Mary Finelli felt like a salmon swimming upstream when she launched the then controversial organization Fish Feel in 2013. At that time Fishes were not a real consideration, even for those who considered themselves members of the animal protection movement, "they were sorely overlooked," says Mary.
In Mary’s words, “I became annoyed by people giving the number of animals exploited for food without even including fishes despite their constituting the greatest number of them by far.”
In 2023, to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of FARM’s World Day for Farmed Animals (WDFA) which occurs each year on October 2, we are joining Mary in shining a spotlight on the wondrous lives of Aquatic Animals. As part of FARM’s mission, it is our hope that more people will consider the sentient lives of Fishes and better understand their place in the world we share with them.
Mary took time out of her busy schedule to chat with us and share her uplifting story.
Our upbringing can have a significant impact on the adults we become and how we perceive the world around us, including the plight of animals. Do you believe your childhood experiences led you to be an advocate for non-human animals?
I had a difficult childhood. My father had rage issues, and we lived in a state of fear of him. My mother was wonderful, though. I believe I largely developed my sense of compassion for nonhuman animals from her. I have 3 older brothers and 2 younger sisters, and though we are very close, unfortunately, none of them are vegan or even vegetarian. They are supportive of my efforts in other ways, though.
At what age did you become vegetarian/vegan?
I’ve been enthralled by animals all of my life. I think it was because of the oppressive state I was raised in that I developed such empathy with them. I hate unfairness, injustice, and cruelty, and nonhuman animals are the biggest victims of it. If I wasn’t devoting my life to helping them I would devote it to helping abused children and women. So, I always wanted to help animals, and by the time I was a teen (if not earlier), I was troubled about eating them. After reading Diet for a Small Planet (and a biography of Mahatma Gandhi), I became vegetarian (around the age of 15).
After reading Animal Liberation, about 10 years later, I became vegan in 1986. Here is a chapter I have in Vegan Voices that discusses this.
How was vegetarianism/veganism introduced to you?
In the mid-1980s, I became aware of the animal rights movement. It was what I’d been dreaming of! I joined the local animal rights group: Lehigh Valley Animal Rights Coalition, and in 1986 I moved to the D.C. area to do animal rights activism full-time. There was a sizable community of a.r. advocates here, which was very helpful.
Describe some of the struggles, if any, you’ve encountered along your vegan journey.
Not being able to effectively articulate the arguments for animal rights was very frustrating but I read extensively about them, seeking out any valid arguments against them (which I have yet to find), and increasingly developed my ability to advocate for animals.
For new activists, I would suggest AAM. Of course there is always the power of the internet. Communicate with other activists who have more experience than you. Move the Message by Josephine Bellaccomo. I would also suggest considering Vegan Toastmasters, the many videos by Earthling Ed and of course Joey Carbstrong.
What is the most significant benchmark experience you have had that has helped to shape your life?
Moving here and engrossing myself in animal rights advocacy has been most significant. Also, deciding to not have children enabled me to be free to devote myself to animal rights advocacy.
Let’s give our readers something you have never opened up about. What can you share with us here that has never been revealed before that you feel will inspire others? This can be a joyous or sad event.
By nature, I’ve been a very shy, introverted person. I’ve tried to avoid confrontation, and public speaking has been a real challenge. My passion for animal rights has compelled me to largely overcome it.
What other activists inspire you or have inspired you?
I’m inspired by so many activists, far too many to name. A few who come to mind are:
Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns has been a mentor of sorts to me. I’ve been very fortunate to have a close relationship with her, and her staunch, passionate, intelligent advocacy is a great inspiration.
I have particular admiration for early activists, like Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Hershaft (and Karen!), who promoted animal rights when the movement was viewed as a joke by the public. People who helped develop the arguments and strategies to advance animal rights. Also, activists, like Walt Rave, risked and endured public ridicule to boldly advocate for animals. Activists who have risked arrest to act for animals, and the unsung activists who toil away for animals solely because they are compelled by their concern and compassion to do so, especially those ‘on the front lines’: in rural areas or other places where people tend to be very hostile towards the concept of animal rights.
What is an average day for you?
I spend most of the day behind the computer: reading/researching, writing, responding to comments and inquiries, and posting information.
When did you launch Fish Feel?
A decade ago in 2013.
What is the inspiring story behind the launch?
I’d been involved in animal rights advocacy for about 30 years. I’ve always wanted to help the most animals in the most effective ways I can. Henry Spira had pointed out that farmed animals were by far the greatest number of abused animals, so I’d been focusing on them. Though I was guilty of it, too, fish suffering was largely ignored, even by the animal protection community, despite their being subjected to some of the worst abuses. Even the animal rights community was being so speciesist toward fishes!
