Will Travers OBE, president of the Born Free Foundation and Born Free USA, talks to Maria Slough about respect for animals
Will Travers is an internationally renowned wildlife expert and president of the Born Free Foundation and Born Free USA – a global charity that works to stop individual wildlife animal suffering, protect threatened species and promote compassionate conservation.
Will is so committed to raising money and awareness for the plight of wild animals he’s scaled Mount Kilimanjaro twice. He heads up the Species Survival Network, which coordinates the activities of conservation, environmental and animal protection organizations around the world, as well as being involved in the rescue of numerous elephants, lions, tigers and dolphins.
In person, he is tall and dark with rugged good looks like his father the late actor and conservationist Bill Travers . He carries a relaxed air of authority with a kind grace that likens him to his mother, actress Virginia McKenna. Yet despite such revered heritage Will is very much his own person, and you immediately feel that he could solve any problem placed before him.
In April 2014, Will embarked upon a vegan diet. “I had been vegetarian since 1983 and I have lots of friends who are vegan,” he explains.
“I started to consider further the implications of a vegetarian lifestyle on animal welfare issues, farming on an industrial level and with regards to animal husbandry or abuse depending on your point of view, and decided that becoming vegan was worth a go. I have to say it has been pretty good but I am still a work in progress.”
Many vegans can pinpoint a devastating image or a horrific experience that triggered their decision.
For Will it was a much more gentle transition. As someone who often sees shocking images of animal abuse, it was a more intellectual process, imagining the plight of animals like calves who are ripped away from their crying mothers in the first days of life and slaughtered. All for a glass of milk.
He says: “Because this doesn’t happen in a way that is very visible to people and because we have become so immune to the processes that sit behind the production of the food found on our supermarket shelf, we are neither aware or responsible or sensitised.
“We pass the buck in so many ways, assuming no responsibility. Take the labelling system. It is important to have the information available on how and where it is produced, but even that absolves us from the individual responsibility of what happens behind that label. If you see a humane production label on a product, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the process is fine.
“We need to see that label as an opportunity for us as individuals to question, challenge, make our own decisions and take responsibility. I made a decision to start asking questions and the answer was to follow a vegan diet.”
With the ongoing debate to push for CCTV in slaughterhouses, our conversation led to the question of whether transparency in the meat industry would lead to more people changing their eating habits.
He says: “I think some would, some would choose not to watch. I have seen footage of animals being slaughtered in a top quality slaughterhouse, highly regulated, and even that was shear brutality.
“The numbness that comes with it is shocking; the attitude of the practitioners because they become completely desensitised to what they are doing. But as long as they ‘follow the rules’ they think that what they are doing is ok. It depends where you set the bar.
“In a sense the bar is always set too low.”
As a child, Will had the kind of adventures most children only read about in story books. When he was five years old he travelled to Kenya to live with his parents who were making the film, Born Free.
He spent much of his time with Nell, a border collie, who then returned to the UK with the family after filming had finished. It was at this time he was first introduced to lions.
“We got to go on set occasionally and saw the lions in their compounds,” he says.
“One night we were asked to go to our rooms and stay there. We were only a few kilometres from the set and one of the lions had broken out of the compound. We sat there for a few hours until he had been found.
“I don’t remember feeling afraid though as my parents had always talked about animals and my dad, Bill, had explained how to behave if we encountered any dangerous wildlife. He told us not to jump up and down and wave our arms about if we met a lion – ‘stay still, keep an eye on the lion and walk backwards very slowly’ he would say. So we were prepared.
“The part of Kenya where the film was made was still full of wild animals like lions and elephants. I suppose they were as much a part of our daily life as cats and dogs are for most children.”
At 12 years old Will was introduced to another lion named Christian who lived in a furniture shop on the King’s Road in Chelsea.
“When Mum and Dad met him they invited him to our garden and he stayed there for four months while they negotiated his release back into the wild. That didn’t seem particularly unusual to me, to look out of my bedroom window in Surrey and see him relaxing in the enclosure we had built for him.
“It seemed normal to us. What else could you do? Send him to a zoo?”
I wondered if Will had ever wanted to be a fireman or a doctor or if animals were always destined to be a focal point of his life?
