Dan Piraro is smart and incredibly articulate. He’s a vegan animal rights activist. And oh yeah, he’s also a famous artist. He writes Bizarro, an award-winning cartoon that appears in more than 200 newspapers worldwide, which is a great résumé-filler and all, but what matters most is that thanks to his work, he is able to promote animal rights issues worldwide.
Piraro manages to infuse his cartoons with messages about animals who suffer in the meat and dairy industries, in circuses and performing animal acts, and within the deep, dark recesses of our nation’s laboratories. You will positively squeal with glee as you peruse his animal-related cartoon gallery in the “Animal Stuff” section of Bizarro.com, and after regaining your composure, we suggest that you visit the animal rights merchandise section, where you can pick up “Angry Bunny” shirts, “Vegan Protesters” postcards, and lots of other cool gear.
And because Piraro has such a big heart, he’s giving animal rights cartoons to PETA2 so that we can feature them on our site forever and ever and ever.
Now, bow down to Allah, give thanks for Piraro, and read on.
peta2: Why don’t you tell us what you’ve been up to and what we can look forward to?
Piraro: Actually, I’ve been working a lot on the Web site, which I’m really excited about. The site gets hundreds and sometimes thousands of hits a day just from readers around the world, and probably the majority of them are most likely … not getting animal rights information on a regular basis or probably at all. Hopefully, they’ll go to the Web site looking for my cartoons and just happen upon something that maybe makes a difference. I’m just hoping it’s a way to reach people that just can’t be reached directly with an e-mail or a flyer in the mail that says, “Hey, look how much animals are suffering, and what are you going to do about it?
peta2: Have people told you that you’ve helped open their eyes?
Piraro: Yeah, actually I went to my hometown high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this past weekend for a fundraiser for the school, and I talked to the different classes. It’s an all-around magnet high school, so it tends to attract really bright kids, really creative kids—the kids that are going to make a difference in the world as opposed to the ones who are just making their way through life. It’s really fertile ground for this kind of information, so I talked to them about all the connections between animal rights, health and nutrition, cancer and heart disease, [and] environmental policy and damage. … You simply can’t have a 99 cent Big Mac without destroying the rest of the world and your health along with it.
peta2: Do you ever get any backlash from your cartoons?
Piraro: When I do anti-NRA [National Rifle Association] cartoons, then I get some backwoods folks writing to me. I say backwoods, but in truth, they’re just gun-totin’ people who obviously can’t be that backwoods or they wouldn’t have Internet access … But, not generally on the animal rights issues. I did recently do one on the tiger who ate Roy. It was this white tiger on a psychiatrist’s couch, and he was just lying there on his back with his arms folded, just talking as he would as a patient, and he said, “They train me to perform, and then I try to show off what I really do best and everybody goes ballistic.” And then the little caption at the bottom says, “Court ordered psychological evaluation.” And in the margin, because I didn’t want to give people the wrong idea that I was wishing ill on a guy that had been attacked, I put a little tiny line that said, “Best wishes to Roy for a full recovery,” thinking that would fend off some anger.
But anyway, I did get a few e-mails from that, from people who just never, ever thought about the animal side of it at all. It just had never occurred to them. And I wrote back saying, “I’m an animal rights advocate, and when we keep wild animal and train them to perform, it’s an extremely unnatural prison that they live in, and occasionally, they’re going to behave naturally, and it shouldn’t be any surprise.”
peta2: Right. What is surprising is that it didn’t happen sooner.
Piraro: Exactly. So, I just kind of explained it from the animal’s point of view—that these animals are being asked to do something horribly unnatural and when they occasionally slip into something natural, it’s only to be expected, and maybe we should reconsider what we call “entertainment.” Well, most of these people wrote me back really wonderful letters, saying, “Gosh, I never thought about it that way. Well, I appreciate your response and I’ll keep being a fan of the cartoon.” Because when they first wrote, they were saying, “I’ll never read your cartoon again!”—the I-used-to-like-you-but-now-I-don’t sort of letter.
peta2: It’s pretty amazing to see that sort of change in attitude.
Piraro: I get that quite a lot when it’s something like that, where they basically misunderstand what I’m getting at, and then I can have a chance to talk to them. I’ve done a few about lab experiments, and people have written to me about that, and I always write back, and I talk about PCRM [Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine] and how it isn’t a given that we need to torture animals in order to find cures for human beings. And if I do it in a friendly, informative manner, invariably they write back and say, “You know, I never really thought about it that way,” and it becomes a real learning experience for them.
peta2: It’s really interesting how many public figures hold the same viewpoints, but they’re just too scared to talk about it.
