“DIVERSITY OF TACTICS” IS A PROMINENT EXPRESSION IN SOCIAL JUSTICE ACTIVISM. There is no singular solution yet, and there is no handbook on the most effective strategy for creating change. A wide range of approaches is essential. But what if the common denominator in the multitude of methods is—love? It may seem radical at first, or perhaps too idyllic. But, what if? What if a perceived enemy is an ally yet to be made? What if a closed mind is just a mind that hasn’t been opened yet? What if we view those we cross paths with as fully capable of kindness and goodness? And what if instead of condemning, we take a chance and forge a connection? On the afternoon of September 10th, 2013 in Toronto, Canada, Kathy Stevens, founder of Catksill Animal Sanctuary, did just that when she approached a group of locked out* slaughterhouse workers at St. Helen’s Meat Packers during a Cow Save vigil (an arm of the Toronto Pig Save, a grassroots animal rights organization that holds weekly vigils at Toronto slaughterhouses, and in other parts of the world ).

“She pretended to be a cow and nudged Robert Bielak, the owner of “St. Helen’s Meat Packers” and put her head on his shoulder,” Anita Krajnc, founder of Toronto Pig Save, recalled to us. Kathy invited him to come to her sanctuary and partake in cow kisses. Moments later, as a truck crammed with cows rolled up to the slaughterhouse, she reached up and kissed a cow on the nose, right in front of the workers —the first time in two years of vigils that anyone had done this, according to Anita. “Kathy really raised the bar for our vigils and bearing witness. Days later, when we prepared vegan BLTs for the workers, they talked of Kathy’s kindness to them, and we talked further about animal emotions,” said Anita. She explained that Toronto Pig Save, too, uses a love-based approach and have not only interacted with the workers, but have previously brought them vegan sandwiches. “At first, few took, now they’re used to our kind food,” says Anita. “The labour negotiator for the union didn’t take one, but he will eventually…” Kathy recently received a phone call from Amos, one of the workers she connected with and gave her book Animal Camp to. He called to tell her he had been reading it.

Imagine— the domino effect of compassion getting into the hearts of people without whose participation the slaughterhouse institution would cease churning. What if?..

Catksill Animal Sanctuary’s and Kathy Stevens’ approach to activism is multi-faceted, and one that—in addition to rescuing animals and offering them a safe haven— includes a vegan cooking program, “Compassionate Cuisine”, and a vegan children’s summer camp, “Camp Kindness.” And this diverse benevolent approach rooted in love is yielding tangible results. “There are so very many stories of transformation—new vegetarians and vegans are born each season. Beyond that, new activists are born, including a young girl who met with her principal to encourage changes to her cafeteria menu,” Kathy told us when we spoke to her recently. Over the summer, Kathy reached out to P.S. 244 in Queens—the nation’s first public school with an all-vegetarian cafeteria—and invited the students to visit the sanctuary. The school immediately embraced the opportunity. “Besides local zoos, our students don’t have easy access to farm animals – especially animals that have been rescued,” Christian Ledesma, a science teacher at P.S. 244 and its Director of School Wellness (and himself a vegan), explained to us. “It was amazing to watch them absorb the stories of each animal, interact with them, and overcome any fears. I saw students, who at first hid behind me when a goat approached, reach out and hug the goats by the end of the trip. It was an outstanding, sometimes emotional experience, that they will probably never forget.” And P.S. 244 itself recognized the necessity of leading with love—with its students, in fact, leading the way. “This journey started because the students were not eating the usual meat-based lunches,” Christian told us. “So this whole movement has been student-driven. Our founding and current principals, who are not even vegetarians, just followed the lead of the students and provided the healthiest option available.”

Imagine— the domino effect of triggering compassion in a younger generation, and then allowing them to spearhead change. Kathy Stevens, of course, understands the importance of this. For her, it connects back to innocence. “As we age, we lose our innocence,” she says. “The earlier we can reach a child and foster that innate wonder for all living things, the greater the chance that child will hold onto it, moving from that place of innocence and into a compassion for all living beings.”  Here, Kathy shares more of her insights.

Kids from P.S. 244 during their visit to Catskill Animal Sanctuary

LAIKA: What did you observe about the animals in the slaughterhouse transport trucks during the Toronto Cow Save vigil?
Kathy Stevens: That the trucks were way too crowded for the animals’ comfort; that the pigs were hot, thirsty, and scratched all to hell, that the cows were absolutely coated in shit, and that beyond these “facts,” their demeanors were, of course, of remarkable individuals. One pig and one cow whose soulful stares— knowing, resigned, at peace—I will carry with me as I continue to do this work. That, plus the volume—truck after truck after bloody truck. So much violence, so much horror.

And yet, in spite of this, you managed to establish a rapport with the slaughterhouse workers. How?
The interaction came about simply because I walked into the slaughterhouse and left a copy of each of my books with the receptionist. (Apparently, slaughterhouses have lobbies and receptionists…who knew?). I wrote in one of them: “With respect for your pride in your business and with hope that you’ll read about mine.” A few minutes later, he walked out front where a group of us from Toronto Cow Save were gathered, and asked if I was Kathy. The exchange was soft and moving…he asked a lot of questions, and I told him the story of a cow who licked my face over and over and over again as he was dying. Not only was there empathy….the Toronto Cow Save group has gone back to the slaughterhouses since I’ve returned to NY, and apparently a lot of the workers are interested in vegan cooking classes!

