“Times are changing, indeed.”
Rebecca Knowles is that rare combination of gentle warmth that puts you at ease in a moment, fierce 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.
They 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.