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Josh Balk is the outreach director of the Humane Society of the United States’ factory farming campaign, where he works with corporations to end their purchasing from factory farms that use the most intensive confinement devices, such as battery cages, gestation crates and veal crates. As part of HSUS’ “No Battery Eggs Campaign,” grocery stores, fast food chains, food service providers and hundreds of universities have moved away from buying and selling eggs from caged hens. Josh took time out from his busy schedule to answer a few questions regarding his activism, what brought him to the movement and how even one person can make a difference for animals.
What was your “a-ha” moment when you decided to go vegan?
I went vegan about eight years ago after watching the documentaries The Auction Block and Hope for the Hopeless. The first video is about the cruelty endured by dairy cows and other animals at livestock auctions and the second is about the battery cage-egg industry. Ironically, prior to coming to HSUS, I went on to work for Compassion Over Killing for three years, where I conducted undercover investigations, worked with Washington, DC, restaurants to add vegan items to their menu and did tons of vegan outreach to consumers.
Could you describe the industry cruelties you saw in those two documentaries?
The Auction Block, filmed by Compassion Over Killing, is a behind-the-scenes look at several farm animal auctions where dairy cows, their calves and other animals are sold to the highest bidder, many times to factory farms and slaughterhouses. Inside the closed doors of auction houses, animals are often kicked, shocked with electric prods, dragged by their legs and beaten. I can’t imagine the confusion and fear they’re undergoing, especially the calves who only a short time earlier were taken away from their nursing mothers.
Hope for the Hopeless, another Compassion Over Killing documentary, shows what’s it’s like inside a giant egg factory farm where hundreds of thousands of hens are confined inside barren battery cages. These living, feeling beings are turned into egg-producing machines within an industrial assembly line. There’s little consideration for their welfare other than providing them water and food — the barest necessities to keep them alive for another day’s worth of production. They’re given so little space they can’t even spread their wings. It’s like forcing someone to live in an elevator with six other people for your entire life.
You’re well known in the movement for working with college campuses, getting their dining halls to buy cage-free eggs. Does that take up the bulk of your activism?
So far, more than 350 universities in the country have eliminated or reduced their use of battery eggs. While I’d love to take credit for this enormous success, most of the victories are due to the relentless and effective activists on college campuses I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the years.
That said, most of my time is spent working with major retailers, helping them move away from using the cruelest animal products and adding vegan items to their product line. Working with corporations to enact purchasing policies that help animals is one of the most effective things we can do for farm animals.
Can you explain what the Cage-Free Campus campaign is?
The Cage-Free Campus campaign is one of HSUS’ signature campaigns to help abolish battery cages. University cafeterias often use hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of eggs a year. Whether anyone likes it or not, this will be the case for the foreseeable future. The question is: Is it better that these eggs come from hens confined in cages so small they can barely move for their entire lives, or from hens living in a cage-free environment where they’re at least able to lay eggs in a nest, dust bathe, perch, flap their wings and walk? I think the answer is clear.
Of course, “cage-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “cruelty-free.” However, while cage-free hens can and do still suffer, it doesn’t mean we should ignore that the alternative for most major egg buyers, including universities, is eggs from caged hens who are given less space to live than a single sheet of paper. In other words, cafeterias aren’t likely to stop serving eggs anytime soon, but they may stop serving the cruelest types of eggs.
I think most animal advocates would agree that putting an end to battery cages would reduce an immense amount of animal suffering. It’s important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and force millions of hens we all know are going to be exploited to wait until a future utopia exists before they’re at least freed from the misery of battery cages. In order to so, we have to get major egg users in the country to stop buying eggs from these extreme confinement systems.
You’ve also helped activists overseas working on the same goal. For example, Mahi Klosterhalfen has made some real progress for hens in Europe. Are you open to working with activists in other parts of the world to help them with cage-free campaigns?
Over the past few years I’ve had the honor of working with some of the best animal advocates from around the world. Mahi’s unbelievable work in Germany getting major retailers to end their sales of eggs from caged hens is a testament to his tenacious and effective activism. He’s one of the best activists the animals have; Compassion in World Farming is lucky have him run its German campaigns.
Up in Canada, Bruce Passmore has engineered a campaign that has resulted in numerous cities passing government resolutions opposing battery cages and has convinced some of the largest universities in the country to stop using battery eggs in their cafeteria.
And down in Australia, Kathleen Chapman is launching a veg commercial campaign similar to what Compassion Over Killing and Mercy For Animals have done in the U.S. This is after she got her university to be the first to switch away from battery eggs.
There’s no reason why others can’t duplicate the efforts of these dedicated individuals. I’d be more than happy to work with anyone from any part of the world on campaigns to help farm animals. Billions of animals suffer worldwide, and it’s going to take a global effort to win tangible advances for them.
What’s the best piece of activism advice you ever received?
Something I learned from many of my heroes in the animal protection movement is that I should make strategic decisions as an activist with the end goal being reducing as much animal suffering as possible. Since roughly 95 percent of animal exploitation in the U.S. goes on behind the closed doors of factory farms, I’ve made it may life’s mission to help those animals raised for food. You get the best bang for your activist buck, so to speak, by working to help farm animals.
