Robert Grillo, Free From Harm
Robert Grillo is the founder and director of Free from Harm, a non profit animal rescue, education and advocacy organization. Free from Harm excels at online activism: building an online community, publishing content that serves activists as well as the general public on its 700-plus page web site, and syndicating its content to search engines, websites and social media touchpoints. Grillo has a professional background as a creative consultant, integrating his 20 years of marketing and design experience into his animal advocacy strategy. He also enjoys organizing movie nights and activist events and speaks on chickens, overcoming objections to a vegan lifestyle and popular culture. Robert loves exploring the outdoors, hiking, biking, hanging out in cafés, and creative vegan cooking.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody! I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food. Here we are on Tuesday, May 6, 2014. It’s the month of May. Is it really a lusty month, a lusty month of May? You tell me. Right now it’s looking pretty good here in New York. Fortunately, we have kind of gotten into the spring of things. I think that I am finally going to try and sprout some kale seeds this week. If you have any advice on kale, I would love to hear about it. I would love to talk a little more about that later in the program. There is nothing that kale can’t do. I will bring out my first and only guest today, Robert Grillo. He is the founder and director of Free From Harm, a non-profit animal education and advocacy organization. Free from Harm excels at online activism, building an online community publishing content that serves activist as well as the general public on its 700 plus page website, and syndicating its content to search engines websites and social media and such points. Grillo has a professional background as a creative consultant integrating his 20 years of marketing and design experience into his animal advocacy strategy. He also enjoys organizing movie nights, activist events, and speaks on chickens. Overcoming addictions to a vegan lifestyle and popular culture. And we will be getting into that in the next half hour. Welcome Robert, to It’s All About Food!
Robert Grillo: Thank you Caryn.
Caryn Hartglass: How are you?
Robert Grillo: I’m good, how are you?
Caryn Hartglass: Good! So I’m looking forward to getting to know a little bit more about you because you’re doing some amazing work.
Robert Grillo: Well, thank you very much.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, so to get us up to speed. Who are you and how did you get to where you are today?
Robert Grillo: Well, things started in 2009 for me with the website. The website started out as a tool for me to kind of compile resources and kind of just to submerge myself in the subject matter. At the time I didn’t really have much of a focus. It was more diverse range of interest. Anything from GMO’s, animal welfare, world pirating, and all these different kinds of social justice. As things progressed, things started taking shape into an animal rescue advocacy and education site with a strong focus on chickens. That’s where we realized that, that’s where our strengths were and that chickens were a huge majority of the animals that are exploited. So we focus a lot on chickens. About their issues, and what we can do to bring greater awareness to chickens. We also cover that through animal culture. Sometimes we take different angles. We do a lot of uncovering and of course a lot of people relate to cows, especially calves in such a strong motive level. It could be one way into someone that perhaps someone than later realizing that birds also posses many of these emotions and experiences that calves have, they just express it differently.
Caryn Hartglass: Are you currently online or do you have also a location, a sanctuary, for birds?
Robert Grillo: We’re based in Chicago and we basically have a small urban lot so we’re not one of those firm sanctuary type of places where we have these beautiful growing hills. It’s nothing quiet like that. In fact, most of what we do is rescue birds that have been neglected from bad chicken keepers, have escaped live poultry markets or local poultry slaughter houses, and they were discovered by somebody by call or email, or Chicago Animal Control what is connected to one of us. One of our volunteer coordinators would say they have chicken, duck, or goat, or whatever the case might be and basically they have a week. What we end up doing is provide them with medical care. We have some very good vets that we work closely with and then we find them a permanent home somewhere. We have a couple of relationships with small sanctuaries in central Illinois.
Caryn Hartglass: I spoke with Karen Davis last week. I think it was last week. Of course she has a very strong focus with birds. We were talking about international respect for chickens, the day, which was May 4th. The entire month is a special focus for them and they encourage people to focus a little bit more in May. Of course everyday should be free from exploitation for all sense of being. I remember when I was a kid I would ask my parents about Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and why isn’t there Children’s Day? They would say, ‘Everyday is Children’s Day.’ That’s not even true for all children, but did you do anything special on May 4th or focusing any differently in May?
Robert Grillo: Online we did, yes. Like you said, I think it’s great to have that and to have created that day. To kind of commemorate chickens. We do it pretty much around the year. We have different campaigns around Thanksgiving and leading up to Thanksgiving, about a month to six weeks prior. We talk a lot about Turkeys. We didn’t do anything special as she did for sure. She definitely drives a lot more attention to it then we do, but we do try.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. You mentioned saving some abused backyard chickens. I wanted to talk a little but more about that now. In factory farms, a majority of chickens are raised in very filthy confined conditions. As a result, I think that more people are interested since they want to have their eggs and maybe even chicken meat. There’s a small growing movement of people raising their own chickens. On one hand I think that’s got to be an improvement over these unfortunate birds in factory farms, but apparently there’s a problem with that time to time.
