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.

Carol J. Adams

Carol J. Adams

A pioneer of animal advocacy & trailblazer in womxn’s rights

Writer Carol J. Adams at her desk. USA, 2015.

​From her study near Dallas, Texas, tucked within stacks of notes, files, and various translated editions of her books, author and activist, Carol J. Adams, talks of a time when her work was not so well-received. Between faint barks from rescue-dogs Inky and Holly, Adams speaks of how her now-famous book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, was widely ignored upon first publication, and how “80% of the reviews were negative,” she says. “I mean really, feminist vegetarian theory,” she jokes, “what does that mean?” Of course Adams, and much of the rest of the world, couldn’t know then just how much her work would come to mean, in both the womxn’s and animal rights movements.

And today, Adams is being celebrated for the 30th anniversary of The Sexual Politics of Meat, as a pioneer of animal advocacy, and a trailblazer in womxn’s rights.

Long before Adams was a well-known author, she was a child of the fifties and sixties, one of three sisters, living in a small village in western New York State, along with some dogs, cats, a horse and a pony. In her tween years, Adams says she and her friends were very involved with their equestrian companions. “During that time there was so much pressure [for girls] to conform, and we suddenly had a group of girls who were all riding ponies and horses,” she says. “It was very physical engagement,” during a time when female athletics were not so supported. And on hot summer days, Adams says she and her friends would lay on their animals’ backs beneath the shade of a willow tree, “and we would just talk,” she says. “I think it was such a deep experience.”

Though raised a feminist and nurtured to be an activist, Adams points to one distinct incident that started her down the path of merging movements. It happened after she returned home from her first year at Yale Divinity School in the 1970’s, in what she describes as an unsuccessful search for her life’s purpose. “I was unpacking, and there was a knock at the door. It was someone I had never met before, and he said ‘someone has just shot your pony.’” Barefoot, Adams ran through an apple orchard to reach her pony, Jimmy. “We could hear gunshots in the distance,” she says. “It turns out there were two teenagers target practicing in the woods,” who she believes accidentally killed Jimmy.

Adams calls the incident traumatic, but says it was that night when her world truly shifted. Her father suggested she go to a local grocer to have hamburger meat prepared. “We went and got the hamburger made, then we came home and cooked the hamburger. And when I went to bite into the hamburger, I stopped and thought: what am I doing? This is a dead cow. And Jimmy’s lying dead in the pasture, yet I’m going to eat a dead cow? So is it only animals I don’t know that I would eat? So aren’t I a hypocrite?” At that moment, Adams says she put the hamburger down, and knew she had to become a vegetarian.

Through her continuing years in academia, studying feminist theory in the 1970’s, Adams lived among other feminists who were vegetarians, and soon she says, started seeing connections between the two schools of thought. “I thought ‘Wow, look at all these connections. There are all these feminists who were vegetarian; and look at these novels, look at Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy; look at these theories, books about patriarchy and violence,” she says. She then put it all together:

“There is a connection between patriarchy and eating animals, and feminism and vegetarianism.”

In that instance of realization, she says, while walking down Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Adams nearly levitated off the ground.

After penning an essay on the topic, which was later published, with much fanfare, in the Lesbian Reader anthology, it was then suggested to Adams that she turn it into a book. She then spent time interviewing, connecting and writing, but after completing her first draft, was not satisfied. “Something was lacking,” she says. Though the connection was established, she had yet to come up with a theory. “I said to myself, ‘Carol, you’re really only going to have one chance at making this claim.’” So she withdrew the draft. Then once again, she went home.

Adams joined her mother working in various grassroots advocacy endeavours, fighting racism and housing discrimination, starting a hotline for battered womxn, a soup kitchen and a second-hand store, all while continually trying to write the book. “And what is so clear,” she says, “is that all that activism helped me be a better writer,” in particular, she says, “to recognize overlapping oppressions.”

But it wasn’t until Adams then read the book, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing, by Margaret Homans, that she was finally led to the theory she was seeking. “She introduces this literary concept of the ‘absent referent,’ and I thought, well that’s what animals are, they are absent referents in meat eating. That’s what happened when Jimmy was killed. The cow was no longer an absent referent to me. I didn’t understand that. But I experienced it.” And the next morning, Adams woke up and realized, “and that’s what womxn are too, in a patriarchal culture, the absent referent.”

