Animals worth time in jail, North Carolina crusader says Dawn Ratcliffe, born in Silver Spring, takes no prisoners in her cause

May 22, 1998|By Paige Williams | Paige Williams,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It isn't a mainstream life but it's the right life, the compassionate life. Animals are worth going to prison for, worth risking death for. A life for a life. All lives are equal, Dawn Ratcliffe says.

A roach on the kitchen counter? Go, be free. Huge spider in the bathroom? Live long and prosper. Even a gnat feels pain. Oysters, clams, they can't scream, but that doesn't mean they can't feel. Who knows whether clams feel pain? You'd have to be a clam.

Ratcliffe sighs. She is a young woman, 24. When she's not working in the recycling center at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, she travels all over to demonstrate for animal rights. In Atlanta, she went to prison for monkeys. In Charlotte, she went to jail for fur. In Pennsylvania, she has been in prison for pigeons.


She is a slight woman, a long-distance runner, with narrow bones and pale, serious eyes and a well-scrubbed face. She is not earnest. That implies naivete. She is impatient for her message to be heard and spread, to eradicate from this world all the terrible waste of animal life:

Billions of murders are committed each year in the United States alone - chickens, minks, cows, pigs, sheep, lobster, shrimp - innocent lives taken in the name of beauty and fashion and a well-balanced meal, she says.

Extreme, yes, but it's time for extreme, Ratcliffe says.

Shout from the sidewalks and the jails. Go to prison if you have to. If you do, make it matter: Refuse to eat. Supporters will demonstrate. The media will come. Posters and marching make good TV. Put it in the news and maybe somebody will care. Or maybe not. Some girl from North Carolina is sitting in some prison in the middle of nowhere, big deal. So she's on a hunger strike, so what? Let her starve.

You hear that a lot now. People are sick of protesters - abortion, school prayer, animal rights - sick of being told what to eat, what to buy, how to live, who to be.

But this is the right way to live. Really, Ratcliffe says, it's so simple.

They're the people chanting, carrying signs, joining arms, chaining themselves together, going limp during arrest. You may pass by and wonder how they arrived at this, how they came to believe so deeply in something that they'd stand for hours in public and be called lunatic. Where did they come from?

Born in Silver Spring

Bob and Jackie Ratcliffe, a real estate agent and a homemaker, raised their only child, Dawn Marie, as normally as you please: bedtime stories, pet hamsters, the works. She was born in Silver Spring; her family moved to Myrtle Beach, S.C., when she was 5 and to Charlotte when she was 15. She played soccer and ran long distance, first for North Mecklenburg High and then for UNC Charlotte, where she got a degree in English.

She ate meat for 19 years of her life.

Her father used to have one of those meal trucks that goes around to building sites, flips open a side panel and sells food to construction workers. Her mother helped work the kitchen. They served sausage dogs, ham sandwiches. They took Dawn along. She was 4, maybe 5, and she liked to play. One day, a construction worker saw her lining up some little frogs that always hopped around in the puddles. "What are you doing?" he asked her.

"I'm teaching them how to hop."

It wasn't in her to sit back and watch. She arrived on this earth with the temperament of an activist. She wanted to play soccer on the boys' team, so she did. She wanted to be a lector at Mass, so they let her. If another kid squished a granddaddy longlegs, she would cry. If Wal-Mart had dirty hamster cages, she complained to the manager. In kindergarten, she wasn't satisfied with being in the class - she wanted to teach the class.

She had a cat, Charlie Cat, who was waiting for her at home from the day she was born. Later there were hamsters and gerbils, but mostly there were cats.

Her favorite foods were hamburgers, french fries, green beans and ice cream.

When she started running track, everybody told her: Protein, eat lots of protein. Chicken, fish, they'll give you energy. "I didn't question that," she says.

One day at Wendy's, her boyfriend said, "Dawn, you won't kill anything, you love animals, that's all you talk about - but you eat them." She gave up red meat.

It went on like that: one thought leading to another, one newsletter leading to another, revelation by revelation, fact by fact: 80 million animals die in U.S. testing labs each year, most during the testing of drugs, pesticides, household products. Every day in this country, 16 million animals are slaughtered. Roughly two-thirds of exported grains go toward fattening animals when they could be feeding humans.

She learned to defend her rationale. Yes, animal testing helps cure human disease, but a healthier lifestyle leads to less need for drugs. Yes, animals feed people, but so can grains and protein-rich legumes. For almost everything, there's a substitute, alternative.

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