Entrepreneur powers new vegan platform

At last summer’s Animal Rights 2012 conference in Washington, DC, I had the pleasure of meeting Matthew Glover, who had traveled from England to attend. Matthew is the kind of enthusiastic vegan who makes good things happen for everyone — an entrepreneur with the vision and means to take an idea and build it into something special.

Matthew told me about a new online community he was working on called Bleat, which would combine resources like veggie restaurant guides and ethical shopping with a vegan/activist social network. “But it’s really much more than that,” he said. Matthew and his team have clearly been busy, and with Bleat now only weeks from its official May 1 launch, he provided a few more details about what looks to be a really exciting project.

What’s the origin of Bleat?

It all started when I clicked on a banner advert for “Meet Your Meat.” I had been a vegetarian for many years, but that video started me on a journey of research into animal rights and veganism. I read your book Striking at the Roots and The Animal Activist’s Handbook by Bruce Friedrich and Matt Ball as I was searching for my role in the movement.

As I have been a businessman for 20 years, with a passion for marketing, other animal advocates suggested the best role for me would be continuing to use my expertise in these fields. So, I researched various vegan business ideas, and then an acquaintance suggested I should meet a fellow vegan who had an idea for a new vegan website. I was curious, so I met my partner in Bleat, Mike Dean, and within a few meetings we decided we had to create this website. Mike is the brains behind the website, so he is concentrating on managing the developers and turning his dream for a vegan social media website into a reality.

Our main motivation for Bleat is to help the animals. Factory farming and other forms of animal exploitation need to stop, and we hope that our efforts can play a part in helping people to make the transition to veganism.

bleat2_jpg

So Mike is the creative force. How would you describe your role?

I will be running the traditional business side of the business. I have two other business interests which from May will need only limited involvement from me. So from May 1st, Bleat will become my main job. I will be networking with animal advocates, vegan business owners, and others to help get the site launched successfully.

Who’s your target user?

To begin with we’re targeting vegans. But we hope the site will be a great tool for helping people who are currently vegetarian or omnivore to make the transition.

Have you gotten much support from the vegan/animal rights community so far?

Yes, we’ve been surprised by how much support we have received. It started when we created an online survey and posted the link on Facebook and Twitter. We had over 400 responses in a short amount of time, with relatively little promotion.

Since then we have presented our ideas to many of the main animal rights organizations and they’re all keen to be involved and help promote the launch. We’ve created a Facebook group, which has hundreds of followers already, and we have a list of volunteers wanting to be involved in the beta testing stage. We’re confident that once the site goes live on May 1st, the support we get from a very passionate community will help get the site off the ground.

What will Bleat offer that users can’t get on other websites?

What we’re doing is creating a platform where users can bring all the information that already exists online into one place. Our site will have recipes, restaurant search, product search, events, animal rights news, health and dietary information all in one place. It’ll be a social media platform with advanced search facility to help people find vegan information easily.

bleatjpg

Who is backing Bleat financially? Will there be advertising?

I have funded all of the development work so far, and will continue to do so until it stands on its own two feet. We will be including discreet advertising and sponsored listings for vegan businesses wishing to promote their products. This revenue will then fund the continued management and development of the site going forward.

How does launching a vegan-based business differ from getting other business models off the ground?

Good question. For me, there are two distinct differences in how I’m approaching the launch.

Firstly, when setting up and running a normal business, I would have detailed financial projections and a business plan which considers all the risks before I decide whether to invest time and money. In this instance, because the business is more of a passion, I am more relaxed and am just going with a gut feeling about what is right. I believe that people need to transition towards a vegan way of life, and I believe this platform will help people do this.

Secondly, the other businesses I run are fully commercial entities with the ultimate goal of making a profit. With Bleat, Mike and I have agreed that the majority of any net profit will be reinvested in the animal rights movement and vegan outreach activities. We will have overheads which need covering, and we intend to scale up the development of the website and potentially move into other areas, but the bulk of any net profit will be put to good use.

It’s starting in the UK and the US, right? When will Bleat be a truly global experience for users?

Our intention is for Bleat to be a global site from the outset, encouraging users from all over the world to get involved. That being said, we see the US as the most influential country and with the most advanced vegan community, so we will be keen to get US vegans on board. With Mike and myself from the UK, then this country will also be a priority. I do see the US and UK combined as drivers of social justice movements historically, and the same needs to happen with veganism.

Watch this space for the Bleat launch on May 1. You can follow Bleat on Twitter @WeAreBleat

sarah-brown-queer-vegan-food-e-book-cover-r4-01What do you get when you mix vegan chefs like Mariano Caino, Allyson Kramer, Lee Khatchadourian-Reese, Christy Morgan, Heather Pace, and Kelly Peloza, sprinkle in a few well-known writers like Carol J. Adams and Rory Freedman, add a healthy dash of bloggers such as Jason Das, Gena Hamshaw, Courtney Pool, and Ali Seiter, and stir them all with a heaping tablespoon of egg replacer? The Queer Vegan Food Cookbook, of course.

The brainchild of Sarah Brown—the mastermind behind QueerVeganFood.com—this e-cookbook is jam-packed with appetizers, comfort foods, desserts, smoothies, and entrees. Best of all, the whole thing benefits animals. Sarah’s goal was to put together, as she puts it, “the weirdest, most unique and delicious recipes from top vegan chefs, bloggers, and authors around the world,” the proceeds from which would be donated to Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in New York. “I’ve always enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen, and my culinary style has always been playful, fun, and exploratory,” she says. “I thought that creating an assemblage of recipes from chefs who push the boundaries of creativity would be really fun and that people would respond to it.”

Respond they have. Sarah says the cookbook has been a big success, and looking at the recipes and mouth-watering photos, that’s hardly a surprise. “The goal was always to reach as many people as possible to spread awareness about vegan cuisine and raise funds for the sanctuary, so I think we’ve been pretty successful so far in that!”

One of my favorite recipes from the book is for Corn, Black Bean, and Cherry Tomato Cupcakes with Sweet-Sour Guacamole Frosting (contributed by Rory Freedman and Jason Allen).* “I love that recipe, too!” says Sarah, who clearly has an affinity for culinary creativity. “I almost always make a really funky superfood smoothie every morning for breakfast. I toss in everything: chia, maca, stevia, hemp seeds, mesquite, lucuma, cacao, and fruits and sometimes greens. Sometimes it looks strange, but it tastes so good and is quite nutrient-dense!” (I confess I only recognize about three of those ingredients.)

