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Captain of the Special Forces of Animal Rights

Adam Sugalski brings a new approach to saving creatures large and small

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All is quiet in this tranquil, residential neighborhood off Atlantic Boulevard near the Intracoastal Waterway. The transfixed figure at the keyboard in a room awash in blue computer light has been awake since before daybreak, worked a full day, hit the gym, fielded emails and phone calls and requests for assistance, yet he remains animated as the minutes bleed away to midnight. Pennywise’s “Let Us Hear Your Voice” wails into his ears, but he is only distantly aware of the music as he focuses on the screen, enlarges an image, shrinks it, flips it this way and that, adds a splash of color, changes the text size and shading. He stops to examine his work, asks himself, ‘Is the red too visceral, too much like blood? Is the elephant’s suffering too intense?’ It’s important not to shock viewers into clicking away—he needs to lure them in with something evocative and just jarring enough to get their attention. He makes a few more adjustments. There. Perfect.

He uploads his creation to his website and with it, gets another chance to reach into the heart of someone, somewhere who might be on the tipping point between bystander and sympathizer, sympathizer and activist, numb and engaged. Perhaps this person will have the connections, or the finances, or the drive to help the cause. Perhaps no one will heed his call. Either way, he has to try.

After 12 years, Adam Sugalski is an expert at tracing the fine line between horrifying and captivating. As the founder and executive director of animal rights advocacy nonprofit OneProtest, he has created dozens upon dozens of posters and graphics and press releases, traveled to distant lands and engaged with disparate groups. Sugalski and his team have fought to stop Florida’s black bear hunt, save the imperiled Goliath grouper, draw attention to animal abuse and mistreatment at circuses, puppy mills, illegal slaughterhouses, and much more. Sometimes OneProtest runs point on an issue, sometimes they provide support, or serve as consultants. The strategic, measured, yet dogged approach that its members bring to activism is something of an anomaly in a field often characterized by disorganization, emotionalism and infighting. It is also highly effective.

OneProtest is currently campaigning hard to save Ely, a former circus elephant being displayed at The San Juan de Aragon Zoo in Mexico City. Sugalski, who has consulted experts, believes she could die unless something changes. Yet hers is far from their only cause; OneProtest is also working to ban greyhound racing in Florida, to stop Wyoming’s grizzly bear hunt, expose the horror of land-based shark fishing, and more. Being involved in so many issues requires intense passion and commitment, which is precisely what Sugalski and his team bring to their work.

Adam Sugalski is not your stereotypical animal rights activist, however. He is a Muay Thai (boxing) instructor, says he’s “an avid tactical shooter” who enjoys the customizable AR-15 (though he supports sensible reform and says he’d give up guns “in an instant” if such was the law), speaks openly about the under-recognized topic of mental fatigue and burnout among activists and, though vegan himself, is happy to work with subsistence hunters and fishermen when their causes align, such as on the black bear hunt. By day, he’s a sharp-dressed professional in the City of Jacksonville’s information technologies department; by night, he’s fighting to end animal suffering. He’s kind of like John Wick, if John Wick were a pacifist vegan on a mission to save the likes of puppies, elephants, bears and lambs.

In a series of interviews in June, over tofu tacos at Burrito Gallery, coffee at Chamblin’s Uptown, and wine in his home office, Adam Sugalski described his methods, inspiration and the drive that keeps him going, even after advocacy nearly cost him his life and his mind. He also made some cheesy Zoolander jokes.

 

The Making of a Vegan Warrior

Born July 11, 1972, Adam Sugalski grew up in South Florida. An only child, he spent lots of time with animals, developing a love for creatures of all types at an early age, even getting into fights with kids who mistreated them. The seeds of activism were planted at age 16, when a science teacher showed his class a documentary about big agribusiness. Horrified by what he saw, Sugalski, who at the time was also studying Buddhism, resolved to become a vegetarian. “If Jesus went to a factory farm, he’d be disgusted,” he says. In 1991, Sugalski moved to Jacksonville, where he attended Jacksonville University, then the University of North Florida, from whence he graduated in 1996 with a degree in graphic design and photography. A few years later, he married Wendy and became stepdad to her two children. The couple, who somewhere along the way decided to become vegan, now counts two grandchildren among their brood.

