June 3rd, 2013 by Gary Smith
When I learned of Thomas Ponce I was blown away. You mean to tell me that a 12-year-old started his own lobbying group? And was the regional coordinator of Fin Free Florida? I can’t recall what I was doing at age 12, but I certainly wasn’t trying to make the world a better place for animals. As I got to know Thomas, I was very impressed by his intellect, compassion, and strategic view of animal rights. He is the Mozart of the animal rights movement. I am sure you will be equally blown away by Thomas.
Let’s start with your journey to vegetarianism and then becoming vegan. Were you the only vegetarian in your family and community at the time? How do your peers regard veganism?
I decided to become a vegetarian when I was four and then a vegan when I was around 9 or 10 and yes, I was the only vegetarian I knew. My parents had not yet made the commitment nor did they express any desire to do so (yet). They always instilled in me a love for animals. I grew up with two cats, Harley and Shadow, and later on Figaro and my very interesting dog Flower. To me eating a chicken or a cow or any other animal would be like eating one of them and that thought was horrifying to me. As I learned more about factory farming and animal experimentation and all the other horrors that go on every day against animals I started showing my mom the things I learned, and slowly she came along. Once I had my mom converted, my dad was kind of forced to join us, as my mom is the one who does all the cooking. I am proud to say now that both my parents are vegan. That’s not to say they haven’t slipped once or twice but they are only human and I forgive them.
As far as how my peers regard veganism, they don’t get it. Most respect my views and don’t comment at all but there are those, and there are quite a few, that feel the need to challenge my decisions usually with rude comments and uneducated assumptions. They feel the need to try to impose their way of life and their beliefs on me. They mainly want to debate why I don’t eat meat. I’ve gotten the whole “God gave us the animals to eat” speech, the “you’ll die without the protein you get from meat” speech, the “that’s what animals are raised for” nonsense and so on. These people are so closed minded that they’ll say anything just so they can feel superior. Is it frustrating, sure. Does it deter me, never. I’m different and I believe strongly in what I’m doing and no amount of words will make me give up my beliefs.
I will discuss being a vegan with whoever wants to truly learn about it, but the others who just want to argue are not worth it. I usually know a few minutes into the conversation whether or not the person I am speaking to is really listening or not, and I make my decision from there. I used to debate it back and forth and get very frustrated but I’ve learned from my mistakes. Some people are just not ready to learn and open themselves to the truth, and those people I don’t waste my breath on. Will I continue to try to raise their awareness? I most definitely will but I no longer allow myself to get all worked up and aggravated over them, I make my points and then move on. There’s no point talking to a wall and sometimes you have to realize talking to some people is the same as talking to a wall. People like that, who try to bully and humiliate anyone who doesn’t think or feel the same way they do, and I’m now not just referring to being vegan, are like talking to a wall. The people who treat others this way will always find something to pick on people for, whether it’s for being vegan or dressing a certain way or looking a certain way or believing differently than they do. These are the type of people that are not worth my time. It is an amazing feeling to know that you are making a difference and helping those who can’t help themselves, and bullies in any form will never experience that feeling. So to answer your question on how my peers view veganism, it doesn’t matter how they view it, all that matters is that I know what I am doing is right for me, my world and all the inhabitants of it. If I can educate those around me, great, but if not I know that I am being the best I can be and that’s what matters. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, we all have them. The difference is that some opinions are based on research and fact and some are based on misconception and ignorance. I’ll stick with my way of thinking. It works for me.
You’ve also been an animal advocate since you were four. Tell us about some of your early activism, and about starting an animal rights group in the fourth grade.
I would have to say that my first step in my animal advocacy goes back to your first question on becoming a vegetarian. As soon as I put two and two together and learned where our food came from I knew I couldn’t eat it anymore. I couldn’t understand or fathom eating another living being. I think that realization is what prompted me to start asking more and more questions, like why do we eat animals, how do they kill them, etc. I remember watching a show called Zoboomafoo on TV and on the computer and always being fascinated with all animals and seeing how smart and beautiful they were. I started watching shows on Animal Planet and National Geographic, and learned about poaching. That year in kindergarten I entered The Reflections Program at school. The topic was “Wow.” I had to create an essay or piece of artwork that in our opinion made us say wow. I put together a collage of tigers and leopards alive and then next to them I put pictures of them skinned by poachers. My explanation of my project was “This makes me say Wow! I can’t believe what people do to such beautiful animals, it’s cruel and wrong! What have they ever done to us to deserve such treatment and torture”? I won for my grade level and my project went on to compete at county. My teachers were always very supportive of my passion.
