The auditorium was nearly full, and Nathan Runkle elbowed my arm, caught my eye, and tilted his head to the left.
“See the guy two rows back in the baseball hat?” he said, eyebrows raised.
I looked to my left. Sure enough, a rather nondescript man sat a couple rows back, with an empty seat on either side of him, listening carefully to the speaker on stage. I nodded.
“He’s an industry spy.”
It was 2010, and Nathan was in Minnesota to speak at Their Lives, Our Voices, an animal advocacy conference put on by the Twin Cities-based group, Compassionate Action For Animals. We were sitting together toward the back of the room, and I tried to discreetly steal a few more glances of the man he’d just pointed out.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“I just know.”
I couldn’t argue with that. At only 26 years of age, Nathan had already spent more than a decade of his life investigating the dark underworld of animal agriculture. After hearing about a sickening case of animal abuse at a nearby high school in rural Ohio when he was 15 years old, Nathan formed what would eventually become one of the most powerful and effective animal rights organizations in the world, Mercy For Animals.
The organization is well-known for exposing shocking cases of animal abuse through its undercover investigations at farms and slaughterhouses across the country. Those investigations have not only led to criminal animal abuse convictions, but have pulled back the curtain in a big way on the cruel and secretive world of animal agriculture.
Nathan recently published his first book, Mercy for Animals, which you can purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other book outlets.
I recently had the chance to reconnect with Nathan, and he was generous enough to answer a few questions for this exclusive interview with Compassionate Man.
CM: Tell me a little bit about the farm where you grew up.
NR: I come from four generations of farmers. My great, great, great grandfather arrived from Germany in the early 1800s, traveled to Ohio, and began crop farming. We still have “Runkle Farms,” which grows mainly corn and soybeans on a few thousand acres in and around the small village of Saint Paris, today.
Growing up on a farm, surrounded by open pasture, creeks, and fresh air, gave me a deep appreciation for the land, food, and animals.
CM: Did you remember loving animals as a little boy?
NR: Absolutely! If you were to look at any photograph of me as a kid, you might think I was raised by animals. Whereas there are just a few photos of me and my parents, there are plenty of me with animals: a cat, a dog, a frog, a horse. That’s probably because the moment I was allowed outdoors, I spent the rest of my childhood seeking out every creature I could find—looking under rocks for crawdads, searching small ponds for minnows, observing toads in the fields. If a baby bird fell out of a nest, I’d nurse her back to health. If stray cats were about, I’d find them, rescue them, and get them adopted out.
But the biggest lesson I learned about animals was from a little rat, whom I named Caesar.
Caesar was destined to a life in a laboratory, where he likely would have been fed chemicals, drowned, shocked, or starved. His fate was bleak.
He was born next door, in a small shed next to a big red barn and a bright yellow farmhouse. The house was rented from my parents to a friendly couple named Gene and Sylvia. Gene and Sylvia were in the animal-breeding business. They raised rats and mice for local research labs and universities. They also raised guinea pigs and beautiful white rabbits. All of these animals were destined to the same short lives.
Looking back now, I’m appalled by what was happening across the cornfields from our family farm. I remember wire cages stacked on top of each other. The smell of ammonia. Dead animals in the corners of cages, their companions huddling next to them.
One afternoon in 1990 when I was seven years old, I went over to Gene and Sylvia’s with my mom to collect that month’s rent check. Sylvia knew of my deep love for and fascination with animals, so she let me into one of the smaller sheds where the rats were being raised. She grabbed one by his tail, hoisting him into the air. His legs were outstretched in panic as he desperately grasped for something to hold on to. Sylvia lowered him into my arms. He was beautiful. Sylvia told me he was a Siamese rat. His markings were exactly the same as the widely loved Siamese cats. His coat was a glistening pure white, the fur around his nose a soft gray. His emotive eyes were big and black. I held him in my arms as he curiously sniffed the air, exploring the great heights.
