Voices: Mathias Madsen (Denmark) on the Humane Myth, Boycotting Veganism, and Marius the Giraffe
Today marks the first in a series of interviews that we are calling Voices from the Movement. Some will be famous names with global influence and reach. Others will be less well known activists who, while not as prominent, have made a big difference in their local communities. Many of the voices featured in our interview series will be from grassroots activists who have been inspired to participate in DxE's campaigns, but we'll also feature activists from other organizations with completely different (and even conflicting) perspectives. By doing so, we hope to both improve our own understanding of social change and build bridges with activists all over the world.
Mathias Madsen, our first interviewee, is a sociology student, animal rights activist, and resident of Copenhagen. He is also an organizer on our "It's not Food, It's Violence" campaign. First exposed to Direct Action Everywhere while on an academic visit to Arizona State University, Mathias has since become an organizer of grassroots protests in his native Denmark.
Mathias sat down to talk with us about the state of animal rights in Denmark, the prominence of the Humane Myth, and the recent scandal involving Marius the Giraffe.
Tell us about how you got involved in Animal Rights Activism. When did you make the transition to becoming an activist? Who were the influential figures? What were the influential books, movies, or other media?
I went vegan in 2010 after travelling the States for a month with a couple of friends while reading “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. I think for about a year, I was just a vegan consumer, and I had not really heard of the term speciesism. But my consciousness was expanding and at some point my mother told me about a new Danish organization, Go Vegan, that she had encountered on Facebook (by then both of my parents had followed in my footsteps and gone vegan, which I am very proud of). It was the founders of Go Vegan who introduced me to the concept of speciesism and the framing of animal rights as an issue of social justice. I think I’ve only recently started to really identify myself as an activist.
What is the current environment in Denmark around Animal Rights? Is there a prominent activist community?
Denmark is a small country. On one hand there is definitely a growing vegan community, but most people are not yet engaged in organized activism. The largest animal rights organization in Denmark, Anima, corresponds more or less to PETA. However, they are way more abolitionist as they never advocate welfarism or contribute to the reproduction of The Humane Myth. They have successfully campaigned against fur for many years leading among other things to a ban on fox fur farms in Denmark. The last couple of years several groups and organizations promoting veganism have sprung up, and a strong network has been built across the country. This is very inspiring to be a part of but I believe there is a need for more people to advocate animal liberation and not just veganism.
You recently visited Phoenix, and got in touch with the Phoenix chapter of DxE – the Phoenix Animal Liberation Squad (PALS). What brought you to Phoenix? How did you connect with PALS? Tell us about your experiences (best and worst moments; any funny stories; etc.).
I am studying sociology at University of Copenhagen, and I had the opportunity to spend one semester at Arizona State University. This was a good experience but it was connecting with PALS that really made Fall 2013 a special time for me. By coincidence I met a guy from PALS at a bicycle/dinner-event, and he invited me to join PALS on a trip to the Ironwood Pig Sanctuary. I spent a magical afternoon in the middle of the Arizona desert meeting the potbellied residents and their loving caretakers who are working so hard giving hundreds of pigs a good life. After that trip I joined PALS in several protests. It fascinates me how I was able to show up out of nowhere and form very special friendships with other activists over a short period of time. There is so much love and passion within this movement we are part of. My ultimate experience with PALS was a spontaneous road trip to San Diego just one week before I was leaving home. We did three Chipotle actions in one afternoon and I had the pleasure of meeting Ellen Ericksen, a truly inspirational figure to all Animal Rights activists.
What inspired you to take part in Direct Action Everywhere’s “It’s not Food, It’s Violence” campaign?
I came to participate in the campaign through PALS. Participating in actions and protests in Phoenix and San Diego radically changed my perspective on the Animal Rights movement and which strategies we must use to achieve animal liberation. Before I came to Arizona, I guess I believed in vegan education. One of the members of PALS introduced me to the article “Boycott Veganism”, and it really made me see how veganism as a concept can and has derailed the Animal Rights movement from the course that was set in the 80s: the course of animal liberation. We need to get back to framing this movement as a social justice movement and we need speak for the victims of human violence and oppression. When we talk about veganism we talk about ourselves, our consumption, our lifestyles, and about how environmental degradation and climate change poses dangers to us. When the time came for me to return to Denmark, I made a promise to myself and all the animals we are fighting for that I would bring direct action to Denmark.
Do you see the same “humane” marketing in Denmark that we see with corporations such as Chipotle in the US? How has the movement responded, if at all?
