I was interviewed by @nonhuman.rights.project Communication Director Lauren Choplin about why I decided to be a voice for the NhRP elephant clients!
If you remember, back in November I wrote a story about my experience observing the animals, Minnie in particular, at the "Big E" in Springfield, Massachusetts.
In this interview with Lauren, I describe my vision as a humane educator, for how we can encourage children and adults to care about other species without depriving individual nonhuman animals of their liberty or exploiting them.
Here is a link to the published article:
I hope you enjoy this heartfelt interview!
Thank you to everyone for your support!
This is a film I put together about my journey as an animal rights activist and all of the ways we work together to fight for the animals. It is intended to build hope and courage and a way for all of us to find our voice.
Some artistic notes about the film:
When I first heard the song, "We Shall Overcome: Love Will Rise Again" I was deeply moved. This song captures how I feel about being a voice for the animals. I've never felt so empowered, inspired and as strong in my life as I do now. Nimo Patel was so gracious to let me use his music for this film. If you have the opportunity, please visit Nimo's website and learn more about his efforts of using music for social change. If you are able, please consider donating to his cause.
This film explores all of the ways we exploit animals and all of the ways we fight for them. It goes back and forth between the two extremes. For all of the oppression and injustice the animals face, we are there to make things right. You may notice that at times, those oppressing the animals don't seem to even notice what they are doing. We've been conditioned that what we are doing to animals is normal, natural and necessary. The veil is lifting.
When we actively speak up for the animals, we are tipping the scales. It doesn't matter if you're scared, shy or hesitant, you can do this. And if you think that one person can't make a difference I refer you to this poem by Bonaro W. Overstreet:
(To One Who Doubts the Worth of Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything)
You say the little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in balance.
I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.
In this film, I also wanted to show that activism comes in all forms. Everyone has a talent that can be used towards the fight for animals. Whether that be in the form of direct outreach, protest marches, creating wonderful vegan food, educating others, writing about the fight for animals, supporting vegan businesses, bearing witness, teaching children about living a compassionate lifestyle, having those hard conversations with family and friends or even by simply living a vegan lifestyle, we are standing up for what is right and just. Our life is based on constantly going against the stream and fighting injustice. It can take its toll and there are days where we may feel helpless and like we’re not making a difference but we are. You should feel proud!
I wanted to end the film at the Maple Farm Animal Sanctuary. Like so many sanctuaries, this is a place of refuge and where animals can live out their lives in peace. Animals deserve to have moral consideration and have the ability to express agency over their own lives.
The last image is of Gail staring out into the distance of an open barn door. Gail was used as a dairy cow for the first ten years of her life. I wonder what she must be thinking. Does she remember her time before being rescued? Does she miss her family? Where are they now? Unlike the 300 million cows who are slaughtered every year, she is free...like all animals should be.
I hope this film inspires each and every one of you to be a voice for the animals!
Music by Nimo Patel and Daniel Nahmod at Empty Hands Music, "We Shall Overcome: Love Will Rise Again."
Special thanks to The Save Movement, Toronto Cow Save, Laura Ray, Sheryl Becker, Erica Korff, Lilly Colwell and to everyone who made this film possible.
This film is dedicated to my son, James. I'll keep fighting until you see a more humane and compassionate world.
On September 22nd, I traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts to attend the “Big E”, with my son, James in order to complete an assignment for my Animal Protection course. The “Big E” is New England’s "greatest state fair” (Wikipedia, "The Eastern States Exposition", 2018). We arrived at 11:30am and left at 4:00pm. It was a very hot day and the sun was beating down. This was my first time going to this fair but I had an idea of what I should expect. I at first found the experience challenging, but when I put myself in the position of an undercover investigator, it made the situation a little easier to handle.
