The women behind Our Hen House keep themselves busier than most, but their efforts in animal advocacy make it worth it. New Park Slope residents Jasmin Singer, co-founder and executive director, and Mariann Sullivan, co-founder and program director, have just gotten even busier though, as they’ve added to a long list of work with their non-profit organization (which includes a podcast and magazine) by launching a new TV show, which is airing on Brooklyn Independent Media.
The two were kind enough to find some time in between all the things they’re working on to talk to us about the new show, the organization, their adorable dog Rose, where to find great vegan food in the neighborhood, and more.
PSS: Our Hen House is a non-profit that seems to have its hands in a lot of pots, even before the addition of a TV show. Can you explain a little bit about how you got started, how things have developed over the years, and how you got to the point you’re at now?
Jasmin & Mariann: Our Hen House started more or less by accident. Jasmin was working for an animal rights organization as the campaigns manager, and Mariann was working as a lawyer and teaching animal law at several law schools. Jasmin, whose background is in theater, wanted to start a podcast, and Mariann wanted to start a blog, so we decided to combine them into one entity.
We both felt that if we were going to see the kinds of changes in the world that would be necessary to stop the horrific cruelty to animals that is rampant, we need everyone who cares about animals to step up to the plate and do whatever they can, right where they are now, to create that change. Animal rights organizations are great, and many are doing extremely important work, but if we want to create a new world for animals that is free of suffering, we can’t simply leave it up to them. It’s too big. Everyone who cares about animals has got to pitch in to make it happen. Our podcast and articles are both focused on how to help, encourage, and celebrate all of the people who are standing up for what’s right when it comes to animals.
Anyway, as soon as Our Hen House started — and we’re in our fifth year now — people starting flocking to it (pun intended). They were thirsty for ideas and opportunities to figure out how to use the talents they already had and social circles they were already in to create change for animals. So we went with that success, and expanded into a non-profit. Jasmin left her job and focused (more than) fully on Our Hen House, and eventually Mariann took early retirement (she is still an adjunct professor of Animal Law, currently at Columbia and Cardozo) — and we said, if we’re gonna do this, let’s do this.
The podcast keeps going strong (we’re in production for Episode 220 — and recent guests have included Steve-O and Emily Deschanel), and we soon expanded to have an online magazine, a video production unit, an eBook publishing arm (called Hen Press), and we tour the country giving talks on veganism, activism, and animal law. We have truly been blown away by the response to all of this — which is how and why we keep growing. That growth is emblematic of the fact that the tide is beginning to change for animals. It’s a truly thrilling time to be doing this, and so we try to remain indefatigably positive with each new opportunity.
What do you hope to accomplish with the new TV show?
A few weeks ago, we took our biggest step yet, expanding to have a TV show — also called Our Hen House — which is a co-production with Brooklyn Independent Media. It runs on cable (Time Warner and Verizon FiOS), as well as on the internet. We feel that this new show will allow us to reach a whole new audience of people who love animals, but who may not know what’s happening to them. There are many forces aligned to keep the truth about what’s going on in animal use industries from the public. Once people find out, they want it to stop. So we want to tell them.
At the same time, though, we want people to know that there’s a lot of hope and potential for change — and remarkable, cool people trying to bring that change about, and we want our viewers to get to know them and hear what they have to say. From chefs, to clothing designers, to artists, to musicians, to dog rescuers, to lawyers, to teachers, and on and on and on, the people who are making this happen are people you want to get to know (as do we). The show will continue to include a mix of banter, current events as they relate to animals, pertinent and moving videos from those trying to change the world, interviews, food demos, reviews, and various perspectives from those from all walks who are working on animal issues in a variety of capacities. We also try to bring a whole lot of humor and fun to the show, too, wherever and however we can. We’re vegan lesbians, so we have a bit of a stigma to shatter!
It’s early yet, but have you found Brooklyn to be receptive to the show? And why do the show in Brooklyn, and why now?
We are truly blown away by what’s going on in Brooklyn. This is a borough full of animal lovers, and full of people who are innovative and open to radical change.
