Rebecca Knowles

Rebecca Knowles

“Times are changing, indeed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Times are changing, indeed.”

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

Liz Dee

Liz Dee

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

Liz Dee, Founder of Vegan Ladyboss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Leah Garcés

Leah Garcés

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

Leah Garcés - Mercy For Animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Theodora Capaldo

Theodora Capaldo

“We had all of the essential ingredients of a campaign that had to succeed.”

Dr. Capaldo and her rescued Shiba, Kibou

Dr. Capaldo and her rescued Shiba, Kibou

The vast majority of drugs that test safe and effective in animals ultimately fail in humans.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine concluded that chimpanzee use in research isn’t necessary, even though chimps are our closest genetic relatives.

Animals suffer tremendously for research that doesn’t serve humans, and there are better alternatives ready for use right now.

These are among the facts that Theodora Capaldo has spent her life sharing. For decades, she has worked to end animal research, first as a board member and then, until her recent retirement, as executive director and president of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS), a national organization based in Boston. With Capaldo at the helm, NEAVS persuaded the first veterinary school to end “terminal surgery labs” in which dogs were killed, spearheaded the campaign that stopped chimp research in the United States, rescued hundreds of animals from lives of torture, and much more.

“When people say, ‘I didn’t know they used dogs in research,’ I believe them,” Capaldo says. “There’s a lot of ignorance, because it’s well hidden and because human denial is our most primitive and relied upon defense mechanism.”

Since she first took up this fight in the 1980s, information – science, ironically – has been her best ally, she says.

“Science is advancing, and every day the flaws of animal use are being exposed and corrected by non-animal research methods. Animal use will end.”

Capaldo remembers first learning about animal research around age eight. Her teacher kept a reading table in the classroom. One day, Capaldo picked up an anti-vivisection magazine. Flipping through its pages she came upon a photo of a dog with his head weakly hung across the bars of his wooden cage. A sign above him read: “No food. Just water.” He was being used in a starvation experiment.

“I can still see his face,” Capaldo recalls. “I always will. That was perhaps my big bang.”

Soon she was donating her lunch money to help animals in labs.

Capaldo says she’d have probably gone to veterinary school if the science courses hadn’t required live animal dissection. Instead, she became a licensed psychologist. As she got older, she only became more passionate about animal protection and anti-vivisection, specifically.

“I came to despise the hypocrisy of vivisectors. Researchers commit such atrocities under the name of ‘good.’ It is the one area where people defend their cruelty by claiming it is for noble ends. Abattoirs don’t. Furriers don’t. Researchers’ lies are a big part of why I abhor it.”

As a private-practice psychologist, she found she could make the income she needed seeing patients just a few days a week, leaving plenty of time for animal activism. She joined NEAVS’ board and continued her practice part-time for about 20 years before becoming NEAVS’ full-time executive director, a role she held for another 20. Prior to NEAVS, she served as co-president of Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, helped win the strictest regulations for carriage horses in the country for Boston, and exposed the cruelty of traditional Chinese medicine’s bear bile use.

Friends and colleagues say it’s Capaldo’s honesty, relentlessness and effectiveness that set her apart.

“She leaves no stone unturned in her quest for truth and clarity,” says Jill Robinson, founder and CEO of Animals Asia Foundation. “As a trained psychologist, she explores every component, every argument, intelligently, diplomatically, but ruthlessly too. She is also the most amazing ally for women everywhere, especially those in the animal welfare movement.”

Of all her work, Capaldo is best known for leading the charge that ended U.S. chimp research, through a NEAVS campaign called Project R&R, launched in 2004, four years after passage of the CHIMP Act, which called for the creation of a national sanctuary system for research chimps no longer in use and mandated that they couldn’t be euthanized for labs’ convenience.

“It seemed like the movement had taken it to that point, and then said, ‘Good, we got that done,’” Capaldo recalls. “But we still at the time had some 1,800-plus chimps in U.S. labs, and when we looked at the science, we saw that it was failing. The beautiful double whammy here is that chimps are so genetically like us, and it was still failing to be truly useful to human health.”

Activists also had another strategically powerful tool that Capaldo recognized – living, retired chimps in sanctuaries whose stories could be shared and whose trauma was obvious.

“We had all of the essential ingredients of a campaign that had to succeed.”

In discussing Project R&R, Capaldo displays the candor for which she is admired.

“Some people said it’s speciesist to just focus on chimps,” she says. “Well, one thing I said to animal groups when we started was that we had to focus on chimpanzees because we can always count on human narcissism. And people would laugh, and I would say, ‘I’m serious.’ Humans are inclined toward what they can most relate to, what is most like them. For many, it’s a kind of narcissistic empathy.”

