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I went to summer camp once, and I don’t have fond memories of it. Maybe it was the terrible food or the short-tempered camp counselors. Maybe it was the completely meaningless activities. Or maybe it was that Jimmy Teufel gave me an atomic wedgie in front of the female campers. Ah, childhood.

Thanks to people like Nora Kramer, however, summer camp has changed a lot. Nora has channeled her teaching skills and passion for activism into creating the new Youth Empowered Action Camp (YEA), which will give kids the knowledge and guidance they need to take on a world of social injustice. Animal cruelty, gay rights and global warming are just a few of the important issues YEA will cover, with each camper choosing his or her area of interest. This summer’s event will be held at the Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, California, just outside of Santa Cruz, August 17th to the 21st.

Youth Empowered Action Camp director and animal activist Nora Kramer

Youth Empowered Action Camp director and animal activist Nora Kramer

Nora, who’s worked as a camp director and senior staff at three different summer camps over the years to learn the best practices of established camps, is also a longtime animal activist and has been working with young people for most of this decade, including teaching high school English. She says she was inspired to start YEA Camp after doing some work for In Defense of Animals while teaching humane education on the side. “I had such a positive experience working with youth, both at after-school programs, as a guest speaker at schools and with the kids who volunteered or called in to IDA about animal issues,” she says. “I sensed the compassion and urgency that young people have ― there wasn’t the same jadedness or cynicism that I had seen in many adults. A few students asked me about things to do in the summer, and I started looking into it.”

What she discovered was a shortage of programs for kids interested in social activism. “Most organizations have no capacity to handle volunteers or interns who are under a certain age, and there were kids who were sitting around doing nothing for animals or other issues they might care about because there wasn’t anything out there for them, and they didn’t have the initiative or experience to start doing stuff on their own — which is an issue for adult activists too!” Since Nora loved summer camp as a kid, it became clear that this was something she wanted to pursue. She soon got her teaching credential, which enabled her to work but still have summers free. Now, after experience at three summer camps, she’s put together an outstanding team to make Youth Empowered Action summer camp a reality for kids 11 to 15.

Campers will have their choice of issues they want to address, and the emphasis, Nora says, will be on teaching skills kids can use to tackle these social injustices in the real world. “Our plan for the future is a full-length summer camp with probably two-week sessions, so there will be much more program time.” Nevertheless, kids will get some good background in whatever topic they choose this year. “Each camper will have a mentor who will work with them to make sure they have accurate information and are connected with local or national groups working on their issue of importance,” explains Nora. “I will be the mentor to the animal rights kids.” One of the techniques used in the training will be to have campers create their own talking points, break out into small groups and practice answering questions about their topic; not only does this give them exposure to the rhetoric of their chosen issue, but they’ll be teaching one another. (This is a technique adults can apply to their activism too: Take a public-speaking class, for example, and you’ve got a built-in audience for your outreach efforts while polishing your skills.)

The camp will also feature a daily series called Compassion Into Action in which they’ll focus on one social issue that can be impacted by our daily choices. “We’re thinking one of these will be on animal issues and that we’ll show The Meatrix, though this has not been finalized.” In addition to Nora, lauren Ornelas*, another longtime animal activist, will discuss the issue of animal cruelty. Oh, and did I mention all the food will be vegan? “Because the camp is vegan, we will explain in detail why the food is what it is,” Nora says. “We will certainly discuss factory farming as well as the other reasons that influence this choice.”

Animal agribusiness has long known the value of involving kids in the industry early on, which is why they support desensitizing programs like 4-H, FFA and ag classes that help turn today’s young people into tomorrow’s factory farmers. So it’s encouraging to see activists like Nora engaging kids through a compassionate, life-affirming program. YEA Camp will only be accommodating 18 campers this year, allowing counselors to give everyone more attention. There’s still time to apply.

Update: Due to a scheduling conflict, lauren will not be able to speak at the camp this year.

Last May, farmers, slaughterhouse managers, policymakers, veterinarians, restaurant owners and other links in the animal-based food chain met in Arlington, Virginia, for the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s annual Stakeholders Summit. Not surprisingly, in the wake of Prop 2 and other successful campaigns on behalf of animals, the theme of this year’s summit was “Politics, Activism and Religion: Influencing the Debate on Animal Welfare in America.”

