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Jordi Casamitjana interviews Juliet Gellatley, the founder and director of Viva!, the main organisation campaigning for veganism in the UK — and beyond.

If you don’t find it, make it yourself.

I am a fan of this attitude. All of us have been born among billions of other humans who are constantly remaking stuff invented by the 500 generations that preceded them. It seems that everything has been already invented, and we are only upgrading it and rebranding it. Therefore, it is not surprising that we all expect to find everything we need and want. It must be there, somewhere. Someone else must have made it, and I should be able to find it if I look hard enough.

But sometimes, that thing you are looking for is not really there, and if that is the case, the best attitude is to make it yourself. I have done that often. When I was a child and I became interested in astronomy, as I could not afford a telescope, I built one myself with lens from old cameras and projectors. When I could not find a veganic farm that would deliver veganic vegetables to my flat in London, I began growing them in my yard. When a couple of years ago I was looking for books about the different types of vegans there are and about the history of veganism, as I could not find any, I decided to write them myself (as chapters of my book Ethical Vegan).  

I know someone else that has this attitude too. Someone that has applied it for decades in the fields of veganism and animal protection. Someone who, after seeing that there was not a vegan organisation exclusively dedicated to campaigning for the vegan cause, created her own. I think I probably first met her about ten years ago at one of the Teambadger events against the UK badger cull. And she was kind enough to be one of the speakers at the online launch of my book too.

This person is Juliet Gellatley, the founder and director of Viva!, the British animal rights campaigning organisation focusing on promoting veganism since 1994. It is currently headquartered in Bristol and has a branch office in Poland. If you are a vegan from the UK — or are on social media — you would have seen her at the frontline of the many campaigns she has been involved in for decades. I thought it would be interesting to interview her to find out more about what has been driving her all these years.

Juliet’s Vegan Journey

Juliet Gellatley, director and founder of Viva (c) Viva

Like many vegans who started their veganism journey some time ago, Juliet went through a vegetarian phase first. Better let her explain it:

“When I was a child I had empathy for animals. This was pre-google, pre-social media, pre everybody having a computer, of course, so you only picked up little snippets of information because I lived in suburbia, and nobody at school particularly showed any caring about animal welfare. There were no vegetarians in the whole school as far as I’m aware. It just wasn’t a topic that came up, but I just started to pick up leaflets from animal welfare organizations, and the first issue that woke me up was the snaring of animals. I couldn’t believe that snaring was legal in the UK because it seemed like something so archaic. I remember doing my first petition on the snaring of animals, and I remember you had to build up quite a lot of courage to approach people about an issue they’d never thought of. I got a very mixed reaction. 

The next thing I heard about, because of television, was the killing of the seals in Canada, and it was massive news at the time. I was so upset by it. It was the first demonstration I went to in London on my own as a teenager, and it felt like a big adventure, surrounded by people that also cared. 

It just evolved from there. I started to talk about it a lot more; think about it a lot more. I read a book on vivisection, and I was talking to somebody and they said ‘you eat meat’, and I said ‘yes, I do’. I was brought up to eat every bit of an animal and type of animal, and it was one of those light bulb moments where I just thought about it. 

I had a leaflet about factory farming, and by this point, I thought ‘I want to see this for myself because every time I challenged somebody about it who I respected and loved they said basically what I’d read wasn’t true. I was quite confused because there was no way of finding out that kind of information, and I wanted to know the truth. So, I decided I was going to go on a factory farm myself. I did go with a university student, and it was one of the biggest so-called showcase farms in the UK. 

I saw a lot. We were only supposed to see the pigs, and I remember sneaking off and opening a shed door we weren’t supposed to be in. It was a huge shed for battery hens. I remember it was so noisy. When I walked in, the whole shed went silent and I remember my heart beating fast thinking ‘I’m giving myself away just from their silence.’ And at the same time the assault of this sight of all these animals in cages hitting you. I was walking along a narrow gangway with the cages five stories high. I couldn’t see the highest ones and could barely see the ones below. You just see the ones in the middle. And seeing this pathetic sight of these bald, balding, dying, and dead birds left in the cages. It was an absolute shock. It was something out of hell. 