Robert Grillo: Sure. You know that the interesting thing in prevention magazine in their May edition, they have a future story on how pest can teach us to be better people. The image on the cover is a young girl helping a hand. I think that’s kind of interesting because it seems to be a sign of the times. People have definitely developed a bond with these birds and even backyard chicken keepers who claim to love them and care for them. They see a relationship with them and that they’re giving them something in return. In other words, their eggs are their gift. That’s the general kind of sentiment that I hear for most of it, the backyard chicken movement. I’m not saying that endorse that at all, but that seems to be the general sentiment. What happens with any type of pet or companion, there is a lot of people who think that they are up for the challenge or up for the responsibility. Then later they find that they are really not committed. Chickens can live several years. They only lay for a short time of their life. So they’re not laying their eggs, they’re not giving their reproductive gifts anymore.
Caryn Hartglass: So then what happens to them?
Robert Grillo: They’re so disposable. Even though people develop a bond with them they also have this mirage of imagery and popular culture telling them ‘ah they’re just chickens.’ They’re pretty much disposable. So as a result, we find chickens that have been dropped off and preserved. People think that they can maybe have a go at their favorite animal and survive. That’s where we’ve gotten some of our rescue. Some people just let them alone and they figure that they’ll come back for food and shelter, but they’ll actually be given free range to go up in allies and the street. Sometimes they’ll get picked up and someone will say ‘Oh hey there’s a lost chicken or an injured chicken or something.’ So that’s how we usually hear about them.
Caryn Hartglass: Now you have a background in marketing. I think part of the problem we have today with the way we eat is that we are intensely manipulated with advertising. And I’m not blaming people in marketing for that, but there’s a lot behind marketing to get us to buy product whether they’re good for us or not. The point is to get them sold and that affect our culture or not. Our treatment of animals and what we eat.
Robert Grillo: Right. And as you mentioned that in the beginning, my background is in the creative side of marketing. Not the technical side, not the data side where you analyze market research, but on the creative side where you say, “Okay here’s the product or service or non-profit organization, how do we translate this? How do we give this a visual language and reinforce the mission of the message or the big idea behind the product or service?“ In the 20 years that I have been working in this field, I’ll do some higher education work. I don’t do much outside of that. I really changed my perspective on this. I think quite a bit. I entered in the field taking any kind of work that came my way. I even worked with happy meal boxes 20 years ago from McDonalds. They were freelance projects that I could get and take, and of course not think too much on what I was working on. 20 years later, I think I’ve become a pretty outspoken critique about the whole image building in the industry that I am a part of. I think that one of the important things that I concluded is that the public receives way too much manipulation and condescending messages of the images from advertising and the media. It’s all well and good to use market data to develop strategy or advocacy for filling a product. To me it applies to, on a commercial level, fulfilling a product or service, also on a non-profit level in terms of carrying out a mission and strategy for your advocacy work. So it’s all well and good, I think, to use market data. We should know what our audience cares about. If the proof of reality an issue gets lost or changes, then the advocate or marketer has a serious problem to me. I think what the public is really looking for more than now than ever is truth, transparency, integrity and consistency from wherever the source is. Whether it’s a non-profit or not. So that’s Free From Harm’s strive to choose and transparency and consistency of message. As well as, what we call our core base of support and building a stronger base.
Caryn Hartglass: You’re quickly building your karma credit after working on Happy Meals.
Robert Grillo: That’s right.
Caryn Hartglass: We need more marketing with truth and transparency. Most of it has nothing to do with truth and transparency. It has to do with selling a product. We need more of it. It’s challenging because most of the opportunities that have money behind it, are for products where you could make a profit not for general good. Fortunate the Internet is a great place where we can set up shop for very little. The trick is to be savvy enough to grow your community. You seem to be doing a pretty good job.
Robert Grillo: Oh, well thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: All right, you just got your 501(c)(3). I wanted to congratulate you on that.
Robert Grillo: We did. We waited 14 months for the IRS to send that.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah the IRS seemed to slow down a bit. I knew another organization that just got their determination letter and it took about the same time. So I’m glad you got it.
