Exclusive: Earthlings' Shaun Monson On New Iberia Research Center And More
Every now and then a movie comes out that changes our world in a big way. No, I’m not talking about Paris Hilton’s The Hottie and the Nottie.
The film Earthlings was released in 2005 and for the past 4 years has opened many eyes to the horrific ways animals are treated in our society.
Often refered to as “the vegan maker,” Earthlings is a feature length documentary about humanity’s absolute dependence on animals and our complete disrespect for these so-called “non-human providers.” The film is narrated by Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix and features music by the critically acclaimed platinum artist Moby.
I recently had the chance to chat with Earthlings director Shaun Monson and pick his brain on some of today’s hottest topics. Check out the interview below.
Ecorazzi: First off, what inspired you to create Earthlings?
Shaun Monson: I got the idea because I was filming some public service announcements. It was mostly domestic animals, dogs and cats, and when they were killed on the street or euthanized in the shelters, they were put into this room that resembles a large refrigerator. But when I saw them piled up in there, it suddenly made me think of meat in a refrigerator. Even though they looked nothing like meat, there was this parallel – dead animals kept in a fridge – and that made me think of cows and chickens and pigs and eggs and milk, and so on. That was the beginning of Earthlings really, the first spark of inspiration.
So instead of making a couple of public service announcements on one issue (in this case spaying and neutering domestic pets), it began to encompass food. And as I thought more about food, then it was like, “Well, hang on a second, what about clothes?” And it grew from there. Of course then I felt overwhelmed about how I couldn’t do it, how vast the subject matter was, how problematic, and who was I to make this film, there’s simply too much information, etc., etc. But that’s how it began. And all I could do was just work on it until it was done.
E: I held a screening of Earthlings on World Vegetarian Day this past year for 40 omnivores and five out of the 40 went either vegetarian or vegan and are still rocking the diet today. How do you feel about making a movie that’s so inspiring?
SM: Grateful. I’m glad it’s having a positive effect.
E: Obviously you’ve witnessed a massive amount of animal cruelty in your lifetime. Tell me your thoughts on the HSUS’ investigation of the New Iberia Research Center.
SM: I think this struck a nerve for people because the victims in this case were chimpanzees. You’ve probably noticed that humankind is empathetic toward some animals, such as dogs, cats, swans, polar bears, dolphins, or chimps, but then apathetic toward others, like cows, pigs, chickens, lobsters, or houseflies. In that regard this was an especially effective investigation.
But this particular case is similar to other large-scale industrial and commercial animal abuse that comes to the public’s attention because it shows once again that it’s critically important to document what goes on behind the curtain. Earthlings relied on these people as well as HSUS and other groups like PETA, Farm Sanctuary, Last Chance for Animals, Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and the Humane Farming Association to provide footage. I really am in awe of these people who are brave enough to go inside, witness it firsthand, participate in it, and document it. Keep in mind undercover investigators work for months before they can even think of bringing a camera into a research lab, a circus, an animal dealer or a slaughterhouse.
E: We’ve seen such massive mistreatment of animals in vivisection laborites all across the country. But what do you say to those who believe it’s worth experimenting on animals if it helps save human lives?
SM: It is something of a specious argument since the majority of animal experimentation is done for personal care or household products like cosmetics and cleaners. It is not necessary under U.S. law; neither the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act nor the Consumer Product Safety Commission requires cosmetics or household products to be animal-tested. It’s no sacrifice to buy cruelty-free shampoo or dish soap, so it is easy to oppose. That’s where I’d start the conversation.
What’s challenging for many people is questioning their belief system about the role of animal experimentation in the medical world. The hypothetical statement “if animal testing helps find life-saving cures” is not only misleading, but dualistic – in other words, one being must suffer so another can benefit. We need to get beyond this perception. This animal experimentation is rarely done to find cures, it is for drugs that alleviate symptoms of diseases. It is a law that pharmaceuticals be tested on animals before any human trials are undertaken, so it’s primarily done because it’s the law, not because it’s effective or assures us that a drug is safe. There are technical and scientific limitations of animal experimentation in terms of translating it to human biology. By the same token, some drugs tested on men have proven to have very different effects on women.
Organizations like PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) have done extraordinary work generating awareness of alternatives to animal experimentation that are more effective and more sophisticated. This is the kind of research people interested in medical science or life-saving cures should be promoting.
E: What advice would you give for people out there who want to get more involved in ending animal cruelty on a local level?
SM: One of the best things we can do is focus on the issue where we are, because it’s indigenous to us. It’s local, it’s our hometown, it’s our culture, our native land, so start there, naturally. Spain is known for its bullfighting, so many of the activists I meet there focus almost exclusively on bullfighting, which they hope to eradicate. In Canada there are many people dedicated to ending the fishing industry’s government-sanctioned seal hunt. Many communities have come together to oppose building animal research labs inside their city limits. Other people can be inspired to organize a boycott of a local pet store selling puppies from puppy mills.
E: In Earthlings you worked with Persia White — a friend of the site — and Joaquin Phoenix. Do you believe that celebrity involvement is an important part of spreading awareness about animal issues?
SM: Well, of course. Bringing in popular faces helps promote issues, especially for people who might not otherwise watch a documentary with a subject matter like this. But when people see someone they recognize or like, they often regard it a little differently or allow themselves a chance to look at it.
E: Are you currently working on any new films?
SM: Unity is the sequel to Earthlings. We’re working on it now and hoping to have it finished in the winter of 2009.
I mentioned duality earlier. Unity presents an understanding of the world that doesn’t rely on opposites – us and them, human and nonhuman, war and peace, rich and poor, this and that, is and isn’t, etc., hence the title. It’s challenging for humans to see and embrace unity when we’ve been trained quite differently, but there are encouraging signs indicating we’re ready to explore a new way of perceiving one another.
Recently we recorded Unity as an audiobook, and even at this early stage we are getting great responses to the advanced copies sent out, His Holiness the Dalai Lama being one of them. The audiobook should be available online by the time you read this interview. At least we hope so.
E: I always end with the same question for all the famous vegetarians I interview. If you had the chance to meet one person who you’ve found specifically instrumental in the vegetarian community – dead or alive, past or present – who would it be and why?
SM: I probably lean toward the past because so many interesting names come to mind. In the last century, for instance, we have Albert Einstein, who basically said our survival as a race depends on going vegetarian. 500 years before that we have Leonardo da Vinci, who went so far as to compare the murdering of animals to the murdering of men. And about two thousand years before that there’s Hippocrates, the Greek philosopher who advocated milk-exclusion diets and vegan eating. I just love these early vegetarians, all those individuals who lived life in such a way, and long before it was ever popular.
A big thank you to Shaun Monson for taking the time to share his thoughts. Truly, Earthlings is perhaps one of the most powerful, life-changing movies I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t already, visit Earthlings.com and pick up a copy today. You won’t regret it.