Recalling how some sanctuaries that she tried to work with were reluctant to take a position against chimp research, Capaldo says, “That’s something the sanctuary community is going to have to answer for with St. Peter or Jesus or Buddha or whoever they go to. Because you have to be strong. There’s a naivete in thinking you can convince a lab to give up something entirely that is so lucrative for them. You can’t. People do not give up privilege. You have to take privilege from people.

“The occasional monkey or beagle you get to rescue by playing nice with the labs is not the formula for ending it for the tens of thousands of monkeys and millions of other species who will continue to be used unless advocates strike at the very heart of the vivisection industry.”

As for what she is most proud of, beyond the major victories, Capaldo names her focus on being strategic and on using science. NEAVS published many papers in peer-reviewed journals to complement its campaign work, and while there and at Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Capaldo prioritized efforts to end the harmful use of animals at all levels of education and professional training, including high school biology courses, to make room for a new generation of compassionate scientists.

Capaldo officially retired from NEAVS in 2017 but continued with a few special projects until the end of 2018. Today, she is focused on the American Fund for Alternatives to Animal Research, a foundation that provides funding for the development of alternatives to animal use in science.

She is still in the fight, with decades of insight inside her.

On moving people to action for animals, she says that overcoming self-interest is key. “You do that by helping them get that the self is so much bigger than the boundaries of their own body. In the end, we have to realize that we’re all part of one world.”

Capaldo’s biggest concern about the animal rights movement today? The number of organizations and campaigns that aren’t doing what she calls real work. “Pseudo-campaigns, with little or no teeth, for the sake of fundraising are, to me, unethical and set the animals back,” she says. “They accomplish little other than more money for an organization to do more fund-raising. That, in a word, is unconscionable.”

About the decision by many animal rights groups to focus singularly on factory farming because it is where the most animals are harmed, Capaldo says: “What I don’t like about it is that it compartmentalizes compassion. We could argue that animals in research suffer in the most egregious and diverse ways. While animals in food production need us desperately, I think ‘most’ is an arbitrarily assigned value.”

About self-care among animal activists and staying in the fight, she says activists must be prepared for lots of failure, and they must remember that what initially looks like failure is instead often laying critical groundwork for future victories. That was certainly the case with ending chimp research, she says.

Capaldo adds that it’s OK to acknowledge that some people simply aren’t well suited for certain types of activism.

“I think you have to be the kind of person who won’t take no for an answer. When you do this kind of work, it’s war. There’s a war against animals, and if you’re a soldier trying to stop it, you’re going to see a lot of bodies, and many days you’re going to feel powerless to help them, and that’s the worst feeling,” she says.

“But if you’ve got moxie, you just get up, go back and keep doing it and doing it.”

 

Photos by Jo-Anne McArthur. Interview and story by Corinne Benedict.

Twyla Francois

Twyla Francois

“Painting allowed me to literally paint the images out, freeing my mind up to return to the field.”

Like many activists, Twyla Francois can pinpoint the moments in her life that led her to animal rights.

One of the first was when she was 13. Growing up in a farming community in rural Canada, she joined 4H like most kids. She spent countless hours raising and getting to know her veal calf before enrolling him in the town fair, not understanding what would happen there. When she realized the man bidding on her beloved friend was the town butcher, she pleaded in tears to keep the calf, which 4H prohibits. She has no idea how she got a copy, but soon she was reading Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” and no longer eating meat.

Years later, as an adult, Francois was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery where doctors discovered stage IV tumors in her abdomen. She was an administrator at the University of Manitoba at the time. While working for the vice president of research, she’d seen documents detailing the university’s research on dogs, including where they’d come from – the city pound. Some arrived with name tags still on their collars. Francois spoke up to no avail, so she moved to another department at the university, but there her values were only challenged further.

Facing the possibility of death, she re-examined her life. While undergoing chemotherapy, she co-founded a small non-profit animal advocacy organization and threw herself into the world of animal rights, first as an investigator and then as an artist.

These two kinds of activism might seem like separate paths. But Francois says the first naturally led her directly to the second.

Besides the research on dogs, what did you see during your time in academia that conflicted with your values?

Any efforts I made at challenging the university’s use of animals were quickly dismissed – the university relied on funding from the various granting bodies and wouldn’t do anything that would risk it. Eventually I felt I had to leave the job and moved over to work for the vice president of external relations, but things just got worse. The university accepted funds from all of the corporations no one else would touch, granting them the ability to rename faculties. (Monsanto’s – now Bayer’s – headquarters are still located at the University of Manitoba.) A large oil company happily accepted the offer and renamed the Faculty of Environment to the Faculty of Earth and Earth Resources, setting the tone that environmental protection would no longer be the primary mandate of the faculty.

