Avalon Llewellyn

Avalon Llewellyn

“I see my activism as a holistic attempt to educate young people.”

 

Avalon Llewellyn. All photos by Jo-Anne McArthur/Unbound Project.

“Just a reminder,” Avalon Llewellyn typed into her phone. “Hosting a VEGAN MEETUP ON SATURDAY!”

T he post on her Instagram account, @tiedyedtofu_, quickly amassed hundreds of likes. When the day came, two dozen people turned out, most of them in their mid- to late-teens, like Llewellyn. They were snacking on vegan doughnuts and sharing recipes and stories at a park in Llewellyn’s native Australia when her phone buzzed. It was one of her 12,000-plus followers, interested in joining the group but hesitant.

“She was 50 or 100 meters away and she didn’t know if she could come or not because she wasn’t vegan,” Llewellyn recalls. “She was so nervous. I think she was about 14. She said, ‘Do you think I can come along? Will everyone hate me?’”

Llewellyn assured her the meetup was judgement-free and open to all.

“She sat down and asked us so many questions,” Llewellyn says. “She went away with so much knowledge.”

Avalon Llewellyn

Now 17, Llewellyn first tried giving up meat when she was 12, around the time she launched her Instagram account. At 13, she went vegan, and in the years since she has helped inspire countless others to do the same. Her target audience is young people, and her main tool is online activism, although her efforts extend well past social media. At 15, she published a 100-page ebook, “The Modern Guide to Going Vegan at a Young Age.” In addition to in-person meetups, she mentors peers over email.

In all of her outreach, she aims to be approachable and understanding, a tack that she says works.

“I always say, ‘My direct messages are open. I’ll be your big sister. Email me about anything,’” explains Llewellyn, who is warm, articulate and brimming with dreams and ideas for the future. “I used to eat meat myself, and I was quite oblivious, so I approach it with kindness.”

There are lots of things for people going vegan, but what I found was there was almost nothing for young people who are still living with parents, who can’t choose everything. So I kept that in mind.

About her Instagram account, where she makes most of her connections, she says, “I seek a balance between education on animal rights, education on veganism, highlighting the wonderful world of vegan food, and posts to remind people I am just your average young person.”

Now in her last year of high school, Llewellyn has lived in Sydney her whole life and has loved animals and activism for about as long. She remembers carefully tracking and observing lizards in her backyard before she’d even started school. By age eight, she was scrawling messages onto homemade posters, including, Poachers should go to hell!

“They were these intense posters,” she laughs, adding that her parents helped her reconsider the hell part. “I had them all planned out – a poachers one, one about whales, a whole collection.”

Soon, Llewellyn was watching documentaries on palm oil and on animal agriculture’s impact on climate change. It was a video about the egg industry and its cruel destruction of male chicks that pushed her to give up meat. Her mother, creative director for a theater company, and her father, an English teacher, were supportive – an advantage that Llewellyn knows many young people don’t have.

About her ebook, she says, “There are lots of things for people going vegan, but what I found was there was almost nothing for young people who are still living with parents, who can’t choose everything. There’s peer pressure. There’s family pressure. There’s school pressure. So I kept that in mind.”

She credits her parents with giving her the courage to carve her own path.

“They always raised me to believe that I had a voice and I could fight for issues I believe in. They taught me to challenge things and always read every side of the story.”

As she’s gotten older and as her Instagram following has grown, Llewellyn says she’s learned a lot about effectively reaching people.

“At the beginning, I was unsure how to get a message across about an inherently violent industry, but still do that quite kindly,” she says. “I’m more able to articulate my ideas now. I can articulate why I’m vegan.”

I suddenly realized, wow, look at all of these people who are doing what they love and turning it into a career and activism. I was mind-blown.

Joining her school’s debate team helped, as did continuing to educate herself about factory farming and other industries that exploit animals.

“A lot of it was learning as much as I could, because the more I knew, the better I could talk about it.”

Her interest in animal rights soon led her to other social justice issues, from racism and women’s and LGBT rights to the environmental costs of overconsumption and rampant plastic use.

“What I noticed was there was so much more than veganism that I could use my platform for,” she says. “I see my activism as a holistic attempt to educate young people.”

