Chihiro Okada

Chihiro Okada

“I discovered that animals are placed in far worse situations, are treated far worse than humans. So I really started to put a stronger focus on the treatment of animals.”

When Chihiro Okada was a young student in Japan she imagined she might one day work in the field of human rights, perhaps tackling world hunger. But then, as a member of her school’s newspaper, she worked on a story about pets. The story brought her to local animal shelters and pounds where she learned just how many homeless companion animals in Japan are euthanized. She was shocked, she says through an interpreter.

Ms. Chihiro Okada, Director of Animal Rights Centre Japan. Photo by Itsuka Yakumo / #unboundproject / We Animals Media.

“I discovered that animals are placed in far worse situations, are treated far worse than humans. So I really started to put a stronger focus on the treatment of animals.”

Today Okada is the director of Animal Rights Centre Japan (ARCJ), the country’s most impactful organization for animal advocacy. The work of the group, under Okada’s leadership, highlights much of the progress being made for animals in Japan in the last two decades, and a slow but steady cultural shift.

After Okada’s revelation about the ill-treatment of companion animals in Japan, she started university with a new attention on animals. She traveled and studied abroad, first to Canada, where she visited more animal shelters, then to Australia, where she recalls meeting a teacher who was vegetarian. “That was then I thought, ‘ok there’s a lot more I can do regarding my interest toward animals,’” she recalls. And upon returning to Japan she quickly connected with ARCJ and began transitioning toward being vegan.

On her first day as a volunteer with ARCJ, Okada was told to read a particular book by someone named Peter Singer. The book, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals, published in 1975, is of course now considered a pioneering text on animal rights, but to Okada it was new, profound and put into words all that she was already feeling.

At that time, she recalls, there were no groups in Japan focusing on farmed animal welfare. Rather, ARCJ’s eye was fixed on banning animal testing and fur fashion. The group ran campaigns and organized large protests and marches; and since 2005, when ARCJ began campaigning against fur, Okada reports there has been a 94% decrease in the importation of fur products. “We can say that is a clear sign of success.” And even better, she says, was the closure of Japan’s last fur farm in 2016, effectively ending the fur industry in the country.

Historical photo provided by ARCJ.

Today Okada has been with ARCJ for twenty years, 17 of those in the role of director, and she and her team have shifted focus.

“The biggest issue that we believe needs to be tackled in Japan today is the treatment of farmed animals,” she says. “There are no other organizations like us currently working on these issues, both to improve the overall status of animal welfare in Japan, as well as working toward the overall decrease of animal farming.”

The group does this via consumer and corporate education, and lobbying for change. Last year, ARCJ was able to stop a legal proposal to ban free range chicken farming. ARCJ also advocates for increased production and availability of plant-based foods by speaking with food producers, grocers, restaurants, and hotels.

“Recently, more major companies here have been taking action toward doing something veggie or plant-based; it’s grown into a bigger range than we ever could have hoped for,” says Okada.

And Okada has been able to fulfill a personal goal of creating a “strong, nationwide animal rights action network,” of people and groups all around the country to share information and resources. “People now know they can come to us, contact us about anything animal rights related.”

Looking toward the future of animal advocacy in Japan, Okada says her next ambitions are to see the use of battery cages and sow stalls end by 2030, and see food producers increase their range of animal-free foods, “to at least half of what they are producing,” she says, “within my lifetime.” But her greatest goal, she says, is to “pass this organization down, eventually, to the next person who can make this group into a huge social movement all around Japan that works toward the end of speciesism and the mistreatment of all animals.”

For now, Okada and ARCJ are pleased to see that the issue of animal treatment is finally permeating the popular culture, and that animal welfare is now a term and idea that the people of Japan are coming to understand.

“Five years ago when we said ‘animal welfare’ –which is an English word that we’ve made into Japanese—many people did not know what it meant. Since then we’ve been able to raise politicians’ and consumers’ awareness about factory farming,” she says. “We’ve been able to spread the fundamental understanding of what animal welfare is.”

