‘Animal rights will be part of our DNA’: Q&A with Bogotá councilor Andrea Padilla – Mongabay.com

  • After nearly two decades on the front lines of animal rights advocacy, Bogotá native Andrea Padilla won a seat on the Colombian capital’s City Council.
  • Padilla was propelled to victory last October thanks to thousands of votes from Bogota’s animal rights activists, many of them also pet-owning vegetarians.
  • Less than a year in office, Padilla has tallied a series of legislative victories, yet remains a lightning rod for criticism, including from conservationists.
  • In a one-on-one interview with Mongabay, Padilla spoke about her origins as an activist, the moment she stopped eating meat, her journey to the City Council, what to do about Pablo Escobar’s hippos, and how she plans to deploy her political power.

BOGOTÁ — Andrea Padilla is a 42-year-old Bogotá city councilwoman. She has a Ph.D. in law, two master’s degrees in criminology and philosophy, and an undergraduate degree in psychology. Her doctoral dissertation makes the case that animals in Latin America are not simply objects, but rather sentient beings whose rights should be protected by law.

Padilla spoke with Mongabay recently from her home in Bogotá, where she described her place as usually being full of animals because she is a cat rescuer. In addition to being an elected official, Padilla coordinates CER Gatos, a volunteer organization working to capture, sterilize, rescue and return cats without homes. Padilla is also a university professor, vegan and writer. Her first non-fiction book will be out within a year.

Mongabay: How would you describe yourself? Who is Andrea Padilla?

Andrea Padilla: I am an activist for the rights of animals who made the leap to electoral politics. I say electoral politics and not politics because life was already political. Everything someone does as part of a cause or movement is political. I believe that once someone forges a leadership role, and has a deep commitment to an issue, that person should take part in the decision-making process and stop delegating that power to others.

I started out as one of the semi-naked people in the streets, marching, performing. I organized demonstrations. Politicians shut the door in my face when I approached them for help. This was years ago, when we were laughed at, not taken with any degree of seriousness or importance. I started, like many, taking in dogs, cats, volunteering weekends at a shelter. 

Andrea Padilla at home with her cat. Image courtesy of Andrea Padilla.

Mongabay: Tell us more about these early formative experiences.

Andrea Padilla: Getting all those doors slammed in my face was a formative experience. Seeing that most politicians don’t fight for causes, that was formative. It is easy to feel disgust for politics in a county like Colombia, with so much corruption and clientelism.

One day, a cat came into my life. We named her Mayo because she arrived in May. I had never had a cat. I always had dogs. And this cat changed my life. This cat was a revelation, because one day I am cooking a chicken and Mayo is standing next to me on the counter. And while I am holding this chicken, I feel its claw. And I think to myself, this chicken’s foot feels just like Mayo’s foot, the same bones, the same muscles, this is the same animal, the same being. That day I became a vegetarian.

Later I got involved with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). PETA would send me packages in the mail with VHS cassettes, pamphlets, signs. This was long before the internet got going, but I just remember seeing these videos and thinking to myself “the day people can see this, they will have a change of conscience!”

Mongabay: What images shocked you the most?

Andrea Padilla: The slaughterhouses and the laboratories where they test cosmetics on animals.

Mongabay: And now you are a member of Bogotás City Council? 

Andrea Padilla: Correct. I was elected democratically in 2020 with 23,749 votes. And I spent less than $4,000 on the campaign. I believe it is one of the cheapest campaigns in history.

Mongabay: As an animal rights advocate turned politician, who are your constituents?

Andrea Padilla: I would guess that 80% or so are pet owners and probably close to that, maybe less, are vegetarians. I just saw a study that says 70% of homes in Bogotá have at least one non-human animal. This is amazing. Another important trend is that a lot of younger people are not interested in having children. They consider their spouse or partner and their pet as their true family. We now have multi-species families.

Mongabay: What do you believe is at the core of the animal rights movement, why did you join it?

Andrea Padilla: When we exclude animals and discriminate against them because they belong to a different species, and we think it is OK to subject them to cruelty and suffering because they don’t speak like us, reason like us, feel, think, communicate, walk or live like us, we generate exclusion and malice through pain and suffering. I became interested in this cause because I believe it’s the foundation of kindness and compassion in the world.

