Book Review: The PARTNERS Principles for Community-Based Conservation

PARTNERS_book_thb Among the many animal issues I feel passionate about, the protection of endangered species ranks among the highest, so I got very excited when I heard about the Snow Leopard Trust’s recently published book by its Science and Conservation Director, Dr. Charudutt Mishra, designed to help make conservation efforts much more effective.

At the same time, before diving in, I confess to also having some initial misgivings. Would the book be understandable to someone who wasn’t either in the thick of fieldwork or in the hallowed halls of academia? Would its lessons be broadly applicable beyond an individual species or ecosystem? Could a convincing case be made for each point it sought to impart? Would its takeaways amount to anything I didn’t know already? Would the writing style lose me after a couple of chapters?

Fortunately, it turns out that I needn’t have worried. Not only was the book everything I could have hoped for, but I can honestly say I believe it should be required reading for anyone who cares about compassionate conservation — and here’s why:

  • Highly accessible content – This book is suitable for a very wide audience; there is literally something for everyone with an interest in this area, and clearly a great deal of thought went into making the text as understandable as possible without insulting the reader’s intelligence. That’s a tricky balancing act, and one that Dr. Mishra pulled off with great skill. Everything was designed for optimum absorption, including manageable chapter lengths and bullet-point summaries at the end of each. One of the most helpful components of the book is a graphic that neatly summarizes the PARTNERS principles at a glance (see below) — but it’s by no means a replacement for the book itself. While it offers a preview into what the reader can expect to learn, its value is maximized as a mnemonic device to be referred to after reading the book.


  • Thought-provoking perspectives – One of the things I most appreciate about this book is the way it defies traditional, widely adopted approaches to conservation work and provides compelling arguments for an alternate — and ultimately, far more productive — mindset. A particularly memorable example is upending the notions of who is the service “provider” versus “recipient.”

    A longtime source of difficulty for conservationists has been the various conflicts, both direct and indirect, between the activities of human populations in particular areas and the welfare of endangered species that inhabit those areas. As Dr. Mishra states, ”Conservation will continue to struggle when it is at odds with the needs of those who live and work in nature, and we need to stop thinking of people as the problem, but as part of the solution.”

    The book explores in depth how such solutions might be implemented in a manner that honors both local communities and conservation goals — in part through attitudinal shifts on the part of conservationists who, by and large, tend to be outsiders and have typically viewed their roles through a paternalistic lens as reformers and saviors providing aid to local communities in exchange for compliance. Many of these outsiders find themselves frustrated when non-compliance persists “after everything we’ve given them.”

    Dr. Mishra challenges this mindset: “In large parts of the world, the main costs of conservation continue to be borne by the relatively poor, living in and around Protected Areas or generally important biodiversity areas. The cost of conservation to local communities due to curtailed access to natural resources, ecosystem services, and developmental programs are further aggravated by wildlife-caused damage, including injuries or loss of human life, and economic and psychological impacts…It is helpful, and even humbling, to consider that in many ways, the communities are the main provider…in the form of their potential support for biodiversity conservation that we are seeking.”

    He further implores us to consider, “How often have we turned away sales representatives arriving unannounced at our door? Why shouldn’t we expect communities to do the same? Community-based conservation relies on the devolution of conservation responsibility to local people. Thus, in most ways, in community-based conservation, we are the recipients…who depend on the community to meet conservation goals.”

    A mindset shift of this nature and magnitude has the potential to completely reframe and redefine the way conservationists approach and behave toward communities living alongside wildlife. The book delves into the various forms that these behaviors can and should take to make conservation efforts more beneficial for all concerned.

  • Exploration of failure as a teaching tool – Another strength of this book is its unusually transparent discussion of strategies and tactics that did not work in the field and, even more importantly, why they were unsuccessful. The reader’s learning experience is made complete by the contrast between these failures and the far more successful experience-based practices the book recommends. It takes a great deal of courage and strength for an individual and/or organization to disclose and assume accountability for past mistakes; most tend to shy away from this for fear of losing support and credibility, but that is an even bigger mistake. Dr. Mishra and the Snow Leopard Trust are to be commended for recognizing that only through the relentless pursuit of learning from failure can the pinnacle of success be reached.

