Is vegan superstar Gary Yourofsky an animal savior or a mad militant?
The American Youtube sensation, who is banned from entering Britain and Canada, explains why his message is so popular in Israel.
The circus did it. What Gary Yourofsky saw when the circus came to town set him on the path of an animal rights activist. Twenty years ago, his stepfather was a volunteer clown in the Shrine Circus, which raised funds for children injured in fires. When it visited Yourofsky’s hometown of Detroit, his stepfather invited him to a behind-the-scenes tour. Yourofsky, at the time a 23-year-old student, jumped at the chance.
“Like most people, I was excited. I had blinders on back then. I didn’t know what was going on with animals,” he recalled in a Skype conversation earlier in the summer, “until I got backstage. I saw the elephants lined up in chains, I saw the monkeys screaming. I saw the tigers pacing in their cages. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I started to think that this was more of a slave show.”
Yourofsky started to wonder about the animals whose flesh he ate and whose skin he wore. He left before the end of the performance, went home and found a slaughterhouse in the city, which he visited every day for six weeks. Security was lax and he roamed about freely. “I found the killing floor; there was a window but no glass – they were trying to air out the stench of death. I saw them hanging pigs upside down, while they were fully conscious. While screaming, they were being cut to pieces until there was nothing left.”
In that period he was still a meat eater. But one day, when he was filming the trucks that transported animals to slaughter, his gaze encountered that of a pig. “Our eyes locked together. And it was like he was asking, why are you doing this to me? And I kept thinking, I don’t know. I don’t know why we do these things to you. I started asking, is the slaughterhouse the problem, or is who is getting killed in the slaughterhouse the problem? Because if it were Jews who were getting killed, people would be screaming bloody murder. If dogs and cats were being treated this way, most people would be screaming bloody murder. But if it’s cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys − that’s okay. That’s the way it’s meant to be. Well, it’s not okay. It’s a horrible, vicious world that humans made.”
It is not by chance that Yourofsky, one of the best-known animal rights activists in the United States, mentions the Jews as an example. Nor is the comparison aimed at readers in Israel. Yourofsky, a Jew himself, calls the slaughterhouses “concentration camps” and the vehicles that transport the animals “concentration camp trucks.” He often quotes from “The Letter Writer,” a short story by the Nobel Prize laureate and vegetarian Isaac Bashevis Singer, who left Poland in 1935 and settled in the United States. The story’s protagonist, Herman Gombiner, also a vegetarian, brings about, by inaction, the death of a mouse that had shared his apartment. Delivering a eulogy for the mouse, Herman says, “In relation to them [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”
In his 2002 book “Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust,” historian Charles Patterson argued that our treatment of animals is a source of inspiration for genocide, slavery and mass torture. There is more here than provocation for its own sake. Yourofsky maintains that most people are guilty of “speciesism” – meaning discrimination against not a race but a species: indifference to the fate of animals because they are not human beings. From Yourofsky’s perspective, he is a freedom fighter and the year is always 1939.
It may be the Jewish obsession with the events of 1939-45 that has given him such renown in this little Middle Eastern country. If no one has yet sent you the link to “The Best Speech You Will Ever Hear” − a 70-minute talk Yourofsky gave at Georgia Tech in 2010 in which he tries to persuade the audience to become vegans − it’s probably only a matter of time before you find it in your Facebook feed. It has already gotten 3 million hits worldwide. No fewer than 396,000 people have already viewed it in Israel (with Hebrew subtitles) − more than in any country other than the United States. And only in Israel do celebrities from various spheres stand in line to praise Yourofsky and the influence he has had on their lives.
“It’s important for everyone to hear this lecture, its impact is amazing!” declares former Channel 10 News anchor Miki Haimovich on the speech’s site. She is using the talk to help spread her anti-meat agenda. The singer Achinoam Nini (Noa) describes Yourofsky as intelligent, charismatic and inspirational, adding, “I was filled with guilt − how blind could I have been?” Other fans include MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), windsurfer Gal Fridman, singers Hani Nachmias and David D’Or, and former education minister Yossi Sarid. Yourofsky arrived in Israel this week for a 10-day visit. He will be giving two talks a day and attend other large-scale events, appearing in high schools, universities and pubs. It will be his first lecture tour outside the United States.