Robert Grillo: Yeah, thank you. You know, I’ve been waiting, kind of collecting the mail each day thinking that maybe this will be the day that I get it. Then never did it come through the long winter. One night in spring day, maybe because spring is the time for a new beginning.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s a nice letter to have. We got ours back in 2010, but we didn’t launch till 2011. It is nice to have it.
Robert Grillo: It is. It’s validating for sure.
Caryn Hartglass: All right, so you started Free From Harm in 2009. When did you have your vegan epiphany moment?
Robert Grillo: Later in 2009. I think for a very short time after seeing Food, Inc. I think films like Food, Inc. were very pivotal to me in terms of forming my ideas and acting on them. I think for a very short time, I actually kind of bought into the humane myth. I thought that perhaps I could take that route for a while. That didn’t work for more than a couple of weeks if I remember in 2009. Since then, I’ve been vegan.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, lets talk about how people justify eating animal products. So you did it for short amount of time I guess, once the veil was lifted, but you couldn’t keep up with it. How do most people do that?
Robert Grillo: Well, there’s a whole class of naturalistic fallacies that claim we must or should or we evolve to eat animal products. I like Charles Horns new book, Meat Logic: Why We Eat Animals. His book came out shortly after we published a major page on justification, which we consider kind of a reference page for people. We designed it so that it would be easy to find the justification that you were challenged with and have a response with also references and resources that the person could then go for more detail. So we set up the page with a nice little menu that makes it really east for people to find their justification. It’s a reference. I liked Charles Horn’s book. He mailed me shortly after we published that page and said, “I have a book that I think you might be interested in.” And boy was I ever. I mean it was just so filament the way he addressed some of these justifications. In his case, he referred to them more as a rationalization. His book is more focused on the rational logical appeal that these justifications make rather than the emotional ones. I think that’s really important to make the distinction. Yes it’s very much an emotional argument, morality is an emotion base to a large extent, but if you really listen to these justifications, many of them are an actual appeal to our sense of reason. The whole class to naturalistic fallacies we evolved eating meat, or that science tells us that we should eat meat, or as Charles Horns puts it “We have a gun to our head.” Evolution has a gun to our head to eat animal products. These are all appeals to reason. If we dissect them, we will find some faulty logic. So we really try to address those because they are so common.
Caryn Hartglass: Yup. So when you say someone who has this justification, and they see him or her and understand him or her does that help them change?
Robert Grillo: That’s our hook. I guess there’s lesson in history where it tells us that it inevitably it must have an impact. Just in studying and looking at other social movement where the arguments became stronger from that movement, and it became better. It became an appeal to our sense of reason as well as our emotion. As things got more sophisticated, those movements became more credible and more simulated into mainstream culture. I do believe that, that’s an important part of advocacy that we should be doing.
Caryn Hartglass: So where can I find those justifications? Kind of really serious to read about them.
Robert Grillo: I’d be happy to send you a link to our new page. We really put more into this page, I think, more than any other page on this site. Ashley Catholic, my contributing writer who I work very closely with, helps me out quiet a bit as well.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m looking at your site right now. Is it the common objections to vegan diet?
Robert Grillo: Nope. It has the word justification. It should come up on the listing.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. If you send me the link, I’ll post it on my site with this interview.
Robert Grillo: Oh that would be great.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah! I’m looking forward to seeing that.
Robert Grillo: Yeah. I’ll absolutely send it to you. Another one that I cover is what I call a personal choice. I’m just bringing this up because this ties in with a book, a collection of essays that Will Tuttle put together, it’s called Circles of Compassion Connecting Issues of Justice.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes.
Robert Grillo: What he did was compile 28 authors and asked me for a contribution. I picked one of the subjects that I care about quite a bit which is looking at this personal choice. So my essay explores how people used this freedom of choice idea and moral relativism as a justification to dismiss ethical consideration for animals and human beings as well. So that was pretty exciting. I was able to adapt it in a way where it not only discuss animals, but also how this justification is used on other humans beings, and other groups of humans as well.
Caryn Hartglass: Everything is connected. And in The Circle of Compassion, it’s not out yet right? It’s coming out sometime. There’s a crowd-funding project for it.