The Cattle Network published an interesting summary of the event this week, and it offers a glimpse of how agribiz hopes to take on what it fears most: animal activists. The plan includes stepping up security at factory farms and processing plants so activists have more difficulty with undercover investigations — clearly, it’s easier to get away with cruelty when the public doesn’t know about it. They’re also mighty concerned about activists controlling the message, as well as ballot measures and other animal welfare initiatives.

“Aggressive animal rights campaigns are being mounted globally, and it is important that we address them strategically and in a unified manner,” said Kay Johnson Smith, executive vice president of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, before the summit.

Other speakers included Wes Jamison, associate professor of communications at Palm Beach Atlantic University and a Southern Baptist Minister. Jamison is a longtime critic of animal activism, and he has erroneously claimed that activists want to give animals the same rights as humans. He recently told a convention of pig-flesh producers: “Never forget that you do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. Be proud of it.”

At the May meeting, Jamison unveiled a study on how animal rights groups are using religion to advance the vegan or vegetarian message, and he suggested that meat-eaters with companion animals are particularly vulnerable, since they must confront the moral implications of treating some kinds of animal like family members while treating other kinds of animals like dinner. Jamison said animal advocates use that guilt as an advantage, noting that “God is compassionate; factory farming is not.”

Also notable is big ag’s concern that campaigners are using technology to advance the interests of animals, effectively controlling the message. “Activists have learned to use the Internet better than industry has,” reads the article. They’re even upset at mainstream media, noting that The New York Times and other outlets are still using the term “Swine flu,” rather than the industry-preferred (and less blameworthy) “H1N1 virus.”

In her PowerPoint presentation, Kay Johnson Smith advises those working in animal agribusiness to:

  • Thoroughly screen job applicants and implement a security plan. (In other words, why treat animals better when you can suppress what’s happening behind closed doors?)
  • Implement the industry’s animal welfare guidelines. (Yes, those guidelines that are basically meaningless. For more information, see Farm Sanctuary’s in-depth report on agribusiness welfare programs.)
  • Strengthen state laws to protect farming and ranching. (Another attempt to prevent animal advocates from educating the public and working to improve the lives of animals.)

It’s always important to know what the opposition is doing; after all, we want to continue to keep the pressure on.

ElephantsA new undercover investigation by PETA has revealed (yet again) circus handlers abusing animals. Video footage, which was released today, shows employees of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus beating elephants before they enter the ring. The video depicts elephants being whipped and making noises in protest. Workers sink bullhooks into the elephants’ sensitive skin and pull hard as the animals trumpet in pain. One of the elephants in PETA’s video, 25-year-old Tonka, is shown swaying back and forth, bobbing her head and kicking her foot ― all stereotypic behaviors indicative of severe psychological stress.

The video was taken by a PETA employee who got a job with Ringling Bros., working as a stagehand from January to June and traveling with the circus across seven states.

Predictably, rather than owning up to the abuse — or even agreeing to look into the matter — officials from Ringling Bros. are relying on a tactic commonly used by animal exploiters when faced with proof of their cruelty: attacking the messenger. “PETA is an animal rights extremist group,” said a spokesman for Ringling Bros. “We have 139 years of experience of working with Asian elephants.”

What You Can Do:

Contact the USDA. Ask them to seize the elephants in Ringling’s hands immediately, investigate PETA’s evidence and enforce the Animal Welfare Act, the federal law that governs the humane care, handling, treatment and transportation of animals used in circuses.

Mr. Tom Vilsack
Secretary of Agriculture
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, DC  20250


If a circus is coming to your community, speak up!

  • Contact the local humane society and ask what measures will be taken to ensure animals will be treated in accord with the Animal Welfare Act when the circus is in town. (In some cases, your humane society might not even be aware that the circus is coming.)
  • Write to your local paper and explain why the use of live animals in traveling shows is not acceptable. Click here for details.
  • Contact circus sponsors and ask them to support humane events rather than the circus.
  • If local merchants offer free or discount passes to the circus, ask them not to.
  • Protest the circus. Many local and national animal rights organizations, including PETA, will help you organize a peaceful demonstration. I protested the Carson & Barnes circus when it came to my community last month, and many families turned away once they learned about the cruelty under the big top.

Andrew_ZollmanLGBT Compassion is a new group run by gay San Francisco Bay Area animal advocates, in affiliation with the non-profit organization Bay Area Vegetarians. Their activism focuses primarily on farmed-animal issues, though they also campaign against rodeos and other injustices they feel strongly about. When I caught up with founder Andrew Zollman he was working on the group’s campaign to eliminate live poultry markets in the Bay Area. He took a little time to answer some questions about LGBT Compassion.

