Growing up in Louisiana, The Vampire Diaries star Ian Somerhalder learned through osmosis about the interconnection between the environment, animals and people. The fragile ecosystem of the bayous provided the perfect classroom, and Ian’s early lessons naturally led him to follow an environmentally-conscious lifestyle in adulthood. But after witnessing the devastating effects of the BP Oil Spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, the actor felt compelled to take his activism up a notch. He passionately reached out to the public through interviews and social media and discovered his appeals struck a chord. “A component as simple as compassion has the gravity to enliven wide-scale change,” says the actor.
Envisioning an organization that could harness this positive momentum to make a difference, Ian founded the Ian Somerhalder Foundation (ISF) in December of 2010. Today, the organization is a growing force in protecting and furthering animal and environmental interests. Animal Wellness Magazine (AWM) caught up with Ian recently to find out more about the amazing work ISF is doing, and what it means to him personally.
AWM: You’ve said the whole reason you started the Ian Somerhalder Foundation was the feeling of complete vulnerability you felt during the BP oil spill. How has ISF altered those feelings for you?
IS:That is exactly right. My childhood was spent entangled in the raw, majestic ecosystem of the Louisiana bayous, so when the Gulf Oil Spill massacred those bayous, it felt like a direct attack on my being. I felt the pain of every blackened blade of grass, flock of gasping geese, or ripple of contaminated water. To be so overcome, so vulnerable, to this man-made devastation was unbearable.
What happened next still gives me chills every time I say it: an international chorus of voices united in perfect harmony and demanded more for this planet. More for every vessel of life walking, slithering, flying or swimming around us. More for us as evolved human beings. This chorus of voices was the IS Foundation family. Seeing, hearing, and feeling the vigorous and weighty force of this united band of change-makers abolished any sense of helplessness I ever had. With this family of actionists – armed with more skill, talent, and passion than I have ever witnessed – we no longer have a reason to be vulnerable.
AWM: We’ve heard you have three rescue cats, a dog and a horse. Can you tell us a bit about your animal companions?
IS: Growing up, our family home seemed to have a rotating door for all creatures in need. Whether we were fostering a kiddo without a family, rehabilitating the wildlife surrounding us, or taking in new furry family members, our home was a sanctuary for every vessel of life.
This rotating door has carried into my own home these days! Every time I am asked this question in interviews, I have a different answer. My team and I have rescued so many creatures that have either stayed with us or we have found homes for. And with time, I realized that while I pat myself on the back for rescuing them, in reality they have always rescued me. What we must acknowledge is that our creature companions come into our lives with a very connected purpose. They are our ultimate teachers in understanding, interconnection, introspection and the ultimate capacity of compassion.
AWM: We understand women are your biggest fans. In what ways are you seeing women getting involved with animal advocacy? Do you see a connection between women’s rights and animal rights?
IS: Even more than that, I see a connection between women and creatures. Surely, all human beings are animals, therefore ultimately creatures, but it seems many of us men have strayed far from our most innate beings. We have lost a bit of our intrinsic creaturehood. But not most women. Women have fierce instincts, unsurmountable strength, unshakeable wisdom…and all this is wrapped in the most magnificent display of compassion, evolution and consciousness. That is what human creatures can be, and women so effortlessly guide our path back towards that purpose.
AWM: What do you think the consequence for animal abuse should be? For example, should there be tougher penalties, or a system of rehabilitation?
IS: Obviously, I will never condone the atrocity of abuse towards any living being, but as controversial as it sounds, we should be entangling ourselves with those who abuse to better understand them. Rather than scolding, punishing, and turning our backs on these bullies, we should really hunker down into the root of their intention and learn how to evolve that intention towards compassion. Only by diving into the problem will we ever truly understand it and make tangible progress. You see, bullies are actually leaders in their own ways. They just need to be empowered on how to use their innate ability to lead and captivate for positive collaboration with their peers – those who are like them and those who are not. As a society, we seem to focus far more on the consequences, victims, and statistics, rather than honing in on the problem itself. Within problems, we find true solutions.
AWM: What kind of work is the ISF doing to support the homeless animal crisis? With shelters overflowing, what solutions do you see to this problem?
IS: This year, ISF launched our first spay and neuter clinic “Missisnippin” (isfoundation.com/ISF-presentsmissisnippin), collaborating with the St. Francis Animal Sanctuary in Mississippi. With ISF’s two-day clinic, we were able to successfully spay 42 cats and 36 dogs. We also neutered ten cats and 15 dogs. While we considered our 103 procedures a great benefit to the community, our vet expert concluded that a single unaltered cat can be responsible for up to 420,000 kittens over seven years and a single unaltered dog is responsible for around 67,000 puppies in seven years. So by spaying 78 females in our clinic, we prevented up to 20,052,000 homeless kiddos over the next seven years. And by neutering 25 males, we prevented 55,000 new babies in one year alone. Spay/neuter procedures are key to diminishing the horrifying numbers in our homeless pet crisis. We assure you these procedures are worth every effort and we are so grateful for the organizations and veterinarians spending countless hours performing them.
AWM: How do you feel about breed specific legislation?
IS: Breed specific legislation is an absolutely antiquated way of thinking. To really evolve as people, we need to allow beings’ individual intentions and actions to speak for them rather than grouping them into stereotype-fueled herds. We do this all the time in our society. We group people where we believe they fit and from there – we do nothing but assume. We assume we cannot collaborate with people who are unlike us. We assume youth are incapable of making real change for our modern world. We assume pit bulls are vicious and untrustworthy creatures.
Well, I have news for these people. My ISF family is a united force for change that is comprised of plenty of folks from different streams of life all unlike one another. They work together harmoniously. The most palpable, earth-shattering changes I’m seeing made today are by our youth. And lastly, I do have a pitbull daughter and she is the most gentle, nurturing, wise soul I’ve ever encountered. It’s time to extinguish these archaic assumptions!
AWM: You are involved with a lot of activism for both animals and the environment. In what ways do you think our animal companions are impacted by changes in the environment?
IS: At the IS Foundation, we believe there is no separation between us and the “environment”. We are as much a part of the environment as it is a part of us. There is no species-specific boundary between us and the other “creatures” among us. We all share one tethered existence kept alive by a single consolidated, collaborative heartbeat. The planet’s trees are our lungs. The waterways, our bloodstream. A hoof in pain is ultimately our shared pain. We live in a world riddled with vast global and planetary issues…but when we stop and realize that these issues are all interdependent, we can create interconnected solutions. By voting – whether through our consumer dollar or politically at a poll – for a conscious society, we heal our ecosystem, we rehabilitate our native habitats, our wildlife flourishes, and ultimately we revive ourselves as people.
For more information about the Ian Somerhalder Association, visit isfoundation.com