1. What was your first experience with animals that had an impact on you?
When I was 8 years old I was taken on a fishing outing with the director of my summer camp. He did all the dirty work: baiting hooks with worms, handling the gaping fishes I caught, removing the reluctant hooks, and killing the “keepers” with a knife through the head. I didn’t say anything but I saw it all completely from the fishes’ (and the worms’) perspective. I knew that fishing had no place in my future.
2. When, how, and why did you first get involved with the animal welfare/rights movement?
I always had strong empathy towards animals, and I was inculcated early with the importance of social protest by my parents who strapped me in the stroller and took me on “ban the bomb” marches in England in the early 1960s. It was many years, though, before I became active for animals, beginning with a march on The Bay (major furriers) company in Toronto in the late seventies. As a graduate student I read an essay by Tom Regan titled “The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism.” I was already vegetarian but I realized that working for animals was a life calling.
3. What are your favorite types of animal advocacy activities? Why? (i.e. lobbying, letter-writing, petitions, volunteering, protests, etc.)
I most enjoy public speaking, and writing letters to the editor. There are so many fascinating scientific discoveries coming to light these days, and it is a joy to share them with interested audiences. Writing a letter is usually a process of addressing a prejudice that a reporter has shown towards animals in an article. My home paper, The Washington Post, has been very good about printing my letters over the years. However, their policy of not printing two letters from the same author within 6 months makes it a sometimes frustratingly slow process, given that I see something in practically every issue that I want to rebut. I enjoy crafting the letter, and I always seek to end on a positive note, preferably with a step the reader can take to address the problem. I also enjoy the process of writing a book, though given the time investment that is more of a vocation than an activity.
4. What animal issues are you most passionate about?
I am most passionate about the meat/dairy issue, hands-down. It affects by far the most animals (98% of all those killed by humans), and it is something individuals can take immediate personal steps to address. I regard veganism as the holy grail of personal activism for animals. A shift towards plant-based eating is an incredibly empowering act because even when the global situation looks bleak, one can have the satisfaction of knowing that “I am making a positive impact, every day.”
I am also passionate about emphasizing the positive side of animals’ lives. Inevitably, one encounters a lot of disturbing, negative information in the course of working for animals. Yet animals, like us, are pleasure-seekers; the day-to-day lives of free animals bring them pleasure and joy. I’ve dedicated two books to the subject of animal pleasure because a) it has been so sorely neglected, and b) because it has great importance to our evolving view of animals.
5. What current animal-related issue or campaign has caught your attention, and why?
There are so many, but this question brings me back to fishes. They are the most overlooked victims of human greed and cruelty. We kill probably more than 50 billion fishes yearly, yet very little attention is paid to them by the animal movement. Yet recent studies not only show conclusively that fishes feel pain, it turns out that they also have complex social and cognitive lives. To wit, this statement by the co-authors of a 2006 book titled “Fish Behavior and Cognition”: “Gone (or at least obsolete) is the image of fish as drudging and dim-witted pea brains, driven largely by ‘instinct’, ... Now, fish are regarded as steeped in social intelligence, pursuing Machiavellian strategies of manipulation, punishment and reconciliation, exhibiting stable cultural traditions, and co-operating to inspect predators and catch food.”
It’s time we paid more heed to the well-being of this large group of highly sentient creatures.
6. How do you address animal issues within your career?
In 20 years of working for animals with several organizations, I’ve done a variety of things, but I’m most excited about my current position running the Animal Studies Department for Humane Society University. It brings me into contact with students who are not only smart, but also critical-thinkers. And I am overseeing the development of exciting new courses focused on animal sentience, evolution, food choices, and gender issues—all placed squarely in the animal protection context. Education is a necessity for social change, and we must cultivate sharp minds to lead this movement into the future.
7. What advice do you have for someone looking to become a more active animal advocate?
Do something. Get informed. Go veg. Join up with others. Stay positive. No matter how strong the facts are in animals’ favor, people won’t join a movement that looks unhappy and negative.
8. What book, quote, photo, video, story, etc. have you found most inspiring/has inspired you?
I have enough inspiration to last me several lifetimes, so I’m more focused on inspiring others.
Here’s a video clip of animal play that I filmed in South Africa: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFoqOgUSZEs.
Check out Jonathan's website!