Lea de Zwart Has Found Her Life Purpose Advocating for Animals in the Netherlands
Lea de Zwart is Animal Save Movement’s Country Liaison for the Netherlands and the Regional Liaison for Western Europe. Additionally, she organizes the Boxtel Pig Save and Leiden Save Square. As with all branches of the Animal Save Movement, they use a love-based approach in their activism. They connect with people and support them in making the transition to a vegan lifestyle. “For me, it’s important to be patient and respectful toward non-vegans. The great thing about being grassroots is that we can use different strategies depending on the location or project.”
What prompted you to become vegan and how long have you been vegan?
I’m vegan for 5 years. I was a vegetarian before but had no idea of the dairy and egg industry. I never looked at videos of animal cruelty as I am really sensitive. One day I was scrolling through my Instagram and saw this clip of baby chicks being ground alive. For some reason, I couldn’t stop looking. I clicked on the profile, and I saw a video of a baby calf being dragged away and the mother running after her baby. It all just clicked. I never made the connection between all the products I used and the animals. I remember I looked at my shoes and saw dead cows for the first time. I went vegan that day.
How did you become involved in animal rights advocacy?
When I found out what animals have to go through, I immediately felt the need to do something. I looked online and found AV (street activism) and joined them when they held their first demo in a town nearby. I was on the street doing outreach almost every weekend.
Was there a specific incident that launched your work as an activist?
It took me over a year before I went to my first vigil. I thought it would be too hard for me, but when I did it changed my life. Seeing so many animals so scared and helpless. It’s different when you get close to them and look into their eyes. You can feel their suffering. I decided that moment that I wanted to dedicate my life to fighting for them.
How long have you been doing this work?
I’m a Country Liaison and Regional Liaison for Animal Save Movement since September 2020. Before that, I had my own practice as a plant-based sports nutritionist. I’ve been an organizer for 3 years.
Do you volunteer with any other organizations, if so, what exactly do you do?
I try to go to events from other organizations also for human rights, which is very important for me as well. All forms of oppression are connected.
How often do you do street-level activism?
With Covid, it’s a challenge but normally we have multiple actions every week.
In your opinion, what role does an activist play in society?
A very important role. Throughout history, it was always activists who led the way to change. We are here to create awareness and to amplify the voices that are not heard by the majority of people.
What has been your biggest challenge in doing this work — some of the problems you face?
That you can’t make people care. It’s really hard seeing so many animals suffering, knowing you can’t save them, and the majority of people will not be looking at the footage that you take — often because it’s too hard to watch yet they continue to tribute to their suffering.
Staying positive and patient can sometimes be challenging. The violence against animals is so normalized in our society. For me, a visit to the supermarket can be hard at times. Seeing the chopped-up body parts of the animals I fight so hard for. Seeing people wear their skins without even realizing that that was once a living soul.
There are times I feel really disconnected from society. It’s so important to take care of your mental health and it took me a while to find a balance.
In your opinion, has activism changed since Regan Russell’s death?
For me, it made it clear how vulnerable we are and that the risks of doing activism are getting so much bigger. The violence against activists is increasing. Yet I see more people willing to take that risk. I believe Regan’s death also lit a fire in many of us to continue our fight so her death will not be in vain.
Can you share some victories in doing this work?
A year ago, I negotiated the freedom of 6 little piglets. They were raised in a factory farm and meant to be slaughtered at 6 months. The conversation with the farmer was so unexpected. We really connected. I never thought that was possible but by opening our hearts and being open-minded, we could speak as people instead of activist/farmer. They changed their business from raising pigs to growing flowers — something they were thinking of before they met me. Seeing the 6 piglets grow up and thrive at the sanctuary is such a blessing and they became symbols of hope here in the Netherlands.
Is there an event that you’re most proud of?
