We are thrilled to continue our new program, Heroes of Compassion, where we recognize people who are working tirelessly behind the scenes to help animals and make the world a more compassionate place.
Photo by Kyle Behrend
Today, we honor Jo-Anne McArthur, who has been documenting the plight of animals on all seven continents for over a decade. Jo-Anne is the subject of Canadian filmmaker Liz Marshall’s acclaimed documentary The Ghosts In Our Machine. Jo-Anne’s first book, We Animals, was published by Lantern Books in 2013. Recent awards and accolades include the Institute for Critical Animal Studies Media Award; More Magazine’s Fierce List; 2013 Toronto Compassion for Animals Award; one of CBC’s Top 50 Champions of Change; HuffPost WOMEN’s “Top 10 Women trying to change the world,” and one of 20 activists featured in the book The Next Eco Warrior.
Cultivating Compassionate Communities: What does the term “living compassionately” mean to you?
It means looking beyond our own needs and desires, and considering how our actions affect others. It means always trying our best to live in a way that doesn’t cause harm to people, animals, or the environment. That might seem like a tall order, or hard to achieve every day, but living compassionately is a joyous thing.
What inspired you to start down this path?
I was always someone who thought it was important to give instead of take. I realized in my 20s that I could combine my passions for photography and animal justice to do something unique, and contribute to creating change for animals. That was in the early 2000s. I often tell people to figure out what you love doing, and what you’re good at, and then find a way of using those skills for social justice and for making the world a better place. We can all do this, in small or big ways.
Carlos and Turpentine; Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur
What was the transition like for you, and what did you learn that might be useful to people currently trying to make changes?
I remember that it felt like a big deal to transition to a vegan diet. No animal products in my food or clothing whatsoever. Because those things are so normal in society, I thought it would be a big challenge. It does offer its set of challenges, but you learn to navigate them, and you can do it joyfully and in a positive way.
I used to think that veganism was extreme. I quickly learned, however, that living compassionately is not extreme – it’s the needless killing that is.
What has been most challenging and/or surprising about living a compassionate life?
One learns that it’s a joy, not a hardship, to live compassionately. One of the challenges though is living in a world that is unlike your own. People who are vegan or animal advocates see the world through a different lens. Things that are invisible or commonplace to others, things that fit the status quo, are not invisible to us. All the ads for bacon and milk. Clothes that have fur trim on them. These are examples of things that don’t go unnoticed by us. It can be disheartening to live in a world where others seem to wear blinders. But this is a historical time for animals and animal rights. We compassionate folks are in a position to speak up and create change, and we’re doing that. We see change everywhere these days, be it with the number of vegan products, or more cosmetic companies eschewing animal testing, or chimps and other animals being retired from cruel research practices. As compassionate people, we might feel lonely, but there is community – and we can rally for each other and for the animals, and be part of the historical changes taking place.
What advice / tips would you give to people who find it hard to cope with living in a world where the vast majority of people eat meat and so many farm animals are suffering and dying every day?
Do your best to focus on the good, and focus on one step at a time. A vegan utopia isn’t right around the corner and that can be depressing, so I choose to focus on one action at a time, one person at a time. Yes, billions of farm animals are suffering right now as I write this, but if I choose to focus on that pain or feel the emotions that come with that knowledge all the time, I would burn out. I’ve been through two depressions and post-traumatic stress as a result of all I’ve seen, and a lot of compassionate folk suffer because we’re empathetic. But existing in this suffering is an indulgence we can’t afford and neither can the animals. It makes us burn out. So many activists come into the movement, guns blazing, and leave after a few years because it’s exhausting – emotionally, intellectually, all of it. So we need to pace ourselves, and not exist in an emotionally unhappy state. I have had to work to choose to focus on joy, and now it’s my way of life. It’s a habit – positive thinking, and choosing to focus on good, and on change. So my advice is to work at staying positive, for yourself and for the animals, so that you have longevity in the work you are doing for animals. There are so few people speaking up for animals. They need every one of us to be doing it for as long as we possibly can.
What advice would you give to an aspiring activist?
Think about what your skills are, and what you enjoy doing, or what you’re good at, and employ those specific skills to make the world a better place. If you haven’t figured out what that is yet, help an organization or person who is doing great work for animals. Organizations need volunteers and all manner of support. Be that person. The world needs volunteers!
How did you learn about Farm Sanctuary, and why (and/or how) did you get involved?
When I was getting interested in animal rights, over 15 years ago now, I started doing research into animal industries, and the organizations who were working to change those industries. I found and fell in love with Farm Sanctuary. The Farm has really shaped and changed my life; I really would not be who I am today if it hadn’t been for Farm Sanctuary. In 2003 I applied to do an internship. I’d only been there 24 hours and my life was already irrevocably changed. I had been vegetarian until that internship, but became vegan at the Farm and never looked back. The Farm is a place of refuge not just for animals but for compassionate people and activists, and there’s also a lot to learn from the Farm and its staff and its inhabitants. It’s my favourite place on the planet.
Zoop; Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur
Has there been a specific animal who was special to you?
