By now, we have probably all seen those Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) ads that show a sad little puppy or kitten, asking people to be a hero.

Hero is a word that is overused. Yes, if a person donates to their local animal shelter or goes to the local animal shelter to adopt an animal, he or she could be a hero in that pet’s eyes. But that doesn’t appear to be HSUS’ intent with these ads. They want people to donate to their organization, and studies have shown that only a minute percentage of HSUS funds go to helping animal shelters.

To me, a hero can be defined as someone who seeks to improve the lives of others and is undeterred in his or her efforts to do so in an honest and ethical way.

People attending the Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholders Summit recently in Kansas City got to hear a hero tell her story. That hero is Dianne Sullivan, and fortunately, her story hasn’t ended.

An unlikely advocate for animal agriculture

While a former homeless woman from the mostly urban state of Massachusetts doesn’t sound like someone who would be a tireless advocate for animal agriculture, Sullivan fits both descriptions.

While at the summit, she told humbling stories about her struggles to feed her children and herself, as well as her struggles as a homeless person.

But she used her difficult times and the kind gesture from a person she once helped on a bus ride to inspire her to “give everything she had, even when there is so little to give, to help others.”

More than a year ago, a political campaign in Massachusetts was staged that would change the way pigs and layer hens are housed, making it illegal for farmers to keep sows in gestation crates or hens in cages. It would also make it illegal for businesses in the state to sell food products that came from farms using those production methods. The initiative was put on the ballot, and became known as Question 3.

However, the costs of cage-free egg production and crate-free pig production called for by Question 3 are higher than traditional practices, and that cost is passed on to the consumer. This did not seem fair to Sullivan, so she found herself deep in research.

That research showed that the pig and egg industries were not the ones being cruel, but rather HSUS and the other animal rights groups that were pushing for the passage of Question 3.

“On its surface, Question 3 would appeal to the good-hearted who want to prevent cruelty to animals. In reality, Question 3 is a cruel indifference to those of us who struggle to feed our families,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan cited a Cornell University study that revealed that in its first year of implementation alone, Question 3 would cost Massachusetts consumers nearly $250 million.

Bothered by what might happen, she became an advocate for the hungry and an adversary for the activists who were pushing Question 3.

“Like most everyone, I don’t want to be cruel to animals, but I refuse to be cruel to people,” said Sullivan.

The Question 3 campaign trail

While activists were advocating for Question 3 in advance of the election, Sullivan, already working two jobs, volunteered her time to advocate for those living in poverty and the farmers who raise affordable food. During that time, she was often shocked at how people who claim to be humane could be just the opposite.

“Compassion for humans can apparently be redefined or simply set aside,” said Sullivan.

She said she learned of how the activists used tactics like threats and intimidation to get others to sign on. According to Sullivan, because of those tactics, anti-poverty groups, university scientists, farmers afraid of backlash, and even the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association did not want to oppose Question 3.

She said during her campaign, she encountered at least eight people representing HSUS. One did tell Sullivan she was aware of her struggles and offered her most sincere sympathy.

“I assured her while I appreciated her kind words, I don’t need sympathy. I needed affordable food,” she said.

There were also those who were not so kind to her.

One online adversary of Sullivan’s even went as far as to suggest that Sullivan is the one who should be caged, and that if she had trouble feeding her kids, they should not have been born in the first place.

Instead of backing off, Sullivan essentially said “bring it on.”

“I’d like to think I created a unique challenge for HSUS. They could have protested in front of my home. My neighbors would have had a field day with them. They couldn’t boycott my business, because guess what? I don’t own one. And they certainly couldn’t bully me out of this debate, though they tried,” she said.

Question 3 would ultimately win out at the polls on November 8, 2016, with roughly 78 percent of voters approving of the measure. The law is to take effect in 2022.

The sense of fear experienced by people who were intimidated, and the activists’ reaching to people’s emotional side by showing images farms with unaccepted practices without explanation that the images were not following standard industry practices, led to its passage.

Had more people learned what she views as the truth about Question 3, however, she believes the outcome could have been different.

“Imagine if today, President Trump proposed a plan to double the cost of the most affordable protein available to low-income consumers. Rightfully, it would be considered a heartless and mean-spirited offense,” Sullivan said.

The crusades continue

After Question 3 was defeated, Sullivan could have just thrown her hands up in the air and moved on to other priorities.

She has not. Mainly because she knows that HSUS and like-minded activist groups are continuing to push for more industry changes that will call for new industry practices and lead to higher food prices.

Just like the activists persuaded most major grocery chains and supermarkets to commit to selling only cage-free eggs, they are now targeting the broiler chicken industry. Several dozen companies have already responded to that pressure and have committed to source only slower-growing broiler chickens.

“As we know HSUS is pressing further, trying to bully Big Agriculture into producing slower-growing broilers, driving up the cost of chicken meat,” she said. “Any debate on this issue requires the presence of its major stakeholders – low income consumers.”

She called for the formation of a coalition that not only represents the animal agriculture industry, but also those struggling to put food on the table to prevent animal activist extremists from telling farmers how to raise their animals.

Meanwhile, Sullivan, who received a standing ovation at the summit, will continue to advocate for what she thinks is right.