Before arriving, I had made a list of the animal exhibits that I wanted to view along with the show times. We first made our way to the “Swifty Swine Racing Pigs” show. Here, pigs are housed in a trailer, advertised as “air conditioned for piggy comfort.” As the presenter begins the show, you can hear pigs squealing from the trailer. There was a total of three races during the show. When called upon, four potbelly pigs are loaded into holding gates for the race. They raced around the track for an Oreo. The names of the pigs ranged from “Brittany Spareribs” to “Kim Kardashiham” to “Kevin Bacon.” The finale of the show was with “Swifty” the swimming pig. This 12-week-old pig’s act is to swim an 8ft long tank of water. After the show, the pigs were put back into the trailer and into their crates. There are souvenirs available such as Swifty pig noses and an opportunity to get souvenir photos of you and your family holding Swifty. The show operates every day that the fair is operating (17 days), and 5 times a day (Johnson, "Swifty Swine Racing Pigs", 2018).
The next stop was to the R. W. COMMERFORD & SONS animal attraction. This 40 year old company is located in Goshen, Connecticut. Their website proclaims that they work hard to give their animals a nice home and that the animals are well taken care of (R. W. Commerford & Sons, "Our Animal Friends", n.d).
The attraction at the “Big E” included a petting zoo as well as pony and elephant rides. This exhibit was the most distressing for me. Minnie, an elephant, was on display. She looked exhausted. Her eyes appeared sunken in, her skin looked incredibly dry and cracked and her mood seemed to be despondent as she walked around in circles giving rides to customers. The ride lasted around 1:30 minutes per group. The next rider(s) would immediately get on and Minnie would go around in a circle again. There was no rest for Minnie during the time I observed her, which was for more than half an hour. The handler had a bull hook with him, which he held conspicuously at his side and would use it to guide Minnie if she wasn’t going where he wanted her to go ("R. W. Commerford & Sons Attraction", 2018).
I then went over to R. W. Commerford & Sons’ petting zoo. There was a zebra in the center of the tent. It was held inside a small enclosure which was surrounded by the pygmy goats and Barbados sheep. The Zebra stood in one place and did not move or look around. Most would probably not even notice that the Zebra wasn’t interacting because they were too distracted at all of the goats trying to jump out of their enclosure to get food from the guests. Along the side of the tent were four Shetland ponies that were chained up to the railing. Inside of a cage, which you could barely see inside because there was a grate over it, was a Greenwing MaCaw. I didn’t see any sunlight getting into the cage. This was the same with the African Grey Parrot. There were many other exotic animals at the petting zoo such as the Scimitar-Horned Oryx, originally from the Sahara Desert and the Zebu Steer from India that were also chained to a fence. Like with “The Switfy Swine Pig Racing”, there were opportunities to buy souvenirs such as photos and cow boy hats ("R. W. Commerford & Sons Attraction", 2018).
I spoke to those working the R.W Commerford & Son’s attractions and everyone seemed to hold the party line that all of these animals are happy and well looked after ("R. W. Commerford & Sons Attraction", 2018). The workers themselves looked miserable. I don’t believe that many of employees really want to be doing this. They too are a victim of oppression, whether that be down to their race, income level or class. Just like when the poor white man was pitted against the poor black man in order to keep the institution of oppression functioning, this same system is pitting these employees against the animals in order to prop up upper classes.
When I exited the fair, I encountered a group of animal activists that were asking for those that walked by, to consider what their ticket was paying for. I spoke to Sheryl Becker, the director of the Western Massachusetts Animal Rights Advocates group. She lead me to a PETA report showing that R.W. Commerford & Sons has had over 56 citations of not meeting federal standard of care for animals used in exhibition; based on the Animal Welfare Act (PETA, "R. W. Commerford & Sons Traveling Petting Zoo Factsheet", n.d).
