We recently sat down with Cheryl Leahy, Executive Vice President of Compassion Over Killing, and discussed millennials, the Gen Z generation, and the year of the vegan. You can watch their videos on nyxt.nyc/cok.
Compassion Over Killing aims to be the organization that delivers the truth and obtains justice for what happens to animals in factory farms, and brings vegan into the mainstream, both by building and standing together as a caring community and by working with those who supply our food to make vegan the gold standard. - Cheryl Leahy
NYXT: Tell us how Compassion Over Killing started and has changed over time.
Cheryl Leahy: COK began as a small high school club that focused on a variety of animal protection issues using grassroots techniques and tactics. In the nearly 25 years since our inception, we have grown up - we are now a national voice for farmed animals, running strategic campaigns to change the way animals are treated and how we as a society view our relationships with animals and ourselves. In those same 25 years, we have seen real changes in the cultural knowledge and core values around this issue. Veganism and animal advocacy have become mainstream issues, and we are encouraged and emboldened by having been a part of that change. The Economist called 2019 “The Year of the Vegan.” We are seeing a real sea change: people are beginning to understand the complexity, scope, and urgency of this issue. Over 99% of animals killed each year by humans are killed for their meat, or after becoming unprofitable for the dairy and egg industries. This is why we focus our efforts on farmed animals - seeking justice and accountability through undercover investigations exposing the cruel realities of industrial animal agribusiness; legal advocacy to address this cruelty through criminal laws, litigation, and policy change; changing corporate practices to end some of the most egregious systemic cruelties and to bring more vegan options to the marketplace to reduce and replace animal products and mainstream vegan eating. We are also working to build a vegan world through building understanding and community around these issues, providing both the “whys” and the “hows” for going vegan and staying vegan, and empowering people to make a difference by being active for animals.
NYXT: What communities does COK support? Are there any age groups that the organization works with in particular?
Cheryl Leahy: We support anyone who wants to make a positive change in their life to help animals. These people may have seen one of our undercover investigation videos or may otherwise be newly learning about the devastatingly cruel realities of factory farms and feel overwhelmed or unsure of their own capability to make a difference as an individual, or they may feel that behavior changes like going vegan would be too hard or would not be accepted by the people in their lives. Our role is to help them over those barriers and empower them to make changes that have real, tangible impacts for animals. People are introduced to these issues in a variety of ways - perhaps they saw the valuable life in their own dog or cat and were inspired to think differently about other animals, or are active in the dog and cat rescue community and are beginning to make the connections between their compassion for companion animals and for pigs, chickens, and cows. Many people become interested in these issues after learning about the environmental destruction of factory farming, or its impact on human health and human rights. Whether these people are experienced activists or newly learning about factory farming, our role is to help raise their literacy on these issues the issues, including what happens to the animals, and connect them into this broad cultural movement and community where they can act in accordance with their values.
The cultural shift toward an understanding of the harms of animal agribusiness and toward a more vegan world is led largely by younger generations. Millennials and Gen Z have particularly high interest and awareness of these issues and have done much of the legwork to raise awareness and demand for vegan options. This is especially driven by the urgency of building a climate change solution and the massive impact of animal ag on global climate change. We also pay special attention to the support needed for vegan children and families, and those parents and kids who are interested in going vegan, since we recognize the particular challenges and interest in these issues among that demographic. Much of our campaign work also targets supply-side players, including animal-product producing farmers and corporations, food companies, and restaurant chains to find innovative solutions to move toward vegan offerings and away from animal products.
NYXT: What are the organization’s contributions to social justice and education causes?