“Do you want to take him home?” Sylvia asked. I was ecstatic. In the most loving, sincere voice I could muster I looked at my mom and asked, “Can I, Mom?”
Holding back a smirk she said, “He’s a big responsibility. You’ll have to take very good care of him.”
“Yes, I know, Mom. Of course I will.”
Caesar now had a loving home. He was the lucky one, plucked from his cage and granted a life of amnesty. He wouldn’t die in a laboratory.
I later learned that the going price for one of Sylvia’s rats was a mere $1.
For the next two and a half years Caesar was my companion. He would sit on my shoulder as I walked around the house. He was the star of my photo shoots as I learned to work a camera. He would run around my room in the evenings—finding the most unexpected hiding places.
Caesar was smart. He knew his name and would come running when I called it. He was clean and gentle. We had a bond. A friendship.
I remember having friends over to the house and bringing them to my room to meet Caesar. Most would shriek in disgust. “Eww, a RAT! Look at that gross tail!”
Otherwise calm and rational adults would become frightened children at the mere sight of Caesar. They’d quickly turn their shoulders. Gasp. Divert their gaze.
I couldn’t understand. They didn’t know Caesar like I did. They didn’t know him as an individual. He was judged for what he was, not who he was. Many people came to him with prejudices, phobias, dislikes, and repulsion.
It was because of Caesar that I truly came to understand that when it comes to the desire for freedom, companionship, and respect, all animals are equal. The different treatments and fates we impose on them aren’t about them; they’re about us.
CM: You were inspired to start MFA in high school after you heard about a piglet brutally killed as part of an agricultural project at a nearby school. Did you have questions or concerns about the way animals were treated on farms before that point?
NR: Yes. My eyes first began to open to the plight of farmed animals when I was 11 years old. It was a typical winter evening. The family was sitting in our kitchen watching the local 6 o’clock news from the big city, Dayton. Near the end of the broadcast came a very short piece, no more than 30 seconds, about a small group of local animal rights activists protesting fur at the Dayton mall. Bundled in scarves and winter jackets, they were standing outside in the blistering Ohio snow to speak up for animals.
They also showed footage of a drowning beaver ensnared in an underwater trap, a mink caught in a leg-hold trap, and then a dog held in one as well. I remember my heart breaking; the look of pain and fear in the animals’ eyes as they struggled to survive the traps deeply impacted me. But I also felt excited after seeing the news report. “Animal rights activist”—there was a term for people who felt as I did. And they were empowered, taking action to save animals. I wasn’t alone.
A few months later I was at an Earth Day event at the local mall. I happened upon an information table set up by the same animal advocacy group I had seen on the news. I picked up literature on factory farming and learned about the violence and brutality animals endure in our food system. I immediately became a vegetarian and started doing activism at my local school.
CM: Thinking back, what did “being a man” mean to you when you were, say, in your teens?
NR: Looking back, I don’t remember ever being concerned with “being a man.” I was always an outcast to masculine men. Growing up gay in rural Ohio, and then becoming a vegetarian at such a young age, I never really fit in. I was always teased and taunted for being a “fag” or “sissy.” Although the words stung and hurt, I knew deep down that what was truly important in life was to be my authentic self. I was fortunate enough to have parents who never pushed a notion of “being a man” upon me. They focused on “being a good human being.”
I now realize how lucky I was to have such understanding, supportive, and loving role models. Even as a child, I knew being cruel or hardened didn’t make you a real man; being brave, kind, and nurturing, and defending the weak and vulnerable did. I was lucky to have a father who loved me unconditionally and appreciated my kindness. But I know many boys aren’t so fortunate and are fed an image of masculinity that is destructive, not only to their sense of self and their relationships, but also to those around them.
CM: Do you remember a point when your idea of masculinity began to shift?
