Matt Ellerbeck has a thing for piranhas. A self-described “piranha advocate and conservationist,” Matt started the virtual campaign, Save the Piranhas. I was impressed with Matt’s story because he has single-handedly turned his passion into action. Save the Piranhas is not part of a larger “organized animal rights group,” which I found intriguing, and also inspiring. Here’s why: We as activists don’t have time to wait for top-down organizations to take the lead; we have got to take action ourselves. That is, in essence, the core of Our Hen House, to shed light on the ample resources, possibilities, and opportunities that are just waiting to be seized by us. We also like to shed light on activists who are making change, rather than sitting idly by and watching (maybe even crying) as animal exploitation grows — not feeling empowered to do anything about it. On the contrary, there’s room for each of us do something about it… In fact, we have to do something about it.
When it comes to ending the plight of piranhas, Matt Ellerbeck is well aware that if he doesn’t advocate on their behalf, who will? He spoke with us recently about the issues involved in the exploitation of piranhas, what prompted his campaign to save them and educate others about their plight, and he also shared some tips on how activists can start their own animal rights campaign.
Our Hen House: What sparked your interest in focusing your activism on saving piranhas and advocating on their behalf?
Matt Ellerbeck: I love all animals, but have always had a soft spot for the more misunderstood creatures. Despite the assaults piranhas were facing, I’d seen little being done to help them. This is what motivated me to take action.
OHH: What are some ways that piranhas are exploited for profit?
ME: Piranhas are kidnapped from their homes and then exploited by the pet trade, killed and made into ornaments for the tourist trade, and also sent off to be killed for food markets.
OHH: What are some misconceptions about piranhas?
ME: Many people believe they are blood thirsty killers and are evil. This is not true, they are just animals trying to survive like any other. Many people also believe that fish cannot feel pain. Recent studies have shown that they can! A study done by Joseph Garner of Purdue University (2009) reported that these animals do experience pain consciously, rather than simply reacting with a reflex. Similar studies have produced congruous results. This is important to know because many people who believe that fish cannot feel pain use this to justify the acts of cruelty they inflict upon them. The fact that piranhas do feel pain makes the bid to protect them from abuse and exploitation very important.
OHH: Yes, Peter Singer (who was interviewed on our podcast last week) actually just published an article detailing the many horrors of fishing. Explain how protecting piranhas and other sea life is an environmental issue.
ME: All animals play important roles in the ecological community. Piranhas are predators of many species and this role greatly impacts the local distribution and composition of fish assemblages because the predation from piranhas naturally regulates fish populations. Piranhas are also largely scavengers, acting as a form of natural clean-up for the aquatic habitats they reside in. These animals are also prey items for many other species, including species at risk, like otters, caimans, and river dolphins.
OHH: How can people get involved with helping piranhas?
ME: Individuals who care about piranhas can help by not supporting any trades that aim to harm them. This means not buying any piranha products (fillets, ornamental souvenirs, or any other items that contain piranha products in them). Even if you try to justify that you didn’t kill the animal, you are supporting the demand, and another piranha will have to be killed to replace the purchased item. If people come across stores that are selling these items, they can help by writing in and letting these businesses know that they will not support any stores that attempt to profit from such cruel products. Lastly, many people who are interested in piranhas may want to keep them as pets. These individuals can help by never supporting the wild-caught pet trade. It is extremely cruel to kidnap animals from their natural homes and then force them to live in captivity.
OHH: Agreed. And most readers of Our Hen House are already enlightened to the fact that animal consumption of any kind is unnecessary, cruel, and unsustainable. But I love the idea of encouraging people to make their voices heard by establishments who are exploiting piranhas. Matt, your passion for protecting piranhas lead you to start an online campaign that aims to end their exploitation. What are some tips you have for other animal activists who wish to start a virtual campaign?
ME: When deciding to start an advocacy campaign, it is important to know what your main objective is. Are you trying to raise awareness so people can make change in their own lives, gather support for demos or protests, or trying to make change through a mixture of activities? Keeping these questions in mind will help you determine how you want to get your message out. Different groups of people will respond to different methods. Knowing this will allow you to reach more people — people of different ages and walks of life — simply by presenting your cause in a way that will appeal to these different audiences. An example is the use of shocking images: some individuals will find it jarring and this will inspire them to make change, while others will be put off and the message will be lost. Trying to first determine how a potential audience may respond could mean the success or failure of getting the message across.
OHH: Different strokes for different folks, how true. What are the main online resources you use to spread your message?
ME: I use a variety of online resources including facebook, twitter, online forums, message boards and more. I use these tools to first network with others who care about animals. I then use these resources as platforms to spread the message throughout the network. I also use these resources to get the message out to people outside the animal rights community. Many horror movies feature piranhas, and many of these films have fanpages or online groups. I post information on these forums as well. People who see movies about piranhas surely have some interest in them. My objective is to advance on this interest and hopefully inspire empathy for these animals. It’s just an example of how creative thinking can help you take your message down different avenues and reach more people.