SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY IS HAPPENING AT THIS VERY MOMENT IN THE NETHERLANDS. There is a political party with two seats in the Dutch parliament. But it’s not what one might expect… Their agenda? To end the treatment of animals as economic product, to abolish factory farming, and to achieve a better society. The party is the Dutch Party for the Animals (PvdD), and it’s led by Marianne Thieme. Since co-founding it in 2002, she has spearheaded unprecedented breakthroughs— from the enforcement of stricter video monitoring in slaughterhouses to securing public funding for the development of meat substitutes. The party won two seats in parliament in 2006, after four years of campaigning. Not only have they influenced the other political parties in the Dutch parliament to become more animal-friendly, but their success has inspired the formation of 13 more animal parties around the world, including the United States. In December 2013, all of the parties came together at an international symposium in Istanbul, Turkey called Animal Politics: Theory and Practice. Organized by the Dutch Party for the Animals, the symposium covered everything from the philosophies of animal rights to how activists can establish a party for the animals in their country. In 2008, Marianne was featured as a presenter in the documentary documentary Meat The Truth— a sort of retort to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. (“Al Gore forgot something very important,” she explains. “He left out factory farming, and we felt it was necessary make the addendum to that.”) She is a no less than a visionary— with her mind firmly planted in the present, and her heart always dreaming up a better future. An extremely effective problem-solver, whose strategies have yielded tangible results, she is also a resolute optimist who believes that within the next fifty years humankind’s treatment of animals will change dramatically. We had the chance to have an enlightening conversation with her by phone at The Hague earlier this week.
At the recent symposium in Istanbul, it must have been amazing to be in the company of the various animal rights parties that you helped inspire. What did you discover about all of your commonalities?
People from all over Europe mostly, but also from America, and Canada came to talk about animal politics. We met people from the Turkish Party for the Animals, we met people from Cyprus to start a Party for the Animals. We continue to be in very close contact with the Party for the Animals in Portugal and Spain. We had members from the Swedish animal rights party visit us in the Hague in Holland just the other day. The Portuguese, the Spanish and the Swedish Party for the Animals will join the European elections the 22nd of May.
The exciting thing is that we not only have a shared view on animal rights, but also a shared view on how the system of society, the economical system, should be changed in order to protect the things that really matter, or the beings that really matter. For example, we share the same view on economical growth— that economical growth is a problem, instead of a solution because we have limited commodities on the planet. The planet can provide enough for everybody’s need, but not for everybody’s greed. It’s more than just animal rights.
So how do we tackle this issue of limited commodities when ultimately of course we want the vegan economy to grow in order to replace the animal product-based economy?
Well, that’s of course a development that we should encourage, but that’s a development within the limits of the planet. And I think the economical system must be limited by what the planet can provide for everybody. So that will be the boundaries for development, and within these boundaries there is of course room for development— for sustainable development and for business that is sustainable and is not only focused on profit, but also focused on personal growth and healthcare for everybody, and also food for everybody within the growing population on this planet.
You had mentioned once that initially people thought the Party for the Animals was a joke, but then not long after, intellectuals started joining it. Has your multi-issue platform played a role in this?
Of course there still are people that think it’s something that you can’t take very seriously. But more and more people are getting used to the fact that there is for the first time ever in the world a party for non-humans. Every social justice movement has to deal with this phase of first getting ignored, then ridiculed and even criminalized, but in the end they win. That’s what Ghandi said, and he’s so right—it’s just like that. Every time when we start a new initiative as a party for the animals in the national parliament— we go through these phases again: ignor[ed], ridicule[ed], etc. But what we see now is that as we are becoming more and more mainstream, people are really starting to appreciate what we do. And that’s also because not only animal-caring people vote for the Party for the Animals, but also people who really got to know us through our other standpoints. For example, the viewpoints about economic growth. Then they realize, “Oh now I understand why you make such a fuss of the animal rights issue” — it has everything to do with suppression, everything to do also with my own life, we are victims of the multinationals, of the free market. We try to make the barrier for people a little bit lower by starting to make close connections with other issues in society.
Some of your accomplishments have included enforcement of stricter video monitoring of animals in slaughterhouses and live markets, as well as securing €6m ($8m) of public money to find alternatives to meat. Those are unprecedented victories. How has the government been cooperating, and how have these developments affected the other parties in the parliament?
