The Activists’ Fire

Within any social justice movement, activists will be attacked. They will be attacked for being too outspoken, too violent, and too confrontational. They will be criticized for their use of language, having every single sentence picked apart. They will gain and lose followers for anything seen as too far out there. This is normal when you fight for something which has been normalized in society even though it is harmful to someone or something. It is uncomfortable to be confronted with your own participation in something horrible as well. This invites a lot of criticism and bullying, no matter how you attempt to come across in a mild way. g

We will be attacked as an animal rights organization no matter how we put the message across. This has been proven again and again over the years by the responses we have had in comments and messages when we have stood up for a morally consistent animal advocacy.

From warrior to terrorist

It’s simply comical how often I’m attacked for being aggressive. I just have to laugh for how well those complaints expose the inherent hypocrisy within the animal advocacy sector. When we first started the organization, we were very welfare-focused, never spoke about veganism, and spoke constantly of the evils of the dog meat trade, the need for a legal ban on dog meat, and the necessity of getting animal welfare laws on the books in Vietnam. This stance was very popular and there was basically no one trying to debate me. I wrote posts then with the same exact voice as I have now defending ALL species, yet now I get called aggressive and told my tactics and my “angry” voice are turning people off. Why can’t I stop talking about veganism? Why can’t I just save dogs? These questions were constant when my ideology shifted. People need to realize the same exact person is behind the screen now as was in the first posts in Vietnam Animal Welfare Organization. Eight very long years of experience in this filthy business has changed me personally so much through repeated exposure to trauma, but my general writing style has not shifted significantly. When I “aggressively” wrote posts condemning the dog meat trade, totally leaving out other species in my pleas for help for us fighting this social evil, I was an “angel”, a “hero”, and a “savior”. This is literally the crap people would call me. It’s shocking what happened, however, once that same exact message I spouted angrily against dog meat shifted species to those our supporters regularly pay someone to kill. You adored the fight in me when it saved a dog or cat, but the moment I used that exact same passion and rage and the exact same logic to defend a pet species when another species was being harmed, I was suddenly a psycho.

No matter what I have done in my life, I’ve done it passionately and have dived head first into the fire in all of my jobs. When I rode horses, I moved to where the top riders and trainer had their stables in the US and lived and breathed the horsey life. When I wanted to study international politics, I applied to the top schools in the field and went to the one that fit my track best, even though doing so meant being cut off by my family, living in couches and in my car, and going deeply in debt I have yet to even get close to addressing. When I loved eating meat, I passionately hated vegans and had a slew of really twisted shit I’d say about them, including that they should be put on an island and napalmed. Anger, aggression, passion, whatever name you slap on my way of interacting with the world, it has only ever been attractive and fun to people who agree with me.

This has not changed as a vegan. While my stance on animals shifted from the time I started the organization even though I was already vegan then, my voice has remained the same as the supporters who once called me a warrior for dogs in Vietnam were now calling me a terrorist and a psychopath. People who know me or who have met me in person know that I’m loud, talk a lot and very quickly, and I gesticulate constantly. Every story I tell, of which there are many, comes with its own kind of stage act. When I’m angry, it’s no secret and I’ll admit, it can be truly horrifying to be on the other end of. When I’m happy, the whole world is part of my party. I’m extremely impulsive, I constantly take on things beyond my means, and I will fight or debate anyone to the death for harming a vulnerable being or justifying doing so. This is insane, I’m aware, but I am many things and I’d rather be insane than weak or non confrontational conformist who only stands up for pets. All of these things are very intense and admittedly, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. This is how I was born, and I hope to fuck, this will be how I am when I die.

There are serious disadvantages to this personality of mine, obviously, but the biggest advantage to it is that in the job in which defending animals who are unable to defend themselves, doing so with horrible hours and even worse pay, the passion gets me through. Whether this passion comes with rage and swearing, or with calm and logical words and actions, it keeps this organization and our mission going through extremely difficult times, and no matter what, it’s going to piss people off. This fire that I started our work with can Illuminate the horrors of the field to our supporters and to expose the hypocrisy within animal advocacy on which the vast majority of animals who receive protection are in the tiny minority of species in peril. But this same fire destroys as well. That fire that illuminates can also incinerate and to expect me to have total control over which way this goes is even more insane than I am. Even with the intention of illuminating, I am accused of destroying. There is no winning.

What I have found in these years is that the people who hate me and the way I write are always the same people who stand for nothing. They are never actually activists. These are the people who are horrified in confrontation, can’t stand disagreeing with the crowd, and who are perfectly happy sticking their heads in the sand while atrocities continue just so they can keep the peace. They are the people who disagree with my anti-speciesist message. They are those who may even be vegan, but work for welfare organizations who have never stood up to be honest with their support base and tell them to stop using ALL animals, treating every living being as if they were a dog. The people that find me off-putting usually work in totally non-animal related jobs and whose only exposure to animal rights issues comes from lying in bed scrolling through Instagram. The criticism from the peanut gallery comes from well-funded organizations sucking off the teat of speciesism so no one rocks the boat. These are the people who have no problem eating half the species at our rescue. My critics are suburban house wives in Los Angeles who haven’t ever lived abroad, started their own nonprofits, or ever starved for what they believe in. None of these critics has any ground to stand on. None know me personally, and none could survive a day in my shoes anyway.

