Founder and director Juliet Gellatley talks to Tony Wardle about 10 years of Viva!
Saint Paul is supposed to have had his life-changing experience on the road just outside Damascus. Juliet Gellatley’s was in an intensive pig farm somewhere near Birmingham but make no mistake, it was every bit as dramatic. She was 15 but it determined the direction her adult life would take – and mine too, to some extent.
It was an accidental encounter as Juliet was simply accompanying a friend on an agricultural project. When they entered the nondescript, prefabricated industrial building and walked into the breeding pig unit, the impact of the stench, noise, humidity and heat was immediate.
Sow stalls were still legal and in use on this government show farm – row upon row of concrete cells, each pig separated from her neighbours and unable to touch them; ahead of her, iron bars, beneath her feet perforated metal, through which her excreta was supposed to drop but from which urine splashed, soaking her legs and belly.
They could take no more than half a pace forward or back and they would spend the best part of five or six years like this. Many were biting the bars of their stalls with a constantly repeated motion. Juliet didn’t know it then but these poor creatures were showing stereotypic behaviour and were experiencing mental collapse – they had gone mad. She just knew it was horrible.
But it was a boar pen that provided the final act in this disturbing drama:
“There was one boar in this huge, dark shed. He stood motion less, his huge head hanging low towards the barren floor. As I came level with him he raised his head and dragged himself slowly towards me on lame legs. With deliberation, he looked straight at me, staring directly into my eyes. It seemed to me that I saw in those sad, intelligent, penetrating eyes a plea – a question – to which I had no answer: “Why are you doing this to me?” I burst into tears and I kept repeating, over and over, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
At that moment, the seeds of Viva! were sown. Juliet knew she had to do something with her life that would help animals but what? She took a degree in zoology and psychology hoping it might help in some way. The ‘milk round’ of job opportunities provided masses of scope for working with Unilever but no one said: “All those who want to spend their lives saving animals, come this way!”
A PhD course was rejected as futile – it was a job she wanted and an animal rights organisation seemed the logical choice. There weren’t many of those around but she was patient, even while working in tele sales she was patient. And finally the opportunity arrived – youth education officer for an antivivisection body. The champagne cork that popped in celebration still sits in honour on Juliet’s bookshelves.
Twelve months later Juliet moved to the Vegetarian Society as youth education officer and began a steep learning curve as the Society had never campaigned before. She had a budget, a remit to reach young people, not a great deal of experience and no one to lean on. But then, Juliet never leans.
She launched her first campaign – SCREAM!! (Schools Campaign for Reaction Against Meat) – and took the facts about factory farming into schools nationwide. It was cheeky, controversial and new and the media couldn’t leave it alone. It ran for years and just when it was starting to lose its legs, the Meat & Livestock Commission made the silly mistake of attacking it and suddenly, the smouldering bonfire of exposing animal abuse burst back into flames.
Within just a few years, other campaigns had been launched, the department had risen to six, youth membership was 7,000 (a staggering number for any group), a quarterly 44-page magazine called Greenscene was published and a network of school contacts had been set up and a school speakers programme developed. Juliet did hundreds of talks herself and maintained it was vital for her motivation:
“It kept me in touch with 13 and 14 years olds and it was their response which drove me forward – they are shocked and horrified when they hear about animal abuse and are desperate to help. It is a constant reminder of why I do what I do.”
After three years, Juliet became campaigns director and launched the Society’s first adult campaign, which boosted membership by 6,000 in weeks. It seemed almost inevitable that this fast-rising star would become Director and, of course, she did, although it was short lived. Juliet explains:
“A change in council led to a change in policy, with the Vegetarian Society becoming more food based. It think it’s good to have an organisation promoting food but it was not the right approach for me. I felt a vegetarian and vegan body was still needed to campaign directly for animals and when I looked around, there wasn’t one dedicated to farmed animal issues. I knew just how much work was involved, I didn’t have enough money and I was devoid of all the structures of an established organisation – staff, computers, accountancy, offices. I barely had computer skills.”
I was around at this time and there was a period of two or three months of false calm, of toying with other ideas, of learning computer skills ‘just in case’ but I knew the die was cast when Juliet returned from a meeting with Audrey Eyton, author of The F-Plan Diet (see page 9).
“I outlined my vision to Audrey and fortunately she was looking at the same vista. She made a donation of £20,000 which was enough to set up Viva! and launch the first campaign. If that failed to bring in sufficient support, it would be the beginning and end. Personally, I never doubted it would succeed – it was a kind of blind faith. Even when people close to me were asking why on earth I was doing it, it didn’t shake my belief. I realise now what a brave and generous move it was by Audrey to have that kind of belief in me and I will always be grateful to her for that and for her rock-solid and constant support ever since. The money came from the memorial trust set up in her son Matthew’s name – the Matthew Eyton Trust. I am proud that one of my little boys now carries the same name.”
