Like most people at the tail end of adolescence, at 19, I had a socially aware energy unique to that time in my life, a force that persuaded me that, when not carousing on romantic dates, I could, and should, try to save the world.
While skimming through the Village Voice, I stumbled across a horrible discovery. There were animal experiments occurring only blocks away from where I lived, tests being conducted on female macaque monkeys to observe how they would react to crack cocaine. How did think they’d react to crack cocaine? You could just walk down the streets of New York to study that. Leave it to humans to impose our man made dysfunction and illness on other animals and make drug addicts of forest-dwelling monkeys. It seemed inane that six million dollars a year was going to these experiments “in an effort to better understand and treat drug abusers in the future”, when all that money could be spent rehabilitating the surplus of addicts that roamed the streets of New York every day, ignored and spit upon as the dregs of society. I just couldn’t resist the temptation to throw myself at a cause greater than dating.
The NYU Environmental Club and I decided that the first step would be to educate ourselves by meeting with the culprits face-to-face. We had expected the doctors and scientists to boorishly refuse any such meeting. However, when we told them about a highly publicized protest that was brewing, they quickly and politely agreed to meet.
The conference room was frigid. Glaring white walls and a stark blackboard stared at us as we waited for an NYU P.R. spokesperson and two scientists to enter. When the door opened behind me, I felt a sudden bout of nausea, and I wondered if I could remain composed while looking these ogres in the face. I was horrified to see a woman among the trio; somehow, it seemed more brutal, more awful that a woman would cause so much pain in innocent creatures (female creatures, at that). This woman standing before me, with her clear white skin and soft blue eyes, violated an unstated code of maternal rules and betrayed my firm sense that women were inherent protectors. We all shook hands amicably and sat down, the three middle-aged adults across from my friends and me. I felt stupid and minuscule.
After the seemingly pointless meeting, we started planning a protest at Washington Square Park. We contacted three different animal rights groups, all of which were anxious to help. One of the most concerned individuals, then working with In Defense of Animals, was David, a dynamic young man with a fiery phone voice that exuded vivacity. He had just the right balance of passion, compassion, and logic, and I knew that with this man’s help, our mission might- just might- be a success. We agreed to meet at Washington Square Park to discuss and create an outline of specific steps to be taken to “bring this place down”, as David always said.
I sat uncomfortably on the stiff wooden park bench where I agreed to meet David. I spotted a limping, slumping, emaciated man hobbling towards me, leaning pitifully on a cane. He stopped in front of me, smiled one of the widest grins I had ever seen, and extended his frail hand. I was stunned by how deceiving his strong, virile voice had been on the phone. But I would soon realize that it was his body that was deceiving; for within its cerebral palsy-stricken walls lived a wise and vibrant spirit determined to bring a halt to suffering wherever possible. David was the embodiment of true wealth, spiritual purity, and everything I had hoped to be at that time- unfazed and unaffected by money, the physical body, and appearances, living only from the heart.
We decided on the day and time of the protest and created a list of a dozen well known activists, including a doctor and a vet, to invite as speakers. David took care of obtaining the necessary permits and protection, while my friends and I made and hung posters on every wall of every dorm and class building, on every street corner, and in every café. David contacted the media, and I prepared a short speech. The lead singer from one of the bands I watched at a bar every Thursday night suggested that we organize a benefit concert as well. And within just days, three famous industrial bands (including Meat Beat Manifesto) offered to perform at the benefit, which was planned for the night before the protest.
The benefit was crowded with angry-looking high school and college students moshing to songs whose lyrics conveyed peace and equality. Two news channels covered short bits about the concert, which turned out to be a successful tool in educating the public and advertising the next day’s protest.
Then came the day of the long-awaited protest. David and I were in awe when more than two hundred and fifty people, ranging in age from preteen to senior citizen, congregated at Washington Square Park. With pride, David introduced me to the mass of activists. I stood before them, a microphone in hand for the first time in my life and gazed at all the onlookers, offering a quick silent prayer in thanks. I was astounded that in a city with a (pre-911) reputation for its mean, rude people, so much compassion existed. I trembled as I spoke about the importance of standing up for those who cannot speak for themselves. I tried not to notice the TV crews aiming their cameras at me. When my brief speech came to an end, I stood still and allowed the fervent applause to wash over me, yet I later berated myself for letting my ego be touched by all the attention. I watched the protest continue, with eloquent speakers passionately declaring their love for all living beings.
By the time I graduated from NYU two years later, the animal experiments were still continuing. But six years later, I got the phone call. After years of public pressure, the macaque crack testing finally came to a halt. The cloud of melancholy that had hovered above me all those years, knowing that I had been helpless to end what I had deemed cruel and unnecessary torture, had finally lifted. By the time I had heard the news, I was no longer an adolescent, no longer an activist. The results of my activism were not immediate. Nor were they tangible. Nor could they have existed had I not believed that they could.
One person can change the world in some way, for someone. It takes perseverance and passion and patience, but it is possible.