The most dedicated activists are often not those who shout the loudest. Instead, they work tirelessly and quietly to build movements, bringing a consistent, dedicated presence to a worthy cause. Dr. Wadchara Pumpradit, who hails from Bangkok, Thailand, is one such activist. He was raised in Pattani, in South Thailand, and received his MD at the Prince of Songkla University medical school, then completing residencies at Saint Francis Hospital in Evanston, Illinois and at SUNY Downstate Medical School in Brooklyn, New York.
Since 2003, Pumpradit has been involved in clinical care, research, public health intervention, and media work in response to the HIV epidemic, especially on behalf of high-risk young people. He has also been on the frontlines of COVID-19, treating patients in Bangkok, where he works at the Bumrungrad International Hospital. In his spare time, he is a leading animal advocate who founded and runs The Catalyst in Bangkok to promote plant-based eating and animal welfare. In this interview, Dr. Wadchara describes the state of the animal rights movement in Thailand, shares personal stories from the field as a doctor and activist, and offers his thoughts on the roots of and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic along with his vision for the future of the animal welfare movement in Asia.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How do you see the situation, in general, for animal rights in Thailand and other parts of Asia?
Most people are not aware of what’s happening behind the scene in terms of animal exploitation, which ranges from factory farming to animals used in entertainment (elephants, in the case of Thailand). I have done several focus group discussions and found that, if only the public knew what was really going on, they would refuse to use products or services that harm animals. This shows us that we must increase awareness. However, certain sectors of society in Asia emphasize formality and respect for authority. So, the truth must be revealed in ways that are always very strategic and tailor-made. We want to be perceived as a movement that is collaborative, rather than one that is confrontational.
For some in Asia, the animal rights movement is misunderstood as Western ideology imposed on Asian societies, an attitude that can create unnecessary resistance or defensive nationalism. It is therefore of paramount importance to argue from the outset that animal rights is a universal value that has successfully reduced the suffering of animals around the world: Chimpanzees were saved from medical experiments, laying hens were released from battery cages, elementary school children learned to eat plant-based food, etc.
The fact that our movement looks for global partnerships to build a compassionate world is by no means an insult to Asia. In fact, every society—Eastern or Western—has lots of room for improvement when speaking about animal rights. It would be great if we were able to show what the animal rights movement has achieved, so people in Asia would not feel they are being targeted. One trick for success, I would say, would be to identify the “good seeds” in each cultural context and build our case around them. For example, compassion for animals can be tied with Buddhism, veganism can be tied with traditional Chinese vegetarian diets, etc.
Tell me about your work during the COVID-19 pandemic. How has Thailand’s response been?
At the beginning of the epidemic, Thailand’s response was pretty shaky. By around February/March 2020, however, Thailand was successfully able to create a unified response by consolidating its efforts and engaging all sectors of the society. As of now, in late July, we have zero local transmissions in the country. Personally, I believe our success thus far is explained by easy access to healthcare, excellent community involvement, aggressive contact tracing, and physical distancing. However, from now on, the game will be different since Thailand is a destination for travelers around the world and there will be strong economic pressure to open up. Thailand will need to work harder and be even more strategic than it was in the first phase of the pandemic.
How is the pandemic connected to animal rights?
COVID-19 is known as a “zoonosis,” an infection that jumps from animals to humans. SARS Cov-1, Swine Flu, the “Spanish” Flu, and, surprisingly, HIV, fall into the same category. In order to have a zoonosis to become a global pandemic, we need at least two factors: human interaction and animal/environmental exploitation. In terms of human interaction, countries are correct to be controlling the pandemic through isolation, contact tracing, quarantining, and physical distancing. However, when the epidemic is under control, we must examine the true cause of this global pandemic: animal exploitation. For example, pangolins have been forced from their homes, kept in stressful conditions, and used for traditional medicine. We must re-evaluate our actions and our relationship to animals and the environment we live in. How many more pandemics do we need to be able to admit what we have done to the planet and our fellow animals?
