Exclusive Interview With Nathan Runkle Of Mercy For Animals
Nathan Runkle is the founder and President of ‘Mercy For Animals (MFA),' an animal rights and advocacy non-profit organization based in Los Angeles, California.
He is a small-town farm boy from rural Ohio turned Animal Rights activist who started Mercy for Animals at the tender age of 15 after witnessing an incident of animal cruelty involving a piglet being abused. Having grown up on a farm, Nathan developed a strong connection and compassion for farmed animals at an early age. Mercy for Animals was founded for the sole purpose of ending the exploitation of farmed animals and has been doing a stupendous job over the last decade in inspiring compassion and ending animal cruelty. MFA’s activities include fighting to protect farmed animals, promoting compassionate food choices and influencing agricultural policies towards less cruel practices. Their areas of focus include undercover investigations, legal advocacy, corporate outreach, and education.
Nathan is a renowned public speaker on veganism, animal advocacy and the atrocities of factory farming. He has spoken at various colleges, persuaded numerous Fortune 500 companies to reduce the suffering of farmed animals, and has collaborated with celebrities such as Kat Von D, Russell Simmons, and Pamela Anderson. He has been featured in media platforms such as The LA Times, New York Times, CNN and USA today just to name a few. He has just recently published his first book, aptly titled "Mercy For Animals" which tells the story of his personal journey to founding Mercy for Animals while also exposing the hidden abuses that are taking place towards animals on factory farms. The book also shares exciting new innovations in the food space, but most importantly it's A GUIDE ON HOW TO BE AN EFFECTIVE ACTIVIST! says Nathan.
What is the most critical or alarming issue surrounding animal rights that you think people should be aware of today?
Well, it's definitely the use of animals for food. If we believe that all animals have the same inherent value, that they have the same desire to live and they experience the world in much the same way, then we really have to look at where are the largest number of these animals being exploited and being harmed, and if we look at it through that lens it's clear that the vast majority of animals who suffer at the hands of humans are those in the food system. Over 9 billion land animals are raised and killed for food in the United States every year. If you look at the number of aquatic animals, we’re talking about hundreds of billions of animals...perhaps even trillions. It's really unknown because we measure fish in weight, not in individuals. If we look at the global level [it's] easily 50 billion or 100 billion or more land animals. The numbers are just staggering, but to understand that each one of these animals is an individual that has a family, that has a story, is really important to mention too.
I think our food choices are absolutely the most pressing issue because of the number of individuals that are suffering and also to the degree in which they are being exploited and the lack of protection that they have and they often times have the fewest allies, the fewest people that are speaking up on their behalf.
What or who would you say is your biggest opposition or challenge to gaining support for Mercy For Animals.
I think a lot of it is just people not being aware of what’s happening. There is sort of a willful ignorance, certainly in this country, on a lot of issues including the plight of animals raised and killed for food.I think that that is starting to change, but certainly then at the heart of Mercy for Animals' work over the years is to pull back the curtain on factory farms and show people not only what is happening, but get them to see animals as someone instead of something.
We live in a country where people grow up and they’re sort of spoon fed this propaganda and lies that animals live happy lives out on pastures and we see them in commercials for the dairy industry and we go to McDonald's and we’re told that hamburgers grow on hamburger patches, and it's just a stark difference from the truth, which is that most animals in this country are treated more like machines than they’re individuals and it's just an out of control system. So, I think that that’s one of the biggest challenges is just the fact that these animals have become ghosts in our industrial machine and their suffering is out of sight and out of mind, so what we really try to do at Mercy For Animals is to help to bridge that gap.
Eating animals has become such a cultural norm in the United States, which is known as carnism – this sort of invisible belief that it’s okay to eat certain animals, but not others like why we love dogs and cats, but we eat cows and pigs. The meat industry itself is a real opposition as well. I talk about in the book this sort of avalanche of agag laws that are being proposed – so far about half of the states have proposed these laws that seek to make it a crime for journalists and for investigators to go in and document what's happening inside of factory farms and each one of these agag laws varies slightly in terms of wording and scope, but the intention is always to intimidate whistleblowers and in many situations the punishment for documenting animal abuse or even environmental violations or food safety concerns or worker rights violations – the penalty for documenting it becomes more severe than the actual abuse itself. These are all laws that are being pushed by the meat industry and the dairy industry in direct response to a lot of Mercy For Animals’ undercover investigations. We live in a country where if you asked most Americans how they think animals should be treated they agree that animals should be treated with care and respect and that includes farm animals, but then you look at the actual treatment of these animals and it is the complete opposite of that, so the meat industry has decided that instead of bringing the treatment in line with the values they’re just going to sort of throw up the curtain and try to stifle discussion and make it a crime to expose the wrongdoing instead of addressing the wrongdoing itself.
We also see this on a larger front than just agag laws on factory farms - the intention of all of these efforts are to silence whistleblowers and to prevent public discourse and public discussion about and debate about these various issues, and if you can't expose the truth and you can't have rich and important debate about it then there is not a clear path forward in how it can be addressed, and the meat industry knows that and they’re really trying to stifle that.
Is there a line that animal rights activists need to draw in getting their message out or do you believe in the radical approach of by any means necessary?
I believe that every movement, whether it’s the environmental movement or the LGBT movement, the women’s rights movement - there is always going to be a spectrum of approaches. We see this throughout history and I think that anytime that you have a diverse group of people fighting on behalf of a cause everyone will bring their own unique perspective and skills and talents to the table and that will lead to a diverse approach.
