Paul Shapiro is the founder and campaigns manager of
Compassion Over Killing (COK), a Washington, DC-based animal rights
group. In April of this year, the organization received an anonymous tip
that animal cruelty was routine at the (ironically named) International
Standard of Excellence-America (ISE-America), a major egg supplier.
COK’s request for a tour of its facility in Cecilton, Maryland went
unanswered. As a result, members of COK investigated the farm on their
own, documenting what they witnessed and the actions they took, which
included rescuing eight injured hens. They compiled video footage into a
documentary, “Hope for the Hopeless.” Catherine Clyne recently talked
with Shapiro about the group’s campaigns and the ISE investigation.
Q. Tell us about Compassion Over Killing—when was it
founded and why?
A. COK was founded in 1995 because although there were many national
rights organizations in the Washington, DC area, there wasn’t much of a
grassroots presence. We wanted to harness the energy of all of the
volunteers for the major nationals in the area and try to create a local
community of resistance to animal exploitation.
Q. What is the message behind the name “Compassion Over
A. The name “Compassion Over Killing” suggests that in many aspects of
our daily lives we often need to choose between compassion and killing.
For example, when we sit down to a meal, we have the choice: do we want
to support killing and misery by buying a meal that was produced from
animal exploitation; or do we want to be compassionate and gentle toward
other animals and choose a vegan meal?
The same is true with the entertainment that we support,
whether we’re going to support the killing of animals through sport
hunting or rodeos (which are oftentimes lethal to the animals); or are
we going to choose entertainment that doesn’t harm or exploit
anyone—human or nonhuman?
Q. Tell us about some of COK’s current campaigns.
A. COK is working on several. The main campaign is intended to promote
veganism, which we do in several ways. We conduct what we call
“feed-ins,” where we distribute free vegan burgers and other food in
front of fast-food places, like McDonald’s, Burger King or Wendy’s,
along with vegan recipes and literature. We also have a TV on hand to
show slaughterhouse and factory farm footage to let people know where
the animals who we eat are coming from.
The point behind a feed-in is to give people a positive,
non-confrontational interaction with animal rights activists, so they
come away feeling as if veganism isn’t that intimidating; it’s something
they can actually do. They see that there are vegan versions of the
foods that they love and that taste just like them; they see that it’s
actually not that difficult to give up those foods since they don’t have
to give up their tastes.
Every Sunday on the National Mall we erect a factory
farming exhibit where we try to expose the reality of modern-day animal
agri-business. Most people in this country live under the myth that the
animals who are raised for us to eat live in idyllic scenes—such as pigs
cooling themselves in mud baths or chickens strutting through
barnyards—when, in fact, the opposite is true. The animal agri-business
industry has desperately tried to preserve these images of happy cows,
happy pigs and happy chickens in the American mind-set; however, more
and more people are coming to realize that factory farming is the norm
today. With the exhibit we show exactly what the standard practices are
for raising pigs, fowl and cattle by the industries that abuse them. We
use photographs and videos to show battery cages, crates restraining
sows while they give birth, and veal crates, we show debeaking,
dehorning and castration. There are also friendly volunteers and
staffers at the exhibit who engage in one-on-one conversations with
visitors and answer people’s questions and concerns about vegetarianism
or animal rights. They also give them free vegetarian starter kits,
recipes and literature. The Mall exhibit has proven to be a huge
success, with over 500 people visiting it every single Sunday.
COK also has a Faunavision van with large video screens
and electronic captions, which was donated by Faunavision [see Satya,
August 2000]. Every Friday night the van drives through highly populated
areas in DC, like Georgetown or Adams Morgan, exposing the reality of
animal abuse with video footage; volunteers walk alongside the van
handing out literature and answering questions.
Our restaurant outreach campaign persuades DC-area
restaurants to advertise the fact that they serve vegan meals. We’ve
created window decals that say “Proud to Serve Vegan Meals—VegDC.com.”
So far, we’ve gotten over 20 restaurants to put them in their front
windows. We’re hoping to create a climate where restaurants will see
serving vegan food as a business advantage and will want to advertise
that they do. There is a pretty large vegan demand in DC and restaurants
are taking notice of this. We also give them booklets that we’ve
created, offering simple suggestions on ways to make more of their
dishes vegan, like making their bread vegan or using oil instead of
We also promote veganism with our Web site,
www.VegDC.com. Although many
people may feel that going vegetarian is the morally correct thing to
do, they may think that it’s too inconvenient to even try. VegDC.com
tries to show people just how easy it is: for example, you can select a
neighborhood and see which of its restaurants cater to vegans or
vegetarians, and there are reviews with suggestions on how to make your
dining there as convenient as possible.
