Ayse Deniz Kavur was born and raised in Germany to Turkish parents. Her mother spent two hellish years as a political prisoner in Turkey due to her activism—incarceration that included torture—then managed to obtain a fake passport which allowed her to flee to Germany as a political refugee with her husband. In 2001, when her case was dismissed due to the change in the political climate, they returned to Turkey. She remains an activist, and her daughter has followed suit championing animal rights.
Deniz (pronounced Denise) went on to study and live in several countries, including Turkey, then relocated to Istanbul in December 2020. She holds a BA in sociology and an MA in political philosophy. Certified in international labour law and organizational analysis, Deniz is an experienced activist and project manager in the non-profit field.
Rights and justice have always played a major role in Deniz’s life. But before she became vegan herself, it didn’t occur to her to question why anyone would ditch animal products until she was in Spain studying to get her master’s in political philosophy.
“I remember during the first weeks we studied the ethics of the environment. We also spoke about the ethics of future generations—if we should include future generations into an ethical equation, which I thought was fascinating. Then came animal ethics. I had never thought about including non-human animals into the ethical and moral equation.”
This led her to question why we use and eat animals, if it’s necessary to do so, why globally we have accepted this as ‘natural’, and if animals are self-aware. “I went home, and I opened my laptop to read about animals and the whole industrial complex. And I think that was also the day I met the word vegan. I woke up the next morning as a vegan.”
This was in 2011, and from that point on, her academic career took a turn and she committed herself to animal liberation because she clearly understood the suffering experienced by animals at the hands of humans. Then her mission became to work in a non-profit to earn a living wage to allow her to do street-level activism.
She has worked for a variety of organizations in the ten years since she’s been committed to animal liberation, attending vigils and protests, helping to arrange slaughterhouse occupations, conducting investigations, and being present during DXE actions.
“There was an action in Germany, very shortly after we lost Reagan Russell, at a chicken slaughterhouse outside of Berlin. We organized an occupation of the entire slaughterhouse, and they couldn’t operate for an entire day. I think there were around 150 activists, and we got a lot of media attention.”
Like her mother, she’s been arrested for her activism, in addition to being issued several warnings. “I was arrested in the Netherlands; 70 people were arrested that day and we were put in a cell. We then had a court case in which it was suggested that we should be in prison for a week. We appealed and we got a three hundred euro fine, which we appealed again. After that, I haven’t heard from the Netherlands.”
Deniz equates activism to a “call to battle” and doing what we can to point society in the direction it needs to go for the good of all. “I think activists have something in common, strangely, with artists in our society. I think we challenge the norm despite knowing that we might not benefit necessarily from our activism, we might not live long enough to see the world that we helped create.”
Like many activists, Deniz is against all forms of oppression and inequalities—racism, sexism, and speciesism to name a few. “I view the world and the problems that we have today as a multi-headed monster. We have one common enemy. In my experience, there’s a strong understanding that oppression is tied to all sorts of hierarchy and social inequality, and they consider each other as part of the same wider movement.”
But Deniz feels the animal liberation movement tends to stand alone, that it’s not included in other conversations, so she’s working to change that. She reasons that the majority of the world’s population is affected by inequalities, therefore the movement should include animal rights. “I think animal liberation in isolation is impossible because animal liberation to me is not only that we shut down slaughterhouses; it also entails healthy living and coexistence with animals in a society in which we learn from them. For that kind of horizontal symbiosis of life, we’re going to have to change one thing, and that is everything. This is the vision for animal rights and other movements.”
The thing that Deniz finds most frustrating in doing this work is the inequality faced by non-white countries where being vegan is not so easily accomplished. The price of non-dairy milk, for example, may be cost-prohibitive in certain countries.
“Veganism is often painted as something very easy. ‘Just drink oat milk and buy kale and you’ll be healthy and fine.’ This image is pushing away the working class and the revolutionaries that we need. I feel the struggle to communicate this to the global community. I’ve heard about people who live in food deserts, people who cannot afford to educate themselves about a plant-based life. This fact is ignored, and I struggle with that.”
