03 Mar Ondine Sherman
Five Minutes with Ondine Sherman, co-founder and managing director of Voiceless, the animal protection institute.
When your ethics and diet are in harmony, you develop a better sense of wellbeing, according top Voiceless co-founder and managing director, Ondine Sherman. Gently Vegan chats to her about Ondine Sherman vegan journey from a seven-year-old vegetarian to one of the world’s leading animal activists.
Gently Vegan: You founded Voiceless in 2004 with your father, Brian. What lead you to do this?
OS: I was vegetarian since age seven and involved in animal advocacy and activism during my teen years, from saving ducks during hunting season to joining street protests against fur. After I finished my Masters in Environmental Studies, I was looking for an opportunity to make animal advocacy my life’s work. Luckily for me, my father is a hugely compassionate and caring man who had also been vegetarian for many years. He had just sold his financial management company and for the first time in his life, had a little free time. I asked him to come with me to the Animal Rights Conference in Los Angeles; I thought, perhaps, we could do something together. Although I already knew many of the sad realities of animal exploitation, my father quickly discovered over the course of Conference weekend the horrific institutionalised suffering we inflict on animals for our food and entertainment. The conference was very traumatic and eye opening for him and we agreed that we want to and must do something together to make a difference. And with that, the seeds of Voiceless began to grow.
GV: Were you already vegan when you began this wonderful organisation?
OS: My vegan journey was a long journey down a windy path. I haven’t touched meat since the age of seven, but I ate fish and seafood on and off over many years. When I went scuba diving or snorkelling I would feel terribly guilty and apologise to all the fish I saw! I gave up all leather when I was fifteen and then dairy about eight years ago. I became full vegan (or 95% in reality) nearly three years ago. I feel really great knowing that, today, my ethics and diet are in harmony.
GV: What lessons have you learned over the years since founding Voiceless? What has it taught you about human nature and how has it allowed you to grow as a person?
OS: I have learned a huge amount since starting Voiceless. There’s a desire to see change happen, and see it fast. And if doesn’t occur, it’s easy to become deflated, disappointed and possibly bitter at humanity. I’ve learned that social change is a long process, a marathon, and it progresses slowly but is also unpredictable; we’re not in control of all the levers and buttons that make society and our world work. Many areas I first believed were easy to change, such as banning some of the ‘worst’ aspects of factory farming like battery cages and sow stalls, have been extremely slow. Others, like the growth in animal law and the flourishing of vegan food, awareness and vegan products have exceeded my expectations. Being part of the movement for nearly 35 years has given me a good perspective – I’ve learned not only patience but also how to be empathetic to those who don’t see the world as I do. I know my work and my path will forever be advocating for animals, but I understand that this is not the case for most. I can’t force people to believe what I believe by shouting at or judging them. All I can do is pour myself into my work with the utmost care, thought and professionalism with the hope that I’m playing some part in helping to create a kinder more compassionate world. I do believe that us humans are more good than evil, and that eventually justice will prevail and animals will be free from human-induced cruelty and exploitation.
GV: You now live in Tel Aviv … how is life different there to Australia?
OS: Living in Israel, it feels like you’re in the epi-centre of the world. While Sydney may be about lifestyle, BBQs and picnics on the beach, life here is about making every moment count. There’s a huge amount of intensity, both frightening politics, terrorism and wars but also wonderfully vibrant people, with fresh new ideas and blended cultures. Israel is a tiny, young country full of immigrants and refugees from and all over the world. People are very chatty and open; they love to share life stories and often have fascinating or heroic tales of the journeys made to arrive in Israel. There is an energy here that is quite unlike anything else I’ve experienced. I highly recommend everyone visits, if not for the culture, history, archaeology, landscape, than for the vegan food!
GV: Is it easier or harder to follow a vegan diet living in Israel?
OS: Many people celebrate Israel as the world capital of veganism as it has the highest per capita vegan population. The country went from zero to vegan in recent years without any stops. There are far fewer vegetarians or animal products with ‘free range’ or ‘humane’ brands than Australia. Today, you can find vegan symbols on nearly all restaurant menus – making it easy and quick to find something to eat. The traditional Israeli food is also very well suited to a vegan diet. It’s full of salads, spreads and soups. I live on hummus and tahini and along with a few other beans, nuts, veggies and grains, you don’t need much else for a complete diet. Even the Israeli army (compulsory for boys and girls) has now provided for the large number of vegan soldiers with non-leather shoes and vegan food.
