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?

Dr. Gladys with tourists on an gorilla trek.
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.

Juliana Castañeda

Juliana Castañeda

“Once we fully understand that we are all equals, just with a different body, we will find the solution to all our problems.”

Castañeda and her son with sanctuary residents. All photos in this story taken by Julie O’Neill for the Unbound Project.

The first rescue Juliana Castañeda remembers was a little white dog she found on the streets of Colombia when she was seven. He was hungry and dirty, so Castañeda scooped him up and carried him home. She named him Copito, or Q-tip.

More rescues soon followed, including dogs, cats, birds and rodents. Castañeda even once brought home an abandoned little boy—street children are not uncommon in Colombia—whom she fed in her room for days before her mother discovered him.

To Castañeda, it was all the same: If someone needed help, you helped, regardless of species.

Hundreds of rescues later, her feelings haven’t changed.

Once we fully understand that we are all equals, just with a different body, we will find the solution to all our problems.

Warm, sincere and endlessly nurturing, Castañeda is founding director of Juliana’s Animal Sanctuary, which she officially opened in 2008, although most of her life had been dedicated to the idea. Within a few years of finding Copito, she was selling chocolates and veggie burgers at school, saving all of her profits for her “dream.”

“I told my mother, ‘When I grow up, I want to buy a big house, and I am going to help all the animals in the world,’” she recalls.

As much as Castañeda is a dreamer, she is even more of a doer. It is perhaps the best way to describe her: always doing.

Her recent pregnancy was no exception. She says the hardest part was the last week, when her belly got so big that she finally had to leave her animals’ care to volunteers. But after 20-plus hours of labor and the 10 p.m. home birth of her son, Bhimal, her belly was no longer in her way, so she was up feeding animals the next morning.

“I can’t remember the last time I sat down and relaxed,” Castañeda, who has dark reddish-brown hair and a bright smile, says laughing. “My body does get tired, but I love my work so much.”

Castañeda with her son Bhimal and rabbits at the sanctuary

That work includes far more than taking care of the sanctuary’s 80 or so animals, among them cows, pigs, horses, dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, roosters and more—all of whom Castañeda considers her children. She also hosts sanctuary visitors, gives talks at local schools, fundraises, and promotes veganism through education, a meat-free Monday campaign and cooking workshops in Colombia and beyond.

And that is just one of her jobs. With only about a fifth of the sanctuary’s costs covered by donations, Castañeda helps make up the rest through online work as a Spanish language translator. She brings in additional money selling handmade jewelry.

On top of all that, she runs a robust local project as part of Food for Life, a global relief organization that provides vegan meals for the poor. Her husband, Australian Paul Turner, whom she met through Food for Life in 2013, helped start the nonprofit decades ago.

Turner’s experience and help have been instrumental in boosting support for the sanctuary from overseas; nearly all of its volunteers and donations come from outside Colombia.

“Colombia is not a rich country and is still very ignorant when it comes to animal protection,” she says, describing the country as an extremely challenging place to help animals.

We have a huge responsibility. We are literally the only hope and haven for animals in this country.

She says she can’t imagine doing anything else with her life, and it is the animals who keep her going.

“They give me all the energy to never stop.”

She offers the story of one in particular, a cow named Gita, who Castañeda rescued from a slaughterhouse 10 years ago. When Castañeda first saw her, workers were trying force Gita into submission by electrocuting her.

“They were trying everything to break her spirit, but she was determined to maintain her dignity,” Castañeda remembers. “I named her Gita, which means ‘song.’ Gita is an example for everyone. The animals are my inspiration. Even after so much pain has been inflicted on them, they still come to you with love. They know everything about forgiveness.”

It is by rediscovering our connection with animals, by meeting and spending time with them, that Castañeda believes we will learn to stop harming them.

Sanctuary resident Balarama

She offers another example, a 1,300-pound bull named Balarama who came to the sanctuary as a calf and whose face is tattooed on Castañeda’s left arm.

“He is a huge animal, but he is like a kitten. He purrs and everything,” she says. Castañeda has seen him change nearly everyone who has met him.

