Anyone familiar with the obstacles to obtaining and maintaining justice for marginalized human groups in mainstream society cannot be surprised at the difficulty of obtaining justice for other animal species. Contributors to this anthology recall moments of awakening to the reality of animals’ lives that immediately or eventually turned them into animal rights activists. Such moments range from coming face to face with a suffering, terrified dairy cow so intense that “at that moment I decided I had to do something,” to future activist Zafir Molina being told sarcastically by her father that she was eating the baby goat she had spent time with the day before. “Yet I continued to eat the flesh.”
Voices For Animal Liberation: Inspirational Accounts by Animal Rights Activists (Skyhorse 2020) by Brittany Michelson presents autobiographical stories of how personal trauma, depression, distress, dysfunction, and in some cases food and drug addictions, foster insight into the trauma of animals trapped in human systems of abuse. Actor and filmmaker Chase Avior writes, for example: “Having been subjected to bullying, I know the feeling of being scared and defenseless, and I see the same terror in the eyes of every animal headed to the slaughterhouse.”
Army veteran Jasmine Afshar describes how the desperation of trapped pigs she observed: “to seek safety reminded me of some traumatic moments in my own past.”
Whether animal liberation is “on the horizon” or an ever-elusive aspiration fortified by shaky victories, the takeaway is that the liberation of oneself and of animals is a work in progress for activists determined to exemplify and deliver our “fragile message to the masses.” Many, including your friends, will dismiss you no matter how you speak about animals and veganism. They will accuse you, says JaneUnchained News journalist Dani Rukin, of “flaunting your lifestyle.” Olympic medalist Dotsie Bausch, founder of Switch4Good, is taunted by her cyclist coaches for her “plant-based BS.” She tells them: “I don’t care if I fade away on this diet… and for once in my life I am going to stand up for what’s right.”
Promoting the Vegan Message
Contributors proclaim the vegan message with respect to food and more broadly as an all-encompassing philosophy of compassion for all forms of sentient life. Veganism is no longer considered, as was once commonly claimed, a mere “personal choice.” In Rukin’s words: “it’s never just a personal choice when there’s a victim.” Still, being vegan does not suffice for activists like Natasha & Luca, who come to understand that, in addition to diet, “The victim would want us to actively intervene.”
At the same time, we need to understand our audience. Vegan activist Gwenna Hunter reminds us that people of color, for example, may resist our starting out cold with “animals are suffering.” White people have told them “you’re lower than animals,” and as one man challenges Hunter at a vegan lifestyle event, “Sister, you’re out here telling people not to eat animals, but what are you doing for our black community? Black men are being shot in the streets.” This is why, she says, “when speaking with communities of color, I always start my conversations with health and self-love.” She reminds us that for some people, and especially for those who are struggling, “eating is the only simple pleasure they have in life.” We cannot come across as if we are telling them, “I don’t want you to have this pleasure.”
In Defense of Animal Sanctuaries
Our Hen House co-founder and Senior Features Editor for VegNews, Jasmin Singer, extols “the magical powers of storytelling.” Storytelling allows others to listen without feeling judged or being lectured to, while still being passionately urged to care about animals. In telling their stories, activists are also telling the stories of the animals whose own “trauma of an extinguished self” includes instances of recovery in a sanctuary, as when a chimpanzee named Joe, caged in an Alabama zoo for 14 years, starts climbing and swinging—“quintessential chimpanzee behavior,” says attorney Brittany Peet of PETA—as soon as he is set free in his new home.
Animal sanctuaries are defended against criticism, voiced by some who insist that resources would be better spent handing out leaflets or engaging in some other form of activism. Kathy Stevens, founder of Catskill Animal Sanctuary in upstate New York, counters: “To believe that we can usher in a vegan world without providing people the opportunity to know pigs and cows and chickens is like believing that the LGBTQ movement could have succeeded if none of us knew any gay people… Further, let’s not say that as we’re marching toward our shared and glorious vision of a world free from suffering, that it’s okay to sacrifice those we could save in order to produce more leaflets.”