  • Emphasis on takeaways – My work over the years has exposed me to lots of case studies in articles and books that were intended to illustrate a particular point but were often unsuccessful in doing so. The authors were so focused on the details of the incidents in question, and discussed them at such length, that losing my attention and my understanding of the bigger picture was an unfortunate and all-too-frequent outcome. Faced with the prospect of what could potentially be one giant book-length case study, I felt some trepidation at first, but was greatly reassured to see that right from the beginning, this book closely adhered to one of journalism’s key maxims: “Don’t bury the lede.”

    Rather than going on ad infinitum with esoteric details of a particular incident and leaving the reader with a bunch of guesswork regarding any potentially transferable themes, this book consistently and with great clarity imparted each of its various lessons first, followed by specific and relevant illustrations from the field. In fact, the book is structured such that its first two-thirds are focused on exploring each of the PARTNERS principles in turn, supplemented with numerous examples, while only the final third goes into extensive detail regarding program-specific efforts. But because the lessons have all been discussed upfront, the more detailed account of those program-specific efforts is much more meaningful and engaging, and serves to reinforce rather than leave to chance the reader’s learning experience.

  • Universal themes – Before reading this book, I wondered whether its principles would be all-encompassing enough to be relevant in completely different ecosystems than the Himalayas, and — from my layperson’s perspective – I would answer with a resounding YES. While the book wisely reiterates at multiple points the caution that every community, every situation, and every environment is unique and that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, I could envision many of the broad brushstrokes of its recommendations being just as successful for protecting elephants in Africa or manatees in South America as they have been for protecting snow leopards in Central Asia.

  • Conversational tone – Part of what made this book a pleasure to read was the author’s intelligent yet informal and engaging writing style. Rather than being dry, esoteric, or preachy, it was direct, candid, and non-judgmental. Among other factors, the skillfully pitched tone was what kept me reading from cover to cover.

  • No purchase necessary – Considering how valuable this book is, I would have plonked down good money for it (or at least begged for a reviewer’s copy!), but luckily for the conservation community, the Snow Leopard Trust is intent on removing any barriers to accessing the book’s content and has generously made it available free of charge as a downloadable PDF e-book from the organization’s web site. Those who prefer their reading material in hardcopy can receive a print version for a nominal fee by contacting the Snow Leopard Trust. That’s it – no excuses for not getting your paws on it one way or another!

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you wildlife lovers out there that this book is a must-read, feel free to post your thoughts in the Comments section below once you’ve had a chance to check it out.


The Case for Animal Protection Funding

As some followers of this blog may recall from my post, “Giving USA 2015 Delivers Mixed News for Animal Charities,” animal protection reportedly received the lowest share of philanthropic dollars in comparison to all other major program areas. Sadly, this remains the case according to the 2017 Giving USA report as well, with Environment/Animals remaining at only 3 percent of total giving last year (see a chart from the report below) and funding intended to benefit animals specifically (as distinct from their habitats) coming in at considerably lower than that.


There is a silver lining, however. As was the case for several years prior, giving to Environment/Animals saw the largest increase in giving relative to where it had been before, totaling an all-time high of just over $11 billion and continuing its consistent and encouraging growth streak.

Also, with the recent conclusion of #GivingTuesday on November 28, 2017, the data showed that Environment/Animals ranked in the top five most-discussed areas on social media, as illustrated in an infographic from the report below.


Lastly, according to a 2017 report by Fidelity Charitable, the largest donor-advised fund in the United States, Environment/Animals outperformed all other program areas in terms of growth (18%) in the number of giving accounts that supported it in 2016 versus 2015. Charities working in the area of Environment/Animals received grant recommendations from 23% of Fidelity Charitable donors overall and 30% of its donors in San Francisco, where support for this area was strongest. The report included a top-ten list of metro areas most supportive of the Environment/Animals subsector, shown below.


This begs the question of how those of us who support animal causes can, so to speak, capitalize on this wave of interest and growth to pull animal funding out of its bottom slot in the programmatic giving hierarchy.

I see three major challenges that contribute to this state of affairs.

The first and most obvious is that there is a widespread yet misguided perception that funding directed towards animals detracts from funding that benefits humans at a time when the scope of human need is particularly great – in other words, that these two population groups are mutually exclusive.

The second is somewhat of a vicious circle: in large part due to being underfunded and deprioritized as a field, the professionalism and sophistication of fundraising in Environment/Animal Welfare — especially for small, community-based animal rescues — lags behind that of some other, more well-resourced service areas, resulting in fewer successful asks.