Adams was then ready to write her final draft of what would become The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist Vegetarian Critical Theory, which would later be translated into nine different languages, and is today considered more relevant than ever. Adams has also since published dozens of other highly regarded books, including Burger, Protest Kitchen, Neither Man Nor Beast, The Pornography of Meat, Prayers for Animals, and others.

As for the evolution of The Sexual Politics of Meat over time, Adams says, the book is now an entity all of its own.

“The book was within me, and now the book is not within me. For thirty years it’s been out in the world doing its work. And every once in a while it’s like the book writes back to me in the form of a human being who has read it and been touched by it. But the book is something separate from me now.”

“However that book works to help people move along in consciousness,” she says. “I want it to continue to do that, until it is not needed.” And when asked what a world no longer in need of her book might look like for womxn, Adams replies: “There would never be a need for a ‘Me Too’ moment again. Patriarchy would be eradicated.” And for the animals: “Western, racist, patriarchal culture and ethics create the environment for seeing other beings as disposable, usable, edible. So then if we eradicate that racist, patriarchal, western mindset, we will have eradicated the instrumentalization of other animals.”

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.

Africa Network For Animal Welfare

Africa Network For Animal Welfare

Africa Network For Animal Welfare

Working with communities and governments across Africa to promote humane treatment of all animals.


 

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

Africa Network For Animal Welfare


 

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

The sun is still high in the sky. It’s not even 1 p.m., but already, this foot patrol has found and removed 29 snares from the red-dirt grounds of Kenya’s Soysambu Conservancy. 

Snare Removal Work in Soysambu Conservancy northwest of Nairobi. Kenya, 2016.

The Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW), regularly scours this 190 square kilometre ranch, along with other conservation areas where snares are common. To outsiders, it can seem like searching for a needle in a haystack, but Helen Jerotich, Catherine Chumo, Eunice Robai and the rest of their small group are pros. 

ANAW team member holding snares. Kenya, 2016.

ANAW team member holding snares. Kenya, 2016.

“The neighbouring communities are the ones who come and put the snares,” explains Jerotich, who removes the makeshift wire traps so routinely that today she’s doing it in office attire: a button-down shirt and nice earrings.

“They sneak in and use snares to get meat. It’s more for commercial. Buffalo or zebras are killed and then transported to neighbouring butchers.”

Gazelles, giraffes, and even lions are also common here.

Helen Jerotich searching for snares.

The sheer number of snares that are uncovered, even when they’re empty, can be heartbreaking.
Far worse is when ANAW finds an animal that has been injured or killed, which they often do. Wounded animals are usually darted and sedated. A veterinarian then determines whether the victim will heal or needs to be euthanized. 
ANAW’s Sebastian Mwanza recalls one of the worst cases he’s seen on the job – a zebra who’d been snared and badly hurt. Her wounds weren’t survivable, so the team prepared to euthanize her. As they did, her herd stood at a distance and watched.

One zebra, a baby, stood closer, waiting for what Mwanza assumed was her mother to get up. 

“That was very bad,” he says. “Very, very, very bad.”

Snare-removal at the Soysambu Conservancy.

ANAW team members search for snares.

Giraffes at the Soysambu Conservancy.

ANAW team member Eunice Robai.

The only good snare, of course, is the one never set. This is why ANAW’s de-snaring efforts make up only a small part of the organization’s work. Founded in 2006 and based in Kenya, ANAW collaborates with communities, governments and a range of partners across Africa to promote the humane treatment of all animals, from wildlife to farmed, working, and companion animals. 

ANAW’s education and awareness-raising efforts include animal welfare clubs in local schools, a regular magazine, Animal Welfare, and campaigns against bush meat. The organization has also achieved important policy and legal victories, hosts local and international conferences, and runs vaccination and veterinary care clinics. 

Helen Jerotich holding a snare.

It’s hard work in a country where the vast majority of people haven’t been brought up to value animals’ lives, viewing them as here merely for human use, says Chumo, who is ANAW’s information officer. Also a journalist and writer, she started at ANAW years ago as a volunteer and loves the job. Her father was a conservationist who instilled in her a love of animals and the environment.
Markings from where snares had been previously attached to the tree.

For most Kenyans, though, “animals come last,” Chumo laments.

She and the rest of the ANAW team dream of a day when their efforts to change minds mean they’ll no longer have to patrol for snares. 

