Dr. Charu Chandrasekera

Dr. Charu Chandrasekera

“It is going to happen in my lifetime, and it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.”

On a warm October day in Halifax, Dr. Charu Chandrasekera is attending the inaugural Canadian Animal Law Conference, to speak on a panel entitled, ‘Ending Animal Experimentation: New Advances.’ That same weekend, coincidentally, the Canadian Cancer Society’s CIBC Run For The Cure is also taking place, to raise funds for breast cancer research. As Dr. Chandrasekera and I sit in a coffee shop to discuss her work, participants jog by and she quips: “I wish I could tell them they are not running for a cure. They are running from a cure.”

And so began a conversation both enlightening and enraging, detailing Dr. Chandrasekera’s journey as a biomedical scientist growing increasingly disenchanted by the system within which she works, specifically due to the use of animal models in research.

Though her story lands her today as the Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, it surprisingly didn’t start with concern for animals.

“The journey didn’t start with anything to do with animals,” she says, “it was me trying to be a scientist.” In her postdoctoral training following her PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology, Dr. Chandrasekera says she actually specifically worked in animal research labs, “because it was ingrained in you that animal research is absolutely essential; and I believed it, I trusted it.”

Heart failure was her area of research, mice and rats her test subjects. “Some of the labs I worked in also had rabbit models, and I saw people working dog models of heart failure as well,” she says. Soon into the work, however, Dr. Chandrasekera says, “it became very obvious that the work I was doing was not translatable [to humans] the way I thought it was.” And though she would continue this work for a few years, she would also continue to question the purpose and effectiveness of testing on animals. “In the field that I was involved in, nothing was really reproducible; there were so many discrepancies and contradictions even among the top-notch researchers in that field.”

Today, she notes, drugs tested to be safe and/or effective in animal models have a 95 percent failure rate in human trials. Yes, read that over again.

During this period, says Dr. Chandrasekera, “while I was going through this whole experience in these animal research labs where scientifically they weren’t working, I was also going through a personal, moral journey at home.” Becoming visibly choked up, Dr. Chandrasekera speaks of her dear cat Mowgli, a grey tabby with green eyes.

“She [Mowgli] taught me all about animal sentience for the first time in my life, about who animals really are. That they are just like us, they feel pain, they feel joy, they are mischievous, they get mad, they like to enjoy, and they are conscious.”

There was a certain innocence and purity in Mowgli’s eyes, she says, that captivated her heart. “And soon enough, there were times when I would go into the lab and I would see the exact same innocence and purity in the eyes of a mouse. And to me, there was no difference between Mowgli and the mouse I was giving heart disease to.” Combined with the scientific failures of animal research, she says, “it was no longer justifiable.”

It was around this time, Dr. Chandrasekera also adds that she viewed the documentary Cowspiracy, and immediately went vegan.

But it was in 2011 that Dr. Chandrasekera says she reached a point she describes as life-altering when her father had a heart attack and required bypass surgery. After staying at his bedside for weeks, she returned to the lab where they were working on heart failure research, specifically regarding certain receptors, if activated properly during a heart attack could be protective of the heart. “We had a number of different animal models of this,” she says, “and when I came back to the lab I talked to my professor I was working for, and I said ‘Do you think these receptors were activated in my dad during his heart attack?’ and he said –I’ll never forget this– ‘How the hell would I know? We’ve never looked at this in the human heart.’”

It was at that moment, she says, “everything within me sort of froze, and I thought, ‘What am I doing this for?’”

By 2012, Dr. Chandrasekera left traditional academia. She joined the American non-profit, The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which promotes plant-based eating, as well as preventive medicine and alternatives to animal research. “It was during this period that I was exposed to this whole other world. I got to interact with big players across the globe, people who were legitimate scientists, who were regulators, who were pharma industry, who were investing and actively promoting alternatives to animal testing.” She calls it an awakening, an awakening within her, as well as within the scientific community.

“There was a huge global shift. Countries like the Netherlands just came up and said, ‘We’re going to end all animal testing for chemical safety by 2025’; all these things were happening,” she says.

“From Brazil to East Asia, there are many countries that have dedicated federally funded research to shift away from animal testing.”

Whenever she would attend international meetings however, “people always asked, ‘How come there is no centre for alternatives in Canada?’” That’s when Dr. Chandrasekera knew what she needed to do next.

So in 2016, Dr. Chandrasekera approached the Vice President of Research and Innovation at the University of Windsor with a proposal, and said “How would you like to have a centre like that here?” He was fully on board, she says, as was the new Dean of Science, and in less than a year the Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods was established. With the help of a “transformative gift from the Eric S. Margolis Family Foundation,” she says, the centre now works in three main areas: biomedical research, regulatory testing, and developing courses and degrees focused on “training the next generation to think outside the cage.”

Dr. Chandrasekera says she can now foresee a future without animal testing.

“It is going to happen in my lifetime, and it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.”

