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“Life has a strange way of leading you to where you need to be,” writes Tom Ryan in Will’s Red Coat. The aphorism is arguably as applicable to animals as it is to humans, as is clear in this powerful follow-up to Ryan’s 2011 bestseller Following Atticus. While that book centered on Ryan’s relationship with his canine friend Atticus, the emphasis here is primarily on Will, a deaf and mostly blind senior dog whom Ryan adopts. Will has other health challenges, and he’s not expected to live more than a few months when the author and animal activist brings him from a New Jersey kill shelter to his home in bucolic New Hampshire. He simply wants to give Will a peaceful place to die with dignity.
But then something surprising happens: Will flourishes. What follows is a beautifully written memoir of acceptance, trust, compassion, and friendship that manages to avoid the clichés that afflict other books regarding the human-animal bond. One of the things I most appreciate about Tom Ryan is that he never condescends to Will and the other dogs in his life. He treats them as his peers—not “fur babies,” but individuals who deserve the same considerations that humans do. He doesn’t shout commands at Will and Atticus, for instance, but asks nicely, as when he cautions one of them to be wary of wildlife: “Be careful, my friend.” Some readers may find it remarkable how animals respond to being accorded such courtesy.
Fans of Ryan’s first book will be happy to know that Atticus figures into this narrative, too. But this is really Will’s story. He arrives with baggage Tom and Atticus never anticipated—including some very aggressive rage issues of the bared-teeth-and-snapping-jaws variety—disturbing the tranquility of their home and challenging Ryan’s patience. Yet through it all, he treats Will with tenderness, recognizing that this elderly dog with severely limited senses had been abandoned by aging guardians who could no longer care for him and suddenly found himself navigating a strange new world. Will’s trust in others would come slowly, if ever, and would be hard-earned. I was constantly impressed by Ryan’s perseverance and wondered how tolerant I would be under similar circumstances; indeed, this book has inspired me to be more understanding of others—or at least try to be.
Ryan introduces us to some of the humans who have influenced him as well, most notably his Aunt Marijane, a former nun who ran a special education school and later did hospice work. Marijane shows her nephew a way of life that is non-judgmental and reminds him that “Dogs and coyotes and owls and bears and people are all the same inside. … We fear and love and get angry and are happy. We all have compassion and empathy.” The two share an abiding kinship with nature and an easy rapport.
The arc also follows Ryan’s evolution from an everyday “animal lover” to his discovery of how animals are treated in factory farms, zoos, circuses, and other enterprises that profit from exploitation. In considering his own treatment of animals, he eventually embraces veganism, thanks in no small part to knowing people who thrive on a plant-based diet and to having access to a wealth of vegan cookbooks. “I love animals,” he writes, “and yet I had done my best to ignore where the hamburger on my plate came from, the suffering of chickens that led to buffalo wings, or how many lives had to be sacrificed to fulfill my desire for barbecued ribs.”
A keen observer of the human condition, Ryan narrates the story with the voice of a philosopher-poet, bringing to mind many of the writers (Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, et al.) he mentions throughout. He has an extraordinary outlook on life (and death), and if he doesn’t manage to change your view of the world, however slightly, he’s at the very least certain to give you a lot of food for thought.
The writing here is even better than in Following Atticus—the prose is lyrical (without being sappy) and more assured. You by no means need to have read Following Atticus before reading Will’s Red Coat, but you will doubtless get added pleasure by having done so.
For me, the sign of a good book is not just how it makes me feel, but if I would read it again; I plan to return to this one many times over, revisiting the spirit of compassion and hope that fills its pages. Will’s Red Coat is very highly recommended indeed.
Note: You’ll be able to buy Will’s Red Coat on April 25 (though you can pre-order it now from your favorite bookstore). In the meantime, you can check out Tom Ryan’s blog here and visit his Facebook page.
My thanks to HarperCollins for sending me an advance reader’s copy.
Tilikum is dead. The orca made famous in the 2013 documentary Blackfish was two years old when he was seized in the open waters off Iceland in 1983 and had lived in small tanks ever since. He died today at SeaWorld Orlando, where he’d been held in captivity for the final 24 years of his life. It was last March that SeaWorld announced the orca had a drug-resistant bacterial lung infection, though the official cause of death has yet to be announced.
I researched Tilikum for my 2013 book Bleating Hearts, and in doing so I learned much about orcas. I discovered that in the wild they can live to be 100 years old or more. (Tilikum was 36 when he died.) Highly social animals, orcas are especially vulnerable when restricted to tiny spaces like aquarium tanks and pools. These are some of the largest predators on Earth, reaching up to 32 feet in length. They travel as far as 100 miles in a single day and have been known to suffer depression when deprived of their family and the stimulation of life at sea.
