Being an animal helper for as long as she remembers, Anja now represents the rights of animals in high politics. “I would often come home with wounded animals, and although I think my parents weren’t always happy, they did encourage me to take care of other beings. They modeled for me that a little empathy and care goes a long way.” So it only made sense for her to become plant-based early on. “I was a teenage vegetarian in the 80’s, living in the countryside. It was just a lot of veggies and salads.” And she definitely did not stop there!
When she studied to be a biologist, she was already volunteering for several animal welfare organizations, and later turned that into a career: first as a scientist, trying to improve welfare of animals, and then working for several animal welfare NGOs. She also devoted several years to working for different animal sanctuaries and shelters for wildlife and exotic animals.
“However I tried to improve lives for animals, I learned that it was difficult to convince other people,” she realized. Around that time, the Party for the Animals was founded in the Netherlands, and she immediately knew that was the place for her to be! Her political career took off in 2007 when she was elected in the regional parliament, “and now, as a member of the European Parliament as of 2014, my mission never changed. I am here to improve the world and ensure that we all have a liveable future on this planet and for all her inhabitants,” she explains, still referring to herself as an animal rights activist rather than a politician. What fuelled her to take the big leap was the reluctant stance of many Parliament members on animal welfare. “We were convincing them to act for animals if they were to be reelected, and so many of them said something like ‘I have to ask my leaders whether I’m allowed to work on something as irrelevant as animal welfare.’” On the way back home, Anja thought to herself: “Okay, if they aren’t, maybe I am.”
What precisely is the change she’s striving for? “A lot. Almost everything.” It is all connected around sustainability and affordability of the whole food system. “Everything is controlled by a few big chemical, pesticide, and fertilizer producers, and the farmers and consumers are so far apart,” she says. “I’m working on turning common agriculture policy into a common food policy, because we are so focused on agriculture. Its primary goal is to support agriculture, instead of the products that go out, or the consumers and the farmers.”
Whenever she talks about plant-based food in Parliament, people are like, “Ah, why are you trying to convince me what I should eat? I want to decide for myself.” And that’s exactly what Anja is all about – empowering people to make well-informed choices: “They’re personal, they’re individual, but as a government, we should stop promoting unsustainable, unhealthy diets, including the promotion of meat and dairy.”
Anja also participates in extra-parliamentary activities. Over the last few years, she checked animal transports in Croatia, Slovenia, Spain, France, Ireland, Bulgaria, and Turkey, reported abuses, and convinced other Parliament members to support proposals for shorter animal transports. “Almost every day when I come home after work, I start knitting and crocheting. It helps me get down to Earth, and forget the uneasy things I’ve seen or heard. Just to unwind, and make sure that I’m ready for the next day,” says Anja, showing an adorable crocheted monkey and blue cat on camera. “I make monkeys, cats, sheep, turtles, all sorts of animals. Sometimes I make blankets as well, when I need a bigger project.”
Her message for fellow campaigners (including her younger self) is to never give up: “Because change is happening – so much has changed since the 80s when I turned vegetarian. It’s just that the steps are small and it takes time. You will make a difference if you keep going on.”
More about Anja
“I like a lot of different cuisines, but Lebanese wins – especially homemade baba ganoush. I also enjoy food from the Middle East and Northern Africa.”
“I think the ones I reread a lot are the ones about animal cognition and animal behavior. Books by Frans de Waal come to mind. His writing emphasizes that in order to understand how smart animals are, we have to look at them from their point of view. For example, if an elephant wants to reach something on a tree, if you give it a stick, it won’t use it. But if you give it a box, it will move the box to the correct place and stand on it. Mind of the Raven from Bernd Heinrich is another – a book about ravens, and how they play and learn, and sometimes just hang upside down from trees, probably just for fun.”
“People often ask what I’m going to do when I’m finished in Parliament. First of all, I cannot imagine being finished here, because in every job I’ve had so far, I was never finished. But… I might start a shelter somewhere in Spain or Croatia where a lot of animals need help.”
“Apart from knitting, cycling. Especially during the summer months. It’s something we grew up with in the Netherlands; it’s so nice to explore the country this way.”
“There are so many people that inspire me in everyday life. They are not always well-known, sometimes I don’t even know their names – like when I meet young climate activists or people fighting extreme poverty. They are all my heroes.”