Until then, they’ll continue, one foot in front of the other. 

Learn more and support ANAW here. 

Gail Eisnitz

Gail Eisnitz

“I couldn’t do this job if I didn’t have hope.”

If you want to understand what it’s really like behind the closed doors of America’s factory farms and slaughterhouses, ask Gail Eisnitz.

She can tell you about the sounds—overwhelmingly loud, a mix of whirring automation and animals’ pained shrieks. She can tell you how it smells, and about the colours, and about how fast everything goes. Now more than ever, she’ll explain, the kill line stops for nothing. Not for an injured worker. Not for possible meat contamination. Not for an animal too scared or weak to move forward on its own. Not even for one who hasn’t effectively been rendered unconscious before the cutting or boiling begins.

She can tell you how it feels to stand right next to the stun operator—so close that you’re spattered with brain as cows fall. She can tell you about the fear, which she says is instantly recognizable, no matter the species.

For decades, as the public has largely turned away from the worst of what we inflict on animals used for food, Eisnitz has chosen to look. Among America’s most dedicated animal rights investigators, for years, she acknowledges, she immersed herself so deeply that her work was an obsession. While she is best known for her 1997 book Slaughterhouse (updated edition, 2006), which exposed horrific violations of federal law inside United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-inspected facilities, her achievements extend much further.

In the late 90s, as chief investigator for the California-based Humane Farming Association (HFA), Eisnitz documented widespread use of illegal, deadly steroids by the U.S. veal industry, leading to convictions and national television coverage. In 2000, after obtaining videotaped evidence and affidavits from workers, she exposed the routine skinning and dismemberment of hundreds of thousands of conscious cattle by the world’s largest meat packer. Eisnitz was the driving force behind a highly read frontpage 2001 Washington Post article that detailed slaughterhouse atrocities across the country, which led to Congress’s infusion of tens of millions of dollars into the USDA’s budget for humane slaughter enforcement. She played a key role in stopping construction in 2003 in South Dakota of what would have been the world’s third largest pig factory—a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition to appearing in The New York Times and on Good Morning America, among many other news outlets, her work was the subject of the HBO documentary Death on a Factory Farm. Today, she continues as an investigator with HFA.

“It takes repeated pounding away at the meat industry to effectuate any change—repeated blows,” says Eisnitz, who is thoughtful, soft-spoken and lives in North Carolina with her cat, Abel.

“I always tell myself that if you keep pounding away, change will come.”


Colleagues say that relentlessness, no matter the obstacle or cost, reflects Eisnitz’s courage and her commitment to finding truth.

“She has gone after the stuff of nightmares, and kept at it,” says Patty Finch, former executive director of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. She calls Eisnitz’s investigations into U.S. slaughterhouses “one of the most impressive bodies of work by any animal activist.”

“Doing that work for so long comes at a great personal cost to her. I know that as her friend,” Finch says. “But Gail never stops.”

Eisnitz first felt compelled to help animals as a child growing up in New Jersey. She remembers watching a program on public television around age 12 that showed two orphaned polar bear cubs looking up at the film crew in a helicopter overhead. Their mother had just been shot. “The expressions on their faces were so helpless. It was seared in my brain,” Eisnitz recalls. A few years later, in high school, she wrote a research paper on endangered species and couldn’t believe the speed at which animals were being wiped away. “After that I was definitely hooked on saving animals,” she says.

She earned a degree in natural resource conservation and began writing about and illustrating threatened and endangered species for various local publications. In 1983, she took a job as a writer and lobbyist in Washington, D.C., for the Animal Welfare Institute and Society for Animal Protective Legislation. Her next job was as a writer and editor for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

But something was missing.

“You can only write about things for so long that you haven’t seen for yourself.”

“I wanted to work in investigations so desperately, but it was such a small field at the time,” Eisnitz says.

She got her chance in 1988 when she became one of HSUS’s two national field investigators. Soon she was working to expose puppy mills, auctions of badly abused horses, cockfighting, the use of “live lure” rabbits in greyhound racing, and cruelty in factory farming. Sometimes she put cases together by conducting in-depth interviews with whistleblowers or other insiders who she persuaded to sign affidavits. Other times, she got close to perpetrators and gathered evidence while posing as Carol Taylor, her undercover persona. Her first slaughterhouse investigation started with a tip from a USDA employee assigned to a Florida facility where cows routinely were being skinned alive. “He’d complained to everyone he could think of and no one was doing anything,” Eisnitz recalls.

