Beware the Boomerang

The Daily Show recently did a segment – R.I.P. Facts – lamenting the fact [sic] that what is actually true no longer matters.

The problem, however, is actually significantly worse. If someone believes something false that conforms to their preconceived beliefs, fact checking them can actually strengthen their false belief. This is called the “boomerang effect.”

This is important to recognize, because it is very likely that most people believe that eating meat is necessary; chicken is healthy; free-range means cruelty-free; etc. Just telling them otherwise, even with supporting facts, is likely to just reinforce their current belief.

Instead, it is good to start by seeking out common ground. While most people have a negative view of veganism and vegans, most people also have a visceral repulsion to factory farms. So it is often good to ask what they know about factory farms as the beginning of a Socratic-style discussion.

Also, most people are willing to speculate on the motivations of others (rather than defending their own beliefs). It might seem strange, but asking people if they know anyone who is vegetarian and why they think those vegetarians don’t eat meat can be a good hook.

Unfortunately, there is no set script we can follow in every situation. But it is important to recognize that we can’t actually win an argument with a meat eater. The best we can do is to start a conversation. This is the way we can potentially find common ground, and allow the other individual to open their heart and mind to uncomfortable ideas.

portland2016-Matt Ball

Megan Watkins, Hero of Compassion

We are thrilled to continue to recognize Heroes of Compassion, people who are working tirelessly behind the scenes to help animals and make the world a more compassionate place.

farm-sanctuary

Today, we honor Megan Watkins. Megan joined the Farm Sanctuary Board of Directors in 2009 and has served as Chair, as well as on the Development and Executive committees.  Megan is the National Practice Executive for Foundations & Grantmaking at U.S. Trust.  She leads the practice area dedicated to helping individuals and families, as well as boards of directors and trustees, to maximize their impact in the charitable sector.  This includes educating and advising her clients on a number of topics related to philanthropic giving, including how to select the most appropriate charitable giving vehicle, identifying and articulating a philanthropic vision and mission, engaging family and/or board members in philanthropy, and the many nuances involved in starting and operating a strategic giving program.  Prior to joining U.S. Trust, Megan served as Philanthropic Advisor and Program Officer in the Philanthropic Services Group at J.P. Morgan Private Bank, where she facilitated giving in the areas of animal rights and welfare, affordable housing, human services, workforce development and youth development.  Megan’s additional nonprofit and policy activities include roles with ACCION New York, World Neighbors Nepal, and the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.  Megan holds a Master of International Affairs degree from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Latin American Studies from Barnard College.

Here is my conversation with Megan.

What does the phrase “living compassionately” mean to you? What inspired you to start down this path?

To me, living compassionately means living in a way that causes the least amount of suffering to those around you.  It means listening, being thoughtful, and showing care and concern in the decisions you make and the actions you take.  I would say that I started down this path fairly early in life, having been raised by a mother who was incredibly community- and service-oriented, even given limited time and income.  She was the first to teach my sisters and me that everyone’s voice mattered and that everyone should be heard.  She also showed us that it was important to keep our door open, to the people and the animals who needed our help.

It wasn’t until later in my life when I began to fully grasp the plight of farm animals and the conflict that existed between my values and my diet.  I absolutely attribute this awakening to the animals residing at Farm Sanctuary.  I had taken a trip up to Watkins Glen with my husband and a group of close friends.  Unsure of what to expect when stepping onto the property, I suddenly found myself sitting on the ground, looking into the eyes of the animals, and knowing that I was about to make a change that would impact the rest of my life.

What was the transition like for you, and what did you learn that might be useful to people currently trying to make changes?

My sister, my husband and I all transitioned to a vegan diet on the same day several years ago.  This was incredibly helpful to all of us, as we made our way through cleaning out kitchen cabinets, restocking ingredients and comparing recipes.  While I would say that we were all on a learning curve for the first year, we kept moving forward and soon found ourselves planning trips based on nearby vegan restaurants, or on Facetime “SOS” calls when our recipes were a flop.  If I had one tip, it would be to find a community.  Whether that is just a friend to join you, or an established group like Farm Sanctuary, every transition is easier when not alone (and you are definitely not alone on this one!).

What has been most challenging and/or surprising about living a compassionate life?

img_6177Speaking very personally, when I first became involved with Farm Sanctuary, I felt a bit like an outsider breaking into a very tight community.  I was newly vegan and, while familiar with the issues facing farm animals, hadn’t participated in the animal rights movement at such depths.  My experiences and motivations may have been questioned at times, which initially left me feeling somehow not vegan enough, or maybe not activist enough.  Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, I now find myself on the other side of this, struggling to be patient with those who haven’t made similar transitions in their own lives.  And then I remember, as Gene wisely points out, that we are most successful when we are able to meet people where they are.  Just like he met me where I was, once upon a time.

