Abolitionists in animal rights movement push for vegan society

Animal-welfare campaigners focus on cute creatures, but some say this isn’t working

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      Animal activists can make it pretty easy to hate animal activism. They single out suppliers of animal products and entertainment that are not staples of mainstream society and instead belong to particular marginalized communities. They devise shocking stunts that portray meat eaters, hunters, and farmers as evil. They feature caged and “bloodied” naked women in sidewalk demonstrations. They storm animal laboratories. They’ll confront you for wearing fur when they are themselves wearing leather.

      Still, even though animal activists aren’t winning any popularity contests, they’re certainly getting our attention.

      So far this year, B.C. has seen and heard from more self-identified animal-rights advocates than ever. Most of us can predict when they’re going to turn up. With every rodeo, food-production documentary, foie-gras dish, and sealskin coat comes an onslaught of media stunts, protests, op-eds, and new-media campaigns.

      Concern about our use of animals is growing with each edition of the nightly news. But how are we doing on the animal-rights front? Do these animal-welfare campaigns represent animals and their interests?

      Stunts by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals generate headlines, but some animal advocates are wondering whether or not they garner the right kind of attention. Law professor Gary Francione, who is spearheading an “abolitionist” shift within the animal-rights movement, says these crusades are sending the wrong message. “Why don’t animal advocates recognize that [these] campaigns trivialize...animal rights and give people even more reason to dismiss the...issue altogether?”

      To be clear, there are many groups advocating on behalf of animals who do not claim their work has anything to do with animal rights: animal-welfare groups like the B.C. SPCA and the Humane Society of the United States. Their sole goal is improving animals’ living conditions without confronting the legal and social paradigm that allows us to own, use, and commodify them. They make it clear that working to end animal exploitation is not part of their agenda.

      So, again, with these welfare groups engaged in a different effort, is there advocacy being done that advances the animal-rights cause?

      Curiously, most of the so-called animal-rights organizations use exactly the same kinds of campaigns the animal-welfare people do.

      Animal-rights groups are often distinguished by their claim that their ultimate goal is the abolition of animal exploitation—full stop. They make it clear—either explicitly or buried somewhere on their Web sites or at the bottom of news releases—that their long-term goal is not simply better treatment for the animals we use but a shift to a society where humans do not exploit animals in any way. That is, a vegan society.

      This strain of genuinely radical animal advocacy developed as distinct from existing animal-welfare groups in the early 1980s. Those involved didn’t feel that it was enough to push for better conditions for animals on farms, at circuses, in rodeos, and on fur farms; they wanted to get rid of animal agriculture, animal circuses, rodeos, and fur farms.

      So then why do these groups, now existing in the thousands all over the world, use the very same kinds of campaigns as animal-welfare groups—the groups they wanted to move away from?

      PETA is the best-known example of a group that uses welfare campaigns in an effort to further the animal-rights cause. It puts slogans like “Animals aren’t ours to use” on its Web sites and in select literature, but it certainly doesn’t put “Go vegan” in much of its material intended for the public or send out any “ban all animal agriculture practices” news releases. It doesn’t even broadly advocate getting rid of egg production, even though its organizers know that, like all other “humane certified” production, “free range” or “humane” egg production doesn’t mean a whole lot to animals—the conditions are still terrible and only, in some cases, marginally better.

      Already this year in B.C. we’ve seen activist outcries about the Cloverdale Rodeo, restaurants with foie gras on their menus, KFC’s farmed-chicken practices—even a cat being tortured in the Downtown Eastside. Not to mention the great Canadian-image disaster, the seal hunt. Local and international anti-seal-hunt campaigns include naked protests, the defacing of Olympic mascots, and the international Canadian-seafood boycott.

      Nowhere is there a clear message in these campaigns that using animals, as a rule, is problematic, just a theme encouraging us to use them less badly.

      Vancouver Humane Society spokesperson Peter Fricker told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that the society has to stick to practical strategies.