I do not think any “humane” marketing in Denmark or anywhere else gets close to being as outrageous, deceiving and manipulative as Chipotle’s. But The Humane Myth is definitely alive and well here. Recently a Danish chain of supermarkets announced that it would no longer sell eggs from caged hens. Upon this announcement, another chain, Irma – that we have chosen as a target for direct action – pointed out that they themselves had not sold eggs from caged hens for many years. So “animal welfare” is definitely a competitive factor among those who profit on exploitation of other animals. Unfortunately the industry is not alone in promoting The Humane Myth. An organization with the absurd name “Protection of the Animals” is cooperating with the industry negotiating standards for the exploitation of animals and giving selected “products” their stamp of approval. This Christmas they made a consumer’s guide rating the welfare of “Christmas ducks” from one to five stars! To some extent there is unwillingness in the Danish AR-movement to attack welfarism based on the – mistaken – idea that even small “improvements” are steps in the right direction. But we are some who are pulling in the other direction with great conviction.
We saw some really inspiring footage of you and two other activists charging into a grocery store to take a stand against violence (and the humane myth). Tell us about your January action.
I am glad you found it inspiring. This was our first direct action and though I had participated in actions in the States, I had not yet been the one who led one. So honestly, I was pretty nervous but the action was a success. We got quite an angry response from the store manager and one cocky customer, but everyone else were listening (in awe). We recently did one more action and we are now looking forward to February 22nd. Hopefully more activists will join us then.
How did people in the Denmark activist community respond, if at all. Have actions like this been done in the past?
I think this kind of activism is new in Denmark. Our long history is not really one of revolutions and we do not have the same culture of protesting as you have in the States. Most of the response from the community has been positive but there is a tendency of skepticism towards the direct approach. There is a lot of “peace, love and understanding”-vibes in the community and many people strongly believe in vegan education.
There has been a recent scandal involving the Copenhagen Zoo. A young giraffe named Marius was killed by the zoo because his genes were deemed unfit for breeding. Tell us about what has been happening in that story, from the perspective of a resident of Copenhagen?
The killing of Marius really got a lot of attention but actually - and to my surprise - I've heard as much about it from activists in the States, referring to media coverage outside of Denmark, as I've heard through Danish media. The reactions from Danish Citizens have been mixed. On one hand thousands of people signed a petition against the killing. On the other hand a lot of voices in the debate have come to the defense of Copenhagen Zoo. These people are either echoing the explanations and arguments of Copenhagen Zoo or they are, rightly, pointing to the fact that so many other animals are being killed every day, tragically using this as an argument that it was not at all wrong to kill Marius
.How has the local animal rights movement responded, if at all? What lessons do you think our society (and we as activists) can learn from the Marius episode?
We have not responded enough, I must admit. The animal rights organisation that did respond is not one I knew of before this event and as far as I can see they are not really advocating Animal Liberation as much as "animal welfare". The activists I work with and I are currently discussing how to best make use of the momentum and attention that the fate of Marius has brought to the question of the relation between humans and other animals. As a friend of mine states, it is important to recognize the empathy a lot of people showed towards this one imprisoned giraffe and appeal to these people to take a stand against all violence towards all animals in every institution of exploitation. The lesson learned is that a lot of people who are not yet vegans do have the capacities to realize that violence against other animals is wrong, we just need to reach them and make them connect the dots. Another lesson learned is that there is some will to mobilize and speak up among ordinary citizens when they see something that is not ok.
A big part of what we are trying to achieve, with DxE, is to create a movement of activists who are empowered to take a stronger, more confident stand against animal abuse. How did you feel in the aftermath of your protest? Why did you feel that going into the store was important?
I did feel shaken by the aggressive and ridiculing attitudes that our message was met with by a few persons, but at the same time I felt empowered. Mentally, it takes some energy to put yourself up to and do direct action but it really does strengthen your confidence. At the end of the day it brings you great satisfaction to speak the truth and – if only for a minute – denying people their denial.
How have you evolved as an activist, over the years, in tactics and in ideology?
As already mentioned, my ideas of what works in the struggle for animal liberation has changed quite recently and I am now convinced that direct action is necessary. Also, I think becoming involved with AR-activism has made me more aware of other struggles for social justice and freedom. Oppression is everywhere, and human freedom goes hand in hand with animal liberation.
Do you have any heroes or role models as an activist?
Steve Best has said: “Don’t tie yourself to a philosophy, don’t tie yourself to a dogma. Not any philosophy, not any dogma, not any figure, not any person, not Gandhi, not King, not anybody…” I think this is a good message. It is great to have inspirational figures within a movement but I do not think it is a good idea to idolize anyone like it is happening with for instance Gary Yourofsky (whose passion and work I do admire a lot). It is important that we think for ourselves and that we believe in our own power of judgment and our own abilities to create change.
How do you see the Animal Rights Movement changing in the next few years, either in Denmark or internationally?
I hope to see more direct action in the spirit of Direct Action Everywhere and 269life both in Denmark and the rest of the world. I hope to see activists uniting on a global level and coordinating our actions in the fight for justice. Change is happening. Our courage is growing and our hopes are rising.