The third and perhaps most nuanced relates to the way the gifts that do benefit animals are captured, resulting in a potentially much larger, yet hidden, pool of animal protection giving spread across multiple other categories.

While there is no simple solution to this very complex problem, I will present a few thoughts as points of departure regarding how each of these challenges might be addressed. Have other ideas to add to mine? Post them in the Comments section below!

Animal and human welfare are intertwined

While some may see a gift to an animal program as one less that goes to humanitarian efforts, this is a false dichotomy, as there is a growing body of research supporting the life-altering benefits of the human-animal bond and the connection between animal and human well-being (including an excellent, recently issued report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Measuring What Matters: True Wellbeing for Animals and People):

  • Companion animals as members of human families: A 2015 Harris Poll shows that 95% of American pet owners — drawn from a sample spanning across age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region, and household income — consider pets to be part of their family. Not merely an abstract notion, my 2015 Center for Disaster Philanthropy blog post discusses how this has been repeatedly demonstrated in major national disasters — particularly during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when people refused to evacuate without their pets even in the face of great danger, putting themselves and rescue efforts at risk. This resulted in the passage of the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act in 2006, which helped make subsequent disaster rescue efforts of families with pets, including those affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma this past fall, more effective. Also, while statistics vary among reports, it is well documented that many domestic violence survivors who share their home with a pet make a conscious choice to remain with their abusers for fear of possible harm the abuser may inflict on the animal(s) if they leave. As a result, the number of women’s shelters that accommodate pets has increased in recent years. (For more about the ways in which supporting causes benefiting companion animals helps people, see this Philanthropy New York blog post by ASPCA Grants vice president Michael Barrett and my PEAK Grantmaking blog post, both from 2013, highlighting the significance of pets in people’s lives and the association between the well-being of companion animals and that of their human caretakers.) 
  • Link between acts of cruelty toward animals and violent crimes toward people: Research has shown that violent acts toward animals are often a reliable predictor of violence (including child abuse, domestic violence, and elder abuse) toward other family and community members, which has led the field of law enforcement to take animal cruelty cases more seriously in recent years than it has in the past. Additional information about this is available from the National Link Coalition
  • Physical and mental health benefits to humans from pet ownership: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s web site discusses a variety of ways in which pet ownership can potentially improve human health, including lowering blood pressure, reducing isolation, and providing opportunities for exercise and time outdoors. Many individuals who have experienced trauma, including veterans and victims of or witnesses to violent crimes, as well as people with disabilities, have also greatly benefited from the presence of therapy animals in their lives. 
  • Threats to human health from large-scale animal agriculture: The astronomical level of suffering imposed on billions of animals from birth until death on factory farms worldwide — which provide most of the meat in the human food supply — is extensively documented. Animals endure life sentences of extreme confinement and toxic living environments, aggressive and painful handling, gross neglect of even their most basic needs, prevention of their ability to express natural behaviors, deprivation of access to the outdoors, and destruction of their social structure. Even beyond that, factory farming also poses a variety of risks to human safety. These include abysmal hygiene and high incidences of disease at these facilities; the presence of harmful chemicals in the human food chain that remain in people’s bodies after animal products are consumed; extensive groundwater, soil, and air pollution in areas surrounding these operations; and the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Factory farms are also the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, water waste, and deforestation globally, and employees at factory farms — most of whom live in poverty — experience dangerous working conditions that compromise both physical and mental health. According to a recent joint publication of the ASPCA, Grace Communications Foundation, Food Chain Workers Alliance, and Natural Resources Defense Council, food chain work pays the lowest median hourly wage to frontline workers compared to workers in all other industries. Improving conditions on farms is imperative for people as well as animals. 
  • Connection between the safety of wildlife and people: Sources such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Interpol, among many others, have established that crimes against wildlife are frequently committed by sophisticated and extensive organized crime syndicates and terrorist networks operating across international borders that use the profits to fund their incursions, civil wars, and other violent activities. As with human victims, individual animals are either brutally killed or transported alive under conditions so distressing to them physically and psychologically that they often die in transit as a result, leaving behind damaged homelands and shattered families. As summarized in IFAW’s infographics below, wildlife crime is committed by the same groups that deal in illegal weapons, terrorism, human trafficking, narcotics, and counterfeiting, and is the fourth-most lucrative illegal global activity, harming a wide array of species.




