Spring is in the air! The flowers are blooming, the birds are chirping and we are celebrating another great individual who has dedicated her entire life to animal rights.
We have celebrated a wonderful Sanctuary in Washington, a vegan matchmaker, a school food trailblazer and this month we go to the heart of the animal rights movement, the activist.
In my search for an activist; and there are many, this person stood out for several reasons. Her style of activism, attention to her fellow activists and how she has demonstrated courage beyond belief; a testament to her dedication.
I interviewed Wren Steele and was blown away by the profound thought she has put into her activism and how she is always thinking about the best approach to capture the attention of those she tries to address at her events.
Wren’s childhood was far from vegan. She grew up in a rural area around hunting and learned that killing was a kindness. Taught to objectify animals, at a tender age she was gifted a book about animals who are “here to serve humans.” Her immediate family didn’t recognize animal sentience at all. Eating meat and wearing animal skin was normal and encouraged.
As a young woman she married a man who had a very different upbringing. She was exposed to his family who respected animals and saw things differently than her own. This opened her mind to change.
Cheerio – A Feathered Friend
It was the adoption of a boy named Cheerio that began her transition. She and her husband began studying birds. While living and communicating with Cheerio they started to make the connection between their new family member and the wild birds who lived around them.
While driving Wren saw a bumper sticker on the back of the car in front of her: If you love animals, why do you eat them? “This struck me because of how it was phrased,” Wren said. She arrived at home and asked her husband, why are we eating animals if we love them? Three months later they removed everything non-vegan from their home except one item.
“The acquisition of new items is the issue.
You are wearing a body part of an individual whom you respect.
We wouldn’t do that with human skin or hair.”
In relinquishing her last item, a favorite pair of leather hiking boots she donated them to someone she knew wasn’t receptive to veganism and thereby avoiding another animal product purchase by that person. Very smart indeed!
By 2000 she surrounded herself with people doing activism work.
“Continuing to learn is the key to being vegan.”
“Being vegan is not the final destination.”
“You continue to expand your awareness of compassion”
The first person to truly inspire her was Jessica Fomalont, well known in the Washington DC area and the host of the Farm Sanctuary Walkathon, the first vegan event Wren ever attended. Jessica did a lot of work with United Poultry Concerns and inspired Wren to begin volunteering. This is when she was introduced to Mary Zoeter from Action for Animals Network, a grassroots group in Alexandria, VA. And, finally, Holly Sternberg who quickly became Wren’s mentor. Holly was responsible for the weekly protests at Petland in Fairfax, VA. She held these weekly for almost two years. As a volunteer Wren soaked up as much information as she could. Wren names Holly Sternberg as the person responsible for her transition. Holly exposed her to a lot about the animal rights movement and was instrumental in molding what is now Wren’s extremely pervasive perspective on animal rights.
By 2004 she and her family were 100% vegan.
Leading by example is what inspires Wren and this is how she impacts others around her.
She protested in Alexandria, VA., inspired by an organization who tabled at environmental events she read every leaflet she could get her hands on and talked to everyone willing to share their experience. She attended vegan living programs done by Open Cages Alliance and volunteered for several other events done by many organizations.
When she started developing her own style of activism things really started to come together.
Wren with Ginny and Luna
With a mindful intent she asked herself, “How do you do the most good?” This, she claims, is what every activist should ask themselves.
“Identify what you are called to do and determine what your strengths are”
For Wren it was entertainment and materials.
She began moving away from doing single issue campaigns. A long journey of transformation. Honing her skills and attention to what she is most passionate about.
In Spring, what had always been her favorite time of year, had now become a source of intense stress and frustration. This was when Ringling Brothers came to town. This shook her to the core as she knew what that meant. The very idea of what was happening was her driving force. She witnessed other activists yelling, don’t hurt the elephants! Don’t abuse the tigers! Her approach was much more thoughtful and intentional.
With her very expensive and powerful bullhorn in a calm and compassionate voice:
“Every earthling has an inherent right to live free from exploitation and other avoidable harms. When they are used by the entertainment industry they are subjected to daily systematic abuse.”
She tells stories of individual animals, using their names to get through to the crowds along with non-use messages. She has coordinated speak-outs for two non-stop hours.
“I noticed the crowd would respond and be more receptive to my style,” she says. Advising other activists to not turn off the audience by blaming them.
She encourages pre-emptive leafleting, months before the circus arrives, being careful as not to promote the circus by mentioning any dates or locations.