A new Smart Park was built to commercialize research, including, of course, animal research, and special films were ordered for the buildings’ windows to prevent photos and videos from being taken, giving the impression of transparency without having to actually provide it. In Smart Park, researchers didn’t even have to release statistics on the number of animals they were using or what they were using them for because they were under private ownership. I cried on the way home from work every day. The cognitive dissonance became unbearable and my body forced onto me what my mind wouldn’t [when I got sick]. It ended up being a blessing in disguise.

Your 10-plus years as an investigator included top roles with Animals’ Angels, Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Farmed Animals, the Canadian Horse Defense Coalition and Mercy For Animals Canada, and your work led to facility closures, animal cruelty convictions, documentaries, government-commissioned research and animal rescues. Why did you stop doing investigations?

I started having more and more difficulty handling investigations as time passed. Part of it was learning the complexity of emotions farmed animals experience and understanding how much they must suffer in animal agriculture. Each time I would get to know a species through one I was able to remove and bring to my property to live out their life free from exploitation, investigations on that species would become more difficult. Eventually I got to know all of the species used in animal agriculture, making it nearly impossible to continue with investigations.

I also questioned whether what I was doing was having an effect. Initially, I had a strong belief that undercover investigations were the most effective way to bring about real change for animals. We put together complete evidentiary packages for law enforcement, and major media outlets provided extensive coverage. But while those releases caused a slight ripple in society, the response wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was devastating to find that the one thing I’d pinned all my hopes on failed. It was my answer to the doubts I’d always had about my previous investigations – that perhaps I hadn’t presented a full enough case or released it exactly the right way. With the undercover work, everything was right, at least according to what I felt was right, and yet it didn’t have much more effect than my earlier work had.

The argument that continued to hound us as well was the (false) claim that our findings were a one-off, and that all we did was expose one rotten apple in an otherwise unblemished industry. We couldn’t put out investigations fast enough to counter this argument and I realized undercover investigations weren’t the panacea I had believed them to be. What was needed were constant releases of evidence from multiple sources across the country, which is exactly what’s happening today and why we’re seeing such a massive shift in how Canadians view animals, along with a concordant increase in veg’ism.

What did you learn from being an investigator?

I learned from doing investigations in Canada that conditions for animals are much worse than any of us can imagine, and that while there definitely are some individuals who are sadistic and enjoy deliberately making animals suffer, the vast majority of those in animal agriculture aren’t intentionally cruel. They’ve absorbed the message that animals are less-than, or simply regard them as commodities. Others in the industry recognize that animals shouldn’t be made to suffer but fail to understand that standard practices such as separating calves from mothers immediately after birth are also forms of suffering.

I also learned that in Canada, government and law enforcement can’t be counted on to protect farmed animals. There are no governmental bodies that conduct inspections for compliance on farms and the animal welfare legislation that does exist exempts farmed animals, along with practices considered standard, such as castration without anesthetic or analgesics and the use of intensive confinement systems. So for the vast majority of a farmed animal’s life, they are completely without protection.

The two pieces of federal legislation that exist are for animal transport and slaughter at federal facilities, but as investigation after investigation has shown, these regulations are rarely enforced. Instead, the officials that are present are often involved in incidents of cruelty themselves or are so subservient to the workers that they are rendered ineffective. Inspections and enforcement are also becoming increasingly de-regulated. For example, in a recent access to information request, I saw that inspections of the unloading of trailers at a large “federally-inspected” pig slaughterhouse that used to be conducted by Canadian Food Inspection Agency officials are now done by plant employees, who, relying on their employer for a paycheck, are highly unlikely to find any issues of non-compliance.

Why did you turn to art?

I began painting shortly after becoming an investigator and did it as a means to cope with what I was seeing in the field. The imagery seared on one’s brain after an investigation can be haunting and difficult to shake. Painting allowed me to literally paint the images out and put them onto the canvas, freeing my mind up to return to the field.

Later, after many investigations and exposes that sadly didn’t lead to the widespread changes in consumer behaviour I was hoping for, I realized that we weren’t reaching a substantial portion of the population with our message. In particular, kind-hearted, sensitive animal lovers found the images too upsetting and turned away before absorbing the message. These were the very people most likely to make changes to their diet if they could connect with the message. I realized that art, with its ability to be less threatening, could be a way of reaching these people’s hearts. This is because of how subjective art is – we each see in it what speaks to us and feels personal to us. That leaves much of the interpretation up to the viewer who then feels a sense of discovery and ownership of making the connection. Psychological studies show that this sense of responsibility is a direct catalyst for changing behaviour.

