Apoorva Madan is a psychologist and animal rights activist activist from Adelaide, South Australia. An active member of Animal Rights South Australia and having campaigned for various other organisations, Apoorva has also studied compassion fatigue in activists.
Apoorva’s insight into the work and minds of activists is not only perceptive and logical, but truly and empathetically informed by lived experience. We talked to her about activism, her research and just what the animal rights movement needs to do to improve not only activists’ mental health, but the success of the movement as a whole.
VI: How long have you been vegan and what inspired the change in you?
AM: I turned vegetarian as soon as I learned that the chicken on my plate was the same chicken that walked and breathed. At the age of about 6, I discovered that the world ate animals and was immediately confused. I also felt betrayed – beef, ham, bacon; all these terms were masking what was going into my body, and all the while they were teaching me at school about non-violence and compassion for others. My mum was vegetarian and it made sense to me; she was alive, healthy, caring – and not killing others in order to be. So why, I wondered, were adults doing the opposite? Veganism extended from this when I was 19 and I had delved into learning more about our use of animals. When I first learned of the treatment of mother cows and calves in the dairy industry, and subsequently that which exists in every animal-using industry, funding its continuation with my money and my mind no longer made sense.
Although I began identifying as a vegan at 19, learning and adapting to a different way of living never stopped. It still hasn’t stopped – my worldview and moral philosophy continues to morph the more I learn about our vast use of animals. I think that’s one of the greatest aspects of being vegan; the desire to know more never ceases, whether it’s the shattering truth behind industrial farming, or the evolution of philosophical discussion that has exempted animals from our moral concern. Veganism is not an end to awareness, nor is it a claim of moral perfection. I feel that I have been vegan for as long as I’ve been alive. There’s never been a time in my life where I’ve valued momentary taste more than someone has valued their life. Nor has there been a time where I’ve believed that I should have dominion over another species simply because I can. It just took some trigger to remind me that what I and most people already believe, is not consistent with what we do. At it’s core, this is what it means to be vegan. It is not an extreme way of living, it’s not a social cult or a spiritual belief – it has little to do with our diets or identity and everything to do with respecting the life of others. I believe this is the case for most people. We all tend to hold these same values, but our actions are conditioned from an early age to not align with those values. In essence, we all tend to be vegan before we are made to believe we’re not. So perhaps a it’s worth asking, when do we stop being vegan?
VI: When did you get involved in activism? How?
AM: In 2009 I watched the renowned documentary Earthlings, and after a couple of months of feeling emotionally paralysed I channelled my shock into action. I began openly having conversations with friends and family about veganism, writing to my local MP’s about relevant campaigns, attending demonstrations, dispersing information, and volunteering with Animals Australia where I learned about how our discussions could take a political and far reaching platform.
In 2014, a group of us (now known as Animal Rights South Australia, ARSA) brought some ideas to an awkward first meeting and realised we had a better chance of turning them into action together. We wanted to start an outreach group that avoided the bureaucracy of a more formal organisation, & where energy was most spent in grassroots education about animal rights, veganism, and ways people can act to help animals. Consequently, we don’t take donations and our expenses come out of our pockets. Inspired by Animal Liberation Victoria (ALV), last year we took to the streets with laptops, headphones, and signs offering to pay people a dollar to watch a 4- minute video; the incredibly evocative short film Thousand Eyes by Aussie Farms, showing a montage of recent footage from farms around Australia. This has been one of our most effective outreach efforts, and we have seen encouraging results on our survey, which was designed to measure the effectiveness of our message and perceptions people held about veganism before & after viewing the film.
Our outreach has also included silent demonstrations, a choreographed dance flashmob in animal onesies (we may never do that one again), vegan city walking tour and work on relevant campaigns like South Australian greyhound racing. ARSA has been an excellent reminder that anyone with motivation and a few ideas can create significant momentum.
VI: Why are you an activist?
AM: I’m sometimes asked the bizarre question ‘why do you fight for animals when there are so many starving children in the world?’. Once I actually had a man aggressively tell me he cared more about women in domestic violence than animals, and then walk away throwing the pamphlet I had handed him back at me. It fascinates me that animal activism can be perceived as something selfish – that activists must see more importance in animals than humans (or that we can only care about something in isolation).
But animal activism is quite the opposite. The greatest injustices have always been underlain with an ‘us and them’ mentality; where others are seen as ‘lesser’ because of some arbitrary difference. I am an animal activist not because I care more for animals than children or women in domestic violence, but because I believe our treatment of animals is the epitome of this mentality, and we need to recognise this. In his famous quote, Ghandi expressed “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by how its animals are treated.” What does it mean about us if we exploit the most vulnerable members of our society, because their language doesn’t allow them to ask us for freedom?
