July 31st, 2012 by Gary Smith
Like most of us, I discovered Philip Wollen by watching the video of a debate called “Animals Should Be Off the Menu” last May. I was mesmerized by his oratory skills and the passion in which he described the absolute horror that animals live under all over the world. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. The skill with which he articulated the animal holocaust gave me the chills and brought tears to my eyes. I later discovered that he was the former VP of Citibank and had left to become a philanthropist, to work to help nonhuman animals, the planet and humans in need. You can check out his work at: http://facebook.com/kindnesstrust
I have posted the video below our interview, but if you need incentive to watch the 10 minute clip, here’s how he starts his speech. “Animals must be off the menu because tonight they are screaming in terror in the slaughterhouse, in crates, and cages. Vile ignoble gulags of despair. I heard the screams of my dying father as his body was ravaged by the cancer that killed him. And I realized I had heard these screams before. In the slaugherhouse, eyes stabbed out and tendons slashed, on the cattle ships to the Middle East and the dying mother whale as a Japanese harpoon expodes in her brain as she calls out to her calf. Their cries were the cries of my father. I discovered when we suffer, we suffer as equals. And in their capacity to suffer, a dog is a pig is a bear….is a boy. Meat is the new asbestos – more murderous than tobacco.”
How did you come to veganism? What woke you up?
I came to the vegan world from the carnivorous world of truncated ignorance. Who would have thought that lightening would strike? I was an investment banker, specializing in corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions. I received a mandate from a major conglomerate and visited their various operations, one of which turned out to be a slaughterhouse. It was the most shocking, terrifying and violent experience of my life. It was tangible proof of the abject failure of human beings to develop empathy for the suffering of other living beings. I think I now understand what Hannah Arendt meant in her work “Eichmann in Jerusalem” where she coined the term “the banality of evil”.
The sheer horror that morning affected me profoundly. I began seeing every mundane piece of daily life’s experience through the prism of animal cruelty. Passing a crowded restaurant, and knowing that it concealed a smorgasbord of murderous opportunities. Seeing an attractive woman at the ballet and being repulsed by the sight of her fur coat. Knowing that every butcher shop was a retailer of body parts from murder victims; every fast food chain, in my mind, became a gastronomic tobacconist and every bit as lethal.
So, I guess my client’s slaughterhouse made me a vegetarian on the spot. It did not occur to me that dairy was an equally vile gulag for animals. Once I saw the carnage of veal, artificial insemination of cows; the removal of bobby calves from their mothers, the cruelty of induction and the violence of killing “unviable” calves, dairy was another atrocity on the list.
How long did it take from the moment you had your realization to making the change?
One nanosecond. As soon as the penny dropped there was no going back. It was such a blinding glimpse of the obvious.
What has changed in your life from this decision?
The most important change is in the way in which see myself; being able to look in the mirror in the morning with a clear conscience. I feel more involved, more inter-connected, more grounded, more sensitive, and more alive. At another level, I feel healthier, more fascinated by the natural world, and more responsible for protecting the powerless and the precious.
How did you go from being vegan to speaking out on behalf of animals?
Paradoxically, I have always been a very private person. I have always admired the Prussian General, Count Moltke, a man who reputedly preferred to think rather than speak. A man silent in seven languages. Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper once described me as reclusive. And in a sense, it is true. I accepted the invitation to debate the animal industrial complex because the cruelty they inflict on the powerless is so egregious that I could not let it go unanswered. Almost everything the meat industry has drummed into our collective consciousness is a lie. Pure and simple. Unadulterated lies. The world is crying out for only two things. Leadership. And the Truth. I have no desire to lead anyone. But I am willing to speak the truth.
Please tell us about Kindness Trust. When did it begin and what is the mission?
Well, after my experience in the slaughterhouse, I threw all my energy into learning as much as possible about the plight of animals. Meat, dairy, hunting, vivisection, fashion, puppy mills, fishing, pets, shark-finning, caged birds, aquaculture, leather, circuses, dog fighting, and horse racing to name a few. The hideous cruelty of human beings covered the entire non-human animal kingdom. In fact, I could not find a single species that was not abused by humans. Not one. Nor could I find a single habitat that was not affected by human encroachment.