“I’m not sure why it’s working so well in Israel, but I’ve learned over the years that people who have been oppressed − black people, Jewish people, women − always respond better to talks about oppression,” he says. “They understand what it’s like to be treated like nothing. They understand what it’s like to be systematically killed.”
Apple and rabbit
Yourofsky is a spellbinding speaker. An hour of viewing the shaven-headed fellow in the white T-shirt and shorts, talking nonstop and sipping occasionally from a bottle of water, passes quickly and is never dull. His intense power of persuasion, his ability to play on the emotions and stir solidarity, shock and shame, place him in the tradition of firebrand evangelical preachers. Opening with the precept “Thou shalt not kill,” he draws comparisons with slavery and, of course, cites the Holocaust. Throughout, he frames the diatribe against cruelty to animals within universal moral imperatives.
But he does not forget who he is talking to. “I understand your lifestyle − it used to be mine,” he tells the students in the YouTube video. “In fact, around 20 years ago I even owned a fur coat.” He emphasizes that he understands the addiction to meat, cheese, eggs and milk. He is after a very specific change, not out to foment a total revolution: “You can keep your friends, your politics and your patriotism, and still watch your favorite TV shows,” he assures the audience. He screens horrific film footage shot in slaughterhouses and on cattle ranches, and recommends soy-based hamburgers and sausages.
“If someone out there truly believes humans are meat eaters,” he says, “find a 2-year-old child, place the child in a crib, and in the crib put two things: a live bunny rabbit and an apple. If the child plays with the apple and eats the bunny rabbit, would you let me know, because I’m going to come back and buy everyone in this room a brand new car if that happens.”
I was shocked and sickened after viewing the lecture, though shortly afterward I heated up some meat patties. But the sights and sounds stayed with me for a long time afterward, especially the question Yourofsky poses toward the end of the talk: “What’s your excuse now?”
But probably, few viewers know that the bespectacled nice guy they are watching is a radical activist who has been arrested 13 times and was imprisoned for 77 days in a maximum-security lockup. He was jailed in 1999, after he and others had broke into a fur farm in Ontario and released 1,500 minks two years earlier.
He has been categorized as an “international terrorist” and is banned from entering Canada and Britain. Most of his fans – certainly the Israelis among them – would also not likely connect him to the following statement, which he made in an interview in 2006: “Every woman ensconced in fur should endure a rape so vicious that it scars them forever. While every man entrenched in fur should suffer an anal raping so horrific that they become disemboweled.”
Those words, and the full quote (see box), tend to appear in every article about Yourofsky. The American fur breeders association has seen to it that the quotation appears high up in the results of Google searches about the activist. He himself notes that this is only one passage from about 40 articles he has written and many interviews he has given.
In our Skype conversation prior to his visit here, Yourofsky looks leaner than he does in the YouTube video. He is sitting on a sofa in his three-room apartment; his wife, Erica, wanders around the room. He is pleasant and polite, though he starts getting animated − arms flailing, pained expression − whenever he talks about the suffering of animals. But he does not deny the violent death he wishes to everyone involved in the fur, meat, dairy or poultry industries, and to anyone who eats or wears animal products.
“I don’t believe anyone truly opposes violence,” he declares. “People only oppose who I propose to be violent for. Let me use a perfect example, since I’m coming to Israel. The allied forces went into concentration camps in 1945 and killed Nazis − it was violence. But you can’t come to Nazis with a sign and say − ‘Hey, stop killing Jews!’ If people are being killed because they believe in a different god, if they’re being killed because they’re a different color − stopping it is vicarious self-defense. The only thing it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing. Jews were being killed because people didn’t do anything. Animals are being victimized because people say that’s the law of the land. Nobody wants to be violent for a chicken. People don’t think a human should be killed for a chicken. I disagree, and I think the chickens disagree. They are being killed because they are a commodity − people want to eat their flesh and steal their babies.
