Dec. 3 2014 10:05 AM

A look at San Diego's most prominent and effective vegan activist

Bryan Pease, outside of his Animal Protection and Rescue League Fund Thrift Store in Clairemont Mesa
Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

When attorney and animal-rights activist Bryan Pease found out in early November that a local organic vegetable farm was scheduled to host an event called Death for Food, he wasn't happy about it. Using a graphic image from the website of the unconventional supper club, which showed a man killing a small pig with a knife and blood pouring from the animal's throat, Pease created a petition calling on the farm to cancel.

"People can make their own decisions about how they should feel about it, but I just wanted to start a conversation," said the handsome and charismatic 36-year-old vegan. Pease gave up meat at age 16 and is cofounder and executive director of the nonprofit Animal Protection and Rescue League, which campaigns against factory farming.

While the images on the Death for Food website are somewhat disturbing, it's not an obvious target for Pease, as the event encourages participants to challenge their casual attitudes toward meat consumption. However, the event does so in the most dramatic way possible—by having guests look their meal in the eye before slaughtering and eating it.

Within a few days, the petition attracted more than 2,400 signatures, and the host of the event, Suzie's Farm, acquiesced to Pease's demand. Nobody from the farm would talk to CityBeat for this story, but in comments to the media immediately following the decision, owner Robin Taylor suggested the farm could've been sued because the meat used for the event—as is the case with many supper clubs—hadn't been federally inspected.

Of course, there was also the torrent of harsh and threatening comments from vegetarians and vegans directed at Suzie's Farm. "This is a sick and twisted event and I will boycott products from your farm from now on," wrote Joy Zakarian, one of many angry commenters on the petition's website.

The petition doesn't even come close to making the list of Pease's top victories, which include leading the decade-long fight to ban foie gras in California. But because of Death for Food's nuanced philosophy, Pease's reaction has opened him up to attacks that he's as dogmatic as he is formidable.

"It was an uninformed, reckless campaign that generated hate mail, hate phone calls and financial and reputational harm to good people," San Diego Magazine food writer Troy Johnson, who was scheduled to speak at the event, wrote in an email. "It was a gross misuse of power."

Citing Pease's reputation for volatility, numerous people lambasted the vegan activist to CityBeat but refused to be quoted. While others were braver, almost all insisted on first having attorneys review their statements.

Local food activist, lawyer and vegan Michelle Lerach stopped just short of criticizing Pease: "I choose not to eat meat, but I'm not standing in judgment of those people who do, but Bryan is more of an absolutist that thinks that no one should eat meat."

Having honed his activism for nearly two decades, Pease has largely remained ideologically unchanged since he was a teenager—eating meat, he believes, is simply wrong. Combine that with an understanding of power tactics that would impress even Saul Alinsky, and Pease does start to embody the portrait drawn by his critics.

However, while detractors see Pease's reaction to Death for Food as petty and arrogant, it may actually be an astute response to an event with implications more profound than apparent.

"I'm not saying that ‘Killing animals for food is OK; deal with it,'" said event creator Jaime Fritsch. "I don't know how I feel about killing animals for food, and that's why I do this, because I eat meat."

Unlike others around him, Fritsch refrained from blasting Pease. "I bet why I'm not mad is because Death for Food is a question," he said. "How can I get mad about somebody that asks another question about my question?" 

The animals used at Death for Food are locally and humanely raised with standards that go beyond what the government stamps as organic, Fritsch said. Also, the event is built on the assumption that Western society would be healthier if it consumed less meat, and almost everyone involved shares an opposition to the abuses of industrial agriculture.

So, why wouldn't Pease sympathize with that, at least partially?

"I'm against killing animals for food, but that's the least worst thing that's going on," he conceded of the event after dodging the question several times.

Over the years, most of Pease's opponents have been more easily demonized, such as factory farms and research faculties that use animals to test cosmetic products. And he has the rap sheet to prove it.

In his early 20s, Pease was arrested during a sit-in at an investment firm in Arkansas called Stephens Inc., which was involved with animal testing. As a result, he went on trial in front of a jury for felony burglary and faced up to seven years in prison. Luckily for him, a video of the protest contradicted claims that Pease had acted violently. In the end, he sat in an Arkansas jail for roughly 30 days.

"I felt, especially at that age, that what was happening was so extreme, so horrible, that whatever could happen to me, it would pale in comparison to what they were doing to the animals," he said.

Since those early years, Pease's tactics have evolved. In retrospect, he sees that protest as a mistake and said if he had children, he'd discourage them from similar behavior.

"Yeah, you don't want to mess around with the criminal-justice system," he said. "It is broken."

In 2003, he and his wife, Kath Rogers, started the Animal Protection and Rescue League and were routinely breaking into factory farms to film the conditions. The couple met several months prior at a crow-killing contest in Auburn, New York, where they both were arrested for protesting. A year later, they were married.

Around that time, Pease started getting interested in foie gras, the French delicacy made from the enlarged livers of ducks force-fed with a metal tube.

"It's fucking weird, like jamming a pipe down a duck's throat to bloat their livers to 12 times their normal size," he said. "I mean, people hear about that and, ‘What the fuck? Why you doing that?' Talk about a visceral reaction to something."

Some in the restaurant industry have criticized Pease for spending so much time on the campaign when other animal abuses are more widespread and egregious. Even fellow vegan activist Lerach questioned his motives.