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?              

Before I became involved with Farm Sanctuary, I actually used to lie awake, unable to shake images of animal cruelty.  I would have tears in my eyes, and would just stare at the ceiling.  I felt helpless, like the issue was too big and I was too small.  When I began spending time taking action on behalf of farm animals, when I sat with them in their own environment, I was finally able to breathe.  So my advice to anyone feeling helpless – activate.  Get even closer to the issue.  Become part of a community that cares and that is taking action on behalf of these incredible souls.

How did you learn about Farm Sanctuary, and why (and/or how) did you get involved?

Many years ago, I attended an animal welfare philanthropy conference where Gene participated on a panel.  He spoke early, maybe first, in a soft tone, telling stories of individual animals and allowing us to picture the beauty of what happens when farm animals find sanctuary.  He was followed by two or three other speakers, I honestly don’t remember, as I needed to leave the room.  When the next speaker began, and the horrifying images started to hit the screen, it was too much for me to process.  I waited outside in the hallway, listening, but not watching.  That was probably the first time that I thought seriously about needing to engage in some level of work on behalf of farm animals.  And while I absolutely acknowledge the impact that those other speakers and images had on me, it was Gene’s focus on the animals as individuals and ambassadors that truly spoke to me.

Has there been a specific animal who was special to you?

That’s easy – Snickers [lead photo of interview].  Snickers steer was the first resident of Farm Sanctuary to welcome me to the farm.  I treasure my picture with this amazing ambassador, he was an incredibly gentle soul and will forever be my reminder of my awakening to the plight of farm animals.

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?

I can honestly say that I love every one of the Farm residents, even the bull who MAY have chased Susie and me over a fence one blazing hot afternoon.

image1If I were to pick … I really love goats.  I would live among the goats, with the full understanding that my pockets would be picked and my coat sleeves chewed until eternity.

What is your cookbook or recipe?

I am a huge fan of Terry Walters and the Clean Food cookbook.  Her lentil soup recipe is amazing!  My sister and I had the pleasure of joining her for a clean food cooking/yoga weekend and everything was plant-based, gluten free and pure awesome.

 

 

Help End “One of the Worst Crimes in History”

Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, took to the pages of The Guardian to make the case that Industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history, and that the fate of industrially farmed animals is one of the most pressing ethical questions of our time. In this article, he addresses the common claim that animals have to be treated well in order to “produce.”

What makes the existence of domesticated farm animals particularly cruel is not just the way in which they die but above all how they live. The root of the problem is that domesticated animals have inherited from their wild ancestors many physical, emotional and social needs that are redundant in farms. Farmers routinely ignore these needs without paying any economic price. They lock animals in tiny cages, mutilate their horns and tails, separate mothers from offspring, and selectively breed monstrosities. The animals suffer greatly, yet they live on and multiply.

Kiev of Farm SanctuaryAt Farm Sanctuary, we recognize that each of these animals is an individual, with the ability and desire to have friends, love their offspring, and enjoy life.

One thing we can each do today is to share this video, What Came Before, with our social media friends. It tells a powerful story that can help more people start to make compassionate choices.

Thanks!

Christina Cuenca, Hero of Compassion

We are excited to continue our Heroes of Compassion program, where we recognize people who are working tirelessly behind the scenes to help animals and make the world a more compassionate place.

lu-first-walk

Today we honor Christina Cuenca, who has been unstoppable as Farm Sanctuary’s Walk for Farm Animals coordinator in Seattle since 2013. She is a board member of the Northwest Animal Rights Network and Generation Veggie. After the birth of their son, Luciano, Christina and husband Fernando formed the Seattle Vegan Families Group. Christina is currently grants manager for a local nonprofit organization, as well as an aspiring poet. In her spare time, Christina enjoys hiking, reading, rummaging through thrift stores and, of course, strong coffee.
seattle-walk

Cultivating Compassionate Communities: What does “living compassionately” mean to you? What inspired you to start down this path?

In late 2000, I came across Erik Marcus’ book, Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating. I couldn’t believe I had been virtually unaware of the realities of factory farming, and I remember feeling sucker-punched in the gut. I finished the last page of the book, emptied out my fridge and pantry, and became vegan on the spot.

For me, living compassionately means more than just not exploiting animals. It means thinking about the world and all its living beings as connected, valuable and deserving of respect and consideration. It means being accountable for the decisions we make that affect others and our planet. It means community taking care of one another during difficult times, and celebrating each other’s accomplishments with sincerity and joy. It means showing up when it matters, in whatever way that you can.

What was the transition like for you, and what did you learn that might be useful to people currently trying to make changes?