Q. With the feed-ins, what’s the typical response you
get? Do some people see it as a confrontation?
A. Very few people have ever expressed to us that they were being
confronted in a hostile manner. Most people are just happy to get the
free food. You know, fast-food is cheap, but it isn’t free. When we do
feed-ins, we make sure that all of the volunteers are extremely friendly
and cordial so that people don’t feel alienated and won’t feel as if
they are being negatively confronted.
Q. How do social justice issues, such as racism,
feminism and gay rights, tie into the work that you do?
A. Basically, COK believes that animal exploitation is a symptom of
speciesism, which is just like racism, sexism or homophobia. Privileged
groups that are in power generally come up with arbitrary reasons for
being prejudiced against those who aren’t in their group. This type of
prejudice enables human beings to think we are superior to other
animals—they’re not as smart, as rational, or as creative as we are. COK
would argue that none of these attributes are relevant to the moral
status of an individual—human or nonhuman. What really matters is
whether or not an individual can suffer. Women suffer, black people
suffer, gay people suffer, animals suffer. And because of that common
link between us—that our lives matter to each of us—we ought to be
treated with respect; and that goes for any group which has been
disenfranchised for arbitrary reasons and is suffering a similar
type of oppression. We would hope that our work fits into a larger
social justice scheme than just animal rights.
Q. Do you do outreach to groups with common interests,
A. Being an animal rights activist, to us, is virtually synonymous to
being an environmentalist. Anybody who cares about animals has to care
environment because animals live in the environment.
We try to build bridges and offer solidarity to other
social justice movements and hope that they don’t view animal rights as
something that is foreign to their struggle. As is so often the case
with human-based social justice issues, the connection isn’t necessarily
made that animals are an oppressed group as well—in fact, they are
probably more oppressed than most human groups.
Q. What compelled you and other COK members to take
matters into your own hands with the International Standard of
Excellence-America (ISE) factory farm?
A. We received an anonymous tip that animal cruelty was happening on
this egg farm so we requested a tour from ISE but they never got back to
us. We figured we’d go in and take a look ourselves if they weren’t
going to have the courtesy to get back to us. We initially hoped it was
going to be just documentation, but as we went in there we quickly
discovered that we were going to have to provide on-site assistance. We
found hens who were immobilized in their cages, hens with no access to
food or water, and we found dead hens in cages with live hens. We
realized that this was not going to be something where we’d just be
videotaping and photographing but that we had to help those hens.
We also realized that it really needed to be brought to
the attention of the authorities. We contacted the state’s attorney and
the sheriff of the local police department and, as we expected, the
authorities were unresponsive. Because we exhausted all of the legal
means to address this problem, we felt that it was necessary that we
take the action ourselves. If the authorities weren’t going to protect
these animals, we were going to have to. Albeit we couldn’t protect all
800,000 of them, we were able to find homes for eight of them and
figured eight lives will be dramatically altered, going from misery to
freedom in a matter of hours.
Q. What is an “open” rescue and where does the idea come
A. When animal activists rescue animals from places of exploitation,
they normally go to great lengths to conceal their identities: they wear
ski masks, they don’t videotape themselves or if they do, they make sure
that there are no defining characteristics about them that are shown.
The idea behind an open rescue is the exact opposite. The idea is to
conduct an investigation and exhaust your legal means of redress and
then rescue the animals completely openly, meaning no masks. You
videotape yourselves doing it, you take full responsibility for the fact
that you did it and you openly publicize the fact that you did it. Patty
Mark and the Action Animal Rescue Team in Australia [see
have been doing these types of rescues for nearly 20 years.
In the U.S., the first group to do it was Compassionate
Action for Animals in Minnesota this past January [see
www.ca4a.org], and then COK became the
second group to do it this past May. Both groups were inspired to do
that type of work by meeting Patty Mark.
