The Ethics of Eating
Local non-profit promotes compassion at the dining table.
By Kara Berger
The Takoma Voice
Erica Meir, whose father inherited a meat-packing plant, learned to hate the butchering of animals. At age 15, she became a vegan, and today she is the director of Compassion Over Killing, a Takoma Park-based non-profit focused on preventing the abuse of agricultural animals.
COK focuses on the treatment of farm animals because they are generally excluded from any legal protection. COK has run multiple advertising campaigns on the subject, including one on MTV last April. The MTV campaign, titled "What If We Were Served a Side Of Truth," highlighted what Meir calls "atrocities" in the raising and slaughtering of chickens, cows and pigs whose meat is used by fast food chains.
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Compassion Over Killing is one of the most active animal advocacy groups in the U.S. With its ground-breaking open rescues and farmed animal investigations and focus on local vegan outreach, COK serves as an inspiring model for what a small grassroots organization can accomplish.
With the recent migration of COK's leadership to HSUS, some have wondered if the group is folding or being consolidated. Long-time COK volunteer, Erica Meier, is here to dispel such rumors. As Compassion Over Killing's new Director, Erica brings a background of animal activism and investigation, energy and vision to the organization.
Former COK president Miyun Park comments: "I've had the great fortune of working with Erica Meier for ten years. She's a tremendous animal advocate and a proven leader. I have no doubt that she will take COK's efforts and effectiveness to levels much more far-reaching than in the past."
She adds, "The decision to move from COK to HSUS was made exponentially easier knowing that Erica would be leading COK. She is among the most impressive, dedicated, creative, and talented advocates working to reduce the suffering of farm animals."
Erica Meier took some time to discuss with Catherine Clyne her vision for COK and work for the animals.
You�ve been Director of Compassion Over Killing since January. What is your overall vision for COK? How is it similar or how does it differ from what came before?
While my position as Director is new, my involvement with COK as a volunteer goes back several years. COK has grown substantially from modest beginnings, and my goal is to continue developing the organization into a powerful and effective voice for farmed animals. COK has always strived to be as productive and efficient as possible, and we continue to do so by maintaining a strong work ethic and stretching our resources to help the greatest number of animals.
What are some of the things you have already initiated since you started?
In January, COK started developing a new pro-vegetarian commercial, and the 30-second spot has already aired on MTV stations in 22 cities across the U.S. In February, we filed a lawsuit to stop the egg industry's continued use of the deceptive "Animal Care Certified" logo on egg cartons.
We've also launched a new campaign--45 Days in 50 States--to get our latest documentary, 45 Days: The Life and Death of a Broiler Chicken, aired on public access stations in all 50 states. And we hired a long-time COK volunteer to head up our newly created Research and Investigations Department.
What�s your background in animal issues?
After college, I worked for three and a half years at PETA in the Research, Investigations, and Rescue Department before working for four years as an animal control officer in Washington, DC. I also coordinated Spay Day DC (as part of Spay Day USA) in February 2004. More than 500 dogs and cats in the DC-metro area were spayed or neutered during this event.
COK is perhaps best known for its investigations and open rescues. What sort of work is currently being done in this area?
Undercover investigations remain at the core of COK's strategy to expose farmed animal abuse, and I'm looking forward to sharing our findings with Satya readers in upcoming issues.
COK is also known for focusing on farmed animal and vegan outreach. How has your work as an animal control officer, which presumably dealt mostly with cats and dogs, shaped your vision for COK?
Most people recognize that it's unethical to abuse dogs and cats, and many know that cruelty to companion animals is illegal. When asked, most Americans believe the same laws that protect dogs and cats also apply to animals on farms. Unfortunately, this is simply not true. Farmed animals have virtually no laws protecting them and are routinely treated in ways that would be illegal if the same abuses were inflicted on dogs and cats.
