Podcast: Lessons from grassroots advocacy

Grassroots advocates have the power to mobilize communities and influence policies to improve animal well-being.

In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally, two grassroots advocates share their experiences and the lessons they’ve learned in calling for change for animals.

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.


Barbara has volunteered her time to several animal welfare projects in Canada and the United States since 1998. She is responsible for a national campaign asking Canada’s largest classifieds site to ban the commercial sale of animals on its site. This campaign has gained national media attention and the support of 464,000 individuals, 8 major corporations and 31 animal welfare organizations.

Director, Vancouver Humane Society

Tessa is a Social Purpose Strategist with the United Way Social Purpose Institute where she is helping business to become an engine for good in society. She is also a passionate conservationist and led the Ivory-Free Canada campaign with Elephanatics, which received support from more than 700,000 Canadians.

Becoming an animal advocate

A close up photo of a brown puppy

Amy: To start us off, I’d love to hear more about how you both became interested in animal advocacy.

How Barbara began advocating for companion animals

Barbara: I lived in the U. S. for seven years. And when I came back to Quebec in a small town located on the island of Montreal, I was floored to see that puppies and kittens were still being sold at the pet store at my local shopping center. So I wanted to change things.

That’s where it started for me.

How Tessa began advocating for elephants and wildlife

Tessa: I think I was born an animal lover. I mean, even as a kid, I had all my little stuffed animals and I would build veterinarians for them and get my mom’s tea cozies and cover them up and say goodnight every night to them.

So I think it was just the way I was born.

And then I was at work in Toronto and I was at the Toronto Convention Centre and one of the publishers at that time had decided to rent an elephant for a campaign. And this elephant was in this convention centre. When I still think about it, I get quite emotional.

I just remember looking at it and thinking, what the heck is going on here? It was just such a disconnect for me. And then it took me probably a few years to do something with that initial thing.

And then I found out that a circus was coming to Canada. And I remember at that time thinking, well, I know how to write. I know how to do publicity, so I’m just going to create as much trouble for the circus as I possibly can. And that’s what I did.

I just chased the circus across Canada and I would send press releases and information to town councils and the mayor. I’d alert local TV and media. And I’d try and reach out to local advocacy groups.

And that was sort of the beginning of connecting a passion with skills that I thought I had.

Amy: That’s so lovely. What a great start to advocacy, but challenging things to have to deal with.

Campaigning for animals

An elephant raises their trunk in the wild

Amy: We heard both of your backgrounds at the beginning of the episode, but I’d like to ask each of you to speak a little bit more about the campaigns you’ve worked on, provide more details, maybe some challenges and successes.

Barbara’s campaigns for companion animals

Barbara: When my local shopping center was still selling cats and dogsat the pet store, I started to attend every council town council meeting in 2012. Every month I went to encourage my city to adopt a bylaw requiring that dogs and cats and rabbits sold in pet store to be sterilized and be sourced from animal shelters.

So I started in 2012 and the bylaw was finally adopted in 2015. So I had started to learn to be patient at that time.

And it’s during those town council meetings that several town councilors kept coming back with the argument that we could not adopt such a bylaw for pet stores or combat pet overpopulation as breeders will still continue to sell animals online on classified sites.

Advocating to stop pet sales on Kijiji

Barbara: So in the summer of 2013, I decided to research the topic and the problems associated with the sale of animals on Kijiji, Canada’s most popular classified site. And I launched a campaign, so it’s been over 10 years now with Kijiji.

Petition: Stop the sale of pets on Kijiji

The problem that I found was that classified sites were unable to distinguish responsible breeders from breeders who, without regard for animal welfare and the buyer, profit from the sale of animals.

So over the past 10 years, I’ve collected numerous media stories of sick puppies and kittens sold on Kijiji. I gathered testimonials from disappointed Kijiji users, the comments from veterinarians and animal shelters to demonstrate that yes, there are too many buyers that continue to be cheated by unscrupulous and unethical breeders on classified sites like Kijiji.

Too many animals suffering from health problems, often due to rearing and breeding conditions, are sold on this site. That leads to veterinary costs to new guardians and inflicts them with unnecessary emotional and financial stress.

So that’s what me and 465,000 individuals who signed this petition want; we want the leader of Canada’s classified site, Kijiji, to set an example. Animals should not be sold on this site.

Puppy meals and unethical breeders may continue to exist, even if Kijiji Canada stops the sale of animals, but at least they will not give them an easy platform to thrive on. So that’s the goal of this campaign.

Chantelle: That’s such an important message, especially when we’re seeing so much overpopulation and overcrowding in the shelter and rescue system.

There’s so many animals out there who need homes.

Tessa’s advocacy for wildlife

Amy: Tessa, can you share more about the background of the campaign that you’ve been working on?

Tessa: Yeah, for sure. After chasing the circus around for a couple of years, I woke up one morning and I’d heard about a group called the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos.

They were based out of the United States and they organized kind of a global awareness day about the threats facing wildlife in Africa, so elephants and lions and rhinos and so forth. It was a call to action to organize an event. And so I woke up and was like, I’m going to organize an event.

I just Googled elephant advocacy Vancouver. And I found Fran Duthie, who is the founder of Elephanatics. We joined forces and we organized, along with Leanne Fogarty, a number of those annual marches.

And then it was only after the last one where I think we were like, okay, so this is great. We have people coming out to these, but what are we really doing?

And so that’s when we switched tactics. And we really looked at how Canada was enabling the sale of ivory and what that was doing and rhino horn.

Stopping the import of ivory and rhino horn in Canada

Tessa: We pivoted our advocacy towards getting the government to change the actual regulations around importing elephant ivory and rhino horn.

We started with a letter to then-minister Catherine McKenna and it was actually Marylee Davies who said, well, maybe you could get a couple of signatures from other like-minded organizations.

So she gave me some names of some people. We added those names to the letter, but then my colleagues, Fran and Leanne just kind of went crazy. It’s like, well, if we can get three signatures, why can’t we get more? We got a hundred signatures for that letter globally.

So for every letter we wrote, we had this activated network that was willing to support what we were looking for.

And later on, that ended up being quite helpful.

Fran had started our Facebook page. She went out and learned everything about social media. We have 20,000 followers on the Elephanatics Facebook page.

And then Leanne said, well, why don’t we do a petition? And we’re like, yeah, okay, let’s do the petition. We’ll probably get like a hundred signatures, like a thousand signatures.

And that’s when we really started understanding that Canadians did not want, and did not know that we still allowed the legal trade of ivory. So we ended up getting like a thousand signatures, easily, 10,000, and then 20,000, we were like, holy smokes, what is going on?

And that’s when it just kept growing. That petition is over 700,000 now.

And so that’s not the end of the campaign. We ended up collaborating with other organizations, but that was definitely when we knew we were zeroing in on something.

Chantelle: Wow, that is so impressive. I think it’s so inspiring that it just takes that first spark of identifying that there’s something wrong and just look how much you can accomplish.

Successes in grassroots animal advocacy

A black and white cat sleeps on steps outdoors

Chantelle: I would love to hear more about the successes that you’ve both seen from your work.

Spayed and neutered rescue pets for adoption

Barbara: Yes. With the pet store bylaw, like I said, after three years of campaigning, going to monthly council meetings and writing open letters in the newspapers, asking residents to send an email to counselors, my city finally adopted the bylaw that dogs, cats and rabbits sold in pet stores must be sterilized and be sourced from animal shelters.

We were one of the first cities actually in Quebec to have such bylaw. So that was a great success.

Trap, Neuter, Return, Maintain for community cats

Barbara: Another campaign I worked on is after adopting three stray cats that were roaming in my backyard, I went again to town council meetings asking them this time to implement a Trap, Neuter, Return, Maintain program (TNRM) for community cats.

Again with the help of residents, same thing, same council meetings, open letters and newspapers asking residents to send letters. The program was implemented in 2019 in my small town and is still running today.

It’s fun to see neighbors who still ask me about the program and want to get their permits and stuff like that.

Progress for classified sites

As far as Kijiji, Kijiji today is still selling animals on its site, but I would say that my petition has gathered over 465,000 signatures so far. I see it as a success because it’s 465,000 individuals who are aware of the issue surrounding animals sold on classified sites.

That’s 465,000 individuals who are discussing this matter with a family member, a friend, or a coworker. And that’s 465,000 individuals not buying animals on classified sites.

It’s day by day driving the public discourse to a point where politicians are increasingly compelled to take concrete actions when it comes to the sale of animals on classified sites.

I would like also to add that the classified site, based in British Columbia, banned profiting from household pets in 2015. They commented that the Kijiji petition was one of their motivators behind the decision, so this petition is also helping others, other companies, businesses, and individuals to base their decision on, so to me, it’s a success.

Amy: Thanks so much for sharing those. I think something that I end up having a hard time with in advocacy is when you have big goals, seeing all the intermediary steps as successes. It’s so easy to get a feeling of sort of like, Oh, but this one thing hasn’t happened, but it’s so good to see sort of like the process of getting there.

And particularly what Barbara brought up around public attitude change. The only way you’re going to see legal change is when you have really the vast majority of the public on side.

Partnerships in advocacy

A door-to-door canvaser speaks with a person at their front door

Amy: Partnerships play a big role in getting the public on side. Can you speak to the partnerships you’ve made to advance your work for animals?

Tessa: I think it’s so interesting that Barbara, that you use your town council as the muscle for change, because I used to sit on one of the city of Burnaby’s sustainability committee, and it was really always interesting to me that it does make a difference, I think, using those tools as a way of driving change.

Reaching out to the company first

Barbara: For the pet store, I always ask the company first. I went ahead and I wrote a letter to the pet storeabout the problems and when they said no, that’s where I had to go step up somewhere else. That’s why I went to see my town council for that, but always ask communication first with the company.

I did this same thing with Kijiji before I started the petition. I wrote to them just to make sure that they were aware of the problem and there was no action. Then I said, well, I’m going to start a petition. I warned them in advance. I did the same thing at the town council meeting.

I think I’m really believe in open communication with your decision-makers.

Tessa: Yeah, I completely agree. Make friends, not enemies, right? I think is the key and build partnerships as much as you possibly can.

Finding unexpected allies in advocacy

Tessa: I would just add that we had hit a little bit of a roadblock. By this point, we had actually been approached by Humane Society International, Michael Bernard. They had already done a lot of work behind the scenes and had hit a wall, but our petition and our Facebook page and our letters, I think we managed to sort of build that grassroots kind of awareness for the issue.

I had an MP knock at my door and we ended up building a relationship and I educated him quite a bit about what was happening with elephants and the laws in Canada. He was really amazing. He just said, I will do what I can to galvanize some people behind the scenes; and he did exactly that.

One of the things that I’ve learned is you have to be open to talking to everybody because as an advocate, you’re that voice, and that voice and that story needs to be told. Because how else does it happen?

So you’d find me anywhere talking about elephants in the most unusual situations and you find unusual allies in that way.

Chantelle: Those partnerships are so important.

Tessa: Yeah, we would never have been able to do it. The ivory ban has been implemented by the way, it was implemented this January, but we would never have been able to do it without the help.

We worked very collaboratively with Humane Society International, and we had built a larger coalition with some other grassroots organizations, Global March for Elephants and Rhinos Toronto, Heather Craig and Janine Cavin from Elephant and Rhino Defenders, and Patricia Sims from World Elephant Day.

We all worked together, including initially Jane Goodall Canada. So I would say for us as Elephanatics in a grassroots organization, you would never, ever be able to do it. We could have tried it on our own, but, but I think it really takes collaboration.

Chantelle: Absolutely. And that’s so important because everyone who’s advocated for animals knows that there’s so many barriers to persuading decision makers to prioritize compassion for other species. So just having as many voices as possible doing that advocacy work is so important.

Barbara, could you also speak to some of your partnerships that you’ve made in your advocacy work?

Barbara: Of course. At the beginning, it was easy to get 30 animal rescue groups and shelters to sign up for the petitions like Humane Canada, Humane Society International Canada, the BC SPCA, the Winnipeg Humane Society, all those big societies and small shelters and big shelters.

But sometimes you find support in unexpected places.

Over the years, the Kijiji campaign has been endorsed by some of the largest banks, websites and telecommunication providers in the country because they were publishing ads on Kijiji pet sale pages. So I either directly wrote to those companies or I had the help of signers to write to them.

TD Bank, Royal Bank of Canada, Toyota Canada, Tangerine Bank, National Bank of Canada, and TELUS have all pulled their ads off Kijiji pet sale pages in support of this campaign.

So yes, partnership is very important. And then when write to Kijiji, I tell them that, of course, but also tell the government about this. It also helps that it’s not only individuals, but also big companies and more shelters and rescue groups that support this campaign.

Tessa: Yeah. I can’t emphasize that enough, actually. Like you can find support in such unlikely places. Like for example, Mike Farnworth, who is the Minister of Safety, showed up to our marches and would come and support us and buy t-shirts and make donations. You just have no idea who’s an ally and who’s that real believer in wildlife justice and equity.

So I think that’s really key, just being really open minded, even when you feel beleaguered.

Chantelle: Absolutely. That’s absolutely true. We work with people in all sorts of industries in our work, and there’s so many people across so many types of jobs that are really passionate about animals.

Challenges in advocacy

A close up of a person walking over rocks in a river

Chantelle: Could you both speak to some of the challenges you faced in your advocacy?

Be flexible

Barbara: Last summer, when I asked Kijiji to have a human moderation team carefully reviewing at all pets ads and ensuring compliance with the policies, they turned me down again.

So I had to look for another solution. So I read and looked back at my campaign material and saw the comment from when they banned the profiting from household pets across the entire network. The comment said that websites like ours are not qualified or capable of regulating the breeding of pets.

So it made me think, no one can better regulate pets. I saw this as a challenge.

I contacted every office of the Minister of Agriculture or relevant ministers in each province and territory in Canada to learn about the laws regulating dogs and cat breeders. I discovered that only the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick require licenses for dog and cat breeders.

So government permits could be the solution to regulating the sale of animals on classified sites. Maybe breeders permits are the way to go. If breeders are issued permits from the government, it may not guarantee that these breeders are conscientious or ethical, but it provides more protection to buyers since these breeders have licenses and can be easily traced. If a problem occurs, it allows for the government to make these breeders responsible and to comply with a certain standard of care, to inspect them or even sanction them, all of which Kijiji and classified sites cannot do.

So yes, when I’m faced with a challenge, don’t despair, go back, look around, be flexible, and maybe you have to change your strategy for the best outcome.

Find another way through

Tessa: Yeah, I completely agree with that. I always think of it as water over rocks; you’ve got to find a way through, one way or the other.

We were dealing with Mr. McKenna’s office and we weren’t getting anywhere. And I think there are times when you just have to realize that it’s just not going to happen in that way. So what else do you do? And in those instances, you know, we would try and find other allies.

So, you know Terry Beech was super helpful in finding allies and then really focusing on the petition and really raising awareness.

And then also because we were a grassroots organization, when the CITES negotiations would come up, we would really look at how Canada actually voted on all the different issues and report back out publicly on what that looks like.

I think a lot of the public just doesn’t understand how that world works and why would they, right? It’s not everyone’s job to do that, but there is sort of a systemic kind of way of keeping the world working in a “business as usual” way, and we needed to change that. So I think you just find other tactics to say, let’s take this kind of closed world and make it a little bit more open and share with people what this looks like and what they can do.

So that’s when we ended up using New Mode and doing a big MP letter-writing campaign because we’re like, well, we can’t get anywhere with the minister because they don’t care or they don’t have time or there’s some other issues. So let’s just write letters. And so we ended up getting 7,000 letters written to MPs all across the country.

And so then the minister has to respond because the MPs are writing her office saying what’s going on. So I think, like Barbara said, you’ve got to be flexible, you have to be open minded, you can’t be deterred.

Don’t give up

Barbara: I just want to say that don’t be discouraged. I was talking with a friend, she was talking about the podcast her husband was listening to. I listened to the podcast and brought me somewhere else, brought me to a story about credit cards having a policy cutting off adult sites. So I said, you know, why did they do it for the adult sites? Maybe they could also do it for classified sites for animals.

So I contacted all those credit card companies. It didn’t work out. They didn’t budge.

But even though it was a challenge, you always learn something. You know how to write better, how to influence better, negotiate better, every step of the way.

You learn new things outside your topic. But it brings you somewhere else and you go from there.

Know your audience

Tessa: I would completely agree with what Barbara just said. You have to understand a multitude of different audiences.

And so when I first started, I was marching in the streets with signs. I think that’s super necessary on some level, but I think not everyone is going to respond to that kind of advocacy and you have to be willing to learn and change and develop what I would call, and I find it almost offensive, but you know, the business case for why we should not be trading an elephant ivory. You have to be able to talk to people about numbers.

I think when you believe so passionately in something, it’s hard to strip that back and say, okay, well, this is how we have to approach this. But that’s your job is to do that. You’ve got to be dispassionate in your passion.

Barbara: Yeah, I totally agree with you, Tessa. It worked with me with council.

When I brought the numbers, it made a change. It’s sad, but money drives people. Money drives those cities and businesses and so we have to bring it to that level.

Lessons from animal advocates

A rhino in the wild at sunset

Amy: I appreciate all the insights that you’re both sharing. It is absolutely step by step; it’s uncovering every little piece of what makes an issue.

These are some great lessons that you’ve learned. Are there any other lessons you’ve learned that you can share from your work?

Storytelling is key

Tessa: I was just thinking about things that helped us. As you say, Amy, if these are all really complex systemic issues, and how do you distill it to something that continues to engage the public and get that support?

And so I think the communications piece and the storytelling piece is so essential, like, how do you tell these stories? How do you continue to bring people along? Because I think it’s a lot to ask the general public to understand the complexities of everything, but what are ways and tools that we can use?

People in our community came up with these really easy to see graphics that told the story very quickly about what was happening to Africa’s elephant population. And so that became very shareable on social media.

And it’s just those kinds of things. How do we go from us to everyone else and what is the best way and the most compelling way and true way to tell the story that can gain traction.

So I’d say that that’s also something to really think about.

Communicate with the decision-makers you’re working to persuade

Barbara: Communication is very important. No matter how frustrating it can be, it can feel like you’re not being listened to, it’s better to partner with the people you want to change.

I’m proud to have open communication with Kijiji. That communication has led to improvements like the credit card verification requirements they did at the beginning in 2014 or 2015.

Official responses from your decision-makers help show that they are engaged and can guide you in choosing a path forward because you can find information on what they say and always keep learning about your petition topic, in and out and outside your topic.

Without that, you wouldn’t learn about new arguments to take to bring onto the table or know if ending pet sales was necessary and if Kijiji’s incremental changes have solved the problems; and they haven’t. So continue, never stop.

Tessa: I would completely agree with everything that Barbara said. When we started, Terry Beach, our MP, reached out to Minister Wilkinson and basically brought all of his senior policy people to a meeting with Terry and the minister to meet with Elephanatics and Humane Society International Coalition to talk about the elephant issue.

There were some really tough questions and the minister had to ask those questions. I totally understand that, but it’s collaborating with like minded people on all sides of the table, that’s how you make it. happen. You have to bring people along.

And to that point, there was a local a sale at an auction house of wildlife parts, including ivory and rhino horn. And people were outraged. They said, you have to talk to them.

I ended up just having this incredible conversation with the person who owned the auction house. And I think when we both left that conversation, I would say that we both would be able to have another conversation again and be able to continue that conversation because you can’t alienate people. You have to bring them along with you as best as you can. And so I think that’s really key.

Find support where you can

Chantelle: That’s an amazing point. My mind keeps coming back to your water over rocks analogy, Tessa, because there’s so many points where you can encounter resistance to change. And the more you take other routes and change public opinion and change policy and laws, the more these resistant sectors are going to have to keep up. It’s kind of like you’re slowly eroding the rocks.

Tessa: Oh, absolutely. And I think most people want to do the right thing. I don’t think everyone knows how systemically complex it is or why. And so you have to build that kind of emotional, I can do something and I will do something, and keep that conversation going and you’ll win more of those people over.

It’s a long process, but it’s really important to keep your eye on the ball.

Chantelle: Yeah. Just very slowly bringing the practice around; “this is the way things have always been done” isn’t a good enough reason to keep doing them that way.

Thinking of becoming a grassroots advocate?

Two kittens lie on their backs on the floor

Chantelle: Is there any final advice that you would give to people who are interested in taking those first steps into getting involved with grassroots advocacy?

Ask for support

Barbara: Ask support from anyone, people, companies, businesses. Like Tessa said, we never know where we’re going to find support in unexpected places.

Create Google alerts

Barbara: Create Google alerts relating to your campaign. You want to be aware because you can’t read all the news everywhere, but Google alerts have been really helpful for me.

Never give up

Barbara: And most importantly, never give up. I’ve been at this for a decade, but every minute of it has been worth it for the animals and the people who love them.

I always think about this at times when Kijiji says, no, no, no, no, no. I go to bed and I think of all the people who signed this, I’m going to back them up. I’m going to be there. I’m going to continue. So think about the people and the animals behind the petition. Never, never stop. Don’t give up.

Tessa: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more.

Remember your “why”

Tessa: I think what has motivated me, although I’ve worked on ivory and not elephants in captivity, but that elephant in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre changed me fundamentally as a person. And so everything I do for that poor elephant.

I think it’s not work if you’re passionate and you match it with your skills and you say, I’m going to do one thing every day.

Next episode

A cat seen through the bars of a cage in a shelter

Please join us next month as we discuss the sucesses, opportunities, and challenges faced by animal shelters and rescues in British Columbia.


Podcast: 10 years of animal cruelty investigations

One animal cruelty investigation tells a story. A decade of investigations reveals a pattern.

Important action: British Columbia is currently updating its Farmed Animal Welfare Framework. Can you support major changes to protect farmed animals in B.C.?

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In this month’s episode of the Informed Animal Ally, Vancouver Humane Society Campaign Director Emily Pickett discusses what she has observed in her decade of working with the organization. What patterns have there been? What’s changed? And, armed with a growing body of information about animal well-being and newly released recommendations for B.C.’s Farmed Animal Welfare Framework, where do we go from here?

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Campaign Director

Emily joined the VHS team in 2014, after completing her degree in Political Studies from the University of Saskatchewan and a campaign internship with the Humane Society of the United States. She has worked in the non-profit sector ever since and her life-long love for animals has guided her work in the animal protection and conservation movements. As VHS’s Campaign Director, Emily manages the organization’s campaign strategy around issues including farmed animals; animals in captivity; animals in entertainment; and co-existence with wildlife.

The last 10 years of farmed animal cruelty

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

Amy: Emily, can you provide an overview of farmed animal cruelty investigations in British Columbia over the past decade?

Emily: Certainly. I joined the VHS in 2014 just as news was breaking about an investigation that would become one of the most prolific in B.C. history.

2014 investigation: Chilliwack Cattle Sales

Emily: Undercover footage taken by a worker at Chilliwack Cattle Sales showed dairy cows being subjected to horrific cruelty and abuse. The case and the subsequent trial came to dominate the media cycle.

While those in the industry argued that the case represented a “bad apple” and was the exception, not the rule in terms of how animals are treated in the animal agriculture industry, the unfortunate reality is that there have been near-annual undercover investigations that have taken place over the last decade.

And that’s just in British Columbia alone.

Near-annual investigations reveal recurring cruelty concerns

Emily: Since The Chilliwack cattle sales case in 2014, we’ve seen undercover investigations across the entire animal agriculture industry, including:

These are really illustrating serious, systemic, recurring issues within this industry that need to be addressed.

Investigation timeline

Outcomes and cruelty charges

Close up photo of a crowded group of broiler chickens with missing feathers in a factory farm

Amy: What were the outcomes of those investigations?

Emily: Generally speaking, charges in these kinds of cases are quite rare.

The 2014 Chilliwack cattle sales case was a first in terms of a B.C. company itself being held accountable for farmed animal cruelty. The company’s president and a director pled guilty to animal cruelty, and the company was fined about $345,000. Several employees also pled guilty and they received varying jail sentences ranging somewhere from about seven to 60 days, and these were served intermittently.

They also received probation, fines, and there were also some prohibitions handed out against caring for animals for a certain amount of time.

Some went through an appeal process as well.

In the case of the 2017 Elite Farm Services investigation, six employees were fired as a result of that, and the chicken catching company itself was fined about $300,000 and put on three years probation. But in the time that it took for the company to be charged in 2021, Elite Farm Services was accused of cruelty again in two other investigations in 2018 and 2020.

