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.

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.


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


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