The path I chose — corporate and university outreach ― isn’t the only way to help farm animals, but it’s the way I think I’m most effective. Others, like one of my heroes, Jon Camp from Vegan Outreach, give out tens of thousands of booklets every year to college students encouraging them to eat less meat as part of the Adopt-A-College program. Another hero of mine, Kath Rogers from Animal Protection and Rescue League, is in the midst of transforming her hometown of San Diego into the most vegan-friendly, anti-factory farming city in the country. Whatever our interest or our skill set, there’s always something each of us can do to have a major impact in the lives of farm animals.
Can you offer any parting advice to the individual activist who doesn’t work with an organization? Are there any simple things they can do to reach out to restaurants, for example, or approach their college?
The great thing about animal activism is that one person can make a tremendous difference. One way for students to get involved ― on the individual level ― is to meet with their dining director about moving away from using eggs from caged hens and/or add vegan options to the menu. There are numerous universities that have stopped serving battery-caged eggs and added vegan options because one student brought this issue to the attention of the dining staff.
For instance, at Georgetown University, just one student met with the director of dining, and only a few weeks later the entire university ended its support for battery-cage confinement and went exclusively cage-free. The university used one and a half million eggs a year, meaning that one victory led to improving the lives of literally thousands of animals. If someone is interested in doing this type of effort at his or her university, they should feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For countless generations every spring, pregnant seals have gathered on the placid ice floes off the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland and Labrador and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence east of Quebec to give birth to their babies. And every spring, thousands of Canadian fishermen descend upon the helpless mothers and their newborn pups, bludgeoning, shooting, clubbing and skinning between 270,000 and 335,000 seals, depending on the quota set by the government. Most of the dead seals are only weeks old. The fishermen call this a “hunt,” yet the animals cannot hide or escape the armed fishermen, who simply walk up to the seals and kill them. As Paul Watson described it in his 2002 book Seal Wars, “The slaughter of the seals is an annual baptism of blood.” And it’s subsidized by the government.
Despite worldwide condemnation, Canada will proceed with its yearly massacre of seals in March. Last December, the Canadian government quietly passed new regulations regarding the slaughter. The new rules ban the use of the hakapik ― the spiked club that has come to symbolize the atrocity ― for killing any seal older than one year. Instead, the seals are supposed to be shot. The hakapik ban was an effort to placate the European Union, which proposed legislation in July that could prohibit the import of Canadian seal pelts and other products; a decision is expected in April. (Because it’s the European designers who set the fashion trends for the rest of the world, the belief is a ban on seal fur in the EU would doom the Canadian seal slaughter, even if seal products are allowed in Russia and elsewhere.)
Banning the hakapik was also meant to mollify animal activists. But Humane Society International’s Rebecca Aldworth, a Canadian who has long campaigned against the commercial “hunt” of seals, says removing the spiked club would actually increase the suffering of seals because seals who are shot during the hunt are often only wounded by the first bullet. Now sealers will have to cut open live, conscious animals, which Rebecca stresses is not only “an extremely cruel act,” but a violation of regulations.
I asked some animal protection groups around the world how they intend to campaign against Canada’s seal slaughter this year, and I’ll wrap this up with five things you can do to help.
Animal Alliance of Canada (AAC)
Animal Alliance of Canada is working with the Humane Society of the United States to get restaurants, grocery stores, “seafood” companies, chains, hotels, resorts and casinos not to purchase Canadian seafood until the seal hunt ends permanently. “Fishermen are the ones who kill baby seals in their off season specifically for fur and leave their bodies to rot on the ice,” says Karen Levenson, director of AAC’s Canadian Seafood Boycott campaign. Karen says that to date, 5,000 restaurants, hotels, casinos, grocery stores and seafood companies have signed on to the campaign.
AAC is also investigating claims made by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) regarding the importance of the seal hunt. “During the seal hunt, we will be monitoring the media to ensure their reporting is unbiased and factual,” says Karen. “During previous seal hunts, journalists from Canadian Press who cover the seal hunt and work mostly in Newfoundland have reported very one-sided accounts and have included numerous statements by the DFO that were factually inaccurate.”
Animal Rights Action Network (ARAN)
“In March, as per every year, Animal Rights Action Network will be staging another high-profile demonstration to raise awareness of Canada’s seal hunt,” says ARAN’s founder, John Carmody. “We also have plans to release the 2009 slaughter footage from an international campaign group we are working with, plus we intend on doing a photocall [publicity event] outside the Canadian Embassy. Also this year we’ll be calling on Irish MEPs to ensure that the EU trade ban goes ahead and that the Irish Government shows their support for such a ban also.”
John believes this is an issue everyone should be involved in. “I would suggest getting in contact with your local animal protection group to see what they are up to, or some of the main groups campaigning for an end to the seal slaughter like HSUS, IFAW, Sea Shepherd or Harp Seals.” He also recommends sending letters and emails to lawmakers in your country, voicing your opposition to the slaughter. “Of course,” he adds, “there’s no better way to highlight the killing than to organize a peaceful protest or photocall with the press — it works every time!”
“We are working with various groups, including one in Canada, on a campaign to convince EU parliamentary members to ban seal products to all European countries,” says Rosa Close of the Anti-Fur Society. “You may know well just how much Canadian authorities are working to have EU members vote against the ban. In fact, there is a Canadian delegation in Belgium right now doing all they can to stop the ban, and unfortunately, it seems that the EU is inclined to vote against a ban.
“The European Parliament must hear from people all over the world so they may make at least some humanitarian requirements from the Canadian government. But, I am afraid things don’t look too promising.”
