For as long as I can remember, I have always had a connection with animals. I believe my love of animals was a by-product of being raised a Catholic. I know the Catholic Church is not celebrated for its compassion towards animals and, unlike so many other religions whose belief systems extend to reducing suffering to non-human animals, is silent on the matter of eating meat. However, my father’s name was George F. Lake, and the F stood for Francis. As a student in Catholic school, we were required to learn about the saints and their lives. Upon confirmation, we were to choose a saint to be our advocate in Heaven, even taking the name of that saint and adding it to your own. When I learned that Francis of Assisi was the patron saint of animals, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more. I began to notice urban wildlife more and become more patient with our own household pets. I developed a rabid curiosity about all things animal that has never waned.
My parents, though carnivores, bless their hearts, were animal-lovers and together we visited numerous zoos, sanctuaries, shelters and even pet cemeteries.
When I was 20 years old, I read an article in New Woman magazine about vivisection. In my naiveté, I was shocked and outraged. I didn’t have a clue about industrialized animal cruelty. Shortly after that, I saw a video about puppy mills and my passion for animals took over my life. I became an animal rights activist. I have files filled with carbon-copied letters to all sorts of people, corporations, politicians and anyone else responsible for harming animals. This was long, long before the Internet and my source for animal issues was literature provided by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PeTA, and the Humane Society of the United States, HSUS. It was all very graphic and filled me with righteous indignation. I began to attend every animal rights conference, workshop or seminar I could and it was there where I found kindred spirits. I was no longer just an activist, I was part of a movement.
I attended the Animal Rights March on Washington in the early 90s, and have been to Washington D.C. more times than I can count to lobby on behalf of all sorts of animal issues. I became a vegetarian in the early 80s, and a vegan shortly thereafter.
As a creative thinker, I was never any good at most of the jobs in which I found myself. I went to state college to become a paralegal and worked in law offices. With my total focus on the problems of animals, I found the petty problems of people disheartening. While caring for my mother who was dying of breast cancer, I became enamored with the hospice nurses. This inspired me to go back to school to become a medical assistant. Now, instead of lawyers, I was working for doctors. I was still not fulfilled, so I went to work at a shelter as a vet tech because, when you get right down to it, the anatomy, pharmacology and physiology of non-human animals is virtually the same as it is for humans. The shelter for which I worked sent me to the University Of Missouri Animal Cruelty Investigation School and I became a state-certified cruelty officer.
Throughout all of these phases, I never tired of advocating for animals and being at their service. In my determination to educate everyone with whom I came into contact, I lost a lot of friends. I found the only people to whom I could truly relate were those who felt the same way I did and thus began to build a circle of animal-loving friends. The animal-rights movement was my life. I saw everything through the lenses and filters of the movement. I was probably a real pain in the ass to most people and I knew it; but I was wildly zealous and didn’t care about anything but animal rights.
They say that you can’t unring a bell. Once you know something, you can’t un-know it. Through trillions of tears, I watched every second of every video, read every story and poured over pictures all depicting animal cruelty. I was determined to learn all I could about factory farming, animals in entertainment, animal experimentation, fur farming, fur trapping, hunting, domesticated animals, marine mammals, animal sacrificing and ongoing legislation be it for or against animal interests. I admit I was fuming most of the time, and when I tried to discuss these issues with friends I met outside the movement, I was met with cold shoulders and apathy. The standard reply to my attempts at educating friends was usually “I don’t want to know.” I didn’t want to know either, but, as I said, you can’t un-know something. And once you know, how can you not act?
I have always been a writer. As a child I journaled frequently and felt it was the one talent I had to offer. I can’t draw or paint. I play the guitar but not very well and my singing is mediocre, albeit loud. Writing is therapeutic. It’s my go-to source of comfort as I attempt to keep my sanity while dealing with insane cruelty. So is chocolate, drinking and drugs.
