What Sharon DiGenova does for a living is as impressive as the fundraising she does for animals. She began working in production management and lighting design in 1984, and since that time she has worked in hundreds of cities in more than 35 countries around the world. “Somebody will hire me to light and production manage their show, so I’ll create their show and I’ll make sure all of the technical elements come together as they should. If they go on tour, I’ll take the show on the road with them. I spent 12 years with a modern dance company with live musicians in most of their shows. We travelled extensively through Europe and did some gigs in Asia. I travelled with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and a lot of independent companies as well.”
Sharon’s journey to becoming fully vegan began in 1989 when she gave up meat, but she had been staying away from dairy from an early age since consuming it made her feel awful. But she continued to wear leather well into the 90s, and then Holly came into her life, an eight-year-old Doberman who had lived a life of abuse.
“She was a big red Doberman. She was being kept in a tiny crate in the kitchen of this lady’s house. Her story was crazy. She had had a very hard time. This lady had bought her for her son, who had major learning disabilities. He had no idea how to take care of a dog and she had been reported on three separate occasions. On one occasion, teenage boys were using his apartment as a booze den. They were having a keg party and apparently one of them burned the couch and started a fire in the apartment. They all fled and left her in a crate, so she was rescued by firemen.
“Things started to change for me when I had her. I started to understand a lot about abuse. I changed everything about the way I worked, starting with when people wanted me to tour. If I could drive there within three days, I’d drive and take Holly with me. My accommodations had to be a residence. I took her all over the country and she lived for another three and a half years until she was 11 and a half years old.”
Sharon’s time with Holly led her to become aware that many animals suffer, and this was followed by making the connection that farm animals endure unimaginable cruelty during their short lives. She met others who were active in the animal rights movement, such as Jo-Anne McArthur of We Animals Media, which was just starting at the time.
She began to search in earnest for what more she could do to help animals, and she started volunteering at animal sanctuaries. She came across a letter-writing campaign in the US called the Dairy Cow Diaries. Women were writing letters online as if written by dairy cows describing the abuse they had suffered that day. This made her re-evaluate where she stood.
“One of the things that I was unaware of was the horrific abuse of animals used for leather. When I saw Earthlings, I was horrified.” It was at this point that she became fully vegan, which meant she donated all her leather clothing to second-hand shops.
The Dairy Cow Diaries were eventually forced to cease their campaign when they were threatened with fines and court actions.
Her research combined with the connections she had made led her to launch Holly’s Hope in 2009 to raise funds for animals in need. “I got the idea that I’m going to raise money for animals. Three days later, I had registered a company, opened a business bank account for Holly’s Hope, and I had booked a whole bunch of entertainment.”
Given what she does for a living, she used her skills to kick things off with two large fundraising events. “I work with a lot of dance companies and musicians, so my first few events were large-scale entertainment events with guest speakers from the animal rights communities, dance companies and musical guests on the main stage. I would have a room filled with vegan food, which was all free, and live auctions.”
Sharon notes that people she knew in the entertainment industry were happy to jump in and lend their support. The inaugural events raised money for farm sanctuaries and Toronto Animal Services, where she volunteered.
These entertainment-type events were followed by organizing an annual walk for Ontario’s farm sanctuaries after she discovered that in the past funds raised through annual walks in Ontario were going to an animal sanctuary in New York.
“I said, why is that happening? We have so many sanctuaries and animals here in need and everybody’s raising money for a multimillion-dollar organization in New York. I thought that’s just not fair. I talked to a few people who were running sanctuaries at the time — Susan Morris, who was running Snooters, and Wishing Well Sanctuary had just started up.”
With the sanctuaries needing support in place, Sharon launched the first walk calling it Walk for Ontario’s Farm Sanctuaries. She proceeded to put out a lot of press to make it clear that the funds raised would stay in Ontario. “I think my first walk supported seven Ontario sanctuaries, then it grew from there.”
The walk ran successfully for six years, however, as time went on people were more inclined to donate funds without taking part in the walk. So, as registration numbers dwindled, the last walk Sharon organized was a virtual walk. “I made a map and put all of the sanctuaries on the map and invited people to donate online. Each dollar represented a kilometre, so you could see the map progress as we walked from sanctuary to sanctuary. That was the last one I did because the following year I had 17 sanctuaries wanting to be part of it, and it was ending up with each sanctuary getting about $300, which was kind of useless. So that eventually got phased out.”
In 2009, Sharon started doing an annual Holly’s Hope calendar. This particular fundraiser is for animal shelters and rescues. Each year there’s a different theme; 2022 is dogs in sunglasses, and Sharon does all the photography herself. “All of the animals have a little bio telling where they came from and what they like, and there’s always a particular rescue or shelter whose information is part of the calendar.” She also hosts a photos-with-Santa event each year with funds going to shelters or rescues.
Sharon does her share of street-level activism, including protests. “When I first got involved with the animal rights movement, I was volunteering. I volunteered for 10 years at Toronto Animal Services. I was also an active volunteer at Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary, and I was on their board of directors. I was going to all of the zoo protests and the fur protests, and I was sitting in court trying to get elephants moved out of Toronto Zoo and attending conferences of The Fur-Bearers.”
But Sharon doesn’t get involved in vigils with organizations like The Save Movement or Direct Action Everywhere. She wants to take part in activities that have a clear outcome of animals being helped in some way — like raising money for their surgeries, transport from the north, and food and shelter. While she supports those who are in attendance at vigils and who bear witness because she understands that they are doing the important work of raising awareness to gain a political foothold, that’s not her thing. “My personal feelings are that if I cannot bust open that truck and save those animals, I don’t want to be the last face they see. If I face an animal who needs my help and I do nothing to help them, for me, that’s not something I’m willing to do. When I have a plan for saving them, I will put it into action.”
Sharon finds her biggest challenge is motivating people to help. On the flip side, her biggest reward is witnessing someone convert to veganism due to her efforts. Simply being open to hearing about the realities of factory farming is a big step forward for many people. Of course, she’s thrilled when a dog that was on death’s door finds his or her forever home and is saved from euthanasia.
Sharon encourages people who don’t know where to start in the animal activism movement to volunteer. There are so many organizations that speak up for animals, particularly in large cities. However, there are shelters in smaller centres, so that’s a great place to get active. “I think we have a moral obligation to help those who can’t help themselves.”
When asked what she hopes the animal rights movement will accomplish in her lifetime, Sharon says, “I hope that we stop imprisoning animals for all things, like in zoos, in marinas, and farms. We need to stop holding animals captive.”