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Serving Up Compassion at Shelter Events

“Food for Thought” campaign asks shelters to go veg at fundraising and outreach functions

“Food for Thought” campaign asks shelters to go veg at fundraising and outreach functions

© John Reese/Marin Humane Society
A former shelter director herself, Kim Sturla (shown above with a friend named Penelope) cofounded Animal Place, a farm animal sanctuary and advocacy organization. Serving animal-friendly foods at events doesn’t have to be controversial or threatening to meat-eaters, Sturla says—shelters worried about alienating constituents don’t even need to advertise they’ve gone veg. As long as the food is tasty, no one will know the difference.

Zelda commanded attention from the day she came screaming her way into the Peninsula Humane Society about 14 years ago, a bundle of pink pigginess wrapped in the arms of an officer who’d had to chase her down in East Palo Alto. Before they knew it, staff at the California shelter were taking “pig breaks” instead of smoke breaks, sharing their sandwiches with her, and combing the community for a family who would care for rather than barbecue her.

About three weeks into her tenure as a shelter resident, Zelda had made an indelible impression, one that spoiled dinner for some who worked a fundraising event that included something their newfound friend would surely disapprove of: ham.

“It was one of those ‘aha’ moments,” says Kim Sturla, who at the time ran society operations for the shelter. “My gosh, those wonderful, caring, compassionate staff—from the officers to the animal care techs to ... the volunteers—everyone was spending time with her, they were connecting with her, they were enjoying her, they were trying so hard to save her life. And they’re basically eating her. And there was ... this incredibly powerful disconnect with what’s on our plate.”

It’s a story Sturla tells often; the episode has become a shining example of why she recently started a campaign to encourage animal shelters to serve only vegetarian food at outreach events. Launched last year by Animal Place, a farm animal sanctuary and advocacy organization that Sturla co-founded in 1989, the “Food for Thought” campaign is not directed at personal dietary preferences of shelter staff, board members, or volunteers. The goal, in some ways, is much simpler: to promote consistency in the humane message.

“You’re really looking at role modeling. ... I just think it’s so critically important that in everything we do and say, we try to communicate a respect for life,” says Sturla, who is the director of education for the Fund for Animals even as she continues her work with Animal Place. “For me that’s what animal work’s all about. I don’t care if you’re operating a sanctuary for farm animals like we are or you’re operating a wildlife care center or you’re operating an SPCA. I think most of us are in it because we have a tremendous reverence for life, and we don’t support animal suffering.”

Sturla knows she has her work cut out for her—some organizations are afraid to alienate their communities and so tread lightly when it comes to animal protection issues that fall outside the purview of dog and cat protection. But in those situations, she says, it’s not even necessary to promote events as vegetarian; if the meals are tasty, many people won’t even notice or care. “That’s one of the things we’ve really tried to emphasize with this campaign is ... you wouldn’t even have to say, ‘Come to our vegetarian function,’ ” she says. “Just be more passive about it by simply not having the meat items on the menu for your gala.”

Even a couple of the shelters on Food for Thought’s original advisory committee—which includes members from California, New England, Wisconsin, Illinois, Rhode Island, Oregon, and Michigan—have signed onto the campaign only in theory. While some shelters were already holding vegetarian events, not all have been able to make the change yet. But they still support the concepts behind Food for Thought; most sheltering professionals are aware of the immense suffering in factory farms, Sturla says.

When speaking to the public and to other animal organizations, Sturla presents a mind-boggling perspective: Take all the dogs and cats euthanized in this country and add the number of animals caught in steel jaw traps, raised in fur farms, researched on, hunted, hit by cars, and used in circuses, and you’ll have tens of millions overall—but still only a tiny fraction of all the farm animals who die untimely and often miserable deaths each year.

“And we really can’t, as society is progressing, continue to pretend that that 98.5 percent of the animals—the 10-billion-plus [farm animals]—don’t exist, or that their suffering is any less when in fact it’s far greater than most suffering the dogs and cats who come into our shelters experience.”

Even many shelters that weren’t originally set up to provide refuge to farm animals have found themselves in recent years with more unusual species than they once bargained for; in many communities, the proliferation of factory farms and fad pets has necessitated the expansion of the sheltering mind-set from one that is mainly companion-animal-focused to one that addresses the needs of any and all creatures who show up at the doorstep.

“Many humane societies view their mission to simply care for companion animals without considering the larger animal protection issues,” wrote Christie Smith, executive director of the Potter League for Animals in Rhode Island, in Food for Thought campaign materials. “An organization with a dog and cat focus fails to see its potential and leadership role to promote a larger humane ethic. It is a missed opportunity if we do not demonstrate more compassionate food choices.”

On the other side of the country, the Marin Humane Society, which has not served meat at its events for more than a decade, sees it as a simple choice that is morally consistent and “less discomforting.” “How can an organization tell the story of a flock of chicks being rescued from an abandoned farm or a pig falling from a stock truck on the highway,” asks executive director Diane Allevato, “and then serve fried chicken and barbecued ribs?”

As the name of the campaign implies, Animal Place is looking at Food for Thought as a long-term effort. During the first year, a brochure that described the concept and included recipes and other helpful ideas reached 2,000 organizations and garnered some responses from volunteers, board members, and shelter staff; advertisements in sheltering publications are also sparking a bit of interest. Now in the second year of the campaign, Sturla hopes to help shelters collaborate with local vegetarian societies, which tend to be accepted in their communities because they are well-established and are often more associated with healthy eating or culture-based dietary choices than with “animal rights.”

“I’m really appreciative of the shelter directors who’ve signed onto this policy because they’re really putting themselves out there,” says Sturla. “I’m so passionately behind this campaign, probably more than any campaign that we’ve ever done, because I’ve come from a shelter background, and this thing made sense to me 20 years ago. ... It’s a very gradual process, but I think this campaign’s critical because it puts the issue on the table.”

To read more about the Food for Thought campaign or print out campaign materials, visit the Food for Thought campaign page on the Animal Place website.


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