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This Nightmare Broke Me. Now It Gives Hope.
Seeing dogs killed for meat traumatized me as a child. Then a vision – of dogs rescued rather than slaughtered – changed everything. It could change you, too.
My life has challenges right now, to say the least. I’m facing felony prosecution in three states, for rescuing animals from abuse. If things go badly, I could spend over a decade in prison. And yet now, more than ever, I am filled with hope. Many have asked me how and why. My story of hope starts, surprisingly, with a childhood nightmare: seeing dogs being killed for meat.
Decades later, these nightmares continue. The image of Oliver above, one of the little ones we saved from slaughter in Yulin, China in 2016, may explain why these nightmares persist. I remember the infection eating away his fur and his skin. The bloated belly that is a sign of parasites and starvation. And the terrified response when we entered the pen – with dogs desperately climbing the concrete walls in an attempt to escape what they thought was certain death. All they had known at human hands was violence. I remember all of these things – and the desperate cries of dogs being beaten to death. And, very often, I wake – screaming in the middle of the night.
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And yet something has changed over the years. My screams no longer leave me broken. To the contrary, they give me strength to face difficulties I’ve never faced before. And there is one key difference between my nightmares as a child and my nightmares today.
When I wake from a night terror today, I have a vision of rescue that turns my nightmares into dreams.
I have suffered from night terrors for nearly my entire life. These dark visions began after a childhood experience in China in 1989.1 As part of a tour of my ancestral homeland, which became possible when China was opened after decades of self-imposed isolation, we were eating at a “Wild Earth” restaurant where diners were invited to feast on all the flora and fauna of the earth. We saw raccoons shaking in the corner of their cages; snakes shriveled up, like bunches of used aluminum foil; and all manner of strange, alien-like creatures being prepared for slaughter. Even my father, a scientist who was hardened by years of genetic experiments on animals in the biomedical industry, was shaken by the sight of monkeys in chains. They were begging to be freed – but destined for a patron’s plate.
For animals like this baby monkey, nightmares have come to life.
The moment that broke me, however, was when I realized that dogs were among the species being slaughtered. I heard the cries first. When I looked towards the sounds – howls of dogs who had lost all hope in life – I struggled to believe what I was seeing: dogs in cages being prepared for slaughter. One of the dogs looked like our dog back home, an energetic lab-mix named Vivian (or, for short, Vi). When I realized this dog was about to be killed and eaten, I collapsed on the ground, wrapped my arms around my father’s legs, and begged him to save her.
“We have to do something!” I cried. “What if that was Vi?”
“This is what they’re taught here, son. There’s nothing that can be done.”
More than anything in the world, I knew my dad was wrong. Something had to be done.
And yet I had no power to do that. That sense of powerlessness plagued me for years. In my nightmares, I envisioned Vi trapped in a cage, crying for help. But my family and I stood by while she was dragged off to slaughter. The moment the killing happens was always too much to bear. I would wake up, thrashing violently. Tears would stream down my face. My breathing was so rapid and heavy that I struggled to get any air. My face, and my ears, would become red hot. And my mom would come to my bedroom and try to calm me, stroking my head with a wet cloth, and pressing ice bags to my ears.
“It’s ok, son,” she would say. “It’s ok.”
But it never felt ok. It felt like the world was filled with terror.
Night terrors still afflict me. Indeed, since that day in China, I have had almost no happy dreams, only nightmares. Yet something about the nightmares has fundamentally changed. They are no longer debilitating. They are now a source, in my waking moments, of hope. The reason is this: a vision of rescue has turned my nightmares into dreams.
That vision, however, does not come easily. To build that vision, I’ve found, there are three crucial ingredients:
Truth, the ability to see the world as it actually is;
Strength, the ability to go toward, and not run away from, the uncomfortable and even dangerous things revealed by the truth; and
Wisdom, the judgment to use our strength to build rather than condemn.
The story of my journey to becoming an animal rescuer illustrates each of these points. It also explains why, even in the face of unprecedented criminal charges that could land me in prison for a decade or more, I am as hopeful as I’ve ever been – because the vision of rescue, built from truth, strength, and wisdom, is as strong today as it has ever been.
