meet Dustin Rhodes: everyday hero

One of the best things about blogging in the wild, no-holds-barred way in which I practice it is that it really separates the wheat from the chaff. I’ve been pleased to find that my little blog has put me in touch with some super lovely people who also happen to share at least some of my views. I’m sure I’ve also made scores of enemies through blogging, but I’ll take lots of people hating me with a passion and a far smaller number of far more amazing people liking me over most people’s boring no-feathers-ruffled relationships any day, you know?

One of the people I’m most happy to have met in this pomo virtual way is Mr. Dustin Rhodes, who works for one of my favorite animal rights groups, Friends of Animals. I like him so much that I asked if I could be a total dork and interview him for the blog. He agreed, and here is the fascinating result. What a radical, wonderful, true-blue kind of a dude you are, Dustin. I’m so pleased to know you.

rock creeck april 2009 039

Oh, the cute assaults from so many angles! From left: Miss Delilah, Bray, Lulu, Dustin.

How did you get into animal rights work?

I don’t have a linear or necessarily interesting story. I first became interested when I was a teenager, but I never stuck with being a vegetarian. If I am being honest, I think I was more drawn to the Kool Kids Klub aspect of it. I was in 4-H for many years as a child, Cub Scouts—you know, all the groups that teach you to dominate everything alive. Plus, many in my family were life-long dairy farmers. Respecting animals did not come naturally, although I’d say I’ve always been a person who cannot bear to witness suffering. And I have been obsessed with dogs my entire life.

I became vegan in my mid-20’s solely because I became friends with a vegan. That simple. I wouldn’t describe her as an animal activist or advocate either. Veganism was simply a part of who she was, and I was very inspired by that. It was seamlessly integrated into her life. She defied any sort of idea I had about what animal rights could look like.

During that time, I worked for a really high end women’s clothing boutique. I hated the job with all my heart, but I did love my co-workers. After I left, the owner started selling fur. I freaked out. It became my mission in life to convince her otherwise. Long story short, I was successful. It was a good lesson in both tenacity and killing someone with kindness. (I think I’ve regressed).

I started writing gazillions of letters, too: to newspapers, various companies, politicians, etc. That’s the kind of activism I felt most comfortable with. My boyfriend loves to make fun of me for letter writing; I am one of those people who will write to a CEO over something really insignificant—and I almost always get a response! I am not one of those in-your-face types. I just don’t have it in me. Plus, I worked as a Director of Student Activities at a liberal arts college for 8 years; I tried to incorporate animal activism into my vocational life as much as possible. I took a group of 15 students to build 3 small barns at an animal sanctuary over the course of a week, and I hosted a Vegan Brunch Club. It was during my time there that I found Friends of Animals.

I am really interested to know your typical day—you’ve mentioned traveling to demos and things, so I wonder how much of your day is office work and how much is “field work”-type stuff.

I can’t say I have a “typical” day. I am the only person in my DC office. I get a lot of phone calls from people needing all sorts of help. Sometimes people just call to tell me about something awful they’ve heard about. I have to answer a lot of e-mails as well.

I am mainly a writer. I assist with brochure/pamphlet writing, working on and updating vegan restaurant guides; I write articles for our magazine and for our website. I write official letters to the editor, op-eds and the like. I also do a lot of public relations work. For instance, we recently self-published a cookbook, The Best of Vegan Cooking, and it’s my job to get bookstores to carry it, to get magazines and newspapers to review it, and I help arrange book signings and talks (promoting the book). That’s been a huge focus recently. I also help moderate a vegan discussion board which has over 500 members. I maintain the materials on our Facebook pages. Among many other things.

I also represent the organization at public events and vegetarian festivals. I help arrange and go to various protests. The last one was in New York City—a protest against the annual seal slaughter in Canada. Next, I am traveling to rural Michigan because Friends of Animals is hosting a speaking engagement by Nathan Winograd (who is considered the US’s foremost expert on No Kill animal sheltering). That’s in June.

I am writing this stuff as though it’s boring, but I enjoy most all of it. I can really get into mindless things like putting together huge mailings; that’s what I did today. My two dogs go to work with me every day, and sometimes I can multi-task: seal envelopes with one hand, and throw a Kong toy across the office for Lulu with the other. My life is pretty sweet.

