Shih Chao-hwei

Shih Chao-hwei

“We must always check with ourselves to know if we are, in fact, being conquered by our fear.”

In their capacity to suffer, Buddhist nun Shih Chao-hwei sees little difference between humans and animals.

“Buddha could not bear to see sentient beings suffer,” she notes.

So when she began learning about a new craze in Taiwan, a brutal “sport” called fish hooking, Ven. Chao-hwei, who had given up meat years before, was agonized.

“I thought fishing was cruel enough,” she says. “Fish hooking is an activity that does not use bait but instead deploys double or triple hooks to hook fish and tear them out of pools. It’s not hard to imagine that fish were panicked and tried to avoid these hooks.”

Starting with an article headlined “Nightmare of Aquatic Beings” that she submitted to a Taiwanese newspaper, Ven. Chao-hwei began advocating against the cruelty. It eventually worked, with Taiwan’s then-premier demanding a fish hooking ban.

That was in 1992. Ven. Chao-hwei has been working to protect animals ever since, on top of her impressive efforts on other social justice causes, namely gender equality and LGBT rights. In 2012, Ven. Chao-hwei attracted international attention when she presided over Taiwan’s first same-sex Buddhist wedding. On behalf of animals, she has played a key role in many important legislative victories, including a ban on horse gambling across Taiwan and passage of the island’s Wildlife Conservation Act and Animal Protection Act.

While many of her colleagues and fellow Buddhists in Taiwan and beyond have shied away from such activism, Ven. Chao-hwei views it as essential to her religious practice.

“Many people in religious communities are reluctant to give voice to their views on controversial topics. They fear that to involve themselves, to speak up about them, or even just to think about them, makes them lose their peace of mind. This seems to conflict with their initial purpose of practicing a religion,” Ven. Chao-hwei says in Mandarin.

“Nevertheless, how would you expect to gain true peace if you don’t do this? The path of speaking out is not necessarily more difficult. For those who remain silent, observe them in the meditation hall and you will often see that they are under extreme torment and affliction. I often encourage people not to worry about the breakdown of superficial harmony and serenity. When you take action, slowly you will discover deeper, greater, more profound and more powerful serenity and peace in your heart.”

Ven. Chao-hwei was born in Myanmar in 1957. She was eight when her family moved to Taiwan and in her early 20s when she decided to become a Buddhist nun. She regards Buddhism as more of a profound philosophy than a religion, with its emphasis on experience over pure faith, and remembers being intrigued as soon as she began learning about Buddhism.

“Critical thinking and the freedom that arises from democracy are highly valued in my heart,” Ven. Chao-hwei says. “The notion of this superior power, a single God to whom we must be submissive, for whose salvation we wait, and at whose hands we will endure all manner of cruelty if we are not obedient to him—this is all quite challenging to my rebellious thinking.”

Today, Ven. Chao-hwei serves as both a professor and as dean of the Department of Religion and Culture at Hsuan-Tzang University. She was the university’s head of Humanities until stepping down to make more time for her research, which has focused on Buddhist philosophy and ethics. She has published more than two dozen books and many more research papers.

“When participating in social movements, I have supported my viewpoint with moral studies and ethical discourse,” she says. “The basis for my position on these topics lies in my study of Buddhist ethics.”

Her work to end fish hooking turned out to be a catalyst. The next year, with a group of friends and colleagues, she founded an organization called Life Conservationist Association to take on other animal protection causes.

“Many people began to pass information of animals’ plight to me. Thousands, millions, billions of economically valuable animals such as pigs and chickens are slaughtered all the time. One person alone cannot save all of them,” Ven. Chao-hwei says. “Their lives have to be saved through a variety of different methods, not solely through media exposure as in the case of fish hooking. I realized to do this meant to step on a long, challenging road of social movements. Therefore, I gathered friends with similar ideas and aspirations from many different communities, including entrepreneurs and religious people of diverse ideological backgrounds—pastors, priests, monastics.”

Like those who choose to avoid the discomforts of activism, Ven. Chao-hwei says, she fears the negative consequences her work can bring. But she strives to overcome fear, which she calls “the foremost enemy in one’s life.”

“I am a normal person, so I am not free from fear,” she says. “I might be insulted, slandered or excluded. However, should I allow myself to be stopped by these possibilities, or conquered by these circumstances? We must always check with ourselves to know if we are, in fact, being conquered by our fear.”

One emotion she doesn’t contend with, she says, is frustration.

