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October 31, 1993 


"I'm working with students Against Dissection because I believe that students have a special role to play in alleviating animal suffering. Dissection teaches the cruel lesson that animal life is cheap and expendable.  Choosing alternatives to dissection in biology classes is a simple and direct way for students to show respect for animals."

                                                                     River Phoenix in 16 Magazine


and other burning questions

You saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or Running on Empty or Stand By Me.  You’ve read that River Phoenix doesn’t wear leather or eat any kind of animal products.  You know the 19-year-old actor lives on an organic farm in Florida with his four strangely named brothers and sisters.  You’re wondering: Did River Phoenix spit out his Gerber strained beef in the high chair?  Agonize no more, Sassmasters.  For after River finished filming his latest movie, a black comedy called I Love You to Death, he got in touch with our Christina and offered to answer all your burning questions on his favorite subject.  Because he thinks it’s really important for you to know about all this.  And yes, it was his idea.

Q. What got you involved in animal rights?

A. I was very young, about seven years old, when I first became aware of cruelty to animals.  I was traveling by boat from Venezuela with my family.  We’d made friends with the crew, whom we liked a lot.  Then one day I watched them fishing off the side of the boat.  Every time they caught a fish, they’d hurl it against a board that had nails sticking out of it.  I couldn’t believe it.  These weren’t bad people, but they’d become totally desensitized to the pain they were causing.  My brother and I started asking my parents why we had to take animal lives to eat, and what exactly was in our hamburgers and hot dogs.  Pretty soon my whole family decided it wasn’t our place to block another creature’s right of way, so we became vegetarians.  But it took us kids to start asking the questions.

Q. Do you think kids are naturally closer to animals?

A. Sure they are.  Every child starts out loving animals, identifying with them.  But early on, adults start sending them contradictory messages.  They’ll give a kid a stuffed animal to hug and love and sleep with.  But at the same time, they’re serving them animals for dinner every night.  It’s crazy, if you think about it.  But when you’re young, you just accept what grown-ups tell you as the truth.

Q. Do you have any pets?

A. I have two dogs back home, Justice and Jupiter.  And since they’re part of the family, they’re both vegetarians.  They’re very active and healthy.

Q. But it must be a hassle being a strict vegetarian.  Is it worth the trouble?

A.  If you don’t believe it, if it’s not a true conviction, then sure, it seems like a pain in the butt.  It’s not exactly in the mainstream.  But is it worth it?  Of course it is.  If you love someone, it’s worth walking a million miles to see them.  If you love animals, then it follows that you’ll watch out for them.

Q. How do your social concerns carry over into your movie work?

A. If affects the core of who I am.  I don’t have to wear it on my sleeve for it to show through.  It’s just part of me.  But naturally when I learn something, I like to share it.  And I hope that others would do the same with me.  So whenever I can, I try to bring my ethical beliefs to my work.  Before I begin shooting a movie, I work with the wardrobe department to make sure my costumes aren’t made from fur or leather.  I also ask the makeup people to use makeup that hasn’t been tested on animals.  Most of the time people respect my beliefs and work to accommodate them.

Q. There are so many problems in the world-why animal rights?

A. Animal rights aren’t separate from other social, environmental or political issues.  What do art and science mean if the Earth is falling apart, if we feel no responsibility to give it space to breathe? We’re very selfish with this planet, and the way we use animals is one of the symptoms of our selfishness.  But when you love animals, you feel at one with the little bit of nature that’s left on Earth.

Q. Can loving animals really save the planet?

A. Sometimes we have to start on the smaller things before we can conquer the larger problems.  If you notice one homeless person on the streets and see his plight and understand him, from then on you see all homeless people in a different way.  It’s the same with animals.  Once you become conscious, you can’t stand by and watch them be exploited.  And it’s rewarding to protect a defenseless being.

Q. How can teenagers help animals?

A. You start off by educating yourself and by asking questions.  That’s when things start happening, when you ask the tough questions.  When Columbus thought to ask, “What if the world isn’t flat?” the whole world changed.  Nowadays we still need change.  Personally, I think biology class is a good place to start asking questions.  And for me, dissection is something worth speaking out against.

            I think it’s important for students to take responsibility for their education.  We accept too much of what we’re taught without question.  The idea behind the Students Against Dissection Hotline is to give students a choice about the way they study biology.  If someone has ethical objections to dissection, they can call the Hotline about humane alternatives.

Q. What’s wrong with dissecting a few frogs in biology classes?

A. The point is, there are lots of better ways to study biology.  You can use models or films or computer simulations.  By cutting up animals we just become desensitized to animal pain.  We feel very powerful because we’re taking this life in our hands.  And because it takes place in a biology lab, dissection seems official and “scientific.” But if you think about it, dissection is really the most barbaric form of mutilation.  I just read about a high school student in California who won a prize for cutting out a frog’s brain and timing how long it could swim around before dying.  Wheat does that have to do with science?

Q. Do you think animals experience pain the same as human beings do?

A. It’s all relative.  Some small animals have less sensitive nerve endings, while lobsters are some of the most pain-sensitive creatures on Earth.  Pain isn’t so much the point, as the value of all life.  We shouldn’t be killing other creatures when it’s not necessary.  We’re at war with nature if we continue exploiting animals when we don’t need to for survival.

Q. What would you tell a student who doesn’t want to dissect animals, but is afraid of flunking biology class?

A. That’s why the Dissection Hotline is there, to advise you about your rights and to help you find alternatives to dissection.  The Hotline can also put you in touch with a lawyer if you need one.  If enough students start to challenge dissection, then teachers will look for other ways to teach Biology.  That’s how change begins.

Q. Is that why you wanted to do this interview, to help make a change?

A. When I found out about the Dissection Hotline, I wanted to get the word out to students.  This issue is more important than jive talk about my career or personal life.  I think students deserve to have access to information that can help them become conscious and active world citizens. As my sister Rain always says: “Live on, love all and let live.”

Article is from Sassy Magazine - October 1989.


River was a spokesperson for ALDF's Students against Dissection Hotline up until his death.


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