What began as Okada’s small story on pets has blossomed into organized advocacy for all animals in Japan.

Written by Jessica Scott-Reid
Photographs by Itsuka Yakumo (with exception of the historical ARCJ photo)

Yumin Chen

Yumin Chen

“My job is to do everything, wherever there is animal suffering.”

Directed by Kelly Guerin

Yumin Chen is known by many as one of the most beloved and hard-working animal advocates in Taiwan. With over 25 years of experience, she is a long-time animal advocate and the Director of EAST (Environment & Animal Society of Taiwan). Her work involves inspecting farms to help enforce welfare standards, advising on the development of these standards, leading campaigns against animal cruelty, and petitioning corporations and government bodies to implement anti-cruelty practices.

Daniela Romero Waldhorn

Daniela Romero Waldhorn

“There is the belief that activists’ needs are secondary to the movement….. We have a collective problem, and we need an entire movement overhaul.”

“I was at home, looking out the window and saw that someone had left a box in the middle of the street,” says Daniela Romero Waldhorn when asked if it was possible to pinpoint where her animal activism began. “Immediately, cars drove by and crushed it completely. Then I realised what was in that box. That person had abandoned around five baby kittens to be run over.” Romero Waldhorn was just seven years old at the time.

Watching the dogs and cats taking their chances on the Chilean streets, knowing they were desperate for food and affection, had always broken her heart, but it was this deliberate act of cruelty that changed her. She made a personal promise to do whatever she could to help animals and began right away by feeding the strays in her neighbourhood. As a child, there was little more she could do, but this was just the beginning.

Barcelona, Spain, 30th July 2021. Environmental portrait of researcher and lecturer Daniela Romero Waldhorn. Photo by Selene Magnolia / #unboundproject / We Animals Media.

A chance meeting with a vegan during her college years inspired her to become vegetarian, but also to conduct her own research into animal agriculture.

“Until then, I was not really aware of how much suffering was behind my foods.”

But with knowledge came action, and over the next few months, Romero Waldhorn gradually became vegan.

In 2004, she co-created a network of street activists, and organised her first protest against the use of animals in circuses, specifically the elephant Ramba and the other animals used by the Los Tachuelas circus in Santiago. Romero Waldhorn remembers her early years in grassroots activism with fondness. “We were a bunch of strangers, at first, who shared the dream of building a more just and compassionate world for all. That is simply beautiful. I learned a lot from their experience, their courage, and the power we can have together to transform the world.”

And yet something was troubling her. “Shouting out in protest was, somehow, liberating but I always had doubts about whether that was the best thing I, or we, collectively could do.

Unfortunately, at that time, I didn’t have access to reliable information to make better decisions.”

While her childhood pledge to help animals was born of a visceral reaction to a traumatic incident, it has been her cool-headed commitment to evidence-based activism that has guided Romero Waldhorn since. In founding a local branch of AnimaNaturalis, she was able to learn about effective campaigning from more experienced activists. Together they campaigned successfully to free more than 100 monkeys used for experimentation by the Catholic University of Chile. Later Romero Waldhorn went on to work as an undercover investigator, documenting and revealing to the world how animals are tortured in festivals and how chickens are slaughtered for their meat.

Witnessing severe suffering inevitably exacts an emotional and psychological toll, yet enduring pressure and judgment from others within the animal rights movement has also proven difficult.

“Once, I was publicly sanctioned by another activist for going to the beach. She told me it was clear that I did not care enough for animals and should have been leafleting instead.”

This personal attack was not an isolated case. Over the years, Romero Waldhorn has experienced racist, sexist, and xenophobic discrimination from within the movement. Her work has also made her – and her family – the target of dangerous threats from powerful forces outside the movement. “While the persecution that some social activists face in Chile (and other Latin American countries) is not a common experience, it exists.”

After 17 years of working in the movement, she began to experience burnout. Rather than abandon her work as an activist, she used that difficult period to examine why she and others succumb to activism exhaustion. She points to the culture of martyrdom that leads activists to impose unrealistic expectations on themselves while organisations push supporters and staff to constantly demonstrate their commitment.