It was a roadblock that would stymie Eisnitz again and again as she delved deeper into slaughterhouses. She says getting inside and finding workers willing to talk often wasn’t all that difficult; significantly harder was getting people in positions to help to take action, including the media, law enforcement officials and USDA regulators. Many times she convinced network news programs to run stories using evidence she’d gathered, only to have them back out at the last minute saying the material was too graphic. With law enforcement, “They’d often say we fabricated our evidence. They’d take the side of the factory farm or the slaughterhouse.” Even HSUS wasn’t interested in supporting slaughterhouse investigations or making use of her findings, Eisnitz says.

“I was definitely obsessed with getting these cases put together. I had spent so much time documenting these atrocities.”

In 1992, Eisnitz left HSUS to become chief investigator for the Humane Farming Association. It was there that her colleague, HFA founder Bradley Miller, encouraged her to write a book.

In all, she put almost a decade of work into Slaughterhouse, a first-person account of her efforts as an investigator, including while she underwent treatment for breast cancer. In addition to detailing horrendous cruelty to animals—animals routinely beaten, scalded and dismembered while fully conscious, live animals dragged around by meat hooks, animals arriving for slaughter frozen nearly solid after being transported in sub-zero temperatures—the book also explores other consequences of slaughterhouses’ lightning-fast line speeds, including meat contamination and mental and physical fallout for workers.

“I encountered people who became sadistic from working in slaughterhouses, and they took out their frustrations on the animals,” Eisnitz says, noting that many who she interviewed were relieved to tell her about what they’d done and seen. “I encountered people who became alcoholics and became abusive to their spouses.”

The book gave Eisnitz a platform to call attention to slaughterhouse violations, which she did in interviews that aired on more than 1,000 radio stations. In 2004, she was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Medal for excellence in animal welfare by the Animal Welfare Institute.

After Slaughterhouse, Eisnitz threw herself into the world of pig farming, finding a whole new set of horrors. When she finally slowed down, about ten years ago, she began to understand the extent to which documenting trauma eventually becomes trauma of one’s own.

“I was very troubled. It wasn’t pretty. I just tried to shut it out and not deal with it, which is not good, because it comes out in other ways.” For Eisnitz, that included trauma-induced illness that manifested itself in visual processing problems that she struggled to find treatment for.

“I wish I could say something wise,” she says about how she eventually healed. “I think it was just time and distance.”

One of the biggest lessons she’s learned from her decades of activism is that self-care matters.

“You can’t take care of anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself first.”

While her pace may have leveled, today Eisnitz is as dedicated to helping animals as ever. She is focused now on reforming the USDA’s Livestock Indemnity Program, which reimburses farmers and ranchers for animals who die during extreme weather, even when farmers make no effort to protect them. She’s also currently working to shut down a large illegal slaughter operation.

As for the sanctioned slaughterhouses she spent so many years investigating, she knows some of the atrocities she documented continue.

“The infusion of millions of dollars we secured from Congress for humane slaughter enforcement has generated much more regulatory attention to the issue,” she says. “However, I did a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request pretty recently and it showed that animals are still being shackled, hoisted and bled while fully conscious.”

The meat industry continues to push for ever-higher limits on line speeds, Eisnitz notes, and in the case of pigs, no cap on line speeds. Driving the increases, she explains, are industry consolidation—many small and medium-sized slaughterhouses have closed in recent years—and growing demand for meat in developing countries. Lax USDA regulatory enforcement adds fuel to the fire.

“The bottom line is the meat industry can’t seem to kill animals fast enough.”

At the same time, she knows her work and the work of other investigators and activists has made a difference, from hard-won media exposure, convictions and legislative improvements to the thousands of people who’ve written to her since Slaughterhouse was published to say they’ve given up animal products.

And she knows more victories for animals will come, if she just keeps pounding away.

“I couldn’t do this job if I didn’t have hope.”

 

Photos by Kelly Guerin. Interview by Jo-Anne McArthur. Story by Corinne Benedict.

Dr. Charu Chandrasekera

Dr. Charu Chandrasekera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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 womxn’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 womxn 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 womxn 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 womxn, 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 womxn 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.