As another Run For the Cure participant saunters by the coffee shop window, Dr. Chandrasekera concludes: “This is about animals and this is about people like my dad. Alternatives to animal testing are where the world is headed, whether the scientific community likes it or not.”

 

Photos of Dr. Charu Chandrasekera by Frank Michael Photography. All other photos by Jo-Anne McArthur. Interview and story by Jessica Scott-Reid.

Jessica Scott-Reid is a Canadian journalist and animal advocate. Her work appears regularly in the Globe and Mail, New York Daily News, Toronto Star, Maclean’s Magazine and others.

Liz Dee

Liz Dee

“We need to be everywhere; animals need our voices everywhere.”

Liz Dee, Founder of Vegan Ladyboss

Liz Dee wears a lot of hats. As co-president of Smarties Candy Company, CEO of Baleine & Bjorn Capital and founder of Vegan Ladyboss, she credits strict time management and her very own superpower—being vegan—with helping her to do it all. “Smarties is my day job, Baleine & Bjorn Capital is my side hustle, and Vegan Ladyboss is my passion project,” she explains. And she’s killing it, all while inspiring other women to fulfill their own professional goals in addition to making a difference for animals and the planet.

Dee’s journey toward animal advocacy came about unexpectedly. While working with Smarties Candy Company (aka Rockets, in Canada) in 2011, she took on the task of putting together the company’s Frequently Asked Questions webpage. “I was communicating with our customer services team trying to figure out what the most frequently asked questions were so we could anticipate them and answer them,” she says. “And one of the questions they indicated came up a lot was regarding whether or not Smarties were vegan or vegetarian.” Dee says she knew then what the two terms meant, but wanted to better understand where her vegan and vegetarian customers were coming from, what made this particular question so important. “I was reading about why people become vegan or vegetarian, and then I saw links to videos.” After hesitating to click, knowing what she was sure to see, she eventually did, “and once I started seeing what really happens in factory farms, in slaughterhouses, I couldn’t un-see that.” Dee says the truth hit her hard, and she went vegan on the spot.

“I went into it thinking I was just going to do this task for work and then move on, and left giving away my lunch.”

That one Monday morning at the office has led Dee down a path that would find her five years later establishing, alongside her husband, Baleine & Bjorn Capital, investing in “companies creating solutions to outdated animal products,” according to their website. On their roster are brands such as Memphis Meats, Purple Carrot and Vaute. One of the companies Dee is most excited to be working with today, she says, is Good Catch, which develops plant based aquatic animal alternatives. “When it comes to the mass slaughter and consumption of animals, we talk about land animals in the billions and we talk about aquatic animals in the trillions,” she notes, “and because of that scientists are predicting there will be no more aquatic life, like there is today, by 2048.” Dee says the space for aquatic animal food alternatives, both plant-based and lab-grown, “is so clear and open for disruption. We need more plant based aquatic animal alternatives on the market, and Good Catch is one of the big players doing that. And they’re so new. So this is just the beginning. We know this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

That same year, Dee created what has today become an international sensation, featured in Forbes, and growing by the day: Vegan Ladyboss. The empowering networking events for any and all vegans who identify as female, started off in New York City, and now take place in over seventy cities across the globe. “There are still issues with living in patriarchal culture,” she says, “so I thought it would be important for women to have a space, and not just women but vegan women, because sometimes being a woman can be isolating, particularly in certain industries, and being vegan can be isolating, because we live in this omnivorous, carnist world.” Starting with the desire to carve out a space for herself to be among fellow vegan women, turns out, she says, “other people wanted that space too.” Dee is busy, to say the least.

As a businesswoman, entrepreneur, animal advocate and the only vegan in her workplace, she has sound advice for other vegan women coping with the challenges of seeking success whilst also trying to make a difference for animals and the world: “Think beyond today and tomorrow, and towards the impact you’d like to be making more strategically,” she says.

“Sometimes when you are the only vegan in your office, you can make a bigger impact by staying there than if you moved to an animal rights organization. We need to be everywhere; animals need our voices everywhere.”

 

Photos courtesy of Vegan Lady Boss. Interview and story by Jessica Scott-Reid.

Jessica Scott-Reid is a Canadian journalist and animal advocate. Her work appears regularly in the Globe and Mail, New York Daily News, Toronto Star, Maclean’s Magazine and others. 

Leah Garcés

Leah Garcés

“Thinking of the biggest target that we can move the furthest.”

Leah Garcés - Mercy For Animals

When Leah Garcés was in college, she wanted to be a veterinarian. She had grown up in the swamps of Florida and was fascinated by the wildlife in her backyard. She knew from a young age she wanted to help animals and, after watching PETA’s pioneering documentary “Meet Your Meat,” she became vegetarian at age fifteen. After completing college however, a mentor took Garcés aside and told her: “You don’t want to be a vet, because vets fix animals once they are broken, and you’re curious about the root of the problem.” He was right, she says. “My whole career after that was looking at pieces of the root, at all the ways we cause suffering on the planet.” It has been that desire, to get to the root of animal suffering that has led Garcés down an impressive path of animal advocacy, working with World Animal Protection, Compassion in World Farming USA, and today, as the first female president for one of the largest farmed animal advocacy organizations in the world, Mercy for Animals (MFA).

