We had the good fortune of connecting with Cheryl Leahy and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Cheryl, what do you attribute your success to?
As a creatively driven nonprofit animal advocacy organization, we look for innovative solutions and strategies to raise cultural literacy and inspire action in the mainstream. We are also entrepreneurially minded: We sell something, though it’s not a product or a service. We sell a mindset. We think of ourselves as norm entrepreneurs, defining and shifting our culture’s attitudes and behavior toward our relationship with and treatment of animals into alignment with the values opposing animal cruelty that most people already hold. We face a problem: Most of us consider it to be fundamental to our humanity to oppose active and widespread violence toward animals, deprivation of even the most basic of natural behaviors, and killing of animals, especially while they are still babies. However, our societal norms and practices simply do not reflect those values for the overwhelming majority of animals. We may treat our dogs and cats relatively very well and build our own notions of empathy and connection through having these animals in our homes. Meanwhile, well over 99% of animals killed each year are farmed animals, part of the massive animal agribusiness industries producing meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs. These animals are categorically treated abhorrently and killed very young, in large numbers. Our job at Animal Outlook is to apply our entrepreneurial thinking to aligning the animal protective values we hold as a fundamental facet of our humanity with the social norms which govern our behavior and thinking. This is a tall order, but like any building project, can be broken down into necessary elements and steps in order to be successful. The first of these is information. It is vital that we provide the right information to our audience. A cornerstone of our work is conducting hidden camera investigations of factory farms and slaughterhouses, which provides the uniquely valuable raw visual data on the realities what is happening in these massive industries. This is particularly important in the context of animal agribusiness – apart from the investigations like the ones we conduct, there is no way for the public to see what is going on where the animals are bred, grown, transported and killed for these industries, unless these are messages the industry itself carefully curates in order to sell us all more animal products. Our investigations represent the counterpoint to industry rhetoric. Investigations like ours are the public’s only window into these secretive industries. What have we found n the dozens of investigations we’ve done inside factory farms and slaughterhouses, like our dairy investigation showing calves having their horns burned off without pain relief? Cruelty is standard in animal agriculture. Violence, deprivation and killing are the rule, not the exception. Our work does not stop there. Information alone is not enough. I don’t expect any reader to simply read the above factual conclusion and unquestioningly accept it, feeling informed and empowered to change their behavior and start working on norm-shifting alongside us. Nor should they. It is very challenging to reach and educate people in a way that effectively communicates this factual information because of the many competing speakers and incongruence with other messages we all hear. We need to be a credible source of information, able to rise above the din, and reach people in a way that is meaningful to them. We are able to do this in a number of ways. One powerful way to change social norms is to change law and its enforcement. Law is uniquely positioned in our society as a way to legitimize and solidify cultural values into norms of behavior and moral reasoning. It goes a long way to increasing the credibility of our work when a court or legislature takes an animal protective position. Our Legal Advocacy Program uses litigation and other legal actions to address systematic harms to animals. This helps animals tangibly in the short term, builds and grows the field of animal law so more similar work can be done in the future, and codifies and increases the credibility of shifts in our society’s norms around animal treatment. We also work to directly impact the supply side. Changing the market has impacts for how we all behave on a day-to-day basis, and many of the major players in the food industry have the leverage and power to make massive and lasting changes at relatively small cost. We work to move the industry away from animal products, including working with companies to offer more vegan options and to eliminate some of the worst standard abuses toward animals in the industry, as well as working to move farmers away from farming animals and into farming plants. Perhaps the most important element and indicator of whether we are on a successful path, however, is how effectively we can connect with people in a way that speaks to their values. This requires effective storytelling, using the above tactics in a way that has the potential to reach people widely and strategically. For example, we pair our investigations with poignant storytelling that will reach a lot of people. For this reason, success markers for us include things like major media coverage of our work; reaching, educating, and mobilizing the hundreds of thousands of people on our social media pages; and seeing major societal shifts, like the recent move toward mainstream support of vegan ethics. Fundamental to our role as norm entrepreneurs is to close the gap between widely held public values and the social norms that govern our society. In order to make this happen, people need to be both informed and feel that they can and should speak up about those values and shape the world around them to bring it into alignment with the basic values most of us share opposing cruelty to animals. Believing in one’s own self-efficacy in solving this problem is a vital element here. And finally, people need to feel willing to speak up, to override the discomfort and uncertainty that they will lose status or be ignored if they try to build the society that aligns with their values. Our role here is to trigger availability cascades, bringing these ideas to the forefront of public discussion, increasing people’s confidence and understanding, further expanding upon the change we are seeking to create and the society we are looking to build. Success for us means bringing the right information, stories and resonant values to people to empower us all to shift social norms to be a truly compassionate society toward animals and toward each other.