Sarah Brown

Sarah Brown

So what exactly makes food “queer,” you ask? “It’s food that challenges the norms of cuisine in the United States,” answers Sarah. “In some ways, all plant-based food is queer vegan food, but especially plant-based foods that do not imitate animal products.” Like mock meats, which I do happen to enjoy. “They’re fine if you’re into them. I personally am not a fan anymore. For the first few years of being vegan I ate a bunch of those, and they helped me transition from vegetarian to vegan—I went vegetarian at age 12—and now I don’t really eat them very often or at all. I find that I can enjoy a variety of vegan protein sources, including homemade veggie patties, beans, legumes, greens, and superfoods, without missing fake-meat products, but I think if folks love them, that’s fine for them! Why should there be a one-size-fits-all vegan diet? As long as folks feel good and enjoy what they’re eating and it’s as ethically sourced as possible, I say great!”

In addition to her blogging, Sarah advocates for animals through letter writing, petitions, and social media activism-awareness campaigns. “I also spread veganism through cooking for non-veg friends and family.”

You’ll find more details on The Queer Vegan Food Cookbook, including a complete list of the contributors—and a simple way to purchase the $15 e-book—here.

*For some delicious, traditional Mexican recipes, check out veganmexicanfood.com

Some time ago, my wife and I were visiting a small wildlife rehabilitation center north of Sydney, Australia, where volunteer and longtime activist Lindy Stacker showed us around. Lauren had spent many years working on behalf of kangaroos, and Lindy was one of her main Aussie contacts. Neither Lauren nor I had met a ‘roo in person, however (we wouldn’t think of visiting a zoo), so we were thrilled when Lindy took us to her facility and introduced us to several of these charismatic marsupials recovering from various ailments.

Her other guest that day was a veterinarian named Howard Ralph, who was there to check up on one of the adult kangaroos. Dr. Ralph is not just a vet—his remarkably diverse medical IMG_1930background includes work as a surgeon, aesthetician, and emergency care worker—but he’s spent the last three decades treating injured, sick, and orphaned wildlife, all on a volunteer basis. Six years ago, he founded Southern Cross Wildlife Care (SCWC). During dinner, Dr. Ralph shared with us his photo album of patients, and it was clear there was no animal this humble man couldn’t help heal: tortoises with cracked shells, wombats with cataracts, baby kangaroos with broken limbs, koalas with burns, along with lizards, birds, frogs, wallabies, possums, bats, and many others. Indeed, he and his volunteers at SCWC treat more than 2,000 native animals every year, many of whom have been hit by vehicles on Australia’s busy roads.

“Howard never gives up on even the most sad and hopeless-looking situation,” says Lindy, who also volunteers at SCWC. “If you were a sick animal, trust me, you would want to look up and see the eyes of this most kind man looking over you. It is very difficult getting vets to care for wildlife. They just won’t afford our precious but often desperate wildlife the time and attention they need. It really breaks our hearts.”

“I could work treating wildlife 24 hours a day, seven days a week, forever because the need is overwhelming,” says Dr. Ralph. “There is a small nucleus of dedicated people that help with this, and without them it would be hopeless.”

It was after a brushfire that Dr. Ralph noticed the lack of volunteer assistance for Australia’s injured native species. “The wildlife were getting so little help and I thought, ‘Well, I have only got one life and I should put it to the best use I can, and the wildlife need it the most,’” he says.

Bites and scratches are an occupational hazard, hence the bandages.

Bites and scratches are an occupational hazard, hence the bandages.

“People bring animals from all over Sydney, and they ring Dr. Ralph from anywhere in Australia for advice,” adds Lindy.

Without government or corporate funding, Southern Cross Wildlife Care struggles to meet its annual costs, which are more than AU$200,000. If you would like to donate any amount, please contact Lindy Stacker on 9982 1751 (from the US, that’s 011-61-9982-1751) or 0409 404570 or email lindystacker@yahoo.com.au. You can also click here.

Rescues, bans, and protests—any way you look at it, 2012 was an eventful year for animal activism. As I began reflecting on the last 12 months, I was heartened by just how vocal people were, and how their speaking out for animals helped to create positive changes. Our voices didn’t always result in an all-out victory, but even when they didn’t, we can still claim some success. Rather than rank these stories, I’ve put them in chronological order. Here are 12 for ’12:

1. Ireland bans puppy mills (January)

The year got off to a promising start as puppy farming was outlawed in Ireland. Puppy farms (or puppy mills) are commercial dog-breeding facilities that put profits above animal welfare—they’re like the factory farms of the pet industry. Irish dog-breeding establishments are defined as premises that keep six or more female dogs over the age of four months who are physically able to breed. These facilities became so ubiquitous in Ireland that the country was known as the Puppy Farm of Europe. Puppy_mill_Ireland

Unfortunately, not everyone has gotten the “Adopt, Don’t Buy” message, and many people continue to purchase dogs. In Ireland, puppy mill dogs have frequently been sold through small ads or the Internet and shipped to England at hugely inflated prices. The animals typically suffer from severe health problems and congenital conditions.

With the passage of the Dog Breeding Establishments Act 2010, which went into effect on January 1, all breeders must be registered with local authorities and they must keep dogs in housing that is clean and not overcrowded. The dogs must be given exercise and bedding material, as well as food and water, and female dogs must have no more than one litter of puppies in a year. These provisions will be enforced with mandatory veterinary inspections, and a register of breeders will include only breeders that meet the new standards.

2. Thousands of hens rescued from egg farm (February-March)

It’s been called the largest rescue of farmed animals in California history. More than 4,400 hens were saved from an egg farm in Turlock after the owner simply walked away from the operation and left behind 50,000 birds. Weeks went by before someone alerted authorities, but by that time, some 20,000 of the hens had starved to death. Others fell into giant manure pits under their cages and drowned. Twenty-five thousand more had to be euthanized. Farmed animal sanctuaries Animal Place, Farm Sanctuary, and Harvest Home took on the responsibility of caring for the hens and finding homes for them. In the meantime, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the law firm Schiff Hardin sued the owners of the egg farm to hold them responsible for their heinous cruelty. The farmers sought to have the case dismissed, but on December 5, the court rejected the farmers’ arguments, permitting the case to move forward.

3. Japan ends whale-slaughter campaign with less than a third of its target catch (March)

Everyone enjoys stories where the bad guy loses. So you gotta love that Japanese whalers went home with far fewer whales than they’d hoped for this year. According to Japan’s Fisheries Agency, whalers killed 266 minke whales and one fin whale, well below the approximately 900 they had been aiming for when they left Japan in December of 2011. “The catch was smaller than planned due to factors including weather conditions and sabotage acts by activists,” an agency official said. “There were definitely sabotage campaigns behind the figure.” Hot in pursuit of the whale killers was Sea Shepherd, hurling stink bombs at the boats and using ropes to try to tangle their propellers in a series of exchanges, which have seen the whalers retaliate with water cannon.

