is the founder and campaigns manager of Compassion Over Killing (COK), a
Washington, DC-based animal rights group. In April of this year, the
organization received an anonymous tip that animal cruelty was routine at
the (ironically named) International Standard of Excellence-America (ISE-
America), a major egg supplier. COK’s request for a tour of its facility
in Cecilton, Maryland went unanswered. As a result, members of COK
investigated the farm on their own, documenting what they witnessed and
the actions they took, which included rescuing eight injured hens. They
compiled video footage into a documentary, “Hope for the Hopeless.”
Catherine Clyne recently talked with Shapiro about the group’s campaigns
and the ISE investigation.
Tell us about Compassion Over Killing—when was it founded and why?
COK was founded in 1995 because although there were many national animal rights organizations in the Washington, DC area, there wasn’t much of a grassroots presence. We wanted to harness the energy of all of the volunteers for the major nationals in the area and try to create a local community of resistance to animal exploitation.
What is the message behind the name “Compassion Over Killing”?
The name “Compassion Over Killing” suggests that in many aspects of our daily lives we often need to choose between compassion and killing. For example, when we sit down to a meal, we have the choice: do we want to support killing and misery by buying a meal that was produced from animal exploitation; or do we want to be compassionate and gentle toward other animals and choose a vegan meal?
The same is true with the entertainment that we support, whether we’re going to support the killing of animals through sport hunting or rodeos (which are oftentimes lethal to the animals); or are we going to choose entertainment that doesn’t harm or exploit anyone—human or nonhuman?
Tell us about some of COK’s current campaigns.
COK is working on several. The main campaign is intended to promote veganism, which we do in several ways. We conduct what we call “feed-ins,” where we distribute free vegan burgers and other food in front of fast-food places, like McDonald’s, Burger King or Wendy’s, along with vegan recipes and literature. We also have a TV on hand to show slaughterhouse and factory farm footage to let people know where the animals who we eat are coming from.
The point behind a feed-in is to give people a positive, non-confrontational interaction with animal rights activists, so they come away feeling as if veganism isn’t that intimidating; it’s something they can actually do. They see that there are vegan versions of the foods that they love and that taste just like them; they see that it’s actually not that difficult to give up those foods since they don’t have to give up their tastes.
Every Sunday on the National Mall we erect a factory farming exhibit where we try to expose the reality of modern-day animal agri-business. Most people in this country live under the myth that the animals who are raised for us to eat live in idyllic scenes—such as pigs cooling themselves in mud baths or chickens strutting through barnyards—when, in fact, the opposite is true. The animal agri-business industry has desperately tried to preserve these images of happy cows, happy pigs and happy chickens in the American mind-set; however, more and more people are coming to realize that factory farming is the norm today. With the exhibit we show exactly what the standard practices are for raising pigs, fowl and cattle by the industries that abuse them. We use photographs and videos to show battery cages, crates restraining sows while they give birth, and veal crates, we show debeaking, dehorning and castration. There are also friendly volunteers and staffers at the exhibit who engage in one-on-one conversations with visitors and answer people’s questions and concerns about vegetarianism or animal rights. They also give them free vegetarian starter kits, recipes and literature. The Mall exhibit has proven to be a huge success, with over 500 people visiting it every single Sunday.
COK also has a Faunavision van with large video screens and electronic captions, which was donated by Faunavision [see Satya, August 2000]. Every Friday night the van drives through highly populated areas in DC, like Georgetown or Adams Morgan, exposing the reality of animal abuse with video footage; volunteers walk alongside the van handing out literature and answering questions.
Our restaurant outreach campaign persuades DC-area restaurants to advertise the fact that they serve vegan meals. We’ve created window decals that say “Proud to Serve Vegan Meals—VegDC.com.” So far, we’ve gotten over 20 restaurants to put them in their front windows. We’re hoping to create a climate where restaurants will see serving vegan food as a business advantage and will want to advertise that they do. There is a pretty large vegan demand in DC and restaurants are taking notice of this. We also give them booklets that we’ve created, offering simple suggestions on ways to make more of their dishes vegan, like making their bread vegan or using oil instead of butter.
