Dublin VegFest happens this weekend and All About Vegan Food is a media partner this year. As part of our support we’re interviewing the guests who will talk in the festival, happening on September 11th 2016.
Since I’ve interviewed you back in 2014, what has changed in your life regarding the work and dedication to animal rights?
Nothing has really ‘changed’ in that I am still completely focussed and totally committed to what I am doing and what I believe in, it has just expanded. I believe life is like a never ending ladder of learning which you continue to climb until you die. You never reach the top but the longer you live and the faster you climb the nearer you get. I think each issue you become involved in leads to another question which needs answering or a problem or dilemma which requires addressing. Personally, my activism has grown in many directions since we last spoke. I have expanded the Sanctuary in many ways – taking on more land and facilities in order that I can physically offer Sanctuary to more animals. I have also started The Fiona Oakes Foundation which focuses on addressing the cause of the cruelty to animals rather than the Sanctuary which addresses the symptoms. My aim with the Foundation is to promote veganism globally in a positive, proactive and peaceful way – through the honesty and purity of sporting achievement. I am to address the myths and falsities often attached to a vegan lifestyle in that it is in some way deficient and inferior to one which is not plant based. That the necessary nutrients required for sporting excellence and endurance can be derived in abundance without the involvement of cruelty towards other beings and, importantly, it can be sustained from early childhood well into adulthood. Something I am very proud to be able to say is that I have been vegan since I was 6 years old which is proof positive of longevity and health. I have also been lucky enough to be invited to be involved with many exciting projects globally promoting animal activism in many ways such as the Unbound Project which is celebrating woman worldwide who are making a difference to animals through their individual and unique forms of activism. The NURMI Project which is a study of vegan athletes attempting to prove not just the equality of a vegan diet in sport but the supremacy of it in terms of performance, recovery and longevity. I also spent time filming with the Oscar winning Director Louie Psihoyos for the, soon to be released, film The Game Changers.
I read an article stating that the number of vegans has increased considerably in the UK. Do you think people are more aware of veganism in the past couple of years?
Definitely, I have personally noticed the growth of, and interest in, veganism has become much more popular over the past couple of years but also the familiarity of the ‘term’ vegan has also become much more noticeable. Years ago I remember people simply not understanding what it meant to be vegan – now practically everyone at least knows what it involves and very often at the very least knows someone who is vegan. I put this down to many reasons. A lot of people are becoming wary of meat and dairy products simply on the grounds of their own health. We have had quite a few health scares involving products entering the food chain, via animals, which have proven unacceptable and people have become scared and looking for alternatives. Social Media has also had a lot to do with raising the profile of veganism as you are able to get the message out there on a personal basis rather than relying on the structured media outlets which very often do not want to promote things which they do not have a vested interest in or are prohibited from doing so because of advertising rights and commitments etc. Also, it is very often the the younger generation who use this particular outlet and they are becoming much more active and vocal in what they find acceptable and unacceptable. They are the ones who will make the world a better place for animals in the future and it is important that, as adults, we give them as many positive reasons and role models as we can to enable them to do this. Another ‘positive’ is the amount of ‘celebrities’ coming out in favour of a vegan diet – whether you like it or not – we live in a celebrity based culture and they do have an awful lot of influence so anyone speaking out for the animals and using their influence to do so has to be ultimately a good thing.
I’ve been going to radios and TVs here in Ireland this year to speak about raising a vegan child. Most of the times I feel as I have to defend myself and all parents raising their children vegan and I see that headlines in the media such as the case of the Italian child cause a lot of damage to us. What’s your opinion about it?
Because of my own experiences my opinion on this is mixed. My first, and gut, reaction is that it is totally ridiculous and I am living proof of that. The amount of people who ask ‘what is my secret’, ‘how do I keep going’ and I explain that I am not relatively recently vegan but have been so since a small child. The unfortunate thing is the press and media tend to not want to pick up on the positive role models for veganism – only the negative ones. I use an example here when I returned from a week long, self sufficiency stage race in the Namibian Desert I received a telephone call from a BBC radio station. It did not want to interview me on my achievements but asked me to comment on the vegan lady who had died on Mount Everest. I was flabbergasted and explained that I did not know the lady, did not know the circumstances but I did know that Everest was an extremely hostile and dangerous place – equally so to vegans and non vegans alike. I felt this was the reason this poor lady had died there. Would they have been so interested in her story if she had been successful? I think not as they have shown little interest in my story having been to the North Pole and Antarctica and won Marathons in record times as a vegan. I also fully understand you feeling pressured into ‘defending’ yourself and other parents like you who make the sensible and liberating choice to raise your child on a plant based diet. I guess I still feel that need as that is why I am doing what I do with my running. Always trying to achieve more, better, bigger results just to ‘prove’ myself equal. I think the only way we can address this is to make veganism more mainstream and hence more acceptable and accessible to all. When I made the choice to go vegan in the 1970’s none of my family were vegan or even vegetarian (I went vegetarian, again by choice when I was 3 years old). My Mother really struggled with insinuations and accusations of child cruelty and neglect not only from strangers, health care officials, teachers but also family members too. It was very hard for her, especially since this was not a decision she made for me, it was entirely my own. At that time, she struggled as an adult to ‘defend’ me because truly, she had not reached the destination of enlightenment herself and didn’t fully understand why I was so passionate and determined about my choice.
Have you been to Ireland before? How do you feel about speaking for the first time at Dublin VegFest? What can we expect to hear from you?
Yes, I have been to Ireland several times before but mainly for races so I haven’t had much time to enjoy your wonderful country properly. Sadly, this will only be a flying visit too as I have to return home to look after the animals and prepare for my next race at the end of this month. I am always excited to speak to new audiences but, I have to confess, I am always nervous. I am an animal advocate, a hands on carer to many creatures, an Elite Marathon runner, part time Fire Fighter but not a professional public speaker so what you hear will be from the heart. What I do, why I do it, what I believe, what drives me on, what motivates me, what inspires me all wrapped up with some (I hope) funny stories. When I give a talk I don’t want it to be a lecture but just an insight into my form of activism, the way all aspects of my life lead back to one common denominator – helping animals – and the way I attempt to achieve that. Running a Sanctuary, breaking World Records, ending up in films was never a ‘grand plan’ of mine – it just fell into place as time has passed. If there is any one part of my talk which helps, inspires, informs or motivates even one person in the audience then I consider my job to be done. Everyone’s way of helping is unique and equally as important – that is my main message.