Wednesday, September 25, 2013

LEADING WITH LOVE: AN APPROACH TO ADVOCACY

“DIVERSITY OF TACTICS” IS A PROMINENT EXPRESSION IN SOCIAL JUSTICE ACTIVISM. There is no singular solution yet, and there is no handbook on the most effective strategy for creating change. A wide range of approaches is essential. But what if the common denominator in the multitude of methods is—love? It may seem radical at first, or perhaps too idyllic. But, what if? What if a perceived enemy is an ally yet to be made? What if a closed mind is just a mind that hasn’t been opened yet? What if we view those we cross paths with as fully capable of kindness and goodness? And what if instead of condemning, we take a chance and forge a connection? On the afternoon of September 10th, 2013 in Toronto, Canada, Kathy Stevens, founder of Catksill Animal Sanctuary, did just that when she approached a group of locked out* slaughterhouse workers at St. Helen’s Meat Packers during a Cow Save vigil (an arm of the Toronto Pig Save, a grassroots animal rights organization that holds weekly vigils at Toronto slaughterhouses, and in other parts of the world ). “She pretended to be a cow and nudged Robert Bielak, the owner of “St. Helen’s Meat Packers” and put her head on his shoulder,” Anita Krajnc, founder of Toronto Pig Save, recalled to us. Kathy invited him to come to her sanctuary and partake in cow kisses. Moments later, as a truck crammed with cows rolled up to the slaughterhouse, she reached up and kissed a cow on the nose, right in front of the workers —the first time in two years of vigils that anyone had done this, according to Anita. “Kathy really raised the bar for our vigils and bearing witness. Days later, when we prepared vegan BLTs for the workers, they talked of Kathy’s kindness to them, and we talked further about animal emotions,” said Anita. She explained that Toronto Pig Save, too, uses a love-based approach and have not only interacted with the workers, but have previously brought them vegan sandwiches. “At first, few took, now they’re used to our kind food,” says Anita. “The labour negotiator for the union didn’t take one, but he will eventually…” Kathy recently received a phone call from Amos, one of the workers she connected with and gave her book Animal Camp to. He called to tell her he had been reading it.

Imagine— the domino effect of compassion getting into the hearts of people without whose participation the slaughterhouse institution would cease churning. What if?..

Catksill Animal Sanctuary’s and Kathy Stevens’ approach to activism is multi-faceted, and one that—in addition to rescuing animals and offering them a safe haven— includes a vegan cooking program, “Compassionate Cuisine”, and a vegan children’s summer camp, “Camp Kindness.” And this diverse benevolent approach rooted in love is yielding tangible results. “There are so very many stories of transformation—new vegetarians and vegans are born each season. Beyond that, new activists are born, including a young girl who met with her principal to encourage changes to her cafeteria menu,” Kathy told us when we spoke to her recently. Over the summer, Kathy reached out to P.S. 244 in Queens—the nation’s first public school with an all-vegetarian cafeteria—and invited the students to visit the sanctuary. The school immediately embraced the opportunity. “Besides local zoos, our students don’t have easy access to farm animals – especially animals that have been rescued,” Christian Ledesma, a science teacher at P.S. 244 and its Director of School Wellness (and himself a vegan), explained to us. “It was amazing to watch them absorb the stories of each animal, interact with them, and overcome any fears. I saw students, who at first hid behind me when a goat approached, reach out and hug the goats by the end of the trip. It was an outstanding, sometimes emotional experience, that they will probably never forget.” And P.S. 244 itself recognized the necessity of leading with love—with its students, in fact, leading the way. “This journey started because the students were not eating the usual meat-based lunches,” Christian told us. “So this whole movement has been student-driven. Our founding and current principals, who are not even vegetarians, just followed the lead of the students and provided the healthiest option available.”

Imagine— the domino effect of triggering compassion in a younger generation, and then allowing them to spearhead change. Kathy Stevens, of course, understands the importance of this. For her, it connects back to innocence. “As we age, we lose our innocence,” she says. “The earlier we can reach a child and foster that innate wonder for all living things, the greater the chance that child will hold onto it, moving from that place of innocence and into a compassion for all living beings.”  Here, Kathy shares more of her insights.