Campaigns Against The Cruelty To Animals (CATCA)
“CATCA has been busy doing high-level lobbying in Europe with the decision makers on this issue,” says the group’s president, Ericka Ceballos. “This year, we are waiting to see what happens for further action, but we sent several E-Campaigns on January 3rd for everybody to write to Ministers and MEPs crucial on the upcoming decision to be taken about the Resolution on the trade of seal products at the European Parliament and Council.”
CATCA has listed campaign information here.
Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)
As part of its Protect Seals campaign, HSUS is encouraging consumers not to buy Canadian seafood until the seal slaughter ends. In addition to the 5,000 grocery stores and restaurants mentioned above, more than 600,000 individuals have pledged not to buy seafood from Canada since HSUS launched its boycott in 2005. The organization hopes the Canadian government will realize the economic impact of a fisheries boycott is too high a price to pay for the seal hunt.
International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)
“The International Fund for Animal Welfare has documented hundreds of criminal acts of cruelty in the seal hunt,” says Corrie Rabbe of IFAW-Canada. “Unfortunately, due to lack of enforcement of regulations, most serious acts of animal cruelty ever documented continue to go unpunished. To date, we have submitted video evidence of more than 660 probable violations of Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations — including the skinning of live seals — to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Not a single charge has been laid in response.”
Corrie says that his year IFAW will continue to lobby European officials to put a ban on all seal products in place. “This is where most of our energies will be concentrated,” she says. “We will also be going out to monitor the hunt as we do every year so we can show officials our documentation and inform the public about what really happens. In addition, we will continue to conduct research and spread public awareness about this important issue.”
IFAW will continue their lobbying efforts across Canada, and Corrie says that this is where activists can be of great assistance. “IFAW believes that is it important that the Canadian government is aware of how strongly people feel about this issue, and for that reason we are asking supporters to let their views be known through writing letters and signing petitions.”
IFAW also has a site for community involvement.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
Sarah Gawricki, assistant activist liaison, says PETA is still brainstorming what they’ll be doing to protest this year. In the meantime, though, Sarah suggests activists join PETA’s A-Team, which notifies members of upcoming events, demonstrations, breaking news and urgent alerts.
And Sea Shepherd?
Unfortunately, the group so well known for confronting Canada’s shameful “hunt” will not be engaged in any direct action against the seal slaughter this spring. “We intend to give the European Parliament the opportunity to end this atrocity through the implementation of a ban on all seal products,” reads a statement on Sea Shepherd’s Web site.
“Last year the Sea Shepherd ship Farley Mowat was assaulted in international waters and two crewmembers, Captain Alex Cornelissen of the Netherlands and 1st Officer Peter Hammarstedt of Sweden, were charged with approaching closer than a half a mile to a seal being slaughtered. The witnessing or documentation of a seal kill is considered a crime in Canada under the strange Orwellian name of the Seal Protection Regulations.
“The Canadian government still holds the Farley Mowat hostage although no charges have been laid against the ship and the two Sea Shepherd officers are scheduled to be tried in a Nova Scotia court in April 2009.”
Sea Shepherd is promoting the international boycott of Canadian “seafood” products as a means to strip the commercial seal hunt of all economic value and force it, by financial means, to end. (See #2 below.)
Yes, You CAN Help!
Here are 5 things you can do to help end the Canadian seal slaughter:
1. Write letters to Canada
Corrie Rabbe of IFAW-Canada recommends people write to both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Gail Shea, to express your disapproval of the annual slaughter:
The Honorable Stephen Harper
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington St.
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A2
Email address: email@example.com
Web site: http://pm.gc.ca/eng/default.asp
Fax: (613) 995-7858
The Honorable Gail Shea
Minister of Fisheries and Oceans
House of Commons
441-S Centre Block
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6
Be sure to mention you’ll be boycotting Canadian products until the annual slaughter is ended for good.
2. Boycott Canadian “seafood” and Red Lobster
If you eat fish, please boycott “seafood” from Canada and ask your family and friends to do the same. Boycotting Canadian seafood targets the very people who slaughter the seals, since it is the fishing industry that runs the seal “hunt” for off-season fishermen.
You can begin by not patronizing Red Lobster restaurants. Red Lobster is the number-one seafood restaurant in the U.S. and the world’s largest purchaser of Canadian seafood. Red Lobster purchases millions of dollars worth of Canadian seafood each year, including lobster, shrimp, crab, scallops and salmon ― animals caught by fishermen who also club and shoot baby seals or pressure the government for increased seal quotas. Despite repeated requests from animal protection organizations, Red Lobster refuses to join the boycott of Canadian seafood or take responsibility for their role in enabling the seal massacre to continue. You can learn more, and contact Red Lobster, through this link.
According to Sea Shepherd, the most optimistic estimated value of the seal hunt is $16 million; exports of seafood to the U.S. are about $3.3 billion; therefore, the seal hunt value is less than 0.48% of the value of exports to the U.S. If we can achieve just a 25% decline in the wholesale price in the U.S., that’s $825 million, or 51 times the value of the seal hunt.
“It is individual citizens who have the most power to make this campaign a success and also help us end the seal hunt,” says AAC’s Karen Levenson. “By using their purchasing power, and by letting the restaurants and grocery stores know when they do so, they can pressure companies to stop purchasing some or all Canadian seafood until the seal hunt ends.”
3. Send letters to editors
The Letters page is one of the most highly read sections of newspapers and magazines, so a letter to the editor is one of the best tools animal activists have for making our message heard. You can send letters on the seal slaughter now, expressing your outrage; please do not wait until the killing begins this year. Click here for tips on writing letters.