“Someone once asked me if I ever feel frustrated with all these movements. It seems that frustration has never occurred to me. The reason is because these movements are like wars, one after another. It is normal that sometimes we win and sometimes we don’t. If your focus is solely on victory and loss, when you win, you are overjoyed, and when you lose, you are frustrated.”

Overcoming this to become the most effective activist one can is “a different kind of practice” in Buddhism, Ven. Chao-hwei says.

“Practice means to keep transcending beyond self to eventually be liberated from pain. Ultimately, the so-called Enlightened Ones are people who have finally realized self as an illusion. If we can regard these matters from this perspective, it is actually a decent path of practice. Rather than spending a great deal of time in the meditation hall, you are dealing with circumstances that change all the time, and you should be ready at any moment for the next attack. There is no buffer available, things can happen at any time, like a huge wave suddenly arriving. In this case, purity of mind matters immensely. If your mind spends too much time looking out for yourself, or indulging in self-pity, self-love or self-blame, then you will be filled with emotions high and low, which is not a state that benefits us much in our lives.

“I believe what is really helpful to our mind is that we are fully focused on doing the work—in this case, the movement—itself. You concentrate entirely on the work and only seek to improve the chances of its success. When you evaluate the gains and losses of this process, it involves consideration of how this movement relates to all beings, instead of only the gains and losses of oneself. This is another kind of training for selflessness.

“In my opinion, it doesn’t matter whether it is the animal protection movement or the gender equality movement. They are both good means of practice.”

 

Interview, photos, and video by Kelly Guerin. Story by Corinne Benedict.

Theodora Capaldo

Theodora Capaldo

“We had all of the essential ingredients of a campaign that had to succeed.”

Dr. Capaldo and her rescued Shiba, Kibou

Dr. Capaldo and her rescued Shiba, Kibou

The vast majority of drugs that test safe and effective in animals ultimately fail in humans.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine concluded that chimpanzee use in research isn’t necessary, even though chimps are our closest genetic relatives.

Animals suffer tremendously for research that doesn’t serve humans, and there are better alternatives ready for use right now.

These are among the facts that Theodora Capaldo has spent her life sharing. For decades, she has worked to end animal research, first as a board member and then, until her recent retirement, as executive director and president of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS), a national organization based in Boston. With Capaldo at the helm, NEAVS persuaded the first veterinary school to end “terminal surgery labs” in which dogs were killed, spearheaded the campaign that stopped chimp research in the United States, rescued hundreds of animals from lives of torture, and much more.

“When people say, ‘I didn’t know they used dogs in research,’ I believe them,” Capaldo says. “There’s a lot of ignorance, because it’s well hidden and because human denial is our most primitive and relied upon defense mechanism.”

Since she first took up this fight in the 1980s, information – science, ironically – has been her best ally, she says.

“Science is advancing, and every day the flaws of animal use are being exposed and corrected by non-animal research methods. Animal use will end.”

Capaldo remembers first learning about animal research around age eight. Her teacher kept a reading table in the classroom. One day, Capaldo picked up an anti-vivisection magazine. Flipping through its pages she came upon a photo of a dog with his head weakly hung across the bars of his wooden cage. A sign above him read: “No food. Just water.” He was being used in a starvation experiment.

“I can still see his face,” Capaldo recalls. “I always will. That was perhaps my big bang.”

Soon she was donating her lunch money to help animals in labs.

Capaldo says she’d have probably gone to veterinary school if the science courses hadn’t required live animal dissection. Instead, she became a licensed psychologist. As she got older, she only became more passionate about animal protection and anti-vivisection, specifically.

“I came to despise the hypocrisy of vivisectors. Researchers commit such atrocities under the name of ‘good.’ It is the one area where people defend their cruelty by claiming it is for noble ends. Abattoirs don’t. Furriers don’t. Researchers’ lies are a big part of why I abhor it.”

As a private-practice psychologist, she found she could make the income she needed seeing patients just a few days a week, leaving plenty of time for animal activism. She joined NEAVS’ board and continued her practice part-time for about 20 years before becoming NEAVS’ full-time executive director, a role she held for another 20. Prior to NEAVS, she served as co-president of Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, helped win the strictest regulations for carriage horses in the country for Boston, and exposed the cruelty of traditional Chinese medicine’s bear bile use.

Friends and colleagues say it’s Capaldo’s honesty, relentlessness and effectiveness that set her apart.

