Adapt. Always be flexible enough to learn from your mistakes, to iterate your strategies based on what’s working, and even to fail forward. As your movement advances in its mission, so can your work. Animal Outlook’s farm transitions work is meant to address the exit- and entry-barriers facing animal farmers who might otherwise transition into plant-based farming, which is a market whose growth is rapidly outpacing other sectors.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cheryl Leahy.

Cheryl Leahy is the executive director of Animal Outlook, a national nonprofit animal protection organization. She is responsible for development and oversight of investigations, litigation and policy, and effecting mainstream corporate and cultural change to shift away from animal products and reduce the suffering of farmed animals.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

I have a vivid memory of the moment my close friend in 6th grade confronted me about the fact that I was eating meat and the blunt description she gave of what the animal had gone through. I distinctly remember the feeling I had in that moment, which came from two contradictory thoughts: first, timidly, I thought she was probably right. Her comment impacted me because I always felt connected to animals and I hadn’t put enough thought into whether I should eat them. Second, I felt defensive and judged. I came around and eventually pushed myself to do as much research on the topic I could get my hands on and stopped eating meat as soon as I could convince my parents to allow it, which was about a year later. I often felt, though, that I came to do that research and make it to that point through sheer stubborn will, despite the confrontational tactics my friend used, rather than because of them. At the same time, I wonder whether I would have started on that path without the inelegant jolt of my 11-year old peer challenging my behavior.

That moment stuck in my mind for years after that, because I wanted to know how people change, and I wanted to know how to connect with people positively, rather than turning them off. How do people become motivated to learn about negative things, and decide to change their behavior to make an impact? Is their underlying ideological and ethical position the greater barrier, or is it ineffectual tactics which cause more people not to engage as much as they otherwise might? These are questions I explored in college, where I did my senior paper analyzing the rhetoric and tactics of the animal rights movement as compared to writing on other social movements and examining people’s motivations and moral reasoning through focus groups. This led me to the conclusion that societal institutions of legitimacy matter for moral decision-making. Specifically, law can legitimize a moral principle by taking a position on it, and people will rally around that, even if they did not previously support it. I decided this meant I should go to law school to effect institutional change for animals.

Recently, I have thought about that nearly 30-year old moment a lot. My friend’s comments — and her sincere desire to change things for the better, done the way a passionate and bright 11-year old felt compelled to do — truly set into motion a path for my life. And not simply in terms of the career path I ultimately chose, which led me to the helm of an organization that exists to put effective change-making techniques into practice to help the billions of animals trapped in an unjust system, and to ultimately shift society forward away from a system that relies upon cruelty and destruction to exist. It impacted my desire to learn, to understand how people think, and to understand our legal institutions. It spurred me to learn leadership, fundraising, and public speaking skills to become more effective at what I do, and to connect with innovative and compassionate people to create real change. I have spent so much time in the last couple of months thinking about that moment in 6th grade because in September of this year, my friend died, just weeks shy of her 40th birthday.

Now that I have my own family, I think a lot about the values we all share as a society, and how we can collectively shape our behavioral norms and our laws to be in alignment with that society. I want my children to have the knowledge, the drive, and — most importantly — the confidence in their own strength to make that kind of change happen, the way she did. This is part of the legacy of my friend’s comments that day, and the passion and desire for connection that went into it.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.

I don’t think any particular character trait is needed to make an impact or be a leader. Nothing in particular about any given personality or skill set is a necessary ingredient: we all have something to contribute. Let me demystify the process a bit: high-impact work and leadership is about a mindset shift, first and foremost. Here are three things that have repeatedly led to groundbreaking work from my team:

Courage. Animal Outlook has conducted more than 40 investigations since our inception 26 years ago. In every one of these cases, an investigator has gone undercover inside an animal agriculture facility with a hidden camera, singularly focused on exposing the realities of the meat, dairy and egg industries by bringing video footage to the world. Without such investigations, these cruel and filthy places would remain hidden from public view. These investigators do this at great physical risk and emotional cost, yet remain committed to bringing the truth to light. As a result of their courage, millions of people have seen this footage through media coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC Nightline, CNN and many other outlets. Countless people have been moved by our footage, educating themselves and others, making informed decisions about whether they want to support these industries with their purchasing dollars. These investigations have resulted in facility closures, enforcement of criminal law including animal cruelty charges, major changes in practices at large multinational corporations including increasing their vegan options, and major legal victories, including several ongoing lawsuits that seek to change the way animals are treated on farms and in processing facilities around the country.

