Vegan activist Jordi Casamitjana interviews Alejandra García, the Argentine animal protectionist who has been crucial to the welfare of many animals, especially bulls, horses, and elephants.
I remember it very well.
When I was sitting in the top public gallery of the Parliament of Catalonia on 28th July 2010, and everyone got up to applaud, I sat for a few seconds to write down the results of the vote. There were 68 votes in favour, 55 against, and nine abstentions. With this result, Catalonia banned bullfighting. A historic day.
After the applause, we had to go outside the chamber and continue to make statements to the press. Although I emigrated from Catalonia (where I grew up) to the United Kingdom in the early 90s, in those days I traveled to Barcelona to act as an international spokesperson for the Plataforma PROU, the animal protection organization behind that victory. It was created exclusively for this campaign since the law was the product of a Popular Legislative Initiative (ILP), which in Catalonia is a legal mechanism in which bills can be presented by the Catalan public (through obtaining, during a fixed term, a minimum number of signatures) instead of by parliamentarians. And to get those signatures it was necessary to run a public campaign that lasted years.
Many people participated in our campaign, but the last few days before the vote only a few of us took the role of PROU’s spokespersons. I covered most of the foreign media interviews — on the day of the vote, a record number of these were registered in the Parliament — but the vegan activist Leonardo Anselmi (known as the main spokesperson) covered the nationals. However, coordinating all this media explosion was an animal activist without whom I am sure we would not have achieved our success. A former journalist from Argentina who emigrated to Catalonia and made that country her new homeland. A tireless animal protectionist who, after that victory, returned to Argentina to continue helping abused animals that needed rescue. A vegan activist who now runs a horse sanctuary with more than 150 animals. She is Alejandra García, and after many years without talking directly to her, I decided to use Zoom to find out what she had been doing since those historic days in Barcelona.
In this article, you can read what she told me.
New Country, New Philosophy
First, I asked her something that I had never asked her before: how she ended up emigrating to Catalonia and how was her vegan journey:
“I was born in 1963 in Córdoba, Argentina, which is the second city in the country in the number of inhabitants. A large, industrial city.
In Argentina, there was a bloody dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. In 83, the democracy returned, but the military, who were the ones who made this coup d’état, still had enough strength, and there were several further attempts at new coups d’état. Already knowing everything that had happened with the concentration camps, the illegal kidnappings of people, and so on, my mother was the one who said, ‘the time has come for you to think about leaving for a while, for safety.’ That was because I was in the age group that was a target of these kidnappings during the military dictatorship and because I was always in trouble — such as participating in demonstrations and human rights stuff. My mom was afraid because, at the time, it was dangerous. I decided to emigrate, but my idea was to spend three or four months in Barcelona and try to do some postgraduate degree in my career. But when I arrived, I found the handicap of the Catalan language. Not knowing Catalan, I realised that I would not be going to university to do a postgraduate degree.
In the middle of all this I had children, so, in the end, I stayed in Barcelona for 24 years. For me, Barcelona is my home, and Catalonia is my country. And I have always felt not only very grateful as they opened their arms to me, but very involved in the political and social life of Catalonia.
In Argentina, I studied journalism and worked a lot as an advertising copywriter, and then as a freelancer for some media. But always very small things. I was in Barcelona for a long time without working as a journalist and doing other things, trying to earn some money. After five or six years of living in Barcelona, I started visiting publishing houses to leave my resumé. And so, I started working there for different publishers, also as a freelancer.
It was in 2005 when I became vegan. While I was always raised in a family where there was a lot of respect for animals — my house was full of dogs, cats, turtles, and birds, all of whom were found injured on the street — I had never made the connection to the other animals. I didn’t eat meat, but because, since I was a child, I was disgusted by it. I was disgusted by milk too, but I did eat cheese and eggs. I was disgusted because I saw that it was a dead animal, but I never made a connection from an ethical point of view. I had a very big cognitive dissonance.
It wasn’t until I saw the documentary ‘Earthlings‘ at its premiere in a cultural centre in Barcelona in 2005 — when I saw all these hard images — that I said, ‘I can’t be part of this.’ I had learnt a lot about things that happened with food, but I didn’t worry about clothing. Without any problem, I bought leather shoes or leather jackets. And at that point, it was like my neurons started to spark, and I came out of the cultural centre saying, ‘Never again! I don’t want to participate in this; I don’t want to be complicit in this.’
I even put myself in a role of a self-critic saying, ‘I have always considered myself a good person, who since I was a child in school always had arguments with the teachers for having been a little racist or classist with a schoolmate, and now suddenly I am not as good a person as I thought I was because I am participating in a form of enormous discrimination, by the number of individuals and by the amount of suffering, caused by all the industries of animal exploitation.’ And at that moment. it was the click.