“She leaves no stone unturned in her quest for truth and clarity,” says Jill Robinson, founder and CEO of Animals Asia Foundation. “As a trained psychologist, she explores every component, every argument, intelligently, diplomatically, but ruthlessly too. She is also the most amazing ally for women everywhere, especially those in the animal welfare movement.”

Of all her work, Capaldo is best known for leading the charge that ended U.S. chimp research, through a NEAVS campaign called Project R&R, launched in 2004, four years after passage of the CHIMP Act, which called for the creation of a national sanctuary system for research chimps no longer in use and mandated that they couldn’t be euthanized for labs’ convenience.

“It seemed like the movement had taken it to that point, and then said, ‘Good, we got that done,’” Capaldo recalls. “But we still at the time had some 1,800-plus chimps in U.S. labs, and when we looked at the science, we saw that it was failing. The beautiful double whammy here is that chimps are so genetically like us, and it was still failing to be truly useful to human health.”

Activists also had another strategically powerful tool that Capaldo recognized – living, retired chimps in sanctuaries whose stories could be shared and whose trauma was obvious.

“We had all of the essential ingredients of a campaign that had to succeed.”

In discussing Project R&R, Capaldo displays the candor for which she is admired.

“Some people said it’s speciesist to just focus on chimps,” she says. “Well, one thing I said to animal groups when we started was that we had to focus on chimpanzees because we can always count on human narcissism. And people would laugh, and I would say, ‘I’m serious.’ Humans are inclined toward what they can most relate to, what is most like them. For many, it’s a kind of narcissistic empathy.”

Recalling how some sanctuaries that she tried to work with were reluctant to take a position against chimp research, Capaldo says, “That’s something the sanctuary community is going to have to answer for with St. Peter or Jesus or Buddha or whoever they go to. Because you have to be strong. There’s a naivete in thinking you can convince a lab to give up something entirely that is so lucrative for them. You can’t. People do not give up privilege. You have to take privilege from people.

“The occasional monkey or beagle you get to rescue by playing nice with the labs is not the formula for ending it for the tens of thousands of monkeys and millions of other species who will continue to be used unless advocates strike at the very heart of the vivisection industry.”

As for what she is most proud of, beyond the major victories, Capaldo names her focus on being strategic and on using science. NEAVS published many papers in peer-reviewed journals to complement its campaign work, and while there and at Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Capaldo prioritized efforts to end the harmful use of animals at all levels of education and professional training, including high school biology courses, to make room for a new generation of compassionate scientists.

Capaldo officially retired from NEAVS in 2017 but continued with a few special projects until the end of 2018. Today, she is focused on the American Fund for Alternatives to Animal Research, a foundation that provides funding for the development of alternatives to animal use in science.

She is still in the fight, with decades of insight inside her.

On moving people to action for animals, she says that overcoming self-interest is key. “You do that by helping them get that the self is so much bigger than the boundaries of their own body. In the end, we have to realize that we’re all part of one world.”

Capaldo’s biggest concern about the animal rights movement today? The number of organizations and campaigns that aren’t doing what she calls real work. “Pseudo-campaigns, with little or no teeth, for the sake of fundraising are, to me, unethical and set the animals back,” she says. “They accomplish little other than more money for an organization to do more fund-raising. That, in a word, is unconscionable.”

About the decision by many animal rights groups to focus singularly on factory farming because it is where the most animals are harmed, Capaldo says: “What I don’t like about it is that it compartmentalizes compassion. We could argue that animals in research suffer in the most egregious and diverse ways. While animals in food production need us desperately, I think ‘most’ is an arbitrarily assigned value.”

About self-care among animal activists and staying in the fight, she says activists must be prepared for lots of failure, and they must remember that what initially looks like failure is instead often laying critical groundwork for future victories. That was certainly the case with ending chimp research, she says.

Capaldo adds that it’s OK to acknowledge that some people simply aren’t well suited for certain types of activism.

“I think you have to be the kind of person who won’t take no for an answer. When you do this kind of work, it’s war. There’s a war against animals, and if you’re a soldier trying to stop it, you’re going to see a lot of bodies, and many days you’re going to feel powerless to help them, and that’s the worst feeling,” she says.

“But if you’ve got moxie, you just get up, go back and keep doing it and doing it.”

 

Photos by Jo-Anne McArthur. Interview and story by Corinne Benedict.

Twyla Francois

Twyla Francois

“Painting allowed me to literally paint the images out, freeing my mind up to return to the field.”

Like many activists, Twyla Francois can pinpoint the moments in her life that led her to animal rights.