We also promote veganism with our Web site, www.VegDC.com . Although many people may feel that going vegetarian is the morally correct thing to do, they may think that it’s too inconvenient to even try. VegDC.com tries to show people just how easy it is: for example, you can select a neighborhood and see which of its restaurants cater to vegans or vegetarians, and there are reviews with suggestions on how to make your dining there as convenient as possible.
With the feed-ins, what’s the typical response you get? Do some people see it as a confrontation?
Very few people have ever expressed to us that they were being confronted in a hostile manner. Most people are just happy to get the free food. You know, fast-food is cheap, but it isn’t free. When we do feed-ins, we make sure that all of the volunteers are extremely friendly and cordial so that people don’t feel alienated and won’t feel as if they are being negatively confronted.
How do social justice issues, such as racism, feminism and gay rights, tie into the work that you do?
Basically, COK believes that animal exploitation is a symptom of speciesism, which is just like racism, sexism or homophobia. Privileged groups that are in power generally come up with arbitrary reasons for being prejudiced against those who aren’t in their group. This type of prejudice enables human beings to think we are superior to other animals—they’re not as smart, as rational, or as creative as we are. COK would argue that none of these attributes are relevant to the moral status of an individual—human or nonhuman. What really matters is whether or not an individual can suffer. Women suffer, black people suffer, gay people suffer, animals suffer. And because of that common link between us—that our lives matter to each of us—we ought to be treated with respect; and that goes for any group which has been disenfranchised for arbitrary reasons and is suffering a similar type of oppression. We would hope that our work fits into a larger social justice scheme than just animal rights.
Do you do outreach to groups with common interests, like environmentalists?
Being an animal rights activist, to us, is virtually synonymous to being an environmentalist. Anybody who cares about animals has to care about the environment because animals live in the environment.
We try to build bridges and offer solidarity to other social justice movements and hope that they don’t view animal rights as something that is foreign to their struggle. As is so often the case with human-based social justice issues, the connection isn’t necessarily made that animals are an oppressed group as well—in fact, they are probably more oppressed than most human groups.
What compelled you and other COK members to take matters into your own hands with the International Standard of Excellence-America (ISE) factory farm?
We received an anonymous tip that animal cruelty was happening on this egg farm so we requested a tour from ISE but they never got back to us. We figured we’d go in and take a look ourselves if they weren’t going to have the courtesy to get back to us. We initially hoped it was going to be just documentation, but as we went in there we quickly discovered that we were going to have to provide on-site assistance. We found hens who were immobilized in their cages, hens with no access to food or water, and we found dead hens in cages with live hens. We realized that this was not going to be something where we’d just be videotaping and photographing but that we had to help those hens.
We also realized that it really needed to be brought to the attention of the authorities. We contacted the state’s attorney and the sheriff of the local police department and, as we expected, the authorities were unresponsive. Because we exhausted all of the legal means to address this problem, we felt that it was necessary that we take the action ourselves. If the authorities weren’t going to protect these animals, we were going to have to. Albeit we couldn’t protect all 800,000 of them, we were able to find homes for eight of them and figured eight lives will be dramatically altered, going from misery to freedom in a matter of hours.
What is an “open” rescue and where does the idea come from?
When animal activists rescue animals from places of exploitation, they normally go to great lengths to conceal their identities: they wear ski masks, they don’t videotape themselves or if they do, they make sure that there are no defining characteristics about them that are shown. The idea behind an open rescue is the exact opposite. The idea is to conduct an investigation and exhaust your legal means of redress and then rescue the animals completely openly, meaning no masks. You videotape yourselves doing it, you take full responsibility for the fact that you did it and you openly publicize the fact that you did it. Patty Mark and the Action Animal Rescue Team in Australia [see www.upc-online.org/aart/ ] have been doing these types of rescues for nearly 20 years.
In the U.S., the first group to do it was Compassionate Action for Animals in Minnesota this past January [see http://www.ca4a.org/], and then COK became the second group to do it this past May. Both groups were inspired to do that type of work by meeting Patty Mark.
