Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil

“I realized that this was the work I wanted to do, and I just had to figure out how to do it.”

Zoe Weil is one of the world’s revolutionary thinkers. As a leader in humane education – a model that centers around sustainability, humanity, and justice – she advocates a bigger vision for schooling that shows care for people, for other animals, and for the environment. As Weil sees it, students – or, as she calls them, Solutionaries – can be empowered with the knowledge, skills, and will to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Like all revolutions, it doesn’t come easily. The education system in Weil’s home country of America is in dire need of an overhaul. It centers on traditional curriculum models and standardized testing, which values how much a student knows over their ability to apply learning. Insecure funding causes public schools to steer away from “controversial” topics and unconventional teaching methods. Subjects are taught separately, presenting challenges to multidisciplinary teaching methods that could be more relevant to real-world topics such as climate change or factory farming. Teachers themselves are frustrated and the passion that brought them to teaching is waning.

But Weil’s work is making waves. As well as being the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE) for which she has developed multiple humane education graduate programs, she has delivered six TEDx talks, and authored seven books for youth and adults on humane education raising a generation of solutionaries, both in the classroom context and at home.

Weil grew up idolizing Dr Jane Goodall, and dreamed of following in her footsteps to work with animals. But, like many of us, by the time she entered university Weil had stopped imagining that future for herself. Instead, she studied English literature before enrolling in law school and promptly dropping out. She couldn’t have known it then, but just as she felt she was at a loose end, a new path was laying itself before her.

Weil began volunteering with a researcher who was working with chimpanzees. Though she couldn’t have been closer to her childhood dream, she found it wasn’t all she’d imagined. “While the research wasn’t painful or invasive, the chimps were still imprisoned, and their futures seemed bleak,” she recalls.

She then worked as a teacher and naturalist at a wildlife centre for injured and orphaned animals, and while she loved teaching young people about animals, she was again confronted with the ethics of the programs, which brought wild animals to schools for presentations.

By this time Weil had been instilled with the love of teaching and returned to university with the aim of becoming a professor. Discovering a program at the University of Pennsylvania that offered weeklong courses to middle school students, Weil saw the opportunity to reach students and, in so doing, change the course of history. She proposed several courses, including one on animal issues and another on environmental issues.

I realized that this was the work I wanted to do, and I just had to figure out how to do it.

To her surprise the animal issues course turned out to be the second most popular of the sixty courses offered that summer, and Weil taught a class full of enthusiastic 12- and 13-year-olds. She found humane education deeply rewarding and felt heartened by the impact she was having. She taught a class about product testing and the animals who suffered severe pain, injury, and death for household and beauty products; the next morning a student came to class bearing homemade leaflets. “While the rest of us were having lunch, he was standing on a Philadelphia street corner handing them out,” she remembers. “He’d become an activist overnight.”

This was Weil’s ‘aha’ moment: “I realized that this was the work I wanted to do, and I just had to figure out how to do it.”

After graduating, Weil began working as a humane educator with a local SPCA, but again she felt that something wasn’t quite aligned. She was only allowed to teach about companion animals, but wanted to extend her compassion-driven brand of teaching to all animal issues. Soon she moved to the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS), where she became their Director of Education, developing a humane education program that she began teaching in schools. It addressed global ethical issues relating to animals and the environment, from product testing and pollution to factory farming and climate change. Animalearn reached 10,000 students across several US cities, and Weil soon began training others to become humane educators, expanding the reach of humane education across the country.

Education is the root system underlying all other systems.

Despite this success, Weil yearned for systemic change. She saw a need for the education system to embrace humane education programming, and for students to have access to ongoing learning on these issues. The obvious access point was the teachers, who could be trained to deliver humane education in their classrooms, as a framework connecting all subject areas.

With this new vision, Weil left AAVS and in 1996 co-founded the Institute for Humane Education. She began creating the first graduate programs, and even a Ph.D. program, in comprehensive humane education. IHE started to offer workshops for teachers around the U.S. and Canada, and now offers online courses and free downloadable resources on a broad variety of issues ranging from compassion, ecology, conservation, extinction, and ethics, enabling teachers to do this work in classrooms on almost every continent.

