“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
I believe wholeheartedly in this quote from Martin Luther King Jr., and it guides me in my day-to-day work as the executive director of Animal Place in Grass Valley.
Zelda, a piglet, is responsible for motivating me to start Animal Place sanctuary. At the time, I served as executive director of a Bay Area humane society. Zelda arrived as a stray, and the staff worked to find a home where she would not end up as bacon. I observed Zelda receive wonderful care at the same time that caregivers indulged in ham sandwiches. The powerful connection we have with some animals contrasted starkly to the disconnect we have with other animals.
More than two decades ago, I co-founded Animal Place, a nonprofit sanctuary home to farmed animals rescued from animal agriculture. What started as a small, two-person labor of love is three shelters strong with a dedicated staff of 12. Recently, we rescued 3,000 hens from a traditional California egg farm where hens live in metal cages with no room to spread their wings.
Animal Place promotes compassion toward other animals. We embrace the philosophy that it is unjust to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals for food (meat, dairy, eggs, etc.), clothes (leather, fur), entertainment (elephants at fairs) or vivisection (research). To end the life of an animal for a fleeting taste is, in our view, an unnecessary act. Sadly, there remains a negative connotation regarding what it means to believe in the rights of animals to be treated with respect and dignity.
Why do we believe in the animal rights philosophy? Why do we care as much about dogs as we do about pigs?
The ability to suffer pain or experience joy is not related to the size of a creature. When a cow solves a maze for a food reward and leaps excitedly, her brain waves are the same as a human who has a “eureka” or “a-ha” moment. When a rat steps on an electrically charged lever and is shocked, the same pain receptors that tell us to stop touching a hot stove tell him to move away. Regardless of whether an animal has skin, hair, fur or feathers, each can feel fear and joy.
Last month, many individuals in our area came together in opposition to the Nevada County Fair board approving the use of wild elephants at our local fair. The outpouring of opposition was testimony to the growing support the animal protection movement has. Yet what struck me was the tone used by some who argued that it was unjust to inflict unnecessary suffering on elephants but that the same treatment inflicted on farmed animals was necessary and acceptable (e.g., one person argued that he hated elephant rides but supported the rodeo).
Why? Why is it unacceptable to chain an elephant or a dog but acceptable to chain a male dairy calf in a crate so small he cannot turn around? Why is it unacceptable to consume the flesh of your companion dog but acceptable to roast the flesh of a pig who is equally social and equally able to experience pain and suffering?
For me, cruelty is cruelty. It’s important to name it and to work to redress cruel behaviors. It is unquestionable that the fair board made the wrong decision in allowing the elephant rides after learning of the cruel treatment that the elephants to be displayed at the fair have already received. The board not only failed to call out Have Trunk Will Travel for its treatment of these elephants, but it actually gave cover to it. In so doing, the board lost an opportunity to connect more deeply with the very community that it serves and instead introduced a divisive concern that has rankled many locals, including me and my colleagues.
The lesson to be learned is that we have made progress during the last 30 years in closing the loop on the circle of compassion, but there is more work to be done.
Kim Sturla is the executive director of Animal Place in Grass Valley and co-founded the sanctuary in 1989. For information, visit http://animalplace.org.