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How to Avoid ‘Burning Out’ as an Activist

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Livelong Activism

By Michael Budkie, Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! (SAEN)
Presentation at Florida Voices for Animals Annual Dinner, March 25, 2012

I never intended to be an animal activist.  In fact, if someone has approached me in 1985 and said that 25 years later I would be one of the co-founders of a national animal rights organization dedicated to the utter elimination of animal experimentation, I would have suggested that the dosage of their medication was sorely in need of a major increase.  This was not what I planned to do.  IN fact, other than having had a few companion animals in my life before I was married, animals hadn’t been a major concern for me.

 But I guess I should have known that I was doomed to become involved in animal activism when on the first day of our honeymoon, back in 1982, my wife and I found an 8 week old puppy who had been dumped on the side of the road.  That was Amanda, who could more properly have been described as a small ecosystem than a puppy, due to the myriad of life forms that her body was supporting.  Fleas, intestinal parasites, mange mites, you name it, she had it.  It took a year, but Amanda’s health finally came around, and she lived to be 17.

 In the mid 1980s I found myself without direction.  I had completed a degree in theology several years before which I found, if nothing else, was not a wise career choice, though I am thankful for the grounding in ethics that it gave me.  So, I decided to return to school, to obtain an animal health technology degree.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I hoped to learn about how to care for animals, keep them healthy.  But this is where I was introduced to animal experimentation.

 I spent nine months as a student inside a research facility, seeing and learning many things that would change my life forever.  I learned that if you look into the wrong room when walking down the hallway of a research facility, you may see a rat beheaded.  I learned that inexperienced students can kill animals accidentally.  I learned what it feels like to have an innocent animal die in your hand. 

 I particularly remember one dog who came into the lab, a dog who was to be used in an “acute study,” one in which he would be used within just a few weeks, and he would not survive.  The only thing was this dog was very much like one in my home.  Scruffy, one of the dogs who lived in my home was a medium sized terrier mix.  Black & white, very timid.  She would only approach you if she had a toy in her mouth.  Well, this other scruffy was virtually identical except he was male.  I went in to see him every day, took him treats, took him for walks.  Until one day I went to see him and he was simply gone.  His run was empty, and he never returned.

 This experience drove one thing home for me.  The animals in laboratories are no different than those we have in our homes.  Every year over 20,000 cats and over 60,000 dogs are victimized in experiments in the U.S.  I look at this as though that other scruffy dies 60,000 times every year.

So, how do you go from being inside a lab as a student, to working full time against animal experimentation?  Well, after graduating, going to some talks about different animal rights issues, my wife & I became connected with a local animal rights group.  We were fairly active, but hadn’t done anything too complicated yet.  One of the members brought up something about a cat experiment which was underway at the school I had just graduated from, the University of Cincinnati.  The local group was to have a meeting to discuss launching a campaign to stop the experiment, put an end to it permanently.  Well, as it turned out Karen & I would be out of town when the meeting was to take place. 

We unwisely told one of the other activists in the group that if no one else would take this project on, we would.  So, of course, we were elected while we were out of town and unable to object.

This year and a half long campaign was successful and shut down the head injury research of Dr. Patricia Tornheim, and launched us into animal activism.  As this project came to an end, I was hired by In Defense of Animals, later went on to work for Last chance for Animals, and to do consulting work for HSUS, PCRM, AAVS, NEAVS, NAVS and a couple of other organizations.  And then in 1996 my wife Karen & I founded Stop Animal Exploitation NOW to focus exclusively on the animal research issue, and to bring a professional approach to anti-vivisection activism, while at the same time still working to support grassroots groups.  Every year we coordinate World Laboratory Animal Liberation Week, National Primate Liberation Week, and many protests, news conferences and other events that focus on the animal experimentation issue.  One such news conference will take place this Tuesday to reveal the death of several primates, including a chimpanzee, connected to the New Iberia lab in Louisiana.  I would like to publicly thank FVA for helping with this event.

 I have noticed many things in the time that I have been working on animal issues.  One of the most obvious, and most distressing is that most of the people who were active and involved when we began this journey back in 1986 are no longer active.  I wonder where they are, because we could definitely benefit from their experience today.