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Animal Outlook is an animal protection organization that focuses on directly impacting the systemic harms of animal agriculture while raising cultural awareness and salience against factory farming and for the protection of animals. When I am speaking publicly, I often challenge audiences to learn about the realities of industrial animal agriculture and its impacts and then to offer a rebuttal to my position that factory farming is the largest social justice issue facing our species. Why? Our gravitational center as an organization is the protection of animals from undue suffering and death. From this point of view, factory farming is the direst destructive force against animals. Well over 99% of the animals that humans interact with and kill each year are for the industries that produce meat, dairy, eggs, and fish. Our brains are incapable of truly processing the numbers here, with 10 billion land animals killed for these industries in the U.S. each year alone, and the numbers going into the trillions if fish are included. These industries are almost entirely hidden from public view, and have taken the goodwill and compassion of the public and exploited it with so-called “humane” marketing. In reality, the conditions so-called “humanely” produced animals are kept in are not meaningfully different from the rest of the industry in very important ways. For example, they are still crammed in close quarters, often tens of thousands at a time, suffer the same debilitating illnesses, and are sent to the same slaughterhouses. Factory farming – industrialized methods applied to living animals – is the modus operandi of these industries. Meat, milk, and eggs come from factory farms. Equally compelling arguments against factory farming come from its impact on the environment. It is a major contributor to climate change, greater than all of transportation combined. It is also our country’s largest water consumer and water polluter, leading to things like massive “fish kills,” where leaks in manure storage – euphemistically called “manure lagoons” – enter the water and destroy wildlife. The disproportionate use of water also contributes to the sociopolitical destabilization over access and rights to fresh water. Production of animal products is also very inefficient, taking anywhere from 2 to 25 times the amount of feed to produce the equivalent product, obviously raising the question of why we don’t just feed the grain directly to humans. Over ¾ of the farmland in the U.S. is used to grow crops to feed animals, again with the massive opportunity cost of what that land could be used for otherwise, including to solve global hunger issues, or to preserve the diverse ecosystems in places like the Amazon rainforest that are otherwise being razed for crop or grazing land for animal ag. Animal agriculture is also devastating to human health. Animal product consumption is closely linked to some of the biggest killers of Americans, including heart disease, some cancers, strokes, obesity, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. The sheer volume and concentration of chemicals like pesticides and hormones become concentrated in animal flesh as compared with plant-based foods, connected with human health impacts like reproductive defects, immune diseases, and similar issues. Perhaps most salient for the discussion in 2020 is the relationship between animal agriculture and pandemics. Intensive confinement of animals in chicken and pig factory farms led to the development of a number of pandemics, including strains of bird flu and swine flu, and with the worldwide adoption of these tactics, the frequency of new pandemics coming from these sources has increased significantly in the last 25 years, many of which have much higher death rates within the infected population than does COVID-19. The next pandemic’s likely source is livestock production, which is where 3 out of 4 new pathogens affecting humans emerge. Bacterial infections are also an issue, with factory farming breeding antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, and 80% of all antibiotics used in animal agriculture, decreasing the effectiveness of antibiotics for humans. Finally, conditions for workers are abysmal. We have all heard of slaughterhouses being COVID-19 hotspots due to the workplace conditions. Slaughterhouses are also linked to an increase in violent crime in their neighboring communities. Clearly, industrial animal ag is a wide-ranging and deeply impactful problem facing our society, which is why I argue it is the largest social justice issue of our time. Incidentally, no one has (yet) taken me up on the challenge to rebut this position. Whatever importance you might place on any one of these harms, clearly factory farming presents a complex and urgent problem. Our challenge is to find the most effective solutions to these issues in ways that present tangible opportunities for immediate victories as well as building on a broader strategic arc to target the systemic structures of the animal ag system, and replace it with something better. It is this thinking that has led us to the four areas which define our work and our unique