When I made this change, I realised I needed more. I needed people to know this because I was sure that when more people would find out about it, more people would disconnect from this massacre that we were all participating in. And that’s when I said, ‘Well, I have to start doing activism; I need it because the anguish is so great that I need to do more for the animals.’ At the time, I was working as a journalist in various publishing houses, so I said, ‘what I can offer is what I can do well.’ I started offering my press services for free to organisations dedicated to working for animal rights.”
Activism in Catalonia
I met Alejandra before Plataforma PROU was created, when she was one of the activists of the animal rights organisation Asociación Animalista Libera! (which not only remains one of the most important in Barcelona but has now expanded to other countries). Alejandra told me why she chose this organisation:
“Then I contacted Libera, which was an association that I really liked how operated because it was not a hierarchical organic structure, but it was very assembly-like, very punk, and very anarchist. I identified a lot with this way of working, because it was very enriching, with many debates before making decisions.
Outside of my working hours in the publishing house, I would go to a small place that we had with Libera to work there trying to place Libera’s activism in the media. What does not appear in the media does not reach an audience that for us was impossible to reach. A larger mass where you can show the reality of what was happening with the animals. That was my goal.
Soon we started to appear in the media and started showing how active we were — because there wasn’t a weekend we didn’t have any activism to do. Whether it was handing out leaflets, giving talks, or organising ‘Earthlings’ screens. We even got a large plasma screen and went out at night to the centre of Barcelona, connected the screen in the middle of the street to show documentaries and images, and interacted with the public. It was a beautiful time for me, because not only did I discover wonderful colleagues, but I truly saw that change was possible. Many people saw these images for the first time, and then they ended up being activists for the organisation.
It was a very nice and fruitful time, but soon it did not feel enough in terms of my goals. We needed to do something else. Politicians make the decisions. Now that we had a social mass that more or less knew what happens with the issues, we had to reach out to the political class (which is the one that eventually is going to write the laws, present them, and approve them) to get rid of different forms of exploitation of animals.”
The Abolition of Bullfighting
In 2006, I started a campaign to abolish bullfighting around the world as part of the campaigns of the anti-cruel sports organisation I worked with in the UK. Then, I continued to work on this issue when I became the Campaign Coordinator of the Dutch anti-bullfighting organisation CAS International. Part of my job for both organisations was to meet with anti-bullfighting activists from the nine countries that still had a bullfighting industry, and start creating strategies to internationalise the anti-bullfighting movement (such as creating a summit where we met in different countries every year). It was during this work that I learnt about Libera, which had already come a long way on this subject. It seems that Catalonia was already at the right socio-political moment to try to ban bullfighting.
“At that time, it was very evident that one of the cruel forms of exploitation of animals, but that had the greatest social rejection in Catalonia, was bullfighting, which was still happening in the country.
I wanted to work all this political part, but in parallel, I was coordinating other campaigns. We started a campaign to declare the municipalities of Catalonia free of circuses with animals. Starting to work with small municipalities and getting these ordinances passed, made us gain muscle and learn how to deal with politicians. It also gave us an injection of motivation for activists, showing that by working in this way you achieve tangible things. I left the press part and started coordinating campaigns, and even participating in their design — although with the issue of bullfighting I focused more on the press part, which was where I felt more confident.
Then is when we discovered that there was a wonderful tool that we did not know existed called the Popular Legislative Initiative. We had many politicians in favour of abolishing this form of animal exploitation, but none living in a political moment with the capacity to allow them to present a bill to abolish it. So, we decided to do it through the Popular Legislative Initiative, which consists of a group of organised citizens presenting the bill in the Parliament of Catalonia. But for this to be dealt with by parliament, it can only be done by complying with very strict legal requirements about who must sign (because a minimum number of signatures of citizens of Catalonia is needed).
They had to be not only real signatures on paper but only from people legally residing in Catalonia. Such residents had to give sensitive private data because the forms approved by the parliament of Catalonia had to record their real address, their ID number, and their signature. And each of these signatures had to be checked by the Institute of Statistics of Catalonia, following the electoral roll.
It took years — because it was about two or three years — but it was fruitful because we were very fussy to prevent the initiative being invalidated by presenting some fake signatures. Even when we saw that the handwriting was not very legible, we crossed it out and invalidated it ourselves. All signatures were verified and then formally presented to the Parliament of Catalonia. “
Back to Argentina
The campaign to abolish bullfighting in Catalonia was successful (even after, a few years later, the Constitutional Court of Spain ruled against the law that banned bullfighting, as Catalan politicians did not change anything and bullfights have not returned to the country since) but the constant malicious pressure of pro bullfighting supporters had a major negative effect on the lives of Leonardo and Alejandra.