For the 6 piglets, we built them their own piggy forest. For weeks, the whole community helped to raise funds to build their fence and shelter. So much work had to be done. We worked on it ourselves and so many people came to help. It’s one of the greatest experiences in my life to help make it happen.
Does this work fulfill you?
I feel with activism I have found my life purpose. For the first time in my life, I feel I am exactly where I need to be. I believe we ARE changing the world, even though change comes slowly. Working with so many brave and dedicated people is really inspiring.
What inspires you to continue doing this work?
Our community, seeing a shift of consciousness on a global scale. It takes courage to speak up, but I see more and more people stepping out of their comfort zone and joining the movement.
But most of all the animals inspire me to continue doing this work. They are the most innocent and vulnerable beings on our planet. Even in the most horrible conditions, they often still show affection and seek connection. Being close to them and getting to know them makes you realize how similar they are in their capacity to feel. They deserve to be seen and for people to fight for them.
Is there a particular animal whose life has touched you?
The ones I’ve rescued will always have a special place in my heart.
How do you educate the public about the suffering of animals?
By sharing their stories and showing footage of how they live and die. My approach changed over the years. I’m more patient and accept that people often take little steps. I try to be supportive of that.
How do you deal with haters?
No matter what you do, people will always disagree. Especially with activism. I’ve been criticized for not doing enough when I shared petitions and attended marches and for being too radical when I occupied a farm.
I believe with all my heart I am doing the right thing. If no one is upset we aren’t having an impact. I don’t engage with haters or respond to threats, so it doesn’t take up time and energy.
How are activists viewed and treated in the Netherlands?
It’s difficult. We are a farmers’ country and one of the countries with the most animals per square mile, and one of the biggest exporters in the world. There is a lot of support for farmers.
After Meat the Victims, farmers started the ‘Farmers Defence Force’ who often make violent threats against activists, and they get a lot of support from people and even our government.
In your time as an activist, what changes have you noticed?
Our movement is growing, and we are better connected on a global level. I also see more awareness and people listening to what we have to say. There is much more media attention than when I started.
What’s one simple thing each of us can do to advocate for animals?
Use your social media; it’s so powerful! It took one video from a stranger to change my life. Just by sharing a photo or video, you can make a big impact.
What keeps you going when you regularly see such horror?
Sanctuaries and seeing animals that are saved thrive. It’s really important for me to connect with animals on a regular basis. It gives me so much hope and energy.
Also, our community. Knowing people all over the world are fighting so hard keeps me motivated.
What advice do you have for someone new to activism?
Don’t do more than you can handle and find a good balance. We often feel a big responsibility and ignore our own needs. But our mental health is so important to keep doing this for a longer time. Find other vegans and activists you can do fun things with as well. Staying away from social media from time to time is also a good way to recharge.
What self-care rituals do you have in place to prevent burnout?
I take mini breaks regularly. I see animals suffering every day on my feed and in real life, and from time to time it’s good to focus on mainly positive things. I felt guilty at first about taking breaks, but I have a lot more energy when I do.
I love being in nature and going on walks with my dogs every day, being mindful and enjoying it.
Who inspires you in the animal rights movement?
So many amazing people in our movement! Roger Yates (Twitter: @RogerYates) is someone I think all activists should look into. I also have great respect for our founder Anita Krajic who is an amazing woman.
Do you mentor others?
I think it’s really important to help new activists, and as a Country Liaison, I help guide organizers and activists.
Is the animal rights movement a supportive community where you are?
Yes very much! The Netherlands is a small country, so everyone knows each other. Organizations are very supportive of each other.
In your lifetime, what do you hope the animal rights movement will accomplish?
Animal liberation! Most people say it’s not realistic, but I have to believe it’s possible! The change is happening fast and with the awareness that is growing, science and technology are catching up fast. I think we are near a point where change is going to come even faster. Whether it will happen in my lifetime is debatable, but I live my life as if we will. Thinking it can’t happen or it’s not realistic doesn’t help anyone, and over the years I started to believe we can do it!