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DawnWatch: Interview with Karen Dawn

KarenDawn_dogFounder of the animal advocacy media watch site, Karen Dawn took time out ahead of her Australian speaking tour to talk with Elizabeth Usher about how she went from experimenting on rats at an Australian university to becoming a celebrated and award-winning spokesperson for animal rights in the US.

5 October 2010

Karen Dawn is passionate about animal issues but is also savvy when it comes to the media. Born in the US, Karen grew up and studied in Australia where she worked as a news researcher and writer for various Australian publications and on ABC's nightly news magazine, The 7:30 Report.

Her opinion pieces covering animal issues have been published in the US and internationally, including the Los Angeles Times and The Guardian. Her book Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals was included in a Washington Post list of ‘The Best Books, CDs, Comics, DVDs and Video Games of 2008’.

Karen founded the animal advocacy media watch site As a spokesperson for the animal rights movement she has appeared on all of the major news networks and on MTV, and has hosted talk shows on major radio stations.

Karen, you were born in the US and have been based there for over a decade, but in the interim you grew up and studied in Australia.  Can you compare and contrast your experiences of the animal movement on both sides of the Pacific?

I have actually been in the States for 20 years now, and was not at all involved in animal advocacy back in Australia. I was experimenting on rats in college – feeling guilty about it, but trying not to think too much about it – you know how that is!  Just like when many people bite into their hamburgers I would guess.

With your background in journalism, including a stint at The 7:30 Report, you know firsthand the power of the media. How can animal activists best tap into the media’s potential outreach?

The media are powerful and the animals need powerful friends. So the best thing that animal advocates can do for the animals is to befriend the media.

What do I mean by that? Open up regular communication, let the media know how appreciated they are when they do animal friendly stories – just like giving a friend a pat on the back. And just as one would be delicate with a friend one felt the need to criticize, we need to use the same care with members of the media, who are only human after all.

In my book Thanking the Monkey I discuss the power of feedback – how communications to a reporter can entirely change the tone of future coverage.

I also discuss pitching stories that reporters will want to cover not because we think they should, but because we have given them an interesting shot, or a compelling angle. I think now of a huge picture that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Thanksgiving Day, known as Turkey Day in the USA, of me setting the dining room table as my sweet adopted turkeys looked on. The accompanying article included a lot of important information about what generally happens to turkeys at Thanksgiving, but it only made the paper because I offered the reporter that fabulous Thanksgiving photo opportunity .

We have to befriend the media, try to think like they think, and not judge them harshly for their having to think about what is going to sell.

Since founding DawnWatch around a decade ago, you have been keeping abreast of how animals are represented by and reported upon in the media, and you continue to issue several news alerts each month. It has been described as “a core and celebrated resource for animal activists everywhere and has significantly impacted the coverage of animal issues in the United States” (Emily Deschanel, star of TV show Bones, on presenting you with the Outstanding Activist for Farm Animals award at the Farm Sanctuary Gala in May 2008).  How have you seen the media landscape develop in that time, for instance with regards to frequency of stories or approaches to issues?

Karen_Dawn_EmilyYou make me smile reminding of that lovely night, my proudest moment ever, and sweet Emily. What I didn’t mention earlier is that one of the turkeys in that Thanksgiving photo was named Emily, after lovely Emily Deschanel. The other was named Bruce, after Bruce Greenwood, my sweet neighbour who built the turkey coop. But Bruce Turkey was renamed Brucilla after he laid an egg.

Where were we?

Ah yes, media stories. When I first founded DawnWatch I would use the search engine Lexis-Nexis to scour thousands of sources for anything about animals. When there was a vegetarian recipe printed somewhere we would send our thanks. If there was some mention on page 24 or 47 in some newspaper we would send our thanks. Those mentions were few and far between.

But now it is a rare day that animal issues are not on a front page somewhere, or on the evening news. Things have changed faster than anybody could have imagined, just in the last decade.

Also, when I first got into this, it seemed the only way that anybody could get media coverage was with silly stunts. Stunts still work – adopting the turkeys at Thanksgiving was joyous but also a stunt of sorts – but these days more journalists are willing to see animal news as news, stunts aside.

Your 2008 book, Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals, is comprehensive in that it covers a lot of topics, but avoids having that ‘textbook’ feel that would often accompany a near 400-page tome.  What did you set out to achieve by writing it?

It is only 400 pages because there is a big cartoon on every page! It’s about 75,000 words, which is just your normal book length. Now why is there a cartoon on every page? What has been missing from our movement is the sense of fun, of pure joy. Animal rights can seem so harsh and scary, but that needn’t be so – for heaven’s sake, gin is vegan! So is dark chocolate, and macadamia nuts, and scrumptious soy lattes, and Stella McCartney shoes, and fabulous eco-purses made out of bottle tops. And so are Natalie Portman, Alicia Silverstone, Toby McGuire and all sorts of fun folks.