Yes, we did get a majority to make an obligation for slaughterhouses. But what you see is that the government really tries to interpret this demand of the national parliament into “well, let’s ‘stimulate’ the slaughterhouses to do video observance.” So of course this is one of our successes, but what we still have to do is to get the government to do [exactly] what we want, and to do what the national parliament wants. And that’s a big challenge. But on the other hand, we got a six million euro budget every year for innovations on meat substitutes. But just to let you know that the government always tries to get meat substitutes for example, insects as a meat substitute! Then we have to start a debate again in the parliament, “That’s not what we want. We want plant-based substitutes.” And that’s our continuing fight, but it works a lot because we inspire bigger political parties in our parliament as well. And they want to become more animal-friendly, because they want to earn their seats back. So that’s exactly what we want— we act as a pacer in the marathon. And get the other political parties to “run faster,” to work harder for animal-friendly measures, like meat substitutes.
Another big breakthrough came was when the majority of the parliament agreed with you to outlaw the slaughter of animals without stunning. What was that process like?
When we started this in 2008, people said to me, “You will never get this new bill passed in parliament.” But because we are so open, and because there’s no question about our integrity, and we do this because of the suffering of animals and not because we are xenophobic, or against Jews or Muslims, people started to believe that we did have scientific proof that a slaughter without stunning is really something that is not of this time any longer. We do respect religious freedom, but not when it comes to human or animal suffering. We draw the line there. And we heard from the people in our parliament, “We could never start up this bill, because we would be criticized that we are against Muslims or Jews. But you could, because we know why you do this.” It’s very pure. And that’s why we got 116 out of 150 votes for this bill. Unfortunately, we didn’t pass this bill in the senate, because the religious lobby groups were more vigilant in this phase. They had underestimated our influence in national parliament, so when we went to the senate, they armed themselves more. That’s why the senate with more old fashioned, older people didn’t want to accept this bill, but we will come back when we have a new senate next year.
So as a political party, you now have a noticeable level of influence over the other parties?
That’s the difference between a non-governmental organization (NGO) and having an animal rights party in parliament— an animal rights party is a threat for political parties. You hear from politicians, “I always get an harassed by the NGOs. I really am fed up with these NGOs who always want to talk with me, and I don’t want to listen to them.” But when you are in parliament as an animal rights party, they have to listen to you all the time, in every debate we participate in. And what you see is that they adopt our views now, and they tell the people in the street, “Well, you know, we are the party for the animals, we are also very animal friendly.” So that’s very nice to see.
And for example, we’ve got a yearly debate on the budget for agriculture and fisheries. And normally, the subject of the debate was always about earning money for the farmers and for the fishermen. And now, 80% of the debate is about animal rights and animal welfare. That has everything to do with the competition other parties feel by having a Party for the Animals in the parliament.
How does it feel to be able to directly address your country’s parliament on issues of animal rights?
We’ve got 150 people in parliament and the Party for the Animals are with just two people. There’s 9 parties in our country that vary from liberals, to labor parties, to Christian democrats, to very conservative Christian parties, and so on. Every time I have to make a speech, I know that 148 people are not waiting for me to speak, they do not want to hear. But I know that there are more and more people outside of parliament who are really happy with the fact that I am there. When I have to speak, I think of all those people outside of the parliament who want me to be there. It’s such an opportunity to talk for ten or twenty minutes about animal suffering in factory farms or animal experimentation. They really have to listen to all the experiments that I talk about, all the things that are happening to animals in the slaughterhouse. I can really tell about how a cow is being slaughtered. That has never been done before. Then I can ask questions to the state secretary of the government or administer of the government, “What do you think about this?” and “Are you going to ban this?” and “Why not?” They really have to get into this issue, they cannot neglect or ignore it. During a debate, another party stands up and does their speech and they are moved by what we have been saying. They feel obliged to react and come back with a response. Because we talk about the suffering, we move the politicians personally. These politicians always think about, “How can I gain power?”, “How can I get my motion, my initiative, my bill through the parliament, how can I get the majority?” And now the debate is not all about that anymore, it’s about personal choices.
This must’ve been an eye-opening and inspiring experience to see how people can be affected. And that if you can affect a politician in this way, imagine how you can affect the average person on the street.