“I’m not happy that violence has to be used to achieve those goals,” he adds, “but there’s a myth out there that love conquers evil, that peace will conquer insanity and stupidity. It doesn’t always. If we break into a slaughterhouse and point guns at employees saying, ‘Put down your knives!’ − that’s not violence, we’re trying to stop the violence. But please remember that I spend my time educating people − I’ve never committed an act of violence.”
Then why use such violent rhetoric? It can turn people off.
“So far, the rhetoric has not affected my activism: the lecture has already been translated into 27 languages. People appreciate the fact that I am not a liar or a politician. Violence is a correct tactic, but not all the time. I do not ask people to blow up McDonald’s.”
If violence is so effective, why do you lecture instead of breaking into slaughterhouses brandishing guns?
“Right now, education works. I’m affecting more people through lectures. It that stops − who knows? Some people just want to scream and argue with me. I’m frustrated and stressed out.”
A few days later he sends me an email: “I hope you won’t be focusing on this too much, if at all. The issue IS the violence of meat eaters, fur wearers, vivisectionists, hunters, etc. Don’t condemn those (me) who want to end a Holocaust; condemn those who start one and actively take part in one [meat eaters]) and actively defend a violent Holocaust.”
My mother is a Holocaust survivor. I find the comparison you are drawing with the Holocaust disturbing, especially because in Israel the comparison is used too facilely.
“I agree that a lot of people make too many Holocaust comparisons. However, here’s why the comparison is valid. In America today – right now, as we speak − 30 million animals are killed by the meat, dairy and eggs industry. This is the longest running holocaust in the history of mankind. Billions of animals have been killed. By numbers, the Jewish Holocaust doesn’t even start to compare with the animals’ holocaust. How can it not be the same when we take cows, we round them up and put them in a building and kill them? We are targeting the animals. We are depriving them of life, liberty and freedom, placing them in gas chambers, herding them into trucks. I’m not saying a cow should be more important to you then your mother − but why should you kill the cow?”
Yourofsky did not always advocate lawbreaking only as a theoretical stance. In 1996, he founded an organization called ADAPTT (Animals Deserve Absolute Protection Today and Tomorrow). He demonstrated in front of businesses that exploited animals. In 1999, he chained his neck to the rear-wheel axle of his car (not for the first time) in Detroit and blocked access to an animal control center in which animals were gassed “in garbage cans with a hose connected to the muffler of a running automobile,” or were sold to a university “for gruesome experiments,” as Yourofsky reports on www.adaptt.org.
In the late 1990s, when he was active against deer hunting, he received so many threats to his life that 17 policemen had to escort him to deliver a speech and vacate the toilet stalls. “I don’t even know who was threatening me. Probably hunters who didn’t want to stop.”
To free the minks from the fur farm, he and four activists crawled through mud and excrement, and cut holes in the animals’ cages. “Fur farms are pretty easy to break into. Me and four other people, we just walked over to the cages and started to set them free. Behind the farm were 600 acres of forest, and that’s where the minks ran to.
“A friend of mine warned me that the minks would attack me,” he adds. “But I said they would know why I was there. All the minks wanted to do that night was get away. I remember them squealing with joy. But one of them landed on my chest, in attack mode. I looked at her and she tilted her head as though to say, ‘I thought you were one of them.’”
The minks’ squeals alerted the neighbors. Yourofsky was arrested and jailed, and eventually deported back to the U.S. “If I had broken the necks of the minks I would have been a hero, but because I stopped the torture, I was branded an international terrorist. Society always condemns what it doesn’t understand.”
Or maybe people just don’t like it when someone breaks the law.
“Well, that’s a silly position to take. People supported Martin Luther King and he was arrested many times. Gandhi was arrested more then a dozen times. If the law is unjust, if someone’s being victimized because of it − then that law should be broken.”