Like Instagram, she believes art is an essential tool. Besides writing and photography, she loves embroidery – among her recent pieces is one called “Daddy, Where did the Bees Go?” – and filmmaking. She took two years of film courses in high school and now hopes to make it a significant part of her future.

Llewellyn’s camera and an embroidery piece in progress.

“I suddenly realized, wow, look at all of these people who are doing what they love and turning it into a career and activism,” she says. “I was mind-blown.”

I used to eat meat myself, and I was quite oblivious, so I approach it with kindness.

For her year 10 work experience, she interned at Animal Liberation’s Sydney headquarters. When her supervisors discovered she knew her way around iMovie, they asked her to help edit undercover footage of rabbit and egg farming.

She calls the video she worked on “heartbreaking and shocking,” but adds, “It was an honor to have the opportunity.”

Llewellyn now works at The Cruelty Free Shop, Australia’s first vegan supermarket chain, and runs their Instagram. She also plays the piano, studies French, and loves her many potted plants, which she names (Flo, Beatrice, Mrs. Dursely) and frequently features on her social media.

In the near future, she says, she hopes to release an updated ebook, launch workshops on veganism and activism, and work on an animal rights-related documentary.

“I sometimes wake up with images in my brain or opening scenes of films I hope to make one day.”

Graffiti in Newtown, a particularly vegan-friendly area of Sydney.

Is it all too much for a 17-year-old who is also balancing friends, exams, and planning for the rest of her life?

Sometimes it is, Llewellyn acknowledges.

“This stuff gets a little overwhelming, when I’ve got 10 people wanting answers and loads of emails.”

She has scaled back her activism in recent months as she has struggled with mental illness, something she is open about on Instagram.

“I’ve been chatting with so many of you recently about mental illness, plants, veganism etc.,” she posted recently. “It has just reminded me of how wonderful every single one of you are and how proud I am that all of you are alive and hanging in there.”

She says that’s what gets her through harder days: all of the young people she connects with, and the change she knows they are making.

“I have a lot of faith in my generation,” she says. “I have a lot of faith that we’re going to be able to fix all of this.”


Follow Llewellyn on Instagram @tiedyedtofu_
Photos and interview by Jo-Anne McArthur. Text by Corinne Benedict.

 

The Black Mambas

The Black Mambas

“Their mindset has changed. They’ve seen that
women can do it.”

Yenzekile Mathebula (L) and Leitah Mkhabela (R). All photos by Jo-Anne McArthur/Unbound Project.

Balule Nature Reserve, part of South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park, is home to all of the so-called Big Five: rhinos, elephants, buffalo, leopards, and lions. A fair share of venomous snakes and hyenas roam its 150 square miles, too.

But the most dangerous creatures in this hot, unforgiving landscape are the human predators: poachers, often armed, looking to leave with bushmeat or valuable rhino horn.

Protecting this sanctuary is surely a task best left to men – big ones with guns, right?

Wrong.

For the past five years, a group of a few dozen women, all of them young and from communities immediately surrounding Balule, have been changing minds about what it takes to save wildlife. Now well known as the Black Mambas, their anti-poaching unit patrols unarmed, relying on keen observation, a visible presence and relationships with their neighbours over force.

Felicia Mogakane (L) and Siphewe Sithole (R)

“At first, people around the world thought that anti-poaching is a man’s job,” says Felicia Mogahane, in her late 20s and among the first of the Black Mambas when the nearly all-female unit launched in 2013. “They think women are there for taking care of babies, maybe cooking at home. They never thought that women can protect wildlife and do this dangerous job.

Their mindset has changed because of the Black Mambas. They’ve seen that women can do it.

Now with more than 30 rangers, the Black Mambas have been true pioneers in a profession that is heavily dominated by men, especially in Africa. Most of the unit’s members join shortly after high school, when many of their female peers are prioritizing marriage, home life or jobs seen as more acceptable for women.

Instead, Mambas spend months in intense field training, learning surveillance practices, compliance techniques and how to survive alone in the bush. Once in the unit, they spend three weeks away from home at a time, conducting long patrols, including at night, both by jeep and on foot. Often far from any backup, they dismantle poachers’ camps and snares, come to the aid of animals who’ve been harmed, and search for signs of intrusion, such as breaks in fencing, human tracks and even out-of-place rocks.

