Compassion to New Levels
The Satya Interview with Paul
Paul Shapiro is
the founder and campaigns manager of Compassion Over Killing (COK),
a Washington, DC-based animal rights group. In April of this year,
organization received an anonymous tip that animal cruelty was routine
at the (ironically named) International Standard of Excellence-America
(ISE- America), a major egg supplier. COKs request for a tour
of its facility in Cecilton, Maryland went unanswered. As a result,
members of COK investigated the farm on their own, documenting what
they witnessed and the actions they took, which included rescuing eight
injured hens. They compiled video footage into a documentary, Hope
for the Hopeless. Catherine Clyne recently talked with Shapiro
about the groups campaigns and the ISE investigation.
Tell us about Compassion Over Killingwhen was it founded and
COK was founded in 1995 because although there were many national
animal rights organizations in the Washington, DC area, there wasnt
much of a grassroots presence. We wanted to harness the energy of all
of the volunteers for the major nationals in the area and try to create
a local community of resistance to animal exploitation.
What is the message behind the name Compassion Over Killing?
The name Compassion Over Killing suggests that in many
aspects of our daily lives we often need to choose between compassion
and killing. For example, when we sit down to a meal, we have the choice:
do we want to support killing and misery by buying a meal that was
from animal exploitation; or do we want to be compassionate and gentle
toward other animals and choose a vegan meal?
The same is true with the entertainment that we support, whether were
going to support the killing of animals through sport hunting or rodeos
(which are oftentimes lethal to the animals); or are we going to choose
entertainment that doesnt harm or exploit anyonehuman or
Tell us about some of COKs current campaigns.
COK is working on several. The main campaign is intended to promote
veganism, which we do in several ways. We conduct what we call feed-ins,
where we distribute free vegan burgers and other food in front of fast-food
places, like McDonalds, Burger King or Wendys, along with
vegan recipes and literature. We also have a TV on hand to show slaughterhouse
and factory farm footage to let people know where the animals who we
eat are coming from.
The point behind a feed-in is to give people a positive, non-confrontational
interaction with animal rights activists, so they come away feeling
as if veganism isnt that intimidating; its something they
can actually do. They see that there are vegan versions of the foods
that they love and that taste just like them; they see that its
actually not that difficult to give up those foods since they dont
have to give up their tastes.
Every Sunday on the National Mall we erect a factory farming exhibit
where we try to expose the reality of modern-day animal agri-business.
Most people in this country live under the myth that the animals who
are raised for us to eat live in idyllic scenessuch as pigs cooling
themselves in mud baths or chickens strutting through barnyardswhen,
in fact, the opposite is true. The animal agri-business industry has
desperately tried to preserve these images of happy cows, happy pigs
and happy chickens in the American mind-set; however, more and more
people are coming to realize that factory farming is the norm today.
With the exhibit we show exactly what the standard practices are for
raising pigs, fowl and cattle by the industries that abuse them. We
use photographs and videos to show battery cages, crates restraining
sows while they give birth, and veal crates, we show debeaking, dehorning
and castration. There are also friendly volunteers and staffers at the
exhibit who engage in one-on-one conversations with visitors and answer
peoples questions and concerns about vegetarianism or animal
rights. They also give them free vegetarian starter kits, recipes and
The Mall exhibit has proven to be a huge success, with over 500 people
visiting it every single Sunday.
COK also has a Faunavision van with large video screens and electronic
captions, which was donated by Faunavision [see Satya, August 2000].
Every Friday night the van drives through highly populated areas in
DC, like Georgetown or Adams Morgan, exposing the reality of animal
abuse with video footage; volunteers walk alongside the van handing
out literature and answering questions.
Our restaurant outreach campaign persuades DC-area restaurants to advertise
the fact that they serve vegan meals. Weve created window decals
that say Proud to Serve Vegan MealsVegDC.com. So far,
weve gotten over 20 restaurants to put them in their front windows.
Were hoping to create a climate where restaurants will see serving
vegan food as a business advantage and will want to advertise that they
do. There is a pretty large vegan demand in DC and restaurants are taking
notice of this. We also give them booklets that weve created,
offering simple suggestions on ways to make more of their dishes vegan,
like making their bread vegan or using oil instead of butter.