Regarding the pigs unit — which was the unit I was supposed to go around that was arranged with this university student — we went around with an agricultural economist, so I had somebody there who was justifying everything and was proud of the way that these pigs were being kept. I saw everything that most people would never see. Back then the sows were in sow stalls, so they could barely move. They were all pregnant. And I went to another part of this. It was just a huge concrete industrial building with no windows. I walked to the other end of the shed just silently trying to take all this in. I was just absorbing it all and thinking ‘oh my God,  this is it, this is how animals really are treated in the UK’. It was quite a big thing for a 13-14-year-old girl to be taking in.

I walked toward these huge boars that were the size of Shetland ponies, and one of them was in a bad way. He had a bad back leg. He was salivating very badly in his mouth and just looked ill. And he dragged himself to me and we just looked each other in the eye. It was that connection. Of all the things that I’ve seen, it still stays with me, maybe because it was the first time a pig looked me directly in the eye. I understood what he was saying — as far as anyone can. It was just like a private passing of information between us. My thoughts to him were just ‘sorry’. And I kept saying ‘sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.’ I think I meant ‘I’m sorry I didn’t know about this before. I’m sorry I’ve not done anything about this yet. I’m sorry that the human race treats you this way. I can’t believe that this is happening in modern-day Britain’. It was genuinely very shocking.

I thought ‘well, all I need to do is tell everybody because nobody would support this, how could they?’ And that was the start of my journey in terms of telling people this is what happens. I went vegetarian overnight, which caused my mum a lot of worry because she was convinced that human beings were meant to eat meat. I wasn’t interested, to be honest, in health and nutrition. I just wanted to save the animals.

When I got into my 20s started to really question dairy. I think the final straw with me, when I thought ‘that’s it, I’m going vegan’, was a farmer up the road, who was my neighbour— by that point I was living in the countryside —  who put only about six cows on the field outside of our house, and one of them gave birth to twins. I saw him carrying the calves, and I literally went running after him up the road and said ‘what are you doing with these calves?’ And he said ‘they’re going to the veal trade’ because that’s what happened back then. I was really shocked and upset. I went into the house and opened the fridge, and literally, physically, poured the milk away and just got rid of it without asking anybody else in the household. I just got rid of all the dairy and said ‘this household is vegan.’ I put my foot down, as it were, and didn’t give anybody any options. I guess that I was about 27.”

The Birth of a Vegan Campaigning Organisation

Australian newspaper article about Juliet Gellatley

Viva! is a vegan animal rights organisation based in Bristol, west of England, campaigning on several animal issues (including factory farming, ending of foie-gras trade in Britain, exotic meat, ending pig farrowing crates, the badger cull, etc.) and on veganism. They do many undercover investigations into farms, launching many powerful exposés. One of the most high profile cases involved an investigation into Hogwood Pig Farm in Warwickshire, which led to the award-winning documentary “Hogwood: a modern horror story.” They use all sorts of publicity platforms (from billboards to TV ads) and organise vegan festivals.

They divide their work into four big sections (animals, health, planet, and lifestyle), all centred around the concept of veganism as the final solution to the major global crises we are experiencing. Many animal rights organisations mostly expose cruelty to animals while promoting veganism, and many vegan organisations mostly promote the vegan diet and lifestyle while including animal welfare as one of the reasons to adopt it. However, Viva! is the only organisation I know that seems to do both the other way around. It is essentially promoting the philosophy of veganism as its main goal while exposing animal cruelty and showcasing the vegan lifestyle at the same time. In this regard, I think it is quite unique. But I thought I better ask Juliet to define Viva! herself: 

“I think its heart is saving animals. And to save animals you have to be vegan if you want to have any real impact. And spinning out from that are all the other reasons for being vegan. So, we do have large and well-formed sections on health and nutrition, and increasingly so on the environment and the damage done by consuming animals on land and in the oceans. For me, all these issues intertwine if you join the dots. And the compassion for each other, for yourself, for the animals, for the whole planet that we live in, all of these issues actually matter, and at the heart of them is veganism. Viva! is a vegan organization. Centrally it’s vegan. That’s what we are promoting at whatever angle we come from. But in all honesty, what motivates me the most is the animals themselves. I just cannot bear cruelty to animals.”

