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August 2006
Myth: Vegans Aren’t Funny

It’s a Bizarro World!
The Satya Interview with Dan Piraro and Ashley Lou Smith


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 Bizarro, featured 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 Strange 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 Genesis Awards.

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 animal billboards.

Today, at this moment, what kinds of nonhuman critters do you share your home with?
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 being eaten.

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 of work.

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 pets!

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 it.

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 shuts up—they 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 still 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 showed me that I had just been wrong.

Ashley, when you met Dan, he wasn’t vegetarian or particularly AR-friendly. 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. And that 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 guiltless 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. But you’re 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 generated 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 creatures.

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. What’s that about?
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

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