By Philip McKibbin
Kim Stallwood is no ordinary animal rights activist.
For one thing, he started his career in a slaughterhouse – which would be less remarkable had he not gone on to become the first Executive Director of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). He has been vegan for 47 years now, longer than many vegans today have been alive! But even more extraordinary is the story of his heart…
Kim first learned something was wrong in June 2021, when he collapsed in the street, not far from his office in Southern England. An ambulance took him to Conquest Hospital in Hastings. There, his hopes of being quickly discharged were dashed. ‘They wouldn't let me go home, because they were afraid I would collapse again.’
Kim’s condition was extremely serious: he needed open-heart surgery. He was taken to the Royal County Sussex Hospital in Brighton, about one hour’s drive from Hastings. The cardiologist explained that he had been born with a heart defect which had caused the tissue in his aortic valve to atrophy. They would have to replace the valve with another.
The doctors informed him the surgery would take five and a half hours. 'I remember clearly them telling me that after the surgery, I was going to feel as if I had been hit by a massive truck, and it would take months to recover and heal,' he says. But the biggest shock would come when he asked about the replacement valve they would be putting in his heart. The surgeon explained it was made from tissue that had surrounded the heart of a cow.
Kim – or the Grumpy Vegan, as he is known by his followers – has long advocated for animal rights, and he is now recognised as one of the movement’s leading figures. In his autobiography, Growl: Life Lessons, Hard Truths, and Bold Strategies from an Animal Advocate, he retraces his journey, shares lessons he has learned, and calls for a re-thinking of animal advocacy. His work explores four key values, which are compassion, truth, non-violence, and justice. And in 2020, the British Library acquired his collection of animal rights research materials, which is available to the public as the Kim Stallwood Archive.
So being told that the surgeon planned to put cow tissue into his body was upsetting. ‘My immediate reaction was, ‘What, can't you make this in a test tube? They make meat in a test tube now, why can't you do that?”,’ Kim explains. ‘And the surgeon began to say things like, “Well, the cow wasn't killed for this particular product.” And I said, “Look, that doesn't make any difference. As far as I'm concerned, that argument doesn't wash with me.”'
Although many replacement heart valves are made using animal tissue – from cows and pigs – some are mechanical. Mechanical valves are usually given to younger patients, because although they are more durable, they also require that patients take anti-clotting medication. Older people are typically more vulnerable to its side-effects, which can include bleeding, so it is generally safer to give them biological valves. Kim was told he was not eligible for a mechanical valve, and that he would have to accept a biological one.
As a vegan, Kim avoids using animal products as far as practicable so he does not harm the animals who those products are taken from. When it came to his heart, he says, he had no real choice: ‘When you are presented with a situation where it is literally life or death, you choose life.' He had already been given medication that he knew would have been made using animal ingredients, and it had probably been tested on animals, too.
'Yes, I could say, “No, no, no,” and argue and fight it out with the surgeon, but ultimately, when you're in that vulnerable situation, where I knew I almost died, there was no choice in the matter. If I said “no,” then I was probably putting a death sentence on myself. And when you're faced with that, really, what can you do?'
To the doctors, the surgery was a routine procedure – ‘even though,’ Kim explains, ‘it's a big deal, because they saw open your ribcage, take the heart out while you're on life support, and operate on the heart when it’s outside of your body, separately.'
It took two weeks for him to start walking again, and two months to recover. Now, life carries on for him much as it did before he collapsed that June day back in 2021.
When Kim has shared his story, friends have been understanding.
'People generally have always said, “You made the right decision.” I haven't talked to a lot of vegans about this, although people do know that I had it. And certainly no one has ever negatively confronted me about it, or accused me in any way of abandoning my commitment to animal ethics by doing it. If anything, everyone who I've spoken to about this from the vegan animal rights community has been very sympathetic and very understanding.'
However, some of the reactions he has received have been trivialising: ‘You know, things like, “After all the animals' lives you saved by being who you are, don't you think they're giving back to you by doing this?” And I don't, no.’
Even though he disagrees with those remarks, he believes they are well-intended.
'If anything, it was probably their way of processing the information, and making sense of it. They were just projecting onto me, in the hope that it would be a platitude that would make me not feel bad, because they thought I did feel bad about it. I mean, I do feel bad about it. I don't like it, you know?'
Kim believes the replacement valve was likely made using tissue from more than one cow. He says that, although the procedure has not changed his position on veganism, it has prompted him to be more understanding of others’ medical choices. ‘I think, maybe, it's made me feel a little bit more willing to go along with someone who may say something to me like, “I'm vegan, but because there's some medical condition, I have to take such and such a major medication, or some product, which is animal-based,”’ he says.
What does all this mean for the future of animal rights?
Kim thinks we need to invest in new technologies.
'Well, I do feel that at some point in time, the material that they use in future operations like mine will not come from slaughterhouse by-products. They will be manufactured in the lab, and they’ll be more refined, better-quality products, because they won't come out of the body of a being who has been slaughtered in a disgusting, filthy slaughterhouse.'
Similar technological developments have occurred in the past – for example, insulin used to be manufactured exclusively from pigs, but nowadays most medical insulin is synthetic. Also, synthetic options are now available for skin and bone grafts.
Kim believes that, sooner or later, we will stop using animals altogether. ‘Eventually – hopefully in our lifetimes – the whole massive edifice of billions of animals who have been raised and killed for food will collapse, because it's unsustainable,’ he says. ‘And when that happens, a lot of industries and products that were using animal slaughterhouse by-products – often blissfully unaware of where those by-products originated – will have to change.' The main reason they are used, he explains, is because they are readily available.
However, in order to end our use and abuse of animals, we need to view animal rights as a political issue. This, Kim says, will involve us challenging the economic system that continues to uphold animal exploitation. Together, we need to explore alternative ways of living, and – as disabled vegans have argued – make veganism accessible.
In the meantime, Kim must live with his altered heart.
One question he thinks about is, ‘What if a person came along and said to me, “You've sold yourself out by having that operation.” How would I react to that?’ Fortunately, it has not happened yet – but he has thought about how he might respond if it did. ‘I guess I would say something like, “Well, if you're in my shoes, you can do that and see what happens.” I was in my shoes; I had to deal with it. I made the decision that I made.
‘I’m alive fighting for animal rights.'
To learn more about Kim Stallwood's work, visit: https://kimstallwood.com/