As I started using the computer more I found out about PETA and thought that what they were doing was amazing and I wanted to help. I put together a dog wash in my complex and sold dog treats and dog washes to my neighbors. I set up a table with some literature I got from PETA, made signs and spoke to everyone that came over about being vegetarian and about animal cruelty. I raised over $600 and donated it to PETA and to a local rescue group. I felt great! My next steps in advocacy came when I learned about protesting. I found out about events that were going on in my area, speaking up against animals in entertainment like Ringling Bros., Sea World, etc. I asked my parents if I could attend and my dad started bringing me. I really enjoyed the feeling of spreading the word of how animals were being treated. Everything kind of just progressed from there. I continued to enter essay contests at school, always writing about animal rights issues and always moving on to compete at county, I continued to attend protests and I entered the PETA walk for animals as a fundraiser and then a coordinator for my area. I would speak to anyone and everyone that would listen (and some that really didn’t want to) about animal cruelty and how it should be stopped.
When I was in fourth grade I asked my teacher Mrs. Rivera if I could start an animal rights group in school. She said the school didn’t host clubs at this time but that I was more than welcome to start something up during free time in class, recess, and at lunchtime. I got a few kids to sign up and I passed out PETA coloring books and literature, shared books I had on how to live a cruelty free lifestyle, and passed out petitions I printed online about various issues. The club lasted all year but with very few members. The kids around me were just not interested in learning about making changes in their lives to fight animal suffering. The majority of them had the mindset that animals were put on this earth for us to eat. It had been drilled into their heads by their parents and they were not truly open to hearing any different. I learned that as long as I was talking about a cute and fluffy kitten or puppy I had their attention, but move on to a chicken or cow, and I’d lose them. They didn’t get it that it was the same thing. Killing is killing regardless of the species.
I put together a presentation for my principal this year about starting an animal rights club at my middle school and it has been approved, so hopefully that will go into effect next year. I plan on addressing all animal rights issues, from vivisection to factory farming to animals in entertainment as well as lobbying and learning about different ways to help in the fight for animal rights. My club will be called Harley’s Home (named after my recently passed four legged friend Harley). It’s going to be a sister site to Lobby For Animals and will discuss all facets of animal cruelty. We’ll be working on lobbying, attending protests, petition writing, living a vegan lifestyle, etc. I plan on having speakers come to talk at my school about these subjects and I will share books and documentaries like Sharkwater. I’m hoping it will appeal to a lot more people than my previous fourth grade club. Middle school has a larger audience with different ages and I’m hoping some of them will be more open to learning about such issues.
Please tell us about Lobby For Animals. Why did you start the organization? What need did you see that wasn’t being filled in the animal rights community?
I created Lobby For Animals because I am passionate about animal rights and I felt like more needed to be done to change the laws. When I first started out in my animal advocacy I would speak to whoever I could get to listen, wherever I was. I attended protests, signed petitions, etc. The one thing that kept haunting me was the feeling that there was more that should be done. I kept telling my mom the laws need to be changed on how animals are treated and how abusers are punished. I felt this in my heart but didn’t know how to go about making these changes happen. When I went to the National Animal Rights Conference in 2012 I met Jessica Astrof, an animal rights attorney from New York. I asked a question at one of the conferences and she came over to me afterwards and told me she was impressed with the way I spoke and we started talking. I told her how I wanted to be an animal rights attorney when I got older. We exchanged phone numbers and became friends over the phone. I came to find out she was putting together a lobby committee for next year’s conference and she asked me if I was interested in learning how to lobby. I said sure and we started conferencing and training. It was like a light bulb went off in my brain. This was what was missing. Having the chance to address proposed bills before they were passed was so crucial to bringing about change. Speaking to the legislators who approve or deny the bills was the answer. I started working on a flyer for the committee and sent it to Jessica. She loved it and was impressed by my computer skills. She asked me if I wanted to take over a domain she purchased and hadn’t done anything with. She said she was going to originally use it for the committee, but never did and I could do whatever I wanted with it.
