Animal rights leader, director/producer, and social entrepreneur, Shannon Keith is busy creating a world in which progress and innovation are achieved entirely through non-animal research methods — a world where her organization is out of business.
Currently open, operating, and rapidly growing, Los Angeles-based Beagle Freedom Project and its umbrella organization ARME (Animal Rescue, Media & Education) are keeping Keith busy. Tapping into 14 years as an animal rights lawyer, she’s pushing a federal ban prohibiting animal testing for cosmetic products. Her legal background is also aiding in passing laws to mandate the release of research dogs to forever homes in states like California, Minnesota, Connecticut, Nevada, and New York.
And that’s not all. Keith is educating communities on the overpopulation of cats and dogs. She’s creating documentaries exposing the violent realities that have been ignored. And she’s not alone. She’s supported by a growing network of advocates, volunteers, legislators, and pet owners leaning in to her call for social change.
Read on to learn more about what Shannon hopes to accomplish with Beagle Freedom Project and her advice to those looking to make a difference.
ARME was founded in 2004 with the mission to eliminate the suffering of all animals. What are some other big goals and programs that ARME encompasses?
The mission is broad so that we can do anything and everything under the sun to help protect animals and fight for their welfare. ARME really started as a shelter animal rescue for special needs animals, as well as a way to get information out about different forms of animal exploitation via the media, primarily through documentary films that I made: Behind the Mask, Skin Trade, and Sanctuary, which has just been released. It was to educate the public that way and then do as much rescue as possible.
We’re educating the public about the overpopulation of dogs and cats with our shelter drives. Our shelter system is so full and that’s why animals are needlessly killed because people refuse to spay and neuter. We have horrible breeders who, unfortunately, are never penalized. One of the main goals of ARME is to stop this overpopulation issue, through different educational outlets: through these shelter drives, through our programs, and through our media reach.
With the formation of the Beagle Freedom Project in December of 2010, we really kind of exploded because we found a niche that allowed us to rescue animals from laboratory research and tell the world about it. That was something that was mind-blowing.
The work involved with Beagle Freedom Project goes beyond protecting beagles. What do you mean when you say beagles act as ambassadors for other animals impacted by testing?
We called it Beagle Freedom Project not because we only rescue beagles, but because 96% percent of dogs used in testing are beagles. The reason why is because of their gentle, docile, and forgiving nature. They let the technicians hurt them and they’re the perfect size to be in a cage and to handle. It’s disgusting.
They’re called the ambassador because they’re the primary breed used. But also, people love dogs. Most people can make a connection with a dog because most people have a dog or know someone with a dog. It’s easier to make a connection with a dog than it is to make a connection with a rabbit or a goat, which people might not have ever had an interaction with. I call Beagles our gateway drug. People can get involved in the issue, learn more, and expand their circle of compassion to other animals.
Miley Cyrus recently shared photos of her newly adopted beagle, Barbie. How did that relationship start and in what ways has she helped advocate for animal rights?
One of our amazing friends and supporters named Gloria brought this wonderful girl named Lily to our gala. Lily grew up with Miley Cyrus’s family and when we rescued these beagle puppies, Noah, Miley’s younger sister, was thinking of adopting one. We were going to do an overnight and see how it worked and then Miley came over that night and snatched her up.
Miley is an amazing advocate for animals. Barbie has the greatest home with Miley. This hasn’t been aired yet, and may well have been cut and on the editing room floor, but while they were taping for The Voice, Miley brought Barbie with her every day. They filmed a lot of her with Barbie and talking about Beagle Freedom Project. Without even having to ask, she did so many Instagram posts of Barbie and tagged Beagle Freedom Project. She’s been very giving of her time.
What is the biggest challenge that animal rights organizations like yours face?
I would say there’s two.
The first one has to do with survival. We are still considered a very small nonprofit but we have a huge agenda and we are all over the world doing everything from advocacy in documentary films to laboratory animal research to changing laws and passing bills. We’re spread thin. If we had big donors we could do so much more.
Our second challenge would be changing the social climate. We’ve been on NBC Nightly News — we’ve been all over the world in the news — but the majority of people still don’t realize that animals like the dogs and cats they love to share their homes with are being tested on for cosmetics or household products. We’re really trying to get that message out there.
Since you have to mobilize people in different ways as opposed to relying on big donors, what are the main sources of successful fundraising you’ve done in the past?
Our apparel and our store are important to us because they’re another aspect of what gets the message out there. Everything that we make and we sell has our goal in mind, whether it’s some sort of mission statement or a logo. It get’s people asking, ‘What is Beagle Freedom Project? Cosmetics aren’t cruelty free?’ We love what we do and we want to wear that message.
The partnership with Bonfire has done really well for us. The shirts are limited edition so everyone wants to get their hands on them as we saw with the campaign that you just did for us, which was amazing. You’re reaching a whole new audience that we wouldn’t have otherwise been reaching. It’s hard to find socially conscious companies out there. You are rare.
If you had one piece of advice for animal rights activists who want to get involved but don’t know where to start, what would you say?
I would say start with the one issue that resonates with you the most. Start with a focus. Then contact a local organization that focuses on that topic and volunteer.
What resonated with me was animal testing, which is why Beagle Freedom Project is so important to me and such a dream of mine. For other people, it’s veganism, it’s how farm animals are treated. You have to focus on one thing because there are too many things that you can do and you’re going to spread yourself too thin.
You can also help by just shopping. Our Cruelty Cutter app is free and it’s available on all smartphones (Android and iOS). It’s user friendly and easy for anybody who wants to make a difference. Scan a product, see if the product is tested on animals or not, and share the results by hitting the ‘Boycott’ button. We’re collecting back end data to bring to shareholder meetings to say, ‘this is how much you lost just last year just on app users because you still test on animals.’ Boycott products that test on animals so we can bring more data into those meetings.
What kind of things do you like to do when you aren’t working, when you take off the ARME hat for the day?
That’s a great question since I don’t ever take it off. Really, it’s a constant job to run an organization like this because we’re unique in that we are a rescue and advocacy organization. People call my personal cell phone all the time about their foster or their adopted dog. We have our campaigns, our programs, and our policy. There’s always something. If I worked 24/7, I still would feel like I needed to do more. But that’s great, that means that we’re doing everything we can and then some.
However, I do enjoy free time, when I can carve out time to make it. I love the outdoors; I love hiking so I can spend quality time with my dogs. I love going to see independent films and drinking wine.
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