Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

Dexter: Highlighting the Disconnect

Dexter at psas

Dexter is a young horse who came to Poplar Spring just a few short weeks ago. He was skinny, covered in bug bites, had evidence of old injuries to both his back and his eye, and he is only 18 months old. His head looks impossibly tiny to me – I haven’t been around a young horse in a very long time. He is barely taller than I am, and I’m nowhere near tall. Terry reminds me that he’s just a baby…

A coworker asked me today how “the animals” were doing. I was fairly certain he was asking about the sanctuary. We’d talked about it once before, which I only remembered later. When he asked if any new animals had arrived, I was certain we were on the same page, and I told him a little about Dexter.

And when I say “a little”, I mean I barely told him anything at all – that he came to PSAS a few weeks ago, that he had evidence of eye and back injuries, and that he was 18 months old – before my coworker got upset and started walking away saying “no, don’t tell me any more, I can’t stand to hear about people being cruel to animals.”

That’s when I remembered; he had the same reaction the last time we talked about the sanctuary, and considering the atmosphere at work, where we’re repeatedly told to discuss nothing that might upset someone else (translation: discuss nothing that isn’t widely accepted in the mainstream; in other words, hunting and bbq are acceptable topics, but veganism is not and the realities of animal exploitation is definitely not), I certainly was sharing almost none of the reality. And it upset him anyway, to the point he had to walk away.

dexter at psas 2

I can’t remember every detail of today’s conversation; mostly I remember that I had a lot of long silences filled with everything I didn’t feel I could say at work, and that my silences seemed to say more to him than my words did. And though reading my quasi transcript of our conversation looks like it was confrontational, it wasn’t actually. I suppose tone of voice isn’t easy to convey in written form, but I made it a point to be gentle in my spoken tone.

Here’s how it went:

When I pointed out that he was part of the process (of harming animals) that he said he hated, he immediately denied it.

“I don’t eat horsemeat.”


“I’m very grateful for the people who work in the slaughterhouse. I could never do it myself.”

[very loud silence]

“I’m a meat eater and I am proud of it!”

[deafening silence]

Finally I found some actual words, “I just don’t understand the disconnect. You are practically in tears [he’d told me previously] hearing about a horse who survived, but when it comes to other animals…”

[brief silence]

“I’m a hypocrite,” was his response as he walked down the hall, headed towards a meeting we were both almost late for. “You win!”

“It’s not about winning…”

This particular coworker is not one I would have picked out of the crowd as someone remotely open to veganism, and of course at this point I doubt he is. But his compassion, his emotions, are real. He’s in his 50’s, at my best guess, not exactly of the generation raised to be “in touch” with his feelings, and yet with hardly any description at all, and certainly barely a hint of what any of the animals have gone through before arriving at the sanctuary, he is quite literally almost crying.

The first conversation, around a month ago, probably took him by surprise. It started with the standard question of “what did you do this weekend,” and I ended up talking about the sanctuary in more detail primarily because he was mis-understanding, thinking I was talking about one of the areas along the Potomic River that is a “wildlife refuge” (not that such designation ever stops the animal exploitation, but that’s a different topic altogether). He definitely didn’t approach me for that conversation.

But this one, this was one he instigated. He asked first if I had been to the sanctuary, and then asked how they were handling the weather (it’s been a hot summer!), and then he asked if any new animals had arrived. He knew in asking this that any new arrival would have a heart-wrenching story, but I can only conclude that the sanctuary and its residents have been on his mind.

I don’t know if I handled our conversation very well this afternoon. There are likely ways I could have talked about it with him that wouldn’t have ended with him accusing himself of being a hypocrite. Not that this isn’t an accurate assessment, and not that it isn’t something that can be quite powerful (it is what got me to go vegetarian way back when), but I have a feeling it simply put him more on the defensive than he was before.

At the same time, it’s sort of awesome to have seen how little I needed to say overall…the conversation was mostly him, and his reactions to my silence.

This is, as ever, one of the most frustrating aspects of advocacy. Our impact, if we had any, might not be visible for a while. Maybe not even until after our lives no longer connect. Even if we see a positive change, it is hard to know for certain what was our influence, or which of our conversations contributed in a positive way.

