By William J. Furney
Animal rights group PETA does “extraordinary things to draw attention to cruelty to animals”, says the shock-stunt organisation’s UK director, Elisa Allen. The 36-year-old German-born London resident who has been vegan for 10 years and is married to the son of an Irish dairy farmer who is now also vegan, decided that after reading the book Animal Liberation, it was time to “align my actions with my ethics”. She tells Furney Times: “I became vegetarian at age 12, when I learned that hotdogs – which I had devoured throughout my childhood – contained eyeballs, lips, and other ground-up body parts. I couldn’t stomach that.”
And, she says, “When PETA first started, people thought a vegan was someone from Las Vegas! That’s definitely changed. Even if you’re not yet vegan yourself, chances are you know someone who is.”
She adds: “I’m lucky to know vegans from many walks of life. Many I know through my work with PETA. Others are childhood friends and family members – including my parents – who have gone vegan in recent years. And then there are those fellow vegans I just happened to stumble upon in London, Dublin, Marrakesh, and elsewhere.“
As for her favourite food, Elisa says it depends on the weather, but she’s “never passed up a vegan Sunday roast — with extra gravy”. Here is my interview with Elisa in full:
Let’s start off with a contentious one: PETA certainly gets the headlines with its shock-based stunts and demos — but some people say they’re turned off by them. So could this form of getting attention for the animal-welfare cause be counterproductive and could it work better if you adopted a softer approach?
Our job is to rock the boat to keep the plight of animals – as well as the animal-free options available – firmly in the public’s mind. We wish we could hold a news conference and make masses of people aware of the issues which affect animals, but in the hustle and bustle of daily life, these simple facts alone hardly get a second look. So we have to do extraordinary things to draw attention to cruelty to animals. That’s why we use humour, sex, shock, and more. It’s sometimes necessary to shake people up in order to initiate discussion, debate, questioning of the status quo, and, of course, action.
At PETA, we get the message across in a million ways: we do it nicely, and we do it naughtily, but we do it. What reaches one person may not reach another, so we try everything. We show people video footage from eyewitness investigations, hold protests, work with celebrities, hand out leaflets, unfurl banners, send letters, publish commentaries in newspapers, and more. Sometimes our approach is soft, sometimes it’s hard – we try it all – and we’re not afraid to look silly or to garner outrage. After all, it’s not controversy that’s animals’ biggest enemy – it’s silence.
What, in your personal view, is the worst atrocity animals suffer at the hands of humans?
Being killed by the billions for nothing more than a fleeting moment of taste, a fashion accessory, or a tube of lipstick … which all stems from people’s willingness to disrespect others just because they’re “different”, instead of realising that all living beings are sentient and should be treated with respect – even if we don’t understand them or they don’t look exactly like we do.
What, in your view, is the single most important thing PETA has done for animal welfare since its inception?
PETA has woken people up and made them think about what – or rather, who – they’re eating, wearing, or otherwise harming through their daily choices. We’ve succeeded in reaching millions of people with the message that – as our motto reads – “animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment”.
Suddenly, veganism is exploding in popularity all around the world and now there are tons of vegan restaurants and products everywhere. What do you attribute this to?
Years ago, it was easier for people to claim ignorance – to say that they just didn’t know any better. But you can’t say that anymore – you can’t pretend, for example, that fish don’t feel pain or that animals are “humanely” slaughtered at the abattoir. And the more you know about the astonishing beings we share our world with, the harder it becomes to justify killing them for a sandwich filling.
In a similar vein, online videos and the rise of social media have allowed PETA to reach people in a way that we never could before. We show them what goes on behind the closed doors of factory farms and abattoirs, and much of it is too graphic to show on television, but the internet gives us an outlet for showing it to the masses. Videos are one of our most powerful advocacy tools. Nothing will inspire someone to take action against cruelty – i.e. go vegan – more than actually watching it.
Has there been a similar upsurge in membership of PETA?
Yes, particularly among young people. They don’t want to harm animals, are environmentally conscious, and have access to a wealth of health knowledge which says that meat and animal “products” harm our bodies.
What are the benefits of being a member of PETA?
As a PETA member, you receive a copy of our lively and informative quarterly magazine, PETA Global, as well as regular updates and actions you can take to help animals the world over.
PETA has achieved monumental victories for animals over the years – from ending crash tests on animals to virtually ridding the UK high street of cruel angora wool – and our members and supporters have played a big part in that.
What’s PETA’s global annual budget and where do the funds come from? Is it all donations and membership fees, or is there also corporate and other funding?
PETA UK has a budget of approximately £4 million. We’re almost entirely funded by individuals, but we do also have initiatives such as our PETA Business Friends programme, which corporations can join by making a donation to fund our work. We receive no government funding. You can see our most recent annual review here: https://www.peta.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/PETA-UK-2017-Annual-Review.pdf.
Is vegan better than vegetarian, and if so, why? Is it an upgrade?
My goal is to reduce animal suffering, so I commend anyone who does anything to help animals, whether that’s adopting a dog from a shelter, calling out a designer who uses fur, or cutting meat out of their diet. Of course, the single best thing anyone can do to help animals and to spare them the horrors of factory farming is switching to a healthy vegan diet.
Would you recommend people become vegetarian first, before considering an all-vegan diet?
For some, going vegan is a gradual process, while others make the switch overnight. More power to them – I wish I’d done that!
What do you say to people who claim veganism is just for affluent urban folk and is not really workable in the countryside or elsewhere? And that it costs too much.
Sure, vegan specialty foods such as seitan burgers and vegan cheese are sometimes more expensive than their non-vegan counterparts – but they certainly aren’t the only options. Vegan staples, such as pasta, rice, and beans, are much cheaper than meat, and most people probably already have them in their cupboards. Other items such as soya milk, non-dairy ice cream, and vegan sausages can be easily found at Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Iceland, and most other supermarkets, so you needn’t go out of your way to buy plant-based foods.
What about those who say a vegan diet is not healthy and vegans are pale and weak, because they’re not getting enough protein and other nutrients?
I’d point them towards Germany’s strongest man, Patrik Baboumian; Russian Olympic gold medallist Alexey Voyevoda; free-running champion Tim Shieff; the “queen of extreme marathon running”, Fiona Oakes; and other vegans who are setting records in strength and speed.
What’s the one thing you would say to convince someone to go vegan?
If I had a guaranteed-to-get-results answer to this question, I’d be shouting it from the rooftops. Until then, I tell people that the first time most animals on farms feel sunlight on their backs or breathe fresh air is when they’re loaded onto the trucks bound for slaughter. I tell them that that I’ve witnessed animals at abattoirs. They all enter in a panic. They kick, scream, and fight – because they value their lives and want to live, just as we do. Most people are decent – once they hear the grisly facts and see that cruelty-free options are available, they make kinder choices.