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June/July 2007
A-ha! Moments that Changed My Life
By Teresa D’Amico


The Early Seeds
I remember a trip to the Central Park Zoo one hot summer’s day when I was about eight or nine years old. (I should mention this was some years ago, when the zoo’s even smaller, barren cages made it a true hellhole for the animals.) My older sister and I were enjoying the polar bears, who were trying to escape the heat by playing in their small pool of water. That evening the local news reported that a teenager had put his arm in the polar bear cage; one of the bears grabbed it, wouldn’t let go, and was shot to death by a policeman. I was horrified and cried for the injustice to that bear. Many people felt as I did and a memorial was created at the bears’ cage to which I added my own poem. The seeds of activism were being planted.

I would say there were many moments leading up to the “a-ha!” that set me on the path to animal rights. I grew up loving animals and much of my early life was filled with fantasies about me among animals. I wrote stories for school about it. At one point, I had over 150 stuffed animals and made up extravagant games with them when I was home sick (orchestra was a favorite; penguins conducted of course). I read every word of my family’s encyclopedia of mammals and dreamed of traveling to exotic jungles.

Reading Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man in my late teens was definitely a turning point in my life. And years later, another woman and her book, Cynthia Moss’ Elephant Memories, similarly affected me. At the time, I was doing volunteer work in the Los Angeles area at Tippi Hedren’s Shambala Wildlife Preserve. Two African elephants lived at the preserve then, and I witnessed in them many of the emotions Moss described in her “study elephants” in Africa. It was at this time in my life that I became involved with the animal rights movement.

Nevertheless, it took many years for me to hit what I believe is the crucial a-ha! moment, when I became vegan. That result came about quickly, with my first experience at the annual animal rights conference in Washington, DC. A combination of inspiring words and horrific visual images finally, profoundly changed my life forever. That is why, with all the criticism aimed at the various conferences over the years, I will always support them because that a-ha! moment occurs for many people as a result of what they hear and see there, perhaps for the first time. I think I would have made the leap to veganism much sooner had I attended such a conference in the earlier years of my activism.

Taking Action
It also happened that at the time I attended this first conference, I had located to a rural environment for the first time in my life, the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Although my activism was bred in New York City and blossomed in Los Angeles, it was Pennsylvania that made me a warrior. Hunting. Chained dogs. Pigeon shoots. Roadkill. Lack of vegetarian food! Every day I seemed to face another instance of cruelty or indifference to animals. I found the one or two other animal rights activists in the area and channeled my increasing anger into increasing activism. My friend Lynn Manheim and I, with the help of other activists, organized vegetarian potlucks, demonstrations against circuses, rodeos and fur, and publicized them to the media.

One good thing about living in a rural area—the media is always starved for a good story. I even had a TV camera crew at my house one Thanksgiving filming me cooking a vegan dish for a potluck which was the featured story on the evening news. My letters to the editor were published so often that I eventually got my own op-ed column in one of the local papers. Needless to say, I also received a lot of angry letters, which I considered a badge of honor.

Inspiring Action
All this subsequently brought me to some of my proudest moments. After all the years of being inspired by others, I learned that I was also a cause for inspiration. We can’t all be Jane Goodalls but even if we help to change one person’s life we are helping change so many more. One of those people for me was Jan Fredericks. Jan was courageously helping to ease the lives of chained dogs in the area and was angry that the church wasn’t more involved in helping animals. I encouraged her to get involved in the movement and go vegan. She not only got involved, she ran with it and started her own organization, God’s Creatures Ministry, through which she has helped change the lives of many others.

You don’t have to work for an animal rights group to help someone else achieve that a-ha! moment. Through living example, people around you have no choice but to somehow question choices they may never have thought about. Whether it’s wearing a “No Fur” button, eating a delicious vegan meal in the office lunch room, or taking to the streets to fight for the rights of those that cannot speak for themselves, someone somewhere will look and ask, why?

I thank Satya for the wonderful job they have done over the years, and I am sure the this magazine has empowered many people on their way to the a-ha! moments this issue celebrates. We will all miss this valuable tool for change.

Teresa D’Amico is a longtime animal activist who lives in New York City with her two beloved companion cats.