That being said, I think for the animal movement we need to win hearts and minds versus debates and arguments. The only way in which we are really going to bring about rapid change for animals is by dramatically increasing the number of vegans and animal activists and people who are on the animals’ side, and I think that because most people are good at heart and want to make kind and compassionate choices - [but they] aren’t fully aware of the issues or what the alternatives it's important that we view other people as pre-vegans and pre animal activists as opposed to opposition.
I know for me what really got me involved in the animal movement was not judgment or shame by others, but welcoming arms and information and resources that really helped me on my journey, so I think that we have to really focus on increasing our numbers through effective strategic advocacy.
Do you see the recent rise and popularity in veganism as a disingenuous cosmopolitan trend or do you believe that there truly is a massive cultural conscious shift that is taking place today?
I do think that there is a cultural shift that’s happening and one of the reasons that I say that is – there is a study done recently that looked at the rise of vegetarianism and veganism in the United States on a generational level and it found that 12 percent of millennials identified as vegetarian or vegan. If you looked at gen Xers it was like 4 percent, baby boomers it was 1 percent so the trajectory generationally on this issue is very clear and I think if you look at the fights against racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, we often times will see that these are movements that progressed not so much just in years, but in generations and as generations progress its easier to look back and say that, well, of course, these views were wrong and outdated and I think that we’re in the midst of that with the animal rights movement. Everywhere you look, we see that millennials are more likely to a be adopting a plant-based diet, are more likely to be involved in animal issues and that gives me a lot of hope.
It's becoming easier and easier to be vegan. Certainly, it's easier in most large cities, but even in smaller communities you can get soy milk almost anywhere now and you can get veggie burgers. It is becoming far more accessible, and I think once we are at the point where the kind option is the easy option and the affordable option and the healthy option - people will want to make that choice, so I am really excited to see what’s starting to happen in the marketplace with a lot of these alternatives to meat, dairy, and eggs because I think it helps. We need to give people more than just the WHY they should join this movement, we need to give them the HOW. There are so many people that agree in theory that they shouldn’t be supporting the cruelty to animals but they don’t know how to live that lifestyle, they don’t know what that means in practice, so I think that as advocates it is a large part of our duty to help guide people through the HOW of living a compassionate lifestyle as well.
What would you say are some of the biggest myths about veganism that people have fallen for which need be demystified because they’ve been a really strong deterrent to people adopting a plant-based lifestyle?
I never want to restate myths or negatives because I don’t want to give them more life!
I think that there are a lot of them out there, but I think that they are all rooted in fear and misunderstanding. I think a lot of them have to do with health. I’ve been vegan for 18 years. I haven’t eaten meat for 22 years. I became vegetarian at 11 on my own. I am the tallest, most active person in my entire family, so I have certainly been able to thrive on a plant-based diet. This is obviously quite opposite to a lot of the health concerns that the studies and data show that a well balanced healthy vegan can be one of the most healthful diets in reducing your risk for heart disease, certain types of cancer, certain types of diabetes. I think it's just a lot of fear that people have of the unknown and for a lot of people veganism is an unknown and that again is why I think its so important for us to help provide the HOW for people to make these diets, because it's really important that people have a good experience and really thrive when they step into veganism.
I was a competitive athlete through my teen years and I ride about a 1,000 miles a year on my bike, I do yoga – I think its important that vegans are joyful examples and helpful examples as much as we can.
Who or what greatly inspires and influences what you do?
First of all, animals do.
I am still really moved and inspired by animals that I formed relationships with when I was a child and just continue to be impressed and inspired by animals that I meet all over the place.
If you look at animals escaping slaughterhouses, for example, animals jumping over fences, jumping out of moving trucks, animals finding ways out of their cages inside of factory farms, these are animals that not only show profound intelligence but show profound bravery. This is really an undeclared war that’s taking place against animals right now in our society and these animals are struggling and fighting and kicking and there are just so many untold stories of bravery within factory farms and slaughterhouse of these animals trying to free themselves and trying to free others. I draw a lot of inspiration from the animals themselves who I think are sort of overlooked even in our own movement.
But beyond that I am inspired by the unsung heroes of the animal protection movement, which include everyone from undercover investigators, people that really put their physical and emotional health and well being on the line to go into these operations and reveal the daily horror that’s taking place there, and I am inspired by the people that have busy lives, that have families, but they find time to speak up for animals, to send a letter, to become involved in whatever way they possibly can. I often times say, with the work that I do I see both the darkest and brightest side of humanity all in the same day – I see how cruel people can be to animals, but I also see how selfless and generous and compassionate people can be in providing aid and comfort to these animals as well.
The message or statement you want to best be known and remembered for?
MERCY FOR ANIMALS.
That we should have mercy for animals. The name of the organization really strikes up the root of the fact that humans find ourselves in a situation where we hold so much power over animals and we can choose how to use that power – we can use that power for greed and to exploit and torture animals for our own wins, or we can use that place of power for compassion and to help animals and for mercy, and I think what individuals, with power choose to do with it says a lot about who they are as individuals especially when those who are at their mercy are completely vulnerable.
If you had to be an animal which one would it be?
Probably a crow! I would love to be a bird, to be able to fly - I think that there would be so much freedom and joy that would come from that. I think that crows are just wildly intelligent and beautiful animals.
Your favorite song?
It’s a constant evolution. I am really enjoying every song on the new Halsey album.