Four views of vegan activism in Madison and Dane County
How activists have used complementary approaches to transform the discourse on animal rights. (Photo: Dash and Atlas, two Cornish Cross roosters, at Farm Bird Sanctuary in Edgerton. Photo by Todd Wilson.)
As we reach the end of the 2010s, the crises we face as a species on both a national and global scale can feel insurmountable, leaving the individual feeling helpless. As part of our current ever-shifting reality, we're asked to engage daily with a myriad of political issues that will affect our way of living not only in the short term, but for future generations as well. Many looking to simultaneously tackle these predicaments, the draconian reach of institutions, and counter the acceleration of climate change (especially as fires rage in the Amazon) as a vital part of a movement have latched onto veganism. More than simply a dietary choice, veganism has steadily risen as a progressive ideology that inspires urgent activism and resistance systems of oppression and environmental degradation.
In addition to abstaining from the consumption of animal products, vegan activists often use nonviolent tactics to advocate for the welfare of animals. Contrary to "the stereotype of the smug, self-satisfied, annoying vegan," people in this movement consistently discuss the realities of our world and how they themselves are bound up in it. As local activist Jeff Stanek puts it, "What distinguishes veganism from non-veganism is not that we're not participating in these injustices and violence, but that we're trying within ourselves and within society to correct them." In simpler moralistic terms, the mentality can be thought of as collectively practicing compassion in an effort to "leave the world a little better than you found it," a quote often attributed to Scout founder Robert Baden-Powell. Vegans' ethical views collectively manifest in direct action and protest on the animals' behalf. The idea is to counter corporate messaging, which vegans see as specifically designed to distract or detach individuals from other sentient beings.
In Madison and Dane County, a number of vegan activists have taken that credo a step further in their organizing, not only raising awareness of abuses but creating tangible solutions and outlets for those with similar concerns. They include Rebekah Klemm, who began organizing through her group Dane4Dogs in late spring of 2018 to oppose two companies that breed dogs for laboratory experiments, Blue Mounds' Ridglan Farms and Spring Green's Tri-Valley Resources; Quincy Markowitz, who started a 15-bird makeshift sanctuary in a two-bedroom Madison apartment before expanding to a rural property in Edgerton with partner Todd Wilson; and Lawrence Cuneaz and the aforementioned Jeff Stanek, who've taken part in protests and conferences with grassroots groups like Direct Action Everywhere, Friends Of Animal Liberation, and Anonymous For The Voiceless. As a vegan myself for nearly five years now, I spoke with each of them recently for more perspective on how this movement is developing locally.
The driving force behind Klemm's Dane4Dogs started last year at the Mount Horeb Summer Frolic, where she began gathering signatures for an eventual ballot referendum opposing Ridglan's practice of breeding dogs for experimentation. (While based in Blue Mounds, Ridglan has a P.O. box in Mount Horeb, as a Wisconsin Public Radio report on the issue explained.) "I thought it was a topic that the general public would support as a vegan value they already hold," she says. "So, I wanted to tap into that as a way to move our laws in the right direction." Her efforts have built up a sustained momentum, drawing interest from news outlets like Fox 47, and recruiting nearly three dozen active volunteers. After learning about appalling scientific testing methods used on month-old puppies that date back to the 1970s, "We had one volunteer go vegan, which I consider to be a huge win; and she wasn't even vegetarian before getting involved with Dane4Dogs," Klemm says. "We actually had lots of volunteers shift their eating and product-buying habits in the right direction."
Amidst their efforts against Ridglan, which has been operating since the 1960s, this year a Spring Green resident contacted Dane4Dogs to alert the organization of Tri Valley Resources' plans for a second medical research puppy mill. The company had actually applied for permits in two locations, one within and on outside Spring Green (Township and Extra Territorial Zone), one being in former veal barn and the other in a residential garage. While Spring Green is not in Dane County, Klemm and company immediately knew that they needed to focus their agenda to halt the establishment of Tri-Valley's business operations. On July 11, the Spring Green Town Board voted 2-1 to recommend that Sauk County deny the company permission to operate its the "grower" shed, and on July 17, the Spring Green Village Plan Commission voted 4-3 to deny Tri-Valley permission to house six puppies in a "whelping" garage. However, the Sauk County Land Resources and Environment Committee decided the following week to reject the Town Board’s recommendation. Dane4Dogs' legal council has been adamantly contesting Sauk County’s decision with appeals.