Cheryl Leahy: The impact of industrial animal agriculture is the largest social justice issue facing global civilization today. I recognize that is a bold statement, but I welcome arguments to the contrary from anyone who has really looked at the depth and complexity of this issue on the global stage. There are independently compelling rationales for advocating for a system-wide reworking of the way humanity feeds its growing population. Together, the strength of these arguments is overwhelming. In this country alone, over 9 billion land animals are killed each year for “food” products. This excludes fish, which are killed in massive numbers no one even bothers to accurately count. Our investigations of these industries show the unfortunate reality that cruelty and widespread suffering are standard. The environmental toll animal agriculture takes is fundamentally due to its massive inefficiency; the vast majority of the world’s farmland and of the crops go to feed animals who are later killed for food. Animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to global climate change, second only to fossil fuels, greater than all of transportation combined. Switching from an omnivorous diet to a vegan diet is more impactful in fighting climate change than switching from an SUV to a Prius. The water needed to grow the feed and the animals make animal ag the largest consumer of water, and it is also the largest polluter of water.
Communities near large animal ag facilities face debilitating air and water pollution, and yet the industry’s appetite for even more land leads to crises like the recent Amazon fires. In addition to the toll on the animals and the environment, eating animal products is causally tied to the biggest killers in Western civilization, including obesity, heart disease, cancers, diabetes, Alzheimers, and many others. It also contains higher levels of harmful chemicals like pesticides and pollutants. Workers in factory farms and slaughter plants face chronic physical and mental health issues, which can have long-standing impacts on them and their communities, and the water scarcity, pollution, and environmental damage disproportionately impacts poor communities and communities of color.
The factory farming industry is built on the oppression of the animals it breeds and kills, the environment, the human workers it exploits, and hinders our ability to live sustainably and healthy lives. By choosing vegan foods and boycotting the cruel products of these companies, we can protect animals and humans.
Compassion Over Killing is actively working to bring the farmed animal protection movement together, and be inclusive of all in all that we do. We’re proud to be part of the recently formed coalition bringing the environmental and animal movements together to campaign on the climate change issue, as part of the Foodprints for the Future campaign. We are also a leading member of a coalition of stakeholders from public health, labor, environment, and animal advocacy to fight against the nationwide expansion of a USDA program to allow slaughterhouses to operate at much higher speeds while simultaneously reducing the regulation and oversight by the federal government.
NYXT: What are the main resources you rely on?
Cheryl Leahy: Compassion Over Killing is a nonprofit organization, funded entirely by donations. Every contribution makes a difference for the animals. In addition, our small staff and volunteers -- many of whom are lending their professional expertise in a number of fields -- enable us to be both strategic and pragmatic to make the biggest possible impact for animals. The advertising budget of the animal agribusiness industry alone dwarfs the entirety of the animal advocacy movement’s budgets. Each donation brings us closer to that tipping point where we will reach a true cultural understanding about these industries and see systemic change as a result.
To lend your support, please visit COK.net.
NYXT: Does COK collaborate with other organizations? If so, how?
Cheryl Leahy: Compassion Over Killing regularly partners with a diverse set of advocacy organizations and thought leaders to solve the complex and multifaceted problems animal agribusiness causes. We participate and lead coalitions and other group efforts including animal groups, environmental groups, workers and worker groups, academic leaders, and consumer advocates. These efforts often include petitions for governmental and/or corporate change, in order to show widespread support for initiatives like ending high-speed slaughter or the standard, yet cruel, practices on factory farms, and to encourage corporations to add more vegan options. We also engage in collaborative efforts in litigation and to change policies and law, like California’s Proposition 12.
NYXT: Tell us about COK’s outreach efforts. Do you think virtual tools are as useful as in-person outreach?
Cheryl Leahy: All forms of outreach are valuable. There are quantitative and qualitative differences between reaching out in-person, on social media, or by website, blog, or news media story. The key to effectiveness is to understand and maximize the best assets of each kind of interaction we are able to have. An in-person conversation can be a great way to make a personal connection and talk through any questions or concerns someone might have, while empowering them to find a way to help animals that really works for them. News stories can reach and educate an audience that may never have otherwise had a reason to even consider some of these issues. Social media is a way to learn and stay current on the issues, to grow the strength of our message through shares and likes, and perhaps most importantly, to build a community of like-minded people.