“They’ve told me, they write to me, ‘He is my friend. I cannot eat animals again.’ He is connecting people to all the bulls in the world.”

Castañeda sees mothers and children as another key. Kids are naturally inclined to be kind to animals, but many have told her they couldn’t go vegan because of their families. So Castañeda decided to begin targeting moms.

“The mother is the boss of the table,” in much of South America, she says, “so we have to teach the bosses.”

Castañeda always imagined that she would become a mom herself, but it was her efforts to reach others that made her want to have her son when she did.

“Before, many mothers were upset with me because their kids were turning vegan thanks to visiting the sanctuary or a vegan food workshop. They told me, ‘You don’t understand! You don’t have kids!’” Castañeda says.

“Now I can say to these mothers, ‘Yes, I really do understand.’”

In addition to moms, she hopes animal activists can learn from her example.

“I live in a poor, crazy country, and I am doing this,” she says.

“Anything is possible.”

Learn more and support Juliana’s Animal Sanctuary.
Photos and interview for this story by Julie O’Neill. Text by Corrine Benedict.

Smaragda Louw

Smaragda Louw

“We want animals to have rights because of who they are.”

L-R: Kathy Watson, Smaragda Louw, Prathna Singh, Kathy Raffray. All photopgraphs for this story by Jo-Anne McArthur/The Unbound Project.

On Fridays in South Africa, animals on sale for weekend sacrifices are everywhere. For those who follow local indigenous traditions, births, deaths, weddings, and cleansing ceremonies are all reasons to end animals’ lives, often painfully.

Traditional healers here peddle tea made from pangolins. Endangered species are sold openly in busy markets. Tigers can be kept legally as backyard pets, and South Africa is ground zero for canned hunting.

This is a tough place to be an animal rights activist.

It’s a good thing Smaragda Louw is tough too.

A mother of two grown children who spent decades as a child psychologist, Louw is chairperson of Ban Animal Trading, or BAT, a South African non-profit that she co-founded with a handful of friends in 2013. Through education, investigations, protests, petitions, media campaigns and more, the organization is working to turn the tide for all sorts of animals here, from cats and dogs sold online and in pet shops to those used in circuses, for their fur, and for experiments.

“We don’t want South Africans to see animals as commodities,” says Louw, whose petite stature belies nearly everything about her. “We want animals to have rights because of who they are.”

BAT is only a few years old and has no formal office or paid staff. But already it has made a name for itself as a formidable force that doesn’t back down.

I’ve just always had a connection with animals, since I was small.

Louw’s reputation is much the same, and she looms especially large in the minds of South Africans who profit from animal exploitation. Energetic and engaging, she is the kind of person who is willing to go anywhere to help those who can’t speak for themselves, including places she knows she isn’t wanted, like chummy closed-door meetings between hunters’ groups and the government officials who are supposed to regulate them. Or to a crocodile farm where she’s recognized and told to leave before somehow getting in anyway. Or to a municipal rabbit park accused of massive neglect, where she chats up a manager until she is sitting behind his desk, dictating what must improve.

Says friend Liane Craigie, “She is not afraid of anything when it concerns animals.”

Nor is Louw willing to apologize for what she knows is right. Recalling her answer when someone asked her recently to justify her efforts in a country with its share of human suffering, she says, “Because people can actually talk, and because there are other people doing this for people, so I prefer to do it for animals. I don’t have a problem if you work for people. That’s absolutely fine. But don’t criticize what we do.”

It’s a passion whose beginning Louw can’t exactly pinpoint, but it started when she was young. “I’ve just always had a connection with animals, since I was small,” she says.

A native of South Africa and a vegan, she has long been deeply disheartened by prevailing attitudes toward animals here, including the notion that animal rights is a movement only for privileged whites. For years while working as a psychologist, she dedicated whatever time she could to helping animals. She quit her job in 2010 to make activism her full-time purpose, co-founding BAT about three years later. The organization became an officially registered non-profit in 2015.

“Dealing with human problems and animal problems eventually becomes too much,” Louw says of leaving her first profession. “So, I chose to fight for animals.”

