In Tušti narvai [Empty cages], idealism and strategy meet in a successful program of pragmatic activism. This approach has made the nascent organization, founded in Vilnius, Lithuania in 2014, a growing force for animal rights in the Baltics. Tušti narvai has already documented, for instance, the appalling conditions of mink farms to Lithuanians, who were largely unaware these facilities existed and 60% of whom oppose this unethical trade. Working toward a fully vegan world, Tušti narvai celebrates even small steps in that direction. Every person—vegan or not—who responds to increased awareness by refraining from buying fur is a victory.
Who are some of these vegan ninjas?
Please meet three members of Tušti narvai:
Mykolas (29) A co-founder, is a programmer by trade. He’s also devoted to climbing, an activity that helps him deal with stress. Mykolas was vegetarian for several years before deciding that becoming vegan was the single most beneficial choice he could make for the planet and all human and nonhuman animals. Backed by statistics gathered through the organization’s social channels, this activist is convinced that the Internet is the best thing that has ever happened to farmed animals, allowing even small NGOs to have a broad impact on animal welfare.
Gabija (26) A co-founder, studied Japanese language and culture at university, but now focuses on activism and creating natural perfumes. A bookworm with a sporty twist, Gabija snowboards in the winter and practices martial arts in less frosty seasons. She became vegetarian while exploring Buddhist philosophy but didn’t go vegan until she met Gabrielė, current leader of Tušti narvai and former employee of vegan café Gyvas baras [the Alive Bar]. Speciesism: The Movie also played a significant role in Gabija’s transition.
Marija (39) A graphic designer, art director and animal rights lawyer, Marija calls herself a “mindful vegan.” She chose this path after realizing how many industries exploit animals and deciding to be more mindful about what to eat and how to treat fellow animals. Marija believes that the advent of veganism is a turning point in humanity’s development: “When we start teaching our children that a dog is equal to a calf although they look different, we won’t have such obscene problems as racism or homophobia.”
There is no doubt that the members of Tušti narvai are working from the heart, fueled by idealism. My interviewees say they want justice for all Earthlings and believe it’s unjust to maintain the status quo of farm animal commodification and widespread speciesism. The group is especially concerned about beings that are “too different” to be loved or even seen. Gabija explains that farm animals, compared to their wild or otherwise domesticated counterparts, are the least visible in our society and thus the least protected. Producers hide them behind thick walls, miles away from consumers.
Developing a strategy for how to change that, Tušti narvai was helped during its inception by foreign activists and NGOs who generously shared knowledge and ideas. Those resources inspired the group to adopt a strategic, logic-driven approach to bringing about a vegan world. They point to resources like The Vegan Strategist’s blog as well as Animal Charity Evaluators‘ recommendations for effective altruism. On their must-read list: The Animal Activist’s Handbook (Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich); Veganomics and Change of Heart (Nick Cooney); and Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows (Prof. Melanie Joy). They believe these thought leaders’ approach can help us remain sane, find happiness in the world and times we live in and, of course, efficiently “convert” new vegans.
Tušti narvai’s approach to the individual process of becoming vegan is equally pragmatic, rooted in education and understanding of the psychology of individual change. They advocate self-paced transition.
“Whether people become vegan overnight or step-by-step depends on how quickly they can adopt a healthy and well-balanced diet that works for them,” says Mykolas. He advises newbies to beware of perfectionism, and do only as much as they can, as much as they feel good about. “Do not rush! After all, you are already on the right path. Give your body time to cleanse and unlearn what it was forced to live with. Look into what suits you, how you can stay healthy. Soon you’ll realize that veganism is no longer a simple 30-day challenge for you, but a lifestyle based on self-improvement and altruism for the creation of a better and kinder world.”
Gabija adds that new vegans shouldn’t beat themselves up if they “cheat” and eat food that isn’t congruent with their newly adopted ethics. “The bottom line is that you can make a better choice next time.” To encourage good choices, Tušti narvai shares lots of resources on their site, including three vegan recipe e-books and a healthy diet guide for vegan/vegetarian beginners.
I wanted to find out what these vegan leaders like to eat, so I asked each of them what single food item they would take to an uninhabited island. Mykolas chose chickpeas for their versatility. Marija chose SuperMeat for its sustainable production methods. Gabija chose a fruit-bearing sweet cherry tree (must be the Japanese influence).