Once the horror had sunk in, my decision was inevitable. I would become a “pro-activist” for social justice. I decided to give away everything I possessed with warm hands. And die broke. And so far, I admit I am right on budget!
I wanted to be anonymous. So I created the “Kindness” name to conceal my identity. As events transpired, my cover was blown, so now I am more visible than I would wish. We are seen as “venture capitalists for good causes”. Right now we support hundreds of projects for children, animals, the environment, aspiring youth and the terminally ill. The projects are generally in countries where I get maximum “bang for my buck”. In a sense, I subconsciously measure the “rate of return on the funds invested” by the number of lives saved relative to the capital employed. Furthermore, animal rights is a low priority in most developing countries. Even where there is a well-established tradition of compassion to animals viz India, and a well-educated cadre of animal rights activists, fundraising domestically in these places is a major challenge.
Can you share the two clauses that you include in your leases?
One of my “unusual” projects is Kindness House. It started as an experiment, an “incubator” for not-for-profit organizations to operate. The “Kindness Campus” is a building that covers around 40,000 square feet. It is located in a bustling, colorful, thriving retail precinct, in the middle of hundreds of lively restaurants, clubs, cafes and businesses, within easy walking distance of the Parliament and the financial centre. We have around 300 highly educated, energetic and committed young activists working in the building – including dozens of wonderful groups like Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, Wilderness Society, Beyond Zero Emissions, Lawyers for Animals, Wildlife Victoria, National Multicultural Broadcasting Commission, and Vegetarian Victoria to name a few. 85% of the groups in the building pay nothing at all. Everything for them is free. We pay all the operating costs like municipal rates, taxes, water, electricity, air conditioning, heating, cleaning, security patrols, repairs, maintenance, and internet. The incubator provides fully serviced offices, boardrooms, meeting rooms, internet, kitchens, showers, mail facilities, intercoms, bike rooms, movie theatre, meditation gallery, and kid’s crèche.
We have two quirky aspects in the leases. One, if you eat animals in my building, I kick you out. And two, if you have a dog, and you don’t bring him to the office, I kick you out. Each dog has a bed, mattress, chew toys, and food bowl.
How do you view the animal rights movement? Where do you see us succeeding and what would you like to see done to make greater change?
“Animal Rights” is the greatest social justice issue since the abolition of slavery. It is growing, but it has not yet reached Mach speed. Once it does, there will be no stopping it. Unfortunately, our morally bankrupt political leaders are under control of the industrial meat-and-dairy-drug cartels. The term I have been using for many years is “the animal industrial complex”. But this sick paradigm will not last forever. Ignorance is not an incurable disease.
The animal rights movement is largely a leaderless movement. Do you think we need leaders and are you available?
I don’t see the movement as lacking leaders. If anything, we have a large number of leaders, wearing different uniforms, each of them in charge of platoons, divisions and brigades, all fighting in different theatres of war. But we do not have a single, unified army under the leadership of a single general. In a sense, this is the strength of a many-headed hydra. We can’t be killed off easily – and happily for us, there are not too many modern day Heracles’ who can do so.
But perhaps we need new kinds of leaders to be attracted to the “movement”. I do wish they all made an effort to sing, if not exactly out of the same hymn book, perhaps at least in the same key? Unfortunately, many groups are so focused on their own specific campaigns they tend to isolate themselves from campaigns being run by other activists. For example, how often do you see forest campaigners showing up at a rally or a fundraiser for campaigns against whaling, dairy, dog-meat, hunting, livestock, puppy mills, dog and cock-fighting, bear-baiting, circuses or vivisection? The forest and ocean campaigners are also stakeholders in the fight against the meat, dairy, poultry and hunting industries.