Mongabay: You are highly criticized by just about everyone. Animal rights activists criticize you for not being radical enough. Many traditional environmentalists or conservationists criticize you for caring too much about domestic animals and pets and not enough about native fauna and wildlife. For example, what are we going to do about the fact that both feral and domestic cats kill billions of wild birds each year?

Andrea Padilla: Within the movement I am criticized for not being radical enough. And I recognize that I am at times pragmatic, calculatingly pragmatic, terribly pragmatic. But life is short, resources are scarce and the problems are numerous. Take bullfighting in Bogotá. People were upset that bullfighting isn’t completely prohibited. It is not within our authority to ban bullfighting, but we can regulate it. We shortened the season from eight dates to three. We increased their taxes. We banned a number of the cruel practices used to poke and prod the animals. We made the actual killing of bulls in the plaza illegal. And we require the organizers to include information about animal suffering when they publicize events. This for me is a win. We’ve made this spectacle more expensive, less attractive and in terms of its pragmatism, we’ve all but eliminated it.

A green parrot in Colombia. Padilla talks about how to prevent domestic cats from killing wild birds. She is also working towards ending wildlife trade in Colombia. Image by TRAPHITHO via Pixabay (Public domain).

Many environmentalists criticize me for only caring about individuals and not about species, or populations or ecosystems. This is also false. I care about ecosystems and about protecting native and wild species and populations. In the case of domestic cats killing birds, which I believe is a huge problem, we need to ensure that our cats are almost completely indoor animals. We all need to make sacrifices and this is one that we can make. Cats need to live primarily inside. If they are outside, they should be in a managed environment and under very close supervision. In the case of the cats and dogs living in wetlands, as they do here here in Bogotá, they must be removed.

With feral cats there is a solution as well. In Barcelona and other places, feral populations are sterilized and then released into enclosures with enrichment. The spaces are managed by city authorities in collaboration with nonprofits and other entities.

Mongabay: Another controversial matter currently receiving a lot of coverage in Colombia and around the world is this business of Pablo Escobars hippos and their impact on Colombia’s native biodiversity. How did we get here and why are animal rights activists and environmentalists fighting about this?  

Andrea Padilla: The situation is that during the 1980s, the narco Pablo Escobar brought four hippos to Colombia, obviously with all the complicity of the state imaginable, because how else do you get four hippos into Colombia? If the authorities would have known what they were doing from the get-go, they could have castrated the male, and the hippos never would have reproduced. But since they fell asleep at the wheel, like they always do, by the mid-’90s there were some 16 animals and I believe three managed to escape. Today it is estimated that there are 80 individuals, probably more, because it is likely that people are rearing hippos on their farms, in captivity.

Mongabay: And the conservationists, biologists and ecologists want the hippos exterminated because they are wreaking havoc on the aquatic biodiversity and native ecosystems of the Magdalena River?

Andrea Padilla: One of the things that happened as part of this saga is that in 2009, the Ministry of the Environment and the regional environmental management authority CorMacarena issued permits for hunters from a local foundation — ironically enough called the Wildlife Foundation — to “capture” the escaped hippos, which of course meant that these guys were going to go out there and just start shooting them.

A herd of hippopotamuses swim in a muddy lake at the abandoned country home of Pablo Escobar in central Colombia. Image courtesy of FICG.mx via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

So, they go out there and kill this enormous hippo named Pepe. After they kill him, it occurs to these guys that they should take a picture posing with Pepe to show off their heroic feat. This generated all manner of public outrage. And it made me realize, “Wow, maybe in Colombia there is a little more empathy than I thought.” At the very least there is a certain rejection of this impudent attitude that says it’s OK to pose with a dead animal as a trophy. This outrage resulted in a legal decision to stop what would have otherwise been a mass extermination of the animals.

I understand and share peoples’ concerns about the importance of ecosystems and native species. The conservation of nature merits everyone’s full attention. What I find morally unacceptable is that there wasn’t even going to be a discussion. One of the things that’s good about all of the hell we’ve raised in the name of animal rights is that it made the environmentalists — the ones screaming “kill the hippos!” — moderate their cry for war and sit down at the table. And that’s a win. We’re not going to have a mass killing, we’re going to have a discussion and a mixed solution.

Mongabay: What is the mixed solution?