A clue to the toll confinement takes on killer whales can be easily seen in their dorsal fins. In nature, these sleek, black fins stand straight and high, while in captivity, the dorsal fin of all adult males and many adult females collapses, or droops over to one side—a byproduct of the orca spending a lifetime near the water’s surface, though scientists are unsure why this phenomenon occurs.
In 2010, Tilikum killed his “trainer” at SeaWorld Orlando, Dawn Brancheau. Dawn was not the first human death Tilikum was responsible for (he’d killed a part-time trainer while being held at Sealand of the Pacific in 1991, and then a visitor who’d slipped into the pool after hours at SeaWorld Orlando in 1999), and SeaWorld should have recognized both the psychological stress Tili was under and the danger of allowing park employees to be in the water with him.
Dawn’s death eventually led to the documentary Blackfish, which focuses on Tilikum. The film was shown on CNN and Netflix, resulting in a public outcry against captivity that SeaWorld could not ignore. Attendance at the park plummeted—along with revenue—and the company was forced to make changes. Clearly, were it not for Tilikum and Blackfish, today it would be business as usual at SeaWorld. Instead, the company has agreed to phase out its orca performances and halt its orca breeding program.
There are scores of orcas in captivity worldwide, and we can do better for them than simply waiting for them to die.
What You Can Do:
Never visit a marine park or the other enterprise that keeps marine mammals (or other animals, for that matter) in captivity. Ask family and friends not to visit, either.
Join the efforts of activists who campaign against animal captivity. Groups such as CompassionWorks International and the Captive Animals’ Protection Society focus their work on animals in captivity and assist others doing the same.
Support efforts to “retire” orcas from parks like SeaWorld and Miami Seaquarium and release them into seaside sanctuaries. Click here for more information.
Sign the petition to make the results of Tilikum’s autopsy public. Doing so will help ensure SeaWorld is transparent about how and why Tilikum died.
Help the Southern Resident killer whale population. These endangered orcas are suffering from a lack of salmon to feed on thanks to hydro-electric dams on the Snake River in Idaho. Click here for actions you can take.
Learn more about Tilikum and other orcas in captivity. Watch Blackfish, which is available on Netflix, or purchase a copy of the film on DVD. Hold a screening for your family and friends.
I also recommend you follow advocates actively working on behalf of orcas in captivity, including Dr. Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center; former SeaWorld trainers Samantha Berg, Carol Ray, and Jeffrey Ventre; Paige Nelson; Dr. Ingrid Visser; and the Orca Project.
Clearly, 2016 was a mixed bag. We had some exciting wins for the first 10 months or so, and things were looking good. Then, around November 9, there was an unmistakable pivot in the national mood. The world seemed a little darker.
As a sit down to reflect on the last 12 months of victories for animals, my feelings are tempered by the knowledge that 2017 could be a very different year not only for nonhuman animals, but for many vulnerable groups and the environment. Perhaps that makes this entry all the more poignant. I can’t say what the future holds, but I can recognize some of the stories in which animals won and animal activists have reason to celebrate. In that spirit, here are a dozen stories I loved, and I think you will, too.
This is spectacular news, not just for animals, but for animal advocates. It clearly shows the impact that activists can have when they use a variety of methods to campaign for animals. (One sour note to this news is that the orcas in captivity at SeaWorld locations will remain in captivity—at least for now.) SeaWorld also promised to end orca shows at all its entertainment parks by 2019.
My profound thanks to everyone who has agitated on behalf of orcas, even long before the release of Blackfish kicked this campaign into high gear. The struggle is far from over, but it’s important we acknowledge how far we’ve come.
2. Armani goes fur free (March)
After years of campaigning by animal rights groups, fashion designer Georgio Armani pledged to go 100 percent fur-free across all his labels from the autumn/winter 2016 collection onwards.
“I am pleased to announce that the Armani Group has made a firm commitment to abolish the use of animal fur in its collections,” said Giorgio Armani. “Technological progress made over the years allows us to have valid alternatives at our disposition that render the use of cruel practices unnecessary as regards animals. Pursuing the positive process undertaken long ago, my company is now taking a major step ahead, reflecting our attention to the critical issues of protecting and caring for the environment and animals.”
Most fur used in the fashion industry comes from fur farms, where wild animals are kept in small cages and killed by cruel methods that preserve the pelts—such as gassing and anal electrocution. Moreover, fur production has high environmental costs and health risks due to its chemical-heavy production process.
By committing to a fur-free policy, Armani joins other luxury brands, including Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, and Stella McCartney.