Kids from P.S. 244 during their visit to Catskill Animal Sanctuary

LAIKA: What did you observe about the animals in the slaughterhouse transport trucks during the Toronto Cow Save vigil?
Kathy Stevens: That the trucks were way too crowded for the animals’ comfort; that the pigs were hot, thirsty, and scratched all to hell, that the cows were absolutely coated in shit, and that beyond these “facts,” their demeanors were, of course, of remarkable individuals. One pig and one cow whose soulful stares— knowing, resigned, at peace—I will carry with me as I continue to do this work. That, plus the volume—truck after truck after bloody truck. So much violence, so much horror.

And yet, in spite of this, you managed to establish a rapport with the slaughterhouse workers. How?
The interaction came about simply because I walked into the slaughterhouse and left a copy of each of my books with the receptionist. (Apparently, slaughterhouses have lobbies and receptionists…who knew?). I wrote in one of them: “With respect for your pride in your business and with hope that you’ll read about mine.” A few minutes later, he walked out front where a group of us from Toronto Cow Save were gathered, and asked if I was Kathy. The exchange was soft and moving…he asked a lot of questions, and I told him the story of a cow who licked my face over and over and over again as he was dying. Not only was there empathy….the Toronto Cow Save group has gone back to the slaughterhouses since I’ve returned to NY, and apparently a lot of the workers are interested in vegan cooking classes!

Your approach seems to be about drawing out the good that exists in all of us, or the “inner-child,” one could say.
Yes! As a high school English teacher, I not only wanted my students to be better writers, speakers, thinkers—I also wanted them to be braver and kinder people. It’s the same at Catskill Animal Sanctuary: we’re an emergency rescue organization, but just as importantly, we’re a center to open hearts and minds—a place where people get kissed by cows in one moment, and in the next learn the horrifying realities of the beef and dairy industries. Epiphanies happen every weekend. A 2,500 pound steer licks a man’s face just as he’s learning why that steer is so huge, and how virtually all of the steer’s friends were killed either shortly after birth or at a few months of age. The steer and I are a tag team: I present the disturbing realities of animal agriculture, the steer, acting just like a loving puppy does, forces the man to question a whole lot of assumptions. We encourage him to grow beyond his cultural conditioning.

It’s the same with children. In terms of our programming for them, our intention is to encourage the goodness that’s already in them, just as it was for the man and the steer. Our age-appropriate curriculum rewards and celebrates children’s compassion, commitment, and courage. It says, “You love animals?! We do, too!! What a great job you’re doing for them! Here’s how you can do even more for your animal friends!”

Tell us about the visit from the P.S. 244 kids and how it all came about!
As soon as I read the news [about the school going vegetarian], I burst into tears. A few moments later, I reached out to Amie Hamlin, director of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Foods, to ask if she thought the school might like to visit Catskill Animal Sanctuary, and she put me in touch with their wonderful principal who immediately responded “YES!”

From beginning to end, it was all poignant. A few highlights were: when children draped themselves over that 2,500-pound steer I referenced earlier, when he kissed on child after another as they sat in front of him;  when Emmet the rooster, as he was passed from child to child to child to child and not only remained patient but also reached out affectionately to each one, seemed to understand that his job was to help them understand that chickens were deserving of their consideration; when a half-dozen children sort of piled on and around our sweet 800-pound pig named Nadine and she grunted her joy; and when two members of The Underfoot Family (the free-range animals depicted in both my books) accompanied the children on their entire tour. All good, good stuff. Nothing surprised me, because I know that these animals are the same as we are. But I suspect that our young guests couldn’t quite believe what they were experiencing.

With the menu at P.S. 244 being vegetarian, how did you address the dairy industry and the treatment of cows during the visit?
We showed the children a veal crate. We introduced them to Russell, Emerson, Calvin, and Bernard—four young steers who were saved from a dairy operation, and talked about how they were some of the lucky few, and that many of their friends were killed. They saw how incredibly affectionate these steers were, and then we explained that the steers were taken away from their mothers when they were just a day old. “How do you think they felt?” we asked. “How do you think their mothers felt?” Naturally, we got plenty of responses.
We applaud them for this huge first step [of going vegetarian], and are here to support them should they choose to go vegan.

