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Two new studies examine the impact of shocking photos and video on outreach efforts.
A decade later, the photograph still haunts me. I had recently gone vegan and was looking for ways to turn my newfound passion into action when I received an email from Humane Society International about the annual slaughter of seals in Canada. Accompanying the message was a particularly gruesome image that showed the bloody bodies of dozens of freshly skinned seals scattered across the frozen landscape. Near the bottom of the photo, pondering this horrible scene, was a lone seal who had managed to escape the carnage. What must she be thinking? I wondered. Was she looking for her mother? A friend? Some answer to what had happened—and why? A few years later when I addressed in my book and in talks the role upsetting images can play in activist burnout, this was the photo that occupied my consciousness and kept me awake at night.
Not that such images don’t have a place in animal activism; they certainly do. Vivid pictures from factory farms, slaughterhouses, canned hunts, research labs, fur farms, and the like reflect society’s mistreatment of animals. They are important markers in our ignoble history. But as the animal rights movement matures—along with technology and social media—and discusses how best to frame its message to the public, the use of potentially off-putting images has become a hot topic. How and when should we use photos and videos with graphic detail in our quest to change consumer behavior? Evidence shows the repulsive approach is working in the anti-tobacco campaign, for instance, where cigarette cartons carrying images of diseased lungs are more effective at delivering the anti-smoking message than any blithe warning from the Surgeon General ever could.
Photos vs. Video
Last month, the results of two studies on the use of images in vegan outreach—each with apparently conflicting conclusions—were released. One study, conducted with funding assistance from the nonprofit FARM, showed three different photos to survey participants: one with a low level of graphic detail (a dead pig on a muddy slaughterhouse floor), one with a medium level of graphic detail (a dead pig on a bloody slaughterhouse floor), and one with a high degree of graphic detail (a dead pig with his throat slit on a bloody slaughterhouse floor). Each image’s effect on attitudes toward animal rights was measured using the Wuensch animal rights scale: a high score indicates positive attitudes toward animal rights, and a low score indicates negative attitudes toward animal rights. As explained in this FARM blog, “the low graphic detail image was the most effective, the moderate graphic detail image was less effective, and the high graphic detail image was the least effective, although this effect was not statistically significant. What this means is that, though the images affected attitudes towards animal rights to different degrees, there’s about a 15% chance we could have gotten this result even if the images had no effect.”
The second study, conducted by the Humane Research Council (HRC) on behalf of VegFund, asked people between the ages of 15 and 23 to watch vegetarian/vegan outreach videos and then complete a survey. Following the popular pay-per-view outreach model, each participant received $1.00 to watch one of four short videos. The videos were:
- Farm to Fridge (Mercy For Animals): An intensely graphic appeal to ethics/compassion using footage of farmed-animal abuse sourced mostly from undercover investigations.
- Maxine’s Dash for Freedom (Farm Sanctuary): An appeal to ethics/compassion by telling the story of a cow who escaped slaughter and was rescued.
- A Life Connected (Nonviolence United): An appeal for consumers to connect with concerns about the impact of factory farming on animals, the environment, and/or human health.
- Geico Couple (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine): An appeal to health concerns by telling the story of a couple who adopted a vegan diet and successfully lost weight.
After watching the video, participants were asked questions about what they learned; if they wanted more information about eating vegetarian or vegan; about their current levels of meat, dairy, and egg consumption; and whether they intended to reduce consumption of any animal products. In contrast to the study carried out with partial funding from FARM, the HRC survey found that graphic images had the biggest impact, with the grisly candor of Farm to Fridge resulting in 36 percent of participants saying they were considering a reduction of the animal products they consume—that is an average of 7 percent better than the other, much less graphic, videos, even though viewers on average were only able to endure 78 percent of Mercy For Animals’ video.
There Will Be Blood
Based on these results, it’s tempting to conclude that when it comes to photographs, milder images rule, while shocking depictions of animal abuse are more effective in videos. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
“I think the FARM study is a bit flawed in how it was created, the questions asked, and the images selected,” says Mercy For Animals founder Nathan Runkle. The study measured attitudes about animal rights, for example, and didn’t ask if the image changed their perception of animal agriculture or prompted a behavioral change—such as going vegan. “The HRC study did that,” says Nathan. “It looked at behavioral change, which is really what is most important to animal advocates. You will be hard pressed to find anyone who says they want to see graphic images, but those who do see them often show more behavioral change.” Nathan says the controversial use of violent images reminds him of this—and every—presidential election. “Voters claim to be tired of and turned off by negative ads. But politicians continue to use them year after year, because they work.”
While Nathan concedes the images used in the first study are upsetting, he doesn’t believe they necessarily depict cruelty. “All three images showed an animal who was already dead,” he says. “In my opinion, that doesn’t show cruelty in a graphic light, since the animals are already dead and unable to be experiencing pain. So, you can see how in this study what is considered ‘graphic’ is already open to debate.”