NR: Growing up, there were certainly external societal pressures and expectations to be “masculine,” many of which negatively affected me in ways I didn’t immediately acknowledge or understand. For me, they often took the form of homophobia. As I became more comfortable in my own skin, any concern about fitting into a stereotypical “masculine” role faded. To me, what’s important in life is being your authentic self and being a good person.
CM: What would you say has contributed most to the success of Mercy For Animals?
NR: I have the privilege of working with an incredible, dedicated, intelligent, and strategic team—something I’m grateful for every day. Over the past 16 years since founding MFA, I’ve learned so much, and been so deeply inspired, by so many people in the animal protection movement. I think it’s important to surround yourself with people who challenge, elevate, motivate, and enrich you.
While I very much consider MFA to still be in its infancy, with our greatest successes still ahead, I am heartened by the progress we have been able to achieve—all because of the support and involvement of our donors and volunteers.
To me, success is a mindset. It requires optimism, perseverance, resilience, and determination. At MFA, we are always looking ahead, thinking outside the box, questioning our tactics, and striving for new and better ways to fulfill our mission.
CM: Can you tell me why you decided to move MFA headquarters to LA?
NR: MFA is truly an international organization now, with staff and offices throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and India.
We moved our headquarters to LA four years ago for a number of reasons. California offers such a progressive, forward-thinking, animal-friendly landscape on every level: politically, socially, entrepreneurially, and philanthropically. Being in LA has allowed us to generate important support from so many influential people in media, television, music, business, and beyond. Also, given the thriving vegan community in LA, being based here allows us to attract and hire some of the brightest and most talented advocates in our movement.
CM: What does the future of MFA look like?
NR: I’ve never been more optimistic about the future of MFA or the animal protection movement. There is no doubt that we are at a tipping point in society’s view of animals and veganism. On every measurable level, we are winning. The number of animals raised and killed for food in the U.S. is on the decline, while the number of vegans, vegetarians, and meat reducers is rising. More states are banning cruel factory farming practices and many of the world’s largest retailers and food providers are demanding an end to the intensive confinement and painful mutilations of animals. A shift is happening.
Moving forward, MFA will continue to expand our lifesaving programs internationally, especially to countries with rapidly expanding populations, rising meat consumption, and abysmal animal protection records. We will expand our programs to inspire people to move toward a vegan diet, pressure major corporations into adopting meaningful animal welfare policies, prosecute animal abusers, and increase legal protection for farmed animals.
A new focus area that MFA will also develop is food innovation, supporting companies that aim to disrupt animal agriculture by outcompeting them in the marketplace. We will facilitate the development of cultured meat, dairy, and eggs, which are produced by growing cells instead of killing animals. Just as the automobile made horse-drawn carriages obsolete, we believe that humane food products that are better, cheaper, healthier, and more sustainable will make animal-based food obsolete.
CM: What inspires you to become a better man today?
NR: Inspiration is all around us. I’m always inspired by people who push their boundaries, challenging “limits.” I’m inspired by people who dare to think and act differently and by those who show vulnerability and practice understanding. I aim to become a better man by living a meaningful and intentional life, and by thinking about the mark, or legacy, I want to leave behind.
CM: What do you think are the primary elements of a complete man?
NR: Kindness. Detachment from ego. Understanding. Generosity. Love. Playfulness. Openness. Curiosity. Meaning.
CM: What makes a good man great?
NR: Being humble.
CM: What is your advice to the man who is inspired by you and your story and would like to take steps to improve his life and become a better, more compassionate man?
NR: Believe in the power you hold to change the world. If you are reading this, you have won life’s lottery. You are in a place of true privilege to have been born human, to have free will, a voice, and freedom to express yourself in a country and time of such great opportunity for meaningful impact. So many other people, now and throughout history, simply don’t, or didn’t, have the same opportunity. Don’t waste it. Start somewhere—anywhere. Find your unique voice, skills, talents, and ideas. Put them to work building a more compassionate future for yourself, other people, animals, and the planet.
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