"I felt like foie gras was reaching for the low-hanging fruit," she said. "I did my research on it. I wasn't persuaded that this was extraordinary. If you want to impress me, go after the factory that's clipping the beaks off chickens—not some fat ducks."

However, by picking such a visually disturbing practice, Pease zeroed in on a winnable campaign that could also garner him support for his larger cause. In other words, it was tactical.

"With foie gras, it's just so extreme, so that gets people really thinking about food issues in general," he said.

In 2004, Pease got his first major victory when the state banned the force-feeding of ducks, giving producers seven-and-a-half years to comply. In large part, the legislation resulted from Pease breaking into Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras, the state's lone producer, recording the conditions and suing the farm for animal cruelty.

Out-matched, the farm dropped civil charges of trespass against Pease after the Legislature granted the farm legal immunity and the phase-in period.

A mix of legal maneuvering, lobbying and just the right amount of civil disobedience had resulted in a historic and impressive win for the animal-rights activist.

"The point of civil disobedience is to draw attention to what's happening and create more traction, but you have to have a message that resonates," he said. "So, if you're out there getting arrested for something stupid that nobody cares about, then that's not going to matter."

In the run-up to July 2012, when the ban on foie gras went into effect, Pease kept the heat on. Earning the enmity of restaurateurs around the state, he organized protest actions outside and inside of establishments that persisted in serving the fattened duck liver.

Johnson said that after he spoke out publically against Pease, several chefs called to warn him about attracting the attention of "frightening" animal-rights activists. While he doesn't think Pease is directly responsible for the hate mail some have claimed to receive, Johnson said the high-profile vegan could do more to discourage such behavior.

"Pease is able to rouse a very extreme, dangerous faction of American society—hardcore animal-rights activists—and then step away and watch the melée that ensues from a distance," he wrote in an email.

A picture from Death for Food that Bryan Pease took from the event's website and used in his petition

In recent years, Pease has also made friends and enemies by taking up local issues, including campaigning for the colony of seals that more than a decade ago made a La Jolla beach their home. Some, including City Councilmember Sherri Lightner, wanted the seals gone and the beach restored for use by people.

In November 2005, Pease was arrested for using a stun gun on Dennis Bianchi, a vocal supporter of people's access to the beach. The incident resulted after the two got into a fight at the beach and Biachi threw seaweed in Pease's face. Pease was arrested and sentenced to 20 days of work service and put on probation for three years.

However, Pease would have the last laugh. In 2009, a state law gave the city broad discretion over dealing with the seals, which had been the subject of numerous state and federal lawsuits. As of today, city officials have sided with animal-rights activists who think the seals should have exclusive access to the beach.

In 2011, in the wake the seal issue, Pease ran a failed campaign for City Council against Lightner. He proposed banning the Ringling Bros. Circus from performing in town, as well as prohibiting pet shops from selling non-rescue pets—an idea that later became a city ordinance.

Today, he's working on numerous lawsuits against shopping malls that have prevented protestors from gathering outside of stores. He also represents students at UCSD who run the Che Café, a performance space that serves vegan meals. The university has been trying to rid itself of the progressive clubhouse, which badly needs hundreds of thousands of dollars in repair. In October, a Superior Court judge said the school had the right to evict, but Pease said the battle isn't over.

Against this impressive career, the recent controversy around Death for Food is distinct because it focuses not only on Pease's tactical prowess but his core ideology.

"I want to make clear that there is a line to be drawn," he said. "There are activists that purely want animal welfare, but then there's also folks like me, who think that animals are unique individuals with unique personalities."

Pease said he doesn't plan to wage any future campaigns against Death for Food. What bothered him most was that a vegetarian ally, Suzie's Farm, agreed to host the event, essentially sanctioning the consumption of meat.

"I thought people should know, since a lot of vegetarians and vegans support Suzie's Farm, that they're also sponsoring this event, and if people have a problem with that, they should let Suzie's know," he said.

By shutting down the event, Pease seemingly prevented any chance that the farm could be ideologically annexed by meat eaters—that is, sympathetic, progressive meat eaters who might offer a palatable option for those on the philosophical fence.

"Once you go local with everything, all the environmental considerations that typically people argue against meat consumption, they're all gone," Fritsch said. "With the local system, it's actually better for the environment than if you have this plants-only agriculture system."

Whether this is true or not, it's a message that resonates with many people. A quick stroll through any local upscale market reveals hordes of shoppers looking to wash away their liberal guilt with organic, free-range chickens and locally sourced beef.

However, somewhat ironically, Pease's petition seems to have increased attention on not only the event but also the question of ethical meat consumption. And that's something that may not play out in his favor.

"It was a rallying call for his people, for his movement," Lerach said. "It's successful in throwing red meat, or maybe I should say an eggplant, to the believers. It's not successful to bringing in new ones."

Lerach has called for a public debate on the topic, and she's in the midst of organizing it. Both Fritsch and Pease have been invited, as well as a professor specializing in conflict resolution.

While critics have claimed Pease has avoided open dialogue on the issue, he recently agreed to be part of the event, if somewhat reluctantly.

"Yeah, I'll participate in that," he said. "If the perception has been that I have been not engaged that much or not been responsive, it's because I've got a lot of other shit going on. There's bigger things to worry about."

It could be that the idea bores Pease. Granted, he made up his mind on the issue long ago. But perhaps, at least subconsciously, the question of ethical meat consumption is scary for many vegetarians and vegans, especially for those who've built identities and even careers based on their belief that eating animals is bad.

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