We also promote veganism with our Web site, www.VegDC.com. Although
many people may feel that going vegetarian is the morally correct thing
to do, they may think that its too inconvenient to even try.
VegDC.com tries to show people just how easy it is: for example, you
a neighborhood and see which of its restaurants cater to vegans or
vegetarians, and there are reviews with suggestions on how to make
your dining there
as convenient as possible.
With the feed-ins, whats the typical response you get? Do
some people see it as a confrontation?
Very few people have ever expressed to us that they were being
confronted in a hostile manner. Most people are just happy to get the
You know, fast-food is cheap, but it isnt free. When we do feed-ins,
we make sure that all of the volunteers are extremely friendly and cordial
so that people dont feel alienated and wont feel as if
they are being negatively confronted.
How do social justice issues, such as racism, feminism and gay rights,
tie into the work that you do?
Basically, COK believes that animal exploitation is a symptom of
speciesism, which is just like racism, sexism or homophobia. Privileged
groups that are in power generally come up with arbitrary reasons for
being prejudiced against those who arent in their group. This
type of prejudice enables human beings to think we are superior to other
animalstheyre not as smart, as rational, or as creative
as we are. COK would argue that none of these attributes are relevant
to the moral status of an individualhuman or nonhuman. What really
matters is whether or not an individual can suffer. Women suffer, black
people suffer, gay people suffer, animals suffer. And because of that
common link between usthat our lives matter to each of uswe
ought to be treated with respect; and that goes for any group which
has been disenfranchised for arbitrary reasons and is suffering a similar
type of oppression. We would hope that our work fits into a larger
justice scheme than just animal rights.
Do you do outreach to groups with common interests, like environmentalists?
Being an animal rights activist, to us, is virtually synonymous
to being an environmentalist. Anybody who cares about animals has to
care about the environment because animals live in the environment.
We try to build bridges and offer solidarity to other social justice
movements and hope that they dont view animal rights as something
that is foreign to their struggle. As is so often the case with human-based
social justice issues, the connection isnt necessarily made that
animals are an oppressed group as wellin fact, they are probably
more oppressed than most human groups.
What compelled you and other COK members to take matters into your
own hands with the International Standard of Excellence-America (ISE)
We received an anonymous tip that animal cruelty was happening
on this egg farm so we requested a tour from ISE but they never got
to us. We figured wed go in and take a look ourselves if they
werent going to have the courtesy to get back to us. We initially
hoped it was going to be just documentation, but as we went in there
we quickly discovered that we were going to have to provide on-site
assistance. We found hens who were immobilized in their cages, hens
with no access to food or water, and we found dead hens in cages with
live hens. We realized that this was not going to be something where
wed just be videotaping and photographing but that we had to
help those hens.
We also realized that it really needed to be brought to the attention
of the authorities. We contacted the states attorney and the sheriff
of the local police department and, as we expected, the authorities
were unresponsive. Because we exhausted all of the legal means to address
this problem, we felt that it was necessary that we take the action
ourselves. If the authorities werent going to protect these animals,
we were going to have to. Albeit we couldnt protect all 800,000
of them, we were able to find homes for eight of them and figured eight
lives will be dramatically altered, going from misery to freedom in
a matter of hours.
What is an open rescue and where does the idea come
When animal activists rescue animals from places of exploitation,
they normally go to great lengths to conceal their identities: they
wear ski masks, they dont videotape themselves or if they do,
they make sure that there are no defining characteristics about them
that are shown. The idea behind an open rescue is the exact opposite.
The idea is to conduct an investigation and exhaust your legal means
of redress and then rescue the animals completely openly, meaning no
masks. You videotape yourselves doing it, you take full responsibility
for the fact that you did it and you openly publicize the fact that
you did it. Patty Mark and the Action Animal Rescue Team in Australia
[see www.upc-online.org/aart/] have been doing these types of rescues
for nearly 20 years.
In the U.S., the first group to do it was Compassionate Action for Animals
in Minnesota this past January [see www.ca4a.org],
and then COK became the second group to do it this past May. Both groups
were inspired to do that type of work by meeting Patty Mark.