Most recently, IHE created the Solutionary Program, a comprehensive set of tools that teachers in middle and high schools can use to support students in solutions-focused learning. The program has seen such success that in 2018 the Office of Education in San Mateo County began implementing the solutionary approach as the core educational philosophy for their curriculum. This program will reach over 95,000 students across the county.

Explaining her philosophy, Weil says: “Education is the root system underlying all other systems. If we nurture compassion in children and provide young people with the knowledge and skills to create meaningful positive changes, we will witness the unfolding of a more humane, just, and healthy world for all beings.”

In the time that Weil has worked in humane education, she has propelled its expansion from a field associated with the welfare of companion animals, to a comprehensive and intersectional field that embraces and champions the interconnections between human rights, animal protection, and environmental preservation. Weil’s revolutionary work has carved out a place for compassion, ethics, and responsibility in students’ learning, and has challenged educators to imagine a bigger and more meaningful purpose for schooling. And she shows no signs of slowing down: she is currently writing her eighth book with the bold title, How to Solve the World’s Problems.

It hasn’t been a linear path, but Weil has created a version of that future she imagined for herself as a child, working to improve the lives of animals on a global scale.

Dawn Moncrief

Dawn Moncrief

“The connection is real.”

As Dawn Moncrief sits down for this interview, she is tired and jetlagged from a long intercontinental flight. Even so, she is eloquent and thoughtful. It’s obvious that her knowledge of the food system is immense and that her dedication to reforming it formidable. Moncrief is the founding director of A Well-Fed World (AWFW), a non-profit hunger relief and animal protection advocacy organization based in Washington, DC. It’s a job that takes her all over the world, working with local partners on a strategy to tackle some of the biggest global challenges.

“I was very attuned to issues around hunger,”

The organization is unique in its dual mission to tackle two of the world’s most complex issues: world hunger and the suffering of animals used for food. It’s no small feat, but Moncrief hasn’t let that stop her from working to change the conversation about food justice, and proving that the same foods that are best for people, are also best for animals, and the environment.

Moncrief moved to Washington, DC in the mid-90s to attend George Washington University, where she earned two master’s degrees in international relations and women’s studies, both with a focus on economic development. In DC, she had the benefit of exposure to key policymakers, and the headquarters of major development organizations, providing her with vital insights into the food policy landscape. She had wanted to work on poverty issues for as long as she could remember. “I was very attuned to issues around hunger,” she reflects.

It was at grad school that an acquaintance first introduced her to veganism. Moncrief had been vegetarian since she was a teenager. “I wasn’t politicized around it,” she explains, “I just knew I didn’t want to hurt animals.” She had never heard of veganism, but as she began to research the global impacts of meat, egg, and dairy consumption, she realized that it perfectly aligned with her ideas around food security and hunger. Moncrief could see that meat consumption hurt low-income communities, especially women and children. Her work began to focus on the ways in which the production and consumption of animal-derived foods increases disparities, exacerbates global hunger, and negatively impacts communities’ access to natural resources.

“It’s important to be authentic, to inspire people.”

On sanctuary tour after conference presentation at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY.

Moncrief began to unpack the system that enabled food to be unjustly distributed, with staple food crops being diverted to high-income countries that were able to outbid low-income countries for crop availability. She saw that this put upward pressure on prices, forcing low-income countries to export large quantities of food – both crops and animal products – at high prices, even though their own people were hungry. She learned about animal agriculture companies “land-grabbing” in low-income countries so that they could establish factory farms, which pollute the environment and harm local farmers’ ability to grow food, further increasing hunger. But looking at the organizations working in international development, or even in food policy, she was surprised to find that they wouldn’t advocate meat reduction (not even as “part” of the solution).

After finishing grad school, Moncrief began working with women-in-development organizations, but she felt complicit working within a framework that used meat and dairy in their food programs, while these products caused such devastation.

Fortunately, she chanced upon a presentation by Pattrice Jones discussing animal agriculture and its connection to global hunger. Inspired by jones and other activists connecting the dots and deconstructing the global food system, Moncrief began working within the animal advocacy movement. Eventually she was able to make the Plants-4-Hunger educational campaign that she had started developing in grad school into a gift-giving campaign that helps alleviate world hunger using plant-based foods, a unique take on the traditional ‘animals as food’ gifts programs. When her passion for global food justice eventually called for a dedicated organization, Moncrief founded A Well-Fed World, utilizing the Plants-4-Hunger as their flagship program.

