Q&A: Mercy For Animal's Nathan Runkle

Abernathy Miller, Columbus Alive

For Ohio native and executive director of Mercy For Animals (MFA) Nathan Runkle, compassion isn't just part of his character, it's part of his job description.

Only 15 years after a teenaged Runkle founded Mercy For Animals, MFA was named "Non-profit of the Year" by VegNews Magazine in 2011 and made the "15 Top High-Impact Nonprofits" list by Philanthropedia in 2010. Runkle's undercover investigations at factory farms changed the way animals are treated in Ohio. On April 29, a barn at Sunrise Sanctuary in Marysville was dedicated in Runkle's honor. Even with all of MFA's accomplishments in the fight against animal cruelty, Runkle says he is just getting started.

I founded Mercy For Animals when I was 15. An animal abuse case in my area when I was younger moved me to become an advocate for farm animals. A high-school agriculture teacher brought in a piglet from his farm for dissection, and, when he saw it was still alive, "thumped" it on the ground. A few students were appalled, so they took the piglet to another teacher, and then to a vet who had to euthanize it. The teacher was initially charged with animal cruelty, but that was dropped because "thumping" is considered "standard agricultural practice." It illustrated to me that Ohio needed an organization to address farm animal rights and cruel practices.

The cause propels itself. In the last 15 years, Mercy For Animals has grown more than I ever imagined. When I started I had no money, no supporters and no experience. But Columbus has some very compassionate and progressive people who supported me early on. Now, we have offices in New York, Los Angeles and internationally in Canada. But I still consider MFA to be in its infancy. We are "going global" and expanding to countries like India, Mexico and China that have little or no regulation.

"Ag-Gag" bills are the next issue we are trying to tackle. The meat and dairy industries want to make it illegal to photograph or film a factory farm. If they get what they want, the punishment for photographing the abuse would be more severe than the punishment for the actual animal abuse. We want to stop this from happening because it would, in effect, make criminals out of whistle-blowers. They want to create a one-sided discussion, and that's dangerous. We are outspent. Funding and resources is always the biggest challenge. This discussion [regarding animal cruelty] needs to be had, and people need to reconnect with where their food is coming from.

In a civilized society, we don't subject animals to inhumane practices. Just in the last five years public awareness of animal cruelty issues has become more prevalent. We were able to put our findings online, which opened the flood gates for discussion. The majority of people don't want animals to be treated cruelly. People want to be passionate, and people are starting to wake up. My Dad is vegan now. He was resistant at first, but once he got the full story he felt ethically and physically better, so he stuck with it. But compassion for animals doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing thing. You don't have to go vegetarian or vegan to have compassion for animals. Consumers are reducing their meat consumption by just avoiding it for one day a week, which saves 1 billion animals a year.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Runkle

Nathan Runkle

Age: 30

Hometown: Saint Paris

Current city: Los Angeles

Day job: Executive Director of Mercy For Animals

Currently listening to: "Do it Again" by Robyn

Playing favorites

Favorite Movie: "Ghosts in Our Machine"

Favorite TV show: "House of Cards"

Favorite restaurant: Sage Vegan Bistro

Favorite musical: "Wicked"

Best way to spend $10: Donate it to Mercy For Animals