Breaking Their Silence: Wildlife activists host film screening to build support for anti-ivory legislation

Courtesy photo
Shelburne Community School students volunteered at the “Breaking Their Silence” film screening to collect email address and hand out cards encouraging audience members to contact their legislators regarding S.29/H.99 when the Legislature resumes in January 2020. Left to right: Anna Dauerman, Sara DiGuglielmo, Else Hansen, Maya Girard and Elle McAvey.

Community News Service 

Local animal-rights activists are preparing for the next legislative session to advance a ban on selling ivory and products from poached and endangered animals.

As part of their effort to rally support, they hosted a screening last week of the multiple award-winning documentary, “Breaking Their Silence: Women on the Frontline of the Poaching War,” at the Main Street Landing Film House in Burlington.

The event was organized by VermontForWildlife, a volunteer animal-rights organization, to bring attention to proposed legislation that would make Vermont the 11th state to ban the sale of ivory and items from endangered and poached animals.

On hand for the post-film discussion was the film’s director Kerry David, whose work puts the spotlight on those on the front line of the poaching war.

“Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, you can’t unknow it,” David told the audience of roughly 60 people. “I was traumatized by what I had seen, and I felt so helpless. The more I was researching it, the worse the information got.”

The film documents the work of several female conservationists across Africa to protect endangered rhinos, elephants, pangolins (scaly anteaters) – and the ecosystems they live in – from poaching. The women face sexism, violence and death threats, but persevere and bring unique abilities and perspective to the war against poaching.

“It’s just about money,” David said. “It’s the same crime syndicates that are behind sex trafficking and drugs and arms. It’s now been proven that the profits from poaching fund global terrorism.”

During the panel discussion after the film, several people spoke about the disturbing nature of poaching and how the film balanced the horrors of animal abuse and the positive actions of conservationists. One woman said she was unsure if she could handle the subject because it is so painful.

“If you do truly care about something, then you act,” David said. “I made a film and I chose to do it through the female lens because I’m a female and I think these women are just rock stars”.

David’s film has won multiple accolades at film festivals including the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival’s “Spirit of Activism Award” and the Cannes Film  Festival’s “World Peace Initiative Award.”

State Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) is a lead sponsor of S. 29, the Senate version of the proposed legislation that was the subject of hearings in the 2019 session in Montpelier. The bill and its House counterpart, H. 99, did not advance to the floor of either chamber for a vote.

Pearson supports tighter restrictions on the trade of products from endangered and poached animals and he spoke after the film screening urging people to contact their legislators to show their support.

“I appreciate all your outreach to legislators. It really does make a difference,”  Pearson said. “Please write letters, make phone calls, talk to your friends, be creative and bring fresh ideas to the table.”

Pearson said his daughter’s fourth-grade class learned about the dangers that African elephants face. Since then, they often ask him what is being done to help elephants – something he described as heartbreaking but inspiring.

“I just need your help because I can’t go home and have dinner with her anymore and explain why we have not yet gotten this across the finish line,” he said.

VermontForWildlife has been pushing for legislation since 2012. Efforts last session included a push from students, particularly those at Shelburne Community School who made endangered-animal-themed art for each member of the Vermont House and Senate. Several students also testified before legislative committees considering the bills.

The group’s founder, Ashley Prout McAvey, a Shelburne resident, said the group is committed to getting the bill passed in 2020 and is working now to rally support as evidenced by last week’s event.

“The panel was filled with curiosity and empowerment,” she said. “And so many kids (were) there to spread the message of action.”

The proposed legislation focuses on the 14 most critically endangered species — elephants, rhinoceros, giraffes, tigers, lions, jaguars, hippopotamus, leopards, cheetahs, pangolins, whales, marine turtles, sharks and rays.

In a phone conversation, McAvey said, “even if one piece of ivory or one rhino horn is sold, we’re still guilty.”

Among those who addressed the film audience was former Shelburne resident Taegen Yardley, now a junior at Stowe High School, who has become internationally recognized as a youth activist in the past several years for her efforts to call attention to poaching and the trade in endangered species.

She’s spoken at the United Nations and most recently was one of 16 teens from around the world to receive the Young Eco-Hero Award from Action by Nature, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that encourages young people to preserve and conserve environmental resources.

Some of the younger students volunteered at a VermontForWildlife table to talk with film-goers, collect emails and hand out information encouraging people to contact their legislators to support the bill.

While the United States accounts for a large portion of the illegal animal trade, most goes to Asia where there are deeply held cultural beliefs that such animal products are medicinal or bring good luck. Activists say that education is not sufficient to reverse the poaching trend, making laws essential to stop poaching and save endangered species from extinction.

“It matters that people here care about what the people there are doing,” said Melinda Moulton, chief executive of Main Street Landing. “It’s a small world and it matters,”

Community News Service is a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.

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