Studies aside, animal advocates agree graphic images work. “Doing outreach in person, I like graphic movies in a pay-per-view or classroom setting, if you can get a teacher to show Farm to Fridge,” says Chris Van Breen, who gauges the impact in part by the comments he receives. “I have had complaints such as, ‘You should have warned me. Now I can never eat meat again. If I knew that’s what that video was, I would not have watched it.’” He’s gotten similar responses while distributing graphic leaflets. One recipient told him, “You should not be handing these out. I got that leaflet last week and have not eaten meat since then. It made me sick.” Hmm. Sounds like a winning strategy to me.
“After being a long-time vegetarian, it was ultimately seeing footage of factory farming that made me go vegan,” says Jasmin Singer, co-founder (with Mariann Sullivan) of Our Hen House. “So, yes, I think the graphic imagery works in a lot of cases. I just don’t think it necessarily will always draw people in, which is the catch-22.”
The Middle Way
“I tend to take a middle ground,” writes Doris Lin on her About.com guide on animal rights. “Probably the most graphic image I’ve published is this one of a whale being butchered in Japan. I believe that graphic images can convey a message that no words can, but I am cautious about their use. The whale is dimly lit, and the photo is from a distance, which lessens some of the horror of the scene.” A survey of readers on her page suggests that most people agree graphic imagery—provided it’s used thoughtfully—has its place in the movement.
“I think they both work,” says Jo-Anne McArthur, whose photographs of oppressed and rescued animals can be both haunting and beautiful. “It depends on the viewer. Just as one person will see a graphic image and make a positive change based on the experience of seeing it, another person will turn their eyes from it. We are all affected by different images and therefore different tactics, which is why a variety of tactics is crucial to creating change, as history has shown in all movements.” Graphic images move some people and not others, Jo-Anne observes, but they must be part of the movement, along with softer images and softer messages, academia, sanctuaries, letter writing, public demos, leafleting—all of it. She offers an example: “When I went veg, difficult and graphic images helped me to do so. Tim Pachirat, author of Every Twelve Seconds, was undercover at a slaughterhouse for six months and still didn’t go veg! But when he did, it was after he met a rescued cow at Woodstock sanctuary.”
Jasmin sees the logic in this. “I personally have a difficult time believing that your average meat-eating Joe would click on a graphic image to look for more—but, according to these studies, I am wrong. The thing is, I am actually not wrong—but neither are they. Because posting ‘cute, fuzzy kitten’ photos—or their farmed animal equivalent—also works, right? I think in that instance, the important part would be the messaging, which would obviously need to be incredibly compelling and strategic.” That’s a point Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns, also stresses. “Right now, there are many images of human-caused animal suffering on the Internet,” she says, “but if they are not matched by a passionate verbal message—not necessarily or always exactly where the images are being shown, but as the overall ethical language and context—it seems likely that most people seeing them will say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible,’ but will not connect what they are looking at with personal responsibility or action. I also think that images of animals suffering and abject need to be in contrast to images of these same animals living in happiness—images that are not just ‘postcard’ pretty, but expressive, evocative, and moving.”
Again, Karen and Jasmin are in agreement here. “Sometimes,” says Jasmin, “it’s the happy stuff that packs more of a punch, because—as in my case—the viewer says, ‘LOOK WHAT WE ARE TAKING AWAY FROM THEM!’ The most heartbreaking thing for me about VINE Sanctuary in Vermont, for example, is that many of the chickens choose to sleep in the trees, even in the winter, even though it’s so hideously cold there.” (This natural environment is in stark contrast to the filthy, industrial conditions billions of chickens are raised and confined in every year for their flesh and eggs.)
Indeed, in addition to showing animals suffering, it’s essential they are portrayed as individuals so we don’t promote the concept of them as commodities, says lauren Ornelas, founder of Food Empowerment Project. “If we only show them suffering, we’re not showing them enjoying some semblance of a normal life,” she says. “Take ivory, for example. If you only show images of dead elephants with their tusks cut off, it affects people because we’ve all seen images of these animals walking on the savanna. Most people have a better understanding of them in a more normal situation than, say, most people do of animals like chickens.” lauren, who has taken more than her share of upsetting undercover video, believes explicit images play a crucial role in showing people how animals raised for food are treated. “Though I do tend to worry that focusing on what some might view as extreme scenes of abuse—which we know are possibly routine—might detract more than help.” A better approach, she says, are depictions of abuse that cannot be disputed, such as animals in confinement and even the mutilations inflicted on them (beak searing, tail docking, de-horning, etc.).
The last word on images has yet to be uttered—and likely never will. We can count on further discussion and more studies as the movement hones its methods and message. But for the moment, grim depictions, particularly scenes from undercover videos, seem to hold sway. Adds Nathan: “As I said before, no consumer will tell you they want to see graphic images, but the fact remains that they are undoubtedly effective in changing attitudes and behaviors. Graphic images, which are hard to ignore and impossible to forget, create an emotional connection to the issue and raise ethical discussions, and these things impact consumer behavior.”
