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The activist: Nora Kramer

Posted 8:53am on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012

Age: 36

Occupation: Texas campaign coordinator, Mercy for Animals

Home base: Dallas

Her broad smile and sweet demeanor are what first disarm you. Then, with a one-two punch, she lays you flat with an arsenal of alarming facts and a stream of gentle persuasion. Before you know it -- as you betray what your taste buds have told you your whole life -- you're considering ... never eating a cheeseburger again.

It's a sure sign that Nora Kramer is on her game.

She works with Mercy for Animals, a national nonprofit that works on farm-animal advocacy. You might see them leafleting schools, DART stations and other public places, and they're becoming well-known for their undercover investigations of factory farms that have revealed disturbing cruelty and conditions.

Most people really have no idea where their food comes from, Kramer says. "And if you just went along in your daily life, you probably wouldn't find out." Unless, for instance, someone like Kramer handed you a flier.

Before she moved to Dallas for the job last May, Kramer lived in San Francisco, working for Mercy for Animals there.

It took a while for this native New Yorker to meet pigs, cows and chickens, but she did when she left her first post-college job at an investment bank for an internship at a farm-animal rescue sanctuary in upstate New York. In college, she had already been enlightened to the plight of abused farm animals, thanks to a video shown in an environmental science course. But now she was seeing it all up close.

"They showed up just like the walking wounded," Kramer said. "They were just all in awful shape. Some hens have never learned to walk. Literally, they've been in a cage their whole life. The pigs that are bred to be so unnaturally big they can barely walk. Turkeys with their beaks and toes cut off. These are the lucky ones who got out."

For Kramer, who went vegan in 1998, there was no turning back.

She's passionate about her own causes of farm-animal advocacy and veganism, but her reach as an activist doesn't stop there. She is the founder and director of Youth Empowered Action Camp, which trains burgeoning activists. (The camp has locations in California, Oregon and New Jersey.)

"A real passion of mine is to be able to work with young people who know they want to make a difference in some way," Kramer says. "I think that's inherent to most humans -- wanting to make a difference in some way. But I think a lot of people give up the hope they had when they were probably a teenager. They start telling themselves things like: 'I'm only one person. What can I do? The problem is too big. It's not gonna make a difference.'"

Kramer doesn't fit the stereotype of the angry vegetarian who judges and admonishes you for your omnivore diet.

But that wasn't always the case, she says as we lunch at the Dallas Spiral Diner.

"When I first went vegan, I went through more of an angry, judgmental phase," Kramer says. "You kind of want to scream from the rooftops, you know, ' Helloooo?,'" she says, shaking my arm for emphasis. "'Look at these pictures! How can you ...'"

But she has read a lot about what influences people's decision-making, "and I've realized that being angry, from a strategic standpoint, is not gonna be helpful," Kramer says. "No one wants to be judged or told what to do."

Still, Kramer is sort of an undercover evangelist, gently opening many people's eyes to things like abuse at a Butterball turkey farm in North Carolina.

A Mercy for Animals investigation of that farm, from November and December 2011, produced a hidden-camera video that appears to show workers kicking and stomping on turkeys, and dragging them by their wings and necks; there are also images of live turkeys, their feathers caked with bloody, open wounds. The investigation got national press this month on ABC News.

MFA's biggest moment in 2011 came with its investigation of Sparboe Farms, an egg supplier for McDonald's. The video -- which was aired on ABC's 20/20 -- shows similar, shocking cruelty and unsanitary conditions. The news media attention prompted McDonald's, Target, Sam's Club and other big retailers to drop Sparboe as an egg supplier, according to ABC News.

If you're an animal lover, it's easier to just turn away from these horrifying images, to shut them out with "I just can't bear to watch" denial.

That's exactly what Kramer and her cohorts are trying to change, one investigation, one flier at a time. She knows that many of her fliers will be ignored or trashed (or, hopefully, at least recycled), but she also knows that the message will reach at least a few people. "To me it just feels so good, something so simple: handing someone a piece of paper or a booklet that I know is going to change someone's life," she says.

Eddie Garza, who used to hold Kramer's position in Dallas and is now her New York counterpart, calls Kramer "one of the most dedicated activists I've ever worked with." They met about two years ago when both were working on an Ohio ballot initiative that aimed to stop the use of gestation crates for pigs. "She has a brilliant mind, and there is a real sense of compassion to her. She's able to see things in a very balanced way. When you talk to Nora, you're going to get pure trust and honesty."

And sometimes you'll get pulled into a rhapsodic discussion about today's diversity of vegan options and alternatives, from her favorite brand of cheese to the slew of vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants. With Kramer, it's so organic, engaging and earnest, you won't even realize she has been working her activist magic. (She did tell me she's a workaholic.)

Rather than be daunted by the challenges of being transplanted to the beef-crazed Lone Star State, she's delighted. It helps that she has found a very strong vegan community in North Texas, which she sees as a perfect place to spread the Mercy for Animals gospel. "Where could this perspective be more needed than what's considered cattle country?"

Find out more at www.mercyforanimals.org.

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