“There is the belief that activists’ needs are secondary to the movement, and everything and everyone can be sacrificed for the sake of animals–notably, everyone who is not a cis-white man. We have a collective problem, and we need an entire movement overhaul.”

It’s possible that such a journey, seeing and experiencing all that she has, might have driven Romero Waldhorn onto a different path, but she says she remains “impact-focused and hungry for justice.” Today, she works as a researcher at Rethink Priorities, a think tank “dedicated to figuring out how to make the world a better place” where she investigates the potential for helping prawns and shrimps. It’s a strategic decision as it is estimated that these animals are killed in larger numbers for human consumption than any other. At the same time, she is studying for a PhD in social psychology to help inform a more evidence-based strategy for animal advocacy.

Activist, researcher, and lecturer Daniela Romero Waldhorn. Photo by Selene Magnolia / #unboundproject / We Animals Media.

This self-described “crazy cat lady who still believes deeply in human compassion” has found her role and her mission. Her twin strategy–helping the largest number of animals, while identifying the root causes of speciesism and potential ways to overcome it–is already an enormous contribution to the movement. And yet, perhaps, there is something else.

Romero Waldhorn has found her peace. She makes time to dance cumbia, walk in wild places, spend time with loved ones, and, yes, go to the beach. Her example of how we can each remain effective and committed while protecting ourselves from burnout might just be her greatest gift of all.

Interview and story by Kate Fowler. Photos by Selene Magnolia.

Gwenna Hunter

Gwenna Hunter

“When I came to the knowledge that animals were conscious, with the same level of awareness as us, it kinda shattered my whole reality… Now I’m a vegan, an animal and human rights activist. ”

Gwenna Hunter

About six years ago, Gwenna Hunter found her calling as an activist. At that time, she was living in Los Angeles and working as a recruiter for IT personnel, some of whom were being employed by military contractors around the globe. Hunter remembers her moment of clarity, initially communicated to her in a dream: “I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m contributing to the world. I might be on the wrong team here,’” she says. “I was just about me: traveling, buying shoes, and living what I thought was a fulfilling life.” While she had always been acutely aware of her own spiritual journey and persistent search for meaning, she didn’t expect her change of direction to be so dramatic. “When I came to the knowledge that animals were conscious, with the same level of awareness as us, it kinda shattered my whole reality,” she says.  She also credits the particularly eye-opening experience of watching Erin Janus’ five-minute “Dairy is Scary” video with pushing her to eliminate animal products from her life.

“Now I’m a vegan, an animal and human rights activist. I’m out here coordinating events. You could have never told me this would be my life,” she says, laughing.

Hunter finds herself at the intersection of two liberation movements in the United States, and specifically Los Angeles: the liberation and empowerment of Black lives, and helping others to include all sentient creatures within their circle of empathy, primarily through the elimination of animal products from their diets.

Hunter’s work is intersectional, and she speaks to a broad range of people and communities across LA, especially within the city’s Black and brown neighborhoods. As the vegan food aid coordinator and project lead for the LA chapter of Vegan Outreach, she helps distribute fresh meals and groceries throughout greater Los Angeles. She also works directly with a host of local organizations including Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, Black Women for Wellness, Black Women Farmers of LA and LGBT Center South to extend Vegan Outreach’s distribution network of plant-based meals and groceries. She does additional outreach and education through the LA chapter of The Animal Save Movement, called Los Angeles Health Save in collaboration with a social justice organization called Downtown Crenshaw. She has even started two groups – Vegans for Black Lives Matter (2020) and Vegans of LA (2015) – to foster continuing dialogue. (Both groups have existed entirely online since the beginning of the pandemic.)

Hunter’s primary goal through this work is to help more people discover veganism, particularly those in underserved communities. By steering clear of shame tactics and instead introducing someone to a way of eating (and thinking) that considers both their stomach and their heart, she employs the same empathy that initially drew her to this work.