In 2006, Sugalski parlayed passion into activism by joining a protest of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when it came to town. He describes the effort as “disjointed,” lacking organization, and more than a little scary. “It was actually very nerve-racking back then,” he says.

Ever the student, as his advocacy continued, he paid attention to the tactics used by each side, noting that the circus began marketing and advertising months in advance, and observing that protesters’ shouts of anger diluted the impact of a statement, or when a poster of a suffering animal caused viewers to cringe and turn away. “If I’m a mom or dad driving by and my kid sees that and gets upset, I’m going to be pissed—at you,” he says. “You should have the choice to see something graphic.” Utilizing his skills and education, he started making posters and handing them out at protests, along the way continuously defining and refining the sweet spot that captures attention without getting in the way of the goal.

In 2011, he launched his first effort, Jax Protest, harnessing the growing power of Facebook and other mediums to mobilize and get the word out. A few months before the circus came to town, Sugalski and his colleagues would be at venues like Art Walk and Riverside Arts Market, raising awareness and interest and trying to engage.

“I felt like I could do something on my own locally … every city has its nuances and Jacksonville is a very conservative city,” he says.

He started training volunteers to remain civil and aim for reasonable discourse rather than shaming and shouting. Over time, there were signs of success. The line to the circus shrank with each return visit; people would sometimes hand the protestors their tickets and leave, or emerge utterly disgusted by what they’d seen. Eventually, in 2017, Ringling retired.

Sugalski also began enlisting the help of the local police force, engaging with officers prior to any protest to make sure everyone stayed safe. “A lot of people think they’re the enemy, but they’re the ones who will protect you,” he says. “JSO has been amazing for us.”

Sugalski seeks to take no action that hinders the possibility of success, and by ‘success,’ he means saving an animal or animals from suffering and cruelty. To that end, he and the other dozen professionals who work alongside him at OneProtest, all of whom have separate day jobs, have developed a multilevel approach. Once the group members decide to tackle a cause or advocate for an animal like Ely, they first engage the responsible party or parties and ask them to do better. Failing that, they draft a letter stating their position and goals, which they ask other groups and individuals to sign, then re-approach the opposition. If that effort fails to inspire corrective action, an all-out media blitz begins as a last resort. They prioritize results over attention.

OneProtest also tries to establish common ground and actively seeks the truth. Sugalski says that he’s seen some efforts do more harm than good by mistakenly relying on misleading information and unverified or inaccurate reports. The hunting of bear cubs in Alaska is one such example. After reports circulated that cub-hunting was condoned in Alaska, late last fall Sugalski and another volunteer from OneProtest traveled to the Kodiak State, where they were joined by an Anchorage resident also involved with the group, to oppose the practice. There they learned from tribal council representatives, elders and the Board of Game that cub-hunting is neither condoned nor practiced, with an extremely narrow exception when a mother predeceases her cub(s), after which the cub(s) may be killed, but only so they won’t suffer a drawn-out death by starvation, predation and/or the elements.

“It was almost taboo to talk about killing cubs […] we had this misconception,” he says.

Upon realizing their mistake, they apologized, and Sugalski penned an editorial published in the Anchorage Daily News on Dec. 8, stating that they still opposed cub-hunting, clarifying their position and admitting that their understanding had evolved. In it, he wrote that though Alaska Administrative Code does technically sanction killing bear cubs, which makes for a sensational national headline, calling them cub-hunters would be an inaccurate reflection of reality. “They are not hunting bear cubs,” he wrote. “Regardless of what the administrative code may say, that is not part of their tradition and culture.”

“I want to do the right story,” Sugalski explains over iced black coffee at Chamblin’s. “They do that story a disservice by getting it wrong.”

 

A Sense of Despair

Activism of any form can be dangerous. Adam Sugalski has had his life threatened and risked his safety and sanity to save animals from the barbarism of man. Spurred by the impending bear hunt approved by Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) despite his and others’ efforts, he launched OneProtest in 2015. One of the group’s early acts was to document the hunt to expose and understand what was taking place. For the two days it took hunters to kill nearly 300 bears, far faster than FWC had anticipated, he was at one of the checkpoints where they were bringing kills, photographing dead bears, some in advanced rigor mortis, at least one a lactating sow whose cubs were never found. Amid these horrors and the jubilation of the bear hunters, everywhere the stench of death hung in the air.

Such would be a harrowing experience for many of average sensitivity; for an animal rights activist vegan, it was torture.