One of the first was when she was 13. Growing up in a farming community in rural Canada, she joined 4H like most kids. She spent countless hours raising and getting to know her veal calf before enrolling him in the town fair, not understanding what would happen there. When she realized the man bidding on her beloved friend was the town butcher, she pleaded in tears to keep the calf, which 4H prohibits. She has no idea how she got a copy, but soon she was reading Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” and no longer eating meat.

Years later, as an adult, Francois was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery where doctors discovered stage IV tumors in her abdomen. She was an administrator at the University of Manitoba at the time. While working for the vice president of research, she’d seen documents detailing the university’s research on dogs, including where they’d come from – the city pound. Some arrived with name tags still on their collars. Francois spoke up to no avail, so she moved to another department at the university, but there her values were only challenged further.

Facing the possibility of death, she re-examined her life. While undergoing chemotherapy, she co-founded a small non-profit animal advocacy organization and threw herself into the world of animal rights, first as an investigator and then as an artist.

These two kinds of activism might seem like separate paths. But Francois says the first naturally led her directly to the second.

Besides the research on dogs, what did you see during your time in academia that conflicted with your values?

Any efforts I made at challenging the university’s use of animals were quickly dismissed – the university relied on funding from the various granting bodies and wouldn’t do anything that would risk it. Eventually I felt I had to leave the job and moved over to work for the vice president of external relations, but things just got worse. The university accepted funds from all of the corporations no one else would touch, granting them the ability to rename faculties. (Monsanto’s – now Bayer’s – headquarters are still located at the University of Manitoba.) A large oil company happily accepted the offer and renamed the Faculty of Environment to the Faculty of Earth and Earth Resources, setting the tone that environmental protection would no longer be the primary mandate of the faculty.

A new Smart Park was built to commercialize research, including, of course, animal research, and special films were ordered for the buildings’ windows to prevent photos and videos from being taken, giving the impression of transparency without having to actually provide it. In Smart Park, researchers didn’t even have to release statistics on the number of animals they were using or what they were using them for because they were under private ownership. I cried on the way home from work every day. The cognitive dissonance became unbearable and my body forced onto me what my mind wouldn’t [when I got sick]. It ended up being a blessing in disguise.

Your 10-plus years as an investigator included top roles with Animals’ Angels, Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Farmed Animals, the Canadian Horse Defense Coalition and Mercy For Animals Canada, and your work led to facility closures, animal cruelty convictions, documentaries, government-commissioned research and animal rescues. Why did you stop doing investigations?

I started having more and more difficulty handling investigations as time passed. Part of it was learning the complexity of emotions farmed animals experience and understanding how much they must suffer in animal agriculture. Each time I would get to know a species through one I was able to remove and bring to my property to live out their life free from exploitation, investigations on that species would become more difficult. Eventually I got to know all of the species used in animal agriculture, making it nearly impossible to continue with investigations.

I also questioned whether what I was doing was having an effect. Initially, I had a strong belief that undercover investigations were the most effective way to bring about real change for animals. We put together complete evidentiary packages for law enforcement, and major media outlets provided extensive coverage. But while those releases caused a slight ripple in society, the response wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was devastating to find that the one thing I’d pinned all my hopes on failed. It was my answer to the doubts I’d always had about my previous investigations – that perhaps I hadn’t presented a full enough case or released it exactly the right way. With the undercover work, everything was right, at least according to what I felt was right, and yet it didn’t have much more effect than my earlier work had.

The argument that continued to hound us as well was the (false) claim that our findings were a one-off, and that all we did was expose one rotten apple in an otherwise unblemished industry. We couldn’t put out investigations fast enough to counter this argument and I realized undercover investigations weren’t the panacea I had believed them to be. What was needed were constant releases of evidence from multiple sources across the country, which is exactly what’s happening today and why we’re seeing such a massive shift in how Canadians view animals, along with a concordant increase in veg’ism.

What did you learn from being an investigator?

I learned from doing investigations in Canada that conditions for animals are much worse than any of us can imagine, and that while there definitely are some individuals who are sadistic and enjoy deliberately making animals suffer, the vast majority of those in animal agriculture aren’t intentionally cruel. They’ve absorbed the message that animals are less-than, or simply regard them as commodities. Others in the industry recognize that animals shouldn’t be made to suffer but fail to understand that standard practices such as separating calves from mothers immediately after birth are also forms of suffering.