4. Educate others
Unfortunately, many people believe that Canada banned the killing of seals for their fur years ago. Talk to family and friends about what is happening; let them know this is an ongoing issue that you’re concerned about. And don’t forget to post campaign information and undercover videos on MySpace, Facebook and other social-networking sites.
An auto-signature on your email is another great way to spread the word. You can include a link to one of the many organizations campaigning against the slaughter (a few are listed below), and you can encourage people to join the boycott of Canadian products and speak up for the seals!
You can also forward this post to others or link to it online.
5. Contact animal protection organizations
The killing of seals each spring in Canada is one of the few issues that animal rights, animal welfare and environmental groups all seem to agree must be stopped. Contact one or more of the following organizations to learn more on this issue, and, if they take contributions, consider making a donation to further their work on behalf of seals.
Incidentally, the average Canadian agrees the carnage should stop. Last April, in a lengthy review of the economic impact caused by subsidizing the slaughter in the face of boycotts and the EU trade ban, Murray Teitel wrote in Canada’s leading business newspaper, The Financial Post: “Enough already. This is a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money. And the sealers? Sealers should prefer these monies be used to train them for jobs in the 21st-century economy, rather than to preserve them as relics of a hunter/gatherer one.” Nearly every Canadian who posted a response online supported an end to the slaughter.
Thank you for helping the seals!
If you expected that new laws, police spying and government repression around the world would cause animal activism to abate, you’re not alone. The businesses that rely on animal exploitation to line their pockets have gone so far as to support the suspension of civil rights in order to keep their vivisection labs, fur farms and factory farms safe from interference by animal-rights advocates.
Yet even with the prison terms given to some animal activists in recent years (see here and here), activism is on the rise. An article published this week in New Scientist warns that activist strategies that originated in the United Kingdom have spread to the United States and Europe.
Though they’ve gone underground in some cases, and their methods can be extreme, animal campaigners have indeed been active. Crackdowns on activists in Austria, the UK and the US have only seemed to escalate the level of animal-rights activism. The open rescue model of activism, for example ― in which activists sneak into factory farms to rescue animals ― was once practiced primarily in Australia, New Zealand and the US. But recently, activists in Spain and the Czech Republic have embraced this non-violent, direct action tactic to liberate animals. And after the SHAC 7 activists were sentenced in 2006, campaigners dedicated animal liberations to them; the same occurred in the UK SHAC case, with activists showing their solidarity by staging peaceful demos.
Of course, animal exploiters will continue to fight the animal-rights movement. In an interview with the Cattle Network last year, Steve Kopperud of Policy Directions, Inc., which lobbies on behalf of agribusiness, had this to say about dealing with activists and animal rights groups: “Processors and retailers who find themselves the target of public relations blackmail or worse, or companies who have adopted an attitude toward the animal rights movement of ‘give them something and make them go away,’ we must provide to them the public support and help they need if they’re to make the tough decision to tell the animal rightists to go pound salt. We must join with them in pushing back a movement that has a single, clear goal: To put us out of business. You will never placate an enemy that seeks your demise, especially an enemy which has the patience — and resources — to wait you out.”
Seven members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) were sentenced today in the UK for their six-year campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS).
Heather Nicholson was sentenced to 11 years in prison, while Greg and Natasha Avery received nine-year sentences. Daniel Amos received a four-year sentence, Gavin Medd-Hall was sentenced to eight years and Gerrah Selby and Daniel Wadham got four and five years respectively.
The seven were found guilty of conspiracy to blackmail by Winchester Crown Court, in southern England, last month. Trevor Holmes, another SHAC activist, had been cleared in the case.
Greg and Heather started SHAC in 1999 after undercover video footage taken by PETA inside an HLS lab was aired on British television. The footage showed staff shaking, punching, shouting and laughing at beagles. The HLS employees were dismissed and prosecuted, and HLS’s license to perform animal experiments was revoked for six months.
HLS, now Europe’s largest commercial animal-testing lab, conducts tests on about 75,000 animals every year, including beagles, rats, rabbits, pigs and primates (marmosets, macaques, and wild-caught baboons). These animals are killed in a variety of experiments for food additives, cosmetics, artificial sweeteners, pesticides, paints, dyes and other household products. HLS also uses animals in drug research.
SHAC campaigns against customers who provide HLS with an income and profits, as well as suppliers who provide HLS with vital tools to carry out research. They also target financial links, such as shareholders, market makers and banking facilities. SHAC has called for a mass boycott of HLS and is asking all companies doing business with Huntingdon to denounce on animal cruelty.
Previous SHAC campaigns closed down a dog breeder who supplied beagles for vivisection, a cat farm that sold kittens as young as 10 days old to laboratories worldwide, a farm that sold primates for experiments and a breeder who supplied rabbits to the vivisection industry.
“I hope today’s sentences send a strong message that, in a democratic society, campaigning needs to remain lawful, and that those who cross the line into extremist activity will be brought to justice,” said Detective Chief Inspector Andy Robbins, who led the investigation into SHAC.
In 2006, six SHAC activists were convicted and sent to jail in the U.S. on “animal enterprise terrorism” charges, which amounted to running a Web site. The site listed the home and work addresses for those doing business with HLS.
A movie about SHAC is currently in production.