The easiest way to stay engaged and make an impact is to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and to subscribe to us on YouTube. Use the educational and practical resources we share there, and click on the links for longer coverage and videos on our website, COK.net. Reach out if you’d like to become involved as a volunteer or take action for animals. And please - watch and share our investigation videos. These are the most powerful tool we have to learn the truth about these cruel industries.
NYXT: What do you think is the most powerful work you’ve done in terms of making videos about your various investigations?
Cheryl Leahy: The vast majority of the messaging each of us has heard about meat, milk, and eggs throughout our lives has come from advertisements - from speakers whose core goal is to make money by selling you more animal products. The industry relies on keeping the realities of its practices hidden from public view and has even worked to make investigations like ours illegal. Undercover investigations are the only meaningful counterpoint we as a society have to this industry speech, making them the most crucial tool we have to expose the truth that’s hidden behind the closed doors of factory farms. These investigations uncover the horrific abuse of animals inside these facilities, and this is the raw data that drives the life-saving work we are able to do, and contributes to the advocacy of countless others. By conducting these investigations, and with each share and view, we are exercising our right to know the truth and make choices that align with our values based on that truth.
We’ve conducted over 30 investigations since 2001, reaching millions of people around the world. The impact of our hard-hitting evidence has led to unprecedented cruelty charges and convictions, the end of brutal practices, and has even shut down facilities.
Our most recent investigation was the first-ever investigation of salmon aquaculture in the U.S, This investigation is the first glimpse many people have had into the realities of fish farming. Our investigation found:
• Workers’ abusive handling of fish, including slamming and stomping on fish, and violently throwing fish, including treating them like basketballs performing “trick shots”.
• Workers cruelly killing fish by slamming them on the ground.
• Live fish have their eyes eaten by fish who are underfed and hungry and mistake their pupils as food.
• Ineffective anesthetization during vaccination and fin clipping.
• Fish thrown into buckets and left to suffocate in piles of the dead and dying.
• Conditions so filthy that fish must be vaccinated.
• Painful spinal deformities, and fungus growth on fish intended for human consumption, including fungus eating away at the faces of the fish.
• Extreme crowding in barren conditions and high death rates of eggs and fish.
This investigation also revealed haunting insight from workers at the hatchery, with one saying, "It really bummed me out killing fish as we do. 'Cause they just suffocate. It's so rough. Over the years you kinda get desensitized."
Another example of a powerful COK undercover video is our investigation of multiple Tyson chicken breeding factory farms, where we expose the brutal practice of stabbing plastic rods through the sensitive nostrils of male breeder chickens to limit their food intake because these birds are bred to grow so unnaturally large and fast. Our gut-wrenching footage prompted Tyson to immediately end this cruel practice companywide, quickly followed by other companies, with 17 of the top 20 companies having ended or otherwise not engaged in this practice.
Just this year, we were able to secure a groundbreaking settlement and consent decree in a False Claims Act lawsuit following our undercover investigation at the nation’s largest lamb slaughterhouse, Superior Farms.
NYXT: What do you ultimately want to see COK become in the future?
Cheryl Leahy: We are at an exciting moment in history. Cultural shifts toward awareness, caring, and action are happening at a rapid pace, while alternatives to animal products continue to dominate the market and get better in their quality and diversity of options. COK aims to be the organization that delivers the truth and obtains justice for what happens to animals in factory farms, and brings vegan into the mainstream, both by building and standing together as a caring community and by working with those who supply our food to make vegan the gold standard.
NYXT: What are COK’s main goals for 2020?
Cheryl Leahy: 2020 is an exciting year for COK - it’s our 25th anniversary. We will be combining the lessons we have learned about how to empower people to make real change for animals with an investment in research-backed strategic planning and messaging. We will ramp up our efforts in impact litigation, work to maximize the reach of our investigations, strive to make our DCVegFest in 2020 the biggest vegan festival on the east coast, and reduce and replace animal products with vegan alternatives by working with foodservice companies, farmers, and restaurants. And we will tell stories about the transformative power of acting to make a difference for animals -- stories about how the lives of people and animals are changed when we choose compassion.
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