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The audience shudders as the brown, hairy face of a Norway rat, the kind scurrying through their alleys, flashes up, larger than life, on the slide-show screen. The good people of Canton have gathered in a neighborhood church to learn how to defeat this enemy. Robert Eades of the city's Rat Rubout program tells them the battle is all about garbage. If you clean up your trash, the rats will go elsewhere. If you don't, the solutions -- poison, deadly gas -- become much nastier.

Kim W. Stallwood listens quietly, his expression difficult to read. As founder and president of the Canton Community Association, the soft-spoken activist has invited the rat-eradication specialist here to speak. But the topic is making his stomach churn.

Stallwood is all for eliminating the trash that attracts the rats. But trashing the innocent rats? Just because people won't pick up after themselves?

It's a moral dilemma that exposes his daily balancing act: On the one hand, Kim Stallwood, community activist, hopes that learning how to control rats will make life better for people in Canton. On the other, Kim Stallwood, animal advocate, is pained by any proposal that harms animals.

"I understand why people are bothered by rats. I don't want to see Canton overrun by them. But the problem with rats is not rats themselves, it's human behavior," he says.

"Animals become expedient resources to solve human problems in which they've played no part. ... When Robert was talking about lethal methods, it sickened me. It was very difficult to sit there without leaping up and saying, 'There are other ways!' "

For almost 30 years, the British-born activist has worked to secure the well-being of animals, whether in the wild, on farms or in laboratories. As an organizer for various animal-rights groups, he has called public attention to widespread abuses and to the benefits of "cruelty-free" vegetarian living. Some years ago, his campaign brought him to Baltimore, where he runs the animal advocacy group Animal Rights Network Inc. and edits its magazine, the Animals' Agenda.

Published bimonthly, the magazine offers articles about society's treatment of animals and the status of the contemporary animal rights movement. The current issue, for instance, considers the likelihood of foot-and-mouth disease occurring in the United States and discusses how it would be handled. Other reports have covered such topics as the decline in dog racing, the proliferation of deer in suburbs and how the manufacture of Premarin, the human estrogen replacement drug made from the urine of pregnant mares, leads to abusive conditions for horses.

Animals' Agenda cuts across ideological barriers within the movement. With a readership of about 60,000, it speaks both to vegans who believe that owning animals is akin to owning slaves and to meat-and-potatoes animal lovers who insist that eating steak doesn't conflict with their efforts to rescue animals from abuse.

"It's one of the most respected publications in the [animal advocacy] movement and frequently has ground-breaking articles," says Howard White, media relations director of the Humane Society of the United States, the nation's largest animal-protection organization. "It's very much a voice and conscience for the movement."

These days, the magazine is keeping particularly close watch on genetic engineering. Like many activists, Stallwood fears gene manipulation may introduce a new wave of animal exploitation.

"I've heard reports of scientists who say that cloned animals are alternatives to using live animals in experiments," he says. "Their idea is, 'They're not real animals, they're manufactured animals.'

"It's truly frightening. There were 30-plus sheep who were born malformed in one way or another before they got Dolly. What happened to those sheep? Those sheep were individual, sentient beings with their own wants and needs and the ability to suffer."

Just like the rats searching for the good life in Canton.

Stallwood's beliefs

It's a good thing Kim Stallwood is a patient man, for he has chosen a life which he must explain over and over:

Yes, he is a vegetarian. Also a vegan, which means he shuns using anything made from an animal. Milk and eggs are taboo because they come from "factory farms" which cruelly confine animals, then slaughter them when they are no longer productive. For the same reasons, he also avoids products made with fur, leather, wool or down. And he will not wear silk: no neckties created from the labor of silk-producing worms.

He says horse racing, rodeos, circuses and zoos should be banned.

He believes no animal should be used to test household or personal care products. Neither should any be used for scientific experiments.

Yes, he does live with companion animals -- the term "pets" makes him wince.

Yes, he does care about people. At least enough to devote huge chunks of his "free" time to organizing and advancing the interests of his neighbors through the community association he helped create.

No, he's never taken part in a lab raid or destroyed a fur coat with a bucket of red paint. He is not an animal rights "terrorist," one of the tiny minority of activists who still define the movement in the popular imagination.