“The greatest injustices have always been underlain with an ‘us and them’ mentality; where others are seen as ‘lesser’ because of some arbitrary difference. I am an animal activist not because I care more for animals than children or women in domestic violence, but because I believe our treatment of animals is the epitome of this mentality.”
Once you extend your respect to all beings with the ability to suffer, discrimination of any kind is easily recognised as unjust. I believe veganism sits at the foundation of all branches of social justice – which is why ‘animal rights’ does not concern those who care about animals, but rather, animal rights concerns us all.
VI: What are some of the challenges and rewards you’ve faced in your activism? Can you give some examples of some incidents (within activism) that have really stayed in your mind?
AM: As odd as it might sound, the greatest challenge about being an animal activist for me is the feeling that I have to be an animal activist. I don’t perceive my activism as something noble or worthy of praise, I see it as a necessity to make some change to a very unjust situation. I don’t particularly enjoy that it has become part of my identity. I am in an incredibly fortunate position in this lifetime where I have the means to do something about animal rights and the drive to speak up. But in another life time, I would likely be more of a recluse. I would come home from work and read about astrophysics, aspire to become a professional dancer, a competitive chess player or spend more time simply integrating the many ventures I am truly passionate about. I often feel like activism is something I must do, rather than necessarily something I want to do. To know that in another world, had animals not been subjected to our dominion, I would be doing something very different with my life is hard to sit with at times.
“I see it as a necessity to make some change to a very unjust situation. I don’t particularly enjoy that it has become part of my identity.”
Out of any movement or call for justice, actions for animals must be the most empowering. When people are shocked by confronting footage and ask me what they can do, it’s always a delight to be able to tell them – look, I don’t want your money, I don’t need you to stand where I am and hold up a sign – but rather, next time you go out for lunch or to the supermarket – choose the tofu burger, or the vegetable stir fry, the coconut ice cream. You can directly impact someone’s life and change your social climate by simply harnessing your consumer power and using it to vote for the kind of world you want to live in. When people are reminded that change in what they see can start simply by how they choose to spend their money – it can be truly empowering.
VI: What do you think needs to change about animal activism in Australia? Why? How can this be achieved?
AM: We need more integration, not segregation. Whether our approach is to disseminate footage of animal cruelty, stand on the street rallying for policy change, or talk about veganism explicitly – if we identify as being part of the animal rights movement, we all have the same goal. Our strategies may differ – but to continue to influence, enrich, analyse and learn from each other (and from what research before us has shown) is one of the most important tools we have as a collective. If we continue to divide ourselves in the community, then our message too will be divided.
“Activists are not going to all like one another’s approaches or personalities, but we don’t need to in order to be effective for the animals.”
To achieve this, we need to engage in healthy conversations with each other, keep informed about issues, listen to each other, debate rather than argue, keep a clear aim in sight to our work, set aside the desire for personal benefit, and take pride in each other’s achievements. If someone has been more successful at creating change than we have, then this is worth celebrating. Activists are not going to all like one another’s approaches or personalities, but we don’t need to in order to be effective for the animals. We just need to be able to work cohesively and take the best that we can from each other. There is nothing more powerful than individuals and organisations driving one another towards a common goal.
VI: What is your current occupation and how long have you been doing it?
AM: I am working in my first year of practice as a psychologist after six years of study. My drive to become a psychologist from a young age, is the same that led me to go vegan, and it continues to inform my activism. Every day I am working with people suffering from depression, anxiety, trauma, grief; symptoms that we are all aware exist, but perhaps forget that we share with other species. In my time working at a prosecution animal shelter, I saw the manifestation of trauma in various abused dogs – cowering at the sound of a loud noise, or running to the corner of their space when approached – unable to distinguish between their abuse and their current reality.
Every mother pig who has spent years of her lifetime in a sow stall unable to turn her body, will experience learned helplessness. Every dairy cow whose newborn calf is taken away from her repeatedly, will experience grief. Every animal who waits in line at the kill floor, listening to the cries of the one slaughtered before them, will experience trauma. Psychological distress is not unique to humans; and knowing this is the baseline reason for why animal activism has become so central to my life. We all know what it is to experience fear, sadness, or hopelessness to some degree; we would not wish to inflict this on someone else, let alone endure it ourselves. Yet this is the reality forced upon the lives of billions in factory farms, slaughterhouses, test labs, circuses and so on, day in and day out. Our everyday choices are the tools that can change this reality. It’s a strange feeling to know that I will reduce significantly more suffering simply by not eating animals than I ever will in my lifetime of working as a psychologist.
VI: Can you tell us about your research? What is involved in your work?
AM: When I first learned about the scale of human animal use, I was devastated. The knowledge left me emotionally paralysed for months before I could channel it into action. I thought to myself – there must be others experiencing this same strange mixture of grief, anger, and estrangement. Then I discovered the activist community.