“Well for a while I tried acting and I was truly awful at it. Then I worked in film distribution with Dad on his films but as mum and dad’s love and fascination for the animal and plant world grew, so did mine.”
The close contact Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers shared with the lions while filming Born Free sparked their lifelong commitment to wildlife, and led to them realising their vision – wild animals belong in the wild, not incarcerated in captivity.
In 1984 Born Free – under the name Zoo Check – was formed.
Will says: “The early years were good fun, magical really. We typed our first newsletter by hand at the kitchen table; we cut out four or five stories, corrected them with tipex and used invisible tape to paste them together so that when we photocopied them nobody could see the joins.
“Working until the early hours of the morning to get the newsletters out we produced 200 initially then it grew to 400 and 600 and became quite crazy.”
During those early days, did they ever imagine it would grow to become a global organization?
“We always had a vision and we thought, perhaps naively, that it would quickly come true, that we could achieve a world without zoos,” says Will.
“I still believe we will achieve this: it will just take more time. The Zoo Check programme still remains at the heart of Born Free. We understand there are many practical implications to consider and it’s going to take a great deal of effort and a change in mindset.
“We have never lost that ultimate vision, that wildlife belongs in the wild and not in a zoo. If you put people into an unreal proximity with an animal that under normal circumstances you would not get close to, your respect for them changes. You put the animal into a position of subservience to your dominance as opposed to one of respect.”
From a vegan perspective I wanted to know Will’s thoughts on animals’ rights to their own life.
“We absolve ourselves from any responsibility towards animals when it comes to food as we only see them in the field or chopped up in cellophane.
“I will always try not to hurt an animal; always try to preserve life and to respect the animal and its own decision making process and self-determination.
“Animals are not machines. Animals have a purpose just by living. It doesn’t have to be defined by human use? Use is totally different to purpose. You can ‘use’ animals in any number of different ways but it doesn’t mean that their purpose is to be there for you to use them in any way.
“One should permit an animal to fulfil its physiological, psychological and social destiny with the minimum amount of human interference. The trouble is that today human interference is almost the default setting. We interfere with everything.
“So the question that you have to ask yourself is how little interference can I impose on others? A vegan lifestyle is all part of minimising the way we interfere with the life of animals.”
Born Free is now planning to establish Europe’s first elephant sanctuary. At least 40 plus solitary elephants are living in zoos and circuses in totally inappropriate environments across the continent. The sanctuary will give them the opportunity to be elephants again. With no breeding and very carefully controlled human interface, a significant degree of self-determination will be restored for the elephants.
It is what Will describes as a ‘legacy project’.
“You have to bear in mind that the elephants may live another 30 years so you have to be in this for the long haul. It is something that we need desperately for the elephants’ sake and it seems shameful to me that we haven’t already got one, got our heads around this and put it in place. It’s Born Free’s goal to achieve this for those elephants.”
I ask Will to leave me with one last thought about his interaction with animals.
“I would say that I am an animal respecter,” he says. “I really respect animals for all the things that they can do, good and bad. Sometimes getting to know and to understand an animal, means that you have to keep your distance and that is giving them respect.”
Will’s Journey to a Plant-Based Diet
Will Travers first decided to become vegetarian many years ago, while visiting a city farm.
As someone who champions the need for children to develop a better understanding of animals, he felt that the standards at the city farm depicted an incredibly inaccurate representation of how livestock actually live.
He felt it created an idealized image of our relationship with animals that provide food, milk and wool, whereas in reality, only around 0.2 per cent of animals live like that – the rest are subjected to intensive farming and horrific conditions.
About 20 years later, he decided to become fully vegan.
He says: “I went cold turkey, no turning back but I would suggest to anyone wanting to go vegan to try two or three days a week initially.
“Plan it and cook yourself something delicious. I found lots of menu tips in Vegan Life. There are so many vegan substitutes as well that can help you along the way.
“One of my favourites is Tofurkey which is now sold in the UK and I always have Linda McCartney sausages in my freezer.
“I think over the next 30 years the desire for healthy food rather just cheap food will be a driving force that will have a higher welfare agenda and aid veganism but we need more leadership and education at the civil society level to continue to inspire change.”
You can find out more about Will’s work at bornfree.org.uk
For the Born Free USA website please visit bornfreeusa.org