Please tell me about LGBT Compassion. When was the group founded and what was the inspiration for creating it?

For about four years, I’ve been working with gay friends who are members of Bay Area Vegetarians on various campaigns, including issues that touch us personally, such as the Gay Rodeo (which Warren Jones and Eric Mills campaigned against many years before I become involved). Also, we want to promote the health benefits of plant-based diets to the LGBT community, as there are some sub-cultures that are particularly resistant to vegetarianism for various reasons, contributing to many of our friends suffering from preventable health problems at relatively young ages. The website was launched in April 2009 primarily to share our information about the live chicken vendors, but I hope to use it to reach out to other members of the LGBT community and inspire them to make compassionate choices ― not only for animals, but for other social justice issues that we should be concerned about.

There are many prominent gay animal advocates, such as Eric Mills from Action for Animals, Dan Mathews from PETA and Nathan Runkle from Mercy For Animals. I think we’re compelled to help animals due to empathy we’ve developed from our own experiences of oppression and abuse, and we’ve also developed useful strengths and skills from learning to cope with and fight discrimination. Not being accepted by mainstream society has helped us to be independent and true to our own ethics, which, of course, helps when being a veg*n and/or an animal activist.

We also hope to help dispel the stereotype that gay people are self-absorbed, materialistic and vapid (like television and movies usually portray us), as well as help show the diversity in vegans and animal activists.

What outreach efforts is LGBT Compassion using, and what do you find to be most effective?

We’ve leafleted with Vegan Outreach pamphlets at Gay Pride, and people were very receptive. We’ve leafleted against the Gay Rodeo in the Castro (alongside the rodeo promoters) and also directly contacted their sponsors ― likely contributing to the rodeo’s cancellation this year. We’ve conducted monthly protests with leafleting at KFCs. We’re active on Facebook and Yahoo! Groups. It’s difficult to tell which is most effective, but we’ve seen results from all activities. I also plan on soon showing videos and distributing Vegan Outreach fliers in the Castro neighborhood.

What kind of equipment will you use to show the videos?

I have a 22″ LCD TV/DVD player, with a deep-cycle battery power supply. I put it all on a microwave cart.

You mentioned doing outreach at Gay Pride and leafleting against gay rodeos. Do you think organizers of LGBT-related events and those who attend them are more receptive to a group like yours than they might be to other animal advocacy groups?

I think that members of the local gay community do pay more attention to us, as many of them know us personally, or recognize us as “regular” people in many of the same social circles, and see that we’re not stereotypes of vegans and animal activists. It’s also difficult for them to label our protests as anti-gay, thus avoiding the issue of animal cruelty ― though they still sometimes try. There’s also the element of peer pressure, when they learn that people within their own community are making compassionate and healthy choices. I believe that our ability to work from within an influential community in a major city can be very powerful.

Recently, there has been a surge of vegan food options in the Castro neighborhood, where we’ve long complained that few existed. We’ve also recently seen more people in the LGBT community become vegan or express interest. We’re excited to see these changes, and hope to help accelerate them.

You have a couple of campaigns that assist people who have AIDS. Some advocates, such as Dan Mathews, have been criticized by the gay community for not supporting animal testing in HIV/AIDS research. How does LGBT Compassion respond to such criticism?

I can’t speak for other gay activists, and we probably have different perspectives. I had friends and acquaintances who died before effective medications were available, and I’m happy that people can now have long, productive lives with HIV, but it’s unfortunate that these advances are a result of untold animal suffering. I don’t know the extent that animal testing materially contributes to the advancement of HIV/AIDS treatment, and I am doubtful of its value. I do know that there are some non-animal testing methods being employed that are effective. I don’t disapprove of anyone using medicine that resulted from animal testing, as the testing has already been done and they’re not directly contributing to it. 

Currently, there are many obviously abusive, unnecessary or redundant animal tests being conducted that I’d prefer to eliminate first, before arguing whether any testing is productive or “necessary.” However, I do try to avoid supporting campaigns that support animal testing for the treatment of any disease.

Additionally, I’ve gathered anecdotal evidence — confirmed by Dr. Milton Mills from Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — that a healthy plant-based diet may tremendously benefit persons with HIV, and I prefer to promote that information in the hopes of delaying, reducing or eliminating the need for medicine, just as with any other disease.