Distributing intelligently written leaflets saying “Thank you for attending animal-free circuses”
She helped coordinate Huntington Life Sciences (HLS) campaigns with a local grassroots group who was trying to put an end to HLS, a private animal testing facility which kills 500 animals per week performing vivisection. She would go to the homes of primary, secondary, and tertiary contractors and tell them to stop doing business with HLS. She attended street protests, continued leafletting, marched in parades, passed out food samples, visited people’s homes, and lobbied for animals in any way she could. She has even spent an entire evening guarding a deer all night long to protect her from losing her land to the transportation department.
In 2008 she was an intricate part of legally prohibiting animal shelters in Virginia from using gas to kill shelter animals. “It took three years of lobbying but we got it passed.”
Words are paramount! Language is vital!
She clarifies the euthanasia issue by questioning the word.
She asks a very provocative question. “Why are we saying euthanasia? It is not euthanasia. Euthanasia is a mercy killing for a victim who cannot be healed. What we are talking about here is execution! Language is powerful and should not be bastardized for people who don’t want to consume the truth. It is not about judgement it is about accuracy. It is about using language to elevate those who need it.”
There is a certain wisdom to her perspective. She acknowledges that; for instance indigenous people who simply and legitimately cannot live a vegan lifestyle due to circumstances, are not her audience. But one should not use them as a validity for others to exploit, murder, or abuse animals.
She asks; “Why are we dividing veganism? It is not mainly a diet. The real issue is the cycle of oppression and the “otherness” mindset. “They” are different from us is a justification that oppressors use. The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all oppression.
Working with non-vegans is very complicated. She feels, to be effective, she has to be careful about how she represents herself and how she words everything. This is one of Wren’s many strengths. Another notable strength is how she inspires others to dedicate themselves to standing up for animals with the same passion and drive.
“Wren has always been a strong force for veganism. I first met her probably 14 years ago and knew she was someone special. She has always been a beyond solid advocate for the animals tirelessly working for their rights and liberation. She could speak passionately for hours show after show for animals forced into entertainment informing hundreds and sometimes thousands of people after each show to avoid circuses, rodeos and other similar events. We had people who got rid of their tickets and people who came back the next year to join us. She has also brought many younger activists into the fold and even put her life on the line for all beings on this planet. I don’t think I would be the person I am today without her ardent advocacy and her immense friendship.”
~ Jeff Labow, Maryland
I’ve known Wren for decades, having joined her at fur and circus protests and demonstrations over the years. She was the organizer, the cheerleader, the witness, the activist’s activist…and still is! Wren is always speaking up for the animals, the voiceless victims in a society willing to blindly look away. I love her compassion, her commitment, her courage, not to mention her intelligence and quick wit!
~Shemirah Brachah, Colorado
Yes, Wren had become the activist’s activist.
A Turning Point
During the summer of 2017 a Unite The Right rally was scheduled to occur in Charlottesville, VA. She heard about the rally from another activist who knew Wren and her commitment to end all oppression. The rally was organized amidst controversy generated by the removal of Confederate monuments by local governments following the Charleston church shooting in 2015, in which a white supremacist shot and killed nine black members, including the minister (a state senator), and wounded others. The event turned violent after protesters clashed with counter-protesters, resulting in more than 30 injured.
On the morning of August 12, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe declares a state of emergency, stating that public safety cannot be safeguarded without additional powers. Within an hour, the Virginia State Police declares the rally to be an unlawful assembly. At around 1:45 p.m., self-identified white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. deliberately rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters about 1/2 mile away from the rally site, killing Heather Heyer and seriously injuring 19 other people. Wren, one of the more seriously injured, was hospitalized with deep gashes on her face, both legs broken, a broken hand and a long recovery ahead. After being released from a full week in the hospital she then spent 6 weeks in a skilled nursing facility undergoing therapy and a recovery regimen. It took her 3.5 years to be able to fully use her legs again and she is still recovering today.
“The time spent recovering was a pause,” she says. It made her re-evaluate her focus.
She cites luck as the reason she still perseveres, I believe it is courage.
Having had to speak at both the state and federal hearings she spoke on behalf of her fellow activists and helped convict Fields to serve life in prison.
Conflict is very hard for Wren these days and she avoids street activism, but the story doesn’t end there.
The Ethical Earthling Society
Wren has taken her activism to a whole new level with a brand new venture on the horizon that will serve the activist community in a fresh and groundbreaking manner.
Enter The Ethical Earthling Society
Inspired by her many years of activism and her 2012 experience with Open the Cages Alliance which teaches total vegan living; she aspires to create a safe space for vegans, activists, and enthusiasts. A campfire if you will. A gathering that features guest speakers, continuing educational experiences, inspiring guidance on what is practical and possible, providing a fresh perspective every week as we grow individually and as a community. This will also include calls to action, community support, vegan business support and much more.
Her goal: To create a society that values justice.