The mink liberation made Yourofsky an overnight celebrity. “Nobody cared what I had to say before the liberation. Suddenly I went to jail and everybody – the media, teachers, professors – called me to say, ‘Hey, come and talk to us.’” That action was also the kick-start for the lectures. Yourofsky started to make the rounds of American colleges. He recorded talks against animal abuse for the radio and put up billboards. In the first high school at which he was invited to speak, the question-and-answer session went on for four and a half hours.
Yourofsky has always refused to charge for his talks, and during 2001 the money ran out. In an interview from that period, he disclosed that he owed credit card companies some $30,000. He announced that he was abandoning activism. The news reached PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) – the largest organization of its kind in the United States, which is known for its activities aimed at stopping the use of fur and leather. PETA had already been in contact with Yourofsky − they financed a television spot of his against the use of animals in circuses − and the organization’s leaders grasped the value of a publicist of his caliber. They put him on salary until 2005 so he could continue to give the talks. But there was a falling-out, and the love affair with PETA did not end well.
Yourofsky’s lecture as it stands now is the fruit of years of legwork, of crisscrossing the United States with Erica, who is also a vegan and accompanies him everywhere. “I enter a classroom and start to deliver the lecture. At first people look like this” − he acts out a hostile posture, arms folded − “but after five minutes they lean forward. After [they see] the slaughterhouse video, I can see the change. After the talk they come up to me and say, ‘Tell me what to do.’”
Not every audience is sympathetic. “The worst audience was at the University of Ohio, in the agriculture classes,” he recalls. “Don’t ask me why, but they invited me for five years in a row to speak to students who are going to manage slaughterhouses. I guess it’s their way of saying: ‘We are open, too.’ It was like a Jerry Springer show – they shout, I shout. I got tired of it. I don’t want to fight, I want to teach.”
In 2010, Yourofsky uploaded the lecture to YouTube. A little after that, he recalls, “Things started to go nuts. People started to listen. I started to get emails: ‘I want to do a local version of your talk − can I translate it?’ It’s already had more than three million hits.”
Since then, fate and the Internet have provided him with sponsors. “The universe keeps bringing people in − I get these weird emails every December that say ‘Hey, you don’t know me, but I want to help − can I help?’ I’m like, yes! I need help! I always have one major sponsor, and people send me money.” Yourofsky can get by on only $25,000 a year. He lives in a small apartment and drives a Toyota Corolla. “The fact that I don’t have money doesn’t bother me,” he says. “Everyone in this society tries to sell you something. I think my speech works so well because I don’t try to sell anything.”
With your skills, you could be rich.
“I am very rich: I have the best wife in the world, there are a few squirrels outside who are willing to take nuts from me and I have a raccoon friend and an opossum friend. Of course, thoughts about money sometimes come up − what I could do if I only had more. But I can’t change the fact that I don’t know how to make money. I am brilliant at activism but a real idiot when it comes to money.”
The person Yourofsky is having the hardest time persuading is his best friend. “For some reason,” he says, “family and friends are the hardest people to talk to. I don’t know why. I’m great with strangers − they hug me and say I changed their lives – but the people closest to me won’t listen. My best friend since we were 8 years old, Darren − two days ago, he finally said he’s going to go vegan. I don’t know, I hope he follows through because I’ve heard him say these things before. He says all the things that meat eaters say, but I don’t expect meat eaters to be rational.”
Yourofsky has the good fortune to be preaching at a time when even the carnivores are starting to listen. “The lecture probably would not have had the same reception five years ago,” notes Hila Keren, spokeswoman for the Israeli branch of Anonymous for Animal Rights. “A rise in consciousness about a few things prepared the ground: awareness of the meat industry’s pernicious effect on animals, of the health advantages of vegetarianism and veganism and of the environmental damage caused by the meat industry. All these factors are causing a reduction in per capita meat consumption in the United States.”
No comprehensive survey on the subject has been conducted for a decade in Israel, but Keren cites the results of a survey by the financial group CME last year. It found that in 2012 the average American − the world’s champion meat eater − will consume 12.2 percent less meat and poultry than in 2007 − the lowest rate for 34 years.