At the time Sugalski presented a brave face, retreating to a distant place in his mind even as he snapped photos of carcasses, gave interviews and led volunteers. Now he says it was all he could do to keep it together. Even in the public setting of Chamblin’s, his eyes shine when he shares that, for months after the hunt, at times he would unexpectedly break down crying, thinking of those dead bears.

Also in 2015, he volunteered for his first slaughterhouse raid, working with Animal Recovery Mission (ARM), law enforcement and others at Coco Farm in South Florida for what is to date the largest illegal slaughterhouse raid in the United States. Four men were arrested. Sugalski helped recover 9,500 animals from some of the most appalling conditions investigators had ever witnessed. Sugalski describes bathtubs of blood, a shredder machine, hooks everywhere. A short film about the raid features a brief section of undercover footage of shrieking animals held upside-down for slaughter mere feet from pens of live animals, rescue footage shows malnourished cows standing in heaps of trash and decomposing flesh which they had probably resorted to eating, chickens crammed in cages stained with blood from prior slaughters, puppies, goats, horses, lambs, ducks, many diseased, starved/and or injured. It is not for the faint of heart. “That night [after the initial raid], I had the worst nightmares,” Sugalski says.

It also nearly killed him.

He recalls removing his mask to take a drink of water on one of the days he spent counting chicken after chicken after chicken. He ended up spending five days in intensive care, getting pumped full of antibiotics, learning only later that he’d been infected with campylobacter jejuni, a bacteria common in the fowl. “It was pretty nasty and it was pretty scary,” says his wife Wendy.

It is impossible to not be changed by an experience like that; even sitting in the tranquility of his home office, surrounded by the comforts of domesticity, hundreds of miles and more than a thousand days removed from Coco Farm, describing it reopens the old wound. Seemingly unaware he’s even doing it, he picks up a notepad and begins sketching what turns out to be a female elephant lying in the grass. She is peaceful. She is free.

Days later, at Chamblin’s, he is still affected by the recollection. It is then that he talks about the sense of despair that often accompanies such work. He speaks of a fellow activist and vegan who went undercover at a slaughterhouse to get footage for an investigation. Spending a day killing pigs so traumatized the man that he completely gave up the work. There are no counselors on hand for emotional distress, which can escalate into post-traumatic stress disorder, for people like Sugalski who perform what is essentially a voluntary public service.

To preserve the self from the psychological damage caused by doing, or witnessing, the unthinkable, humans are naturally inclined to suppress their feelings. Yet such efforts at self-preservation can suture off the very empathy that inspires one to such work. In an email, Sugalski sends a famous Nietzsche quote that reminds him not to lose himself. “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Few openly discuss it in mixed company, but advocacy does take a toll, even on the resilient. It can be difficult for Sugalski to relate to everyday minutiae; though he has a lightness of spirit and a bit of a goofy sense of humor, he’s probably not the guy you’ll find talking trash about fantasy football or who should win The Voice. But that’s not surprising, given that he spends a few hours on workdays and Saturdays and pretty much all of Sunday sequestered in his home office or in the field. Those hours plus a full-time job and family don’t leave much time for idle pursuits. And even when he does take a break, Sugalski says the work is always in the back of his mind, needling him gently with guilt. “I don’t even know who I am [without it],” he says quietly.

Still, over the years, Sugalski has found inner reserves of strength and adaptability; he says he gets better at it all the time. He describes how, while speaking about the bear hunt at Mexico’s first animal rights forum, at which he was invited to make a presentation, he lost it in front of the crowd. As he wept, the audience wept with him. It was cathartic. “It can be a strength to explore your weakness,” he says.

No matter the physical or personal cost, Adam Sugalski won’t—or can’t—give up staring into the abyss. “Someone has to stand up for them,” he says.

 

“Put on my tombstone I saved 300 bears”

Fate has been kinder to Adam Sugalski since 2015, when he witnessed atrocities at Coco Farm, contracted a life-threatening illness, and documented the carnage of the bear hunt. In 2016, FWC declined to allow bear-hunting. In 2017, it extended the ban until 2019, when it will reconsider the issue. Sugalski counts ending bear-hunting nationwide as a central mission; on the wall in another room of his house, he has a map with each state’s stance on bear-hunting carefully color-coded. Each of these were major victories, facilitated in no small part by OneProtest’s work orchestrating a simultaneous 28-city protest of the hunt, which attracted the attention of The Washington Post, The Guardian, and other major media. Many of those protesters were carrying signs he designed. “There has never been a 28-city protest on an animal issue all at the same time and with the same messaging,” Sugalski says.

