Nathan Runkle is the founder and executive director of Mercy for Animals, a nonprofit he founded at the age of 15 to prevent cruelty to animals and promote compassionate food choices and policies.
He is the author of the compelling new book, Mercy for Animals, and he spoke with Windy City Times about how being a gay man informed his animal rights advocacy.
Windy City Times: Can you explain your organization's mission for our readers?
Nathan Runkle: I founded Mercy for Animals when I was 15 years old, in 1999. We work in four program areas: undercover investigations ( sending people into factory farms and slaughterhouses to document with hidden cameras the daily abuse that animals face ), pushing for stronger state and federal laws to protect farm animals, corporate outreach ( working to push the largest food industry players away from the worst factory farm practices ) and consumer education.
WCT: When I was 15, it wouldn't even occur to me that I could found a nonprofit. How did you get the initiative and the knowledge to do something like that?
NR: I definitely fumbled through the early years. I had no idea what I was doing. I really was driven by passion and dedication to helping animals. The knowledge of how to run and build an organization came along the way.
WCT: You've talked before about how being an animal-rights activist and being gay are connected for you. Can you talk about that a bit?
NR: I was born and raised on a small farm in Ohio. Growing up in this conservative pocket of the country, I was bullied and harassed and called a faggot since I was a child, before I even knew my own sexuality.
That experience helped sensitize me to the plight of animals, who are so often victims of violence and oppression at the hands of humans. I can relate to animals who are judged for what they are, not who they are.
In our country, we have placed arbitrary values on certain animals that we consider to be companions, like dogs and cats, and then other animals that we have labelled food, like cows and pigs. We consider these animals to be resources that we can exploit at our own whim. But there's nothing different about these animals in terms of their ability to feel love and pain and joy and sorrow.
I think that's why there are a lot of members of the LGBT community who are vegan and animal advocates, because they understand that what leads to the oppression of one group is the notion of "othering" someone and deciding that their interests don't matter as much as the individuals that are in power. Although animals are different from us, they are our equals in every way that matters. That's at the heart of this notion that animal rights is a social justice movement.
WCT: Was there a moment that solidified your activism for you?
NR: I was the victim of a hate crime back in 2009. I was assaulted [and] thrown to the ground; my face was fractured in seven places. The perpetrator was never caught. I was already a vegan animal activist at this point, but it certainly further sensitized me to victims of violence and trauma, including animals. Pain is pain, whether the victim is a cow or a pig or a child.
WCT: How did you decide to write a book? What was the writing process like?
NR: I wrote the book because I wanted to inspire people to take action to help animals. I wanted to share my personal story of going from a would-be fifth-generation farmer to founding an international animal protection organization, but also the brave individuals who risk their safety to go undercover at factory farms.
The writing process was very personal. There are stories that I share in the book that I hadn't even shared with my therapist. It was a cathartic and emotionally challenging experience, but ultimately it was an inspiring experience that really filled me with hope for the future.
WCT: What are steps that people can take, particularly someone who might feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, to be animals advocates in their own lives?
NR: The best thing that each individual can do is move towards a plant-based diet. If you're overwhelmed by the prospect of doing that overnight, you can lean into it. Start by participating in Meatless Mondays, for instance. If everyone in America went meatless just one day a week, we would spare over a billion animals from unconscionable suffering on factory farms.
Oftentimes, people find that Meatless Mondays is a joyful and healthy experience, and it becomes easy to eliminate meat a little bit more each week. But it's important for people who are trying to change their diet celebrate progress, not perfection.
For individuals who want to become advocates, I talk in the book about practical things that everyone can do, from e-activism to finding your own unique voice as an advocate. Our diversity is our strength as a movement.
WCT: Where can readers go if they're interested in learning more or joining the movement?
NR: They can pick up the book, but they can also visit MercyForAnimals.org . People [who] are interested in attending events or becoming active with the organization can sign up there.