Toronto Star

The ide­al­is­tic life and vi­o­lent death of an an­i­mal rights cham­pion

Re­gan Russell was in­flu­enced by ‘moral shock’ in the 1970s of ‘An­i­mal Lib­er­a­tion’ book, and the seal hunt, on her road to ac­tivism

- JON WELLS THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

On her last evening alive, on the cusp of sum­mer, Re­gan Russell sat in her back­yard un­der a tow­er­ing maple wor­thy of the Gar­den of Eden.

This was off Locke Street South in Hamil­ton, around the cor­ner from St. John the Evan­ge­list church, where as a girl she had asked the min­is­ter if an­i­mals had souls, and why they were sac­ri­ficed to God in the Bi­ble.

Russell felt a weari­ness, and also fore­bod­ing, at what lay ahead.

She planned to at­tend her lat­est an­i­mal rights protest the next morn­ing, June 19, out­side Fear­mans Pork on Har­vester Road in Burling­ton.

Ac­tivists call the weekly de­mon­stra­tions “vig­ils,” at which they “bear wit­ness” to pigs hauled in trucks for slaugh­ter, talk to the an­i­mals through gaps in the ven­ti­lated trail­ers, and squirt wa­ter into their mouths, as driv­ers pause be­fore en­ter­ing the fa­cil­ity.

She felt de­spair about a law passed two days ear­lier in the On­tario leg­is­la­ture — Bill 156 — that she knew would make it harder, even dan­ger­ous, to ful­fil her call­ing to ad­vo­cate for the pigs’ liv­ing con­di­tions and work to­ward stop­ping the killing of an­i­mals al­to­gether.

In her back­yard, Russell, who had re­cently turned 65, sipped a glass of wine and talked with her spouse Mark Pow­ell.

She had been ac­tive in an­i­mal rights for 40 years.

She cared for rab­bits, rac­coons and wounded squir­rels; she protested at Marineland in Ni­a­gara and a sled dog breed­ing op­er­a­tion in Que­bec.

She pushed the en­ve­lope in her ac­tivism and was ar­rested nearly a dozen times.

“Maybe it’s time for you to pass the torch to the younger gen­er­a­tion,” Pow­ell told her. “We can still sup­port them any way we can.”

He was wor­ried for her safety more than usual. But he also knew there was no stop­ping her. All he could do was say his piece.

The next af­ter­noon, a woman stood at his door.

“There’s been an ac­ci­dent,” she said, tears in her eyes. “Slaugh­ter­house,” Pow­ell said. “Yes.” “It’s not good, is it?” “No.” One of the trucks car­ry­ing pigs had hit and killed Russell.

Her body had been taken to hos­pi­tal for an au­topsy.

The rip­ple ef­fect of Russell’s death was about to be felt far be­yond Hamil­ton.

The 28-year-old driver of the truck has been charged with care­less driv­ing caus­ing death by Hal­ton Re­gional Po­lice un­der On­tario’s High­way Traf­fic Act, and po­lice say “there were no grounds to in­di­cate this was an in­ten­tional act.”

But ques­tions re­main about ex­actly what hap­pened that morn­ing.

The an­swer to the deeper ques­tion of why Re­gan Russell took her fi­nal breath stand­ing athwart a truck loaded with farm an­i­mals, mo­ments from their in­evitable end, is both sim­ple and com­pli­cated.

The no­tion that farm an­i­mals like pigs are sen­tient — that they feel pain, at least as acutely as a dog, cat or an in­fant child — is the philo­soph­i­cal bedrock on which ac­tivists stand.

And it’s not mere faith, sug­gests Univer­sity of Guelph be­havioural bi­ol­o­gist Ge­or­gia Ma­son.

“Pigs are con­sid­ered sen­tient by the Euro­pean Union and the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ence, and ev­ery an­i­mal wel­fare re­search group in the world,” she says.

The On­tario Fed­er­a­tion of Agri­cul­ture re­cently is­sued a state­ment ques­tion­ing an­i­mal sen­tience, adding: “We sim­ply don’t know if an­i­mals are ca­pa­ble of rea­son­ing and cog­ni­tive thought.”

But cog­ni­tion — the abil­ity to un­der­stand and ac­quire knowl­edge — is dis­tinct from the abil­ity to feel, and it’s a red her­ring to raise it, Ma­son says.