One of the most exciting results of Proposition 2 — California’s successful campaign to ban battery cages for hens, gestation crates pigs and veal crates for calves — is that it energized activists across the United States, introducing a new generation of animal advocates to the horrors of factory farming. Many of these people had known little, if anything, about agribusiness practices. But they literally took up the Prop 2 banner, getting involved in the fight to end the use of intensive-confinement devices in California.
Now, taking advantage of the momentum generated by the California voter initiative, a group of activists has formed the Farm Animal Protection Project (FAPP). Located in Sonoma County, FAPP is an all-volunteer group that will use the knowledge, skills and tactics learned during the year-long Prop 2 battle and apply them to a permanent campaign for animals. The group will use leafleting, tabling, food outreach, film screenings, special events and other tactics to educate companies, schools and the public on how easy it is to reduce cruelty to animals, including not buying eggs from caged hens — or, better yet, not buying eggs at all.
“Throughout the Prop 2 campaign, we heard from farmers who were concerned that people would buy cheaper eggs from out of state once the measure passed,” says FAPP Director of Campaigns Hope Bohanec, who served as the Sonoma County coordinator for the Yes on Prop 2 campaign. “So FAPP will be reaching out to restaurants, grocers and school campuses in Sonoma County, urging them to support California egg producers once Prop 2 takes effect in 2015.”
Hope suggests that every county in the state form a grassroots organization similar to Sonoma’s FAPP. “Imagine the power this would create,” she says. “We’ll be able to say, ‘See how well Prop 2 works!’”
Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States’ Factory Farming Campaign, applauds the new group. “Prop 2 was the most important victory for animals to date, but it’s only one chapter in the movement’s history, and it’s time to start writing the next chapters,” he says. “As much momentum as we have from Prop 2’s overwhelming passage, progress is not going to be self-executing. Progress requires that we remain vigilant and active. We want to make sure that the advocacy community that was cultivated throughout the Prop 2 campaign continues to wage more and more victories for farmed animals. By working with local retailers to get them to stop using eggs from caged hens, we can make sure that progress does indeed continue.”
Although FAPP will be focusing on factory farming, the group’s campaigns will benefit other animals as well. “Helping people go vegan brings attention to fur, circuses, vivisection and other animal-related issues,” explains Hope. FAPP will offer monthly potlucks, bake sales, cooking classes and more, all outlined in an e-newsletter. The group will meet one Sunday each month in Rohnert Park.
With FAPP blossoming, two smaller animal rights groups in the county are folding. Members of Sonoma People for Animal Rights, co-founded by Marianna Mayer and Paul Toussiant 25 years ago, and Vegan Voices, which Hope founded in 1994, recognized the sense in channeling their energy and limited financial resources into one larger grassroots organization, thus compounding their outreach ability. (Other animal- and vegan-advocacy groups in Sonoma County include the Animal Legal Defense Fund, headquartered in Cotati, and Organic Athlete, located in Sebastopol.)
Hope says the Farm Animal Protection Project will be reaching out to other social-justice causes, such as the environmental movement, to work together. You’ll be able to learn more about FAPP at www.FarmAnimalProtection.org (the site is still under construction).
If you live in Europe, remember the name Mahi Klosterhalfen. Maybe you’ve already heard of him. From his home in Düsseldorf, Germany, Mahi has made incredible progress on behalf of egg-laying hens in just a few years. Though he’s had a little help from advocates in the U.S., Mahi is clearly an unstoppable activist who has set his sights high on behalf of animals. He now serves as German Food Business rep for Compassion in World Farming, and he’s the vice president of the Albert Schweitzer Foundation. Mahi and I exchanged emails over several days, resulting in this interview.
How and when did you become involved in animal activism, Mahi?
Three years ago I started listening to Erik Marcus’ podcast on Vegan.com, and he regularly reported on the great progress that the Humane Society of the United States’ Cage-Free Campus campaign was making. Before I knew it, I was on the phone with Josh Balk from HSUS to discuss how we could bring the campaign to German campuses. After negotiations with the director of dining and some signature gathering, the University of Düsseldorf quickly went cage-free. That got me hungry for more, and I started coaching students all over the country. By now 15 percent of German campuses have gotten rid of cage eggs, and we hope to keep that number growing quickly. These successes have caught the attention of Compassion in World Farming and Germany’s Albert Schweitzer Foundation, and I was soon able to start a professional career as an animal protectionist.
Wow, you really jumped right in. Erik and Josh have inspired me, too.
I owe a lot to these guys, but they are both too humble to admit that.
Were you vegan before you started listening to Erik’s podcast?
Yes, for a couple of weeks. I read Gandhi’s autobiography and became a vegetarian. Two months later, I figured that I didn’t want to support the veal industry or the killing of male chicks, either. [Male chicks are of no value to the egg industry and are killed shortly after hatching.] Erik was the one to convince me that getting involved is more important than finding out whether the glue of my postage stamps contained any animal products. He also got me thinking about how to become as effective as I could possibly be. I read Meat Market and picked up a copy of Ethics Into Action right afterward because I was curious why Erik said that Peter Singer hadn’t written a more important book so far. Erik was right: Henry Spira’s approach immediately defined the way I think about activism, and his lessons probably are the most valuable asset I can add to the German movement.
What was it about Henry Spira’s approach that inspired you, and how have you applied what you learned from him into your own activism?
