Voiceless - Ten Year Anniversary

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Voiceless founders Brian and Ondine Sherman

It’s been a whopping ten years since my father Brian and I founded Voiceless and an anniversary is a great moment to pause and reflect on what we’ve done. Personally, it’s been a period of enormous change. I’ve had three children, published a memoir, moved house five times and countries three times. Phew! Voiceless has been a foundation rock for me throughout; a vessel in which to pour my passion, ideas and idealism for a better, more compassionate, world.

We have witnessed a huge societal shift in the last decade.

In 2014, few will disagree that animal protection is a mainstream concern for Australians as well as people in many countries around the world. When ten years ago, ‘animal rights’ was considered a dirty term, fraught with negative stereotypes of radical-wire-cutting-crazy-hippies, it is now seen for its truth: a movement of rational compassionate citizens advocating against animal cruelty. That’s an enormous success, and not to be taken lightly.

Ten years ago, we were hard-pressed to find mention of animal protection in the news. The mainstream networks and print publications just weren’t interested. Today, this is not the case: animal issues are discussed and debated across media outlets. The issues themselves have not changed - in 2004 sheep were exported live under terrible conditions, and pigs and chickens were confined in small cages - but society’s perception of them as worthy of consideration has. This has also infiltrated into politics. Terms like ‘factory farming’, rarely seen on Hansard transcripts a decade ago, are now a common part of Parliamentary debates. Politicians have finally taken notice: a new social justice movement is brewing and their constituents can’t be ignored.

While there is growth, it is a fact that farm animals are considered ‘property’ under the law, with few rights. Animal law, a new discipline that grew quickly in the USA in the ‘90s was one of Voiceless’s key focuses when we began. Lawyers helped get animals in this pickle, we argued, and they can surely help get them out.

Voiceless hired the first animal lawyer in Australia ten years ago, and since then we have seen a massive growth in the animal law movement. When we started, one law school taught the subject and law firms were nervous to engage with us. Today animal law is being taught at fourteen universities, and Voiceless fields countless offers of pro-bono support from top-tier law firms. Young, smart, committed legal interns now form the backbone of our volunteer programme.

The growth in the movement is not restricted to Australia. Internationally, animal protection is a key issue on people’s minds. Fortunately, there are too many positive developments to report on here, like animal political parties gaining ground across Europe, the UK, Canada and USA (inspiring the launch of the Australian Animal Justice Party), scores of cities, hotels, hospitals, schools and corporations mandating Meat Free Mondays and much more… so I will just share a recent experience. I visited Los Angeles, where the first dedicated museum for animal welfare just opened. The exhibition, Uncooped, shines a spotlight on chickens, and some of Voiceless’ colleagues such as scientist Dr K-Lynn Smith (who won the 2010 Voiceless Eureka Prize) and Edgar’s Mission (recipient of multiple Voiceless Grants) were featured in videos and presentations. Before the show, I ate at a trendy vegan café, full of people young, old and from all walks of life, eating healthy delicious food. Meat-free cookbooks fill shelves in American book stores, and products abound in supermarkets. Coming back to Israel, I was reminded that this country is a world leader in veganism, with around one in eight people no longer eating meat and another whopping 13% considering going either vegetarian or vegan. Vegan menus abound at mainstream cafes, and not for health reasons. Times have certainly changed.

But, then again, I ask myself what has improved on the ground for the animals themselves. If I was a pig, cow, sheep or chicken, is my life now different? What has the societal shift meant for them?

Quantifying the change is challenging, but there has been real progress:

  • More hens, roosters and pigs now have a better quality of life as the free-range movement booms - due to consumer awareness and support by retailers like Coles and Woolworths.
  • More hens now live their lives free from battery cages – as Woolworths becomes the first Australian supermarket to phase out all battery caged eggs and Coles ceases the sale of Coles brand caged eggs.
  • More female pigs are living their lives free from horrific sow stalls – encouraged by the Tasmanian government, a voluntary industry commitment and a pledge by major retailers.
  • More politicians are taking up the fight against factory farming – with more State and Territory governments, like the ACT Government, introducing bills to ban cruel husbandry practices like de-beaking, sow stalls and battery cages.
  • International demand for kangaroo meat has dramatically declined as importers move away from the cruel trade and Russia, formerly the largest importer, temporarily suspending the trade twice due to contamination issues.
  • Joeys are less likely to die from starvation, predation or hyperthermia as industry allegedly begins to encourage all-male shoots.
  • Fewer animals are exported live - due in part to a massive public outcry and temporary suspensions of the trade.
  • Tougher sentences are now consistently prescribed for animal cruelty – reflecting an ever-growing community expectation that animals are treated with dignity and respect.

This is not enough. Farm animals are still suffering terrible atrocities on a daily basis behind closed doors. Kangaroos are shot and wounded in their thousands, far from the public eye, their joeys beaten to death.

We have a long way to go and a huge amount of work to transform the good will of many Australians into concrete results for animals. But Voiceless is prepared, as we know this is a marathon, not a sprint.

For all of you who have supported Voiceless over the past ten years, thank you sincerely. I hope you will continue to join us as we continue to advocate for animals into the coming decade.