“In regard to animal suffering, I always try to get people to feel something,” she says. “So if you know what it’s like to suffer, and you can stand in that place, at that moment, you don’t want anyone else to feel that either. I’ve never met anyone that doesn’t know what it feels like to suffer, in some form.”

She uses this approach to help others make empathetic connections across race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and — in the case of veganism — species. “When someone is in that place of tenderness and thinking about their own suffering, I might inform them that a cow is pregnant for nine months, just like a human woman. And that when we take her male child for veal, that’s her son.” She consciously uses terms like “son” and “daughter” to describe animals and their relationships, to help people make connections to their own lives. “I don’t do any shaming; I did that once when I first became vegan, and it didn’t end well,” she says with a laugh.

“I came into this because of love and compassion, that’s how I want other people to experience it.”

Gwenna Hunter tries to capture images and video of the cow holding area that are waiting for slaughter at a beef packing plant in Pico Rivera. Photo by Nikki Ritcher / #unboundproject / We Animals Media.

Hunter is likewise careful not to conflate animals’ emotional lives with those of humans, instead finding their common ground by applying her intuitive logic that non-human animals experience emotions like distress, pain, contentment and excitement. Why, then, would we choose not to believe that fundamental aspects of the meat and dairy industries cause them to suffer? She says she might explain to someone how artificially inseminating a female cow and taking her calf is robbing her most natural, deeply-felt instincts, and that a mother will often cry for her missing young for weeks. Why wouldn’t we believe that that mother is in distress?

“Lately I’ve started calling animals our brothers and sisters,” Hunter says. “We’ve been programmed from an early age to eat our brothers and sisters. It’s insane, and it’s no different from the blueprint we’ve used for enslaving other humans: ‘Oh, they don’t feel pain’; ‘they’re not fully human.’ It’s textbook exploitation, and we’ve just gotta be stronger and smarter. We’ve gotta help wake each other up.”

Her work aims to connect dots without creating false equivalencies, and to provide support by showing people alternatives. “I learned the hard way to never approach these conversations from the animal rights point-of-view,” she says. “If you’re not vegan yet, it’s gonna sound very weird to you to hear about animal rights— especially in the Black community, where maybe you got harassed by the police yesterday.” She says that when she talks about animal issues, she often doesn’t use the words themselves. “I talk about animals from the perspective of the blueprint for oppression — the blueprint of what slavery looks like, and how this is the same blueprint being used all over the world to exploit different marginalized groups, people and species.” Hunter also concedes that animal concerns simply may not be everyone’s window into veganism, particularly in the Black community, where more localized, personal issues like health, diet and chronic disease are often of more immediate concern. She continually works to include the ecological argument for veganism in her ongoing outreach, and believes she’s at her most effective when she can combine these different components.

Gwenna Hunter, founder of Vegans of LA, a group “celebrating urban vegan pop culture.” She is also a coordinator of community engagement and events for Greater Los Angeles at Vegan Outreach. Photo by Nikki Ritcher / #unboundproject / We Animals Media.

These days, Hunter finds inspiration everywhere, not least from the fact that African Americans are the fastest growing vegan demographic in the United States (in 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 8% of African-American adults identified as vegan, compared with 3% of American adults overall). In addition to being deeply involved in the social justice uprisings of the past year, she says the pandemic has given her a deeper awareness of the need to maintain her own mental health, and has become more proactive about her own well-being. “I know people who are stimulated by drama, but I need to be in a place of joy,” she says of her work, which can be emotionally and physically grueling.

“Even though I know the darkness of this horror movie — what we’re really trying to do here is get people to stop eating dead bodies — when I can find a way to do this joyfully, I can go for a long time and put out good work.”

She’s humble, resourceful and knows how to play to her strengths. “I’m no scholar and I’m terrible at memorizing statistics, but I feel like I’m an expert at being a person,” she says with a laugh. “I’m pretty good when it comes to love and compassion. So I can’t go wrong when I talk about those things.”

Photos by Nikki Ritcher. Interview and story by Evan Shamoon.

