Elliot Katz, DVM, is the Founder and President Emeritus of the animal protection organization, In Defense of Animals (IDA). Founded in 1983, IDA is an international animal protection organization dedicated to ending the abuse and exploitation of animals by advocating for, and protecting their rights, welfare and habitats; as well as raising their status beyond that of mere commodities, property, objects or things. Through education, investigations, the media and protests, IDA simultaneously challenges the system, industries and individuals who believe it is their “right” to exploit, mutilate, torture and kill millions upon millions of animals in the name of science, food, entertainment and fashion as they educate others to the truth behind the rhetoric of institutionalized animal cruelty and abuse.
From investigations and rescues through Hope Animal Sanctuary, IDA’s 64 acre sanctuary for severely abused and abandoned animals of rural Mississippi; to providing a forest sanctuary to the chimpanzee orphans of Cameroon, Africa’s bush meat trade; to providing spay and neuter services, food, ambulance service and veterinary care though IDA India’s veterinary clinics, staff and volunteers to the thousands of street animals of Mumbai, IDA is there for animals in need.
From their Guardian campaign designed to change how society perceives and treats other species, to raise their status beyond that of mere property, objects, commodities and things; to fighting the puppy mill industry, and Korean dog and cat meat trades; to protecting our nation’s wild horses; to their campaigns against the cruelties of the vivisection, fur, hunting food and entertainment industries; to their campaign on behalf of captive elephants in circuses and zoos, IDA has been a major voice and force for animals in need.
Dating back even before you got involved in animal rights, you had activist leanings and believed that you could make a significant change. Where did that come from?
From the time I was a child, through films, books, the media and personal experience, I identified with the plight of the underdog–of the homeless, of the weak and vulnerable, of those who were abused, exploited, abandoned and in harm’s way regardless of their species. Be they orphans, or the homeless, Native Americans, African Americans, victims of holocausts or colonization, stray and abandoned dogs and cats that roamed our nation’s streets. As a youngster, my life saving work focused on rescuing abandoned or lost dogs on the beaches and sand dunes of Long Island, NY. Also by saving the lives of countless numbers of starfish and other beings who had been washed ashore–by returning them to the ocean after a storm had passed.
As circumstances would have it, at age 8 or 9 I vowed to become a veterinarian after a little dog I had rescued gave birth to 6 puppies—six puppies that died one by one from distemper. All of them developed pneumonia and died of encephalitis, despite the fact that my father and I took them to a local veterinarian in an attempt to save their lives. When I realized that the tragedy of these deaths, of the terrible suffering these puppies had gone through, would likely have been prevented by early vaccinations, my future opened up to me: to become a veterinarian, a guardian and protector—to minister to the most vulnerable among us—to ultimately protect them from exploitation, cruelty abuse and premature deaths.
The needs of other species, starting with animal companions became my life’s work. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was not only to become a clinical veterinarian, but one who was to ultimately be an animal advocate and an animal guardian–fighting for the rights, welfare and habitats of other species. I closely and deeply identified with their plights and vulnerabilities.
It was when I entered veterinary school that I first became truly aware of how different I was—and I remained different in my years of veterinary practice and in my life as a full-time animal guardian. I challenged the core foundations of the veterinary profession and of society at large. Today I am still quite different from what most of society expects from a veterinary professional.
What made you create and build In Defense of Animals?
It started when I came to the support of a veterinarian, Dr. Max Redfern, who was attempting to act responsibly and with integrity, to enforce the federal Animal Welfare Act on the UC Berkeley campus where he was employed. After meeting with him I came face to face with the unbelievable arrogance, negligence, horrific cruelty and misinformation of vivisection–or as some call it “animal research.” Thousands upon thousands of animals were not only dying due to horrific mutilation, but due to overcrowding in facilities, lack of ventilation and lack of sanitation. Because my colleague was trying to do the right thing, the responsible thing, the university was retaliating against him. It was an incredible, and for me, an unbelievable situation.
Dr. Redfern asked for my help. I promised him I would do all in my power to help and so In Defense of Animals was born. Ultimately, we sued the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for not enforcing the Animal Welfare Act on the UC Berkeley Campus. It resulted in the USDA issuing a cease and desist order against the University, fining the institution $12,500. This was a precedent-setting development in those days–some 30 years ago.
IDA has grown due to how closely I was and am aligned with the millions upon millions of people who care so deeply for the well being of other species. Those who realize in the depths of their souls how wrong it is and how evil it is to exploit, mutilate, torture and kill billions upon billions of individuals of other species for fun, science, entertainment, fashion, profit and food–simply because we have the power to do so.
Caring, aware and intelligent people know that what we do to “animals” today is truly what we as a species have done, and continue to do, to members of our own species–and would like to see an end to it once and for all. From throwing Christians to the lions, to the many holocausts millions upon millions of people have been subjected to, to the ownership and slavery of men, women and children, to the domination of the rich and powerful over the poor, weak and vulnerable, to the colonization of one country, one people by another more powerful one at that moment of time.
And so the fight for justice and compassion goes on– each in our own way fighting to make the world a more just and compassionate place.
What advice would you offer to other people who are being told they can’t, they shouldn’t try or they will fail?
