Ability to choose

Ashley Byrne strips down in Brazil to raise awareness for animal rights

Baths demonstration, São Paulo - Aug, 2nd, 2016

On August 4, as people poured into Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics, Ashley Byrne settled in for a long bath — right in the middle of the city’s busiest square.

Byrne is a former University of Colorado Boulder graduate. She studied creative writing and political science, but for the last nine years, Byrne has worked coordinating campaigns for PETA, the animals rights organization known around the world for their undercover work exposing factory farms and laboratories for animal cruelty. PETA actually stormed onto the international scene in 1980 with what became known as the Silver Spring monkeys case, when the organization revealed that 17 macaque monkeys were being experimented on inside the Institute of Behaviorial Research in Silver Spring, Maryland. The case lasted a decade and led to the only police raid on an animal laboratory in the U.S., as well as an amendment to the Animal Welfare Act.

But PETA has also taken criticism over the years for campaigns that some consider shocking — even offensive. Some of these campaigns involve wrapping PETA employees in fake blood and plastic, some involve graphic photography of laboratories and factory farms, but many employ nudity — or near nudity — to spread the message.

Cue Ashley Byrne in Brazil.

Along with other colleagues from PETA, Byrne stripped down to nearly nothing to “bathe” on the streets of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

“We’re trying to illustrate that the meat industry and animal product industry is a nightmare for the environment,” Byrne explains on a Skype call from Rio on Aug. 2. She’s preparing to head into one of São Paulo’s busiest thoroughfares, Paulista Avenue, to kick the campaign off with a demonstration. With all eyes on Brazil for the world’s biggest athletic event, Byrne says, it’s the perfect place to deliver the message.

The medium for the message was a bathtub of pretty women in two of the world’s busiest streets. The women, all working with PETA, held signs that explain it takes as much water to produce a pound of beef as it does for the average person to take showers for six months.

“According to United Nations, the meat industry is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all transportation combined: cars, planes, trains, everything,” she says. “The meat industry is responsible for every environmental problem: soil erosion, water contamination, climate change, wasted resources … The bathtub is a way to illustrate that for people. Facts and figures don’t always work well, so we do something unusual to sum things up in a surprising visual.”

It’s no surprise to Byrne that some people find this ridiculous, even exploitative of the female body. But PETA’s co-founder, Ingrid Newkirk, has consistently maintained that no one working on the organization’s campaigns is forced to take part in anything they don’t feel comfortable about. Newkirk has also stated that sexual attraction is a fact of human life, and a tactic employed by nearly every commercial industry on the planet — if it can work to advance animal welfare, it’s the right thing to do.

Byrne likewise dismisses the notion that these campaigns are anti-feministic in nature.

“These campaigns are largely run by women. I’m a feminist, my colleague [participating in the demonstrations in Brazil] is a feminist. My boss is a woman, her boss is a woman and so on,” she explains. “For us, I think one of the most important aspects of feminism is you respect a woman’s decisions, so if women want to stand up for an issue they believe in, whether that is by taking off their clothes and taking a shower on the sidewalk or standing fully clothed and handing out leaflets, that’s to be respected. I think we should all respect the decisions of other adults to do what they are comfortable doing.”

For Byrne, doing demos that involve nudity or sexuality is about making a choice. Animals, she says, never get to make a choice about what happens to their bodies.

“Female animals in particular in the dairy and egg industry suffer immensely because of the fact they are female. And so I feel that I’m making a choice. … I can choose and they can’t. As a feminist, that absolutely feels like the right decision for me to be making.”

Byrne is, perhaps predictably, a vegan, but that wasn’t always the case. The Los Angeles native grew up eating steaks and McDonald’s into high school. Her family moved to Colorado during her senior year of high school, and it was actually a night of mischievousness that would become the turning point in her life. 

“My boyfriend and I snuck into a showing of Faces of Death and we saw a lot of slaughterhouse footage of animals being killed,” Byrne says of the 1978 exploitation pseudo-documentary. “There were a lot of things in that documentary that seemed to be fake, but we knew the slaughterhouse footage of animals being tortured was real. There was a segment where people were skinning alive and boiling dogs in another country and I was devastated. I had grown up with dogs and cats and they were members of the family and I loved them and knew they felt pain and fear and had emotions.”

The narrator of the movie, Michael Carr, explains that while such an act may be shocking to those from cultures where it’s not common to eat dogs, it was no different than eating cow, pig or chicken. Since there was “no scientific difference” between these animals, Carr has dinner with a family that slaughtered a dog.

“I couldn’t agree with that,” Byrne says. “There was nothing that made it better to eat a chicken than a dog. I couldn’t accept it could possibly be OK to skin a dog and eat it. I realized if I could never be OK with the idea of eating a dog or a cat that it was time for me to stop eating chickens and pigs and cows and fish.”

Byrne immediately began a vegetarian diet and went vegan a year later.

She says the demonstrations PETA puts on aren’t meant to simply shock and expose problems, but to deliver solutions as well.

“We never do something like this without being armed with a solution,” she says. “By eating vegan, or by even choosing to cut down on the meat and dairy you are eating, you can make a difference. This is an easy, accessible way to help the environment. Not everyone can buy a hybrid car or go out and put solar panels on their home, but by just eating a vegan diet, that’s a really empowering way to make a change in the face of these environmental problems that can be really frightening.”

The demonstrations in São Paulo and Rio went well, Byrne says a few days later. People asked lots of questions, mainly if it was true that it took that much water to produce livestock. Byrne says she sees this change occurring all over the world — people no longer see animals as separate from humans. They see humans as, quite rightfully, a type of animal.

“I’ve been a PETA member for 20 years,” she says. “I think there has been an enormous shift in the way the public sees issues surrounding animals and being vegan. When I started PETA, the first campaign I worked on was exposing cruelty to chickens that KFC worked with. … In those early years people would ask, ‘Can chickens even feel pain?’ That has shifted so dramatically. I feel like I rarely hear that now. People just have more information and realize these animals are intelligent and sensitive and have close family bonds and care about their offspring. It makes people much more receptive about not eating them and not wearing them.”   



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