Dr. Agnes Trzak (32) lives with her dog and human companions in Berlin, Germany, where she works as an inclusion and mental health coach for children and their adults. She has been vegan for about ten years, and edited the book Teaching Liberation: Essays on Social Justice, Animals, Veganism, and Education (2019).
In this interview, she talks about what inspired her to become vegan, her work for the Wishing Well centre that she founded, her identity as a ‘migrantised’ disabled queer person and issues like vegan and speciesist ‘indoctrination’, living with invisible disabilities and the concept of ‘humanness’.
Hello Agnes, can you tell us a bit about yourself? What is your background? Where do you live? What do you do in life?
Hi Geertrui, thanks for your invite! I live in Berlin right now with my human and dog companions and am enjoying the city a lot. I actually grew up in a Polish family in the west of Germany and moved to England after school to study and work there. That time shaped me a lot and it is in England where I was most active for animal rights. I still write and lecture on anti-speciesism from time to time, but mostly spend my time outside roller skating or on walks with George Michael the dog who moved from the shelter to our home over two years ago. I am also working as a volunteer legal guardian for an unaccompanied refugee teenager. To make a living, I have just recently opened a social-emotional skills centre called Wishing Well, where I work as an inclusion and mental health coach.
How long have you been vegan? What inspired you to become vegan?
I just realised, it has been a decade now. There are always a couple of answers to that question. I remember one moment where I saw a picture of animals in a laboratory in my Facebook feed, that was when I made a resolution to align my consumption habits with my ideological convictions. The picture was posted by my former lecturer, Patricia MacCormack, who later also became my supervisor when writing my PhD on anti-speciesism. My time as her student really opened my mind not only to anti-speciesism but also crip-queer and anarchist philosophy.
The short answer as to why I am vegan is always: consent. Ten years ago it finally clicked in my head. In my queer-feminist antifa activism I was going on and on about the importance of consent and respect for boundaries (bodily or otherwise) yet here I was with someone’s body on my plate or wearing someone’s skin. The realisation that I could not ask these individuals for their permission to provide things that I so clearly did not need, was enough for me to readjust my speciesist behaviours before I was fully aware of the depths of this system of oppression and what a solid basis it provides for the discrimination of humans that are de-personified, animalised and objectified.
Ten years ago it finally clicked in my head. In my queer-feminist antifa activism I was going on and on about the importance of consent and respect for boundaries (bodily or otherwise) yet here I was with someone’s body on my plate or wearing someone’s skin. The realisation that I could not ask these individuals for their permission to provide things that I so clearly did not need, was enough for me to readjust my speciesist behavioursAgnes Trzak
Do you consider yourself an animal rights/vegan activist? How are you involved in activism?
The older I get the more I hesitate to label myself an ‘activist’. During my twenties I was very active with outreach, campaigning, protesting and direct action. I sometimes miss those times, they were very fast paced, loud, angry and simultaneously full of love. Now I don’t organise anymore, I sometimes join and lend my mental and physical presence to causes organised by others. The animal rights work in my thirties has been much ‘quieter’, much less perceptible and perhaps more ‘considered’ and slow. Let’s see what the future holds.
You work as an inclusion and mental health coach. What exactly does that mean? What is a typical work day for you?
My work is so varied, I don’t think I could describe a typical day for you. What I really do day in day out is help people build resilience and confidence through understanding their emotions and feelings and I help them figure out how to communicate these to lead happy and healthy lives. I do this through education in various contexts. During the week I work from inside the Wishing Well headquarters in Berlin, where clients come to see me, I use a workshop and seminar space for group work, I also do a lot of digital contact or visits to schools, as well as online lessons and workshops for individuals of all ages.
For instance, I’m offering workshops in schools on topics as varied as ‘neurodivergence’, ‘trauma-sensitive education’, ‘intuitive and mindful eating’, ‘identity, intersectionality, and privilege’, or ‘sexual education’. Those are some of the topics I cover.