In the unit’s early years, members say, many recruits’ families and neighbours were unsupportive. But that has changed as the Mambas, named after the deadly snake, have become internationally known and celebrated. They’ve been featured by countless newspapers, websites and television shows.

“I don’t want to lie,” Mogahane says. “At first my family was so negative about this idea. They said, ‘Don’t go. What about us?’”

Today, relatives take immense pride in her work, she says. And when she is home between stints in the bush, she is bombarded with questions from women who want to follow in her footsteps.

“They always ask me, ‘When are they going to hire more Mambas?’”

What has garnered so much attention isn’t just that the Mambas are among South Africa’s first black women to work as rangers. It’s that what they’re doing is working. Poaching in and around Balule has decreased dramatically since the unit began, including among rhinos, the main species the Mambas were created to protect. In 2015, their success earned them the prestigious United Nations’ Champions of the Earth award.

“We are the best,” Leitah Mkhabela, a Black Mamba in her early 20s, says matter-of-factly.

Mogahane adds, “It’s been insane. They love what we are doing.”

In the years before the Mambas, unit administrator Amy Clark says, two major poaching crises nearly wiped out Kruger’s rhino population, now estimated to be around 9,000. (South Africa is home to about 20,000 rhinos, far more than any other country.)

“Bringing the same tools out of the toolbox wasn’t going to work,” Clark says. “It had already failed twice.”

Convinced that bullets would never be the way, Craig Spencer, who founded the Black Mambas, decided a unit of women could be part of the answer, along with an approach based on deterrence and modeled after the British police: “bobbies on the beat” who are unarmed but well trained, highly regarded and ever-present.

Colin Mathebula and Felicia Mogahane

“The Mambas are the eyes and ears of the reserve,” Mogahane says. “We do visual policing. We look more carefully because we’re not carrying guns. When we’re patrolling in the bush and along the fence, we don’t have time to play.”

We are the best.

Also key is that Black Mambas come from the same communities as the poachers and would-be poachers they are working to stop. Part of their work involves teaching locals that live rhinos are more valuable to South Africans than dead ones. Besides setting an example and promoting their conservation ethos through their patrol work, the Mambas give environmental education lessons in local schools through a program called Bush Babies. They are certain that children of poachers are among those they reach.

Mamba NoCry Mzimba explains her unit’s success a slightly different way: “The poachers, they are afraid of the Mambas. They’re not sure what we’re capable of. That’s our secret.”

She adds, “When we started this, most people didn’t believe in us. But they realized they made a mistake.”

The Mambas acknowledge that their job involves danger and hardship. Many are mothers who rely on family and neighbours to help rear their children while they’re away, and while no Mambas have been killed for their work, they know that poachers have murdered many rangers at other African reserves.

“I sometimes think that they will come to our reserve and do the same thing,” Mogahane, who has two children, confesses. Of her kids, she says, “You wish you could be there to look after them. Sometimes it’s so stressful.”

But what they are protecting is worth it, and so are the now-shattered barriers they’ve broken through, she and other Mambas say.

The poachers, they are afraid of the Mambas. They’re not sure what we’re capable of. That’s our secret.

“I’ve committed myself to saving rhinos and wildlife,” Mogahane says. “I’m used to staying in the bush and doing my job and my beat. As long as I go home sometimes to see my family, it’s ok for me. The animals need my love. As a woman, I feel proud for myself. When I wake up in the morning, I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s me doing this.’ We are sending a message to young women that they must stand up and do things for themselves.”

Mzimba, who says she has loved animals and nature all her life, feels much the same.

“It’s ok,” she says of the job’s sacrifices, “because I’m trying to save animals. Now it is our time. It is our time as ladies to protect nature and make sure everything is better than before.”

She says she has two messages for her community – one for those who support conservation, and another for those working against it.

“To people who love nature, let’s save our wildlife animals. Let’s protect them for future generations’ sake. Because we love it, and I’m 100 percent sure that future generations will also love nature. So let’s do this for them.”