Climate-Diet presentation organized by UN Green Group. Dawn Moncrief, speaker with Wendy Werneth organizer. United Nations, Geneva Switzerland

With many organizations focused on technological “fixes” to reduce the negative consequences of meat consumption (such as improving feed conversion inefficiencies or decreasing the inherently harmful environmental impacts of rearing animals for food), reducing consumption through behavior change was dismissed or ignored. Reduction of animal products was unpopular and, importantly, challenged big business. So Moncrief decided to address the issues by connecting with NGOs and influencers to put plant-based hunger and climate solutions on the agenda.

“It’s important to be authentic, to inspire people.”

AWFW addresses the harm done by development programs using animals, and dispelling the myth that animal products are a superior option for people in need of food. Moncrief created the Humane Facts campaign, which unpacks misleading food labeling and exposes the true meaning behind the language of “humane” meat – words like “free-range,” “cage-free” and “grass-fed,” which are used to make consumers feel that they are making healthy and ethical food choices.

Through its partnerships and global grants program, AWFW provides vital funding to organizations to support vegan feeding and farming programs for low-income communities, both in the United States and internationally, as well as farmed animal care and rescue programs Their most significant partnership is with the International Fund for Africa in support of their vegan school lunch program in Ethiopia. “For some of these kids, it’s the only meal they’re getting,” explains Moncrief.

“Not just the overconsumption of meat, but meat itself as a form of overconsumption; so that every time you’re eating it, you’re thinking about how resource intensive that is.”

Through these international partnerships, AWFW is reframing what makes a ‘healthy’ diet and challenging the dependence of the international development industry on animal products to feed people. Instead, it is highlighting the benefits of plant-based food choices for undernourished populations, and proving that veganism can offer a more sustainable solution to world hunger and food security issues.

By shifting to plant-based foods and using veganic farming practices, the impacts of livestock on resource scarcity, environmental pollution, land degradation, and climate change can be avoided. Where animals overgraze and degrade the soil, growing plants helps build health back into the land. Plant-based farming empowers communities, who can feed themselves high-density nutritious foods that also strengthen, rather than pollute, local ecosystems and natural resources. It’s a win-win.

AWFW advocates veg-friendly policies at local and federal levels, working with think tanks and policymakers to incorporate plant-based food strategies into their programs. The organization analyzes research and communicates the food security benefits of plant-based food and farming, thereby advancing structural change that supports its vision of a just food system where all people have enough of the right kinds of food, and in which people are nourished, animals are spared, and the environment is protected.

AWFW’s strength is in its willingness to challenge some of the most harmful – yet accepted – behaviours in society, regardless of backlash from animal industry bodies or other organizations with vested interests.

Food waste is already a topic on the global agenda, but Moncrief is taking it a step further. Her vision is to reframe meat as a form of overconsumption. “Not just the overconsumption of meat, but meat itself as a form of overconsumption; so that every time you’re eating it, you’re thinking about how resource intensive that is.”

While Moncrief is clear that veganism is not a silver bullet for world hunger, she is developing a more nuanced conversation around consumption, and empowering people to understand the impacts of their choices.

“The connection is real.”

“Reducing meat consumption and going vegan does take pressure off the food system so that basic food staples are more accessible to low-income countries,” she explains.

Dawn Moncrief. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur.

She becomes emotional as she tells the story of a farming family in El Salvador who had to choose between selling their crops to pay for the lease of their land, and feeding their children. Two of their children died.

“These very poor countries with lots of hunger are exporting either meat directly, or food to be used for meat and other animal products, to high-income countries,” she says. “So, the connection is real.”

With Moncrief at work, it’s difficult to doubt that things are changing for animals. AWFW’s strong message and research-based advocacy is making huge strides possible in terms of re-framing the role of animal products in food policy and hunger alleviation. Where other organizations shy away from advocating for unpopular solutions, AWFW sticks to its mission, bringing plant-based hunger and climate solutions into the mainstream, and proving to critics that what helps animals and the environment also helps people – there’s no need to choose.

Learn more and support A Well Fed World
Photos and interview by Jo-Anne McArthur. Text by Anna Mackiewicz.

 

Seba Johnson

Seba Johnson

“It’s really not about us, it’s about what we can do while we’re here.”