 This leads to one of the questions that I am asked most often.  How can I continue to I do what I do?  As most of you know, animal experimentation is not a pleasant issue by any means.  And I believe that to effectively oppose it you have to investigate the labs that perform it.  You have to know all that there is to know about them.  I read their paperwork.  I read their medical journal articles.  I read their annual reports.  There are over 1000 registered research facilities in the United States.  And on one level or another, SAEN investigates all of them. 

 Mostly I read everything that there is about how the animals are treated.  USDA inspection reports disclose every violation of federal regulations.  I read the inspection reports that disclose violations every day.  They are posted on the USDA website, I get a fresh batch every morning.  I read them all, every laboratory, every abuse, every animal death.

 Many laboratories are state institutions, state colleges or universities, and so they are subject to the various state public records acts.  This means that it is both possible and legal to obtain their internal records.  This includes veterinary records, internal memos, correspondence, research protocols, etc.  Non-human primates are the most thoroughly documented animals used in experimentation, probably because they are the most expensive.  A single primate can cost $5000 or more.  So very often we obtain the medical records of primates from within laboratories.  We do this with small labs like the University of Florida that has less than 100 primates, and we do this with large facilities like the University of California, Davis, who has over 5000 primates.

 Some of these documents contain little in the way of information, and so they don’t have a real effect and are not very useful.  But many of the records have more information than anyone would want to read.  However, most of what I read is about suffering and death.  3 primates at New Iberia, 10 cats at southwest biolabs, primates at Harvard, primates at UCSF (smell of stinking flesh), Amadeus & Wally.

 People ask me not only why I do this, but how can I?  People want to know how I can stand to do this.  I recently realized that for about the first 20 or so years I did this work I was approaching it just as the vivisectors do, only in kind of a backwards way.  I saw the suffering of the animals as a tool to use to fight animal experimentation.  Shocking information is effective.  I held everything at a distance, I didn’t think about the pain or the suffering, but about the fight.  And then something changed.  The kind of information that we accessed changed.  Instead of obtaining primarily only post mortem records for animals we began to access their entire medical histories.  I was no longer reading only about how they died, I was exposed to their entire life stories.

 I read about two primates at Virginia commonwealth University, who had been used in drug addiction experimentation, and this experimentation involved placing nylon jackets on the primates to protect the experimental apparatus.  One of the monkeys was so affected, so overwhelmed, so immobilized by the brutality of the experimentation, the physical experience of the addictive drugs, and the barrenness of the laboratory cages that she lost her mind.  She could do nothing but lie on the floor in the middle of the cage and hug herself.  But there was another primate. A male.  Despite everything he didn’t give up.  He kept raging at the cage, he fought back, he was constantly ripping and tearing at the nylon jacket which had been placed on him.  He did everything within his power to continue to be a wild animal, even though he was imprisoned inside a laboratory cage.

 Well right then, as I read about these monkeys, my own walls came tumbling down.  These were no longer facts to be used, they were no longer statistics, these were intelligent sensitive animals, little different from me, and suffering horribly.  I could no longer keep everything at a distance, I had to feel this.  Now I suffer through all of it with them.  I feel every pain that they feel.

 So, to answer that question, how do I keep this up??  How do I continue to get out of bed every morning?  How do I walk in to the computer and turn it on, knowing that I will read about primates dying without water or being boiled alive in a cagewasher?  How do I open the files of UC Davis’s primate medical records to learn about the monkey who died with a bungee chord wrapped around his neck?  Or the pregnant female who was ignored until a difficult birth killed both her and her baby? 

 It’s very simple.  If that monkey in the cage can still fight against the experiment, if he can try to tear off that jacket, if he can try to be a wild animal in the middle of a stainless steel cage, then I can keep fighting too.  His life, his death, must have some meaning.  And if the only thing I can do to honor him is to keep fighting myself, then that is what I will do.

 All of the issues that we work with are just as unpleasant as the death of this monkey.  I don’t need to tell you what happens to animals in factory farms.  I don’t need to talk about zoos, or Sea World.  I don’t need to discuss puppy mills.  All of you probably know about these things already.  They are just as bad as the laboratories.  The animals suffer just as much.  Their deaths are just as final.