At Wishing Well, I do training with children who experience some sort of lasting social-emotional distress in their daily lives – be it anger, sadness, isolation, low self-esteem, and bullying or issues with sensory processing, for example revolving around noise or food (smells and textures). The school canteen is a major stressor for many kids by the way, especially vegetarian and vegan ones! I also work very closely with the adults in these children’s lives, always adhering to a firm ‘nothing about us without us’ stance where I don’t betray the children’s trust and consent and where I either draw on my own lived experience as a neurodivergent disabled person or I get a ‘lived-experience-expert’ from the outside to help represent my clients’ interests.
Being self-employed also allows me to work on social-emotional skills in a coaching setting. Often clients find me for one-to-one sessions to figure out a problem they have either in their relationship with another person or their own feelings. I love helping them navigate to an individualised solution and seeing them generate real and transformative results in their lives.
How is your veganism and anti-speciesism stance looked upon in your professional environment?
I must say since moving to Berlin it has been much easier for me. In fact at the school I was last employed at, my core team actually consisted of mostly vegetarians and vegans. And during my first days there I made friends with a teacher who recognised the ALF symbol on my bag. Later I helped her campaign against class trips to zoos and her students actually got to go to a sanctuary instead.
Of course I still encountered the occasional ostracising comments from staff members outside our team. The discussions about veganism were always started by someone else, not myself, and often don’t feel like they come from a place of curiosity but a need to hold power over me.
Generally, I do not make it an overt topic. I don’t speak much about myself with my clients either but it obviously is also no secret that I am vegan, as it is part of the anti-discriminatory and liberatory pedagogy that I represent. That said, it still holds true that there are some preconceptions and stereotypes about vegans and it is important to me to allow the people I work with to approach me without any barriers or fears that I might have an agenda.
I can understand where people are coming from with these misconceptions about my consumption choices and habits and am more willing to be patient when addressing these than I am with, let’s say ‘critiques’ of (read: attacks on) my identity as a ‘migrantised’ queer person for example – which also happens a lot, in Germany far more so than in England.
What exactly does the word ‘migrantised’ imply?
This is an emancipatory word I borrowed from the German language. The dominant vocabulary in the German language uses words such as Ausländer (foreigner) and Migrationshintergrund (background or history of migration) to categorise people as not German-enough, on racist as well as xenophobic grounds. Migrantisiert (migrantised) then implies that, in fact, this othering is not natural but is imposed upon and happens to people whose name, accent, mother tongue, religion, culture, or skin colour does not comply with a traditionally German one.
Let’s continue the conversation about your veganism being potentially interpreted as an agenda. When teaching children about veganism and speciesism, we as vegans are often accused of ‘indoctrination’ by non-vegans. What is your reply to that?
I remember when training to become a guardian for unaccompanied refugees,
the staff vetting me for the role asked me in all seriousness how important it was for me to convince the kids of my beliefs. I obviously reassured them that my food choices would not play a role at all and I would unconditionally accept the child they would pair me up with. What I really wanted to explain was to what extent my veganism was actually an expression of my deeply anti-racist, anti-ableist and anti-ageist convictions. Obviously this is a whole other conversation though and a really difficult one.
When I am confronted with this ‘indoctrination’ argument in a teaching setting however I like to point out the unperceived ubiquity of speciesism and especially carnism around us in a capitalist imperialist patriarchy. I explain my stance as follows.
First I agree that veganism is an ideology. I mean absolutely, it is by no means part of my identity, I was not born with it but rather am I making a choice about my consumption habits, and that choice is foremost informed by the belief that I do not always need to harm animals in order to sustain myself.