So both the Chilliwack Cattle Sales and the Elite Farm Services cases took several years to result in charges and fines. And we’re still waiting on updates about some of the more recent investigations.

Chantelle: It’s so frustrating that animals are suffering while we wait for justice to be served. As you mentioned, charges in these kinds of cases are rare and the outcome can be just business as usual. And that’s just the cases that come to light.

Challenges enforcing cruelty laws

Four rows of about five warehouse style poultry barns

Chantelle: In general, it’s difficult to investigate and enforce animal cruelty cases. Could you talk about some of the challenges that are involved in investigating and enforcing cruelty laws in British Columbia?

No government-funded enforcement for thousands of farms operating in province

Emily: Yeah, there are a number of challenges starting with the fact that there are thousands of animal farms across British Columbia, which really makes oversight and enforcement just more difficult.

Another issue is that the B.C. government doesn’t fund enforcement of its own Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Enforcement of the act is primarily done by the BC SPCA, which relies on donations to conduct this really important work.

Investigations are complaints-based, but industry is hidden from public view

Emily: Investigations by authorities are based on a complaint-driven system rather than being proactively conducted.

This is of course, quite problematic when we consider that farmed animals are increasingly kept confined behind closed doors and ultimately hidden from public eye.

This is why undercover investigations have played such a significant role.

Many undercover investigations not admissible in court

Emily: The other factor to consider is that if footage is obtained illegally, it’s then not admissible in court.

And that’s something that we’ve seen in these investigations in some of these cases as well.

Individual workers blamed for company issues

Emily: In the rare event that charges are laid, we have seen that it’s often employees who are typically held accountable, while management and companies often can escape blame.

“Slap on the wrist” penalties not an effective deterrent

Emily: Another issue is ensuring that penalties are effective enough to deter animal cruelty in the first place and hold those who abuse animals accountable.

We can’t have fines that are just seen as a cost of doing business.

Patterns in cruelty cases

A crowded battery cage full of brown laying hens

Chantelle: Could you talk about some of the commonalities and trends that we’re seeing in these cases?

Cruelty is endemic in animal agriculture industry

Emily: I think the fact that we see these investigations across all types of farms, from dairy farms to egg farms, chicken farms, pig farms, and even slaughterhouses, this tells us that that these problems are systemic within the animal agriculture sector.

It isn’t just a case of a couple of bad apples, as is sometimes suggested.

And while company management and owners often claim to have not known about cruelty issues taking place on farms, we often see that undercover investigators and whistleblowers have reported concerns to management and owners, but no action is taken to address these issues.

So I think there’s a lot more of an issue of a toxic culture and environment in many of these places.

Same companies are repeat offenders

Emily: Another trend that we’ve seen is that it’s often not the first time that a company has been accused of cruelty or neglect. For example, we see that prior to the 2014 Chilliwack Cattle Sales investigation, the company was in court after a number of cows were injured while being transported to slaughter in 2008 (link opens as PDF).

Meanwhile, the chicken catching company Elite Farm Services is accused of cruelty in several instances over a number of years.

The company involved in the Meadow Valley Meats slaughterhouse investigation was previously known as Pitt Meadows Meats, which pled guilty in 2015 to selling E. coli tainted meat and deciding not to recall that meat.

More recently, there’s also the Excelsior Hog Farm case where the farm was accused of cruelty in a 2019 investigation and then again in late 2023.

Animals treated as products, not beings

Emily: Without getting into detail about what’s captured in the footage of these undercover investigations, we ultimately see that these animals are being treated as cogs in a machine or parts in a factory rather than the living, feeling beings that they are.

Not only are they handled and treated in this way that we see in the footage, but they’re kept in this way throughout their entire lives. They’re warehoused in these industrial environments that prevent them from engaging in even some of the most basic behaviours.

When we see animals behave like animals at all, when they react or they resist, what we see in the footage is they’re not treated kindly in response.

Amy: There’s so much work that goes into getting this footage that the organizations and people that are gathering the footage are releasing what they have.

Every time there is an undercover recording operation that goes on, that footage is being released.

That footage is going out for recommendations for charges, at least by the people who took the footage. They’re asking the government to put forward charges. And I think what’s so striking about it is that we see a consistency that when people are recorded behind the scenes, they aren’t treating animals well.

And particularly it’s most common when it comes to handling animals. I saw this firsthand working on farms myself. These were really amazing farms with organic or free range. And still, when it came to the handling, I saw animals being hit and poked and prodded and verbally abused and demonized.

And that’s what comes out in all of this footage year after year.

Growing public awareness

A pig chewing on the bars of a transport truck on the way to a slaughterhouse
Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals Media

Amy: How has public awareness and perception of animal cruelty evolved over the past decade in British Columbia as a result of these pieces of footage being released to the media?

More people calling for change

Emily: I think the last decade of undercover investigations has really contributed to growing public concern around farmed animal welfare and around the lack of transparency just surrounding our food system in general.

In fact, around this time last year the National Farm Animal Animal Care Council released its updated Dairy Cattle Code of Practice. These codes of practice provide guidelines for the care of dairy cows on farms across Canada. The code’s public comment period reportedly received a record setting number of comments from more than 5,800 individuals, many of whom indicated they were participating as a concerned citizen or animal welfare advocate.

It was exciting to us to see such strong public involvement in a consultation about the specific day to day care and handling of dairy cows.

Growing awareness of animal sentience

Emily: More generally speaking, we are also seeing stronger awareness and support of concepts like One Welfare, which recognizes the interconnectedness of the well-being of animals, people, and the environment, and our collective understanding of animal sentience. This is the concept that animals have the capacity to experience feelings like happiness, joy, pain and suffering.

I think that’s also really expanded in the last decade as well. As we as a society have continued to learn more about the welfare and well-being of animals, we’ve seen public sentiment shift on many topics and the impact that that’s had on government regulations.

Progress in animal laws

Emily: For example, although it’s not farmed animal related, the 2017 Vancouver Park Board ban on whale and dolphin captivity is an example. That was followed by a federal ban across Canada in 2019.

There was the example of significant restrictions announced by the B.C. government in 2022 around the use of some of the most dangerous and inhumane rodent poisons. We’re seeing government regulations evolve as well, slowly but surely.

As the B.C. government reviews its long outdated Farmed Animal Welfare Framework, now is really a crucial opportunity for the province to bring into alignment public values and the demand that the public has for the humane treatment of animals on farms as well.

Chantelle: It’s so promising that we’re seeing the public awareness growing around animal well being.

It’s not only awareness, we’re really seeing that people care deeply about animals. So often, when people know what’s going on with animals, there’s a strong drive to change it. But then, unfortunately, on the flip side, that means we have the industries who profit off of animal suffering trying to keep that suffering more and more hidden.

Ag-gag laws combatting public awareness

A long shot of a warehouse style barn crowded with broiler chickens raised for meat

Chantelle: As you mentioned, we have more animals than ever that are being raised in these industrial farms behind closed doors. And in B.C., welfare requirements aren’t proactively enforced on a large scale.

There are trespassing laws that prevent activists and journalists from entering onto farms.

And then taking that a step further, there’s a rise in ag-gag legislation that punishes people who expose animal cruelty on farms. That’s making the industry even less transparent to the public by preventing undercover footage that shows how animals are being treated. So how are people going to know?

Recently, on April 2nd of this year, Animal Justice, Jessica Scott Reed, and Louise Jorgensen struck down significant parts of an ag-gag law in Ontario by showing how it violated charter protected freedom of expression.

I’m really excited about seeing where that goes in the future and how that can help with transparency across Canada.

Amy: Thanks for sharing about that, Chantelle. I worked a job in the past that brought me inside chicken barns inside pig slaughterhouses, chicken slaughterhouses, on dairy and beef farms; cows live in all different circumstances.

And it’s amazing to think that that’s a unique thing that I have seen more than most of the public. And yet people are consuming these animals and their products without really understanding what their experience is.

Chantelle: I think it’s very telling that in every fully vegan space that I’ve been in, there’s been at least one person there who’s previously worked in animal agriculture.

So seeing what happens behind closed doors is a real motivation not to be consuming animals.

What’s next?

An outdoor photo of a spotted brown and white cow nuzzling her baby calf in a farm sanctuary meadow

Amy: I’m curious, Emily, with your experience working on farmed animal welfare, what would you like to see change in the way that farmed animal welfare regulations exist and are enforced?

Proactively enforced regulations based in science

Emily: Well, to start, regulations really need to be based on the best available animal welfare science, and they need to be proactively enforced with independent third party audits of farms and of slaughterhouses.

There should be consistent video monitoring in place in these facilities too, along with publicly available reports of all these audits and inspections in order to provide real transparency.

That’s something that the public just doesn’t have, and it’s really important that that be changed.

Make cruelty prevention a priority

Emily: Appropriate deterrents are also a must to prevent animal cruelty in the first place. This should include unannounced inspections and effective penalties for those who commit animal cruelty.

And I think for all of this to be effective, the government really needs to properly fund the oversight and enforcement of this work and to make it a top priority.

Meaningful action is long overdue

Emily: These are the kinds of requests that the VHS and many other animal protection organizations have been long advocating for. I remember seeing this when I first started with VHS after the very first investigation when I joined the organization that the Chilliwack Cattle Sales case in 2014, seeing calls for video surveillance in these facilities. It’s long overdue.

And the recently released advisory committee’s recommendations report, which is part of the farmed animal welfare framework review that’s currently underway, touches on some of these themes. So I know we and many others will be watching very closely to see how the minister responds to that recommendations report and many of these specific recommendations.

We’ll certainly be continuing to advocate for those much needed changes as well.

Public transparency is key

Amy: I think the piece around transparency is the one that I see as the most valuable because government has incentive to essentially maintain a food system for the public that is affordable and that contradicts with some of the values around making sure animals are treated well.

And so given this sort of juxtaposition, the most important part is that all of the government work is immediately transparent so that it doesn’t need to be requested or need someone spending hours pouring over documents to know exactly what information to ask for.

What we need to see as a result of all of the recommendations made by this advisory committee is that the information that comes out of it is intentionally made public.

I think the biggest impact, and essentially on what industry and government might call “eroding public trust”, is the reality of what the investigations and audits find. And so if that information is continuously made available, then we will see improvements in how animals are treated.

But if that information is kept as securely and as private as possible by the government, we’ll essentially not see any drastic changes.

How you can help

Overhead photo of a group of young adults sharing a family style plant-based meal from a coffee table

Amy: So given all of the recommendations you’ve made, Emily, and also my emphasis, how can listeners help prevent farmed animal cruelty and move towards the system that we’re suggesting?

Stay in touch with decision-makers

Emily: I think one of the most impactful things that people can do is to reach out to decision-makers about this kind of an issue and let them know that it’s a top concern for them as a consumer, as a resident, as a voter.

Write to your MLA, your Member of Parliament, to ministers. Ask to meet with them, ask them to support these much-needed changes to better protect farmed animals and thank them when they do, that’s a really important part as well. And continue to stay in touch and keep the issue on their radar and ultimately continuing to speak up for animals.

Amy: I think this is all really critical. And the more of a broken record you are, the more likely change is going to happen. That’s what we’ve seen with animal welfare, because there isn’t a lot of money behind the work that we’re doing compared to the amount of money that industry has to put into advertising, to put into building what they call “public trust”.

And so what we have is the squeaky wheel. We have the ability to just keep talking to the same people saying, Hey, this really matters. Hey, it still really matters.

And then we have the ability to make choices ourselves in the grocery store to show essentially politicians that we put our money where our mouth is and we buy products that don’t affect animals and cause animals to suffer.

And we do as much of that as we possibly can, wherever we are on our journey of changing our diet, that we’re prioritizing products that don’t harm animals.

Choose plant-based foods when you can

Chantelle: Yeah, absolutely. We say this in almost every episode, whether it’s farmed animals or fishes or wildlife, because it’s such an integral part to making really significant change. But one of the best things that you can do on an individual level is choosing plant-based foods whenever you can.

And if you’re not at that stage, advocating for plant-based foods to be available and accessible.

The greatest animal suffering comes from the demand. There’s so much demand for animal products. If you imagine someone whose job it is to send thousands of animals to their death every day, that would be an impossible task if you were seeing each animal as an individual. So it’s so critical that we’re decreasing the demand for industrial animal agriculture and moving toward more of a plant-based, less animal-based food system.

Next episode

An elephant in the wild

Please join us next month as we discuss the last ten years of farmed animal investigations in B.C.


Podcast: How animals touch our lives

Do you remember that one animal who touched your heart in a way that you’ll hold dear for a lifetime?

For many animal allies, our personal connections with animals have shaped the way we see the world and advocate for compassion. In this month’s episode of the Informed Animal Ally, the Vancouver Humane Society team and allies discuss animals who have changed their lives.

Would you like to be featured in the next episode like this?

You could be on the next episode about animals who touch our lives! If your story is selected, you will be contacted before the next stories episode and invited to share a short audio and video clip (about 2-5 minutes long) about an animal who has made a difference in your life.

Next episode

Please join us next month as we discuss the last ten years of farmed animal investigations in B.C.


Podcast: What does your relationship with your pet say about you?

Can research help us understand our bonds with animals?

In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault are joined by Dr. Sasha Protopopova and Dr. Camila Cavalli from UBC to discuss the research on human-animal bonds.

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Assistant Professor NSERC/BC SPCA Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare

Sasha is an assistant professor at UBC and the NSERC/BC SPCA Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare. She has PhD and a Master of Science in Behavior Analysis, a Bachelor’s degree in Pre-Veterinary and Animal Science, and a Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience. Sasha’s research aims are to improve animal shelter practices, improve companion animal welfare through the development of behavioural interventions in shelters as well as pet homes, and assess and improve on the well-being of working dogs working in assistance roles. 

Post-Doctoral Researcher

Camila is a post-doctoral researcher at UBC. She believes a deeper understanding of the way dogs communicate with humans is vital to improve our relationship with them and protect their welfare, and devotes her career to the study of dog cognition. Her PhD focused on the sociocognitive abilities of therapy dogs who visit people in places like hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. As a postdoc, she’s expanding her research to learn more about the characteristics of successful therapy dogs, their motivation, and the welfare benefits of giving dogs the option to opt in.  

Becoming animal researchers

Amy: How did you become interested in human animal interaction?

Sasha: I think what led me first into it as a child is I had a very important, great connection to dogs and to horses and to kind of other animals that were around me at the time, so much so that I would say that my best friend was a dog when I was a child in Russia.

And so I had a lot of deep connections already with animals as I was growing up. But I didn’t really know what I could do with that in terms of a career. I was reading all these books about veterinarians, about maybe research in Africa with primates. And I was kind of imagining that I should be a veterinarian of some kind.

I kind of went down that path in my early education. I was imagining that I was going to go to vet school, but that didn’t really pan out. I decided that actually I was much more interested in behaviour and much more interested in domesticated animals specifically and how they related to us, than just thinking about their physiology. And so I switched and really went into research instead of veterinary medicine.

Camila: Yeah, I think we all thought we might someday be vets. In my case, it was the opposite. As a child, I couldn’t have a pet and I really wanted to have a dog. I was obsessed with everything about dogs and I would read all the time about them, but I couldn’t have one.

I really wanted to interact more with dogs. I was thinking, I’m going to be a vet when I grow up. But I decided to study psychology because I was really interested in behaviour, but I wasn’t such a fan of humans. So I thought, maybe I can find other types of behavior.

Then I met my former PI who was studying dog behaviour in Argentina. And it was like, this is perfect. I’m finally studying dogs. It combined my interests in behaviour and dogs.

Research on animals

Chantelle: We’re so interested to talk about your perspectives on companion animal relationships. I would love to hear a little bit more about your research in this area.

Sasha: My graduate school was really focused on animal shelters. I was a dog trainer before as an undergraduate student.

I first thought that I was going to probably pursue research and dog training itself, but my former supervisor, Dr. Clive Wynne, suggested that I go visit the local shelter and see what’s going on in there. Thinking about, how can I combine the two fields? What can I do as a dog trainer within animal shelters to improve adoption rates of dogs?

I started with that and I went to the shelter. I naively thought that if I were to just train some cute behaviour in a dog, for sure, adoptions will go up and all the world problems will be solved. And so I did that for my master’s thesis. I trained a cute behaviour. It was a cute gaze into the eyes of potential adopters from dogs.

And so that was successful in terms of the training perspective. It was totally unsuccessful. in improving adoptions. I saw no increases in adoptions at all.

That made me realize that I was rather naive and really coming at it from a dog trainer perspective, and not really thinking about it from a more holistic understanding of human interactions. I was kind of forgetting about the human side of things.

From then on all of my research focused not only on the animals, but more on that human side. So what is it that people are looking for in dogs, whether it is to increase adoption rates for my doctoral research, or later on with our work with Camila, when we’re looking at a therapy dog context. So all of these things are connecting the human experience, not just the animal experience.

Camila: In my case, I started as an undergrad. I found a person studying dog behavior and I latched onto her. I did my undergrad thesis with her studying post conflict reconciliation in dogs and humans.

Then for my PhD, I started focusing on therapy dogs, which I have continued to up to now. At times in my research, I focus more on the dog and how they behave and their social cognitive abilities. But it’s of course always important to consider the human parts of those interactions.

Research is very central to the whole topic; to consider everyone that’s there, not only the child and the dog, but also a handler that’s communicating all the time with the dog and with the child. And it’s a very complex situation.

Interactions with different species

Amy: I’m curious about whether the way that you look at human animal interaction varies by species. And if so, in what ways?

Sasha: What an interesting question. Certainly as Camila is, I’m quite dog obsessed. So my personal research has really been with one species, dogs, butI was very lucky to have worked with other graduate students who have studied different species.

One that comes to mind right away are cats. And so this is a work by a current PhD student, Bailey Eagan. One of her studies and her overall line of research is to help cats do well in an animal shelter context, especially cats that are coming in from quite difficult circumstances, like a hoarding environment where they don’t necessarily get a lot of socialization opportunities with other people, they might have some genetic developmental issues, health issues. And so they are coming in quite needy, both behaviourally and medically. And then animal shelters or rescue or rehabilitation services need to devise ways to help them find successful homes.

No Title

Maddie’s® Insights are monthly webcasts with practical tips based on current research to help pets and people. This month’s webinar is presented by Bailey Eagan, MSc, PhD Student. Cats entering shelters often experience fear, anxiety, and stress while in care.

And so in that context, there were some interesting aspects of the cat human relationship that were different from the dog human relationship. Some other things were very similar.

In terms of gauging how successful some rehabilitation programs are with the cats, we looked at sociability towards humans. This is something that is quite similar to dog research, how we think of, what is a successful dog? In the shelter, that’s an animal who is safe, who is seeking out human attention, and is successfully interacting with humans.

For cats, safety may not be largest kind of predictor of a successful relationship.

Another set of data comes to mind from another PhD student in my lab, Lexis Ly. Lexis is a data scientist and has done quite a bit of research where she is combining datasets. One of the things that she did was looked at what were the reasons for surrender of cats and dogs to animal shelters and why people selected self rehoming versus rehoming to a shelter.

She’s compared people who’ve rehomed cats and dogs and what were the reasons for rehoming. Some were similar, but fewer people cited safety, aggression issues, or behavioural issues for cats than dogs.

There’s some similarities, but overall, I think the connection that people have towards companion animals as they kind of seek them out for adoption is in some ways quite similar.

We have some other research that is just starting out with rabbit and human interactions. So perhaps if we do this podcast again next year, I might have some other things to say about rabbits or rats

Chantelle: Oh, wonderful. I’d be so interested to hear about that. Camila, did you have anything to add?

Camila: Yeah, I’m the dog person, so I don’t know a lot about other species beyond personal experience.

I think it’s important to consider when we are thinking about human animal interactions, sometimes people may try to interact with animals who they shouldn’t be interacting with becausethat may be dangerous for people or something that’s uncomfortable for the animal and it affects their welfare.

Just because they look cute, we shouldn’t try to pet a raccoon that we find in our neighborhood. So I think that’s also something to consider. We can learn about species or look at them, but not physically interact with all of the species, even if we want to.

Sasha: You know, Camila and I are really focused on companion animals. And so we certainly are answering these questions from that perspective; when you say other species, we’re thinking cats, dogs, maybe horses, maybe rabbits, anyone that people have that very personal connection with.

But yesterday I had the privilege to attend a book launch by Dr. David Fraser, who’s retired from our animal welfare program. And there he read some excepts from his new edition of the book Understanding Animal Welfare. And he was highlighting how there are so many different societal influences and how we perceive our interactions with animals, and how we’re very speciesist and our care for animals.

There was an example along the lines where a typical farmer may in the morning go to with his elderly dog to the veterinarian to figure out a way to spend money to prolong the dog’s life, in the afternoon send six week old pigs to slaughter, and then set up a trap in the evening for a pesky coyote.

It highlights that within a given day we might have so many different relationships with animals and that’s only really dependent on our cultural attitudes or value systems as we relate to animals or historical aspects.

There’s so many other types of human animal interactions that are out there.

Chantelle: That’s a great point. We are focusing on companion animals today, but we’ve talked about the needs and interactions of farmed animals and wildlife. So that’s really interesting to hear about.

Surprising findings

Chantelle: It sounds like both of you have really fascinating projects about human animal interaction. I would love to hear more about those and if there are any results from those that surprised you.

Sasha: Yeah. Even going back to my doctoral research, where I was looking at what increases adoption rates in dogs, I think what was surprising to me is there are very few things that people look for when they’re selecting a dog.

I was imagining that people had all these behavioural selection criteria when they’re going into the shelter and they’re really kind of selecting based on some kind of match between the family and the dog.

And one thing that I was surprised by was that a lot of that selection was based on the morphology of the dog. So the cute little puppies are going to go home much faster, or small breeds are going to go faster. The certain interesting long coats are going to go faster than other dogs.

I was surprised that looks mattered much more than the behaviour of the dog, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. I think that perhaps this is kind of the problem with the human condition generally; that we go after looks first and then the match or the behaviour second.

It made me realize that I shouldn’t be just basing my research questions based on those assumptions that I had about how people engage with animals.

Instead, there is plenty of opportunity for empirical investigations into human interaction so that if we do want to devise some kind of programs to improve adoptions, for example, or create some kind of change for the better for society in terms of animal welfare, that we have to actually start with that initial collection of data.

Camila: I think maybe a bit surprising for me was when I started comparing therapy dogs and pet dogs; that they weren’t all that different in a lot of things, because it wasn’t like they were magical therapy dogs in every aspect I was measuring.

Of course I did find some differences, for example, in the gaze and behaviour and they would communicate more with humans in some situations.

And that makes sense because in the sessions, as I said, can be a very complex situation with different people with things that may be unpredictable happening. So it makes sense for them to be looking at the handler or be looking at people much more maybe than family dogs that don’t have these experiences.

Sasha: Another one that I think I was surprised overall thinking about therapy dogs or therapy animals was how it seemed how little the handlers of those animals seem to understand their own animals.

I can kind of reference a couple of studies.

One of the studies was by my master’s student, Megan Arant for her master’s thesis, who was curious about the welfare of therapy dogs. She wanted to ask the question of whether, if given a choice of therapy, dogs actually wanted to engage with children or if they would choose to leave and it really was the handlers who were kind of pushing this volunteerism onto the dogs.

She devised a couple of experiments and she recruited therapy dogs who were registered therapy dogs; specifically whose handlers said that their dog’s favourite thing are children.

So she had that sub sample of dogs who were hypothetically very interested in children. And then she asked those dogs some questions behaviourally.

One of those was a button press experiment. The dogs were trained to press one of two buttons by trials. One of the buttons essentially just kept the dog in the room. So it was nothing, it was a control button. And another button led the dog out for a break out of the room. And in the control condition, that room was empty. And so we wouldn’t expect any differences in the button pressing. But in the experimental condition, the room contained a child.

And that child would follow the dog and interact with the dog in a very typical animal assisted intervention type of session where there is some physical interaction between the child and the dog. These therapy dogs are registered therapy dogs, so this is something that they have experience with.

She saw that some dogs did elect to start pressing the button more to stay in the room. So this is great because this tells us that, yeah, the therapy dogs were really enjoying their sessions with the child. But what was surprising was that not all of those therapy dogs did that. We would hypothesize that all of those dogs are really in love with children as their handlers will say, but in fact, most of the dogs really didn’t care about the child either way.

So there was no change from baseline to the experimental condition. And in fact, a few dogs really actively started pressing the button to leave the room. This is of course very concerning because again, these are not just pet dogs. These are therapy dogs whose handlers say they love children, and yet they still want to escape that room when the child is present, highlighting that handlers don’t always know what their dogs are actually telling them.