We found that these rescues generate extremely positive media coverage because we’re not painted as so-called terrorists with ski masks or somebody who’s ashamed to admit what they’ve done. We’re painted as individuals of conscience who saw cruelty, tried to have it fixed by the authorities and then had to act because there was nothing else to do. And because we’re openly admitting that we did this, the public reaction is much more sympathetic. Another advantage of open rescues is that because there is no property destruction, the issue isn’t muddled by the press. The issue stays on the fact that there is animal cruelty going on and that the animals are suffering. The issue isn’t, “Should they have broken property? Are they terrorists? Can we condone these types of tactics? Should we treat them like ordinary criminals, or like political prisoners?”—nothing like that at all. There’s little focus on the activists, which is really what we need to be doing—not trying to get media attention for ourselves but for the plight of animals, and exposing the realities that animals are treated as mere commodities in this country.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from other animal activists about this kind of strategy?
Everyone in the movement who we’ve talked to has been extremely excited by the media attention that was generated by the rescue and investigation. It was covered by the Washington Post, USA Today, United Press International, Press, the Tacoma Voice, the Animals’ Agenda, and Baltimore’s Fox and CBS affiliates.
What went through your mind when you first entered one of the battery farm sheds? How did you feel in the presence of so much suffering?
It was a really unprecedented feeling, to walk into a shed which is pitch black and the first thing you notice is the stench. The stench just assaults your nostrils. You can imagine each shed having 92,000 birds, all of them defecating—the stench is so bad that gas masks hang on the wall for workers to use. Unfortunately, the animals don’t receive any such reprieve.
But as soon as you turn on your headlight, the enormity of the facility really hits you, just to know that there is tremendous suffering all around you and there is virtually nothing that you can do to relieve that suffering. When we started looking more closely into the cages and seeing that there were many dead hens, hens with cysts and tumors and broken bones and entangled in the wires of their cages…it was what I would describe as hell on Earth. I can’t think of anything crueler than to put an animal into a battery cage like that for one to two years. It is horrible to try to empathize with those birds.
I feel that because of my privilege of being born a human, I have the power to go in and document what’s going on and try to expose it; to show the public where the notion of animals as mere resources has led us—to something where we consider the interest of animals of such minimal importance that we can keep them tightly confined, frustrating all of their natural instincts just so we can have cheap eggs. It was really a sickening experience and I would say that the predominating feeling that I had during the time was of shame, of shame for being human, ashamed of our species for having the arrogance to treat other living, feeling beings like that.
How did that experience affect your vegan ethics and how do you feel when you see someone eating an egg now? Has anything changed?
I don’t think that anything in my mind regarding how we ought to act toward non-vegans has changed. I don’t think that it’s made me any angrier toward non-vegans. It makes me angrier at myself for not doing a good enough job. When I see people eating eggs I wonder where the movement has gone wrong that people are still doing this; and being a part of the movement, it makes me question whether I personally am doing enough. Having witnessed the suffering of factory-farmed animals, first-hand, has increased my resolve to make my life a living struggle for animal liberation. I think that the most important thing that I can do, after having witnessed something like that, is to continue working endlessly for a time when human beings will be more gentle and more compassionate toward those around us.
Where does this campaign go from here?
That’s a good question. Unfortunately the answer is that we really aren’t sure. There was a lot of media attention and we want to continue distributing the documentary so that more and more people will see it. The numbers of calls and e-mails we’ve gotten from people who have seen “Hope for the Hopeless” and no longer eat eggs—some of them have actually gone vegan because of it—has been really inspiring.
In terms of ISE, we aren’t going to pursue a campaign specifically against them because ISE is the run-of-the-mill factory farm—they don’t treat chickens any worse or better than any other factory farm does for the most part. So we’re running an anti-egg campaign. This past June, we called on Governor Parris Glendening of Maryland, to ban battery cages in the state and we’re going to continue calling on him to do that. Aside from those options, we are still figuring out what our next move is going to be. We’re hoping that the work we did in that factory farm will live on and continue to influence people’s purchasing habits. What we do know for certain is that COK will continue to expose the injustices committed by factory farms in every way that we possibly can.
To learn more about Compassion Over Killing, visit www.cok-online.org or call 301-891-2458. To see the full report of the ISE investigation, see http://www.isecruelty.com/. To order a copy of “Hope for the Hopeless,” send $10 to: Compassion Over Killing, P.O. Box 9773, Washington, DC 20016.