I asked her how the whole thing started, and it turns out we both have the same academic background and moved to animal protection for more or less the same reasons: 

“I went to university in Reading, and I did zoology and psychology. My dissertation was about the behaviour of feral cats. I wanted to study animals in the wild and I did have the opportunity to go on and do that, but I just thought ‘I’m not going to have any impact on saving animals doing this. I may enjoy it. I may go on to do things that are amazing from a personal level but I don’t think I’m going to save a single animal.’ What I wanted to do was to shout to the world ‘we’ve got to stop factory farming animals!’ It was so large scale and so hidden and most people didn’t know about it — or they kind of knew but didn’t want to know. And that’s the big challenge of a campaigner;  how you break down those barriers and make people listen and then change. I thought ‘I’ll get a job in animal rights and make a big impact.’ 

I didn’t instantly get a job where I wanted so I moved to London and I worked for a media magazine. I thought ‘well, that’s useful as I can transfer skills.’ And then a job came up with an anti-vivisection group and I applied for that. They offered me a job as a researcher. I realized very quickly that nobody was campaigning at the organization at all, and talks were coming up in colleges with huge audiences and they weren’t sending anybody out because nobody wanted to do it then. I forced myself to do these things, and I started to do media and build a campaign. 

I left after a year and went to The Vegetarian Society as a youth education officer. That’s where I really started to build a knowledge base of how to campaign because they just threw me in and said ‘okay, you’re in charge of all our youth education.’ I worked very hard and was promoted to Campaigns Director. So, then suddenly, I’m in charge of all the adult campaigning. 

Then I left to set up Viva! because, fundamentally, the Vegetarian Society was not comfortable with campaigning. It was comfortable and at home with food and cookery, and that’s where it sees itself. It envisions itself as an information body that does food and cookery. So, I thought ‘I’ve got to do my own thing here because I just want to do investigations’, and The Vegetarian Society was not comfortable with that at all. 

For six months I thought about ‘do I actually want to set up a new organization?’ I only wanted to do it on a national scale level. I thought that there was nobody campaigning. The Vegan Society was not campaigning. They didn’t see it as its job. Nobody was really pushing veganism as the answer, and it was seen as being very radical back then. I thought ‘I’ve built up so much knowledge on the relevant issues for so long I don’t think I should just let it go.’ So, I decided to form Viva! from my home in a tiny village hamlet in Cheshire, in 1994.  Then we moved to Brighton after that, on the south coast, and from there we moved to Bristol, which is where we still are. I then set up Poland Viva! in 2001. I’m looking to go to Uganda next because there’s a massive hole in Africa and many African countries.”

Helping Ukrainian Animals 

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Puppies rescued by the Viva-Poland sanctuary (c) Viva

One thing I noticed about Viva! is that it is often in the front line of everything that happens in the world, finding the vegan angle. For instance, it was one of the first organisations that came up with a campaign about the link between animal exploitation and COVID19 (the campaign was called 3 in 4). The same happened with the crisis of domestic animals victims of the war in Ukraine. But this time, due to the location of Viva! Poland, it became a very close issue for Juliet. She explained:

“Ironically, we were thinking of expanding into Ukraine. Literally, with Viva! Ukraine. And the war happened. We were even thinking of Viva! Russia. Definitely, we are not going to be doing Viva! Russia now.

Poland happened because I wrote a book called “The Silent Ark” with Tony Wardle and it was translated into Polish. I was invited to Warsaw to give a talk about the book, which was basically why I went vegan, so it’s all the vegan issues — but if you’ve seen the book the majority of it is very focused toward animals. There was barely any setup in Poland for an organization to promote the book or me, because they just didn’t exist at that time. Veganism was seen as very outlandish in Poland. I did this talk and I couldn’t understand why hundreds of people were there and how on earth they’d managed to achieve this. We got invited back again so I went back and did another talk, and then another talk, and somebody who was a businessman said ‘how about I pay for offices in Warsaw and you do basically everything else?’ 

I took that risk and we did set up in Warsaw. It was slow-starting; it was very hard getting donations because people didn’t have credit cards or debit cards. We built slowly but surely and now it’s the biggest animal rights vegan organization in Poland. We decided the remit would be bigger than the UK’s, as we needed anti-fur campaigning — because it’s sadly one of the hubs of fur farming. Being a much wider remit enabled us to build more quickly.