Josh Balk is the outreach director of the Humane Society of the United States’ factory farming campaign, where he works with corporations to end their purchasing from factory farms that use the most intensive confinement devices, such as battery cages, gestation crates and veal crates. As part of HSUS’ “No Battery Eggs Campaign,” grocery stores, fast food chains, food service providers and hundreds of universities have moved away from buying and selling eggs from caged hens. Josh took time out from his busy schedule to answer a few questions regarding his activism, what brought him to the movement and how even one person can make a difference for animals.
What was your “a-ha” moment when you decided to go vegan?
I went vegan about eight years ago after watching the documentaries The Auction Block and Hope for the Hopeless. The first video is about the cruelty endured by dairy cows and other animals at livestock auctions and the second is about the battery cage-egg industry. Ironically, prior to coming to HSUS, I went on to work for Compassion Over Killing for three years, where I conducted undercover investigations, worked with Washington, DC, restaurants to add vegan items to their menu and did tons of vegan outreach to consumers.
Could you describe the industry cruelties you saw in those two documentaries?
The Auction Block, filmed by Compassion Over Killing, is a behind-the-scenes look at several farm animal auctions where dairy cows, their calves and other animals are sold to the highest bidder, many times to factory farms and slaughterhouses. Inside the closed doors of auction houses, animals are often kicked, shocked with electric prods, dragged by their legs and beaten. I can’t imagine the confusion and fear they’re undergoing, especially the calves who only a short time earlier were taken away from their nursing mothers.
Hope for the Hopeless, another Compassion Over Killing documentary, shows what’s it’s like inside a giant egg factory farm where hundreds of thousands of hens are confined inside barren battery cages. These living, feeling beings are turned into egg-producing machines within an industrial assembly line. There’s little consideration for their welfare other than providing them water and food — the barest necessities to keep them alive for another day’s worth of production. They’re given so little space they can’t even spread their wings. It’s like forcing someone to live in an elevator with six other people for your entire life.
You’re well known in the movement for working with college campuses, getting their dining halls to buy cage-free eggs. Does that take up the bulk of your activism?
So far, more than 350 universities in the country have eliminated or reduced their use of battery eggs. While I’d love to take credit for this enormous success, most of the victories are due to the relentless and effective activists on college campuses I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the years.
That said, most of my time is spent working with major retailers, helping them move away from using the cruelest animal products and adding vegan items to their product line. Working with corporations to enact purchasing policies that help animals is one of the most effective things we can do for farm animals.
Can you explain what the Cage-Free Campus campaign is?
The Cage-Free Campus campaign is one of HSUS’ signature campaigns to help abolish battery cages. University cafeterias often use hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of eggs a year. Whether anyone likes it or not, this will be the case for the foreseeable future. The question is: Is it better that these eggs come from hens confined in cages so small they can barely move for their entire lives, or from hens living in a cage-free environment where they’re at least able to lay eggs in a nest, dust bathe, perch, flap their wings and walk? I think the answer is clear.
Of course, “cage-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “cruelty-free.” However, while cage-free hens can and do still suffer, it doesn’t mean we should ignore that the alternative for most major egg buyers, including universities, is eggs from caged hens who are given less space to live than a single sheet of paper. In other words, cafeterias aren’t likely to stop serving eggs anytime soon, but they may stop serving the cruelest types of eggs.
I think most animal advocates would agree that putting an end to battery cages would reduce an immense amount of animal suffering. It’s important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and force millions of hens we all know are going to be exploited to wait until a future utopia exists before they’re at least freed from the misery of battery cages. In order to so, we have to get major egg users in the country to stop buying eggs from these extreme confinement systems.
You’ve also helped activists overseas working on the same goal. For example, Mahi Klosterhalfen has made some real progress for hens in Europe. Are you open to working with activists in other parts of the world to help them with cage-free campaigns?
Over the past few years I’ve had the honor of working with some of the best animal advocates from around the world. Mahi’s unbelievable work in Germany getting major retailers to end their sales of eggs from caged hens is a testament to his tenacious and effective activism. He’s one of the best activists the animals have; Compassion in World Farming is lucky have him run its German campaigns.
Up in Canada, Bruce Passmore has engineered a campaign that has resulted in numerous cities passing government resolutions opposing battery cages and has convinced some of the largest universities in the country to stop using battery eggs in their cafeteria.
And down in Australia, Kathleen Chapman is launching a veg commercial campaign similar to what Compassion Over Killing and Mercy For Animals have done in the U.S. This is after she got her university to be the first to switch away from battery eggs.
There’s no reason why others can’t duplicate the efforts of these dedicated individuals. I’d be more than happy to work with anyone from any part of the world on campaigns to help farm animals. Billions of animals suffer worldwide, and it’s going to take a global effort to win tangible advances for them.
What’s the best piece of activism advice you ever received?
Something I learned from many of my heroes in the animal protection movement is that I should make strategic decisions as an activist with the end goal being reducing as much animal suffering as possible. Since roughly 95 percent of animal exploitation in the U.S. goes on behind the closed doors of factory farms, I’ve made it may life’s mission to help those animals raised for food. You get the best bang for your activist buck, so to speak, by working to help farm animals.