There’s an old saying: the truth will set you free. It’s not entirely accurate. Truth, as I learned as a child, can paralyze, rather than liberate. Knowledge that dogs – my best friends – were being slaughtered had this impact on me. Even in my subconscious, I felt trapped by fear.
But experiencing that truth taught me an important lesson: there are bad things happening, and it’s better to know them than not. Because, while the truth may not set us free, it allows us to see the world as it actually is. And seeing dogs slaughtered in China opened me to other truths that I needed to see. Because, you see, the problem is not just a restaurant in China that slaughters a few dozen dogs. The problem is an entire system that treats living beings (including human beings) as mere things to exploit.
For example, while we condemn the slaughter of dogs in China, there are tens of thousands of dogs used in laboratory experiments in the United States, including for toxicology tests where they are force-fed deadly chemicals – e.g., laundry detergent – until they vomit blood and die. There are millions of dogs and cats killed simply because they have no family to care for them, no home to call their own. There are billions of animals torn to pieces – often while still conscious and screaming – because they are born into a species that human beings prefer to eat, rather than pet. And there are trillions of animals dying off – leaving the earth populated only with human beings and those beings we have enslaved – because of the destruction of natural systems, most notably, via climate change.
While thousands of dogs are killed in Yulin for meat, tens of thousands are tortured in American labs. But some, like Julie, are saved.
Each of the above statements is a truth, backed by incontrovertible evidence. And yet, too often, these are truths that no one sees. This obscures our ability to envision a better world, even for ourselves. Because these truths show that our society has failed the most important test of a just society, what I’ve called the moral stress test.
You see, the test facing a just society is not how we treat the powerful – all societies treat the powerful with respect – but how we treat the powerless. This should matter to all of us, as we all face situations of powerlessness at some point in our lives – with respect to a boss, a police officer, or even just a physically stronger human being. But because animals will always be powerless relative to human beings, assessing how they are treated is perhaps the best way to ensure that our society will treat everyone with kindness and respect. It proves the system is morally sound because it is succeeding even with respect to those who have virtually no power to defend themselves.
But, in that test, we have failed. Wherever humans come into contact with non-human animals, the animals have three options: flee, be enslaved, or be exterminated. This is a hard truth to reckon with. None of us wants to see ourselves as part of an oppressor class, much less one engaged in a historic atrocity. When I read the first sentence of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation – “This book is about the tyranny of human over nonhuman animals.” – I put down the book in disbelief. Was he really saying that I was part of a tyrant class? And yet this was the truth I needed to see and understand, as a first step towards building a vision for change. Because without this truth, I would never understand why the world is a living nightmare for animals – or why my own nightmares would not go away.
But it isn’t enough to acknowledge this truth. We need to build the strength to challenge the problems we see in that truth. This is where our society’s fear of discomfort has been most catastrophic. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls it the Coddling of the American Mind. I have called it safetyism. It is the notion that things that are fearful or unpleasant should be avoided, in the name of individual and collective safety. An enormous body of scientific research, however, shows the opposite: to overcome the dangers of the world, we must go towards them. And our inability to do so is weakening not just our individual fortitude, but our collective strength to create change.
I experienced this first hand after my childhood visit to China. I would have flashbacks to that moment at the Wild Earth restaurant, that would send me into despair. As I learned about other atrocities – and especially the factory farms and slaughterhouses that dot the American landscape – these flashbacks became more regular. And I needed to get away from it. In my first few years of veganism, I didn’t just hide my newfound diet, and suppress myself from thinking about where our food is coming from, I actively opposed those who sought to protest the abuse of animals in factory farms. I wrote an email to the University of Chicago Vegan Society that condemned the club for organizing demonstrations against veal. “It’s too extreme and will turn people off,” I thought. The truth was too scary to confront, especially before a public that wouldn’t support us.
I’m not the only one who has run from the truth. The New York Times columnist Ezra Klein coined the concept of The Green Pill to describe the transformation that people undergo, when they recognize that animal suffering is all around them. “It’s been one of the most disorienting, radicalizing experiences of my life.” But he also described his tendency to run from the “disorienting” experience. “It’s the belief I hold most strongly that I’m most uncomfortable talking about. I find myself out to dinner with friends, apologizing for it, avoiding it, gently mocking it.”
