Vegans Aren’t Funny
It’s a Bizarro World!
The Satya Interview with Dan Piraro and Ashley
|Dan Piraro and Ashley Lou Smith. Photo by Kevin Lysaght
Weaving through the New York City streets on their vintage Vespa scooter,
with colorful vegan and abolition themed tattoos on their bodies, Dan
Piraro and Ashley Lou Smith bust all sorts of myths. Most importantly,
beyond being articulate, attractive and humorous, Dan and Ashley show
that being an animal activist can include style, creativity and intelligence.
Dan Piraro is the mastermind behind the popular syndicated cartoon
in newspapers across the country, as well as in Satya’s pages. With jokes
about fur, circuses, vivisection, fishing and farmed animals, Bizarro is bringing
animal issues to the daily papers. In his newest book, Bizarro and Other
Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro (Abrams), an illustrated retrospective
of Dan’s work, you’ll notice his art has gotten more political, with
a greater focus on animal rights and the environment in recent years. This has
earned him accolades and awards, including multiple plaques from the prestigious
A major influence on Dan’s work is his wife Ashley Lou Smith, previously
a freelance activist for Farm Sanctuary, PETA, COK and HSUS. She currently teaches
humane education classes to public school students in New York, and spends much
of her time touring the country with Dan, as he gives presentations and stand-up
comedy routines at various venues, or at Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, where
she and Dan are founding board members.
Dan and Ashley’s Brooklyn home serves as a way station for rescued animals
they help along an underground railroad to new homes or farm animal sanctuaries.
Catherine Clyne spent an evening with Dan Piraro and Ashley
Lou Smith, talking
about their vegan awakenings, love, cartoons, and what it’s like being
Today, at this moment, what kinds of nonhuman critters do you share your home
Ashley Smith: Right now, just three cats. We just took a chicken to Woodstock
Farm Animal Sanctuary.
Where’d the chicken come from?
AS: This is so bizarre—from St. Mark’s Church [in the East Village].
We had gotten a baby kitty from a situation and needed to find a home. So I called
our friend Robert Shapiro, at Social Tees, and he says he just got a chicken.
So we traded: he found a home for the kitten and I found a home for the chicken.
She was this sweet black hen. But the question remains: what the heck was she
doing at St. Mark’s Church? That’s a city location, there’s
no live markets around there.
Dan Piraro: She was a black chicken. I suspect she was posing as a nun to avoid
AS: She didn’t have a white habit. [Laughter.] She was very sweet, and
I do love the chickens! But they’re a pain in the butt. It’s a lot
DP: They’re smart. They have different personalities, which when we first
started fostering chickens was the biggest surprise to me—how different
they all are. Some are just so sweet and responsive, affectionate and articulate.
They really make their desires known. They are [however,] indiscriminate excreters.
If they didn’t walk around excreting this explosive white combination of
urine and shit [laughter] all the time, they would really make fabulous house
For those who are thinking, “Farmed animals in NYC? What the heck are you
talking about?” This is the opportunity to dispel that myth. Where are
all these farmed animals coming from?
AS: Well, we have a ton of live markets, which sell mainly poultry, ducks and
geese. But they also sell bunnies and lambs. There’s also a slew of slaughterhouses
in Brooklyn and Manhattan. In Chinatown, there are places where you can go and
witness the slaughtering of your dinner.
DP: At any given moment, in the city limits of New York, there are thousands
of farm animals: at live markets; in the homes of people who don’t realize
you can’t raise them in your basement or on your roof; people who collect
them as pets; there’s a Jewish faction that uses them for a ceremony once
a year—there’s any number of reasons for these animals to be in New
York City. They escape in various ways and end up at our house.
AS: We’re part of an underground railroad sort of thing: you get the phone
call, a knock on the door at midnight from an undisclosed person, a cardboard
box carrying chickens, bunnies, the lamb whose mother died.
What do each of you think is the most effective way of getting a vegan/AR message
across to people?
AS: Tattoos! [Laughter.]
DP: I don’t know if there is a most effective way. All people are different.
Some people are most impressed by example: they see somebody they like who believes
in animal rights and they look into it. Other people, like myself, are impressed
by facts and logic. When I was a meat-eater, I met any number of vegetarians
and vegans, but none of them particularly impressed me. Nobody sat me down and
talked to me about it. Once that happened, once somebody said, ‘Look, this
is where your food comes from, it’s called a factory farm. Here’s
what happens on a factory farm…’ Then, when I actually met these
animals and saw that their mentality was no different than a cat or dog or small
child, the facts, combined with the logic of ‘this is what’s happening
to these animals’—that was enough.
|Tattoo Artwork. Above: Liberation; Below:
Unlucky Rooster. Artwork by Dan Piraro
I suspect that beating people
over the head with facts when they’re not
ready for it doesn’t work. Encouraging people to think for themselves,
couching the argument with terms like, “I think you’d be surprised…I
used to think that too…A lot of people wonder about that…That’s
a really good question.” Those kinds of expressions when talking to somebody
go a whole lot further than “Oh yeah? Well do you have any idea where your…”
[Cat motions hitting with a blunt object.] You’re wrong! [Laughter.]