Several people might use “culture” as an excuse for exploiting animals for human benefit. But humans create culture, so therefore humans can change it. During the lockdown, the sky has become clearer, rivers have become cleaner, and wild animals have started to roam around their homes happily. It is the responsibility of everyone, especially those who care about animals and about our planet, to raise awareness for this issue—yet, of course, do so respectfully and with courtesy for those who are not yet aware of it.
How has COVID-19 affected you personally?
Obviously, my life has become more difficult during the pandemic, especially as a healthcare provider. As doctors, we had to do our best to take care of patients, even as we lacked promising treatment medications. At the same time, we have to be separated from our family and friends to make sure we did not transmit the virus to our loved ones. This is, of course, no different for patients, who, although hospitalized with a frightening, deadly disease, were unable to be close to their loved ones. When patients have felt worse or were worried they were dying, they were forced to go through it all alone. I think that would be awfully difficult for anyone.
How did you become interested in animal welfare and animal rights?
I became interested due to multiple reasons, I think. I grew up with a mother who emphasized the importance of putting yourself in others’ shoes and empathizing with animal suffering. Secondly, I dislike injustice. I often choose to side with those who are mistreated or marginalized. In my opinion, animals suffer the worst form of marginalization in our society and, furthermore, they have no ability whatsoever to fight for their own rights or to live the way they choose.
The catalyst for my work, though, came about two years ago when an endangered black panther from a natural forest reserve in Thailand was killed for recreation and eaten by a powerful businessman. The case is still in court. The whole country was furious. I decided then that I wanted to use my skills and experiences from HIV work to help my fellow animals as best as I could. I searched for where these types of animal activists were, and I found the 2018 Animal Rights National Conference, held in LA. There, I was exposed to various animal rights strategies and was in an environment where I felt normal.
Do you believe things are getting better or worse for animals in Thailand and Asia? Have there been shifts in the public’s attitude toward animals?
I believe that homo sapiens is born with the ability to sympathize. Compassion is a natural characteristic in every society. However, certain socialization processes have conditioned us to forget and deny the suffering of animals, especially when people are still hungry and struggling.
So my answer would be yes and no. In terms of farmed animals, Asia and Thailand have adopted modern modes of consumption, so meat and dairy consumption are on the rise. Clearly, the number of farmed animals used for food will be enormous in our region, given the size of Asia’s population. Thus, intervention (e.g. veganism and animal welfare) is urgently needed. However, in general, Thailand and Asia are doing better in terms of animal welfare, although not in terms of animal rights. This is due either to Thailand’s own discovery of the movement, or the influence of global trends. Furthermore, due to the expansion of online activism, the public has paid more attention to the movement of late.
How do you view the intersections between your work as a doctor and your work with animal rights?
That is an excellent question. I have been thinking deeply about this. There are numerous ways we can help animals, but the most effective and strategic way would be to bridge one’s existing expertise and status with animal liberation. This is crucial for me, both in terms of the credibility in getting my message across and in terms of my responsibility as a healthcare provider. When, initially, I didn’t know a single animal rights activist, I used my knowledge as an infectious disease specialist. I began educating forest rangers about malaria prevention and self-treatment when they were on surveillance duty to safeguard elephants from poachers in a malaria-endemic area. My idea was that I would take care of people, who will take care of animals for me.
In addition, I have organized a group of four plant-based doctors in my hospital to install plant-based interventions in our practice and provide education for the general public. This is something quite easy and practical to do since we can help animals while doing our routine work. Basically, as physicians, vegans, and proponents of animal welfare, Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) fit perfectly well with our work. Currently, I am also working on piloting a vegan school lunch project for elementary school children in the Nakhon Ratchasima province in the northeastern part of the country. In a lot of these projects, we also form partnerships with other animal organizations, e.g. World Animal Protection etc.
What kind of potential is there for policy engagement and action for animals?
