Friday, December 10, 2010

Interview Series #18: Nick Cooney

This is a very special interview, because the guy in the hot seat runs an organization that led me to the animal advocacy job I'm working on right now. 

The guy? Nick Cooney. The organization? The Humane League. The mission? To create a more compassionate world for animals through education, campaigns and rescue.

Nick is the founder and director of The Humane League, and I can tell you from personal experience, this man is one of the most hardworking animal advocates around. Nick believes that in order to create a better world for humans and animals, we need to be focused, determined, and persistent in our efforts, and his example has led me to be more active in my own work. Whether it's encouraging me to pick up a phone and call the powers that be to help initiate change or guiding me to visit college campuses and gain the support of young people, Nick is a testament to football legend Vince Lombardi's passionate words:

"I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious." 

Well, not only has Nick been victorious in helping save thousands of animals from abuse and cruelty, but he has continued to remain humble and eager for the next challenge. The perfect makeup for a successful activist, if you ask me!

I am darn near blissful to be able to share Nick's story with you, as well as what he is most recently up to: publishing an exciting new book called Change of HeartChange of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change is a book that examines over eighty years of  research in areas including social psychology and communication studies and distills the highlights into easy-to-use advice, serving as a psychology primer for anyone wanting to spread progressive social change.  For animal activists, Change of Heart could change the face of how we advocate for animals entirely. For Nick Cooney, this is just one step in a long journey to help rid the world of animal cruelty and promote as much compassion as possible along the way. 

Kiss Me, I'm Vegan: What was the turning point in your life that led you to veganism? Was it one huge moment, or a collective group of small moments that changed you?

Nick: In a sense it was one moment - reading the book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. But I don't think I would have been open to reading the book and absorbing its message if I hadn't spent the past couple years getting interested in and involved with other social causes like the anti-war movement and things like that. Unlike most vegans, I had no personal affinity for animals when I made the switch. I never had pets growing up, and at the time I went vegan had never lived with animals or spent much time around them. I went vegan because it was clear that it was the ethically right thing to do.

KMIV: What have been the greatest rewards of your vegan lifestyle? What have been the greatest challenges?
 

Nick: I think the best reward of becoming vegan has been my subsequent motivation to try to spread that message of compassion to animals to others. By being vegan I can make sure I'm not causing farm animals to suffer, but by going out and educating others I can spread that impact much much further. It's rewarding to be involved in a movement that is producing so much change and affecting the lives of so many animals. It's rewarding to feel like my life matters because by living it a certain way I can help many others.

Of course, that's where the greatest challenge comes in as well - the frustration of trying to get others to change. It's very hard to get past people's psychological barriers, and get them to adopt more compassionate behaviors. So that can make advocacy work frustrating at times - it can seem like a real struggle to achieve even modest gains.
 
KMIV: Tell me a little bit about Change of Heart. What inspired you to write it?
 

Nick: I've been very interested in psychology for years:  I'm just really curious about why people do the things they do and adopt the personalities and mannerisms that they have. And with my animal advocacy work, I'm always trying to figure out how we can do a better job of getting people to go vegan. Change Of Heart combines both of those themes and looks to answer one basic question: how can we get people to change their behavior?

We animal activists don't usually ask ourselves that question. We assume we know what messages and techniques will motivate people to go vegan ("10 billion animals killed each year!" "Their throats are cut while they're still conscious!" etc.), but most of our assumptions are wrong. Fortunately, there is 80 years of scientific research that's been done that can give us clear insight into what really does (and doesn't) persuade people to make a change. Change Of Heart distills that research down into practical advice and easy-to-use tips for activists of all stripes.

KMIV: You are the founder and director of The Humane League, an animal protection organization based in Philadelphia. How has working in animal advocacy affected your life, and what are your hopes for The Humane League in the future?
 

Nick: Working in animal advocacy has really shifted my sense of what I want to do and what I can do in the world. It's kind of bizarre that just by staying active and using effective methods of reaching out to the public, I and a couple friends and co-workers can make a huge difference for literally tens of thousands of animals every single year. Realizing that we all have this potential if we approach activism intelligently is very empowering and makes me optimistic, at least about the impact of my own life.

