Rebecca Knowles

Rebecca Knowles

“Times are changing, indeed.”

Rebecca Knowles is that rare combination of gentle warmth that puts you at ease in a moment, powerful intellect that allows her to read scientific papers and pick out key messages, and fearless determination. It is a powerful mix and explains, perhaps, how this unsung hero has quietly, yet dramatically, driven up the visibility, acceptance and adoption of veganism in Scotland. And it all began many years ago with a stray dog in Japan.

Rebecca was working as an English teacher in Ibaraki prefecture where she found herself caring for three abandoned dogs and two cats. “Like most of my life, it wasn’t planned,” she says, but once she and her partner had nursed these needy animals through distemper and back to health, they could not let them go again. Rebecca had wanted to come home to Scotland, but could not bear the thought of the animals being quarantined for six months. That decided it. She and her American partner moved to the United States instead, settling in southern New Mexico at the foot of Mount Taylor – one of the four sacred Navajo mountains.

There, she trained as a Clinical Mental Health Therapist working in a variety of places including a group home for pregnant and parenting teenage girls, a large domestic violence shelter, the county jail, a women’s prison, an acute psychiatric hospital, and latterly owning her own health clinic.

Rebecca Knowles and Princess the rescue dogThey moved further south to live on the border of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, and their three rescued dogs became eight, which meant they needed larger premises and some land.

“I went to view a place that sounded ideal,” says Knowles. “There was plenty of land for the dogs to roam around in and it was outside the city. There were also outbuildings. I asked the owner what she used them for. She opened the door to reveal wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling cages. She bred dogs. The noise was deafening and I was horrified.”

The owner was retiring and Rebecca asked her what she was going to do with all the dogs. The woman replied that she would keep a few, but that most would be put to sleep. Knowles was shocked. “Well, no one’s going to want to look after a bunch of old dogs”, the breeder replied, and without a thought, the words “I do” came from Knowles’ mouth.

She describes that instantaneous decision as “the most logical thing in the world”.

And that is how eight dogs became 40 overnight. “We tore out all the cages to find rodents in the walls, and then spent a lot of time trying to save wee baby mice! Then we were able to let the dogs out to run around on the grass. They had never touched the earth before, and never felt the softness of a blanket either. They went crazy! Rubbing themselves, rolling on their backs, and running around excitedly.”

Inevitably some of the dogs were pregnant, and so the work to care for them was only just beginning. Despite the stress of it all, and her work caring for humans in need, too, Knowles describes these dogs as “one of life’s gifts to me”.

El Paso gave Knowles another gift: she met her first vegan. She had been vegetarian since her time in Japan, when she woke up one morning with a troubling thought:

“If I say I’m an animal-lover, and yet I eat animals, I’m a hypocrite.”

She immediately became vegetarian, but knew nothing of the suffering in the dairy and egg industries until that fateful day she met a vegan in Texas.

It changed everything and she became involved in outreach and activism for farmed animals. She was part of the lobby group (Animal Protection Voters) that resulted in cock fighting finally being abolished in New Mexico. She volunteered with the Chihuahuan Desert Wildlife Relief, and was an active campaigner with Mercy for Animals and PETA. And yet she still wanted to come home.

As her old dogs reached the ends of their natural lives, she found she was able to contemplate bringing the rest home. There were “just” 15 dogs and two cats left.

They found a rental property in the Highlands that had enough land, and her husband, Vishnu, moved to the UK while Knowles initially remained in the US to begin the mentally and physically challenging rounds of paperwork, vet visits, bureaucracy, drilling holes in crates, booking flights, and overnight drives to Arizona that would eventually bring all their dear animals home to Scotland. “It felt like the biggest mountain I had ever climbed in my life,” she says.

“I thought, if I can do this, there’s going to be nothing in life that is too difficult.”

It was springtime when they arrived, and the fields were full of lambs. It was a sight Knowles hadn’t seen for a very long time. “I would give our neighbour lifts into Inverness,” she says “and she would go on about how sweet and adorable the lambs were and in exchange I would tell her the truth: four to six months – that’s the average life expectancy of one of these innocent, fun-loving creatures.”

And that’s how Vegan Outreach Scotland started, with just one woman wanting to tell people the truth. She made a Spring Lamb flier, and hit the pavements of Inverness handing them out and talking to people about this completely unnecessary suffering. “And it is unnecessary,” she says “because we need nothing from an animal’s body to live a happy, healthy life.”

A friend suggested she start a Facebook group. And since then, in the past three-and-a half years, the sole founder of Vegan Outreach Scotland has been joined by more than one thousand members in four branches across the country, from the Borders up to the Highlands.