I was so angry about what had been hidden from me, my total ignorance about where my food came from, that I didn’t really have a transition period. I finished that first book, and said “no more.” Since then, I’ve expanded my knowledge to include an understanding of the environmental implications of eating meat and how capitalism drives the decisions we make (or are made for us) about our food. The oppression and exploitation of animals does not occur in a vacuum, and I’ve realized it’s important for us to continue to engage in complicated, messy dialogue. Don’t be afraid to have those conversations.

What has been most challenging and/or surprising about living a compassionate life?

The greatest challenge for me has been navigating the ups and downs of feeling like you’re making a difference one day, to feeling like you aren’t making even the smallest ripple of impact the next. I am often overwhelmed by the apathy that is so pervasive in our society, the overconsumption of our natural resources, the out of control consumerism, the disregard for anything other than “me and my own.” And it’s not easy to re-center and re-focus. I often find myself wondering: What more I can do? How can I be more efficient so I can take something else on? I’ve gotten a bit more adept at managing this over the years, especially after having a child, but it’s a constant struggle.

the-cuencas

What advice would you give to an aspiring activist?

First and foremost, find your circle. Find ways to connect and cultivate relationships with others who are fighting the same fight. The support you find within your community will help keep you energized and positive. Of course, it’s dangerously easy to have your worldview skewed when you are surrounded by only like-minded individuals, and our social media feeds only compound this. It’s important to step out of that safe bubble.

How did you learn about Farm Sanctuary, and why (and/or how) did you get involved?

Farm Sanctuary is highlighted in Erik Marcus’ book. Living in New York at the time, Watkins Glen was an easy road trip away and I had the pleasure of staying in one of the adorably rustic red cabins. My time at the sanctuary was emotional and powerful. It was the first time I had been near a farm animal after becoming vegan, and the experience transformed my veganism from theory to the intimate.

christina-at-fs

After visiting the sanctuary, I attended a Walk for Farm Animals event, and was moved by the positive energy and the many compassionate people who came together to show their support for ending the abuse of animals on factory farms. While I had been vegan for years at this point, the experience sparked my animal activism. I moved to Seattle in 2008, attended Seattle’s first Walk for Farm Animals in 2011, and became a volunteer organizer for the event in 2013-2015.

Has there been a specific animal who was special to you?

My first adopted cat, Ashes, will always have a special place in my heart. She was full of attitude and zest, and I was crazy about her. We currently share our home with Sir Isaac Newton, a ball of orange-haired feline sweetness. He is one of those rare unicorn cats who loves belly rubs.

 

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?

During my one and only visit to the Watkins Glen shelter, I met Arbuckle. I sat with this blind and incredibly sweet cow for a while in the fields. I’ve never forgotten him.

How do you think things will change over the next 50 years or so?

Being a mother, much of my current activism focuses on building support and community for vegan families. My husband and I started a local meetup group for vegan families in Seattle, shortly after the birth of our son six years ago. Since that time, membership has exploded. I also work with Generation Veggie, an online resource for raising plant-powered kids. I see growing numbers of vegan children who are confident, proud, and vocal advocates for animals. I think we’ll continue to see compassionate vegan families become more mainstream, and this is an exciting shift. I also expect to see advancements in cultured meat, which has the potential to affect great change.

What is your favorite “main dish” recipe or meal? 

This changes fairly regularly, but right now I’m on an avocado toast craze. I can’t get enough.

Is there anything else you would like the Farm Sanctuary family to know? 

Here are a few other organizations that excite me:

www.generationveggie.org
www.narn.org
www.foodispower.org

 

Seth Tibbott, Hero of Compassion

We are thrilled to continue 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.

seth and gene2

Gene Baur and Seth Tibbott

Today we honor Seth Tibbott, founder of Turtle Island Foods, makers of the amazing line of Tofurky products! Since founding Turtle Island in 1980, it is certain that Seth has touched the lives of just about everyone reading this post. For example, when I first discovered Tofurky slices, I immediately emailed another friend and said, “Stop whatever you are doing, go to the co-op, and buy these new Tofurky slices.” A half hour later, I received a response: “How do they do that??”!

tofurky-deli-slices-hickory-smoked-package

Cultivating Compassionate Communities: What does the term “living compassionately” mean to you? 

When in Germany last year, an animal rights group gave me a bracelet that sums up compassionate living to me. In German it reads “Leben Und Leben Lassen,” which translates to “Live and Leave Living.” Life on this beautiful planet is all too short for all sentient beings, human and non-human alike. Anything we can do to live more compassionately and do less harm pays huge dividends to ourselves and the planet as well.

What inspired you to start down this path?