Klein, however, has changed. He’s recently taken to challenging his discomfort and speaking truth. He has written multiple opinion pieces on the plight of animals, with uncompromising titles such as, “We Will Look Back on This Age of Cruelty to Animals in Horror” and ”Let’s Launch a Moonshot for Meatless Meat.” He’s going towards, not away from, the discomfort.
And so have I. I went from opposing protests against factory farms and slaughterhouses, to walking into a slaughterhouse myself, to document the cruelties within. And something surprising happened when I did. I became stronger. I realized that I could stomach the cruelty that I had previously run away from. I realized that my fears about protest, and other forms of direct action, were greatly exaggerated. And I realized that there was immense power in directly confronting systems of abuse.
The scientific case for direct action, presented in 2014.
And most importantly, I realized that I had the power, with my own body and hands, to rescue animals.
These realizations were transformative. Not only was I able to openly talk about animals in a more confident and convincing fashion – without the shame or avoidance that had previously afflicted me. My emotional response to my night terrors changed, too. When I woke up from a nightmare, I didn’t feel paralyzed and powerless. Having seen the violence firsthand, and how easy it was to rescue an animal from it, I now felt strong enough to challenge it.
That left just one final step for me to transform my night terrors from despair to hope: the wisdom to use my strength to build rather than condemn. Because, in the early days, the strength I cultivated, from directly exposing myself to violence and seeing that I could survive it, was grossly misdirected. I used my strength to undermine others, and convince myself that human beings were a plague on this planet.
This applied very much to my own people. I’ve written in the past about my struggles with the perceptions of Chinese people in the animal rights movement. “These f__ing Chinese all deserve to die!” I yelled at myself. I distanced myself from my own people and community. Because I had no white friends, and no community beyond a small group of Chinese people in the Midwest, this left me even more isolated than before. But, I thought, “I was righteous, so what did it matter if I had burned all my bridges with those around me?” They were, after all, participants in an atrocity – and I now had the strength to tell them that, face to face.
What was even worse was the mentality I had towards other animal rights supporters. I went from condemning vegans for protesting, to condemning them for not protesting. I penned an infamous screed, titled Boycott Veganism, that blasted the vegan community as a mass of lazy and entitled consumers. What we needed, I argued, was a brave movement of direct action, not fans of vegan cookies.
My anger and impatience came from a good place. I believed that animals needed us, and felt vindicated by condemning those (whether Chinese people, or lazy vegans) for failing that responsibility.
But the path of condemnation was foolhardy. First, my self righteousness was the result of what social scientists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. We tend to believe others’ mistakes are the product of their inherent defects. (In contrast, our own mistakes are a product of forces beyond our control.) By failing to see that others – including even those directly involved in violence – were not fundamentally corrupt, I lost the ability to find allies. And, it turns out, allies can be found everywhere, even among some of the most powerful figures in the industry.
Second, my cynicism – and focus on bringing people down rather than lifting them up – was self-destructive because it undermined hope. The sociologist Doug McAdam has written about the concept of cognitive liberation in movements, i.e., cultural movements that create an urgency to act among the masses. And what McAdam found, in his research, is that cognitive liberation must have two things: anger and hope. The first emotion, anger, gives a movement, and its participants, a reason to fight. The second emotion, however, gives the movement a reason to persevere, even when things look tough; hope is the fuel that sustains change.
When I recognized that error – and started making hope and inspiration a bigger part of not just my messaging but my philosophy on life – I not only became a far more effective activist, including co-founding Direct Action Everywhere. I found a way to transform my nightmares into dreams. And ironically, my biggest source of hope was the very experience that first sent me spiraling into despair so long ago: dogs slaughtered for meat.
Let me come back to the image I showed you at the start of this blog. I wrote above that the image, from the day Oliver was rescued, goes a long way towards explaining the night terrors I experience. And it is true that it captures an awful moment in Oliver’s life: sick, fearful, and just days from a brutal death.
