How I Became An Activist
In 2002 I was looking for something Diana -- my girlfriend -- and I could do together. We often laughed at how we had nothing in common but our love for animals, so I decided we should attend one of the monthly meetings of a Columbus activist group called POET (Protect Our Earth's Treasures). At the meeting, we met the POET activists, a bunch of serious underdogs fighting to help the animals in Ohio State's research labs. I was deeply impressed by their passion and dedication, and became involved with the Cats-On-Meth project. Cats-On-Meth was a $1.68M project that involved infecting healthy cats with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), then injecting them with "binge" doses of methamphetamine. The FIV was intended as a substitute for AIDS; the cats represented AIDS patients who used meth. The researchers put the cats through performance tests (one was making them walk a plank that became progressively narrower) as their conditions deteriorated. They were given spinal taps, up to three per day, all administered at the base of the skull. At the end of two years, the cats were euthanized and their brains dissected. Though the stated purpose changed several times during the course of the project, initially it was to provide a model for an AIDS patient who used methamphetamine. I am a person who tries to keep an open mind. The ostensible purpose of animal research is the advancement of science, with the sacrifice of animals for a greater good that might relieve suffering and save lives. I did not want to be unfair in my actions regarding animal research. But this Cats-On-Meth stuff sounded fundamentally flawed. Something needed to be done about it. Later I was disabused of any notions that I might be unfair in my actions against animal research. I attended numerous animal researcher meetings, both as an invited guest and undercover, and found the main concern of the researchers there to be money. Their attitudes towards animals ranged from indifferent to callous. In one meeting during a slide show, when a slide of a massive dead animal on an examination table for a necropsy was shown, everybody laughed! There was no sympathy, no empathy. I learned that even in cases of "valid" research, the animals were in desperate need of help to avoid suffering. My conscience was now clear. With Diana's help, I began campaigning against Cats-On-Meth. I wrote flyers and passed them out on campus and on the street. I wrote letters-to-the-editor to various papers. I started a one-man protest, three days a week, at the clinic where the lead researcher worked. And I attended all of the numerous POET protests against Cats-On-Meth. Diana had stopped attending POET meetings because the cruelties we discussed were too upsetting for her. But I did get her to attend our biggest protest, at Ohio Stadium, when 10,000 people showed up to pay $25 to be allowed inside to look at the stadium's renovations. ( ! ) (These fans were hard-core.) At one point Diana and another lady were holding a big sheet with "Stop Killing Cats!" written on it, when a bunch of drunks across the street started razzing us. "Kill the cats!" they chanted, and then started laughing. Diana raised her fist and yelled, "Come over here and say that!" No, no, no, I thought, and I went over and told Diana to calm down. We protestors weren't looking for a fistfight. Fortunately, the drunken students fell silent and confused, not knowing how to respond to a belligerent gray-haired lady. I didn't take my hot-headed darlin' to any protests after that. But a fight did nearly occur during the two years I picketed the OSU vet clinic. One day the lead researcher approached the entrance while I was explaining my protest to an interested party. "Lies, all lies," he yelled at us. I'm afraid I suddenly lost my temper and yelled back, "You're a murderer!" None of this was very constructive. Not long after that, a fit-looking young veterinarian with an Australian accent came out and challenged my then 57-year-old self with withering accusations and violation of my space. Having given me a good talking-to, right in the face, he retreated back to his work place. It was all very disturbing to me, and I mulled over how to deal with a repeat performance. Sure enough, a month later here comes Crocodile Dundee again, bent on giving me what-for. I stepped back and said, "Stay right there! If you advance on me again, I'll consider it an assault!" He stopped, and to my surprise, simply turned and left. I never encountered him again. Eventually the lead researcher quit and the project was suspended. We thought we had achieved victory, and even TIME magazine ran a story on the suspension entitled "A win for the kitties." We should have known better. The folks at Ohio State weren't taking all of this very well. An internal memo surfaced that stated "We can't let the animal rights protestors win on this issue." The brutal research resumed six months later. We carried on. I distributed thousands of flyers, and sometimes showed up at venues where the university president was speaking. I was escorted out by security from a Marriott hotel ballroom, and given the bum's rush from the Arena Grand theatre in Columbus. On another occasion I was ejected from a cat show. (What a bunch of hypocrites.) Eventually, NIH funding for the project dried up, and it died a quiet death, like the cats, after seven years. But I was hooked. Working for the animals had become my calling. Actually, I had experience in this area before, staging what was probably the first animal rights protest at Ohio University in 1964. Some friends and I had a sign (I forget what it said) and flyers with a picture of a sad research monkey on it. It was our first time at this, but we did OK, and Joe Ezsterhas, now the famous Hollywood screenwriter, did a story on us for the Ohio University Post. Joe wore a Princeton haircut then, and I heard him refer to some demonstrating hippies once as "the great unwashed." He mocked us, too, writing "The monkeys of the world can rest easy tonight. Lee Williams is on the job." My passion for this work lay dormant for 38 years, but in 2002 it was revived. I have met great friends, and great people who have come to speak to our group. There is a price to pay for choosing this avocation: compassion fatigue. There is also an initial depression. For me, I experienced serious depression for about two weeks after exposure to the realities of this work. Then I came out of it. My heart hadn't hardened, but my mind had, in a way. It had adjusted, putting heartbreaking images in a compartment, to be visited only when necessary. Some people depict us animal rights people as sissies, but just the opposite is true. We look at the unspeakable, because somebody has to. Someone has to deal with these atrocities, and be unflinching. The kids who make the undercover videos for Mercy For Animals (mercyforanimals.org) are the most courageous people I know. Its young founder, Nathan Runkle, was a member of POET. So that's my story. I've engaged in many other actions for the animals in the past decade, some mundane, some risky and exciting, all involving being assertive to help the animals. I am a naturally reticent person; this work has helped, at this late hour, to round out my personality. It is the most important and meaningful thing I have ever done. We activists are always welcoming of new people entering the fold. It is frustrating but rewarding work. If it has meaning for you, please, test the waters. Attend demonstrations. Get to know the people. Find out how you can serve. Help the animals.