 Draw your inspiration not from people but from the animals themselves, for whatever struggle we have, theirs is hundreds of times harder, thousands of times more painful, and millions of times more deadly.

 Why are we here tonight?  I know that this is FVA’s annual fundraiser, and I have to thoroughly endorse FVA.  It is one of the most consistent and effective local organizations in the nation.  But we are here tonight because we are animal rights activists.  WE want to make a real difference for the animals.

Why do we call ourselves animal rights activists?  We are animal rights activists because we want to end all suffering and abuse of animals, as well as their unnecessary deaths.  We want everyone to recognize that animals have feelings, thoughts, minds, not very different from our own.  We want everyone to realize that speceism is no different from, and no less wrong than racism, sexism, or any other form of oppression.

 This is what we believe, and having this belief has consequences.  We change the way we eat, we change the way that we dress, we change the products that we buy, we even change the kind of entertainment that we attend.  We change everything about our lives.  We literally make ourselves into new people. 

We take a stance on issues by the way that we eat because no thank you, we don’twant to consume the rotting corpses of our fellow beings.  We change how we dress because, no thank you, we don’t need to be dressed in animal skins like some Neanderthal.  We change the products that we buy because, no thank you, we will not support corporations that are willing to poison and kill animals so that we can have whiter whites or shinier dishes.

We have reformed our own lives.  We have changed ourselves, and that is a wonderful start.  Every vegan meal you eat means that animals didn’t die.  Every time you buy clothing that doesn’t use fur or leather that is another animal that didn’t die.  And every time you refuse to purchase the products of companies that abuse animals in laboratories, that is another dollar taken out of their hands which could have been used to purchase an animal for the lab.

And we see society changing.  People actually know what the word VEGAN means, they don’t seem to be able to pronounce it, but they know what it means.  And we can find vegan foods at more and more restaurants.  Even the fast food chains have options.  Honestly, go back ten years in your mind.  Who among you would have believed that Burger King would ever serve a veggie burger??

We see progress in the area of animal research too.  Public opinion polls show that support for animal research is declining – that’s why the animal research industry has started running billboards, they’re scared.  Regulatory agencies are becoming more serious about making labs actually follow the law, after a bit of pushing from organizations like SAEN.

The University of Washington, Seattle was recently fined over $10,000 for Animal Welfare Act violations which killed five animals.  The Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute was recently fined over $21,000 for AWA violations relevant to the death of one animal.  And the Texas Biomedical Research Institute recently paid a $25,000 fine for the death of a primate.  And then there is Harvard.

WE DO MAKE A DIFFERENCE.  We can change the world.  IN fact, we already ARE.  Every single one of you here is a vital part of this.  You can all contribute.  You have great leadership at FVA.  But we need more people to get involved.  We need more activists to do the myriad of jobs that keep our movement, and your hometown organization going forward.

If we are to end the suffering of all animals we must each make a commitment to this issue.  We must each be willing to say that this is a cause that I can devote my life to.

If we don’t make that commitment, if we aren’t willing to nail our lives down and give of ourselves, I can tell you what will happen.  If we don’t keep up the fight, meat consumption will no longer drop.  More cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, will die.  Increased demand will lead to even greater deprivations for the animals as production escalates.  Since animal agriculture is one of the greatest contributors to global warming, our environment will degrade even quicker.  As people eat more meat our health care system will be even more overburdened with unnecessary cases of cancer, stroke and heart disease.  Without opposition, the NRA will succeed in opening all parks and wildlife sanctuaries to hunting and a veritable flood of corpses will issue from our national parks.  Without opposition, the fur industry will rebound, fur will be all the rage.  Fur farms will flourish, reaping immense profits.

Without opposition, cities and states will see animal research as a boon to sagging economies.  Testing companies will sprout up in every city.  The flow of primates into the U.S. will double, triple, or quadruple until more non-human primates exist in captivity in laboratories than in their natural habitats.