“At the summits that were organised in different countries, I had the opportunity to meet Vera Weber, currently the president of the Franz Weber Foundation. At that time, her father Franz was still alive, and they, although are from Switzerland, a country where bullfighting does not exist, were also very involved in abolishing this cruel form of leisure.
On a personal level, when the abolition of bullfighting in Catalonia happened, my husband Leonardo and I had a rather difficult time. He was the spokesperson for Plataforma PROU, which exposed him a lot and he ended up losing his job (he was a marketing manager for a medical company). And he lost his job because the bullfighting supporters even threatened his bosses. They knew where we worked and what we did. A similar thing happened to me, because, although I left my job voluntarily to dedicate the last year to 24/7 working only for the campaign, once the campaign ended in 2010, I needed to return to work — and more when Leonardo lost his job. He was stigmatised, and I also was, to some extent, by the media.
It was like that euphoria of an artist, who after success falls into decline. During the campaign, we were attending to the press continuously. You lived that experience with us. We made Leo sleep in an armchair for a while before more press needed us, you attended to the others, and I coordinated all that. At the end of the campaign, we were left quite alone. Between the three of us, we carried all that part. And suddenly, the phone no longer rings, no one calls us. The issue has already passed, and it seemed that we lost everything. That was the feeling we had.
But someone told Vera Weber when she was in Barcelona, and one evening she invited us to dinner and said, ‘You don’t have to be going through this. We want you to do the same thing you are doing now, but for the Foundation, being part of our staff.’ At the time my reaction was to start crying because it was like a huge discharge of tension.
As a result of that, in 2011, on a 15-day trip to Argentina, the world fell apart under me. I saw the situation of the animals there. Animals in zoos, circuses, and on the streets.
Here, we have a problem of very pronounced social and economic differences. Since 2001, neoliberal policies have been applied for many years, which made the middle class to practically disappear, and increased the number of people who had nowhere to live. People really live in shanties with huts made of three plates of metal and no windows. And children are living there. And what do they live on? Of scrambling in the rubbish to sell any cardboard, plastic, or metal they can find. And how do they collect all that? With very precarious carts that they assemble with the same discarded wood and with abandoned car tires. Horse-drawn carts in such a state the world comes down on you and breaks your heart. Broken at so many levels, because what you see there is the situation of the horse, the situation of that family, the situation of those children, disabled people working on this, and people picking up what the consumerist society throws away. I saw such enormous discrimination that I said, ‘we have to do something about this.’
So, with Leonardo we designed a campaign, we talked to Vera, and she said, ‘Go ahead, you have to do it.’ Leonardo traveled first to Argentina and toured all the shanty towns looking at a reality that is so hidden from those who do not want to see it. Quickly, what was detected in these meetings is that nobody was doing anything for these people and these animals. The key excuse that municipalities use — and they are just excuses — is, ‘if I remove them from there and reconvert the activity into something else, what do I do next with all those horses?’ And Vera said, ‘Let’s create a sanctuary for those horses.’ “
Through the back window of the room where Alejandra was talking to me during the Zoom meeting, I could see some of the horses she rescued, since she was in her sanctuary where she has spent the last few years taking direct care of many animals. Alejandra continues with the story:
“That’s when I went to Argentina to start the sanctuary project. Looking for the space, the fields, seeing in which area it was more feasible doing it, where we were going to have better pasture for the horses, better access to veterinary care for them, the best climate for them, etc. Several things were analysed, and finally, in 2013, we launched it in my province. That was not accidental, since it is in the middle of Argentina, it is quite equidistant from other provinces that would like to send horses, the weather is ideal, and it only rains in summer — and for horses that is good. It was a place where I felt in my natural habitat, despite not having been here for long.
We launched this project, and we called it ‘Santuario Equidad’. I made a little play on words between equines and equality. But the equality that we want is not only for non-human animals but also for human animals, which are the ones who work with these horses.
At the moment we have 154 horses, but, of course, we have the doors of the field open to any animal that needs rescuing, so we also have cows, llamas, sheep, pigs, two goats, a buffalo, donkeys, mules, and roosters that were used in cockfighting — which is illegal, but still happens.
We work very well with the local police. Many animals come from cases that the police seize and are then brought here, many other cases are complaints we make, and many others are the horses that come for the program we presented to municipalities.
That is a social inclusion program where you first work with the families. For example, we have carried out literacy programmes because we have met many adults who cannot read and write, and therefore cannot have a driver’s license and then change the horse for something else. We discovered many people with disabilities and got them some sort of state aid so that they do not have to continue working, and even people of retirement age whom we help access a state retirement plan.