I then proceed to point out that eating animals in a capitalist system is as much of an ideological choice as veganism is. It is just better hidden because it is actively made imperceptible, normalised and even naturalised. As an educator I like to give homework, so I would ask anyone who tells me of indoctrination by vegans to keep a diary, even if it is just for one day, in which they note any instance of perceiving a dead animal in their day to day life, including in the lunches they prepare for their children in the morning, the billboards they pass by on their way to work, the menu they hold in their hands at the highly recommended restaurant or the cook books they open at home, the animal skins and hair in the leather, wool and silk items inside their closets and in the shop windows they pass by. What might not make it into their diary are the animal bodies that they use to drive their car, or processed into the glue that keeps the sole of their shoe from falling off, or in the glass of wine they drink in the evening, or in the down pillow they rest their heads on when drifting off to sleep. You get the gist.
All of this remains unquestioned because it is perceived as normal, which is actually the core of ‘indoctrination’. We forget that in capitalism these are consumer choices that are learnt and at the same time removed from our perception. A very accessible explanation to this phenomenon is Melanie Joy’s work on carnism, the belief system that allows us to consume certain animal bodies without questioning the practice.
When I am confronted with this ‘indoctrination’ argument in a teaching setting however I like to point out the unperceived ubiquity of speciesism and especially carnism around us in a capitalist imperialist patriarchy. […] eating animals in a capitalist system is as much of an ideological choice as veganism is.Agnes Trzak
People crying ‘vegan indoctrination’ have never thought about how their own food choices contribute to droughts, floods and fires in for them faraway places or food deserts in the cities they live in. They have not looked inside a slaughterhouse or seen the human trafficking that provides labour for the slaughterhouses. To expose carnism, and speciesism as a whole, as a psycho-social, economic, and geopolitical ideology that also oppresses humans, leads us to understanding veganism as but one expression of resistance against this system.
Perhaps to briefly clarify, speciesism is the ideological belief that homo sapiens deserves more moral consideration than all other species and to go even deeper, that the division into species is scientifically fixed and not arbitrary (Joan Dunayer’s book Speciesism points this out brilliantly). Carnism is one part of this ideology and it specifically names the set of beliefs that allows us to justify the consumption of the bodies of a culturally varying selection of other species. So carnism has nothing to do with the need to survive, with ideas of a food chain or nature. It has more to do with the way we construct certain animals as edible and for that purpose breed, imprison and slaughter them. It is a Western capitalist construct that has been so far removed from us that we do not perceive it anymore.
You edited the book Teaching Liberation: Essays on Social Justice, Animals, Veganism, and Education. Why did you feel there was a need for a book on this topic? What issues does the book cover?
Each and every single essay in the book (that is now also available as an audio book – yay for more accessibility!) sheds light on how we learn and unlearn speciesism. Not only educators in the formal sense, but politicians, activists, writers and artists have contributed their wonderful takes on how they communicate for justice and against oppression in the world and how they include animals in their work.
It was important to me to show to others who do similar work that they are not alone. It is quite an isolating task to advocate for animals, even from within social justice and liberation movements. For vegans it is often quite lonely to navigate speciesist structures without compromising your own beliefs. So it is important to show those who might feel quite isolated with their convictions that they are not alone. In that sense the book is not just for teachers as it really is about learning and unlearning and is more about strategies of communication rather than ‘teaching’ in the formal sense.
It was also very important to me that the contributions would all reflect a total liberation mindset. Not least because animal liberation can only progress when we take care of each other first, because the animal liberation movement, too, is a movement made up of humans.
It is quite an isolating task to advocate for animals, even from within social justice and liberation movements.Agnes Trzak
The wonderful contributors make class, race, age, ability, and gender topics that are closely interwoven with the way we communicate about animals. The thirteen chapters in the book give us tool kits for various situations: we learn methods for speaking to children, teenagers, adults and body builders about speciesism, we learn facts that dispel myths about the captive animal industry and, we gain insight into creating empathy viscerally not just intellectually and especially we learn lessons about unconditional acceptance for those who don’t, yet, perceive the violences we so clearly do.
In the introduction of your presentation in the More than Human Encouters, you said that until recently you have not spoken about yourself as being disabled and that you ‘passed’ as abled. But that this also contributes or can contribute to ableism. Can you please elaborate?