Every winter finds the Sea Shepherd crew plying the frigid Southern Ocean actively interfering with vessels from Japan’s Institute for Cetacean Research (ICR) as they search for whales to kill and “study.” A registered nonprofit, ICR claims it has no commercial stake in the hunts, yet whale meat from their government-subsidized “research” continues to be sold in Japanese seafood markets. Last December, the Fisheries Agency admitted that it had diverted US$29 million from Japan’s March 11, 2011, tsunami relief fund to subsidize the country’s whaling program and protect it from animal activists. The money evidently was used to equip the Shonan Maru 2 with unspecified security equipment designed to win the battle against Sea Shepherd.

With Sea Shepherd’s latest campaign about to begin, it will be interesting to see how they respond to the recent court injunction prohibiting them from attacking Japanese whaling ships.

4. Panama bans bullfighting and other cruel “sports” (March)

On March 15, Panama’s National Assembly approved an unprecedented bill—the first in the world to explicitly ban all forms of bullfighting, from the traditional Spanish corrida to so-called “bloodless” Portuguese-style bullfighting; despite the name, bulls are killed after leaving the bullring. Since bullfights were not taking place in Panama, this was a preemptive measure: With bullfighting losing ground in other countries (even Mexico City, home to the largest bullring on Earth, is considering a ban), Panamanians wanted to ensure the blood sport wasn’t exported there.

The new animal protection law, signed by President Ricardo Martinelli in November, also prohibits dog fighting, hare coursing, and greyhound racing, and it contains such strong regulations on circuses that it will effectively ban the use of animals in their performances. Sadly excluded from the law are bans on cockfighting and horse racing.

5. Italian activists liberate 30 beagles from Green Hill (April)

When animal advocates in Italy get active, they open a serious can of whoop ass. The story of the liberation of 30 beagles destined for vivisection is actually just one element of a much larger narrative—one with an ending that makes this, in my view, the most inspiring victory of the year. The drama began in October 2011, when five members of the group Fermare Green Hill got onto the roof of the beagle delivery building at Green Hill, Europe’s largest farm breeding dogs for research, near Milan. Among the clients of Green Hill are university laboratories, pharmaceutical companies, and the notorious Huntingdon Life Sciences in England.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Tino Verducci, a member of Fermare Green Hill, when he was in California for the recent Animal Liberation Forum, and he explained the impact of the roof occupation. “We managed to get five people on the roof for 30 hours. That was crucial, because we brought cell phones, video camera, computer, and so we managed to get media. We had TV, radio—all sorts of media. Being on the roof, we could hear the dogs. You have to bear in mind the perception of the people at home, who were listening to the puppies and dogs crying. As soon as the activists came down, all Italy went against vivisection. A poll a few months after said 86 percent of the Italian population was against it. This put a lot of pressure on the Italian government, and it raised awareness about activism. Every day for the next six months we continued our campaign to close down Green Hill. The pressure of the people was very beneficial because the Italian government decided to set up a law to ban vivisection for cats, dogs, and primates.” When I ask when the law goes into effect, Tino smiles. “In Italy, things go very, very slow,” he says.

beagle2All the media attention raised awareness and the ire of the Italian public, so it was no surprise when at least a thousand people showed up for a demonstration outside Green Hill on April 28. Protesters—some carrying signs reading “We are the 86%”—were so motivated to take action that a few hundred boldly stormed the facility and came back with a mother beagle and dozens of puppies. Dramatic photos of these animals being gingerly handed over the fence were posted around the world. Police arrested a dozen demonstrators and reportedly took back a few of the puppies. “Very important, though, is that the people in the local town were helping the activists by hiding the dogs—they knew police were checking everyone,” explains Tino.

Two months later, police raided Green Hill, where they discovered more than 100 bodies in the freezers. “Italian law states that any animal born must be microchipped and their birth recorded. The police found that the dogs in the freezers did not have microchips or birth records. This is crucial, because they were breaking the law. Police also found that [Green Hill’s owner] Marshall Farm, from the USA, tried to manipulate data, so police were very suspicious about all this.” The government seized some 2,700 dogs, according to Tino, and has shut the facility while it conducts its investigation. Meanwhile, the dogs have been placed in adoptive homes. Faced with the possibility they’ll have to relinquish the animals to Marshall Farm, the dogs’ guardians are ready to fight. “The people have said, ‘They’ll get the dogs over my dead body,’” says Tino. Rescued_beagle

Fermare Green Hill is set to take on Harlan Sprague Dawley, Inc., which breeds not only beagles, but marmosets, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, mice, gerbils, and hamsters, as well as hybrid, mutant, and transgenic animals. Bolstered by their latest success, Tino seems pretty confident. “Green Hill was a lesson to the vivisection industry and to activists everywhere that when people work together, they can change anything,” he says.

6. Activists block access to New Zealand’s largest egg producer (June)

EnrichedCageComparisonAfter an undercover investigation revealed that the conditions hens endured inside colony cages were little better than battery cages, campaigners with New Zealand Open Rescue and the Coalition to End Factory Farming spent four months creating a protest against New Zealand’s biggest egg producer: Mainland Poultry. The company had been testing colony cages, which are set to gradually replace existing battery cages over the next 10 years.

Deirdre Sims, Marie Brittain, and Mengzu Fu suspended themselves from the top of steel towering tripods on the road and chained to a gate, forming a blockade. The action “effectively shut down Mainland Poultry and halted the distribution of cruelly produced eggs to their suppliers,” said spokesperson Carl Scott, who last year spent a month inside a cage to protest the eggs Mainland sells. NZOpenRescue

“We risked our lives that morning, but Mainland Poultry now realize that we are highly capable of shutting them down, so it was definitely worth it,” says Deirdre. “This action served as a strong warning to Mainland Poultry and the egg industry that we are escalating our efforts. Our undercover investigation inside this Mainland Poultry colony cage facility revealed that hens are still suffering inside cages. We witnessed tens of thousands of birds crammed into colony cages, which are nothing more than modified battery cages. After decades of campaigning against cruel cage systems, enough is enough.”

7. California’s ban on foie gras takes effect (July)

It was more than seven years in the making. In 2004, California legislators passed a law prohibiting the sale of any product derived from the force-feeding of birds to enlarge their livers. The law—the only one of its kind in the United States—kicked in on July 1. The seven-and-a-half-year grace period was intended to give foie gras producers time to devise a less-cruel method for creating fatty livers. To no one’s surprise, they couldn’t.

California’s only foie gras producer, Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras, closed shop at the start of the ban. The state’s other previous suppliers—foie gras farms in New York and Quebec—have seen their sales in California evaporate since July 1.

For an insider’s view on this issue, lauren Ornelas has written a great blog post detailing how she and other activists achieved this victory.

