Stefan Austermühle – before he met Nina

Stefan grew up in Germany. At the age of 15, he had a fascination for photography and nature. By 17-19 years old, he had his own black and white photographic laboratory and was exhibiting in galleries. He was also interested in history and worked as part of a youth group in a local museum. The museum’s director was a politician and this sparked an additional interest in politics; by the age of 21 Stefan became involved in the city parliament. Stefan remembers at this age being head strong, opinionated and rebellious towards authority. He says he was “bad in school”; if he thought a teacher was not teaching them well he would rebel. He says of his time between the ages of 17-22 that he was “looking at where my life was going, not consciously maybe, but trying out lots of different things including different religions, youth groups, photography, graphic design, history, politics…”

Stefan left school without high enough grades to go to university immediately; this meant he would have to wait a few years before he could apply. Two years of compulsory military service was looming. However, an ethical dislike for this option coupled, he admits honestly, with a greater desire to rebel against the wishes of his father, led to him successfully applying for civil service instead. This involved working in a hospital for two years, with his jobs including “carrying dead body bits in bags to the crematorium and cleaning the room with the dead people in it”. I guess you could say he did not get out of military service lightly.

After civil service, Stefan began learning a profession. He worked in the printing industry for three years… remember his interest in graphic design? But it was also during this time that events transpired to lead him away from art and towards conservation. He happened to go to a presentation one day. The presentation was given by a local Greenpeace supporter group and was about the ozone layer. Stefan remembers feeling very angry afterwards… not about the ozone layer but about what he considered to be a terrible presentation. He remembers thinking “This is such an important problem and I could have delivered it better than them!”

So he set out to do just that. He joined a local supporter group and within one month was one of four elected leaders, becoming a specialist in delivering presentations about whales. He took advantage of his auto-didactic learning style, teaching himself by reading everything he could and deepening his learning by teaching what he learnt. Maybe not surprisingly Stefan was also by this time an elected member of parliament for the Social Democratic party.

With three years experience with Greenpeace already under his belt, Stefan was now eligible to apply for university. He remembers thinking, “Conservation is far more interesting than graphic design!” So, not surprisingly, he applied to study biology. On their first day at the university students were given a tour of the site and as part of this tour were shown the monkey laboratory. The professor working there was conducting behavioural research. In nature, a group of monkeys will grow to a certain size and then split into two. But in this experiment the scientist was taking the dominant animals from two groups, putting them together and attempting to establish a new hierarchy. Stefan remembers his instinct telling him how “Ugly and not right” it felt, and how it was “Terrible, like a concentration camp”.

Stefan knew that simply complaining about it as a first year student would achieve nothing. He decided the best course of action would be to work in the laboratory, acquire the facts and find a way to improve the situation, ideally by closing the laboratory.

During his first two years at university Stefan assisted the professor in the lab, slowly gaining his trust. For the first year his main job was to “Clean the **** out of the cages”. At this time he was also working within the professional arm of Greenpeace, assisting on their fisheries campaign. He also met a man called Ilja Weiss, executive director of one of Germany’s biggest animal rights groups and the leading figure in the political animal rights movement in Germany. Stefan spoke to Ilja about the laboratory and the need for something to be done. Shortly after, Stefan was hired as the assistant executive director within the organisation. At the age of just 24 Stefan was now “Studying, working and involved in an undercover operation”.

After nearly two years working in the lab, Stefan had succeeded in gaining the professor’s trust. While the professor was in India on a conference for a month, Stefan was given the keys to allow him access to the office. During that month he made copies of every single document within the office, (his camera and photography studio suddenly became very useful). It was a huge risk, but once he had the copies he was able to look through them at his leisure. Stefan found two useful angles: the professor had violated health regulations by allowing a pregnant student to clean the cages of animals who were infected with diseases, so allowing the possibility of the disease being transferred to humans; he had also been privately selling monkeys to zoos and illegally not putting this through the university accounts. Stefan knew that the legal matter was what he needed to win over the powers that be; the fact of animal mistreatment would simply be the “Emotional salt in the wound”.

