Book cover of "The Life of Pei"

Book Review: The Life of Pei by Pei Feng Su

The new autobiography, The Life of Pei (not Pie), 2024, published by New Lantern Publishing (Woodstock, New York), covers over five decades in the life of the author as well as the growth of animal rights and welfare networks in Asia, beginning in Taiwan where the author was raised. Ms. Pei (pronounced PAY) Feng Su writes of her childhood influences (family and Buddhist) and how these prepared her to eventually found and lead her nonprofit, ACTAsia, which teaches compassion for people, animals, and the environment in Asia. She often comes back in her story to her three sisters, mother, and daughter, Risa.

The common thread throughout this book is the gradual accretion of empathy for other creatures, particularly in societies with no habit or history of such concerns.

At an early age, Pei was part of a local research and activist group, the “Life Conservationist Association,” which investigated abuses against animals while promoting Buddhism and its belief that all life is equal. She writes “At the time, I was not particularly preoccupied with animal issues or even really understood why animal welfare was a specific concern, but it did make sense to me to have a mission based on justice for all forms of life.” While at LCA, she was exposed to foreign specialists from the UK working for the Environmental Investigation Agency, who helped her investigate cruel and illegal trades in rhino horn, ivory, and orangutans. Attentive to research, she came to understand early how “the demand in Asia for rhino-horn powder was causing the massacre of rhinos in Africa, with massive numbers of rhino carcasses being left to rot after the removal of just the horns.”

Similarly, her journey pivoted to contacting the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA – now World Animal Protection), which also visited Taiwan, investigating bear-bile farming in China, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the illegal wildlife trade, and zoos. She made up her mind to travel, meet key supporters in Europe, and learn about nonprofit networks in the US. She “visited the Animal Welfare Institute, Farm Sanctuary, the Humane Society of the United States of America, …People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the International Society of Animal Rights… and… attended meetings on the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).” She spent time interning for the NY-based Farm Sanctuary nonprofit and then moved to the UK, where she earned a Master’s degree.

Her story parallels the emergence of Taiwan from an autocracy to a democracy where NGOs could emerge. She was a part of the LCA-WSPA Pet Respect campaign “Disposable Dogs: Made in Taiwan,” which she explains “was a turning point in the history of animal welfare advocacy in Taiwan, with the terms “animal welfare” and “animal sentience” starting to acquire meaning among the public.”

She describes the cruelties she documented during her career, including bear baiting in Pakistan, torturing bears, the slaughtering and imprisoning of stray dogs, and the fur industry. She documents the changes over time and suggests such changes gave her the patience to see similar opportunities for change in China and India. She comments, “in international work, it is entirely possible to overlook the social structure of a target country and the mentality of its population in the planning process. I think important cultural differences between collectivist and individualist mindsets should be carefully addressed when an organization is planning projects abroad or working with an international staff.”

After settling in the UK, another pivot point in her life was her adoption of a two-year-old homeless cat named “Socks,” whom she credits with teaching her about inter-species love. Growing up, she observed, “terminologies such as “animal sentience” and “animal welfare” simply didn’t exist in our language.”

In 2006, she set up the nonprofit ACTAsia (Originally “ActAsia for Animals”) to educate children, consumers, and professionals in Asian societies “to promote kindness to and compassion for people, animals, and the environment.” With Pei’s leadership, ACTAsia teaches about “One Health,” environmental issues, zoonotic diseases, deforestation, agriculture, climate change, intensive farming systems, plant-based diets, and “their implications for humans and animals.” ACTAsia works primarily in China but has representatives in Australia, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US.

“Education is key in everything we do,” she explains, “evident through ACTAsia’s award-winning Caring for Life (CFL) Education programs tailored for schools, universities, communities, veterinarians, teachers, and social workers.”

She summarizes ACTAsia’s achievements over the last decade: “More than 350,000 children have received CFL education in schools and community centers; more than 4,000 veterinarians have been trained; and our Compassion in Fashion show and forum continue to reach 50 million people each year through various media outlets. It is often said that success breeds success; this certainly applies to ACTAsia.” ACTAsia is the education partner of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association in Asia for its veterinary training program. ACTAsia also assists local organizations in Asia to implement humane methods of stray animal control, such as spay/neuter and release programs, as an alternative to culling.

In 2000, ACTAsia established AsiaLink, the first international Asian network focused on animal welfare and humane education. It facilitates collaboration among member societies in 12 Asian countries. Recently, ACTAsia set up an alliance across six countries called the Compassionate Choices Network, which informs consumers about making compassionate dietary choices and the benefits of doing so. She writes, “Our sustainable future is with plants.”

Throughout this book, she builds her theme about the interconnectedness of people, animals, and the environment. Pei understands through her Buddhist studies and animal welfare work that people, animals, and the environment are interrelated. Respecting this interconnectedness underpins her advocacy.

Steven Hansch is a humanitarian aid specialist with extensive field, management, and evaluation experience. He teaches at several universities and serves on several nonprofit boards involved in human development and humanitarian aid. Leslie Barcus has served on national and international animal protection organization boards. Her professional activities include work in more than forty countries addressing animal protection, microfinance, biodiversity conservation, organizational capacity building, and international economic development. 

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