I also learned that in Canada, government and law enforcement can’t be counted on to protect farmed animals. There are no governmental bodies that conduct inspections for compliance on farms and the animal welfare legislation that does exist exempts farmed animals, along with practices considered standard, such as castration without anesthetic or analgesics and the use of intensive confinement systems. So for the vast majority of a farmed animal’s life, they are completely without protection.

The two pieces of federal legislation that exist are for animal transport and slaughter at federal facilities, but as investigation after investigation has shown, these regulations are rarely enforced. Instead, the officials that are present are often involved in incidents of cruelty themselves or are so subservient to the workers that they are rendered ineffective. Inspections and enforcement are also becoming increasingly de-regulated. For example, in a recent access to information request, I saw that inspections of the unloading of trailers at a large “federally-inspected” pig slaughterhouse that used to be conducted by Canadian Food Inspection Agency officials are now done by plant employees, who, relying on their employer for a paycheck, are highly unlikely to find any issues of non-compliance.

Why did you turn to art?

I began painting shortly after becoming an investigator and did it as a means to cope with what I was seeing in the field. The imagery seared on one’s brain after an investigation can be haunting and difficult to shake. Painting allowed me to literally paint the images out and put them onto the canvas, freeing my mind up to return to the field.

Later, after many investigations and exposes that sadly didn’t lead to the widespread changes in consumer behaviour I was hoping for, I realized that we weren’t reaching a substantial portion of the population with our message. In particular, kind-hearted, sensitive animal lovers found the images too upsetting and turned away before absorbing the message. These were the very people most likely to make changes to their diet if they could connect with the message. I realized that art, with its ability to be less threatening, could be a way of reaching these people’s hearts. This is because of how subjective art is – we each see in it what speaks to us and feels personal to us. That leaves much of the interpretation up to the viewer who then feels a sense of discovery and ownership of making the connection. Psychological studies show that this sense of responsibility is a direct catalyst for changing behaviour.

And because humans are social beings and look to others to determine how to feel and react in ambiguous situations, which sadly is the case with farmed animals, my hope is that seeing someone lovingly providing water to a dehydrated sow or gently holding a piglet as one would a puppy changes how we view these animals. It reminds us that farmed animals are just as capable of suffering and just as deserving of our respect and sense of responsibility.

Discuss a painting of yours that is especially important to you.

“Free Me” is likely my most well-known piece. It features a pig in a dimly-lit concrete pen peering hopefully through a window out onto a clear, sunny day. As the viewer’s eye moves to the right to explore the darkness, the pig’s dead body, suspended for bleeding, comes into view. The painting came about after my first investigation at an assembly yard, where animals were temporarily housed while being marketed to slaughterhouses – in this case, thousands of miles away. The pigs were cull sows and boars used for breeding who had spent the majority of their adult lives confined to barren concrete and metal cages barely larger than their own bodies. When the pigs were loaded onto the large multi-deck trailers to be taken to slaughter, many pushed their snouts through the portholes of the trailer, trying to feel the sun on their faces. I realized it was likely the first and last time they would ever experience this simple sensation. In all of their suffering, they still had a desire to feel the sun on their skin. They had to strain for it, and many who were too sick, diseased or injured to reach the portholes weren’t even able to experience it. Their only certainty in life was their death which awaited them at the end of this journey as it had hung over them from the moment they were born. It was as inescapable as a shadow.

I never thought I’d release that painting because it was just too personal, but I eventually did and it became part of the Animal Activism Art collection in Stuttgart and is now on permanent display at Land der Tiere, the largest farmed animal sanctuary in Germany.

How do you think your art is making an impact?

I find that I’m reaching a completely different group of people than I did with investigations. It was only when I started releasing art that people from the small farming community I grew up in began contacting me, saying they’ve been following my work but didn’t feel comfortable contacting me until recently. That means a lot because I know where they come from and the difficulty in openly recognizing animals as anything other than commodities in an area that relies on that view. I’m always pleasantly surprised after exhibitions or when articles about my art have been published when people contact me to say they were inspired to make a change. The Recasting Series, which features women of all ages connecting with farmed animals in ways they would companion animals, seems to resonate with many people.

What is next for you?

There are a number of pieces I’m keen to do but have to wait until my technical skills are up to the challenge! I’d specifically like to continue adding to the Monkey Wrenching series, which features people of all ages actively liberating animals. I’d love to do a subseries of seniors liberating animals in particular, as I’ve found surprising support from this age group. No one is ever too young or too old to take action for animals.