The mission of Lobby For Animals is to reach out to all those who have made a commitment to speak up for animals and encourage all animal rights activists from all walks of life to join us in our campaign to end animal cruelty one bill at a time. Lobby For Animals offers training videos on how to speak to your legislators, observational videos of actual calls to legislators, as well as templates to use for your correspondence, instructions on how to get started, who to contact and how, and specific tips on exactly how to maximize your efforts in lobbying. I knew I wanted to post training videos to the site because I felt like if I talked to people about how easy it is to lobby it would be more effective than just reading about it. I also knew I wanted to have a section for people to link directly to their representatives. Everything else has pretty much just been coming to me as I build the site.
As far as the need goes, we as animal advocates need to have our voices heard in the legislative arena. There are a lot of us out there who are passionate about animal rights and bringing about changes and if every single person who attended a protest or signed a petition online took the same amount of time and contacted their legislator, think about the impact that would have! It’s a phone call or a letter. We spend hours at protests raising awareness on our causes. What are 10-15 more minutes to write a letter, email or make a call? If we are at the protest or signing the petition we have already looked into the cause and know that we want to support it, so just take that information you have learned and bring it to the next level: contact your legislator about it. Laws need to be changed if we are going to win this fight. We need to have legislators in office that are willing to propose the bills and pass the laws we need to see passed and the only way those things are going to happen is for us as animal advocates to get political.
What are your plans for Lobby For Animals? What will people see in the future?
My plans for the organization are simple. I want to reach as many people as I can and get as many people politically active for animal rights issues as possible (which are also environmental issues and civil liberties issues as well, as they are all connected). I’d like to set up a subscribers list and some sort of an alert system so that whenever new legislation is introduced regarding animal rights, I would post an alert to my subscribers so that they can take action as necessary. I plan on making a lot more training videos on things like attending town meetings and delegate committees. I will also be posting templates to use to write to your representatives. In the long run I’d like to be able to start going to schools and speak to elementaryto high school students on the importance of lobbying and protecting the rights of animals, living a cruelty free lifestyle, and also protecting our rights of freedom of speech. I really believe that if we learned when we were young about kind choices and learned that even though we are young we have a voice there would be a lot less cruelty accepted in this world. It needs to start with us kids, because no offense but most grown-ups are pretty set in their ways. If we learn as kids that we have choices in what we eat, how we choose our products, what we stand up for and what our rights are I believe we would be living in a much better world. Think about all that we know now that our parents didn’t know growing up. Maybe if they had known that the choices they were making would affect our health, our environment, our rights and our planet they would have made better choices. Well, that’s the awareness I want to spread. We have to stand up and say we want a change and the best place to do that is with our legislators but it has to start in our schools and in our homes and in teaching each other. So I guess what I am saying is to me Lobby For Animals is more than just a website, it’s a means to educate people on standing up for what they believe in and giving them the tools and knowledge to do it, regardless of the topic.
Many vegan activists are critical of legislative approaches, such as California’s Proposition 2 or United Egg Producer’s bill that would set conditions for egg-laying hens. Lobby For Animals is asking people to get involved at the legislative level. Have you encountered opposition within the movement, and/or can you address why you favor this tactic?
These types of bills are always very controversial. There are tons of animal advocates that differ in their opinions on these issues. It’s tough. Lobby For Animals stance on this would be to direct people to both sides of the argument. We are not trying to force people to lobby for one side or the other, just to raise awareness and give people the tools to support their views in legislation.
I have mixed feelings as well. As much as I don’t want to see people eating animals, and as much as I don’t want them in cages of any kind, I am also aware that this is not going to happen overnight. Part of me feels like better living conditions is not an answer but it is a step in the right direction for future animal rights bills to be introduced. It’s kind of like the work I do with Fin Free Florida. There is nothing more that I would like to see than for sharks to not be fished any more, but that’s not going to happen right now. Cutting off the demand for shark fin products cuts down on the demand to fish them, which in turn will help in the conservation efforts, protect the sharks and our ecosystem, which are all steps in the right direction. Bills like this are not an answer to a very big problem but they can chip away at the problem and pave the way to better legislation for animals. Like I said it’s very tricky and I myself am still torn on my personal feelings. I want to actually read the proposal and then make a more educated decision. I haven’t had a chance to read more than the arguments for and against.