This year Iran joined a growing number of countries—including Austria, Bolivia, Colombia, Greece, Mexico, and Singapore—that have banned circuses that use wild animals. The law led to the immediate closure of at least 13 circuses across the country and follows the successful No to Circus! campaign launched by Animal Rights Watch in September 2014 and supported by Animal Defenders International.
When Inky the octopus slipped out of a tank in New Zealand’s National Aquarium, crawled across the floor, squeezed his football-sized body into a six-inch-wide drain pipe, and escaped into the Pacific Ocean, he literally became a breakout star. By liberating himself, he also symbolized the will of animals in captivity. Animal activists tirelessly campaign against circuses, zoos, marine parks, and other enterprises that confine animals, and this story illustrated that octopuses are not only smart, but resourceful.
Inky had been inside the aquarium since 2014, when he’d been inadvertently caught in a crayfish pot and given to the aquarium. (Going after one species and catching another—called “bycatch” in the fishing industry—is all too common.)
For decades, animal activists and animal rights groups have been urging circuses to stop using animals. Last year, the biggest target of their campaigning, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, finally agreed to stop using elephants. Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, had originally planned to retire the elephants in 2018, but moved up the timeline in the face of constant criticism from activists and an increasing number of local laws aimed at restricting their animal shows.
The elephants will now settle into the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, just a few miles from Disney World and tucked behind cattle ranches and orange groves. Unfortunately, controversy still surrounds this so-called retirement, as some of the elephants will be used for cancer research.
Another longtime target of protests against animal captivity, the National Aquarium in Baltimore has kept dolphins for 25 years. They finally stopped forcing the dolphins to perform in 2012 but continued to “display” them to the public. In June, the aquarium announced the dolphins would be released into an oceanside sanctuary by 2020.
The National Aquarium is exploring seaside sites in Florida and the Caribbean to create a new home for its eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, seven of whom were born in captivity and have never swum in the ocean. Officials say this will be a first-of-its-kind protected, seaside habitat where the dolphins would still be cared for by humans.
One of the most insidious—and little-known—practices of the egg industry has long been the killing of male chicks. Since male chickens don’t lay eggs and are considered worthless to egg producers, some 200 million male chicks a year in the United States are killed shortly after hatching. These babies are either ground up while still alive or thrown into garbage bags to suffocate.
But with technology now able to determine the gender of a chick inside a fertilized egg just a few days into the 21-day incubation period, egg producers in the US and elsewhere have pledged to stop the cruel killing of male chicks by 2020.
None of this excuses the misery chickens endure in the egg industry (and 2020 is still a long way off), but it’s a step in the right direction.
The banning of animal testing and products that use such testing has become a growing trend. Now Australia joins the European Union, India, Israel, Norway, and Turkey, all of whom have passed similar measures to cut down on animal testing.
Australia’s ban goes into effect in July.
According to a report by the market-research firm Nielsen, “Almond milk is now America’s favorite milk substitute, boasting sales growth of 250 percent over the past five years.” The dairy milk industry has been campaigning against milk alternatives, no doubt because while the popularity of almond milk grows, as the Nielsen report noted, “the total milk market shrunk by more than $1 billion.”
Meanwhile, a separate survey from this year reveals that half of omnivores are consuming plant-based beverages for health, taste, and ethical reasons.
Another concern for the animal ag industry: More and more dairy farmers are getting out of the business. In California, which happens to be both the #1 producer of almonds and dairy milk in the nation, dairy farmers are converting their farms into almond orchards.
Although SeaWorld announced it would cease breeding orcas and phase out orca shows earlier in the year, that wasn’t enough for California. Home to SeaWorld San Diego, the state formally banned both practices when Governor Jerry Brown signed the Orca Protection and Safety Act. The law goes into effect next June, after which the orcas can only be used for “educational purposes.” SeaWorld currently keeps 28 orcas in captivity in the US, 11 of whom are in California.
The bill’s sponsors say the legislation was important to make sure that SeaWorld can’t change its mind, and that no other California park can breed or do non-educational orca shows in the future.
Here’s hoping all orcas in captivity—as well as dolphins and other marine mammals—will eventually be placed in seaside sanctuaries.
Named for the FDA toxicologist who developed it in 1944, the infamous Draize test is intended to evaluate the safety of cosmetics and other products using live animals. It’s most commonly used on rabbits, who are locked into restraining stocks so they cannot struggle or clean their eyes. A test chemical is then applied to one eye or to a shaved area of skin on their backs and they are monitored for 2 to 3 weeks, without any pain relief, for signs of permanent damage. This may include swelling, bleeding, ulceration, and blindness. A number of validated and internationally recognized non-animal alternatives, including reconstructed human skin and corneal tissues, have been available for years.
Thank you, India, for banning this horrific practice, and thanks to the animal advocates who campaigned to end it.