niche in the movement: – Truth. For almost two decades, our undercover investigators have been going behind animal agribusiness’ closed doors to shed light on the very dark and cruel world of factory farms and slaughterhouses. We are able to create hard-hitting and well-conducted investigations of some of the most important industries and players in animal agriculture. We are especially proud of being able to garner in-depth major media coverage of our investigations, bringing these stories to millions of people. – Justice. Our goals when approaching litigation projects are to meet a certain set of criteria, including whether the lawsuit has the potential to impact systemic harms to animals, regardless of whether the laws were originally written with that intention or not. One of our most exciting recent victories is our Superior Farms False Claims Act settlement and consent decree, based on our investigation of the largest lamb slaughter plant in the U.S., which was supplying major grocery chains and the government for school lunches and the military. This lawsuit was the second-ever time the False Claims Act was applied to animal agriculture, and the first time ritual slaughter was the basis of the Department Of Justice’’s intervention on these issues. – Revolutionizing Food Systems. We have long recognized the power and importance of bringing vegan options to the marketplace as a way to directly impact the suffering and slaughter of animals. We have been working with restaurants, food companies, and other corporate targets for over a decade. We recently investigated a dairy farm that supplied Nestle, which revealed both abuse and abusive standard practices, resulting in Nestle both dropping the farm and adding more vegan options to its supply chain. . – Empowering Change. Perhaps our clearest and most long-standing commitment as an organization has been to the work to promote vegan eating as a direct and practical solution to make real change for animals. This work has evolved in its tactical approaches, but a simple yet profound concept has run through the heart of our organizational identity: every time we sit down to eat, we can stand up for animals, simply by leaving the off our plates. This is the message behind our many effective and empowering outreach and vegan promoting activities. We’re reaching people with the information, tools, and compassion to build vegan communities and a vegan world. We host the yearly DC Veg Fest in our nation’s capital, which draws thousands of people and hundreds of vendors to celebrate vegan food and culture. We are also excited about the work we are doing on our virtual platforms to engage our followers with the “hows” and “whys” of vegan eating, using research-backed techniques to encourage and help people make these transitions. Personally, I came to this issue through the lens of law. I went to law school after concentrating on Environmental Studies in college, and focusing my work there on how social movements evolve and become effective and a part of the public consciousness (or not). I had long been interested in animal issues, and understanding environmental ethics and policy allowed me to understand the systems that lead to exploitation and degradation, and what tactics and strategies work to reverse some of that damage. It also allowed me see the overlap between animal protection and environmental studies, which cemented my decision to work against factory farming. I decided to go to law school because I thought law had unique potential to solidify and give validity to cultural values and morality. I believe in the power of legal advancements for animals – even if that comes in the form of enforcement of existing law and the use of laws that were not originally intended to protect animals but could be applied in that way. I have since been able to launch and win a number of legal actions, as well as working for the passage of new laws. I have also been able to work with and build upon our work in investigations, media strategy, public education and outreach, and supply-side work. I have also been able to teach law students and lawyers, and to work on academic programs. All of this has been a tremendous learning and growth experience, and reinforcing in both its challenges and its successes. What keeps me here, though, is twofold: first, I’m drawn to ideas. I’m always looking for ways to define and refine our strategies in line with innovative and effective ideas. The intellectual complexity and novelty of this work allows for me to spend much of my time in building and growth mode, and I’m drawn to this work due to the building I have left to do. Second, my bottom line belief is in the profundity of the videos. If people saw what I see in the videos – if they allowed themselves the experience of looking into that reality – it changes us as people. Perspectives are heightened, understanding shifts. We understand our own humanity differently, and become more in touch with our own compassion and empathy for each other and for the nonhuman animals who are in so many important ways like us. It gives me both a sense of empowerment and an imperative to keep working for these animals. There are many more stories to tell. It has not been easy. There is a reason factory farming exists. Massive demand for the production and sale of animal products, kept expertly and intentionally hidden from the public by animal agribusiness, which is comprised of heavily moneyed interests with major government support due to years of lobbying and enfranchisement very much puts animal ag in the power position. Tens of billions of federal subsidy dollars prop up animal agriculture, even when normally functioning markets would not support the massive production, bailing out the industry as a matter of course. For comparison, fruits and vegetables get less than 1% off the subsidy pie. Our job is to work at those support structures, expose the realities of animal agribusiness, and advance or legal system and our culture away from supporting the animal ag industry and more toward alignment with the public consciousness. The disparity in funding is stark. We are 100% funded by private donations. We do not buy or sell any good or service. Rather, people donate their dollars to us because they are looking to use that money to do the most good they possibly can. And we are turning that desire into victories. We are winning legal battles, exposing standard cruel practices in these hidden industries, and building the business and cultural landscape that’s moving us away from supporting these harmful systems. I’m very proud to say our team and our supporters are making a real difference in these massive and entrenched systems, and building a better way.