One of the busiest and most well-known activists campaigning for animals today, Paul Shapiro is the senior director of the Humane Society of the United States’ Factory Farming Campaign. Before joining HSUS in 2005, Paul founded Compassion Over Killing, where he worked as a farm animal cruelty investigator, primarily documenting conditions on egg and broiler factory farms, livestock auctions and slaughter plants.
Throughout 2008, one of Paul’s biggest priorities is promoting California’s Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act. If passed in November, this voter initiative will phase out the confinement of egg-laying hens in battery cages, breeding pigs in gestation crates and calves in veal crates.
“Many HSUS successes against factory farming would not have been achieved but for Paul’s initiative and execution,” says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. “He is visionary, relentless, passionate and intelligent, and I thank my lucky stars he works for the organization.”
Paul paused long enough to answer a few questions about his 15 years of activism.
Paul, I know you’ve been involved in animal activism since at least high school. What was the turning point for you? What made you realize animals need activists to speak up for them?
The first time I was exposed to our routine mistreatment of farm animals was in 1993, when a friend showed me some films of animals confined on factory farms and being abused at slaughter plants. I was horrified. Having lived with dogs my whole life – which admittedly was only 14 years long at that point – I looked into the terrified eyes of the animals in the video and saw my family dogs, struggling to free themselves from the cruelty that was obviously inescapable to any viewer. I imagined what I would have done to protect my dogs from such a fate, which of course was pretty much anything. I realized then that I was financing that violence every time I sat down to eat, so I became a vegetarian immediately, and as I learned more in the following few weeks, I became vegan.
What was the reaction from your family when you became vegan and an activist?
My brother was a vegetarian, but not yet vegan – he became vegan a few years later. Neither of my parents was vegetarian, and while they certainly made sure to provide vegan options, they were pretty skeptical at first. As time went on and they realized how mainstream vegan eating was becoming, not to mention how many good reasons there are to do it, they gradually starting eating lower on the food chain themselves. At this point they’re very supportive and far more animal-friendly than the average person.
Can you tell me about some of your early activism? What worked for you starting off – and what didn’t?
I started off as a high school student trying to make a difference in whatever ways I could. Whether it was serving vegan lunch to classmates to show them how easy humane eating really is (sometimes called a “feed-in”), putting on video showings about factory farming and slaughter plants or hosting animal protection speakers, there was no shortage of ways I found to be active for animals. Of course, there were some more confrontational tactics that as a teenager appealed to me, which I now recognize were not particularly effective. That’s not to say confrontation is always ineffective, but my views on animal advocacy – and many other things! – have evolved since I was 14 years old.
You’re one of the busiest animal activists I know. What’s a typical work day like for Paul Shapiro – and what do you do for fun?
That’s kind of you. Some of the folks I work with definitely have more on their plates than I do – their schedules are mind-boggling to me.
Of course, I try to work as hard – and as smart – as I’d want someone working for me if I was the one confined in a factory farm. Advancing the interests of animals is very rewarding work, so it’s not a sacrifice to devote myself fully. Helping animals is my life, not just my job.
A typical work day? Each week is different, especially during something as massive as California’s Prop 2 campaign. Right now, it’s Monday afternoon and I’m on a plane from DC to LA, where I’ll meet with local campaign coordinators tonight; we’re fortunate to have some of the best people working on this campaign. Really, it’s an honor to call them my friends. Tomorrow I’ve got a meeting in LA and then fly to San Francisco for a dinner meeting. Wednesday I’m back in Southern California giving a speech at a veterinary school. Thursday I’ve got both lunch and dinner meetings in Southern California with key campaign endorsers. Friday it’s back to DC for two days until getting on another plane to meet with a major food retailer about improving its animal welfare policies.
My good friend Gene Baur regularly says that being in this field brings you into contact with the worst of human traits (cruelty, greed and selfishness) and the best of human traits (kindness, compassion and devotion to serving the less fortunate). One of the most heartening and rewarding parts of my work is having the privilege of meeting so many people across the country who epitomize the latter.
As far as what I do for fun – keep in mind that I already find what I do to be pretty fun! But I also enjoy reading, politics, weight lifting and playing football. (Wow – that last sentence sounds eerily like a personal ad.)
Speaking of Prop 2 , this California ballot measure is getting attention across the U.S. Why is Prop 2 a national issue?
It’s getting national attention because it’s an epic clash in the nation’s largest agricultural state. The campaign involves a very powerful and well-financed interest (the agribusiness lobby) going head-to-head against the animal protection, environmental and food safety movements. Who wouldn’t want to watch that?
What are some of the lessons you learned from Compassion Over Killing, the organization you founded in 1995, that you are applying to your work at the Humane Society of the United States?