Seba Johnson made history before she was old enough to drive a car. Before she became the youngest Alpine ski racer in Olympic history and the first black female to compete in Olympic skiing, however, she had already lived a childhood that was, at the time, relatively exceptional: from the day she was born, Johnson was raised vegan.

Johnson’s childhood was far from perfect; her family was violently attacked for being interracial and her mother was accused of child abuse for raising her children on a vegan diet. And while Johnson feels deep gratitude for having been raised the way she was, it also took its toll. “You understand exactly what’s going on when you’re eating across the room from someone,” she says. Dealing with the grief of knowing what happens to animals from a young age was a heavy burden to bear, especially at a time before vegan diets had become as well-understood and mainstream as they are today.

“It’s really not about us, it’s about what we can do while we’re here”

The fact that she was a vegan was especially scrutinized in Johnson’s life: at just fourteen years old, she participated in the 1988 Winter Olympics, making history for both her age and her ethnicity. A year later, however, it was her conviction as a vegan that propelled her into the spotlight more than her youth. In 1989, Johnson was disqualified from a World Cup downhill race for refusing to wear a suit that was made with leather, even though she had her own vegan suit that was competition-compliant (procured from German designer Willy Bogner after much searching and effort by Johnson). Her disqualification made headlines: “The next day it had more press attention that the winner of the race,” she says. Her mother criticized the race’s decision as racist, which Johnson acknowledges could have been a motivating factor behind the competition’s rigidity.

“I’ve experienced racism within this movement”

It wouldn’t be the last time that Johnson’s ethics impacted her skiing career. After competing in her second Olympic Games at the age of 18 in Albertville, France, she qualified for the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Johnson made the decision to boycott the Games, however, due to Norway’s resuming of commercial whaling in 1993. She never raced professionally again.

Today, Johnson is a speaker and also works as a special ed assistant. Being around children gives her hope, she says. She describes seeing “their light and their energy every Monday morning,” as life-giving, along with the relationship that she has with her dogs and her sister.

Like many activists, Johnson has struggled with mental health issues. She witnessed the brutality of humans at a young age through the violence directed at her family. She also remembers learning about animal testing for the first time in literature her mother received in the mail from an animal protection organization. “There was one in particular where these two young monkeys were holding onto each other tightly – it reminded me of me and my sister, Zuely, when we were scared,” Johnson says. She empathized deeply with the monkeys’ suffering and, although she already agreed with her mother’s choice to raise her and her sister as vegans, this solidified her feelings about animal abuse.

Johnson uses her role now as a teacher’s assistant to talk to children about the truth about what happens to animals. She objects to the way that children are not only kept in the dark, but actively mislead about the treatment of animals. “It’s so important,” she says, to tell them the truth. She uses age-appropriate language, but she doesn’t hide the facts. It gets a mixed reaction from parents – sometimes even children themselves, one of whom angrily declared that cows made milk for her as well as for their babies – but Johnson laughs it off. It’s worth it. “It’s really not about us, it’s about what we can do while we’re here,” she says, and her goal is to reduce harm in whatever way she can.

“The animals can’t afford for you to get comfortable speaking. If you stutter, oh well. If you have stage fright, take yourself out of it, think of who you’re speaking for.”

Johnson speaks with a sense of urgency, and not only because of her deep understanding of the scale of animal suffering. In 2008, she was almost killed in a horrific skiing accident. She broke her pelvis in three places and was bedridden for three months – and had to learn to walk again. “We all have to realize that the next day is not guaranteed,” she says. The ordeal pushed her to take her activism to the next level. “Don’t wait. Do something now,” Johnson says to those looking to get involved. People ask her regularly about what they can do, especially if they don’t have her composure as a speaker. Johnson simply says that it doesn’t matter, that the fight is too big. “The animals can’t afford for you to get comfortable speaking. If you stutter, oh well. If you have stage fright, take yourself out of it, think of who you’re speaking for.”

Besides, she says, activism takes so many forms. “Whatever your profession is or whatever your talent is, there’s an opportunity to speak up and help animals in any way you can. If you’re an artist, you can share your message through your art; if you’re a teacher you can introduce the idea of veganism and animal rights. Even in the grocery store, you can loudly say to the fellow who works there, ‘Excuse me, do you know where the vegan section is?’” to raise awareness and drive demand.