Regarding the Ukraine crisis, the reason that I went over to Poland recently was because we have Viva in Poland. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have stepped in because there were so many other people doing it, but in Poland, we have a sanctuary which is about an hour from Warsaw. It’s a big sanctuary for Poland. it’s about 60 acres and we had over 400 animals at the start of the Ukraine war. 

And then the war happened, and everything got thrown sideways. We were going to be asked to take lots of cats and dogs. The sanctuary was full, so how would we do that? Back then it was quite tense, actually, because we were thinking to get all the animals out of Poland. Through donations we built emergency ways of getting cats and dogs in there, so we took about 130 cats and dogs. 

Pet food manufacturers were saying ‘we will give this food to Ukraine, but we don’t want to do any of the logistics.’ And there was nobody set up in Poland to do it. We were just having to sort things like that. So, we hired a huge warehouse and it was getting the food in. Then we had to hire the staff to get the food across and then we had to decide how we were doing that because it was extremely dangerous. We were working with a Ukrainian organization called Animals ID and we supply the feed to them. They would then get it to where it was needed.

Then, from the refugees’ perspective, we were providing lots of stuff like pet carriers, food, flea collars, and leads, and it was really moving to see how many refugees were carrying dogs in their arms. One woman I remember had her dog in her backpack for 15 days by the time she got to the main station in Warsaw. I remember this lady that had this cute little terrier cross, very cute little fella, who’s very affectionate, and she was saying ‘but I can’t pay for the carrier.’ I was using google translate to let her know this is free, and she was so grateful. You’d feel like crying because they literally have one small case like the size you’d put on the hold all of a plane and their animal. Poland has been incredible in terms of opening its arms to people and genuinely trying to help.”

The Most Effective Way of Vegan Campaigning

Juliet Gellatley and pig during an investigation (c)Viva

As a campaigning organisation Viva! regularly uses different forms of campaigning, from street outreach to TV ads. I asked Juliet which she thinks is the most effective method as I recently have written an article about this myself. I thought she gave me a very professional answer:

“It depends on who your audience is. There is not a magical silver bullet — otherwise, we would have used it and everybody would be vegan. It entirely depends on your audience. We have become sophisticated enough to split what we were doing and aim at different audiences, and I’ve become fairly sophisticated being able to guess what the responses are going to be from different audiences. But we still experiment all the time because I don’t want to make too many assumptions. 

Broadly speaking, talking about what the animals go through has the most impact in making, for example, a female teenager go vegan. These days it also has quite a big impact on males as well, but a bigger impact on females. 

Then, as you break down the audiences, if you do the simple thing of using age, health issues have a larger impact on the older the audience becomes, and environmental issues have a big impact on men in their 20s and 30s, for example, and animals still have the biggest impact on women in their 20s — bigger than the environment in terms of switching them to veganism. 

It’s hard to not be able to just say ‘it’s this one thing’ because it isn’t. It’s different things for different audiences. As we have become a bigger organization, we have done a big social media drive to bring young male adults into the organization. And one of the ways we are doing this is through sports, using ultra-fit men who are vegan as examples of people who can say ‘look, I’ve done this without a single animal product passing through my lips.’ Bringing them in through that, and then, obviously, you’re hoping to widen their empathy to other issues. 

Ultimately, I do believe everybody knows in their heart that cruelty to animals is just wrong, but it doesn’t mean everybody is going to look at that message and really absorb it, and allow it to make a big impact at first sight — whereas with younger women they would allow that absorption and allow themselves to change for those reasons. It’s not that I think men don’t care about animals because I think they absolutely deeply do, it’s just we still live in a society where there are all kinds of barriers that are put up for men, and so we have to be a bit clever about it in terms of how we reach them.

You’ve got to start somewhere. It’s almost like starting a conversation. If you meet a stranger, how do you start a conversation with that person? If you are good at it, you will find what they’re interested in, and you take it from that point. And that’s what we’re trying to do, starting that conversation.”