Will we sit back and allow this?  Will we? NO!  WE WILL NOT!

These are the kinds of things that we face.  All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.  It IS up to US.  No one else will do this for us.  This movement is not about PETA, or HSUS or even SAEN.  Our movement is about individuals that have chosen to step up and make a difference.  This is what our lives are about.  This is what we do.  This is who we are.

As a student I saw what animal experimentation does.  I have seen the empty cages from dead animals who I had petted and walked the day before.  I have felt animals die in my hands. I have immersed myself in the lives of animals whose suffering I cannot adequately explain.  Imprisoned in steel boxes for interminable lifetimes primates lose their minds.  Toxic drugs destroy their ability even to move in some misguided attempt to mimic a human disease.  Negligence sees monkeys left inside cages where they are boiled alive in cagewashers.  Insanity is rampant in laboratory cages.  And it is no better on factory farms or in fur farms, in zoos, or in Seaworld.

As activists this is up to us.  We have a responsibility for the lives of the animals that our species abuses.  For better or worse, we have control of this planet.  I believe that we will be held accountable for what we do because power always comes with responsibility.  We cannot fall asleep at the wheel, only to find out that we missed the opportunity to end the exploitation of animals.  We can’t afford to look back later and say that oh, I could have made a difference for the animals, but I was too busy.  Or I could have attended that protest, but I had something going on.  The world is changed by those who show up.

And sooner or later we will reach a tipping point, not only for the environment, but for ourselves.  We are approaching a point where a final choice will have to be made.  Do we live for profit or for the greater good?  Will we allow the destruction of our planet, or will we fight not only for the survival of the animals but for our own survival as well.
Some people will not hear this message.  Some will not be willing to make the sacrifice.  Some will not want the inconvenience.  Some will not want to know about all of the suffering.  But some of us will take on this task.

Some will take this to heart and make this our life’s work.  Some of us will make the commitment to do whatever is necessary to change the world so that our animal brothers and sisters will be released from bondage and agony, our home planet earth will be saved, and our own human dignity will not be reduced to a dollar sign.  Some of us have and will continue to dedicate or lives to fighting for an absolute end to all animal suffering, abuse, and exploitation.

I know many of you in this room are committed activists.  I have known Myriam for years, and her mother before her.  She is a shining example to all of us.  But many of us in this room need to do more.

I can’t speak for anyone else.  I can only tell you what I have decided.  I have dedicated my life to the struggle to end animal experimentation.  That is why I am on this planet.  That is not just what I do, it is who I am.

You don’t need to ask who will be fighting to expose laboratories for abusing, torturing and killing animals.  I will. 

You don’t need to ask who will reveal that University of California Davis recently had a primate die with a bungee chord wrapped around his neck.  I will.

You don’t need to ask who will be exposing the University of Wisconsin, for over 40 violations of the Animal Welfare Act.  I will.

You don’t need to ask who will be exposing the recent chimpanzee death connected to the New Iberia lab in Louisiana.  I will. 

I have taken this responsibility as my own.  I consider it a privilege to have been given the opportunity to fight for animals.  I can assure you as long as there is breath in my body I will keep fighting.

But I can’t do this alone.  There are over 1000 laboratories out there.  Who among you will take on the University of South Florida?  Who will stand up for the 168 guinea pigs, 95 hamsters, 50 primates and 186 pigs AT USF? 

Who will take this on so that by this time next year USF will have been exposed, cited, fined and licking their wounds.  You CAN do this.  You can make this happen.

How many of you can step up to help organize more events to promote veganism?  Who among you will make the commitment to fight SeaWorld?  Who will stand up to make a difference, now?

Did you know that in January of this year three airlines, and four exhibitors in Florida were issued Official Warnings by the USDA for breaking the law?  And another animal Exhibitor in FL was fined $4000???  Who will stand up and take these animal abusers on?

The animals are depending on us.  Their imprisoned lives, and their tortured deaths will not accept excuses.  They will not allow us to be silent.

Where are the activists who will take this on?  Who will take responsibility for fighting for these animals?  

It is time for all of us to stand up together and say I will.

I will fight for them.

I will be their champion.

I WILL.