at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company in Chino, Calif. An investigator for HSUS videotaped slaughterhouse workers attempting to force downed cows into the human food chain. In the video, workers are seen kicking cows, ramming them with the blades of a forklift, jabbing them in the eyes, applying painful electrical shocks, and even torturing them by aiming full-force hoses into their noses and mouths in an effort to force sick or injured animals to walk to slaughter.

Upon viewing the tape four years ago, then Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer said, “It is unfortunate that the Humane Society of the United States did not present this information to us when these alleged violations occurred in the fall of 2007. Had we known at the time the alleged violations occurred, we would have initiated our investigation sooner, and taken appropriate actions at that time.”

In response, HSUS President Wayne Pacelle said the group did take action. “The HSUS turned over, to appropriate California law enforcement officials, extensive videotape evidence, once the investigation was concluded,” he said. “Local authorities asked for extra time before public release of the information.” The video prompted the recall of 143 million pounds of beef and led to the closing of Hallmark/Westland.

“I would think that the lobbyists behind this campaign to quell scrutiny of existing industry practices would, if their clients truly had nothing to hide, be pushing for public funding to install streaming web cameras so their clients could show off their state-of-the art operations rather than trying to prevent those who question current practice from exposing them,” says attorney Scott Heiser, director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Criminal Justice Program. “At a time when many have lost faith in government’s regulatory abilities, I can’t help but wonder how much factory farming profits would drop if the average American consumer were confronted with candid and accurate images depicting the conditions endured by the animals used to produce their food.”  Heiser adds, only half jokingly, “I suppose the next move is to ban and burn every copy of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.”

Laws like those being proposed in Florida and Iowa could potentially impact all kinds of undercover work. It’s not difficult to imagine a wide variety of industries lobbying for similar legislation that will keep undercover activists and reporters from revealing what goes on behind their closed doors. But as Wagman points out, Big Ag has specifically targeted animal welfare and animal rights investigators because they are doing such a good job of revealing the neglect and violence that are so rampant — and often standard practice — in animal agriculture. “With this industry, all you have to do is get inside the facility to be exposed to some of the most horrific cruelty and treatment of animals imaginable,” he says. “For a variety of reasons, the government is unable to provide the oversight and investigatory power to discover this abuse. The only real way to expose it is to do what these courageous men and women are doing.”

He was unmasked as an undercover police officer months ago, but Mark Kennedy — known to animal activists and other campaigners as Mark Stone — is all over the British press today. Kennedy, formerly of England’s Metropolitan Police Service, was quoted on BBC News as saying that he was “really sorry” for infiltrating activist groups and reporting on their activities to the authorities for at least seven years. “I owe it to a lot of good people to do something right for a change… I’m really sorry,” he said. “If I can help in any way then I’d like to.”

Mark Kennedy / The Guardian

BBC reports that Kennedy also suggested there are other infiltrators in the protest movement. “I’m not the only one — not by a long shot,” he said. That’s certainly no surprise to the animal rights community, which has long been a target for police organizations around the world (see here and here for examples). What is different about the Kennedy/Stone story is that the spy in this case admits he committed an act of betrayal. His double life was revealed while working alongside environmental activists in October 2010. Confronted by those who had trusted him, Kennedy admitted he was a cop working undercover. He reportedly left the police force shortly thereafter.

Police have a long history of infiltrating social justice movements, but Kennedy was among the first to work for Great Britain’s newly formed National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which monitors so-called “domestic extremists.” Established in 1999 as an expansion of the Animal Rights National Index, which collected details on animal rights activists, NPOIU is based somewhere in central London.

Kennedy was apparently deeply involved in the fight against global warming. According to The Guardian, he “took part in almost every major environmental protest in the UK from 2003, and also managed to infiltrate groups of anti-racists, anarchists and animal rights protesters.” At some point, the spy had a change of heart, and he recently suggested that he could offer evidence in support of six activists who were facing trial for trying to shut down a coal-fired power station for a few days in 2009 — an action Kennedy helped coordinate as “Mark Stone.” The trial was set to begin this week, but the prosecution dropped the case after Kennedy offered his assistance to the defense.

The story could lead to serious questions being raised about using police to infiltrate peaceful protest groups.

Although California’s Proposition 2 doesn’t go into effect until 2015, the law that will give the state’s egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and calves raised for veal room to turn around has already helped animals in many ways. Not only did the ballot initiative pass by a landslide in November 2008, but in the months leading up to the vote, Prop 2 advocates educated countless people about the horrors of factory farming.

Also born from the campaign was Santa Clara County Activists for Animals (SCCAA), a grassroots organization dedicated to reducing and eliminating the suffering of animals and to raising community awareness of animal issues. The group works to prevent cruelty to all animals, especially those used for food, clothing, and entertainment. I mention SCCAA not only as an example of how one campaign can grow roots and blossom into other outreach efforts, but how one of those efforts recently achieved victory for animals.

Among the campaigns SCCAA has worked tirelessly on is the effort to end sales of foie gras in their area. Foie gras (French for “fatty liver”) is created by force-feeding ducks until their livers become diseased and enlarged. The ducks’ livers may grow to 10 times their normal size, causing them tremendous suffering. The ducks are also deprived of access to swimming water, which they need to stay clean and healthy. More than a dozen countries have outlawed foie gras production, and in 2004, animal advocates sponsored a California bill that will ban the production and sale of the extravagance in 2012. But SCCAA members weren’t content to wait around: they were determined to eliminate this egregious cruelty from their county.

