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Paul Shapiro from HSUS to speak at Wake Up Weekend

Each year we’re excited for Wake Up Weekend, a celebration of compassionate living in Grand Rapids. The 2014 version is coming up April 24-26th, 2014. In its 7th year, there’s always a great line up of events, including wonderful speakers.

One of those is Paul Shapiro, the Vice President of the Farm Animal Protection division of The Humane Society of the United States. Paul’s presentation is Forward Progress for Farm Animals: How and why the animal movement is winning.  Do not miss Paul speak at Calvin College in the Commons Annex Lecture Hall on Friday, April 25 at 3:30 pm.

I had the opportunity to interview Paul and talk with him about his upcoming visit to Grand Rapids.


Tell me about yourself. In what ways were you raised to treat animals humanely?

Like a lot of kids, my family always had dogs and we were taught to treat them as family members, not just as pieces of property. As a child, I had a real fascination with animals, so much so that I really just wanted to be around them all the time. I also hated bullying; the thought of anyone dominating someone else simply because they were weaker immensely bothered me. Whether it was on the playground between kids or it was in human-animal relations, the “might-makes-right” mentality was so offensive to me that I knew from a fairly young age that I wanted to defend those who couldn’t defend themselves. And of course, there’s hardly anyone weaker than nonhuman animals.

Do you currently have any pets?

Three felines: Emma, Calvin and Sam. They’re like three little insatiable monsters.

How long have you been vegan?

Just over 20 years. I know—that makes me sound pretty old. I used to joke when adults lamented that they don’t know where the years went. Now I know what that’s all about!

What was the catalyst that inspired you to adopt the vegan lifestyle?

I saw a video of what happens to animals—on factory farms, in slaughter plants, on fur farms, in circuses, and more. It shocked me, and I knew my life would change as a result of it. Out of a desire to avoid supporting such violence and cruelty, I decided to adopt a live-and-let-live mentality toward other creatures as best as I could, starting with my diet. That’s the power that just one video can have on someone—it’s really incredible.

What advice do you have for vegans who want to effectively educate others about living a compassionate lifestyle?

Well, first and foremost, be compassionate yourself. Being judgmental, critical, and rude isn’t likely to yield good results for animals. It may make some people feel good to put others down, but it’s not what’s actually effective. We should lead by example and strive to be the kind of people that others both like and want to be like.

What is your response to people who say that “real men eat meat?”

If physical strength is the measure of manhood people who make this claim are using, they needn’t look further than the cadre of vegan NFL and NBA players, ultimate fighters, professional wrestlers and more. But no matter how you define “manliness,” real men use strength to protect the vulnerable, not to abuse them.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering becoming vegan, what would it be?

Surround yourself with other positive people who share those same values. If you want to get into running, it’s helpful to be around other runners. If you want to learn Spanish, there’s no better way than to go to Mexico, or at least hang out with Spanish speakers. If you want to get into vegan eating, being around other vegans can have the same effect. As well, go at your own pace. Start out trying to incorporate more plant-based meals into your diet. Perhaps try being vegan a couple days a week, or try Mark Bittman’s “vegan before 6pm” plan and see how you like it. You likely have decades of ingrained eating habits to break away from, so leaning into such a change may be more effective than going “cold turkey” (pun intended).

If you could choose your last meal on earth, what would it be?

Probably a light quinoa salad. Just kidding (though I do like quinoa—I know: stereotypical). I’m not much of a foodie. Still, if I knew I was gonna keel over after a meal, I’d probably start with a mango-avocado-lime-cilantro salad, move to a bean, rice, and mushroom burrito, and in my final breaths have some brazil nut ice cream. (For real, here’s the recipe.)

What are three things you always have stocked in your pantry?

Beans, nutritional yeast, and nori. The nori mainly because my cats absolutely love it.

What were the factors and events leading up to you being in your current position? What is the most rewarding thing about your job?

I founded a group called Compassion Over Killing in 1995, running the organization’s campaigns and investigations for a decade. In 2005, I left to join the Humane Society of the United States. COK is still doing great work, and I’m honored to be at HSUS to help try to do some great work here, too. In terms of your second question, it’s certainly saddening to daily come into contact with some of the worst aspects of our species: our cruelty and callousness. But it’s also tremendously rewarding to so regularly come into contact with people all over the world who are giving their time and other resources to helping others who they may never meet, who will never be able to say thank you, and who may not even ever know that they existed.

What is your day-to-day like at the Humane Society?

I get to work with amazingly dedicated and talented people who devote their lives to helping others. They make many sacrifices in service of trying to create a better world, and I admire their other-centeredness very much. In addition to being honored to work with them my job involves a lot of campaign travel, public speaking, interviews, writing, and editing. I’m very fortunate to be doing this.

What gives you hope for the future of farm animals?

Progress begets progress. Nothing we’re doing is self-executing, but the progress we’ve made so far leads me to suspect that we’ll make even more in the future.

What do you practice to prevent burn out?

I keep my eye on how far we’ve come, not just how far we have to go. Focusing on the impressive progress our great movement is making helps keep me motivated. The fact is that our advancements are very real. All marathons begin with single steps, and we’ve got a long, long way to go, but we’ve taken important steps in recent years, and focusing on that progress is very worthwhile.

What do you do in your down time?

Primarily watch slaughter plant videos. (Just kidding!) In all honesty, in the free time that I have I enjoy running, lifting weights, and hanging out with my friends and family, preferably outdoors in sunny weather. If any of the old religions that worshipped the sun were still around, they’d probably view me as a low-hanging fruit for conversion.

What are five things you couldn’t live without?

Air, water, food, social interaction, and wifi.

What are you most looking forward to about Wake Up Weekend?

Hanging with Grand Rapids’ don of veganism, Matt Halteman [Wake up Weekend event organizer]—duh.

Have you been to Grand Rapids before? If so, what was your favorite vegan dish/restaurant and why?

Indeed, I have. Everything I had at Brick Road was off the hook.

How does West Michigan compare to the other places you travel to in terms of compassionate living?

It’s an impressive place for sure. Lots of great vegan options. You could use a bit more sun though, if I may humbly suggest so.

We especially have to agree with Paul there! Don’t miss his talk, “Forward Progress for Farm Animals: How and Why the Animal Movement is Winning” at 3:30 PM at Calvin College’s Commons Annex Lecture Hall on Friday, April 25th, part of Wake Up Weekend.

  • Cheryl McAuliffe

    Paul, I had forgotten that you founded Compassion over Killing that I have supported for years! have a great weekend and see you at Taking Action for Animals this summer in DC.