In the same vein, there was another study that was very interesting, but this time with therapy horses. Also conducted by Megan Arant and another colleague of mine, Dr. Katy Schroeder, who’s an equine assisted mental health professional.

This was a study conducted with therapy horses and these horses were used in sessions with children. So very similar to the dog sessions. And one of the activities in these sessions is to have the child groom the horse.

A lot of the times when you hear these sessions being discussed in the public media, it’s said that the horses really love the grooming. The grooming is part of that connection between the horse and the child. And this is where the positive benefits are arising between the horse and the child, and both are really enjoying that connection. And it makes it seem like the horse is an active part of this experience and is really engaging positively with the child in that way.

So we devised a very simple experiment asking horses whether they actually enjoy grooming. It was a simple task of touching their noses onto a fist of the experimenter. This was just a quick behaviour to train the horse.

And we could use that trained behavior; if we were to use food and every time the horse would touch the hand, they would get food. Would they keep working for that? Compared to if the horse got nothing, they would probably stop working and touching the hand.

This is a very simple method to ask animals whether some kind of item is rewarding. If some item is rewarding, they’re going to keep working to access that item. But if some other item is not rewarding, they’ll just stop working for it.

So knowing that we had a positive control of food, because we know animals love food, they’re going to work for food. We also had a negative control of nothing because we know if you provide nothing, animals will not engage in work for free. So knowing now we had a positive and negative control, then we had our experimental condition where if the horse touched their nose onto our fist, then they got a little bit of grooming in a very typical fashion of the therapy sessions.

And then we looked at how many nose touches were emitted by the horses and compared the rate of nose touching to the condition with the food, which was a positive control and the nothing, which was the negative control.

And quite sadly, for all the horses, they completely did not care about the brushing and no horse worked for the brushing. So the data looked identical for that negative control and the brushing, showing that for the horse brushing was equivalent to nothing, certainly not as exciting as the food.

And this kind of experiment was really a replication of other research that was done with dogs. If you ask the dog, what do you like? Do you like your owner saying, good boy, good job? They don’t care about that. That means essentially zero to them compared to food. Petting is a little bit okay for dogs, but again, if you compare that to food, that’s not as exciting.

I think when it comes to therapy animals, we tend to get a bit romantic and we tend to kind of imagine that there’s all this magical benefit or magical kind of connections between animals and humans and children. And that may be so, but I worry that occasionally because of this kind of romanticism superimposed on these activities, that we tend to forget to really watch the animal. And we forget to really consider that we may be wrong. And maybe this is not the correct situation for this animal and they’re not necessarily getting as much pleasure or as much benefit as we’re imagining they’re getting.

And maybe the benefit is really our projections of what we’re getting out of it. And so I think that is kind of an interesting lesson that data has shown for me at least.

Chantelle: That’s so interesting. I love the idea of being able to research and quantify when animals are opting into an activity. We had an episode last year on training dogs and cats; opting in was a major part of it.

Listen: How to train your dog or cat

I think the study about grooming is very telling. And I think we see the same sort of thing when people talk about petting farms where they’re very romanticized; “the children are getting that experience and the animals love it too”. But what we end up seeing is that the animals are in these really loud environments where they’re quite stressed.

Understanding your relationship with your pet

Chantelle: A lot of our listeners share their lives with companion animals. Both of us certainly do. Do you have any advice that you would give to someone who wants to learn more about their own relationship with their companion animal?

Sasha: One thing one can do probably is to have some kind of understanding of that baseline relationship at the moment and whether they are satisfied in that relationship that they have.

Sometimes we humans tend to not really look at the animals and really just kind of assume that there is a certain benefit that both we and the animals are getting.

I’m also a dog behavior consultant. In my cases where I’ve gone into homes, I’m called because there’s some behaviour issue and I’m called in and asked to kind of solve the dog’s problem.

I think there’s a lot of situations where the owners have kind of inaccurately determine some aspects of the relationship between themselves and their dogs.

For example, one thing comes to mind, I was in a home environment with a German shepherd and his owner, and the German shepherd has previously had a lot of very aversive based training. And what I mean by that, there was kind of a lot of forcefulness exuding on the dog and the dog was not allowed to engage in any behaviours other than when commanded by the owner.

So the dog was very kind of inhibited in his behavior. He wouldn’t move, wouldn’t engage in toy play, even eating food was quite difficult for this dog. He was a very shut down type of dog.

Whereas the owner’s assessment of that situation is that the dog is very well trained and respects him as the leader.

As a third party kind of coming in and looking that relationship, to me it was a rather sad one where the dog really was not benefiting from that relationship where there was a lot of suppression of the dog’s natural state, natural behaviours.

There was a lot of kind of lack of enjoyment in the dog’s life. And that was evident by me trying to offer different foods to the dog and the dog just not eating, showing a lack of motivation to eat, lack of motivation to play.

When I would ask the dog for kind of any interaction, I would see a lot of avoidance behaviours. So instead of having the dog go forward to me or be curious, I would see a lot of turning away, a lot of stress behaviors, like ears back, tail tucked. And that again, kind of signified to me that perhaps the previous interactions with humans this dog had were not necessarily a pleasant one.

But again, this kind of from the owner’s perspective, the trainers before said, well, this is good because this is the dog showing you that you’re dominant. You know, the dog is submissive. Ears back is a good thing and so on and so on.

And so it’s tricky. I think when it’s hard to know who’s the expert, especially when it comes to dog training. I wonder if it’s really important in that case to get that education about body language, get that education about learning theory and kind of really truly understand and evaluate whether you are providing a good life to your animal and how you can improve honestly.

Camila: Yeah. It’s really interesting question. I was thinking along the same lines that how many times people assume that animals should like something because they like it and they may not.

And somebody was telling me this recently; she was saying her dog doesn’t respect her because he doesn’t want her to touch him. And I’m like, well, but how do you touch your dog? And then when she said, he’s a very tiny dog and I just carry him everywhere and I kind of bounce him like a baby.

She really loves the dog, doesn’t mean any harm, but she couldn’t realize that type of interaction wasn’t super fun for the dog.

She was thinking, my dog doesn’t love me. I spoke with her more, he probably really enjoys interacting with you in other ways. She was saying, yeah, he’s always bringing me his toys, but I never play with him.

Then I was advising, maybe you should interact more on his terms. And if he really likes playing with toys, then maybe you will have a better relationship with him if you played with toys instead of carrying him like a baby, which he clearly doesn’t enjoy.

How to have a good relationship with your pet

Chantelle: That actually segues really well into my next question, because of course, interacting with your companion animal on their terms is going to have a really positive impact on your relationship with them.

Are there other ways that a person can build a positive relationship with the animals they interact with?

Camila: Food. Sometimes if the animal is not super comfortable, food can always help a bit. As Sasha was saying, with the example of the horses, they do like food, and most animals do like food.

But of course it’s not the only way of interacting. Many dogs like playing. And it’s another way to interact that can be quite fun for both.

Sasha: One thing kind of that goes along with interacting with them on their own terms is also taking a look at all the unnecessary things we’re nagging our dogs about.

As I walk around Vancouver, there’s a lot of instances where people using food, using positive reinforcement training, but still are asking dogs to, for example, sit every time there’s a red light, and before crossing the street, or every time they see a dog, or they have to do this to do that.

There’s just a lot of requirements on the dog’s behaviour. And in some ways, it’s not always a bad thing necessarily. Training has some, of course, benefits, but it always makes me think how frustrating it must be to live a life like that for an animal. Imagine if you were in a relationship with someone who did that to you all the time.

I think a lot of the time, when we think about how we relate to our pets, there may be this maternal/paternal relationship to animals, but I wonder if perhaps it could be better defined as more of a friendship.

And if it is more of a friendship, perhaps then it will change the way that we do certain things. Do we really ask our friends to like sit every time we stop moving or whatever it is? I’ve wondered a lot about that in the last couple of years and really started seeing people and dogs interact with each other from a very different perspective.

I’ve noticed that there seems to be a large disconnect with some relationships where the dog is clearly looking at something super interesting. So from the dog’s perspective, there’s like a really exciting bird over there. And the dog wants to tell the owner. He might even look at the owner and then look at the bird, so he has some kind of social referencing going on and inviting the owner to share in this excitement of this bird.

And then some owners will just tug at the dog and say, stop that, come with me, stop looking at this bird. They find that annoying or frustrating, and punish the dog for any showing any kind of interest in their environment or inviting the owner to join in on this exciting thing.

But then there’s some relationships that are very different. Like you see some owners do the opposite where they notice that their dog is interested in something and they’ll share attention. They’ll be like, Oh, that’s so cool. Like let’s go there and let’s check it out. Whenever I see that second type of relationship, my heart gets really warm, and it just feels nice because that feels like there’s actually a benefit to those relationships. They’re actually enjoying each other’s company, which is lovely.

Again, kind of made me think about if you had a partner who you would kind of tell them like, Oh, look, there’s this really cool, or there’s something either exciting or scary, and then your partner just says, ignore that, let’s keep moving. That’s not a relationship you’d want to stay in.

How we actually answer our dog’s behaviors is rather interesting to consider.

Camila: My parenthesis is that I have a dog that after seeing the bird screams, so then sometimes I need to redirect her because I know that the next behaviour is screaming from the bottom of her heart because there’s a bird and sometimes we don’t want that.

So sometimes I may seem like that kind of owner that are not letting them do what they really want at that moment, but it comes from knowing how she deals with different kinds of situations and how she has a hard time regulating her own emotions.

Sasha: Have you tried screaming with her? See what happens.

Camila: I could. People might look at me weirdly, so maybe if we both scream, it could be extra fun.

It is definitely nice to share moments with a dog.

I also watch people when I’m out and about and see people with dogs. I see a lot of people who are on the phone and the dog is sniffing something but they keep walking because they don’t realize the dog had stopped. I think walks are a moment to share with the dog. So yes, sometimes, of course, it may be a bit boring every day to walk an hour with the dog, but I do try to pay attention to her in this time.

Amy: Thanks for sharing that both of you. You’re really bringing to mind my housemate. We went on a road trip with my dog and they shared the front seat together and they kind of got to be like siblings.

And she sent me a video recently. She took Clover for a run. The video was really about what Clover wanted to do.

In the video, she’s like, okay, Clover’s taking me to her favorite beach. And then she sends me a video of them barking at each other because Clover loves to bark. And she was like, well, I’ll bark back then we can bark together. And it really shows that beauty of like seeing who the dog is.

Clover really enjoys barking. She just loves it. She loves the sound of her own voice. And sometimes she’s saying something and you figure that out, but other times she’s just like, I love barking and I want to do it right now.

So I do really appreciate that. And I think it’s important to make those spaces for dogs like that; maybe there are some situations where it’s not okay to bark and you want to redirect the behavior and reward them being quiet and give them distractions. But other times it’s like, well, there has to be a nice time to be able to bark and to let that emotion out. So yeah, I appreciated that kind of screaming at the birds together comment.

Can you understand your pet?

Amy: Many people think they can understand what their cat or dog is trying to communicate with them. What studies have been done on communications between guardians and their pets?

Sasha: That’s a really interesting one. Historically in imperative cognition research, there’s been some attempts at trying to understand what is language and whether non human animals can engage in language.

And of course, and this is not communication in that sense; there’s no debate at all whether animals can communicate with each other.

We hear that in birdsong, we see that continuously through body language, through play, through aggression, it’s all communication.

But in the sense of kind of a human sense of language, there’s been a lot of research in primates to see whether chimpanzees or bonobos can be taught from an early age. So fostering type studies where a newborn bonobo or newborn chimpanzee is taken into a human family and is raised in a family and is taught sign language. Fundamentally, later on, scientists are in agreement that there really has never been a proper demonstration of any language-like abilities in that sense of non human primates, whether it’s through the use of sign language, there’s no kind of vocal ability, nor pressing buttons.

And so in terms of that kind of aspect, that research has kind of taken a pause, but it’s been substituted with other types of research.

Camila: Yeah, I think those early studies, are interesting, but they weren’t very successful in teaching animals to speak.

But we are now many years out from that, and we are still trying to teach our dogs to speak with buttons. It’s like, why are we so obsessed with teaching animals to speak?

I think, at least to me, it’s more valuable to try to understand them on their own terms.

Sometimes it’s good because there are some people that are using so much energy and so much time interacting with their dogs, trying to get them to use buttons to speak that they are spending time together, but maybe they could be spending time together doing something else that’s more fun for the dog.

And I don’t think we need those buttons to actually understand our animals. Sometimes we are not totally great at that. As we said, with the case of the therapy dog, sometimesthe handlers may not realize all of the times that a dog is stressed. But I think anybody who interacts with a companion animal, especially in the case of dogs and cats, you can understand if they want you to open the door or if they want you to play. They don’t need to press a button or have something that’s human-like to tell us how to interact with them.

So I’m not a fan of those kind of projects, but I do think it’s possible for people to understand animals using their own behaviors.

And there is a whole line of research that focuses on showing behaviour in which, for example, you have a dog and you’re in the house or in a space in which you can hide some things. The owner or the person that’s familiar with the dog goes some away from the room and you hide something and the dog is the one that knows. And you need to see if people will find things based on their dog’s behavior.

And actually, people are quite good at following the dogs. And the dogs are quite good at showing things, but they usually only show things that are interesting to them. So when people try to get them to show office supplies or something, those didn’t work, but if you hide a toy, it’s probably very easy for the person to realize where the toy is in the room because the dog is directing a lot of behaviours towards the place, directing their gaze or barking or touching the place and trying to paw at the place and it’s quite obvious. But if you hid a stapler, then you’re probably not going to find it from your dog.

Sasha: I think there’s a lot of the ways that I think we teach dogs to communicate with us for sure because if they want us to do something, they have to successfully show it to us.

So for example, in all the cases where the dogs have learned to approach the door and then sit in front of the door and then kind of alternate gaze between the door, stare at the door intently to indicate that they want to go outside; the owners didn’t necessarily teach the dogs that, train the dog formally in that way. But just through experience that if the dog happened to be by that area, the owner then understood and reinforced that behaviour by allowing the dogs to go outside. And so kind of naturally, these types of communications between the owner and the dog happen.

So I think direct training is not even almost necessary; just occupying the same space and responding to each other’s needs could be quite sufficient to create these communication abilities between human and animal.

Amy: It’s amazing to think about where we’ve come from, like the studies in the sixties with the dolphins that were pretty awful and coming to a place now where all of the communication studies are focused on giving animals the best chance at expressing themselves and trying to really understand them from their own perspectives.

Can your bond with your pet be measured?

Amy: What are some of the benefits and challenges with the scales and measures that researchers use to gauge their bond with animals?

Sasha: I think the main one, of course, is that a lot of them are survey based or questionnaires.

So for example, one that’s very popular is the labs is the Lexington attachment to pet scale, which is very frequently used. It’s asking the question of how attached the human is to the animal. And so that is very valuable for researchers to kind of get a sense of the human.

And of course, there’s plenty of surveys like that. That’s a very human directed or human centric type of inquiry in terms of assessments.

For the opposite of how attached or what is the relationship from the animal to the human, asking questions of the animal is more complicated because of course we have to then devise various types of behavioural tasks and then assume that what it is that we’re measuring is actually measuring the thing that we think we’re measuring.

For example, the Ainsworth Attachment Theory is originally devised between mother and child, and then kind of adapted to a dog and owner scenario. It involves a whole bunch of departures and entrances by the owner leaving the dog alone, and the interpretation of the test is that the attachment style of the dog is revealed.

Whether it’s secure attachment, which is when the owner returns and the dog is then greets the owner, but then goes on and interacts with other objects and engages in play behaviour; compared to an avoidant attachment style, for example, when the dog does not greet the owner upon return and looks like they’re mad at the owner, stays away from the owner. All of this, of course, is then our interpretation of the behaviour.

So that’s always kind of very tricky because we don’t actually have any kind of gold standard. All we’re doing is matching up one test result to another test result and kind of looking for correlations.

Camila: And even if we are testing something in the lab, of course, we may prepare the situation so it works better in the lab, but may not be exactly the same as it would happen in other situations in life or in their own home.

But sometimes you can! For example, with the pandemic, we learned to use Zoom for a lot of things. And we can also use Zoom to test dogs in their own house. And that’s quite interesting because then you have a video call with the owner and you use the computer as the camera and then it is a bit more like normal life for them. There is not a person coming in the house or the dog is not going into the lab.

But of course you lose a lot of other control in the situation because you don’t know what else is in the room, or maybe the cat walks by or somebody comes in. You have a lot more control if you are in a lab.

So I think, of course, both are valuable and the best way is always using different types of assessments.

As I just said, the surveys are really interesting and there are a lot of them, but sometimes they do depend on the interpretation of the owner of the behaviour of the dog. And sometimes they may not realize some things or they may not want to share some things.

For instance, if you have a therapy dog, you may not want to say in one of the impulsivity scales, my dog gets excited or out of control in situations, because you may feel like you’re going to be judged as a bad trainer or handler. So some people may not feel comfortable with that and may not want to say negative things about the dog.

Other people kind of need to vent so they may score everything quite negatively, but in truth if you were to see their actual relationship or to see how they interact in real life, it may be different.

Sasha: Some of the surveys or questionnaires that are designed to look at breed differences and still rely on the owner’s answering questions.

For example, there’s a questionnaire that’s very widely used in research called the Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). It has a whole bunch of questions about the behaviour of the dogs that the owners answer.

One of the things that I thought was really interesting when I was a graduate student, if you look at the outcomes of breeds, the greyhound is very low in aggression and all kinds of problem behaviours from the C-BARQ data.

And then I had an opportunity to assist with greyhound rescue. And there were a lot of greyhounds coming in with reactivity issues, with a lot of struggles on the leash, with a lot of, honestly, a little bit scary behavior for me.

And I was so surprised because I had this idea from reading the data. I’m like, oh, but the greyhounds are meant to be so nice and gentle and calm, what’s going on? And then I kind of delved into the relationships that owners of greyhounds have with their greyhounds.

I think this is very anecdotal, but I have a suspicion that greyhound owners are potentially thinking the greyhound is a little bit different than other animals. Not so much in Vancouver, but I know in the U.S. they tend to keep them on very tight leashes because the greyhound is a big dog. So it’s a very controlled environment and the dogs are not allowed to interact with other dogs. They’re always muzzled if they’re engaging with others. And so there’s a lot of very different types of management strategies that, at least in the U.S., owners of greyhounds have.

I’ve observed many cases where as I’m looking at this dog, I’m seeing a lot of reactivity, but the owner is not because “that’s just normal greyhound behaviour”. And they wouldn’t necessarily think of that as reactivity and greyhounds are not reactive.

And so I wondered if this is a case where kind of breed stereotypes actually perpetuate and then alter the results in scientific inquiries themselves. And then it perpetuates again and again and again.

And I think I’ve observed that in the shelter environment with breed labeling, that if someone is labeled as a German shepherd, perhaps the owners might kind of allow the dog to get away with things, you know, guarding behaviour. Thinking, well, he’s a German shepherd; he’s meant to guard. Compared to maybe a different breed, a golden retriever. If a golden retriever growls, that’s not appropriate. Golden retrievers are not meant to growl.

And so I think there’s also a lot of this human imposed acceptance of certain things and not acceptance of other things, which I think also change the way we then respond to that behaviour and kind of determine whether it’s appropriate or not appropriate and how much we should kind of fill out those questionnaires a little bit differently as well.

And so I wonder a lot about the kind of the owners themselves, how they are biased for or against their own breed in that sense.

I wanted to talk about a different situation where we struggle with trying to figure out what behaviour assessments actually do.

I had a PhD student, Kelsea Brown, who did her dissertation on sociability assessments. She was interested in the validity of behavioural assessments, generally in the shelter, and she really focused on sociability assessments because they seem to be most robust. This is a question of whether the dog is social to strange humans.

She conducted sociability tests on the same dogs, on leash off leash. She also looked at whether the test was conducted with her in a chair, kneeling versus standing; all of these very small procedural differences that are not ever accounted for in the shelter environment.

And she saw that social behaviour from the dogs was very different depending on the presence of the leash or no presence of the leash, or if the person was sitting, standing, or kneeling down.

And moreover, when she ranked the dogs based on sociability, seeing who’s the most social, who’s the least social, once you’ve altered some procedural differences, that ranking also changes. So essentially there is no validity to the behavioural assessment, which is scary.

The most obvious scary part is that we’re euthanizing dogs because they don’t pass some tests in the shelter, but also it’s quite scary for researchers because when we conduct these sociability tests, and then for example, we look for a gene of sociability or whatever it is, it’s very much dependent on what small procedural variation we have selected. How that will reflect on the data.

Camila is actually engaging in a really cool project that’s across different laboratories where there is an attempt to replicate simple behavioural experiments that we already think we know about in dogs across different laboratories.

Camila: Yeah, the Many Dogs project is a multi centric project. It has about 50 researchers across the world.

The idea is to try to do the same experiment in different parts of the world with different dogs, more or less with the same setup as much as we can. Make it similar and see what happens if you do the same test.

The first project was some pointing, which is something that has been extensively studied in dogs. And then we tried to see what would happen testing pointing in different labs.

It was a hard task, but it is super interesting from the point of replicability and open science to have the different people conduct the same tests or a very similar test and see what happens in different populations.

We are now gearing up for the second project. We are going to be looking at overimitation, which is the ability of dogs to imitate human demonstration of how to complete the task.

It’s not super simple, but again, it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens with dogs across the world.

Amy: Thanks so much for sharing all of that. I can really see how different setups for studies would have big trade offs in terms of the way you capture the data and the replicability of it and the sort of accuracy of the behaviour.

Certainly, I’ve noticed, with my own dog, how different environments impact her behaviour drastically. And it’s the same with us as humans. It’s interesting to imagine, how do we, in research, try to capture that level of variability that exists in all beings such that the study still gives us data that’s useful and makes an impact going forward in human and animal interaction.

Sharing research

Amy: I’m curious, thinking about using data, how human animal bond research gets put into plain language and made accessible for the public.

Sasha: It’s difficult in the sense that if we were a science that used very complicated terminology, like in physics or in chemistry, I think there would be less interest in our science. There’s a lot of interest in the science of human animal relationships and dog behaviours, dog cognition.

But because it’s rather accessible and because everyone has a dog, everyone has a cat, there’s a lot of misconceptions that get perpetuated and misunderstandings of the data.

A lot of the reporting is not particularly accurate because I guess it connects so easily to the reporter’s own experiences with dogs or maybe something they heard on TV. I think there’s a bit of more danger of reporting not exactly accurately and reporting towards the kind of interest of the viewer rather than the reality.

There’s also, I think, romanticism that guides reporting a lot of the time. For example, I think if you ask the lay person outside if there’s been research demonstrating the benefits of therapy animals, I think overwhelmingly we will say yes, because that’s what’s being reported because that’s what we want to know. That’s what we want to hear.

But we go to conferences, we’ll see that it’s probably about 50/50 and that we have quite a lot of negatives. But that’s not going to get reported. And so I think there’s a lot of reporting bias towards the positive on the human animal interaction side.

Camila: I totally agree. Like, I think for example people may not want to report that horses don’t like when kids groom them or a percentage of therapy dogs wants to escape when they see a child.

It may not get shared, it be misinterpreted, because of course it’s also not the opposite. It’s not like therapy dogs hate children.

But sometimes it does get reported in ways that is not the way the original study meant to report information, but I think that’s quite common in a lot of fields, and it does create misinformation that gets repeated then, and of course it makes things worse.

Sasha: And it’s also the point where, because everyone has an opinion about companion animals, there’s a lot of comments about, “Why do we devote research dollars to this topic? I could have told you that myself,” kind of thing.

And of course, in hindsight, perhaps the best data are the ones that are explained pretty easily. Of course, if we had the opposite data, someone else would say the same thing about, “I could have told you that” as well. That is why we need data.

But I think dog scientists definitely have to grow some kind of tough skin.

Chantelle: I’m really interested to see where this goes, communicating these findings with the public. We’re lucky and it’s kind of dangerous that we’re in the information era where anyone can share anything on TikTok. So a dog trainer can share negative reinforcement techniques or someone can share really educational content about how to understand your dog’s body language.

Next episode

Please join us next month as we discuss the last ten years of farmed animal investigations in B.C.


Podcast: A look back at animal cruelty laws in Canada

What laws are in place to protect animals?

To kick off 2024, The Informed Animal Ally takes a look back at the show’s first ever series on animal cruelty laws in Canada. If you’re interested to learn more about any of the highlights in the episode above, you can find full episodes on this page or wherever you get your podcasts.