  • Biodiversity as an essential human benefit: The World Health Organization and U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity promote biodiversity as the foundation for human health, citing crucial benefits such as maintaining the vitality of the ecosystems on which people depend for food and fresh water; helping to mitigate climate change, floods and disease; offering recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual enrichment; and contributing to local livelihoods and economic development.
  • Prevalence of women in leadership roles and workforce at animal-focused organizations: In an ASPCApro blog post last year, I raised the point (supported by some intriguing statistics) that women comprise the majority of the leadership and workforce in the animal welfare world, especially for small, community-based organizations. A corollary of this point was that women benefit professionally when their organizations thrive and succeed. While it is widely agreed in the U.S. that investments in women (and girls) have some of the greatest positive impact and ripple effects in their communities, investments in animal welfare organizations also indirectly support the efforts of the women who serve as leaders, staff, and volunteers at those organizations.

Fundraising resources for animal protection exist, but more are needed

Animal protection funding may be presented as something else

While more funding is needed for animal protection, more visibility is also needed for many of the animal protection grants already being made, One thorny issue that can make animal protection grants harder to spot is the way that they are classified.

There are times when grants benefitting animals are awarded by funders who serve human populations exclusively, and because those funders don’t think of themselves or their giving as animal-oriented, it may not occur to them to categorize those particular grants that way, further reinforcing the intertwined nature of animal and human welfare.

Although this provides fertile ground for funders outside the field of animal protection to make animal protection grants, those grants can be difficult to identify because of the way they are classified by the funders themselves and/or by organizations that aggregate philanthropic data such as The Giving Institute, Foundation Center, and Guidestar. Consider the examples below; where does one draw a line between the field of animal protection and the fields that lie beyond it?

  • Human services: A funder whose major area of focus is human services makes a grant to an organization that assists low-income families by providing free veterinary care and/or food for their pets, who often serve as vital sources of emotional support and would otherwise be at high risk for relinquishment to an animal shelter. 
  • Women and girls: A funder dedicated to protecting women and girls from violence and creating opportunities for women’s economic advancement provides funding for a program developed by a domestic violence shelter that allows victims to bring their pets with them, thereby removing a barrier to leaving their abusers. 
  • Education: A funder whose main giving priority is education awards a grant to an organization that brings pets from a shelter or rescue to local schools as part of a humane education program or for the purpose of helping create a more supportive learning environment for children with academic and/or social challenges; there are many stories from the field about struggling children who blossom in the presence of a friendly, non-judgmental dog or cat. 
  • The arts: An arts funder supports a project through which local artists create a mural or other aesthetic enhancements for a community animal shelter, and/or supports an arts-related event or exhibition that promotes the human-animal bond. 
  • Health and wellness: A funder supports a program that brings pets from a shelter or rescue into hospitals to boost morale and facilitate recovery; in recent years, dogs and cats have been shown to improve human health and increase longevity by lowering blood pressure and aiding in healing from physical and emotional trauma. Similarly, another funder supports a program serving the needs of active and former military personnel and/or first responders such as police officers, firefighters, and EMTs that pairs these individuals with service dogs sourced from shelters or rescues who can help them cope with high levels of stress. 
  • Environment vs. Animals: Even within the Environment/Animals giving category itself, it can be tremendously challenging to separate grants that are intended primarily to benefit individual animals or specific animal population groups from those that are intended to benefit larger ecosystems, which can also include as beneficiaries people who use the land for a variety of purposes that potentially could negatively affect the animals who inhabit that space.

The National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE), developed by the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), takes us part of the way to clarifying the Environment vs. Animals distinction by breaking down its major group III – Environment and Animals into subcategory C – Environment (with its own subdivisions) and subcategory D – Animal Related (with its own subdivisions).

However, the NTEE has a couple of significant limitations — namely, that the assignment of these categories is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, (e.g., the Internal Revenue Service, NCCS, and/or Foundation Center), and that “Animal-Related” does not always translate to “Animal-Friendly” (e.g., a deplorable roadside zoo with tax-exempt status from the IRS would fall within the “Animal-Related” subcategory). Many animal-oriented funders also feel that the NTEE codes and their derivatives do not adequately capture the scope or nuances of animal protection giving.

