Animals worth time in jail, North Carolina crusader says Dawn Ratcliffe, born in Silver Spring, takes no prisoners in her cause


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It isn't a mainstream life but it's the right life, the compassionate life. Animals are worth going to prison for, worth risking death for. A life for a life. All lives are equal, Dawn Ratcliffe says.

A roach on the kitchen counter? Go, be free. Huge spider in the bathroom? Live long and prosper. Even a gnat feels pain. Oysters, clams, they can't scream, but that doesn't mean they can't feel. Who knows whether clams feel pain? You'd have to be a clam.

Ratcliffe sighs. She is a young woman, 24. When she's not working in the recycling center at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, she travels all over to demonstrate for animal rights. In Atlanta, she went to prison for monkeys. In Charlotte, she went to jail for fur. In Pennsylvania, she has been in prison for pigeons.


She is a slight woman, a long-distance runner, with narrow bones and pale, serious eyes and a well-scrubbed face. She is not earnest. That implies naivete. She is impatient for her message to be heard and spread, to eradicate from this world all the terrible waste of animal life:

Billions of murders are committed each year in the United States alone - chickens, minks, cows, pigs, sheep, lobster, shrimp - innocent lives taken in the name of beauty and fashion and a well-balanced meal, she says.

Extreme, yes, but it's time for extreme, Ratcliffe says.

Shout from the sidewalks and the jails. Go to prison if you have to. If you do, make it matter: Refuse to eat. Supporters will demonstrate. The media will come. Posters and marching make good TV. Put it in the news and maybe somebody will care. Or maybe not. Some girl from North Carolina is sitting in some prison in the middle of nowhere, big deal. So she's on a hunger strike, so what? Let her starve.

You hear that a lot now. People are sick of protesters - abortion, school prayer, animal rights - sick of being told what to eat, what to buy, how to live, who to be.

But this is the right way to live. Really, Ratcliffe says, it's so simple.

They're the people chanting, carrying signs, joining arms, chaining themselves together, going limp during arrest. You may pass by and wonder how they arrived at this, how they came to believe so deeply in something that they'd stand for hours in public and be called lunatic. Where did they come from?

Born in Silver Spring

Bob and Jackie Ratcliffe, a real estate agent and a homemaker, raised their only child, Dawn Marie, as normally as you please: bedtime stories, pet hamsters, the works. She was born in Silver Spring; her family moved to Myrtle Beach, S.C., when she was 5 and to Charlotte when she was 15. She played soccer and ran long distance, first for North Mecklenburg High and then for UNC Charlotte, where she got a degree in English.

She ate meat for 19 years of her life.

Her father used to have one of those meal trucks that goes around to building sites, flips open a side panel and sells food to construction workers. Her mother helped work the kitchen. They served sausage dogs, ham sandwiches. They took Dawn along. She was 4, maybe 5, and she liked to play. One day, a construction worker saw her lining up some little frogs that always hopped around in the puddles. "What are you doing?" he asked her.

"I'm teaching them how to hop."

It wasn't in her to sit back and watch. She arrived on this earth with the temperament of an activist. She wanted to play soccer on the boys' team, so she did. She wanted to be a lector at Mass, so they let her. If another kid squished a granddaddy longlegs, she would cry. If Wal-Mart had dirty hamster cages, she complained to the manager. In kindergarten, she wasn't satisfied with being in the class - she wanted to teach the class.

She had a cat, Charlie Cat, who was waiting for her at home from the day she was born. Later there were hamsters and gerbils, but mostly there were cats.

Her favorite foods were hamburgers, french fries, green beans and ice cream.

When she started running track, everybody told her: Protein, eat lots of protein. Chicken, fish, they'll give you energy. "I didn't question that," she says.

One day at Wendy's, her boyfriend said, "Dawn, you won't kill anything, you love animals, that's all you talk about - but you eat them." She gave up red meat.

It went on like that: one thought leading to another, one newsletter leading to another, revelation by revelation, fact by fact: 80 million animals die in U.S. testing labs each year, most during the testing of drugs, pesticides, household products. Every day in this country, 16 million animals are slaughtered. Roughly two-thirds of exported grains go toward fattening animals when they could be feeding humans.

She learned to defend her rationale. Yes, animal testing helps cure human disease, but a healthier lifestyle leads to less need for drugs. Yes, animals feed people, but so can grains and protein-rich legumes. For almost everything, there's a substitute, alternative.

She gave up seafood, then dairy and eggs, and then, in the spring of '95, decided she'd be a hypocrite if she didn't become a vegan, eschewing all animal products and byproducts. She joined one animal rights group, and when it disbanded she co-founded another. She began to understand that the animal rights movement, with all its various organizations, consists of many shades of the same thought; that even people who care passionately about exactly the same thing often have very different philosophies and agendas.

Defending all creatures

The more she discovered, the stricter her beliefs became. Ratcliffe took the position that all living creatures, Homo sapiens insects, possess defensible rights to protection and freedom. She's the kind of activist who won't let a misdemeanor charge get in the way of a good message.

Her criminal record consists of trespassing, conspiracy, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Last year in Charlotte, she was arrested at Eastland Mall after using a U-shaped bicycle lock to pin her neck to a door handle; she was calling attention to the selling of fur. Last spring in Atlanta, she was teargassed and arrested at Emory University's Yerkes Primate Research Center, protest considered the most militant in the history of the United States' increasingly active animal rights movement. Last fall she served a 45-day sentence in Pottsville, Pa., for protesting at the annual Labor Day pigeon shoot in the nearby mining village of Hegins.

