I recently had the privilege of conducting an interview with vegan and animal activist Allison Michael of FAWL (Farmed Animal Welfare League), a newly formed organization that is dedicated to the safety of farm animals and compassionate living.
FAWL's mission statement:
To decrease the perceived validity of the National Dairy Council, National Egg Board and National Livestock Board, and to advocate for the welfare of farmed animals through outreach and education efforts on a local level. We are here for the animals and for YOU! We are an organization committed to educating and advocating for justice for farmed animals, and helping the public do their part by providing information on cruelty free living.
Hannah: First off, when and where did you first come to veganism? What made you realize that this was your path?
Allison: I first made the connection between animals and food when I was about nine years old. My fourth grade class took a field trip to the In N Out headquarters to learn about what it takes to run a business. They took us on a tour of the property, and into their meat locker. I remember it vividly, it was cold and the smell of blood and raw meat filled the room. I could see the giant bodies of cows dangling from meat hooks and it was like being in a horror movie. I had never thought about it before, where my food came from. In my moment of realization, I decided that I couldn't contribute to the meat industry anymore and became a vegetarian that day. Several years later, I started reading about vegetarianism and as soon as I read Diet for a New America by John Robbins, I became vegan for life. I was about fifteen years old.
Hannah: What has changed in your life as a result of making this decision?
Allison: My life has changed entirely since I made the decision to become vegan. I can't think of a single way that cruelty free living hasn't positively affected my life. I no longer suffer from insomnia, eczema or hypoglycemia, a few major issues I had growing up. I am healthier than everyone around me. My immune system is amazing, I almost never get sick. I live with a sense of purpose and motivation, I am at peace with the decisions I make and the way I live knowing that it doesn't cause harm. I have met so many wonderful and inspiring people that work everyday to make the world a better place. But more importantly, I have had the opportunity to form deeper connections with animals and the environment than I ever thought I could. We never fully know the burden of guilt until we are relieved from it.
Hannah: How did you go from being vegan to speaking out on behalf of animals? Did you work with other organizations before FAWL?
Allison: Before I founded FAWL, I worked as an intern at Farm Sanctuary, and lived there for just over two months, working with the animals rescued from factory farming, live markets, backyard butchers, and other abusive situations. It was a life changing experience. I had volunteered for Farm Sanctuary previously, but until I was working with the animals all day, every day and living with them, I didn't really get the full impact of what our help does for these animals and what a difference every kind gesture and compassionate decision can make.
The move from being a vegan to being an animal activist is a pretty natural progression. People have always asked me questions about veganism; they want to know where we get our necessary nutrients, they want to know what we can eat, and why we do it. I have always kept myself informed on every aspect of veganism in order to answer all of their questions thoroughly and accurately, and eventually that turned into me writing a blog about vegan living that answered frequently asked questions and gave advice to new vegans about how to best stick to the lifestyle change. At one point, I was getting about twenty to thirty emails a day from people who had questions and needed help with approaching veganism, and that's when I started working on forming my own organization to be a helpful resource for vegans and aspiring vegans alike on health, compassion, and news on animal welfare reform.
Allison: Farmed animals have a special place in my heart, after working closely with them for a while, and seeing how few advocates they really have, I knew it was up to me to be one of them. Animals killed for food account for 97% of animal slaughter in the US every year. They suffer from the most widespread and industrialized abuse, and so many institutions support it. Schools, doctors offices, hospitals, even nutritionists get subsidies to promote eating animal products to their students and patients. This has lead to the meat industry gaining society's unwavering support, and creating generations of people who think that meat is necessary and healthy, two words that really can't describe animal products at all. I feel like the most important thing I can do with my efforts and resources is to change the paradigm around meat eating, and break all of society's preconceived notions about how they eat and how they live. Starting with animals used for food just sort of made sense, since everyone eats three meals a day and most people don't think about where that food came from. The best way to hit the meat, dairy and egg industries where they hurt is to not support them financially and to convince as many people as you can to do the same. We are in an age where grassroots movements are perhaps the best ways to create social change, and every victory we make, no matter how small, is a huge step forward for our movement.
Hannah: Are you working on any other projects besides FAWL?
Allison: FAWL is taking center stage for me at the moment, as we are still pretty new and are at a very crucial point in our first campaign. I still take time to personally volunteer for Farm Sanctuary's Compassionate Communities Campaign, which is a wonderful effort to spread awareness and knowledge about vegan living on a local level, created by former Farm Sanctuary intern, Nick Cooney.
I also volunteer with Fur Free LA, an organization founded and run by my good friend Amy Rebecca, who also runs Vegans of Instagram, a social networking group with over 20,000 members that discuss vegan issues worldwide.
Hannah: How do you see the animal rights movement? Where do you see success and what would you like to see done to make a bigger impact?
Allison: The animal rights movement has made some great strides in the last few years, Proposition 2 passed in California, more vegan friendly products are on the market, more restaurants are catering to those who don't eat animal products, and more stores are offering faux alternatives to leather, suede and fur. However, we still have a long way to go in convincing the general public that animal abuse is unwarranted no matter what products it results in creating.