Vision. It’s easy to become mired in the everyday work of any job, but is especially incessant when you are drawn to that job because of a desire to do better, and advocates often feel like their work is never done. What separates energy-giving work from energy-depleting work is an ambitious vision. Putting that hard work and innovation to use in service of a lofty goal pays off. For example, Animal Outlook’s Legal Advocacy program sued the U.S.’ largest lamb slaughterhouse in federal court, and in a very rare move, secured the U.S. Department of Justice’s intervention, resulting in a consent decree and settlement on compliance with federal animal handling laws. Animal Outlook’s corporate engagement work has led to an increase in vegan options by the world’s largest food company, Nestlé; the nationwide rollout of vegan meal options at Starbucks, and increased vegan options at Dunkin’, Subway and other popular chains.

Supporting Talent. One of the most exciting opportunities nonprofits have is to attract and work with the most innovative and talented professionals who are often at the top of their field. Whether we are able to bring them on in full-time staff roles, as our outside representatives on projects, as donors to financially enable us to continue and grow our work, or as professionals who donate their time and expertise, the value in bringing talented and passionate people together can amplify impact in a way the work of no single individual could. For example, our Legal Advocacy program works to connect with top attorneys in their fields and collaborates with them on high-impact projects, which can advance the law for animals and be used as replicable models for future cases. Animal Outlook conducted the initial research and theory development on a class action suit against 70% of the dairy industry for a price-fixing scheme involving the early slaughter of more than a half million cows, which we then brought to a leading law firm that litigated the case to a 52M dollars settlement for dairy consumers nationwide, garnering major media coverage educating the public about some of the dairy industry’s open secrets.

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?

What people intuitively think leads to change is not necessarily what is actually needed to effect change. Some of us are immediately moved to action by learning of the dire conditions for billions of animals, the devastation of the environment, and the widespread harm to human health and human rights, all at the hands of animal agriculture. When we sit down and learn the difficult truth, the overwhelming majority of us are impacted, even outraged. The research on this is clear: large majorities of the U.S. population really care about animals and do not want them to be mistreated. We are aligned as a society on the underlying values here in the most fundamental ways. What has lagged behind, however, are the behavioral norms and legal structures to live those values. In order to effect that kind of change, we have to reach the majority of people who are not the small percentage that immediately adopts new behaviors upon learning about the issue. What behavioral science tells us about unlocking change for most people is that we need to do more than just give information. It’s important to help people develop a sense of self-confidence in their ability to make change through their behaviors, in understanding how it fits into their life and their identity, and all of this is enhanced in its effectiveness by connecting and building a community, working together to achieve these changes.

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?

Here at Animal Outlook, we have chosen to focus our efforts on four program areas to achieve high impact, tangible outcomes for animals in the near-term, and to simultaneously drive a strategy to create lasting social change.

Undercover Investigations. One of the cornerstones of Animal Outlook’s mission is its undercover investigations. Over the years, Animal Outlook has had highly trained investigators document the operations at dozens of farms, hatcheries and slaughterhouses across the U.S. These investigations have uncovered animal abuse, worker safety violations, health hazards and hundreds of examples of cruel and unnecessary treatment of animals, much of which is standard in the industry. As a result of this work, Animal Outlook has been instrumental in securing criminal prosecution against animal abusers, major changes in corporate practices and increasing vegan options, shutting down operations and has successfully used the law to stop some of the cruelest farming practices. What we have learned from dozens of investigations is a harsh reality that would have otherwise been kept hidden in the shadows: cruelty is standard practice in the meat, dairy and egg industries.

Legal Advocacy. We engage in impact litigation, enforcement and legal reform strategies to address the systemic harms of animal agriculture and to protect animals. This is one of the most critical aspects of our ability to provide lasting impact for animals. Legal advocacy seeks justice for animals in the courtroom by advocating for the enforcement of existing laws to address widespread institutional abuse. We often leverage our investigations for the greatest legal impact, both through the use of civil and criminal animal protective laws and through impact litigation. We use a variety of laws not originally intended to protect animals but that can address systemic cruelties and other harms. Our litigation work provides novel and replicable routes to farmed animal protection and incentivizes lawyers outside of the movement to carry forward with similar work.

