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Josh Balk:  Hero to Farm Animals and the Rest of Us

Jennifer Skiff & Josh Balk

 

Excerpted from the book:  Rescuing Ladybugs

I first met Josh Balk when we were seated next to each other at a leadership summit dinner for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in Washington, DC, in 2015. Josh, a boyish redhead with a wide and welcoming smile, was wearing an HSUS staff name tag. We introduced ourselves before sitting down to listen to US Senator Cory Booker, a fantastic orator and animal welfare advocate, speak to a room filled with HSUS volunteers. It wasn’t until the next day, when we were working together on a Massachusetts ballot initiative to end the extreme confinement of calves, pigs, and egg-laying hens, that I discovered this young man in his midthirties was, in his own right, a world leader in the social justice movement for animals. As vice president of farm animal protection for HSUS, he is credited with negotiating groundbreaking deals with food companies to better the lives of farm animals. He is also an entrepreneurial golden boy, having cofounded the food technology company JUST (originally called Hampton Creek).

Like many people who’ve chosen a career path advocating for animals, Josh was an empathic child and was especially affected by animal suffering.

“As early as I can remember,” he says, “I cared about animals. I had dogs at home, and I loved them very much, but I still had a feeling that animals outside my circle mattered. I felt incredibly sad when I saw suffering — even on television programs. My dad and I often went fishing, but once I got the fish, I felt bad about the whole thing. To this day, I have nightmares about my fishing past.”

After high school, driven by a steadfast sense of right and wrong concerning animals and their treatment, Josh aligned himself with like-minded people. While attending George Washington University in Washington, DC, he interned with HSUS and later became a volunteer. Advocacy turned to activism in 2002 when Josh accepted a job with the nonprofit Compassion Over Killing. During his time at the organization, he worked undercover in a chicken slaughter plant owned by Perdue Farms. He was twenty-five years old.

***

Howell, Maryland

I still remember my first day on the job. My shift was early morning, so it was before sunrise. The ride to work was cold and dark. I parked in the lot, walked into this decrepit building, and found my way to the locker room. I remember I was paralyzed with fear because there were a dozen or so workers there eating and getting changed and drinking coffee. I was sure they could see the hidden camera on me.

Then the supervisor came in and motioned for us to get in the shackling room. We followed the supervisor in, and I got in line with the rest of the workers, all in front of the conveyor belt. The belt was waist-high and just above it were metal shackles. I heard a noise to my left. A truck pulled up, parked, and dropped an unrecognizable white mass on the belt. Then the belt started to creak and churn a little bit and move. The shackles began swinging, and I looked over again and saw the chickens approaching, piled on top of each other on the conveyor belt heading my way. I thought, Oh my God, this is actually happening!

We were being trained to grab the chicken and shackle her. That’s it, I remember thinking, I can’t believe I’m going to grab this poor animal and do an unconscionable thing: shackle her and send her to her death. I grabbed her and she started flapping her wings to try to free herself. She was trying to scratch me and peck at my hands. She was fighting for her life. She struggled with every ounce of energy she had. Her legs were all crooked because chickens in the meat industry are genetically manipulated to grow so big their legs often cripple beneath the weight of their bodies. Her breast was featherless and bright red, burned by ammonia from the floor of the factory farm where she was raised. She was scared and screaming, and I remember saying underneath my breath, behind the surgical mask I was wearing, “I am so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

It was an experience I will never forget. It’s one thing to read about or watch the plight of farm animals. But nothing can match seeing the suffering and fear firsthand. Seeing this poor bird in pain for no fault of her own inspired me to fight on her behalf and the billions like her in the poultry industry.

***

Josh’s work exposed cruelty to animals at the Perdue plant, and media coverage brought to light the abusive slaughter practices in the chicken industry. A year later, Josh transitioned into a role leading the corporate negotiation efforts for the farm animal department at HSUS. There are currently no federal laws that regulate the treatment of the nine billion animals raised for food in the United States each year inside factory farms.

To circumvent the government’s passivity in protecting animals used for food, Josh was directed to eliminate the worst factory farming abuses by convincing companies to require higher standards of care for the animals used in their supply chain. He moved swiftly, leading a team that convinced hundreds of companies to adopt strict animal welfare policies. Threatened by his success, meat producers worked against him by strengthening their lobbying force in Washington. One lobbyist, Rick Berman, went as far as to create a Facebook page and website called “HumaneWatch,” which attacks HSUS and its staff, including Josh. Instead of embracing consumers’ cries for change, Berman tries to silence the good work of the organization. But the attacks have only served to strengthen Josh’s resolve.