“Most rec­og­nize that an­i­mals are sen­tient, and it’s not the same as say­ing they have cog­ni­tion like hu­mans. It just means they have feel­ings.”

She says the is­sue of sen­tience is more con­tro­ver­sial when con­sid­er­ing an­i­mals such as rep­tiles, fish and mam­mals in a de­vel­op­men­tal stage — in­clud­ing hu­mans. “There are ques­tions about at what point a fe­tus be­comes sen­tient.”

The be­lief that an­i­mals de­serve rights in line with hu­mans was pop­u­lar­ized 45 years ago in the book “An­i­mal Lib­er­a­tion” by Australian philoso­pher Peter Singer.

He ar­gued that if one ac­cepts that un­equal treat­ment be­tween hu­mans due to dif­fer­ences in race, gen­der or in­tel­li­gence is im­moral, then so too is poor treat­ment of an­i­mals, who are phys­i­cally dif­fer­ent from peo­ple, but “morally equal.”

It would be “speciesism” to think oth­er­wise, he wrote, and: “We have to speak up on be­half of those who can­not speak for them­selves.”

Re­gan Russell read the book in her early 20s. Its mes­sage found a hun­gry mind and an open heart.

And then, in 1977, she read about the seal hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that had at­tracted in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion, in­clud­ing a visit from French film star Brigitte Bar­dot, who con­demned “Cana­dian as­sas­sins” club­bing the an­i­mals.

Russell had al­ways loved an­i­mals but now the spark was lit. She was liv­ing in Win­nipeg at the time and made a sign and stood on a street cor­ner.

“I thought, I’ll make a sign and protest and it will all stop,” she said to a jour­nal­ist in a doc­u­men­tary. “I thought, when ev­ery­one knows, how could it pos­si­bly con­tinue?”

Russell was ide­al­is­tic, driven, and just get­ting started.

She grew up in west Hamil­ton in the 1960s. Bill and Pat Russell named their first of two chil­dren af­ter one of the daugh­ters in Shake­speare’s “King Lear” — a rare name for a girl then.

Bill, a mu­sic teacher at Re­gan’s el­e­men­tary school, took a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence de­gree at McMaster Univer­sity on the side, dur­ing the as­cen­dance of fem­i­nism and civil rights. There was al­ways lots of con­ver­sa­tion around the din­ner ta­ble.

Re­gan read on sub­jects from Socrates to Gandhi and Ro­man his­tory, but did not at­tend col­lege or univer­sity af­ter grad­u­at­ing from West­dale high school.

She mar­ried at 19, and when her hus­band’s job took him out West, she fol­lowed, and worked as a model for Ea­ton’s. (She re­fused to model fur, and was ul­ti­mately ar­rested at a fur protest in a depart­ment store in Toronto, along with her fa­ther.)

The “An­i­mal Lib­er­a­tion” book is a gate­way for many ac­tivists; a “moral shock” ac­cord­ing to Emily Gaarder, an an­thro­pol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota-Du­luth, who wrote a book about the pre­dom­i­nance of women in the an­i­mal rights move­ment. But, she adds, there are other in­flu­ences, as well.

Russell mar­ried twice be­fore meet­ing Pow­ell in 2001. They knew each other as kids; she was six years older and had taught him Sun­day school at church.

She chose to never have chil­dren. Pow­ell says she talked of her fear that she would never de­velop a strong enough con­nec­tion with a child.

In­stead, he says, she di­rected her nur­tur­ing in­stinct to­ward an­i­mals.

One of Pow­ell’s two sons from his first mar­riage called Russell, his step­mother, “Snow White,” af­ter watch­ing her talk­ing to an­i­mals.

Ide­ol­ogy is an­other in­flu­ence on ac­tivists. Gaarder says women em­bold­ened to vig­or­ously ad­vance their cause are “po­lit­i­cal thinkers mak­ing po­lit­i­cal choices.”

That was true for Anita Kra­jnc, who joined Russell at many an­i­mal rights protests.

Kra­jnc earned sev­eral univer­sity de­grees, in­clud­ing a doc­tor­ate in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence.