There are definitely ways that we can improve on the methods being used currently by the AR movement. It's about time we retired the use of shock factor and disgusting images to get our point across. People don't want to think about that. They see a picture of a cow who's head was sawed off or a pig dangling from his feet, having his throat slit, and turn away. Most of them end up getting defensive in support of their behaviors, carrying grudges for animal rights activists for making them feel like they've been wrong their whole lives. I am not saying that powerful images of the truth don't have their place, because they absolutely do. However, it's about using them the right way, sparingly and alongside valuable information so the message can be absorbed, instead of thrown out and ignored. As tempting as it is to scream and shake people into agreeing with you, it simply doesn't work. Psychology has proved that time and time again. Marketing veganism and cruelty free living positively is the best way to go. The most important thing about FAWL that separates us from other animal rights organizations is that we are built completely on positive imagery. This way, we have the ability to say, 'look at how happy these animals can be if you don't support the meat, dairy and egg industries!' This message gets to people, because they haven't really met any animal rights activists who instead of screaming in their faces, shake their hands, smile, and inform them about ways they can help make the world a better place for animals. And at the end of the day, most people have compassion. Even hunters and carnists don't want to see animals being tortured. It's about appealing to them as fellow people, and showing them that veganism can be easy and rewarding.
Hannah: How do you not get overwhelmed by the nature of animal exploitation?
Allison: Sometimes I do. I think it's safe to assume that most animal rights activists get overwhelmed from time to time at the amount of animal abuse that is blindly accepted by society. It's not about keeping yourself from getting overwhelmed, it's about finding a way to pick yourself back up when you do so that you can go out in the world and change it for the better. I am very lucky to have a compassionate, vegetarian family and a wonderful, supportive boyfriend to help me when things don't seem to be moving fast enough, but there are other ways to build a support system as well. If you get involved in the cause, you get to feel yourself make a difference and see change in society happen right in front of you. This is the best way to keep you from feeling helpless and unmotivated. The people involved in grassroots action are also some of the greatest and most inspiring people you will ever meet. It's hard to stay cynical about your progress around people like that. Farm Sanctuary has three locations in the US that desperately need volunteers, two in California and one in New York, but if you don't live close to their shelters, you can still make a difference by volunteering for their Compassionate Communities Campaign.
Hannah: Do you have any advice for fellow activists? Fighting for the voiceless can become exhausting.
Allison: I have been advocating for animal rights for as long as I can remember, and there are a few tips I've picked up along the way that have helped me greatly. First and foremost, when you are speaking to the public about social change, you absolutely must embody someone that you would want to have a conversation with on the street. If you wouldn't want to talk to someone holding up a gross sign and screaming at you, then chances are, passers-by won't want to do that either. Be friendly, even if you see someone who just patronized the business you are protesting, be polite. Offer them information and say something simple to them like, “It's easy to help animals! Here's some info.” Most people will cooperate with you and some will even look into it.
Secondly, and I know this sounds kind of backwards, but image is important. Countless studies have shown the effect that social norms have on people in their decision making processes, and if they can feel like people just like them are supporting animal rights, then they are more likely to make the change as well. How do we do this? Look clean, presentable and well groomed. Be friendly, polite and helpful. Don't wear a shirt that says “Meat is Murder” on it, no matter how awesome The Smiths are. Cut off your dreadlocks, ditch the fishnets. The best way to appeal to people about social change is to make them feel like they are in their own social circle when talking to you. I get a lot of flack for this among the animal rights community, but I stick by it. I had green hair and torn up jeans in high school, and I never had any luck in convincing people to live cruelty free until I made a change as well.
Hannah: What are some vegan resources that you would recommend for first-timers; those who are curious or hesitant to become vegan?
Allison: John Robbins is an amazing author and I highly recommend any of his books, including and especially, Diet for a New America and the Food Revolution. Melanie Joy is an author and a public speaker on veganism, her book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, takes an in depth look on the psychology behind the animal rights movement. I am also a huge fan of Isa Chandra Moskowitz, vegan chef and author of so many amazing recipe books like Vegan for a Vengeance and Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. I have actually compiled a list of all of my favorite resources for vegan living, from information on the meat industry, the environment, and health, to vegan recipes, forums, and vegan starter guides on our website.
Hannah: What's coming up next on FAWL's busy calendar?
Allison: We have a lot of things lined up in the near future that I am really excited about. We are currently working on a video series based on farmed animals to show the dangers of the industry in a watchable way. We are filming at Farm Sanctuary's southern California location, so fans of our organization will see some familiar bovine faces in our first video.
We are also moving forward with our first campaign against veal. We are targeting two major chain restaurants in LA that have veal on their menus- Buca di Beppo and Maggiano's Little Italy(which has four veal dishes). We have petitions formally asking both restaurants to stop serving veal, and we are building public support before we start to protest several locations of these restaurants in the Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley areas. For more information on our anti veal campaign, check out our website: FarmedAnimalWelfareLeague.com/currentcampaigns.
Hannah: Lastly, please give a closing statement; your thoughts on veganism as a whole, the animal rights movement, and being a tireless advocate for the voiceless.
Allison: There is one solution that is by far the simplest way to make a huge impact on widespread animal abuse, climate change, the national debt, and the misconceptions around health in our country. This is to adopt a vegan diet. Vegans live an average of 10 years longer than meat eaters and each vegan saves over 50 animal lives and more than an acre of forest every year. Going up against giant corporations with limitless funds may seem daunting, but the alternative is laying down and allowing this abuse to exist all around us, which we cannot do. It's never too late to make a change for the better, or to recommit yourself to something that once mattered to you. Every compassionate choice is a step in the right direction for humanity, and we can't do it alone. Get active, talk to your friends and family about cruelty free living, donate to and volunteer with animal rescue organizations. Go leafleting. Be a voice for the voiceless. They are suffering and they need our help.
For ways to get involved with the animal rights movement, for information and help on how to live cruelty free, and for information on animals rescued from the agriculture industry, visit our website.