 

Learn more about Twyla Francois and view her art at twylafrancois.com.

Photos by Jo-Anne McArthur. Interview and story by Corinne Benedict.

Rubaiya Ahmad

Rubaiya Ahmad

“Even the worst day of doing something is better than the best day of doing nothing.”

Rubaiya Ahmad. Photo by Julie O'Neill.

Rubaiya Ahmad. Photo by Julie O’Neill.

Ask Rubaiya Ahmad about her proudest achievement on behalf of animals, and her answer is immediate.

“Stopping dog culling in Bangladesh,” she says.

Seven years ago, Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital and largest city, was a different world for free-roaming dogs. They were almost constantly hunted by government cullers as part of an ineffective bid to control the country’s rabies problem.

Friendly dogs, including beloved pets, were the easiest targets, sauntering over to anyone who stretched out a hand. Savvier victims were caught using badger tongs, devices on poles that clamped around dogs’ heads inside their mouths, causing excruciating pain. Cullers typically then injected dogs with poison and cut off their tails as proof of the kill. To inflate their numbers, cullers sometimes cut single tails into several pieces to turn in to their overseers.

One night, this happened to Kashtanka, a light brown, grinning dog who Ahmad had cared for since she was a puppy. Kashtanka was one of three street dogs Ahmad began looking after when she returned to her native Bangladesh in 2006 after a decade living in the United States. She was renting a tiny studio apartment at the time and felt it would be cruel to keep the dogs inside. But she’d had them vaccinated and sterilized, had bought them collars and fed them every day, and all of her neighbors knew they were Ahmad’s.

Two of the dogs, including Kashtanka’s mother, Rosha, were able to escape. But Kashtanka was young and trusting and likely greeted the cullers who grabbed and poisoned her. Ahmad remembers it like yesterday. She got a call from her building’s night guard saying that Kashtanka was being taken. She chased after the cullers and found Kashtanka in the back of their truck, lifeless, still wearing her collar, on top of a pile of other dogs.

“Even the worst day of doing something is better than the best day of doing nothing. It’s more difficult to do nothing.”

It was an experience that changed her life’s focus. Ahmad founded Bangladesh’s first animal welfare organization, Obhoyaronno – which roughly translates to “Sanctuary” – in 2009. In 2012, after Obhoyaronno launched a program to sterilize and vaccinate free-roaming dogs in line with World Health Organization protocols for rabies control, Dhaka city agreed to end dog culling. In 2014, Obhoyaronno successfully petitioned Bangladesh’s high court for a national injunction against culling, as well as against animal sports such as bull and cock fighting. There are still occasional incidents of dog culling outside of Dhaka, but today, for the most part, the practice has ended across Bangladesh.

Campaign literature“Whenever people tell me that what I do is really difficult and that they could never do it, I just tell them the same thing I tell myself when things get difficult: that it’s more difficult to do nothing,” says Ahmad, formerly an IT consultant. “On the days when I feel like I don’t want to do this anymore because it’s too hard, I remind myself that there was a time when I didn’t do anything, and I wasn’t happy. Even the worst day of doing something is better than the best day of doing nothing.”

“Any platform that allows me to talk about veganism, I take that opportunity.”

With Obhoyaronno’s clinic and spay-neuter program going strong, Ahmad has turned her focus to promoting veganism. Because of her work, local schools have adopted Meatless Monday, popular hotels and restaurants have added veg choices, and Bangladesh’s top-ranking grocery store chain has installed vegan sections. Ahmad gives talks on animal welfare and vegan eating almost anywhere she is asked, shares information and recipes on social media, and writes a regular column, A Vegan’s Diary, in Bangladesh’s largest English-language newspaper. She holds vegan brunches and recently launched a new online vegan food delivery platform, The Bangu Vegan. The venture delivers vegan meals every Monday, hosts supper club events and supplies vegan food items to local retailers. Ahmad also uses The Bangu Vegan to do advocacy and offer cooking courses.

“Any platform that allows me to talk about veganism, I take that opportunity,” Ahmad says.

In Bangladesh, even things as simple as vegan menu options are a breakthrough, she notes. She says figuring out the right messages and how to present them has been difficult, but it’s also been a big key to her success.

“We got our way by speaking in a language they understood.”

“We’ve focused very much on the scientific approach to things, as opposed to being emotionally driven,” Ahmad explains. “When we started talking about our dog population management program, we didn’t talk about animal welfare. We talked about rabies control and how many kids were dying of rabies in Bangladesh. We showed the government that how they’ve been killing dogs for 50 years has not changed the rabies situation – it escalated it, if anything. And in the end, they stopped killing dogs. We got our way by speaking in a language they understood.”