Piraro: I feel like I would rather crash and burn than deny my morals and my passions and my feelings about things. I feel obligated. The more widely published I get, the more obligated I feel to put myself out there and say, “These are the things I believe.” A lot of people get mad and say, “Who are you to teach me?” and I always say, “Hey, I didn’t make you read it.” This is what my cartoon is about. It’s about my opinions and my world viewpoint and my sense of humor, and if you don’t like it, don’t read it. There’s no requirement there. And [to the] people who are just really, really mean and vicious, I say, “You’re no longer allowed to read my cartoon strip, thank you.” [Laughs.] I tell them that they’re forbidden from that point forward—don’t ever look at my cartoon again.
I would much rather know on my deathbed that I did what I could rather than that I made as much money as I could. To me, life is just so not about that. It’s just not about how much money you can amass. I’d rather look at myself in the mirror in the morning and sort of feel proud as opposed to looking at myself in a $5,000 mirror and being ashamed of what I did.
peta2: When and why did you become vegan?
Piraro: I’ve always just instinctively felt that cruelty and injustice were terrible things that we should all stand up and fight against. However, I didn’t know anything about what was going on in the American agricultural industry. I had never even heard the term “factory farm” until two years ago. I’ve been doing Bizarro for 18 years now, and in some of my earlier cartoons, I did a lot of anti-hunting cartoons and cartoons from the animal’s point of view, but I didn’t realize that there was this huge—by far the biggest—area of animal abuse, which is, of course, food production. I thought that animals were just walking around on these farms, like you see on commercials—these happy little farms—and when it was their time, they were killed quickly and mercifully and put in the food chain and that was just the circle of life. I never really gave much thought [to] it.
I met my now-wife [Ashley] two years ago, who has been an animal rights activist for years—a vegetarian since she was 12, vegan since she was 19. She’s just on the underground railroad with all the other people that care about animal rights. So after meeting her, that’s when I really started learning about what was really going on. Shortly after we got married, she asked me if I’d like to go up to Farm Sanctuary in New York. At that time, I was actually still eating meat because I still didn’t really know much about factory farming. …Well, I went up there, and I read a few pamphlets, I met a few animals, and I was horrified. That was my first experience with factory farming. That was the first time I’d ever read any information directly about it, and that was it. I was stunned. I said, “My God, this stuff is all real?” and she said, “Yeah, this is where all your food comes from,” and I said, “That’s it. I’m vegan.” And that was it. And, of course, everything I’ve read since then has only made me more certain I’ve made the right choice. I did it sheerly out of ethics. I just thought, I can not subsidize this kind of treatment of living beings—it’s just wrong.
peta2: In your recent interview in Herbivore, you said that your wife initially told you, “Don’t start looking into it unless you’re ready to make a life change.” Those are pretty wise words.
Piraro: Yeah, yeah, she did, because she knew me. She said, “Be careful what you find out because it’s heavy stuff, and you’ll be responsible for the decisions you make after that.” And I said, “Hey, I wanna know.” I don’t want to go blindly through life, making decisions I don’t know anything about. I imagined, naively at first, that everybody would switch if they knew. [Laughs.]
peta2: What’s really frightening is that some people can watch the videos, read the facts, see the images, and still continue to eat steak for dinner.
Piraro: Yeah, I know. I think that’s entirely true. We just got back from a holiday visit to Oklahoma, visiting family, and I had that very conversation with a few of my family members. Ignorance is the only excuse, and then once you know about it, if you continue to do it, it’s just flat immoral. So I had this conversation with a couple of my family members, and they still said, “Well, I think it’s regrettable, but …” One of them said, “The Bible says I can eat meat, so I think it’s O.K.” And another one said, “You know, I just don’t think animals are capable of suffering. I just think there’s a big difference between people and animals.” And I was trying to make the point that the only difference between animals and people is intelligence, and this particular family member was saying there [are] far more differences than intelligence.
It’s the old we take care of our families because we’re some kind of higher spiritual beings, and other animals take care of their own because it’s some sort of instinct, like they have no choice over it. It’s one thing when strangers behave this way, but when your own family behaves this way, it’s just depressing. These are good people—they’re liberal politically, they’re all involved in human rights. Why can’t I get them to understand that human rights and animal rights are the same thing?
peta2: You also mentioned in the Herbivore interview that you gladly discuss and/or debate your beliefs with your friends and family. What have you found to be a good tool for reaching into minds that seem closed off?
