This interview was conducted by Stewart Rose, Vice President of the Vegetarians of Washington in Sept. 2012. Visit www.vegofwa.org.
Tell us something about yourself. How did you first become interested in animals in general and farm animals in particular?
My fascination with animals seems to have been hardwired from birth, but it took many years and many nuggets of exposure for me to finally get that ‘aha’ moment.
I grew up in the suburbs of Southern California, but spent a few weeks each summer during my early teenage years at a camp which centered around a working farm. The cows spent their days wandering around in one of the many pastures; the chickens were free to roam and munch on bugs in the manure and dirt, the pigs dined on the plants and the camp’s food waste; vegetable were grown on the farm and picked by the campers – this system was balanced and thus, it worked.
Whether or not I completely realized this at that time, the annual exposure to these farm animals had a profound impact on my life and fortunately helped widened my scope of how I connected with animals. Much later, when I was in college, I was flipping channels and landed on the local public-access station, which was showing a slaughter facility and a factory farm. These all-too-real images, depicting the sheer terror and violence inflicted upon these animals, were seared into me – a far cry from the farm where I had spent my summers, yet this was the sobering reality for nearly every animal in the US food supply. Farm animals, such as the ones I was lucky enough to grow up with, are thinking and feeling individuals, who share an equal capacity to suffer as I do, and yet whose desire to live free of torment and abuse is systemically ignored. Eating a plant-based diet has been not only a simple transition, but an absolute pleasure.
What is your position here at the regional HSUS office/chapter and what kinds of things does your branch work on?
I am the Washington State Director for the Humane Society of the United States. In Washington, there is a huge spectrum of issues that I am involved with: from assisting law enforcement on puppy mill cruelty and abuse cases, to lobbying for wildlife and farm animals in Olympia. The Humane Society of the United States advocates to reduce suffering, and to create meaningful social change for all animals, by advocating for sensible public policies, investigating cruelty and working to enforce existing laws, educating the public about animal issues, joining with corporations on behalf of animal-friendly policies, and conducting hands-on programs that make ours a more humane world.
Recently you won a big victory for egg laying hens. Can you tell us about that and what you see as some of your other significant accomplishments?
In the Spring of 2011, we launched a ballot initiative here in Washington State that would help improve the lives of 6.5 million egg-laying hens living in factory farms. These hens are crammed inside tiny, barren, wire cages with several other birds, which are so restrictive that each one has a space smaller than a sheet of paper on which to live. The public response was truly extraordinary: evidenced both by the passion and dedication of our volunteers, as well as the overwhelming positive response from folks we met on the street.
What our in-state efforts resulted in, however, was an agreement with the United Egg Producers to push a joint effort to pass federal legislation, which in part would give each bird, throughout the entire US flock significantly more space to live. Our signature drive prompted the framework to help not only our 6.5 million birds, but every hen throughout this nation – it’s a truly staggering result!
Currently, the majority of the 280 million birds in the US flock are each provided with only 67 square inches of space, with roughly 50 million receiving a meager 48 square inches! The proposed legislation, HR 3798 would culminate with hens nationwide being provided a minimum of 124 to 144 square inches of space, along with the other enrichment improvements. Remember, most birds in the US, live in states that do not allow for the initiative process, so an agreement with industry to obtain a federal law is the most likely path to truly end the barren battery cage in the US.
Other accomplishments I’ve been a part of in Washington include passing legislation that calls for some of the most thorough and strict rules relating to large-scale dog breeding (puppy mills) in the nation, as well as helping Washington become the second US State to ban the preparation and sale of shark fins – a completely unsustainable table treat that results in the slaughter of over 90 million sharks each year.
Do you think that concern about plight of the animals on factory farms is growing?
Absolutely – you see it every day. Whether it’s through mainstream media coverage of animal issues on Oprah and Ellen, or watching star athletes adopting vegan diets, the awareness of the cruel, destructive and ultimately unsustainable practice of warehousing of animals is growing astronomically.
Furthermore, my colleagues at The Humane Society of the United States have done an incredible job with helping leaders in the private sector transition to products that come from more humane production methods. Just this past year, major food companies and retailers that have announced intentions to eliminate gestation crates from their supply chains include: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Jack-in-the Box, Costco, Kroger, Safeway, Kraft (Oscar Mayer), Heinz, Campbell Soup, Denny’s, Cracker Barrel, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, Sonic, Baja Fresh, Kmart, Compass Group, Aramark, Sysco and Sodexo.
What do you wish the wider American public were more aware of?
Well, first of all, I have great faith that with an increase in understanding and awareness, an increase in empathy and compassion will result. So we as advocates need to continue to educate and inform our friends, family and neighbors on these critical animal welfare issues. Kindness and compassion are values that are intrinsic in all of us, yet often times we choose to place our own interests over others as a default. But as we consider these choices – often times the decision seems insignificant like ordering a meal, but these seemingly trivial choices represent, to the animals affected, a critical life and death decision.
I wish the wider American public understood that you don’t have to be perfect – but any and every compassionate choice one takes will have a very real and tangible impact to a creature who is completely at our mercy. We can all live a rich, full and complete life while also being decent to the other beings with which we share our planet.
Are you optimistic for a better future for the animals?
I am. As I mentioned before, empathy and compassion are values shared by the collective. For too long we have been blinded to the realities of the plight which many animals on this planet face – whether it be in a puppy mill or on a factory farm or from habitat destruction, but that is changing every day. I hope that one day the world will leap from A to Z, where Z is a place that institutionalized cruelties to animals are a thing of the past, but I recognize what a huge step we have in front of us just to get from A to B. And that alone gives me cause and purpose to wake up each day and take action. Because I know that with my effort, and the effort of like-minded advocates, our world can’t possibly be worse off, and better yet, we just might reach our goal.