And because humans are social beings and look to others to determine how to feel and react in ambiguous situations, which sadly is the case with farmed animals, my hope is that seeing someone lovingly providing water to a dehydrated sow or gently holding a piglet as one would a puppy changes how we view these animals. It reminds us that farmed animals are just as capable of suffering and just as deserving of our respect and sense of responsibility.

Discuss a painting of yours that is especially important to you.

“Free Me” is likely my most well-known piece. It features a pig in a dimly-lit concrete pen peering hopefully through a window out onto a clear, sunny day. As the viewer’s eye moves to the right to explore the darkness, the pig’s dead body, suspended for bleeding, comes into view. The painting came about after my first investigation at an assembly yard, where animals were temporarily housed while being marketed to slaughterhouses – in this case, thousands of miles away. The pigs were cull sows and boars used for breeding who had spent the majority of their adult lives confined to barren concrete and metal cages barely larger than their own bodies. When the pigs were loaded onto the large multi-deck trailers to be taken to slaughter, many pushed their snouts through the portholes of the trailer, trying to feel the sun on their faces. I realized it was likely the first and last time they would ever experience this simple sensation. In all of their suffering, they still had a desire to feel the sun on their skin. They had to strain for it, and many who were too sick, diseased or injured to reach the portholes weren’t even able to experience it. Their only certainty in life was their death which awaited them at the end of this journey as it had hung over them from the moment they were born. It was as inescapable as a shadow.

I never thought I’d release that painting because it was just too personal, but I eventually did and it became part of the Animal Activism Art collection in Stuttgart and is now on permanent display at Land der Tiere, the largest farmed animal sanctuary in Germany.

How do you think your art is making an impact?

I find that I’m reaching a completely different group of people than I did with investigations. It was only when I started releasing art that people from the small farming community I grew up in began contacting me, saying they’ve been following my work but didn’t feel comfortable contacting me until recently. That means a lot because I know where they come from and the difficulty in openly recognizing animals as anything other than commodities in an area that relies on that view. I’m always pleasantly surprised after exhibitions or when articles about my art have been published when people contact me to say they were inspired to make a change. The Recasting Series, which features women of all ages connecting with farmed animals in ways they would companion animals, seems to resonate with many people.

What is next for you?

There are a number of pieces I’m keen to do but have to wait until my technical skills are up to the challenge! I’d specifically like to continue adding to the Monkey Wrenching series, which features people of all ages actively liberating animals. I’d love to do a subseries of seniors liberating animals in particular, as I’ve found surprising support from this age group. No one is ever too young or too old to take action for animals.

 

Learn more about Twyla Francois and view her art at twylafrancois.com.

Photos by Jo-Anne McArthur. Interview and story by Corinne Benedict.

Rubaiya Ahmad

Rubaiya Ahmad

“Even the worst day of doing something is better than the best day of doing nothing.”

Rubaiya Ahmad. Photo by Julie O'Neill.

Rubaiya Ahmad. Photo by Julie O’Neill.

Ask Rubaiya Ahmad about her proudest achievement on behalf of animals, and her answer is immediate.

“Stopping dog culling in Bangladesh,” she says.

Seven years ago, Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital and largest city, was a different world for free-roaming dogs. They were almost constantly hunted by government cullers as part of an ineffective bid to control the country’s rabies problem.

Friendly dogs, including beloved pets, were the easiest targets, sauntering over to anyone who stretched out a hand. Savvier victims were caught using badger tongs, devices on poles that clamped around dogs’ heads inside their mouths, causing excruciating pain. Cullers typically then injected dogs with poison and cut off their tails as proof of the kill. To inflate their numbers, cullers sometimes cut single tails into several pieces to turn in to their overseers.

One night, this happened to Kashtanka, a light brown, grinning dog who Ahmad had cared for since she was a puppy. Kashtanka was one of three street dogs Ahmad began looking after when she returned to her native Bangladesh in 2006 after a decade living in the United States. She was renting a tiny studio apartment at the time and felt it would be cruel to keep the dogs inside. But she’d had them vaccinated and sterilized, had bought them collars and fed them every day, and all of her neighbors knew they were Ahmad’s.

Two of the dogs, including Kashtanka’s mother, Rosha, were able to escape. But Kashtanka was young and trusting and likely greeted the cullers who grabbed and poisoned her. Ahmad remembers it like yesterday. She got a call from her building’s night guard saying that Kashtanka was being taken. She chased after the cullers and found Kashtanka in the back of their truck, lifeless, still wearing her collar, on top of a pile of other dogs.