Dr. Carole Noon

Dr. Carole Noon

Founder of Save the Chimps

We’re at the end of Carole Noon Lane on the grounds of Save the Chimps, a 190-acres sanctuary in the Florida Flatwoods. The grounds here are divided into twelve three-acre islands, one per ‘family.’ Each parcel is outfitted with hurricane-proof concrete dwellings and what look like oversized park playground structures. During our time on the grounds, some of the chimps have taken an interest in our presence and our interviews, watching bemusedly from their far off perches.

This sanctuary would not be here without the tenacity of its founder, Dr. Carole Noon. It doesn’t take long into interviews with friends and staff before a very clear image comes to light – Dr. Noon was a force of nature who would not take no for an answer.

In 1997, the US Air Force was set to ‘retire’ the 141 chimpanzees in its space program. With only $150,000 and no sanctuary to speak of, Dr. Noon submitted a bid to purchase these animals, unsurprisingly, to no avail. Instead, most of the chimps were sold to the Coulson Foundation, a medical research lab in New Mexico. The chimps would be sent to live in isolation in the dungeons of Coulston, suspended in 5’x5’x7’ metal cages while awaiting the next experiment.

And so, Dr. Noon sued the Air Force in 1997. In 2001, after four years of legal battles, the first chimps arrived at their new home in Florida. Dr. Noon succeeded in her mission and spent the final years of her life dedicated to her cause. In 2009, she passed away at her home on the sanctuary grounds.

Dr. Noon’s legacy lives on in the over 250 chimpanzees who have been rescued from research, entertainment, and the exotic pet trade and who now call Save the Chimps their home.

“One thing about Carole is she did not take no for an answer. If someone told her she could not do something, that was the guarantee she was going to make it happen.”

Film and story by Kelly Guerin. Photos by Jo-Anne McArthur. 

Anita Krajnc

Anita Krajnc

Bringing the world together to bear witness

Anita Krajnc looks through the fence to animals being unloaded at the slaughterhouse. Canada, 2015.

Anita Krajnc. Canada, 2015.

To get Anita Krajnc to talk about herself can be a challenge. The Toronto-based activist and founder of the now-global Animal Save Movement (formally called The Save Movement), would much prefer to quote Tolstoy, Gandhi, or Mark and Paul Engler, than talk of her own achievements in animal advocacy. She’s no martyr, just modest, and much more focused on the ethics and fundamentals of animal rights, and the inner working of society and social justice movements. And when it comes to the creation of the Animal Save Movement, which now spans about 900 chapters, branching beyond Animal Save into Climate Save and Health Save factions, Krajnc, no surprise, gives much of the credit to her dog.

Long before creating the first Save chapter, Toronto Pig Save, Krajnc says it was during her time as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto (U of T) in the early nineties, when she first became involved in animal activism. “I saw this poster for The Animals Film,” she says, a 1981 documentary about the use of animals by humans. She watched it with about twenty other people in a basement library at U of T, she says “and I couldn’t believe it. I had nightmares for three days. Then I became a vegetarian, and then an activist.” She soon became president of Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and collected data about the number of animals being used at U of T, “which was about fifty thousand vertebrates, a lot of animals,” she says, to provide to media and the ombudsperson. “That was one of the first campaigns I worked on.”

In the following years, Krajnc earned a master’s degree in political science and environmental studies, and a PhD in politics. She got involved in environmental activism alongside her sister – a long-time animal and environmental activist – earning her first arrest in 1993 at Clayoquot Sound, BC, during the “War in the Woods” anti-logging protest, then again in 1997, working with Greenpeace.

Krajnc then began working in academia, including at Queens University in 2006, where she eventually went vegan after watching the 2000 documentary The Witness, and started investigating the veal industry. “I actually didn’t know the veal industry was connected to dairy,” she says.

She then organized screenings at Queens, of the 2004 documentary Peaceable Kingdom, about farmers who refused to kill their animals, and she incorporated animal rights into each course she taught. “Every course! So in Intro to Canadian Politics, for example, I would have a week on social movements and a case study was the animal rights movement.”

