Thanking the Monkey

Buster Dawn, Karen's big, beautiful mutt embraces her with a morning smooch. Photo provided by Monty Marsh.

Years before celebrated animal rights activist Karen Dawn made the decision to dedicate her life to animal causes she saw Gloria Steinem speak and Steinem’s words would forever change Dawn’s life. “I remember I was about 20 years old and I fell hopelessly in love with her from a distance. She was so glamorous and so smart and so strong.” Today, Dawn’s hero and friend, Steinem herself, was the one who supported Dawn’s new book, Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals, holding a special media luncheon to help launch the book into mainstream. For Dawn, it was a “dream come true,” for the animal rights movement, Thanking the Monkey will help enlist mainstream support as Steinem once did for the women’s movement only decades ago.

Growing up in New York and Australia, Dawn was always a “veggie-friendly person,” but she was never focused, nor conscious of certain horrors being committed to animals worldwide. In college, she studied Psychology at the University of New South Wales, and even tested on animals in a course called “Rats and Stats,” something the animal lover in her was naturally apprehensive about doing. After college Dawn worked in the media and moved back to New York to focus on her music career while serving as a personal trainer to support herself. As the years passed, Dawn realized that she had stopped eating meat entirely and without having made a commitment, she was living in a vegetarian household.

By the late nineties, two singular, inconspicuous events would alter Dawn’s perspective on animal rights forever, catapulting her from a veggie-friendly musician to a full-time animal rights activist. “I came home one day and I had a blind mailing from the Humane Farming Association and it had pictures of sows in gestation crates and I read it and my jaw hit the floor, the photos were so horrible.” As shocking as the seemingly unobtrusive mailing was, Dawn scratched the photos up to “those crazy animal rights activists,” believing the propagandist photos were taken from an unusually cruel facility and that most pigs were not treated so cruelly. Although the mailing would soon prove to be a catalyst to Dawn’s new career, at the time, she told Animal Fair, “the images haunted me but I just sort of wrote them off and didn’t think about them.” Not too long after, Dawn received a second mailing from PETA. Within the mailing she found the first chapter of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. “I remember sitting down on my bed and reading the entire chapter totally engrossed. I bought the book and within a week it just changed my life forever.”

Animal Liberation did not do immediate good in Dawn’s life, however. “[After reading Animal Liberation] I suddenly got profoundly depressed, I wanted to kill myself because I lived in a world that was built on this institutionalized cruelty that I knew nothing about and I found out those animal activists weren’t crazy and then I thought about it and, as is my way, I thought ‘well what’s useful?’ Killing myself isn’t useful, so I made a commitment then and there that I was going to devote my life to helping animals.” Dawn did just that, using her media skills to launch the website to help animals get attention in the media.

After hosting radio programs and doing more writing, some with Peter Singer, Dawn quickly became a new face in a rapidly growing social justice movement. Now, in her first book, Dawn is pushing the movement from the sidelines into the forefront of pop-culture in words that Publisher Weekly says, “has the potential to become a big hit for a general reading audience that wants to know what the fuss is about [regarding] animal rights.”

Paula and Karen Dawn put their snouts to the wind. Photos courtesy of Monty Marsh and Harper Collins
Paula and Karen Dawn put their snouts to the wind. Photos courtesy of Monty Marsh and Harper Collins

Thanking the Monkey is not meant to be forceful or angry, as the public has stereotyped animal activism in the past. The book hopes to be the opposite due largely in part to Dawn’s informative and compassionate narrative, as well as her “spiritual training.”

When Animal Fair asked Dawn’s response to the certain activists who exemplify their own stereotypes, Dawn reminded us that everyone in the movement has a different take on it, and while hers came from a place of joy, others may react differently. “I learned that one cannot spread joy unless one is joyous. I think it’s probably the same similarity with kindness and compassion. I think it’s hard when you see violence and you see cruelty and you see unkindness, it’s hard not to get angry and to respond unkind rather that kind.” But Dawn is dedicated to the movement and knows that her method, however nuanced, is a lifestyle choice. “This does not have to be a drag, this does not have to be work and it can be joyous and it can be fun. You have to make a conscious choice not to go down the angry road. It takes active strategy that your activism is going to be different and come from a place of joy, love and fun.”

Part of that fun is seen in the title of the book alone. Thanking the Monkey serves as a playful pun and is a far cry from the original title: Everything You Wanted to Know About Animal Rights But Were Afraid to Get in a Fight About, later truncated further to Everything You Wanted to Know About Animal Rights. “The last thing we wanted was for that to be the tone,” Dawn said of the original title. The name was changed to help boost the book’s persona and more comfortably correlate with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Christian Bale, Pete Wentz/Fall Out Boy, Natalie Portman, Prince, Paul McCartney, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Maher, Bruce Greenwood, Joss Stone, Emily Deschanel and writers such as Nobel Prize winner for literature, JM Coetzee. The book aims not to preach, it is a dose of readily available information described by Harper Collins as “An Inconvenient Truth meets MTV.” At the end of the day, Dawn knows the book “is not easy reading, it’s not a joke book, but on the other hand [she] does want to make it look fun and fabulous and delicious.”

Photos courtesy of Monty Marsh and Harper Collins
Photos courtesy of Monty Marsh and Harper Collins

At home, Karen Dawn leads a vegan life with her other-half and two rescued dogs, her “beautiful mutt Buster Dawn” and her Pit Bull, “the famous Paula Dawn.” Buster came into Dawn’s life from the North Shore Animal League back in New York and their attraction was immediate. “He looked in my eyes and licked my face and I said ‘okay its you and me baby.’” Buster helped Dawn out of her initial depression after the shock of Animal Liberation and came to realize that the two of them had become a “we.” Dawn later adopted Paula and the three settled into her 250 square foot loft, passing the days with Dawn on her rollerblades mushing down Lafayette Street with the two dogs at the reigns. The three moved to California and Buster and Paula soon became stars, Paula even graced the cover of the Los Angeles Times, spawning her from “Bronx Paula” (where she was originally rescued) to “Paula Palisades.” Both dogs are mostly vegan, based on a diet once used by the oldest living dog recorded, a Border Collie in England who lived to be 27 years old. Dawn is well aware that some activists do not believe that pets should not be pets, but her ideas are nuanced. “When I look at Paula and Buster’s lives it seems to me that they’re lives seem so utterly happy and wonderful. I think the answer is not ‘let’s not have pets’, but ‘let’s make sure all pets have lives like Buster and Paula.’”

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– David Alex Andrejko