I was heavily inspired by Do Fish Feel Pain? published in 2010 by the late Victoria Braithwaite and later on in 2016 the NY Times best-selling book by Jonathan Balcombe What A Fish Knows was released…fishes were having their moment and coming into the spotlight.
At the same time, technologies were being developed to study fishes in their natural habitat. We learned fishes could learn from each other, remember each other, and identify each other as well as human faces. We also learned they do care for their young in many ways including building nests. They have their own mating rituals, and courting rituals, and do interact with other species. We began to recognize their intelligence and social skills.
Before this people didn’t think they were capable of any of this. So, we decided to start Fish Feel.
Were there any challenges?
There are so many fish issues (e.g., fishing, fish farming, experimentation, aquaria, etc.), and so many people don’t even think that fishes can feel! It’s not unlike where chickens were 30 years ago, with even some prominent advocates saying it would be too hard to get the public to care about them. It’s our mission as activists to get people to care about animals: all animals.
When Fish Feel started, I knew relatively little about fishes, so it’s been a steep learning curve. The more I learn about them the more appreciative I am of them. They are truly amazing, admirable beings who continually inspire me.
How did you overcome the challenges?
I’m still working on it! While things have improved for fishes in that people are increasingly learning the truth about them, and advocacy is increasing for them, we really are still at ground zero in regard to the public’s perception of fishes. For example, society is still praising and rewarding people for torturing/killing fishes for ‘fun,’ fishes are excluded from most animal protection laws, and many people think vegetarians eat fish. Many people don’t even consider fish to be animals!
Fortunately, many people and organizations have been very receptive to and supportive of Fish Feel.
Are there any other organizations or individuals who are focused on educating the public about fishes?
One of the objectives of Fish Feel is to get other animal protection organizations to increase/initiate their advocacy for fish. PETA is an organization that has already been significantly advocating for them, and some others have begun to do so. Much of the latter is ‘welfare’ oriented, though, rather than ‘rights’ oriented.
As one of the most underestimated and misunderstood animals in the world, how do fishes fit into animal rights and industrial farming, when compared to cows, pigs, and others that receive much more attention?
An astronomical number of wild-caught fishes are used as feed for farmed animals (including farmed fishes)*, and fishes comprise a far larger number of farmed animals than farmed mammals and birds combined.**
Farmed fishes tend to be subjected to much longer periods of cruel exploitation than other farmed animals, and fishes have virtually no legal protection, being excluded from even the skimpy laws that do cover some farmed animals (e.g., the Humane Slaughter Act). Two great articles that exemplify this information is The Fish We Kill to Feed the Fish We Eat, How Many Animals Does a Vegetarian Save, and Animals We Use and Abuse for Food We Do Not Eat.
The popularity and public acceptance of so-called recreational fishing, including among children, causes people to have less respect for animals in general and makes them more accepting of cruel exploitation of them.
Let’s provide activists with some resources on how they can successfully incorporate Fishes into their advocacy.
They can of course follow Fish Feel. We provide fact sheets, pages for activists, a kid’s page, vegan seafood resources, and more. There is also World Day for the End of Fishing, Fish Count, and Respect for Fish Day.
What keeps you physically and mentally motivated?
Knowing how sensitive and perceptive fishes –and the countless other animals who are harmed by fishing- are, how immensely they suffer, and how desperately they need our help.
In what ways are you a different person today because of your activism?
I’ve been an activist for so much of my life that it’s hard to imagine what I’d be like if I hadn’t been an activist. While it has been (and is) very consuming and has in ways been a source of anxiety, aggravation, and grief, it has made me a much more assertive person, and being able to act on behalf of these victims is a great benefit for my mental health.
I also feel very fortunate to be in a community of people who I consider to be the best in the world: those acting to help the world’s most vulnerable and abused beings: nonhuman animals.
I am so grateful for my fellow activists, and for living during the commencement of the animal rights movement.
Please describe the other organizations, if any, you have been affiliated with.
Lehigh Valley Animal Rights Coalition was the first animal rights group I was active in, and I am so glad it existed. I moved here (Maryland) in 1986 to volunteer with PETA and soon after was hired. I subsequently worked for Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), and the National Alliance for Animal Legislation, and then returned to college for my degree in animal science. Afterwards, I worked in the Farm Animal section of HSUS, from 1992-1999. I then worked for United Poultry Concerns, and then the Washington Humane Society. Next, I wrote Farmed Animal Watch, an online news digest, which was a project of Animal Place and sponsored by numerous animal protection organizations. I then founded Fish Feel, and I chair the Save the [Cownose] Ray Coalition. I have volunteered with a number of other organizations, including Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary.
Please name the top 3 life lessons you have learned thus far being an activist.
- Educate yourself about the issues you care about, and with credible information.
