Anuradha Sawhney

16 Nov

“Animal rights are the most powerful tool of social change” ~ Anuradha Sawhney

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is a well-known organization all over the world but their work in India is simply remarkable. I first heard of Anuradha Sawhney, Chief Functionary and the Head of Indian operations, when I interviewed Rahul Khanna in a previous edition. He spoke so generously of her and her contribution to PETA, I knew instantly I had to get in touch with her. Immediately, you are simply in awe of presence and keen desire to make a difference in the animal world. Her accomplishments run deep and long. On a glamorous level, Sawhney works with celebs across the country who joined forces with the cause to help create awareness for animals. That said, she has risked her own safety for PETA too by going undercover to probe further into the exploitation of animals in India. It was because of these endeavors and more that she went on to earn a number of honors including the 2009 Women’s’ Achiever Award.  The ever-gracious and inspirational Anuradha Sawhney spoke to Roshni Magazine about her journey thus far, the struggles and successes.

PETA India has gain an immaculate reputation for the great work it continues to do. So firstly, congratulations! What is the mission of PETA?
Thank you for your kind words Roshni! PETA focuses its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time: on factory farms, in laboratories, in the clothing trade, and in the entertainment industry. We also work on a variety of other issues, including the cruel killing of stray dogs, trade of birds etc. PETA works through public education, cruelty investigations, research, animal rescue, legislation, special events, celebrity involvement, and protest campaigns.

You are the Chief Functionary and Head of Operations to PETA. What are your role and responsibilities?
As the Chief Functionary of the organization I am responsible for overseeing administration, campaigns, human resources, financial accounts, and compliance, and for liaising with celebrities and the media.

Have you always been a pet-lover? Tell us how you got involved with PETA.
Growing up, I was known as the girl who fed her lunch to the birds and dogs. As a student at St Xavier’s convent in Bokaro Steel city, I would forgo my own meals to feed the famished stray dogs on campus. Watching these scrawny, pitiful animals appear, wagging their tails very softly when they saw me and humbly lowering their heads to eat my modest meal, I did not think twice about my own hunger. I was too busy feeding my soul.

I have been helping animals ever since. I have spent much of my life rescuing cats, dogs and on one occasion, a cow. Once, while in Delhi, I came across a calf laying on the divider of a road. After asking around, I found out that she had been hit by a car and left there for two days. I could not stand the thought of this poor animal suffering one more moment, so I helped her into my own car and rushed to a shelter. I can only imagine how it must have looked as I sped through the crowded streets of Delhi with a cow in my car! Thankfully, the harrowing rescue was well worth it. Today that battered, broken little calf – who had been cast off to the side of the road like a piece of rubbish – is now a beautiful cow named Radha.

As someone who loves animals, caring for them comes naturally to me. Like us, they are creatures of God who are capable of loving and being loved. They are loyal, affectionate, inquisitive, playful –  and more often than not taken for granted by us, as if they were made only for our enjoyment or to cater to our selfish whims. I have always felt that if people would only stop to think that animals are more like us than unlike us, more of us would find it in our hearts to empathize with them and to speak out when they are being treated unkindly.

Ironically, before coming to PETA, I worked for a top leather buying house. One day, I noticed a piece of leather with hair still attached to it. When I inquired about it, I was told that the skin came from a horse in New Zealand. Horrified, I went to PETA looking for alternatives to leather. Inspired by what I saw and learned, I begged PETA to hire me, and the rest is history!!

You have been named as one of the top 50 Most Powerful Women in India by Femina. What does that kind of accolade and power mean to you?
For me it’s recognition of the animal rights movement. I feel empowered to speak up for animals. Animal rights are the most powerful tool of social change.

What are some of the achievements you can tell our readers about PETA?
In a landmark victory for the animals, PETA India and the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) moved three bears from the derecognized Pratap Sinhav Udyan Zoo at Sangli to the Sur Sarowar Bear Facility in Agra.

PETA had filed a suit with the Supreme Court against the substandard and inhumane state of zoos across the country after we conducted investigations of more than 30 zoos. The court accepted the case and ordered notice to be served to all 37 respondents and directed that illegal zoos be closed.

PETA filed a lawsuit in 2002 against the state of Maharashtra and Empire Circus for turning a blind eye to the suffering of 10 tigers, nine lions and one bear. In the suit, PETA alleged that allowing the Empire Circus to keep these banned animals was in violation of a May 2001 Supreme Court ruling. Moreover, the circus was not registered with the Animal Welfare Board of India. Finally, in 2003, the tigers and lions were rescued and sent to a sanctuary in Jaipur.

CPCSEA ordered the confiscation of 37 monkeys and two goats who were taken to a rehabilitation facility in Pune. PETA was also actively involved in this rescue. Because none of the rescued monkeys had ever seen a tree prior to the rescue, they had to be taught how to climb a tree and also how to hunt for their food. Although very sick and debilitated from the trauma they endured at NIV, the monkeys are now on their way to recovery.

In October 2005, PETA received an anonymous call informing us  about the illegal breeding of Persian cats. During an undercover investigation, PETA discovered that the cats were not only illegally bred but were also kept in very bad conditions. PETA coordinated with the GSPCA to rescue the cats and they have been placed in a loving home.

