For as much as I complain about social media, I feel so lucky to be in daily communication with people I normally would not have as much access through the magic of Facebook. Priscilla Feral, President of Friends of Animals (FoA) is one such example of someone I have “met” through social media but feel like is a real friend and is definitely an inspiration. Outspoken, passionate and deeply engaged, Priscilla is a powerful, confident voice for the animals, using her platform through FoA to advocate on their behalf, making particular inroads for wild animals that are so often ignored by other advocates but viciously targeted by the government, such as through hunting and “wildlife management” programs. FoA is really making a difference for all animals, though.
In addition to the work at FoA that keeps her very busy, Priscilla is president of the San Antonio, TX sanctuary Primarily Primates and has written three fabulous vegan cookbooks. An avid cook and gardener, Priscilla is a true example of living with principles and convictions and still enjoying yourself in the process. I am honored to shine a little spotlight on an activist who has created so much good in the world with so much more to come. Yay for this week’s Vegan Rockstar, Priscilla Feral!
1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?
The evolution started in 1970 when I was lying on Muir Beach in California, and heard Melanie Safka’s song, “I Don’t Eat Animals.” I was looking at cows on the hillside and heard her compelling lyrics:
“I was just thinking about the way it’s supposed to be
I’ll eat the plants and the fruit from the trees
And I’ll live on vegetables and I’ll grow on seeds
But I don’t eat animals and they don’t eat me.”
That evening I was serving beef fondue to hippie friends from Berkeley and couldn’t eat it knowing the beef was animal flesh — something I suddenly realized I could no longer cook, swallow or indulge.
I didn’t know about a vegetarian movement at the time but was so struck by the lyrics of that song that they changed what I considered food. So, I stopped eating four-legged animals.
By late 1974 I had started working at Friends of Animals’ headquarters in New York, and immediately stopped eating chicken or other birds. Fast forward to January 1992, I met my spouse (already vegan) and saw this opportunity as an impetus to quit lacto-ovo vegetarianism — to make him my sous-chef (!) and for me to commit to being vegan. The realization that dairy and eggs were not only by-products of the meat industry but a betrayal that in and of itself results in suffering, violence and ghastly slaughter inspired me to change the last of my cooking habits.
2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?
I would have needed to respect other vegans who’d prompt me to face the truth that eggs and dairy were industries, too, not just by-products of a meat industry I already shunned. However, most of the vegans I knew in what seemed like a pop culture of animal rights organizations weren’t of interest because the group they identified with didn’t have credibility with me. So, unfortunately I didn’t tend to believe what they advanced.
3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?
I think you have to engage everyone — the vegetarians, the flexitarians, the grass-fed meat eaters, omnivores and protein zealot-carb-haters — and include them in our lives. You have to educate them, dine with them and cook for them. But the key is to meet people where they are — take the time to know something personal about them to strike the right tone, and then talk to them in a matter-of-fact way that can embolden fundamental change. And to listen as much as you’re talking. With young people, I urge them to purchase nice cookware and cookbooks with readable, reliable instruction for vegan food preparation and to take advantage of cooking lessons. That will take the fear out of vegan cooking and cooking in general. As they begin to cook and eat more vegetables and eat more fresh fruit, meat, fish, dairy and eggs are no longer centerpieces. They become excited about discovering what tantalizing plant-based food looks and tastes like and how easy it can be to prepare it for pleasure and health.
4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
The biggest strength of the vegan movement is that it challenges all aspects of the oppressive framework that is central in our society. It shows that an animal rights theory requires feminist principles. Animals are voiceless and defenseless, and those who recognize similar oppression can more easily make these connections. I became a vegan connecting it to my feminism, seeing animal products as a status symbol for male control through domination of animals. One breaks the status quo when feminism challenges objectification and whether a vegan movement recognizes women’s equality in its structure and among its focus and arguments.
5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
The biggest hindrance to getting the word out effectively are coalition groups lead by the Humane Society of the United States that deceive the public about regulating animal exploitation industries — manipulating people who think that donating to them and their legislative initiatives invokes change. It doesn’t. You cannot regulate atrocities. Animal farming is wrong in principle, so there’s no legislation that can change that. Chipping away at the cage size of hens in a factory farm or some such misery through ballot initiatives is tantamount to nothing at all. A movement for social justice doesn’t contribute to an industry that’s hazardous to animals, our environment and human health by crafting regressive farm animal initiatives and calling it a victory.
6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
Veganism is more than a plant-based diet and what we put on our plates; it’s a lifestyle that extends to what we wear and what we consider entertainment, etc. Besides the most obvious way to honor animal rights, it’s critical to protecting wildlife and the environment as well. Plus eating animals and their products is a dreadful, inefficient way of feeding people.
7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?
I’ve authored and published three vegan cookbooks for Friends of Animals (one is a vegan dog biscuit cookbook), and have felt the most inspiration from meeting, cooking with or learning from vegan chefs such as Miyoko Schinner, Toni Fiore and Terry Hope Romero. Vegan baker friend Barbara Sitomer runs Gone Pie Vegan Bakery, and her creations are remarkable. I love Indian cuisine and Chef Raghavan Iyer is a friend whose cooking classes I take each summer at a fitness resort in Mexico and they’re customized for vegans. My longtime friends Selma Miriam and Noel Furie own and operate my favorite feminist restaurant and bookstore, Bloodroot, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The magnificent, seasonal and global vegan food they’ve been preparing for more than four decades reflects and expresses their feminism in a way that is truly elegant and evolutionary.
8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?
Aside from making sure I get physical exercise — I love to do yoga and go for walks with our two rescue dogs Papa and Harry — I enjoy going to wonderful vegan restaurants to recharge and cooking new recipes for family and friends helps me unwind. What I avoid (other than for work purposes) is anything that involves graphic images or videos of animal violence as they’re self-defeating.
9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?
Not only is consuming animals absolutely unnecessary and the antithesis of animal rights, it is destroying wildlife and the environment they call home and this is an issue that keeps me up at night. Animal farming generates more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined. No matter how cows are raised, they still ruminate when digesting feed, producing methane, a greenhouse gas. Ice at the poles is shrinking each year and rainforest are demolished to make room for cows to graze. It’s important not to feed these disasters with an irresponsible omnivorous diet. Africa and other regions will be influenced by what’s valued here — where we place status. Friends of Animals is the leading wild horse advocacy group in the United States. Wild horses will gain freedom again on public lands when sheep and cattle ranchers stop running our federal government. The Trump administration has been a horror for animals, people and the environment, so defeating him in 2020 is essential.
10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is…”
To me, being vegan is an ethic of respect and the work ahead is getting animal rights ideas infused in our culture.