Mzimba pauses a moment, and then continues. “To poachers, you heartbreakers, you heartless people, stop poaching the rhinos. Because sooner or later, you will be poached.”

About the animals they are saving, another Mamba says, “They are just like us. They want love.”

Now it is our time. It is our time as ladies to protect nature and make sure everything is better than before.

She tells the story of one rhino in particular, a male whose mate was shot and killed by poachers. Ever since, he has avoided the place where the shooting happened.

“I can feel that he’s feeling pain. I can say they are just like humans,” she says.

“When they hear our voices, they know it’s us, and we can see they are happy.”


Learn more and support The Black Mambas.
Text by Corinne Benedict, photos by Jo-Anne McArthur.

Katrīna Krīgere

Katrīna Krīgere

“Let’s change the world together”

Katrīna Krīgere. All photos by Jo-Anne McArthur/Unbound Project.

Katrīna Krīgere was hitchhiking through Europe in her 20s when fellow travellers introduced her to veganism. The idea immediately made sense to her. As a child, she’d felt a special kinship with animals, always finding ways to help and be around them.

Upon returning home to her native Latvia, she became a vegetarian, but struggled to go vegan.

“I somehow felt very lonely,” Krīgere recalls, “and at this time in Latvia, being vegetarian was already seen as crazy. I didn’t see any company for me.”

Eventually, she made the jump to veganism, and became more and more involved in animal rights. She was working as a video journalist when she took another huge leap.

“They pushed me to do a lot of commercials, for example, hunting magazines and agriculture magazines. I had to voice them myself and tell these terrible lies.”

Krīgere could hardly bear it. “It really broke my mind,” she says. “I started to get ill very often.”

So with only a little savings to rely on, Krīgere quit to dedicate herself full-time to a two-year-old animal rights organization she’d been running on the side with her partner, Aivars Andersons.

Today, she smiles as she says: “I’m where I want to be.”

Krīgere’s organization, Dzīvnieku brīvība, or “Animal Freedom,” is one of the only animal rights organizations in Latvia, a tiny post-Soviet country with a population of just two million people. With a focus on industrial animal agriculture, fur farming, and the use of animals in entertainment, Dzīvnieku brīvība has little staff or money. The group has started from scratch in nearly all of its endeavors.

“They’re literally writing the book on this type of work as they go,” Alexandria Beck, with the United States-based Humane League, said in a recent video tribute to Dzīvnieku brīvība.

I’m where I want to be.

Despite its challenges, the organization has made a significant mark. It conducts bold investigations, garners significant Latvian media attention, and has won major policy battles. In June, Latvia’s parliament formally banned the use of wild animals in circuses after a long Dzīvnieku brīvība campaign. In a huge victory for the group in December 2017, one of the largest grocery retailers in the region agreed to go cage-free by 2025 after Dzīvnieku brīvība teamed up with organizations in Lithuania and Estonia to pressure the company to improve conditions for egg hens — a victory that will likely lead to more cage-free commitments. And Krīgere and Andersons recently won the Lisa Shapiro Award, which celebrates unsung heroes in the global animal advocacy movement.

Katrīna Krīgere

Krīgere is brave, humble, and endlessly hardworking. For her, Dzīvnieku brīvība is the realization of a life’s purpose she says she’s long felt. She was in the first or second grade when she undertook a one-girl campaign to help a sick, hungry chained dog who she passed each day on her long walk to school in Salaspils, Latvia.

“I made this poster and I put it on the fence, and of course they removed it,” Krīgere remembers. “But I just continued making these posters and putting them on the fence. I don’t know where I got this idea, but I thought, I have to help this dog.”

Before Dzīvnieku brīvība, Andersons says, there were of course vegans and activists in Latvia, but it wasn’t until he and Krīgere and a handful of friends started the organization that he felt like there was any kind of a local movement. They’d become inspired after attending an animal rights gathering in neighboring Estonia and held Dzīvnieku brīvība’s first meeting in a cafe in 2012.

The organization began its efforts with vegan outreach, and then investigations and targeted campaigns, including circus protests. When a trainer who’d been caught on video badly abusing elephants came to Latvia, Dzīvnieku brīvība couldn’t miss the chance to protest him.

