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.