The Satya Interview with Christine Morrissey
Photo by Noah Hannibal/Animal Liberation Victoria
Compassionate, witty and a
bit…well, unexpected are three adjectives one can easily use to
describe Christine Morrissey, founder and director of East Bay Animal
Advocates. From undercover investigations to community and corporate
outreach, Christine successfully takes California’s agricultural
industry by storm. As one of only a few organizations that has conducted
open rescues, EBAA is committed to saving the lives of neglected animals
left sick and dying in factory farms. To date, Morrissey has saved the
lives of over 100 turkeys, chickens and rabbits. From its base in Oakland,
the EBAA team also documents the industry practices and living conditions
of the animals and exposes them to the media.
What keeps her sane? Well, hip hop music, MySpace profiling and good beer, of
course. Kymberlie Adams Matthews had the opportunity to have a slightly off-kilter
conversation with “every chicken’s hero,” Christine
I heard a rumor that you worked at the McDonald’s off 580 and Santa Rita
When I turned 14, my dad told me: “Bean, every great career starts at McDonald’s.” With
a new worker’s permit in my pocket, I rode my bike up to the Golden Arches
and applied for my first job. For four long months, I worked as a cashier, food
server and bathroom cleaner. I would eat as many McChicken sandwiches I could
get my hands on and gained a lot of weight. But you could always count on me
having a smile on my face and Ronald McDonald black visor on my big-ass head.
One piece of advice: always be kind to the people who work on the frontlines
of the fast food industry, or you will be sorry. [Laughter.] Actually, I learned
a good lesson at McDonald’s—hard work pays off.
Then after I quit, I started volunteering at an animal shelter. I put my fast
food cleaning skills to good work at the Valley Humane Society. I love how every
experience in life—even the most menial—prepares you for the future.
Was working at the shelter when you first became interested in animal issues?
Actually, my interest in animals started in a freaky way. When I was three or
four, my parents bought me a stuffed animal, a dolphin from Sea World. I named
the dolphin DiDi. God, I loved that damn thing. We were inseparable. One day,
DiDi disappeared—gone without a trace. My life never returned to normal.
To this day, I search for her. [Laughter.] All kidding aside, watching investigative
footage of animal abuse captured my interest for animal advocacy.
How did you come to see that type of footage?
I was on a road trip to the Grand Canyon with my parents. One night, I was watching
television in the hotel. I turned channels and this documentary called To
or Kill: Man vs. Animal came on. Well, I never saw such horrible acts of cruelty
before. I had my last turkey dinner shortly thereafter.
It’s funny, you were inspired by investigative footage, and now
you have a collection of your own investigations. Tell us about East Bay Animal
Well, we’re a tiny grassroots outfit—almost exclusively powered by
women volunteers. Our principle focus is California animal agriculture, which
is the largest system of its kind in the world! We have been tackling a number
of unacceptable industry practices through consumer education, corporate outreach,
direct aid and litigation. Little by little, we are making strides—and
And how did the organization begin?
At the beginning of 2003, I put a silly to-do list together. One of the items
on the list was to ‘start an organization.’ Whatever that means.
In May of that year, Circus Gatti came to Livermore with their elephant act.
At the time, I was organizing demonstrations and outreach on an ad hoc basis,
without organizational backing.
Before Gatti’s arrival, I sent out a press release to the local newspaper
about the circus operator’s poor animal welfare record and plans for an
opening night event demonstration. The newspaper wound up running a really good
story about the demonstration before the event. That actually turned out to be
a good recruitment tool to start a group.
Livermore is a rodeo town, so I didn’t expect many protesters to show.
I was right. Not many folks came, only five of us. But, everyone was interested
in starting up a local group. It became the jump-off for EBAA.
Tell us about some of your most successful campaigns.
Our most successful effort, thus far, has been something quite simple—giving
consumers facts. I am a strong believer in giving people the plain old facts
to help them make choices. When consumers are informed, they tend to make animal-friendly
purchases at supermarkets or restaurants all on their own.
EBAA currently operates six sister websites, which were formed after we completed
an investigative project. Some of the sites are focused on common industry practices
with a California-twist, while others are California company-specific, like our
website about Foster Farms.
The internet is the important information source for more and more people. It’s
a great way of bypassing the million-dollar marketing campaigns of big producers
in the meat, egg and dairy industries. I love free speech and the internet. [Laughter.]