“We’re all working for the same thing. We must not be oppressive of one another.”

Johnson is a determined woman who, while she gained the spotlight early on, hasn’t had an easy run in her life as an activist. “I’ve experienced racism within this movement,” she says. But she kept fighting. Her life, she believes, is not her own, but rather that she has a duty to protect those who are suffering. She does believe though, that activists must be kinder to each other, and, though she’s only recently come to realize, to ourselves: “I just hope that if we are truly trying to make a difference in the lives of animals that we remember to include human animals, one another. We’re all working for the same thing. We must not be oppressive of one another.”

Seble Nebiyeloul

Seble Nebiyeloul

Seble Nebiyeloul

Co-Founder of the organization International Fund For Africa

 

Photographs by Jo-Anne McArthur.
Interview and text by Corinne Benedict.

Seble Nebiyeloul

Co-Founder of the organization International Fund For Africa

 

Photographs by Jo-Anne McArthur.
Interview and text by Corinne Benedict.

Seble Nebiyeloul was living in New York on 9/11, within walking distance of Ground Zero. The smell that hung in the air after the attacks is still etched in her memory, but she couldn’t pinpoint what it was until she passed a street vendor selling hamburgers.

“Animal flesh and human flesh, when you burn it, it’s one smell. That’s when I said no more animal products.”

“Instantly I said to myself, this was flesh I was smelling,” Nebiyeloul says. “Animal flesh and human flesh, when you burn it, it’s one smell. That’s when I said no more animal products.”

The epiphany made it suddenly clear to her: We are all the same.

“When you start loving animals, you don’t have boundaries. When I became an animal lover, automatically, I loved any creature.”

It’s an ethos that came to define her work with the organization she co-founded in her native Ethiopia a decade later, International Fund for Africa, or IFA, which serves humans and animals alike.

Photo: Children wash their hands in preparation for the plant-based meals offered by IFA at their school.

Besides its sizeable vegan food and health program for school children, IFA’s work has included vocational training for people with limited economic opportunities, improved sanitation in schools, a program that helps girls make reusable menstrual pads, significant investments in maternal and newborn health care, mobile clinics for working animals, sterilization and vaccinations for street dogs, and more.

Nebiyeloul was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Her mother was a secretary. Her father, vice minister of the private cabinet of Emperor Haile Selassie, was executed when Selassie’s government was overthrown in 1974. Nebiyeloul left for the United States a decade later when she was 19.

Photo: School children enjoying attention, and the cameras, at a school outside of Addis Ababa.

Nebiyeloul was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Her mother was a secretary. Her father, vice minister of the private cabinet of Emperor Haile Selassie, was executed when Selassie’s government was overthrown in 1974. Nebiyeloul left for the United States a decade later when she was 19.

Photo: School children enjoying attention, and the cameras, at a school outside of Addis Ababa.

She went to college in Kentucky and then studied health care administration at graduate school at the University of Maryland before settling in New York. It was the city’s many dogs, always out for walks, that helped ignite her love of animals. She bought a Maltese, but had to give him to a relative when her landlord said she couldn’t keep him. By then she was a vegetarian and had begun taking an interest in animal welfare and rights. Her next dog was a rescue. (About the seven dogs she has now, she says, “Without them, I couldn’t live my life.”)

Professionally, she climbed the ladder in the public health field. She was successful and happy but not fulfilled. When her job offered her another promotion to senior management, it didn’t feel quite right. Her cousin, Anteneh Roba, a physician then living in Houston, had been urging her to return to Ethiopia to help him with a nonprofit he was starting to alleviate some of their home country’s widespread poverty and suffering. It was the kind of mission Nebiyeloul had always wanted to take on.

“Yes, I was making good money, and I loved the work that I did,” she says. “But I’d done it. I’d proven to myself that I could do it – as a black woman, as a foreigner. I’d reached what I wanted to be.”

She moved back to Addis Ababa to get IFA off the ground in 2011.

Nebiyeloul loves to cook, and she’s good at it. As she began building IFA – organizational development is another of her talents – she also began working to expose more Ethiopians to vegan food.

Photo: A healthy lunch, provided by IFA, for impoverished children at a school outside Addis Ababa. 

Nebiyeloul loves to cook, and she’s good at it. As she began building IFA – organizational development is another of her talents – she also began working to expose more Ethiopians to vegan food.