For those who wanted to continue working on the sale of scrap goods, they were given training in waste recycling, they were given driving courses so they could get their driver’s license, and then also a mechanics course so they could make small repairs to their vehicle without having to take them to a workshop. The municipalities were made to create a small workshop where they could check the vehicles once a week to ensure that they are always in optimal condition. We also created worker cooperatives so that these people can have a fair income and legal personhood that allows them to access public procurement tenders.
In places like Godoy Cruz, which is a very important city in Mendoza, the whole program was applied step by step. With each step, we produced protocols and manuals of good practice. Today we see this result with great happiness and enormous satisfaction.
Naturally, we cannot receive all the horses from Argentina. We started with the horses of the pilot projects, but during the years in which training was being done, we made a selection of adopters. There are families with fields that adopt four, five or six horses — we do not let them adopt only one, it has to be a group because the horse is a social animal and we do not want them to have a miserable life living in solitude — where they are made to sign a contract saying that they cannot ride them, they cannot rent them, they cannot sell them, and they cannot make any profit from them. They can only let them live their retirement in what is left of their lives. We also have local animal protectionists who visit the adopters once a week to see how the horses are doing. If we do not guarantee that these animals have a good future as the families that previously used them to work are having, the concept of equity is lost. It has to be for everyone. It is a benefit for all human and non-human animals.”
The Female Elephants Who Open the Cages
Recently, I wrote an article about the transfer of Guillermina, a 56-year-old female elephant, from a zoo in Argentina to an elephant sanctuary in Brazil. I didn’t know that Alejandra was involved in the campaigns that made this possible.
“Elephants are very charismatic animals. I love them. In Barcelona, when I lived there, there were two female elephants in the zoo that I had not paid any particular attention to — because the campaigns always were against the zoo in general, never for a particular animal. But I learned that one had died, and the other had been left alone with tremendous depression. I went to the zoo to see her, and I met Susi, with whom I empathised in a very big way. I was like obsessing over the subject. I began to download scientific studies and to have contact with experts. We have not yet managed to get her out of Barcelona Zoo, but the struggle, which began in 2010, continues.
Then I came to live in Argentina, and when I went to visit zoos and saw other elephants, I said, ‘well, here you have to do something; here I have a thread to start pulling’. I visited these zoos and began to speak with their managers. Many Argentine zoos began saying that they wanted to reconvert, sending animals to sanctuaries, and stopping the display of animals for commercial purposes. They talked about becoming only rescue centres for native fauna for their subsequent release, or rehabilitation centres for seized wild animals victims of the pet trade. That is a true step forward.
Paul Westcott was the founder of the Tennessee sanctuary in the US, and currently runs an elephant sanctuary in Brazil. We can’t deny the tremendous help of having nearby an elephant sanctuary like this, which is certified by the Global Federation of Sanctuaries. And with people as skilled as Paul, Scott Blais, Kath Blais, and Joyce Poole, who have undeniable experience in dealing with elephants rescued from captivity. And to have this sanctuary in a country bordering Argentina. As if so many conditions were being met that anyone who refused to send an elephant there could no longer have any excuse.
And so, it happened. We first began to work with the Mendoza Zoo — which was appalling — and then with the Buenos Aires Zoo. In both cities, laws were passed to ban their zoos and make way for them to be converted into eco-parks. From Mendoza, ten brown bears that lived in appalling conditions have already been sent to ‘The Wild Animal Sanctuary.’ The same goes for lionesses. Tigers have also gone there from zoos over here.
And now, in Argentina, we have the first ‘Habeas corpus’ that has been given to a non-human animal. First Cecilia, the chimpanzee, and then the orangutan Sandra. Cecilia was in Mendoza and Sandra in Buenos Aires, and the two are already living in sanctuaries. There is a group of chimpanzees that is still in the former zoo of Buenos Aires, but it is already being prepared to go to a sanctuary.
But I focused on the elephants. The female elephants are so huge, that when they pass through that door, in the end, all the animals also pass because there is room for everyone. They were the ones who broke the bars of the zoos’ cages so that all the other animals could come out.”
That’s an image that makes me smile.
Among the bulls, horses, and elephants, it seems that the megafauna of the planet has in Alejandra an invaluable ally. And as she says, if you manage to help the big guys, the little ones will come after. It’s true. If it is possible to give a dignified life without exploitation to animals weighing a ton, how can it not be possible to do the same with sheeps, pigs or chickens? If you can rescue elephants and abolish the zoos that held them captive, you can rescue any animal and abolish their exploitation.
It’s all a matter of strategy and tenacity. The vegan world is possible in the future because the abolition of different types of animal exploitation is already possible in the present. Alejandra knows this well because she has done it herself.
Alejandra is a tireless animal protectionist who achieves results in each country that welcomes her. But she is also an efficient and generous colleague with whom it is a pleasure to work.
I remember it very well.