The path I chose — corporate and university outreach ― isn’t the only way to help farm animals, but it’s the way I think I’m most effective. Others, like one of my heroes, Jon Camp from Vegan Outreach, give out tens of thousands of booklets every year to college students encouraging them to eat less meat as part of the Adopt-A-College program. Another hero of mine, Kath Rogers from Animal Protection and Rescue League, is in the midst of transforming her hometown of San Diego into the most vegan-friendly, anti-factory farming city in the country. Whatever our interest or our skill set, there’s always something each of us can do to have a major impact in the lives of farm animals.
Can you offer any parting advice to the individual activist who doesn’t work with an organization? Are there any simple things they can do to reach out to restaurants, for example, or approach their college?
The great thing about animal activism is that one person can make a tremendous difference. One way for students to get involved ― on the individual level ― is to meet with their dining director about moving away from using eggs from caged hens and/or add vegan options to the menu. There are numerous universities that have stopped serving battery-caged eggs and added vegan options because one student brought this issue to the attention of the dining staff.
For instance, at Georgetown University, just one student met with the director of dining, and only a few weeks later the entire university ended its support for battery-cage confinement and went exclusively cage-free. The university used one and a half million eggs a year, meaning that one victory led to improving the lives of literally thousands of animals. If someone is interested in doing this type of effort at his or her university, they should feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If there’s ever a Leafleters’ Hall of Fame, I expect to see Jon Camp up on stage among the first inductees. As the longtime national outreach coordinator for Vegan Outreach, Jon is one of those powerhouse activists whose work is both inspiring and, well, a little humbling. I got to know Jon a bit when I interviewed him for Striking at the Roots, and I thought his story and insights would be the perfect way to introduce the topic of activism, so that’s exactly how the book begins. Jon kindly took a few more questions from me, even as he’s busy gearing up for his spring leafleting tour with Vegan Outreach.
Hi, Jon! First off, what’s the deal with Takoma Park, Maryland, where you live? I know so many activists who live there. Why is it such a magnet for progressive people?
Takoma Park is a pretty, progressive town bordering Washington, DC, and it’s sometimes referred to as the Berkeley of the East Coast. It has the feel of a small town, while offering easy access to DC. The DC area hosts a number of animal advocacy groups, and Takoma Park is a desirable option for living. I live in the same neighborhood as some of the folks from Compassion Over Killing and The Humane Society of the United States. We’ve tended to gravitate toward each other because we share many similar beliefs on advocacy and because we genuinely like and respect each other. It’s always nice having friends whose way of living encourages you to be a better, more effective person; that is certainly the case here.
How did you get involved in animal advocacy?
In 1995, I took an Ethics course at the College of Lake County, a community college in Grayslake, Illinois, and learned about the modern-day treatment of farm animals. I went vegetarian, eventually vegan, and started doing simple things like writing letters to the editor. In ’98 or ’99, I learned about Vegan Outreach while reading an Ingrid Newkirk book. I ordered some literature from Vegan Outreach and was so impressed by their calm, pragmatic approach of vegan advocacy as a way to reduce the most amount of animal suffering. In 2000, I went to a Compassion Over Killing feed-in in DC, got my feet wet leafleting and started to slowly ramp up my efforts. In 2004, Jack Norris, president of Vegan Outreach, asked if I’d like to work for Vegan Outreach, and I said yes. Since then, it has been a labor of love, and I’m still utterly thrilled to be doing this work on a full-time basis.
What is Vegan Outreach’s Adopt-a-College program and how can activists get involved?
The basic gist of the AAC program is that individuals leaflet colleges in their respective neck of the woods. The program got off the ground in August, 2003, and we’ve individually handed out just shy of 3 million booklets at over 1,200 schools. We find college students to be the ideal demographic as they’re in the time of life when they’re really willing to question the status quo and make changes. And when you get young individuals to change, you’re reaching those who will have many years ahead of them to make a great impact for animals. Those interested in getting involved in this work can go to veganoutreach.org/colleges or feel free to contact me. We’d love to have you on board!
Vegan Outreach offers several different pieces of literature. Why is that?
Different situations bring out different people, and some activists prefer certain booklets over others. I like the more mild Compassionate Choices booklet when dealing with, say, young kids, while those of college age might be better suited for the more graphic Even If You Like Meat booklet.
What tips can you offer someone just starting to leaflet?
If you’ve never leafleted, it might help to start off with someone who has leafleted before. If no such opportunities exist, then be brave, take the plunge, and get your feet wet! Most everyone who leaflets ends up being surprised by how easy and painless it is and how receptive individuals are. We can increase receptivity by smiling, keeping a positive disposition and by being somewhat assertive. There is nothing wrong with asking someone if they’d like to consider information, and the animals will be so much better thanks to you having done this. It’s pretty much on a daily basis that we at Vegan Outreach hear from individuals who have gone veg or vegan as a result of being handed one of our booklets. Lastly, many find our Adopt a College Yahoo Group to be helpful and inspiring; more information on this can be accessed on our AAC site.
Last fall, the Adopt-a-College program handed out a record number of leaflets. Can you tell us what went into reaching that milestone? How many colleges and VO activists were involved?