The Nonhuman Rights Project reports, violations that pertain to the elephants in the care of R. W. Commerford & Sons alone include, “failure to have an employee or attendant present during periods of public contact with the elephants; failure to give adequate veterinary care to treat an excessive accumulation of necrotic skin on the elephants’ heads; failure to maintain the elephant transport trailer; inadequate drainage in the elephant enclosure; failure to dispose of a large accumulation of soiled hay, bedding, and feces behind the elephant barn; and failure to keep an elephant under the control of a handler while she was giving rides” (Nonhuman Rights Project, "Clients: Beulah, Karen, and Minnie", n.d). When I explained that the elephant giving rides on that particular day was Minnie, Becker was shocked and concerned. Peta has reported that Minnie has been involved in three separate incidences of dangerous behavior (PETA, "R. W. Commerford & Sons Traveling Petting Zoo Factsheet", n.d).
The first reported incident occurred in 1989 when Minnie attacked and critically injured an elephant handler. This occurred when the handler struck Minnie with a bullhook while two children were riding on her back. She had picked the handler up with her trunk and threw him against a trailer. This broke the handler’s jaw and shoulder. Years before this happened, Minnie had attacked a worker and broke his arm (PETA, "R. W. Commerford & Sons Traveling Petting Zoo Factsheet", n.d).
In 1998, Minnie knocked down her trainer and stepped on him. Again, she had children on her back. One of the children fell off of Minnie and hit her head (PETA, "R. W. Commerford & Sons Traveling Petting Zoo Factsheet", n.d).
On March 5th, 2006, Minnie became agitated and swung her head toward two employees. She used her weight to pin them against the loading ramp. A witness confirmed that Minnie’s action was a result of her being provoked by one of the employees hitting her in the face (PETA, "R. W. Commerford & Sons Traveling Petting Zoo Factsheet", n.d). This makes me think that this could become another Sea World Tilikum situation (BBC, "SeaWorld orca Tilikum that killed trainer dies", 2017).
When I got home, I saw a post by the Nonhuman rights project and couldn’t believe that Minnie, along with the other two elephants owned by the Commerford’s, Beulah and Karen were clients of Steven Wise (Nonhuman Rights Project, "Clients: Beulah, Karen, and Minnie", n.d). The Nonhuman Rights organization had been at the Big E at the same time as when I was there doing my assignment.
According to the Nonhuman Rights organization, Minnie was born in the wild in Thailand. She was imported to the United States in 1972 when she was two months old. Practically since birth, she has been on display. She has been in petting zoos, used for sales promotions, in Indian weddings, films, circuses and photo shoots. Minnie was sold to the Commerford’s in 1976. At the age of 46, Minnie has lived a life that has been nothing short of abuse and exploitation (Nonhuman Rights Project, "Clients: Beulah, Karen, and Minnie", n.d).
Within the space of just a day or two, a photo of Minnie went viral. There have been petitions to stop the exploitation of the elephants in Commerford’s care and more activists showing up to protest. Just two days after I visited the “Big E”, Steven Wise was on a Western Massachusetts news station, WGGB/WSHM, advocating for Minnie’s release to a sanctuary (Sleem & Masse, 2018). This has been a catalyst of dozens of news articles covering the case and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. There is currently a change.org calling to “End the Use of Wild Animal Acts at The Big E!” There are currently 127,070 signatures as of October 31st (Change.org, n.d).
The current litigation case with Beulah, Karen and Minnie’s is still ongoing. In December 2017, the first petition was refused with Judge James Bentivegna proclaiming that the case was “frivolous on its face as a matter of law.” On June 11th, 2018, a second petition was filed on behalf of the elephants in Connecticut. (Nonhuman Rights Project, "Second Petition Filed on Behalf of Captive Elephants in Connecticut", 2018).
If the case is won, the elephants would be welcomed to the PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) Sanctuary to live out their lives (PAWS, n.d).
This assignment has taken me into an entirely different direction than I had anticipated. It has allowed me to feel like I was part of something bigger. I was able to bear witness to the life of entertainment animals such as Minnie, who have had to endure more than any animal should. Although I left the “Big E” feeling angry, I now feel empowered. I am able to see how so many groups of people are going at great lengths to speak up for the animals; either through protests, petitions, advocacy or legal work. Through the use of social media, Minnie’s story has been shared thousands of times, further opening the hearts and minds of those around the world. I look forward to following Stephen Wises’ case for my friend, Minnie.
