In 2011, Sheryl Petrillo was watching documentaries about the process of creating meat. She was immediately inspired to try veganism for health reasons.
To find a vegan community in the area, Petrillo turned to Facebook. In her search, she came across two national animal advocacy organizations — the Animal Save Movement and Anonymous for the Voiceless.
Two years after starting a Lehigh Valley branch of both groups, Petrillo decided she wanted to form her own organization that focused on veganism as well as animal advocacy and education.
In October 2019, Petrillo became the founder and president of her own vegan and animal advocacy nonprofit: Animal Defenders Greater Lehigh Valley.
Petrillo founded Animal Defenders with the mission to “build an inclusive vegan community by planting seeds of knowledge and promoting compassionate living,” according to their website.
While the nonprofit primarily focuses on the benefits of veganism for animals, Petrillo said Animal Defenders works to remove the killing of animals from all aspects of daily life.
“There’s so many things that are a part of living compassionately, it’s not just your diet,” Petrillo said. “There’s clothing, entertainment, cosmetics, even saving the little spider that’s in your room and putting it in a cup and taking it outside.”
Richard Trifiro has been vegan for over seven years now. Originally a vegetarian, he converted to veganism after just six months of the vegetarian diet.
A Bucks County resident, Trifiro first discovered Animal Defenders when searching for a vegan activism program to volunteer with, something he felt was lacking in his hometown.
While Trifiro thinks there’s a lack of general animal advocacy, he said his work with Animal Defenders provides him with opportunities to educate Lehigh Valley residents and bring awareness to animal cruelty in the area.
“In a perfect world, we want people to completely avoid animal products, but that’s not always going to happen,” Trifiro said. “We realized that, so we’re just trying to get people to make choices that don’t involve animals.”
Trifiro joined Animal Defenders as a board member and volunteer coordinator in 2021. In his position, Trifiro is responsible for gathering volunteers and promoting upcoming events.
Animal Defenders hosts events such as the Mercy Vegan Pop-Up, a vendor event that took place at ArtsQuest this past September.
Other events include protests at meat-themed events, such as peacefully protesting outside of PA Bacon Fest on Nov. 5. Trifiro said Animal Defenders is expecting over 20 volunteers at the protest.
“That’s where we’re really trying to build our base — because the more of a statement you make, the more people you’re able to reach,” Trifiro said. “You see two people standing there with a sign at Bacon Fest, nobody’s gonna pay any attention. But if you see 30 people standing there, it’s a big spectacle.”
Trifiro also said that with an abundance of restaurants with vegan options, such as Hummus House on the South Side and VegOut on the North Side, it’s not difficult to pursue a vegan lifestyle in the Lehigh Valley area, even just in Bethlehem. Once someone decides to become vegan, Trifiro said it becomes a black and white issue.
Terrill Hiel, the co-founder of Animal Defenders, has been the vice president since its establishment in 2019. Hiel, who has been a vegan for eight years, said today it’s easier than ever to live a vegan lifestyle.
While not every restaurant has vegan options, Hiel said there are enough vegan food products sold at grocery stores that she can make most of her own food at home. Additionally, she can find any non-food vegan items she needs easily with online shopping.
“I think that it is the most compassionate way to live in our world,” Hiel said. “It’s achievable, it’s sustainable. It makes sense in so many ways for so much of our world.”
Hiel said she is hopeful for the future of Animal Defenders and knows people can “absolutely” do better to cause less animal suffering.
However, Hiel recognizes change will not happen overnight.
Although Petrillo said she’ll continue advocating for animal rights in the Lehigh Valley for years to come, she’s proud of how Animal Defenders has grown in the last four years.
“I think (the Lehigh Valley) has a long way to go to become more vegan friendly here, but I think we’re doing a pretty tremendous job in the area right now,” Petrillo said.
More information on Animal Defenders’ mission and their upcoming events can be found on their website.