Another all-too-common roadblock to appropriate grants classification is the shortage of information that funders provide about each of their individual grants when reporting their giving, whether on their annual IRS Form 990/990-PF or via direct reporting to the Foundation Center and other philanthropic data aggregators. Sometimes all that is available for grants classification staff to base a categorization decision on is a project title in lieu of a more detailed description, and even then, that project title can be sufficiently vague as to obscure the true intent and/or ultimate beneficiaries of a given grant. An Alliance Magazine blog post from the Foundation Center explores this issue in greater depth as it pertains to particular groups of human beneficiaries of foundation giving — specifically Hispanic and Latino populations — but many of the same principles and pitfalls also apply to non-human populations.

The challenges inherent to grants classification are extremely complex; many brilliant minds have grappled with them for decades and continue to do so. Although these challenges will not be resolved overnight, efforts to raise awareness about their nature will hopefully increase cross-sector involvement in creating more illuminating and meaningful philanthropic data.


While animal protection funding is in woefully short supply relative to other programmatic areas, there are glimmers of hope for a brighter picture in the future: the notably and steadily growing interest in and support for Environment/Animals as a field in recent years, the interconnectedness of animal and human welfare and the opportunities that presents for greater animal protection support, the availability of resources that can help animal-serving organizations fundraise more effectively (and the growth potential for these resources), and a wealth of “hidden” animal protection grants waiting to be discovered. The challenges that animal protection funding faces can also be seen as opportunities — let’s seize them in any way we can!

Fundraising tips from a funder

Animal shelters and rescues: get rewarded for your creativity

“We’ll crush you,” says NY to wildlife crime syndicates

This morning in New York City’s iconic Central Park, I along with hundreds of others witnessed the crushing of approximately two tons of seized ivory trinkets made from the tusks of about 100 African elephants brutally — and illegally — slaughtered by poachers. This number corresponds to the reported 96 elephants killed each day to supply ivory markets around the world, particularly in China and the U.S., where demand is highest.

Organized by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Wildlife Conservation Society, in partnership with African Wildlife Foundation, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, The Humane Society of the United States, International Fund for Animal Welfare, National Geographic, Natural Resources Defense Council, Save Animals Facing Extinction, United States Wildlife Trafficking Alliance, and WildAid, the event featured remarks from several officials, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and U.S. State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Deputy Assistant Secretary Daniel Foote, who was in attendance from Washington, D.C. 

Destroying the confiscated ivory artifacts, which collectively fetched millions of dollars on the black market, takes them out of circulation so they can never be resold, sending a clear message that tusks hold no value when stripped from a living elephant and that the rule of law is on these animals’ side.  

The event was also intended to raise awareness not only about the severe plight of elephants, but also the heavy human toll that the ivory trade takes given its well-established ties to international criminal networks that engage in terrorism, human trafficking, and high-volume sales of firearms and drugs. Furthermore, approximately 1,000 rangers have been killed in the line of duty to date.

New York was one of the first states to ban the sale of ivory in 2014.  Statewide ivory bans have also been passed in California, Hawaii, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. A federal ivory ban was enacted last year. Even so, poaching has been rampant, with the population of African savannah elephants plummeting by about 30% in just the last seven years alone.  

Despite the grim nature of the event, there was some hope. A point that was raised repeatedly by various speakers was that in these politically turbulent times, opposition to poaching is one issue that most Americans can agree on, as was apparent from a recent poll conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, as well as from the fact that the federal ivory ban enacted by the previous administration has not (yet) been contested by the current one. “This isn’t just a bipartisan issue, it’s a nonpartisan issue,” was the frequent refrain. It was encouraging to see so many people turn up and stay for the hour-plus duration despite it being a weekday morning in scorching summer sun. There was a heavy media presence from many major news outlets.

My own photos from the event are below.

Approaching the event space:

Just one of the many press vehicles present:

The NGO co-host of the event:

Other participating NGO partners:

Examples of the ivory pieces slated for the crusher: 

The conveyor belt leading up to the crusher:

The crusher itself:

A very cool (literally) fan courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society…boy did it come in handy:

Stay tuned for a future post focusing on philanthropy’s response to the poaching crisis.

Grant applications are for the birds…and for amphibians, reptiles, cats, and dogs, too

Film Review: Okja

New from Korean director Bong Joon-ho (best known for Snowpiercer) is a movie that, in the tradition of Charlotte’s Web and Babe, brilliantly illuminates the disconnect between children’s instinctive recognition of farmed animals as sentient, lovable creatures and most adults’ perception of these beings as little more than sources of food and revenue.