From talking with local citizens in both Mount Horeb and Spring Green, Klemm's acquired a number of allies, and learned that many people thought that dog experimentation was already illegal. Ridglan and Tri-Valley Resources' intentions jolted them from complacency. In April 2020, residents of the Village of Spring Green will vote on a ballot initiative that would effectively ban research puppy mills, further bolstering Dane4Dogs' community role. Follow an up-to-date timeline of these measures and developments through the group’s Facebook page. Klemm encourages community members to show their support at an upcoming appeal by puppy mill owners—held by Village Board of Spring Green at the Community Library on September 26.
Eight years ago, Markowitz was moved by a particular visit to Heartland Farm Sanctuary in Verona when she bonded with a rooster, Sunny, who charmed her with his gentle and funny personality (perhaps contrary to general impression of roosters). Driven to further explore the bonds that humans share with both each other and with fellow animals, Markowitz later visited Chicken Run Rescue in Minneapolis, met mentor Mary Britton Clouse, and found her calling in a love of birds in 2013. Markowitz subsequently began volunteering her time at the Dane County Humane Society's Wildlife Center. Working with specialty birds and raptors towards the end of her college tenure, she learned the rewards of studying behavior and biology as a prospective rescuer. After five years there, she welcomed over a dozen birds into her own two-bedroom apartment and garage in Madison. In summer of 2018 she co-founded the non-profit Farm Bird Sanctuary in Edgerton (about 13 miles southeast of Stoughton), where Markowitz and her partner Todd Wilson exclusively take care of rescues and disabled birds with special needs, including ducks and roosters with mobility issues and blind chickens. The sanctuary gives them a warm space to live and move around in 14 x 5 foot protected enclosures called "runs."
While some of the birds were adopted from a factory farm environment, Markowitz points out that sanctuaries also provide homes for casualties of urban or backyard farming. "Because they're small, and we have this idea of free-ranging chickens as the happier vision, a lot of people just plan on getting chickens and throwing them into a field and not recognizing that they're the most expensive farm animal due to reproductive diseases," Markowitz says. The hens have to be tended to by exotic animal veterinarians rather than farm vets, and proper medical care can cost more than $500 per bird per year (which is where most of Farm Bird Sanctuary's income and donations go). Few people really understand hens' preventative healthcare needs. At this summer's Madison Vegan Fest, Markowitz met a veterinarian (and vegan) of over 30 years who wasn't even aware of these diseases and the obstacles to treating them. Perhaps it's not altogether surprising that the general public is oblivious to these reproductive problems, given how poorly anti-abortion politicians understand the human reproductive system.
Where Klemm and Markowitz have built organizations and refuges to advocate for specific species, Jeff Stanek and Lawrence Cuneaz are a bit more broadly focused in their efforts to speak up about the plight of animals, particularly those imprisoned in the factory farm system. As a vegan for over 20 years, Stanek talks passionately about growing up in "America's Dairyland" with the deceptive and false notion that cows need humans to milk them. In reality, the picture is inexcusably dire, as diary farms treat cows solely as property. Dairy farmers forcibly impregnate them, kidnap their young at birth, and source their milk for industry production. Dairy farms eventually send cows off to slaughter when they don't produce the quantities of milk the industry demands, a process that creates inextricable links between dairy and beef.
