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April 2006
Confessions of a Sensitive Activist
By Mark Hawthorne


I could not bear the thought of these hens dying without knowing at least a tiny bit of kindness in their brief lives, so I filled a small container with bottled water and then carefully cradled each hen in turn, making sure each drank a little. One turned her head slightly to look up at me, her eyes adjusting to the unfamiliar light. I wept as I held them, and I weep for them still. I weep at the senseless pain they had to suffer, and I weep in shame at my membership in a species that visits this misery upon defenseless souls.

Those words did not come easy for me. Written in August of 2005, only hours after I had participated in the rescue of hundreds of hens from a battery-egg farm, they still summon the haunting sights and smells of an avian nightmare. The rows of birds crammed into wire cages, coupled with the eye-burning stench of ammonia, will linger with me as long as my memory remains intact. Sometimes I dream I am one of the 158,200 hens we could not save, unable to stretch my wings, looking out through a wire barrier, crying out for help with every labored breath. But no one comes to help me.

I must admit I did not initially venture into animal activism with gusto. Actually, it scared the hell out of me. I already knew from three months in India—a beautiful land with profound poverty and woefully inadequate healthcare—what awaited my sensitive nature if I learned much about modern animal agriculture. The sorrow I experienced seeing the suffering of others went beyond empathy somehow, dipping low into a deep well of vulnerability that left me feeling utterly alone. But, the enslavement and slaughtering of animals seemed so much worse to me: an insidious misuse of power over another species simply to provide us a fleeting gustatory pleasure. Although I enthusiastically embraced veganism after 10 years as a vegetarian, I never thought I would one day be actively engaged in the struggle to liberate animals and raise the public’s awareness about factory farming. Yet, now this crusade consumes me, even if I can barely look at the harrowing slaughterhouse images in the Vegan Outreach pamphlets I hand out.

Like so many people, I had existed in a state of selective ignorance about the animals I ate. In my youth, I knew the meat on my plate represented pain, but I did not want to confront the consequences that a greater insight would surely engender. Conspiring with that moral languor was my acceptance of the popular Top-of-the-Food-Chain/Survival-of-the-Fittest/Humans-Are-Carnivores myth. Early in my gradual deliverance into culpability, I recalled going fishing with my family. I had caught a fish—a beautiful rainbow trout—and cried like a 10 year-old (all right, I was 10). Why is it that I could not bear to eat the fish I had caught, yet I would go on to eat meat for another 20 years? Again, like many people, I placed the act of killing animals and the act of consuming them into two separate ethical vessels. Yes, I agreed that cruelty to animals was morally objectionable, but no, I did not think eating them was wrong. Even highly sensitive people can be selfish.

Eventually, compassion prevailed, and I was no longer held back by habit and the false premise that meat, eggs and dairy products are necessary or even good for human health. The more I learned about the horrors of animal agriculture and the damage it is doing to the land, water and air, the more I was inspired to do something about it. If bearing some pain as a sensitive activist could help mitigate the unimaginable cruelties animals endure every second, I was prepared to bring it on.

“ Sensitive activist” sounds redundant, doesn’t it? Clearly, an animal activist is going to be emotionally sensitive; after all, the animal rights movement attracts some of the most compassionate people in the world. These are people who cannot abide the merciless injustices they see, and many are willing to go to jail, or to their deaths, if it means even a slight advance in the fight against animal oppression. What amazes me is how these people manage to participate in rescues and investigations and still seem happy. I count among my heroes Gene Bauston, Christine Morrissey, Lauren Ornelas, Miyun Park, Paul Shapiro and Kim Sturla. I am in awe of these activists and so many others. I worked beside Kim and Christine in the hen rescue, for example, and they were so composed; they were sensitive to the hens’ suffering but focused enough to continue without hesitation. Me? Every step I took inside that shed, every de-beaked face I saw, every feces-covered bird I held in my hands added another layer of psychic bruising that will likely never heal.

Still, I do not want to stop. I cannot stop. Being vegan is not enough for me. Perhaps I am not as effective as my heroes, but I must keep active. The fabric of my life is now woven with the knowledge I have gained not only about industrial farming, but the mass murder of seals, vivisection, product testing, rodeos, zoos, fur, leather and all the other animal abuse, and I cannot remain on the sidelines while others do all the work. Nothing is more critical to the future of this planet than dismantling the vast edifice of animal exploitation. It will not simply go away if caring people stand idly by.

But I confess I am not the best activist I can be. I do not criticize meat-eaters gladly, I’m afraid. This became especially evident last year after I had engaged in an open rescue with Christine, whose organization East Bay Animal Advocates documents conditions in factory farms and rescues confined animals. Early one spring morning, Christine and I liberated four “broiler” chickens from a huge grow-out shed. It was an intensely powerful experience for me. Some weeks later I attended a dinner party where I knew dead animals would be served. I wore an animal rights button on my jacket and tried to fit in while the host prepared dinner. The main course was, naturally, a baked chicken. This was more than I could stand. Still struggling with the memory of thousands of birds, I had to leave the party. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, and you’re right: I passed up a wonderful opportunity. People at gatherings always ask me why I’m not eating meat; I might have had the chance to engage and gently share firsthand knowledge of how that dead chicken was raised. (The line between answering a question and spoiling a social event is narrow indeed.) At the very least I could have shown the other guests that being vegan doesn’t mean you’re a recluse. Instead, I let my emotions get the best of me, and I bailed. Nobody won that night, least of all any chickens.

Shortly after the battery hen rescue in August, an art therapist offered me some advice. She recommended I take a box, a receptacle for all the pain I experienced on behalf of animals, and decorate it. I found a wooden box that once held sake cups and painted all but the bottom with farmed animals. When I am hurting, the therapist said, I should create something—a poem, a sketch, a carving, anything that speaks to me in that moment of anguish—to represent the emotional thrashing my spirit is taking, then place it in the special box. The grief then resides in the box and is (in theory) no longer within me. My special box is the centerpiece of the altar in my bedroom. Somehow, just seeing this object with its brightly colored chicken, goat, pig, cow and rabbit gives me a little comfort. That could be one reason the box has remained empty.

In the end, though, I have no real solace—no haven in which I can forget even for a moment the 10 billion land animals who are abused and slaughtered each year in this country. I have the support of fellow activists—friends who, to some degree, understand the pain, and I am deeply grateful for them. But ultimately, I am on my own with no safe place. Just like all the hens I could not save.

Mark Hawthorne is a contributing writer for


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