We found that these rescues generate extremely positive media coverage
because were not painted as so-called terrorists with ski masks
or somebody whos ashamed to admit what theyve done. Were
painted as individuals of conscience who saw cruelty, tried to have
it fixed by the authorities and then had to act because there was nothing
else to do. And because were openly admitting that we did this,
the public reaction is much more sympathetic. Another advantage of open
rescues is that because there is no property destruction, the issue
isnt muddled by the press. The issue stays on the fact that there
is animal cruelty going on and that the animals are suffering. The issue
isnt, Should they have broken property? Are they terrorists?
Can we condone these types of tactics? Should we treat them like ordinary
criminals, or like political prisoners?nothing like that
at all. Theres little focus on the activists, which is really
what we need to be doingnot trying to get media attention for
ourselves but for the plight of animals, and exposing the realities
that animals are treated as mere commodities in this country.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from other animal activists
about this kind of strategy?
Everyone in the movement who weve talked to has been extremely
excited by the media attention that was generated by the rescue and
investigation. It was covered by the Washington Post, USA Today, United
Press International, Associated Press, the Tacoma Voice, the Animals
Agenda, and Baltimores Fox and CBS affiliates.
What went through your mind when you first entered one of the battery
farm sheds? How did you feel in the presence of so much suffering?
It was a really unprecedented feeling, to walk into a shed which
is pitch black and the first thing you notice is the stench. The stench
just assaults your nostrils. You can imagine each shed having 92,000
birds, all of them defecatingthe stench is so bad that gas masks
hang on the wall for workers to use. Unfortunately, the animals dont
receive any such reprieve.
But as soon as you turn on your headlight, the enormity of the facility
really hits you, just to know that there is tremendous suffering all
around you and there is virtually nothing that you can do to relieve
that suffering. When we started looking more closely into the cages
and seeing that there were many dead hens, hens with cysts and tumors
and broken bones and entangled in the wires of their cages
what I would describe as hell on Earth. I cant think of anything
crueler than to put an animal into a battery cage like that for one
to two years. It is horrible to try to empathize with those birds.
I feel that because of my privilege of being born a human, I have the
power to go in and document whats going on and try to expose it;
to show the public where the notion of animals as mere resources has
led usto something where we consider the interest of animals
of such minimal importance that we can keep them tightly confined,
all of their natural instincts just so we can have cheap eggs. It was
really a sickening experience and I would say that the predominating
feeling that I had during the time was of shame, of shame for being
human, ashamed of our species for having the arrogance to treat other
living, feeling beings like that.
How did that experience affect your vegan ethics and how do you feel
when you see someone eating an egg now? Has anything changed?
I dont think that anything in my mind regarding how we ought to
act toward non-vegans has changed. I dont think that its
made me any angrier toward non-vegans. It makes me angrier at myself
for not doing a good enough job. When I see people eating eggs I wonder
where the movement has gone wrong that people are still doing this;
and being a part of the movement, it makes me question whether I personally
am doing enough. Having witnessed the suffering of factory-farmed animals,
first-hand, has increased my resolve to make my life a living struggle
for animal liberation. I think that the most important thing that I
can do, after having witnessed something like that, is to continue
endlessly for a time when human beings will be more gentle and more
compassionate toward those around us.
Where does this campaign go from here?
Thats a good question. Unfortunately the answer is that we
really arent sure. There was a lot of media attention and we want
to continue distributing the documentary so that more and more people
will see it. The numbers of calls and e-mails weve gotten from
people who have seen Hope for the Hopeless and no longer
eat eggssome of them have actually gone vegan because of ithas
been really inspiring.
In terms of ISE, we arent going to pursue a campaign specifically
against them because ISE is the run-of-the-mill factory farmthey
dont treat chickens any worse or better than any other factory
farm does for the most part. So were running an anti-egg campaign.
This past June, we called on Governor Parris Glendening of Maryland,
to ban battery cages in the state and were going to continue calling
on him to do that. Aside from those options, we are still figuring out
what our next move is going to be. Were hoping that the work we
did in that factory farm will live on and continue to influence peoples
purchasing habits. What we do know for certain is that COK will continue
to expose the injustices committed by factory farms in every way that
we possibly can.
To learn more about Compassion Over Killing, visit
www.cok-online.org or call 301-891-2458. To see the full report
of the ISE investigation, see www.ISECruelty.com.
To order a copy of Hope for the Hopeless, send $10 to:
Compassion Over Killing, P.O. Box 9773, Washington, DC 20016.