Although foreign-language films typically get far less exposure than their American counterparts, the fact that the popular streaming media giant Netflix both produced and distributes Okja lends it greater social capital. Unlike other studios, Netflix is also known for giving far more creative control to directors than the majority of its competitors.

Starring Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Ahn Seo-hyun, Okja explores the unbreakable bond between Okja, a humongous yet gentle, smart, and loyal genetically engineered pig, and Mija, the young girl who raised her in the remote mountains of South Korea. We follow their tumultuous journey to New York City and its environs as the corporate monolith behind Okja’s creation, Mirando, forces their separation in the process of reclaiming and exploiting their “super pig.” (See official trailer below for more details.)

As someone working professionally in the field of animal welfare – including farm animal issues — this film is of particular interest. Much to my delight and surprise, the New York screening I attended included a Q&A immediately afterwards with the film’s screenwriter, Jon Ronson (best known for his books The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test, and his screenplay for the 2014 film Frank). My perspective on Okja is informed by both my own perceptions of the film and what I gleaned from the Q&A.

First and foremost, one of the film’s greatest strengths is the way it embraces complexity and avoids oversimplification. While it unabashedly casts shame on the most egregious practices of many large corporations — greed for profits at the expense of humanity and integrity, destruction of nature, disregard for employee well-being, exploitation of non-Western cultures for marketing collateral, mass deception and manipulation via greenwashing, quests for personal power, and an obsession with appearances — it also exposes the weaknesses of many who are dedicated to fighting these practices, as well as acknowledging some of the most severe societal challenges for which there are no easy answers.

The Mirando Corporation’s stated goal in creating its “super pigs” is to address the very real issue of a dwindling food supply as human population growth continues to expand beyond what can be sustained over the longer term. In an attempt to appeal to the environmentally minded, CEO Lucy Mirando touts its pigs as consuming less feed, producing fewer excretions, and being raised in “natural” settings around the world. Although there is far more to the story than she lets on, this claim is precisely calculated to speak to the growing ranks of a more conscious breed of consumer, including those averse to genetically modified organisms (GMO) in their diets. Although the Mirando Corporation is a fictitious entity, its behavior is all too familiar.

One of the major forces that emerges in opposition to the Mirando Corporation is the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a real activist organization established in the 1970’s and referenced in Free the Animals, a book written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) president Ingrid Newkirk, which Jon Ronson read as he wrote the screenplay. Deliberately leaderless, decentralized, grassroots, and intensely mission-driven, the ALF has been perpetually besieged throughout its history by challenges both external (including imprisonment of its activists and labeling of its members as terrorists) and internal (including lack of systematic coordination and training, differing interpretations of its credo and operating philosophy, and frequent personality clashes). Okja does not flinch from exposing these aspects in a variety of awkward manifestations.

As Jon Ronson shared with us, this was very purposeful, as Bong Joon-ho felt strongly that the ALF should not be portrayed as unequivocally heroic. He felt that demonstrating the shortcomings of both sides would be more authentic, avoid oversimplification, and keep audiences more engaged — particularly as in the case of both the ALF and Mirando Corp., several of these shortcomings are played for comedy. In fact, one of Jon Ronson’s key roles in expanding Bong Joon-ho’s original draft of the script was to flesh out the ALF characters so they seemed more convincing and less one-dimensional. To do this, he actually met with a few real-life ALF members to help inform his writing.

As someone who has long followed the animal protection movement and is now fortunate enough to have a career in it, I found both the strengths and weaknesses associated with the ALF characters to ring true. Like any other social change movement, animal protection is rife with factions and infighting, encompassing a vast spectrum of viewpoints that often conflict with each other. Among the key challenges for everyone in this field is navigating its highly complex and ever-shifting terrain to find a place and develop a viewpoint within it. One of the central dilemmas within the realm of animal protection that I encounter constantly, and that the film skillfully highlights, is the murky ethical territory one enters when forced to choose between the well-being of a single individual animal versus that of the group to which it belongs — however that group may be defined.

Even the film’s title character, a computer-generated wonder, evades oversimplification. She shows herself to be indisputably intelligent, affectionate, playful, and fiercely dedicated to her caretaker. As an orphan, Mija has only her grandfather and Okja to call family, and we soon discover that relation through blood does not automatically confer greater closeness. Mija and Okja literally risk life and limb to protect each other, and upon seeing how the two interact, it’s not hard to understand why. Nonetheless, the film never lets us forget that Okja is an animal, with all the various messy bodily functions that entails — along with the occasional bout of hostile behavior that a panicked state can induce toward even a trusted caretaker.