Your approach seems to be about drawing out the good that exists in all of us, or the “inner-child,” one could say.
Yes! As a high school English teacher, I not only wanted my students to be better writers, speakers, thinkers—I also wanted them to be braver and kinder people. It’s the same at Catskill Animal Sanctuary: we’re an emergency rescue organization, but just as importantly, we’re a center to open hearts and minds—a place where people get kissed by cows in one moment, and in the next learn the horrifying realities of the beef and dairy industries. Epiphanies happen every weekend. A 2,500 pound steer licks a man’s face just as he’s learning why that steer is so huge, and how virtually all of the steer’s friends were killed either shortly after birth or at a few months of age. The steer and I are a tag team: I present the disturbing realities of animal agriculture, the steer, acting just like a loving puppy does, forces the man to question a whole lot of assumptions. We encourage him to grow beyond his cultural conditioning.

It’s the same with children. In terms of our programming for them, our intention is to encourage the goodness that’s already in them, just as it was for the man and the steer. Our age-appropriate curriculum rewards and celebrates children’s compassion, commitment, and courage. It says, “You love animals?! We do, too!! What a great job you’re doing for them! Here’s how you can do even more for your animal friends!”

Tell us about the visit from the P.S. 244 kids and how it all came about!
As soon as I read the news [about the school going vegetarian], I burst into tears. A few moments later, I reached out to Amie Hamlin, director of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Foods, to ask if she thought the school might like to visit Catskill Animal Sanctuary, and she put me in touch with their wonderful principal who immediately responded “YES!”

From beginning to end, it was all poignant. A few highlights were: when children draped themselves over that 2,500-pound steer I referenced earlier, when he kissed on child after another as they sat in front of him;  when Emmet the rooster, as he was passed from child to child to child to child and not only remained patient but also reached out affectionately to each one, seemed to understand that his job was to help them understand that chickens were deserving of their consideration; when a half-dozen children sort of piled on and around our sweet 800-pound pig named Nadine and she grunted her joy; and when two members of The Underfoot Family (the free-range animals depicted in both my books) accompanied the children on their entire tour. All good, good stuff. Nothing surprised me, because I know that these animals are the same as we are. But I suspect that our young guests couldn’t quite believe what they were experiencing.

With the menu at P.S. 244 being vegetarian, how did you address the dairy industry and the treatment of cows during the visit?
We showed the children a veal crate. We introduced them to Russell, Emerson, Calvin, and Bernard—four young steers who were saved from a dairy operation, and talked about how they were some of the lucky few, and that many of their friends were killed. They saw how incredibly affectionate these steers were, and then we explained that the steers were taken away from their mothers when they were just a day old. “How do you think they felt?” we asked. “How do you think their mothers felt?” Naturally, we got plenty of responses.
We applaud them for this huge first step [of going vegetarian], and are here to support them should they choose to go vegan.

CAS recently welcomed another group of individuals—200 chickens from the historic rescue of 1,150 chickens from a commercial egg farm. What are they like?
I can’t describe them as a group—as I always say, beyond the things that make them all chickens, ten chickens are as individual as ten dogs or ten people! Some chat all the time, some are quiet; some FLY out the door first thing in the morning, others don’t yet have that level of confidence; some hop to the top rung of their perch, others huddle together in the straw. One CHARACTER takes a “dust bath” in the feed dish at almost every meal. Some are slightly underweight; others are skeletal. It is a joy and a privilege caring for them and sharing a story that all the sanctuaries involved (Animal Place, Farm Sanctuary, Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, Sasha, Happy Trails, United Poultry Concerns, Heartland, and others!) hope will hasten our country’s burgeoning compassion for the most abused animal of all time.

As a seasoned activist, any advice for animal lovers out there who may be struggling and searching for words in talking to their meat-eating friends?
Yes. What’s effective is recognizing that there are four avenues through which to reach someone: 1) The suffering of the animals; 2) The impact of a meat and dairy-based diet on the individual’s health; 3) The urgent planetary need for us to go vegan, and—here’s the one that we don’t discuss—4) The fact that for most of us, it’s important to consider ourselves kind human beings, and yet we unwittingly violate that principle every time we ingest animal products.

Be strategic. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Approach everyone with love, and approach them with whatever argument resonates most deeply. And take them to animal sanctuaries. Much as we humans can do, the animals are the best influencers of all.

Learn more about the advocates and programs mentioned in this story:

Catksill Animal Sanctuary

Toronto Pig Save

P.S. 244

Written and interviewed by Julie Gueraseva

Top photograph by Anita Krajnc. Video courtesy of Toronto Pig Save. Photograph of P.S. 244 kids courtesy of Catksill Animal Sanctuary.

* An explanation of the term “locked out”: when the company (slaughterhouse) is attempting to get workers to agree to a bad contract, the workers are locked out, if they refuse to sign it. A bad contract is usually one that takes away disability benefits, hours, and other workers rights. In the case of the two adjacent cow slaughterhouses in Toronto—Ryding-Regency Meat Packers and St. Helen’s Meat Packers—while the 100 Ryding-Regency workers were locked out, scab workers from other plants came in, the managers performed the slaughter, and the St. Helen’s slaughterhouse across the street “helped out.”