The reason we are doing the show here and now is because we are working with the remarkable folks at Brooklyn Independent Media, a brand new TV station just launched by BRIC. They are committed to amplifying all of the voices out there that have something important to say and aren’t being covered by mainstream media. Animals are obviously on that list. This station is a remarkable addition to the media landscape here in Brooklyn, and we think it’s going to serve as a model for the kind of TV that should be made everywhere. We couldn’t be more excited to be working with them. And when it comes to the Brooklyn flavor that we plan on including on every episode, we are certain we’ll never run out of things to talk about and people working in this realm to interview.
How have you found New Yorkers’ reception has been to your work in general, over the years? Is this a city that welcomes these ideas, and are the number of supporters growing?
We have to say that the people who support this work, and recognize that our treatment of animals is a travesty of decency and fairness, are everywhere. Our followers are in New York, and Los Angeles, and Utah, and Australia and Germany and Israel, and absolutely everywhere. Just this past week, we received emails from podcast listeners (who are now TV show viewers) in Nuie Island (we had to look that up — it’s a tiny country sort of near but sort of not near New Zealand), Saskatchewan, Israel, Switzerland, and London.
Our audience is made up of those who lean left, those who lean right, older women, younger men, straight, gay, you name it. The thing about animals is that the people who care about them run the gamut of the political spectrum, and just about every other spectrum, too.
Since New York is such a diverse and eclectic mix, we do indeed have a lot of readers, listeners, viewers, and supporters here. And that’s pretty fantastic, because when one of them introduces themselves to us at a restaurant or on the subway, we honestly feel like we’re meeting extended family.
What do you say to people who might have preconceived notions about what it means to be a vegan, or an animal activist?
We throw red paint on their fur coats and tell them to choke on their hot dog.
(That was actually a joke. We do not do that. Despite what they say about us.)
When people have preconceived notions about being vegan or being an animal activist, we’re not sure we’d actually say anything. If people watch our show, or get to know us, or maybe get to know another vegan (and come on, we all have a vegan cousin or co-worker — they’re the ones who are always trying to feed you their homemade cupcakes), they’d just naturally question the concept that all vegans are skinny and health-obsessed, or that all animal activists are angry and irrational.
It’s a different time now when it comes to respecting these issues — vegan food is everywhere (especially here in Brooklyn), and people who care about animals are, too. Maybe they don’t all identify as an activist, but if you love your cat, or you watched Whale Wars, or there is one animal issue that gets your goat (like fur production, or veal, or foie gras, or puppy mills), there will be something about our show you will dig. It’s pretty much impossible that the vast majority of our viewers will see eye to eye with us about everything we discuss, but hopefully we’ll spark some conversations in the community that the show reaches. And hopefully we’ll shatter some of those preconceptions while we’re at it.
What’s one thing people do in their everyday lives that they don’t realize affects animals adversely, and what’s an easy way to cut that out?
They eat them. 267 chickens are killed every second in the United States, 24/7 (that doesn’t even count the countless other animals killed for food). That number is staggering. With the popularity of campaigns like “Meatless Mondays,” and with the growing trend of veganism in this country, this city, this borough, and this neighborhood, we hope that people will start to look at the animal products on their plate for what they are, and begin to consciously embrace more of a plant-based diet.
Maybe that means eating vegan three times a week for now, or eating vegan for breakfast and lunch. But we hope that people begin to see how delicious and accessible vegan food is, while at the same time familiarizing themselves with the issues behind factory farming and animal agriculture in general (and don’t buy the bullshit that there’s such a thing as “humane” meat — look into what that actually means, and then opt for the veggie burger).
When we went vegan (Jasmin 10 years ago, Mariann 20), our culinary worlds opened up in spades. There is literally a plant-based version of every single kind of animal product out there. So start trying it, and find the vegan versions of the foods you dig.
What’s one thing you’ve accomplished with Our Hen House so far that you’re the most proud of?
You only asked for one thing, but we’re going to answer with two. First of all, we think we’re most proud that we did it, that we actually started Our Hen House back in January, 2010. We went with our gut and said, “Something about this idea of creating a multimedia hub for people who want to change the world for animals is going to resonate far and wide,” and it did. For all of the ideas we’ve had in our lives that we never bothered to see through, we’re just really glad that we took a chance with this.