The decline is affecting meat of all types, though poultry shows the steepest fall. The report states that “the cumulative reductions of the past few years are rather shocking in historical context.” Still, it is important to note that animals continue to be killed in growing numbers, because humanity is multiplying across the globe and the decline in meat eating is not as rapid as the desire of increasing numbers of people to eat the same quantity of meat.
“We still eat way more meat than is good for us or the environment, not to mention the animals,” New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman wrote in a blog in January. “But a 12 percent reduction in just five years is significant, and if that decline were to continue for the next five years − well, that’s something few would have imagined five years ago. It’s something only the industry could get upset about. The rest of us should celebrate.”
Bittman also mentions “the rise of ‘flexitarianism’ − an eating style that reduces the amount of meat without ‘going vegetarian’” − as one of the top five consumer health trends for 2012. According to an article in The Independent in May, the meat substitute industry grew by 18 percent between 2005 and 2010.
Eating meat has dramatic environmental effects. According to a United Nations report, the animal food industry is a key element in global warming. It is responsible for no less than 18 percent of the emission of greenhouse gases generated by human activity − more than all forms of transportation combined. There are also plenty of health reasons for not eating meat and dairy products.
However, as the environmental journalist Aviv Lavie notes, “The vast majority of Yourofsky’s rationale and his motivation derive from the sphere of morality. Veganism has several other aspects or motivations, which can be completely separate from the moral issue. However, the environmental story is far more complicated. As for the health factor, people usually come to it at the age of parenting, or after undergoing a health trauma.
“Besides,” he continues, “we were educated in exactly the opposite way: drink three glasses of milk a day; eggs are an absolute necessity. Myths are hard to shake off. So the truly potent argument is the ethical one. Once it hits you that what’s on your plate is not a steak but a dead chicken or a slaughtered cow, it becomes a lot easier to say ‘I don’t want to be part of that.’”
A study at the University of Kansas, examining the connection between news coverage and patterns of meat consumption in the United States between 1982 and 2008, found that whenever the media reported wrongs perpetrated on animals in the meat and dairy industries, the nationwide consumption of meat declined.
The writer Jonathan Safran Foer won people over to the vegan cause with his 2009 book “Eating Animals.” His descriptions of the appalling conditions in slaughterhouses induced the actress Natalie Portman to become a vegan and to suggest a comparison between eating meat and rape, in an article she published in huffingtonpost.com. Nothing like a good horror story to illuminate even complex issues.
Just as Yourofsky’s success in attracting attention internationally can be attributed to more than charisma alone, his success in Israel and the validation he is getting from local celebrities is not a chance phenomenon.
After viewing his talk on the Internet, Hovav Amir, 32, a computer programmer and vegan, and his partner, Daniel Erlich, 33, an announcer and actor, realized that Yourofsky might be the answer to years of largely unproductive activism. Amir, a vegan since his early twenties, moved to Tel Aviv and started to man booths of animal rights groups and distribute flyers, but quickly grasped that this was ineffective.
“You stand on the street for four hours and maybe one person will consider veganism, and it’s not sure he will actually implement it,” Amir says. “People just don’t care. At first you think there is going to be a change: all you have to do is show them the truth and they will be persuaded. But people live in their own world and there is tremendous repression. And then you understand it will accomplish nothing.”
Amir switched to Internet activity and stumbled across the lecture two years ago. “For the first time I said, ‘Wow, everyone has to see this.’” Amir and Erlich translated the talk, constructed a site for it and disseminated it via Facebook. Within three days they had 3,000 hits. Amir started to devote more and more time to the site, finally leaving his job as a programmer.
Gradually they started to receive donations to underwrite their activity from “new vegans,” as Amir dubs them. At a certain point they found it problematic to continue the Facebook activity for technical reasons, and then they encountered the quote from the singer Noa.
Like many proponents of movements before them, they found that one celebrity is worth a thousand “likes.” They forwarded the film of the lecture to celebrities whose addresses they obtained, and the rest is Internet history.