In all this, I acknowledge how these personality characteristics have not always been good for my job, particularly in public relations. I am great at giving speeches and tours at the shelter, but online I am often misunderstood and told to ease off. I have always had to work on my temper. It’s plagued me my whole life. This is not new. Rage is something I feel deeply inside my bones, in every cell of my body. But rage, this word with such a negative connotation, is part of outrage. This outrage is what has motivated me to be so outspoken and outrage is not always pretty. This is what has driven my work. This motivates me to stay involved in the mission when everything seems hopeless. The rage in my outrage is my driver. You don’t have to agree with that, but you need to be aware that what you hate about me is the same thing that makes me a warrior for the animals. Without rage, without being able to dive deep into an energy that most people are terrified of, I am not who I am and I am not the passionate driver of change I need to be.

As anyone who has dated me, married me, or worked for me knows, I often speak without thinking and when I am driven by frustration, stress, outrage or just plain rage, I am brutal. I swear a lot, am very loud, and I can be scary and intimidating to anyone. The deer in the headlights look is not lost on me. I have seen it many times. I rarely have made people cry, but I often drive them to high levels of stress. My stress is always contagious. Not everyone can handle being around me for terribly long. It isn’t something I am proud of. But again, when I am up against someone who has just kicked a puppy across a road, that terrifying rage halts everything. That explosion has saved many lives over the years. I have chased down dog catchers on my motorbike with my knife and screamed at them, threatening their lives in any language I can. I have attacked a man beating the shit out of his wife on the side of the road, even getting in a couple of good gut punches. I ran screaming up to a mother beating her kid in the airport and threatened her life very, very loudly. I have ripped a stick away from a farmer who was beating his cows and I went to town on him before throwing his stick in the river. When a cat catcher with a cage full of cats drove by, this rage caused me to chase him down, take his keys and stuff them down my bra, and grab his metal tongs and threaten to beat the shit out him with them. Those three cats survived that day because this crazy lady got PISSED OFF. This rage defends as well as offends. If I could have it for only one of those things, I would hang on to it for such special occasions, but it doesn’t work like that. If there was a way to truly tame this fire, I am not even sure I would. It has helped me survive a kidnapping in Mongolia. It helped me to fight taxi drivers and sexual predators. It has been there to save me and others and I am not afraid of it. It is what makes me great at my job and horrible at my job at the same time and I would love to find a way to help animals in a way that did not light that rage.

Incompetence comes in all colors

My recent calling out of the local rescue has gotten me some pretty negative press, something I am quite used to by now. I am being called a racist even though none of these attacks had anything to do with the color of their skin. Incompetence comes in all the colors of the rainbow. I was accused of being a western organization not able to understand how hard it is for the local organizations, this is spite of living and working around them for 8 fucking years and being fully aware of the vast differences in the challenges we face as an international organization. Telling the truth about the way this collaboration broke down was vital to explaining why working with local organizations, particularly those run solely by young and inexperienced volunteers, has been very difficult over these years. I do not regret being honest about that. Our organization has made some pretty horrible mistakes along the way just like everyone else and I am aware that this work is difficult in the best circumstances, but you don’t get a free pass for being from Vietnam. You don’t get to claim poverty as the reason why you suck at your job, just as I do not get to ignore the privileges I have from being from a wealthy country and how foreign organizations do not have all the answers by any means.

Vietnam is not my country. I have no rights there, no security of any kind. My language skills are still absolute rubbish and that cuts me off from a lot of experiences. I have a combination of privileges and barriers that make life in Vietnam very different from Vietnamese citizens. No matter where I go there, I am also seen as a walking ATM. This is life in a touristy area. Locals expect foreign organizations to come and clean up their messes and throw money at any situation because they can’t work it out themselves. We are not here to fix their problems if they choose not to learn from their mistakes as I have seen for all these years. The way I feel about the morally inconsistent messaging of rescues in Vietnam applies to ALL of them, not just the Vietnamese. The foreign organizations are all selling deeply racist messages from the speciesist bullshit we see all over the world. Love dogs and cats, but fuck everyone else. This is rampant in the industry and has nothing to do with skin color. The poor administrative capacity of organizations is not Vietnamese either. Being upfront about how hard it is to manage this as a legal organization with financial transparency and full disclosure of all practices is damn hard, and none of us get it right. I am awful at admin, but I try hard and have 8 years of experience under my belt running the show so I am aware that a 22 year old volunteer hasn’t the faintest idea about fundraising internationally. Yes, I am justified on calling them out on that. The asinine idea that we can all work together for some common cause is hippy dippy nonsense and is only spouted by people who have never worked in this field. We have fundamentally different jobs and come from very different points of view on how to care for animals. Working for animals does not exempt you from criticism. The whole “well at least they’re trying” line just is not valid. Try harder. We have to stop believing that local organizations are automatically allowed to get hero status because they picked up some kittens off the road. I sure as hell do not expect that and I am not going to let others play that game either when they are doing destructive work with their messaging and methodology otherwise.

For now, I am getting off social media and focusing on a book, a total revamp of our accounting, our taxes, and a new website. It is obvious that only really horrible things are coming from to our media, so it is best I stay off of it because being honest, raw, and totally outraged an uninterested in keeping my mouth shut could be harmful to our mission. We are going to take a lot more hits through the years. Perhaps someday people will realize that the more we get attacked, the harder we dig in, so perhaps it is best to just fuck off.