“You don’t want to be a vet, because vets fix animals once they are broken, and you’re curious about the root of the problem.”

By age 30, Garcés had travelled to 30 countries through her work overseeing global campaigns and programs for World Animal Protection (known then as World Society for the Protection of Animals). “Stray dog control in India, bear bile farming in China, stopping dolphins being transported from Fiji to Mexican dolphinariums,” she says, exposed her to animal exploitation on a global scale from early on in her career. But while she felt she was tackling important pieces of the problem, she still sought to dig deeper toward the true foundation of animal suffering. And today, Garcés says, her work with MFA is getting her there. “It’s the place where we can have the most impact, where I can do the most good, for getting to the root of that problem, of solving and ending factory farming, ending the exploitation of animals for food.” And at that root, Garcés explains, is a complex intersection of many social justice issues.

Garcés says her inevitable move to veganism was inspired by her three kids. “I went vegan because of them,” she says, explaining how it was through breastfeeding that she finally made the connection to the exploitation of dairy cows. “I thought, that bond that I had with my son was the bond that the mother and the calf have, and – what am I doing? This isn’t necessary.” She did have fears however, as so many vegan parents do, of social ridicule and closeminded pediatricians. But now, only a few years later, she says her perspective has changed. She says she considers herself as working to change that dominant narrative in society, “the more I come forward that my kids are vegan, and they are super healthy, and fantastic. It’s consistent with my principles and morals and values, and it’s very a natural thing for a kid to recognize and understand.”

True to that nurturing nature, for Garcés, the fight to end the exploitation of farmed animals also includes fighting to end the exploitation of people. By taking an intersectional approach to animal rights as a social justice issue, Garcés believes we can all gain both a broader picture of the suffering inherent in factory farming, and a stronger united voice to fight it. “Workers’ rights is a big area, and especially latinx women who are in the [US] processing plants,” she says. “Let’s call them what they are, they are slaughterhouses; they are violent and bloody and fast and cold, and the labour force that is there is being abused as well, and they can’t speak up,” she says. “They are also voiceless.”

“And that’s America’s favourite food, favorite protein: chicken. And it’s built on the back of these humiliations and abuses.”

Increased kill-line speeds in the US is one example of an issue Garcés says animal rights and workers’ rights activists can and should unite on. “Line speeds right now are sped up to 175 birds a minute. Not only is that horrific for the animal – a horrible death where they end up scalded alive – the women have to do these repetitive motions, where they can’t even leave to go to the bathroom. If they leave their station, the whole thing falls apart, so they wear diapers or pee in their pants, and that’s humiliating,” she says. “And that’s America’s favourite food, favourite protein: chicken. And it’s built on the back of these humiliations and abuses.”

Garcés takes a similarly intersectional and empathetic approach to her work with animal farmers and animal product producers. In September of this year she will publish a book entitled Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry, which will detail her experiences working with farmers, suppliers, and restaurant chains to seek an end to factory farming. Listening to industrial farmers can be an important strategy for animal advocates, Garcés says. “At worst, you’re going to find out something that helps you with your movement. But at best, you’re going to find some common ground to build on.” Go in with the mindset, she adds: “that you don’t know who they are and why they made their choices, and that you need to learn that to solve the problem.” That’s how to get to the root, she says. “Why did a farmer make that choice to become a factory farmer? Go back and back and back, and we get to the point before they made that decision and tackle it there; which is poverty in rural America, and lack of job choices. So, we need to find jobs for them, and then they won’t choose factory farming.”

“Go back and back and back, and we get to the point before they made that decision and tackle it there.”

Garcés’ holistic approach to animal protection has also led her and the MFA team to now shift focus to include much broader targets. “Institutional change is the most important use of our resources and time right now,” she says. “Thinking of the biggest target that we can move the furthest.” So as Garcés and MFA move forward, their sights are set on putting pressure on companies and government, “to make big meaningful steps, that we can hold them accountable to and we can measure.”

Seeking to find what lies at the root of animal suffering has allowed Garcés to truly see the whole problem, to empathize with all individuals exploited by institutionalized animal cruelty, and to set her sights on the powers that be. As the first female president of one of the biggest players in the global animal advocacy movement, this strategy is set to have a profound impact.

 

Photos courtesy of Mercy For Animals and Charlie’s Acres Farm Animal Sanctuary. Interview and story by Jessica Scott-Reid.

Jessica Scott-Reid is a Canadian journalist and animal advocate. Her work appears regularly in the Globe and Mail, New York Daily News, Toronto Star, Maclean’s Magazine and others.