Corporate and Food System Reform. We work with key players on the supply-side of the industry, bringing more vegan options to the marketplace to replace and shift away from animal products and to make vegan eating more accessible and mainstream. We work with restaurants and major food corporations to offer more vegan options such as Starbucks, Dunkin’ and Nestlé. We also campaign to end some of cruelest yet commonplace practices in the industry, such as ending the practice of inserting plastic rods into the beaks of breeding chickens at Tyson facilities and ultimately ensuring the end or non-use of this practice in 17 of the top 20 U.S. poultry companies. We also work on the supply side to shift animal farmers away from animal farming and into farming plants. This is an especially dire need for both the billions of animals trapped in a destructive system and for the farmers who are often powerless, indebted and taken advantage of by large animal ag corporations. Animal Outlook has been working to address these systemic forces and provide farmers with a way to break the cycle and regain their autonomy while ending their role in animal agriculture.

Outreach and Engagement. A core part of Animal Outlook’s mission is engaging with people and empowering them to take the actions that will allow them to live their values and save lives. Our role is to bring the choice to eat vegan into the mainstream and to empower people to make informed and impactful choices about what they are willing to support with their purchasing dollars. We leverage the work of our other programs to expose the truth and build a community committed to change — be it through eating behaviors, direct work on a corporate or legal campaign, or donations that put dollars to work for change. We run a yearly VegWeek initiative, encouraging and supporting people to go vegan for at least one week and celebrate and connect with others doing the same, including high-profile individuals and food companies. In non-pandemic years, we also host a thousands-strong VegFest in Washington, DC, bringing together a diverse and delicious array of food, and vendors and attendees celebrate vegan eating together. Recently we have put a greater focus on the effectiveness of our messaging and reach strategies, using science-backed principles to connect with people and bring our movement squarely into the mainstream.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

The negative impact of animal agriculture is the largest social justice issue facing human society today. We simply cannot move forward with society as we know it while we continue to rely so heavily on animal agriculture. There are four separate, yet independently compelling, rationales for opposing animal agriculture. Taken together, they present an overwhelmingly convincing case for urgent and effective reform. First, well over 98% of animals raised and killed by humans are in the meat, dairy and egg industries. 99%+ of these animals are in intensively confined conditions that deprive them of the most basic natural behaviors, such as things as simple as turning around or spreading their wings. Standard, yet cruel, practices are the very nature of these industries, including mutilations such as burning off calves’ sensitive horns done by upwards of 90% of the dairy industry and the pork industry’s manual castration of piglets with no pain relief. Violence and suffering are so common in these industries, they are the rule, not the exception. Second, consumption of animal products is a major factor in some of the biggest human health issues of our society, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, strokes and dementia, among others. Third, animal agriculture is incredibly destructive and wasteful to our planet. It contributes more to climate change than all of transportation combined. It uses resources at rate 10X or more than the equivalent plant-based foods take to produce, is the biggest user and polluter of water, and uses more than 80% of the agricultural land in the U.S. Finally, human rights issues including world hunger and access to clean water are directly linked to the extreme overuse of these resources by animal agriculture. The world’s cattle alone consume enough food to feed 8.7 billion people, which is greater than the earth’s population. Worker conditions and the physical and mental toll these industries take on its workforce and surrounding communities, which are often low-income communities of color, stand out as among the worst among labor advocates. This issue demands widespread innovative and high-impact solutions.

Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?

One of our recent investigations at a dairy in California uncovered some of the worst abuses to animals our team had ever seen. This resulted in an in-depth New York Times feature which sparked a cultural conversation about the ethics of the dairy industry, countless people seeing our footage to give them a new perspective on dairy, and NGO Animal Legal Defense Fund filing a cruelty lawsuit. What was truly rare about this investigation, though, was the opportunity the investigator had to rescue a male calf while she was at the facility. Now Samuel the calf, who would have otherwise led a short and painful life as a low-value animal in the dairy industry, lives happily at Animal Place sanctuary, where people can meet him and experience what these animals are like when given a chance to live natural lives.

We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?

Eat Plants. Every time each of us makes the choice to purchase vegan foods in lieu of animal products, it makes a difference. It helps to save not just the one animal that would have been that meal, but triggers a ripple effect as the vegan movement continues to grow and ride the incredible momentum of the last few years, as people realize how delicious, healthy and impactful it can be to eat vegan.