Companion animal cruelty laws

The episode Companion animal cruelty laws, released in May 2022, delves into an overview of the laws meant to protect pets in Canada.

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Farmed animal cruelty laws

Pigs on a dirty floor of an industrial farm

The episode Farmed animal cruelty laws, released in June 2022, delves into the laws around animals who are bred, raised, and killed for meat, milk, eggs, furs, and other products used by humans.

Read or listen

Fish cruelty laws

A wild school of fishes in the ocean.

Fishes are impacted in huge numbers by human activity—where about 70 billion land animals are killed for food each year, the number of fishes killed annually is about 14 to 40 times that. Learn more in the episode Fish cruelty laws, released in July 2022.

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Wildlife cruelty laws with Erin Ryan

A gosling walks out of the lake in front of a family of geese.

The episode Wildlife cruelty laws with Erin Ryan was published in September 2022. Special guest Erin specializes in wildlife welfare and holds an MSc in Applied Animal Biology from the University of British Columbia Animal Welfare Program, where her research focused on humane rodent control.

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Animal captivity laws with Rob Laidlaw

In the episode Animal captivity laws with Rob Laidlaw, published in October 2022, a special guest delves into the laws around animals in captivity. Rob has spent more than 40 years working to protect the interests and well-being of animals in Canada and around the world. He is a chartered biologist, founder of the wildlife protection organization Zoocheck, an award-winning author and a winner of the Frederic A. McGrand Lifetime Achievement Award for substantial contributions to animal welfare in Canada.

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Animals used in research, teaching, and testing

Roger Kingbird / We Animals Media

The episode Animals used in research, teaching, and testing was published in November 2022. In Canada there are many different uses of animals in research, teaching, and testing, ranging from noninvasive methods to some of the worst suffering animals endure. This episode discusses the various ways animals are used in science, protections in place for these animals, and how you can help.

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Who ensures cruelty laws are followed?

This series has explored the laws that are in place to prevent animal cruelty, and the gaps in those laws that lead to animal suffering. The final episode in the series explores the enforcement of those laws. Who ensures cruelty laws are followed? was published in February 2023.

Read or listen

Next episode

Please join us next month as we discuss what your relationship with your pet says about you.


Podcast: Coping with burnout as an animal ally

Each day, animal advocates encounter and stand up against suffering. This can take a major emotional toll.

In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault are joined by Kimberly Carroll from Animal Justice. The episode will delve into strategies and tips for dealing with the compassion fatigue and burnout that many animal advocates experience.

Join Animal Justice Academy
Free training to reduce burnout

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Director, Animal Justice Academy

Kimberly Carroll is a coach for changemakers, campaigns strategist with Animal Justice, director of Animal Justice Academy, and a director with the Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank

With over 13 years as a coach and 18 years as an activist, Kimberly works with mission-driven leaders, social entrepreneurs, and activists on the inner shifts, high-performance habits, and strategies to make them unstoppable. She’s helped empower thousands of activists and counselled those in high-stress positions like undercover investigators. 

Becoming an animal advocate

Chantelle: Kimberly, you have such an impressive history speaking out for animals. I would love to hear more about how you became interested in animal advocacy.

Kimberly: My animal advocacy journey started when I was a kid. I was the one trying to save all the mice when my dad was burning the field, I’d be going in there and crying and trying to get them all out.

It had a little bit of a snag though, because as much as I was an animal lover, I was also a huge meat lover coming from the middle of the prairies. I was the one who loved the KFC and the steak and all that.

So the two loves kind of came head to head when I was a young adult with the help of some adorable twin calves. I became vegetarian 27 years ago.

That was before the days of internet, so it took me a few years later—ten to be exact; I wish it hadn’t taken me so long—to understand the damage that the dairy and the egg industry do.

And so in one week I watched the documentary Earthlings, which was narrated by Joaquin Phoenix. They called it the veganizer; I think there’s new veganizers these days. I also watched Peaceable Kingdom. It really hit home that I did not want to be responsible for dairy cows being torn away from their mothers.

I’d been dabbling a little bit in advocacy as a vegetarian. I was also a television host. So I’d been on some shows talking about why I was vegetarian. I’d been doing some gentle activism. But at that point 17 years ago, I was like straight ahead. This is it.

Because seeing those films, I was so struck by the vast numbers of beings this affected and the depth of the suffering. And so I decided at that point it wasn’t enough just to change my own habits, even though yes, I was going to, but I had to help change the world as all. And so that was the beginning of my animal advocacy journey in real earnest.

Why managing burnout is important

Amy: Thanks so much for sharing that, Kimberly. This month we’re talking about coping with burnout as an animal advocate, and this is a subject you’re very passionate about. Why does this topic speak to you? Why do you find it so important?

Kimberly: Well as well as being an animal advocate, as Chantelle mentioned, I’m also a coach for changemakers. So my job is to help activists, nonprofit leaders, and social entrepreneurs build those things into their lives that will make them resilient and effective in their important work.

I’ve been coaching for many years, but I sort of started to zero in on changemakers and activists about six or seven years ago. And the reason I moved to this particular form of coaching is because animal advocates and all sort of other social justice advocates, they’re the ones that are keeping us from tipping over into oblivion right now.

We are one step away, and they are this incredible line that is keeping us from going over the edge.

And I’m seeing too many people burn out. Changemakers are way too important to see them hit the ground. This is especially a huge problem in the animal advocacy movement.

The irony of it is that, as we just talked about, so many of us are drawn to animal advocacy because we care so much about animals. We have this sensitivity, this tuning in. But getting into animal advocacy then means that we get this front row seat 24/7 to all the suffering and the injustices, the worst things you could ever imagine animals going through.

And on top of that, we get pushback from 90 percent of the population, not even counting the other people that are in our movement that don’t necessarily align with us on our particular approaches.

And plus, because there’s so few of us, we’re dealing with overwhelm. We don’t know what to take on. And then inevitably we take on too much. Because we think, there’s just so few of us and there’s so many that are suffering. We need to take on all of this. This is the recipe for hitting the wall and burning out and for a lot of people dropping out.

It’s not as dramatic for everybody. Not everybody drops out, but they burn out in terms of patience or compassion or energy or creativity; and all of those we really need in order to be effective as advocates. Like I said, there’s so few of us; we need everybody firing on all cylinders. So that’s why this is such a place of passion for me.

Amy: Thank you so much for sharing that. I feel similarly. I actually come at it from a place of having experienced burnout.

I was working for many years in animal advocacy as my full time job, and I ended up having a breakdown. That was a really huge moment for me to realize I was pushed over the edge. I slowly realized, okay, there’s a lot behind this.

I’ve been working on recovering from it ever since. And I think it’s a permanent process. I don’t think you ever fully maybe recover from some specific things, but I’m really excited to talk about this today because I’ve been on the journey of healing.

How to stop feeling guilty about self care

Chantelle: It’s a really common thing for all of us to experience because like you said, we get into this because we care so much and then we have a front row seat to the worst suffering imaginable. So it’s absolutely so important to find healthy ways to process and cope with the emotions we’re feeling.

And at the same time, many people find it difficult to care for themselves when there are always more animals in need. Is there any advice you would give to people who feel guilty taking that time for themselves?

Kimberly: Yeah, this is a huge block, especially in the animal advocacy movement.

Because we’re not the direct victims, I think there is a real sense of, you know, We shouldn’t be hurting. We should be able to handle this. What are we complaining about? But the fact is, there are so many incidences of secondary PTSD or direct PTSD for those that are doing vigils or undercover investigations or walk ons or things like that.

But even for those that aren’t doing frontline work, we’re exposed to the kind of video and graphics that are worse than any horror movie you can imagine. And we’re seeing that on a regular basis.

And a lot of animal advocates don’t take it that seriously because they think, well, I should just buck up and I should just get stronger. So those that say, I feel too guilty. There’s too many. Every minute I take to myself is another minute there’s animals dying.

I like to say to people, as advocates, as compassionate people, we want all beings to experience freedom and safety and love. That’s what we truly want in our hearts. Why should that exclude the animal who is you? You know, the animals who are us as animal advocates, as human animals. Why should we be the only ones excluded from that freedom, safety, and love?

It’s like freeing a pig from a factory farm and then when the pig’s trying to play, saying, No playing for you. Get to work. You need to get to work and free all of your brethren. Go! You don’t get any freedom. You don’t get any love. You don’t get a break or a rest.

It’s ridiculous. Every being needs rest. They need some safety. They need some love. So I just remind them that as beings, we need the fuel that will keep us connecting and aware and give us energy.

And when I tell people this and they’re just like, I’m still not there with you, I say, okay, well let’s take it more strategically. If you are not feeling nurtured, inspired, and connected, you will not be as effective. Okay? You’re just not going to have the juice to do the good creative work you want to do. You’re not going to have the patience to represent well as an animal advocate, and you’re not going to be able to take care of yourself in a way that you’re a light, that you inspire others to want to follow you and what you’re doing.

So if not for yourself, start at least for the animals. Start taking care of yourself at least for your cause.

Chantelle: That’s really, really great advice.

Kimberly: This comes from the process I had to do on myself. I was the hardest nut to crack because I had so much guilt about taking time and not just like being a puddle of suffering all the time. Somebody had to set me straight around that. So I come by this honestly.

Tools for coping with strong emotions

Chantelle: That’s a really great point because we all have to do this work on ourselves before we can talk about it. So what’s your favorite tool for releasing that stress and tension and sadness that comes with advocacy work?

Pain processing tools

Kimberly: I feel very strongly about what I call pain processing tools, especially when you’re an animal advocate.

I mean, the figures are just astounding. 70 billion farmed animals are killed each year, and the ways that they’re tortured before they’re killed, how we treat animals that we’re raising for profit never stops shocking me. And then trillions of marine life a year. I mean, it’s, it’s just boggling to the mind.

So it makes sense that we’re going to feel rage. It makes sense that we’re going to feel incredible sorrow and hopelessness and frustration. But as I mentioned, if we stay stuck in that, if we let that drive our life, we will lose our ability to affect change.

Now, what some people try to do is they try to ignore pain and that’s not going to work either. So the trick is to find safe ways to feel the pain and to move through it. You can’t get rid of it. You can’t go above it, around it, over it. You have to go through it. I’ve tried every other way, believe me.

Pain processing can look like a lot of different things.

It can be as simple as breath work. When you’re feeling, that emotion well up, don’t just shelve it. Don’t just ignore it. Or don’t act out on it immediately. Just try to find where it is in your body. Is it in your heart? Is it in your throat? Has it grabbed your gut? And just to work on breathing into it, really feeling the pain, giving it space and then letting go.

That’s a really simple way to start dealing with pain in very small amounts, in the moment. And that is reflected in a meditation practice, a yoga practice, both of which I do.

Another really simple one is talking it out with a being who isn’t going to chide you for being negative, or isn’t going to say, well, just stop doing it. Or, you know, I don’t understand why you’re doing it that way. Somebody who’s actually going to hold space for you and hold you so you can feel that pain.

Another tool I really love, I call the mind dump. It’s just grabbing a pen and just writing everything you’re feeling and thinking in a stream of consciousness, no censoring, no worrying about grammar or spelling, no worrying about being nasty or weak, but just writing it out and getting everything out of you and onto that piece of paper. And at the end of it, you can even rip it up and get rid of it.

But my favourite tools for processing pain involve movement. Emotions take up residence in the body. They create physiological changes. So it’s not enough to think it out. Sometimes we need to shake up the chemistry of the body.

Sometimes when I don’t have a lot of time, maybe I’m at an event, I just scurry away to the washroom for a second and I breathe into whatever’s come up in me and on the exhale I just do a great big old shake out of the body. Just shaking out the whole body as much as possible. Feeling where it is in your body and then letting it express itself.

If you’ve been collecting some pain for a while, I love turning on some music that actually amplifies it. So if you’re feeling ragey, you know, you might grab some punk music, some Rage Against the Machine, something like that. Find yourself a safe space, close the door, tell people you might be loud for a minute if you live with them.

And for just three minutes, you just let yourself express that rage. You stomp, you punch, you, you scream, whatever you need to do in order to be able to feel it.

And you can do the same with something that feels sad or grief stricken music that amplifies it. It’s just this idea of giving a safe space for that emotion to work itself out naturally; for honouring it in a safe way that’s not going to hurt you or others.

I have lots of different tools and I love them and I could go on forever about this, but that gives a little brief outline.

Amy: I’ll share one of the tools that I learned from you. You did a webinar on going into the picture in your brain.

I’m a very visual person. I cannot let go of images. And so what Kimberly shared in that webinar is go into that picture and then change it. Go in and do the thing that you want to do. Whatever that is, whether it’s saving the animal, feeding the animal, or putting the person in handcuffs who’s hurting the animal.

I find that really healing. Because otherwise I just get these like flashes of images and it just hurts. And so it’s like, okay, that image came back again. What are we going to do about that? We’re going to go in there with a whole team of people and, in your head, if we were going to just make the world better.

I find that a really amazing technique for all sorts of things, but particularly for the animals that you couldn’t do anything for.

Kimberly: I love that, Amy. That animal’s suffering is probably gone; that animal’s probably out of this place, gone from this world.

If they’re not, then you’re actively working for them, so that’s a little bit of a different thing. But it’s about changing this traumatic thought pattern that you have by introducing a different energy to it, by disrupting it.

Because that cycling, it’s absolutely not helping you. And it’s something that so many animal advocates have.

This moment is gone. The energy is still with you. So change that energy so that you can be a force for good and it doesn’t destroy you. It doesn’t take you down. So that it cultivates more love, more connection.

Amy: Yeah, so thank you so much for highlighting that before because it’s made a huge difference for me.

Chantelle: Those are all so helpful and I really appreciate both of you sharing your strategies and your personal experiences.

Speaking with friends and family

Chantelle: We’ve mentioned. stress, anger, hopelessness, a lot of really strong emotions that come up and I’d like to talk about some specific examples of scenarios that can come up from having those strong emotions.

Those feelings can come up when advocates see or hear about or discuss animals being harmed. It’s natural to have a strong reaction. But at the same time, practically speaking, we know the most effective ways to encourage people to make those compassionate choices involve making those people feel at ease and included in the conversation.

What are some ways that advocates can manage their own strong emotions about animal harm when speaking with friends or family?

Kimberly: Yeah, this is a good one because December is the time that there are a lot of family and friends gatherings. And sometimes you just want to scream, Don’t you understand? When friends and family can seem so unaware or sometimes purposely combative.

First of all, it’s really important to remember, we’re talking about people you really care about and people that really care about you. Ideally, you want to be able to be genuine with those you’re closest to about how much hurt animal harm causes you.

This will be much better absorbed if it’s not brought up at a time when they’re directly complicit in the animal harm. So for example, at the dinner table, when shame is triggered.

And that’s why it’s so important to try to be more skillful in the way we talk to those that we’re trying to get to understand our way of feeling and being. It’s really important to talk to them when they don’t have the shame wall erected.

And it’s super easy to get that shame. Sometimes just saying you’re vegan, it’s going to get that shame wall up, right? It’s really hard to do anything if that happens, but hopefully they’ve heard it enough times that you’re vegan or you’re an animal advocate that that shame wall isn’t necessarily going to be triggered just by that.

Shame is the feeling that almost none of us can deal with. It’s a message that you are bad. When you feel shame, the feeling is I am bad. And it’s not true. Nobody’s bad. Sometimes people do harmful things. And so it’s really important to try to keep shame out of the equation.

And a really important way to do that is choose to talk when they don’t have something to be ashamed of right in front of them.

It’s also about the way you talk, that it’s from your heart as opposed to a place of judgement or blame. And again, I totally understand that judgement and blame. It seems so easy to understand why this feels harmful and toxic, but I think these are some of the things that I’ve tried that have really helped.

When I’m going into this judging or blaming place, I ask myself, what ways have I exhibited similar behaviour or limits, or still do, as this person?

It’s very likely you’ve stood in similar shoes to the person you’re judging right now, that you’ve at some point in your life been resistant to a hard truth, or maybe you were seduced by convenience or security. Like I said, I was a voracious meat eater at one point. I had a hard time giving up my favourite mascara because it wasn’t cruelty free.

Or maybe you have been vegan since you were born, or an animal advocate since you were born, but maybe there’s still ways in different parts of your life where you might be doing some harm, even though you know you’re doing harm.

When I start to feel a little self righteous, I remind myself that I still fly, even though I know how bad it is for the environment and low income countries. I’m working on it, but I still go home to see my family, things like that. And I don’t remind myself of this to beat myself up, but just to get some perspective that none of us are perfect. It’s really hard to be perfect in this world.

I also remind myself, there’s an avalanche of problems with this world and my number one issue might not be their number one issue.

And the last thing I just want to say is that I really try to keep in mind when I’m talking to my close people, or people are less close, is that people are doing the best they can from what they know and are capable of right now.

Most bad behaviour comes from pain, from fear or lack of access to knowledge or the inability to get it. So for example, if somebody can’t show compassion towards animals, it was probably because they were never modeled that in a way that they could understand. Or they might not even be psychologically capable of compassion in that area, and that’s really sad.

It doesn’t mean not standing up strongly and consistently, and sometimes boldly, for what’s important to you, and sharing what your genuine feelings are, but letting it all come from a place of understanding and compassion as opposed to fear and anger. That’s how bridges are built. So just think of it as a bridge building exercise with your family and friends.

Amy: Kimberly, that’s such an amazing answer. I want to echo everything that Kimberly said.

And I think speaking from a place where the other person is curious is always going to get the best outcome. So being able to identify when someone is curious versus when they’re challenging you, I think is a really useful tool because when someone is challenging, you can kind of put a pause or say, This isn’t the time for this conversation, I’d love to have it at another point.

When someone’s curious, that’s when there’s a space for growth. And that’s when I try very much to speak from my own experience. I don’t speak to what people should do or what’s good for people or anything like that. I speak to what I’ve experienced, what I’ve witnessed, why I made the decisions that I’ve made, and I do storytelling.

Almost every time, I have at least one story to share. And what I find is there might be a moment of quiet, and then they might ask another question 20 minutes later. It shows that it’s something that stuck in their brain.

I don’t try to say, here’s everything. I try to give one little story and then give it some time. If another question comes up, another little story and pace it that way.

If there’s no curiosity, I don’t think there’s space for change. And so it’s not necessarily worth it, to put your energy out there when you’re going to be hit with a battery of blowback, ego, or whatever it is.

Kimberly: Something else I just want to add around this is that maybe you can even take your advocate hat off with close family and friends.

And a lot of people go, What? But it all depends. If you are getting a lot of pushback and it’s just not going anywhere, you need to remember that there’s millions of people out there that are ready to hear your message and putting constant energy into changing the minds of one or a handful of people is not very strategic.

I have some really close friends in my life who aren’t vegan. Do I wish they were? Sure. Do I drop some stories here and there? Sure. But I don’t push it too hard because these are friends that love me well, and they’re really good people in other ways. And a long time ago I just decided to drop the preaching or the guilt of not preaching and just soak in some of the love and fun and rest of being with them.

Some would say I’m selfish to not always be speaking up for my cause with my close family and friends. But I think one of the ways that we have longevity is if we let ourselves relax with people who care for us and help recharge our batteries. If we don’t have that, we burn out and that will really hurt our cause.

So I do think in some situations sometimes it’s just better to let it go with your close people.

Handling conflict from advocacy

Chantelle: Those are all really amazing points. I mean, I’ve been both of those people. You said that there are some people who have been vegan and animal advocates for their entire lives, but I think most of us have been at some point, the person who was friends with people who were in those circles or been the people who were curious about those things. Most of us at some point have been future animal advocates.

But then there’s also the people who are very adamantly opposed to any form of animal advocacy, or any moving away from activities that cause animal suffering. We post plant-based recipes online, and we’ll see people who get offended even by just us sharing plant-based recipes.

How would you advise that advocates respond to conflicts that can arise from that sort of difference in beliefs?

Kimberly: This is a good continuation really, because some of the same things apply, but we’re dealing with people that you’re not invested in as much, and people who are maybe even more adamant.

The first thing I say is choose your battles wisely. I have seen so many people waste their time arguing with a troll for a week when they could have been writing 20 letters to the editor, and probably gotten a couple published. And so if somebody is just trying to stir up trouble, you’ve got to learn to spot that and you’ve got to honour yourself and your precious time and energy and just go past it.

But if it seems to be somebody, either online or in person, that you’re like, You know what? This is an opportunity. They’re very adamant right now, but I like to think of everyone as a potential ally. That’s one of my mantras. So I assume that it may not be in this conversation, but if given enough of those sort of like little seeds planted that, that they could bloom.

And I think the problem that people have as animal advocates is we want to convert people right there and then. Very early in my advocacy work, I heard the figure, I’m not sure about the number, but I think it was, it takes a person hearing a message 21 times. Sometimes you’re not going to be the number 21. You might be number 14 or you might be a message number three or God forbid your message number one. You’re really going to get it.

But you’re one of those; you’re a building block and that’s all you have to be. You don’t have to change somebody’s mind on the spot.

I think it’s super important when you are dealing with somebody who’s digging in their heels to just stop and invoke the power of curiosity and of listening. So what if instead of trying to explain your point in 20 different ways, you ask clarifying questions to this person to truly understand where they’re coming from and what’s blocking them.

There’s probably nobody you’re going to meet that’s going to say, I hate animals, I wish they were all dead, and I’d like to torture them before that point. There are hopefully very few of those in the world.

And so, we have a common ground. And if you actually listen, you can respond in a way that could actually reach them, that could actually move the needle on things. Or at the very least, you might learn something useful for your approach in the future.

So listening and then finding common ground. Instead of making it your goal to prove how wrong someone is, look for where your values or experiences intersect.

You might have your coworker who’s always making bacon jokes, but he loves his dog. And so, you could say, Hey, Joel, I saw the sweetest video the other day. There was this rescue pig from a factory farm and the dog at the sanctuary and they bonded and they both came when their name was called and they played fetch and they both dreamed and twitched when they slept. You know, that’s the kind of thing you bring to the table, right?

You find the common ground. He loves dogs. This pig is just like a dog.

It’s not about banging somebody over the head when they’re not listening already. It’s about easing into relationship with somebody. Not looking at them as a target, something to conquer, but as a being to connect with, to find some common ground with.

Coping with overwhelm

Chantelle: That’s really great advice. It’s about conserving your energy and using it strategically. I really love that. Thank you.

We all have a certain amount of energy to use to make as much impact as possible. But energy is a finite resource. And there’s a huge range of ways that animals suffer from human activities, habitat destruction that harms wildlife, and systemic issues with factory farming, and individual cruelty cases.

It can be overwhelming deciding how to manage your time and energy as an animal advocate to make the most impact that you can on those issues. What advice would you give to someone who’s feeling overwhelmed about seeing all this happening?

Kimberly: Overwhelm is probably the number one complaint of the change makers I work with.

We’re all advocates cause we want to make a difference. We’re all advocates cause we care so deeply, but we’re all advocates too because there’s just so much that needs fixing. And so one of the first things that I’d like for folks to really hear is you don’t need to change the whole world. You just need to change your little corner of it.

Now that sometimes takes a little bit of weight off of one’s shoulders. Because again, I understand it. Sometimes we feel so alone in this. We feel like we’re just one animal advocate in a sea of apathetic people. But it’s not true.

First of all, by my last count, there’s hundreds of thousands of animal advocates out there in the world. Still not a lot compared to the, you know, 8 billion, but that’s hundreds of thousands. And if we all just pick a little corner and do it really well, we’re going to make huge change.

Find your niche

Kimberly: And if you’re wondering, okay, well, what’s my corner? Well, I like to use a little formula. My recommendation would be to do just a little exercise where you just take a paper and pen.

First of all, you write down your passions in animal advocacy. What are the issues you’re most passionate about? Who are the animals you’re most passionate about? What are the mediums you’re most passionate to work with, most drawn to work with?

I care about all animals and I don’t want to see any of them suffer. But a long time ago, I decided farmed animals is where I would really focus on because of the number and the degree of suffering. And then I particularly decided, you know, I really love working with people to become more effective. So that narrowed my corner a little bit.

So your list of passions. It might be, I love working around captivity; I really like working at sanctuaries or helping sanctuaries. It might be, I really like to teach or I really like to lobby, things like that. So really all of the areas that you’re interested in. I like to cook vegan food to bring to people. That is an incredible form of animal advocacy, bringing vegan food to friends, events, all of that sort of thing.