I think one of the things made crystal clear by Compassion Over Killing and the Humane Society of the United States is the power of undercover exposés at factory farms, livestock auctions and slaughter plants. Shining a bright spotlight on the very dark world of animal cruelty and allowing animals to “speak” for themselves can often be more powerful in changing hearts, minds, and policies than anything else.
What parallels can you draw between the animal rights movement and other social justice causes?
The most obvious similarity to me is that both the animal movement and many other social movements aim to lend a hand to those who can’t help themselves – to provide aid to those who are less fortunate and often at the mercy of others who are far more powerful. And of course, the most obvious difference is that the beneficiaries of our movement aren’t able to participate, nor are they even able to tell us what they’d like us to do for them. It’s a huge disadvantage for our work.
Many activists are aware of the debate between activists who work for incremental reform to relieve animal suffering versus strict abolitionists who think such so-called “welfarist” campaigns harm the movement. What’s your take on this debate and the effectiveness of incrementalism as a path to ending animal exploitation?
I think there’s a false dichotomy here and that most people understand that social change usually occurs incrementally.
Could you imagine environmentalists opposing stricter emissions standards for vehicles, saying that they just make people feel better about driving even though they’re still polluting (although less)? Of course not. They recognize that we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; we should applaud steps in the right direction while continuing to move the ball even further down the field.
I don’t anticipate that we’ll reach societal agreement regarding the ethical permissibility (or lack thereof) of exploiting animals in the near future. Such a debate is important and should continue. I certainly come down on the side of those who would like to see an end to our often ruthless exploitation of animals – exploitation that requires animals to be treated as nothing more than mere commodities. At the same time, we have an obligation to immediately move the ball forward on eradicating areas of animal exploitation that most Americans already agree are simply unacceptable.
There’s no excuse for failing to enact policies prohibiting many of the worst abuses animals face, and there are plenty to go around. This would reduce an enormous amount of animal suffering and demonstrate that we are indeed capable of restraining ourselves when it comes to the virtually unlimited power we hold over animals. This type of progress wouldn’t end the discussion as to whether or not we should exploit animals nor would it end all animal cruelty, but it would allow us to move in a direction nearly all of us agree is positive.
As anyone familiar with social change knows, progress tends to beget progress. In other words, it’s pretty hard to go from A to Z without passing by 24 other letters first.
Legendary 19th-century animal campaigner “Humanity Dick” Martin was once asked about the modesty of a bill he was trying to push through the British parliament. He responded that he’d gladly outlaw all cruelty to animals in a heartbeat if he could, “But if I can’t get 100 per cent, why then, I must be satisfied to take 50 or 25 per cent.”
I don’t believe all animal advocates must work on campaigns to ban the most objectionable forms of animal abuse, but I think the animals who will certainly be brought into existence and be exploited in the immediate future are sure glad that some are.
You’ve had many successes in recent years. Are there any you are especially proud of?
Everything I’ve done and continue to do is the result of team effort with so many of my close friends and fellow campaigners. We’re a relentless crew of folks who are adamant about generating concrete results for animals. As the late Henry Spira said, “Activism has to be results-oriented. Raising awareness is not enough.”
Some of the work I’ve had the honor of playing a partial role in that has been particularly useful, in my opinion, includes banning gestation crates in Oregon, banning gestation and veal crates in Arizona and Colorado, ending the use of the “Animal Care Certified” logo on egg cartons, changing corporate policies to prohibit the use of battery eggs and producing HSUS’ Guide to Vegetarian Eating. Of course, the California campaign is likely to be the most important of anything I’ve had a hand in.
What advice do you give to people just starting out in animal activism?
It’s very easy – and common – for people who are just learning about the universe of misery we inflict on animals to become angry and resentful. It’s possible for us to feel so passionately about reducing animal suffering that we let that rage override effective communication with those who aren’t yet where we’re at. Anger and frustration may be understandable, but we need to take care not to let them overwhelm us and overshadow all of the positive steps we can take towards making a difference for animals.
While those may be natural reactions, we shouldn’t just act in a manner that makes us feel good, but rather we should act in a manner that’s actually effective in creating tangible progress for animals.
The vast majority of us weren’t raised as vegans. While we learn more about animal cruelty and move further along the path, it’s often difficult to remember that – just like our family members, friends, colleagues, and co-workers who aren’t vegan – we, too, once ate animals.
Because of this, it’s often helpful to ask ourselves, “Why did I become vegan?” Chances are, we didn’t choose to strive toward cruelty-free living because someone yelled at us in a condemning tone. Likely, we adopted our diet because someone helped us see that choosing compassion over cruelty was a simple way to prevent needless suffering.
We’re in a great position to effect positive change for animals by being their most effective and pragmatic ambassadors.
Congratulations to Paul for being inducted into the U.S. Animal Rights Hall of Fame at the recent Animal Rights 2008 conference!