A Voice for the Voiceless: Leaders of the Animal Rights Revolution

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In May 2019, the United Nations released a report warning that biodiversity on the planet was in a dangerously fast global decline. The report claimed around a million animal and plant species were under threat of extinction, the highest number in human history.

Animals can’t speak for themselves about threats to their survival, but some people have made it their life’s mission to protect Earth’s biodiversity. These researchers, activists and artists are leaders in the animal rights revolution and provide a voice for the planet’s beautiful endangered creatures.

Dr. Anne Innis Dagg

Dr. Anne Innis Dagg first fell in love with giraffes after a visit to her local zoo. In the 1950s, Dagg traveled alone to South Africa to observe giraffes in their native habitat. She was the first person to study giraffes in the wild and the first person to study wild animals in Africa.

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It wasn’t easy to begin her research. Government officials from African countries denied her requests to study, with some noting the work wasn’t meant for a woman. Determined to learn about giraffes, Dagg signed her signature “A. Innis,” tricking a local farmer into thinking she was a man. Dagg could finally begin her research.

Dagg would spend 10 hours a day in the African bush studying the behavior of giraffes. She learned countless behavioral traits, including what the animals ate and how routinely males engaged in homosexual behavior. Her years of field research culminated in her 1976 book The Giraffe: Its Biology, Behavior and Ecology. It is still considered the foundational text for all there is to know about giraffes. In 2018, Dagg’s lifetime commitment to giraffe biology and preservation was celebrated in the documentary The Woman Who Loves Giraffes.

Benjamin Zephaniah

Zephaniah is an acclaimed playwright, novelist, actor and social justice leader. It wasn’t until he read poems about “shimmering fish floating in an underwater paradise” and “birds flying free in the clear blue sky” that the artist took interest in animal rights.

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In August 2007, Zephaniah launched his “Animal Liberation Project” exhibit in collaboration with PETA. His mission was to point out the similarities between human injustices of the past and the treatment of animals in today’s modern society.

His juxtaposition of images depicting child labor and human slavery with images of factory farming and animal experimentation challenged attendees’ relationships with animals. It’s an abstract approach to fighting for the lives of animals, but art can be a driving force in social change.

Dame Jane Goodall, DBE

Jane Goodall is the world’s expert on chimpanzees. For over 55 years, Goodall has devoted her life to studying social interactions of chimps, starting from her first trip to Tanzania in 1960. Before she had the scientific training to influence her research, Goodall observed chimps as social creatures. Her methods revolutionized the ways we look at primates today.

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Instead of assigning numbers to the chimps, she gave them names and identified their personality traits. Goodall discovered how alike humans and chimpanzees are, from hugging and kissing to displaying emotions like joy and sorrow. She remains the only human to join a chimpanzee society, belonging to a community for 22 months.

Throughout her years of advocacy, Goodall founded the Jane Goodall Institute, which promotes understanding and protection of great apes and their habitats. She also serves on the board of the Nonhuman Rights Project and is an official UN Messenger of Peace.

Howard Lyman

Howard Lyman came from a long line of farmers. As a fourth-generation farmer, Lyman produced dairy, chicken, beef and pork to continue his family’s legacy. In 1979, everything changed when Lyman’s doctors found a tumor in his spine. He swore that, if he survived the operation to remove the tumor, he would transform his land into a chemical-free organic farm.

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Committed to staying healthy, Lyman eventually went vegetarian and then vegan after noticing that his health improved. In April 1996, Lyman gained national attention after appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He warned Oprah’s viewers how dangerous beef-production practices were for consumers. Oprah quit hamburgers for good on that episode.

He later converted his farmland into a wildlife sanctuary and now travels the world to talk about veganism and animal rights. When asked why he changed his career, Lyman responded, “Everything I’d believed in my entire life was at risk because there I was with a business built on killing animals.”

Dr. Sangduen “Lek” Chailert

As of 2016, Northern Thailand had fewer than 3,000 wild elephants living in the forests. At the same time, roughly 4,000 were living in captivity. Sangduen “Lek” Chailert grew up in Northern Thailand around the horrific abuse many domestic local elephants endured.

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In the mid-1990s, Chailert created the Elephant Nature Park and the Save Elephant Foundation, which fights for the rights of elephants. Since starting her foundation, Chailert has rescued 200 abused elephants in the area. Many of them arrive at her sanctuary with psychological trauma and physical ailments like broken legs or shattered eyes.

Chailert helps them first feel safe at her sanctuary and allows them to rediscover simple joys. Tourists can come to her sanctuary to bathe and feed them, but not ride or abuse them. She’s lovingly referred to throughout Thailand as the “Elephant Whisperer.”

Dr. Eugenie Clark

Dr. Eugenie Clark was an early pioneer in marine conservation efforts. Affectionately nicknamed “The Shark Lady,” Clark was most recognized for her study of shark behavior and for her efforts to improve their reputation in the media.

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A veteran deep diver, Clark pursued underwater excavations into her 90s. Three species of fish are named after her lifelong study of marine life, but her main focus was always on sharks. She notably dispelled the rumor that sharks had to keep moving to stay alive by finding sleeping sharks off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

But no time was as challenging for her aquatic friends than in 1975 after the release of the movie Jaws. Sharks were getting an awful reputation for being savage hunters hellbent on eating humans. She famously penned an article in National Geographic called “Sharks: Magnificent and Misunderstood” to take a bite out of the nasty rumors.