Born and raised in New Delhi, Varun Virlan remembers viewing a PETA India video called Horrors of India’s Dairy Industry. This is what prompted the then 18-year-old to make the leap from vegetarianism to veganism.
“I was so shocked. Then I realized that there were some things that I never questioned,” he reflects.
He continued to consume content to educate himself, and not simply about what we put on our plates, but all animal-based products. “Humans have commodified other animals. We live in a society where private property, like non-living things, are considered more precious than sentient individuals. If you hit someone’s car, you can be charged for it. But animals are beaten and slaughtered and that’s not considered criminal.“
Varun began his tenure with Animal Save Movement as a volunteer—attending vigils in London, Kitchener, Waterloo and Toronto. Once he completely his education, his job search led him to the organization who was recruiting, and he joined the social media team.
Varun has spent time as a talk show host on Liberation Hour Radio, speaking on such topics as animal rights and climate justice. Still taking part in street-level activism, each week he can usually be found at Toronto Cow Save vigils on Tuesdays, and Toronto Pig Save vigils on Wednesdays.
“Activists play a really important role in challenging oppressive norms. Someone who really cares about social issues looks at things from a different perspective.” He goes on to explain that someone who is not an animal activist will not likely give much consideration to the slaughterhouse he or she happens to walk or drive by.
He also stresses the fact that activists are always educating themselves. “I would not be an activist if I didn’t know what was going on, if I didn’t take that effort to educate myself. We all should be open to constantly learning and unlearning, because as we learn new things, we also have to unlearn some of the social conditioning. Activists play a big role in creating social change.”
It’s clear that Varun is passionate about the work he does, whether it’s the job he’s paid to do, or the street-level activism he takes part in each week. “If it wasn’t for activists, we would still be living under a very oppressive society. We still have a lot to change, but without activists the world would be a really messed up place, which is why everyone should be an activist. If we all collectively challenge these oppressive norms and the climate chaos and the violations of individual beings, we can achieve the ultimate goal of total liberation.”
Varun loves being part of a movement that is constantly demanding change. “As the late Regan Russell said, ‘I’m not sure if it’s doing any good, but I know doing nothing does no good.’ I believe that strongly. But when we do anything, we have to be really strategic in our tactics, in our approach.”
He’s personally witnessed the changes taking place in the animal rights movement. “Three years ago, when I used to go to events like vigils, people would drive by and yell, give the finger and be really angry. One time my friends and I had bacon thrown at us. But I’ve seen that change. Now there are more honks in support. Just yesterday I met a guy, a truck driver, who stopped at the red light when we were doing our Pig Save vigil, and he offered us $20. He said, ‘I would like to offer this to you so you can buy yourself some coffee. I hauled chickens for many years in the States and it’s really horrific. I’m grateful for people like you; you’re doing the right thing.’ That’s rewarding,” says Varun.
He’s also noticed a slight cultural shift in the way humans view other animals. While in the past most folks didn’t take animals into consideration and would strongly object to people questioning their dietary habits, now more people are open to discussing the issues, despite not being vegan.
But the number of animals exploited for human use continues to grow, which is the biggest challenge Varun faces in doing this work. “The animal agriculture industry keeps getting subsidies from the government. It’s so powerful, with billions of dollars. So, they can keep impregnating animals, keep breeding as many as possible. We have to challenge the system to get rid of the subsidies.”
The animal rights movement, in comparison, doesn’t have billions of dollars or government subsidies. In fact, their work is made more challenging with things like the ag-gag law that passed in Ontario last year.
Varun looks at the animal rights issue as a social justice movement whose focus is to dismantle animal oppression. “They are non-human animals, and they have personalities, they have desires. They have families, they have children. They have their own culture. They have their own languages. Some people say that other animals are voiceless. I think we need to change that conversation. They’re not voiceless, they are systematically silenced. They all communicate in their own ways, so we need to change the narrative and recognize that they deserve equal consideration based on their needs. They have the right to live and the right to not be used as property.”