Lobby For Animals is strongly opposed to AETA. Can you talk a little about AETA and what you think the law’s future may be?
The Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act is another very controversial piece of legislation and a scary one at that. Under AETA anyone who chooses to oppose an animal enterprise faces the possibility of imprisonment. Its vagueness is what scares me the most. It has the potential to cover so many different scenarios and so many different people. The law criminalizes interfering with or damaging an animal enterprise and causing real or personal property loss or placing a person in reasonable fear i.e. threats, vandalism, trespass or harassment. The law also applies to entities or individuals affiliated with an animal enterprise.
The problem as I see it with the law is that it does not define exactly what “interfering with, damaging, or personal property” means, since it could mean loss of a profit or goodwill. People who are engaging in a lawful activity like protesting, leafleting or boycotting could be criminally and financially liable for another person’s illegal action pertaining to the same protest, leafleting or demonstration, even if they occur at different times. In other words, if you are at a protest and someone else later goes and does something stupid that causes a “loss,” like say putting graffiti on the building, you could be held responsible both criminally and financially, even though you did not engage in any illegal activity or were not even present during the activity. This is a scary thought for those of us that exercise our right of free speech. When we protest or leaflet what it is that we are doing is exercising our right of free speech. Raising awareness, let’s say outside of a circus, could definitely result in a financial loss to the circus if the people who read our literature decide that they don’t want to attend. We would be “interfering” with an animal enterprise, and the more successful your protest is the more time you’ll serve in prison and the larger the fine will be for lost profits. Its vagueness is really pretty scary.
My overall personal opinion is I am uncomfortable with anything that has a chilling effect on our First Amendment rights. This is the same problem I have with all the Ag-Gag bills that criminalize undercover investigations on factory farms. Legislation like this sets a bad precedent that can’t be good for anyone who wants to maintain their freedom of speech rights.
As far as the future of AETA, I hope it is repealed.
You mentioned shark finning, which is an issue you’re very involved with. Please explain what’s going on for those who may not know much about this.
I am always amazed at how many people are unaware of finning, but then again, if you don’t ask questions you’ll never hear answers, so it’s really not that surprising. People just don’t know what questions to ask, I guess. I was always curious about the whys and hows and how comes, so I asked a lot of questions and between my parents, the internet and books I always found answers.
Anyway, sorry, back to your question. All across the world there are tens of millions of sharks that die a slow, torturous, unnecessary death year after year because of the shark finning industry. When sharks are finned, the sharks are captured and harvested in ridiculous numbers, then are brought onboard and have their fins hacked off. Then their finless, still living, breathing, bodies are thrown back into the ocean where they are left to starve, be eaten by other fish or drown to death. Shark fins are primarily being stolen in such large numbers because of the growing demand for shark fin soup, which is an Asian delicacy, but one that has spread to the U.S. This ongoing attack on sharks is not only horrific in nature to the sharks themselves, but the constant slaughtering of various types of sharks is quickly driving many species to the brink of extinction.
Shark finning is one of the most shameful, cruelest examples man has displayed towards what they feel is nothing more than a dispensable animal. Shark finning is purely a way of making a profit with no regard for the lives being taken or the effects these actions have on the ecosystem.
A lot of people don’t realize the importance of sharks. We are talking about an animal that has been around for over 400 million years and plays a crucial role in our ecosystem. If sharks went extinct tomorrow, the ocean world as we know it could be completely destroyed. Without the oceans’ top predator, the shark’s prey, for example fish, seals, dolphins, sea lions, etc., would multiply. If the shark’s prey were to multiply it would destroy the very delicate food chain. Sharks eat a large amount of sick and weak fish, because they are an easy kill. This type of feeding keeps the population healthier. Another factor to consider is that sharks keep the prey fish populations in control because just as extinction affects the balance of the ecosystem, so does overpopulation.