At that point she says animal rights had permeated everything she did.

“Like most of us, once we start learning about the issue, it becomes a core. It’s what we really want to do. We have other jobs, but what we really want to do, to talk about, is animal rights.”

This all-encompassing passion is what led Krajnc down the path that would land her, in 2006, face to face with the pigs who would change everything.

“Before bearing witness I was an activist, but it never occurred to me to go up to the slaughterhouse and look at the pigs,” she says. Though she could actually see the former Quality Meat Packers slaughterhouse on Lakeshore, from the streetcar on Bathurst, she says she never went to check it out. “It just never occurred to me to walk there,” she says. “But in 2010, when we adopted Mr. Bean, the dog, [whom is now named co-founder of the Animal Save Movement], I would walk him every morning there, and that’s when we saw the trucks.” Krajnc says she finds it interesting that the origin story of the Animal Save Movement begins with an animal. “One hundred percent if I had not adopted Mr. Bean, I wouldn’t have done it [created the group].” And what Mr. Bean led her to that day, were pigs, looking at her, she says, “out of the portholes, and I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the pigs were, how scared they were, and how unjust it was.”

She calls the moment an epiphany. “I had had a prejudice, or misconception,” she says.

“I thought all pigs were the same, but they aren’t, once you come close to them and look at them. And that’s true for any animal; they’re all individuals. And one day I saw seven or eight trucks and I said, ‘That’s it, we’re gonna start a group.’”

Inspired by the altruistic work of Tolstoy and Ghandi, whom she was studying at the time, Krajnc says she felt compelled to take action. “I thought, I’m just an ordinary person, but if they took the time out and organized in their own communities, then I must.”

And what Krajnc felt she must do – after a few months of figuring out their strategy, doing fundraisers and art shows and investigations– was to bear witness. She quotes Tolstoy:

“’When the suffering of another creature causes you to feel pain, do not submit to the initial desire to flee from the suffering one, but on the contrary, come closer, as close as you can to he who suffers, and try to help.’ That’s where we got the definition of bearing witness. You have a choice: you can flee, or you can come close and try to help.”

Krajnc says bearing witness of animals on transport trucks headed into slaughter is “an aha moment, it really changes you.” And once she experienced it herself, she knew it was something the rest of the world had to see. “Everyone needs to be face to face, to touch the animal,” she says. “Everyone needs to do this. Because if they see this they wouldn’t participate in evil.”

Krajnc brought perhaps the most attention to the growing Animal Save Movement in 2015, when she was arrested for providing water to a thirsty pig on a hot truck. What would later be dubbed #PigTrial made international headlines, sparking debates and commentary never considered before. The charges were dismissed in 2017, in the precedent-setting case that would set the tone for subsequent dismissed cases against animal activists in Canada and the United States.

The name Toronto Pig Save originally came out of a conversation between Krajnc and her best friend, as they sought something inviting, something others would want to join. “It’s such a great name, so positive,” she says, ‘Save,’ it’s such a beautiful word.” And it turned out, she says, to be a good name “to adapt for all different cities.” And adapt they did, to now not only including about 770 different chapters around the world focusing on a variety of animal species, but further branching into Climate Save and Health Save movements.

For Krajnc, however, this is still not enough.

“We bear such a burden knowing what is happening with these billions of animals –trillions of animals with fish– every year, and then on top of that we have this looming climate crisis.”

Today, Krajnc believes Greta Thunberg is the most important person on earth, and she is working with climate activist group Extinction Rebellion, engaging in acts of civil disobedience.

And thus, the seasoned activist, academic and philosopher continues to witness, to disrupt, and to inspire others to change — for animals, people, and the planet.

 

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.

 

Narrated by Anita Krajnc, this short film from We Animals Media tells the story of bearing witness and animal advocacy at slaughterhouses in Toronto during a 24-hour vigil in 2015, wherein amidst the horror, a small miracle took place.