There just is no formula. Everyone is different, bringing their own life experiences and their own personalities to the table, and it makes advocacy something of an improv performance. Except harder – we can see the reaction of our audience, but we don’t really know how well we did for a long time, if ever.

dexter at psas 3


12 responses to “Dexter: Highlighting the Disconnect

  1. nothoney August 9, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    I’m rendered speechless quite often by similar conversations. I don’t know that I would’ve handled it any better; there are some people who just don’t want to know.

  2. jill August 9, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    if he’s honest, he’ll realize he did most of the talking and that everything he said was just an excuse. granted, he has good company (by the numbers), in those excuses.

    except the hypocrite part. that had some truth and if he was defensive about it, maybe it’s because he realized it was a not-very-nice-truth.

    the cool thing is – and maybe he’ll realize it – it’s so easy to stop being such a hypocrite! =)

  3. Deb August 9, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    @nothoney – I think that he really doesn’t want to know, but I also think that he’s feeling compelled to find out. I’m not sure that will mean anything in the end, but that was the impression I got.

    @jill – he was both defensive and upset about it…he really was near tears, that was absolutely real, and to me, shocking. It probably was very good that I didn’t do much of the talking. I have some hope that he’ll be open to changing – as you said it IS easy to stop being a hypocrite – but I am a bit worried by how strongly he asserted that he was “proud” of being a meat eater. Seems to suggest it is part of his identity? That’s always a tough one…

  4. Niki August 9, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    I enjoyed this post as I so often find myself in such situations where you don’t know what to say and how to best approach it – sometimes it feels like you need to be a master in diplomacy and selling, neither of which I’m good at!

    I think your silence may have been the only response needed in this situation – he knew it all anyway without you saying a thing.

    I’m usually so silent on the subject that some people even ask me why I don’t like to talk about it – and it’s because I don’t want to approach it the wrong way, and because there is SO much information that I have learnt that the average person doesn’t know and I wouldn’t want to pick the bits to tell them that they either won’t believe or won’t care about. Why doesn’t someone invent a chip I can insert in their brains so they know everything I now know in one hit?!

    • Deb August 10, 2010 at 6:30 am

      Niki – I’m no good at selling either, nor at improv, and yet it’s the people in our lives who we theoretically have the best chance at influencing, and we’re not usually practicing speeches for them! Opportunities end up being off the cuff.

      I think despite our own misgivings regarding our talent for talking to people about it, it is important that we try. It can be overwhelming, knowing the stakes and feeling like we have to get it right, but…maybe it helps to know that it’s not really ever one single conversation or one single experience that creates change in someone. It is a collection, and our conversations with them *might* be the trigger, but more realistically are going to be one more in the collection of experience that they use to eventually change.

      At the same time, I think that if we can figure out how to get them to start the conversation, ask the questions, it is going to work out better overall. People are more receptive to the questions they themselves ask. 🙂

      A good friend of mine spends a lot of time thinking about how to reach people, and he draws on his experience in doing outreach (he does a LOT more than I do), and one of the interesting things I saw him post a couple months ago on his FB page was the power of asking questions that turn things around. If someone is listing the reasons they “couldn’t” be vegan, ask them what it would take for them to be vegan…and suddenly they’re talking about about possibilities…it’s a pretty powerful concept, if we can remember to use it!

  5. veganelder August 10, 2010 at 5:24 am

    Jeez Deb,

    I am in my 60s and find it dismaying that “youngsters” seem to be oblivious to when current awareness of the importance of feelings began. In your post you make the statement…”He’s in his 50′s, at my best guess, not exactly of the generation raised to be “in touch” with his feelings…”

    Being “in touch” with feelings is most strongly associated with activities at the Esalon Institute which was founded in 1962 ( The Esalon Institute came into being because of research on encounter groups that Kurt Lewin investigated beginning around 1946 (

    Esalon was almost 50 years ago, Kurt Lewin’s activities began even earlier. it is quite likely (depending on his education, etc) that this man was exposed to notions of emotional awareness quite thoroughly. I am older than him and when young went through many encounter groups purposely designed to assist being “in touch” with my feelings.

    Remember, civil rights and feminism blossomed in the late 1950s and 1960’s and that was in large part because people were becoming more “in touch” with their feelings. In 1958 the national guard was used to escort and protect black children going to a previously all white school. Concern over unfairness and injustice and oppression has a long long history……the civil war was fought almost 150 years ago and that war was all about unfairness and people being sensitive to that unfairness (and their feelings about it).

