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Rescuing Animals Saved Me. It Could Save the World. (Podcast)
Rescuing animals is not just a moral imperative. It's a strategy to heal the world.
Animal rescue saved my life. When I was contemplating suicide in my mid 20s, it gave me a sense of purpose that filled a gaping hole in my life. For a long time, I thought my story was unique, a product of the unusual dislocation and bullying I experienced as a child. Then, around 10 years ago, I made an important realization: rescuing animals was not just a transformative personal experience but a political strategy for healing the world.
In some ways, it’s surprising that it took me so long to make this realization. Stories about rescue have always deeply affected me. In 2004, the documentary Peaceable Kingdom was released, showing how Gene and his then-wife Lorri Houston changed the landscape of animal rights, by taking sick animals from slaughter to sanctuary. I’ve stated for a long time that it is among the best documentaries in animal rights history.1 It had a profound personal impact on me.
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The reason that Peaceable Kingdom moved me was that, unlike so many documentaries about animals, it has a happy ending. It ends with a montage of dozens of animals being rescued. They are sick and injured. They are afraid. And they expect to die. And when, against all odds, they come to the sanctuary – when, for the first time in their lives, they feel safe – the transformation is profound. I cried tears every time I watched that ending scene. But they were tears of joy; the rescues at Farm Sanctuary empowered me to fight for change.
There is a key point about these stories of rescue – and their power as political narratives – that I didn’t realize until much later. The stories from Farm Sanctuary empowered me, not just because I empathized with those quivering animals, but because the rescue of animals inspired me to believe there was hope for me, too. And I am not alone. Take this video, for example:
I have written previously about how two animal rescue platforms – The Dodo and Woof Woof – are among the most prominent social media sites in the world today. It’s hard to say why exactly these platforms are doing so well, even as mainstream media and Hollywood suffer, but I suspect it’s because – in times of despair – stories of rescue make people feel a little bit better about a world that seems a confusing and dangerous place.
I’ve seen how the hope inspired by rescue can mobilize a movement. By far the highest impact work I have done, over the last 20 years of my life, involves rescuing individual animals. The story of the rescue of two ailing piglets from Smithfield – which was shared over 130,000 times on Facebook alone, and likely read by millions more – is the most dramatic example. But it was not the most important. The most important rescue was the first: the story of Mei, a hen collapsed on the litter pile at a Whole Foods egg farm.
There are few moments in my life more inspiring than the moment depicted at the start of this video. The light shining in the dark. A woman comes into focus. And you see she is holding an ailing little creature whose life, after years of torment, is about to be transformed. These are the movements we all live for – the moments that give us faith that the world can be a better place.
When you break down why these stories inspire so much hope, I think it comes back to two of the most important problems in the world today: disconnection and distrust. These are the two problems I am centrally motivated to solve, and for a long time, I have struggled to find an answer. For many people I work with, or who support me, moreover, pivoting to these problems, from my long history of animal rescue, felt like an abrupt change. And yet, solving them seems necessary to solving all the other problems in the world.
When people are disconnected, they don’t have the strength to fight for change. Doug McAdam’s groundbreaking research showed us this; people who had a strong connection to someone else in the civil rights movement were 60% more likely to become activists themselves. And we are at a moment of historic disconnection, with around two thirds of people saying they are lonely. The author Johann Hari reports that, when people are today asked how many people they have in their lives, who they can count on in a moment of crisis, the most common answer is, “Zero.” Loneliness is deadly – as dangerous as smoking 18 cigarettes a day. But it is even more deadly to efforts at social change.
Distrust, however, may be even more deadly, because it erodes the fundamental attribute that allows human beings to survive: our ability to cooperate. Trust is falling in literally every institution that is being measured by the Gallup Poll. And perhaps even more disturbing is that trust is dropping in our fellow citizens. A generation ago, in 1972, around one half of Americans thought “most people can be trusted.” Today that figure is less than one third. This is not a healthy community.
But what does this have to do with rescue? The political power of rescue, I submit, comes from its ability to completely upend these two fundamental problems of the human condition.