Animal activism can be traumatic – yet we have little understanding of this from a research perspective. In 2015 I conducted a study for my Master of Psychology (Clinical) program at the University of South Australia looking into the psychological impacts that come with animal activism, specifically compassion fatigue (a mixture of burnout and vicarious trauma). Compassion fatigue has also been referred to as ‘the cost of caring’, as it stems from empathy for those suffering adversity. It has been found in health care professionals and shelter workers, but no studies had yet looked at animal activists. My study was inspired by the advocates around the globe who confront countless obstacles in order to bring light to what is arguably the greatest injustice inflicted by our species. Activists have witnessed, captured and relayed stories of graphic violence. They are persistently aware of mass legal animal suffering and its entrenched link with our global lifestyle choices. Activists are often dismissed for standing against the grain, ridiculed for extending their compassion beyond our species, and not only risk legal punishment for whistle blowing, but also losing will power when their message is met with apathy or denial by the greater population. Being an animal activist can be alienating, traumatising, and disillusioning.
“Compassion fatigue has been found in health care professionals and shelter workers, but no studies had yet looked at animal activists… What we found in our study had interesting implications for activism.”
What we found in our study had interesting implications for activism. For example, it was revealed that vegans, animal rights activists, those with higher levels of one type of empathy (feeling personal distress from the pain of others) and those who more frequently engaged in activism had higher levels of compassion fatigue than vegetarians or omnivores, welfare-inclined activists, and those less frequently active. Interestingly, those more frequently active and those with higher levels of a different type of empathy (the ability to take the perspective of others) had higher levels of satisfaction from their activism – an important element to reducing the effects of compassion fatigue. Empathy and action frequency were evidently important factors in determining risk of mental health effects. A detailed discussion of our results is beyond the scope of this article, but you can read more about the study in Animal Liberation NSW’s 2016 Release magazine.
VI: What do you hope to achieve through your research? Why do you think this is important?
AM: It can seem counter-intuitive for activists to focus on their own mental health when the endeavour to save animals seems endless. But mental health is incredibly important to both our own wellbeing and that of our cause. Helping animals efficiently becomes difficult when we’ve exhausted our energy.
When the experience of post-traumatic stress in veterans was identified and defined in the early 80s (PTSD), it suddenly made an abstract concept tangible, shared, something we could predict and address. Given that our movement is growing year by year, I hope to see more research into the unique role that is animal activism and all that it entails psychologically. Whether its compassion fatigue or another more apt concept, I hope to see greater in-community awareness and structural support when it comes to mental health, and increased societal understanding of the movement via research. We depend on this, as do the animals.
VI: What advice would you give to people who feel passionate about animal rights and veganism, but perhaps have different skills to you?
AM: When you become vegan or active in animal rights, it can become easy to lose sight of who you were prior to this change. Yet this is the person we need to appeal to every day to make a change in the lives of animals. Try to keep reminding yourself of your previous frame of mind so you can increase your relatability and understanding with those you wish to reach; what inspired you to change? What prevented you and why did it prevent you? What stage of change were you in? Draw from these experiences when it comes to influencing others; it helps to build empathy and dissipate feelings of frustration when people turn a blind eye.
“Draw from these experiences when it comes to influencing others; it helps to build empathy and dissipate feelings of frustration when people turn a blind eye.”
Also, continue to keep yourself informed. We don’t know the best answer to the most effective advocacy. So where we don’t have answers, it is important we do not fabricate them. What we do know is what doesn’t work when it comes to influencing behaviour change; abuse, aggression, guilt-driven advocacy etc. Keep asking questions, theorising, experimenting or being creative, and keep using the knowledge that has come before us about the movement about behaviour change, influence, and significant movements in social justice.
VI: Is there anything else you’d like to speak about?
AM: I remember initially feeling quite timid to speak up about animal rights because I knew it wasn’t the most popular stance. I was worried I’d taint the merit of my message, and that of the movement’s, by saying the wrong thing, or becoming ‘that vegan’ who just talks about being vegan. I’m sure for some people, I probably am ‘that vegan’ – but I’m also sure for many others, my message has been a catalyst for their change. Realising that speaking up was far more important than not was one of the most important connections I made. Identifying as a vegan will always come with its social complications – because having a term to define one’s choice to not consume animals suddenly defines one’s choice to consume animals. It inadvertently highlights that something we’ve always seen as tradition, second nature, habit – is now a matter of ethical choice. There will almost always be some social discomfort that comes with the title, but it should not deter us from emphasising what it symbolises. We need to reclaim the term vegan, reframe the connotations that come with it, and remind those who are unaware that veganism is not the many things it is often portrayed to be; it is simply a matter of justice.
Thank you so much Apoorva for your time and willingness to speak to us about your activism and research. It’s truly a privilege to have your insight and share it with other activists.
Apoorva will soon launch her own animal rights / psychology blog. Check back for the link soon!