What’s the best part of your job?

Everyone I work with is much more experienced and is much smarter than I am. That’s the best part of my job: being the dumbest person in the room. It ignites a fire in me to learn more. They all inspire me every day to become a better, more effective vegan and animal advocate.

And of course, the worst?

That’s easy: I read really horrible stuff on a daily basis. I get this really concentrated dose of horror, which really depressed me when I first started working here. I’ve always been completely pollyanna—a Fast Times at Ridgmont High kind of person sans the drugs or abject stupidity. The first year I worked at Friends of Animals, there were many days I didn’t want to get out of bed. Seriously. This is my way of divulging, subtly, that I am an ultra-sensitive person.

I’m not sure if that breaks any sort of code or anything but: What are your feelings on the different types of animal rights/animal welfare work? I remember there being big debates about this when I was heavily involved in a grassroots a/r group. We very clearly defined ourselves as animal rights people and believed that animal welfare people (Humane Societies, etc) were akin to people who would have historically argued that human slaves should have better living conditions, whereas we were abolitionists. These days since I am not involved in any a/r groups and just work as a stealth activist on my own, the debate isn’t too important to me anymore. I wish more people were doing a/r work, but since an animal rights utopia isn’t going to come about in my lifetime I guess I’m glad some people are making sure zoos are more comfortable or whatever.

I have very conflicting feelings about this, and I have to be honest and say that my views have changed on this topic. Once upon a time, I considered myself a true pluralist. Part of that was because I honestly didn’t pay much attention to so-called animal rights groups. HSUS, for example, barely even existed in my brain before coming to work at Friends of Animals.

To cut to the chase, I despise PETA as an organization. In my view, they have cheapened animal rights and done a disservice to animals. One day they are talking about why you should eat at Burger King and the next, they are telling women to flash their breasts if they’re opposed to fur; then they want to know if you think you are the cutest vegetarian alive! I think they are incredibly dysfunctional and insane. I do, however, think they are effective: effective at getting people to pay attention. It’s too bad they don’t have anything worthwhile to say. I really have no respect for anything they do. That said, I do my best to try to pretend they don’t exist, although that’s impossible. They are suing the animal sanctuary that is supported by Friends of Animals. They are in my conscienceĀ  perpetually. Blech. And don’t even get me started about all the dogs and cats they kill. (Did I mention that I hate, hate, hate PETA?)

I’d love to hear why you picked Friends of Animals as the group to work for, and what the process was for becoming a full-time activist.

I found Friends of Animals through reading Lee Hall’s book, Capers in the Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in the Age of Terror. The book came highly recommended, and I loved it. In fact, I would say I became obsessed with it. It succinctly articulated ideas that were vague notions swirling around in my brain. The book also contextualized so much I didn’t understand about the dysfunction of animal rights. Also, like Lee Hall, I see animal rights as ultimately a peace movement. This is actually a controversial, unpopular idea, even though veganism was presented in this way by Donald and Dot Watson—the founders of the original vegan society.

I got the job from becoming friends with Lee Hall, and then Priscilla Feral, the president of FoA. They definitely went out on a limb hiring me. Like I said, I am still the dumbest person in the room.

Do you have advice for young people who might want to follow in your footsteps?

Well, I wouldn’t want anyone to follow in my particular footsteps… however: I think it’s important to learn everything you can. Forget PETA, and read the really hard, challenging stuff: Read Lee Hall, Carol Adams, Tom Regan, Joan Dunayer and others. Read the challenging stuff because it will push and challenge your entire world-view. I would also recommend doing everything possible to stay emotionally balanced and, at the end of the day, happy. Practice non-judgment and live a life of kindness. I say these things not as platitudes, but because you’ll need these skills to not let the darker side of the world consume you.

I think becoming a vegan is the most wonderful, rewarding and transformative thing that’s ever happened to me. I think the secret to helping others transition really lies in sharing that joy with others. Of course that’s easier said than done.