For the fall ’08 semester, over 200 individuals got out to leaflet a grand total of 657,850 booklets at 684 schools. We reached this milestone due to a great number of activists stepping up their efforts and because of the generosity of donors deciding that this was work they wanted to invest in. The success of Vegan Outreach will always hinge on the efforts of many; it was great to see so many individuals involved last fall.
You have a Spring Tour of colleges coming up. When does it begin and where will you be?
Starting on February 9th, I’ll be on the road for just about three months. I will be leafleting, as well as giving some talks, in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and upstate New York.
I assume you’ll be couch-surfing. Are you still looking for places to stay?
Keeping activists on the road and stocked with literature, to the degree that we do, costs a considerable amount of money. Therefore, in order to reach as many people as possible with the animals’ plight, we take steps to make our tours as cost-efficient as possible. As a result, those of us who travel sleep on the beds, couches, futons and sometimes floors of those generous enough to house us. I currently need to find housing throughout the southern half of Georgia, northern New York and the Tallahassee, Florida, region. If you’d be so kind as to house me, please let me know!
Why do you think leafleting is so effective?
In general, most people don’t wish to cause unnecessary harm to animals but don’t necessarily think about how eating animals causes them harm. While animal agribusiness goes to great lengths to keep the general public from thinking that animals lead anything but contented lives, leafleting gives us, as activists, the chance to bring the miserable conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses directly to the general public. Moreover, when distributing credible, compelling literature and coupling this with welcoming, polite activists, you’ve got a powerful tool for enacting change on a person to person level.
My own experience with leafleting is that most people are very polite. But how do you deal with the occasional person who is antagonistic?
Yes, the overwhelming majority of those we leaflet are polite. When the occasional antagonistic person comes by, I just do my best to respond in a calm, sometimes even humorous manner. If individuals wish to make a scene (which is rare), I just do my best to dispel the situation. While antagonism is rare, it is better than apathy, and such situations give us the opportunity to display our level-headedness and kindness.
Does outreach work ever get you down, and if so, what do you do to avoid burnout?
There is always going to be cruelty and injustice and apathy; this can be hard on so many of us. But as we know, keeping ourselves miserable only adds to the level of misery in the world.
I get a great deal of joy knowing that I’m doing what I can to push the ball forward for animals, that I’m living for something greater than myself. And when we really think about it, what can be better than spending our days deliberately working to make the world a kinder, more just place? We may not be able to change everything, but through our actions, we can play a sizable role in fostering change.
On a practical level, I always make sure I take the time to do simple things like reading, spending time with friends and getting good exercise. If we wish to be in this for the long haul, we need to take an approach that is sustainable.
You spend a lot of time traveling. How do you find nutritious vegan food?
As I stay at homes and not motels, I often have better access to stoves and such for cooking. And good, healthy vegan food is becoming more available with each passing year. While at times I do have to rely on foods that aren’t as healthy as would be ideal, I usually manage to find enough nutritious food. The good news is that I’m still alive and kicking!
It seems like every year Vegan Outreach outdoes itself. Does Vegan Outreach in general or you specifically have any outreach goals for 2009?
With the economy in the shape it is, we might not be able to have the record year that we would love to have. But we’re still going to have a very solid year and will continue to work our hardest to make sure as many of today’s youth as possible are reached with a full and compelling case for choosing compassion. We’re very good at converting funds into booklets. So if any readers would like to support this work, that would ensure that many more college students are reached!
How about helping to make 2009 a great year for Vegan Outreach? If you’d like to house Jon, leaflet with him or even have him speak to your group, please email him at jon[at]veganoutreach[dot]org.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. So it’s a positive sign whenever animal advocates begin looking beyond the immediate tasks at hand and target a wider range of oppression.
Jenna Calabrese, Miranda Robbins, Steven Roggenbuck and Victor Tsou — all former leafleters with Vegan Outreach — are doing just that with the formation of a new community of vegan activists called Living Opposed to Violence and Exploitation (L.O.V.E.). They are quick to point out this is neither an animal welfare group nor an animal rights group, but something new: an anti-oppression collective that opposes all the “-isms”: ableism, ageism, classism, heterosexism, racism, sexism, speciesism, etc.
L.O.V.E. opposes animal exploitation, not because the animals are suffering or based on any theory of rights, but because it is wrong to use any being without their free consent; therefore, L.O.V.E. seeks the liberation of human and non-human animals alike. Part of their principle is to run L.O.V.E. completely with volunteers and an operating budget of $0.
I asked Jenna to give me more details about this new endeavor.
What inspired you to create this community?
A really potent combination of being inspired by individual essays and articles we had been reading — Unpacking the Knapsack, The Vegan Ideal, Vegans of Color — and being disappointed by the actions and attitudes of many of the mainstream animal advocacy organizations led us to create a community where veganism was viewed as a response to speciesism and all forms of oppression. Many of us are human rights activists in addition to being vegan and animal rights activists, and it’s surprising and sad how rarely it is that those communities cross paths or work together, when all forms of oppression clearly stem from the same system of power and hierarchy that keeps all of these groups marginalized. We wanted L.O.V.E. to serve as a resource for writings on the topic, a guide to people looking to expand or enhance their vegan activism and a safe haven for people who agree with these ideas and want to connect with others like them.