8. Ben the Bear is granted permanent sanctuary (August)

Photo: PETA

Ben today. Photo by PETA

For six miserable years, Ben was confined to a tiny, barren kennel at a roadside zoo in North Carolina. He paced the concrete, gnawed at the metal fencing, and endured filthy conditions. After years of legal wrangling, including a lawsuit filed by ALDF and PETA, a judge signed an injunction allowing Ben to reside permanently at a California sanctuary operated by the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). Today, Ben enjoys a huge habitat, with grass, trees, and his own pond. When lauren and I visited Ben recently, we were told he spends every night sleeping outside—even in the rain—although he has a comfortable den. “He just loves being in the grass,” the PAWS docent said. Six years of sleeping on concrete will do that to you.

Click here for a short video telling the story of Ben’s rescue.

9. Adidas gives kangaroo skin the boot (September)

Its shoes have been worn by athletes since the 1920s, and today Adidas is one of the largest sportswear companies on the planet, thanks in part to its knack for innovation (it introduced, among other design enhancements, arch supports and spikes in track-running shoes). For years, Adidas manufactured several lines of football (soccer) cleats from the skins of kangaroos, thus subsidizing what the nonprofit Animals Australia describes as the largest land-based commercial wildlife slaughter in the world.

Central to the commercial killing is the debatable premise, perpetuated by farmers and ranchers, that the country’s estimated 25-60 million ‘roos are agricultural “pests” who compete with sheep for forage and destroy crops. With many Aussies convinced the destruction of these herbivorous marsupials is justified, the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia makes a great effort to promote the animals as food and fiber resources. The primary argument made by most animal welfare groups is not that the kangaroos are being slaughtered, which is bad enough, but that the methods used for killing them are inhumane. Hunters are supposed to adhere to Australia’s National Code of Practice, a set of guidelines intended to minimize the pain and suffering of targeted kangaroos. According to the Code, shooters must hit the animal in the brain. Since hunting occurs at night at distances of 50 to 100 meters (164 to 328 feet), accurate shots to the head are difficult at best.

The Code also states that hunters must not kill protected species, and they should avoid shooting female kangaroos who have dependent young—two more directives that are impossible to fully comply with, particularly under nighttime shooting conditions. Only six of the 55 kangaroo species are allowed to be killed for commercial use—the Eastern Grey, the Red, the Western Grey, the common wallaroo (also called the Euro), the Bennett’s wallaby, and the pademelon (a type of wallaby)—but in the dark, who’s to say which species of kangaroo is being destroyed? Furthermore, baby kangaroos are considered a worthless byproduct of the industry, so when a mother ‘roo is targeted, her babies are also killed, multiplying the tragedy. Should a weaned baby (called a young-at-foot joey) escape being shot when his mother is killed, he hops off into the night to die by starvation, dehydration, or predation from foxes, hawks, or dingoes. There are also pouch joeys who are dragged from their dead or dying mother’s pouch; after experiencing the trauma of mama’s murder, these orphans get their heads cut off, bludgeoned, or bashed against the tow bar of a vehicle. Such are the killing methods recommended in the Code.

In September, after years of campaigning by Viva!, Viva!USA, and other groups, Adidas announced it was phasing out its use of kangaroo skin.

10. Bill and Lou make headlines (November)

It didn’t have the happy ending we were all hoping for, but the story of oxen Bill and Lou became a flashpoint for the debate about animals raised for food. Think about it: When was the last time so much attention was focused on two farmed animals? Their story was told in The New York Times and on NPR, among many other media outlets. James McWilliams frequently blogged about Bill and Lou as the drama unfolded and is currently writing an e-book about them. (Meanwhile, it should be noted, tens of millions of cows were being slaughtered with scarcely a peep of objection from most observers.) Bill_and_Lou

Some said all the interest in Bill and Lou only served to promote Vermont’s Green Mountain College (GMC), whose agriculture program exploited the two bovines for a decade and then, when Lou injured his leg and could no longer pull a plow, declared the pair should be killed and fed to the students. So vociferous was the public outcry that GMC found itself defending the economic, environmental, and ethical basis of its program. Citing health concerns, GMC says they euthanized Lou on November 11. It was a heartbreaking blow to countless people who’d asked the college to allow both animals to be placed in a sanctuary such as VINE, which had campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the oxen. But there’s no doubt in my mind that were it not for the pressure brought to bear on GMC, Bill would be dead, too. (He’ll evidently be kept alive on the campus farm.) Moreover, the conversation about these two animals fueled the general discussion about viewing animals as mere resources.

11. Costa Rica bans hunting as a sport (December)

Following a unanimous and final vote from Congress, Costa Rica became the first country in Latin America to ban hunting as a sport. Under the new law, those caught hunting can face up to four months in prison or fines of up to $3,000.

Costa Rica is one of the world’s most biodiverse nations, attracting foreign hunters in search of exotic cats and traders from the pet industry looking to snatch colorful parrots.  “We’re not just hoping to save the animals but we’re hoping to save the country’s economy, because if we destroy the wildlife there, tourists are not going to come anymore,” environmental activist Diego Marin, who campaigned for the reform, told local radio.

This is also Costa Rica’s first proposal that came to Congress by popular initiative, with 177,000 signatures calling for the ban submitted two years ago.

12. The Netherlands Senate votes to ban fur farming (December)

In the last decade, the Netherlands’ mink farming industry has grown from three million to an estimated six million minks killed every year, making them the world’s third largest producer of mink “pelts,” after Denmark and China. This month the Dutch Senate voted to ban mink fur farming, which comes after a 2012 inquiry by the Ministry of Agriculture revealed that 93 percent of the nation disapproves of killing animals for their fur. Mink fur farmers will have until 2024 to get out of this bloody business. The final step is a sign-off by the relevant Dutch Minister and the Queen.

Mink_FarmThe Netherlands’ fur industry currently operates 170 mink farms. Mink are typically kept in barren wire cages measuring little more than the length of a human arm. In their natural habitat, these animals would enjoy environmentally rich riverbank territories of up to three square miles. Due to the extreme stress of confinement, farmed mink routinely engage in self-mutilation and other abnormal behaviors.

The country banned fox fur farming in 1995 and chinchilla fur farming in 1997. The ban on mink fur farms will mean that in 12 years, fur farming in the Netherlands will be a practice about which the Dutch will shake their heads and say, “Can you believe we used to do that to animals?”

All in all, a pretty good year, I’d say. Is there a victory you think should have made the list?

Two new studies examine the impact of shocking photos and video on outreach efforts.

A decade later, the photograph still haunts me. I had recently gone vegan and was looking for ways to turn my newfound passion into action when I received an email from Humane Society International about the annual slaughter of seals in Canada. Accompanying the message was a particularly gruesome image that showed the bloody bodies of dozens of freshly skinned seals scattered across the frozen landscape. Near the bottom of the photo, pondering this horrible scene, was a lone seal who had managed to escape the carnage. What must she be thinking? I wondered. Was she looking for her mother? A friend? Some answer to what had happened—and why? A few years later when I addressed in my book and in talks the role upsetting images can play in activist burnout, this was the photo that occupied my consciousness and kept me awake at night.