Piraro: Like most of us, I guess, I’ve decided that hitting people over the head with it and being a big pain in the ass just doesn’t work. So there’s no point in just bringing it up every time I leave the house and to every person I talk to and at every party I go to. I throw a few things out here and there, and I try to open up the discussion if I can, and if it works, fine, I talk about it, and if it doesn’t, I skip it. It’s just like religion. You can’t just go door to door asking people to join your religion—it doesn’t work. And that’s one reason I love putting that stuff in my cartoons—because it gives me a great way to express my opinions in a humorous way. I don’t feel like I’m walking around sitting on it all the time. You know, I’m expressing myself, but I’m not becoming a big pain in the neck to all my friends and family because I won’t talk about anything else.
peta2: And you present it in a light way, which is easier for many people to digest.
Piraro: Yeah, I’ll tell you a really cool thing that’s coming up here real soon: The National Cartoonist Society is comprised of all the cartoonists and the people within the cartoon industry. So the New York metro chapter, of course, has tons of great cartoonists—really famous guys that live here. Anyway, I’m currently the president of our local chapter here in New York City, and so Ashley and I are responsible for throwing parties and stuff. … We’re going to have like 100 people, half of them will be famous cartoonists and the other half will be … family, associates, etc. So anyway, we’ve got some entertainment, and we’ve got this big feast of food, which we hired this really cool chef to cater. The thing is, nobody knows this, but the entire thing is vegan. Obviously, there’s just no way we were going to cater meat or dairy or anything like that. If that was the kind of party they wanted, they were going to have to get somebody else. And the thing is, it’s got seitan, and all these faux meats will be involved, and we’re not going to say a word about it until it’s over. People are going to love the food. It’s going to be like really great, gourmet food, and at the end of the night, I’m going to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s have a big hand for our chef who created this terrific food,” and everybody’s going to applaud, and then I’m going to say, “And I’d also like you to know that everything you ate tonight was vegan. Not a bit of animal products—not meat, not eggs, nothing. This goes to show you how easy and delicious it can be to live a cruelty-free lifestyle.” And that’s it. I’m not going to preach, I’m just going to tell them.
peta2: What do you think we need to do in the animal rights movement to see drastic changes down the road?
Piraro: My biggest hope is the youth. Injustice is something that we learn; it’s something we learn to rationalize as we get older. Younger people are more idealistic and less likely to be able to rationalize obvious injustices and cruelties. It’s the reason younger people are more likely to protest a war than older people who have just decided, “If I want to keep my cable T.V., I’ve got to bomb Iraq.” And animal rights activism is a growing movement. There are more animal rights articles published all the time. I think if you look back 30 years, nobody paid any attention to this stuff. I always try to tell myself the good news, too, because the bad news is always so obvious.
peta2: Why are you letting PETA2 feature one of your cartoons each week?
Piraro: Because the whole movement just depends on awareness. It’s important for me to get the word out. Because even though there are people out there who will learn and don’t care, I think there [are] probably even more people out there who, if they knew the way animals are really treated in our food chain in this country, would stop contributing to it, or they would at least cut back enough to put the industry on alert that they need to change their tactics. I think the biggest fear is, “Oh no, I’ll have to change my lifestyle. I’ll have to give up something I love.” You don’t! I’m surprised how easy it is.
peta2: As soon as you make the conscious choice to do it, you fall right into the pattern. It just takes a couple of days.
Piraro: Yeah, very quickly you learn what products you can eat, what products substitute [for] this product, where those products are available locally, where the local restaurants are that offer these options. It’s just not that hard.
You know what I tell people? How expensive is health care? Because you’re headed for the hospital eating that crap. It’s far more expensive … to eat meat than it is not to. I think it was Neal Barnard who said, “If you think beef is real food for real people, then you better live real close to a real good hospital.” You know, [veganism] is good for you, it’s good for the planet, it’s good for the animals, and it’s good for your health. I mean, where’s the downside to that? That’s what I don’t get.
peta2: Yeah, people just try to rationalize it by saying, “It’s my right to eat meat.” Well, it’s also your choice.
Piraro: Yeah, well, it’s also your right to smoke, so have at it! Kill yourself. Whatever. It’s a slow suicide.
Cartoons reprinted by permission.