Animal activist Justin Barker discovered his passion for saving animals as a young teenager. Faced with routine bullying at school, dismissive adults, and an unyielding desire to rescue animals from confinement, Barker set out to free two black bears named Brutus and Ursula from a defunct zoo in Northern California, deeming him “Bear Boy”. Now, 25 years later, Barker is sharing his story in Bear Boy: The True Story of A Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to be Free.
Why did you decide to share your story now?
Justin Barker: I started writing Bear Boy 10 years ago because a book about animal rights changed my life when I was thirteen. I wanted to pay that forward with a book for young people who either already know how powerful they are or for ones who need a nudge to discover their strength.
I think animal rights is a great entry point into all sorts of activism. For me, my activism started with animal rights and over time expanded into the social and environmental justice movements. My hope is that young people who read this book see that with some determination and persistence, change is possible. Plus, Brutus and Ursula’s plight perfectly highlights the struggles animals face in captivity and I wanted to write a book that inspires a new generation to take a hard look at zoos.
You share a lot about your treatment at school and dealing with bullies in “Bear Boy”. Do you think these experiences helped you empathize with the poor treatment of the animals you encountered?
JB: I don’t think I realized that at the time, but as I was writing this book, it became very clear to me that the bullying that so many young people experience is no different than the lack of empathy animals face — particularly ones locked behind bars. You don’t have to be at any zoo long before you witness the same taunting, teasing, laughter, and mockery that runs rampant in school hallways.
Only when I discovered my compassion for animals and the tools to stand up for them was I able to find compassion for myself. That’s when everything changed in my life.
You’ve been an activist for years now. How do you avoid burnout?
JB: Sometimes this work can be overwhelming and pretty daunting. Witnessing animal abuse can take a real toll. Finding mentors and allies is critical to sustaining this work. We need people we can lean on both emotionally and strategically.
We know real lasting change takes years and even decades. Just count how many years and local protests it took to close down Ringling Brother Circus. It’s so important to keep your eyes on the ultimate outcome while celebrating small successes in the direction of change.
Plus, we have to harness our creativity and never forget to have fun. What’s that Emma Goldman quote? “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”.
And don’t forget to drink water!
When your story first went to the national media you received an outpouring of support. Did you receive any negative feedback or antagonism? If so, how did you deal with it?
JB: This story happened long before social media, so I never had to deal with trolls or anything like that. The support I received was all via mail or phone calls — and it was overwhelmingly positive. Oh the ‘90s! Kids at school always had those hypothetical questions they love asking vegans, which I always tried to turn into teaching opportunities.
The biggest challenge I faced was from all of the adults who tried to dismiss my work. If I made a dollar for every “no” I heard over those years, I could have been rich. But that was the secret to the campaign. I was determined to prove all those adults wrong — for the animals.
I’m sure “Bear Boy” will be very inspiring for a lot of young activists. What advice do you have for young activists just starting out?
JB: My biggest advice for young activists is to find global issues they are passionate about and focus on local solutions. There is so much that we can do locally to solve big problems.
For me, the tragedy of keeping animals in cages was something I wanted to do something about, so I went to my local zoo to see what I could do to help the animals there. That activism eventually led to my work standing up for Brutus and Ursula. That very local story allowed me to share my message of compassion and condemnation of captivity to a global audience.
Do you have any other books in the works?
JB: The children’s publishing industry is an unabashed supporter of the zoo industry. It wasn’t until I became a Dad that I realized how many children’s books celebrate keeping animals in cages. All of these children’s stories normalize the incarceration of animals and prime children to go to the zoo. What are we actually teaching children about animals and how might this early exposure to captivity impact our views of the imprisonment of people? I’d like my next book to be geared towards younger kids and for it to be a story that celebrates animals with lighthearted and playful critiques of zoos.
Any advice for fellow vegan writers?
JB: Stop waiting for permission. Agents, traditional publishing deals, and all of those typical gatekeepers so many writers turn to are way overrated. We need to hear more stories about compassion towards all living things and we can’t depend on big, corporate entities to tell or publish our stories. And honestly, I’d encourage any writers who need support to reach out to me. It’s also worth looking for a community. I am part of Sentient Media’s Writer Collective which is a fabulous network of writers and animal allies.
And don’t ever forget …. Your writing is activism.
Justin Barker wants you to stand up for yourself and your fellow earthlings. He loves the Spice Girls and he thinks zoos are the worst. He is a San Francisco-based TV producer, writer, and activist. Justin and his wife, Bridget, are parents to Noah and their rescued pup, Beatrice, and are queer AF. They believe #LoveisLove, #BlackLivesMatter, and thirst for a more just and equitable world.
Bear Boy will be released on June 22, 2021. Preorder your copy here!