So L.O.V.E. is not comprised of any groups?
Right now, L.O.V.E. is a collective of individuals, not groups. We had been pretty disenchanted with a majority of the animal advocacy organizations currently in operation, and we really wanted L.O.V.E. to be something different. There are other organizations which share in L.O.V.E.’s values, though, and if they wanted to be a part of the collective, they would be welcome to join. Anyone — individual or group — can do so by visiting http://www.loveallbeings.org and signing up for the website and mailing list. We are happy to have you on board.
How does L.O.V.E. differ from other organizations?
Until now, animal advocacy organizations have mostly fallen into one of two categories: animal welfare and animal rights. Animal welfare groups are concerned with the treatment of animals, often based on the idea of reducing suffering, and do not challenge the notion that animals exist for human use. Animal rights groups challenge the use of animals, using a technical idea of “rights.” This is made more confusing because “animal rights” has become a general term to mean any work in animal advocacy.
We have found both approaches — animal welfare and animal rights — lacking. Animal welfare groups understandably try to better the lives of oppressed animals, but do so with an understanding and approach that does not challenge or weaken the system that causes the animals to suffer in the first place. By working on the effects rather than the cause, animal welfare groups are caught in an endless cycle of campaigning against one abuse, celebrating a victory, then campaigning against another abuse. So long as the system of exploitation exists, the abuses will never end and old abuses will be replaced with new ones.
Animal rights groups, on the other hand, do not bring an understanding of power and privilege to the situation and therefore may inadvertently perpetuate the oppression of others. For example, some animal rights groups champion the rights of only certain animals, expanding the membership of privilege, leaving large classes of animals those groups deemed less important in the lower class subject to our exploitation.
These might seem like nit-picky, abstract points, but they’re not. In practical terms, the animal welfare approach has led to a near disappearance of the word “vegan” from public education efforts. Worse, we have seen the largest animal welfare group in the country promoting the consumption of cage-free eggs to their members in a fundraising letter. For a flavor of the problems of the animal rights approach, please see Animal Rights and the Humane Treatment Principle.
How are you using the Internet to manage L.O.V.E.?
L.O.V.E. primarily exists at the webspace at http://www.loveallbeings.org — our members live in wildly different geographical locations and cannot practically work together anywhere but on the Internet. We are hoping to encourage the growth of local activist communities by connecting people through the L.O.V.E. website. There is an activist mailing list, called COMMUNITY, that will allow people to discuss their experiences and events, as well as a blog on which people can discuss current events, articles and news and questions they may have about veganism and anti-oppression activism — which, if you don’t have anyone in ”real life” with whom you can discuss these things, could turn out to be a very useful tool. We’re also launching a Vegan Buddies Project to help connect vegans with other vegans in their areas. They can hopefully strengthen one another’s commitment to a vegan life while engaging in local activism to bring about even more change in the world.
Erik Marcus is a tireless campaigner who works on efforts related to animal protection and promoting veganism. In addition to publishing Vegan.com, which features his daily blog, Erik has authored three books: Meat Market: Animals, Ethics and Money, Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating and The Ultimate Vegan Guide: Compassionate Living Without Sacrifice, which he just published this month. He took some time from his hard work to talk about his activism, his writing endeavors and the question all activists should ask themselves.
Your latest book, The Ultimate Vegan Guide: Compassionate Living Without Sacrifice, is hot off the presses. Please tell me what this new book covers.
I think when you first consider becoming vegan, it’s immensely helpful to get advice from somebody who has been doing it for a long time. So in this book, I strived to cover everything that is important to new vegans. I’ve written chapters on food shopping, cooking, nutrition, travel, relationships and so forth.
Anybody can write about these things, so I kept asking myself, “Am I presenting this material as helpfully as possible?” My preoccupation with being genuinely helpful led me to offer up a ton of information I haven’t encountered elsewhere. For instance, there are plenty of places a vegan can buy food, so I’ve got a chapter about supermarkets, another about natural food stores, another about farmer’s markets, and still another about shopping online.
Wherever I can in this book, I try to provide simple advice that unlocks a great deal of value. For instance, when talking about food, I introduce the idea of basing your diet on five core foods: smoothies, sandwiches, salads, stir-fries and grilled veggies. These foods are all super healthful, they are quick and easy to make, and they can all be prepared in a multitude of ways so you can eat them all the time without getting bored.
My intention in writing this book was to give a non-vegan every piece of information required to allow that person to easily become vegan tomorrow, without fear or sacrifice. From the responses I’ve received from the book’s first readers, it appears I’ve accomplished that goal.
How does your new book differ from Meat Market and Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating?
Both of those books required me to spend months and months in an agriculture library. The Ultimate Vegan Guide, by contrast, is my attempt to distill my twenty years of vegan living into a short and super-readable book. I think this subject gave me room to be much more relaxed and entertaining with my writing.