Before the Internet there weren’t many writing outlets so I sent hundreds of letters to the editor of several newspapers, all of which, I am proud to say, were published. Then I began to send articles to magazines and newsletters. I researched through boxes of literature from a variety of animal-advocacy organizations and then wrote about them.
I was hired by the Animal Rights Foundation as a paralegal to the in-house counsel and it was there I first learned about the power of the Internet. I hooked up with other activists around the country and became a writer for one of the first major online animal newsletters, Animal Writes. I founded a newsletter of my own. The Prayer Alliance for Animals and had a circulation of about a thousand readers who, every Friday, would receive information via email about a particular animal issue. Having everyone focus on one issue and praying for, or, if you prefer, sending positive energy, to the animals at issue was inspiring.
I began organizing and attending protests wherever necessary and became the “local animal-rights activist” when local media outlets needed an opinion on an animal-related story.
In 2001 I founded Animals 101, Inc. and became a humane educator. I served on the board of directors for the Association of Professional Humane Educators and traveled around the country visiting shelters in other states, keeping abreast of our movement and learning how to be an effective educator. Through Animals 101, I offered humane education programs to schools all over South Florida. I went into classrooms, accompanied by a certified therapy dog, and taught kids about responsibility towards animals, reading canine body language, dog fighting and other animal-related topics. I also offered animal-assisted therapy to patients in hospitals, prisoners and special needs students. This may appear as a detour from animal rights but stay with me on this. The interactions with animals promoted the animal/human bond and got people thinking about animals. For example, if a person who interacted with a friendly and patient therapy animal were to see a news report about animal cruelty involving a dog, perhaps they would be more likely to speak out and once hooked on canine love, perhaps make the connection to other animals. It could happen.
The Internet caused a paradigm shift in publishing. I began writing and publishing hundreds of articles about animals. My first book, Hospice Hounds, is a compilation of stories about visiting hospice patients. My subsequent books were a result of that first publication. In the days where people still read actual books it was difficult for a writer to find a publisher or literary agent. Once I managed to get one book published, the field was more welcoming.
Sometimes I see my passion for animals as a burden. I see other people eating meat and wearing leather and don’t understand their apathy to the pain and suffering they cause by their own choices. Oblivion and indifference must be nice. But mostly, my passion for animals has been a true blessing. It has brought me every good thing that has happened in my life, including my privilege to write for About.com and interact with thoughtful readers whose curiosity is rivaled only by my own.
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of several books including HOSPICE HOUNDS, Animals and Healing at the Borders of Death (Lantern Books); CANINES IN THE CLASSROOM, Raising Humane Children through Interactions with Animals;(Lantern Books) DO DOGS HAVE BELLY BUTTONS? 100 Questions and Answers about Dogs(Adams Media); THE SIMPLE LITTLE VEGAN SLOW COOKER and THE SIMPLE LITTLE VEGAN DOG BOOK(Book Publishers, Inc.), ON DOGS AND DYING (Purdue University Press) and a novel, The Belly of the Whale (Amazon). She is also an essayist and has been published in the vegetarian essay book Voices from the Garden. She is a freelance writer/editor as well as a Humane Educator and R.E.A.D tutor. Michelle is a past blogger for PetaPrime.org and a frequent blogger for The Flaming Vegan.
She has two registered Pet Partners therapy dogs: Fiona, a poodle/bichon mix, and Tabitha, a standard poodle. She resides in South Florida with her two dogs, three cats, five goldfish and her husband John.
Associates Degree in Paralegal Studies Palm Beach State College and the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty Investigation School
It's not about loving animals; it's about respect. Not all self-appointed animal lovers believe in animal rights. Not all animal-rights activists necessarily love animals. You don't have to love a minority to believe in their rights, do you? It's the same with animals. Our movement is not about loving animals, it's about respecting their right to make their way in the world unfettered by human involvement and free from cruelty, abuse and exploitation.