But that just wasn’t the face of animal rights. And it wasn’t necessarily the public face I was presenting either, even though my natural way is kind of fun and flamboyant. My writing was serious.

One day a friend at a publishing house, who was a fan of that serious writing and had told me he would consider publishing anything I wrote, changed publishing houses and went to work somewhere where he headed up the division aimed at “The 18-35 celebrity driven market.” And one morning it hit me – our movement did not have a book aimed at that vital market! And how fun would it be to put one together. So Thanking the Monkey was born.

The main aim was to create a book that activists could give to their friends, with their friends being delighted rather feeling put upon. I wanted the book to look like a gift rather than an assignment. And I wanted it to have a hope of being read by non vegans.

My aim was to make sure that anybody who read that book, regardless of whether or not they chose to go vegan, would at least get over the idea that their vegan friends were wildly radical. You can’t finish the book and not realize that a vegan lifestyle is a sound choice.  And even if you don’t finish the book, even if you just go through and look at all the cartoons, some important seeds are going to be planted.

Have you any measurement of the book’s impact over the last two years?

It is hard to measure impact, but I do get daily notes from people who tell me that it inspired them to change their lives and their diets. And it has converted a couple of well-known entertainment people, who have in turn affected many others. I think now of John Schneider, well known in the US as the star of the Dukes of Hazzard, who read the book and read at my New York book party, and then recorded a riveting two-minute video of the impact of some of what he had read and videos he had viewed, to which he had been directed in the book.

Many thousands of his fans have watched that little video on youtube. Who can know what ripples have gone where? We can only do our best to send out the truth and hope it is well and widely received.

You certainly haven’t been shy about getting celebrity endorsements for your book, with the likes of Emily Deschanel and Jorja Fox lining up to sing its praises.  However, most activists are at the grassroots level and don’t have this type of access or influence (nor the ability and time to write an engaging book!).  How instead can they use their own efforts and resources for the maximum impact?

While, as I just noted above, celebrity attention can be helpful, I don’t know that ultimately it has that much impact. I think, without a doubt, that befriending the mainstream news media, including, or especially online media, is the best way for grassroots activists to get their messages out there.

Many local papers print close to 100% of the letters they receive. And the letters page is one of the most widely read pages of almost every paper. So just by taking the time to write a letter, an animal advocate can have a huge impact.

People can become overwhelmed or paralysed when faced with the reality of the multitude of ways in which animals are exploited, and the seemingly never-ending and sometimes even unavoidable connections between this exploitation and our own lives and personal actions.  Instead of tackling even a few of these issues on a personal level, there is the risk of what you call in your book “the habit of closing our hearts”.  How do you manage the balancing act between giving people enough information to awaken their sense of compassion and justice, yet at the same time preventing them from being overwhelmed at the thought of what changes might be needed to better align their values and behaviours?

Karen_Dawn_turkeyIt is so important to make it clear that this is not a matter of all or nothing.

I didn’t go “cold turkey” vegan overnight, and while others might choose to, there is no reason to expect it. The worst thing for the animals is if people decide they could never do the whole vegan lifestyle, so they might as well just keep eating double-bacon cheeseburgers everyday.

Far better that people just decide to start making simple changes, and see how easy and fun they are. Order the soy latte next time you are at your coffee shop, and see how delicious it is – and how good it feels not to have to block out thoughts of cows bellowing for their babies who have been carted off to veal crates.

Then next time you see a veggie burger on the menu, order it. No need to throw out all your leather shoes – but do you really need to keep buying more? Look at those pretty satin evening stilettos – try those instead.

Every choice makes a difference, and the more fun you have with those choices, the more you’ll find that you keep making animal friendly choices until before you know it you have yourself an animal-friendly lifestyle.

Along similar lines, given that time itself is a limited resource, when considering how many issues are out there (even if only including the ones you cover in Thanking the Monkey), how do you prioritise your own activism?

One person can do anything but no person can do everything. My specialty is media, so people know that if they send me media articles I will look at them, and I might post them, but if they send me dog rescue stuff, or boycott stuff, or anything outside of the media field I am less likely to pick it up.

There are some exceptions but they are few and far between. It isn’t that I don’t care about everything else, it is that I know in order to be effective it helps if we pick and choose and specialize and gain areas of expertise. Our hearts, our natural inclinations, will tell each of us what that area should be.

At various places in the book you describe times in your life when particular situations or events have had a long-lasting impact upon you and caused you to change a personally held view or belief.  For example, towards the end of your book, you share insights into the development of your position against militant direct action: events that, you write, “nudged me off the fence towards a stance for peaceful activism” and led to your view that “militancy seems unlikely to bring about the revolutionary societal shift in the treatment of other species we hope to see.”  Since its publication, is there any issue in Thanking the Monkey on which your views have now shifted?