You made Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating available as a free download from Vegan.com. Why did you decide to do that?
I guess it was sort of an experiment. I wanted to see how many people would take advantage of reading it if I made the book free. The book ended up being downloaded tens of thousands of times, and I’ve had numerous people approach me to say they went vegan as a result of downloading the book. I should mention the free download went away when I re-launched Vegan.com last spring, but I’ll bring it back at some point when I find some time.
Most people know you as an author, blogger, podcaster and public speaker, but you’re engaged in other models of activism. What’s your favorite form of animal activism?
Well, Vegan.com and my writing sucks up nearly all my time. But I still manage pass out Vegan Outreach literature at my local colleges at least a few times a semester. This is something anyone can do, and I urge people who are unfamiliar with the effectiveness of leafleting to read Matt Ball’s wonderful essay “A Meaningful Life.”
One of your points in Meat Market is the “commodity-cruelty argument.” Could you explain what this is?
I devoted Chapter 2 of Meat Market to this argument, and it so happens that Chapter 2 of The Ultimate Vegan Guide reiterates this argument in a more concise format. Basically, this argument introduces the ethical consequences of what happens when meat, milk and eggs are produced under a commodity system. See, the name of the game with commodities is that only the lowest-cost producers survive. So, when animal-based foods become commodities, what happens is that producers are forced to embrace every possible cost-cutting measure, no matter how cruel it is to the animals involved.
Just by understanding this one simple concept, you’ve gained a window through which you can witness and understand the deeply rooted cruelties that exist within agribusiness.
Speaking of ag cruelties, you recently scored a victory for animals at your alma mater, UC Santa Cruz: they’re going to start making cage-free eggs available. Can you walk us through what you did to make that happen ― and how others can do the same at their college?
After receiving guidance from Josh Balk of HSUS, I used the classic Henry Spira approach of opening a respectful dialog with UCSC’s director of dining services. When that communication didn’t bear fruit, I got the attention of the Chancellor’s office. Soon after that, I was able to get some media coverage of the issue ― and within weeks of that coverage appearing the University started offering cage-free eggs. It was no big deal; anyone can do this sort of thing. But given the number of battery eggs served on campus, the simple efforts I made are going to eliminate a great deal of cruelty.
I know this victory is just the beginning; what’s next for you in working with the campus?
Well, now that Prop 2 has passed, UCSC doesn’t have any excuse to continue serving battery cage eggs. So I’m now back in touch with the Chancellor’s Office to see how quickly they can get rid of all battery cage eggs at the University. I’ve made contact with other activists on campus and, if the University doesn’t take speedy action to get rid of battery eggs, we’re going to launch a campaign that will expose the university’s ties to animal cruelty. But I doubt such a campaign will be necessary: my intuition is that the Chancellor’s Office and Dining Services staff are outstanding people who will want to quickly cut the university’s ties to battery cage egg farms. It’s the right thing to do.
You’re considered one of the leaders in the vegan movement. Who are the people that inspired you?
I’m not a leader; I’m just a guy with a website who has written a few books. Wayne Pacelle, Paul Shapiro, Philip Lymbery, Josh Balk, Mahi Klosterhalfen, Jack Norris and Matt Ball: those are some of the movement’s leaders.
I’ve been very fortunate to make friends with some incredibly effective people in the movement, and these people have played a big role in shaping the kind of activism I do. I got to know Henry Spira in the early 1990s, and my contact with him led me to the sort of work I do today. For me, it’s all about pragmatism: getting in tune with the public and figuring out what steps they’re ready to take right now. If you’re ready to go vegan, then great, I’ll give you the encouragement and the information you need. If you aren’t ready to stop eating animal products, then I’ll encourage you to eat fewer animal products and to shift your purchases away from factory farms.
Outreach is all about listening to people, and helping them to take whatever next step they’re ready for. It’s not about deciding what step would make that person a moral human being in your eyes, and expecting that person to jump through the hoop you’ve constructed. That’s the mindset of an asshole, and it’s at the root of the angry vegan stereotype.
It seems you work non-stop on behalf of animals, and I know you’ve seen some of the cruelest abuses agribusiness subjects animals to. What do you do to keep from burning out?
It’s true that this work can mess with your head. After David Foster Wallace hanged himself this past autumn, I found myself emotionally unable to write for about a week. At some point, you need to take care of yourself. After all the exposure I’ve had to animal cruelty, I’ve stopped watching new cruelty videos when they come out. I’ve seen everything I need to see, and it’s important I preserve my emotional health.
But the real way to avoid burnout is to regularly engage in tasks that you know will make a big difference. I’m certain that anyone who cares, and who works steadily, can keep more than a million animals out of a slaughterhouse. I talk about how to accomplish this in the final chapter of my Ultimate Vegan Guide. Since I know I’m being effective, there’s no room in my belief system to permit burnout.
We’re going to annihilate factory farming in our generation, while putting veganism solidly into the mainstream, and I’m delighted to be one of the people working to make this happen.