Below are some additional photos and videos that I took during my experience at the "Big E". The way we exploit animals is never ending. I ask one thing of you, please look into their eyes.
How Can You Help?
1.) Vote with your dollar. Don't attend venues or events that promote or participate in animal exploitation & animal entertainment. This will signal to places that we want change.
2.) Get involved with organizations such as the Nonhuman Rights Project who are trying to help Minnie, along with many other animals and fighting for their release.
3.) Attend an animal advocacy event. It may feel scary at first but I promise you will never feel more alive and empowered to use your voice!
4.) Write to The Big E at info@TheBigE.com and tell them to stop this action.
5.) Sign the change.org petition, "End the Use of Wild Animal Acts at The Big E!"
6.) Share Minnie's story and all of the other animals that are exploited at the "Big E" as far and wide as you can! The more people know about it, the more we can create change.
BBC. (2017, January 06). SeaWorld orca Tilikum that killed trainer dies. Retrieved October 31, 2018, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38531967
Change.org. (n.d.). End the Use of Wild Animal Acts at The Big E! Retrieved October 30, 2018, from https://www.change.org/p/eugene-cassidy-president-and-ceo-end-the-use-of-wild-animal-acts-at-the-big-eJohnson, Z. (Director). (2018, September 22).
Swifty Swine Racing Pigs. Live performance in Eastern States Exposition, Springfield.
Nonhuman Rights Project. (n.d.). Clients: Beulah, Karen, and Minnie. Retrieved October 30, 2018, from https://www.nonhumanrights.org/clients-beulah-karen-minnie/
Nonhuman Rights Project. (2018, June 11). Second Petition Filed on Behalf of Captive Elephants in Connecticut. Retrieved October 30, 2018, from https://www.nonhumanrights.org/blog/second-petition-connecticut/
PAWS. (n.d.). Performing Animal Welfare Society -- PAWS. Retrieved October 31, 2018, from http://www.pawsweb.org/
PETA. (n.d.). R. W. Commerford & Sons Traveling Petting Zoo Factsheet [Brochure]. Norfolk, VA: Author.
Sleem, S., & Masse, A. (2018, September 24). Call to end wild animal acts at the Big E after viral Facebook post. Retrieved September 24, 2018, from https://www.westernmassnews.com/news/call-to-end-wild-animal-acts-at-the-big-e/article_e5e6db6e-c066-11e8-b5b3-7f9b485dbdd1.html
R. W. Commerford & Sons Attraction. (2018, September 22). Live performance in Eastern States Exposition, Springfield.
R. W. Commerford & Sons. (n.d.). Our Animal Friends. Retrieved October 30, 2018, from http://commerfordzoo.com/animals.php
Wikipedia. (2018, September 22). The Eastern States Exposition. Retrieved October 30, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Eastern_States_Exposition
In my Environmental Ethics class we were discussing strategies of how to talk about climate change in a way that brings about community action and engagement. I watched Per Espen Stoknes' TedTalk on How to Transform Apocalypse Fatigue into Action on Global Warning and thought it offered wonderful strategies that can also help in many other social justice movements like animal and human rights issues.
As an animal rights activist, I am often speaking to many different people and trying to find ways to connect. What I love about Per Espen Stoknes' speech is that it makes us look at the human condition. Why are we passionate about some things and not about others? How do go from disengagement to engagement?
Below you will find a post that I did that breaks Stoknes' steps in bite-sized pieces. Be sure to click on the photo to see them all!
Every vegan will tell you that their only regret is that they didn’t go vegan sooner.
A year ago today I became vegan. It started as a regular Sunday morning. I was excited to be going to my first New England Vegfest. I was already a vegetarian but had been toying with the idea of veganism. I knew that the dairy and egg industry were just as cruel as the meat industry but I needed a push. I needed to expose myself to the truth.