And second, without question, we’re most proud of the Our Hen House TV show. And we owe this to our brilliant executive producer at Brooklyn Independent Media, Karen Stevenson, who believed in us enough to give us this amazing platform. We work our asses off — we literally never stop working — but it is worth every last second of it, especially now that we have this phenomenal opportunity to get the message out there on TV. It’s a dream come true, and we could not ask for a better place to be realizing our dream than Brooklyn.
Illustration by Sabrina Bedford
How did you end up moving to Park Slope?
We moved to Park Slope on January 29 of this year. We had previously lived (and worked) in a 400-square-foot apartment in Soho, where Mariann had lived for over 30 years. We had been planning on moving for a while (though we had no idea to where), and when Karen mentioned the show, we recognized the importance of us living in Brooklyn (since the show is with Brooklyn Independent Media), and nonchalantly said, “We’ll totally move here.” Nobody thought we were serious. Brooklyn had been a dream for us, but we didn’t think we’d be able to swing it, financially (running a small, non-profit is extremely gratifying, but you don’t go into this line of work for the money).
Mariann’s nephew and his family live in Park Slope, and so we were very familiar with the neighborhood — and we had always loved it. We also loved the idea of being around the kids — Mariann’s great-nieces, who are 12 and 6! So we made an appointment with a real estate agent, looked at one apartment in Park Slope, and immediately took it.
We have a darling dog — a very sweet rescued pit bull, Rose — and though the one-bedroom we wound up with is a little smaller than we’d hoped, it has a backyard, and that pretty much sealed the deal. Rose loves it. And our apartment is absolutely fantastic. Plus, Park Slope very quickly won our hearts, and we just can’t wait to be here as the flowers bloom and as the vegetables in our garden grow (speaking of which — we welcome any and all gardening advice, including information on how to spot a weed).
One of your upcoming guests on the TV show will be Danny Carabano of V-Spot, so I’m guessing you’ve had and enjoyed the food there. Any favorite dishes there, or at any other restaurants around the neighborhood that you’ve found so far?
For years, we have been coming to Park Slope for the sole purpose of eating the empanadas at V-Spot. Having them in delivery-range of our apartment is nothing short of dangerous. Go to V-Spot, and eat the empanadas. We also really enjoy having brunch there — their pancakes are the perfect amount of fluffy.
We also love the vegetarian pho (we like to call it “faux pho”) at Henry’s on 7th, the vegan baked goods at Naidre’s (also on 7th), the vegan pizza at Pizza Plus (you can probably figure out where we live by now), and the smoothies (especially “The Resolution”) at Stoop Juice (the owner, Jose Franco, is going to be featured on Episode 3 of our TV show). We’ve also had some dynamite Chinese food, Indian food, and Japanese food. We intend to continue to eat our way around this neighborhood. (Please say hi if you see us!)
Anything you haven’t found yet, food or otherwise, that you’d love to see in Park Slope?
In Soho, we lived around the corner from the macrobiotic restaurant, Souen. Even though we love the richer vegan foods, such as almost everything we mentioned that we eat around this neighborhood, we actually tend to prefer eating simply. We miss the Macro plate from Souen, and would love a restaurant that offered that as an option. (We’ve actually figured out how to replicate it though, by getting takeout from Red & Hot II on 7th — the steamed broccoli with steamed tofu, and a side of brown rice — and then picking up some sweet potatoes from Food Train Market and popping them in our microwave, and making our own Tahini Dill dressing. But we’re New Yorkers. We like to be spoiled and order in.)
We’d also love if some of the more higher-end restaurants around the neighborhood — as well as some of the bars — offered some vegan options. We’ve been disappointed by the lack of vegan-friendly selections while menu-reading in the windows at some of them. That said, I’m sure they’d accommodate us if we went in and asked for a vegan meal, but how great would it be if they offered a dedicated vegan dish or two, and labeled it vegan? We’re sure that there would be a demand for that kind of thing, both from full-time vegans, like us, and part-time vegans. If you cook it, they will come.
You have a great rapport, both on your podcast and now on the TV show. How do you maintain your positivity, and have so much to talk about, with all that you must do together? Do you find it easy to live and work together, or are there some challenges?
Thank you so much! We really appreciate that.