News of the canceled hunts ricocheted around the globe, earning Sugalski additional recognition from outlets like National Geographic, and compliments from activists as far away as Japan. It was well-deserved. After all, the hunt may have gone on without OneProtest’s work exposing the realities of the 2015 hunt, and beating the drum by pointing out again and again that established science has proved that minimizing human and bear conflict is best accomplished by simple trash can maintenance, and showing the world that, given an inch, there are some hunters who will take a mile. Their documentation, along with that of other observers, of dead cubs, illegal baiting, slaughtered mother bears like the lactating sow whose image is forever burned into Sugalski’s brain, all added up to success. He humbly says he saved 300 bears, but if FWC were to allow the same numbers killed in 2015 for each of the years it has declined to open the hunt, OneProtest actually saved closer to 900. That’s no small feat for a techie by day, animal savior by night. Sugalski doesn’t really see himself as exceptional—instead, he stresses that anyone can make an impact if they try.

“I think sometimes people don’t realize they can do something on their own.”

Like anyone, Sugalski has his critics, most obviously among the small subset of the population who views animals as objects devoid of feelings and sensations that matter. He says there are also some sympathetic to the cause who deride him for focusing on a single animal, like Ely, when there are so many in need of help. But to such criticisms, Sugalski just shrugs. It’s his way of making manageable the impossible and overwhelming goal of ending all animals’ suffering. He believes that people are more inclined to identify with a single animal. “In a way, it almost humanizes it.”

 

A New Home for Ely

Back on the subject of Ely the elephant, Sugalski says that she is exhibiting signs that experts find deeply concerning. “We had a vet go over the footage and she said she’s in real trouble,” he says. Though it is impossible to give a reliable prognosis without an examination, he says that, based on the footage, other vets have confirmed that Ely is in desperate need of better care. Currently more than 180,000 people have signed a Change.org petition urging Aragon Zoo to release her.

OneProtest has been investigating Ely’s plight for two years, and working to improve her circumstances for nearly as long. Sugalski says she is probably suffering from two injuries, one to her leg, another to her back, which could predate her time at the zoo, dermatitis that’s likely infected, degenerative arthritis and, based on repetitive head-bobbing, psychological issues. Though elephants live in herds and can range up to 50 miles daily in the wild, Ely is kept totally alone in an enclosure comprising less than an acre, on concrete with little shade, which has likely caused severe sunburn and exacerbated or led to the dermatitis. Such mistreatment could be illegal under the constitution Mexico ratified last year, which includes strong prohibitions of animal cruelty. But Earth Island Journal reported in June 2017 that enforcement remains wanting.

At just roughly 30 years old, as an African elephant, Ely could live 30 to 40 more years. But will she get the chance? OneProtest reports that 369 animals have died at Aragon Zoo since 2013, “mostly due to negligence, unprepared, incompetent medical staff, and poorly-skilled, poorly-trained keepers.” The death toll, the site states, includes three elephants, 24 boas in a single year, a Harris’s hawk who died from hunger, a crested Caracara (an endangered species) who died from stress, a gray hawk who choked to death trying to eat after coming out of anesthesia, a Golden eagle (also endangered) who died under circumstances that can only be described as appallingly negligent, and others.

As an initial step, OneProtest attempted to exert some public pressure on the zoo, and has consulted extensively and is working with the former keeper at the zoo who first alerted them to Ely’s plight. Their goal is to have Ely relocated to an elephant sanctuary in Georgia, run by Carol Buckley, founder of Elephant Aid International. There Ely could live out her years peacefully in a natural habitat. So far, they’ve had no luck engaging with the zoo, so they are proceeding with the next phase of the campaign. If that fails, they will continue trying to save her using other methods.

On the wall of Sugalski’s study are manmade effigies of the heads of a wolf and a rabbit—a reminder to change tactics as necessary. As long as animals are being mistreated, that’s where you’ll find Adam Sugalski nights, weekends, whenever he has a free moment.

“Everyone has a calling or a passion,” Sugalski says. “Mine’s animals.”

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Learn more at oneprotest.org.

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