Activist for the animals 

Nobody, the old saying goes, should see either legislation or sausage being made. Gary Yourofsky thinks you need to know exactly where the meat for your sausage comes from, for the same reason you need to know about Auschwitz.

To him, they are exactly the same — or maybe your local slaughterhouse is a trifle worse; the Nazis usually didn’t dismember their victims while many were still conscious. (No, Muffy, whatever they told you in kindergarten, they don’t put Clarabell painlessly to sleep before grinding her up for hamburger. That would cost money.)

“Enslaving and killing animals for human satisfaction can never be justified,” the bald, cheerfully intense 30-year-old argues. “They aren’t ours to begin with. They belong to themselves only.” Yet most of us “continue to believe that the human animal has every right to exploit, enslave and murder the nonhuman animal.”

We murder billions of our fellow animals each year, and that’s what he has dedicated his young life to fighting. Actually, he knows he can’t do much to stop it, not in the foreseeable future, anyway. But he intends to raise our consciousness. That’s why he has done jail time for “liberating” 1,542 mink from an Ontario fur farm, and been arrested more than a dozen times for other “random acts of kindness and compassion.”

Frankly, when I went to interview Yourofsky I expected to meet a fanatic.

Afterward not only did I find him frighteningly sane and mostly convincing, I had the rather uneasy feeling that always comes when you realize that you are a hypocrite.

Like most liberals, I always have been very concerned with the public’s right to know about legislation — and never thought about sausage, except when I had to read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and when it became clear that packing plant workers in sweatshops like Tyson Foods were severely endangered by their working conditions.

Naturally, I never thought twice about what the plant did to the chickens. Yes, I would happily outlaw any use of animals by the cosmetics industry, and felt bad when I thought of the mountains of frogs slaughtered by high-school biology classes.

But, hey. When it comes to dinner, while I know perfectly well that I couldn’t kill anything with a higher IQ than pasta, my attitude, as I reach for the veal Marsala, always has been “don’t blame me; it was dead before I got here.”

Yourofsky holds himself to a much higher standard, and is steadily forcing more and more people to think about what just might be the last and greatest civil rights crusade — the struggle against what he calls speciesism. The turning point in his life came less than a decade ago, when a family member took him behind the scenes at the circus.

Understand that he wasn’t some wannabe looking for a cause, but just a normal, fairly athletic suburban kid who spent his childhood playing hockey and dreaming of being a goalie in the NHL. But then he looked into the eyes of an elephant, and saw “nothing but fear and hopelessness,” and noticed how she was chained so she could barely walk. He did research and learned how circus animals are beaten, to break their spirit.

That filled him with outrage, which is possibly the most encouraging thing I know about his generation. Most of my students at Wayne State University, many of whom are about his age, aren’t, as far as I can tell, passionate about much of anything. They seem to aspire to own split-levels on Ward Cleaver’s block. For them, “activism” is a term from the ‘60s to memorize before the required U.S. history final.

Yourofsky, who has a bachelor’s degree in journalism himself, doesn’t understand how he could be any other way. “What a pathetic life I must have lived before I heard the cries of the enslaved of the animal kingdom. Activism engulfs me,” he wrote while serving 77 days at a maximum-security detention center.

Yourofsky walks the walk, all right, and not for a few seconds of his mug on the national news. That doesn’t mean he has it all together; he has been living essentially off handouts and has run up tens of thousands of dollars on his credit cards. That’s a prescription for burnout and bankruptcy, not a sound long-term revolutionary strategy.

But he’s in our face, asking the difficult questions. When he was sentenced for freeing those mink two years ago, he said this to the court: “If it is not a crime to torture, enslave and murder animals, then how can it be a crime to free tortured, enslaved and soon-to-be-murdered animals?

Humankind must climb out of its abyss of callousness, apathy and greed.

“Enslaving and killing animals for human satisfaction can never be justified … the millions of manual neck-breakings, anal and genital electrocutions, mass gassings, drownings and toxic chemical injections can never be justified.”

I can’t imagine how anyone could disagree with that. There is room for debate and disagreement on some animal rights questions. When it is clearly a case of our species or theirs, I’d probably part company with Yourofsky. Just as a hungry carnivore might eat me in a pinch, I’d happily gas malaria-carrying mosquitoes to save my butt.

But I can’t think of a more honorable cause than justice for all living things. Check out the animal rights organization Yourofsky founded, at

Footnote: Jim Bristah, founder of Swords into Plowshares, the downtown art gallery devoted to world peace, died last Friday. A reception in his honor will be at the gallery, 33 E. Adams, this Friday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Bristah, who was a longtime crusader against capital punishment, fought long and hard to make this a less insane world.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail

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