It is kind of odd that we never run out of things to talk about. Once again, we think that points to the fact that the climate is changing for animals, and our shows — and our banter — are just a reflection of that. And, the truth is, we love talking about this stuff. We love theorizing on new ideas, we love trying new foods, we love learning about new animal-friendly businesses — and we love shedding light on those things so that others can enjoy them, too.
One of the challenges of being a married couple that works together is that you run the risk of never shifting from work to play. We do all aspects of Our Hen House together, and it ends up taking up pretty much every waking moment. We’re very bad at boundaries. It’s something we should probably work on developing a little better, even just to distinguish when we turn work “off,” and yet we never seem to manage to do that.
But that said, we have escapes. Jasmin is a passionate tap-dancer. Mariann is an avid reader. And each morning, we drink cocoa and watch cartoons. So that’s something.
How did your super-cute dog end up in your life? How is she adjusting to life in Park Slope?
ISN’T SHE THE CUTEST DOG YOU’VE EVER SEEN IN YOUR ENTIRE LIFE?! Our darling 11-year-old rescued pit bull, Rose, has been with Mariann since she (Rose) was two (Jasmin became the second Mommy shortly thereafter, once the two of us wound up dating).
Rose had been found in Washington, D.C., tied up to a tree, where she had been for several days. It was clear that she had just weaned puppies. The whole thing is very tragic. She was taken to a “shelter,” and at the time, in D.C., all pit bulls at shelters were killed. But this particular shelter had an underground railroad of sorts — a group of employees who tried to find quick homes for a few “lucky” pit bulls. Rose was one of the lucky ones. Someone there fell in love with her, snuck her out, and she wound up living with Mariann’s then-girlfriend. Eventually, Mariann wound up with her, and the rest is history.
Rose is the gentlest, kindest, cuddliest, sweetest, funniest dog. Pit bulls get an absolutely horrendous reputation, which is completely unfounded and based in ignorance. But we’ve noticed that (with the exception of the one Park Slope mom who, upon seeing us walking an exceptionally well-behaved Rose, quickly shuffled her kids to hide behind a car until we passed), folks around here are very progressive on this issue. We’ve seen our share of rescued pit bulls around, and our neighbors love playing with Rose. The best advocate for how wonderful Rose is, is Rose. She — and the other pit bulls we know — are ambassadors for their kind.
Oh, and Rose loves Park Slope. The Park is already her stomping ground, not surprisingly. And she insists on smelling every single morsel of dirt in the neighborhood (which is not at all annoying).
Going back to the beginning and noting how much you’ve done and are doing, what should we look out for from you in the future?
The folks at BRIC told us that, as part of their advertising for Brooklyn Independent Media, we are going to be on a bus stop! We feel a bit like Carrie from Sex and the City, but are just so completely excited about that. (We hope nobody graffitis it, or if they do, we hope they’re at least talented at graffiti.) So look for us on a bus stop! Or look for us sitting at the bus stop. Either one.
But seriously, we hope that our TV show continues to grow and blossom (speaking of Blossom, we had Mayim Bialik on our podcast recently — wonder if she’d come onto the TV show…). We want it to reflect the very beautiful and dynamic pro-animal side of Brooklyn — from where to find vegan grub in pretty much every neighborhood in Brooklyn, to Ringling Brothers circus protests at Barclays, to animals from Brooklyn Animal Care and Control who are looking for homes, to the work that’s being done to manage and care for the feral cat population that’s rampant around here. So look out for us around the neighborhood, and let us know which animal stories you think we should cover.
Anything else you’d like neighbors to know?
We just want to apologize for our extremely loud blender (a Vitamix, which could probably share an engine with a Volkswagon — it’s that powerful). We sometimes make late-night cherry ice cream in it, and we’re sure you can hear our frozen cherries whooshing around all the way in Gowanus. Sorry, folks.
Check out the Our Hen House TB show every Monday at 7pm, with repeat episodes on Wednesdays and Fridays at 7pm, on Brooklyn Independent Media, which airs on Time Warner 756 and Verizon Fios 46, or streaming online. For even more, check out the Our Hen House site, and find them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Top photo by Jo-Anne McArthur; all other photos, unless noted, by Our Hen House