Saturday, October 25, 2014

Animal Activism: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Animal Liberation
Beagle rescued from a research facility
I've been thinking a lot lately about various degrees of animal activism. Often, people are drawn to certain activities based on their personalities and strengths. Extroverts are typically good at interacting with the public; partaking in protests, leafleting and tabling activities, while those who are more introverted may work better behind the scenes organizing and writing letters. That being said, are some forms of animal activism more effective than others? 

Recently, the Humane Society of the United States came under much deserved fire for sponsoring Hoofin' It, a derogatory and speciesist fundraiser whereby consumers were encouraged to patronize local restaurants to dine on hooved animals (sheep, bison, cows, pigs).

In a Facebook response, HSUS President Wayne Pacelle offered a weak apology (that was quickly removed) and managed to talk out of both sides of his mouth, insisting that HSUS is asking people to choose more plant-based foods, while admitting that they are also "asking people to make better choices on the animal products they consume." Well, which is it?

Events like Hoofin’ It do not promote plant-based foods and a vegan diet; rather, they betray farm animals while perpetuating the comfortable and welcomed notion that eating animals is acceptable—even fun! HSUS may be great helping cats and dogs, but their farm animal tactics are regressive and hurtful, and they fail to promote veganism as the ultimate goal. This event may have placated attendees (and raised funds for HSUS), but it did not further the cause of securing the rights of animals to not be treated as property for human consumption. 

I recently finished reading Will Potter's excellent book, Green Is the New Red, in which he documented acts taken by animal and environmental activists, as well as government and corporate efforts to stop them under the guise of fighting terrorism. He cited several examples of nonviolent direct action against animal abusing institutions in which activists gave suffering animals their freedom without harming any individual. One specific action took place in 1997 at the Cavel West horse slaughterhouse. The Bureau of Land Management, a U.S. government agency, had been illegally profiting from the sale of thousands of horses rounded up on public lands who were supposed to be adopted out as part of a program to protect them. When an investigation revealed that the BLM had been secretly sending the horses to slaughter, the Animal Liberation Front burned the slaughterhouse down. According to Potter, the ALF issued a communiqué following the act stating that the fire brought "to a screeching halt what countless protests and letter writing campaigns could never stop." The arson ended up causing about $1 million in damage but the slaughterhouse never reopened. This form of animal activism produced immediate results.

When activists release minks from fur farms or rehome beagles, rabbits and cats rescued from laboratories, the effects are instantaneous and lifesaving to those individual animals. There is something very persuasive and powerful in these direct actions taken by activists, who are willing to put their necks on the line for animals. Yes, they are breaking laws, but they are breaking immoral laws. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” in April 1963, “. . . there are two types of laws: there are just and there are unjust laws. . . . an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law. . . .”

Still, as long as people continue to demand animal products and pay others to produce clothing from the skins and furs of animals, food derived from the flesh and secretions of animals, and cosmetics and household products tested on animals; dark and hopeless places like fur and factory farms, slaughterhouses, and animal laboratories will continue to exist and thrive. This was no less apparent than during a recent slaughterhouse protest I took part in when I was astonished to learn that some of the protesters in attendance were neither vegan nor vegetarian. How effective can animal activists be when even they choose not to remove animal cruelty from their own plates?  

Engagement for animals also hinges on ideological differences within the animal activist community, primarily between welfarists (who seek to reform and regulate animal industries) and abolitionists (who want to eradicate them). Welfarists are disconnected from the animal rights movement because their programs and policies do not promote rights, but maintain the status quo of animal exploitation and consumption, as illustrated by the aforementioned HSUS event.

Potter also illustrated the similar challenges Dr. King faced within his own civil rights movement: Dr. King reserved his harshest words for [fellow clergymen] . . . 'more devoted to order than to justice; who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly say: I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.' Moderation is a luxury of the privileged, Dr. King said. Patience is not possible at the end of a rope. . . . Dr. King defended his extremism in the face of what he called the 'tranquilizing drug of gradualism.'

It’s easy to see how welfarist schemes like cage-free campaigns, Meatless Mondays, and 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards that promote humane “happy” meat, exemplify Dr. King’s “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” These drives and programs tell the public that it’s acceptable to keep eating and abusing animals, that there's no sense of urgency in moving toward veganism, basically—take your time, the animals can wait! Dr. King said it best: “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” 

Welfarists are content to not stir the pot or make any waves, and they represent the interests of organizations that look to satisfy all parties (meat, dairy, and egg industries included). They are the Neville Chamberlain's of animal activism, who will appease nonvegans and bargain away the lives of animals with their organization’s blessing. In so doing, they point to industry improvements, like increased cage sizes, as small victories when, in reality, they are losing the war against animal exploitation and speciesism.

The animal rights movement is a fight for justice and nothing can be more unjust than validating the continual utilization of animals as food, offering very little hope to those expressively bred to suffer and die, who face the "end of the rope" every single day.

The main objective for both those involved in direct action and indirect action must be veganism and the elimination of animal exploitation in all its insidious forms. After all, how effective can direct action be in the long run if we don't also try to change the way people view animals and their uses? Oxford University Theologian Andrew Linzey said as much in his book Animal Gospel: "There can be no long-term future for animal protection without challenging many of the pivotal ideas that justify animal abuse. . . . We shall not change the world for animals without also changing people’s ideas about the world. . . . It is the willingness to do intellectual battle so that the claims of animals are heard and their case presented at every level of society."

The power we have as individuals and as a collective is immense. There are many ways to advocate for animals directly and indirectly, but they must begin with commitments to veganism, the rights of animals, and our own education so that we can continue to teach others.

Vegan Starter Kit

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