One of the ways in which Stanek spreads his message is through urban street-level activism in Madison—in locations including State Street, McPike Park, and outside Breese Stevens Field—in formations known as "Cubes of Truth." "The most prosaic explanation is that we stand in the street [in a cube formation] wearing Anonymous masks and hold screens that show videos of behind-the-scenes in animal agriculture—typically slaughterhouses, hatcheries, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)," Stanek says. As part of these activist events with Anonymous For The Voiceless and Friends Of Animal Liberation, Stanek feels like the potential to connect with passing citizens he's never previously met, and to collectively share in a moment of receptivity and concern, outweighs any heckling that comes with the territory. In an era of information overload, it's a challenging but worthy pursuit to raise awareness. On an optimistic note, he concludes, "The more we talk about injustices against non-humans, the more acceptable it will become."
Lawrence Cuneaz initially became interested in vegetarianism during his senior year at Western Michigan University through the Southeastern Michigan Animal Rights Team, whose approach mirrors the same sort of activism he's a part of today in Madison. "I learned through leaflets and saw baby piglets being slammed against the wall," Cuneaz recalls. "Then I started watching YouTube personalities and finding a community. I remember this girl was saying how she can't even walk into a store that sells ice cream, because she would just cry. I was like, 'What? I have to know what the problem is.' The first video I looked at after that was a baby [calf] being stolen from their mother, and so I started to connect the dots. 'Is that what they have to do for milk and cheese?'"
Eventually, Cuneaz stumbled upon James Wildman's "101 Reasons to Go Vegan" and came away from it feeling like he had been lied to his entire life, "wanting to run to every corner of the earth" to tell people what he's seen. "Not many people realize goes into what they're used to buying," he says
In his experience organizing since moving to Madison for work, Cuneaz hopes to continue building connections between Madison and Milwaukee, particularly at the vegan festivals (Madison Vegan Fest and Milwaukee Vegan Expo) that now annually occur in both cities. To boost turnout for protests and social events, he's recently considered the strategic messaging that an organization like Dane4Dogs has used well in tactically working with its many volunteers.
And to generally encourage those wanting to get involved in activism, Cuneaz offers a reassuring outlook: "You don't have to feel like you know everything. It's almost instinctual to want to learn a lot once you learn about one [injustice]. For me, it was the supply chain and slave labor…. Some people may not trust themselves and say, 'I don't want to speak up, because I don't know enough.' Well, we know that oppression is happening on a mass scale. 'What do we do about that?' Let's figure this out together."
For those who may be a bit timid about jumping immediately into a public demonstration, there are a number of local resources, including a highly active Facebook group with over 2000 members, Madison Area Vegans, UW-Madison campus-centric group Nature And Animal Protection, and anti-speciesist vegan potluck events that are more intimate and conversational, shared within those circles. For dining out, Surya Cafe on East Cheryl Parkway in Fitchburg, which features an exclusive plant-based menu, is soon opening a second location at the Garver Feed Mill project behind Olbrich Gardens. When shopping for routine hygiene products, Klemm also recommends the Cruelty Cutter smartphone app, which provides a list of animal and environmental conscious information at the scan of a barcode. In terms of literature, Stanek and Markowitz have found incredible value in the intersectionality between forms of oppression (also a lecture topic at last year's Madison Vegan Fest) by non-white authors, as they've looked to the wisdom of Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species, and Nature In A Multicultural Age by Claire Jean Kim and Afro-ism: Essays On Pop Culture, Feminism, And Black Veganism by Aph and Syl Ko.
Ultimately, in looking ahead several years or even decades, many activists and scholars see the conversation surrounding veganism improving, and vegan values spreading. "Our society is increasingly open to engaging about stuff like vegan products and how bad CAFOs are, but there's no such thing as animal agriculture without a slaughterhouse in the background," Stanek says. Last November, author Jacy Reese visited Madison to promote his book, The End Of Animal Farming, which practically envisions the world's gradual shift to sustainable and ethical living. Reese subsequently appeared on independent, progressive news network The Young Turks, to challenge founder Cenk Uygur's own views on the topic of eating meat. Even given the mainstream awareness of veganism that's advocated by celebrities like Alicia Silverstone and even politician and presidential candidate Cory Booker, we should also look beyond superficial media attention to consider the neglected animals' perspectives. Markowitz says that she hopes "to see a future where as sanctuaries grow, and that we're not only speaking up for the victims, but living with and around them and being recognized as individuals."