This denial of legal protection is what motivates me and COK to expose the cruelties that farmed animals are forced to endure for us to consume their meat, eggs, and milk. Since the general public can't openly visit factory farms and slaughterhouses, COK goes undercover to bring the factory farms and slaughterhouses to them.
With the shift of COK�s founding leadership (Miyun Park, Paul Shapiro and Josh Balk) to HSUS, some people have the impression that COK has folded or been consolidated into HSUS. What would you like to say to them?
COK's leadership has always been defined by its staff members and core group of volunteer managers. We're fortunate in that all of COK's "new" staff members aren't new to the organization at all. In fact, each of us has been intimately involved with the organization for several years on a voluntary basis. And, as is reflected in our current and ongoing campaigns and outreach efforts, COK remains unchanged in our dedication to exposing the suffering endured by farmed animals.
What in your view are some of the most effective advocacy tools that bring about real results?
One of the most powerful tools we have in the movement is the voices of the animals themselves. Through the use of videos and photographs, we can let the victims of animal agriculture and all other animal-abusing industries speak out on their own behalves. Polls show that when we witness with our own eyes--as best we can--the suffering farmed animals endure, we're much more inspired to help them with every bite we take by choosing animal-friendly foods.
What are some of the areas where animal rights activists could be reaching out and building bridges and forming coalitions?
By combining our forces on the legislative and legal fronts, animal advocates can increase the likelihood of bringing about positive change. This approach proved successful in Florida in 2002, where, after endless hours of signature gathering and thousands of dollars of educational advertising, voters passed a ballot initiative to ban the use of gestation crates for mother pigs.
Animal activists should also build stronger bridges with the environmental movement, as we share many common goals, specifically with regard to fighting factory farms.
With regard to farmed animals, what are your hopes for the future?
Although surveys indicate more people are choosing animal-friendly meals, the numbers of farmed animals killed for human consumption continues to rise, as smaller animals like chickens and fish are being eaten, versus larger animals like cows and pigs.
So, a decrease in the number of animals raised and killed for food each year would be a wonderful sign. For this to happen, we need to continue helping people reduce, if not completely eliminate, their consumption of meat, eggs, and milk as well as push for bans on the most abusive farming practices, like battery cages.
Many animal activists gradually come to a certain awareness but usually have a key "a-ha" moment where they can no longer deny animal suffering and they go vegetarian/vegan. Can you tell us about your process?
I became an ovo-lacto vegetarian when I was 15, but there wasn't really anything notable about this decision. My "a-ha" moment didn't happen until my second year in college when I decided to become vegan. At the time, I only knew one other vegan, and she gave me literature explaining the miserable lives of dairy cows and egg-laying hens.
A few days later, I inadvertently drove by a large dairy farm and pictured hundreds of cows hooked up to milking machines and countless male calves chained inside dark, wooden crates soon to be killed for veal. I couldn't believe I hadn't thought about their suffering sooner and immediately gave up dairy and eggs. I also decided to join the campus animal rights group which successfully lobbied to get more vegan options in the cafeteria.
Animal advocacy is notoriously hard work. What are some of the things you do to have fun, cope, and/or blow off steam?
Depending on my energy level, I usually blow off steam by exercising--going running or taking a kickboxing class with some friends--or being my cats' playmate. Coping methods vary between visiting the rescued farmed animals at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in Poolsville, MD, losing myself in a good book, or indulging in comfort foods.
Do you have a sweet tooth? What's your favorite vegan treat?
Guilty as charged. In addition to constantly craving sticky buns from Sticky Fingers (an all-vegan bakery in DC), I lose all self-control around anything with chocolate and peanut butter.
Can you tell us about some of the nonhuman animals who comprise your family?
Right now, I share my home with three cats--Riché, Sam, and Emma. Riché has been living with me since college after a former roommate abandoned him, and I rescued Sam and Emma from the streets of DC while working as an animal control officer.
To learn more about Compassion Over Killing or to get involved with the 45 Days in 50 States campaign, contact www.cok.net or (301) 891-2458.