What exactly is the solution to this monumental problem? A systemic approach of shifting subsidies in the food system away from animal-based industries so access to plant foods is available for everyone. That starts with redirecting our attention from solely trying to convince individuals to go plant-based.
“When I talk to different groups or when I’m asked for my opinion, I explain that while talking to individuals and outreach is important, we have to target producers and policymakers as well. I hope to influence people who can work in this regard to pay attention to that. I spent 10 years telling people one by one to go vegan because I was hoping that if we can affect the demand, we can also affect supply. But when I look at the numbers, it’s too slow. More animals die in many countries, even though veganism is becoming a trend. We need different strategies.”
Ironically, the only country that is making any progress in shifting subsidies to plant-based producers and creating initiatives for farmers is the Netherlands, the country in which Deniz was arrested for her fight for animals. But Deniz is working on replicating that model in Turkey.
“I’m against the patriarchy and against racism and against war and against poverty and against all forms of inequality. I’m against hierarchy in general. But the reason why I particularly focus on animal liberation is that I think it’s something that most people would technically agree with, but it’s not worked on nearly enough. This is why that’s my focus.”
An action Deniz was involved in resulted in the shutting down of a testing lab in Hamburg, Germany. An undercover investigation had uncovered the brutal conditions inside the lab, but let’s face it, no testing lab has humane conditions. The activists used every tactic available to them, including marches, vigils, social media campaigns, and press releases. Within a year, two testing labs were closed as a direct result of this pressure. “That was a success that taught me to pick one target and to go full force on that target. Everything we do has an effect—every conversation we have, every talk we do. But this specific example where you see all of the animals being rescued was most rewarding.”
While she claims to be a bit of a pessimist when it comes to reaching goals in other movements—such as meeting our targets on climate change, she is optimistic about achieving animal liberation. When she speaks to the public about this, she doesn’t attempt to convert people to a vegan lifestyle. Instead, she speaks to them about oppression.
“It’s about them recognizing that whatever oppresses them in their life is the same mechanism that also oppresses animals without their knowing. With this kind of discourse, people connect to it. I want them to see the systemic problem, and if they then change their consumption habits, I let that happen naturally and organically for them in their private sphere.”
For anyone new to activism, Deniz recommends learning about the history of the movement. “Some of the things that I thought we were doing for the first time, some people have been doing for 40, 50 years, and it was valuable for me to understand what kind of results they have achieved.”
She also recommends trying different forms of activism to determine your preference. Activists who enjoy the activities they take part in are more likely to continue, and she stresses the importance of working sustainably to avoid burnout.
“Remember that you are valuable to the movement. Take personal time and be happy and healthy and social apart from activism—don’t sacrifice everything because that will not be sustainable. Animal liberation will take a long time so keep that in mind and understand that activism is going to be a lifetime commitment, not a five-year race.”
That’s the reason behind RARA, Rights for AR Advocates, an organization Deniz co-founded that aims to ensure animal rights advocates work under sustainable conditions and are paid as much as possible.
“We realized that the animal rights movement, especially in the non-profit area, has problems like any other industry and any other workspace. But we are particularly concerned with this one because we see the retention rates are very disappointing. A lot of activists leave their organizations because of burnout, because of PTSD, because of low pay or no pay. We believe that this is ignored and more important than many of us might think because the human workforce in the animal rights movement has a direct impact on animals. The longer people stay in the movement and become experts, the more valuable they become for the movement.”
As Deniz is working on bringing about change, she is bolstered and emotionally supported by her dog, a stray she welcomed into her home. He provides her with the inspiration she needs to continue to do this difficult work. “My dog is my motivation, but also my reward. Every day I do this work for him and because of him. He changed me completely, and he’s my greatest teacher.”