One bright spot from the US’s November election was the passage of Question 3 in Massachusetts. Like California’s Proposition 2 in the 2008 election, this new law will prohibit Massachusetts farmers from confining egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and calves raised for veal in spaces that prevent the animals from “lying down, standing up, fully extending its limbs, or turning around freely”—and the sale of meat and eggs resulting from these practices outside Massachusetts.
The new law will take effect in 2022 (presumably to give farmers time to reconfigure their facilities into compliance). The state attorney general will be required to issue regulations and enforce it, including a $1,000 fine for each violation.
Other stories of the year worth noting:
Norway Bans Elephants in Circuses (September)
Last Fur Farm in Japan Closes (November)
Argentina Bans Greyhound Racing (November)
No More Wild Animals in Circuses in India (December)
Alongside the growing popularity of backyard chickens and rabbits comes the horror of mobile slaughterhouses, which kill and butcher animals in local communities. These rolling torture units help make small-scale breeding and local animal agriculture viable by offering backdoor “meat processing.”
“Mobile slaughter trucks bring the sounds and smells of animals suffering and dying, disease, scavenger animals and the high risk of contamination to our creeks and land,” says Marcy Berman, founder of SaveABunny, a Marin County nonprofit that rescues and rehomes rabbits. Berman says Marin County is on the verge of allowing mobile slaughtering units, and she’s leading a campaign to get the proposal scrapped.
“Even if a rabbit is cared for decently in a meat-breeding operation, there is no guarantee that they will be killed in a humane manner,” she says. “Simply because rabbits can survive in a small cage, rabbits are classified by the FDA as poultry. As such, they can—and are—slaughtered alive. Screaming in terror and in great pain, they are skinned and eviscerated while conscious.”
Berman says that the proposal to allow mobile slaughter trucks is offensive not only because of the cruelty to animals, but because of the unacceptable costs and risks for public and private animal service organizations, for public health, and for the environment.
What You Can Do:
1. Sign and Share the Petition
2. Attend the Meeting. If you are local to Marin County, please try to attend the County Planning Workshop on Monday, November 28, and speak out.
Marin County Planning Workshop – Monday, November 28, 1:00pm
Marin County Civic Center
3501 Civic Center Dr, Suite 328
San Rafael, CA
3. Send Letters and Emails. See this link for sample wording. Please be polite in your communication. Send to:
Marin County Community Development Agency Planning
3501 Civic Center Dr, Suite 308
San Rafael, California 94903
Brian Crawford, Director of Community Development Agency
Jeremy Tejirian, Planning Manager
The Marin County Board of Supervisors:
Supervisor Damon Connolly
Supervisor Katie Rice
Supervisor Kathrin (note spelling) Sears
Supervisor Steve Kinsey
Supervisor Judy Arnold
Last weekend I had the privilege* of attending the People of Color: Animal Rights, Advocacy and Food Justice Conference at the California State University‒Northridge (CSUN) campus in Los Angeles. The event’s organizer, Coalition of Vegan Activists of Color (COVAC), billed this as a first-of-its-kind conference in Southern California, and considering how white-centric most vegan and animal rights events are, this is both sad and encouraging.
One of the aspects of the conference I really appreciated was that all the presentations were consecutive, so attendees weren’t left having to decide between two or three speakers they really wanted to hear.
Every speaker was a person of color, and the issues they addressed ranged from food as a tool to social change to the very language we use in our activism. The day was long and the presentations in-depth, so I won’t go into a deep dive here, but I will offer a brief summary of this important activism event.
The day kicked off with a panel of three vegan athletes—former NFL defensive-end-turned-activist David Carter, professional bodybuilder Torre Washington, and triathlete Dominick Thompson—all of whom debunked many of the health myths surrounding veganism and spoke about the role compassion plays in their lives.
Sarah Woodcock, founder of The Advocacy of Veganism Society, followed with an examination of what veganism means, and she discussed intersectionality, suggesting that one way to support the Black Lives Matter movement is to stop saying “All lives matter,” however well-intentioned you may be. Not surprisingly, this got an enthusiastic response from attendees.
Next up was a presentation by lauren Ornelas (full disclosure: my partner), who founded Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.) nine years ago in part to bring together many of the issues discussed at the conference: animal rights, human rights, veganism, and the environment. lauren spoke about access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities. She often reminds people that just because something is vegan, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cruelty-free, and she drove this point home, saying, “We can’t say we have a compassionate diet if we know humans are suffering for what we eat.”
She also discussed F.E.P.’s new campaign against Safeway, a company that often blocks other grocery stores from moving into their former locations when they move out of a building, thus limiting a community’s access to healthy foods. (See more details and sign the petition here.)