That’s a good way to put it. I often see vegan outreach, and vegan campaigning, generalised in such a way that it aims at everyone but it may reach no one. Each nation, demographic, ethnicity, culture or sub-culture is a different audience that could react to some messaging better than others. They may get offended by different messages and have different obstacles to overcome to become vegan. Small community vegan groups can tailor well their messaging to the sub-section of society they know more about, but for a bigger organisation aiming to go international, you have to deal with it intelligently. It seems that is what Viva! is trying to do. 

How Important Is the Word Vegan Over Plant-Based? 

Juliet Gellatley speaking at UK Vegan-CampOut in 2019 (c) Viva

Another subject I wanted to pick Juliet’s brains about was the issue of vegan vs plant-based. How important is the word vegan? I’m seeing many organizations moving away from the word ‘vegan’ and changing it to ‘plant-based’. Or using the word ‘vegan’ and not really mean it (but just meaning the diet vegans eat). Or even worse, moving away from asking people to become vegan and asking them to reduce meat consumption instead. I am worried that, due to financial pressure or external influences, Viva! may end up falling into any of this too, so I wanted to check with Juliet. Her answers were reassuring. 

Some people say the word ‘vegan’ is more loaded and that ‘plant-based’ is a more neutral term, so it doesn’t evoke an emotional response. And some food manufacturers don’t want an emotional response, they just want to label it as this is what it is. But I’ve found that a lot of them have chosen to stick with vegan and one of the reasons is the confusion that it can be causing some members of the public.

I think I took the decision a long time ago to push the word ‘vegan’ and be proud of it. At the time that we started the vegan festivals before they mushroomed and they became an industry in their own right, I can remember being told ‘oh, you can’t possibly do vegan festivals; nobody will be interested in them because it’s too radical.’ This was on our 10th anniversary,  so this is only 2004. I just went ahead and we pushed the word ‘vegan’ pretty much all the way through. I took a very active decision. 

I feel our job is to educate and expand people’s consciousness so that they are then thinking more in terms of a broader philosophy, which is ‘should we be exploiting animals and hurting them at all? are they here for our benefit?’ 

Do we want a different definition for every reason people go vegan? do we want a different word for people who change for the climate crisis, another one changing for wildlife extinctions, another definition for people who change through heart disease, another one for people who change due to taste, and yet another one for people who change because they are against factory farming? I don’t think it’s useful. What I actively dislike, or discourage people from doing, is being judgmental about other people and the reasons that they change.

What matters is that people change. And once they start to change they open their minds and their hearts to all the other issues. No matter what are they labelling themselves, as plant-based or vegan, they will open their minds and hearts to all the issues. And that happens in pretty much every person I’ve ever met relating to veganism.

Somebody has to fight for what’s right. I don’t want to sound ‘Holier than Thou’ or anything like that, but all the way through we have had people say ‘why don’t you fight for meat reduction, why don’t you just say you anti-factory farming, because that’s so much more acceptable to the public.’ And I would say ‘well, there’s Compassion in World Farming to do that. Somebody else is doing that. Somebody has to say right from the beginning ‘no, what is needed by the whole world to survive is veganism’. I decided somebody had to tell the truth, rather than constantly avoiding the truth because people are latching on to any excuse not to make a change.

So, for me, it’s impossible to promote anything other than veganism. Veganism is the centre of this. It is the central solution. We are being proven right on just about every front. We are loud and proud about the word ‘vegan’ and we will never go over to this ‘plant-based.’”

That’s good to hear. For me, it is also impossible to promote any solution to any of the major global crises without referring to veganism. I think that adding a separate identity as plant-based instead of vegan may slow down our progress toward the vegan world. And, as Juliet said, the term plant-based can bring more confusion than clarity from a consumer’s point of view. 

I am glad that Juliet decided a long time ago that she would be championing veganism by using the word ‘vegan’ loud and proud, and by promoting the philosophy, not just the lifestyle. And I am glad that, with this solid framework, Viva! is expanding to other countries and even continents. 

I think Juliet has the right attitude. Making what is needed where it is needed, and not waiting for others to do it. Providing a service to the community by going where her help may reach further (which is what outreach actually means). Trying many tactics but never losing the focus on the strategic goal.   

She is the epitome of the vegan campaigner. 

A relentless champion of the vegan solution.