Robert Grillo: Right. Crown Vegan Publishers was a publisher, he has an Indiegogo fund raising campaign. I think he’s looking to raise some funds for it before they release it. I think they’re doing really well with their campaign. So it’s really an interesting collection of authors. I’m very delighted to be a part of that.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m always looking for the button, the way to reach people to get them to see the light and move to a more compassionate lifestyle. It’s a very challenging mission. Sometimes I think we’re really making strives, other times I think nothings happening. It’s very frustrating. I love talking to people and find out what they’re doing. I don’t think there’s one unique button that would work for everyone. We need a big, big toolbox. I had an eye opening experience recently in March when I spoke to 250 cattle ranchers on how animal agribusiness affect climate change. I was part of a panel as the “Lone Vegan”. I learned a lot. There were so many things that became so clear. I’m always involved in finding out what I can in nutrition and most people don’t know anything about nutrition. These people were very stuck with basic policies. They were truth to them. I didn’t have enough time. I couldn’t download enough information to get to them. We live in a world where we are overwhelmed with information and then yet, many people are clueless.
Robert Grillo: Right.
Caryn Hartglass: You know, simple questions like, I talked about the 70 billion land animals that are raised every year for food and how we should all move to plants. They said, “fine, but what will happen to those animals?” I said, “You’ll stop breeding them and we wouldn’t have to worry about them anymore.” So many little things that just are not obvious.
Robert Grillo: We covered that by the way.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, oh good!
Robert Grillo: In our justification page. I think it’s probably just as simple as what you said. When demand declines and the grieving must also decline, and that’s how the industry could come to an end. At least that would be our hope some time in the future. We did cover that because it is quiet amazing how many people are concerned with either the extinction of the farm animals or they’re over population if they were allowed to become sterile and take over the earth. So on one hand they are extremely concerned about extinction, and the other hand they are deathly afraid of animals of course, because they’re going to take over the world. Their population is just going to take over. It’s a fascinating irrational, I should say, fear.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s definitely a fear based. Very irrational. Yeah, a lot of great information.
Robert Grillo: Breeding of course is the solution, which so many people seem to ignore. The problem is breeding, isn’t it?
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah! Of course. That was just one myth, one of many. There was only so much time, but they didn’t kill me. They liked me. I got out alive and that’s good. So, we don’t have much more time, but what are your plans? You have your 501 c 3 now. You have a little more clarity on what Free From Harm is. Where are you going next?
Robert Grillo: What we are doing is we are very much focused on, like what I said before, building out core base. It’s very frustrating for many people. I find that when they are advocating, they are not exactly sure who to approach. They’re very frustrated with the responses that thy get from different kinds of people. What I think helps, is to focus on whether they’re sympathetic to our cause and really building that core base. Those are the people that will then go out and because the champions with that cause. If you don’t mind, I’d like to cite a very good example of what happened.
Caryn Hartglass: Sure.
Robert Grillo: Apple Computer and Steve Jobs. Some of your audience and you might have may have seen this documentary. No, it’s not a documentary. It’s actually a drama about Steve Jobs.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I haven’t seen it yet. I can’t believe it.
Robert Grillo: I didn’t like it too much. I didn’t like the acting and I didn’t like how it was staged and dramatized. However, the story is really interesting. I think there’s a lot to learn about the Apple rebranding. I like to practice this by saying, I don’t worship Apple, and I think that they definitely have some negative impact in the environment. If we just look at their branding and rebranding in the 90s and beyond, it’s really something remarkable. What they did was, back in the 90’s people like me were Apple users thinking that Apple was just going to crumble. We were their loyal followers, we were using their computers, we were graphic designers, creative people, and using something other than Windows are completely insane.
Caryn Hartglass: Yup, yup!
Robert Grillo: And so, we were afraid. The media was making it like Apple was just going to fold. What we didn’t realize at the time was that Apple was staging a major comeback. The way they were doing it was through campaigns. Where they feature people like Albert Einstein or Gandhi. Then there would be this huge billboard, huge ads with that person and a tiny Apple logo and saying “Think Different.” Those two words. At the time, I thought that was kind of a crazy strategy. I thought, why would you appeal to bohemians and artists? They have no power, when your goal is to create market share. What they did, worked. What they did was build their court base. What they knew, was that those people will become their brand champion. They will take that message out and they will say that Apple is cool, it’s hip, it’s an amazing product, there’s nothing like it, and it worked.
Caryn Hartglass: Yup!
Robert Grillo: And I’m not saying there’s a direct translation into our cause, even advocacy, or animal right advocacy. However, I think that there is something to be learned by that if we really pay attention to our base of people that are already sympathetic to the cause, and then we can go further than flesh feed ourselves with the people in the other side of the spectrum.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, if we’re taking it from the marketing point of view, the vegetarian, vegan movement did not come out with very good branding to begin with. I think over the decades it’s changed as the population has grown. What do you think of vegan branding?
Robert Grillo: What do I think of it?
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, branding of the vegan.