I stopped eating animals in 1972 after reading Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappé. I was a teacher/naturalist at the time and her book pointed out to me the inefficiency of animal agriculture from an environmental perspective. The word vegan was not in popular use at the time and I started out as a vegetarian, flopping back and forth from vegetarian to vegan — which had been called a “pure vegetarian” diet for many years. When I later learned about the health benefits of a plant-based diet and of the cruelty inherent in the factory farm system, it felt like my decision was a win-win-win for myself, the animals, and the earth.

My flopping stopped when, thanks to Farm Sanctuary, I finally understood, in my heart, the sentience of farm animals — who just like you and I, only want to spend as much time as possible on this glorious earth, living in peace with our friends and family.

What was the transition like for you, and what did you learn that might be useful to people currently trying to make changes?

Some people, smarter than I, change from their meat- and dairy-based diet overnight to a vegan diet. I was not one of them. On the one hand, in 1972 there were no farm sanctuaries of any kind that I was aware of, nor animal advocacy groups beyond the ASPCA. PETA was founded, I believe, the same year I started making tempeh — in 1980. But even after that, when more and more information became available, it was still a gradual process. Even though I thought of my diet as “flexo-vegan,” eating a small amount of cheese and at some points even fish, it took many years before becoming totally vegan. Though I regret not becoming vegan sooner, I am glad to be vegan now and I know too much now to ever go back.

What has been most challenging and/or surprising about living a compassionate life?

Finding food is no problem, even while traveling the world and visiting strange places that you would not think of being vegan-oriented. I think it’s challenging sometimes interacting with friends and loved ones who are not vegan. I try and live by example without judgment, but sometimes struggle with feelings of separateness by eating a diet that is very different than the norm of many friends. That said, I recently went to a potluck hosted by some of my best friends and as it turned out, there was no meat at all there!

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?

I am 65 now. I’ve been in business for 37 years with a front row seat, watching the world slowly begin to change its dietary course. While this change is more like an ocean liner gradually turning than a small sailboat tacking on a dime, the growth I have seen over my lifetime has been tremendous. In 1972 there were not only no meat alternatives in wide circulation, there was not even any granola on the shelves of the supermarket. Today, plant-based foods are a five billion dollar industry and growing fast. That’s basically growing from zero to billions in what is a blip in time. None of the great social causes changed fast enough and this change is no different, but this change IS happening. We are well on our way to seeing plant-based foods be the new norm.

How did you learn about Farm Sanctuary, and how did you get involved?

I first found out about Farm Sanctuary’s Adopt a Turkey Project in 1997, I think [see Tofurky Feast box below]. We had just launched the Tofurky Feast two years earlier, so it seemed like a good fit to support Gene and Lorri, who were just getting started. We devoted one panel of the box to this great program and gave a little money. Gene’s story of authentically growing Farm Sanctuary has paralleled, in many ways, our own approach to developing the Tofurky Company: slowly but surely, not selling out to anyone who would tell us what to support and what not to support. It’s an honor to be associated with the Farm Sanctuary today that is in full bloom and changing so many lives.

farm sanctuary tofurky box0

Has there been a specific animal who was special to you?

Well of course I love the turkeys, but honestly it is the pigs that I really like to hang out with the most. So cuddly but also so smart.

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?

It was a great honor to meet my namesake, Tibbott the turkey [below] at Orland in 2013.

tibbott1

How do you think things will change over the next 50 years or so?

I think the protein market will be dominated by plant-based foods and possibly, if they develop in the right way, cultured meat grown without harming any animals. I doubt that all animal agriculture will disappear by then, but factory farms will be a shameful footnote in history and no one will understand how this generation ever accepted such institutionalized cruelty.

What is your favorite “main dish” recipe or meal? 

I love all products but keep going back to the Tofurky Roast with gravy and all the trimmings.

seth's plated roast0

tofurky-holiday-feast-main

Thanks to much for everything, Seth!

One Possible Future

With cruelty rampant on factory farms, and vegetarians currently a small minority, it is easy to dismiss the hope for a truly compassionate world. “My Uncle Dick hunts, and my cousin Jeb is always mocking me for being vegan. You’re crazy if you think they will ever change!”

These are legitimate concerns. However, it is nevertheless possible to achieve our goals – and much more quickly than we imagine.

Taking a longer perspective can help guide our advocacy. Society has advanced an incredible amount in just the last few centuries. Even though democracy was first proposed in ancient Greece, only during the eighteenth century did humanity see the hints of a democratic system. Only recently was slavery abolished in the industrialized world. It was not until the last century that child labor was ended in Europe and North America, child abuse was criminalized, and women were allowed to vote. Some minorities have attained more equal rights only in the last few decades or even the last few years.