It was highly motivating to see what a single person can accomplish with a smart approach. It was important for me to understand that decision-makers who don’t immediately follow my suggestions are not automatically my opponents. Executives, for example, are mostly interested in revenues and profits; that’s their job. It’s our job to convince them that acting on welfare issues will pay off sooner or later — and there are usually more elegant methods of persuasion than threatening to launch a campaign. Just recently an executive told me he decided to work with us because he felt that we had an understanding of what’s feasible for his company and what’s not. Internalizing Henry Spira’s lessons on what’s possible on a cooperative level certainly opened a lot of doors and took my activism to another level.
Speaking of which, what does a German Food Business rep do?
My job is to introduce Compassion in World Farming’s Good Egg Awards to Germany and Austria. We’re giving European companies and institutions the chance to show that they are market leaders when it comes to improving the lives of the 300 million laying hens who are kept on this continent. So I spend a lot of time convincing CSR [corporate social responsibility] and PR people that it’s important to change their companies’ purchasing policies regarding eggs. I’m also in touch with politicians, asking them to support the awards. The Austrian government is very keen on doing so, as it has just outlawed the production of cage eggs and now thinks of ways to keep imports of such eggs at a minimum.
I like this kind of work because it’s about building positive relationships and because it’s highly effective. So far our winners have helped 15 million hens out of their cages, and we’re planning to double this figure in 2009.
With 300 million laying hens, the European continent has about the same amount as the U.S. About how many of those 300 million hens are in battery cages?
Around three-quarters of them are housed in battery cages. But that number is steadily declining thanks to consumers and businesses making more compassionate choices. In Germany, for instance, we ― the Albert Schweitzer Foundation ― and several other animal protection groups have just convinced the entire retail sector to stop selling cage eggs. This huge victory turned the German egg market upside down, and it sends a very strong message to egg producers all across Europe. I don’t see why anybody would want to invest in cages nowadays, and even if they do, it’s getting harder and harder to find a bank willing to give loans for an investment that is so reactionary.
You say the Austrian government supports the Good Egg Awards; what about Germany’s politicians?
That very much depends on the party and the individual politician. It’s safe to say that our current government isn’t the most animal-friendly one we’ve ever had, but there signs that it is starting to take animal-issues more seriously, so I do keep my hopes up.
What information do you use when you coach students and approach campuses about not buying eggs from caged hens? Did HSUS provide you with literature, or did you have to create your own?
Josh and I figured that the situation in Germany differs so significantly from how things are in the U.S. that I should use my own material. Over here, everybody knows that hens are kept in cages so small they can barely move and that this is a bad thing. Even so, a lot of Germans are slow to make purchasing changes. Groups like Vegan Outreach show that the situation in the U.S. tends to be the other way around: people oftentimes do not to know about factory farming, but they have a much stronger tendency to reduce their support for such farming methods once they find out about them.
We don’t use any materials when we approach the directors of dining. They’ve already seen the pictures of hens crammed into cages. We just have to convince them that cage-free eggs are safe and that students are more than willing to pay a couple of extra cents per egg. This can be quite tricky as the cage lobby has successfully spread the rumor that the risk of salmonella and other infections is a lot higher when you use cage-free eggs.
Independent science, however, comes to the conclusion that the opposite is true. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of reasons why some directors of dining hesitate to make the switch ― and a much longer list that shows why they don’t have to worry about these things. So whenever something comes up, my friends will know how to respond kindly and convincingly.
That’s a smart move. Does your activism involve any animals other than laying hens?
Mostly laying hens for now, but this is bound to change during the next months. The EU Pigs Directive is due to be reviewed this year, and we’ll do our best to let European politicians know that the time is ripe to significantly improve the conditions these highly intelligent creatures have to endure.
I also cannot stand the fact that 30 millions rabbits are raised and slaughtered every single year in Germany without any protection by our law. We’ll try to work with the legislative and the retail sector in order to stop the worst cruelties.
Finally, Germans will be given the opportunity to vote on the state, national and European level this year. Every single party ― we have lots of them ― claims to care deeply for animals, and it’s our job to educate the public about who takes this statement seriously and who doesn’t.
Activists with the Animal Rights Action Network (ARAN) of Ireland this week are calling on their government to halt further funding for animal research at Smooth Muscle Research Centre (SMRC) located at the Dundalk Institute of Technology. An exposé in this week’s Dundalk Argus, a leading local newspaper, reveals how researchers at SMRC use rabbits and mice imported into Ireland from Charles River Laboratories based in the UK and Mayo, Ireland, for research into erectile dysfunction, urinary tract infections, incontinence and cardiovascular systems.
At SMRC, rabbits and mice are routinely killed and dissected so their body parts can be used in the experiments. ARAN argues that SMRC should use parts from human bodies donated to science and that such work would provide human-relevant data while also eliminating the extra steps of having to breed the animals, transport them, kill them and then use their body parts. The laboratory is subsidized in part by the government.
“Yet again animal experiments are shown to be highly unethical, unnecessary and unreliable,” says Stephan Wymore, head of research for ARAN. “Ask the experimenters why they experiment on animals, and the answer is: ‘Because the animals are like us.’ Ask the experimenters why it is morally OK to experiment on animals, and the answer is: ‘Because the animals are not like us.’ Animal experimentation rests on a logical contradiction. Irish medical research needs a rapid modernized shake up.”
According to the news article, figures released from the Department of Agriculture show that between September 2005 and November 2008 SMRC imported 1,000 New Zealand white rabbits and 70 mice to use in tests.