Into her 20s, Kra­jnc says she was still a meat eater who “sali­vated at pig roasts.” She con­verted to ve­g­an­ism af­ter read­ing “The Sex­ual Pol­i­tics of Meat,” but an in­ci­dent in her early 40s flipped a switch to her call­ing.

She lived near a slaugh­ter­house in Toronto and one day, walk­ing her dog, she came across pigs on a truck. Later that year, she helped found Toronto Pig Save.

“I never took ac­tion un­til I saw the pigs,” she says. “I couldn’t be­lieve how scared and sad they were. It looked like they were in a dun­geon. A pig looked at me, and I promised him three vig­ils a week. And we kept that prom­ise.”

In 2015, Kra­jnc was charged with crim­i­nal mis­chief for giv­ing wa­ter

The no­tion that farm an­i­mals are sen­tient is the philo­soph­i­cal bedrock on which ac­tivists stand

Russell’s death has be­come one of those moral shocks: her face a sym­bol, her al­lit­er­a­tive name a rally cry

to pigs. She was found not guilty, with Russell of­fer­ing moral sup­port in the court­room.

The pair cam­paigned against Bill 156, the Se­cu­rity from Tres­pass and Pro­tect­ing Food Safety Act. Ac­tivists be­lieve it is a dra­co­nian “ag­gag” mea­sure that will pre­vent them from ex­pos­ing in­hu­mane an­i­mal treat­ment.

Al­though the vig­ils at Fear­mans are usu­ally held just out­side the prop­erty, some­times Russell and fel­low ac­tivists en­ter the grounds to give wa­ter to pigs, as work­ers yell at them to leave.

In other in­ci­dents in On­tario, mem­bers of the group “Di­rect Ac­tion Ev­ery­where” have bro­ken into an­i­mal breed­ing barns to re­trieve ducks and pigs.

Sup­port­ers of the bill say that when ac­tivists give wa­ter to pigs or tres­pass on pri­vate prop­erty, it cre­ates dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions for work­ers and farm­ers and is po­ten­tially harm­ful to the food sup­ply.

Ernie Harde­man, On­tario’s min­is­ter of agri­cul­ture, said the bill will not pro­hibit de­mon­stra­tions, “but it will be il­le­gal to in­ter­act with live­stock. It’s dan­ger­ous when they put things in the trucks, whether it is wa­ter or some­thing else.”

He says the bill won’t pre­vent whis­tle-blow­ing, and if any­one at a farm or meat pro­cess­ing plant “sees some­thing in­ap­pro­pri­ate, we want it re­ported. I have no tol­er­ance for an­i­mal cru­elty.”

Ac­tivists be­lieve that not only are pigs and other an­i­mals mis­treated prior to killing, but that eat­ing meat is wrong.

Camille Labchuk, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of An­i­mal Jus­tice, says the food sys­tem needs to “un­dergo a mas­sive shift away from eat­ing an­i­mals and to­ward eat­ing plants, to spare bil­lions of an­i­mals from unimag­in­able suf­fer­ing, to tackle the cli­mate cri­sis, and be­cause eat­ing an­i­mals is a se­ri­ous risk to pub­lic health.”

In an email, she added: “Most peo­ple are shocked to learn an­i­mal wel­fare on farms is al­most com­pletely un­reg­u­lated in Canada, and the gov­ern­ment doesn’t in­spect or mon­i­tor the con­di­tions the an­i­mals like pigs are kept in … The in­dus­try gets to po­lice it­self; the fig­u­ra­tive fox is guard­ing the lit­eral hen­house.”

“That is an in­ac­cu­rate state­ment,” coun­ters Cameron New­big­ging, a spokesper­son with Agri­cul­ture and Agri-Food Canada, who says the Cana­dian Food In­spec­tion Agency en­forces reg­u­la­tions for the hu­mane trans­port and slaugh­ter of an­i­mals, and “pro­vin­cial in­spec­tors go onto farms where ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties are sus­pected or com­plaints are re­ceived.”

What con­sti­tutes hu­mane treat­ment is spelled out in On­tario’s Pro­vin­cial An­i­mal Wel­fare Ser­vices Act, passed in 2019, and the fed­eral Health of An­i­mals Act.