Not that such images don’t have a place in animal activism; they certainly do. Vivid pictures from factory farms, slaughterhouses, canned hunts, research labs, fur farms, and the like reflect society’s mistreatment of animals. They are important markers in our ignoble history. But as the animal rights movement matures—along with technology and social media—and discusses how best to frame its message to the public, the use of potentially off-putting images has become a hot topic. How and when should we use photos and videos with graphic detail in our quest to change consumer behavior? Evidence shows the repulsive approach is working in the anti-tobacco campaign, for instance, where cigarette cartons carrying images of diseased lungs are more effective at delivering the anti-smoking message than any blithe warning from the Surgeon General ever could.

Photos vs. Video

Photo: FARM

Last month, the results of two studies on the use of images in vegan outreach—each with apparently conflicting conclusions—were released. One study, conducted with funding assistance from the nonprofit FARM, showed three different photos to survey participants: one with a low level of graphic detail (a dead pig on a muddy slaughterhouse floor), one with a medium level of graphic detail (a dead pig on a bloody slaughterhouse floor), and one with a high degree of graphic detail (a dead pig with his throat slit on a bloody slaughterhouse floor). Each image’s effect on attitudes toward animal rights was measured using the Wuensch animal rights scale: a high score indicates positive attitudes toward animal rights, and a low score indicates negative attitudes toward animal rights. As explained in this FARM blog, “the low graphic detail image was the most effective, the moderate graphic detail image was less effective, and the high graphic detail image was the least effective, although this effect was not statistically significant. What this means is that, though the images affected attitudes towards animal rights to different degrees, there’s about a 15% chance we could have gotten this result even if the images had no effect.”

The second study, conducted by the Humane Research Council (HRC) on behalf of VegFund, asked people between the ages of 15 and 23 to watch vegetarian/vegan outreach videos and then complete a survey. Following the popular pay-per-view outreach model, each participant received $1.00 to watch one of four short videos. The videos were:

  • Farm to Fridge (Mercy For Animals): An intensely graphic appeal to ethics/compassion using footage of farmed-animal abuse sourced mostly from undercover investigations.
  • Maxine’s Dash for Freedom (Farm Sanctuary): An appeal to ethics/compassion by telling the story of a cow who escaped slaughter and was rescued.
  • A Life Connected (Nonviolence United): An appeal for consumers to connect with concerns about the impact of factory farming on animals, the environment, and/or human health.
  • Geico Couple (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine): An appeal to health concerns by telling the story of a couple who adopted a vegan diet and successfully lost weight.

After watching the video, participants were asked questions about what they learned; if they wanted more information about eating vegetarian or vegan; about their current levels of meat, dairy, and egg consumption; and whether they intended to reduce consumption of any animal products. In contrast to the study carried out with partial funding from FARM, the HRC survey found that graphic images had the biggest impact, with the grisly candor of Farm to Fridge resulting in 36 percent of participants saying they were considering a reduction of the animal products they consume—that is an average of 7 percent better than the other, much less graphic, videos, even though viewers on average were only able to endure 78 percent of Mercy For Animals’ video.

There Will Be Blood

Photo: Mercy For Animals

Based on these results, it’s tempting to conclude that when it comes to photographs, milder images rule, while shocking depictions of animal abuse are more effective in videos. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

“I think the FARM study is a bit flawed in how it was created, the questions asked, and the images selected,” says Mercy For Animals founder Nathan Runkle. The study measured attitudes about animal rights, for example, and didn’t ask if the image changed their perception of animal agriculture or prompted a behavioral change—such as going vegan. “The HRC study did that,” says Nathan. “It looked at behavioral change, which is really what is most important to animal advocates. You will be hard pressed to find anyone who says they want to see graphic images, but those who do see them often show more behavioral change.” Nathan says the controversial use of violent images reminds him of this—and every—presidential election. “Voters claim to be tired of and turned off by negative ads. But politicians continue to use them year after year, because they work.”

While Nathan concedes the images used in the first study are upsetting, he doesn’t believe they necessarily depict cruelty. “All three images showed an animal who was already dead,” he says. “In my opinion, that doesn’t show cruelty in a graphic light, since the animals are already dead and unable to be experiencing pain. So, you can see how in this study what is considered ‘graphic’ is already open to debate.”

Studies aside, animal advocates agree graphic images work. “Doing outreach in person, I like graphic movies in a pay-per-view or classroom setting, if you can get a teacher to show Farm to Fridge,” says Chris Van Breen, who gauges the impact in part by the comments he receives. “I have had complaints such as, ‘You should have warned me. Now I can never eat meat again. If I knew that’s what that video was, I would not have watched it.’” He’s gotten similar responses while distributing graphic leaflets. One recipient told him, “You should not be handing these out. I got that leaflet last week and have not eaten meat since then. It made me sick.” Hmm. Sounds like a winning strategy to me.

“After being a long-time vegetarian, it was ultimately seeing footage of factory farming that made me go vegan,” says Jasmin Singer, co-founder (with Mariann Sullivan) of Our Hen House. “So, yes, I think the graphic imagery works in a lot of cases. I just don’t think it necessarily will always draw people in, which is the catch-22.”

The Middle Way

“I tend to take a middle ground,” writes Doris Lin on her About.com guide on animal rights. “Probably the most graphic image I’ve published is this one of a whale being butchered in Japan. I believe that graphic images can convey a message that no words can, but I am cautious about their use. The whale is dimly lit, and the photo is from a distance, which lessens some of the horror of the scene.” A survey of readers on her page suggests that most people agree graphic imagery—provided it’s used thoughtfully—has its place in the movement.

Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur/www.weanimals.org

“I think they both work,” says Jo-Anne McArthur, whose photographs of oppressed and rescued animals can be both haunting and beautiful. “It depends on the viewer. Just as one person will see a graphic image and make a positive change based on the experience of seeing it, another person will turn their eyes from it. We are all affected by different images and therefore different tactics, which is why a variety of tactics is crucial to creating change, as history has shown in all movements.” Graphic images move some people and not others, Jo-Anne observes, but they must be part of the movement, along with softer images and softer messages, academia, sanctuaries, letter writing, public demos, leafleting—all of it. She offers an example: “When I went veg, difficult and graphic images helped me to do so. Tim Pachirat, author of Every Twelve Seconds, was undercover at a slaughterhouse for six months and still didn’t go veg! But when he did, it was after he met a rescued cow at Woodstock sanctuary.”