ARAN is directing activists to the site for the National Anti-Vivisection Society for more information on humane research and ways to get involved in campaigns against vivisection.
You can read more about ARAN and their campaigns here.
Fleeing the Sea Shepherd ship the Steve Irwin on December 20, the harpoon vessel Yushin Maru 2 suffered heavy damage from ice floes in the Southern Ocean and was forced to limp north to Surabaya, Indonesia, for repairs (amid much cheering from the Sea Shepherd activists, I’m guessing).
“They only had two choices,” says Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd. “They could have gone south with the Steve Irwin into the lighter ice or they could have gone north to avoid the Steve Irwin into the thicker ice floes. They chose the more dangerous route and it looks like they suffered damage for that decision.”
The whalers had to retreat to Indonesia because their illegal whaling activities have gotten them barred from the much-closer Australian and New Zealand ports. But the Japanese crews’ woes haven’t ended. The Jakarta Animal Aid organization has been demonstrating in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, protesting the presence of the Yushin Maru 2. Jakarta Animal Aid activists are also organizing another protest at the Japanese embassy.
The Yushin Maru 2 is expected to leave Suryabaya on January 16, the day the Steve Irwin will likely arrive in Hobart, Tasmania, for refueling. Once refueled, the Steve Irwin will be able to return to the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean before the Yushin Maru 2. Other vessels in the fleet include the Kaiko Maru, the Nisshin Maru and the Yushin Maru 3.
The crews of the whaling vessels have gone to considerable trouble and expense to outfit their ships with anti-boarding measures, including spikes and nets around the ships. “It really is quite amazing,” says Captain Watson. “The effort and expense that has gone into preventing us from boarding is ambitious. The ships can literally cover themselves with a net that can be deployed like a shower curtain around the vessel. Large fenders and sharp spikes protrude from the sides of the ship. It looks very formidable and very expensive.”
The Japanese also recently tried to have Australian authorities ban Sea Shepherd from the country’s ports for refueling the Steve Irwin. Australia rebuffed the request, and now Sea Shepherd is working to get the Japanese fleet banned from ports in Indonesia because of their illegal whaling activities in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.
“We have demonstrated that the whalers can be physically stopped,” says Captain Watson. “If we had just one more ship down here, we could stop them by 90 percent, and we could bankrupt them totally. Shutting down illegal whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is a very doable task. We are doing the best we can with the resources available to us. With more support we could win this war to save the whales.”
Sea Shepherd is offering a $10,000 reward to anyone able to non-violently prevent the Yushin Maru 2 from departing the harbor for the duration of this year’s whaling season.
You can bet all this high-seas drama will make for a winning season of Whale Wars.
If there’s ever a Leafleters’ Hall of Fame, I expect to see Jon Camp up on stage among the first inductees. As the longtime national outreach coordinator for Vegan Outreach, Jon is one of those powerhouse activists whose work is both inspiring and, well, a little humbling. I got to know Jon a bit when I interviewed him for Striking at the Roots, and I thought his story and insights would be the perfect way to introduce the topic of activism, so that’s exactly how the book begins. Jon kindly took a few more questions from me, even as he’s busy gearing up for his spring leafleting tour with Vegan Outreach.
Hi, Jon! First off, what’s the deal with Takoma Park, Maryland, where you live? I know so many activists who live there. Why is it such a magnet for progressive people?
Takoma Park is a pretty, progressive town bordering Washington, DC, and it’s sometimes referred to as the Berkeley of the East Coast. It has the feel of a small town, while offering easy access to DC. The DC area hosts a number of animal advocacy groups, and Takoma Park is a desirable option for living. I live in the same neighborhood as some of the folks from Compassion Over Killing and The Humane Society of the United States. We’ve tended to gravitate toward each other because we share many similar beliefs on advocacy and because we genuinely like and respect each other. It’s always nice having friends whose way of living encourages you to be a better, more effective person; that is certainly the case here.
How did you get involved in animal advocacy?
In 1995, I took an Ethics course at the College of Lake County, a community college in Grayslake, Illinois, and learned about the modern-day treatment of farm animals. I went vegetarian, eventually vegan, and started doing simple things like writing letters to the editor. In ’98 or ’99, I learned about Vegan Outreach while reading an Ingrid Newkirk book. I ordered some literature from Vegan Outreach and was so impressed by their calm, pragmatic approach of vegan advocacy as a way to reduce the most amount of animal suffering. In 2000, I went to a Compassion Over Killing feed-in in DC, got my feet wet leafleting and started to slowly ramp up my efforts. In 2004, Jack Norris, president of Vegan Outreach, asked if I’d like to work for Vegan Outreach, and I said yes. Since then, it has been a labor of love, and I’m still utterly thrilled to be doing this work on a full-time basis.
What is Vegan Outreach’s Adopt-a-College program and how can activists get involved?
The basic gist of the AAC program is that individuals leaflet colleges in their respective neck of the woods. The program got off the ground in August, 2003, and we’ve individually handed out just shy of 3 million booklets at over 1,200 schools. We find college students to be the ideal demographic as they’re in the time of life when they’re really willing to question the status quo and make changes. And when you get young individuals to change, you’re reaching those who will have many years ahead of them to make a great impact for animals. Those interested in getting involved in this work can go to veganoutreach.org/colleges or feel free to contact me. We’d love to have you on board!
Vegan Outreach offers several different pieces of literature. Why is that?