You don’t need to be standing with a sign all the time to be an animal advocate. I think that’s something everybody needs to understand. Yes, we need street protests, we need street activism, but there are a thousand other things we need.

The second thing that I would want you to make a list about is assets. What do you have to offer? What are the specific skills that you could bring to this movement? What are the talents? What’s some of the education or training you have? What are some of the best qualities you bring to the table help to touch or influence others? Or what are some valuable life experiences or circumstances or viewpoints? What are resources you have access to?

That’s going to really affect it. If you’re an accountant and you’re out there leafleting, I’m going to say, get in there and do some accounting work for some of these organizations. We really need it. Or if you’re a graphic designer, don’t you dare, you know, be licking envelopes.

And then the last piece that I think is really important. The questions to ask here, are there any areas or projects that could use more attention? Are there more high impact things? Are there potential projects that are currently underserved? Are there any connections that I have that could create a special opportunity and fulfill a need? What’s our cause missing? What does our cause need more of? Things like that.

And if you do those three lists, you’re going to start to find some places where your corners lie.

And I’d say get really inventive. And if you’re not part of Animal Justice Academy’s free course, our whole second week is about how, wherever you are, whoever you are, in whatever background you are, different ways you can become an animal advocate and practice animal advocacy.

Animal Justice Academy

Personal strategies

Amy: Kimberly, that is another great couple pieces of advice there that I think we can all take something away from. Certainly I’ve struggled with this and it’s amazing to hear that it’s possible to feel less overwhelmed and to kind of narrow the scope. You know, we do get into these places of overwhelm and burnout, even when we try not to.

So what are some of the ways that you find you care for your own wellbeing so that you can carry on doing this work?

Kimberly: I would really like to hit home, it’s not that I don’t feel overwhelmed. I feel it on a regular basis, but I have a lot of practices to reel me back in and calm me down and I owe a lot to my daily practices.

I do a morning practice. It’s almost every day. If I’ve missed my morning practice, you know something has gone majorly wrong with that day.

My morning practice consists of, I like to either read a book for a bit or I’ll have a particular talk or podcast that is just about nurturing me. It’s usually like Tara Brach is one of my favorite teachers. She’s a Buddhist teacher. She’s also vegan! Pema Chödrön is one of my favorite authors. And so I’ll just give 15 minutes for me to get inspired, to feel nourished.

I then do meditation. It took me many years to finally make meditation a daily practice, but I’m happy to say for the last few years it has, and it’s been nice. It doesn’t have to be long. You can do a guided meditation, you can do just a silent meditation, but I recommend a guided meditation if you’re just getting started. I actually have a bunch of meditations on my website, just so you can go through and for free at

Free meditations

And I also then do a mind dump, like I talked about. I basically do a mind dump every day, and I end with an appreciation list. So I connect to the things that are good, that feel good, that are beautiful, that are loving, that are delightful, because when we’re facing this barrage of what is wrong with the world, it’s really important to have something to offset that, to remind us of what we’re fighting for. This world wouldn’t be worth fighting for if there wasn’t a lot of love and beauty and connection and possibility.

So that’s my morning practice.

I also make sure I’m working out on a regular basis. And part of that is that cathartic, moving my system, changing the chemistry in my system.

I make sure I have lots of community.

And one little tip is I do something I call my sacred Sundays. So many of us are, are plugged in all the time and we’re kind of working half working a lot. And I know I could because I work from home, as many of us do. And so on Sundays I endeavor to not pick up an ounce of work, to not look at my computer, to not be on my computer. I generally try to be unplugged as well.

You don’t have to go that far, but I don’t do anything on Sundays that is a duty. I only do things that I want to do. So I try not to set an alarm. I try to follow the rhythms of my own body. I try not to do anything that I have to do. And for one day I allow myself to do the things I want to do. Just some space.

I worked up to a full day. It took me a while. You can start with a morning or an afternoon and then you can expand from there. But just to have a day where you aren’t whipped around by the forces of the world outside of you is really important. A day for you to feel safe, a day of sanctuary is really important.

Chantelle: That’s such good advice. I love that you have a daily routine and a weekly routine to handle this.

I feel like we’re all in different places in our journey on dealing with burnout, but I’ve absolutely gotten into places where I’m just thinking about the work all the time. And it’s not productive for me to be in that state because A, my brain doesn’t have a chance to recharge; and B, I can start to lose perspective of all the progress that’s being made and I can only see the negative.

So I’ve found it really helpful to make sure that I’m not only stepping away, but when I’m stepping away doing things that really replenish my energy so I can come back refreshed and motivated and hopeful.

So for me, that’s getting outdoors and going for hikes, moving my body and really connecting with nature, listening to the birds.

Getting in touch with my support network really helps me. Talking with my friends and family is really replenishing.

And I have my little one next to me right now. I share my home with a cat named Callie and spending time with her is really helpful, of course.

Kimberly: That’s so important. Having moments with animals that aren’t in pain and suffering is huge for animal advocates.

And if it’s not about having a family member who is an animal, it could be making regular trips to the farm sanctuary, things like that.

Amy: Thanks so much for sharing that, both of you. I know I very easily get overstimulated. I’m quite a sensitive person. And so I’ve come up with a lot of body techniques, maybe on top of some of the things that you mentioned.

So I do a lot of self soothing; hand on the chest, wrapping myself in blankets really tight, turning up the heat really high for a minute. I just find it’s very easy for me to get tense.

I’m resilient, but my body holds on to that. So I’m trying to soothe more often to try to be more conscious of soothing. We all do it naturally. Watch people who are nervous. They’ve got their hands near their face. They’re tapping things, they’re moving, right? But trying to be more conscious about those things.

I also try to dance at least once a week, like really dance, jump around and shake my body. Some mornings I put on like drum and bass and I start the day just jumping around the kitchen at seven in the morning because that’s what I need to reset. So yeah, I would say on top of all the mind things, do those body resets.

Kimberly: I love that. And I love that you said, I’m resilient. I know that you and most people that are listening could go for a long time. They could have knock after knock after knock, but does that mean you should? That’s the thing. You can until you can’t. That’s what happens with burnout is like, okay, no, I can handle it. I can handle it. And then one day, without warning, you can no longer handle it.

My advice is don’t be pushing yourself beyond the limits constantly. Even if you feel like you can, don’t do it. It is not the recipe for an enduring animal advocate. And we need you in this for as long as possible.

Amy: Absolutely.

Healing from burnout

Chantelle: That was all such good advice. I am really glad we had this discussion. It’s been really helpful to talk about dealing with and preventing overwhelm and burnout.

One last topic I’d like to touch on before we leave is for people who may already feel burnt out, well past the point of overwhelm.

Do you think it’s possible to truly heal from burnout, or do you think you just shift what you work on?

Kimberly: Well, one definitely needs to change the situation that led to the burnout. I do absolutely feel like you can heal from burnout, but it requires a total break, it requires rest. It requires some very deliberate nurturing and building back up again.

There’s a woman named Tricia Hersey. She runs something called The Nap Ministry and it’s aimed at folks in racial injustice, especially black women, but it’s something we can all learn from. And it’s an organization that promotes the liberating power of rest.

The motto is, rest is resistance. It’s the resistance to the damaging hustle culture framework. So rest has to happen; and not half rest, but full, permission-given rest.

And that’s the problem. Sometimes we have time off, but we haven’t given ourself permission. We’re not allowing it. So it doesn’t have that deeply restorative feeling.

That’s why I have my sacred Sundays. I have given myself full permission to rest. Not that kind of guilty, I’ll watch a show and then I feel guilty about it. That doesn’t restore you.

It’s very important if you’re dealing with burnout to get support, you need to have a counsellor or a peer healing community, you know, more time with friends and family. It can make you feel more held.

It’s important when you have burnout to feel held, but I think it is really important to work with some skilled help as far as that goes, not only in helping you to heal the burnout, but to help heal the patterns and the wounds that lead to burnout.

It’s not just that there’s so much to do. It’s also this place that we come from, in some of our society, but also that a lot of activists especially come from, that we need to earn our keep at every turn.

We’re not good enough. We’re not enough. We need to do more. We need to do more. We need to do more. We need to make ourselves worthy of being here. It’s the sort of limiting pattern that really needs to be healed in order for you to not completely dishonour yourself to do the work that we need to do.

And having a regular practice of processing pain, finding some space and stillness, getting more deliberate about moving through your life as an advocate.

Those should be non negotiables for every animal advocate.

Amy: Yeah. Thanks for sharing that. This is one that I puzzle over still. And personally, I know that the amount that it would take for me to, let’s say, work a full time advocacy specific job is maybe more healing time than I have in a lifetime.

But I still work in the movement. I’m still guiding strategy. What I’m doing now is I’m coaching an amazing team of animal advocates and I love that and I’m inspired by it and I’m excited every day to go to work.

And so I think that is also part of it is really letting go sometimes of the identities we have for ourselves and shaping something new ahead.

I struggled a lot with burnout this year, not from animal advocacy necessarily, although that was one piece, but from lots of personal life things.

And some of what I found is that burnout is almost like grieving where it’s not linear in any way. There’s no sense of time. It can take you years. You have to go through a process of acceptance that that’s the state you’re in, and then charting out a path and having acceptance for yourself each time you get off that path; and you get back on your path.

It’s just this wild adventure, but certainly finding rest is essential. And that can be through doing activities, that can be through being active, but a rest from outside pressure. Because I find it’s the pressure that puts me back into a state of burnout.

And so having friends who you can be like, Hey, I might cancel on you. I’d love to do something with you, but I might cancel. Those kinds of relationships are important where there is a freedom to be yourself as much as you can.

And I think the other piece that I want to mention is genuinely considering medication. I think there’s a lot of taboo around medication. And I see it in others, I see it in myself, you know, some challenges of like, what does this mean? What does it look to onboard this and that?

But speaking personally, I have had a lot of success in being consistently better because of medication. I think it plays a big role in not burning out and healing from burnout.

Kimberly: Yeah. Once you have burnt out, your system is all out of whack, your chemical levels. If getting on some medication is going to give you just a leg up for all of these other things that we’re talking about to take hold, because sometimes you’re so dysregulated that all of these tools, they can’t take hold.

I am absolutely 100 percent behind if taking medication is going to give you that boost that you need to be able to get regulated enough for all the other tools and all the other possibilities to take root. I’m all for it. Absolutely.

Learn more about coping with burnout and compassion fatigue

1. Watch the Animal Justice Academy lunchtime live with Kimberly Carroll:

2. Take the Vancouver Humane Society’s free training program:

Learn more or sign up

3. Check out these resources from

Power Tools for Changemakers (Video mini-course)
The Changemaker Sessions (Weekly Zoom gathering)

Next episode

Please join us next month as we discuss what your relationship with your pet says about you.


Podcast: Caring for pets in a financial crisis

People of all income levels love and care for their animal family members.

In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault are joined by Brooklyn Fowler-Moros, the manager of companion animal programs to discuss the challenges low-income pet guardians face, and the systems in place to help them.

Donate to pets in need

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Program Manager, Companion Animal Programs

Brooklyn works as the manager of the VHS’s companion animal programs. Brooklyn holds a Master’s Degree in Gender, Sexuality, & Women’s Studies from Simon Fraser University specializing in feminist approaches to public policy. Working for justice for all animals, human and non-human is Brooklyn’s driving passion. They are also involved with a number of other local organizations working towards justice and inclusion for Queer and/or Trans people, sex workers, and folks living in poverty. 

Financial crises can impact many pet guardians

Amy: I’d love to start this episode with a little story. I grew up with dogs in my life. Some of you might relate to this idea that they were there for me, even when my parents and friends and siblings were not. At my loneliest moments, my dog was by my side. When I left home at 18, there was a natural emptiness that came from not having a dog to spend my study time with and to give me healthy breaks in my day.

As many people do, I headed to the local SPCA and fell in love with a jailed little scruffy pup. Not long after, I was caring for him. I learned all about trauma and dog behaviour. A few years went by and I discovered that he had a medical condition, bladder crystals that could not be dissolved naturally.

A full-time student, I scrapped together the funds for one surgery, and then another a year later.

When I finished school, I had difficulty finding well-paying work. I was living right at the low-income poverty cut off level, where I could not get any government assistance, but was also just scraping by.

Then there was a freak accident at the dog park. After the emergency veterinarian, I had to go to a Canada West bone specialist for a $6,000 surgery. I went into debt, maxing out my credit card, worried about the future and paying my bills.

Luckily, I had a support network that I knew could help me, and credit card support. I came from a privileged upbringing and knew that if I really didn’t have the funds, my parents would likely help me. So, in the face of a deeply emotionally challenging situation, I had peace of mind that I could do what was best for my pup.

The people we assist at Vancouver Humane Society have the same feelings as me. Their pet is their mental health lifeline, keeping them feeling connected and sane; healing from trauma and feeling less alone. They live below the poverty cut off level; often having just enough money to have some kind of housing, feed themselves and their pet.

The big difference, though, is that when their pet is in crisis, they don’t have the same support networks. They might have no access to credit, and no friends or family that can offer support.

I think people often think that people in that kind of situation got there through some kind of ‘fault’ or ‘decision’ that they made, but the reality is that the majority of people in this situation started off with far less resources than I did, and certainly through no fault of their own. They might have been taken from their families and put into foster care as a child, or had a long medical illness that drained their finances. Everyone’s story is different about how they got to where they were, but the universal reality is the love and connection they have with their pets.

Research on low-income pet guardianship

Chantelle: In December of 2020, the Vancouver Humane Society released a report on addressing animal neglect through the provision of veterinary outreach services.

Read the report

Even the language ‘animal neglect’ we used is problematic, because it implies a fault, a ‘failure to care’ for an animal ‘properly’. While this title language was used to make the paper more accessible and more likely to be read within the animal welfare sector, it doesn’t convey the reality of a legacy of intergenerational trauma that perpetuates people not being able to get the care they need, let along the care their pet needs.

That said, the report highlights the importance of supporting structural vulnerable people with caring for their pets.

We know that animals offer companionship and have a mutual bond, they are part of the family.

Interestingly, in a qualitative study co-authored by the VHS, one of the participants noted that low-income people take in animals in need when no one else can because they have compassion for their situation. Speaking with people with pets in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside at the VHS’s Because They Matter event I’ve heard stories like that, where people will take in animals from family or neighbours who can’t care for them anymore. As Amy mentioned, we also know that people’s circumstances can change when they already have a companion animal.

Supporting guardians in need

Chantelle: Brooklyn, what is it like to administer a program where everyone presents an urgent need for support?

Brooklyn: I would say, my first thought is it can be challenging. It can also be profoundly rewarding.

I think you’ve both done a really good job of highlighting a lot of the structural issues that I see on a daily basis from application to application.

You made an excellent point that every case is truly, genuinely so different from another, but the themes are consistently true.

The cases that I see most often can be described as there’s an acute emergency. The pet is dealing with something that is a life threatening emergency, which even just hearing the term life threatening can bring tension into the chest. It’s very stressful for any of us, even in the best of circumstances to imagine a loved one, a human family member, a pet family member, to be going through a life threatening state of distress.

So when someone’s contacting us, and when I’m speaking with them, they’re going through something that has them in a profoundly difficult headspace.

And you add to that some of these structural issues, where you’ve got someone who maybe has been living off of $80 since their last paycheck, which could be a week ago, it could be two, it could be three weeks ago, and they’ve been trying to stretch $80 to buy a bag of cat food, and also to get, you know, enough Mr. Noodles, or enough this, enough that, to just get through.

You’ve got people who I talk with who have had housing for most of their lives, and who, when they became a senior, got priced out. And they had one eviction and they can’t pay a thousand dollars more a month for rent. I’ve talked to seniors who have lost their housing in their elderly years.

These are the circumstances that these emergencies are popping up into.

So when I came into this role and I hear the words, you operate from a trauma-informed perspective, that’s really what I try to hold in my heart in every single one of these conversations; that yes, everyone I talk to is dealing with an acute emergency with their pet, but not everyone is dealing with it from the same starting point.

I might have the same emergency and have the same emotional reaction and the same mental health impacts from when my own cat has needed life saving surgery, but I had a credit card I could put it on, I had pet insurance I could lean on to get a lot of it covered, I had, like Amy said, friends, family, a support system I could lean on, so the starting point that I’m coming into this emergency with is so much more substantial than what a lot of these people are dealing with with.

They’ve lost family members, they’ve maybe lost kids, they’ve lost parents, they’ve lost loved ones, their own health is compromised. They’re, just trying to get through the day, the week, the month, the year.

So it can be challenging, absolutely, but as I started off saying, the level of reward is phenomenal when you get to talk to these folks and hear their commitment to their pet’s well-being. It genuinely brings tears to my eyes.

Sometimes when people say, I was addicted for X amount of years and when I came into contact with my dog, someone once said, he saved me. My dog saved me. We rescued each other.

It just blows my mind, the level of dedication that people have to their pets. The people who say, I’ve had that $80 to live off of for the last two or three weeks. And the first step was to buy that big bag of cat food. And the second step was to figure out how am I now going to stretch that last $35 to get through?

It’s just incredible to me.

Who needs help?

Chantelle: We’ve all spoken about how everyone’s situation is so different, but you’ve started to talk about some patterns that everyone loves and cares for their pets. I also imagine you must start to notice some other types of patterns when you’re dealing with people in a similar state of financial crisis. So are there any commonalities that tend to be similar amongst people who are accessing the program? Is there anything that makes every case truly unique?

Brooklyn: I mean, from a literal level, of course, they’re really every case is literally unique. It’s a different human being. It’s a different pet. It’s slightly, slightly different medical situation, or sometimes very different medical situations.

I try to keep that in mind as well, because in terms of approach, you know, there might be one person who wants to just have this conversation as fast as possible and get off the phone and go back to solving the problem themselves. And I completely appreciate that. I’ve felt that way many conversations in my life when I’m going through stress.

And there are some people who really need to talk and they might need referrals. They might be in an acute mental health crisis. Sometimes we find ourselves giving out crisis line phone numbers or resources for mental health support, a food bank, shelters.

Three groups make up the majority of program applications

Brooklyn: So those are the things that make each case different, but in terms of patterns, I would say the overwhelming majority of cases cite either:

  • being a senior, or
  • being someone with a disability or multiple disabilities, or
  • being a single parent.

Many people will cite multiple of the above.

People face barriers to meeting their needs

Brooklyn: So these are folks who are often dealing with very substantial systemic barriers to the level of success that they’re perfectly capable of.

It’s hard for someone to make the kind of income that might be easily accessible or easily attainable for many people if you are able to get a master’s degree, if you had the financial and the structural support to go through something so difficult as that level of education.

It’s very challenging when you’re dealing with multiple disabilities and in a system where it’s very hard to get social supports for mental health disabilities, physical disabilities, mobility disabilities.

It’s very difficult to get the basic support that you need.

I hope that these are out of date criticisms, but I grew up hearing, get a job. Well, people often have jobs, and these jobs don’t pay enough to get by. They’re working very hard, sometimes 40 hours a week, sometimes 60, 80 hours a week. People are working to figure their budgets out, to raise their kids, to do the best that they can on an income that is not feasible to live or thrive on.

For people with multiple complex disabilities, it’s very difficult when it’s physically impossible or very close to impossible to get a lot of jobs that you could possibly make a good living off of.

It’s very hard when jobs aren’t set up a lot of the time for people with physical disabilities, mental health challenges, neurodiversity, things like that. I hope that most of us have retired the idea of, you know, get a job because like I said, people have one.

And for a lot of people, getting through today is a full time gig and it takes a lot of work.

Chantelle: We talk about the systemic overlap between animal welfare and social issues a lot.

I’m glad you mentioned the point about work because the reality is those jobs that are very low paying exist. Those jobs are going to be filled by somebody. And there’s always going to be someone more vulnerable that the system will find to take those jobs and those people are going to be placed in a situation where they are living on a low income.

Experiences in the Downtown Eastside

Amy: Thanks so much, Brooklyn, for sharing some of your experiences. You’ve worked on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver for much of your career. What are some of the common challenges people living in that area experience?

Brooklyn: I feel like the first caveat I would put on answering that is, I have a lot of different types of privilege. I don’t live in the neighborhood. I’ve worked down there for a long time and I have an enormous amount of love and respect for the neighbourhood as a whole and for folks down there. I can say what I observe and I’m happy to answer that question, but it is tough.

I think that one of the things that comes to my mind a lot is so many of us are coming from a really well-intentioned place. It’s often from people who are very intelligent and very compassionate and very empathetic, who have a lot of ideas for things that we’ve read about, we’ve heard about, we believe will help them out.

We need to be as guided as possible by self determination by everyone down there. Because at the end of the day, you know, these are all human beings who are all extremely aware of what they individually want and need. And those needs are definitely not the same for each person either.


Brooklyn: When you ask, what are the common challenges? Really intense poverty is a very difficult issue. My preamble there was to stay away from generalizing. I don’t want to say everyone is in abject poverty, but a lot of people are in very intense poverty.

And by that, I mean, they do not have the basic amount of money to survive, sometimes literally or with any level of dignity from month to month to month.

Overdose crisis

Brooklyn: We’ve been living through a severe poisoned drug crisis for seven years now. The numbers every year of people, I can name who have died from it, people I’ve known and cared a great deal for, I can’t conceive of the level of trauma that causes. When this is your neighbourhood and people you see every day, and you see another poster go up that someone you know has died. The level of baseline trauma that is in someone’s life is something I’m very lucky I can’t relate to because it’s not my life experience.

Policing and lack of resources

Brooklyn: I was at an event on the weekend, where a lot of activists were talking about the level of over-policing and under-resourcing. There’s so much money going into the area for monitoring and policing.

And there’s so much of an under resourcing that people are dealing with. When they actually go through a violent incident and they need help, it’s often not there.

Cost of living and veterinary costs

Brooklyn: Cost of living is absolutely an issue. You know, there’s not a lot people are allowed to put towards rent from government assistance checks.

So that’s a real challenge when you’ve got someone who, like we’ve talked about a lot already, who loves their pet with all their heart, and the wellbeing of their pet is at the immediate forefront of their mind, and they want to do the right thing. But they don’t know what to do for a dog who’s stepped on a piece of glass, or for a dog who is somehow starting to vomit, and that’s not normal for their dog, and they want to do the right thing, but they’re not a vet, right? And how are we supposed to get a pet to a vet?

Lack of transportation

Brooklyn: Another big issue in that situation too, is let’s say the person has called us, we’ve had a conversation, we’ve built a relationship, we’ve confirmed some funding for this person to go to the vet, and now they have to physically get to the vet.

That’s tricky too, because we might be able to say, here’s some money to go to the vet, but now they have to either get their hundred pound dog on the bus, and a lot of drivers may well just say, that’s not practical, it’s not safe, I won’t allow it. Or they need to get a taxi, and okay, that’s going to be 35 bucks, and where are you going to find that 35 bucks?

So that can be a real challenge as well.

Systemic barriers

Brooklyn: There are so many inequities and challenges in the neighbourhood that I could talk about all day.

The criminalization of poverty, being treated like you’re a criminal just for being poor in a public place, is really challenging.

Racism is a huge challenge in the neighborhood, it’s a huge challenge in the world.

Gender-based violence is something that people have been doing a lot of work on, there’s a lot of issues with that across the world.

I’ll leave it there for now, but there’s a lot of issues that people have talked about over the years.

Mitigating compassion fatigue

Amy: What is it like to provide support to such a wide range of people experiencing multiple barriers in their lives? How do you keep from taking that all on personally?

Brooklyn: That is a very valuable question. I think for anyone in any form of animal advocacy. Especially because we come to this work because we care a lot in general. We care a lot about animals. We care a lot about human animals, non human animals. And it’s very easy for us, because we’re empathetic people, to overextend ourselves to the point where we can burn out.

I don’t want to say that I have all the answers, even for my own self, but there’s a few things that I try to keep at the forefront of my mind when I approach this work.

Find the good

Brooklyn: One of them is just remaining self reflective throughout our careers, because especially in a career like social services, animal services, you’re going to see really hard things.

It can be very easy to see the challenges, but I would say it’s just as easy if you remember to look for the amazing successes; where you get to see someone has a lot of barriers, they’ve called you, they couldn’t get to the vet, they couldn’t afford the vet, all these different things.

And then you’re able to say, here’s the money that you need to get to the vet for a checkup, some x-rays, blood work, medication, a hospital stay, whatever we might be able to approve. And we were able to get a volunteer to drive you to the vet. And the volunteer was a lovely, empathetic person who stayed with you and emotionally supported you, and your pet got the treatment, and they got better, and now they’ve gone home again.