    Behavioral change is a multi-faceted process and being in touch with ones feelings is only a single component of that complex process —- as you already know. Change is hard work, scary and difficult. Everyone finds their own path toward it, often the best anyone else can do for the person on the journey is to be supportive, encouraging and appreciative of the courage that is involved in taking the journey.

    You seem to be doing an important thing for him and that is to just be there and listen, your silence allows him the space and opportunity to sort through his own thoughts and feelings. We can’t make others change their feelings and behaviors (not without using force and that is sort of what got us in this mess in the first place isn’t it?) but we can invite, encourage. enjoy and appreciate them as they struggle.

    We will know progress has been when the national guard is called out to protect the animals that are not human……and I hope it is that the abolition of the use of non-human animals for anything by human animals is the “civil rights” achievement of the current generation.

    Keep up the good work, and let this guy know you are appreciative of his being upset….if the plight of animals didn’t mean something to him he would not be distraught.

    • Deb August 10, 2010 at 6:06 am

      Unfortunately I think there is a good chance he’ll avoid any further conversations with me about this – he doesn’t seem to be one who *wants* to make change…but then again, his insistence on being proud of being a meat eater and his seeming resistance overall might just mean that it’s bothered him for a long time, that he’s on the edge…

      It’s so hard to predict. I hope you are right that I was doing an important thin for him, and not that I was helping him entrench further!

  6. Nancy August 10, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    When people who ask me questions about my going to slaughterhouses and saving animals then state they dont want to know, I then tell them that by not knowing they continue to perpetruate the cruelty. When they again ask me I repeat the same response.
    Of course, humans as the perceived master species feel they have a choice in this matter, a choice not afforded to other species. There may not be anything you can do with this person., but others may be listening. I had two people become vegan in this manner.I know that wearing tshirts is a way to get the message across without saying a word and can initiate conversation.

    • Deb August 10, 2010 at 4:34 pm

      The lines we walk at work are often quite different than what we have open to us in our free time, and so our outreach is going to look different as well. Tshirts? I wish.

  7. Harry August 11, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Hi Deb

    ‘Our impact, if we had any, might not be visible for a while.’

    The seed’s been planted and is obviously growing. If not, he would not have instigated this conversation. He’s interested in finding out more but will use his ‘meat-eating pride’ to keep some distance from that which is so confronting. And perhaps he will always be too confronted to change. But the next person, or the person after that, won’t be.

    Often we’ll never know but perhaps he’ll mention your conversations to a friend of his and that friend will will become an ex-meat-eating animal advocate. Everything we say and do does spread like a ripple – we’re just not always around to see it.


  8. Jennie August 13, 2010 at 8:02 am

    My mom refuses to have discussions like this with me, even though she “loves” animals (and I do mean animals, she likes horses, cows and pigs right along with dogs and cats). She even refused to come to Poplar Springs last year when my family came out to attend my graduation, even though it was the only request I made of her the whole time she was in DC. She is definitely in touch with her feelings, and she knows damn well that if she were to listen to stories, or visit, she could never look at her food the same way. Like this man, she clearly understands that she is complicit in something she doesn’t agree with, but also like him, she feels like ignorance of the survivors, defensiveness and anger can keep it from affecting her behavior. I’ve found that my silence is a trigger for her too, because it lets all the thoughts she has rushing around in her head surface, and she doesn’t want to think about it.

    Also, Dexter is adorable, if very skinny. He looks like he’s in the middle of one of those gawky foal stages where nothing matches up. I’m happy he ended up at a sanctuary so young, although it’s depressing that he’s already seen the worst of human animals at 18 months.

  9. trktos August 15, 2010 at 8:15 am

    about being proud of eating meat … i don’t know that that was so much part of his identity, no matter how forceful he may have sounded. it’s more likely that he was grasping for something to fill the “reason gap/ethical void” he was feeling, just by starting to think a bit differently. that’s very scary, for some people.

    besides, how much can blindly accepting the status quo on an issue, without much thought, truly be part of one’s identity?

    i think harry’s right on. who knows the effect we have? =)

    (and yes, apparently, i use whatever login i think of first! aka as jill! =)

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