First, the urgency of rescue compels us to connect with the people around us. We set aside whatever personal grievances we have, and recognize, “There’s someone’s life at stake. Let’s get to work.” There is an interesting parallel between this and the finding that many primitive societies have greater social cohesion. When human beings lived (or, in some cases, still live) in situations where they depend on each other to physically survive – to provide food, safety, and shelter – it was impossible for them to live alone. Loneliness is a plague of modern privilege; we don’t need others, and are unneeded ourselves. Rescue disrupts this plague by pointing out that there are beings who do need us.
Second, rescue requires us to trust one another, and makes each of us more deserving of trust. Human beings can be dangerous animals, and our media is filled with stories of polarization, conflict, and even violence. A cognitive bias called the availability heuristic, in turn, forces our attention irrationally on the worst case scenarios, because they are the ones that most easily come to mind. But there are many situations where human beings are helping, not hurting. And rescue is perhaps the most powerful example: assisting one of the most vulnerable members of our society, who is in desperate need, when we have nothing personally to gain.
A movement, or even society and species, anchored in rescue is thus one that is much more deserving of trust. Imagine how we would feel about our government, for example, if they gave aid to dying animals, rather than prosecuting those who attempted to rescue them.
But rescue does not just cultivate trust. It requires trust to be successful. When DxE walked into a factory farm for the first time, we needed to trust each other with our freedom – with our lives. And those bonds of trust are powerful. They have lasted a decade, and remain the source of some of my strongest and most trusting friendships to this day. Everyone should be so lucky to have trust like that in their life.
This is a long way to get to my final point and realization. The two major arcs of my life – fighting animal cruelty, and fighting distrust and disconnection – are merging. Because the best way to fight for both these causes is for them to come together. That means a renewed focus on rescue in our storytelling, and in our organizing, at the new project. It also means another rebranding (sorry for those who are confused). We are moving everything – the podcast, the blog, and the organization – around the concept of The Simple Heart. That all of us on this earth – human or non-human – are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose, and that we ourselves are, too. That there is much we can learn if we embrace and accept these simple hearts, rather than manipulate or demonize. And that, at root, our simple hearts – our ability to feel and empathize with others – provides the most powerful force for hope and change.
That’s a lot of jargon, that probably seems unclear. And there is a lot I will write and say about this. It’s all a work in progress. But I’ll just conclude with this. All of you, whether you knew it or not, have been part of our efforts to rescue animals. And by doing so, you are helping us rescue the world. Thank you for that.
In the spirit of this new focus, and in the wake of the historic Smithfield trial, I will be organizing my first open rescue training in over 4 years, on Saturday, December 3 at 1 pm in San Francisco. This is a training that is more like a simulation. You are placed into a team and taken through the process of planning an open rescue, and has been an incredibly valuable training – even for those who don’t plan to directly rescue animals from abuse. You see, one of the things this training will show you is that rescue requires people of all skills: caretakers, writers, even fundraisers to help pay vet bills. But the training will be updated with everything I’ve learned from the trials of the past two years. Stay tuned for a registration link if you’re interested. There will be no online component.
We’re having a Friday Night Hangout tonight on a subject that is very important to me, and might have value for you, too: How Buddhism Can Help Everyone. If you’re wondering how I was able to keep my cool, even as I was being attacked and interrupted at the Smithfield trial, many of the answers will come up in this talk. And tonight we’ll have a special guest: a Buddhist monk in our community, Robert Franklin. Hope you can join. Here’s the event page.
I’ve been remiss at this, but I want to get back to doing at least one weekly blog based on your preferences and requests: here’s a survey for next week. Let me know what subjects you’re interested in starting a conversation on! It really helps me understand what to write about.
Speaking of feedback, Dean proposed that I start doing periodic “mailbags” where I take questions from you and turn them into a blog. Please send me whatever questions you have – about the movement, my work, or anything else. I’ll post the answers in a newsletter in the next couple weeks.
Do you know any paralegals in the Bay Area? DxE is hiring, and we’re in desperate need. Here’s a job description. While we’re hoping to get someone with experience, don’t hesitate to apply even if you’re relatively new (or even completely new) to the work. The most important things we’re looking for are the ability to take feedback and the drive to do high quality work.
Sadly, due to a conflict with Farm Sanctuary, the makers of the documentary pulled the original version of the film and released a new version with weaker storytelling. If anyone has the original version on DVD, let me know, as I’d love to screen it again.