A presentation by Chema Hernández Gil of San Francisco Rising followed. Chema addressed how colonization has worsened the diet of Indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America. He explained, for example, that corn tortillas are a heritage food for Meso-Americans, and that because of how tortillas were traditionally created by hand with limewater, they have been the main source of calcium. With tortilla production now industrialized, however, and corn coming from the U.S., this food is no longer as nutritious.
Linda Alvarez, assistant professor in the Central American Studies Department at CSUN and a co-organizer of the conference, talked about her interviews with Central American workers in the U.S. food system. This was a deeply moving presentation, as many of the people she’s spoken with work in slaughterhouses. None of them enjoy this work, she said; they are only there because the violent conditions in their home countries forced them to flee to the United States. They are doing work few will do just so they can support their families. Linda characterized these people as refugees who left home in fear for their lives.
I really enjoyed the next segment, presented by Brenda Sanders, executive director of Better Health, Better Life. Brenda—who is also the co-creator of Vegan SoulFest, an annual celebration of culture and the vegan lifestyle in Baltimore City—spoke about how white activists can be better allies to activists of color. One of the mistakes some activists make, she said, is to take their activism into a new community and try to tell members of that community what they should or should not be doing. You’re more likely to have success in your own community, she said, where you are known and trusted.
She also stressed the importance of only using delicious food in your outreach. Brenda brought a lot of humor to her talk, which everyone appreciated.
Next was a short documentary, Vegan Noir: Black Vegans in Los Angeles, which focuses on different perspectives of veganism via several Black vegans who live in Southern California. The film was followed by a panel discussion with the filmmaker, Toni Bell, and Liz Ross, who appears in the film and is founder of COVAC and co-organizer of the event.
AshEL Seasunz Eldridge, founder of The Urban Farmacy and coordinator at Hip Hop Green Dinners – the 10th Element of Hip Hop in Oakland, brought his usual charm to the event. Hip hop performing artist, writer, emcee, music producer, teacher, and entrepreneur, AshEL is a multi-talented activist who began his presentation by chanting a beautiful Shinto purification prayer called Amatsu Norigoto.
He talked about Kujichagulia (koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-ah), which is one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa and celebrates African heritage. It’s about self-determination, he explained, and it creates a focus on creating solutions rather than complaining about what doesn’t work. “When we focus more on solutions than the problems, we are less distracted and frustrated and more confident and on path with our purpose,” he says.
The final presentation, called The Hood Food Movement, featured Eugene Cooke, veganic urban farmer and founder of Grow Where You Are. He gave a truly inspiring talk about the power of food and reconnecting with the environment. The soles on our shoes insulate us from the earth, he said, suggesting that we take the time to occasionally feel the grass under our feet and the resulting vibrations through our bodies. With photos from the Standing Rock pipeline protest behind him, he asked, “Why is Standing Rock so important? Because we aren’t doing it. They are. If we don’t value the land, we can forget about any movement we think we have.” Eugene said, “I got my mind blown and my heart washed” by all the amazing folks who came together at the event.
Liz and Linda then took to the podium to say that each conference will recognize a leader in the activist community and honor them with an award. The inaugural honoree of this Leadership Award was lauren Ornelas, who in her thank-you speech spoke about the foundations of Food Empowerment Project and the importance of supporting grassroots groups.
David Carter wrapped up the day with a very brief keynote, and then Linda and Liz ended the conference by saying they will be organizing another one—after a well-deserved rest.
It is beyond the scope of this modest blog to give this event the full attention it deserves. I merely wanted to give it some additional visibility and let potential attendees know what future conferences from COVAC might look like. The atmosphere was very welcoming, the presentations excellent, and the messages more relevant than ever. Moreover, as a white activist with a lot to learn, I found this to be a great experience toward building more solidarity in our movement. If you have a chance to be part of their next conference, do try to make it.
*I mean this in every sense of the word. It was a privilege to be there, and I recognize what a genuine privilege it is to be able to travel and have free time for events like this one.
For vegans serving time in federal prison, among the biggest challenges has long been access to plant-based foods. It’s especially hard on animal activists and ethical vegans, for whom consuming even small amounts of dairy products or egg whites is anathema.
Well, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons will be quietly rolling out its new menu on October 2, and I am pleased to tell you that every day, every meal – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – will offer a vegan option for its main entrée.*
“The Bureau of Prisons’ National Menu is reviewed at least annually to assess responsiveness to inmate eating preferences, operational impact, product pricing, and nutritional content,” Justin Long, spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, told me. “The Bureau seeks to provide a variety of options, including vegan options, which also support religious dietary accommodations.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is that this dramatic menu change only impacts the 102 federal prisons in the United States, not the inmates serving time in the 1,719 state prisons, where veg options vary by location.