What’s next for you? Any other books you’ll be working on?
I think I’ve now finished plugging up what I perceived as the main gaps in the movement’s literature. I don’t know if I’ll ever write another book — at this point there’s nothing else in the vegan/animal rights world that I’d be interested in writing about. Since my book-writing career has likely come to an end, my life at the moment is at a crossroads; my main goal moving forward is to identify new efforts that make me increasingly effective for animals. I’m now asking myself the same question I hope every reader of this interview regularly asks themselves: What can I do that will impact as many farmed animals as possible?
With the number of land animals raised and slaughtered for food worldwide every year now exceeding 50 billion (and still growing), there’s never been a more critical time to speak out for the voiceless. Animal activists around the globe work tirelessly to raise awareness, of course, but events may reach a peak on or around October 2 – World Farm Animals Day. Marking the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, an outspoken advocate of compassion for animals, World Farm Animals Day mobilizes activists in all 50 U.S. states and two dozen other countries. Participants include animal advocacy groups and individual activists; anyone who cares about animals is encouraged to join this global outcry against cruelty. And it’s not too early to begin planning for it.
World Farm Animals Day observances traditionally include vigils, marches, leafleting, tabling and exhibiting. More dramatic events include die-ins, cage-ins and video rigs. Activists encourage governors and mayors to issue special proclamations denouncing cruelty to farmed animals.
Among the activities to take place in North America will be Farm Sanctuary’s annual Walk for Farm Animals. This is actually a series of walking events held throughout Canada and the U.S. in September and October. As Gene Baur, Farm Sanctuary president and co-founder, explains, “The Walk for Farm Animals is a critical tool that provides an opportunity for animal advocates to demonstrate their support for animal protection, educate the public about why this is important issue and help raise the funds necessary to continue Farm Sanctuary’s distinctive work to rescue farm animals from abuse, and advocate for farm animal protection across the country through legislative, legal and corporate campaign efforts.”
National Walk participants can register at www.walkforfarmanimals.org, or call 607-583-2225 ext. 229.
Other ways to observe World Farm Animals Day include:
Leafleting: Leafleting is a simple activity, as it requires no permits, no equipment and little planning. Make sure to make the most of your efforts by hitting high-traffic areas like colleges and city streets at the busiest times. Lunch hour and quitting time are optimal times. Request literature from Vegan Outreach or the Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM).
Information Tables/Stalls: A simple and easy way to get the message out. Information tables require relatively little planning and allow activists to engage the public in meaningful, one-on-one dialogues. Pick a popular location and busy time of day, get a permit (if necessary), then show up for a few hours with a large table, display materials and handouts. FARM will provide the materials you need; simply register online or call 888-FARM-USA to get your free Action Guide and Event Pack.
Vigils & Memorial Services: Vigils and memorial services are somber events that focus attention on the tragedy of factory farming. They are a time to remember the losses suffered by each of the 50 billion individual land animals murdered by agribusiness each year. These events can be as elaborate as funeral processions or as straightforward as candlelight vigils. Props such as candles, black ribbons, somber music and funeral attire can create a very dramatic effect. Activists can also conduct a fast to increase the media appeal of the event and to bring attention to the millions of people who go hungry as grains are fed to livestock instead.
Video Rigs: Playing a video to expose standard farming and slaughter practices is a sure way to simultaneously grab attention and create awareness.
Exhibits: Exhibits are basically the unstaffed version of an information table or stall. The typical duration of an exhibit ranges from one week to one month. Libraries and student unions are popular locations for exhibits, which tend to be more visual than information tables. Display materials, including books, are usually under protective glass cover, while handouts are available to passersby. FARM can provide the materials you need.
Cage-ins: An excellent way to bring attention to the plight of farmed animals. They are highly effective in conjunction with videos and can attract a media attention.
Protests: A protest is a great way to express outrage toward an establishment’s treatment or policies regarding animals. It can also generate a lot of negative publicity for your target, if well-thought-out. If you are working on a campaign in your area, consider incorporating it into World Farm Animals Day by staging a protest on or around Gandhi’s birthday. Making your campaign part of an international day of action makes it much more newsworthy. When planning your protest, be sure to read up on local ordinances regarding the size, location, timing, and noise levels of protests. Depending on local laws, you may need one or more permits. And don’t forget: stay on public property!
KFC Demo: Kentucky Fried Cruelty demonstrations are a great way to support both World Farm Animals Day and the Kentucky Fried Cruelty campaign spearheaded by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
Die-Ins: A visually powerful and symbolic form of protest, die-ins have traditionally been used to protest nuclear proliferation and war. World Farm Animals Day die-ins take a stand for animals (whose suffering is invisible and denied). The idea is for a group of activists dressed in black to lie motionless for a set amount of time (usually about 20 to 30 minutes).
Launched in 1983, World Farm Animals Day is an international campaign of FARM (Farm Animal Rights Movement), a non-profit public interest organization based just outside of Washington, D.C. FARM works with local volunteers hosting activities, serving as a resource by providing information, guidance, materials, media outreach, and an online Events Directory.