SCCAA members at Le Papillon restaurant

“Since we’re a county organization, not a city organization, we figured out where a majority of our members were based, and we located all the restaurants in our area that sold foie gras,” says Lauren Ornelas of SCCAA. The group concentrated their efforts on Le Papillon restaurant in San Jose and sent them a very polite letter stating the owner and management may not know about all the cruelty that is involved in foie gras; in an effort to educate them, SCCAA included a video depicting abuses at the two foie gras facilities in the US: Sonoma Foie Gras in California and Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York. “We gave them several months to respond.”

When no response came, the group began the next phase of its campaign. “Every campaign requires an escalation in tactics,” says Lauren, “so we had to figure out ways that we could escalate the strategy as a small organization. We started out with signs without any images and a flier we made ourselves with cute pictures of ducks that we handed out at the restaurant. We had four people out at the restaurant every Saturday night; we picked Saturday nights because that’s their busiest night of the week.” The group wasn’t getting much response from management, so eventually SCCAA started using graphic images. “We were lucky to get banners from Animal Protection and Rescue League, which we used in front of the restaurant.”

Lauren, whose longtime activism includes founding the Food Empowerment Project and establishing the US office of UK-based Viva!, says she knew the campaign was working when the restaurant started to become aggressive. “They would try to block us from reaching their customers and stood in our way, so I knew we were starting to bother them.”

At one point last summer, the restaurant’s owner told Lauren he would never remove foie gras from the menu. “They were digging in their heels,” says Lauren, “but we were resolved to be out there until the law banning foie gras goes into effect in 2012.”

At last, realizing the activists were not going away and were within their rights to demonstrate, Le Papillon relented and informed SCCAA they would no longer be selling foie gras.

Reflecting on the campaign’s success, Lauren points to several important factors that made victory possible. “In order to be effective, activists need to begin by doing their research,” she says. “They need to make a decision to commit to it. Sometimes campaigns can take a long time, but you don’t start something and not finish it. Consistency is really key.”

And she reminds activists that even a small group can win campaigns. “You don’t need to have a huge organization or hundreds of protesters to make an impact,” she says. “Don’t be nervous. When you do these things, even if there’s just a few of you, know your position well, and do your research in terms of your rights as well as the issue so that you have the confidence that you’re speaking on behalf of justice and what’s right. Don’t ever waver on that. Don’t ever let them feel you doubt your rights or the issue you’re talking about.”

Back on July 12, Shane Close launched something that has become a familiar experiment: he began 90 days of meatless living. His journey started with a month as a vegetarian, then he went vegan for 45 days, finally spending the last two weeks eating a raw vegan diet. But Shane, a filmmaker, added a twist, chronicling the process in a documentary. The final day of his journey was October 9, and now Shane hopes to get Meatless: The Movie into the festival circuit through his company, Big Happy Films.

Shane Close

It was after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma that Shane decided to accept his wife’s challenge: could he give up meat? The longtime meat-lover made daily blog posts on his culinary adventures, documenting both the highs and lows of navigating a brave new world. Here’s what he told me about his three meatless months.

Why document your journey on film?

Personally, I think there are a lot of average Joes out there like myself who are completely ignorant to vegetarian diets, what it means, why people do it and especially how easy or difficult the transition is. Since there are so many forms of vegetarian diets, I felt that it was important to explore a few and document what I found and how I felt along the way.

Had you tried being vegan before?

Before embarking on this journey, I had never even considered a vegetarian diet, let alone a vegan diet. To be honest, I think I was just as ignorant as a lot of people out there and thought it was a hippie, New Age, animal-rights-extremist way of eating, and I wanted no part of it. When you don’t grow up in major cities, typically coastal, or in progressive communities, it’s hard to grasp any informed perspectives or gain any understanding of these types of ideologies. You only know what the media portrays and what those around you have to say ― who, I might add, are equally ignorant on the subject.

What have you found the most difficult part of being vegan?

I think after getting over the initial hump of making the transition, figuring out what you can and cannot eat and how difficult navigating a grocery store can be, the most difficult part would have to be traveling, eating out or anytime you are out of the comfort zone of your own kitchen. If I have control over the stovetop, I can make a mean vegan dinner. Take me away from that level of control and I get confused, frustrated and grumpy, as the film will show.

What’s been the easiest?

The easiest part has to be when you realize just how often you are eating vegan, or near vegan, and with slight modification, meals you regularly enjoy can be completely vegan. Everything from Italian food, Japanese, Indian, Mexican and even some down-home country cooking.

What kind of support did you get from friends, family and the veg community?

That has been the most amazing part of this journey, by far. The people who have opened their hearts, homes, voices and support have been incredible. My family has been incredibly supportive, and my wife has been absolutely amazing. The participants in the film continue to surprise me with their willingness to get involved in this project. But by far, the vegan community has been the most supportive. They post regularly on my blog or Meatless: The Movie Facebook page with information, uplifting messages when I am in a rough stage, and even send me care packages full of everything from DVDs and books, to vegan foods and deserts. I can only say, vegans should be proud of their peeps in Boulder, Colorado. I have also received emails from people all across the world wanting to see the film. As far away as Europe, Australia and the UAE.


Welcome to the official blog for Striking at the Roots by Mark Hawthorne, your source for more effective animal activism.


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