Most meat, eggs, and dairy come from factory farms where animals are raised in windowless sheds, provided no enrichments, and left to breathe an unhealthy amount of ammonia emanating from their own waste. In the United States alone, hundreds of millions of these poor animals are confined in tiny cages that prevent them from moving more than a few inches for their entire lives. As the human population increased and the standard diet included more meat, eggs, and dairy, there was a growing need for these products to be produced as cheaply as possible. As a result, small family-run farms have given way to factory farms that value the mass production of meat over the humane treatment of animals.

Witnessing this inspired Josh to start a food company.

***

In my work, I was being exposed to it all. The more I knew, the more it became clear that the animals needed us to be as strategic as possible during our finite time on earth if we really wanted to help them. I wanted to disrupt global factory farming, which represents the more than 90 percent of farm animals who we make suffer in the world.

Aside from the transformational work I was a part of at HSUS, I thought that if I could form a company that produced plant-based foods that are affordable, marketed to the mainstream, and taste just as good as animal-based food, then I could make a further difference.

I pitched my idea on the phone one night to my high school friend Josh Tetrick. He had wanted to start a company that was inherently good for animals and liked my idea. So we started building a team. We hired a chef, a head of research and development, and a person to lead sales. We impressed a venture capital team enough to get a half million dollars, and we got started. Hampton Creek — named after my late St. Bernard, Hampton, who was such a love for me — was formed.

Our goal is to create the biggest company in the world that happens to be good for animals. Our values were to be innovative and aggressive, to go fast so I can have the biggest impact I possibly can in my lifetime. It’s a mentality that requires thinking about mortality. I’d hate to, in my last moments, think I could have made a bigger difference but didn’t give it a shot. If I was bold and acted with courage to take leaps, I think I could peacefully say good-bye to this world.

***

In 2011, Josh Balk and Josh Tetrick cofounded Hampton Creek, later renamed JUST, when they were both thirty-two years old. Their products — which include egg substitutes, cookies, cookie doughs, mayos, salad dressings, and even “egg” patties — are made completely from plants. Their most popular product is Just Mayo, an egg-free mayonnaise. They started selling “clean meat” in 2018 — meat grown from a small cell sample; that is, meat that has never existed in animal form. The product is expected to change the world by eliminating factory farming and the subsequent need to slaughter animals.

Proof that innovation can be rewarding, within three years of the company’s inception, the two Joshes had raised $120 million to fund their venture. Within four years of its founding, the company was valued at $1.1 billion.

As vice president of farm animal protection at HSUS — his full-time job — Josh leads a team that has persuaded hundreds of companies — including Walmart, Kroger, Kraft Heinz, Starbucks, Aramark, and Supervalu — to adopt animal welfare policies that prohibit extreme confinement of animals raised for food. He’s also worked to pass laws ending the crate and cage confinement of calves, pigs, and chickens in a dozen states through successful ballot initiatives or legislative campaigns in state houses.

According to Paul Shapiro, founder of Compassion over Killing and former vice president of policy at HSUS, there are more laws and corporate policies protecting farm animals than ever before, and more consumers are leaving animals off their plates and eating plant-based meals instead. This colossal shift is due to Josh and other leaders in the compassion movement who confront cruelty head-on, using common sense and innovation. By exposing a food system that is inherently bad for animals and the people who eat them, they’re creating positive change for everyone.

Link to get a paperback, e-book, or audible copy of Rescuing Ladybugs:  http://jenniferskiff.com/books/

 

The Purpose of her Existence

Michele & Zeus

Michele Newman has faced death, loss, and immense hardship. What’s kept her here is the fact she knows her life has purpose.

Michele rescues senior dogs. I met her when she rescued a dog name Hooch. He had spent 10 years on a chain. We connected instantly and then she went quiet for a long time. I recently asked her what had happened. This was her response:

“Without the dogs in my life there would be no me. That’s a fact. It is only through all the innocent souls who not only looked forward to me going into the shelter every day but those who needed me to pull them to safety into my rescue group to spend their last days, weeks or months, that gave my life true meaning.

In October 2010 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a lumpectomy. Eighteen months later my husband Bill and I went to a doctor who diagnosed me with infertility. Bill left me on the spot and never talked, touched or looked at me again.