Of that choice, she says, “I’ve often thought there’s something in you that just tells you, ‘This is what you do.’”

By all accounts, Louw and BAT—now with a core team of eight women—do it well.

While the organization has embraced its menacing image to an extent, it has also been deliberate about not putting off potential supporters.

“Individually we may see things differently, but when we talk as Ban Animal Trading, we reach for middle ground,” Louw says. “We don’t want people to think we’re a fringe group. We want people to see us as something they can be a part of.”

That inclusive approach has served BAT well, with support for the organization—volunteers, media interest, online hits—exploding.

I’ve often thought there’s something in you that just tells you, ‘This is what you do.’

Indeed, Louw and some of BAT’s other core members have become so well known that they can no longer conduct undercover investigations themselves.

“She draws people in,” Cora Bailey, of Community Led Animal Welfare, says of Louw. “Smaragda has done so much for the profile of animal rights in South Africa. She’s been what people have needed.”

Another big part of BAT’s success has simply been how hard the team works. Some days Louw and her teammates are organizing marches and answering calls and blowing up social media with posts about the horrors of live-animal export. Other days they’re in the field, checking on cruelty and neglect reports, following up on cases and carrying out investigations.

“I think it’s really important to have new stuff coming out, to show people what is really happening,” Louw says. “I think it gives us a little more clout to get stuff done. We’re not just an organization regurgitating what everybody else gives us.”

Adds Prathna Singh, a core BAT activist, “We’re using stuff that we’ve actually seen ourselves, so when we try to fight something, it’s because we know exactly what’s happening, and we’re bringing that to the public.”

While Louw has no qualms about going head to head with animal abusers and officials who protect them, she also recognizes the importance of working with the system where it is beneficial. BAT produces meticulously researched reports on animal welfare issues, such as pet sales and wildlife trafficking, and submits them to authorities with petitions and recommendations for change. Last year, BAT successfully persuaded three of South Africa’s biggest online classified companies to stop certain animal sales, and it is now working for a total ban.

“It’s a long road that we’re walking and we know that,” Louw says. But, she adds, “We’re making progress.”

She admits the need surrounding her can be overwhelming: The calls are constant; Louw is always on the phone. There are far more issues to tackle than there is time. There are always more animals to help.

People and society are always the reason why policies change, so we have to start by showing people that the commoditization of animals is wrong.

It’s why she’s had to learn to let some losses go, and to pace herself.

“It’s OK to have duvet days and pajama days,” she says.

It’s also why BAT has made education and changing minds a top focus. While working case by case and issue by issue is valuable, Louw is convinced that real change will only come when there is a true groundswell of compassionate action for animals—which she says is BAT’s ultimate goal.

“People and society are always the reason why policies change, so we have to start by showing people that the commoditization of animals is wrong.”

Among the less conventional tools BAT is trying is a soon-to-be-published children’s book covering milk, leather, wool and more.

Even though Louw describes the status quo in South Africa as a “free-for-all” where “anything goes,” she says she also sees reason for hope.

She sees it in the pro bono lawyers who donate their time to help BAT and in the local thrift shop and comedy club that contribute some of their profits.

She sees it in the activists who turn up for BAT’s events and in the animals for whom they’ve made a difference.

L-R: Prathna Singh, Kathy Raffray, Smaragda Louw

Yes, she says, BAT has garnered strong opposition from animal traders and exploiters. But that just means she and her teammates are finding cracks in the system, prying them open and getting somewhere.

And with most people Louw meets, she says, she finds no opposition at all.

“When we start talking to people and giving them information—they watch our videos and see our Facebook page—most people are actually really grateful, because they say they didn’t know.”

She sees it often when BAT hands out flyers outside of zoos and circuses and other places where animals suffer.

“People turn around and leave,” she says.

“Because they didn’t know.”

Thanks to Louw and her team, more people than ever know the truth, and one flyer and one rescued animal at a time, their work is changing the fate of animals in South Africa.

Learn more about Ban Animal Trading and support their work.