What lessons does the animal rights movement have to learn from other social justice movements like gay rights?

I suppose that, just like people who have advanced LGBT rights and other civil rights, we need to put the goal of necessary social reform above our fears of social ostracization, physical harm and threats from the government and that social change will definitely come if we fight, speak up and make ourselves known to everyone.

As you know, after the passage in November of California’s Prop 8 and Prop 2, some advocates of same-sex marriage accused voters of caring more about chickens than gay people. How do you respond to someone who makes that claim?

Following is a letter I submitted to the editor of a local gay newspaper, the Bay Area Reporter:

“I’ve been hearing complaints from fellow members of the gay community that animals now have more ‘rights’ than we do, due to the passages of California’s Propositions 2 (farm animal confinement standards) and 8 (elimination of the right to same-sex marriage). While I understand the intent of this assertion, it’s problematic for both our community and the animals.

“Animals received no rights with Proposition 2. Some animals (primarily egg-laying hens) are simply granted a few more inches of living space, and relieved of a little suffering during their short, miserable lives. For more information about what most egg-laying hens endure on factory farms, please visit

“The comparison is not valid. It trivializes the suffering of animals and the hard volunteer work on Proposition 2 by gay animal advocates like me. It trivializes the issue of equal rights, comparing our current lack of one of them to the suffering and abuse of animals raised for food. It also sounds like we would prefer that they continue to suffer until we receive such rights.

“Compassion is not finite. The animals did not steal the voters’ compassion from us, and the majority of the voters who voted yes on 2 also voted no on 8. For some of the voters, they are completely different issues: granting ‘innocent’ animals a little relief from cruelty while protecting our food safety and environment, versus trying to ‘protect’ society by preventing gay people from actions that are against their religious views.

“As a group that has experienced oppression and abuse, we should be sympathetic to others who are abused (especially those who have no voice of their own), and celebrate when they receive a little relief, instead of complaining.

“If people wish to continue to bring attention to this issue, it would be more appropriate to use the word ‘compassion’ instead of rights.”

What are some ways advocates can help both animals and the LGBT rights movement?

I don’t really know, but I think it’s obvious they are intertwined. From what I’ve experienced with my non-gay friends and during Proposition 8, all the compassionate people out there — particularly animal advocates — are already doing a wonderful job fighting for LGBT rights! I would ask that they continue to help fight for the right to marriage in California and other states.


Scene from "Whale Wars."

This week, Shaun Monson — who wrote and directed the hard-hitting documentary Earthlings — posted an insightful blog on the Huffington Post called “Legitimate Animal Activism.” Shaun’s post is in response to a June post by Richard Spilman, in which Spilman accuses the group Sea Shepherd of eco-terrorism.

It has become common these days to call animal activists terrorists, and frankly, I think it’s a cop-out — a convenient brush used by too many pundits to vilify and discredit the work of activists. It’s as if these writers don’t want to spend the time actually considering why animal activists must do what they do; they’d rather use a word that is quickly becoming the 21st-century equivalent of a racial slur. Referring to the popular show on Animal Planet that features Sea Shepherd activists confronting Japanese whalers, Spilman writes, “In the end, ‘Whale Wars’ is a highly dangerous sideshow, which may make for diverting ‘reality TV’ for the couch-bound, but has nothing meaningful to do with ‘saving the whales.’”

Shaun calls Spilman’s post bold and reckless. “After all, it is a curious terrorist organization that hasn’t actually killed anybody,” he writes. Shaun goes on to observe: “The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is credited with saying there are Three Stages of Truth: first, ridicule; second, violent opposition; and third, acceptance. This was certainly true for the abolitionists, who were told that to abolish slavery would threaten the entire economy of the United States. Indeed they were ridiculed and violently opposed long before there was any acceptance. We look back now at human slavery as one of the darkest periods in American history. Women seeking the right to vote, known as the suffragettes, experienced a similar fate. They too were ridiculed, and violently opposed, until finally, after long grief and pain, they were accepted.”

These social justice movements have become inspirations to animal activists, who, as Shaun points out, are often ridiculed and violently opposed. He ends his post by reminding us that it wasn’t the government that set out to end to slavery or give women the right to vote; rather, it took agitators — like today’s animal activists — who recognize an injustice and then battle the odds to win acceptance.

By the way, Shaun is currently working on volume 2 of the Earthlings trilogy, Unity.

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

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