The Activist's Diary: Tales From The Trenches
by Brenda Shoss
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Ebony strands of sky coiled through downtown St. Louis as Colleen Tilford videotaped a macabre parade. The 28-year-old mom had secured a babysitter so she could accompany Ringling Bros. Circus handlers on their post-performance walk with the elephants. Crouched in the dark, she recorded the ritual march of shackled elephants from the Savvis Center to the loading docks.
Entwined from tail to trunk, the elephants jogged single-file toward the railroad tracks. When one arthritic female stumbled, irate trainers bullied her with formidable voices. "She was physically spent," Tilford recalls. "One trainer drove the sharp edge of his bullhook into the tender flesh behind her leg. Others beat her until she finally heaved her body into the box car."
Why would a housewife and office manager for a health facility risk arrest and jail time to expose animal abuse in circuses? While most people chart a calculable course between errands, work, family and recreation, an activist transcends everyday life to inhabit the unpredictable. Animal rights activists cut across all demographics. They are grandparents, students, and spouses. Chances are, you work, carpool or exercise with someone who dons a cow suit, sits in a cage, writes letters, or even goes to jail--to speak out for animals.
At age 10, Paul Watson released animals caught in the jaws of leghold traps in the woods around his home. Time magazine recently dubbed the Greenpeace co-founder and current president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society a member of "A Century of Heroes" for the planet. The 50-year-old's resume is extraordinary. To unveil covert atrocities inflicted upon ocean wildlife, he has smashed fishing trawlers, rammed whaling ships, and navigated the icy labyrinths where harp seals are clubbed and shot. In 1979 Capt. Watson attacked the Sierra, a pirate vessel notorious for the slaughter of an estimated 25,000 whales. But his defining moment occurred in an inflatable boat off the California coast, where he drifted between a Soviet ship and a pod of whales, hoping to deter the illicit whalers.
"We found out quickly that our idea wouldn't work," Watson recounts. "The harpooner fired over our heads, striking a female whale." Another whale then charged toward the killers' harpoon canon. A single shot sent him reeling directly toward Watson's flimsy craft.
"I caught this whale's eye and I knew he understood what we had tried to do for him" Watson remembers. "He could have easily crushed our boat or seized us in his jaws. He did neither. Instead, with great effort he slid back beneath the waves and died."
Watson later learned the whales were butchered to supply high-heat resistant oil for ballistic missiles. "They destroyed an intelligent and beautiful creature to manufacture a weapon meant for mass extermination. That is when it occurred to me that human beings were insane."
Activists such as Watson possess a basic intolerance for abuse of the innocent. Most claim that a life-altering event led to their ironclad resolve. Death was the catalyst for my mother, Sammy Shoss. Diagnosed with schleroderma and hospitalized in 1989, she experienced simultaneous pulmonary edema and heart failure. During her week on life-support, 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."
Shoss pledged to never again be responsible for the death 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. Today the 65-year-old grandmother is a hit-and-run literature artist who deposits animal rights pamphlets in small-town gas stations, hotels and restaurants across the nation.
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