“Even the worst day of doing something is better than the best day of doing nothing. It’s more difficult to do nothing.”

It was an experience that changed her life’s focus. Ahmad founded Bangladesh’s first animal welfare organization, Obhoyaronno – which roughly translates to “Sanctuary” – in 2009. In 2012, after Obhoyaronno launched a program to sterilize and vaccinate free-roaming dogs in line with World Health Organization protocols for rabies control, Dhaka city agreed to end dog culling. In 2014, Obhoyaronno successfully petitioned Bangladesh’s high court for a national injunction against culling, as well as against animal sports such as bull and cock fighting. There are still occasional incidents of dog culling outside of Dhaka, but today, for the most part, the practice has ended across Bangladesh.

Campaign literature“Whenever people tell me that what I do is really difficult and that they could never do it, I just tell them the same thing I tell myself when things get difficult: that it’s more difficult to do nothing,” says Ahmad, formerly an IT consultant. “On the days when I feel like I don’t want to do this anymore because it’s too hard, I remind myself that there was a time when I didn’t do anything, and I wasn’t happy. Even the worst day of doing something is better than the best day of doing nothing.”

“Any platform that allows me to talk about veganism, I take that opportunity.”

With Obhoyaronno’s clinic and spay-neuter program going strong, Ahmad has turned her focus to promoting veganism. Because of her work, local schools have adopted Meatless Monday, popular hotels and restaurants have added veg choices, and Bangladesh’s top-ranking grocery store chain has installed vegan sections. Ahmad gives talks on animal welfare and vegan eating almost anywhere she is asked, shares information and recipes on social media, and writes a regular column, A Vegan’s Diary, in Bangladesh’s largest English-language newspaper. She holds vegan brunches and recently launched a new online vegan food delivery platform, The Bangu Vegan. The venture delivers vegan meals every Monday, hosts supper club events and supplies vegan food items to local retailers. Ahmad also uses The Bangu Vegan to do advocacy and offer cooking courses.

“Any platform that allows me to talk about veganism, I take that opportunity,” Ahmad says.

In Bangladesh, even things as simple as vegan menu options are a breakthrough, she notes. She says figuring out the right messages and how to present them has been difficult, but it’s also been a big key to her success.

“We got our way by speaking in a language they understood.”

“We’ve focused very much on the scientific approach to things, as opposed to being emotionally driven,” Ahmad explains. “When we started talking about our dog population management program, we didn’t talk about animal welfare. We talked about rabies control and how many kids were dying of rabies in Bangladesh. We showed the government that how they’ve been killing dogs for 50 years has not changed the rabies situation – it escalated it, if anything. And in the end, they stopped killing dogs. We got our way by speaking in a language they understood.”

Obhoyaronno’s spay-neuter program has now sterilized more than 16,000 free-roaming dogs, and the organization recently entered into a partnership with Dogs Trust International that has allowed Obhoyaronno to expand its clinic and gain critical surgical training.

Ahmad has also taken a science-based approach in her efforts to reduce animal-product consumption.

“The less you create the divide of us versus them, the better, because no one likes to be judged or told what to do.”

“We focus primarily on the health aspect. Eventually, at the right time and with the right platform, we’ll bring in animal welfare, like we do with our dog work now. We openly talk about how inhumane it is to kill dogs, and no one questions that now.”

She says it’s important, too, for activists to see themselves as part of the communities they work in.

“The less you create the divide of us versus them, the better, because no one likes to be judged or told what to do. It helps me to remember that I couldn’t care less about animals when I was young, and I ate meat until I was 30 years old.”

The progress she sees, even when it’s incremental, motivates her to keep going.

Rubaiya Ahmad portrait“It’s the changes in the community, the changes in mindset – every time an animal is saved or someone chooses a vegetarian meal because of what I posted on Facebook,” Ahmad says. “It’s so funny, I’ll post something, and two or three people will comment, and I’ll think no one cares. And then the next week, five messages will show up with pictures of vegetarian food, saying, ‘Because of what you wrote last week, I cooked this.’”

As for what’s next, Ahmad plans to focus on legislative reforms to help Bangladesh’s animals. She knows it’s a tall order, but so was ending dog culling, and she says that’s been the biggest lesson her work has taught her – that nothing is impossible.

“No matter how absurd an idea may seem, if you put your mind to it, you can.”

 

Learn more and support Obhoyaronno – Bangladesh Animal Welfare Foundation and The Bangu Vegan.

Photos and interview by Julie O’Neill. Story by Corinne Benedict.