A month later I tested positive for BRCA, a genetic disorder. A year later I had a hysterectomy and just months after that, had a double bilateral mastectomy. An infection ensued and I was rushed into surgery because of a hematoma.

All this time I had no one. But I did have my dogs, all old souls counting on me as much as I needed them. I reached out to a couple of girls at work and without hesitation, they came. One took the keys to my house and promised to take care of the dogs, while the other reminded me that my pups needed me to be strong and focused. Another girl and her boyfriend stayed in the hospital and waited out my surgery. Tina, Laurie, & Rose acted how I only wish all of humanity would act toward one another- with a kind heart and selfless soul.

After the surgery I became deathly ill and was placed under the care of infectious disease doctors who placed a PIC line in me to receive treatments. But one night I couldn’t breathe and dialed 911. An ambulance rushed me to the hospital and I had emergency surgery to find out my gallbladder was gangrene. The surgeon told me it had most likely been dead for seven months. I’d used my life reserve to stay alive.

After that, I had seven surgeries to rid my body of the infection and scar tissue. I had skin graphs and spacers placed to help relieve some pressure from my chest.

While going through all this I lost six of my dogs, Rilee, Mikey D, Brooklyn, Kane, Flower, and Mya. Pushing on without them was near to impossible – and so my fight continued for the others.

I did my grieving in silence. I didn’t want pity and believed if I talked about it, it would take root. So my mission was to cleanse my body of all negativity and to believe that God’s plan was for me to share my story to inspire those around me not to dwell on the sadness. So I grieved my losses with my dogs around me and it was ONLY through them and their unconditional love that I was able to achieve happiness. I owe them my life!”

Photo: Michele with Zeus.

Tattoos: The name of every dog who loved her through her medical journey.

Charity:  Senior Animal Medical Aid Fund:

https://www.facebook.com/Senior-Animal-Medical-Aid-Fund-Inc-119486670195/?fref=ts

A Miracle for Thanksgiving

Four years ago this week I adopted this special girl and named her Honey because of her sweet nature. She came to the Dogs’ Refuge Home of WA after being hurt by someone.

The veterinarian said she had suffered blunt force trauma and was permanently blind in one eye. That didn’t bother her. And, well, I loved her immediately.

A year ago Honey lost her hearing and her only working eye began to cloud over, her vision obstructed by a cataract. Her quality of life changed dramatically. She began to bump into things, slept a lot, and lost muscle strength.

My husband and I took her to an eye specialist and were told she could have cataract surgery but there was a risk. Although it was slight, a side effect of cataract surgery is sometimes glaucoma, causing irreversible blindness. So we made a conscious choice to wait until she had nearly lost all sight before the operation.

Two weeks ago my darling 13 year-old was delivered into the arms of a veterinary eye specialist and her cataract was removed. It was touch and go for a week. She got an ulcer and then an eye infection. But today I share with you the moment Honey and I both realized she could see again! Happy Thanksgiving!

Gratitude for dogs, veterinarians, rescuers and the man who paid the bill!

Archie the Ambassador

Archie the globetrotting ambassador

Archie the globetrotting ambassador

From a rough life with convicted criminals to shedding his light as a globetrotting ambassador! Meet Archie.

I had the privilege of his smile and company while visiting my friend Cynthia recently. Cynthia’s the U.S. Consul General in Perth, Australia. She asked me over to meet Archie and his guardian Marsha Lance who recently moved to Australia to work at the U.S. Consulate.

Archie, the most adorable Pom who definitely resembles Boo, had a rough start in Kentucky. His story is that he kept escaping, running away from his house. But, people with good intentions kept delivering him back. Finally, after his legal “owners” went to prison, he was released and… adopted by Marsha.

Welcome home Archie! It’s good to have your bubbly personality representing the United States in Australia!

Lesson #1: Some dogs run away for a reason.

Lesson #2: Everybody deserves a fresh start, especially Archie!

A Perfect Adoption

Muffin's Mom, Heidi

Fin’s Mom, Heidi

Muffin's Dad, Gary

Fin’s Dad, Gary

Favorite Fin! I keep a collection of photos of my fosters and ‪‎dogs‬ I’ve helped adopt.

These are two of my favorites. “Muffin” arrived at the SPCA of Hancock County in an RV. She was in a small, dirty cage. Her “owners” said she was crying all the time and they didn’t want her anymore as she was “ruining” their vacation.

Our director, Diana de los Santos, took her and watched as they drove away with another little dog in their RV.

