Content notes: descriptions of animal suffering, activist trauma, mention of abuse and sexual assault.
The intersection of animal liberation and disability has overshadowed almost everything else in my realm of experience. It overshadows my queer and trans identities, my poverty and class struggle, my anti-racist and consent activism, and the mass action black blocs and tiny street marches I’ve participated in. Animal liberation opened the gates to my radical worldview, despite its hostile reception in local radical circles. The horrors of animal exploitation coupled with the massive- often intentional- ignorance of how vast it is have exacerbated my lifelong chronic health struggles and have caused new health struggles to emerge. When I saw the call for this zine, I felt an electric rush through my entire body, some mixture of triggered despair and absolute happiness of feeling met by its existence.
An anti-authoritarian proponent of animal liberation, I’m torn between worlds: the non-radical white middle-to-upper class cis gender hetero vegans who use racism, classism, and misogyny to promote animal campaigns, and radicals and anarchists willing to put their bodies on the line to combat (some) human oppression, but often dismiss or even ridicule struggles for nonhuman animals. I have undoubtedly made mistakes in trying to bridge these divides. Daily, I watch both sides ignore crucial intersections, knowing in my heart that our treatment of nonhuman animals is deeply connected to our human oppressions.
PTSD ranks among my other physical and mental health conditions. I developed chronic pain and fibromyalgia early in life, no doubt related to a lifelong parade of trauma: PTSD from rape, intimate partner abuse, a life of former drug addiction and everything that entails, and experiences with animal liberation activism. There is a difference between my PTSD from events happening directly to me and my body vs. my PTSD from witnessing damage to the bodies of others. I’ve cradled animals in my hands, who were dying from human cruelty and neglect, and I have held animals in my hands who experienced safety and love through rescue. Unfortunately, the latter has been less frequent than the former.
The decline in my health rendered me incapable of contributing much to anything. I know a huge factor is that I couldn’t stop. I used to torture myself. Every time I wanted to quit or take a break I reminded myself that “animals never get a break,” so I had to keep going. I watched every undercover video, followed every story. I had no social life. Dealing with bipolar disorder and traumatic disorders since I was a kid shaped how I handled these experiences and how I reacted to them. I worked, organized, sometimes ate, rarely slept. That was my life. Two experiences stick out as precipitating my downfall.
I participated in a rescue that came out of a massive animal hoarding “shelter” situation paired with multi-state corruption. An undercover investigator had gone to several state and private shelters asking for help to shut this place down. No one would. I was on the steering committee of a small animal rights group (doing the work of a large one) and when we tried to discover why, we found many of these shelters had been sending animals to this hoarding facility. We found falsified veterinary and intake records, “inspections” that showed no problems, evidence of rescues in other states shipping animals to this facility, and we even had the head of a non-local animal rights group come out in support of the place because it was “no kill,” despite an investigator from his own organization warning about the place years earlier. It was even rumored this facility sold animals to laboratories. Finally, we found an in-state organization willing to take the case, but they only sent enough people for the original rescue and understaffed the aftermath. I was working full time at my day job while pulling 12 hour shifts plus 2 hour drives on the weekends while other volunteers worked around the clock trying to help the hundreds of surviving animals. Animals’ eyes were falling out of their heads and sometimes their skin would tear off when you picked them up. Hundreds cried out in pain around me but I could only get to one at a time. Many died in their own filth before I could get to them, no matter how fast I tried to go. The stench alone was unbearable. I would come home and strip down in the basement, terrified I would carry the systemic calicivirus home with me on my clothes and infect my own animals. I would hear and see cats running through the house who weren’t there. I would obsessively check my own rescue animals for signs of the virus. I couldn’t get the smell out of my nostrils. I couldn’t get the memories of their cries out of my mind. All the while a media campaign vilified the evil “animal rights activists” for shutting down a sweet lady’s nice cat “rescue.” Half of the animals survived, miraculous considering the illnesses they suffered. I stopped pulling volunteer shifts when my health wouldn’t allow it any longer and hated myself every day for it. How could I abandon them? I split off from the organization entirely when it became more about prison than about the animals. While I understand the impulse to imprison animal abusers, I couldn’t support using a system profiting off slavery and oppression to “solve” animal slavery and oppression.