But you could hardly call Stallwood moderate about animal rights: He does not believe, for instance, that there is a humane way to take care of lab or farm animals; they should not be in labs or farms to begin with. But you can consider him a moderating force in the hugely complex universe of animal advocacy.

"This whole movement isn't monolithic in any way. It encompasses a range of philosophies and opinions and calls to action," says the Human Society's White. "Everything from groups like PETA that argue against any killing of animals for food or apparel to groups like the Nature Conservancy that argue issues of sustainable use. If PETA is on the left of the spectrum and Nature Conservancy is to the right, Animals' Agenda would be just left of center."

"Kim is a very reflective activist, neither dogmatic nor dismissive of others' opinions," says Bernard Unti, animal movement scholar and former campaigner for the American Antivivisection Society.

One of Stallwood's major talents, colleagues suggest, is persuading people with different opinions to work together to improve life -- whether in the streets of Southeast Baltimore or amid the mechanized landscape of commercial farms.

Another strength is his ability to endure in an emotionally draining field. Constantly assaulted by grim reports -- the slaughter of tens of thousands of British farm animals, the drinking of snake blood for survival training in Asia -- the animal activist nevertheless manages to maintain focus and perspective.

"I still get very upset when I learn about animal abuse. It's the same emotion I had many years ago. But you learn how to handle the anger. There's nothing like work -- like working more on the issue."

Over the past few years, he has helped develop an archive of the movement at the magazine's headquarters, a cheerful suite of offices in Canton's Broom Factory warehouse. Animal Rights Network has amassed thousands of books, magazines, articles, videos, oral histories and ephemera. Most concern activism in the 20th century, but some materials follow animal advocacy back to its 19th-century beginnings in the child welfare movement.

So far, animal advocacy has been championed primarily by white, middle-class activists, Unti says.

"In sociology literature, animal rights is grouped under new social movements, like the environment and anti-nuclear movements, instead of under labor and social rights movements," he says. "The latter movements are filled with people who usually have a direct stake in the outcome, whereas the new social movements are populated by people who are rather secure in society but see things they want to change."

From chef to vegan

That would include Kim Stallwood. The 46-year-old activist grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Camberley, an "outer suburb" of London, with an appetite for red meat and the vague impression that vegans were nudists. In those days he enjoyed food so much, in fact, that he decided to become a chef.

One summer, while studying French cuisine and restaurant management, he spent several months working at a chicken processing plant. His job was to place each slaughtered bird in a plastic bag, squeeze out the air, twist the bag, seal it and send it along to the freezer. He returned to school with the lingering suspicion that what he had participated in was very wrong.

Finally convinced by the argument of a vegetarian friend, Stallwood gave up eating meat completely, became a vegan, and never once reconsidered his decision. He went to work for Compassion in World Farming, volunteering as an organizer and speaker for other groups. Like many activists at the time, he was deeply affected by Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation," the landmark 1975 book that recognizes animals as sentient beings and argues their right not to suffer at the hand of another species.

He began corresponding with members of the nascent animal rights movement in the United States, eventually moving to Washington in 1987 to become the first executive director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the nation's best-known animal rights group. In 1993, he took over the job of editing the Animals' Agenda.

He has become a sought-after speaker.

"In my opinion, there's not one single [animal advocacy] ideology that says it all," Stallwood says. "Everything is too complicated to squeeze it through one system of thought. Some animal activists are misanthropic -- their motivation is a hatred of humanity because they see what humans do to animals and they don't like it ...

"For me, it's a question of compassion. If you have a compassionate, caring society, then the issues and ideologies and belief systems get less important. ... We really want to see a world where people can live and work and play -- but not at the expense of animals."

Animal, human liberation

Stallwood believes animal liberation leads to human liberation: Vegan farming feeds more people with healthier food, meat-free diets prevent disease. And he sees many signs that "cruelty-free" thinking has infiltrated mainstream America:

Chain supermarkets have plentiful supplies of tofu, soy "cheese" and frozen veggie burgers. Restaurants offer vegan and vegetarian entrees. Fewer people wear fur.

Consumers can choose from hundreds of personal care products that were never tested on animals. Some attorneys specialize in animal rights, and law schools have added courses on the topic.

The national Petsmart pet store chain does not sell dogs or cats but recommends adopting them from local shelters. More secondary schools are introducing virtual reality dissections in science classes. And the term animal rights no longer appears in quotation marks.