It is hard to comprehend just how much society has changed in recent history. Prejudices we can hardly fathom today were completely accepted just decades ago. For example, if we read what was written and said about slavery – fewer than 150 years ago – the defenders were not just ignorant racists, but admired politicians, civic and religious leaders, and learned intellectuals. What is horrifying to us now was once not only accepted, but respected.

However slow our progress may feel, we are advancing at lightning speed compared to past social justice movements. A century ago, almost no animals received any protection whatsoever from abuse. Now, according to a Gallup poll, 96 percent of Americans want to see animals protected from abuse, and 32 percent believe that animals deserve “the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation.” Until 1990, only a single ballot initiative to protect animals that had passed at a state level – just one! Since 1990, animal advocates have passed dozens, including several directly abolishing some of the worst abuses on factory farms.

Not only do the vast majority of people oppose cruelty to animals, many question eating animals, at least on some level. In 2011, Grist’s Tom Laskawy reviewed a survey from agribusiness front group Center for Food Integrity: “The study’s analysis notes that 51 percent strongly agree that they have ‘no problem’ eating meat and dairy. It’s still a majority, but the number is down a full 12 percent since 2007.” Consumers losing faith in Big Food.

Thus, the discussion now must focus on helping people see that eating meat violates their own principles. This effort is only just beginning. In the 1980s, most animal advocacy in the U.S. was focused on fur and vivisection, mostly ignoring the roughly 99 percent of animals who are butchered for food. Only relatively recently have more individuals and groups focused on this ninety-nine percent by exposing the cruelty of factory farms and promoting compassionate eating.

In large part because of this shift in advocacy, factory farms – which most people knew nothing about 10 or 20 years ago – are now considered by many to be ethical abominations to many. As noted in The Animal Activist’s Handbook:

Twenty years ago, few people had heard the word “vegan.” Finding mock meats and soymilk was nearly impossible. According to market research by Mintel, “Until the mid-1990s, change was slow in coming to the world of vegetarian foods, and many average consumers relegated ‘vegetarian products’ to a counter-cultural movement, not a mainstream trend.”

Today, even cousin Jeb doesn’t need “vegan” explained to him. You can find veggie burgers, soymilk, and various other convenience foods in most grocery stores. And plant-based meats, milks, and cheeses is a huge trend across the market.

As we continue our efforts, more plant-based products arrive on the market every month. Having convenient options available is vital, as it makes it easier for new people to try and, more importantly, to stick with a compassionate diet. As more people sample plant-based meats and other products, competition will continue to increase the supply and variety, improving quality and driving down prices. This cycle of growing numbers of vegetarians and the increasing convenience of vegetarian eating is self-reinforcing. Essentially, the technology of vegetarian meats and other foods is both driven by and a driver of moral progress.

If we continue to expand and refine our advocacy, the growth of compassionate eating will accelerate to a tipping point, where opposition to factory farms and the adoption of plant-based foods become the “norms” among influential groups. Legislation, as it usually does, will continue to follow these evolving norms, and we’ll see more of animal agriculture’s worst practices outlawed and abolished – something that has already begun. Corporate practices will also continue to adjust to the demands of an increasingly aware market.

At the same time, powerful economic forces will kick in, because ultimately, meat is inefficient. It is more efficient to eat plant foods directly, rather than feeding plant foods to animals and then eating some of the animals’ flesh. Of course, people aren’t going to substitute tofu for meat, but that is not the choice they’ll be making. Food science has advanced such that the best plant-based meats are able to satisfy even hardcore carnivores. Products including deli slices and strips from Tofurky, burgers from Beyond Meat, Gimme Lean sausage and ground beef, Gardein’s fish fillets, and many others clearly show that giving up meat is now not a deprivation.

The faster the growth in the number of people making compassionate choices, the faster plant-based meats will improve in taste, become cheaper, and be found in far more places. (Compare a 2016 Impossible Burger to a 2006 Boca Burger to a 1986 Nature Burger, and imagine how good a 2026 veggie burger will be!)

We are now challenged to expand the plant-based market by explaining to more meat eaters the reasons for choosing compassion, while exposing them to new – though similar – products. The more rapidly we do this, the sooner cruelty-free eating will be widespread.

After his first heart attack, Uncle Dick will shift over to plant-based meats that have no cholesterol or saturated or trans fats and are high in omega-3s. Cousin Jeb’s second wife – a vegetarian since seeing an online video in 2003 – will use that as an excuse to only cook meat-free meals, and Jeb will hardly notice the difference! Their daughter Barbara will grow up to oversee McDonald’s shift to non-animal chicken in their sandwiches.