Later, I co-founded an anti-authoritarian and anti-animal testing organization, where I ended up doing the vast majority of the work. Not because the others involved were lazy, but because they had a healthier set of boundaries and less of an obsession than I did. I lost sleep doing research and organizing and was barraged with nightmares about animals when I did sleep. Some radicals supported our work as non-single-issue while other radicals shunned and ridiculed mentions of veganism or including nonhuman animals in our fight against oppression. I worked at a local university (doing human research) and used my position to access information about nonhuman animal research being conducted there. I was constantly on edge, living in fear of getting caught. FBI agents and private security surveilled our protests and events right out in the open, in suits with wires hanging out of their ears, behind tinted windows with surveillance equipment on the dashboards. I’d assumed they would try to be sneakier, but I guess not. Researchers at the university were studying pain by putting rats on hot plates, addicting macaques to cocaine and depriving them of water, measuring the progression of untreated HIV/SIV in nonhuman primates, and many other horrific things. I wanted it to stop. I needed it to stop. It didn’t stop. The organization disbanded when it didn’t have the resources to continue. Emotionally or financially. The labs still stand tall around the city, but I know we started much-needed conversations. That was something.
Having endured these experiences and more, I can’t say I blame people for shying away from this work. It is hard hard work. It comes with huge cost and small reward. The cost is even greater when you are chronically ill. Every time I see a new undercover video, my thoughts are not only with the animals depicted, but also the investigator(s). Are they ok? What are they doing to take care of themselves? If I had any advice to the new activist with mental health struggles it would be this: You can’t do it all. It’s ok not to do it all. It’s ok to sleep and eat and take care of yourself. It will never be enough and you will always be enough. And that’s ok, because it all matters. Every life you touch and save matters.
When I try to talk about these things, I can often see and feel just how much they are not taken seriously by radical and nonradical communities alike. I believe healing is lacking in both communities. In one, because people fight and fight and fight oppression until they burn out and in the other because they ignore and ignore and ignore it. But it still exists. It will always exist. And while I (try to) know now that I am safe in this moment and what people have done to me is not who I am, what I have watched and experienced humans doing to other animals has left a vast cavern of pain and loneliness inside me. I do not know how to heal this pain. I do not know how to confront this trauma in a world that can’t even acknowledge the massive exploitation and suffering of nonhuman animals, let alone the trauma of witnessing said exploitation.
I have been hyper-sensitive since birth. I have a degree in psychology and worked in the field of research for 5 years and clinical for 3 before my health issues took over and left me completely unable to work. I know full well why people do what they do to animals and why people ignore what happens to them. I know the farm workers beating animals while making minimum wage do so because, in order to endure the exposure to such cruelty, they must reduce the animal to an object of vilification in order to survive the job psychologically and survive financially. I understand scientists who abuse and exploit animals for their research went through several years of school where every objection they may have held against harming animals was met with ridicule and threat of expulsion, while also being told it is a necessary evil to save lives. I understand well why people ignore animal liberation as part of radical thought or a day-to-day thing we must fight for. People have their own struggles and can’t imagine adding another thing to care about. People cannot handle the reality that while they are fighting oppression on the surface, underneath there is a vast and horrific level of exploitation which they contribute to directly. When we grow up accepting something for so long, it becomes difficult to change. The Milgram experiments on authoritarianism (where people willingly delivered (perceived) punishing shocks to another participant because the experimenter told them to), the bystander effect (where the more people are around during an incident, the less likely someone is to help the victim), the just-world fallacy (the world is good, so anything bad that happens to someone must be the victim’s fault), and so on.
The guilt one must feel and overcome in order to confront animal liberation (or any other systemic oppression perpetuated by one’s demographic, like my journey as a white person confronting white supremacy) is overbearing and heavy. It takes a lot of energy to acknowledge what we have done and still do to nonhuman animals and even more energy to understand how that informs how we have harmed and still harm our fellow humans. Many people at the intersections struggle so much with oppression directed against them that they can’t bear acknowledging they may also be oppressing someone else. And of course, class-privileged vegan campaigners urge that we vote with our dollars, rather than change our hearts and minds and interactions with nonhuman animals. I say this as a vegan, but also as someone who believes veganism is only one of many steps we must take towards seeing other animals as deserving and equal.
These understandings of human nature frustrate me. They remind me of every single atrocity in the world allowed to happen that we all look back on horrified and think “I would NEVER do a thing like that,” when in reality, most people would have. I can only hope that one day, we will look back on the factory farms, fur sheds, laboratories, breeding facilities, and so on and think the same. Even though we would be wrong about our ability to take part in socially accepted atrocities, I hope one day, someone looks back and says, “Remember when people used to torture nonhuman animals under the guise of understanding humans better? Yeah, and they did that to other marginalized groups of humans, too.” And of course we’ll be learning our lessons forever, because intersectionality means that systemic oppression cannot end if only one facet of our unjust world is addressed. But, I do hope that one day, all of this trauma will mean something more than the pain, frustration, and burnout I feel today.
I would like to thank Adrienne and Noah for their help in proof-reading and editing this piece.