Most of the other pigeon-shoot protesters accepted plea bargains, leaving them free to continue their work, but Ratcliffe chose to stand trial. Once convicted, she decided to use the month and a half in prison for hunger striking, a radical measure meant to draw attention to a bill in the state Legislature to end the 64-year-old shoot, which has become infamous among animal rights activists.

Each Labor Day, the people of Hegins pack picnics and lawn chairs and gather in the town park, a swath of fields that face a picturesque sweep of the coal-country mountains. There are bleachers, sometimes a live band. Someone sings the national anthem.

Organizers bring cages of pigeons, thousands of pigeons. Men, and they are mostly men, line up with their shotguns.

They yell, "Pull!" The cages are opened, the pigeons fly and the shooters aim and fire. They shoot flying pigeons and pigeons that refuse to fly. When the gunfire ends, children known as "trapper boys" run out to collect the dead and wounded, and kill survivors by breaking their necks or stomping their heads.

'This is wrong'

Whoever shoots the most pigeons gets money and a trophy. Proceeds go to town causes.

Activists consider this one a no-brainer: The contest is cruel,. It started as a way to feed the town, but today the birds simply go in the garbage. For the past 12 years, protesters have worked to stop the shoot, or at least rescue wounded pigeons. They've suggested using clay pigeons, and even offered to pay for them. Ratcliffe fasted in the unlikely hope that legislators would finally pass a bill to end the event altogether.

"The funny thing about this is that it shouldn't be this big a deal," says state Rep. Sara Steelman, the bill's sponsor. "At some very deep level, I don't understand how we've gotten to the point that someone like Dawn Ratcliffe feels she has to go on a hunger strike. We need to be able to say, 'This is wrong,' and move on."

Ratcliffe lives what she preaches. At restaurants - the few she'll visit - she relentlessly quizzes the servers. What's in the veggie burger? Can I see the box? "Going out to eat with her is not a joyous occasion," her father says.

She has all but stopped eating out in Charlotte. She cooks rice, potatoes and beans. She makes her own soy cheese. She shops at natural groceries like the Home Economist, Berrybrook Farm and Talley's. What is the point, she wonders, in preaching the importance of a life you don't live?

"That would be like me saying I'm a women's rights activist and then handing out Playboy magazines," Ratcliffe said.

'I'm really optimistic'

"We're trying to reach the people who already care about abuse or who are in between and could go either way," Ratcliffe says. "There are a lot of people out there who have compassionate tendencies, and there are some people I'm convinced you're never going to reach. I'm really optimistic and get really discouraged when I can't reach someone. People keep telling me, 'You can't feel that way because there's no way you can reach everybody. You can't make people see your viewpoint.' "

On the activism scale, Ratcliffe falls toward the extreme end, as does Direct Action for Animals, the Charlotte organization she recently co-founded.

Among the ultra-extreme would be an organization like the Animal Liberation Front, a clandestine and increasingly violent faction of the animal rights movement. The ALF was founded 21 years ago in England and surfaced 15 years ago in the States. The FBI monitors it as a domestic terrorist group, especially lately, as the violence has escalated. In recent years, the ALF has taken responsibility for slaughterhouse firebombings, ranch raids and widespread vandalism. No one has been killed - yet - and most of the activity has occurred out West, but authorities believe ALF tactics and philosophies are spreading, especially among young people.

Last Thanksgiving in Charlotte, the ALF assumed responsibility for spray-painting "Animal Killers" and "Meat Kills" on the sidewalks, doors and windows of four Charlotte-area restaurants, and for gluing shut the doors. "Everybody has a cause, and that's fine," Harry O. Johnson, general manager of Carver's Creek steak house in Pineville, said at the time. "But to impose your will on somebody else, to come in the dead of night, it's kind of a cowardly act. ... It's un-American."

Others argue that it's insane.

"We get that all the time," Ratcliffe says with a bemused smile. "And the way I usually respond is, the people fighting for civil rights and, more importantly, to abolish slavery, the same things were said about them. Same thing for women's rights. Those women were incarcerated and called radicals. Society has become so engrossed in violence and materialism that anybody who is against the status quo is considered insane."

Still, many believe extremist tactics do little good and in fact hurt the movement by giving it an unsavory, militant image.

'A way to educate'

Charlotte Earth Day organizers well know the name Dawn

Ratcliffe. In the past two years, she protested against vendors selling meat. Organizers say she left hostile messages on the hot line, had explosive conversations with committee members. They say at the event itself, her group demonstrated so aggressively they asked members to stop harassing the vendors, and to educate peacefully like the North Carolina Network for Animals.

"She has a way of attacking people rather than sitting down and saying, 'These are my feelings,' " says one former committee member, who didn't want to be identified. "The irony behind the whole conflict is that several of us would say, 'You have a point. This is what Earth Day is all about, you being there to educate people. But you can't be violent about it.' ... There's certainly a great deal of information people are unaware of, but if it's thrown at them in an angry fashion, people will reject it."

They will, however, remember it. That is the intention, says Ratcliffe. "To me, protests aren't just an in-your-face tactic," she says. "They're also a way to educate. If people continue to see you with signs, they'll eventually think about the issues. Some of them will change. To me, if only one person makes a change, it's worth it."

When the circus recently came to town, Ratcliffe asked her mother to join the protest, and she did. When she asked her parents to go up North to volunteer at a farm for rescued animals, they went. They are trying to understand. They are listening.

They know about soy milk and rain forest decimation. They make meat loaf and chili with textured vegetable protein. "Do you know we are the only species that drinks another animal's milk?" says her mother. "It's not normal."

Pub Date: 5/22/98

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