“There is something about the thing with celebs that works in terms of mediation tactics,” Aviv Lavie says. “People see something that on the one hand is very persuasive, charismatic and jolting; but at the same time they think, ‘Maybe I’m just out of it and don’t get it but who are these weird people who are hugging trees?’ The moment someone who is agonizing a little sees an actor he recognizes from television, he says, ‘Hey, I am not alone.’”
Amir and Erlich are now bringing Yourofsky to Israel, financing his visit by means of donations. Yourofsky, for his part, is breaking a sabbatical from giving talks. “I am constantly frustrated and depressed,” he says, “because I know what is happening with the animals. It causes a lot of stress, and that too can kill. I feel guilty, but I have to back off a little.”
He is also not giving interviews in the United States for the present time. “I’ve had pretty good media coverage out here, it’s just that in the U.S., there’s such a focus on entertainment you that can’t talk about issues on the news. They want to know about who won the lottery, and I want to talk about murder and slavery. It just seems ineffective.”
For the Israeli audience, Yourofsky intends to place the emphasis on the animal holocaust, and also to dwell on the subject of kosher slaughter. Like Anne Frank, he has not yet lost hope.
“I know that deep down inside, most meat eaters want to make amends, but most people don’t want to scrutinize their lifestyle. I don’t say this lightly − but most people are addicts. They are addicted to eggs, meat, milk and cheese. And addicts aren’t rational. I am ready and willing to fight the addictions.”
What do you see when you look at a meat eater?
“I see somebody who has blinders on, who’s not thinking rationally. I see a hidden vegan − I want to reach down inside and say, ‘Hey, I know you want to be compassionate, just like when you were a kid.’ I was a meat eater for 25 years − I know all the excuses why people do it. When I walk into a classroom − I don’t want to fight you, I want to embrace you at the end. I want to get that wonderful person out of you.”
Murdering the murderers, or: Who are you, Gary Yourofsky?
It’s not easy to reconcile the gentle, empathetic person who comes across in the lecture, the one who says he understands meat eaters and wants to show them the light, and the violent rhetoric he invokes when he talks about the methods required for the war against those who torture and kill animals and those who eat and wear their products.
Yourofsky himself wishes to make clear that he is not a violent person and that he is engaged solely in education, through lectures and media broadcasts. He does not promote violence in his talks or in any other way, he insists. But when it comes to stopping the abuse against animals, as far as he is concerned anything goes. He views himself as a warrior against injustice on a genocidal scale, and frequently quotes Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and even Mahatma Gandhi, who advocated breaking the law when the law is unjust.
In a 1997 article he declared, “Without question, I prefer nonviolent activism like classroom presentations, tabling events, leafleting, sign-carrying protests, op-ed pieces, undercover investigations and civil disobedience. It takes a wider array of tactics, however, to achieve substantive change. Given the choice of apathy or someone liberating mink, burning down a research torture-laboratory, or killing a vivisectionist or other DIRECT murderer of animals, I will choose the aforesaid actions over apathy any day of the week.”
The Yourofsky quotes that will always be remembered come from an interview he gave to an Australian site in 2006 (full interview at www.care2.com/c2c/share/detail/227470):
“Sometimes I think that the only effective and productive method of destroying speciesism would be for each uncaring human to be forced to live the life of a cow on a feedlot, or a monkey in a laboratory, or an elephant in the circus, or a bull in a rodeo, or a mink on a fur farm. Then people would be awakened from their soporific states and finally understand the horrors that are inflicted on the animal kingdom by the vilest species to ever roam this planet: the human animal!
“Deep down, I truly hope that oppression, torture and murder return to each uncaring human tenfold! I hope that fathers accidentally shoot their sons on hunting excursions, while carnivores suffer heart attacks that kill them slowly. Every woman ensconced in fur should endure a rape so vicious that it scars them forever. While every man entrenched in fur should suffer an anal raping so horrific that they become disemboweled. Every rodeo cowboy and matador should be gored to death, while circus abusers are trampled by elephants and mauled by tigers.
“And, lastly, may irony shine its esoteric head in the form of animal researchers catching debilitating diseases and painfully withering away because research dollars that could have been used to treat them were wasted on the barbaric, unscientific practice of vivisection.”