CAS recently welcomed another group of individuals—200 chickens from the historic rescue of 1,150 chickens from a commercial egg farm. What are they like?
I can’t describe them as a group—as I always say, beyond the things that make them all chickens, ten chickens are as individual as ten dogs or ten people! Some chat all the time, some are quiet; some FLY out the door first thing in the morning, others don’t yet have that level of confidence; some hop to the top rung of their perch, others huddle together in the straw. One CHARACTER takes a “dust bath” in the feed dish at almost every meal. Some are slightly underweight; others are skeletal. It is a joy and a privilege caring for them and sharing a story that all the sanctuaries involved (Animal Place, Farm Sanctuary, Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, Sasha, Happy Trails, United Poultry Concerns, Heartland, and others!) hope will hasten our country’s burgeoning compassion for the most abused animal of all time.

As a seasoned activist, any advice for animal lovers out there who may be struggling and searching for words in talking to their meat-eating friends?
Yes. What’s effective is recognizing that there are four avenues through which to reach someone: 1) The suffering of the animals; 2) The impact of a meat and dairy-based diet on the individual’s health; 3) The urgent planetary need for us to go vegan, and—here’s the one that we don’t discuss—4) The fact that for most of us, it’s important to consider ourselves kind human beings, and yet we unwittingly violate that principle every time we ingest animal products.

Be strategic. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Approach everyone with love, and approach them with whatever argument resonates most deeply. And take them to animal sanctuaries. Much as we humans can do, the animals are the best influencers of all.

Learn more about the advocates and programs mentioned in this story:

Catksill Animal Sanctuary

Toronto Pig Save

P.S. 244

Written and interviewed by Julie Gueraseva

Top photograph by Anita Krajnc. Video courtesy of Toronto Pig Save. Photograph of P.S. 244 kids courtesy of Catksill Animal Sanctuary.

* An explanation of the term “locked out”: when the company (slaughterhouse) is attempting to get workers to agree to a bad contract, the workers are locked out, if they refuse to sign it. A bad contract is usually one that takes away disability benefits, hours, and other workers rights. In the case of the two adjacent cow slaughterhouses in Toronto—Ryding-Regency Meat Packers and St. Helen’s Meat Packers—while the 100 Ryding-Regency workers were locked out, scab workers from other plants came in, the managers performed the slaughter, and the St. Helen’s slaughterhouse across the street “helped out.”

 

Bill de Blasio at a rally to save NYC’s hospitals with his partner Chirlane to his right.

Editor’s Note: Due to Mayor de Blasio’s failure to protect NYC’s carriage horses and pass a ban on horse-drawn carriages, this story’s praise of him categorically no longer reflects our opinion of him.

THIS YEAR’S ELECTION MARKS A CRITICAL JUNCTURE FOR ANIMALS IN NEW YORK CITY, on the verge of either bursting through a glass ceiling or being relegated to the basement for another 4, 8, maybe 12 years. Bill de Blasio has recently experienced a surge in the polling for NYC Mayor. In fact, he is tied for first place with Christine Quinn. For animal advocates that is welcomed news, not only because of how disastrous Quinn has been, but because de Blasio has whole-heartedly embraced the need for a more humane city. Mahatma Gandhi once observed that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” We now have a candidate for the Mayor of New York City who understands the significance of such a statement, and holds the promise of a greater city. As a Public Advocate, de Blasio has been supportive of animal welfare reforms, and he is the only candidate running who has devoted a section of their platform to the humane treatment of animals. In his campaign for mayor, deBlasio calls for an end to the inhumane and exploitative treatment of carriage horses. He also calls for the regulation of stores that sell puppy-mill dogs, and seeks to improve AC&C (Animal, Care & Control). Furthermore, while a member of the City Council, deBlasio co-sponsored legislation which would ban exotic animals like elephants and lions from circuses in NYC. Both of de Blasio’s children, Dante and Chiara, are vegetarian— a decision they came to on their own.