Sharks are what we call a “keystone” predator, which means they are at the top of their food chain and without them the food chain would inevitably collapse. What most people don’t get is that if sharks were eliminated the impact would also be felt by humans in that some of the main fish that are fished for commercial sale would not be available. Many aquatic plants would also be under stress with the elimination of sharks and the world’s amazing coral reefs would become overrun with algae, because the tuna that clean the reefs would be gone because of the elimination of the sharks. It’s a domino effect. When one brick falls everything next to it falls too.
We are all connected. Whether we want to believe it or not, it’s true, and if we don’t start acting like we are we may damage the Earth beyond repair.
I am currently the regional coordinator for Fin Free Florida, which is a part of Shark Angels. We are working towards obtaining bans in every state for the sale, distribution and trade of shark fins and shark fin products. We have chapters all around the world and are gaining new memberships regularly as more people become aware. Right now there is a ban on finning in U.S. waters, but that doesn’t stop the finning overseas. The only way to put a halt on that activity is to ban the sale and distribution of the products here in the U.S. If we can cut off the demand state by state, we can eventually try for a national ban, which would eliminate the demand, cut down on the supply and take the pay factor out of the poacher’s hands. If no one wants to buy the fins or fin products, there will be no need to kill the sharks in the gross and horrific numbers that they are being slaughtered in daily right now.
You recently received a grant from The Pollination Project to continue your work, and founder Ari Nessel said “If a Florida pre-teen can be this clear, this powerful and this unwavering in his efforts to change the world, then perhaps there is hope for us after all.” Now there are newspapers and websites writing stories about you and even a rock star tweeting about you. How does it feel to get this attention?
I feel very happy and honored to have this opportunity. I am truly humbled to be working with the amazing group of people that I have met during my animal advocacy. PETA, Fin Free, Shark Angels and now the Pollination Project have been a tremendous support system for me. I have met such wonderful people that I now call friends. Some of these people like the ones from PETA have been with me since I first started out when I was very young. Michelle Cehn and Whitney Calk from PETA have supported me and given me confidence to pursue my visions and have never once made me feel like a child. Tracy and Kevin from Fin Free believed in me enough to fight for me to have my own chapter of Fin Free in Florida, and Gretchen from Shark Angels had the faith in me to build my own chapter however I like. Jessica Astrof, my mentor through all this lobbying training, has been instrumental in helping me bring my dreams into a reality and invested so much of her time in me. She has taught me so much about the law and how things work and I am grateful for her teachings and her belief in me. Now through this grant I have met a whole new group of people who have become part of my circle of friends. The things that Mr. Nessel wrote about me were so heartfelt they got me all choked up. The amazing people who have earned grants from them are a tremendous inspiration to me, it’s a great community to be a part of. I of course cannot forget the amazing publicist that was assigned to me by the Pollination Project to promote me and my website, who has put so much time and effort into helping me. Your daily posts on Facebook are challenging and inspirational and have given me someone to email and message with who just gets it. Thank you Mr. Smith for everything and for being my friend.
As far as the press goes of course it feels amazing! To think that a rock star knows who I am is mind boggling to me, but the most important thing to come from all this press is the fact that there are possibly more people out there that may read about me and my organization and want to check it out and learn about how they can get involved. People who have maybe thought there was nothing they could do now see that if I can do it, so can they. That’s not to say that my own commitment and passion aren’t a part of it, they are, but if people learn about how to help they will feel empowered and maybe gain the same commitment and passion from knowing they can make a difference.
And how can people join Lobby For Animals and connect with you?
Everyone is welcome to visit the site and email me any questions or suggestions they may have. That goes for any of my sites. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and I would love to hear from anyone who wishes to write to me. I eventually would like to learn how to put together a newsletter, blog and a mailing list and that will be another way to stay on top of upcoming news with Lobby For Animals. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet but I’m working on it. I am also on Facebook under my name https://www.facebook.com/thomas.ponce.77?ref=tn_tnmn as well as Lobby For Animals https://www.facebook.com/pages/Lobby-For-Animals/546945085345918 and Fin Free Florida https://www.facebook.com/pages/Fin-Free-Florida/576309185713986.