Knowles is a calm voice, a rational and gentle person, who is utterly determined. She wins people over with her warmth and humour, and inspires them to take action in their personal lives and through outreach. She is also fearless, taking The Vegan Roadshow into the heart of the farming world – to agricultural shows and the Highland Games, as well as to galas, fairs, festivals, libraries, university campuses, supermarkets and high streets.

Since its inception, there has been a significant shift in the public’s reaction to her message. “Initially, people would ask what veganism was. Occasionally there was some wariness or even hostility towards us and surprise when people discovered we were nice and friendly. These days, everybody knows somebody who is vegan: an aunt, a sister, a son, a friend, a colleague. People already have a level of knowledge and are interested in learning more. Many vegans approach our stalls too, which was rare three years ago. People love our food samples, which we always have on our stands, and want to know where to buy them or how to make them.”

“Times are changing, indeed.”

You might think this enough of an achievement for one woman, but Knowles has much more to do. She understands that individual change is essential but the huge shifts will come when politicians understand the threat to the environment posed by animal agriculture. In early 2019, she launched a political campaign. She set up meetings with members of the Scottish Parliament to discuss the environmental impact of the food system and how repurposing land currently used for animal agriculture to instead grow crops for human consumption would not only provide greater food self-sufficiency and food security, but also free up the majority of Scotland’s agricultural land for native reforestation and ecosystem restoration. All of this would help Scotland achieve its ambitious climate change goals.

Knowles is not a professional campaigner or a political lobbyist, and still works her day job as a psychological therapist, but only a fool would bet against her driving changes on an even bigger scale than she has to date.

“Currently, we are lobbying for a seat on the Farming and Food Production Future Policy Group which comprises producers, consumers and environmental interest groups who will inform on and recommend a new bespoke policy on farming and food production in Scotland post-Brexit. Exciting stuff!”

And this immense change all began with one woman in a faraway country faced with three dogs who needed her help.

 

Photos by Julia Fraser – a Scottish photographer who creates pictures from her observations of the people and landscape of Scotland.


Interview and story by Kate Fowler – a freelance writer and PR and media specialist.

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. 

Elsie Herring

Elsie Herring

“It’s just an ugly industry.”

In September 2018, the We Animals Media team travelled to North Carolina to document the aftermath of Hurricane Florence and its devastating impacts on the environment, animals, and local residents. During their time in Duplin County, filmmaker Kelly Guerin met Elsie Herring, the great-granddaughter of a freed slave who became an environmental activist after a hog CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) replaced the small family farm next door to her family’s property. The farm, like countless others around it, employed the standard industry practice of spraying manure on to fields as a waste disposal system. The spray drifted onto Elsie’s family home every day and soon, her family began experiencing serious health problems, such as respiratory and skin infections.

“As we sat on her front porch for our interview, the sprinklers kicked on and Elsie had to hold a paper towel over her mouth so she could continue to speak. We spoke at length about her experiences watching the farming in Duplin transform into the massive industry it is today and how it has impacted the lives of everyone around them. She spoke about the emerging understanding of environmental racism, that these colossal and toxic farms are often constructed strategically in poor communities of colour where residents have little political clout to raise in protest. And she emphasized, hauntingly, that the issues we were seeing post-Florence, in reality had little to do with hurricanes; for residents of Duplin county, this was life.”

Filming by Kelly Guerin / Editing by Nardine Groch

Wendy Valentine

Wendy Valentine

“It’s a job for the tough.”

Wendy Valentine has dedicated her life to helping animals in need. In 1995, with just 20 acres of land, she founded Hillside Animal Sanctuary, after witnessing firsthand the plight of the battery hen. Since then, Valentine has campaigned and helped care for thousands of animals, particularly those who suffer in the factory farming industry. Today, Hillside covers 2000 acres of land and is home to over 3000 animals.

BAFTA-winning filmmaker Alex Lockwood (Lockwood Film) created this short character piece for the Unbound Project about Wendy and her life’s work.

What led Lockwood to tell Valentine’s story?

“My short documentary 73 Cows had involved a scene at Hillside Animal Sanctuary. We only shot there for a day, but I’d since wanted to make a follow-up film, orientated around the amazing work that the sanctuary does, and specifically Wendy, the sanctuary’s founder. This summer we went back to Hillside to film this short character piece to explore what drives Wendy in her quest to help so many animals.”

Directed by Alex Lockwood – Lockwood Film

Shih Chao-hwei

Shih Chao-hwei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.