DP: Yeah—bam! You have to swallow your passion to do
AS: You have to. [I do] humane education, with [Farm Sanctuary’s] Carol
Moon and I’ve been doing a lot of high school classes recently. It’s
sort of hard to tell the best strategy with them. Video footage is really powerful.
You mean showing the misery of animal abuse? Do the kids respond to that?
AS: They respond to it immensely. You have an hour per class
and you talk and try to deliver the message. But when you hit play everybody
pay attention, they start to cry, they start to wince.
DP: I think it’s fair to say that children and adolescents
are closer to their emotions than adults are. The video evidence of suffering
is not something
they can bury in rationalization as easily as an adult can.
So Ashley, what made you go vegan?
AS: Well, I was 12 years old when I heard the word vegetarian.
I asked, ‘What’s
that?’ and they said, ‘It’s somebody who doesn’t eat
animals.’ And I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! There’s
people that don’t eat animals? And they can get out of bed and function?’ So
I came home from school and said, ‘Dad, I’m a veg-e-tarian—am
I saying it right?’ [Laughter.] And he said, ‘Well, you weren’t
when you left the house this morning and your dinner is in the oven.’ He
put a steak on my plate and I took a bite, chewed it, I think swallowed it, and
I just said, ‘That’s it, I’m done. I don’t want to do
this anymore.’ And he called my mom… [Laughter.]
Yet the vegan thing… it was [partially] River Phoenix, a popular movie
star—he was vegan. I thought, ‘Oh shit! He is so hot and he’s
vegan—wow. I have to look into this.’ Then in college, I was living
in Gainesville, Florida, and I was very sick. Nobody knew why—the doctors
couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I started reading books about
vegetarianism and nutrition and something clicked—dairy products are not
all that good for you. And I put it together, ‘Oh my god, are those cows
really suffering that badly—for milk?’ I thought, ‘This is
crazy—I can’t do this!’ I thought I loved animals, and yet
I had been buying milk. So I just went vegan. No press release, no notifications
went to the family, nothing.
And Dan, what about you?
DP: It took me until my mid-30s before I began to get a sense
of my connection to the planet, other animals, the environment and the universe,
the way Ashley
seems to innately have as a child. Everyone who knows Ashley describes her
as wise beyond her years. I was sympathetic to animals as a kid, but I was
able to easily rationalize eating them. And Ashley just flat couldn’t.
She was like, ‘If you like an animal, why do you want to murder it?’ But
Ashley knew I had potential. She led by example and of course information was
available to me. She had all the pamphlets, magazines and brochures. Then,
when we went to Farm Sanctuary, I put it all together.
Critter-wise, did you meet someone specific or was it just cumulative?
DP: Arbuckle was the one that really did it for me. He was
a blind cow. I was always compassionate to animals, [but] I was just rationalizing
my food source.
I rarely ate beef—I mostly ate just chicken and turkey. I thought that
chickens and cows were just these stupid eating machines, no smarter than insects,
who didn’t care or know if they were alive or dead. I didn’t know
anything about factory farming. I thought they lived outdoors in the sunshine
and were killed quickly and mercifully and that was the natural way of things.
Arbuckle was the defining moment. He was blind because he had been abused and
neglected. He had this amazing personality, he was affectionate, he tried to
get me to pet him like a dog would, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is
not a dumb animal!’ And still, to this day, I feel a little pressure
in my eyes, when I talk about Arbuckle. I get teary, I do. He was the one who
me that I had just been wrong.
Ashley, when you met Dan, he wasn’t vegetarian or particularly
Did you see a prospective convert, or did love just blindside you?
AS: I think love blindsided me and love was able to blindside
me because there was something about Dan that was so clearly accessible, compassionate.
was a very short period—we married in the spring and by summer, we went
up to Farm Sanctuary. I wasn’t even thinking that the sanctuary was going
to be the moment or place that was going to click—I had no idea. I mean,
you read the literature and meet the animals at the same time—you put it
together. That’s the beauty of any sanctuary.
DP: That was what it was: reading the literature and meeting the animals on the
same day. And it just hit me: this is wrong! That was what it took.
In conversations or public talks, how do you get back to that place with meat-eaters?
AS: Well, dammit, it’s hard.
DP: When I do talks I always make this assumption: the meat-eaters
in the audience are not necessarily much different than I was five years ago.