Do you generally leave work feeling like you’ve accomplished or are accomplishing your goals? This was my problem when doing a/r work. The goals felt almost impossible to reach. Since then, however, I have seen real strides, and every time a bill gets passed or a city bans foie gras I think about all the activists and a/r professionals who put in so many long hours to make it happen and how great they must feel.

I have to take a very Buddhist attitude about this by not getting too caught up in the accomplishments or the misery. There’s always more to do. Like I said, I am a little on the polyanna side, so I naturally am inclined to focus on the more positive aspects, even if I know I am kidding myself. You are right, though: the goals seem impossible, but I have to believe that we are inching toward them. But I have plenty of bad days where I think of stepping into rush hour traffic on the walk home…

I’d love to hear your thoughts on food bans, such as the recent foie gras bans in Chicago and elsewhere. Though I abhor foie gras, banning food (rather than changing people’s perceptions about it so there is no longer a market for it) worries me. I feel it will only increase demand for it, since it will have an illicit thrill attached to it, and then animals will be treated even worse because there will be no regulation (as opposed to the almost-no regulation there is now). As a chef, I’m also opposed to the rather fascistic idea that a government can tell us what to eat (of course, this presupposes that foie gras is “food,” which it of course is not, so I recognize that flaw in my logic). On the other hand, a 100% cigarette-style “sin tax” on all animal products–that I could get behind!

I agree with everything you said. I don’t think food bans are ultimately effective. I think they make activists feel good, so I understand why the campaigns are compelling. I don’t mean for that to sound judgmental against animal advocates. But, in my mind, it promotes one kind of animal abuse as worse than another. Right?

Of course, only answer if you want to, but: when I started reading Carol Adams and realizing a lot of connections between feminism and animal rights it really added a lot of fuel to my fire for a/r work at a time when I was very burnt out. Obviously you being gay is different because it’s not a choice like being a feminist is, but I still wonder if you see any parallels between your a/r work and general LGBTQ struggles–does being part of a discriminated-against group of people inform your animal rights work?

I get asked this all the time, and I honestly consider myself more interested in feminism than LGBTQ issues—maybe just because it’s outside of who I actually am (also because I grew up in a family with a lot of domestic violence). In any case, animal rights is absolutely an issue of social justice, and the core issue is domination—specifically human domination over non-human animals. That’s not to mention how humans exploit and dominate other humans and the planet at large. I see all of these issues as inner-connected. So all of these issues, at the end of the day, should inform the other. That’s a lot of my issue(s) with PETA: they say they are trying to stop animal exploitation while simultaneously exploiting human animals.

Speaking of, how do you combat the all-prevalent burn out syndrome?

Sex, drugs and rock n roll? Just kidding. I try very hard to live a full life, and to not become myopic. There are definitely animal advocates who literally do nothing else. While I deeply admire this, I couldn’t do that. I have to lay in the park reading trashy David Sedaris on Saturdays and bake vegan muffins and watch lots of The L Word and The Wire courtesy of Netflix.

Also, it must be said: the people who run animal sanctuaries and shelters, people who do rescue work, they are the ones who experience the real pain and trauma–not me. I have so much respect, admiration and love for those people. I don’t know how they do it.

This is super sappy, but: in your expert opinion, do you think things are, overall, improving for nonhuman animals? If so, do you think this is due to legislation, people’s attitudes changing, a combination, or other factors? Are you optimistic for the future?

Yes, I am optimistic. Very much so. People seem much less aggressive towards animal rights these days, and I think that’s an important first step. I know the world can seem like it’s full of evil, but I believe we are experiencing the pangs of a shift of consciousness. (How totally New Age does that sound?). I don’t think I’ll live to see a vegan world, but I do think we’ll live to see profound progress. I think we are at the very beginning stages. I can’t wait.

8 Responses to “meet Dustin Rhodes: everyday hero”

  1. Dustin Rhodes

    I just want to say, for the internet record, that I’m no animal hero in any way, shape or form. I feel very blessed to be able to do what I do, but I talk to members of our organization every day who do incredible things for animals and they don’t get paid a dime. (Seriously: you wouldn’t believe how much time and effort people spend/expend doing incredible, life-changing work). To me, those are the heroes. I am just incredibly lucky. And I sure as heck don’t take that for granted.


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