Personal Essays
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Connecting the Dots: How social justice advocacy led me to animal rights

snow-leopard

Photo courtesy Tambako the Jaguar

I was about nine or ten years old when I started reading Zoobooks magazine. It was a gift subscription from my grandma, Laverne. Zoobooks is a children’s magazine that explores the anatomy, habitat, social behavior and ecological role of a specific animal or animal group, or sometimes features categories like “baby animals” or “endangered species.” It was established in 1980 and is still in publication today.

I would eagerly await the magazine’s arrival each month and after reading the issue cover to cover, I would gently tear along the perforated lines to retrieve the centerfold poster and add it to the collection hanging on my bedroom wall.

I was fascinated with this whole world of amazing creatures that shared the planet with me. I was especially drawn to elephants and big cats and one of my most prized possessions at the time was a small, stuffed white snow leopard I got on a trip to Marine World with my family.

Beyond fascination, I felt genuine empathy and love toward animals — the way most children do. I remember at one point I was pet-sitting my friend’s parakeet, Elvis. At the time, I had my own pet hamster, Petrie, and a tiny, bald newborn baby mouse I rescued named Peanut Butter and Jelly — all in my bedroom. I imagined my room was some sort of wildlife refuge or rehabilitation center and that, like Dr. Doolittle, I had the unique ability to communicate with and understand animals. Not yet aware of how humans dominate and exploit animals for profit, pleasure and entertainment, I briefly fantasized about becoming an animal trainer at a theme park when I grew up.

My perception of animals shifted in my teen years and into adulthood. I still “liked” animals, but I started to see them differently. I started to see them — less. They were no longer a central feature in my life. They existed on the periphery. They sat out on the bleachers inning after inning while I became absorbed in the trappings of adolescence — friends, fashion, boy crushes, and later, cigarettes, alcohol and parties. I traded in my Zoobooks for Seventeen magazine and my animal posters for band posters of Nirvana, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

I’m not sure why I chose to stop thinking much about animals; I don’t know how or why that disconnect happens to us. I could speculate about human psychology and social conditioning for days, but I won’t here. I’ll simply say that I didn’t question anything when it came to the treatment of animals. I don’t mean obvious and illegal abuses; I’ve always been intolerant of cruelty toward animals. I mean ordinary, acceptable exploitative treatment. Like leaving a dog tied up outside in the cold or heat while their person sits comfortably in the bar sipping their cocktail and eating their tapas. Like animals who belong on different continents, being displayed in zoos and animal theme parks, suffering from illness and disease because of conditions of captivity. Like eating ham and swiss on rye. Like the bacon fetish. I just took it all in stride.

But it’s not like I lacked compassion for others altogether. I was very much focused on social justice activist pursuits in my early 20s. I protested the post 9–11 “War on Terror” and participated in teach-ins at school. As a feminist activist, I performed in the Vagina Monologues and worked for years as an advocate to domestic and sexual violence survivors, speaking out against rape culture. I cared about poverty. I cared about racism and homelessness and sex worker rights. I did street outreach to people experiencing homelessness to help get them connected to services and I had an understanding of intersectional oppression. Those were the issues I chose to focus on for 10 years, all the while eating animals and using and consuming animal-derived products. I think I just became desensitized to what was happening to animals because it is so incredibly normalized in society.

Ideally, we’d never lose the compassion we all have as children. But since so many of us do, how do we reignite that compassion as adults? For me, it was many different events and circumstances that, little by little, expanded my awareness of the issues and eventually my compassion for all sentient beings. I read Fast Food Nation [1] at about age 24 and went vegetarian for about a year because of the horrific descriptions of slaughterhouses and other disgusting details of the animal agriculture industry. I defaulted back to eating animals again when I took a two week trip with my then boyfriend to Guatemala. I was staying with a host family and didn’t want to be an inconvenience to them.

In 2012 I watched the documentary, Forks Over Knives [2] and decided to start eating a plant-based diet for primarily health reasons, and gradually became more aware of the ethical implications of eating animals — both with regard to animal welfare and the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Attending Portland’s VegFest (organized by Northwest VEG) [3] for the first time in 2014 is what drove it all home for me. I ended up speaking to a woman from United Poultry Concerns [4] and took one of her pamphlets. Within a couple of months, I stopped wearing, eating and using products made from or tested on animals and I joined a half dozen vegan-oriented groups on Facebook.

I have now fully integrated animal issues into my social justice organizing and advocacy. It seems so obvious to me now — that oppression against animals is linked with other forms of oppression that I have been working so hard for over a decade to dismantle. The idea that animals are here for us — that they are ours to use as we see fit — astonishes me now. We enslave them and deprive them of their most basic and natural needs and desires. We perform all sorts of horrible and painful experiments on them, whether it be for medical research or to test cosmetics. We eat them. We steal their babies. We wear their skins. We see them as nothing more than objects, or commodities. A few species of animals that have made it to pet companion status also suffer some pretty callous treatment at the hands of humans, but with much less social acceptability.

The biggest shift in my perspective may be the fact that I now see non-human animals as fully sentient individuals — each with their own interests, feelings and a will to live. They are here on earth for their own purposes, not ours. Just because we have the power to subjugate them doesn’t mean it’s the morally correct thing to do.

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