Spread the Word. Each of us has someone in our lives who has inspired us, educated us, or changed and enhanced the way we saw something. You can be that person for others. Use our investigations, legal, corporate, and outreach materials and connect with another person in the spirit of compassion. Bring them the information and a way to do good with it. Respect who each of us is as individuals and support the unique role we can all play. If you do that, they will be made stronger by the solidarity you offer.

Donate. The team at Animal Outlook is only able to do this work because of a community of people who choose to donate their dollars for impact for animals. Consider donating to sustain and grow our work for the benefit of animals — we are only empowered by our donors. Sadly, a mere one percent of charitable donations are made to benefit animals, and only one percent of those donations are made to benefit farmed animals. As we seek to align our food system with something compassionate and sustainable, every single donation makes a huge impact — and there is a huge growth opportunity in the transformative impact new donor dollars can make.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.

1. Define who you are and what you do. After a clear and accurate analysis of the problem, identify the strategies and tactics for addressing that problem. Decide what will make an impact in addressing the problem, and build the skills to execute those strategies and tactics effectively. Communicate this proudly, clearly and convincingly. You can’t be everything to everyone, and you can’t do it all. Animal Outlook advocates vegan eating, knowing both that it is a bold and challenging stance to take and that it is a necessary part of addressing a compelling and dire problem. It wouldn’t help anyone to shy away from this or equivocate about it. We are looking at how to effectively and compassionately mainstream vegan eating, not whether to do it.

2. Team and infrastructure building. Your nonprofit is only as good as the people you have working with you, and it’s critical to ensure that they have the infrastructure and the resources in place to design and execute ambitious strategies for change. It’s about finding the right people and creating an environment for them to thrive. Animal Outlook does novel and complex litigation, and having dedicated and talented attorneys doing this work is a lynchpin in our success.

3. Build a community of support. Perhaps the most exciting opportunity being a nonprofit provides is to connect with a wide network of dedicated, intelligent and skilled people from all walks of life. Each member of our team continually builds and cultivates a wide network of key relationships, whether that means building coalitions around projects, working with other NGOs, pro bono professionals, students, creatives, community-based volunteers, high profile and influential people, and like-minded donors. I want to help everyone realize they can be part of this community and become a powerful ally. None of the victories we have accomplished for animals happen without a network of thousands of supporters using their voices and their dollars to push back against the billion-dollar animal agriculture industry. Being an advocate for a sustainable, compassionate food system is not an abstract idea — it is a choice we make every day.

Animal Outlook’s impact and legacy rises along with our support community. Our current active volunteer and donor database is well into the hundreds.

4. Be Part of the Cultural Conversation. We are a social change-making organization. We need to reach the mainstream, to engage with and touch people. This reach strategy includes effective construction of messaging and effective audience identification. Know who you’re talking to and what to say. Scale is also important. Animal Outlook’s investigations regularly garner national media coverage, reaching new audiences of millions of people.

5. Adapt. Always be flexible enough to learn from your mistakes, to iterate your strategies based on what’s working, and even to fail forward. As your movement advances in its mission, so can your work. Animal Outlook’s farm transitions work is meant to address the exit- and entry-barriers facing animal farmers who might otherwise transition into plant-based farming, which is a market whose growth is rapidly outpacing other sectors.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

The pandemic has educated us and opened up a new sense of urgency as well as opportunity in our work. We conducted research and investigations on the cause of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases and potential pandemics. COVID-19 is thought to have originally made the jump from humans to animals at a live market. We filmed at live markets here in the U.S. and created a video showing this reality and educating people about the risk we are taking with future pandemics by continuing to rely on animal agriculture. Recent pandemic virus threats from swine flu and bird flu almost certainly evolved on chicken and pig farming facilities. A July 2020 U.N. report says thatpandemics such as the COVID-19 outbreak are a predictable and predicted outcome of how people source and grow food, trade and consume animals, and alter environments.” The report also identifies seven trends most likely driving the increasing emergence of zoonotic diseases, including increased demand for animal protein and a rise in intense and unsustainable farming.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

Truly transformative work requires choosing a challenging target. If all of the goals we set were easy to reach, that would be an indication that we have not properly calibrated our tasks. It’s important to have successes and work toward bigger movement progress, but we need to work in difficult spaces, which can often be demoralizing. Always make sure to take lessons from any setback and use that to hone future strategies.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Every single leader should be thinking about the sustainability of our food system. The choices we do — or don’t — make today impact us all. This is especially true for the most committed and high-impact philanthropists such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?

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Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.