the story behind us begins unremarkably, well over a decade ago, with an HBO special, a cat, a dog, lots of dance studios...and an uncommmon kind of mom.
by Brenda Shoss, founder and president, Kinship Circle —
Unlike many activists, I am blessed with a family of big-mouth liberals who possess a basic intolerance for abuse of the innocent. As a teenager, my sister Cara quietly made the link between a once living creature and the pile of cartilage, bones, fat and flesh on her dinner plate. Thoroughly grossed out, she stopped eating chicken. It wasn't long before she gave up all meat, to become the first Shoss vegetarian.
But I was busy. Way too busy to notice. As a Northwestern University dance student and radio-TV-film major, I had pieces to choreograph and statements to film. The Holocaust was a recurring theme in my dance and video compositions. To document a survivor's story for a multi-media project, I visited the home of Magda Aronovitz and her husband every Friday evening for a month.
There I listened to the story of how Magda's husband, presumed dead after asphyxiation in the gas chamber, rode on a conveyer belt headed for the ovens. When another prisoner saw him flinch, he was pulled from the tangle of dead bodies. A downed human,
he rose from the dead to see liberation. He and Magda settled in Skokie, Illinois.
Every Holocaust photo and story — from humans piled in cattle cars and bodies dissolved in acid pits...to burning, ravaged flesh and sunken eyes — found permanent residence in my mind. In my dreams, I was among them terrified, in pain, hopeless. I stitched a yellow Star of David on to my old blue pea coat, in silent testimony.
My sophomore year I choreographed and danced a solo called Chaiyah Shavour
(the Hebrew words for Broken Lives
). I'll never forget the sense of foreboding I felt as I leapt around the rim of the stage to escape my murderers. My anger and need to fix the sweeping injustice and horror inflicted upon 6 million innocent souls never left me. But it evolved. Today I see no difference between treating humans or animals as living trash.
Society has organized animals into convenient slots: This one for food. This one for fashion. This one for research. This one for entertainment. This one for companion. But every single animal wants to live freely, among his or her own kind. It took me awhile to reach this conclusion. Much as I hate to admit it, my mom got there first.
In 1989, while hospitalized for tests, Sammy Shoss literally died. My dad watched as her eyes rolled back and she slumped to the floor. Diagnosed with scleroderma, she experienced simultaneous pulmonary edema and heart failure. In seconds, technicians plugged her into the menagerie of wires and tubes that would sustain her for the next week. When she finally awoke, she saw her three daughters and husband. We explained what had happened, but it was as if she already knew. She told us: "Dead is dead. I saw no bright lights or dark passageways. I didn't bump into long lost relatives. There was only nothingness."
A rabbi told Sammy this event would irreversibly change her life. "How?" she wondered. Over the days on life support, she just prayed to live. Throughout her grueling rehabilitation, she prayed to live. "Money, education or travel no longer mattered," she says. "I realized that if all I wanted was my life, perhaps other creatures did too."
Death was my mother's catalyst. She pledged to never again be a source for the pain and suffering of another living being. She began to purchase cruelty-free cosmetics and household goods. She replaced jewels, furs and leather with animal-free togs and volunteered as a humane educator at area shelters. She eventually found her way to the St. Louis Animal Rights Team (START) where she realized the final hypocrisy — meat — would have to go. Today, she is a righteous grandma who leaves animal rights literature in gas stations, hotels and restaurants across the nation. As an educator, she weaves animal rights philosophy into her lessons.
Her fierce passion caught my dad off guard. A lifelong animal lover (he has this silly language to speak to dogs) he had no problem with the cruelty-free clothes and products...but no meat? Well, specifically, FISH. For a long time he clung to tuna as if it represented the last vestige of his autonomy. Many veggie burgers later, he realized he could survive without fish.
In 1996 my mother and father proudly carried the Missouri state banner in a national animal rights march to the U.S. capitol. "Everyone has a purpose. Animal rights is my heart. Now I know why I am here," my mom says.
Well that's just great mom, but could you quit preaching about it? As Sammy was evolving, I was once again busy. Too busy to notice. When she gave me a subscription to PETA's Animal Times for Chanukkah, I blew up. "Couldn't you just give me a nice little sweater?"
Then it happened. My epiphany. Like all opinionated daughters of equally opinionated mothers, I had to journey to this place on my own. The unceremonious moment occurred in my living room as I restlessly channel-surfed. I landed on HBO merely because I saw some cute dogs on the screen. Little did I know that I had wandered into the now underground (HBO claims it doesn't exist, after corporate flack) To Love Or Kill: Man Versus Animal.
Transfixed, I watched how Americans idolize their "pets," erecting cemeteries, sophisticated doggie cancer centers and kitty MRIs. I learned about pet-death grieving groups and therapists who counsel moody four-leggers. I saw how every storybook, toy and cartoon character a child first embraces is an animal.
Then came the KILL part of the documentary. Horrified, I watched how caged cats and dogs in the Asian meat market are skinned and boiled alive. I watched pigs cut apart in research labs and alert cows dismembered in slaughterhouses. I watched shackled elephants, ripped from the wild and battered bloody.
My world stopped. I clung to my Lhasa Apso, Stanley, and my orange tabby, Tikvah. For some reason, I looked into Stanley's eyes for an answer. What I found was a soul, endless and deep. All the tumult, pain, joy, courage and stamina of the animal kingdom spoke to me through this little creature's eyes. That night, long forgotten cries crushed my indifference. Billions of nameless deaths walked through my apartment. I was awake. I was alive. And my life would never be the same.
Sobbing, I ran to my freezer to confiscate the last remnants of tortured creatures. I was a mascara-mess when I knocked on my neighbors door. "Please take these meat products," I exclaimed. "Whatever," they said, and accepted a frozen chicken and few cans of tuna.
I don't mess around. I went straight to vegan. Full-throttle. Sometimes in life, you just know.
My mom experienced the ultimate I-told-you-so moment when I called her to announce: "I'm in! I'm an animal rights activist. Tell me what I need to do. There is no turning back."
By the following Saturday, I marched with my mom, dad and Stanley outside Washington University Medical School in an anti-vivisection protest. It felt good. Really good. Since then, I've crouched in cages, dangled Meat is Murder
banners, stripped to my skivvies to protest fur, crossed police lines, dressed as a cow, a clown, a pig...and conducted enough media interviews to justify an agent. I've never felt humiliated or afraid — only empowered. My motivation is simple. Animals are not ours to own, exploit, abuse or kill. Oppression, slavery and murder are never right. For any reason.
I believe every activist should put his or her natural skills to work for the animals. To that end, Kinship Circle was formed. I am a writer. I've authored pop psychology columns, health stories, dance concert reviews...But my heart aches to write for the animals.
Watchdog warriors, armed with little more than a hidden camera and indomitable spirit, have exposed suffering inside factory farms, fur ranches, research labs, circuses, zoos, rodeos and puppy mills. Kinship Circle rallies voices worldwide in action campaigns that underscore evidence of abuse and persuade decision-makers inside courtrooms and board rooms. Intelligent words, relentless and unyielding, give animals a voice.
It's a lot of work. But I'm obsessed. And so are you, or you wouldn't have read this far. Our letters have convicted animal abusers with felony penalties. They've helped persuade Louisiana legislators to enact the Pet Evacuation Bill, after hurricane Katrina stranded an estimated 600,000 companion animals in the Gulf Coast.
They've liberated a few more animals from product-testing hell and urged city councils to ban traveling shows with elephants and other exotic animals... There is so much left to accomplish. To achieve legislative and ethical reforms for animals, we can never shut-up. Everyday we must...
bear witness. speak. demand. act.