GV: What is daily life like for you?
OS: I am juggling many different projects and responsibilities at the same time. I’m the Managing Director of Voiceless and we’re doing a huge amount of new exciting projects in the education field, so I’m busy on Skype and my computer daily. I’m also finishing writing the second book in a series of young adult fiction. My first, Sky, follows the coming-of-age of a vegan teenager and touches on many animal protection issues. I’m also mother to three beautiful children, my eldest daughter is thirteen and my twin boys are eleven and have disabilities. Our house is full of rescue animals – two dogs, two cats, a rabbit and ex-battery hens.
GV: What is your go-to vegan meal?
OS: I am very happy with a bowl of rice with stir fried veggies (broccoli is my favourite) and a generous serve of tofu, topped with a big dollop of tahini.
GV: And your absolute indulgence?
OS: I’m currently obsessed with Ben and Jerry’s peanut butter and cookies non-dairy ice cream! And my go-to dessert is always dark chocolate with nuts – add in some sea salt and I’m very happy.
GV: You must travel a great deal … do you find it easy or tricky to eat a healthy vegan diet when travelling?
OS: Travelling on a vegan diet can be quite tricky. I wrote a recent blog about some of my recommendations http://ondinesherman.com/2017/12/20/5-tips-for-easy-vegan-travels/ I always use Happy Cow to find local vegan restaurants and try and get recommendations ahead of time. Luckily, I’m not a huge foodie and don’t feel too devastated if I miss out on what others may consider the ‘best’ food or restaurants. However, I do try and avoid places renowned as vegan unfriendly – some regions are certainly harder to travel in than others. Hungary and northern Spain, I’m looking at you!
GV: You are also an ambassador for Action for Dolphins. What does your work there involve?
OS: As an ambassador, I try to help draw attention to the issue of dolphin captivity and slaughter. Sometimes that means simply sharing a post on social media to help draw people to a new campaign. Voiceless is currently creating educational resources on the subject of dolphins in captivity and we’ve worked closely with Action for Dolphins to make it into the best possible resource for high school teachers and students.
GV: What current projects is Voiceless involved in and how can the everyday person get involved and/or support?
OS: Voiceless has recently shifted focus to the field of education – we believe the youth of today will become the change-makers of the future. We want to educate and inspire a new generation to think critically and make positive changes for animals. To do this, we are creating a suite of Animal Protection Education (APE) resources for high schools and providing law students with the support and encouragement they need to further the field of animal law. We have recently launched the Voiceless Animal Cruelty Index, a powerful online educational tool that ranks 50 countries according to animal welfare performance. We are a small non-profit organisation and appreciate all the support we receive. We encourage donations, volunteers and other assistance. Please get in touch!
GV: Is Voiceless involved in schools and the education system? How can/do you work in with schools?
OS: Our free Animal Protection Education (APE) will be packed with useful tools that teachers can deliver in their classroom – including videos, podcasts, fact sheets and curriculum links for high schools. Our first two APE kits are on the subjects of Dolphins in Captivity and Legal Personhood for Animals. They promote critical thinking and align with the Australian curriculum. We also deliver presentations to schools and universities on a wide range of animal protection subjects and concepts. Our library of reports, briefings, and submissions covering key issues in animal protection is a valuable resource for students and educators.
GV: You have three children of your own … what are your hopes for them, for young people in Australia and indeed around the world?
OS: My hope is that young people will increasingly engage with the animal protection movement, learn a different way to see our human relationship with animals, and develop a relationship based on respect and value rather than utility and profit. It doesn’t matter if they become lawyers, artists or teachers, everyone has a role to play in making positive change for animals. I believe, just like with other great social justice movements in recent history, that a new kinder future for animals is possible and inevitable. Young people will make this future a reality.
GV: What advice would you offer for those embarking on their journey towards a vegan lifestyle?
OS: There are so many resources to help you and online communities to join, I encourage people to empower themselves with knowledge and make connections with others, because it’s great to feel part of a bigger picture and a worldwide movement. It’s also important to remember that along the road to veganism, we also need to be kind to others, not judgemental and respectful of each person’s unique journey and the obstacles they may have to overcome, and also be kind to ourselves. If we slip up, there’s always tomorrow!
Interview with Lifestyle and Beauty editor Shonagh Walker