For the love of animals: Lynda Stoner’s incredible journey from TV’s hottest star to animal rights hero

Lynda Stoner traded acting fame for animal rights activism and never looked back. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

The ‘glamour girl turned animal rights activist’ reflects on 45 years of Animal Liberation, and spills the soybeans to Elizabeth Usher about a special upcoming celebration!

Imagine being a young actress experiencing stratospheric levels of fame; one of the highest paid in the Australian industry, with countless magazine covers and a string of roles in popular TV shows, from The Young Doctors to Cop Shop to Prisoner. And then imagine abandoning all of it – walking away from the ‘glamour girl’ life – to follow an unexpected calling.

That’s exactly what happened half a lifetime ago, when Lynda Stoner swapped her prominence as a sex symbol of the ’70s and ’80s to become a leading figure in Australia’s animal rights movement, culminating in the role of first CEO of the Sydney-based organisation Animal Liberation, a position she has now held for over a decade.

Stoner can still remember the exact moment of what she describes as her “epiphany” – watching footage of harp seal pups being skinned alive on the news: “This just haunted me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. … I just had this calling inside of me and I was yearning to do something and I had no idea what.”

Lynda Stoner on Channel Nine’s Today Extra, reflecting on her first major TV role, in the iconic Australian soap opera The Young Doctors. Video: Mike Devery/YouTube.

In an effort to answer this calling, Stoner started volunteering on weekends at the Wilderness Society in Melbourne, where she was living at the time. She remembers this experience as “very valuable but still wouldn’t answer this thing in me”.

The complete answer didn’t come until she cracked open the spine of Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation, after buying it on the recommendation of a Wilderness Society colleague. Stoner explains: “I was in a cab on the way home when I read the first three chapters and that absolutely changed my life. It changed everything I thought, said, did, wore, consumed, my work, everything.”

Continuing with more details of her “powerful reaction”, she admits, “I was so ignorant in so many things until I read Peter’s book, and when I got home into my little cottage I chucked out all my leather and cosmetics that were tested on animals and obviously I didn’t eat any animals … from that moment on.”

Lynda Stoner met a new friend during the Sentinel‘s exclusive photoshoot! Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

Looking for a way to “do more”, Stoner then found a small group at the Melbourne markets raising awareness about battery eggs, which led to her meeting Patty Mark (founder of Animal Liberation Victoria) and joining in: “I stood next to her handing out leaflets.”

But of course, a famous actress has the opportunity to reach beyond one-on-one interactions with market attendees. As valuable as those exchanges were, Stoner was able to use her position in the public eye to the movement’s advantage: “The one thing that I could do was speak publicly about these things. If I didn’t know about them it stood to reason that the majority of other Australians also were not aware.”

In talking about her professional life, Stoner says, “Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed working in that industry. It was fun and I met a lot of wonderful people, but the most important thing it did was give me a platform to speak on behalf of the rights of animals.”

From TV’s ‘it girl’ to animal rights hero: Lynda Stoner parlayed her fame into a role advocating for and protecting animals. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

Soon, Stoner was inundated with fan mail about all sorts of animal rights issues: “There were people in our country who were distressed and upset and wanting to feel that there was something that they as an individual could do. Floundering like I had been, ‘What can I do, I’m just one person?’

“So I’d just spend all my weekends reading and researching and responding to people – back in those days we didn’t have the internet or email or anything so it was all hard copy mail that needed to be answered.”

The mail came by the bagful, and she enlisted help from various individuals in the movement – “Cheryl Forrest-Smith and Janine Berdeau and Graeme McEwen became dear friends of mine and they would be hauled in to help answer all of the mail, I couldn’t keep on top of it!”

Fast-forward a few decades, and besides the information superhighway changing our lives and Stoner’s new life as an activist, her life also changed significantly in that she has called Sydney her home for many years now. The Sydney-based Animal Liberation was the first ever Animal Liberation group, founded by Christine Townend in 1976, and Stoner is proud to be at the helm of an organisation with such a long history and undeniable impact on the local animal rights movement.

Stoner loves living in Sydney with its beautiful beaches. Reading on the sand and swimming are two of her favourite ways to spend her downtime and recharge. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

Recalling some of the actions she’s been involved in over the years, she notes, “I lost count of how many times I’ve been into battery hen facilities and piggeries!”

One that stood out was when she and Peter Singer got arrested being on Paul Keating’s piggery. Another was a raid on a battery hen facility owned by former Nationals politician Russell Turner, where The Sydney Morning Herald journalist Anthony Hoy accompanied her.

“We went out with Anthony through the night and we went into this facility – like all of them, deplorable! – but in this place there were more corpses than most and so we took some of the corpses with us and we had them autopsied and we found that the birds were riddled with Marek’s disease. That made the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald three days in a row thanks to Anthony Hoy. And I’m happy to report that Russell no longer exploits chickens, he grows grapes now, so a happy ending for all!”

A selection of scenes from Lynda Stoner’s famous role as Eve Wilder in Channel Ten’s Prisoner. Skills learned during her TV career set Stoner up for the tough world of animal rights activism. Video: Steve Gee/YouTube.

Stoner also points to the massive rise in availability of vegan options as a concrete positive outcome.

“Four-and-a-half decades ago I barely heard the word vegan so I couldn’t have even dreamed to wish for what we’re seeing now.”

And that timeline – four-and-a-half decades – matches up with the fact that Animal Liberation is turning 45 this year. Stoner and her team are planning a celebration in August, and The Sydney Sentinel has the exclusive scoop on all the details!

The night will be a film screening at the Dendy in Newtown – Stoner laughs as she says, “You can barely turn around in Newtown without falling over another vegan restaurant!”

Excitingly, the 45th anniversary event will feature as special guests both Peter Singer and Christine Townend – so mark your diaries for Thursday, 12 August, 2021 because this is a night you will not want to miss.

You heard the news here first – but to stay on top of all the information as it’s released, including details on how to buy tickets when they become available, make sure you’re signed up to Animal Liberation’s mailing list.

Lynda Stoner at Animal Liberation’s 40th celebrations in 2016. Photo: Elizabeth Usher.

In discussing the importance of celebrating these types of milestones, Stoner stresses the need to prioritise mental health considerations: “I see too many people in this movement overcome by grief, anger, frustration… this movement can be so damaging, it can just gut you, and so you must take time for yourself, you must do the things that you love that are in complete contrast to the animal rights movement.

“You don’t get any badge for succumbing to this movement. When people say, ‘I can’t have a good time because animals are suffering’ – I’m sorry, you suffering is not going to help animals. You healthy and strong will.”

To this end, Animal Liberation has organised several ‘emotional wellbeing workshops for activists’ over the years. As Stoner explains, “We want activists to be there for the long haul, not for a short burnt out destructive period.”

So here’s to celebrating everything that’s been achieved since Peter Singer published Animal Liberation the book, and Christine Townend founded Animal Liberation the organisation. And here’s to Animal Liberation’s next 45 years!

Postscript
At the conclusion of our interview, Stoner wanted to pay tribute to our mutual friend Helen Marston, the former CEO of Humane Research Australia, who recently passed away: “She was on the board of Directors with me for Animals Australia and I just had the highest esteem for Helen, she just was a lovely woman. I would like commemorate Helen Marston and the remarkable people who have gone before who are no longer with us for their ground breaking revolutionary work that is being built on more and more and more now.” Helen’s funeral stream is available here: https://bit.ly/3cDyrtv

Disclosure
Elizabeth Usher has had a connection with Animal Liberation since joining in 1999, including being the organisation’s bookkeeper from 2010 to 2013.