Meanwhile, in the past 6 years as Speaker of the City Council, not only has Christine Quinn protected the inhumane and exploitative carriage horse industry, she has allowed Mayor Bloomberg to suffocate the AC&C (Animal, Care & Control) of funding. She has prevented votes on crucial legislation, with popular support among council members and constituents. Legislation such as allowing tenants the right to replace their companion animals when they die; and requiring sprinklers in pet stores after a series of fires killed several hundred animals. In fact, in 2009 the League of Humane Voters called Quinn “the biggest obstacle to more humane laws in NYC.”

It is incumbent on New York’s animal protection to community to ensure that Quinn does not become the next mayor of New York City. With three weeks to go until the Primary Election, now is the time to get involved in this year’s election. Legislation and policy which improve the lives of animals do not happen magically. They come as the result of effective activism and supportive leadership. In Bill de Blasio, we have found the kind of leadership that will help give NYC’s animals a better chance. And electing him as our next mayor will open the door for more change. — David Karopkin (law student and founder of GooseWatch NYC)

Please help support Bill de Blasio’s campaign by joining your fellow animal advocates at the Animal Advocates for Bill de Blasio cocktail reception on August 26th at the Peter Max Studio in Manhattan.

A supporter of Bill de Blasio.

We asked some of New York City’s animal advocates to sound off on the
upcoming elections:

“de Blasio seems genuinely to feel for people and to want to make the city a better place for all New Yorkers. On a range of quality-of-life issues, de Blasio authentically takes a stand, and he has shown [with his support of a carriage ban] that he isn’t afraid to stand up and be counted. That’s impressive. He is the progressive in this race. Meanwhile, Quinn masquerades as a progressive, despite her repeated betrayal of the public trust and a dismal human rights record that should be very concerning to us all. She’s completely disingenuous to tell voters that she has a strong record on animal welfare. Passing a couple of sham bills for political expediency—as Quinn has done—may fool a few people, but not NYC animal advocates who’ll be voting. Quinn killed the true shelter reform bill, and this city’s animals are suffering as a result.”
Mary Culpepper (writer and long-time member of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages)

“Since becoming Speaker in 2006, Christine Quinn has not only blocked every meaningful animal protection bill introduced at City Hall, but, in an attempt to discredit her critics, she has also fast-tracked faux reform bills to portray herself as an advocate. NYC’s most vulnerable animals have waited for years for much needed legislative protections. For them, Quinn is the worst possible choice for Mayor. Bill de Blasio, however, has consistently spoken out about the importance of improving the lives of NYC’s most vulnerable animals, even though they can’t vote him. His understanding of the issues and his compassion for the “underdog” have distinguished him from the other candidates and have won him support from NYC’s animal advocacy community. By supporting a ban on horse-drawn carriages, a position that has earned him criticism in some circles, Mr. de Blasio has put principle ahead of politics.”
Donny Moss (documentary filmmaker and animal rights advocate)

“For the first time in 12 years, animal advocates have the opportunity to finally elect an animal friendly mayor. The Mayor’s office has so much control over how our city’s animals are treated – for instance, the mayor decides how much funding goes to city shelters, TNR programs for feral cats, funding for humane education for elementary school kids and the fate of NYC carriage horses. While we all may differ on some issues, we can all agree that Christine Quinn is not a friend to animals. For 8 years as Speaker of the City Council, she has systematically blocked every effort to pass common sense humane legislation such as putting life saving fire sprinklers in pet stores, build badly needed shelters in the Bronx and Queens, protecting a tenants’ right to have a pet and of course banning horse carriages.”
Allie Feldman (animal advocate and director of NYCLASS (New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets)

Learn more and get directly involved in helping the animals of NYC at:

+ NYCLASS

+ GooseWatch NYC

+ Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages

Learn more about Bill de Blasio and his issues on his campaign site.