I wanted to go to the Vegfest to see if I could fit in as a vegan. I didn’t know any vegans in real life and only had heard of the stereotypical “angry vegans”. I didn’t want to be an angry vegan. I was worried that these people would not be my tribe. I was a 32-year-old mom originally from Pennsylvania and I was on the plan. I got married, bought a house, had a kid, played happy families and at the dinner table we smiled and laughed as we ate our "humane" chicken dinner. I really questioned whether I was ready for this lifestyle change. Could I be a vegan and still conform into societal roles? I knew deep down that after I walked out of my front door that day that I would be coming home a vegan. I remember making myself my “last meal”, a caprese salad with cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil. I remember that I wasn’t even hungry and it wasn’t even that good but I ate it anyway because 1.) I was worried that I would find nothing to eat at the VegFest (ha!) and 2.) I wouldn’t ever have cheese again.
At first I was completely overwhelmed at the VegFest. There were SO many people there but I was pleasantly surprised to see that everyone was so diverse. They couldn't all be angry vegans, could they? Food trucks were serving things like Seitan and Jackfruit. What the hell was seitan anyway? I decided to dive in head first. I remember trying a Boca “chicken” burger…oh my gosh. It tasted just like chicken. I then tried the Earth Balance Cheddar “Cheeze-it’s”…oh my gosh. It tastes just like cheese. As the day continued I tried more and more food and realized that just maybe, everything was going to be okay.
The VegFest put on guest presentations and I decided to go to the “How to go Vegan” talk. I thought, okay, this will give me more information about how all of this works. Well little did I know, the infamous James Aspey was the guest speaker and that I had hit the vegan jackpot. The room was packed. People were sitting on the floor, against the wall and standing outside of the ballroom just to hear him speak. He walked into the room like a celebrity. People started cheering and clapping. My first thought was wow, vegans are really passionate about other vegans. Maybe there is something to this. James Aspey gave the best damn speech that I have ever heard. Here is a link to the speech he gave at the New England VegFest. Please watch it. By the time James was done speaking he had converted me. I could no longer live a life that did not align with my values. I walked out of that room feeling sky high. I went home and knew there was one more thing that I needed to do if I wanted this to stick. I watched Earthings. That was the longest 1 hour 35 minutes 47 seconds of my life. I watched with my hands covering my tear soaked face. Every 10 minutes I had to pause to collect myself but I made myself continue until the very end. I’d be damned if I didn’t finish this documentary. If the animals had to endure this abuse and exploitation, then I could watch it and bear witness to their suffering. That’s when I made the connection. All of the doubt of whether I could do this immediately vanished. It wasn’t an option to not do it. I declared that not in my name will this happen. I was willing to endure anything that people threw at me. My part is easy. There are so many options and alternatives. It’s the animals who suffer.
The first month was filled with learning and educating myself. I researched what vegan options I could eat at restaurants, found new recipes to try, learned more about what clothes and products are vegan and why I shouldn’t go to the zoo anymore. What I loved most about transitioning was that I got to try so many new different types of fruits, vegetables and vegan alternatives that I’d never heard of before. My life was filled with more food than it ever had been. I was eating more of a variety of food then when I was eating meat, dairy and eggs. I started feeling better, I lost weight and had more energy. I had a complete mind-shift. What right do we have to exploit animals? We are also animals, just a different species. How would we like it if what was done to the other animals was done to us, day after day, until the tragic end? I realized that they are here with us, not for us. We can co-habitat on this beautiful world. How did I not see it before?
As the days went on I definitely drank the vegan Kool-Aid. I got the t-shirts, the buttons, the books, etc. (By the way, vegan t-shirts are a great way to spread the message if you are a new vegan and/or introverted.) I watched more and more videos, subscribed to podcasts, visited r/vegan and felt like I had a community I could go to for support. I found this aspect to be extremely important. You need people. The best days are when you meet vegans in real life! It is awesome.