Jasmin sees the logic in this. “I personally have a difficult time believing that your average meat-eating Joe would click on a graphic image to look for more—but, according to these studies, I am wrong. The thing is, I am actually not wrong—but neither are they. Because posting ‘cute, fuzzy kitten’ photos—or their farmed animal equivalent—also works, right? I think in that instance, the important part would be the messaging, which would obviously need to be incredibly compelling and strategic.” That’s a point Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns, also stresses. “Right now, there are many images of human-caused animal suffering on the Internet,” she says, “but if they are not matched by a passionate verbal message—not necessarily or always exactly where the images are being shown, but as the overall ethical language and context—it seems likely that most people seeing them will say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible,’ but will not connect what they are looking at with personal responsibility or action. I also think that images of animals suffering and abject need to be in contrast to images of these same animals living in happiness—images that are not just ‘postcard’ pretty, but expressive, evocative, and moving.”

Again, Karen and Jasmin are in agreement here. “Sometimes,” says Jasmin, “it’s the happy stuff that packs more of a punch, because—as in my case—the viewer says, ‘LOOK WHAT WE ARE TAKING AWAY FROM THEM!’ The most heartbreaking thing for me about VINE Sanctuary in Vermont, for example, is that many of the chickens choose to sleep in the trees, even in the winter, even though it’s so hideously cold there.” (This natural environment is in stark contrast to the filthy, industrial conditions billions of chickens are raised and confined in every year for their flesh and eggs.)

Indeed, in addition to showing animals suffering, it’s essential they are portrayed as individuals so we don’t promote the concept of them as commodities, says lauren Ornelas, founder of Food Empowerment Project. “If we only show them suffering, we’re not showing them enjoying some semblance of a normal life,” she says. “Take ivory, for example. If you only show images of dead elephants with their tusks cut off, it affects people because we’ve all seen images of these animals walking on the savanna. Most people have a better understanding of them in a more normal situation than, say, most people do of animals like chickens.” lauren, who has taken more than her share of upsetting undercover video, believes explicit images play a crucial role in showing people how animals raised for food are treated. “Though I do tend to worry that focusing on what some might view as extreme scenes of abuse—which we know are possibly routine—might detract more than help.” A better approach, she says, are depictions of abuse that cannot be disputed, such as animals in confinement and even the mutilations inflicted on them (beak searing, tail docking, de-horning, etc.).

The last word on images has yet to be uttered—and likely never will. We can count on further discussion and more studies as the movement hones its methods and message. But for the moment, grim depictions, particularly scenes from undercover videos, seem to hold sway. Adds Nathan: “As I said before, no consumer will tell you they want to see graphic images, but the fact remains that they are undoubtedly effective in changing attitudes and behaviors. Graphic images, which are hard to ignore and impossible to forget, create an emotional connection to the issue and raise ethical discussions, and these things impact consumer behavior.”

I was shocked to learn today that Animals Asia’s Vietnam Bear Rescue Center is facing eviction and relocation. Animals Asia is a nonprofit dedicated to ending the barbaric practice of bear bile farming and improving the welfare of animals in China and Vietnam. According to the group’s founder, Jill Robinson, Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development handed Animals Asia an official eviction notice on October 5 stating that their bear sanctuary had to leave Tam Dao National Park, where the ursine haven is home to 104 bears rescued from the bear-bile trade. The park director has been pressuring Animals Asia to relinquish six hectares of land since April 2011.

“There is no justification for this,” says Jill. “It’s believed the park director, Do Dinh Tien, lobbied the Ministry of Defense to evict Animals Asia, so he can hand the land to Truong Giang Tam Dao Joint Stock Company, of which his daughter is part owner. The company intends to build commercial property, including a tourist park and hotels.”

The eviction is in direct violation of the Vietnam government’s 2005 agreement with Animals Asia to fund and develop a facility on 12 hectares of the park that would permanently rehabilitate and house 200 endangered bears rescued from the illegal bear-bile industry. Based on this agreement, Animals Asia has invested more than US$2 million in building and infrastructure.

“After years of trauma from being locked up in small cages and milked for their bile, our bears are now enjoying dens, enclosures and friends to play with,” says Jill. “These bears will be forced to return to cages to be relocated. This will have a major negative impact on their mental and physical well-being. It is likely to take at least two years to establish a new center with outdoor enclosures.”

There are more than 10,000 bears — mainly moon bears, but also others such as Malayan sun bears and brown bears — kept on bile farms in China, and about 2,400 in Vietnam. For up to 30 years, the animals are “milked” regularly for their bile, which is stored in the gall bladder. The bile is used as a form of medicine, even though many herbal and synthetic alternatives are available. Starved, dehydrated and riddled with ailments, the bears suffer a living hell. Animals Asia is working to end this horrific torment.

Bears recovering at Animals Asia in Vietnam.

I have been a big fan and supporter of Animals Asia for years, and Jill Robinson has been a patient and invaluable resource as I’ve developed my next book, which focuses on animal cruelties. I urge animal advocates everywhere to speak up for this sanctuary and the remarkable work Animals Asia is doing.

What You Can Do:

Animals Asia is calling on the public in Vietnam and internationally to write to the Prime Minister of Vietnam and appeal for him to allow the Vietnam Bear Rescue Center that he previously approved and endorsed to continue operations, and expand, in line with the government’s original agreement. Details can be found on Animals Asia’s website here.

Step 1. Email Prime Minister Mr Nguyen Tan Dung at nguoiphatngonchinhphu@chinhphu.vn  Below is sample text for your email:

Dear Honorable Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng:

I write to express my concern that Animals Asia’s world-class bear sanctuary is to be evicted from Tam Dao National Park by the Ministry of Defense.

The eviction is in direct violation of the Vietnam government’s agreement with Animals Asia, to develop a rescue centre on 12 hectares of the park that would permanently rehabilitate and house 200 endangered bears rescued from the illegal bear bile industry. The closure would see 104 rescued bears evicted, 77 Vietnamese staff lose their jobs, and financial losses to Animals Asia of more than US$2 million.

Please overturn the decision to evict Animals Asia and honor your government’s agreement.

Step 2: Sign this petition.

Step 3: Share this post on Facebook and Twitter.

Update: As of January 2013, Animals Asia is reporting that the government of Vietnam has reversed course and is allowing the sanctuary to remain. Thanks to everyone who took the time to speak up for the bears!

As I write this, Ric O’Barry is in Taiji, Japan, risking his life. But when we spoke by phone the other day, he was relaxing at his home in Florida. Well, maybe not relaxing, exactly. Ric, who spent 10 years capturing and training dolphins for the entertainment industry and the last 40 years as an anti-captivity activist, is constantly working on behalf of these charismatic marine mammals. In between packing for his trip, Ric was taking time to respond to questions from reporters, authors, and bloggers alike. “I was just speaking to some newspaper in London,” he tells me. “With everyone I talk to, my message is always the same: Don’t buy a ticket.”