But the image also shows something else: that if we hold hope in our hearts, miracles can happen. Oliver now lives 7,000 miles from the concrete pen in which he was born. He spends every day going on walks with the people he loves, and enjoys delicious food (like peanut butter) that he did not even know existed 6 years ago in China. He is living, walking proof of the power of hope.
This video shows the power of hope — or of peanut butter.
Even in the image from that fateful day, there are signs of hope. Unlike the other dogs in the pen, Oliver came towards me rather than running away. You can see the hopeful (if uncertain) look on his face in the image above. His posture was not fearful. He turned towards me, rather than backing away, in the image. His ears are held up high, with curiosity, and not pulled back in submission. And when I picked him up, while he was initially terrified to the point of peeing all over my clothes, he quickly settled in my arms, and looked up at me as if to say, “You’re not here to hurt me, are you? You’re here to save me?” He was right, and because he was right, Oliver is alive today.
But it’s not just Oliver whose life can be transformed. When I wake from my nightmares, today, I see in him, and his rescue, a vision for the future, for all animals. I see people all over the world finding their best selves, elevating the power of empathy over the power of gluttony or greed. I see an industry transforming to care for animals, rather than slaughter them, with farm farmers working with animal rights activists to find sanctuary for all the forlorn creatures who have been locked in a cage. And I even see a government, working with activists to rescue animals in need, rather than punishing them for acts of kindness. Oliver’s life is proof to me that this all can happen. He is a vision for animal rescue and liberation.
I wish I could capture this sentiment in words with more power. Perhaps I can, but not in this one blog, written hastily with a weekly deadline in mind. But if you have yourself cared for a rescued animal, or even heard their story, you already know this power. It is the power of going from suffering to salvation, from tyranny to liberation. I see glimpses of it every day in Oliver, but also the people around me who care about Oliver, and are inspired by his story. That includes people like you, who are supporting me and other whistleblowers in our efforts to expose systemic abuse. But it also includes ordinary people on the street. In my six years with Oliver, I have yet to meet a single person – liberal or conservative, hunter or vegan – who has not been moved by his life. It is a vision of rescue. But it is also a vision of a kinder world for us all. And even a glimpse of what this vision would mean for all the inhabitants of earth is so bright and beautiful that it moves me to tears. It’s a vision I’m proud to fight for, and even go to prison for, because it is the vision that has transformed my worst nightmares into dreams.
We’re having our usual Friday Night Hangout tonight at 7pm PT, and we’ll be talking about the importance of vision, both personal and political. I’ll be sharing some more stories, about Oliver and dog meat, and maybe playing a clip or two to demonstrate the massive transformation his life has undergone. Even more importantly, we’ll have another guest, Oliver’s brother Pao! Here’s how he looked 6 years ago. (You’ll see tonight how much progress he’s made today.) Here’s the event page.
When I think about what I’d like to leave behind, if I go to prison in October, the most important thing is a strong set of values. Having a beautiful vision is one of those values, but there are many others. When Priya and I sat down and discussed what we thought was holding, not just movements, but entire communities, back, we came up with a list of values that would help us overcome these problems. But our knowledge and experience, though extensive, is still limited compared to the scope of knowledge and experience out there in the world. So if you’re interested in values that can change the world, join our open meeting on Sunday. Here’s the event page.
My social media team, which means mainly Chloe Leffakis, has been encouraging me to provide more video updates, especially for some of the new fangled platforms like Tik Tok. In that spirit, I committed to doing a livestream on Facebook every day at 11 am, that will get reshared (with light edits) to Instagram and Tik Tok, every day through trial. Feel free to drop in if you have a comment or question. I’ll try to make sure I stay engaged with everyone who’s viewing.
I travel to Utah in one week, to start prepping for trial, and it could be a while before I’m back. For those of you in the Bay Area, I’d love to see you one more time. For those of you who are not in the Bay Area, I hope to see you, in person, or virtually, when I’m on trial. Here’s the event page DxE is using to coordinate court support.
My dad says that it happened closer to 1992, at age 11. We have yet to square up our calendars and recollections.