Photo: A healthy lunch, provided by IFA, for impoverished children at a school outside Addis Ababa.

“A lot of people came and said to me, ‘If we knew how to cook like this, we would never eat meat, not for animals but for the health reasons.’”

She started with cooking demonstrations and then began serving vegan brunch at yoga classes that a friend was teaching. Nebiyeloul describes her food as Ethiopian adapted to be vegan, with influences from places like Asia, Spain, and the US. She goes for mostly fresh ingredients, lots of spices and herbs, and little salt.

 

The reaction to her cooking was almost always the same, she says – people were shocked that vegan food could be so delicious.

 

IFA’s vegan school food program, which uses Nebiyeloul’s recipes, now serves two meals a day to hundreds of children. It also provides employment for 10 cooks whom IFA trained in a style vastly different from most professional Ethiopian kitchens.

“I’m trying to teach the younger generation that in order to live, you don’t have to eat animal products.”

“Meat is a major part of our food, especially during the holiday time. It’s part of the culture. You have to kill animals. Usually I travel during that time out of Ethiopia. I find it difficult to stay here,” she says. “Animal welfare is a little bit acceptable in this country – I would say, five percent. Animal rights, forget it. It’s a very difficult concept.”

Nebiyeloul draws a line in trying to persuade people to be vegan. Mostly, she prefers to limit her efforts to setting an example, using food rather than words. Vegan cooking is her activism, she says.

“I always respect people’s space. I start discussions only when people express an interest.”

Seven years after its founding, IFA continues to evolve. The organization coordinates closely with A Well Fed World and is working toward sustainable solutions to Ethiopia’s poverty, namely holistic programming that addresses root causes, Nebiyeloul says.

More than 6,000 girls now have reusable menstrual pads, helping to keep them in school, and IFA is preparing to launch a new mushroom production unit to introduce the vegan staple to kids, generate income for IFA’s programs, and serve as a vocational training site for youth who’ve dropped out of school. Recently, IFA responded to a call for humanitarian aid for victims displaced by ethnic violence, providing food, clothing, mattresses and diapers for families in Ethiopia’s Oromia region.

Photo: Young women learn to design and sew their own sanitary pads.

More than 6,000 girls now have reusable menstrual pads, helping to keep them in school, and IFA is preparing to launch a new mushroom production unit to introduce the vegan staple to kids, generate income for IFA’s programs, and serve as a vocational training site for youth who’ve dropped out of school. Recently, IFA responded to a call for humanitarian aid for victims displaced by ethnic violence, providing food, clothing, mattresses and diapers for families in Ethiopia’s Oromia region.

Photo: Young women learn to design and sew their own sanitary pads.

As for the future, Nebiyeloul dreams of someday opening a vegan restaurant and a sanctuary for unwanted and abused donkeys and horses.

“As you grow older and achieve goals, you start to look back and say, ‘What have I done in life?’ I want to give to any other citizen what I got from life,” Nebiyeloul says.

“If you deal with people the right way, the world will be the right place to live.”

Learn more and support the International Fund for Africa.

Photos and interview by Jo-Anne McArthur. Text by Corinne Benedict.  

 

Steph Yu

Steph Yu

“I wanted a permanent sustainable lifestyle, not a quick fix.”

 

I have never met Steph Yu, but it feels like I have. Reading her blog, I feel as though we’re friends. She divulges her passion for life and pours out the wisdom that inspires so many to prioritize their personal health and happiness and choose a vegan diet.

Yu has mass appeal with almost 200,000 Instagram followers, built by sharing her relatable story with rawness and authenticity.

A Chinese-Canadian writer, podcaster, and video-blogger from Vancouver, Yu is almost overwhelmingly positive, filled with appreciation and enthusiasm for life. She’s also the epitome of health and, at only 22 years old, is a strong advocate for personal wellbeing. But though it’s hard to imagine, it hasn’t always been that way. 

Yu’s is a familiar story. Her life looked perfect from the outside. She appeared to be a high-achieving, confident and outgoing teenager from a happy family. She was on the school council and a talented dancer. But on the inside, Yu was falling apart. Her parents’ marriage was hostile and violent, and Yu began to spend more and more time out of the house to avoid the toxicity of her home life.