Obhoyaronno’s spay-neuter program has now sterilized more than 16,000 free-roaming dogs, and the organization recently entered into a partnership with Dogs Trust International that has allowed Obhoyaronno to expand its clinic and gain critical surgical training.

Ahmad has also taken a science-based approach in her efforts to reduce animal-product consumption.

“The less you create the divide of us versus them, the better, because no one likes to be judged or told what to do.”

“We focus primarily on the health aspect. Eventually, at the right time and with the right platform, we’ll bring in animal welfare, like we do with our dog work now. We openly talk about how inhumane it is to kill dogs, and no one questions that now.”

She says it’s important, too, for activists to see themselves as part of the communities they work in.

“The less you create the divide of us versus them, the better, because no one likes to be judged or told what to do. It helps me to remember that I couldn’t care less about animals when I was young, and I ate meat until I was 30 years old.”

The progress she sees, even when it’s incremental, motivates her to keep going.

Rubaiya Ahmad portrait“It’s the changes in the community, the changes in mindset – every time an animal is saved or someone chooses a vegetarian meal because of what I posted on Facebook,” Ahmad says. “It’s so funny, I’ll post something, and two or three people will comment, and I’ll think no one cares. And then the next week, five messages will show up with pictures of vegetarian food, saying, ‘Because of what you wrote last week, I cooked this.’”

As for what’s next, Ahmad plans to focus on legislative reforms to help Bangladesh’s animals. She knows it’s a tall order, but so was ending dog culling, and she says that’s been the biggest lesson her work has taught her – that nothing is impossible.

“No matter how absurd an idea may seem, if you put your mind to it, you can.”

 

Learn more and support Obhoyaronno – Bangladesh Animal Welfare Foundation and The Bangu Vegan.

Photos and interview by Julie O’Neill. Story by Corinne Benedict.

Seble Nebiyeloul

Seble Nebiyeloul

Seble Nebiyeloul

Co-Founder of the organization International Fund For Africa

 

Photographs by Jo-Anne McArthur.
Interview and text by Corinne Benedict.

Seble Nebiyeloul

Co-Founder of the organization International Fund For Africa

 

Photographs by Jo-Anne McArthur.
Interview and text by Corinne Benedict.

Seble Nebiyeloul was living in New York on 9/11, within walking distance of Ground Zero. The smell that hung in the air after the attacks is still etched in her memory, but she couldn’t pinpoint what it was until she passed a street vendor selling hamburgers.

“Animal flesh and human flesh, when you burn it, it’s one smell. That’s when I said no more animal products.”

“Instantly I said to myself, this was flesh I was smelling,” Nebiyeloul says. “Animal flesh and human flesh, when you burn it, it’s one smell. That’s when I said no more animal products.”

The epiphany made it suddenly clear to her: We are all the same.

“When you start loving animals, you don’t have boundaries. When I became an animal lover, automatically, I loved any creature.”

It’s an ethos that came to define her work with the organization she co-founded in her native Ethiopia a decade later, International Fund for Africa, or IFA, which serves humans and animals alike.

Photo: Children wash their hands in preparation for the plant-based meals offered by IFA at their school.

Besides its sizeable vegan food and health program for school children, IFA’s work has included vocational training for people with limited economic opportunities, improved sanitation in schools, a program that helps girls make reusable menstrual pads, significant investments in maternal and newborn health care, mobile clinics for working animals, sterilization and vaccinations for street dogs, and more.

Nebiyeloul was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Her mother was a secretary. Her father, vice minister of the private cabinet of Emperor Haile Selassie, was executed when Selassie’s government was overthrown in 1974. Nebiyeloul left for the United States a decade later when she was 19.

Photo: School children enjoying attention, and the cameras, at a school outside of Addis Ababa.

Nebiyeloul was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Her mother was a secretary. Her father, vice minister of the private cabinet of Emperor Haile Selassie, was executed when Selassie’s government was overthrown in 1974. Nebiyeloul left for the United States a decade later when she was 19.

Photo: School children enjoying attention, and the cameras, at a school outside of Addis Ababa.