Photos by © David Katzenstein for New Yorkers for de Blasio



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Thursday, August 22, 2013

BLACKFISH: A FILM THAT CUTS DEEP

KIDNAPPINGS. VIOLENCE. DECEPTION. COVER-UPS. The plot of an action-packed Hollywood thriller? Not quite. It’s just business as usual at SeaWorld, the world’s most prominent (and profitable) animal theme park, where 45 orcas-or “killer whales”- currently live in captivity at its various locations. The billion dollar industry started seeing cracks in its carefully-crafted facade of “good wholesome family fun” in February of 2010, when one of SeaWorld’s top trainers Dawn Brancheau was suddenly, and with seemingly no explanation, killed by the one of the park’s orcas — Tilikum. Why would an animal who shows no aggression towards humans in the wild lash out with so much violence at a human while in captivity? And why would SeaWorld place the blame on an experienced trainer? Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite sought to find the answer, and the result of her quest is the powerful documentary Blackfish. The gut-socking film investigates the notorious incident, and ultimately becomes much more— a statement on animal consciousness, providing irrefutable visual and audible evidence that orcas are highly emotional beings. They show acute anguish and distress when taken by force from the wild and separated from their families, as Tilikum was when he was a 2-year-old calf. They yearn for expansive space. They fail to function normally in confined spaces. They suffer. They go mad. And this has consequences. “I hope “animals for entertainment” becomes a relic, a circus, something from another century that we evolved out of,” Gabriela told us when we spoke to her about Blackfish recently. Here, the director shares more of her thoughts on her film, and on animals.

The vegan community has really embraced Blackfish, many reacting with statements like, “this is why I’m vegan.” How does that make you feel?
It’s an honor. I understand, better than I ever have, what it means to share this planet. I think [journalist] Nicholas Kristof said it best, “we haven’t agreed on where the line should be drawn, but we all agree there is a line.” I think that’s progress.

The tagline of the film is “Never capture what you can’t control.” What are your thoughts on other animals in captivity who might be described as easier to control than Orcas?
I think the film makes a case against animals for entertainment, but I do believe it calls into question so much more. I hope the film encourages us to revisit the “cringe factor” we all experience when we see an animals being used as commodities. We’ve all felt this cringe-factor at some level and I think it’s a great instinct because it comes from empathy. But over time it can be drummed out of us if we let it.

Institutions that profit off of animals used for entertainment notoriously engage in corruption. But were you especially shocked at the level of deception going on at SeaWorld? What was the biggest revelation for you?
I couldn’t possibly name just one. Learning about [orcas] shortened life-spans in captivity was a revelation. Learning about the number of aggressive incidents between killer whales and trainers was shocking, but learning about the aggression between killer whales and the constant social strife was jaw-dropping for me. I guess I always wanted to think that at the very least, these animals bond with each other. And that’s just not the case.

You accomplished a remarkable thing in giving the viewer an experience where they imagined themselves in the orcas’ place, which is one of the reasons people react so strongly to the film. Was there anything in particular you employed in terms of sound, editing, cinematography to achieve this “first person feel?”
I was hoping to “show, not tell” the audience a story. I was hoping that if I pulled back the curtain and allowed the audience to hear the fact-driven story, they would have authentic reactions that they discovered on their own, not because the film was telling them how to feel or what to do.

But the facts about killer whales are so relatable. They have strong family bonds, they seem to experience grief, they are highly intelligent – these are things that remind us of ourselves and allow us to understand and empathize in a powerful way.

Can you talk a bit about the journey of this film—the challenges and triumphs of bringing a film that deals with the controversial topic of the human/animal relationship to the big screen and a wide release?
Blood, sweat and tears! It took us 2 years to complete the film. We went from looking for funding, to gathering willing interviewees, to hearing about whale trauma, human trauma, and of course knowing we better get everything right because the big guns might come after us..it was very stressful. The first triumph was finishing the film. The second, and most memorable, was getting accepted into Sundance. The third was just mind-boggling: getting bought by Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films. I cried from happiness, from exhaustion, and from the realization that people might see this film, and that we had a shot at helping tighten something up that has come unraveled in the world.

Since making this film, do you feel a deeper bond with the orcas?
I feel awe inspired, I’m fascinated, but what I feel the most is respect. What I learned about what these animals are capable of defies imagination. There’s no way we can ever give them what they need to thrive or survive in captivity.

 

Postscript: Since the film’s release, SeaWorld has been reporting a drop in attendance. And Pixar Studios reportedly made significant changes to the script for “Finding Dory,” its sequel to “Finding Nemo,” after viewing “Blackfish.”

Blackfish is in theaters nationally. For information on current and upcoming screenings, visit the film’s site.

Intro and interview by Julie Gueraseva. Photograph courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.