One ex­am­ple is reg­u­la­tions for herd­ing an­i­mals. Ac­tivists lament the use of elec­tric prods to force pigs off trucks. The reg­u­la­tions say prods are per­mit­ted on pigs at least three months old, so long as “it is not ap­plied to a sen­si­tive area in­clud­ing the belly and the anal, gen­i­tal and fa­cial re­gions of the an­i­mal.”

An­other reg­u­la­tion is that pigs and other an­i­mals can­not be trucked when the ship­ping time is longer than 12 hours.

So­fina Foods, owner of Fear­mans Pork since 2012, said in a state­ment that its pigs come from farms within a three-hour ra­dius of the plant, “well be­low the travel time per­mit­ted and rec­om­mended by reg­u­la­tors.”

For Russell and other ac­tivists, the point of op­pos­ing Bill 156 was to en­sure they re­main free to com­fort farm an­i­mals, and keep a close eye on trans­port and killing tech­niques in the in­dus­try.

On her Face­book page on June 18, Russell called the bill “evil.”

The protest on June 19 was dif­fer­ent than the rou­tine vig­ils.

In ad­di­tion to bear­ing wit­ness, it was in­tended to draw at­ten­tion to the bill.

That morn­ing, just af­ter 10 a.m., one of the trucks haul­ing pigs stopped on Har­vester Road be­fore it reached the gates of Fear­mans.

Ac­tivists waited on the side­walk for their chance to give wa­ter to the pigs.

En­force­ment un­der the new law had not yet come into ef­fect; they could still in­ter­act with the an­i­mals as usual.

Ac­tivists say that in the past, driv­ers have mostly co-op­er­ated with the vig­ils, but oc­ca­sion­ally have con­fronted pro­test­ers.

Kra­jnc, who was not present that day, says she was told by wit­nesses that the truck idled far­ther away from ac­tivists than usual, dis­rupt­ing traf­fic “and cre­at­ing a sense of chaos.”

She said Russell stood apart from the oth­ers, in the drive­way closer to the gates. At some point, the truck started to move again.

A news re­lease from Pig Save Toronto says Russell “tried to jump from the path of the truck be­fore it plowed into her.”

Hal­ton po­lice said in a news re­lease that the col­li­sion was not an “in­ten­tional act.”

A video doc­u­men­tary about Russell, posted on the Pig Save Face­book page, says she was hit and dragged by the truck and her body man­gled un­der­neath.

“One of our ac­tivists has been killed,” says a man film­ing the af­ter­math on his phone. “Je­sus Christ. It fi­nally f---ing hap­pened.”

Within days, an­i­mal rights ac­tivists held trib­utes in Russell’s hon­our, from Argentina to the U.K. and Italy, and in Ger­many, where pro­test­ers hung a ban­ner on a slaugh­ter­house in Berlin bear­ing Russell’s like­ness.

In Los An­ge­les, ac­tor Joaquin Phoenix held a sign at a rally that read “Save Pigs 4 Re­gan,” and said in a state­ment: “Re­gan Russell spent the fi­nal mo­ments of her life pro­vid­ing com­fort to pigs who had never ex­pe­ri­enced the touch of a kind hand.”

PETA (Peo­ple for the Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of An­i­mals) an­nounced it had ac­quired two six-week old pigs from a farm in Iowa, and took the rare step of nam­ing them af­ter an ac­tivist: One is named Re­gan and the other, Russell. They will live in an an­i­mal sanc­tu­ary in up­state New York.

A march was held in Toronto, where ac­tivists called on the prov­ince to im­ple­ment “Re­gan’s Law,” a bill of rights to pro­tect farm an­i­mals.

Pow­ell was among the speak­ers. “It is a hor­ri­ble, life-chang­ing tragedy, for ev­ery­one she knew and touched,” he says.

One of her old­est friends, Kather­ine Wight­man, who Russell met through mod­el­ling in Win­nipeg, says Re­gan used to talk about be­ing ready to die for her cause.

“She died a mar­tyr,” says Wight­man. “She could have worked un­til she was 100 and never ac­com­plished what this tragic death has.”

Russell’s death has be­come one of those moral shocks: her face a sym­bol, her al­lit­er­a­tive name a rally cry.

At a pig vigil held three weeks af­ter the in­ci­dent, flow­ers from a trib­ute to her re­mained hang­ing on a fence out­side Fear­mans — wilted and dried in the heat.