It’s a small place, but you can really change things here.

“This first protest was really quite huge for our country, and then attendees said, ‘What next?’” Krīgere recalls. So they kept going, demonstrating at each of the circus’ more than two dozen shows.

“It made us visible and helped people to know us, and we got a lot of new supporters,” she says. It was enough to eventually win the national ban.

“It’s a small place,” Krīgere says of Latvia. “But you can really change things here.”

Andersons says it is Krīgere who keeps Dzīvnieku brīvība running.

“She’s very persistent and focused,” he says. “I sometimes think of strategies, but I don’t follow things through to the detail. She takes care of things and brings a lot of administrative stuff to the organization, and friendliness, too. She is definitely the friendly face of the organization.”

Krīgere says she has gained as much as she has given.

“It’s a great thing,” she says of activism. “It’s one the best things that’s happened in my life. It’s not only that I’m doing something good for animals and for society — because society suffers from being cruel to animals. But it’s also very good for self-development. I learn so much in what I do.”

Let’s change the world together.

She says she’s loved meeting so many brave women through activism; she estimates women make up about 80 percent of the movement here.

“I think we (men and women) are naturally the same,” she says. “But it’s social programming that we get since we’re born, and it’s very powerful. Here, women are very strong. It’s from Soviet times that mostly the leader of the family is female, actually. So it somehow seems very obvious that females are the ones who are trying to make some change and move males to do something. That’s how it works here. I’m not saying 100 percent, but I see it very often, all around.”

Her hope for the future? That more people, regardless of who they are, will join in.

“Let’s change the world together,” Krīgere says. “There are so many problems. This world is so broken. I wish people would become more aware of how each of us is involved in this broken condition, and how each of us has some power to change it.”


Learn more and support Dzīvnieku brīvība.
Text by Corinne Benedict, photos by Jo-Anne McArthur.

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Protecting at-risk gorillas and humans in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

 

Interview and photographs by Jo-Anne McArthur.
Text by Corinne Benedict.

As soon as the call came in that a gorilla was in trouble, Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka was on her way. 

Photo: Dr. Gladys with a park ranger in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

After a long, winding drive from Kampala, Uganda’s capital, she met Kahara, her patient, deep in a red-dirt forest. Kahara had a severe rectal prolapse. Only surgery would save her.

Kalema-Zikusoka had little equipment and no trained help, and the field rangers who’d called her disagreed over whether an operation should be attempted. Rectal prolapses are sometimes caused by inbreeding. Was it right to save a gorilla with bad genes?

Image
Dr. Gladys with tourists on an gorilla trek.
Image
A wild but habituated gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable forest.

And then it struck Kalema-Zikusoka:

The call was hers alone to make — she was the veterinarian, and she hadn’t become one to euthanize mountain gorillas.

A ranger acted as anesthesiologist, monitoring Kahara’s breathing. Table sugar served as a makeshift remedy for swelling.

“In 45 minutes, I was done and she was waking up,” Kalema-Zikusoka recalls. “And even those who said I shouldn’t do it ended up being happy that I did. When I presented [the case] at the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians meeting, everyone was like, ‘You did that yourself? You should have had a board-certified anesthesiologist, a board-certified surgeon.’ But I didn’t have that.”

Photo: Mist over Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

“You just do what you can. You have to do it.”

Such is life in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Remote and impoverished, the area is one of the world’s last sanctuaries for endangered mountain gorillas, and it is where Kalema-Zikusoka has worked for more than 20 years to protect them. As one of her country’s first wildlife veterinarians, she has been a pioneer in her field. She has also championed a unique brand of conservation that has done as much for people as it has for animals.

In 2003, after discovering that humans were the source of a deadly scabies outbreak among Bwindi’s gorillas, Kalema-Zikusoka founded the nonprofit Conservation Through Public Health, or CTPH. Working in Uganda and Virunga National Park in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, CTPH focuses on improving the health of both people and gorillas, and on lifting communities out of poverty.