Despite the current horror and continued suffering, if we take the long view and are willing to commit to the work that needs to be done, we should be deeply optimistic. Animal liberation can be the future. With our efforts, it could be achieved with a whimper, not a bang. Change will come not by revolution, but through person-by-person outreach progressing hand in hand with advances in technology, leading slowly but inexorably to a new norm that, to most people, hardly seems different. But an unfathomable amount of suffering will be prevented.

It is up to us to make this happen.

MattChicago2016-Matt Ball

Initial version published in 2006 as “A Roadmap to Animal Liberation,” also published in The Accidental Activist

 

Jo-Anne McArthur, Hero of Compassion

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.

Jo-Anne McArthur; Photo by Kyle Behrend

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 MachineJo-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

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

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

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?)
  • Salt
  • 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
  • Cayenne
  • Lemon
  • 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.

Jo-Anne and calf0

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.

 

It would be so amazing if everyone would stop engaging in internecine debates.

Tobias Leenaert, a frequent guest poster here and the brains at Vegan Strategist, recently did an extended interview with Matt Ball, which we’re reproducing here. Thanks to Tobias, and to Bruce, Ellen, and Anne for helping.

VS: How would you define a vegan? A vegan diet?

MB: Before considering this question, I think it is important to step back and consider what is happening in the real world. Hopefully, it could help put the focus on what really matters….

You could argue that Jane’s brothers had it better. Andy and Bruce and Gene and Martin were tossed into a bag, on top of hundreds of others. Over many agonizing minutes, they were crushed as more and more were added to the bag. With increasing panic, they struggled with all their might to move, to breathe, as their collective weight squeezed the air from their lungs. No matter how desperately they fought and gasped, they couldn’t get enough air, until finally, mercifully, they blacked out and eventually died.

Jane’s torments were just beginning, however. Her mouth was mutilated, leaving her in so much pain she couldn’t eat for several days. One of her sisters was never able to eat again, and slowly starved to death. Jane ended up stuffed into a tiny wire cage with Becky, Arlene, Megan, Tracy, and Lynn. To call it a “prison” would be a gross understatement. They were crammed into the cage so tightly that the wires rubbed their skin raw. Their excrement mixed with that of thousands of others, and the horrible ammonia stench of the piles of feces burned their nostrils and lungs.

Struggling for freedom, Megan was eventually able to reach her head through the wires. But then she was trapped, unable to get back in. Over the next few days, she slowly, painfully died of dehydration.

After over a year of this torture, Jane’s feet became tangled in the wire mesh of the floor. Unable to move, she was beginning to dehydrate. But before death could end her pain, she was torn from the cage, her entangled toes left behind, ripped from her body. The brutality of her handler crushed many of her bones, and she was thrown into a truck. For the next 14 hours, she and hundreds of others were driven through the Iowa winter, without protection, food, or water. The cold numbed the pain of Jane’s mutilated feet, but not the acute agony of her shattered bones. She was then shackled upside down, and had her throat cut. That’s how her torment ended.

An unfathomable number of individuals have suffered and are suffering just as Jane did.

Given that this is the current reality, we have a difficult choice to make:

matt ball choiceWe can spend our very limited time and resources worrying about, arguing about, and attacking each other over words and definitions.
Or we can focus all of our efforts on actually ending the system that brutalizes individuals like Tracy and Gene.

If we take Jane’s plight seriously, the best thing most of us can do at the moment is help persuade more people to buy cruelty-free foods. As tempting as it is, we can’t just remain in our bubble, liking and retweeting what our fellow advocates say. We can’t be distracted by online debates. We can’t endlessly reevaluate every question and debate.

Instead, we have to focus on realistic strategies that start to create significant and lasting change with new people in the real world. As hard as it is, we absolutely must stop paying attention to people who want to create the world’s smallest club, and start paying attention to what actually creates real change with people who currently don’t know about Jane’s plight.

Questions like the above – about our definitions and opinions – seem harmless. But not only do they waste valuable time and resources, they reinforce the idea that our work is an academic exercise. It isn’t – the lives of individuals like Tracy and Andy depend on us actually doing constructive work in the real world.

VS: Do you think it is useful for vegans to point it out when they see non-vegan behaviour of “vegans”?

Three things should guide our actions in any situation:

1. The behavior or practice we see has actual, real-world negative consequences for animals.

2. We have a realistic expectation that our response will lead to a net good; i.e., there is reason to believe positive change is likely, and it is unlikely there will be any offsetting negative or contrary consequences.

3. There is nothing better (i.e., more likely to reduce more suffering) we could be doing with our limited time and resources.

It is hard to imagine anything we could do that that would have fewer real-world positive consequences for animals than spending our limited time and resources policing the world’s smallest club.