About 18 ac­tivists were there and, for some, it was their first time.

Nancy Robert­son drove 40 min­utes from Cam­bridge, where she works as a nurse, wear­ing a shirt with Russell’s like­ness on it.

“(Russell) opened my eyes to do­ing more for the an­i­mals, be­ing in pub­lic, hav­ing a united front and speak­ing up for them … See­ing the an­i­mals in dis­tress deeply af­fected me. I’ve never seen one up close be­fore. We would never treat a dog or cat or hu­man that way.”

Jessie Watkin­son drove an hour to at­tend, also in­spired by Russell. She cried af­ter of­fer­ing wa­ter to the pigs.

“They were too hot and ex­hausted to even drink. You con­nect with one, they look at you and, in that two min­utes, you show them the com­pas­sion. I just wish we could do more.”

At her fi­nal protest, Russell had taken her turn spray­ing wa­ter into the mouths of the pigs. And she held a sign that read: “The truth should never be il­le­gal.”

Af­ter she was killed, pigs in the truck that hit her were herded onto an­other, while po­lice of­fi­cers in­ves­ti­gated. There had been so much com­mo­tion in the mo­ment: blood, sirens and screams from an ac­tivist recorded on a phone: “No! No!”

If what Re­gan Russell be­lieved to her core is true, that pigs feel and have per­cep­tion be­yond our un­der­stand­ing, then it was not just the hu­mans who felt it deeply that morn­ing: that some­thing gen­tle and beau­ti­ful had been lost, on the road to slaugh­ter.

 ??  ?? An­i­mal rights ac­tivist Re­gan Russell vol­un­teered at a don­key sanc­tu­ary lo­cated near Guelph.
An­i­mal rights ac­tivist Re­gan Russell vol­un­teered at a don­key sanc­tu­ary lo­cated near Guelph.
 ?? JOHN REN­NI­SON THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR ?? Pro­test­ers rush to feed wa­ter to pigs in the two min­utes trucks stop out­side the gates while car­ry­ing the an­i­mals into Fear­mans Pork slaugh­ter­house in Burling­ton — the site of weekly vig­ils or­ga­nized by Toronto Pig Save.
JOHN REN­NI­SON THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR Pro­test­ers rush to feed wa­ter to pigs in the two min­utes trucks stop out­side the gates while car­ry­ing the an­i­mals into Fear­mans Pork slaugh­ter­house in Burling­ton — the site of weekly vig­ils or­ga­nized by Toronto Pig Save.
 ?? AN­I­MAL SAVE MOVE­MENT ?? A ban­ner was hung on a slaugh­ter­house wall in Berlin by an­i­mal rights ac­tivists pay­ing trib­ute to Russell, who is pic­tured on the ban­ner hold­ing a sign that reads “We Are Their Voice.”
AN­I­MAL SAVE MOVE­MENT A ban­ner was hung on a slaugh­ter­house wall in Berlin by an­i­mal rights ac­tivists pay­ing trib­ute to Russell, who is pic­tured on the ban­ner hold­ing a sign that reads “We Are Their Voice.”
 ??  ?? Russell rep­re­sented Canada at the first “Mrs. World” pageant, held in Hawaii in the early 1980s.
Russell rep­re­sented Canada at the first “Mrs. World” pageant, held in Hawaii in the early 1980s.
 ??  ??
 ?? CATHIE COWARD THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR FILE PHOTO ?? About 150 peo­ple gath­ered out­side a Burling­ton slaugh­ter­house two days af­ter Russell was killed, to pay trib­ute to the life­long an­i­mal rights ac­tivist.
CATHIE COWARD THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR FILE PHOTO About 150 peo­ple gath­ered out­side a Burling­ton slaugh­ter­house two days af­ter Russell was killed, to pay trib­ute to the life­long an­i­mal rights ac­tivist.
 ?? JOHN REN­NI­SON THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR FILE PHOTO ?? At her fi­nal protest, Russell had taken her turn spray­ing wa­ter into the mouths of the pigs. And she held a sign that read: “The truth should never be il­le­gal.”
JOHN REN­NI­SON THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR FILE PHOTO At her fi­nal protest, Russell had taken her turn spray­ing wa­ter into the mouths of the pigs. And she held a sign that read: “The truth should never be il­le­gal.”

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