This quote by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson explains the resistance to identifying and naming disability in oneself perfectly for me:
“People with disabilities routinely announce that they do not consider themselves as disabled. Our culture offers profound disincentives and few rewards to identifying as disabled. The refusal to claim disability identity is in part due to a lack of [non-oppressive] ways to understand or talk about disability”.
My disability goes unrecognised by anyone who doesn’t spend long periods of time with me or doesn’t know me very well. I pass as able-bodied and neurotypical most of the time and if I don’t pass, it is because I am either not masking well enough or because I ran out of spoons. In those situations I am penalised for not trying hard enough instead of being accommodated. So it’s kind of a double edged sword in that a lot of privilege comes from passing as abled but it also costs me a lot of energy – physical and mental. That process is so deeply entrenched in ableism, including a lot of internalised oppression.
My disability goes unrecognised by anyone who doesn’t spend long periods of time with me or doesn’t know me very well. I pass as able-bodied and neurotypical most of the time and if I don’t pass, it is because I am either not masking well enough or because I ran out of spoons.Agnes Trzak
On identifying as disabled, can you share your situation and how it influences your life? What are your specific challenges?
I have worked hard on becoming self-employed to take control of my schedule and some of the environments I find myself in, which has helped me a lot. But work and school before that were often very difficult for me to navigate.
Already as a child, I had many doctor’s visits and some hospital stays, most to no avail, until my parents made the decision to interrupt the relentless examinations and probing for the benefit of my mental health. My motoric skills and my executive function were not satisfactory for most of my teachers and their standardised methods. There were no accommodations made, not a single one, because my disabilities were invisible enough to be ignored (as I was not disruptive). Yet they were perceptible-enough to show up in the critiques and penalties I was experiencing reflected in my marks and social-emotional well-being.
Unfortunately my story is a rather typical one for people assigned to the female gender who live with invisible disabilities. From an early age I learnt that I am ‘psychosomatic’ as if ‘it’s all in your head’ was a diagnosis. Recently a doctor told me to get pregnant to get rid of my emotional and with it my physical pain.
So to answer your question, the biggest challenge is that on top of now years of chronic pain and all the difficulties that come with navigating life with a neurodivergent brain, I struggle to be taken seriously by doctors and receive the relief and accommodations that should be given to me.
Your presentation was about the dangers of using the concept of ability to justify moral consideration amongst humans and beyond constructed species barriers, focusing on the concept of ‘humanness’ and what makes us human. Can you give a short recap?
How we define humanity, linguistically, socially, and politically varies across time and culture. Some members of the species homo sapiens, have throughout history been defined as less human than others and have so been given fewer rights. Usually the arguments for moral consideration boil down to ability – cognitive and physical.
Arguments for and against a certain group having the ability to appear, feel, think, move or communicate a certain way are presented to create taxonomies amongst species and within species themselves.
So what in Eurocentric science is defined as, albeit not exclusively, human is for example the ability to feel grieve, pain, joy, empathy; the ability to communicate using vocabulary and grammatical structures; a specific physiology and biochemistry; the ability to reason, plan, and reflect; the exchange, consumption and production of goods; the development of mythologies, spirituality, believing and feeling part of a bigger collective.
There are two problems with defining these things as human. First, there are examples of all of these amongst non-human species too. Second, the way humans themselves express the items on the list differs greatly amongst individuals and not everyone who was assigned to the human species can or wants to comply with these characteristics.
So we see quickly that the idea of ‘humanness’ is actually very slippery, flexible and flawed. That is why I don’t find it useful. But what this train of thought also makes obvious, is to what extent ableism justifies the inclusion or exclusion of certain groups on this planet. We see this time and time again when high-profile cases make it to the courts trying to bestow personhood rights onto certain animal species for example, whilst we completely exclude, devalue, dehumanise people who because of a disabling infrastructure cannot participate in society equally or at all.
