Karen Dawn

Interview: Barbi Twins

Barbi Twins: You are a well-known animal advocate and writer with many media appearances and a popular animal rights book under your vegan belt. What got you going on the animal advocacy path?

Karen Dawn: I think of Alice Walker’s words, “Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet.” Some of us seem to be born with a drive to try to make the world kinder. In my twenties, living in New York City, I worked in a soup kitchen every Sunday for many years, just trying to do my part. Then I read Animal Liberation and learned about factory farming and the killing of animals for oven cleaner and realized nobody needed my help as badly as the animals did.

BT: So it seems you follow a vegan diet for ethical reasons. Do you also discuss the health and environmental benefits in your advocacy?

KD: It is important to meet people where they are. It reminds me of yoga, to which people may flock for the physical benefits, often to find that the spiritual benefits match or even outweigh them. Many people will first be attracted to veganism for their health but find themselves far more open to learning about the animal issues when they don’t have to block them out three times a day in order to enjoy eating. Then once people learn, it is hard to forget and go back. Come for the body, stay for the soul.

The environmental issue is similar. Some people feel that humans have a right to eat other animals but not to trash the earth. They may choose veganism because a vegan’s ecological footprint is light, but once they are not invested in eating animals, they are more likely to be willing to learn the details of what happens to them. That learning will encourage compassionate people to stick with a plant-based diet.

BT: You may now be best known for your annual turkey rescue, which has been featured on CNN, ABC, and even Fox Business Network. How did that get going, and why do you think it has such widespread appeal?

KD: I met my first turkey at an animal sanctuary in 2000. The sanctuary owner brought out a turkey named Olivia who had been rescued from a factory farm. As I sat on the grass and reached out to pet her, she climbed into my lap and fell asleep. I was flabbergasted and charmed. She was not what I expected! I think people respond similarly when they see the videos of my annual turkey rescue, which I have been doing since 2008, or see parts of them televised on news shows. They don’t expect to see turkeys clearly enjoying a blow-dry, then relaxing into the arms of children. The surprise is enough to generate real interest.

BT: What kind of impact does the turkey rescue have?

KD: Well, in my neighborhood, where kids visit them every day, I am sure Tofurky sales are way up! Seriously, many people have told me they can’t eat turkeys anymore after getting to know them. I think in the wider world, when the stories air on the media, they help banish the idea that birds, other than parrots, are somehow lesser.

BT: Your book, Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals, got great reviews. Can you tell us a little about it? Why such a naughty title?

KD: The naughty title was my way of letting people know that this isn’t your average animal rights book. Animal rights is a serious subject, but I do my best to find humor where I can, and I have some great help: there are almost two hundred cartoons included in the book, including dozens from the brilliant Bizarro strip.

A consistent comment from reviewers has been that the tone isn’t preachy. Again, I try to meet people where they are. People who read Thanking the Monkey as vegetarians have told me that my book led them to make the transition to veganism. But other people, with only a minimal interest in animal welfare, just found themselves open to learning more. Some made the commitment not to take their kids to SeaWorld or the circus. I wholeheartedly encourage any steps in the right direction, in whatever time frame works for the person on the path.

BT: We noticed that Thanking the Monkey has a chapter on environmentalism, and Captain Paul Watson, a renowned environmentalist, spoke at your book party. What do you see as the connection between animal rights and environmentalism?

KD: Captain Paul nailed part of the connection in his speech at my book party when he said, “You can’t be an environmentalist without being a vegan or at least a vegetarian.” Indeed, a report from the United Nations has revealed that the livestock industry is the number-one contributor to global warming gasses—higher than even the transport industry. Plus, the effect of the livestock industry on our waterways and oceans, for which Captain Paul cares so dearly, is disastrous.

I don’t understand “animal people” who say they are not environmentalists. Do they not realize that the vast majority of animals live in the environment? When I see vegan food sold in single-use plastic containers, I get frustrated knowing that plastic is not really recycled; it is down-cycled to less and less reusable grades, and too much of it eventually ends up in the ocean—where it kills animals. Caring for animals means caring for the environment they live in, and vice versa.

BT: We imagine that dealing with animal rights issues, which are often animal cruelty issues, would take an emotional toll. What do you do to help with the burden?

KD: I do a lot of spiritual reading; Byron Katie is one of my favorites. And I practice yoga a few times a week. Mostly, I make sure to stay keenly aware of my own shortcomings so that I am more patient with others. It can be hard to see a friend order a cow-milk latte when almond or soy milk is available, knowing that the friend knows what dairy cows go through, how they mourn their babies, who have been carted off to veal crates so that we can steal their milk.

But giving into anger destroys the soul. Instead, I try to remember, for example, that I bought a cheap shirt that morning, made in China, which may have been produced under terrible circumstances akin to slavery. Because I am all too human, I don’t always do the right thing, so how can I expect others to perform perfectly on the issues that are my top priority? I don’t mean that we shouldn’t try to do our best, but judgment and recrimination are such heavy weights. I find that accepting that we are all fallible lightens my load.

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PHOTO: MATT WASHIL

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