Talking with Brian Sherman

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Hugo Weaving, Ondine and Brian Sherman. Photo sourced from SMH Brian Sherman AM Hon Litt D (UTS) is the Joint Managing Director of Voiceless, having founded the organisation in partnership with his daughter Ondine Sherman in 2004.

Before turning his attention to animal protection, Brian enjoyed a distinguished career in business as Chairman and Joint Managing Director of the EquitiLink Group from its inception in 1981 to December 2000. EquitiLink was one of the largest independent funds management groups in Australia, with $6 billion in funds under management. Throughout his career Brian has also been President and Director of a number of investment companies listed on the American and Canadian Stock Exchanges and remains as Chairman of Aberdeen Leaders Limited (listed).

Brian was Chair of Finance and a board member of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) in 2000. He was President of the Australian Museum Trust from 2001 to 2009 and Director of Network Ten from 1994 to 2007.

In 2010 Brian received an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Technology Sydney in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the advancement of society in Australia and overseas. Brian was appointed as a member of the Order of Australia in 2004 for his service to the community as a philanthropist and benefactor to arts, education and sporting organisations, and to business and commerce.

He is someone I personally strongly admire and am extremely grateful for his commitment to making this world a better place.  He is a very successful man but what makes him really shine is his deep, kind heart that can be felt when you are in his presence and is reflected through his close relationships with those around him, particularly his wife Gene, their children, Ondine and Emile and their partners and children.

You have taken on the role of capacity builder for the animal welfare movement with funding grants to other organisations, law lecture series, publishing research reports and engaging with corporate and government organisations. What changes have you witnessed throughout these diverse range of areas since you started Voiceless?

Since my daughter Ondine and I started Voiceless in 2004, much has occurred to cement animal protection as the next great social justice movement. A decade ago, animal rights were considered the cause of fringe extremist groups. It was never mentioned in the news, certainly not a consideration in boardrooms and hardly a concern for the public.

Yet in 2014, animal protection is a mainstream concern. Consumers are asking questions about where their food comes from, Corporate Social Responsibilities is now a key issue in every boardroom and the media have firmly fixed their enquiring gaze on the treatment of animals in this country. Animal protection and Voiceless has attracted support from all walks of life, from all types of compassionate individuals who are opposed to animal cruelty.

Our vision for a world in which animals are treated with the respect and compassion they deserve is slowly coming into fruition.

A prime example is the development of animal law in Australia. In 2004, there were no animal law courses available, yet after Voiceless built the first legal team within an Australian animal protection organisation and supported the publication of the first animal law textbooks in Australian legal history, we have helped establish animal law as a discipline in 14 Australian universities to date. This is crucial to the development of animal law and building an army of young lawyers to defend and protect animals.

 Where do you see the movement heading?

It is hard to pinpoint exactly how animal protection will develop, however I am certain that it will continue into the mainstream. I believe there are flagship issues that have caused the most outrage – live export, battery cages and sow stalls – issues which have prompted many people to turn their attention to how animals are treated within our society.

In truth, barely a month passes without news of more live export atrocities. Kangaroos are still being brutally slaughtered in their thousands and millions of pigs, chickens and cows suffer their entire lives for the sake of cheap meat, milk and eggs.

These practises are all legal under current Australian law. But while our laws have allowed the systemic abuse of animals, it will also be the law that will set them free. That is why Voiceless remains focused on the law and exposing this legalised cruelty, I believe that it will lead to more demand for better treatment for animals and ultimately, I hope, to an end of their suffering.

 What are the biggest issues currently in Australia?

While there are so many issues in need of attention, factory farming causes the most suffering to the largest number of animals – more than 500 million every year in Australia alone.

These sentient creatures are legally abused every day, confined in cages or packed together in large industrial sheds with barely room to take a step. What many people forget, or at least try to, is that these emotionally complex, intelligent beings will never see the sun, feel the earth under their feet, nurture their young, build a nest, roost, forage for food or socialise as nature intended.

They have no voice, cannot defend themselves and are legally classified as 'property'. They are suffering for humanity’s convenience and preference for cheap food.

This cannot, and should not, continue.

 In your own life, you are a dedicated vegan, what’s your philosophical view on human use of animals?

My own perception has been shaped by many experiences, discussions and interactions with like-minded individuals and those who think differently. All of which has formed my opinion of the human/non-human animal relationship.

In particular, I remember when I visited a factory farm for chickens for the first time a few years ago. This was a pivotal moment for me, in my life as a vegan but also as a human.

I stood there looking over a sea of yellow chicks that stretched so far you couldn’t tell where the shed ended, and there was a foul stench of ammonia that was overpowering.

I picked up one small chick and held her in the palm of my hand, feeling her warm body and little heart beating and it all became clear: this is a life. This is a sentient being.

This little chick is not an object as the law defines it. This little chick is not a unit of production, she is not a percentage. Under the law she may have been classed as property, but to me she is a life, just as valuable as yours or mine.

This little baby chick that I was holding would never go outdoors, never see the sun, never feel the wind or the rain, never roost, dust-bathe or scratch for worms in the earth. She will never find a mate or protect her young.

This little chick will know only regimes of artificial light, controlled temperatures and processed food with the occasional dose of antibiotics. Her body will grow faster than her legs will comfortably allow, in stocking densities smaller than an A4 piece of paper worth of personal space.

In nature, chickens live for 7-8 years. This little chick will live (if one can call it living) for maybe 30 days.

This experience significantly shaped my view of our relationship with animals. I see them in my mind’s eye and their suffering is ceaseless. They are at our total mercy.

 What would your vision be for an ideal world?

To quote Nobel laureate and Voiceless Patron J. M. Coetzee, “One day, not in our lifetime perhaps, but in a future that is not unforeseeable, animals of non-human species will be born into a world in which they stand a fair chance of living a life that is happy by their own standards and fulfilling.”

What are three effective ways for people to affect change for the better?

Every individual will have their own preference or strength when it comes to affecting change. But there are things we can all do to make the world a kinder place for animals.

Make compassionate choices - For many individuals, it may be taking the very first step towards living a cruelty-free lifestyle by educating themselves and their family/friends to the realities of factory farming. I believe that when people see what is happening in these factories all across Australia, when they see how millions of animals are suffering terribly, they will no longer be able to buy into their products.

Speak to MPs - Central to Voiceless’s focus is changing the very laws that allow factory farming to happen, laws which legalise cruelty. Practises that would be illegal if they were committed against a dog or a cat are happening on a daily basis on farms. Piglets’ tails are cut without any anaesthetic, they are castrated with no pain relief, chicken beaks are burned off – these acts are legally allowed to happen all for the sake of higher profit. This cannot be allowed to continue. Those who are concerned about what is happening on factory farms should express their concerns to their local member, asking for change.

Ask retailers to provide compassionate products - Consumers can demand better protections for farmed animals from retailers and producers; much like we are seeing with battery cages and sows stalls. Consumers hold a great deal of influence, Coles and Woolworths recognise this and have taken steps to stock more compassionate products.