I also decided to become certified in plant-based nutrition through the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. I now give presentations to communities about the benefits of a whole foods plant-based diet in hopes that it improves the health of families everywhere. My now four-year-old son is thriving on a plant-based diet and has overcome many health challenges due to the nutrition he is getting from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts and seeds.
Becoming vegan has been a catalyst for a lot of internal growth. I’ve always shied away from confrontation. I hated voicing my honest opinion when I knew that others may disagree. My words don’t always come out properly when I’m nervous and I tend to shake in fear. The more time that went on however, the more I knew that I couldn’t be passive any longer. I needed to speak up for the animals, even if I trembled as I spoke. Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone and I wanted to be an activist. As a birthday gift to myself I joined the Boston’s Anonymous for the Voiceless Cube of Truth and I LOVED it. I’ve since done more cubes and demonstrated against Canada Goose and look forward to being involved in more activism this year.
I will be a spokeswoman for the animals. I will speak for them since they cannot speak for themselves, no matter the opposition that I face. I may shake and tremble but I will not be silent. Veganism is about fighting injustice. I want to inspire change! I look forward to making a difference and standing up for those that are oppressed. My heart has opened like a flower on a warm summer morning. My compassion extends to all beings, including my fellow human, the animals and the earth. I'm so lucky to have a husband and son who followed suit. We are a happy and healthy vegan family. I look forward to what year 2 brings and yes…. I found my tribe and they are awesome.
...Who was I kidding?
I know veganism gets a bad rap. I get it. Vegans are passionate and sometimes that passion comes across as holier than thou. I promise you that we do not feel this way. You have to remember, the majority of us were meat eaters and not always vegan. We are only here to help the animals and to wake the world up. In my experience, when you go from being a non-vegan to a vegan you immediately connect that a beautiful sentient being had to die just because you like the taste of a burger. That's not a good enough reason for me. Cognitive dissonance is very strong and is built up over the years in order to avoid the reality of what happens when you buy that steak (cow) or sausage (pig), etc. Vegans are breaking that facade and showing us the reality. I believe that if you look at the issue at hand and why we are advocating so strong for the animals and if you can get past the human conflict then you may feel the same as vegans. When a child is in a room with a pig and an apple they will naturally eat the apple and pet the pig. We need to get back to this point.
"The question is not, can they reason nor, can they talk but can they suffer?
We may not speak their language but we hear their cries. We must not sit back and do nothing. We must act on their behalf.
I am now at a point in my vegan journey where I feel compelled to be peaceful activist. The jump from passive vegan to vocal advocate did make me feel a little nervous at first. I'm an introvert, people-pleaser, hate conflict and not always confident in conversation. How in the world would I be able to advocate on the animals behalf when I wasn't fit to be an activist? I learned that this was not the case. There are different types of activism for all types of people. I decided to start with participating in a "Cube of Truth." This was a perfect first step for me since I would simply need to hold a computer and stand in a cube with other people and I wouldn't have to speak.
The Cube of Truth was developed by Anonymous for the Voiceless. Anonymous for the Voiceless is an animal rights organization that specializes in nonviolent street activism. The Cube of Truth's goal is to show the public what happens in the meat, dairy and egg industry and provide thought provoking conversation. I believe that people cannot see what they do not know.
My first experience as a vegan activist was incredibly powerful. I left filled with so much energy that I felt like I was going to burst. I felt like I could do anything. It was amazing to be surrounded with people that had the same passion and determination to help the animals.
I implore you to learn more about the meat, dairy and egg industry. Watch Earthlings or one of these other documentaries to get an idea of what actually happens before the food reaches your plate. I know you may not want to watch because it is too hard but just imagine how difficult it must be for the animals. Try Challenge 22 and get access to free resources and recipes to help you on your vegan journey.
May you go out and fight for what you believe in!
Photos by Laura Ray, AV of Boston Organizer