And so Viva! was launched, at the Union Club in Soho, with an astonishing morning of TV interviews, a packed venue and children doing radio interviews in all parts of the UK as part of the launch campaign – Convert-a-Parent. The Daily Mail described it as reminiscent of the Hitler Youth but the coverage was extraordinary, producing some 200 stories. Juliet doesn’t think it was an accident.
“We specifically targeted the campaign so that it had national, regional and local interest but I believe many journalists saw the launch of Viva! as an historic moment – there was a sense of excitement, a crackling in the air.”
The usual advice for a new venture is – have modest, attainable goals. Oh really?
“My intention was ultimately to turn the world vegan. I wasn’t sure how I was going to achieve it without massive resources but I did have right on my side. I still believed that if we exposed the conditions, educated people about the consequences of their diet and tackled the industry’s lies and Government deceit, the truth would get through. The majority of children aren’t cruel and places where young children can cuddle animals are extraordinarily popular. By about the age of 10, that love has been perverted – knocked out of them – and those who continue to show it are considered weird.
“One of Viva!’s aims was to educate young people but also to offer support and encouragement to those who have made a conscientious choice – telling them that feelings of compassion are natural and right.”
What followed was an incredibly rapid rate of growth, some headline successes, a string of awards, offices in Poland and the US and a move to ‘proper’ offices in Brighton. More recently was the birth of twin boys (so there is some time for other things!) and the purchase of Viva!’s own four-story offices in Bristol. So how are things now, 10 years down the line?
“We are now probably the biggest campaigning vegetarian organisation in the world so the fact that we are still relatively small speaks volumes for how much there is still to do. Farmed animals have always been the most difficult to defend simply because most people eat them and stopping the cruelty requires a major change in lifestyle. Eventually, individuals have to accept responsibility as we can’t blame everything on multinationals, producers and governments – it’s about personal choice. The positive is our work can be extremely rewarding as day by day we have contact with people who have changed because of us.
“This gives reason for some optimism but the public’s attitude to animals generally has changed and that has to be the starting point for greater change. Middle aged men have always been the most difficult to persuade and yet when I gave a talk and showed videos to Brighton Round Table, they were shocked, applauded and when the besuited solicitor rose to give the speech of thanks, he was visibly shaking and spoke of the ‘horror’ they had just seen.”
Ten years is a very short space of time, although to those involved it can feel like an age, with victories and disappointments, paralysing concerns and joyous celebrations. For Juliet, however, the highs and lows are not always the obvious ones.
“Of course the victory over Tesco on exotic meats was extraordinary but one of my most treasured memories is that of a teenage girl who came up to me after a talk. She said her father was a pig farmer and everything I had said about pigs was true and she was going vegetarian. This kind of experience forcefully reminds me that people can change and can start to care despite their upbringing.
“The low point was filming in a Welsh slaughterhouse, pretending I was researching for a TV programme. I knew the aim was to expose the cruelty and consequently save animals but I was face to face with the enormity of precisely what it is we’re fighting against. I was seeing first hand what people are capable of doing. I was powerless to intervene and had to watch animals killed in front of me and it was horrible. I failed them. Despite this, I know I did what I had to.
“Another moment which produced great anger in me was filming inside a Bernard Matthews turkey shed. This particularly obnoxious character had been there throughout my growing up, telling everyone how ‘bootiful’ his turkeys were and here I was, inside a huge windowless shed, looking at these pathetic animals in their desperately cruel environment. Thousands of birds crammed together in the half light on filth, so crowded that to walk through them you have to gently shoo them out of the way. I felt shame for being human, sorrow for the animals, anger at those responsible and determined to do something about it. You want to show the whole world what you’ve seen and heard and smelt.
“Even his vitriolic attack on Viva! following our exposé revealed the moral black hole in his operation. In his company magazine he appeared against a background of free-range turkeys extolling his welfare conditions. He forgot to say that of the 13 million turkeys be produces each year, the vast majority are factory farmed. When anyone engages in evasion on this scale, you know you’ve got them very worried. The biggest frustration, of course, is the lack of resources – the bad guys have plenty! But the fact that we have grown so rapidly shows what great support we have as most of our resources come from the £5 and £10 donations of ordinary people.
“We now have the structure, talent and supporter base to radically change society in the future. When we start to get big legacies, which will come eventually, we will have the resources we need. They won’t sit in our bank accruing interest, we will use them and then we’ll see real results.
“Big environmental organisations will start to take on the issue of livestock production and I can foresee a day when people will be forced to reduce their meat consumption. Those who don’t will be seen like chain smokers or alcoholics and it will become much easier to be veggie or vegan with massive investment in food products when it is no longer a minority choice.”
Okay, I have an admission to make! Juliet is my wife so this article is not entirely dispassionate. But every word of it is true. I’ll give Ms Gellatley the last words:
“I don’t believe in fate but what I am doing feels like my destiny – but one I mapped out for myself.”