After 'Wild Kingdom'


December 24, 2006

I GREW up in New Haven, the youngest of four. My father, who is Italian, was a physical education teacher and football coach.

My mother comes from a big Greek family. Every Sunday we'd go to a different aunt's house from midafternoon until 11 p.m. There were at least 30 of us around the dinner table, with enormous amounts of food and 15 conversations going on at once. It was like a scene out of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

I used to love my paternal grandmother's meatballs and other Italian food. You had to brace yourself entering her house because she had prepared so much food. When I turned vegan at 19 because of my beliefs about animals, it was a bit of a shock to her. But she still put as much food on the table for me as before.

Ever since I was a kid I've been focused on animals. I dog-eared the pages with the animal entries in our encyclopedia and memorized everything about them, from a polar bear to a pronghorn antelope. I used to draw animals as well. One program I never missed was Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom." I liked watching Jim Fowler wrestle an alligator, and I wanted to meet the host, Marlin Perkins.

My first job, during high school, was working for my uncle, testing concrete for construction sites. I got to see hard-working people, but it was a little musty and I was looking for an outdoor job. The summer after my junior and senior years, I worked at a country club as a tennis pro. It was a huge contrast.

At Yale, I majored in studies in the environment, but it required having another major as well. I chose history. Bill Cronon, my adviser, helped me choose my career path. I became fascinated with the intersection of the two subjects and began to look at what we did to animals in this country from a historical perspective. I learned that we nearly destroyed the bison after the repeating firearm and the transcontinental railroad were developed. We began killing them for commercial reasons, such as selling their hides and tongues in the marketplace. We also completely eliminated the passenger pigeon through commercial hunting.

It was a formative time for me. I saw that a destructive attitude toward animals in the natural world, along with innovations in technology, could produce colossal damage to animals and ecosystems. I thought we should impose some limits on our dealings with animals.

When I started lobbying for animal rights during a college internship, I knocked on doors on Capitol Hill and talked to representatives about the issues. I was fearless. I met with the chief of staff for a Wisconsin representative. I started to make my case but he cut me off and said: "You convinced me. I'll sign on the dotted line." I left his office and pumped my fist in the air, I was so happy. It whetted my appetite for public policy.

The following summer I worked at Isle Royale National Park, an archipelago in Lake Superior just below Canada, and that was another marker for me. It was an idyllic environment with moose and wolves. The physical beauty of both the landscape and the waterscape brought home to me that animals should live unmolested.

After college I wrote for a magazine called The Animals' Agenda. It provided me with a grounding in the major forms of animal use in our culture. It exposed me to the types of issues that the Humane Society of the United States works on.

When I was 23, Cleveland Amory, who headed the Fund for Animals, asked me to become executive director of the organization. I stayed for five years. Later I joined the Humane Society because I thought that as a mainstream organization, it could best carry the message that we need policies to protect animals from people who would do them harm.

When I was lobbying, not every encounter was pleasurable. I received death threats when I lobbied against cock-fighting in Oklahoma. But I don't personalize conflict. When you're dealing with issues that have a formidable opposition, you can't expect reason and logic alone to carry the day. You have to apply pressure in a careful and determined way to get lawmakers or corporate chieftains to do the right thing.

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