Book Review: 3 December, 2021
Barry Kent MacKay | Director
Hummingbirds, bees and butterflies are no more drawn to nectar-burdened blooms than are emotional vicissitudes, social complexities, personal paradoxes and probing insights drawn into the unique psyche of Karen Levenson, the least likely “terrorist” I can imagine.
Thus had I planned to write the second sentence of my review of the newly published book, Confessions of an Animal Rights Terrorist, by Karen Levenson, Lantern Publishing, 2021.
The first sentence was to be a disclaimer; not only is Karen a dear friend, but I helped her with a primary draft of the book, am mentioned in it, was part of a few of the events described, and am kindly thanked in the acknowledgement section. But I began the pleasant task of writing this review on a personally unpleasant day, December 3, 2021, the birthday of my long dead older brother and the 58th anniversary of when my beloved grandmother died as she was talking to me, holding my baby nephew in her lap as I sat on the edge of her bed.
Life: so good, so bad, so everything in between.
As I started typing an email notice popped onto my computer screen with a Globe and Mail article’s headline I could not ignore. It was called “Scapegoat or Scoundrel: Why scientists want to clear the air about the role of seals and focus on ecosystems”.
It had actually been published last August 29th, but only now had a friend discovered it, and forwarded it to me. I immediately resent it to a friend who is also in Karen’s book, albeit not identified by name, only as a seal expert.
You see, the article seeks says much of what my friend, a world authority on the seals in question, and people like, well, me, were trying to say decades ago. The oceanic ecosystem is vastly more complex than it was being presented in the days when the profitable killing of hundreds of thousands of newly born harp and hooded seals, late each winter into early spring, on the ice of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the northern end of Newfoundland, incited world-wide outrage, controversy and vitriol against Canada, and endless media attention with obligate photos of red blood on white ice, you know – like the Canadian flag.
I sent the article to Karen’s expert, who, at the height of the Canadian seal hunt controversy, had often been excoriated by government types for saying what the article said. He wrote back that at least a couple of DFO scientists, “…seem to have finally revised their views to coincide with the obvious…” He and his colleagues had tried to make the point with a “simplified food web” diagram that was deemed “too complex”, and, worst sin within fishery (and other wildlife management) circles, too difficult to model.
DFO? The Department of Fisheries and Oceans under which the management of seals, who are not fish, falls. “Modelling” in this context means computer modelling, the computerized analysis of data upon which decisions are made, or not, since decisions about how many fish of what species are to be caught are filtered through political needs. Politicians, the ultimate policy deciders, must not antagonize people dependent on a major industry – in this case the north Atlantic fishery – who also can vote! Those of us, from the expert through the then relatively nascent, so-called “animal rights movement”, tried to object to the slaughtering were denounced on many grounds by essentially the entire Canadian federal government, and most Canadian media.
Meanwhile an American ad-writer disillusioned not only by the trivial nature of the ads she was tasked to produce, but the brutality to innocent animals that went into their production, turned her back on fiscal security, her family, her country, and moved to Canada.
A strongly motivated feminist, Karen knew, and rejected, brutality. She was genetically programmed to always be there for the underdog. But, with searing intellect she saw brutality and the exercise of might over anything that, in a world claiming to be compassionate, that could be called right, as the foundation of so much that gets ignored, covered up, sanitized and/or hidden. Her skills as an indefatigable researcher, a prober who does not quit, and most importantly, a strategist, came to the attention of Liz White, director of Animal Alliance of Canada. That was when, through application of careful planning and organization, Karen achieved the rescue of beagles, destined to be killed, from the University of Guelph.
“How many did you get?” asked Liz. “All of them,” was the reply. The die was cast.
Karen was hired to work on AAC’s seal hunt campaign. Her job was, technically, to help AAC and a suite of other animal protection groups to implement a consumer boycott of Canadian fish, since it was the Canadian fishing industry that not only supported the seal hunt but blamed the seals, not themselves, for shortages in various stocks of fish while being part of a disinformation program fueled by the federal government that shifted blame for fish stock declines on seals.
To be most effective Karen also had to examine the claims of the government and the industry, which to all intents were one and the same.
The government’s fighting back took many forms, from very successfully conflating the commercial east coast commercial hunt for newly born harp seals (the much rarer hooded seals had eventually been removed from the hunt) with the sustainable “sustenance” hunt for mostly other seal species, at other times of year and in other regions, by Indigenous peoples, to blaming the collapse of the cod fishery on seals, to, well, calling people who objected, terrorists.
The book gets its title from a bizarre incident, amusing in hindsight as told by Karen, whereby two government agents interviewed her in quest of “terrorists”. It appears they believed their own absurd propaganda.
What Karen was, and is, is a human being, with all that entails, and at the time it involved an abusive relationship made complicated, as things in Karen’s life tend to be, by the fact that her husband was terminally ill and increasingly dependent. Karen changes a few names but refuses to shy away from the facts – the bad and ugly facets of human lives fully lived so far from the Madison Avenue dream worlds of contrived needs and guiltless supplies that occupied her early career.
I highly recommend this book not only for its entertainment value – but for Karen’s ability to connect dots, to see the trails of likenesses that connect our brutality, to seals, to nature, to each other as we give and take, most people not asking the questions, not entertaining the self-doubts, that Karen is forced to do by her imaginary doppelganger, “Dop”, the unforgiving and not always predictable conscience who visits her throughout her search for truth, her battle against cruelty, her needs for beauty, for love.
According to the article I read as I started this review, DFO officials held a meeting back in June to address “misinformation” about the impacts of seals on fish such as Atlantic cod and capelin (a herring-like fish once incredibly abundant) presenting the “North Atlantic seal as less of a scoundrel and more of a scapegoat.”
Yeah, we know. We tried to tell you. I am not an objective reviewer, I admit, but that is the point, too, of Karen’s book. Seek truth, support claims of compassion with actions that prove them. People with two brain cells to rub together understand the pitfalls of identifying “truth”. Claiming compassion while supporting the implementation of pain, suffering and death is not truthful. Karen tells it like it is, like it was for her, and as we, all of us, should know and remember.
So whatever my bias it is the most heartfelt truth that I recommend this book for all who are about truth, compassion, and the history of the animal protection movement.