What I find mind-blowing really, is that every single ideology of oppression, be it misogyny, antisemitism, racism, classism, speciesism, homophobia, ANY single ideology designed to oppress a certain group is underpinned by ableism – yet this is the one -ism that gets addressed the least in intersectional and total liberation movements.
You’ve written about your experiences of taking care of disabled animals at home (a dog and a duck) and that you were criticized for doing so. Why was that?
The dog, Nica, whose house we moved into, was permanently disabled after a stroke. She had trouble walking in a straight line and reaching her food and water bowls, so we helped her with that. She also did not bark or communicate with typical tail and ear movements. She did not fulfil the role we have assigned to dogs as ‘man’s best friend’. So we heard a lot of comments about us ‘keeping her alive for no purpose’ because disability is equated with suffering – and it is true you know, the ableism intrinsic in capitalist patriarchy causes suffering to disabled people. Anyway, when Nica’s hind legs weakened, she used a wheelchair which gave her the stability she needed to walk straight. Prior to this, Nica had been constructed as a ‘poor’ dog, suffering under my inability to let go of her. In her wheelchair, however, her presence in public had a very different effect on people: she was fetishized as cute, strong and a ‘little fighter,’ whereas people met us humans with admiration and compliments for being ‘kind’ and ‘empathetic’.
What I find mind-blowing really, is that every single ideology of oppression, be it misogyny, antisemitism, racism, classism, speciesism, homophobia, ANY single ideology designed to oppress a certain group is underpinned by ableism – yet this is the one -ism that gets addressed the least in intersectional and total liberation movements.Agnes Trzak
The story with the duck was that she lived in the backyard, where she shared a pool and a big shed with her duck-family. The ducks were neither wild nor fully domesticated. After an attack by a predator she was left injured so we started providing human ways of care to her, keeping her wound clean, her body warm and her environment quiet and dark. We were hoping she would survive and not die from the additional strain we were putting on her through intervening. Friends and family whom we had told about the incident univocally supported and even applauded us for caring for this animal. Whereas with Nica many people judged our actions as ridiculous or even cruel, not a single doubt from outsiders was voiced with regards to what we were doing with and to the duck.
This was about domesticated animals, but it also makes me think of disabled ‘wild’ animals, and how many sanctuaries, wild rescues centres etc have a policy of not caring for disabled wild animals (and killing them), if they can never be released back into ‘the wild’ again. What is your stance on that?
You know, if we are speaking about the concept of ‘humanness’ then this really is a very good example of it, isn’t it? These policies are very human in that they generalise a whole group based on the opinion of an outsider – and humans will always only ever have an outside perspective onto animals’ lives. Yes, there are moments where it is difficult to gauge whether or not a disabled animal is suffering and how great that suffering is and whether it is beyond relief.
I am sure rescuers and sanctuary staff do their best they can and I don’t know much about these internal policies or state-imposed rules and guidelines that affect the rescue, rehabilitation of and cohabitation with wild animals in rescue centres. But by knowing how ableism works systemically and how it ascribes value to certain bodies over others, I can imagine that many animals who are well-integrated members in their families and communities are pathologised and deemed to have an unworthy life of suffering and illness with only death as a relief. This is also often also a narrative that hunters have learnt. I think it is time to replace this whole idea of survival of the fittest with a prioritisation of care and solidarity.
Is there anything else you would like to share here?
Thank you for having me and thank you for all the important work you do, Geertrui and everyone out there who is doing their best for inter-species liberation. I love being part of such an awesome community and am always happy to connect over social-media. Much love to all of you!
Agnes Trzak – Interview Crip HumAnimal, by Geertrui Cazaux
Interviews Crip HumAnimal – I particularly welcome stories of disabled LGBTQIA+ vegans, BIPOC vegans, vegan women, or other oppressed and marginalised groups, to highlight their specific experiences and the interconnections of oppressions –