Photo: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

While much of the rest of the world worries about diseases passing from animals to humans, Kalema-Zikusoka is acutely aware that zoonosis works both ways, from cryptosporidium to tuberculosis to Ebola. Her beloved gorillas, who share more than 98 percent of their DNA with humans, are especially at risk.

 

“In these fragile areas where wildlife, people, and livestock intersect, a decline in any of them affects the survival of the others,” says Kalema-Zikusoka, who is affectionately known here simply as Dr. Gladys.

 

Today, we realize how wildlife, humans, and ecosystems are all interconnected.

This is the idea that CTPH is built upon. In addition to holding mobile clinics for people, the organization trains community volunteers to deliver public health services in villages near protected forests and to help families improve their nutrition and hygiene and seek care when they’re sick. CTPH also helps communities, such as the local Batwa people, raise their living standards. With local coffee farmers, for example, CTPH recently launched Gorilla Conservation Coffee, a social enterprise that trains growers and connects them to national and international markets so they can sell their crops at higher prices.

Photo: Walking into the forests of the Batwa Pygmy communities.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee

Photos: At the Gorilla Coffee plantation.

“We want them to be able to have this livelihood,” Kalema-Zikusoka says, “because it keeps them provided for and out of the forests.”

CTPH has also added a significant family planning effort to help slow population growth and habitat encroachment and break the cycle of poverty in a place where the refrain about family size says: We have 10 children here. Five are for looking after the house and chasing the wild animals away, and five are for school. (CTPH encourages a maximum of four children.)

CTPH volunteers also provide house-to-house conservation education, changing attitudes by teaching people why it’s important to protect forests and gorillas and to limit contact with them.

 

“People used to kill gorillas in their gardens,” Kalema-Zikusoka says. “Now they don’t.”

Other community teams are trained to safely chase gorillas back into forests when they’re found foraging in villages, and to collect dung samples and report any clinical signs they observe — part of CTPH’s disease outbreak early warning system.

Photo: A gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable forest.

The samples, along with specimens from farmed animals and people, are tested for cross-species diseases at CTPH’s Gorilla Health and Community Conservation Centre. Set among tea and banana plantations and breathtaking views of deep green mountains, the centre includes a well-equipped clinical lab that supports CTPH’s robust research mission.

Taking on so much hasn’t been easy, Kalema-Zikusoka acknowledges. But her innovative, holistic approach is paying off. Health among humans and gorillas has improved. Families are having fewer children, and incomes are rising. Along with community conservation, law enforcement has gotten markedly better, so fewer animals are being snared.

In the 1990s, the wild mountain gorilla population was estimated to be about 650. Today, it is around 880.

“Sometimes it’s really frustrating,” says Kalema-Zikusoka, who has a wide smile, a calm presence, and a knack for listening and earning trust. “You go, ‘Why am I doing this? I must be crazy. I should just get a regular job.’ And then you hear about something the community did, or that the gorillas are getting better because of your work. It’s worth it.”

Kalema-Zikusoka was born in 1970 into a big, prominent family. A government minister who’d dedicated himself to developing Uganda, her father was murdered when she was 2 by the brutal regime of the country’s then-president, Idi Amin. Her mother, left to raise six children on her own, took years to recover but went on to become one of the first women to serve in Uganda’s parliament.

 

Growing up in Kampala, Kalema-Zikusoka remembers always having animals at home and being deeply concerned about their wellbeing. When one of her dogs or cats was sick, she’d refuse to go to school until she knew the animal was on the mend. By the time she was a teenager, she’d decided she wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian. She trained at the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College before establishing the first veterinary unit at the Uganda Wildlife Authority, then earning a master’s degree at North Carolina State University in the US.

 

Why gorillas?

“They’re very good mothers,” she says of gorillas. “Always with their babies.”

She admires their playfulness, too, and their curiosity and peacefulness. Yes, she’s been charged by gorillas unaccustomed to people, but she’s never felt truly threatened by one, and she’s never been harmed.

 

“I never get scared when they charge. They’re really nonviolent, the Buddhas of the great ape world. People say the chimp is who we are, and gorillas are who we want to be.”