Different situations bring out different people, and some activists prefer certain booklets over others. I like the more mild Compassionate Choices booklet when dealing with, say, young kids, while those of college age might be better suited for the more graphic Even If You Like Meat booklet.
What tips can you offer someone just starting to leaflet?
If you’ve never leafleted, it might help to start off with someone who has leafleted before. If no such opportunities exist, then be brave, take the plunge, and get your feet wet! Most everyone who leaflets ends up being surprised by how easy and painless it is and how receptive individuals are. We can increase receptivity by smiling, keeping a positive disposition and by being somewhat assertive. There is nothing wrong with asking someone if they’d like to consider information, and the animals will be so much better thanks to you having done this. It’s pretty much on a daily basis that we at Vegan Outreach hear from individuals who have gone veg or vegan as a result of being handed one of our booklets. Lastly, many find our Adopt a College Yahoo Group to be helpful and inspiring; more information on this can be accessed on our AAC site.
Last fall, the Adopt-a-College program handed out a record number of leaflets. Can you tell us what went into reaching that milestone? How many colleges and VO activists were involved?
For the fall ’08 semester, over 200 individuals got out to leaflet a grand total of 657,850 booklets at 684 schools. We reached this milestone due to a great number of activists stepping up their efforts and because of the generosity of donors deciding that this was work they wanted to invest in. The success of Vegan Outreach will always hinge on the efforts of many; it was great to see so many individuals involved last fall.
You have a Spring Tour of colleges coming up. When does it begin and where will you be?
Starting on February 9th, I’ll be on the road for just about three months. I will be leafleting, as well as giving some talks, in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and upstate New York.
I assume you’ll be couch-surfing. Are you still looking for places to stay?
Keeping activists on the road and stocked with literature, to the degree that we do, costs a considerable amount of money. Therefore, in order to reach as many people as possible with the animals’ plight, we take steps to make our tours as cost-efficient as possible. As a result, those of us who travel sleep on the beds, couches, futons and sometimes floors of those generous enough to house us. I currently need to find housing throughout the southern half of Georgia, northern New York and the Tallahassee, Florida, region. If you’d be so kind as to house me, please let me know!
Why do you think leafleting is so effective?
In general, most people don’t wish to cause unnecessary harm to animals but don’t necessarily think about how eating animals causes them harm. While animal agribusiness goes to great lengths to keep the general public from thinking that animals lead anything but contented lives, leafleting gives us, as activists, the chance to bring the miserable conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses directly to the general public. Moreover, when distributing credible, compelling literature and coupling this with welcoming, polite activists, you’ve got a powerful tool for enacting change on a person to person level.
My own experience with leafleting is that most people are very polite. But how do you deal with the occasional person who is antagonistic?
Yes, the overwhelming majority of those we leaflet are polite. When the occasional antagonistic person comes by, I just do my best to respond in a calm, sometimes even humorous manner. If individuals wish to make a scene (which is rare), I just do my best to dispel the situation. While antagonism is rare, it is better than apathy, and such situations give us the opportunity to display our level-headedness and kindness.
Does outreach work ever get you down, and if so, what do you do to avoid burnout?
There is always going to be cruelty and injustice and apathy; this can be hard on so many of us. But as we know, keeping ourselves miserable only adds to the level of misery in the world.
I get a great deal of joy knowing that I’m doing what I can to push the ball forward for animals, that I’m living for something greater than myself. And when we really think about it, what can be better than spending our days deliberately working to make the world a kinder, more just place? We may not be able to change everything, but through our actions, we can play a sizable role in fostering change.
On a practical level, I always make sure I take the time to do simple things like reading, spending time with friends and getting good exercise. If we wish to be in this for the long haul, we need to take an approach that is sustainable.
You spend a lot of time traveling. How do you find nutritious vegan food?
As I stay at homes and not motels, I often have better access to stoves and such for cooking. And good, healthy vegan food is becoming more available with each passing year. While at times I do have to rely on foods that aren’t as healthy as would be ideal, I usually manage to find enough nutritious food. The good news is that I’m still alive and kicking!
It seems like every year Vegan Outreach outdoes itself. Does Vegan Outreach in general or you specifically have any outreach goals for 2009?
With the economy in the shape it is, we might not be able to have the record year that we would love to have. But we’re still going to have a very solid year and will continue to work our hardest to make sure as many of today’s youth as possible are reached with a full and compelling case for choosing compassion. We’re very good at converting funds into booklets. So if any readers would like to support this work, that would ensure that many more college students are reached!
How about helping to make 2009 a great year for Vegan Outreach? If you’d like to house Jon, leaflet with him or even have him speak to your group, please email him at jon[at]veganoutreach[dot]org.
Saturday was a great day for George the lobster. The 20-pound crustacean, estimated to be about 140 years old, was released from a New York City restaurant, thanks to a concerned patron and some negotiating from PETA.
The City Crab and Seafood Restaurant had purchased the lobster, caught off Newfoundland, Canada, and had been displaying him as a mascot for about 10 days before his release. But at least one diner became concerned about the old lobster being confided in a tank and alerted PETA.
“We applaud the folks at City Crab and Seafood for their compassionate decision to allow this noble old-timer to live out his days in freedom and peace,” said Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “We hope that their kind gesture serves as an example that these intriguing animals don’t deserve to be confined to tiny tanks or boiled alive.”
On Saturday, PETA members drove George to Maine, where he was released near Kennebunkport, in an area where lobster trapping is forbidden.
To learn how to help liberate lobsters in your area, click here.