Vandenbosch, 50, was born in Ukkel and studied moral philosophy at the Free University of Brussels (VUB). But his conviction that something needs to be done about animal rights is far from complex: Humans, he once told the Dutch magazine Filosofie, suffer from “ethical arthritis” when it comes to animal welfare, and the cure is quite simple. Just look the animal in the eye.
That basic recipe of empathy led him to set up Gaia in Brussels in 1992. The name comes from the Greek goddess of the earth, by way of the Gaia Theory of chemist James Lovelock, which states that all living organisms form a single complex and self-regulating system.
Along the way, Vandenbosch’s work has brought him face to face with how cruel humans can be – not only to animals but to animal rights activists. The most remarkable example is the 1988 protest at the slaughterhouse in Anderlecht, when he was badly beaten by a number of livestock dealers directly in front of press cameras. His fellow protesters intervened, but Vandenbosch had to stay for a spell in hospital.
The tide has now turned somewhat in public opinion, especially among young voters, which helps explain the presence at the birthday awards of Louis Tobback, mayor of Leuven, praised for his action in 1995 when, as interior minister, he banned street horse races in Sint-Eloois-Winkel and Krombeke in West Flanders. Also present were Flemish public works minister Hilde Crevits and representatives of supermarkets Colruyt and Lidl, who also received awards.
Perhaps the most fulsome tribute came from Piet Vanthemsche, chairman of the farmers’ union. “A lot of farmers felt attacked by Vandenbosch and company because of their hard-line approach. But their actions did lead to new rules that improved animal welfare and led to more attention for animal welfare within the agricultural industry.”