I mean, seeing the benefits to this work is, they’re everywhere, right? These cases overwhelmingly end happily. There’s so many more wonderful endings than there are really sad and really hard ones.

But with it in mind that this is an industry that’s very heavy in burnout, where a lot of people do see these hard things and you know, you see it once and maybe you can bounce back and you see it twice and maybe you can bounce back and, we all have a different point, but maybe on the 20th time, you just can’t bounce back anymore. And you just find yourself thinking, why should I try? It’s never going to get better. I’m not going to be able to fix the social problems, the systemic problems. So why should I try anymore?

So I try to remind myself of my “why”—and I don’t succeed every day. I don’t want to give off the impression that I’ve solved this or that this is something you can follow these easy steps and you too will have a satisfying career in social or animal services—but I think part of it is remembering why we do this.

Identify consistent ways to help

Brooklyn: And I think another big part of it is having a very clear sense of what I can realistically and reliably provide to folks. And there’s certainly a big piece of that which is beyond my personal ability. Let’s say you work for a huge social service agency where there’s hundreds of staff and dozens of managers, you’re really at the mercy of how good your leadership team is.

You need a very clear image of what your job description is: this is a support that we always provide, this is a support we provide sometimes when possible, and this is support we never provide. When you don’t have that, I think that the probability for burnout is so high because the realities are shifting every day.

Especially in something like the McVitie Fund, I would love to say we had endless money, but we just don’t. We have a set amount of money that we can work with, and knowing that that’s reality, this is what we can provide to people.

I find that’s really helpful for my own mental health; reliability is a big piece of it. Knowing what can I do that someone can rely on? What can I tell everyone who calls that we can do? Something I can promise callers is that we will always listen to you. We will always care about what’s going on for your pet and we will always try our best. I can always promise to try, but I can’t always promise to fund you.

And I think that knowing that really helps me feel like I’m doing something. Even if I can hear you out and not be one of the many burned out people who just says, “no, like we can’t help *click*”. And I’ve also been that person so I understand. I don’t want to say those are bad people. I don’t think that they are bad people. I think people get burned out.

I can be someone who can tell you, “No, I can’t help you, but let’s talk about it for a little bit and let’s explore some resources. Can you give me a bit of a picture of what’s going on? And maybe I can send you some referrals to who might be the best place that might be able to help you.”

Accept and learn from mistakes

Brooklyn: In terms of the sustainability piece, the burnout, emotional, mental health sustainability piece, I think something that’s really important to talk about is just that mistakes are normal.

Mistakes are normal in every part of our lives, but they’re certainly normal in this work. You can learn this work in school, you can train, and you can learn a lot of amazing, applicable skills that way, but it doesn’t come from a manual.

When you’re dealing with a unique human being, every single conversation is different. The thing I usually say works great for almost everyone, and then I could say that same thing to someone else and it’s really upsetting for them. It’s very destabilizing. It doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person, that I said the wrong thing.

Mistakes do not have a relationship to the quality of your character. Mistakes are normal. Things that work a lot of the time don’t work all of the time. Someone can fall into the thought process of I made a mistake, so I’m a bad person. Or the flip side, I’m not a bad person, so I couldn’t have made a mistake.

All of us have so much that we’ve learned, and also so much learning that we have left to do. I find that when we approach working with people whose lives we may not understand, it’s important to allow ourselves to accept when we need to learn something new. And if we’re wrong, it’s okay to be wrong, and it’s okay to apologize, and it’s okay to learn a new thing, and it’s okay to refine our approaches when we talk to each other and to people.

Redefine self care

Brooklyn: My last point that I would say about burnout culture is about substantial real self care. I’m uncommonly lucky to work with an organization that talks about the impacts of trauma on those who call us, and the ways that our relationship can flow where we can cause trauma to the person we’re speaking with on the phone, and also the way that trauma can be caused to us by hearing very difficult stories and disclosures.

A lot of times we see a lot of what I call like Instagram self care, you know, bubble baths and exercise classes, things like that. And it can be those things. I don’t think that those are bad examples of self care, but I don’t think that that’s the complete picture.

In work like this, in any job that is psychologically demanding and psychologically taxing, I think it’s so critical to have what I would describe as “substantive” or what other people describe as “real” self care.

That includes trauma therapy. Someone to really talk to who can help us understand, there’s a science to how this process is in the brain. A traumatic disclosure can physically, physiologically change your brain. It can change your reactions. It can change a lot of things about how you feel now. It can change how you feel long term. So access to trauma therapy.

Being able to take paid time off when we experience psychological impacts from our work.

Having people to talk about these issues when they come up.

Connecting with nature or land based healing practices can be incredibly valuable for many people.

Cuddling our pets I think of as a huge part of my own self care. Whenever I have certain types of difficult talks with people, I’ll just think, I’m so glad my little one is here right now. Even though I know that they’re not immortal, I’m not going to have them forever, I’m so lucky that this is a moment where both my cats are in very good health. They’re here, they’re happy.

Safe housing I think is a huge part, medical care, anything that is a necessity to be healthy, safe, and secure in our lives, those are all things I think of as substantive self care.

Free training on mitigating compassion fatigue & burnout

Chantelle: That’s a really good overview of trauma informed care, and thank you for delving into your own practices and your work.

A lot of what you talked about there is what we refer to as trauma-informed care.

If you are interested in learning more about incorporating trauma-informed care into your work and reducing the effects of compassion fatigue and burnout as an animal advocate or person working in the animal services sector, the Vancouver Humane Society offers free training courses..

Free training courses

Concerns about animals living on the street

Amy: We get a lot of people contacting Vancouver Humane Society concerned about animals living outdoors on the street, or animals that are being cared for by people who are drug users. How would you respond to people who have concerns about animals that are living outdoors with their guardians?

Brooklyn: That’s a very important question that does absolutely come up a lot.

There are different mindsets from people who would all agree with each other that we care a lot about non-human animals, we care a lot about pets and their safety, security, happiness, wellbeing, all of those elements.

When we discuss topics with each other, I always try to start from a perspective of where are we completely in alignment? And I think if we can start from the perspective of, this person is sounding to me like they’re communicating that they really care about the wellbeing of the pets that they’re seeing around the city, I’m a hundred percent on board with that.

That is what I hear from guardians as well. That’s my experience.

I would say the majority of guardians we speak with are housed in a literal sense. They have an address. Often it’s those single room hotels, some of which are much better than others, some of which are much worse than others. A lot of them are pet friendly, and so a lot of people do have cats, dogs, rats, rabbits. There are a lot of pets in the SROs, the single room hotels.

For the buildings that are on the worse end of the spectrum, from a safety and dignity perspective, I’ll see a lot of people who, even though they actually do have housing in a literal sense, they’ll spend a lot of time outside.

Even sometimes when it’s too hot because very few, if any, of them are air conditioned. So when there’s a heat wave, people will jump into their tents in the park or on the street or just be outside a lot of the time.

And then we do have a lot of people who simply are not housed at this time.

A lot of it is having relationships across the sector and trying to be as intertwined as possible between animal services and human services. We have a lot of conversations with support workers from housing organizations, from public health.

I get actually a surprising amount of calls from social workers and nurses who refer clients to us because they work with folks who are unhoused and they immediately understand, from a public health perspective, how critical it is to their human client’s wellbeing, to ensure the wellbeing of their pet. It’s really heartening whenever I have those conversations where someone is starting from that perspective.

But it is tricky when someone just disagrees or doesn’t think that someone who is profoundly in the grip of poverty should be allowed to have a pet. I find it challenging emotionally because this isn’t a concept to me.

These are people. I obviously for confidentiality will not name them, but I mean, these are people who have names. I know these people and I can tell you that they care profoundly about their pets and these are the same people who buy that $45 bag of cat food first with their last $80 so that their cat has food for the rest of the month at all costs.

These are people who will do incredible things. I’ve had people call and say, I’m going to sell the motorbike that is the only way they get around so that I can get this pet the surgery that they need. These are normal conversations that I have with people.

So I would just say, the level of love, but also the level of practical safety and companionship that this pet is receiving from this guardian is absolutely on the same par as what I’m providing to my pets.

I’ve read studies where people have noted that in a lot of cases, when someone is sheltering outside and doesn’t have housing at all, they’re with their pet almost around the clock. That can be really critical for some pets who have separation anxiety. I think a lot of our pets would love to have that much companionship and that much emotional support.

Pets and young people

Amy: Paws for Hope, another organization working in the Lower Mainland to help keep pets and guardians together, released a report called Connections and Companionship. Chantelle, what can we learn from that report?

Read report

Chantelle: The report highlights how pets can offer emotional support to young people experiencing hardship in their life by providing stability and comfort. It also highlights how pets can facilitate bonding between youth and foster parents and be a source of security and comfort for youth in government care.

I found it interesting that young people experiencing challenges were more likely to have a pet; like if they were experiencing poverty, had run away from home in the past year, experienced discrimination, had a physical disability or challenges with their mental health or substance use.

The report doesn’t get into causation, so it’s not clear if this is an example of the phenomenon I mentioned earlier, where people who experience challenges want to help animals who are in need, or if these young people adopted pets to help cope with the challenges they were facing, or a combination of the two.

Even though most young people with a companion animal in their lives said that they experienced benefits to their well-being, young people who weren’t well-off financially were more likely to miss out on accessing needed vet care – 38% vs. 5%. Worrying about the cost of pet care also added an extra stressor that led to participants reporting poorer mental health, and having a pet presented problems with youth accessing housing and other services for themselves.

Collaboration with other services

Amy: Brooklyn, who are some of the other agencies that are providing support to people? In what ways do you collaborate?

Brooklyn: Collaboration is absolutely key, especially since like I mentioned before, we don’t have the limitless budget I think all of us would fantasize about a nonprofit having. So with the realities of what we are able to do in a year, it’s essential.

Let’s say we’ve got a $2,000 surgery to save a pet’s life. If we can contribute $500, I look at it as a puzzle. How do we find the other pieces that we need to make this puzzle come together? In that sense, we’re really reliant on an ecosystem in my mind of organizations who have a very similar perspective and a similar value system and provide different types of supports to pets in these kinds of emergencies.

So you mentioned Paws for Hope. That’s absolutely an agency that we work with a great deal.

The BC SPCA is a group that we work with a lot as well, especially their Vancouver Animal Hospital, which does incredible work. That can be really, really critical, you know, for additional funding for a hospital that might be able to offer a discount on the procedure, making a $2,000 procedure less of a mountain to climb.

We work with a lot of shelters and a lot of nonprofit housing providers. A huge amount of our referrals come that way and our work flows in both directions. When they’ve got a pet who’s been attacked and is physically injured, or a guardian who’s really stressed out about a pet who’s showing signs of a very serious illness, we can help in that situation.

And they also help us out a lot when I’ve got someone calling me and saying, you know, I’ve got a veterinary problem, but I don’t have anywhere to sleep tonight. The weather is starting to get bad and it’s raining really hard. And I don’t want to have my pet recovering from something in a place that’s not safe for them to recover. That’s where we’ll go to the shelter list and I’ll be calling shelters or I’ll send them a list of resources to contact and try to find either a housing advocate or just different shelters that are pet friendly and might take them in.

Not every shelter is pet friendly. In Vancouver, we have a lot of social services, but it doesn’t come from the greatest reasons—it’s because we have a lot of poverty. But when you get into some of the smaller towns and cities across B.C., they may have one shelter within a few hundred kilometers. So if that shelter is not pet friendly, you’ve got people making decisions, almost all of which end in, I will shelter outside with my pet, rather than shelter inside and leave my pet to the elements.

Transition houses is another one. We work with a number of transition houses who are helping women fleeing domestic violence, gender based violence.

We work with a lot of pet food banks across the province. Those are amazing resources. At the end of the day, I think a lot of this boils down to, we are doing the best we can as individuals and as small organizations and sometimes as large organizations to try to pull together survival for a lot of pets.

Sometimes my job doesn’t entail providing survival to humans, but sometimes it involves working with others who do. There are a lot of nurses that we work with. There are a lot of housing providers who are providing survival resources to people and their pets

It is a challenge for all of us to do this as separate organizations, even as ones that work together in an ecosystem. This is not government funded, like human medical care. This isn’t a resource where there’s a clear series of steps for what you do when you go through a crisis and money is not available. If money is not available, this is a much bigger, sometimes insurmountable, problem in a way that it isn’t with human medical care.

Amy: Thanks for mentioning the government funding piece. I think this is crucial for understanding why people face the challenges they are facing. With limited government resources focused on providing basic needs for structurally vulnerable people; pets are often left out of the equation.

There is one government program from the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction that is providing some hope, though. It provides people the deposit needed to for accessing housing with a pet. This deposit is so crucial for accessing housing.

We’re hopeful that more advocacy will also lead to agencies that provide human services, also having a budget line for pets. Organizations like ATIRA Women’s Resource Society now have dedicated staff to assist with pets.

Brooklyn, in your mind, what would an ideal model for support for pets and their guardians that are struggling financially look like?

Brooklyn: That’s a really good question. It is one that’s hard to give a specific answer to.

Different organizations do provide these kinds of resources and supports in different methods. I definitely don’t feel like there’s one method that is the best method.

The way that we’ve settled on is to provide one-time crisis care funding for pets in an immediate life threatening emergency. There are reasons why we feel strongly that that’s an excellent method. And there are things that are not possible in that method, such as continuing care.

There are other organizations that have a different approach where they’ll work with the same pet throughout the duration of their whole lifetime providing care. There are obviously huge benefits to that method; and there are challenges when you can only realistically afford to take on so many pets and then a lot of pets are being turned away.

I think it’s really great that different organizations are providing care in different ways. Hopefully together, we can come together like a puzzle and make this all come together for each pet as much as possible.

On the whole though, I think it’s really important that any model for supporting pets and guardians in crisis be trauma informed. It’s really important to treat everyone with the dignity that they deserve, regardless of the specifics of their circumstances.

To be trauma informed, we need to be non-stigmatizing and always be reflecting on our programming; for ways for it to be easier to access and more inclusive. That’s a huge ongoing priority for our programming. At the end of the day, it is really challenging for a bunch of different organizations to be working on this separately, instead of in a cohesive, government funded way.

How you can help

Chantelle: We like to end the episode by sharing something that our listeners can do to make an impact with regard to the topic of the month, so are there any actions you can share for people today to help people access resources for their pets?

Brooklyn: We can do so much as a program, but at the end of the day, the struggle is tangible, budgetary realities. It’s just what we do and don’t have access to. There are certain parameters we have to put on our programs of how much we can fund the same pet in a year and in their lifetime so that we can keep going so that we don’t just run out of funding and turn away every single other pet.

The real challenge is donations. We’re very, very lucky to have a lot of monthly donors and a lot of people who are very generous and will do birthday fundraisers and just the most incredible things to help pull these funds together for pets in crisis.

It absolutely all makes a difference. And that money, when it’s earmarked for McVitie, goes directly into medical care for these pets.

There are pets who will not survive without a certain surgery or a hospitalization or medication today. And the relationship between the donor and the recipient is such a close one. Folks will donate and then a pet is able to get emergency life saving care. And it makes such a difference. So I would just say the more funds we have, the more we can do with them.

Donate to urgent veterinary care

Chantelle: Also, just to add on, doing advocacy to get these programs funded is also really important.

Like you mentioned, veterinary care is not subsidized like human medical care is. Animal’s lives have inherent value. They also have these major benefits for their guardians, like mental health benefits, physical health benefits, emotional benefits. And advocating for those resources to be funded can go a really long way in making those programs accessible to people.

Next episode

Please join us next month as we discuss how to handle compassion fatigue and burnout as an animal advocate.


Podcast: Is it easy to go vegan?

The plant-based journey looks different for everyone.

In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault are joined by guest Danielle George to discuss healthism and ableism in the plant-based discussion, as well as ways to make plant-based eating more accessible to everyone.

July episode: Will plant-based become the norm?

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

VHS Board Director

Danielle George has been a member of the Board here at the Vancouver Humane Society since September, 2021. Danielle has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology at The Evergreen State College. She’s passionate about food, social justice, and animal welfare, and the crucial intersections between them.

What can going vegan look like?

Chantelle: Before we get started, I’d like to note that we’ll be touching on topics of healthism and ableism, and there are also mentions of eating disorders. If this is something you have difficulty hearing about, we recommend that you have a plan in place to deal with complicated emotions that may come up.

Danielle, thank you so much for joining us today. Can you tell us more about your history with veganism and animal advocacy?

Danielle: I started out as a vegetarian since I was 13 years old. I read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and I think that’s such a good example of intersections between animal advocacy and what we eat and also compassion and caring for humans.

I read this book about the meat packing industry in Chicago, and I took from it that the treatment of these animals is horrific, and I don’t want to be a part of that. When of course, one of the intents that Upton Sinclair had written it for was to talk about the horrific environment the humans were working in as well.

So it’s a great example of how, if you’re somebody who’s compassionate and you care about one issue, it can and should bloom into a holistic approach towards compassion towards everyone stuck in that system.

Then I became a vegan in 2007. I was actually on my way to a Weird Al concert. I was with my partner who was not a vegetarian, not a vegan. We’re both from the Midwest. We didn’t have a lot of exposure to vegetarian or vegan ideals outside of what I had experienced.

I just mentioned, “Wow, Weird Al has so much energy travelling around and putting on these huge shows and he’s vegan. I wonder what being a vegan would be like.”

It just really inspired me to kind of dip into that. And my partner said, well, maybe we should try being vegan for 30 days. And from there, we just kind of continuously took baby steps and learned more.

I was a much more emotional person on the journey. How does this make me feel mentally? How do I feel about this journey? How do I feel about what I’m accomplishing or what I hope to accomplish? And my partner is a much more spreadsheet person. So they were researching environmental impacts, researching water consumption, checks and balances, boxes to be checked on what is being accomplished by reducing animal products in their diet.

So between those two places, we really just kind of both came to the same conclusion that we really were happy and we continued to adopt that lifestyle every day more and more. And we’ve never looked back.

Plant-based advocacy from the VHS

Amy: For some background on the Vancouver Humane Society’s role in plant-based advocacy, this is an important part of our work because plant-based eating has a huge potential to reduce animal suffering by reducing the demand for industrial animal agriculture, where some of the most severe harms happen to animals.

I personally stopped eating animal products after witnessing farmed animals being treated horribly on farms and at slaughter facilities. I won’t get into detail because I find talking about those experiences triggering, and it can trigger listeners too. Suffice it to say that I didn’t think it was possible for normal people, when put in a position of needing to earn a living, to get to a place of so little compassion for animals that they can do them so much harm. Every time someone chooses to eat food made from plants instead of animals, it helps save lives because it means there is less demand for animals to be bred, raised, and killed for food.

Chantelle: We do work through our Plant University project to make plant-based menu options more accessible through institutions like restaurants, caterers, hospitals, schools, and city concession stands, and also to make it easier for people to choose plant-based foods with resources like recipes and nutrition tips for thriving on a plant-based diet.

Healthism in the plant-based discussion

Chantelle: We also talk about the benefits of eating more plant-based foods, including the health benefits. We know from public polling that one of the main reasons people reduce their consumption of animal products is for their health, so sharing those health benefits can be a strong motivator for people.

Likewise, sharing tips about how to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need while you’re changing the way you eat can be important because it gives people the resources to meet their needs and have that change be sustainable.

But talking about health in the plant-based discussion can also verge into the territory of healthism. Danielle, could you talk about healthism and how it can come up in the plant-based discussion?

What is healthism?

Danielle: So healthism at its most basic is assigning a moral value to health and placing it at the highest of priorities. And now, because it’s a moral value, it’s almost entirely up to the individual’s responsibility to guard and protect their health. And any decline in your health is now an indication of a moral failing.

It’s super easy to hold these beliefs. I understand how so many folks get there. It’s widely held throughout our society.

The problem with healthism

Danielle: But there are some issues with having this concept. So recent studies in the past decade have begun to reveal that the vast majority of factors that impact our health is outside of our control. For instance:

  • access to healthcare,
  • community,
  • education,
  • what class we’re in,
  • if we have access to economic stability,
  • if our society as a whole has access to economic stability,
  • living in a place that’s free from pollution,
  • having stable housing,
  • our genes,
  • what we’ve inherited from our ancestors,
  • and even language fluency and literacy skills can impact your health.

Think about just casual stress that you would experience from perhaps not getting the same messaging that other folks around you who have that language fluency. Imagine you’re trying to make a decision on if you’re allergic to something, but you can’t read or you don’t understand the language that information is in.

All of these are factors that are primarily outside of our control that have a huge impact on our health.

But it can also imply the folks who have health issues for whatever reason, you can start to feel that those people should have been able to invest wisely or have worked hard enough to overcome it. And not being able to do that can show weakness or laziness or lack of intelligence or lack of worth. It can feed into that bootstrap mentality of, “I’m where I am because of the hard work and the good decisions I made and you should have been able to do the same.”

Some of the side effects of consuming or perpetuating a healthism focused attitude can be often placing high value or fixation on the exterior presence or appearance of health.

So you can summon up in your mind what you think healthy looks like. Oftentimes that’s from a broader social message that we’ve all been swimming in since birth, and a lot of that broader social message of what we’ve been told healthy looks like usually kind of implies the ruling class or an upper class concept of what healthy looks like. So it’s not going to be necessarily showing a broad cultural or geographic differences of what health can look like.

Health & barriers to health look different for everyone

Danielle: Also, that’s just on the outside. Health can look like many different things, but it can also remove the nuance for how complex making “healthy” choices can be for so many people.

So this might be an example of what healthism thinking can look like: “Everyone should walk 30 minutes a day. It’s so easy to do. There’s literally no downside. It’s good for your mind. It’s good for your body. It lifts your spirits. It’s the least you can do. Why isn’t everyone doing this?”

Well immediately you can think of, okay, well what about people who live with chronic pain? How would they navigate this 30 minute walk, without maybe becoming exhausted or exacerbating their pain?

What about people who are living in highly polluted areas, with or without asthma? I mean, that’s a choice we have to make during fire season. Is it safe and or a good idea for me to go outside right now?

What about people who have depression or only have the capacity to either go grocery shopping for dinner or go for a walk?

The truth is that most people live with a really limited collection of resources, time, energy, transportation, money, and it’s really tricky and complicated to create an equation of what is the “healthiest” way to use these small pockets of resources.

Dangers of healthism

Danielle: But also healthism thinking can lead to disordered eating, such as bulimia or anorexia. It can lead to orthorexia, which is a kind of obsessive fixation on only eating the healthiest foods to avoid illness.

It certainly leads to kind of anti-fat beliefs being perpetuated. If we’re focusing on an exterior concept of what we think healthy looks like, then we’re certainly feeding into anti-fat beliefs.

It’s overall kind of steeped in privileged thinking that can lead to victim blaming towards people who have health struggles. It can lead to removing value and compassion for people who are locked in a complicated system.

Concerns about health and plant-based eating

Danielle: I think the challenge that can come up when we’re talking about plant-based living is that so many people often bring up health as a concern as to why they might be hesitant to try removing or lowering the animal products that they eat.

It’s tricky to walk the line of addressing people’s concerns that can sometimes, not always, but it sometimes can be already inspired by this healthism concept, without us feeding into it and implying that a plant-based diet is the healthiest diet possible and therefore it is your responsibility to be the healthiest version of yourself, so you’re failing or being morally weak if you don’t choose the healthiest road; when at the end of the day health is often not in our control.

There’s many reasons why people are or are not healthy and many reasons why folks may not always have the capacity or the options or want to make the healthiest choice. And those folks and their lives, healthy or not, are 100 percent valid and deserving.

Ableism in the plant-based discussion

Chantelle: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a really incredible and detailed background.

Another issue that can come up in plant-based advocacy is ableism. For instance, if we were to emphasize how “easy” it is to cut out animal products but only offer plant-based alternatives that are made from scratch and involve a lot of chopping vegetables, that could exclude people who have chronic health conditions that cause nerve pain in their hands or affect their fine motor skills, or who have trouble standing to cook for a long time.

Amy: Yes, if we focus on how “easy” it is to go plant-based, the unintentional message is that it should always be easy. For some people, hearing that it’s easy will make them shut down if they face challenges – they think the only people who do it don’t face challenges and when they run into a road bump they might think, “Being vegan isn’t for me because it’s supposed to be easy, and this isn’t.”

Do you have any thoughts on ableism and plant based messaging, Danielle?

Danielle: Yeah. I do want to say that I’m by no means an expert. I certainly do move in some circles of disability community, but I always want to advocate and encourage folks to look into what disability leaders are talking about.