By that he means, of course, do not patronize facilities that display dolphins. Much of his work—and, indeed, the captive-dolphin industry—is centered around what goes on in Taiji every September, when local fishermen begin driving dolphin pods into a shallow inlet. The ensuing months-long slaughter, made famous by the 2009 documentary The Cove, kills thousands of dolphins for Japan’s dolphin-meat trade, while live dolphins are sold to marine parks and aquariums for as much as $32,000 apiece.

For Ric, stopping this lucrative business is not just a moral imperative, it’s personal. In the 1960s, he worked for the Miami Seaquarium, training the five dolphins used for the popular TV series Flipper. Upon witnessing the death of Kathy, the dolphin who played Flipper most often, Ric became a passionate and outspoken campaigner against keeping dolphins in captivity. I was thrilled to be able to speak with him.

Is captivity more stressful for dolphins than other animals?

Yes, because they are sonic creatures—their primary sense is sound. If you go to the zoo, take a look at the reptile exhibit and find a snake. You’ll see that the snake is given more consideration than the dolphins at Marineland. You’ll see that the snake has got tree limbs to climb on, he’s got rocks to hide from the public if he wants to, grass—there’s always something natural about the snake’s habitat. But if you look at the habitat of a captive dolphin, you’ll notice there’s nothing there. It’s just a blank, concrete box. Is that stress? Of course it is.

Why can’t marine parks create better environments for dolphins?

It’s really not what’s best for the dolphin; it’s about getting people to come and watch a show, and then getting another group of people to watch the same show. Even the best of the bad ideas, SeaWorld in Orlando, has concrete tanks. There’s no way you can fix that. The dolphins are separated from the natural rhythms of the sea: the tide, the current, the sounds of the sea, the things we take for granted. All of that is missing. That is what we call sensory deprivation. That makes it more stressful for them than other animals in captivity.

You’ve been doing this for four decades now. Are you seeing any progress?

Ric cutting chain link fence to let dolphins escape. Photo by Daniel Morel.

Yes. I am seeing great progress, and that’s really what keeps me going: measureable results. For example, when I first started campaigning in Germany, there were 12 or 15 dolphinariums. Today there’s only one left. It’s easier in Europe, because people are better educated. In 2011, I received a Bambi award, and it’s a live event. Fifteen million people are watching this in German-speaking countries. It’s like the Academy Awards. I had several minutes on TV to look right into the camera, explain the problem, and say, “Please don’t buy a ticket!” It’s based on supply and demand, like any other product, and we as consumers have the power. And it’s working. People are getting the message. Two dolphinariums in Germany closed since then.

Can governments step in to speed up progress in other countries?

Governments aren’t going to close dolphinariums. Governments protect corporations; they don’t protect people and other animals. Like the National Marine Fisheries Service, who were supposed to uphold the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They’re actually a part of the Department of Commerce. Commerce’s job is to facilitate commerce; they have a mandate. To tell them to protect dolphins and facilitate commerce is like telling them to stand up and sit down at the same time. So the system doesn’t work; it’s an inherent conflict of interest, and the only hope is consumers. That’s what I do: try to get to the consumers.

Please tell me about your campaign in Taiji.

When we’re in Japan on September 1st, the message is, Don’t buy this dolphin meat. If the Japanese people learn that the product is poison, they will stop buying it. As a matter of fact, in the last four years, the killing has dropped dramatically because the demand has dropped off dramatically as people learn that the product is contaminated with mercury.

I’ve been going to Japan four or five times a year since 2003. I’ll be back there September 1st; we have two busloads of people from around the world who are going to meet us there. We have 93 cities that are going to be protesting on that same day. We’re just trying to keep Taiji and this cove in the news. You know, it’s hard to keep any issue alive in the media; they move on to other things. We’ve been lucky to keep that issue alive, and when we show up September 1st, there’ll probably be 100 people from the media there. We’re just trying to remind the media that today is the day that the largest slaughter of dolphins in the world begins and will go on for six months.

Do you ever feel physically in danger there?

Well, I am physically in danger; there’s no question about that. The police have told me that. The fishermen themselves have told me they would kill me if they could. They probably wish they had back in 2003, because it wouldn’t have been a big news story. But today they probably wouldn’t do that because it would bring too much attention to them. I have a very high media profile in Japan now. It offers some protection, but it doesn’t offer protection from, you know, the young yakuza wannabe who wants to make a name for himself. Or some drunken fisherman who makes a bad decision and does something stupid.

When “The Cove” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film, director Louie Psihoyos, producer Fisher Stevens, and star Ric O’Barry took to the stage. As Psihoyos and Fisher accepted their Oscars, Ric held up a banner reading “Text DOLPHIN to 44144.” Over the next 24 hours, so many people sent the text message petition to President Obama and the Japanese prime minister that, Ric says, the system crashed. Associated Press photo.

Are you seeing a decrease in dolphins taken for captivity in Taiji?

No, I’m seeing an increase in that. I’m sure we’re going to stop the killing. It takes the captivity industry to stop the captures. They could do it anytime they want to, but they refuse to get involved and police their own industry. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the AZA, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, SeaWorld—it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. They just want to look the other way and pretend it doesn’t happen.

Why the increase in captures?

Most of the dolphins captured at the cove are taken to facilities in Japan. Japan is the size of California, and it has 51 dolphin abusement parks—51. It’s amazing. That’s more than all of Europe. They are substandard facilities. They are disposable dolphins for a disposable society. The fishermen capture them and drag them there kicking and screaming, they keep them for as long as they can, the dolphins die, they dump them, and they get more from Taiji. That’s why the captures continue. Also, China and Turkey are big markets.

Aside from not patronizing facilities with dolphins, what can people do to help?

They can go to our website. We don’t have a huge fan base like Sea Shepherd or the Humane Society. We’re actually quite small. We’re understaffed and underfunded. If you want to help, just go to DolphinProject.org and make a donation.

My thanks to Ric for taking the time to talk to me. In addition to visiting his website and contributing, you can like Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project on Facebook and follow them on Twitter: @dolphin_project. You can also forward this interview to family and friends!

From short undercover videos exposing cruel practices inside slaughterhouses to award-winning, feature-length documentaries like The Cove and Vegucated, it’s clear that images have enormous power to motivate the public and create change. Recently, I watched an exceptionally well-made film on animal research, Maximum Tolerated Dose (MTD), produced and directed by longtime activist Karol Orzechowski. Told from the perspective of both humans and non-humans who have experienced animal testing firsthand, MTD is the first full-length documentary focusing on vivisection. Karol has been screening the film up and down the west coast of North America, but he took some time to talk about this remarkable project.