When you feel strongly enough about a cause or about an injustice and have the determination and passion to make a difference–to right a wrong–you will likely succeed. If you believe that your approach is innovative, not being used by existing organizations to improve a situation–and it resonates with others that you know and trust–and you are in a position to begin, then go for it—especially in this day and age of the Internet and social networks. If there is no other organization out there interested in doing it your way, then you have no other choice, especially if your passion is keeping you up night after night, then to go for it.
I’ve done a lot of things–many of them in hindsight were mistakes. But as they say, if you don’t fail sometimes, you’re never really going to learn how to do it better. If you have a core of people who believe in you and what you are about– that it is both right and necessary–then go for it.
What are you working on right now?
I’m spending much of my time focusing on IDA’s Guardian Campaign. Several years ago I realized that in spite of all of IDA’s accomplishments, that unless I did something to change the existing paradigm that sees and treats other species as no more than mere property, commodities, objects or things to be “owned,” to be bought and sold, exploited, abused and ultimately killed at an “owners” choice or whim, many of our victories and accomplishments would only be Band-Aid cures. I realized it was time to move away from the concept of “animal ownership” in favor of “animal guardianship.”
The very use of the term “animal owner” reinforces the concept that our fellow beings are “things” that have little or no interest and needs of their own. It implies that they do not need or deserve to be treated responsibly and respectfully.
Throughout history, language has been at the forefront of the fight to end exploitation and cruelty–from Gandhi’s quest to free his people to Martin Luther King’s dream of a better world. Every social movement and every hard-won victory in the name of justice and compassion began with the courage to question the words and actions in order to change an existing custom or paradigm for the better. The animal protection movement is no different.
What has been your greatest challenge?
The belief going back centuries and centuries that other species were put on the earth for the benefit of “mankind.” The concept that other beings are here to be our resources and our property. These long-held customs and ideologies are so very, very difficult to change. The animal exploitation industries and corporations, our government—run primarily by corporate America, maintains this status quo, of other species (grouped together under the term “animals”) are ours to do with as we want–that they are our property, objects, commodities and things.
What has been the most rewarding part of creating and growing In Defense of Animals?
The lives we have saved, the hearts and minds we have opened, all the cruelty and suffering we have ended, to have been at the forefront of the fight for the rights, welfare and habitats of “animals.” All the advances we have made, despite the opposition, the deceit we have faced to stop our efforts to make the world a kinder, healthier, more just and compassionate place for all our fellow beings. In addition, to the faith, and support so many thousands upon thousands of deeply caring IDA supporters have given to us—gifts of their time and resources to my staff and me over the years since I founded IDA.
What inspires you?
Looking into the eyes, hearts and souls of the beings we have saved, and have yet to save. The calls, letters, cards and emails from our supporters thanking us for our work—for our very existence. Hearing of their sacrifices on behalf of our work, on behalf of our fellow beings we are working so very hard to protect and save. Knowing that with every IDA achievement and victory, with every victory of the animal rights and protection movement, and the environmental movement, millions upon millions of caring people around the world will sleep a little better at night. Including my two beautiful daughters Raquel and Danielle, and their mother, Gloria, who bring their own talents, energy and compassion both to me, and to the benefits of so many, many others.
What are three trends that excite you?
- The growing acceptance of animal protection and animal rights by the media and the general public. That it is ok to care deeply for the well being of other species. When I was a young man, people who expressed a deep concern for other species, particularly dogs and cats, were dismissively referred to as “little old ladies in tennis shoes.” We definitely have come a long way since those days.
- The growing ecology and environmental movements.
- That more and more people, organizations and communities are recognizing the value and importance of replacing the concept of “animal ownership” with the term “animal guardianship.” Recognizing how important language truly is in helping protect our fellow beings. That growing numbers of people of all ages who are listening to the advice, and following in the footsteps of such great visionaries as St. Francis of Assisi, Albert Schweitzer, Cesar Chavez, Alice Walker and Dr. Jane Goodall.
“Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission—to be of service to them wherever they require it.”
St. Francis of Assisi
“The thinking man must oppose all cruel customs no matter how deeply rooted in tradition or surrounded by a halo ….We need a boundless ethic which includes the animals also.”
Dr. Albert Schweitzer
“The basis for peace is respecting all creatures. We cannot hope to have peace until we respect everyone, respect ourselves and all living beings. We cannot defend and be kind to animals until we stop exploiting them in the name of science, exploiting them in the name of sport, exploiting them in the name of fashion, and yes, exploiting them in the name of food.”
“The animals of the world exist for their own reason. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites, or women made for men.”
“Only when animals can be regarded as ‘persons’ in the eyes of the law will it be possible to give teeth to the often-fuzzy laws protecting them from abuse.”
Dr. Jane Goodall
What’s one mistake you’ve made?
Waiting so long before realizing how so very much of our work, of our accomplishments were only Band-Aid cures without the accompanying work to change the existing paradigm that sees and treats our fellow beings as no more than resources, commodities, objects and things—property and things to be bought and sold, exploited or killed at an owners choice or whim.
Is there a book or tool that helps you do your work?
Periodically reading Les Miserables reinforces for me the importance of forgiveness and the importance and value of fighting for those treated unjustly by society, and the more powerful, selfish and greedy among us.
In Defense of Animals Website: http://idausa.org
In Defense of Animals on Facebook: http://facebook.com/indefenseofanimals
In Defense of Animals on Twitter: @IDAUSA
In Defense of Animals on YouTube: http://youtube.com/user/idapdx