Kalema-Zikusoka names Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Wangari Maathai, and her parents as her inspirations. Her work has been featured everywhere from CNN to the BBC, and she has received numerous awards, including the Whitley Gold Award for outstanding leadership in grassroots nature conservation. She was chosen as an Ashoka fellow in 2006 (https://www.ashoka.org/en) and in 2018, became a National Geographic Explorer.

She is known all over southwest Uganda. Driving with her means stopping constantly to chat with waving people who are eager to greet and thank her.

“Helping animals helps people” she explains.

Among her hopes for the future is that CTPH will be able to work more extensively in DRC’s Virunga, where, unlike in Uganda, gorillas are routinely poached and rangers trying to protect them are often killed.

“We really need to extend our program there, but it’s difficult because of security.”

Photo: A park ranger in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

She says her biggest accomplishment has been getting even the poorest Ugandans to support conservation, and money that gorillas have helped generate for local communities has played a big part. While much of CTPH’s funding has come from international institutional donors, communities have gained a lot from the growth of responsible gorilla tourism, in which small groups of people are guided on expensive treks to see gorillas who have been gradually habituated to accept visitors.

Kalema-Zikusoka is deliberate about making sure communities understand how gorillas have helped them, and she has helped raise the portion of tourism profits that must go directly to locals.

“Obviously the veterinary work is very important to me, because that’s my passion,” she says. “But then you realize the veterinary work can only help the sick, wild animals, but we’re really trying to save all the gorillas.”

She offers the story of a male gorilla named Ruhondeza who was dying of old age. He knew his time was close, so he’d distanced himself from his group and had settled close to a village.

“We spoke to our volunteers, asking, ‘OK, please educate your community that Ruhondeza is here to stay until he dies. He’s here because he trusts you. He’s seen you for over 20 years. He’s brought you a lot of wealth,’” Kalema-Zikusoka recalls.

Photo: The Gorilla Coffee plantations and agriculture in southern Uganda.

“And they understood. They said, ‘Oh, when one of our own gets old, we look after them.’”

“And they looked after him until he died, and when he died, they called and told me. We came to do the post-mortem and everyone in the community came to look at his grave and pay their last respects.”

Learn more about Conservation Through Public Health and support their work: www.ctph.org

Text by Corinne Benedict. Interview and photographs by Jo-Anne McArthur.

Dobrosława Gogłoza

Dobrosława Gogłoza

“We are here for an ultra-marathon, not a sprint.”

Dobrosława Gogłoza. All images by Jo-Anne McArthur for the Unbound Project.

It’s a fall day in Poznan, Poland, and Dobrosława Gogłoza is at the local zoo of all places. “It’s my first time in a zoo in many, many years,” says Gogłoza, a feminist and former grade school teacher who now dedicates her life to helping animals. She is here to visit a pair of foxes who were rescued from a fur farm by the national animal rights organization she helped launch in 2012, Otwarte Klatki, or OK (branded as Open Cages internationally).

Gogłoza says she never expected to collaborate with a zoo, but this one has taken an impressive public stance against fur farming, a fight that OK has championed. So when the zoo agreed to house the foxes in a roomy enclosure with plenty of privacy, Gogłoza’s group agreed.

Gogłoza says that one of her favorite things about the animal rights movement in Poland, a country of about 40 million people, is that it’s so new that her organization, which focuses on farmed animals, often finds itself laying new ground. OK has exploded in popularity since its inception just five years ago.

“For me, that’s the whole fun of working in Eastern Europe,” she says. “I feel that in some other countries, many organizations feel like they can’t do some things because people are watching and they expect you to behave in a certain way.”

Here, you can show the way, because there was no one before you.

That isn’t to say that pioneering an animal rights movement here has been easy, and it’s OK’s anti-fur work that has been the hardest.

About two years after the group started, its members learned that spies posing as activists had infiltrated the organization, attending its strategy meetings and feeding information to Poland’s entrenched fur industry, which is among the world’s biggest. The spies—two women—had secretly recorded Gogłoza for months, and although they’d come away with nothing damaging, they used heavily edited audio to personally target Gogłoza to try to intimidate her into quitting as OK’s leader.

The media and public saw through it, but the betrayal still took a toll. Gogłoza felt “paranoid” for a time. She worried about trusting even close friends and about making harmless jokes in case someone was listening.