Currently, the level of thinking about animals in Asia is still very much focused on animal welfare, not animal rights—this is the case even in animal organizations. Some animal organizations use the phrase “wise use of animals for human benefit,” which disturbs me. As all of us are aware, welfare alone will not be sufficient in safeguarding the freedom of animals from human exploitation for years to come. Welfare does represent a stepping-stone for success, but we must be clear about our finish line, which is animal liberation. As a beginner in animal activism, I often remind myself of the 3-P principles when thinking about this far-off finish line. These are: politeness, perseverance, and partnership. For the movement, the people who are most important to us are those who don’t seem to care about animals. It is our responsibility to discover the “good seeds” in them and cultivate compassion. In my experience from the medical field, people will slowly change their opinions on their own terms, as long as we express great courtesy, extreme patience, and a willingness to collaborate.
What was it like working with the Thai government to get vegan options for school lunches? What kinds of obstacles do you face when working on issues like these?
If you are in Thailand long enough, you will be able to see that the political issue is never a real problem. In the case of animal welfare, the real obstacle of dealing with government ia getting things to move fast enough. Fortunately, the Thai DLD (Department of Livestock Development) is considered quite cooperative and progressive on this issue.
In terms of promoting veganism, the real roadblock would be the “protein myth,” something that concerns parents and society. Surprisingly, the medical community itself is also a sector that always question or resists veganism or a plant-based diet—even when we have enough scientific evidence to support it. That mean that the medical curriculum globally has not addressed the concept of whole, plant-based food and nutrition enough. Our homework is therefore clear: we must engage medical and health-allied communities—students in particular—in the sustainable food system that benefits humans, animals, and the environment at the same time.
What was it like working with Jo-Anne McArthur (of We Animals Media) to depict slaughterhouse practices in Thailand? What other efforts have been made to improve slaughterhouse practices in Thailand?
Jo-Anne is an amazing person. I have a lot of respect for her courageous work for animals that she’s done around the world. Jo has an exceptional talent in communicating with pictures. Try looking at her pictures. It feels like you’re hearing animals telling us how much they need help from us. For slaughterhouse practices in Thailand, Mia MacDonald of Brighter Green and Kate Blaszak of World Animal Protection also played a significant role in connecting all the pieces and giving technical advice on the issue. Due to Jo’s work on slaughterhouses, the DLD took action internally to strengthen its audit. The story also provided an opportunity for us to begin discussions and collaborations with the DLD in planning for humane slaughter training for government officials, veterinarians and meat inspectors.
What kinds of projects are you thinking about for the future?
Now that we have witnessed the suffering of pigs in some slaughterhouses in Thailand due to Jo-Anne’s work, I do hope to use this issue as a catalyst for work on other animal welfare issues, e.g. laying hens, cattle, etc. We are also working to strengthen the monitoring system, develop an online continuing education curriculum for veterinarian students, and organize an inter-organization task force to promote food traceability and humane labels. We’re in the process of signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the DLD to work on more humane slaughter of pigs and also explore collaborative efforts to promote cage-free eggs and improve the overall welfare of chickens. Furthermore, we are working to scale up our pilot vegan school-lunch program to other parts of the country. We are leveraging our plant-based physician academy and organizing with a plant-based chef and food designer. We are also assessing an opportunity to conduct the work on the “cage free movement” alongside the humane slaughter work mentioned. As also previously mentioned, one of my main strategies is to form a coalition of animal rights activists across the country. Not only are people from the animal movement invited, but also those from human health and the environmental movement as well. Animal issues are too big to work on all alone. We need to do this together, both locally and internationally. We have had two official meetings and several unofficial gatherings to get to know each other since late last year. Our next step is to identify a common and concrete goal that these organizations can work to achieve, e.g. humane labels etc.
Any concluding thoughts on the movement?
To conclude, I would like to invite animal activists, colleagues, and friends around the world to come and work for animals in this exciting continent (Asia), which has at least 60 percent of the world’s total population, a diverse cultural context, and existing elements of compassion that we can build upon.
I do have full trust in young people. I strongly believe that young generations will successfully change the status quo and create the new world that we want to live in. So please come forward and join hands, across countries and continents. Choose your own adventure to help animals. You have an amazing talent and vision that can be used to create a truly compassionate world.
Isabel Schmidt, a student at Columbia University in New York City, was a Navab fellow at Brighter Green in the summer of 2020.