Political action is a great instrument to better the lives of animals. But the really big achievements, the really big changes you can make is by inspiring the person in front of you. If you can change their heart, I think that’s the biggest achievement you can have. We always have a lot of politicians in our parliament who really mock us, who really are fed up with us, who try to destabilize us by doing ‘mooing’ during our speech or doing things like that, or they leave the room. But all these emotions of anger and sarcasm or hope are needed to move people, to have a real change. If you don’t get these emotions of anger, then you can’t change anything. It’s also encouraging to have all these strong emotions.
And so what insights have you gained about being an effective advocate on a personal level?
People always want to join other people who are optimistic, in sort of a winning mood, or with a lot of self-esteem, and a lot of humor. Humor has the capacity to offer self-reflection, an opportunity to laugh at yourself. I think if you’re too serious, and too much like a priest, and you’re like, “You’re wrong, and I’m right”— then people will close their hearts. If you are living the change you want to see in other people, you can let people see that you can still be an enjoyable person, and have an enjoyable life with a lot of laughter and fun, then people want to join you. It doesn’t mean that you have to be dishonest about suffering. You can stick to your ideas. The way you sell it that makes the difference.
It’s almost about “marketing” it the right way…
Market, yeah! And for example my husband, [the Vegetarian Butcher ] is a plant-based farmer, and that’s how he sells his vegan product. And it works! It’s about enjoying life, and being a good person at the same time. And some of his customers are people who don’t want to become vegetarian in one day, but consider themselves “meat-leavers”— is what we call it here in our country.
“Meat-leavers”— I love that! And the demand for his product has really grown very quickly, from what I’ve read. Combined with you securing public funding for meat substitutes, does it feel that big changes are unfolding?
At the same time it’s a country of cheese, and milk and meat. It’s one of the biggest exporters of agricultural livestock product. But still— the people in our country are really fed up with this factory farming system. This is the growing counterforce, the growing minority who say, “Stop this. This is not what we want. We want our lives more animal friendly.” It’s in the air. It’s bigger than us.
When you look at, for example, the genetic engineering of animals and all the new ways of using or mistreating animals are being developed, you sometimes get really depressed. But at the same time, although the government and the large multinationals want us to believe that large kill solutions are the future— the people do not believe that anymore. The change will be bottom up, instead of coming from governmental institutions. And this bottom up solution is caused by the people who do not trust politicians any longer and feel— literally feel— when you look at the climate change, for example, what it means to just do “business as usual.” So that’s where I gain my optimism.
And with these changing tides, comes a real opportunity to get through to people on multiple levels.
You have to be rational and emotional at the same time. Rational with facts and figures, and emotional to show people that you care.
We’ve got so many different arguments to persuade people to cut down their meat consumption. It can be human health, animal welfare or animal rights. It can be environment. It can be solidarity with people around the world who produce animal feed while they are starving. It can be the disappearance of nature and the biodiversity loss. When you’ve got a person in front of you and you ask them, “What are your views?,” “What’s in your heart?,” “Which issues are you most concerned with: is it the poverty in the world? or is it the climate change? or animals?” When you hear a person talk about poverty in the world, you’ve got an angle. You’ve got an opportunity to talk about land grabbing in Brazil, because animal feed companies want to have the land for animal feed. There’s always an opportunity. It’s such a luxury.
So are you feeling hopeful that globally we are on the verge of something major?
There is a professor of animal ethics and legislation here in Holland who predicts that within 50 years, people will feel ashamed of what we did to the animals. More like a common shame, and not only the shame that conscious people feel, but also more like it’s a common ground, a common standpoint— that what we did in these years, and the years before, in the last century, is really something we should be ashamed of. And he predicts it will be in less than 50 years, and I have that same feeling. It’s what we call the zeitgeist. It’s something in the air. It also has to do with the fact that we realize finally after all these crises, like the food crisis, the biodiversity crisis, the economical crisis— that we cannot eat money and build our society on things that really do not exist, you know what I mean? The financial crisis, the belief that we can make money out of money for this artificial world in which we believe prosperity could grow for everybody— we realize that it was all a big lie. And I think that because this realization is with a lot of people, the crisis can be the turning point of saying goodbye to the man-centered way of thinking. A crisis always means misfortune and suffering and of course that’s the case, but it’s also a good opportunity for an awakening, for an ethical awakening. I think that we’re on the threshold of a new era.
For more information, visit: Party for the Animals
Introduction and interview by Julie Gueraseva
photo courtesy of Party for the Animals