Andrea Padilla: We are talking now about three options, a combination of them I believe will work. First, sterilization. Both surgical and chemical. Since the chemical needs to be readministered, the surgical solution is a better long-term solution. Second, is some type of enclosed natural space.

Mongabay: A hippo park?

Andrea Padilla: It could be a kind of a hippo park, yes. And third, we will have to sacrifice some. This mixed solution allows us to control their reproduction and birth rate, control their geographic distribution and reduce suffering to the animals and to humans, because don’t forget there is a human population that benefits from these animals through tourism. But yes, some will have to be killed. Hopefully as few as possible, and after all other viable options have been exhausted, but in some cases, it must be done. We all have to make compromises.

Mongabay: Although you raise the ire of many environmentalists, your legislative wins and proposals are decreasing the wildlife trade and addressing climate change, is this correct?

Andrea Padilla: Yes. In January of this year, we passed a measure that bans the sale of live animals, which includes caged birds, in all five of the city’s public markets. I had been tormented by the horrendous conditions of these markets for years because of the risks they generate for human health and animal well-being.

Padilla visiting a public market in Bogotá during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Image courtesy of Andrea Padilla.

It’s also worth noting that within a year, the sale of caged birds in Bogotá will be prohibited everywhere in the city. And that we have also increased funding and improved facilities for wildlife rehabilitation in Bogotá.

On climate, at the end of last year, we approved a project to declare a climate emergency in Bogotá. In addition to upgrading to the Transmilenio (bus) fleet to electric vehicles and taking other steps, we said: “what about the consumption of meat?” This received pushback. And before I knew it, we were talking about watered-down solutions: using paper straws; taking shorter showers; not taking the car out as often, etc, etc. All these things are great, but come on. Animal-based agriculture and the consumption of meat are the major drivers of climate change and deforestation. As a capital city, with millions of people making millions of decisions a day, we can do something about this.

So, we inserted two articles into the climate agreement. The first is for the development of an ethical, healthy and sustainable menu program for all public entities. The program reduces consumption of meat by providing a vegetarian and vegan alternative at every public function and entity (like schools and penitentiaries) in the district. It also introduces a curriculum into schools so that children will learn about carbon emissions and the environmental impacts of raising animals for human consumption. And that, yes, in the process of being raised, transported and slaughtered, these animals suffer.

The second is a program called “Mondays without Meat.” The idea is that the district generates campaigns so that people become more aware of these issues, that eating animals drives climate change, drives deforestation, biodiversity loss, and causes suffering.

Animal-based agriculture and the consumption of meat are the major drivers of climate change and deforestation, says Padilla. Image by Neil Palmer/CIAT via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Mongabay: And its a voluntary decision people can make as to whether or not they eat meat on Mondays, or will you send people to jail if they do?

Andrea Padilla: One hundred percent voluntary. We’re not banning the consumption of meat on Mondays or sending anyone to jail. We’re educating people about the benefits of giving up meat once a week and if they wish to do so, that’s their decision.

Mongabay: You and the animal rights activists in Colombia are now a political force to be reckoned with. How will you deploy this force in the upcoming presidential elections and beyond? 

Andrea Padilla: Right now we are waiting for a legal decision regarding the development of national-level animal protection. This is something that’s established in President Iván Duque’s National Development Plan. But since these guys have been screwing around for two years on this, nothing has happened. So we had to file a grievance against them and are awaiting the response.

With regard to elections, I belong to the Alianza Verde (Green Alliance). I see it as my role to develop the party’s animal rights agenda.

Mongabay: The Green Alliance will have an animal rights agenda?

Andrea Padilla: We must. How can we be the Green Alliance without an animal rights agenda? So far, the national-level discussion has been very weak. I see it as my imperative to change this. Animal rights will be part of our DNA. The rights of animals are important to voters, the media is paying attention and our political relevance grows every day.

Mongabay: Thank you for your time. Anything else youd like to share?

Andrea Padilla: Just to say thank you and that all of this really is about understanding that everyone has a place in this world. That we all want many of the same things. To have food, water, air, sunshine, a place to live, to be with our loved ones, our families, to be safe. To know that our lives matter.

Banner image: Andrea Padilla in Bogotá’s Plaza de Toros. Image courtesy of Andrea Padilla.

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