We are all members of a broad church. Everyone is welcome. We need to cooperate with each other and get the united message of solidarity heard everywhere. Trix and I encourage groups to see others not as competitors for scarce donor funds, but fellow travelers on the same kindness train; sharing the train, the locomotive, the track and the ultimate destination. That is partly why we don’t get too closely involved in the minutia of the groups we support. We try to stay calmly aloof, only showing up when we can help in a tangible way.
One of the gratifying experiences at Kindness House is seeing how the various groups help each other with no fanfare – even with simple things like sharing computer skills or film-making talent, collecting each other’s deliveries from couriers, attending each other’s fundraising movie evenings in our theatre, or sharing a meal on Friday nights. Of course, I understand there have also been a number of inter-group romances in Kindness House as well, but I guess that is inevitable! It is gratifying to see how many young leaders are emerging from the Kindness Campus.
How do you define your animal rights philosophy?
Given that we are all animals, I see animal rights as inseparable from human rights. Dostoevsky asks in The Brothers Karamazov “Is the suffering of one child worth all the wealth in the world?” And he answers an emphatic “No”. But what if it was the child of an ape? To my mind, it would make no difference at all. In fact, I see it more starkly. To be tortured by a member of your own species is bad enough. But to be tortured by a more powerful member of another species, for a purpose you cannot fathom, is horrendous. For me, it is more than speaking out in favour of “animal” rights. It is also about speaking out against “human wrongs”.
How do you view welfarism or incrementalism? Do you believe that this helps or hampers animal liberation? Do you believe that abolition will be achieved through welfarism?
The animal rights / welfare movement is highly balkanized. And this weakness has been exploited by the animal industrial complex. Unfortunately, there are a number of groups who have been seduced by the industry. They have hitched their “incrementalist” wagon to the industry business model, and in the process the animal rights groups have been marginalized. To use a technical term, the animal rights activists have been “crowded out” by bigger, better resourced groups who imply that bigger cages lead to no cages – and quicker kills will one day lead to no kills. Of course, we all know that this is a preposterous non sequitur. Anyone who tells me there is such a thing as “humane” slaughter should contact me. I see a wonderful business opportunity to sell them the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I seriously wonder how they define the word “humane”. It is a saccharine, feel-good word designed to provide convenient cover for an atrocious act of barbarism. And it gives consumers a smug sense of satisfaction that eating animals is ethical, after all. A ghastly con – a betrayal of the worst kind.
In Australia, the meat industry has already started talking about setting up their own “animal welfare” organizations to tell “their side of the story”. No doubt they will be recruiting from the ranks of the “welfarists”. The livestock industry here has even gone as far as hijacking the domain names of well-respected animal groups by claiming other unregistered domains such as .org or .edu
Having said that, I am in favour of improving the welfare of animals currently in the system. But let’s explicitly state that it is an interim step in the fast march towards ending animal exploitation completely. Like palliative care in a cancer ward; providing relief to the suffering, while working hard to find a cure that gets rid of the disease everywhere. No illusions. No delusions. My main objective is for the animal industrial complex to cease to exist. My idea of heaven. A bit like the old Soviet Union. We wake up one morning, and it is gone.
What are your thoughts on direct action?
I wonder, conversely, what is meant by indirect action? Writing a letter to a politician, the newspaper or calling a radio station? Sure, do that, by all means. I am all in favour of “indirect” action as long as it is also effective action. But there are times when it is just plainly insufficient. We seem to selectively “cherry-pick” the issues where direct action is acceptable. Intervention to stop an act of cruelty to a puppy or a kitten in the street will be applauded. Maybe even when someone intervenes to stop a commercial dog fight? But what about cruelty when an animal is slaughtered in the street for a religious festival? Or what about intervening when a hunter shoots a deer with a cross-bow? Or when female kangaroos are shot for pet-food, leaving at-foot joeys to starve to death? And dare I say it, what about the ubiquitous factory “farm”? Interfering with these sacred sites is tantamount to burning the flag. I follow the “ahimsan” principle of non-violence as assiduously as I can, but Gandhi has taught us that passive resistance, non-violence and civil disobedience can be effective in advancing a moral cause.