Following an 18-month campaign by PETA, Mumbai announced that elephants would no longer be allowed in the city. The ban came on the heels of a report that PETA presented to the Mumbai Commissioner of Police and the chief conservator of forests, Thane Circle, pointing out that allowing elephants on roads and outside temples in the city posed numerous hazards to the elephants themselves, as well as to citizens, including cruelty to animals, the threat to human life and property, and the possible transmission to humans of tuberculosis and anthrax. In addition to prohibiting more elephants from entering the city, the ban also required that the already existing ones be removed.

How can people get involved and support PETA India?
Leave a trail of leaflets wherever you go—in the reading rack in your doctor’s waiting room, at the Laundromat, on the bus, in dressing rooms and so on. Also enclose a leaflet with every bill payment. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper about an animal-related issue. Take advantage of suggestion boxes and consumer comment cards: Praise practices that help animals and criticize those that hurt animals. Join PETA’s activist network  and subscribe to PETA E-News  (www.petadishoom.com)  PETA will link you to activists in your area and alert you when quick action is needed on national, regional, or local animal issues. Speak out! Within earshot of another shopper at the market, talk with a friend about a video you saw on factory farming. Jump into radio call-in discussions. Call a health show with info on vegetarianism, or call a show on budget cuts to talk about government subsidies of animal agriculture and experiments. Arrange a talk on vegetarianism, animal testing, or cruelty-free living at a local college, church, or civic center. Contact PETA at Info@petaindia.org to borrow a video. Encourage young people to get involved in animal protection. PETA has Web sites specifically designed for kids ages 6 to 14 (http://www.PETAIndiaKids.com) and for teens and young adults ages 15 and over (http://www.petadihoom.com).

Keep a stack of stamped postcards by your television, along with the addresses of TV stations. Whenever you see a show that promotes or trivializes animal abuse, jot down the station, program, scene, and date. Use a postcard to convey your concerns— politely to the network. Remember to thank networks for programming that promotes animal rights. Call or write to companies that still test their products on animals to tell them that you won’t purchase their products until they permanently ban animal testing  Educate! Most people don’t know how easy it is to change habits that hurt animals. As people become more aware of cruelty to animals, they become more serious about putting an end to it―and you can help them put their compassion into action.

What are some campaigns that PETA India is currently working on?
Our major campaigns are:

  • Get elephants banned from circuses.
  • Get a ban on glass-coated manja.
  • Get a ban on cosmetics testing on animals and ban on the sale of products that are tested on animals.
  • Get schools to stop requiring leather shoes as a part of school uniforms.
    Reform the factory farming industry.
  • Get all municipalities to implement spay/neuter programs.

PETA India is supported by a number of celebrities through various outlets. How do you get them involved and what kind of responses have they created in the past?

PETA’s main goal is simple: educate the public and inspire people to grassroots action. We can’t get people to stop buying, for example, leather shoes, if they aren’t aware of the cruelty involved in leather production. Getting the news out in the media, therefore, is vital.  Unlike our opposition, which is mostly composed of wealthy industries and corporations, we cannot afford costly ad campaigns, and thus have to rely on getting free “advertising” through media coverage. We have learned from experience that the media thrives on celebrity doings and the chance of them reporting on animal rights issues skyrockets when a celebrity is involved.

This approach has proved amazingly successful–in the decade since PETA India was founded, it has grown into the largest animal rights group in the country. We have also had major groundbreaking successes.

Some of the victories were accomplished by months of undercover investigation, careful documentation, and a tireless pursuit of justice through the courts, and others by colorful demonstrations, stunts, and campaigns. Throughout it all, celebrity involvement has helped us maximize the media coverage of our work, thereby increasing exponentially the number of people who hear and think about these issues.

Does PETA only work with urban India or rural India too? And how?
We work in both rural and urban India. In rural India, we work on helping working animals and animals farmed for meat and milk. In urban areas, we inform consumers about how to make choices that are cruelty free.

What are the some of the drawbacks and challenges you personally and PETA has faced in the past and currently?
I have faced a lot of derision from my family and friends because of the path I have chosen to go down as they all feel why animals and also because many of them are meat eaters so they are always defensive!

We can always use more support, both from the government and the volunteers donating their time and energy to help the animals.

When an abandoned or abused pet is found, what happens next? I know that PETA does not believe in keeping pets in zoos.
We try to place rescued wildlife in sanctuaries where they have proper care, room to roam, and the companionship of others of their kind.

What message do you have for our readers with regards to yours and PETA’s cause?
I hope that someday there will be no elephants in circuses, kept in shackles, beaten with bull-hooks, and denied their family lives and their freedom; that cosmetic testing and the zoos will be outlawed the world over, as they already have been in England and several other countries; that wonderful natural fibers and synthetics will be chosen over leather; and that responsible parents will raise their children not to acquire the meat addictions of my generation, which have brought us heart attacks, cancer, and stroke, as well as causing immense suffering for animals. I hope that all the animal laboratories will have closed down and that it will be illegal to keep any dog on a chain, shivering through the cold weather while the families they long to interact with enjoy the warmth of their homes.

PETA’s message is that each one of us is a vital player in life’s great orchestra. Every day, our choices can either help perpetuate or stop needless violence. I hope that everyone will join us in making the world a less violent place for all living beings.

~Roshni M.
(November 2009)

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