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I’m not a California native, having grown up in Chicago. I’ve lived and spent time in a number of different cities here and abroad, and since going to law school here in the early 2000’s, I’ve always been drawn back to Southern California. There’s a certain unique appeal it has, and it’s those elements I’d want to pack into my best friend’s trip experience. Some of this cannot be done during COVID-19, but much of it still can. Here in the South Bay, we have the ocean and nearby cliffs and hiking trails. I’d start the day with a jog and swim at RAT beach at the border of Redondo Beach and Torrance, where you’re pretty likely to see dolphins and pelicans along with the morning surfers. You might even see a whale if you’re very lucky. Next, the hiking trails in Palos Verdes are varied and hilly, with great ocean views and tons of wildlife, and it really feels like you are in the wilderness, even though downtown Los Angeles is a short drive away. I especially like the hiking trail that goes by Terrenea resort, where you can explore a cave and then relax in lawn chairs by the water. My kids and I both like to use the Seek app on these hikes, which identifies plants and animals if you take a picture of them. If it’s Thursday, an early lunch at the Redondo Beach Farmer’s Market near Veteran’s park next to the beach is an ideal next stop. My favorite stalls are the all-vegan Korean Dave’s Gourmet, which is healthy and irresistible, with its high protein “tempeh” and savory broth. I’m also a loyal customer of the Aliki’s Greek Tavern, which always has perfect vegan options, including its vegan ratatouille. And the Mayan Delicacy, which is fresh Mexican salsas, sauces, stews, soups, and salads, all of which happen to be vegan and taste homemade. At the same market is OrVeganic, which is a nut butter company that’s expanded from a farmers market stall to a full-blown restaurant in nearby Lawndale. Everything they sell is incredibly high quality, delicious, and healthy. There’s also a new stall that sells vegan cookies and macarons. And then I run through the stalls full of whatever fruits and vegetables are in season, especially looking out for Cara Cara oranges, strawberries, kiwi berries, and peaches, depending on the time of year. Next stop is one of the many local breweries in the South Bay. I’m partial to Common Space Brewing in Hawthorne, since its beer and atmosphere are both good and it hosts many events that appeal to me, including vegan food festivals with food trucks, dog-themed parties and contests supporting local rescues, and kid-oriented events, like sledding on real trucked-in snow in the winter. It’s still such a foreign experience for me to see kids in tank tops, shorts, and snow boots running around having a snowball fight. Breweries are ideal for me because they’re places you can casually come and go, dogs are welcome, kids are welcome, and you can bring your own food or buy some there. After the brewery is a perfect time to experience a kind of karaoke that is more available in Los Angeles than anywhere else I’ve been – private room karaoke. A number of these places exist, the closest in the South Bay being in Torrance, and are especially fun for someone who has only ever seen karaoke where the person is singing to the entire bar. In room karaoke, your group gets a private room and access to the song list, and can just badly sing their hearts out for as long as they like. The next days would take us out of the South Bay to see some of the most distinct things in the L.A. area, including the Venice canals and boardwalk, and some of the best vegan restaurants anywhere – Sage and Café Gratitude are great for lunch and dinner. For something higher end, Crossroads and Laduree, both in Beverly Hills, are a tourist-level experience and good enough to make the drive for a local. One of the best things about Los Angeles, though, is the La Brea Tar Pits. The first time I ever went was when my kids were very young, and the drama of the story just absolutely captivated them. It became a regular spot for our family and for any out-of-town visitors. The best bonus from driving up there is eating at Rahel Vegan in Little Ethiopia. Top-notch Ethiopian food and experience, and the first time my then-three-year old ate there, he ate so much of it he fell asleep under the table. If all members of our party remained awake, we’d get dessert at my favorite ice cream place of any kind, anywhere, which is Cocobella Creamery, an all-vegan ice cream shop in Hollywood that was rated the best ice cream shop (vegan or non) in California. Then we’d catch a comedy show. We could go to Groundlings or back down to the South Bay to catch one of the 10 comedians for $10 or $20 at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach. And we’d end our vacation with a cocktail at Old Tony’s on the Redondo Beach Pier, which has a uniquely retro California feel.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Animal Outlook and its staff and supporters
Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCO1hJWcm5U4vpqcJWzvC5hw, https://youtu.be/4q1p0CNeju0
Brooks Institute for Animal Rights Law and Policy