- Be selective with whom you associate.
- Try to be patient, understanding, tenacious, and assertive.
What do you think of the present state of the AR movement and the vegan community?
I think we have made remarkable progress considering the relatively short time our movement has existed and the immenseness of what we are up against. I am concerned that a substantial segment is moving in the animal ‘welfare’ direction. While I consider welfare measures to be necessary and important, we need to keep animal liberation as the goal. The emphasis on ‘welfare’ can be a distraction and hindrance to it.
I am also concerned that the focus on human (identity) issues within the animal rights community is allowed to supersede the focus on nonhuman animal issues, causing needless strife and setting back animal advocacy.
How important is veganism to planet Earth’s future? Why?
I consider veganism to be crucial to the future of life on Earth. Animal exploitation (including fishing) is extremely detrimental environmentally, including with the climate crises and human overpopulation.
Additionally, if humans refuse to treat other animals with the respect they deserve, I’d rather our species didn’t survive. It’s egregiously unfair and wrong that we are needlessly causing them to suffer so, and causing so many other species to become extinct.
What are some events that you have attended where you’ve also had an opportunity to educate?
I’ve attended and presented at a number of the National Animal Rights Conferences, at a UPC Eating with Conscience conference, at National Animal Rights Day events (in NYC and DC), at a few Veggie Pride Parades, at a number of vegfests, and at an Animal Activism Mentorship event. While at HSUS, and with UPC, I attended various animal industry conferences, speaking at some of them, and I gave a presentation to a Tuft’s University veterinary class. I’ve testified before federal and state congressional committees. I’ve done a number of radio interviews, and given Zoom presentations to various groups, and I was also a panel member of a Dark Hobby presentation for Respect for Fish Day.
What advice do you have for young activists just getting started in the movement?
- Learn the issues to be able to effectively advocate for animals.
- Get acquainted with other animal advocates/activists. Moral support is essential for our mental health, knowledge, and confidence.
- Know that animal rights is right, regardless of public opposition to them, and that the ethical argument for them is irrefutable.
- Be demanding but patient, be realistic about what we can expect to accomplish in the short term, and don’t cave in to ‘welfarism.’
- Try to focus on the issue(s) you are most interested in/concerned about. Don’t spread yourself too thin.
- Take care of yourself, too! It’s hard to be persuasive if you appear a wreck. Be a good model of veganism: show others how healthy, happy, good-natured, and sensible vegans can be.
- Try to be patient and understanding with non-vegans, bearing in mind that almost all of us once were one. If need be, explain to them as you would explain to a young child.
- Don’t alienate yourself. For example, family ties tend to be important, so it can be best to agree to disagree with loved ones if need be.
- Don’t waste time, energy, or effort arguing with close-minded people.
What advice do you have for activists who are frustrated with the movement?
- Take a break if you need it.
- Try to spend at least a little time every day doing things you enjoy.
- Confide your concerns with animal advocates/activists you trust.
- Keep trying – the state of the world is not your fault and no one expects you to save all animals. Do what you can for those you can. You can accomplish a lot working independently.
What would you change about the movement and how we interact with each other?
- More respect and civility. Give others fair consideration rather than just going along with mob mentality.
- Keep the focus on nonhuman animals!
- More interest in animal issues than in vegan foods.
What are some additional challenges you feel the movement and the vegan community are experiencing?
- Dilution of veganism.
- Acceptance/promotion of cell-cultivated animal products.
- Enlisting members of the environmental/conservation community.
Any advice for vegans when they are judged and criticized by friends, family, and co-workers?
- Give due consideration to their criticisms (i.e., is there any validity to it?).
- If possible, think it over before reacting/responding.
- If possible, discuss it with vegans whose opinion you respect.
- Don’t cave if you believe you are right.
- Try to keep cool and respond sensibly and intelligently.
- Try to stay on good terms but if necessary request they agree to disagree and drop it.
- If need be, try to distance yourself from them.
What frustrates you the most about your work? How do you overcome it?
We never feel like we have enough time! I would also recommend trying to get others to act rather than request that I do and prioritize and be realistic in what I can take on.
It’s always triage here!
Do you experience compassion fatigue? How do you self-care?
I suffer from empathitis. I try to limit disturbing things I see/hear to those I can realistically do something significant about. I try to not think too deeply about disturbing things in order to protect my psyche and not get overly depressed.
I cuddle my cats and feel gratitude that I can give them the comfort, safety, care, and love I wish all animals had.
I garden, which I love to do.
Are you willing to talk about any new projects on the horizon for you?
Would rather keep them under wraps until their initiation.
Please provide any social media you would like to offer so people can follow you and learn from your journey.
And a great film to watch? The Dark Hobby (trailer below).