Robert Grillo: Right. It seems to have evolved in some interesting and positive ways like brand with vegan cuts. Some people who are becoming spokespeople for vegans seem to be different today than they were 10, maybe 15 years ago. So that’s good because we want people that are from all walks of life and say that, “yeah a vegan can be anybody.”
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. A vegan can be republican.
Robert Grillo: Haha. Yeah, you know, you can be a libertarian. You know a vegan who cares about both of those things.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s good. Well, the only comment that I have about the same different campaign, I remember it very much when it came out. The only thing that bugged me is move towards poor grammar. And I know ‘Think Differently’ doesn’t sound as cool. But nobody uses the ‘L-Y’ anymore on their adverbs.
Robert Grillo: I know. I know. Advertising is infamous for bastardizing grammar.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes and it’s not only in the English language. I’ve seen it in other languages as well. Oh well. I guess language is a living thing. Maybe those ‘L’ and ‘Y’s’ are a little too extravagant. We don’t need them.
Robert Grillo: Right!
Caryn Hartglass: Long live the ‘L,’ ‘Y’ Well, Robert, do you come to New York much?
Robert Grillo: I don’t. I haven’t been in so many years. It’s embarrassing. I did make it to Berkeley, California last month.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, that’s cool. Where did you eat?
Robert Grillo: I spoke at the Conscious Eating conference.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh good.
Robert Grillo: I had a wonderful trip. In the last couple of years, it’s been hard for me to get away because of my responsibilities with the rescue ark. Being there and having someone who can actually take over and I could trust and will do things the way I like to see them done.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, not an easy task.
Robert Grillo: No.
Caryn Hartglass: No. Well, all right, one last thing. Let’s talk about yummy delicious food, do you like to cook?
Robert Grillo: I do. I’m an experimental kind of cook. What I do is, I study recipes that are well thought out with really precise ingredients and then I just bastardize them. I basically replace ingredients and I skip cooking lessons that they recommend. Then I just create my own monster from them.
Caryn Hartglass: So do you make it their way the first time? Or do you start bastardizing them right away?
Robert Grillo: Yeah, well usually. Pretty much right away. Sometimes I look at the recipe and I get an idea and I think ‘I’m going to replace that while flour with oak flours or something.’ Sometimes it just depends on what type of ingredients I have and see if I have replacements rather than go out and shop again. I hate shopping.
Caryn Hartglass: I think that’s a good thing to do. I don’t think you’re alone with that. It’s obvious that you feel comfortable doing that and that’s what cooking’s all about, being experimental. You don’t have to follow every line in the recipe. I’ve seem some people who feel uncomfortable, taking it to extreme like if a recipe called for a yellow fin potato and they had generic white fin potato, they wouldn’t make the recipe. We should all just relax and have fun in the kitchen, be experimental. Most of the time things come out either edible or really wonderful.
Robert Grillo: Right. I mean, I have my flops, I won’t lie, I definitely have my flops. I take responsibility for them, and I try not to impose the flops on guinea pigs.
Caryn Hartglass: Nothing against guinea pigs.
Robert Grillo: Exactly. I try not to subject people to my flops whenever possible. I try to keep it to my own experiment. I try to use the recipes that are better tested, and the things that I know that would turn out better in a group.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. You have one, I know I said one last question before but what’s your favorite dish?
Robert Grillo: Can I say a dessert?
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah! Sure!
Robert Grillo: Lately, I just have a great craving for cheesecake. There are a couple really good places in Chicago that have amazing vegan cheesecake.
Caryn Hartglass: Right and you can eat them. Just like any other cheesecake the real ones made with tortured animal milk or the vegan version. Some are good, some are not so good. You have to find the right one. There’s nothing wrong with having a good cheesecake from time to time. I don’t make it often, but I have a recipe for what they call crostata. It’s a rustic, old fashion, Italian-style cheesecake made with almonds. It’s quite good.
Robert Grillo: That’s interesting. That sounds like something my grandmother would have made.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. The recipe is at https://responsibleeatingandliving.com/?p=7101. Okay, Robert thank you for joining me, and thank you for building up all that karma credit. I think you’re doing great work and I’m glad you’re out there in this struggle.
Robert Grillo: Well thank you very much for having me on today.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. May all be free from harm.
Robert Grillo: Great. Hopefully we will!
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. Okay take care.
Robert Grillo: Thank you, you too.
Caryn Hartglass: You’re welcome, bye-bye. We’ll take a little break, why not. I’ve got some important things to talk about with you.
Transcribed June 11, 2014 by Mary Jo Villanueva