I definitely think that when we talk about how easy something is, it’s a great way for us to be showcasing our privilege; because if something’s easy for you, it means that you didn’t ever have to stop and think about how many obstacles have not been present for you to accomplish that.

Certainly when we talk about chopping vegetables, like Chantelle was talking about, we’re thinking of somebody who has counter space, who has a cutting board, who has a place that they can rinse their vegetables, who is probably not microwaving these fresh vegetables, so probably has a place that they can bake or broil or fry these fresh vegetables or tofu or whatever it is that we’re talking about.

So we’re also talking about, similar to that list earlier, someone who has access to a safe, clean space to prepare these things, has the time and capacity to do it, has the physical capacity to do it; that’s already a lot of folks who may find that challenging.

But then we also have people again living with chronic pain, like you had said, maybe having nerve pain or arthritis, and they may not find that as accessible as well.

So I think it is really helpful for us to just hold space for recognizing that what is easy for one person can be challenging for others; and not placing that implied blame on someone who says, “Hey, this is a challenge for me. This is out of my reach at this moment.” It’s up to us for us to hold space for that.

And then talk about how can we systemically help remove those barriers or obstacles for folks?

How to make plant-based accessible

Chantelle: Yeah, so that’s a great question. I think that’s the next question. What are some ways that we can remove those barriers and share information about plant based eating while also avoiding healthism and ableism?

Danielle: Like we had said earlier, it is so tricky because so many folks are coming into the conversation with maybe some already ableist questions. It’s hard to answer a question that’s coming from that direction without kind of feeding into it.

Focus on progress, not perfection

I think one of the things that can really help create space for people to feel like their challenges, their existence, the barriers that they have experienced, are valid and welcome to discuss, is not having an “all or nothing” mentality.

I certainly know that I don’t respond well to somebody saying, “If you fail on this, then you’re no longer a part of this community.” Or, “If you take one step in the wrong direction, you have to start all over.” I don’t think that that creates community. I think that that is a form of gatekeeping.

And so if we want to create a space in the plant-based world where people who are experiencing those barriers can feel welcome and can come and talk about what resources would serve them—because it should be by and for those folks, they should be in the room, they should be talking about what needs they need help meeting—then we need to create a situation where it’s: “Do as much as you can. Any change is better than no change.” And we’re celebrating the small wins. That’s step number one.

And then also we want to talk about, “If you’ve been making those small wins, how does that make you feel? What have you been noticing?” Maybe you’re saying, “Oh, wow, you know I have noticed that I’ve had a lot less inflammation when I eat less of this product,” or, “When I eat less dairy, I feel less bloated.”

And just doing check ins, without saying, “But you still are eating dairy; you’re a failure.” Instead, celebrating, “Wow. It sounds like you’ve been feeling really well when you’ve been able to make these changes.” And holding space for, “What other changes would you be interested in?” or “How can I help you sustain where you’re at? I want you to feel good. I want you to have access to things that make you feel good. How can I be a part of helping make that space for you?”

Amy: I think it’s really impactful talking about those small wins.

Shifting toward a plant-based diet

Amy: We can also incorporate accessibility into our messaging when we’re talking about plant-based foods, myths, and tips. For example, there are folks who see steak as the only way to get a regular dose of iron. We know that iron supplements can be just as effective, as well as iron in green vegetables like bok choi or broccoli.

However, some people live in food deserts where these foods and vitamins aren’t accessible. In some more remote areas, meat from wild animals might be the most accessible and sustainable option.

This is why we emphasize switching towards a plant-based diet; that switch can look very different based on who you are and where you live.

Something that comes to mind for me is just how often we say plant-based eating is cheaper or easier; all you need to do is make some lentils. All you need to do is make some beans.

When you think about it, there’s lots of people who either don’t know how to cook lentils, or they have IBS, and lentils and beans don’t serve their bodies.

So if we take any one thing and say it should be for everyone, then we’re alienating part of the community that might want to make a shift.

Avoid “should energy”

Danielle: I absolutely love VHS’s approach towards that holding accessibility in your messaging, like you said, and switching towards a plant based diet and celebrating the steps that someone might be taking.

I think that, no matter what circles you move in, when you get a group of passionate people together, it’s so easy to kind of accidentally trip into what I call “should energy”.

Should energy is this hodgepodge of gatekeeping and that moralistic “Are you good or are you bad”. If you ever catch yourself saying, “You should” or “I should” or “They should;” “They should just eat lentils,” “They should just eat green beans,” that should energy is passing judgement in one form or another.

To your point, Amy, I know there are some folks that live in remote areas or do not have access to ways to be able to cook lentils. Again, maybe they only have access to a microwave. Maybe they don’t have access to a grocery store that would sell fresh lentils in the first place.

I always try to remember, I mean, eating is a huge part of our sensory experience as well. It is, to many people, a huge source of joy. It’s a huge source of culture. It’s a huge source of mental and emotional nourishment as well.

And so if I were to tell someone, “You can get everything you need from these greens,” and they say, “Oh, well, the only greens that I have access to are canned,” for me personally, I don’t get a lot of sensory joy out of canned green beans versus fresh green beans. That’s something that I have the luxury and privilege of being able to experience cooking fresh green beans.

If I were then to say someone should be eating green beans, even if they are canned green beans—and maybe they have sensory situations where they don’t like the texture of it, maybe they don’t like the taste, whatever the situation is—I’m then asking them to fulfill my definition of what I think is a healthy thing. Not understanding the full cost of all of the other checks and balances you’re working with.

Then we’re not allowing that person to address and serve the many different parts of their self. They have their physical health. They also have their social health, their mental health. They’ve got all of these different aspects.

And so if they’re sitting there miserably making themselves check that “should” box at the cost of whatever other situation is coming up, I don’t think that that is a holistic approach to health. I don’t think we are serving that person or serving that community.

So I think if we can help break down and remove that should energy, I think it’ll help make space for recognizing that it’s not going to be the same experience for someone else. But also we can be gentler with ourselves.

That should energy can lead into all of that body shaming. It can lead into the fat shaming. It can lead into policing yourself: “I shouldn’t eat that. I shouldn’t be bad today and have this chocolate. I shouldn’t eat this because that’s not what a healthy person would do.”

And instead we can kind of ask ourselves, “How is this serving me?” “This birthday cake is serving me because I made it with my mom and I’ve been looking forward to it all week and it’s going to taste like celebration and fun.”

“And that’s exactly what this part of myself needs right now; the social self, my sensory self. Now tomorrow I might need a mushroom scramble because I’m going to go and do something and I’m looking forward to eating this mushroom scramble. It’s going to be so good and I’m really looking forward to it. And it’s going to serve me in a totally different way.”

So just asking ourselves, is this serving you or whatever goals it’s helping you accomplish instead of, “There’s bad foods; there’s good foods.” I think that’s going to be a huge part of our messaging to not bring cultural bias to not bring that ableist mindset into our conversation.

Avoid “this is easy energy”

Amy: That’s really thoughtful. There’s different terms. Some people talk about intuitive eating, where you’re just like listening to yourself and listening to what you need.

There’s so many different ways that food impacts our lives.

In the same vein of talking about the “shoulds”, I want to reinforce that we don’t want to lead with any kind of “this is easy energy,” I said that earlier.

We can really acknowledge that there’s a learning curve. Every recipe or ingredient or cooking technique or tip is not easy or accessible to everybody.

You know, some people use a blender all the time. Some people don’t have access to appliances. So really every recipe is going to have a different level of challenge.

We can also think about ways to reach people who are facing challenges without defaulting to saying “this is easy”. So acknowledging that it can be hard, but here are some tips to make it less hard. Here are some common challenges and how we can overcome them.

Start small

Amy: We can also start with the most accessible ways to add a few more plants into the diet.

Recently someone was asking me about switching to a vegan diet. I kind of tried this method sharing with them about what part of it was hardest for me, rather than just being like, “Oh yeah, did it. It’s been great.”

That led them to self reflect and they also wondered why I didn’t just switch to purchasing more ethical products, which gave me an opportunity to share about my experiences working on free range and organic farms, slaughterhouses, sheep farms producing wool, where I witnessed abuse and suffering firsthand.

And then also the footage that I’ve observed just through working for different animal organizations. Somehow that became more relatable because they could kind of have empathy for what I’ve observed, and it opened them up to consider, even though it was hard for me, I was willing to put in the work to kind of like make small steps to start it off because there was a motivator.

That whole process made the conversation much more in depth versus me just being like, “Yep, this is just who I am. I did this thing, it’s great.” And in that case, they just wouldn’t feel like they could relate to me because they would themselves think, “I’ve tried that and it didn’t go so well,” but they’d keep it to themselves because they just have that sense that, it’s too different. They’re too different from me.

So thinking about these incremental steps that a person can take, we can look at, “Where do you think there are easy changes you can make in your life? Where do you have options and availability for these foods? Could it be easier to start with shifting breakfasts or maybe milks to be plant-based?”

How you can help

Amy: Or if a person doesn’t feel like they have any options that are accessible to them right now, what steps can we support them in taking so they could be in a place to have those options? That could look like advocating for more options to be available.

Chantelle: Yeah, definitely. And while we’re talking about that kind of advocacy, this is a really good step any of us can take to help animals.

We can each do individual advocacy to make those plant-based foods more accessible to everyone.

Going into restaurants and asking them to add vegan-friendly options is a great way to make those foods available to the people who want to try plant-based but don’t have the resources to make those foods at home.

It’s also just a great way for anyone to try plant-based for the first time as an introduction step. The first time I had the thought that I could go vegan was when I had a really good plant-based burger at a restaurant in Toronto and I thought, “Oh, this food can be tasty and fulfilling.”

Danielle: Yeah, that makes such a huge difference.

And to your previous point, Amy, when you were talking about how different ingredients cooking techniques and tools are not always readily available; I remember when I first became vegan back in 2007, there were certainly way, way, way less plant based options in the grocery stores or accessible for shopping.

And a lot of the stuff you was: if you wanted sour cream, you’re making it on your own. If you want Alfredo sauce, you’re making it on your own.

I remember I had a really cheap blender that I had gotten from Goodwill. When you are blending cashews, you know, not all blenders are equal. So my experience of somebody telling me, “It’s easy. Just use your Vitamix and blend up this beautiful, creamy sauce,” was not accessible to me at that moment because my little five dollar blender that was probably older than I was, was not making creamy sauces. It was making a grainy mush.

So I definitely felt like I don’t feel represented in this conversation of this decadent lifestyle that someone is telling me is at my fingertips and is super easy.

Let alone if I had had other challenges, like if I had lived back in the middle of a small town in Kansas. Where am I going to get these raw cashews from, with easy access, without driving 30 minutes, 45 minutes, maybe over an hour to get to a natural Whole Foods store?

So I love this conversation of talking about and holding space for challenges, so that people can feel like, “This community is interested in hearing about who I am and the challenges I’m facing, not about me fitting into the square shaped peg they have for me, and that if I don’t fit into that, there’s no space for me.”

I think a good community, a healthy community, wants to hold space for hearing about what is your lived experience, what are the challenges you’re experiencing, and how can we help make this system serve all of us better; not just the people who find it easy.

Next episode

We hope you’ll join us again next month for discussion on the challenges that low income pet guardians face and the systems in place to help them.


Podcast: Is rodeo obsolete?

Most people are opposed to calf roping.

In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault are joined by guest Samantha Fuller to discuss how animals are impacted by rodeo, public response to rodeo events, and the future of rodeo.

Call for a rodeo bylaw in your community

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Indigenous Biologist

Samantha graduated from the University of British Columbia last year where she studied and researched animal biology. Her research focused on improving the welfare of laboratory rodents, investigating attitudes toward rodeo events, and the use of animal welfare science in Indigenous wildlife stewardship. She is currently an Indigenous biologist, working with environmental science to and collaborating with Indigenous communities on their land stewardship program projects.

Welfare concerns in rodeo

Calf roping event at The Calgary Stampede. Jo-Anne McArthur \ We Animals Media.

Rodeos are stressful for animals

Chantelle: Recently you conducted work researching animal welfare concerns around rodeos. The Vancouver Humane Society has also been advocating to end the inhumane use of animals and rodeos since the organization was founded in 1986. Could you speak a little bit to how rodeo events impact animals and why that issue is important?

Samantha: There’s some evidence that suggests that the methods used in rodeos can be a source of stress for the animals involved. There’s also some concerns with specific events around the safety for both the animals and the human participants.

Amy: Can you share a little bit more about those stressors in rodeo that have come up in your research and how they impact animals?

Samantha: Stress can be measured in animals using either behaviour or physiology.

In calf roping, stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine have been seen to rise in the events. This will happen while being loading into chutes or during the roping event.

Bulls have shown escape and agnostic behaviours toward handlers, which can indicate fear distress.

Unfortunately, there’s few studies investigating specific rodeo events. But looking at other areas, we can assume there are other stressors based by the animals. For instance, transportation is a known stressor for beef and dairy cattle, and also different types of horse racing can be a source of physical stress for causing injury for the animals involved.

Training vs. provoking a fear response

Chantelle: Yeah, absolutely. You talked about fear responses in the bulls. We’ve spoken about that before on the show as well with fight, flight and freeze responses, and it’s something we can see when people use aversive training techniques.

Amy, this is something you spoke more in depth about when we did our animal training episode back in April. What would you say are some of the differences between the way that someone would train a dog and the way that animals are trained to “perform” in rodeo?

Amy: Yeah, it’s really interesting when we think about animals that are being trained with, let’s say, positive reinforcement. They’re provided an opportunity to offer the behavior that we want from them, and then they’re rewarded with something that they really like, something they love, something that makes them feel good, the moment that they show that behaviour.

For example, if a dog is walking and you make a loud noise, which let’s say is neutral stimuli that they haven’t been exposed to before, they turn their head because they heard the noise. Then they get that reward, that really good thing, and so then in the future, they’re more likely to turn their head when they hear that sound.

That’s kind of the basis of positive reinforcement. Horses can be trained this way too. Cows, even fish have been shown to be capable of learning using positive reinforcement.

But then we look at other training styles, and maybe not always training, but punishment can be used by people that add something unpleasant to decrease the behavior.

For example, a flank strap that’s really tight decreases an animal’s desire to stand still and makes them move in such a way is to try to remove that strap. One of the ways an observer can see that the strap is causing the animal to respond to it is that as soon as the time is up in rodeo, the people who are managing the rodeo animals remove the flank strap, which then leads the animal to calm down.

Much of what happens in rodeo has little to do with training. It has a lot more to do with triggering fear responses. Animals that are waiting to be released from the chute—so situations like steer wrestling and tie-down roping—may be hit or have their tails twisted while they’re in the chute. Something that makes them uncomfortable so that when the gate opens, they run out full speed.

It can also happen sometimes that animals will freeze in place and not want to leave the chute. That’s their response.

Animals used for rodeo are prey animals, so it isn’t common to see a fight response. You tend to see fleeing or freezing.

However, we know bulls can sometimes have a fight response as you would witness in bull fighting, and then sometimes you’ll see that with some of the bulls that are used for bucking, but they quickly move out of fight and into flight as soon as they’re given an opportunity to. So you can see that they still have that desire to respond to their fear by getting out of the situation.

Samantha: Yeah, I find based on the animal and the particular event, the response might be a little different. Like you said, for calf roping, there’s more of a promotion of that flight response. For bull riding, there’s more of that promotion for a fight response.

That’s kind of what they’re looking for in that instance because they’ll get scored based on how aggressive or how lively the bull is performing in that instance. The same with the horses in the bronc events. There’s definitely variations between the events of which response they’re trying to get.

Amy: Yeah, I find it really interesting. Certainly to get that difference of, okay, are these animals trained? And maybe yes, in some cases they’re trained or they’re made to grow accustomed to the way that they’re expected to perform. But it seems like often they’re motivated through fear.

Samantha: Yeah, and I think there’s a certain amount of genetic manipulation that goes on with rodeo stock as well, trying to achieve that higher scoring animal, which can obviously play in how they respond.

Amy: Right, like with the bucking behaviors.

Samantha: Primarily, I think those are the ones where there’s more genetic roles in how they select those animals.

Public attitudes to rodeo

Rodeo culture at the Calgary Stampede

Chantelle: It’s really brutal to think about what these animals are going through, but a lot of the culture around rodeo minimizes the individual experiences of animals.

And I know that part of your research was looking at attitudes toward rodeo. The VHS recently ran a campaign on ending animal suffering at the rodeo, and part of that was monitoring rodeo events.

Amy, I wanted to talk to you about that because you watched three days of the Calgary Stampede rodeo while that was underway. I was wondering what some of the things were that you observed about the rodeo culture in Calgary.

Amy: What I found most interesting was listening to the commentators as they observed the rodeo events.

There was a really big focus on money, who was going to take money away from the event, and what I understood from that is that performers depend on placing in a certain ranking to take an income from the event. So they’re incentivized to perform the way that the rodeo expects them to.

But even with that in place, there’s many situations where things go wrong, such as when calves are pulled off their feet by the rope that gets wrapped around their necks rather than put on the ground by the people who are handling them,often aggressively. In the rodeo, these instances are considered no time—their scores aren’t counted—but the animal still gets pulled off their feet.

There were quite a few of these during the Stampede. It seems like even if it potentially causes more harm in that the calves are getting pulled off their feet and maybe dragged by the horse, it seemed difficult for the person performing to manage that. Obviously they don’t want that to happen because they don’t get a score, but it was still happening quite a bit.

I also noticed there were a lot of interesting comments made about animals and their behaviour.

There’s a lot of sociology of how people describe other people or other animals, and I noticed people commenting on whether the animals are nice or not, whether they comply or behave or not. There’s also a lot of commentary about the calves straining and struggling with this expectation that they should be submitting; where we know it makes sense that an animal that’s wanting to be free and being contained is going to struggle and try to get free.

I also noticed a big emphasis on the event as being part of the circuit to qualify on a world scale. It’s a reminder that even though the event only happens once a year, the animals performing in the rodeo are often traveling frequently and long distances. Especially the different horses are going to different events throughout the season and practice sessions through the year.

Travel is stressful on everyone, humans and animals, but particularly these animals aren’t being given a choice as to whether they want to opt into that travel. Horses and cows are herd animals and they’d rather be with a group of horses and cows over being put in a trailer on their own and traveling to a loud and stressful arena.

Responses to advocacy

Amy: We shared some of the photos and videos from this event on social media, and I’m curious, Chantelle, being the person who saw all the social media comments, what are some of the ways that people respond to posts from VHS’s website,

Chantelle: There’s a very strong response. One thing that’s really clear is this is an issue that people feel very strongly about either way. There are people who would love to see rodeos cancelled for good, but the rodeo supporters feel just as strongly that they should be kept around forever.

I’ve noticed that people on the side of rodeo kind of move the goalposts when you’re talking about rodeo, every time you point out an issue.

So if we say that animals aren’t given choice whether to participate, people will say that, actually, animals love being in the events, so they would choose to.

But we know for a fact that animals aren’t given a choice because we see what happens to them if they try to opt out of the behaviors. For instance, we shared a video of a horse during a bucking event who instead of having the flight and fight response, had a freeze response and just stood still in the chute. That horse was just repeatedly smacked in the face. They kept opening the gate and trying to hit and push the horse out.

We shared that video and the response to that video was, well, the horse wasn’t being hit that hard; the person just slapped or pushed the horse; they weren’t punching them, and the handlers wouldn’t actually hurt the horse. The video shows that horses aren’t given a choice, but we do know that horses are hurt in these events also.

Animals are catastrophically injured and die at the Stampede quite frequently. The VHS started tracking fatalities in 1986, and since then, 105 animals have died at the Calgary Stampede. Those deaths are happening almost every year. But on the other hand, when we shared those numbers that animals actually are in fact injured and killed by these events, people will just say, those deaths just happen sometimes, or it’s not enough deaths to really worry about. But those individual animals’ lives matter and we as humans don’t need to be putting them in those situations where they’re at risk for our entertainment.

Another response we hear a lot is deflection. People will say that advocates shouldn’t be looking at this issue at all because there are all these other issues happening in the world.

That’s a technique known as whataboutism. It basically aims to distract from the topic at hand. Of course, it’s possible to care about this issue of animal suffering in rodeo and work to address other different issues at the same time. And if everyone really believed that we shouldn’t be looking at one issue because there’s another one, nothing would ever improve. There’s always going be other issues.

So in general, there’s a lot of denial, moving the goalposts, and deflections to avoid discussing the very real fear and stress and pain and risk that animals face in rodeos so that humans can carry on hosting these events and participating in them and watching them.

At the same time, it’s clear that public opinion is increasingly critical of how animals are treated in rodeos. So I think that the fact that there is such strong pushback to criticism of these events shows that the industry is concerned about how the future of rodeo is going. Maybe this is not something that is sustainable to continue.

Amy: I think some of those observations apply to any type of advocacy or change.

Polling results on rodeo attitudes

Amy: Samantha, you recently collected some data about people’s perceptions of rodeo events and their responses to rodeo footage. What did you learn from that?

Samantha: People’s attitudes seem to be guided by a couple things, including:

  • the perceived cultural value of the event;
  • how the animals are treated; and
  • the risk and safety of the event.

And these are most influenced by like that person’s attitudes towards animal use in general.

There’s kind of these two ends of the spectrum.

On one side, somebody will think all animal use is okay, so all of these events are okay. And then on the other side, there’s no animal use is okay, so no event is okay. And these are kinda like hypothetical endpoints. Most people fall within kind of this gradient of how they view the use of animals.

Public perceptions of 4 rodeo events

And in this study in particular, it seemed to also be influenced by the species in the particular event and the age of the animal. For this study, we looked at four events:

  • Barrel racing;
  • Chuckwagon racing;
  • Bull riding; and
  • Calf roping.

In general, most people approve of the events using horses. I think there’s this relationship or perceived relationship between horses and riders, so most people think that horseback riding is okay. As a result, most people approved of barrel racing. For this event in particular, people recognize the importance of the place of women in rodeos.

There was a slight decrease in the approval of chuckwagon races, and this was due to the fact that a lot of people thought there was more risk involved in the event because of the number of horses and the proximity of the wagons.

More people disapproved a bull riding and felt like the animal was being exploited and angered for the sake of entertainment. Bull riding was most polarized in terms of the cultural significance. Some people in the U.S. in particular said it was in our all-American sport, it needs to be conserved; while others thought the event was barbaric and outdated.

It’s important to note for chuckwagon racing and bull riding, there was a lot of uncertainty in whether people approved or disapproved. And this might be due to like a lack of information or they’re kind of unable to pick which value is more important to them, the cultural aspect or the potential of harm to animals.

Finally, people most disapproved the calf roping event. People identified the age of the animal as a concern, referring to the calf a lot of the time as a small baby, which in turn may have led to them to perceive more stress and injury involved in the event. Some participants who approved of calf roping thought it showcased a vital skill for the meat industry in general.

Amy: What were you surprised by with all of these research findings?

Samantha: I thought it was interesting how much cognitive dissonance was present regarding animal use and entertainment.

Cognitive dissonance is a stress response when people have information that doesn’t align with their beliefs. And like you said, it can result in people either, discounting information or they’ll provide some sort of explanation to justify their beliefs.

In this study, the contradicting information was the safety and animal treatment versus this cultural value and historical value of the event.

People who approve of high levels of animal use don’t necessarily associate negative states to the animals, or they’ll even say the animal is enjoying the event. They are also more likely to say that training of participants and the rules in place or government rules protect the animals and the people from getting hurt, as another justification to those perceived risks.

And then on the other side, people who disapprove of all animal use were more likely to associate these negative animal welfare and risks, but they’re also more likely to disvalue any cultural significance. They would say things like, rodeos are like a Greek Colosseum and the viewers are violence seeking.

So there’s definitely this divide and this polarization.

Amy: Yeah, it’s really interesting because I think about just the ways that the animals experience the event, and then the ways that people think that they’re experiencing the event.

Based on the scientific evidence we have of animal behaviour, it can be drastically different.

We had one email from someone who said basically that they thought that the wild pony racing (a children’s event at the Calgary Stampede where the kids try to mount a pony that’s trying to get away and doesn’t want to be mounted) was important because the ponies almost always “win”. And winning means getting away, not getting mounted by the children. I thought that was really interesting because animals don’t have a concept of winning and losing; of competing against each other or competing against the children.

They aren’t winning exactly, but maybe they’re getting away or avoiding the stimuli that they find aversive. But the idea that we put that label on them gave me a real insight into how people shape their ideas about animal behavior.

How will survey data be used?