I’ve actually found a pretty clear distinction between people whose primary concern is the purity and exclusivity of their club, vs those who are really working to change the world for animals. The former view everyone as the enemy. The latter view everyone as a (current or potential) ally.

Viewing everyone as an ally is not only necessary for truly helping individuals like Jane and Andy, but it is also much better for our mental health and the sustainability of our activism.

VS: What are some exceptions you would make? Is there non-vegan behaviour you indulge in?

In an interview many years ago, someone* was infuriated that I had once said I wouldn’t police what our daughter ate birthday parties. They justified their anger by saying it would send “mixed messages” if a four-year-old ate a piece of non-vetted cake. I replied that I never knew anyone who said, “Oh, I would have stopped eating animals, but then I saw this toddler having cake!”

You (Tobias) have wisely pointed out that what we personally consume is nowhere near as important as the influence we can have in the wider world. So I think our limited time is better spent figuring out how to be attractive examples and effective advocates, rather than trying to be ever more “pure.” And even if we don’t agree with that, the only way to be truly pure is to be dead. But really, is the best case scenario for the world one where I’m dead? Where you’re dead? It would be really sad if that were the case.

matt ball
The evidence doesn’t support that, though. By being a thoughtful, realistic, positive, bottom-line focused advocate, we can have a significant impact beyond what we accomplish with our personal purchases.

There is so much each one of us can do to lessen the amount of suffering in the world, to expand our circle of compassion, to bend the arc of history toward justice.

Making the world a better place has to be our fundamental goal. We can’t be motivated to follow some dogma or comply with some definition. To create the change necessary to make the world a better place, we have to deal with others where they are. We have to be realistic about what change can happen and how it can most likely be brought about.

We have to be pragmatic in evaluating our options and choosing the best course of action, given the variables and uncertainties inherent in the real world.

The best thing I can do in one situation (e.g., a child’s birthday party) might not be the best I can do in another situation (e.g., meeting with a group of new activists). And neither of these might be the best thing you could do in the opportunities you encounter. I can’t know for sure what the best thing to do is in any situations, but I do know it isn’t simple.


*I am happy to say that this interrogator and I are now friends, and she now regrets asking that question years ago.

VS: To what extent should we use the word “vegan” in our outreach and to what extent other words? When? What words?

I stopped eating meat, eggs, and dairy over a quarter century ago. At the time, and for years after, I was mindlessly pro-“vegan.” Not pro-animal, or pro-compassion, or pro-change. Pro-“vegan.” The word. The identity. The philosophy and “lifestyle.”

matt ball2
But in the real world, “vegan” is a stereotype, a punchline, an excuse. People say, “I could never be vegan,” and that is the end of the conversation – the end of any opportunity for constructive engagement, for steps taken that could have a real-world benefit for animals.

“Vegan” is an ego-boost, a divider, a distraction. It is too easy to simply judge things as “vegan / not vegan,”
 instead of focusing on cruelty to animals, working to end factory farms, and having any real impact in the real world.

When I focused on “vegan,” instead of how to bring about real change for animals in the real world, I was being both self-centered and lazy. I understand the desire to only care about “vegan,” of course. But at best, the word distracts from doing our best to help new people make compassionate choices that have real consequences for animals.


VS: You have said that the greatest hindrance to the spread of veganism … is vegans themselves. Can you elaborate?

I’ve seen the dynamic of “I could never be vegan” play out for years. As discussed in The Accidental Activist, bottom-line-oriented activists experience a huge increase in the quantity and quality of conversations when they changed their shirts (stickers, etc.) from “Ask me why I’m vegan” to “Ask me why I’m vegetarian.”

University of Arizona research from early 2015 bears this out: non-vegetarians see “vegan” as impossible, and “vegans” as angry, fanatical, and judgmental. I have known several individuals who have given up lucrative careers to dedicate themselves to farm animals, and yet been so put off by the actions of “vegans,” that they want to disassociate themselves from the word. This is depressing, but it’s reality. I believe that instead of complaining, we need to face reality and adjust so we can really help animals in the real world.


VS: Do we need to guard a definition or some line? Is that important? Is there a danger of watering down the concept of “veganism”?

It can be utterly addictive to debate terms, argue philosophy, and defend positions. It can be next to impossible to turn away from a debate, given that we each think we are right, and should be able to convince someone if we get the next post just right.

In the end, though, we have limited time and resources. We can, of course, spend this limited time trying to convince someone who has wedded their sense of self-worth to a specific position. But this is no more constructive than spending our time arguing with our Uncle Bob. I think we should spend our limited time and resources reaching out, in a constructive way, to new people – people who actually could make a difference with better-informed choices.