Due to the nature of my work as a photojournalist who focuses on animal issues, I’ve met animals in heartbreaking, harrowing situations, as well as rescued animals who are cared for and loved. I’ve met hundreds of thousands of animals now, and sadly, I have had to leave most of them behind, after I photograph them during investigations and then leave. I keep these animals tucked deep in my heart. They are never far from my mind, and the knowledge that they continue to suffer propels me to continue working on their behalf. There have been a lot of special individuals and relationships, and yet I know that all the animals I’ve met…the mink crammed into cages, the layer hens too, and the pigs in farrowing crates…they are all special, they are all individuals trapped in a terrible system; individuals who would love to express their will and their individuality if they could. When organizations like Farm Sanctuary rescue animals, and these animals are then able to live in conditions which allow them to thrive and be happy, you really get to know just how sweet cows are, and how funny chickens are, and that turkeys love affection.
The rescued animals become ambassadors for those locked away in terrifying confinement. We get to know them, and then we can understand that they all deserve our help, our care, and our respect. Some of the Farm Sanctuary residents who have been most special to me are Mayfly the rooster, Arbuckle and Thunder the steers, Zoop the three-legged goat, and Fanny and Sonny, whose rescues happened on the same day (and I was fortunate enough to be there to document those rescues, captured in the documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine).
Fanny; Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur
Do you have a favorite resident at one of the sanctuaries, and/or do you have a special affinity for a certain species of farm animal?
Some of the Farm Sanctuary residents, like Sonny and Fanny, are extra special to me because I was there to document their rescues. Others, however, like Mayfly the rooster who lived at the Farm long ago, will always be in my heart because he was just so charming. He LOVED being with people and did that “attack dance” around your feet, but he wouldn’t attack – he just wanted cuddles. I’d pick him up all the time and stroke his perfect, handsome plumage. He made me laugh, and so do the chickens and turkeys. They have such big personalities, which is why I spend hours and hours under the willow tree in the turkey enclosure when I’m visiting.
How do you think things will change over the next 50 years or so?
Things are getting better and they are getting worse at the same time. In growing economies like China and India, they are eating more meat and setting up more industrial farms. In other countries though, veganism and consumer demand for vegan products is very much on the rise. There’s much more of an awareness about animal cruelty, ethics, environmentalism, and climate change than there was even just a few years ago. More compassionate decisions are being made by a growing number of the population, and collectively we need to do everything in our power to encourage that. I choose to be hopeful and to focus on the good, and work every day to do something that makes the world a better place. Frankly, this is an emergency and we all need to take part.
What is your favorite “main dish” recipe or meal?
Pick just one? Really? That’s cruel. But if you must know, I’m actually a popcorn aficionado.
Here are a few recipes for amazing popcorn:
Fancy pants popcorn
- A buncha popcorn kernels
- Olive oil
- A buncha dried rosemary (1 tbsp?)
- Cracked pepper
- Omega Oil (I like the Udo’s 3-6-9 DHA omega oil)
Let the rosemary simmer in the olive oil a bit before adding the kernels to the pot. Then pop it on the stove. Put it all in a bowl and drizzle omega oil on it. Healthy! Add salt and cracked pepper, to taste.
Zingy spicy popcorn
- A buncha popcorn kernels
- Nutritional yeast
So easy: make popcorn, then squeeze a bit of lemon on it, then sprinkle whatever amount of cayenne you like, then top with nooch [nutritional yeast]. I like this recipe nice and spicy. NOM.
Is there anything else you would like the Farm Sanctuary family to know? / Do you have a favorite website you would like to share?
I do have one more important thing to say. Animal rights advocates are very much looking at metrics on how to best spend our time and dollars to help animals. There are several books and blogs on this topic, and they are great. What some of them point out though is that keeping rescued animals is expensive, and that money might be better spent elsewhere. There is a lot of sense to this, but it overlooks some important things. Individuals matter. When we save their lives, this means the world to them, and this has intrinsic worth. Additionally, places like Farm Sanctuary are where people can see and experience that. How can we put a dollar amount on one life, when we don’t know just how many lives that rescued individual will influence? Getting to know individual animals at Farm Sanctuary changed my life’s path irrevocably, and I’ve since done a lot to help animals around the world. You can put a price tag on that. You can’t put a price tag on Mayfly the rooster or Sonny the calf’s lives, because they have influenced untold numbers of people to go out and be better people in the world. And rescued animals get photographed and filmed by people like me, who share their stories, and these stories warm hearts and change people. We can’t put a dollar figure on that. It’s really important to help reputable sanctuaries like Farm Sanctuary to thrive and maximize their outreach, so that they can look after the animals and all that that entails. And so that the animals and the staff can keep having a huge, huge effect on anyone who meets them or hears their stories.
I’m so happy about the direction of the animal rights movement. It’s way more organized and strategic than it was just a few years ago. It’s way more intersectional too. We have such a broad spectrum of activism and advocates, and we know that a diversity of forms of activism will reach different demographics, so it’s important to support the grassroots efforts, the outreach and humane education, the protests, the sanctuaries, and the large organizations alike.