Gosh. What a great question. One of my favourite sayings is, “If you can’t change your mind, are you sure you still have one?” And so I worry now as I can’t think of anything about which I have changed my stance since writing Thanking the Monkey two years ago. Have I lost my mind?

karen_dawn_cowboyHmmm. Perhaps I was more willing to discuss “humane” meat back when I wrote Monkey. I still, absolutely, support all welfare measures. If I had been an abolitionist working to end slavery two hundred years ago, I certainly would have supported laws banning the flogging of slaves, without worrying it suggested I approved of slavery.

But now, if people ask me where they might buy meat from animals who haven’t been factory farmed, rather than guide them at all, I will acknowledge that the question comes from a place of caring, and do my best to encourage that caring a little further, and question whether that grass fed steak is really a necessary part of a compassionate person’s diet.

There is such a wealth of information now on the health benefits to humans of plant-based eating. The more that information gets out there, the less willing I am to entertain questions about less cruel ways to consume animals or the products of their suffering.

This month (October 2010) sees you travelling back down under for a speaking tour of Australia and New Zealand that will include readings from Thanking the Monkey. In fact, by the time this is published you will already have completed four talks in New Zealand. What is your vision for the tour?

What do they say: “Men make plans, and God laughs.” Now she probably doesn’t laugh quite as hard when it’s a woman making plans, but that’s because women are more likely to go with the flow. And that’s what I am doing.

This Aussie tour came about by accident. The New Zealand SPCA asked me to speak at a conference, and offered to fly me out, and I told them I would come as long as I could come home via Australia, where I grew up. When I let my Aussie list folks know I was coming and would love to meet some local activists, suddenly I had speaking engagements booked in Sydney and Melbourne.

I am just delighted by that – such a great chance to connect with people. The Sydney talk is at a yoga studio, which is my idea of home away from home as I am a daily yogi, and the Melbourne talk is a benefit for the Edgar’s Mission farm animal sanctuary. Farm animal sanctuaries change lives, so I am just thrilled to have been asked to do that one.

I also plan to do a lot of drinking. I am proud of my semi-Aussie heritage, which made me so good at that, and I won’t be driving in Australia, so woohoo! I am thinking now that the yoga studio I am speaking at has a wonderful vegan café but probably no wine, so we will definitely be heading out for drinks at the end of the night. Who’s coming?

Finally, are you optimistic about where the global animal movement is headed?

Gosh yes! I am a huge fan of the book the Tipping Point, which explains how societal change occurs. I have felt for the last two years that we are reaching that point with the animal movement. This last week, when ex-President Clinton, still one of the most influential voices in the United States, went on CNN and told America that plant-based diets actually reverse heart disease and that his new diet is responsible for the loss of 24 pounds and the return of his boyish figure, I could see the top of the hill. We are getting there.

People love animals. It won’t be that long before they are willing to see that loving them and using them as commodities makes no sense. The more fun we make the message, the easier we make the transition seem, the quicker it will come.

Karen Dawn will be speaking in Sydney at the Samadhi Yoga Studio on Tuesday 12 October, 7:30pm at 76 Wilford Street, Newtown. This will include a talk, book signing and food at the Earth Vegan Café located at the studio.

In Melbourne, Karen will be speaking at a fundraiser for Edgar’s Mission farm animal sanctuary on Thursday 14 October, 6:30pm at Kindness House, 288 Brunswick Street St, Fitzroy.

Further details for both events can be found here.

Visit the DawnWatch for more information about Karen and her work, including her book Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals, and to subscribe to media alerts regarding animal rights.

NB: 8 October 2010: is experiencing some technical difficulties. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. In the meantime you can find Karen at

Elizabeth Usher has been vegan for a dozen years and tries to live in accordance with values that respect other animals – including people – and the earth. Despite rumours to the contrary, that still allows for some fun along the way. Elizabeth is also interested in producing music with a message. Her song ‘Paradigm Shift’, about issues surrounding factory farming, can be heard on her Myspace site.

Images from top: Karen Dawn with Paula Pitbull Dawn – photo by Monty Marsh; Introducing Emily Deschanel to her namesake, Emily Turkey, at the Thanking the Monkey event at Animal Acres – photo by Monty Marsh; Karen Dawn with Emily Deschanel at Thanking the Monkey book party – photo by Derek Best; Karen Dawn with Cowby the calf at Animal Acres.




0 #3 Stewart David 2010-10-10 08:58
Great interview! Karen Dawn is one of the most articulate and compassionate voices on the planet. Her book is a must-read, and the use of humor makes it a fun read, too. It will change your life, and do it in a good way.

While I generally oppose cloning, I think we should consider making an exception in Karen's case.
0 #2 SarahC 2010-10-10 01:48
Loved this interview - especially because I am a huge fan of Bones! I love that Karen named a turkey after Emily Deschanel. I'm planning to come to the talk in Sydney on Tuesday. So glad I found this article. Keep up the good work Karen!
0 #1 Adelaide Dupont 2010-10-05 20:49
Big wow that Karen Dawn is doing Edgar's sanctuary. I remember that so well from the new version of Charlotte's Web.

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