This change is the direct result of inmates and their advocates speaking up and demanding that the Federal Bureau of Prisons offer vegan food. Now let’s try to do the same state by state.
Note: I am well aware that our country’s prison industrial complex is corrupt and rife with problems, including racist policies (as I discuss in A Vegan Ethic), and I am not suggesting that we give them a big pat on the back here; I am merely passing along some good news for vegans.
*I cannot vouch for how strict the food preparation will be, however.Follow @markhawthorne
As many of you know, last summer Toronto activist Anita Krajnc was arrested and charged with criminal mischief after giving water to a pig inside a truck bound for a slaughterhouse. Video of the alleged crime shows pigs on the lower deck of the truck panting and Anita reaching in to give one water from a bottle while the truck is stopped at a traffic light in Burlington, Ontario. It shows the driver getting out and telling Anita not to put water in the truck. She responds by quoting Jesus: “If they are thirsty, give them water.” The driver replies, “You know what? These are not humans, you dumb frickin’ broad.”
Anita is a co-founder of the nonprofit Toronto Pig Save, whose members bear witness to animals arriving for slaughter, often stopping trucks and giving water to thirsty pigs. She says offering water to a thirsty pig is an act of compassion. “It is not only a right, but a duty we all share. Causing the pigs to suffer in the first place is what is wrong. I face these criminal charges with dignity, knowing that truth and justice are on my side.”
She faces up to 6 months in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Anita’s trial begins August 24, and in a show of solidarity, activists will be gathering for a vigil outside the Ontario Court of Justice courthouse at 8:30 am on the 24th and 25th: 2051 Plains Rd E, Burlington, Ontario L7R 5A5.
What You Can Do:
Attend the vigil. For further information or to confirm attendance, please contact Anita Krajnc or Jenny McQueen, co-organizers of Toronto Pig Save, at 416-825-6080; email: email@example.com.
Sign the Compassion Isn’t a Crime Petition
Support Toronto Pig Save (TPS)
Visit the TPS Facebook page
Share this post with family and friends
Just a quick post to let you know that the official launch for my new book, A Vegan Ethic, will be Saturday, August 27, in Portland, Oregon. (It lands in bookstores on July 29.) Because the focus of the book is veganism, I can’t think of a better city to celebrate the publication than Portland, and I can’t think of a better venue than Herbivore Clothing.
This launch party will also be a benefit for my favorite nonprofit: Food Empowerment Project, a vegan organization that fights for the rights of animals and humans. The proceeds from all books sold at the event will go to F.E.P. Here’s a recent article detailing just some of their work.
If it’s convenient for you to come, I’d love to see you there. Check out the Facebook event page.
If you have been actively involved in the vegan movement during the last year, you’ve likely heard about Aph Ko. Aph is a social justice and media dynamo. She founded Black Vegans Rock in 2015 after becoming the first person to write an article listing 100 Black Vegans, and she is the founder of Aphro-ism, a website devoted to black vegan feminist analysis that she runs with her sister, Syl Ko. They advocate what Aph calls an “epistemological revolution” through their writing about animal oppression and racialized oppression. “We believe that we might do more for animals and ourselves by changing the ways we actually understand why oppression is happening to begin with,” she explains in this outstanding talk she gave at the Intersectional Justice Conference in Washington State, where I had the privilege of meeting Aph and many other remarkable activists in March.
Aph is also an indie digital media producer and the creator of the comedy web series Black Feminist Blogger. Needless to say, Aph is extraordinarily busy, so I am very grateful she took time out to respond to some questions about her activism via email. I think you will really appreciate her thought-provoking answers.
You are versed in so many forms of digital media — blogging, videos, social media, online articles. Do you think there’s a form that is especially powerful for social justice activism?
I think they all serve a unique and specific purpose. Videos help propel certain narratives in a way that blogging doesn’t; however, blogging is personal. It helps me to explore my own voice while simultaneously offering resources to others. I think your strengths will dictate which medium you use, so if you’re better at articulating your thoughts and making connections through speaking, you might want to make a video. If you are better at organizing your thoughts through writing, you might want to write a post.
I don’t think many vegans would argue that digital media has helped advance the vegan message. Do you think digital media has been helpful in making progress for issues affecting marginalized groups?
I would say yes and no. It took me awhile to realize how I wanted to use digital media to amplify my voice while feeling a sense of community. I think that digital media and the Internet as a whole is merely an extension of the real world that we live in, so racism and sexism still govern these digital spaces. Because of this, certain voices get more exposure than others. Certain versions of reality get circulated, and others get shoved to the side.