She went to college in Kentucky and then studied health care administration at graduate school at the University of Maryland before settling in New York. It was the city’s many dogs, always out for walks, that helped ignite her love of animals. She bought a Maltese, but had to give him to a relative when her landlord said she couldn’t keep him. By then she was a vegetarian and had begun taking an interest in animal welfare and rights. Her next dog was a rescue. (About the seven dogs she has now, she says, “Without them, I couldn’t live my life.”)

Professionally, she climbed the ladder in the public health field. She was successful and happy but not fulfilled. When her job offered her another promotion to senior management, it didn’t feel quite right. Her cousin, Anteneh Roba, a physician then living in Houston, had been urging her to return to Ethiopia to help him with a nonprofit he was starting to alleviate some of their home country’s widespread poverty and suffering. It was the kind of mission Nebiyeloul had always wanted to take on.

“Yes, I was making good money, and I loved the work that I did,” she says. “But I’d done it. I’d proven to myself that I could do it – as a black woman, as a foreigner. I’d reached what I wanted to be.”

She moved back to Addis Ababa to get IFA off the ground in 2011.

Nebiyeloul loves to cook, and she’s good at it. As she began building IFA – organizational development is another of her talents – she also began working to expose more Ethiopians to vegan food.

Photo: A healthy lunch, provided by IFA, for impoverished children at a school outside Addis Ababa. 

Nebiyeloul loves to cook, and she’s good at it. As she began building IFA – organizational development is another of her talents – she also began working to expose more Ethiopians to vegan food.

Photo: A healthy lunch, provided by IFA, for impoverished children at a school outside Addis Ababa.

“A lot of people came and said to me, ‘If we knew how to cook like this, we would never eat meat, not for animals but for the health reasons.’”

She started with cooking demonstrations and then began serving vegan brunch at yoga classes that a friend was teaching. Nebiyeloul describes her food as Ethiopian adapted to be vegan, with influences from places like Asia, Spain, and the US. She goes for mostly fresh ingredients, lots of spices and herbs, and little salt.

 

The reaction to her cooking was almost always the same, she says – people were shocked that vegan food could be so delicious.

 

IFA’s vegan school food program, which uses Nebiyeloul’s recipes, now serves two meals a day to hundreds of children. It also provides employment for 10 cooks whom IFA trained in a style vastly different from most professional Ethiopian kitchens.

“I’m trying to teach the younger generation that in order to live, you don’t have to eat animal products.”

“Meat is a major part of our food, especially during the holiday time. It’s part of the culture. You have to kill animals. Usually I travel during that time out of Ethiopia. I find it difficult to stay here,” she says. “Animal welfare is a little bit acceptable in this country – I would say, five percent. Animal rights, forget it. It’s a very difficult concept.”

Nebiyeloul draws a line in trying to persuade people to be vegan. Mostly, she prefers to limit her efforts to setting an example, using food rather than words. Vegan cooking is her activism, she says.

“I always respect people’s space. I start discussions only when people express an interest.”

Seven years after its founding, IFA continues to evolve. The organization coordinates closely with A Well Fed World and is working toward sustainable solutions to Ethiopia’s poverty, namely holistic programming that addresses root causes, Nebiyeloul says.

More than 6,000 girls now have reusable menstrual pads, helping to keep them in school, and IFA is preparing to launch a new mushroom production unit to introduce the vegan staple to kids, generate income for IFA’s programs, and serve as a vocational training site for youth who’ve dropped out of school. Recently, IFA responded to a call for humanitarian aid for victims displaced by ethnic violence, providing food, clothing, mattresses and diapers for families in Ethiopia’s Oromia region.

Photo: Young women learn to design and sew their own sanitary pads.

More than 6,000 girls now have reusable menstrual pads, helping to keep them in school, and IFA is preparing to launch a new mushroom production unit to introduce the vegan staple to kids, generate income for IFA’s programs, and serve as a vocational training site for youth who’ve dropped out of school. Recently, IFA responded to a call for humanitarian aid for victims displaced by ethnic violence, providing food, clothing, mattresses and diapers for families in Ethiopia’s Oromia region.

Photo: Young women learn to design and sew their own sanitary pads.

As for the future, Nebiyeloul dreams of someday opening a vegan restaurant and a sanctuary for unwanted and abused donkeys and horses.

“As you grow older and achieve goals, you start to look back and say, ‘What have I done in life?’ I want to give to any other citizen what I got from life,” Nebiyeloul says.

“If you deal with people the right way, the world will be the right place to live.”

Learn more and support the International Fund for Africa.

Photos and interview by Jo-Anne McArthur. Text by Corinne Benedict.