Another area where the film shines is its timeliness and skill in capturing the zeitgeist shaped by current developments within the spheres of politics, business, and media. Although there is an obvious element of caricature woven throughout the film, the dynamics it encapsulates are spot-on. Among these is the power of social media tools (especially Instagram and Twitter) to influence public perception. Recent shifts in the way businesses operate to attract the socially conscious customer – even if it involves Machiavellian methodology – are very much at the heart of this film. As far as politics, it becomes immediately obvious to the viewer that Lucy Mirando and her twin sister Nancy were modeled after Ivanka and Donald Trump, respectively, which Jon Ronson confirmed during the Q&A.

Also in line with current cultural trends is Bong Joon-ho’s decision to feature strong females as the film’s central characters – whether benevolent in the case of Mija or sinister in the case of Nancy – and even to make the film’s namesake animal female. Among the many challenges Mija faces is her grandfather’s condemnation of her behavior as unbecoming of a girl, insisting that it’s time for her to “stop playing with a pig and meet a boy,” with the hope that she will marry someday soon. However, in contrast to the meek and demure behavior expected of her as both a female and a child, Mija demonstrates extraordinary independence, bravery, tenacity, and fighting spirit. Her journey to liberate Okja is powered largely by her own ingenuity and sheer force of will.

The film demonstrates sound research on farm animal welfare issues (Jon Ronson later shared that he and Bong Joon-ho had actually visited a slaughterhouse as part of their preparation for making it). Although Okja is a fictitious creature, she serves as an effective proxy for food animals and their current plight, more severe now than it has been at any other time in human history due to the prevalence of factory farming and the horrific suffering it inflicts on approximately nine billion animals worldwide from the moment they are born up to and including the moment they are killed.

Among the various issues brought to light in the film is the extensive genetic modifications of farmed animal species that have taken place over the past several decades to yield more meat per animal more quickly at lower cost. The film essentially follows this trend along a trajectory toward its logical – and seemingly inevitable – conclusion in the absence of strong countervailing forces. For this reason, per Jon Ronson, Bong Joon-ho felt a dire sense of urgency in creating this film, convinced that the time when it would merely mirror rather than foretell reality was close at hand. He very much wanted Okja to be made and completed before that actually came to pass.

When asked whether the film was designed to promote a vegetarian or vegan (combined in writing as “veg*n”) agenda, Jon Ronson indicated that was not specifically the goal. Chicken and fish are visibly and regularly consumed by Mija and her grandfather, presented without the slightest shade of judgment. Although many veg*ns would consider that speciesist, it is worth noting that in the film, the chickens are raised almost as far beyond the confines of industrial production as it’s possible to go, and Mija catches the fish herself directly from bodies of water in the area. Jon Ronson mentioned that Bong Joon-ho had been vegetarian for about a month during the making of the film, but was no longer continuing as such. Jon himself is vegetarian except for fish (categorized by some of his UK compatriots as a “fish-and-chip-o-crite”). His feeling was that if people decided to become veg*n after seeing the film, that would be great, but that dietary decisions are highly personal, and preaching was not the intent. That said, he felt confident that among Okja’s future audiences, “there are a lot of people out there who don’t yet know they’re vegetarian.”

I asked Jon Ronson what inspired the creation of the film. As someone steeped in animal advocacy campaigns both professionally and personally, I was curious about whether the initial spark arose from direct exposure to awareness-raising content or whether it originated from a more personal experience. Jon responded that Bong Joon-ho had been driving home late one night and had a vision of a very large animal looking sad, and got to wondering about the source of that sadness. The film represents his creative journey in answering that question.

While the film has many sad moments and is at times difficult to watch, it is by no means unrelentingly grim. There are also many moments of joy, humor, and hope. Without giving anything away, the ending is mixed. There is an element of tragedy, but not in the typical sense that one might expect based on the story arc pattern of many animal movies. In what is perhaps one of Okja’s most masterful strokes, the lingering sorrow it imparts is through leading us to contemplate — and yearn to change — the real world we actually inhabit, more than the fictitious one Bong Joon-ho has created.

I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to see Okja and hear directly from its screenwriter in one of the few U.S. theaters where it’s currently showing. If it’s not playing at a theater near you, I highly recommend downloading it from Netflix.