If it were possible to compare public attitudes toward animal testing and vegetarianism 30 years ago with the present, people would see a tremendous change, says Deborah Rudacille, author of The Scalpel and the Butterfly, a history about the struggle between scientists using animals in research and animal protectionists.

But the largest obstacle remains: As much as Americans love animals, they also love to eat them.

"A whole lot more attention and protest has been directed toward the use of animals in research than in eating," Rudacille says. "But the treatment of animals in factory farming is far, far worse than in laboratories. People tend not to want to look too closely at the fact that, in our world, life feeds on life."

Airing the subject is at the heart of Stallwood's public awareness campaign. Davy Davison, president of VegTime magazine, recalls his diplomacy at a conference of "animal lovers and spiritual seekers."

"I would say that 85 percent of the people were not full-time vegetarians. And Kim delicately and beautifully made the link between a spiritual and compassionate life and what we do with our forks three times a day. He made a bridge so that the animal rights view was heard, but the non-vegetarians were not made to feel guilty or ashamed or pressed into a corner."

Building the archives

Munching on veggies, chips and other dairy-free appetizers, activists from the Summit for the Animals conference are touring the archives at Animal Rights Network. They admire a political banner, "Indiana For the Animals," carried during the movement's 1990 march on Washington. They touch a protester's papier-mache turtle costume and point to the blown-up, anti-Perdue ad from The New York Times that reads "Frank, Are you Telling the Truth about Your Chickens?"

ARN is also sorting and cataloging materials on behalf of The Animal Welfare Institute.

And Stallwood suggests his guests consider contributing some of their groups' documents as well. Valuable materials from the movement have already been lost, he reminds them. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there was a central repository, a museum, for all of the movement's materials and artifacts? Something with its own Web site?

Something to remind people of just how far they've come?

"The animal rights movement has been a lunatic banging on the door of society asking to be let in and listened to," he says later. "The door has opened. We're being heard."

The next stage includes finding a new headquarters in Southeast Baltimore that is more accessible to all who want to learn about animal advocacy and vegetarianism. And he wants to add an institute to commission research and recommend policies regarding animals. Stallwood imagines reports on such subjects as the comparative success of lethal and nonlethal methods of controlling stray animals. And he'd love to know the "real" cost of a pound of meat -- "after you remove the corporate welfare, tax subsidies, labor and environmental costs."

An institute could also look into such matters as how America defines "humane-ness."

"What are the psychological and social consequences of taking children to see a rodeo? Of compelling children to dissect dead animals? Why is there a need to behave this way? What does it satisfy?" he says. "What's so wrong about being a species that lives in co-operation or compassion or respect with others?"

Stallwood has compiled a book about humans who are doing just that. The just-released Speaking Out For Animals: True Stories about Real People Who Rescue Animals (Lantern Books, $18) gathers stories and interviews published in Animals Agenda with a foreword by primatologist Jane Goodall, the world's most famous animal advocate.

The collection creates a nuanced portrait of the human calling to work on behalf of animals. There are profiles of such famous advocates as musician Paul McCartney and Body Shop founder Anita Roddick; histories of individual animals rescued from abuse and a section about such "unsung heroes" as Phyllis Lahti, who persuaded libraries in Minnesota to provide safe havens for cats abandoned in parking lots and dumped down book-return chutes.

Spreading the word

The editor hopes the new book leads others to take up the cause.

"Even though animal abuse is so widespread, people are outraged when they hear about individual acts," he says. "When you abuse an animal, you abuse an innocence. I think that when people see that abuse, they identify with that suffering."

Most animal sympathizers aren't ready for a world where alley rats are treated humanely and chickens no longer live in factory cages. But they are eager to help in other ways. Take, for instance, the issue of dog parks.

Stallwood has often wished he could unleash his chihuahuas, Annabelle and Bambino, so that they could socialize with other dogs. But as president of the Canton Community Association, he understands why humans need leash laws to protect them from unruly or vicious animals.

Establishing a fenced-in area for dogs only would create a win-win solution -- one for which he has already raised $600.

"I can help create something that will benefit the neighborhood," he says. "But more importantly for me, it means the dogs can run free."

And whenever making Baltimore better for people merges with making it better for animals, Kim Stallwood feels one step closer to a compassionate world.

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