Chantelle: Samantha, this is really fascinating data. How do you think this could be used in the future?

Samantha: Survey data can help researchers identify the areas the public’s concerned about, and inform possible areas of future studies.

For example, providing more information about chuckwagon racing and bull riding—the events that there is a little bit more uncertainty about—could impact the approval of these events or clarify some of the perceptions around these events. Or, adding safety precautions to events that people are perceiving the safety risks such as chuckwagon races could also improve the acceptance and in turn the welfare of these events.

Amy: Is there anything you didn’t ask in the survey that now that you’ve gone through that process, that you’d want to study or ask in the future?

Samantha: Yeah, with these fairly strong opinions about culture and animal use, I think it would be interesting to investigate this a little further by providing potential changes or refinements that could happen in events and see if there’s still that cultural and entertainment value to it, as well as maybe a lower perceived risk.

For an example, if in calf roping you use the mechanical calf or breakaway ropes, which are ropes that once the animal’s caught it kind of releases the tension and breaks away, would they still find this event entertaining?

Amy: I’d be curious about that as well. Certainly I’ve seen people ride on mechanical bulls and have a great time. There’s so much scoring that goes down to the animals that I’m so curious if you took away the scoring of the animals and just had people be scored, it would be a little bit more consistent and maybe make it more of a sport.

So curious to see where the future takes us with rodeo.

Dropping animal events would not impact Stampede attendance

Amy: VHS actually gathered some polling data about opinions towards rodeos. Chantelle, I was wondering if you could talk about the findings from that poll.

Chantelle: Certainly. During last year’s stampede, the Vancouver Humane Society commissioned a Research Co. poll of Calgary residents to ask about their current plans to attend the Stampede; so if they were going to attend that year or if they had already attended that year, and also if they would attend in a future year if the rodeo and chuckwagon events were removed.

The poll found that there was virtually no change in attendance if those the rodeo and chuckwagons were dropped. 64% of people said they had attended that year or were likely to attend, and 63% said they would be likely to attend without the chucks and rodeo.

So although we’ve assumed the Stampede has continued hosting those inhumane animal events out of financial motivation, we can see that dropping them really wouldn’t have much impact on attendance at all.

The poll also showed that removing those events would draw in new crowds. 24% of people who didn’t attend last year expressed an interest in attending the Stampede if it didn’t have rodeo and chuck wagon racing.

Of the people who hadn’t attended and would change their behaviour, the biggest change was in the youngest group of people, where about two out of five non-attendees from last year (aged 18-34) would be likely to attend if the rodeo and chuckwagon races were removed.

That makes sense; we’ve heard from many people who won’t attend because of the animal suffering.

Beyond the animal events, there is another draw: the Stampede is a major arts and culture event. The concerts alone draw in hundreds of thousands of people every year. Coverage in the news of this year’s event pointed out that the events that do cause animal deaths almost every year don’t really resonate with the crowds coming for the concerts.

As there’s more information available and people are becoming more aware of what animals go through and how they experience the world, it would make sense for the Stampede to lean more into the concerts and the arts and the midway elements and start moving toward a rodeo-free future that’s more in line with the public’s values.

What’s next?

Amy: Thinking about what impacts that we can have, what can the people listening to this podcast do to support individual animals’ needs being met and their wants and desires being cared for, and put an end to some of these inhumane practices?

Chantelle: So there are really two major factors that are going to help end inhumane rodeo practices, and those are public opinion and policy change.

The first step is fewer people buying tickets and attending rodeos. The industry’s main motivation is profit, of course. So if people aren’t spending their money supporting those events, there’s really no financial motivation to continue them.

You can help with this by sharing the posts from the Rodeo Truth page on social media to show the realities of what animals experience in rodeo and encourage other people to boycott rodeo events.

Follow Rodeo Truth on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok and share the posts:

Secondly, you can help by asking your municipality’s mayor and council to introduce a bylaw that bans inhumane rodeo events.

Call for a bylaw

The City of Port Moody in B.C. recently passed a bylaw unanimously to prohibit inhuman rodeo events. The City of Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver also have bylaws in place.

This is a really impactful step, whether you live somewhere that hosts rodeos or not. If you live somewhere that doesn’t host rodeos currently, a proactive ban can be really important because it prevents new rodeos from being introduced, and it helps to grow the precedent for other municipalities to follow suit.

You can also take the Say No to Rodeo Pledge on the Rodeo Truth website, which we’ll share with Stampede organizers and Calgary decision-makers to show them that the public opposes those events.

Take the pledge

Next episode

We hope you’ll join us again next month for discussion on plant-based eating and health.


Podcast: Will plant-based become the norm?

65% of people are eating fewer animal-based products.

In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault delve into a recent project from the VHS to determine what people in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland think of plant-based eating and to share the benefits.

Read report

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Why share the benefits of eating plant-based?

Chantelle: As we’ve mentioned before on this podcast, industrial animal agriculture is arguably the biggest animal welfare crisis in the world. We’ve also mentioned that eating a plant-based diet is the most impactful way to decrease the demand for animal products, which drives farmed animal suffering. Another important piece of that puzzle is advocating for plant-based foods to be more accessible for everyone. But what does that advocacy look like in practice?

This month we’ll be delving into a recent project from the Vancouver Humane Society to determine what people in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland think of plant-based eating and to share the benefits of eating a plant-based diet.

Report prepared for the City of Vancouver: Increasing Plant-Based Purchasing at the Municipal Level

Amy: Yeah, and to share a little bit of what’s kind of behind this: In 2021, the City of Vancouver made a commitment for their staff to look into the city shifting 20% of their animal-based purchasing to plant-based foods, following the release of a report that our organization commissioned on what the city could save in greenhouse gas emissions, cost, and animal lives.

Read report for the City of Vancouver

So after the success of that report, we were supported by a funder to develop and promote a cost-benefit analysis demonstrating what an individual could save if shifting towards a more plant-based diet.

Poll of plant-based habits and attitudes in the Lower Mainland

Amy: That involved observing the quantity of animal products consumed by B.C. residents. Since we were already gathering that polling data, we recognized it would be worthwhile to gather meaningful data about BC residents, plant-based eating habits and attitudes as a whole.

We used a recent poll from VegTO as a starting point, and then we gathered data that we could use to further the plant-based movement in B.C. In the next little while, we’ll take you through some of the findings from both the survey and the cost benefit analysis. You can find this data linked in the blog post associated with this podcast.

There are lots of visuals there to make the data come alive. And really to give a broad overview of what the survey entails, it included results from just over 800 residents of the Lower Mainland to ensure that the data could be statistically significant.

Chantelle: Right. And those respondents were also balanced for demographics like age to be as accurate as possible.

How different generations feel about plant-based eating

Chantelle: Let’s talk about age. People have been avoiding animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy in some cultures for thousands of years, plant-based eating has deep roots in a lot of cultures, including ancient Indian cultures and Eastern Mediterranean societies. But the idea of plant-based eating in most of the Western world is pretty new.

The word vegan is less than a hundred years old. It was coined in 1944 by the founder of the Vegan Society named Donald Watson, and the concept has been growing very gradually since then and has recently bloomed.

If you were to look for a vegan-friendly meal at your average food court just 40 years ago, you wouldn’t have had a lot of options. I’ve heard so many stories from early vegans who had to get by on french fries and ketchup any time they were outl. Because those early adopters persevered and advocated, the movement has spread and now you can find something plant-based to eat almost anywhere. We’re so fortunate to have this amazing selection of veggie burgers and wraps and curries, and almost anything else you can think of.

And now that we have all these delicious options available, there’s so many more people who are open to eating plant-based foods.

Which generations are eating more plants?

Chantelle: In the survey that we did in the Lower Mainland, we found that younger generations are more likely to decrease or eliminate animal products from their diets. 69% of people aged 18 to 34 had reduced their consumption of animal products, compared to 66% of people aged 35 to 54, and 60% of people aged 55 and over.

In both the younger age groups, 3% of people identified themselves as being vegan, compared to in the 55+ age group, which rounded to 0% of people who identified as vegan.

Why people are eating more plants, by age

Chantelle: Another interesting finding that came out of the survey is that the motivations for eating more plant-based foods differed by generation.

People aged 18 to 34 were most likely to eat more plant-based foods to save money or to help the environment, while the other age groups were like ust to eat more plants for their personal health.

When it comes to choosing what to eat, all the age groups consider taste to be a priority, with price and availability coming close behind. Younger people are also more likely to consider convenience and the influence of friends, family, and their community.

It’s really great news that people are beginning to consider convenience a priority just as plant-based convenience foods are becoming more widely available. Those are things like packaged meals or plant-based lunch meat.

As companies keep developing those products and they keep evolving to have prices and flavors that rival their animal-based counterparts, it’s going to become easier and easier for someone to pick up something like a $2 package of veggie bologna over a $4 package of meat bologna that tastes essentially the same. That’s when it’s likely that we’ll see a wider shift toward a society that eats more sustainably.

Amy: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to that. Certainly I think it makes sense that eventually those products are going to become more affordable.

Do people with pets eat more plant-based foods?

Amy: We were also really curious. If people who have pets make any different decisions when it comes to plant-based eating than people without pets.

Pet guardians more likely to consider farmed animal welfare

Amy: So current pet guardians and non-pet guardians were asked how much they agreed with the statement, “I think about the treatment of farmed animals when I’m deciding what food to buy”.

I found it interesting that 59% of people who currently have pets agreed or strongly agreed with that statement compared to 47% of people who don’t currently have a pet.

Chantelle: I think that’s very interesting. I can see where that number is coming from because people who share their lives with animals can see how complex they are and how much they feel, and how strong their relationships can be.

Amy: I think it lines up with what I would expect too. Although, of course I’d love to see more connection between pets and farmed animals, considering we know they’re all sentient, they can feel pain and suffering.

Having a pet doesn’t make people value plant-based eating more

Amy: With another question on the survey, when asked how much they agreed with the statement, “Eating more plant-based foods can have a significant impact on reducing harm to animals”, there was really no discernible difference between pet guardians and non-pet guardians.

70% of people who currently have a pet agreed or strongly agreed with that statement, compared to about 68% of people who don’t currently have a pet.

Do you feel that seeing your pets’ unique personalities, intelligence, and capacity for love, joy, fear, and pain has made you more compassionate towards other animals?

Chantelle: I mean, for myself personally, sharing my life with animals has definitely made an impact on the way I see things.

Content warning: pet loss. Losing my first cat was actually what convinced me to start phasing out animal products from my diet years ago because it didn’t make sense to me to make animals die for the food I ate when I was so devastated by the death of an animal that I loved and farmed animals have the same complex internal lives that our companion animals have.

Pigs can reason just like dogs, cows form friendships and emotional bonds with their calves. Chickens can solve problems. They all dream, they think they feel and they want to have a good life.

Do men eat more meat?

Chantelle: Another interesting distinction in the survey data was about gender identity. You may have seen the stat that most vegans identify as women. Looking at the survey gives us some more insight into what the gender gap really looks like when it comes to plant-based food habits and attitudes here in the Lower Mainland.

Men are less likely to reduce animal product consumption, identify as vegan or vegetarian

In the survey, women and those who prefer to self-describe were significantly more likely at 71% to have reduced their animal product consumption than men at 58%.

Of the survey respondents who identified as vegan or vegetarian, 70% identified as women or preferred to self-describe and 30% identified as men.

That could partly be because animal products, especially meat, have historically been heavily marketed to men and associated with masculinity. If you think of something like ads for barbecue equipment that show a full tray of steaks, those are really featured around things like Father’s Day, and they almost always show men in the ads.

And then we see so many people who are changing their narrative on this, which is great news. The Game Changers is a really great documentary from filmmakers including Arnold Schwarzenegger. It follows a number of plant-based athletes to bust the myth that you need to eat animals to be strong, and it shows that anyone can be just as if not more strong eating plant-based.

What does the plant-based gender gap mean for food access?

Chantelle: I think that gender gap is probably making a really big impact when we consider that there’s a lot of men in high power positions in the companies that decide what food is available.

Men are 83% of the 533 named executive officers in S&P 100 companies, which is what many people consider to be the a hundred most major companies in the United States.That means that a lot of decisions about what food is offered and what food is marketed are ultimately being motivated by male leadership.

What do people think of plant-forward policies?

Amy: Speaking of male leaders being prominent in the corporate sector, we were really curious about what people, both those who eat plant-based primarily and those who do not, think about change at that institutional level.

Most people support plant-forward government policies

Amy: The survey showed that three in five consumers (60%) would support including animal product reduction efforts into local, provincial, and federal climate, health, and animal welfare strategies.

The results also showed that a majority (58%) would support shifting government subsidies from animal-based food production to plant-based food production.

Most people believe menus with plant-based options are more inclusive

Amy: When it came to restaurants, hospitals, schools, and public institutions like parks food service, the survey showed that 89% of consumers would either not change their opinion or value them more highly if they offered more plant-based food options.

Looking at this in more detail, the survey data indicated that 73% of consumers would view food services that offered greater variety of plant-based options as more inclusive to all.

So that’s nearly three quarters of the population that see this change as meaningful and want the kind of leadership who are making decisions about this to make more plant-based options available.

Most people would eat more plant-based foods if there were more tasty options on menus

Amy: 65% of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that they would eat more plant-based meals if there are more tasty options available when going out to eat.

So big changes can be made at the institution level to increase the prevalence of plant-based foods.

How to advocate for more vegan-friendly options

Amy: Really the best thing we can do as individuals to support these changes is to encourage restaurants, schools, park concessions, and government to adapt familiar and popular menu items to be plant-based.

We can also ask them to prioritize the marketing of plant-based items; place them front and centre on the main menu, rather than having them be something on the side.

If you’re keen to get involved with that kind of advocacy, there’s resources or through our farmed animal advocacy team at the Vancouver Humane Society who can provide personalized support to help you get involved in your community to ask for more kind of prominent plant-based options.

Advocacy resources
Contact the VHS team

Chantelle: Yeah, those are all great points. It makes such a big difference for individuals choosing what to eat when institutions have made those plant-based foods straightforward and accessible.

Is a plant-based diet nutritious?

Amy: We also wanted to get an idea of what the major barriers were to switching to a plant-based diet.

Survey results indicated that nutrition was the main barrier. 88% agreed or somewhat agreed that they think about nutrition when deciding what food to buy, and 28% of respondents said that they were concerned they wouldn’t get enough protein in their diet if they ate more plant-based foods.

To share a little bit of a personal story, I grew up as a gymnast eating an animal-based diet. Today, I’m a rock climber and a runner, and I have genetic blood sugar issues and I eat a fully plant-based diet.

There are some strategies I’ve found to help me keep up the energy I need for the activities I’m doing. I make sure that I eat a protein with every carb. That’s either nuts, soy products, or a good volume of lentils and beans.

I also avoid really carb intensive foods like white rice or potatoes unless it’s an activity day, because my body can’t process those types of sugars very well. So I opt for sweet potatoes and brown rice instead.

My body really craves fats and protein after a big day in the mountains, so I’ll often eat a spoonful or more of peanut butter before bed to ensure my body’s getting what it needs to stay active. Avocados are really great too, and they’re great insulin regulators.

When I take slower days where I’m not moving a lot, I eat the same ratios of food, but I stick to smaller meal sizes. The reason I eat smaller meals more frequently is to manage my blood sugar, essentially to ensure my body always has the fuel that it needs without a big sugar spike and a consequent dip.

I make sure to take my B12 and eat foods rich in magnesium, calcium, iron, and also make sure to intake lots of electrolytes.

While being active feels good, it feels even better knowing that I’m fueled by plants. I’m grateful that I don’t feel pressure to harm animals while being active. And many of my high intensity athletic friends also eat a plant-based diet.

And this is a personal experience. Certainly everyone has a different dietary need, a different kind of lifestyle, and figuring out what the best foods are for your life is what’s most important. Some of this comes lots of research, going to nutritionist, going to naturopath, and learning about food, and so I really recommend just going to many sources as you can to gather information to understand what your body needs and how to take care of yourself.

Chantelle: Yeah, absolutely. We’re really just sharing our personal experiences about what works for us, but it’s really great that you found something that works for you, Amy.

There’s so much information on nutrition out there that it can at times be hard to sort it all out. I really personally like the recipes on because they’re focused on good nutrition while also being really tasty. The website also has great videos from nutritionists breaking down the important things to make sure you are considering for your body to thrive on a plant-based diet.

I have also found that since going vegan and eating a plant-based diet, I’m more mindful about making sure I get the nutrients I need, so I’m eating meals that are more balanced to help me get through the day.

I used to struggle with low iron when I was an omnivore and later a vegetarian. I would experience some symptoms of that, like weakness and fatigue even when I was getting enough calories for the energy I was using. Now I’m eating more foods that are rich in that nutrient, like dark leafy greens and tofu, and I’ve found it easier to keep my nutrient levels where they need to be.

Is a plant-based diet tasty?

Chantelle: You might not be surprised to hear that the top concern people identified in the survey was taste. 73% of respondents said taste influences their food choices the most, and 37% said that they worried they wouldn’t enjoy their meals as much if they switched to more plant-based foods.

Amy: Yeah, this is a really interesting one. This is something that I’ve thought about a lot because growing up my favorite meal was macaroni and cheese and I just loved cheese in general. So when I transitioned to a plant-based diet, I was worried about having to give up my favorites.

I found a really good mac and cheese recipe using vegetables and seasoning to make up the cheese sauce. Just the other day I had a mac and cheese meal that reminded me so much of my childhood and no animals were harmed for me to be able to eat that meal. I know nostalgia is really powerful and I did miss cow’s dairy cheese for a little while. But I’ve gotten to the point now where I’ve created new memories about the food that I like to eat, and I don’t crave things like dairy cheese anymore.

There are more resources than ever to help you find options for things that you have as a go-to that provide the nutrients and the taste that you’re looking for.

I found checking out the aisle at the grocery store that has plant-based alternatives. Sometimes there’s many aisles or it’s kind of strewn around the grocery store in a lot of different spots.

I find also learning how to better flavour foods that are made with things like walnuts, beans, and lentils is the best way to address nostalgia for meat-based recipes.

Chantelle: For sure, and your taste buds definitely change as your diet does. One of my favorite things about switching to a plant-based diet has been all the new foods I’m getting to try.

When I expanded my view of food from meat being the centre of a dish to considering the dish as a whole and having all these different protein options like beans, mushrooms, lentils, tofu, seitan, and I also do enjoy plant-based convenience foods like mock meats, this whole culinary world opened up to me.

I find that I have a lot more variety in my diet now, but that’s not to say I don’t still enjoy my classic comfort foods like your mac and cheese. There are so many resources out there to adapt your favorite dishes by swapping out ingredients, but the easiest thing that I’ve found to do is if I’m craving something like Alfredo, I’ll just look up vegan Alfredo and the work of figuring out ingredient swaps is already done for me.

Amy: Yeah, I love that.

How plant-based food can lower your grocery bill

Amy: We spoke quite a bit about the survey, but the main reason we did this survey was to do a cost benefit analysis and have that be available for individuals to see the kind of financial and environmental and animal welfare benefits to switching to more plant-based diet. So what’s that all about?

Chantelle: In a brief summary, we know that one thing that’s really deeply impacting people right now is rising food costs with the price of groceries going up. We thought many people might be looking for ways to reduce the cost of their cart and the food that they’re buying.

The poll validated what we suspected and found that the vast majority of people are concerned about rising costs and are looking for ways to cut back at the grocery store.

  • 92% of people are concerned about the rising cost of living.
  • 87% of people are looking for ways to cut back at the grocery store, and most people are not just looking for sales and deals, they’re also looking to change the way they eat.
  • 75% of people are trying to eat more affordably.
  • 66% of people shared that they would be open to exploring more plant-based food options to save money.

When we look at the youngest group surveyed, all those numbers are even higher.

  • 96% of people aged 18 to 34 are concerned about rising cost of livings.
  • 91% are looking for ways to cut back at the grocery store.
  • 82% are trying to eat more affordably.
  • 77%, so more than three quarters are open to exploring more plant-based food options to save money.

While most people were open to eating more plant-based foods to save money, some people do express concerns that plant-based eating is just too expensive; maybe imagining a scenario where people are eating the highest cost mock meats every day.

But we know that practically, that’s generally not what’s happening. Most people who eat plant-based are eating a balance of a lot of different foods, including whole foods like tofu and legumes.

The cost benefit analysis essentially lays out the actual financial savings of swapping out animal products for plant-based products.

If you consider the cost savings of swapping ground beef in your chili for red lentils, a hundred grams of ground beef is $1.54. A hundred grams of lentils is less than a third of that at 48 cents. Or if you have a bean burrito instead of chicken, a hundred grams of chicken breast is $2.42, whereas the same amount of black beans is just 42 cents.

So those savings are significant and they do stack up over time significantly, which means that rising food costs in general could be a factor that push plant-based eating to become more of the norm.

How plant-based food can cut your emissions

Chantelle: The other thing the report looks at is the impact of our food choices on greenhouse gas emissions and what making those same swaps could mean in terms of emission savings.

We found that eating plant-based for a year can save as much carbon dioxide as the emissions used to power an entire home for six months.

Or if you just switch 25% of your diet from animal-based foods to plant-based foods, that could save enough carbon dioxide each month to charge a cell phone 2068 times.

Impact of swapping beef for lentils

Swapping beef for lentils has the biggest impact in terms of emissions, and the second biggest impact in terms of cost. That’s because beef is so resource intensive to produce. Cows need a lot of space; they eat a lot of food; they produce a lot of methane. If all beef products in someone’s diet were replaced with lentils for one year, it would be the equivalent to the carbon sequestered by 18 tree seedlings over 10 years.

Depending on how much beef and what kind of beef a person eats, they could also save up to $60 a month by making that swap.

Impact of swapping seafood for mushrooms

The next most impactful change in terms of emissions and the biggest impact in terms of cost is swapping seafood for mushrooms. Mushrooms have a really similar texture to seafood and they can be used as a substitute and a lot of recipes.

If a person eating the average Lower Mainland diet ate mushrooms instead of seafood for a year, they would save enough emissions to drive about 1600 kilometers in a gas powered vehicle.

Depending on the amount of seafood a person is eating, the cost savings are up to $64 a month.

How plant-based eating helps animals

Amy: Yeah, those are all really significant impacts that one person can make by changing just one thing, the way they eat.

Of course, eating plant-based also has a major impact on reducing animal suffering because there’s less demand for animal products so fewer animals will be raised and killed in the conditions we’ve spoken about that are pretty horrific.

If you’re aiming to reduce your consumption of animal products to reduce animal suffering, it’s really important to consider the number of animal lives used to supply consumption habits, as well as the amount of hardship a particular animal will face in their short lifetime.

So for instance, chickens are quite small, so a very large number of them are killed to supply the demand for chicken meat. Dairy cows are typically given very little freedom and are forced to endure births and heartbreaking separation from their calves about once per year. They also live longer, more long suffering lives.

So just really thinking about each product that you consume, what’s its origin? Who is it coming from? What is that individual’s life like? I found that really helpful when I was moving towards a plant-based diet; to not see this packaged product as just plastic and marketing, but seeing the animal behind it and thinking about the animal behind it. That really helped me stick to my motivation to create a full shift and to go a hundred percent plant-based.

What’s next?

Amy: So what’s next?

Chantelle: Great question. So there are a lot of ways we’re planning to use the data from the survey, including for the cost benefit analysis.

Read report

We are also sharing it with the media.

We’re raising awareness in the community through things like infographics and ad campaigns.

We’ll also be engaging with government policy makers and institutional decision makers to talk about ways that the public supports these more institutional shifts towards plant-based foods and plant-based policies.

We’ll use it to inform the content we create moving forward for Plant University, which is a resource that helps individuals and institutions shift their diet and the foods that they offer to more plant-based foods.

How can you help?

Chantelle: One way that you can get involved with this is by sharing the cost benefit analysis from the Plant University website or the related infographics and social media posts with your friends and family.

You can also use some of the stats we’ve discussed today to engage with your favorite restaurant or grocery store or at your school or workplace if food is purchased and provided.

Amy: I’m looking forward to seeing the ways that people choose to change their diet. I think there’s a lot of great ways to start and to shift kind of one little bit at a time and certainly the resources are there to make that happen.

Chantelle: Absolutely. And we are also available as a resource so you can comment on the posts associated with this episode or reach out to us on social media.

Next episode

A bull in the chutes at The Calgary Stampede rodeo. Jo-Anne McArthur \ We Animals Media.

Please join us next month as we discuss animals used in rodeo.