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June 22, 2012

Ian Somerhalder: Interview with a Vampire

"Vampire Diaries" star sinks his teeth into humane causes

All Animals magazine July/August 2012

  • Tim Long/Long Photography

The Vampire Diaries' dangerously moody Damon Salvatore has a talent for breaking necks, ripping out hearts, and exerting “compel” thought control on the ordinary mortals who stand in his way. Off-screen, actor Ian Somerhalder takes a gentler approach to changing minds and behaviors.

Soon after the popular TV series catapulted him to fame, the Louisiana native launched the Ian Somerhalder Foundation in 2010 to promote a variety of animal and environmental causes. He’s also testified before Congress on behalf of species conservation, rescued stray kittens on set, raised funds for his hometown animal shelter, and encouraged his millions of fans to create a more humane world.

At The HSUS's Genesis Awards ceremony in March, Somerhalder received the prestigious Wyler Award—given in memory of Genesis founder and Broadway headliner Gretchen Wyler.

In this edited interview with All Animals senior editor Julie Falconer, Somerhalder explains why compassion for animals is in his blood.

Have you always had a special connection with animals?
My mother was a Mississippi farm girl, and my father was a Louisiana Cajun. We had tons of dogs and cats and horses. I grew up on horseback. I would get home on a Friday after school, and I literally wouldn’t come home until Sunday evening, [when] it was time to finish homework and eat and go to bed. I would spend the whole weekend out horseback riding, camping, and running around and swimming in bayous and stuff. We’d have dogs and cats from the house following us. The interaction between these animals, and walking with my dog and my horse … there’s an amazing familial quality that is just incredible to see and be a part of.

How did these experiences shape your philosophy on animal protection?
Since I was young, home always represented a safe place that welcomed all. This went especially for stray and neglected animals. That open-heart and open-door policy continues in the homes I make while filming. In Atlanta, I have three rescued pets. About a week ago, I would have said six, considering I rescued some newborn kittens off the set of The Vampire Diaries. But now they are happily settled with loving families. Being surrounded by the pure and genuine energy of animals allows a person to understand the necessity and brilliance of compassion—a key element that could truly inspire positive shifts for many of the world’s problems.

And being from a state like Louisiana, especially the Gulf Coast area, where it’s an extremely delicate ecosystem, you also have a deeper understanding of wild animals and the environment as well, because you realize how fragile that balance is.

If you could make the world aware of one issue, what would that be?
Compassion. By coming from a place of compassion, we’re coerced into considering who and what is affected outside of ourselves from a fresh perspective. A component as simple as compassion has the gravity to enliven wide-scale change for both people and animals.

And I think one of the most compassionate advances we could make toward animal protection would be an oral sterilization drug that would help prevent the unimaginable numbers of homeless pets.

What was your reaction to winning the Wyler Award?
The Wyler Award was such a huge honor, but it was a gigantic wakeup call for me. With the Ian Somerhalder Foundation, I realized that it’s not that it takes tons of resources; what it takes is really smart planning and the right partnerships. What we decided to do with ISF is we’re going to buy 200 acres in Louisiana, and we’re going to turn it into an animal sanctuary with a youth education component.

With a demanding career, where do you find the time and energy for your advocacy work?
Everyone is busy! It may seem hard to find the time and energy to make considerable change, but some of the most monumental change we can make is within our daily consumer habits. No matter how hectic a day can be, there is always opportunity within our busy schedules to make thoughtful decisions that reflect the changes we want to see in the world.

What changes do you hope your immortal TV character will witness over the next 100 years?
Damon has definitely been around for quite a while and has witnessed first-hand the mass change and destruction people can bring to the planet. The planet he knows has gone through some serious change in the past 100 years, so the next 100 are more crucial than ever. He’s pretty invested in seeing some serious change considering he’s the one who will have to continue living here. I would imagine he hopes to see a change in consciousness. Although I doubt he’d want too massive of a change in consciousness since he still needs to be able to compel!

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