Within hours the source of Muffin’s pain was determined; rotten teeth. We paid for the surgery and I became Muffin’s foster Mom. While I pampered her through her recovery, my friend Marion at Acadia Veterinary Hospital kindly posted an adoption plea to her clients. Three families were interested.

During the interview process it was clear to me that these two people were meant to bring her into their home. And they did! This is Heidi Burnham and Gary Rich. They own the Atlantean B&B in Bar Harbor, Maine (a B&B that was actually my first house when my family moved to Maine). As you can see, they like to hike!

This year they donated a portion of their proceeds to the SPCA for saving Muffin, now named Fin. I want to thank them and to also show you what a happy adoption looks like – all smiles.

If you get a chance, you could head to their Facebook page and thank them for adopting Fin and supporting the SPCA.

Here’s the link: Atlantean Cottage B&B

Representing the Voiceless

Representing the Human Society of the United States with Anita Coupe, meeting with Michael Sinacore, Legislative Assistant to Congressman Bruce Poliquin

Representing the Humane Society of the United States with Anita Coupe

At U.S. Capitol

At U.S. Capitol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday was a pivotal moment in my life. It was the day I took the step from working to save thousands of dogs and other animals each year to fighting for millions.

I am grateful to have been guided by The Humane Society of the United States longtime leader, Anita Coupe.

Together we met with legislative aides in the offices of Senators Collins and King and Representatives Poloquin and Pingree. These are the bills we asked them to co-sponsor and support:

Humane Cosmetics Act (HR2858)

Pets and Women Safety (PAWS) Act (S1559) (HR1258)

Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act (S1121) (HR3268)

Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act (S1214) (HR1942)

Wildlife Trafficking (S27) (S2494) (HR1945)

Prevent Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act (S1831) (HR2293)

Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (S697)

Please help us get these animal and human protection acts passed by writing to your members of Congress and asking them to co-sponsor or support. Every one of these acts would stop HORRIFIC abuses against animals (the kind that haunt you). Let’s get this done together! ‪

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me on Facebook.

Teachers: Please get your students involved in government by looking up these Acts and discussing what they’re about.

Why We Do It

Scout: a happy reminder

Scout: a happy reminder

Finding your people and the ‪‎dog‬ who represents why you do it.

I’m in Washington in my new role as Chair of the The Humane Society of the United States Maine State Council. There are 200 people here with me at a leadership summit.

We’re all learning about the serious issues facing animals in our world and how to create and enact laws for protection.

Last night, as many of my colleagues were watching a film about the illegal dog meat trade in Asia called Eating Happiness, I received a burst of love from Scout.

Scout was destined for a brutal ending in Korea when Humane Society International helped a willing “farmer” shut down his dog meat operations.

Scout made it into the loving arms of a woman named Leslie Barcus.

Last night, he was the smiling, loving, happy reminder of why we do what we do.

Finding the Light

andre

Andre

‎Tonight‬: I missed the ‪Pope‬ but found the light.

On my first night in ‪Washington‬ to begin my work with the The Humane Society of the United States, I went to Rosa Mexicano Restaurant for dinner. I was seated near a window and my view was of this man, in a wheelchair, pan-handling.

His name is Andre. As I watched the passersby, I noticed that he was smiling, at everyone. Intrigued by his light, I invited him to have dinner with me. And that’s when he told me his story. He said I could share it with you.

When Andre was 37 years-old, he was working as a security guard. On his way home from work one night he was robbed by six men wearing ski masks. After they robbed him, they shot him six times. He lived but became a paraplegic.

Perhaps the saddest part of the story, he says, is that his best friend, high on drugs, was one of the people who shot him. That person, he said, is now in prison doing 45+ years without parole.

I asked him if he had any advice for people.

He said his advice is for young people. “When your parents and friends tell you to stay away from someone, there’s a reason for it. Stay away from them. Stay away from drugs and people who do drugs.”

Andre told me that he’s not homeless but that he pan-handles to pay his mortgage. And, he needs extra money for pet food. Because, you see, he helps the homeless dogs and cats in his neighborhood. Why doesn’t that surprise me?

Andre. Best dinner date I’ve had in a long time!

Mission Accomplished

Mission accomplished! Two years ago, after witnessing abuse and neglect of monkeys while on vacation on a remote island in Indonesia, I called upon the management of my hotel to create change. As many of you know, I spent my vacation happily releasing nine of the monkeys back into the jungle from which they had been taken. I also worked to build proper enclosures with enrichment for the remaining three monkeys, geese, and a special porcupine.

