DOES RIVER’S DOG EAT MEAT?
and other burning questions
You saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or Running
on Empty or Stand By Me.
You’ve read that River Phoenix
doesn’t wear leather or eat any kind of animal products. You know the 19-year-old actor lives on an
organic farm in Florida with
his four strangely named brothers and sisters.
You’re wondering: Did River Phoenix spit
out his Gerber strained beef in the high chair?
Agonize no more, Sassmasters. For
after River finished filming his latest movie, a black comedy called I
You to Death, he got in touch with our
Christina and offered to answer all your burning questions on his favorite
subject. Because he thinks it’s really
important for you to know about all this.
And yes, it was his idea.
Q. What got you
involved in animal rights?
A. I was very
young, about seven years old, when I first became aware of cruelty to
animals. I was traveling by boat from Venezuela
with my family. We’d made friends with
the crew, whom we liked a lot. Then one
day I watched them fishing off the side of the boat. Every time they caught a fish, they’d hurl it
against a board that had nails sticking out of it. I couldn’t believe it. These weren’t bad people, but they’d become
totally desensitized to the pain they were causing. My brother and I started asking my parents
why we had to take animal lives to eat, and what exactly was in our hamburgers
and hot dogs. Pretty soon my whole
family decided it wasn’t our place to block another creature’s right of way, so
we became vegetarians. But it took us
kids to start asking the questions.
Q. Do you think
kids are naturally closer to animals?
A. Sure they
are. Every child starts out loving
animals, identifying with them. But
early on, adults start sending them contradictory messages. They’ll give a kid a stuffed animal to hug
and love and sleep with. But at the same
time, they’re serving them animals for dinner every night. It’s crazy, if you think about it. But when you’re young, you just accept what
grown-ups tell you as the truth.
Q. Do you have
A. I have two
dogs back home, Justice and Jupiter. And
since they’re part of the family, they’re both vegetarians. They’re very active and healthy.
Q. But it must be
a hassle being a strict vegetarian. Is
it worth the trouble?
A. If you don’t believe it, if it’s not a true
conviction, then sure, it seems like a pain in the butt. It’s not exactly in the mainstream. But is it worth it? Of course it is. If you love someone, it’s worth walking a
million miles to see them. If you love
animals, then it follows that you’ll watch out for them.
Q. How do your
social concerns carry over into your movie work?
A. If affects the
core of who I am. I don’t have to wear
it on my sleeve for it to show through.
It’s just part of me. But
naturally when I learn something, I like to share it. And I hope that others would do the same with
me. So whenever I can, I try to bring my
ethical beliefs to my work. Before I
begin shooting a movie, I work with the wardrobe department to make sure my
costumes aren’t made from fur or leather.
I also ask the makeup people to use makeup that hasn’t been tested on
animals. Most of the time people respect
my beliefs and work to accommodate them.
Q. There are so
many problems in the world-why animal rights?
A. Animal rights
aren’t separate from other social, environmental or political issues. What do art and science mean if the Earth is
falling apart, if we feel no responsibility to give it space to breathe? We’re
very selfish with this planet, and the way we use animals is one of the
symptoms of our selfishness. But when
you love animals, you feel at one with the little bit of nature that’s left on
Q. Can loving
animals really save the planet?
A. Sometimes we
have to start on the smaller things before we can conquer the larger
problems. If you notice one homeless
person on the streets and see his plight and understand him, from then on you
see all homeless people in a different way.
It’s the same with animals. Once
you become conscious, you can’t stand by and watch them be exploited. And it’s rewarding to protect a defenseless
Q. How can
teenagers help animals?
A. You start off
by educating yourself and by asking questions.
That’s when things start happening, when you ask the tough
questions. When Columbus
thought to ask, “What if the world isn’t flat?” the whole world changed. Nowadays we still need change. Personally, I think biology class is a good
place to start asking questions. And for
me, dissection is something worth speaking out against.
it’s important for students to take responsibility for their education. We accept too much of what we’re taught
without question. The idea behind the
Students Against Dissection Hotline is to give students a choice about the way
they study biology. If someone has
ethical objections to dissection, they can call the Hotline about humane
Q. What’s wrong
with dissecting a few frogs in biology classes?
A. The point is,
there are lots of better ways to study biology.
You can use models or films or computer simulations. By cutting up animals we just become
desensitized to animal pain. We feel very
powerful because we’re taking this life in our hands. And because it takes place in a biology lab, dissection
seems official and “scientific.” But if you think about it, dissection is
really the most barbaric form of mutilation.
I just read about a high school student in California
who won a prize for cutting out a frog’s brain and timing how long it could
swim around before dying. Wheat does
that have to do with science?
Q. Do you think
animals experience pain the same as human beings do?
A. It’s all
relative. Some small animals have less
sensitive nerve endings, while lobsters are some of the most pain-sensitive
creatures on Earth. Pain isn’t so much
the point, as the value of all life. We
shouldn’t be killing other creatures when it’s not necessary. We’re at war with nature if we continue
exploiting animals when we don’t need to for survival.
Q. What would you
tell a student who doesn’t want to dissect animals, but is afraid of flunking
A. That’s why the
Dissection Hotline is there, to advise you about your rights and to help you
find alternatives to dissection. The
Hotline can also put you in touch with a lawyer if you need one. If enough students start to challenge
dissection, then teachers will look for other ways to teach Biology. That’s how change begins.
Q. Is that why
you wanted to do this interview, to help make a change?
A. When I found
out about the Dissection Hotline, I wanted to get the word out to
students. This issue is more important
than jive talk about my career or personal life. I think students deserve to have access to information
that can help them become conscious and active world citizens. As my sister
Rain always says: “Live on, love all and let live.”