The weight of keeping this part of her life secret became too much to bear. In an effort to exercise some control over an out-of-control life, Yu began to manage what she ate. Over time, her fear, frustrations and anger manifested in both anorexia and orthorexia – a condition characterized by an excessive preoccupation with eating healthy food.

“That summer was the loneliest time of my life,” she remembers. “I felt like the world had turned against me, and everyone was trying to take me down.” Looking in the mirror one day, she was shocked by what she saw: “I was an underweight, unhappy, unenthused shell of a person.”

“I wanted a permanent sustainable lifestyle, not a quick fix.”

Acknowledging that she needed help, Yu booked a doctor’s appointment. The doctor advised that she quickly put on weight by eating fast food. But Yu had a different idea. “I was done with abusing my body and done with temporary solutions. I wanted a permanent sustainable lifestyle, not a quick fix.”

Yu began researching, and discovered veganism, which would become her route to sustainable health and a happier life. Slowly but surely, she began to recover. She put on weight, and soon she was able to rediscover the happy, energetic and positive young woman she had once been.

Yu decided to channel her story – every up and down – and use it to inspire others to build the healthy lives they longed for. 

Her popular YouTube channel and Instagram teaches her followers about her vegan lifestyle. Her What I Ate series details her everyday meals, showing that vegan eating can be accessible and easy for anyone.

She uses her podcast, A Beautiful Mess, to interview inspiring individuals on topics as diverse as self-love, spirituality and religion, mental health, body image and veganism. Her blog and e-book, Gaining Back Your Life, tell her own story as a source of empowerment and support for others on the search for a healthier, happier life.

“What motivates my animal advocacy is every memory of an experience I’ve ever had where I’ve been pushed to the side, silenced… It reminds me of what these beings suffer.”

All the while, she aims to create change not only for humans, but for other animals as well. In fact, for Yu, our experiences are linked. “What motivates my animal advocacy is every memory of an experience I’ve ever had where I’ve been pushed to the side, silenced, taken advantage of, and helpless. It reminds me of what these beings suffer and endure every second of their existence.”

It was only after discovering the benefits of veganism that Yu made the connection between her diet and animals. “It was in New Zealand when we passed a field with cows roaming,” she remembers. “I went up to the fence, and they all came over. I spent over an hour talking, singing, and laughing with them all, and when I left cried big fat tears. I think that was my first personal, first-hand experience with how sentient, feeling and beautiful animals were.”

Now, she sees animals and human health as intrinsically connected. Yu believes that by empowering people to live with greater care, compassion, and authenticity, she can make real change for animals. “Before I was vegan I know I wouldn’t have been swayed by an argument for the animals,” she says. “But I was always interested in how to be healthier holistically.”

Indeed, her advocacy is having a serious impact for animals. Yu recently brought veganism to the international tourism market by working with Intrepid Travel to develop their first all-vegan food tour of India. 

What is her next project? Yu plans to start her own business in the health and wellness field, helping people to live healthy and compassionate lives – for their own sake, and for that of the animals.


Follow Yu on Instagram, YouTube, and listen to her podcast.  

Text by Anna Mackiewicz. Photos by Jo-Anne McArthur. 

Sneha Shrestha

Sneha Shrestha

Sneha Shrestha

Founder of Sneha's Care, a shelter for street dogs in Nepal

 

Photos by Jo-Anne McArthur.

Interview and story by Sayara Thurston.

Sneha Shrestha didn’t want a dog.

“I wasn’t an animal lover. I wasn’t even a dog lover.”

Photo: A rescue dog naps in the sun at Sneha’s Care.

She tells me this as we’re surrounded by more than a hundred dogs at Sneha’s Care, the shelter that Shrestha runs outside of Kathmandu in Nepal. More than a dozen of the animals are paralyzed from the waist down and many of them are recovering from horrendous injuries —  missing legs and ears and eyes and parts of their snouts — but all running, barking, playing joyfully in a space where they know they are safe and loved. 

Four years ago, after much pestering from her husband, Shrestha finally agreed to get a puppy. Two puppies, actually, though Shrestha insisted that they be bought from a breeder — she didn’t want street dogs in her home. 

Photo: Rescue dogs getting some afternoon sun at Sneha’s Care.

Despite her reluctance, one of the puppies, Zara, quickly stole Shrestha's heart.

“She was more than a family member for me. 