I always try to
couch things in those terms. I start out by telling people, I’m a vegan
and an animal rights activist and if somebody had told me five years ago that
I’d be standing here today, telling you I’m a vegan and an animal
rights activist, I would have laughed in their face—and then I would
have covered them in barbecue sauce and eaten them. Because I was raised a
meat-eater. But then I learned some stuff. Then I go from there.
Switching gears a little, you two have increasingly been rubbing elbows with
celebrities and befriended some. In your opinion, should animal rights activists
foster relationships with celebrities? What kind of power do they have, if any?
DP: I think human beings are probably like all primates. It’s just a part
of human nature to want to be like the leader. And the leader can be a politician,
a musician, an artist or rock star—or a silverback. This is what primates
do. They’re group animals, they live in family groups and they want to
be like the leader. So if the leaders are talking about animal rights and veganism,
they’re more likely to be open to that message. I think that’s an
important connection—it’s a shallow connection—but part of
our innate, primal being.
As a nationally syndicated cartoonist, you have a certain celebrity.
also a growing animal rights celebrity. What do you make of that?
DP: You know, I really like it and it’s utterly unexpected. It’s
the nicest kind of attention because it’s the sort of thing I did not
aim to get and I never even thought about.
I know I’m a really minor celebrity, but people write to me regularly who
say, ‘Love your cartoons, went to your website, saw what you had to say
about veganism, and decided maybe I should look into this.’ Honestly, that’s
purely the power of celebrity. How else would I ever come into contact with
that person, why would they give a shit about what I think?
Dan, over the past few years you’ve been growing increasingly radical in
your Bizarro cartoons in these different areas—animals, the environment,
social justice, politics and veganism. And those things that are just too radical,
you put into books. Bizarro started off as a funny, surreal way of looking at
the world. Where are you going with this radical politics, animal, environmental,
social justice stuff?
DP: That’s a really difficult call to make because Bizarro has traditionally
been a humor strip. It’s not about a point of view, an opinion or political
issues. That said, it is becoming that because I’m not the kind of guy
who can stay quiet. You know, my parents made a point of teaching me as a kid
that if you believe in something, you stand up for it. If you think something
is right, you hold your ground. I authentically believe that’s the way
you live your life.
What are the most controversial cartoons you’ve done? What’s
the most hate mail?
DP: Three topics get a huge amount of hate mail. One is pro-gay rights. I get
a lot of email from the predictable people, typically the right wing Christians.
If I do anything pro-gun control, anti-gun nuts, I get a lot of hate mail from
the NRA. The third is if I take a shot at Fox News, I get it from your right
wing nut bag in general, who believes that Fox News covers the news in a more
fair and balanced way than any other network on the planet.
Your book, Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro,
is surprisingly animal rights and vegan-oriented. One of the things you tend
to harp on, whether people want to hear it or not, is the plight of dairy animals
and egg hens.
DP: That’s right. At Farm Sanctuary, I told Ashley, ‘I want to become
vegan.’ And she says, ‘You don’t want to become vegetarian
first, to try it on?’ and I said, ‘No, are you kidding? The dairy
and egg industries are the worst!’ And that’s what I often tell people
in speeches. If you are compassionate to animals, dairy and eggs are the first
thing you should give up, not the last! They’re suffering more than anyone!
I don’t consider myself any kind of a big celebrity, and I don’t
have anywhere near the impact or power that people in the movies and television
do, but I will say this: whatever my little corner of the world represents, nobody
else on the newspaper comics pages will tell you about the suffering of animals.
And I’m really proud of being that guy.
So tell us about some of your animal rights themed tattoos.
DP: Tattoos actually end up being great ice-breakers, conversation
starters. Guys who want to talk to Ashley in a bar will invariably go, ‘Oh, look
at the rooster there, “Unlucky,” what does that mean?’ and
she gets into the whole thing about how roosters are ground up at the egg farms.
AS: They’re a very good tool! The unlucky rooster is based on the egg industry—all
the little peeps that are thrown away. I’m going to be adding little yellow
peeps all around [the rooster] because I don’t want people to think the
egg industry actually lets these birds grow up into mature adults and then throws
them away. [Laughs.] I also have the chicken flying out of the cage. And a monkey
with “animal liberation” and the broken chain of infinity—people
get to think about that, and the monkey is sort of a representation of all
So, I’m just a billboard. And I’m totally fine with it—please
ask me! You know, like those horrible stickers and T-shirts, ‘Ask me
about my grandchildren.’
Dan, in Bizarro, your symbol for Ashley is a lit stick of dynamite.
DP: To me, it’s really a direct connection. Because
Ashley—well, the stick of dynamite represents to me the ability of one small
thing to change
everything drastically in an instant. Like an explosion.
To learn more and view Dan Piraro’s Bizarro cartoons and
other artwork, visit www.bizarro.com.
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