“I had moments where I felt like I was just going to quit,” she says, tears welling. “I felt that the invasion of privacy was quite a big deal.”

Dobrosława Gogłoza

Others with OK­—now with about 300 core activists driving its work—were deeply affected, too. Some wanted new volunteers to sign pledges as to their intentions and loyalty, but Gogłoza objected.

“Even though I personally had problems with trusting people, I felt that as an organization we should not lose this trust, because trusting made us who we are,” she says. “Year after year, I’ve seen that many of the great things we’ve done have been done by people who are very new to the organization. So I think the fact that we actually trusted them made them motivated to show their best abilities and best ideas.”

Ultimately, she says, the experience made her stronger, which is how many who know her describe her.

“I don’t think I was born that way,” she says, “but many different things made me stronger and stronger. Like after this whole thing, I feel much stronger than before. Even though when it happened I felt on the verge of quitting, I think now they would have to do much more to get me to the same point.”

Growing up in Namysłów, a small town in southwest Poland, Gogłoza was quiet and shy. In college, she studied English philology and became drawn to the hardcore straight edge scene, which espouses abstention from drugs, alcohol and animal products. She went vegan and soon got involved with local feminists. But something was missing.

“It felt like a hobby,” she says, “not activism.”

Then a friend invited her to an international animal rights gathering in Oslo. This was activism, she remembers thinking, and she fell in love.

Nothing like what she’d seen in Norway was happening in Poland, so with a handful of others, she started an informal, grassroots group that became OK. Gogłoza continued to attend animal rights gatherings outside of Poland and then decided to host one at home. It was a turning point.

“The movement in Poland before that and after that were two absolutely different situations,” she says.

Besides fur, OK focuses heavily on egg farming and broiler chickens, carrying out investigations and producing virtual reality videos that it leverages to establish dialogues with corporations. One of Poland’s largest egg producers recently declared bankruptcy as a result, and others have adopted cage-free policies.

OK also promotes plant-based eating, targeting both food businesses and consumers.

Gogłoza and OK are “truly the piston for the animal rights movement in Poland,” says Iga Glazewska, who nominated Gogłoza for the Unbound Project.

And OK is at the center of the Network for Eastern European Animal Rights (NEAR), which Gogłoza helped launch in 2013 to advance the movement regionally. NEAR now includes activists and organizations in Czechia, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Romania, and Bulgaria.

“We are trying to implement our best practices to work in other countries,” Gogłoza says. “Even if we don’t have big resources, we are still very committed to sharing them.”

Animal industry operates internationally, and we have to do it as well.

She also believes the movement must be diverse. She recently spoke at the Conference on Animal Rights in Europe about the challenges of being a female leader, and about the intersection of animal rights and feminism.

“If we really want things to be more equal for female leaders in the animal rights movement or elsewhere in society, we personally have to do more,” she says. “Every time you succeed as a female leader or woman in the movement doing great work, you’re actually making it easier for other women. It makes me angry when I hear people say, ‘I did not invite more female speakers to the conference because there are not enough professional women.’ I feel that if you organize an event, you’re partly responsible for who you are showing as the spokespeople for the movement.”

Besides her strength, Gogłoza is often praised for being highly strategic. OK is quick to learn from mistakes and drop what isn’t working. It has stopped giving educational talks in schools, publishing an online magazine and using certain social media sites—all because its activists have deemed other uses of their time more effective.

It has also paid close attention to what works best in sharing investigation results. For example, compared to data, OK found it far more effective to reveal to the public that mother foxes on fur farms were so stressed they were chewing limbs off of their babies. The same went for naming individual rescued fox cubs.

This taught OK that its focus should be on telling a cohesive, relatable story.

Gogłoza credits all of this to OK’s structure and culture—flat, accessible, open, unafraid of failure, and unreliant on someone at the top telling everyone else what to do.

With this organization, I could quit now, and it would survive. I think that’s one of my greatest achievements. I know that we are resilient.

“We are here for an ultra-marathon, not a sprint.”


Learn more about Otwarte Klatki/Open Cages and support their work.
Text by Corinne Benedict. Interview and photographs by Jo-Anne McArthur.