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josh_balkJosh 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 jbalk@hsus.org.  

mahi_klosterhalfenIf 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. 


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