In keeping with this view, Anita Krajnc, founder of the Save Movement and armed with the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s call to bear witness, defines her strategy as “the moral duty and obligation of society to collectively bear witness and recognize the individuality of every animal, their desire and right to live a natural life, and our corresponding duty to help them… The concept of bearing witness creates the opportunity to get closest to the animal standpoint, which generates the most empathy, compassion, and action. We absorb a small fraction of the animals’ pain and learn a tiny bit of their story, which we share with others to help them wake up to this reality.”
In my own contribution to the book, I describe how back in the 1970s I responded to Tolstoy’s concept of nonviolence in his essay “The First Step” by not wanting to continue eating meat, a practice I hadn’t thought about before. But it was Tolstoy’s piteous description of cows and lambs in the Moscow slaughterhouse he visited that caused me to stop eating animals immediately, confronted with the reality of what “meat” really meant.
Life-changing encounters with specific animals include pledges to them to fight for them from that moment on. Such pledges are made in moments of misery, as Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia, describes her encounter with a female moon bear she named Hong in a cellar of hell at a bile-extraction farm in China. These moments will affect some readers more deeply than conceptual analysis alone can do, although empathy and analysis reinforce each other and enrich this book. Amy Jean Davis, founder of Los Angeles Animal Save, writes:
I still remember the moment I first looked inside a transport truck full of baby pigs. Their skin was colored so softly and delicately, and they were looking at me with wide, terrified blue eyes. They looked like big pink dogs, crammed on top of one another, scared and confused. It felt like lightning hitting the center of my chest, as if my heart might burst from the sadness and helplessness I felt all at once. . . . To be free to walk back to my vehicle and drive home to a soft, cool bed without someone dragging me to a gas chamber. It’s a moment I will never forget.
Alex Bez of Amazing Vegan Outreach recalls his moment of meeting cows who were about to die: “As the truck rolled to a stop, I tentatively approached the side. Peering through the small holes in the metal walls, I saw gentle, furry giants staring back at me. Each of their breaths pushed small clouds of vapor out of their nostrils into the cold air. Their heads swayed back and forth, trying to see what was happening outside.”
Former investigator of farms and slaughterhouses, Matthew Braun, describes an incident in a chicken slaughterhouse. “I watched as the first chicken to reach the conveyor stood up, spread her wings, and ran… She did not look scared like you might expect. In fact, she looked happy as she ran toward me. Maybe she thought that she was finally going to be free. Her happiness was short-lived because I had to reach out, grab her by the leg, and hang her upside down in a shackle. I think about her often, and sometimes it brings me to tears. When people eat animals around me, I am reminded that somebody ate her, too.”
Dealing With Demons
The apathy of human society toward animals and nature, while it may be lessening, is an omnipresent reality that requires a daily renewal of commitment and a constant battle against despair. A unifying theme among the 25 voices presented in this book is the personal stamina that being part of a global animal activist community brings. In her riveting account of an open rescue of caged hens in 2015 sponsored by Direct Action Everywhere, Zoe Rosenberg, founder of Happy Hen Animal Sanctuary, describes stepping out of a battery-cage building where “We had no idea what would be waiting for us outside.” Then, “I looked up and saw hundreds of activists gathered by the other entrance.”
This experience can stand as a metaphor for the strengthening sense of purpose, relief, and gratitude that the camaraderie of our shared commitment to animals and animal liberation provides. We help each other and the animals by holding strong together. Inside each of us, a river of sadness runs; a perceptual conflict seethes. Teacher and writer Brittany Michelson, who created this powerful book, conveys our shared experience: “When I see someone excited over pizza or ice cream, I think of the calves stuck in those hutches, peering out with wide eyes, and the long low moaning reverberating across the farm. It is visuals like these that haunt me and anger me, yet also ignite my activism to greater heights.”
Voices for Animal Liberation simultaneously comforts and inspires us with the knowledge that we are not alone with our demons. As individuals, we can contribute to the growing power of animal liberation activism around the world. Saengduean Lek Chailert, founder of Save Elephant Foundation in Southeast Asia, writes: “I am asked why I rescue the old elephant. The images of suffering should speak for themselves, yet my answer is quite simple. It is about respect. To protect them is a high calling. By doing so, we also protect and strengthen our own hearts… We rescue in order to honor them, to offer a moment of respect in a tragic life.” The rescue of a solitary animal does not solve the overwhelming problems, she admits, but to the one being rescued and the rescuer, it “means everything.”
Karen Davis, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia.