LE: In The Ghosts In Our Machine, you mention that you suffer from PTSD as a result of the work you do for nonhuman animals. Can you talk more about that aspect of your life in terms of how you learned (or are learning) to take care of yourself?
AA: Dealing with the heartbreak and frustration of what I see has certainly been a journey. I’m happy to report that I haven’t burned out yet, and I don’t foresee that happening. First of all, I think that feeling traumatized is a healthy and correct response, when one bears witness to cruelty. Not just for me on the front lines, but for anyone who witnesses stories and images, even via social media. Billions are suffering needlessly at our hands. There’s a lot to be angry about. It’s easy to feel hopeless. I have spent years feeling angry and hopeless! Despite the realities of this mass suffering, I’ve learned that I *have* to look after myself. Animals need our full efforts, every step of the way. They won’t benefit from us burning out after only a few years, or from us having to turn our compassion off because we can’t handle the sadness. So, over time —and with the help of a therapist and good friends for a while there!— I’ve learned that I can’t just *live* in sadness. That it’s ok not to. I’ve learned to not just automatically participate in my feelings, but observe them, and decide if I want to partake or not. I’m faced with cruelty every day. We all are. But I can *decide* whether to expend energy getting upset about things all the time, or conserve my precious energy and parlay it into the good work that needs to happen on behalf of animals. I have healthy barriers now. And I nurture the things that bring joy to my life a little bit more now. I have to. If I don’t, I’ll be less energized for the good fight.
LE: Many activists struggle with remaining positive in relation to animal liberation when we see so much cruelty towards nonhuman animals reflected back to us from mainstream society. Yet, you often speak about the innate ability of humans to be compassionate. Where do you get your hope from?
AA: I think there’s a little bit of bad in all of us, and a lot of good. We all tend to focus on the bad, but if we choose to look at the good in people, that changes our own worlds. And it changes how we relate to, and treat, others as well. People’s best sides come out when they are treated kindly and respectfully, and related to with humility and without judgment. The good in people, and their compassion, rises to the surface. When we find common ground with each other, we can move mountains. Though I’ve witnessed a lot of humanity’s darkness, I think that only represents a small portion of who we are. That gives me hope. I also immerse myself in change, action and activism, and surround myself with positive people who have similar goals as I do (the emancipation of non-human animals). If you need your hope battery recharged, take part in “being the change,” as Gandhi said. It’s uplifting and empowering.
LE: The animal liberation movement has a rich history, and it seems to be reaching a tipping point. Can you talk about the changes taking place around us, as someone who has been part of the movement for over a decade? And, what do you think the areas of strength in the movement are, and what are the areas for growth?
AA: It does seem to be reaching a tipping point! I think that that’s happening in part because there is such a diversity of tactics now. Different actions reach different people. We debate the merits of animal rights actions all the time, and that’s amazing —it helps us revise and refine the effectiveness of our work. Though we may disagree on one tactic over another, I think that together, they are reaching more people than ever. Whether it’s vegan leafleting, demonstrating loudly, performing open rescues, making art, doing humane education, creating documentaries, working with both grassroots and large organizations, taking direct action, working from within the system, speaking with politicians and changing laws…these forms of outreach and activism reach a wide range of people, and some will become more actively compassionate after seeing a direct action, and others might hear their MP speak out about cruelty, and think twice about their next purchases. Our strength is in numbers, in diversity, in education and in seeing the connection between so many forms of oppression. These things are all happening.
I don’t think I can say what the areas of growth should be. The animal rights movement is a world-wide experiment in action. Actually I think that I’m also just not bold enough to say, or speculate. But I would like us to find more common ground, with other activists and especially with people who haven’t yet learned about or understood animal cruelty. This leads back to kindness again, and I realize that sounds simplistic, but it’s so often missing. Kindness doesn’t mean not being angry, it means finding humility and interacting with the world from that vantage point.
LE: As the featured human subject of The Ghosts In Our Machine, your work, face and name has been seen by a larger audience. The film has been reviewed widely by mainstream corporate and alternative media, and has been screened globally in cinemas, at the grassroots, online and on TV —how has this journey impacted you personally and your We Animals project?
AA: I decided long ago that I would attach my words, my face, my self, to the documentary work that I do. I figured I would be a decent person to whom people could easily relate and I have both won and failed in that regard. THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE has impacted my work and my personal life hugely. Both are way more visible! The visibility of the We Animals images has helped the animal rights movement, helped create change in people. The film offered a glimpse into my life, in a personal way, and that has served a purpose, and has given people inspiration about what activists are doing, and what they themselves can do. I’m ready, now, though, to have Jo-Anne a little less visible. I can keep pushing the We Animals work to the fore, with all my might, but step back personally. I feel really lucky, and both We Animals and I have received so much incredible support. But I’m also slightly stretched thin! It’s time for me to lay fallow a little while, and germinate new animal projects, and work on making the issues I’ve already covered even more visible. More focus on We Animals, less focus on Jo, is where I need to be for now!
LE: What is next for We Animals?
AA: Lots! I’m working really hard to keep the momentum going, now that the Ghosts film and the We Animals book have been released, welcomed and celebrated. Animal issues are in the media, now more than ever before; there’s a growing demand for the type images and information that We Animals can provide. And so, I’m “in the field” a lot, and at my desk all the time, too. It’s great! Presently, I’ve assembled a great team of folks who are beginning to develop curriculum for the We Animals Humane Education Programs. I’m doing humane education talks, especially to students, more and more. They love the stories and the purpose is to nurture their empathy and awe for animals. I’m starting two new book projects, and one is with a wonderful professor and friend at Brock University. Details will be divulged in the near future. I’ll continue to work with both local and worldwide organizations in a support role, and make We Animals freely available to anyone helping animals. I’m thankful to be able to continue doing this in large part to the many people and organizations who offer all kinds of support to the project. I’ll always do investigative work, but have started being a bit more selective, and strategic, with the projects. It’s at the point where there are many requests, and I can no longer say yes to every opportunity. Which…is a good problem to have. There is a need, and a demand, for powerful images, poignant documentaries and great story-telling. Hopefully both We Animals and The Ghosts In Our Machine will inspire others to follow this path as well.
We Animals is our Featured Animal Ambassador for December 2014.