As for The Humane League, we have full offices now in Philadelphia and Boston, plus a campaigner in DC, and a veg outreach presence that's somewhat national in scope. Our plan for the next five years is to set up two or three more offices in major metropolitan areas that could benefit from our presence. We intend to become a multi-regional organization that is doing lots of effective veg outreach, factory farming campaigns, and humane education in a handful of major US cities.

KMIV: A lot of my readers are either activists or activists-in-the-making, which is why I love them! What are some of the best ways that future activists can become involved in the animal advocacy community?
 

Nick: I think the most important thing to do is be thoughtful about your activism. Think of your work the same way that a corporate CEO would think about their company: in terms of a bottom line. Our bottom line is reducing as much animal suffering as possible. Certain issues and methods will be drastically more effective than others. For example, rescuing individual animals is nice of course but you can only save a small number of animals. Spend one hour each week passing out leaflets from Vegan Outreach (or doing online veg outreach work at sites like www.take5save5.com , or leaving stacks of Vegetarian Starter Kits around your town), and you'll probably spare about 2,000 animals a year from a lifetime of pain and misery on factory farms.

Photo courtesy of The Humane League
So I encourage all you activists or future activists to do two things:

a) focus on farm animal issues, because that's where we can help the greatest number of animals, and


b) always be looking around at the things that other activists are doing; if any of those things seem to be helping more animals and producing more change then what you're currently working on, then do those instead! A great way to find out what other activists are doing is to subscribe to the free e-newsletters of groups like Vegan Outreach, Mercy For Animals, PETA, Compassion Over Killing, and the Animal Protection and Rescue League (or us at The Humane League of course)!

Oh and wait, let me add one more:


c) You should definitely read The Animal Activist's Handbook by Bruce Friedrich and Matt Ball. Don't wait another day to order it! (And my book, Change Of Heart, is useful too - if you can afford a second book, buy it!).

KMIV: As it says at the top of the blog, Kiss Me, I'm Vegan! is a blog "for the happy vegan in all of us.". What are the most positive aspects of the animal advocacy movement for you, and what do you feel are the biggest reason to smile when doing this work?
 

Nick Cooney
Nick: The situation for farmed animals may be the most disturbing, suffering-filled situation in the world today. It's too terrible for words. But the silver lining to this is the fact that because the situation is so bad, each one of us can - by being active for our cause in an intelligent way - do SO MUCH good. Each of us can help hundreds or thousands of animals every year, and it's not hard to do. Having that power to help so many others feels good to me. It's the feeling of living in a meaningful life, and feeling that your life matters.

That being said, I also think it's also important to get our happiness from things other than veganism:  music, sports, poetry, joking with friends, and being in nature are what make me smile. My motivation for being a vegan is because I want others to suffer less, not because I want to achieve happiness or inner peace for myself.

KMIV: Okay - here's a silly one! You're stuck on a deserted island with three vegan food items - what are they?

Nick: My answer is going to be a total letdown! I eat pretty simple food, and I eat the same things all the time, so if I'm going to be on that island for a long time I'm going to have to say lentils, rice and broccoli. But if you're talking a last meal situation, then I'd pick some better stuff: angel hair pasta, Boca spicy chickn patties, and Sharon's coconut sorbet. That'd be a nice way to go out!

Nick Cooney is the founder and director of The Humane League, an animal advocacy organization based in Philadelphia, PA that focuses on farm animal protection issues. Nick has written for publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer and Z Magazine, and his advocacy work has been featured in hundreds of media outlets including Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio. He holds a degree in Non-Violence Studies from Hofstra University and formerly worked conducting nutrition education programs with the University of Pennsylvania's Urban Nutrition Initiative.

Many thanks to Nick for this interview. To learn more about Nick's new book, Change of Heart, please visit www.changeofheartbook.com.

4 comments:

Molly G said...

Inspiring stuff. It has inspired me to make time to go to NYC's International Animal Rights Day protest tomorrow at Union Square! We can all spare a little time for the oppressed.

Lindsay said...

Thanks Moll! Wish I could be there tomorrow.

skepticalvegan said...

great interview, but why not a single mention of Hugs For Puppies? Despite set backs the HLS campaign is still important.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading the book right now, and as a grad student in Community Organizing and an animal advocate, I can express without equivocation that Nick's book is worth reading. It has helped me have a better understanding of advocacy and how I can incorporate that into my social work.
Thank you Nick and thanks Lindsey for the interview. I haven't seen you since the Rock It Out benefit last year :)