For readers who may not be familiar with the term, can you explain how the title of your documentary applies to animal research – and to the lab workers?

A “Maximum Tolerated Dose” test is an experiment where they are trying to find the highest dose of a particular chemical or medicine at which point it becomes persistently toxic. As you can imagine, it is quite harmful to the animal subjects, as it is meant to find a threshold of toxicity before death, and so it is damaging by design.

That is the official definition of the term, but I also use it as a title for the film as a kind of metaphor for the former lab workers who are featured in the film: in the same way that the animals they work with have a line between toxicity and death, many lab workers have an ethical line that they walk like a tightrope every day. In that sense, it is a chilling use of language by the industry, and a perfect title for the film.

Director Karol Orzechowski (photo courtesy the director).

It’s great to see a film dealing with vivisection. What is it about this form of exploitation that makes you particularly inspired to campaign against it?

The main motivation for the film came from two conversations I had with former lab workers, as well as a chance that I had to meet a few former lab animals. Both the humans and non-humans had stories of profound and terrible trauma, and that was the initial motivation for the film. Some folks have mentioned that they are glad that MTD is coming out because there is a lack of media about vivisection in the AR community, but I wasn’t really responding to a perceived lack; I just saw an incredible opportunity to bring some very important stories to light, and I took it. I have been making films for almost as long as I’ve been into animal rights, so working on an AR film came very naturally to me.

What was the most challenging aspect of making MTD for you personally?

There were many challenging aspects about making the film. Shooting the film involved doing a bunch of investigative work, which was very challenging emotionally. I won’t get into the specifics of the investigative work we did, but each part of that involved a great deal of stress. I was personally involved in some of the major work we did, and it was quite rough on me. Investigation always involves a certain amount of subterfuge with people, which I really dislike, as well as often leaving the animals behind once you’ve obtained documentation. I am often very much “cool” during the investigative process, but tend to face down the emotional aspects of it once some time has passed.

The editing of the film was also an extremely intensive and emotionally exhausting process, and it will take me a long time to recover. I essentially edited the rough cut of the film alone, and then brought in a second editor to help me whittle it down to a final cut. We worked very, very long hours to come to something that we’re proud of.

I’m not surprised that this project was so emotionally draining. What do you do to unwind and keep from getting burned out?

One of the biggest ways that I unwind — and I know this is going to sound counterintuitive — is by working with the material from the investigations and putting it together into something that will go public. Knowing that people will see it is therapeutic, and so working towards that goal helps me emotionally.

Other than that, though, I play a lot of music in various projects. I listen to a lot of stand-up comedy. I watch ridiculous Hollywood comedy films. I read apocalyptic science fiction. I hang out with friends and do things that have nothing to do with animal rights.

Has making MTD changed you in any way?

Definitely. I mean, it’s been two years in the making, so it has been a long road, and it would have been impossible to go through it and not be changed. That being said, I still haven’t really had a chance to take stock of the whole experience, so I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about it all. I’ve begun showing the film in community screenings as part of the Open the Cages tour, and the response has been very, very positive. But when I get home this month, I’ll begin processing all of that and start figuring out what I want to do next. I’ll definitely be taking a break from any kind of filmmaking to promote this film properly and recharge my batteries. But I definitely need to step out of being a “public” person to work further on my craft, and on investigative work when this is all settled.

Your film features former experimenters and former lab workers who have had a change of heart. What were some of the reasons they gave for this change?

The reasons vary, of course. The common thread is that all of them — with the exception of the one interview I did with a former investigator — really wanted to believe that what they were doing was right. It’s not just that they did the work for a couple of weeks and found it to be wrong and quit. They all stuck it out for years before reaching their breaking point and deciding to leave. They may have reached that breaking point for different reasons — ethical implications, personal trauma, a particular experience with a lab animal that affected them deeply — but the common thread is that they all really gave it their “best shot” before leaving the industry. They came to their decisions after a lot of thought, and a lot of careful consideration and pain.

What literature can you recommend that other activists should read on the subject of vivisection?

So glad you asked about that! We have an ever-growing list of resources on the film’s official website. You will notice that, as part of that list, we have included some “pro-testing” resources. I believe very strongly that too many activists spend too much time reading things that they already agree with. It does nothing to sharpen their skills or expand their breadth of understanding. I think we — myself included — need to spend more time critically engaging with industry resources and scientific publications that we disagree with. It will help us in countless ways, not only to strengthen our resolve as we learn more, but also by getting used to engaging with common pro-testing propaganda.

I imagine a lot of animal advocates who view this film will feel a renewed desire to do something about vivisection. What do you believe are the most effective strategies activists can use to combat this particular exploitation?

I’d like to avoid making any sort of pronouncements about strategy. I think strategy always depends on context, and what works in Spain, for example, might not work here. Those kinds of questions should be posed and answered with brutal honesty by every local community that needs to ask them. That being said, I think we have a lot to learn from the history of past campaigns. From above- and below-ground investigative work done by all kinds of groups from PETA to the ALF, to all kinds of concerted campaigns from Fermare Green Hill happening right now in Italy to the SHAC campaign, there is a lot of experience and history to draw upon to decide what’s effective and how we can best move forward.

With MTD, I wanted to offer the possibility of building bridges between animal activists and current and former lab workers and researchers struggling with the ethical implications of their work. I think when people see these stories, they will see it as a potential extra strategic avenue for campaigning.

Film is a powerful form of activism, and you’re clearly comfortable with it. What other models of campaigning do you find rewarding?

I have been involved with filmmaking for a number of years, but I’ve also been involved with a fair bit of investigative work relating to animal issues in the past couple of years. I find investigative / documenting work very difficult but very rewarding, and that’s generally what I’m most involved with, and I’ve also been helping other AR groups with film editing off and on for a year. I find it personally rewarding, and it’s also a skill that I feel like I can offer to the movement that is somewhat hard to come by. I’m not terribly comfortable as a “leader”, so I’m not involved in doing a lot of organizing of campaigns, but I try be involved in supporting different local and international campaigns whenever I can be.

How can people see MTD?

Currently, the only way to see MTD is to join us on the Open the Cages Tour, or see it at the upcoming AR 2012 conference in DC. We have submitted the film to some key documentary festivals with the hopes of getting theatrical distribution, and we will continue to book community screenings in the meantime. Folks can keep an eye on our screening page, which will always be up to date with the latest information. We are hoping to have special edition DVDs available late this year, and we are planning to make the film available as a low-cost QuickTime download as well.

Note: If you’ll be at the Animal Rights 2012 Conference this week, you can see MTD at 2:00 pm Sunday, August 5, in Room V. Check out the trailer below.

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 skins 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.


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


Get the Striking at the Roots Blog delivered to your email

    Follow me on Twitter
    Follow

    Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

    Join 81 other followers