This is why Eurocentric thinking and whiteness plague almost all social justice movements, even online. White people largely write the literature that’s been circulated. Their view of oppression and liberation is seen as the only or dominant perspective. Because they have the most resources, they have the ability to become the dominant authors of social change and activism which has had horrible consequences.
I used to spend all of my waking hours fighting the ways that white folks did their work until I woke up one day and realized that I was bored of doing this. Constantly fighting white reality only suggests that it’s the only reality out there. I needed to validate my own experiences by talking to people of color, by writing for and to people of color, and reading work by people of color. This is how digital media has helped me. It has absolutely revolutionized the way I approach oppression and liberation. I must credit a lot of black radical writers who relentlessly work online to provide quality, groundbreaking analyses.
It’s hard for minoritized people to have conversations with one another online without the white gaze constantly peering in and appropriating. As soon as some minorities know that white folks are watching, they change or they start tailoring their articles to white audiences.
I can’t tell you how many vegans of color write essays and articles TO white people online while totally forgetting audiences of color.
This is why I think depending upon where you’re at in your activism, digital media can either be a liberatory tool to help connect you to people who are invested in changing the world, or it can help you reproduce the white version of reality (regardless of your skin color).
It’s hard to have real change online when the digital territory we’re standing on is white-owned.
What advice do you have for people who want to begin using digital media in their activism?
My answer largely depends upon who is asking me the question. Context definitely matters. If you’re a white person who wants to create a website or digital project about animal rights, or feminism, or anti-racism, stop and interrogate why you feel the need to do this when there are already so many spaces created by white people. Are you actually offering a perspective that’s not out there, or do you just want to own some digital land?
If you’re a person of color, I would also caution you before you start putting your ideas out there for free. More and more research is showing that ideas created by people of color online are increasingly being stolen. This means people of color aren’t being credited or compensated for their ideas, which means activists of color need to be really careful when using digital media to share their thoughts.
I would say don’t put all of your faith in the Internet or social media. For example, it’s not a coincidence that white men create some of the most popular social media platforms that we use today. That should signal something to activists of color who are using these spaces to create racial liberation projects. The raw materials we use in our activism matter.
I’ve had to learn the hard way. I’ve had my ideas stolen, re-packaged, and I’ve seen others get financially compensated for basically saying exactly what I have written (even activists of color have taken my work). It’s made me much more cautious about writing online. When you’re saying something new or interesting, people have a tendency to gravitate towards you and then literally take what you’ve written. This has made me re-think blogging as a whole to be quite honest.
I think people of color need to understand the business of activism before they join the digital world and start trusting it … because activism is largely a business. White folks tend to own the largest non-profits and corporate activist sites and spaces, and people of color aren’t as aware of this because we tend to come to activism for survival purposes, not business purposes (obviously not in all cases).
So, when you have marginalized people using digital media for survival, and you have folks from the dominant class using digital media for business purposes, you can start to imagine how the digital territory can become predatory and violent for some of us.
I’m increasingly distrustful of the online world as a vessel for social change. This is why I’m starting to explore more opportunities when it comes to print. I think minoritized activists should invest energy into writing books, or creating zines … something tangible that they can own rather than using white digital land to cultivate their intellectual thoughts.
Absolutely. I am impacted by spaces like The Sistah Vegan Project and Striving with Systems. I also like to venture into digital spaces that don’t necessarily talk about animal rights, but other systemic issues. I love For Harriet, Black Girl Dangerous, Crunk Feminist Collective, anything Dr. Brittney Cooper writes, and Autostraddle (which has some great Black queer writers).
You’ve said elsewhere that the AR/vegan movement relies too much on imagery and not enough on critical thinking. Can you expand on that?
I’m known for saying: People weren’t shocked into eating meat and they won’t be shocked out of it.
Let’s back up a little: The biggest issue the white animal rights movement has is that they can’t properly locate WHY animal oppression is happening. They see the aftermath of oppression—they see the victims—but most of these activists have no conceptual clue as to why animals are systemically being hurt. Sometimes it’s painful to watch activists from the dominant class try to create campaigns to stop animal oppression (without realizing how they are perpetuating it) and other times, it’s comical.
White folks don’t seem to realize that white supremacy systemically harms animals. White folks don’t want to move out of their leadership positions, but they want to stop animal oppression, which basically means they don’t’ want to change behaviors that are discursively hurting animals.
Because a lot of uncritical people are the leaders of the movements, they rely on really basic, surface-level tactics to “shock” people into a political lifestyle. That’s why veganism gets such a bad name … it’s surface-level and sensationalist. Imagery can work, especially if it’s attached to a new framework … but creating new conceptual frameworks is usually the part that’s overlooked.
