Growing up in the small Ohio farming community of St. Paris, Nathan Runkle could have been considered a minority of one. He is a gay vegetarian who loves all animals, not just domesticated pets. But his extended family, and most of the community, consisted of hunters, farmers, trappers and fishermen. How animals were treated and killed on their way to the dinner plate was never given a second thought.
Runkle said that rabbits had their heads ripped off while they were still alive. As many as seven hens were kept in cages no larger than the drawer of a file cabinet. Coated in their own feces, they were starved until they began an egg-laying cycle, simply died or were discarded in trash cans. Cows and their calves were beaten in the face with metal pipes or stabbed with pitchforks. Pregnant pigs were packed so tightly into locked crates that they could not move. Their young were tossed around like footballsall cost-effective and expedient practices for the factory farms around Runkle's home.
From a young age, Runkle's advocacy for animals were at the core of his being. "I had a natural connection with them," he said. "I was heartbroken watching animals being mistreated and I couldn't understand why we would have a passion for animals like dogs and cats but treat other animals with such disregard and cruelty."
In 1995at the age of 11Runkle saw an evening news story about a fur protest occurring at the local mall. It was then that he heard the term "animal rights activist" for the first time. "I went to the library and got every book I could find on the topic," Runkle said. "I just dove headfirst into being an animal advocate. I would circulate petitions at school, or give talks on abuse of animals on factory farms. I never hesitated to take action."
When Runkle was 15, his sister's high school hosted an agricultural class. The teacher, a pig farmer, had tried to kill some piglets to use as a dissection project. When he arrived at the school, one of the piglets was still alive. A student took the piglet by her hind legs and slammed her headfirst into the ground in an attempt to kill her.
Her skull was fractured and she was bleeding out of the mouth, but the piglet still didn't die. A couple of other students took the piglet to a vets' office to have her euthanized. Animal cruelty charges were filed against the student and the teacher but the pig-farming community rallied behind the teacher in support. The first day of the trial, the animal-cruelty charges were dismissed. "In the state of Ohio, like pretty much every other state, if something is considered standard agricultural practice, no matter how cruel or inhumane, it is exempt from cruelty prosecution," Runkle explained. "Slamming baby piglets head first against the ground is considered a standard practice and so an acceptable way of killing these animals."
The case galvanized Runkle. "There needed to be an organization who would advocate on behalf of farm animals," he said. "The community and the law wasn't protecting them so someone had to step up."
Runkle was on a path that lead to his founding of Mercy for Animals, a national organization that has brought about legislative and policy change in the treatment of farm animals and has taken the fight to billion-dollar organizations like Amazon, Butterball, Walmart and Kraft Foods.
It was a decision that brought Runkle into conflict with his hometown. He was already facing criticism for his advocacy when, at 18, Runkle came out as gay. "It was not the most welcome and supportive environment," he remembered. "But any push back I received was nothing compared to what the animals were being subjected to."
Looking back, Runkle believes that being gay subconsciously made him relate to the animals he was fighting for."These animals were being punished by society just because they were born on a factory farm," he said. "They were treated like the scum of the earth, because that's how society marked them. I know what that feels like."
In 2002, Runkle scored his first major victory. Ohio was the largest egg producing state in the nation. Runkle went into farms and documented horrific abuses of the chickens there, including force-moltingthe practice of starving the bird for weeks to shock their bodies into an egg-laying cycle. His first investigation caught the attention of a local news outlet. "They ran a damning story of the Ohio egg industry and the result was that the Giant Eagle grocery chain pledged to stop buying eggs from producers who force-molted their egg-laying hens." Runkle said. "The practice is quickly becoming a thing of the past."
Since then, Runkle has worked ceaselessly on behalf of the 9 billion animals raised and killed under what he said are appalling conditions every year in the United States. "It can be very depressing," Runkle admitted. "But the flip side happens when we reduce the amount of meat that the nation is consuming by even 1 or 2 percent. That impacts hundreds of millions of animals. The payoff is huge."
That payoff has often meant going head to head with corporate giants like Walmart. But Runkle welcomes the fight. "We feel that it is their moral and ethical obligation to ensure that the products that they sell are not coming from animals that were tortured," he said.
While many companies are slowly going with a changing tide in public opinion that has given rise to vegetarian menu options in restaurants and even vegan fast-food outlets, Runkle said that Walmart has resisted. "They are driven by the bottom line," he said. "They are just buying time. But we will keep the pressure up."
Despite other uphill battles particularly against the agriculture lobby in the push for federal anti-cruelty legislation, Runkle remains optimistic. He believes that, much like LGBT equality, the landscape is changing in his favor. "The Internet has helped pull back the curtain on the abuse of these animals on factory farms and it's moving towards a tipping point," he said. "When we talk to younger people, they think it is common sense that we shouldn't be abusing animals like this. I think that trend is only going to continue."
For more information, go to www.mercyforanimals.org .