In interviews you talk about how the word vegan has been hijacked by industry. Can you speak to that and I wonder how you feel about those in the animal rights community who for reasons of the public comfort, choose not to use the word vegan, but rather use the word vegetarian. Do you feel like being honest with our language is important?
I think “vegan” is a beautiful word. It is more than just a descriptor for our diet. I see it as visible template for an ethical, healthy, responsible and rational life. Because it describes our character. It says we do not take the life of another living being to satisfy our wants.
Language is often hijacked for the vile purposes of the abuser. The word “negro” comes from the poetic Latin, “niger”. Soon becoming the abusive term “nigger”. The word “Humane” has been twinned with “slaughter” to become “humane slaughter”. “Genocide” has been sanitized into “ethnic cleansing”. The Japanese kill whales they do not need, in waters they do not own, for meat they cannot sell, for a taste they do not like and they call it “research”. The sign of the cross, the crucifix, 1,000 years before Jesus, was used in Asia and Europe to mean “do good” or “good luck”. It is now banned in public places because Hitler hijacked it and called it the Swastika. Likewise, the vegan philosophy is now used as a sneering term of abuse.
So I don’t know why ethical people should fear the vegan tag. After all, it is the animal eater who should be ashamed. Without even seeking it, the vegan occupies the moral high ground. It is the vegan who is on the right side of history. I would ask a simple question. Imagine there are two people who are identical in every conceivable way – except one. One is a vegan and the other is a meat-eater. All other things being equal, ceteris paribus, which individual is more ethical? The vegan or the meat eater? The answer is blindingly obvious to everyone. So, to answer your question, of course I believe we should be honest with our language. It is moral cowardice to sugar-coat the pill. The poor animals in these hell-holes deserve at least our honesty, don’t you think?
How do you view single-issue campaigns? Do you believe that campaigns fighting against fur, foie gras, banning wild animals in circuses, for example, are effective campaigns in our desire towards animal liberation?
Certainly. Every atrocity that is torn down is one less blight on the face of the earth. Besides, I have found that success breeds success. When activists succeed in one arena, they don’t retreat into a cocoon and shut their eyes and ears to the suffering from other species. A successful campaigner against hunting may shift his sights onto whaling, fishing or jumps racing, or general animal rights education. We have single issue campaigners at Kindness House who work for forests, climate change, refugees from war-torn countries or people with health challenges – and who also show up to help at fundraisers for Sea Shepherd, Wilderness Society, Edgars Mission and Beyond Zero Emissions. And vice versa. I find it reassuring (and entirely predictable) that a person who supports animal rights will also support Amnesty, or campaigns to end domestic violence or getting rid of plastic in the streets.
How do you deal with despair? How do you not get overwhelmed by the enormity of animal exploitation?
I think everyone in the animal rights movement suffer from compassion overload to a greater or lesser extent. In my case, most of my groups are in other countries in different time zones. So when there are mission critical emergencies in other countries, the ‘phone rings in Australia at strange hours, making uninterrupted sleep a rare luxury. Even when the ‘phone does not ring, an over-active mind still races through the night, waking me up with the ghosts of nightmares past. I am fortunate to have an extraordinary wife, Trix. Without her I would be lost. It is a great comfort knowing that I always have a safe place to fall.
Do you have any advice for activists? How to not burn out?
Whenever things get bad for us, I think about how bad it is for the powerless, innocent animals in those ghastly gulags of despair. It puts my pain into perspective. I also remind myself that I am in this space by choice. The animals are not.
I urge activists to take care of their health. Stay close to their families and loved ones. Be gentle with each other. And have a sense of humor. In recent times I have been meditating and have found this to be a great help. I also recommend drinking lots of water, getting plenty of exercise, play at least one sport, listen to music, read widely and enjoy hearty laughter at least once a day.
Stress just comes with the territory. Activists live more intense, sensitive and observant lives than others. So by definition, they are constantly vulnerable to the ubiquitous cruelty that exists. But, if forced to make a binary choice, I would rather burn out living a compassionate authentic life than rust out living a cruel, unexamined life. For me, there are no regrets.
There is no going back.