Imagery tactics remind me of the ways some feminists rely on sexualized imagery of women to shock people into caring about sexism … it’s like … if you don’t provide a new framework for people to understand problematic behaviors through, then all they’re looking at is more imagery of objects being objectified.
I’m not suggesting that people can’t change their behaviors when they see imagery like that; I’m saying that I don’t necessarily think long-term change will happen. In our movements, we focus way too much on the victims without understanding why these bodies are victims in the first place. They didn’t become victimized overnight, and we have to do the work conceptually to solve this problem as well. So many people don’t realize that thinking is actually part of our activism. For too long, thinking has been co-opted by academia, so we assume that theory and thought is for ‘those’ elitist people … when in reality, this should be a part of the public domain.
In large part, animal oppression isn’t so much a story just about animals, it’s a story about white human supremacy, so we have to uproot that part of it and examine it before we hyper-focus on the victims with no context. That’s what ends up happening though: we are supposed to examine animal oppression imagery without any context for who the real oppressor is, which produces so much confusion about strategies to end animal oppression.
There’s a lot of infighting within the AR/vegan movement, and it seems to have gotten worse in recent years. Do you have any advice for a newbie to the movement who may be confused by this?
I actually don’t think infighting is getting worse … I think white supremacy in the movement is getting easier to pinpoint. I think that people in the dominant class who never had to worry about marginalized people and their perspectives (because the game has always been rigged) are now realizing that minoritized people are leading their own movements and this makes them really uncomfortable.
A lot of white folks feel an unquestionable ownership over animal rights (and animals generally), so when black people start incorporating animal bodies into their anti-racist movements, white people flex their social power by trying to comment on our spaces or interrogate our intentions.
A lot of activists in the dominant class use their privilege to silence other activists with dissenting viewpoints, which is horrible because real change will happen when there are plural movements and voices. We need to get all ideas on the table because animal oppression is a serious issue.
The act of silencing people who have different perspectives or strategies has nothing to do with liberating animals and everything to do with preserving the same systems that oppress animals.
If you’re new to the animal rights movement, I would urge you to leave (lol). You don’t need this corporatized, whitewashed movement to help animals. The idea that you have to go through big movements and organizations to make change is capitalist nonsense. If you’re a person of color, I would urge you to stay in your anti-racist movements and find ways to incorporate animal bodies into your analyses … don’t try to join the white mainstream AR movement because it will only leave you feeling frustrated and confused.
In fact, part of the inherent problem with the AR movement is the fact that whiteness is the framework for it. We need people who are fighting for other social justice causes to incorporate animal activism into their work rather than joining this nebulous “animal rights” bubble of a movement. This is why I don’t really call myself an animal rights activist. I’m an anti-racist activist who fights for animal liberation. I don’t know how to fight for animal liberation without my lens of being a black woman … I don’t currently know how white people are able to fight for another group without taking into account their own standpoint … which is why their movements are suffering.
What do you do to avoid getting burned out?
Burnout comes with the territory of being a conscious political woman of color, regardless if you’re an activist or not. I largely became an activist because I was fatigued with being oppressed and having the dominant class write my narrative and tell my story. That was burnout. I didn’t become an activist out of choice. It was an act of survival. I became an activist because I was burned out by racism and sexism in my everyday life.
I don’t know if there’s ever a real way of avoiding burnout as long as white supremacist patriarchy is still intact. Most of the time, it helps to get off the Internet, to be completely honest. Having space from the digital world helps in terms of priorities. It’s easy to get sucked in and to start stressing about things that literally don’t matter at all. So, I ensure that I spend a large amount of time offline.
Another thing I’ve learned about avoiding burnout is to stop being impressed with the fact that white people like my work. When you live in a white supremacy, getting white attention as a minority can feel like you’re on top of the world … like you’re doing something right. However, I would urge minorities to be really cautious of this feeling because it can lead you into exploitation and doing things for free for white folks. I had to learn how to say “no” to opportunities from white people that were not offering financial compensation for my work. Hollow fame and representation has been used as a tool on brown bodies to get them to believe that doing free work will yield a big payout and it usually doesn’t.
As a woman of color, I’ve also learned to stop listening to and engaging with those in the dominant class who critique my work and me. I’ve learned how to change the channel and continue working. As Toni Morrison said, distraction is a large part of racism so I’m learning how to avoid distraction. Rather than respond to every person who writes a slanderous, untruthful article about my work, or me, I just keep moving forward. I have no need to entertain petty shit.
Lastly, I think it’s important to think about the future when doing the work today. It’s really easy to forget why we’re working as hard as we are every single day. This is why I love Afrofuturism. It made me realize that there will be a day when I will be able to breathe and relax, but it comes at the cost of fighting hard today, which I will continue to do.Follow @markhawthorne