Tell us about the Foster Farms campaign.
Foster Farms is the largest poultry producer in the western United States. On
a weekly basis, the company slaughters five million chickens for food. EBAA has
investigated the company’s practices for the last few years. The evidence
gathered speaks for itself. Foster Farms really needs to raise the bar in terms
of its level of care of animals. Raising deformed and diseased birds for food
is not a sound business practice.
No, it’s not. How did they react when you went public with your investigation?
[Chuckles.] They sure weren’t happy. They have actually threatened to sue
EBAA twice but we are a lucky duck, with an absolutely wonderful attorney representing
us. With boundless legal wisdom, Vicki Steiner is the reason why Foster Farm’s
legal huffing-and-puffing have not come to fruition as lawsuits. Vicki kicks
Can you talk about the effectiveness of open rescues and investigations?
Open rescue work is an extremely effective way of directly protecting animals
and educating the public about animal cruelty in agriculture. Over the course
of EBAA’s investigative projects, over 100 animals have found their ways
out of factory farms.
Switching gears a bit, is it true that Michael Pollan (author of The
Dilemma and journalism professor) is using some of EBAA’s research in his
Last year, I hunted Michael Pollan down for a meet-and-greet, after some kind
pushing from some ladies in New York City. He lives in Berkeley; I live next-door
in Oakland. He writes about animal agriculture; I am obsessed with animal agriculture.
What a good match for a chat.
I was interested in talking with him about his visit to Petaluma Farms, a local
poultry producer. We finally met for a short time in February. Muckraking was
the hot topic of the discussion. He was interested in learning more about intensive
husbandry practices used in California and sharing EBAA’s investigative
footage with his class. Go, Pollan!
Speaking of teaching classes, you have recently returned to school to study animal
agriculture. You are actually taking classes with the future factory farmers
of America! Weird.
I have a new slogan: “Shut up and learn.” So earlier this year, I
started studying animal science. Over the last few years, I have spent quite
a bit of time critiquing and documenting industry practices, but I felt I was
only getting an outsider’s view on modern agriculture. So I took off my
Nancy Drew hat and hit the books. After completing my first semester, I have
learned how truly uneducated I am about the inter-workings of the poultry industry.
I have never learned so much about chickens before. To top it off, my teacher
and fellow students are some of the nicest people I have met in a long time.
And I do have two confessions…one, I really like country music now. Two,
I am not afraid to give a chicken rancher a hug.
Ms. Morrissey, are you selling out on us?
[Laughter.] Who is us? I think it is important to understand the scientific perspective
of modern animal agriculture. My goal is to never stop learning. It’s an
unconventional approach. I have learned a great deal about helping farm animals
in new ways. Is that selling out?
Not at all. Aside from school, what’s next for EBAA?
We have somewhat of a dual campaign underway right now. We are urging Lunardi’s
Supermarket, a Bay Area grocery chain, to drop its sale of eggs from caged egg-layers.
Also, we are working with a coalition of animal advocates, real estate developers
and local residents to stop the expansion of Olivera Foods, which happens to
supply Lunardi’s with eggs. Olivera Foods wants to build a 900,000-hen
egg farm in the California Central Valley.
Speaking of eggs…You often have a few rescued chickens running
Rescuing and caring for an injured chicken is a true ‘MasterCard Moment’ for
someone who is obsessed with birds—like myself. It’s extraordinary
What animals do you currently live with?
My pit bull Dutch is stuck living with me and three nerdy rabbits: April Mae,
Josh and Harry. Collectively, we are known as the Party of Five.
Let me ask you this, if you could have any superpower, what would it be?
My one and only superpower request, the ability to brush my hair on a daily
Sometimes, my hairdo often looks quite similar to the hairstyle of the Peanuts’ comic
strip character, Pigpen.
I’ve heard that you find life principles in hip hop.
People just don’t appreciate rap music these days. But I find a lot of
inspiration in the music. Bay Area rapper, E-40, says it best: “Go hard
or go home.”
From EBAA campaigns to classes teaching how to profit from chickens…you
are confronted with a lot of animal cruelty. How do you cope?
Three simple things: Drink beer, laugh a lot and stay focused. The way animals
are treated in today’s intensive agriculture systems will change in the
not-too-distant future. That’s my hope; that’s my promise.
For more information visit www.eastbayanimaladvocates.org, www.NoMoreOlivera.comand www.LunardisAbuse.com.
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