She was like a child.”

Zara would wait at the gate for Shrestha and her husband to come home from work every day. Shrestha started getting up earlier to walk the dogs and spend time with them. But one day, Zara wasn’t at the gate at the end of the day. Shrestha found her inside, vomiting blood.

She’d been poisoned by a neighbour who didn’t like her barking. And despite desperate efforts to save her, she died four days later. Shrestha was devastated. “In Hindu culture, when a family member dies, we don’t eat anything for 13 days. I did this for my dog.”

Knowing how Zara had suffered — and how unjustly — Shrestha began to see street dogs differently. She started feeding them, carrying dog biscuits with her wherever she went. She started noticing how many of them had injuries and desperately needed vet care. 

Photo: A volunteer and a rescue dog at Sneha’s Care in Nepal.

Photo: Sneha Shrestha and some of the dogs she cares for at her shelter.

She began paying for space at a local kennel to give dogs shelter, care, and regular meals. Within a month, the kennel was full. But Shrestha wasn’t satisfied and she didn’t like that she wasn’t in charge of how the kennel was run. So, with the support of her husband, she sold a house she owned and opened a shelter. 

Video Top: Laundry drying at the shelter, which sits just outside of Kathmandu.
Video Bottom: A rescue dog gets some love at Sneha’s Care.
Main Photo: A rescue dog in his crate at Sneha’s Care.

Today, Sneha’s Care has a new shelter facility, a team of veterinarians and technicians, and welcomes volunteers from around the world who come to spend time helping the dogs recover and find new homes (although some live permanently at the shelter). 

Photo: A rescue dog with a scarred face at Sneha’s Care.

As we talk, Shrestha looks out at the paralyzed dogs — most of them were injured in hit and run cases. People ask her why she doesn’t euthanize them. “My father was paralyzed for 17 years. We never thought about euthanizing him,” she says poignantly. She says the only difference between him and the dogs is that “my father could speak. And he explained to me that he wanted to live. Maybe these dogs also want to live. I don’t have the right to euthanize them.”

Photo: A disabled rescue dog gets some exercise outside Sneha’s Care.

Shrestha can’t buy dog wheelchairs in Nepal but she imports them. She laughs,

 “when I put the paralyzed dogs in the wheelchairs, they run faster than the four-legged dogs!” 

After she opened the shelter and realized how much love she had for dogs suffering on the streets of Kathmandu, Shrestha suddenly saw all animals in a new light. She realized that she was calling herself an animal lover, but in practice, she was only showing that love to dogs. So she became vegan. 

Photo: Volunteers help all the dogs get exercise outside Sneha’s Care in Nepal.

Today, Shrestha is one of Nepal’s most vocal and visible animal advocates. “I want to be a voice for the voiceless,” she says. Shrestha recently successfully campaigned for the Nepalese government to adopt the country’s first animal protection law, as well as new standards covering buffaloes in transport, who suffer in horrendous conditions on the journey from the India-Nepal border. 

“It’s not only people who teach you humanity, 

I learned humanity from these animals.”

She was nominated as Youth Icon Of The Year 2018 by Women With Vision’s 100 Most Influential Women Of Nepal. Most of her volunteers and supporters are women. “Women are full of love. They have so many passions, helping people, helping animals. Women can save the world.”

Are things changing? Absolutely, she says. “Nepal is changing, society is changing.”

Photo: Photo: Staff, volunteers, and visitors spend time with the rescue dogs at Sneha’s Care.

Shrestha believes that educating young people about protecting animals is paramount. “I was never taught in school to be kind,” she says, but now she sees local children visiting the shelter and donating their pocket money. 

And it’s not just us who can teach compassion. “The most important thing is to have humanity. It’s not only people who teach you humanity, I learned humanity from these animals. These animals taught me everything.”

“Women are full of love. They have so many passions, helping people, helping animals. Women can save the world.”

Zara’s memory keeps her motivated. “Zara inspired me to build this shelter. I have her photo beside my bed. I see her every day and she motivates me to help animals.” 

 “She is the reason I have this shelter.”

The animal protection movement in Nepal has many challenges in front of it, but Zara’s legacy is that Shrestha will always be there to face them.

Learn more and support Sneha’s Care.

Photos and video by Jo-Anne McArthur. Interview and story by Sayara Thurston.