We found that these rescues generate extremely positive
media coverage because we’re not painted as so-called terrorists with
ski masks or somebody who’s ashamed to admit what they’ve done. We’re
painted as individuals of conscience who saw cruelty, tried to have it
fixed by the authorities and then had to act because there was nothing
else to do. And because we’re openly admitting that we did this, the
public reaction is much more sympathetic. Another advantage of open
rescues is that because there is no property destruction, the issue
isn’t muddled by the press. The issue stays on the fact that there is
animal cruelty going on and that the animals are suffering. The issue
isn’t, “Should they have broken property? Are they terrorists? Can we
condone these types of tactics? Should we treat them like
ordinary criminals, or like political prisoners?”—nothing like that at
all. There’s little focus on the activists, which is really what we need
to be doing—not trying to get media attention for ourselves but for the
plight of animals, and exposing the realities that animals are treated
as mere commodities in this country.
Q. What kind of feedback have you gotten from other
animal activists about this kind of strategy?
A. Everyone in the movement who we’ve talked to has been extremely
excited by the media attention that was generated by the rescue and
investigation. It was covered by the Washington Post, USA Today, United
Press International, Associated Press, the Tacoma Voice, the Animals’
Agenda, and Baltimore’s Fox and CBS affiliates.
Q. What went through your mind when you first entered
one of the battery farm sheds? How did you feel in the presence of so
A. It was a really unprecedented feeling, to walk into a shed which is
pitch black and the first thing you notice is the stench. The stench
just assaults your nostrils. You can imagine each shed having 92,000
birds, all of them defecating—the stench is so bad that gas masks hang
on the wall for workers to use. Unfortunately, the animals don’t receive
any such reprieve.
But as soon as you turn on your headlight, the enormity
of the facility really hits you, just to know that there is tremendous
suffering all around you and there is virtually nothing that you can do
to relieve that suffering. When we started looking more closely into the
cages and seeing that there were many dead hens, hens with cysts and
tumors and broken bones and entangled in the wires of their cages…it was
what I would describe as hell on Earth. I can’t think of anything
crueler than to put an animal into a battery cage like that for one to
two years. It is horrible to try to
empathize with those birds.
I feel that because of my privilege of being born a
human, I have the power to go in and document what’s going on and try to
expose it; to show the public where the notion of animals as mere
resources has led us—to something where we consider the interest of
animals of such minimal importance that we can keep them tightly
confined, frustrating all of their natural instincts just so we can have
cheap eggs. It was really a sickening experience and I would say that
the predominating feeling that I had during the time was of shame, of
shame for being human, ashamed of our species for having the arrogance
to treat other living, feeling beings like that.
Q. How did that experience affect your vegan ethics and
how do you feel when you see someone eating an egg now? Has anything
A. I don’t think that anything in my mind regarding how we ought to act
toward non-vegans has changed. I don’t think that it’s made me any
angrier toward non-vegans. It makes me angrier at myself for not doing a
good enough job. When I see people eating eggs I wonder where the
movement has gone wrong that people are still doing this; and being a
part of the movement, it makes me question whether I personally am doing
enough. Having witnessed the suffering of factory-farmed animals,
first-hand, has increased my resolve to make my life a living struggle
for animal liberation. I think that the most important thing that I can
do, after having witnessed something like that, is to continue working
endlessly for a time when human beings will be more gentle and more
compassionate toward those around us.
Q. Where does this campaign go from here?
A. That’s a good question. Unfortunately the answer is that we really
aren’t sure. There was a lot of media attention and we want to continue
distributing the documentary so that more and more people will see it.
The numbers of calls and e-mails we’ve gotten from people who have seen
“Hope for the Hopeless” and no longer eat eggs—some of them have
actually gone vegan because of it—has been really inspiring.
In terms of ISE, we aren’t going to pursue a campaign
specifically against them because ISE is the run-of-the-mill factory
farm—they don’t treat chickens any worse or better than any other
factory farm does for the most part. So we’re running an anti-egg
campaign. This past June, we called on Governor Parris Glendening of
Maryland, to ban battery cages in the state and we’re going to continue
calling on him to do that. Aside from those options, we are still
figuring out what our next move is going to be. We’re hoping that the
work we did in that factory farm will live on and continue to influence
people’s purchasing habits. What we do know for certain is that COK will
continue to expose the injustices committed by factory farms in every
way that we possibly can.
To learn more about Compassion Over Killing, visit
call 301-891-2458. To see the full report of the ISE investigation, see
www.ISECruelty.com. To order a
copy of “Hope for the Hopeless,” send $10 to:
Compassion Over Killing, P.O. Box 9773, Washington, DC 20016.
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