I’d cut a deal. At the time there was no choice. The hotel would release nine monkeys back into the wild if three stayed. My condition was that the three that stayed must have the chains cut from their necks and they must be free to roam in their enclosure. The hotel agreed and also offered to let the geese out of their concrete enclosure during the day to roam the property and swim in its pond.  Many of the staff were so happy with the changes they greeted me by slapping their heart with their hand while calling me, “monkey lady”.

Six months after these changes, I received an email from the hotel’s manager, Agus Tabah, telling me that the remaining monkeys and geese had been released permanently.

But… I still worried about the porcupine. He was so grateful to me after I brought him a hollow log to live in. We established a friendship during my time there. He was blind from exposure to the harsh sun, confined to a wire mesh cage with only rice to eat and water that dropped into a seashell when it rained. When I greeted him every few hours with fresh fruit, he ran to me and nuzzled my finger. I fell in love with his soul.

The other day I found myself thinking about him and started to cry. I felt like I’d let him down when I left. So I called Agus and asked him about my friend, the porcupine. And that’s when he proudly said, “Jennifer, all of the animals on the property, with the exception of one horse, have new homes. They are all fine.”

Joy! Mission accomplished!

There were many before me who complained of the conditions at the hotel’s makeshift zoo. Because many of you sent emails to the hotel, Mr. Tabah was compelled to follow his own heart and continue the work we started.

Why this update? Because some people don’t think their voice makes a difference. It always does, whether it’s a signature on a petition, an email sent, or a call to your senator/representative/member of parliament. When more than one raises his or her voice against what is wrong, change is created.

I promised the Jayakarta Hotel in Flores, Indonesia that the day they created a kind campus, I would promote them.

As a reward for creating positive change, please consider going over to their page and thanking them with a note that says; “The monkey lady sent me.  Thank you for your kindness to animals.”

Here’s their link: Jayakarta Hotel

 

My friend, the porcupine

My friend, the porcupine

Transport back to the jungle

Transport back to the jungle

Cutting the chains

Cutting the chains

IMG_0853 2

Moments before leaving for the jungle. Holding up the chains that had been cut from their necks.

Hotel Manager, Agus Tabah. The man who said "yes" to change. At the release site.

Hotel Manager, Agus Tabah. The man who said “yes” to change. At the release site.

Release site

Release site

The geese. Once confined to this enclosure with only rice and sporadic periods of water. Now free.

The geese. Once confined to this enclosure with rice and water given sporadically. Now free.

Release site

Release site

The moment of freedom.

The moment of freedom.

The Wave of Compassion

IMG_4747

As I sat on a beach in Victoria, Australia the other day, admiring the dramatic limestone stacks known as the Twelve Apostles, a sense of euphoria washed over me. I was thinking about the notable shift happening in our world. The stacks have been crumbling, succumbing to the strength of the sea. Similarly, the houses in the world built on greed are collapsing against waves of compassion. An army of caring people is building, activating.

As I inhaled the salty air from the Southern Ocean, I thought of just a few of the dramatic changes that have happened so far in 2015:

-Barnum & Bailey Circus has promised to, at long last, retire its elephants.

-The Greyhound racing industry in Australia came to a halt when undercover video exposed leaders illegally baiting dogs with live animals. Sponsors have pulled money, trainers have been banned for life and the entire board of Greyhound Racing Australia NSW was dismissed.

-The city of Madrid, Spain announced that it would no longer euthanize homeless dogs.

-The city of Nashville, Tennessee voted to make it illegal to chain dogs indefinitely.

-In Alabama, a convicted animal abuser received a 99-year jail sentence. Goodbye!

-The city of Palm Beach, Florida banned wild animals for private parties/events.

-Three of the largest food providers; Compass Group, Sodexo, and Aramark announce plans to go cage-free for chickens in the USA.

-Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts announced cage and crate-free policies for hens and sows.

-Shane Rattenbury, a politician, introduced legislation in Australia to ban puppy and kitten farming in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT.) The Domestic Animals (Breeding) Legislation Amendment Bill passed unanimously!

When people gather to do good things, good things happen. Please keep signing petitions, emailing legislators, writing letters to judges, contacting newspaper and television reporters, and supporting charities. Thank you for being part of the wave of compassion.

Photo: Blaine Zuver