Justin Barker is an American animal activist, producer, and author of Bear Boy: The True Story of a Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to Be Free. He recently chatted with EcoLit Books about the experience of writing his animal rights memoir and his advice for young activists. You can read the EcoLit Books review of Bear Boy here or order Bear Boy here.
Q: Bear Boy is dedicated to the ’90s and you write about this band as being pivotal in your own coming-of-age story, so, to start off: who’s your favorite Spice Girl?
A: Ginger is my favorite Spice Girl. I actually very vividly remember when Geri left the Spice Girls. I was at work and literally started crying and had to go home. I was that big of a Spice Girls fan.
Q: When did you decide to write about your experience of fighting for the bears as a memoir?
A: The scenes and the story had been in my head for a long time. It had such a big impact on my life as a young person. As an adult I was in a yoga retreat and we did a death meditation. Essentially it was: “You have twelve hours to live. What are you going to do? What do you regret?” And one of my regrets was never helping another zoo animal. Because this story of the bears was so important to me, I thought, “I have to actually tell it. I have to capture what happened for the bears to hopefully inspire other young people.”
Q: What was it like for you to revisit this experience in your teen years as an adult?
A: It was really, really hard. Because there were lots of positive aspects of the bear story, I didn’t expect to be so emotional as I was writing scenes. It’s very weird to go back and be writing a scene about fighting with my mom and recreating moments like that. Most of the time I’m just living life, not thinking about the past. But thinking about being a three-year-old in ballet and having the neighborhood kids ask if I’m “a fag”—writing moments like that was very painful. I wrote most of this book in the 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. range, and sometimes I’d be all by myself sobbing while writing, and it was really hard. The writing process is hard, and revisiting your childhood is hard. It wasn’t an easy or a fun process, to be really honest. I didn’t even realize how emotional I was about those things until I was writing about them. It was cathartic, in a way.
Q: In the book, thirteen-year-old you has this amazing level of confidence that allows you to do things like call the mayor every day until he’s irritated with you, because you know you’re doing the right thing. Did that level of confidence come naturally to you or is that something you had to develop early on as a young activist?
A: I think it came naturally to me. I wasn’t an easy kid from my parents’ perspective. I was hard-headed and opinionated, so I had that already. I didn’t have any real strong social connections with other kids, so I related to adults in a different way because I was kind of oriented towards adults. That led to having the confidence to call up other activists all over the country and connect with adults. The rebellious, opinionated, kind of forceful attitude I had—there was no muscle to build there.
Q: Later in the book, when you get to high school, you do discover a community of friends and start exploring fashion and the Spice Girls. You’re fighting a grim, depressing situation with the bears, but you’re still able to be a regular teenager and enjoy life. What advice do you have for young people who might be feeling too overwhelmed by the world to feel celebratory?
A: One of my favorite quotes is, “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution” [from Emma Goldman]. I really like that spirit. There are so many challenges in the world, and if we can’t find joy in our daily lives and come from a place of joy, then it’s really hard to continue or to even start. Something I like about PETA is that there’s this interesting mix they’ve hit by combining activism with playfulness and pop culture, and I really resonate with that. There are so many challenges to tackle, but we all have to dance, we have to connect, we have to do what we need to do to stay well and healthy. I never questioned if the bears were going to get moved or not. But one thing I’ve learned is that we’re not in control of the timeline of what change looks like. Sometimes change can happen really quickly, other times it just requires long efforts. We know that activism, protests, and movements create change in the world. We’re seeing that all the time. It’s important to count our small wins and celebrate those, and then just continue down the road.
Q: What are the main takeaways that you hope young adults will get from reading Bear Boy?
A: I really hope that young people realize how important they are in creating the future that they want. We’re in a world where adults hold the power, but I don’t think that young people realize how much power they hold to insist on change, and to be the ones who really visualize what the future holds for them and insist that whoever’s making decisions is thinking about that vision. In the story of Bear Boy, my goal was to save Brutus and Ursula, but I was really having a larger conversation about the problems of keeping animals in captivity. I hope that young people can recognize big, global issues and find the local ways to create change because those ultimately have global impact. I like the saying, “Think globally, act locally” because it’s so true. It’s overwhelming to think about how to create massive systemic change, but we can all collectively make small changes. Going vegan/vegetarian is a great example. We see that the more people are going vegan, the more things are shifting. If we can all create change in our local communities, we’re going to see big shifts.
Lillie Gardner is a writer based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her work has been published in Quail Bell Magazine, Delmarva Review, Long River Review and more. She’s also an essays reader for Hippocampus Magazine and a contributor at Feminist Book Club.