As difficult as it is, it would be so amazing if everyone who reads your blog would stop engaging in internecine debates. Ignore the attacks. Ignore the name calling. Give up the fantasy of winning an argument. Give up any concern with words or dogma. It would be so incredible if we were to just focus on positive outreach to new people.

VS: For most of your career, you have mainly worked on person-to-person outreach, rather than institutional outreach. What is the reason behind that?

When I stopped eating animals back in the 1990s, there was really no consideration of doing institutional outreach regarding farm animals. Before I did a more utilitarian evaluation of my efforts, I did try to put pressure on Procter and Gamble to stop testing their products on animals, even going so far as to get arrested.

After that, though, I realized I needed to work where I could have the biggest impact in terms of reducing suffering. But I couldn’t just go to a restaurant or food service provider and ask them to add in more cruelty-free options. This is a capitalist society, and if the demand isn’t there, no company is going to create supply (this played out when some McDonald’s introduced a veggie burger years ago, and it failed). Similarly, I would have no impact as an individual in asking Smithfield or Tyson to stop using gestation crates or move to a less cruel slaughter method.

Things have changed significantly in the past three decades. The animal advocacy movement as a whole has gained significant political and market power, such that corporations are more likely to listen and cooperate. Demand for meat-free options has grown in breadth (if not depth) such that working with institutions can have a lasting impact and further drive the cruelty-free demand / supply cycle. There is so much potential – more than half of the people in the US are specifically concerned with the treatment of farm animals!

Some of the most important and consequential work being done right now is at the institutional level. e.g. banning the most barbaric practices from factory farms, increasing the availability of cruelty-free options, and building the companies that will create the products that will replace animal products.

But as long as people want to eat an actual animal’s flesh, animals will be treated like meat. Of course, this isn’t saying that all animal exploitation is equally bad, or that abolishing gestation crates or battery cages isn’t an important step forward.

What we do know, however, is that even in “humane” meat situations, there is suffering – often, egregious cruelty. We’ve seen this regularly, including PETA’s recent exposure of the horrors of Whole Foods “humane meat.”

The continuing necessity of work on the demand side, combined with my background and opportunities to date, leads me to conclude that at this moment, I can have the biggest impact on the advocacy side. I don’t know if this will continue to be the case, however. There is a ton of exciting work going on now that wasn’t the case even 10 years ago!

VS: What do you think of reducetarian outreach?

matt ball2 (1)
The reducetarian approach is rooted in one vitally important psychological insight: people are more likely to attempt and maintain a change that seems achievable, rather than something that seems far beyond where they are now. This has been shown over and over again – not only that the more realistic a change is, the more likely people are to attempt it, but also that the more stepwise a change, the more likely people are to maintain that change.

But as currently embodied, the reducetarian movement misses another important psychological truth (as discussed by Dr. Gordon Hodson): goals must be not only reasonable and achievable, but clear. “Eat less meat” is not a clear goal. Reach out to just about anyone considered to be a likely target for dietary change and ask them to “eat less meat,” and they will almost universally reply, “Oh, I don’t eat much meat.”

They often add, “Just chicken.” But of all the factory-farmed animals brutalized and killed for food, the vast majority are birds.

Yes, nearly everyone cares more about mammals than birds. But as Professor of Veterinary Science John Webster has noted, modern poultry production is, “in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animals.” Combine this with the fact that it takes more than 40 chickens to replace the meals produced by one pig, and more than 200 birds to replace one cow, everyone who “eats less [red] meat” and replaces even a little of it with birds is causing a lot more suffering.

Like doctors, our first duty as advocates should be to “do no harm.” The initial test we should run on any potential campaign or message is, “Is there any chance that my efforts will actually lead to more animals suffering in the real world?” Unfortunately, I think the “eat less meat” campaign might fail that test.

VS: Speaking of chickens, you often emphasize decreasing chicken consumption. It’s clear that that would help save a lot of lives and suffering (as chickens are both such small animals and so intensively raised). Do you think there’s any truth to the idea that this is speciesist, or that it encourages eating other animals?

Encouraging people to cut back on or not eat chickens is just that. It is in no way saying that people should eat cows, or pigs, or dogs, or chimpanzees.

VS: What is the number one piece of advice you would give to vegan activists?

Rather than considering how popular something is with your circle of friends, judge everything by the likely consequences your actions will have with non-vegetarians in the real world. To a first approximation, this will mean calculating how your actions will impact people’s consumption of chickens.

For more tips and suggestions, people can read my books and writings:

aa handboekIf you like a linear discussion, The Animal Activist’s Handbook is probably your best bet.

If you like collections of essays and short stories, The Accidental Activist.

If you don’t want to buy a book, A Meaningful Life is a good start. This video is a quick summary of what I’ve learned in the past 30 years.

bondingsm