Tušti narvai’s pragmatic idealism is evident in a series of successful actions. The group carefully analyzes every proposed campaign and event, choosing only those with the highest likely return-on-investment.
Among these are “Kailiniams NE” [NO to fur], which released undercover footage from 10 mink farms, and “Kiaušinių kaina” [The price of eggs], which raised public awareness of the living conditions in industrial egg factories. These revelations led to several farms having to pay fines for poor animal treatment. Before these campaigns, most Lithuanian citizens did not even know that mink farms existed in their country.
The organization also conducted two public surveys. As Figure 1 shows, the majority of participants were against mink farms and keeping chickens in cages. The activists are hopeful these numbers will rise even more in the near future.
Tušti narvai also sponsors “Vegan Days,” a week-long event offering vegan workshops and quizzes, food tastings, cooking , lectures and documentary screenings. The group launched the first vegan picnics in Lithuania but is no longer in charge of them—these events still draw between 50-70 participants. Their latest campaign “Augalybė” [Plant power], aims to increase vegan food availability in Lithuanian restaurants and eateries.
Who funds and implements these actions? Mostly Tušti narvai members, who include students and professionals from diverse fields. Ages range from high-schoolers to middle-life advocates. (Gabija says the communal activities and shared focus on helping animals help to bridge intergenerational boundaries.)
The group also receives occasional help from other concerned citizens, private companies and the European government. (Some Tušti narvai members recently took part in an activist cooperation program financed by the European ERASMUS+ initiative—a European Union program aimed at growth, jobs, social equity and inclusion.)
Tušti narvai’s spheres of involvement:
We’re seeing an increasing number of animal rights topics tackled in academia. For instance, Marija took part in the Sentience Conference in Berlin this May and found its intellectual underpinning and focus on effective altruism extremely useful.
Meanwhile, the first academic vegan day was organized in Kaunas, Lithuania, back in mid-December, 2015, where well-known spokespeople and members of animal protection organizations, all coordinated by Prof. Dario Martinelli, director of the KTU International Institute of Semiotics, presented their work. One topic of interest was the inclusion of animal issues in social studies program in Lithuania, something Mykolas wants to be more involved with. His goal is to get Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation into the curriculum of all ethics classes. With the rise of veganism and attention to nonhuman animal welfare, more and more books are bound to be translated and made available for the Lithuanian educational system.
Although bringing animal welfare to the political arena can be frustratingly slow and arduous, Tušti narvai believes change is upon us: There are already several top-level politicians on board with our cause, both in the European and Lithuanian parliaments. The group hopes Lithuania will follow in the footsteps of the most progressive nations and achieve a national ban on fur farming among other goals. For inspiration and practical strategies from activists in other countries, Gabija attended CARE, the international animal rights conference in Warsaw, Poland, which she says is the largest and most professionally organized gathering of its kind in the region.
In light of the staggering statistics on cardiovascular disease—responsible for more than 50% of deaths in Lithuania—Tušti narvai has published a plant-based diet guide. Their thinking: More vegans = more healthy people.
Although there’s still no consensus on plant-based diets in the medical community in this country, some Lithuanian specialists are already convinced. One general practitioner, for example, has started handing out Tušti narvai’s brand new brochure “Geri sprendimai | Pirmieji žingsniai augalinės mitybos link“ [Good decisions | First steps towards a plant-based nutrition] to her patients.
Mykolas yearns for a future where physicians promoting a healthy lifestyle are the rule, not the exception. Given that so many modern killer diseases result from personal choices such as diet, he says, it stands to reason that nutrition should be a bigger part of a modern GP’s education.
Veganism is growing in Lithuania, as is reducetarianism. As discussed in previous articles (Celebrating Lithuania’s first 100% vegan grocery; Alive in Vilnius—Lithuania’s first vegan bar and From Lithuania with love: 1st Baltic farm animal sanctuary ), the last couple of years have seen a tremendous growth in the Lithuanian vegan community. There are an increasing number and variety of vegan products available in conventional supermarkets, and public discussions on animal welfare are more frequent than ever.
Skeptics who claim veganism will be short-lived should take a look at Figure 2: Interest in the topic has increased steadily during the past decade, particularly the second half. Clearly, veganism is not a fad, it’s a social movement and it’s here to stay. And, as writer and political activist Jim Wallis has so elegantly put it: “The great thing about social movements is that everybody gets to be a part of them.”