Stefan changed universities so that he could publish his findings as a witness. Initially, the Ministry of Health branded him a liar and attempted to discredit him in the press. But Stefan also knew how to use the press; he gave them his information one small piece at a time to maintain their interest in the story. It took four years, with an attempt at arresting Stefan in the process, before the case was resolved. Stefan succeeded; the laboratory was closed and the professor dismissed. As far as Stefan knows, this was the first and only time that a student has ever succeeded in closing a laboratory and forcing the dismissal of a university professor.

By this time Stefan was deeply involved in the political animal rights movement in Germany. He authored a picture book and written book about animal captivity. As both a biology student and activist, Stefan had access to a wealth of information on psychological suffering, animal behaviours, biological functioning etc. His books were the first in Germany on the subject of animals suffering in captivity in zoos. In 1994 Stefan was involved in campaigning against zoos and he formed his own NGO to end dolphin captivity. Out of the seven aquariums in Germany with captive dolphins, three were closed as a result of his work. Not surprisingly, his studies took longer than expected because of all the extra work he was carrying out.

When Stefan was 28 years old, there came a crisis. Ilja was in love with the President of his NGO and was planning to propose to her. However, he discovered there had been a misuse of funds. Ilja and Stefan knew they had no choice but to have a new president elected in her place, and Ilja would no longer propose to her. Unfortunately, she found out about their plans and rallied her supporters. She succeeded in having both Ilja and Stefan thrown out of the organisation and in discrediting them within the animal rights community.

For the previous ten years Stefan had been involved in the animal rights movement, undercover work, exposing bad practise, running an organisation, writing, lobbying… He had seen corruption, in-fighting and some of the worst traits of human nature. As he says, you have to have a “stubborn, dominant, focussed, unforgiving, fighting character with a strong conviction in your own abilities and judgement” to be involved in such work. But now, he’d had enough. He had been burned in the German press with his reputation damaged and he wanted nothing more than to leave the world of conservation and build a new life. To become a scuba diving instructor… become a travel journalist… move to a new country… live a ‘lighter’ life…

Then Stefan received an email from a woman in Peru called Nina Pardo which would prove to be the spark to ignite a new fire; one that would lead to an almost unbelievable romance and the start of the next chapter in both their lives.

But who is Nina Pardo? Find out more about her role in this unfolding story next time…

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2 thoughts on “Stefan Austermühle – before he met Nina

  1. I have been in the buisness of helping and saving animals with many charities and groups with Facebook.
    There is still to this day In fighting and it’s all about Egos. You would think that everyone thinks like you and naively think that these are good people but so many aren’t and that’s hard. If us humans can’t get it togheter there is no hope for the animals.

  2. For me, having my naivety swept away about how our ego’s affect every human endeavour, including conservation, is a tiny step in a much longer personal process. Something along the lines of…
    Step 1, have my naive/innocent/idealistic illusions shattered
    Step 2, have my own personal reaction to this. Do I judge, argue, blame, challenge,  feel disgusted, give up hope, feel disempowered, wish to expose, want to be the hero, think that someone else should fix it…?
    Step 3, become aware that my own response may itself be coloured by ego
    Step 4, become aware that I am responsible for my reactions and that I cannot judge others till I have overcome my own ego
    Step 5, learn about, understand, integrate and heal myself. Choose to cultivate the light within rather than the shadow, so that I become the wiser, more loving and compassionate part of myself and, as a consequence,  less controlled by my ego-bound, shadow-self
    Step 6, realise that I no longer have any judgmental feelings towards others and their fallibility to their own ego, so instead can cultivate compassion towards them which in turn influences my actions
    Step 7, live my life in the light of my highest self, being a magnet to attract others to do likewise and helping others learn this process while remembering that I am only ever responsible for me; I cannot make someone jump from step 1 to step 7
    Since most of the time I am somewhere between step 2 and step 5, the rest is still a little hazy to me!

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