      “We have ideals, for sure,” he said. “We’d like to see an end to all animal exploitation, but we recognize the state of public awareness and public feeling....There’s nothing wrong with stating that you have a principle against all rodeo, or any issue, yet in your public tactical work you go for lesser objectives.”

      The VHS focuses much of its effort on educating the public through the media—where they can access mainstream society and put pressure on businesses and government to make small reforms to animal exploitation.

      “It’s about knowing what the media is looking for in terms of a story,” Fricker said. “[Find] a good angle, something like calf-roping, and build a campaign....Be in a position to react quickly as news stories appear, with op-eds, letters to the editor.” He described the VHS’s “great respect” for groups with a more hard-line approach, but he said there needs to be a variety of voices in order to reach everyone. “If there were only one uncompromising message, you’d get absolutely nowhere. It would be very difficult to get media coverage; people are just going to see it as completely extreme....Some movement is better than no movement .”

      This attitude is intuitively pretty attractive—no one wants to promote something in an ineffective way if there is an effective way to do it. But the question is, are these campaigns effective? Will campaigns to reform animal-exploitation practices actually lead to the abolition of animal exploitation?

      When we advocate reforming something, it doesn’t mean “don’t do this” but only “do this in a different way”; when we say “do this in a different way,” we’re actually encouraging people to do the thing. In other words, we’re saying we want to end animal exploitation, but because it’s not practical to explicitly pursue an end to animal exploitation at this time, we’ll encourage different animal exploitation, which will eventually lead to an end to animal exploitation. When will be the right time to let the cat out of the bag? Are average citizens not smart enough to handle the real message?

      Liberation B.C. director Glenn Gaetz represents an organization that states very clearly on its Web site that it promotes “a vegan lifestyle and an end to all exploitation of animals” and has been moving toward doing explicit, nonconfrontational vegan outreach. Still, it focuses much of its advocacy on fringe, single-issue campaigns against the seal hunt, rodeos, and fur-farming practices. In a phone interview from his home in Vancouver, Gaetz explained the strategy of using these weaker yet more sensational campaigns as jumping-off points to push people to think about animal rights.

      “We’ve experimented with a lot of different tactics, [including] PETA’s KFC campaign, which we weren’t happy with—what the whole campaign was about, in that it promoted humane animal products—but a whole lot of people learned a whole lot about what happens to farmed chickens. They began to question their consumption of chicken and eggs.” In this way, he argued, people can start having more generalized conversations about the moral problem of animal exploitation.

      But are we having that conversation? Is that the message that most of us are getting?

      From anti-rodeo campaigns we get the message that some animals matter more than others, especially cute calves or animals used for entertainment within a fringe culture. Food-animal use, present at all community fairs, is not addressed. The message is that we just need to get rid of these really bad forms of exploitation.

      From campaigns against Chinese dog fur, we get the message that cute dogs deserve more consideration than other animals killed for fur. We also get messages that people in China are savage, unlike us in the West. Let’s punish them and not address the animal exploitation rampant in our own country.

      The outcry about the cat that got bagged and beaten in the Downtown Eastside suggests that it is somehow worse to torture an animal for sadistic satisfaction than it is to torture an animal for, say, taste—even if they are both equally unnecessary. It also takes the focus away from the pet industry, where suffering in puppy mills is rampant, and shifts the focus onto the “sick, malicious” residents of the DTES.

      And what about campaigns against the seal hunts? They get people talking, all right—talking about how cute seal pups are, about those “hot, naked PETA chicks”, and about those “awful, bloodthirsty, seal-hunting barbarians”. And what about the ludicrous campaign to boycott Canadian seafood? Let’s punish those “uncivilized” Canadians by abstaining from eating their fish. Not other fish, mind you—just Canadian fish.

      We’re getting an earful and eyeful, but it doesn’t seem to be encouraging the right kind of conversation.

      As a long-time key player in the mainstream animal-rights movement, Francione is in a good position to identify how the mainstream tactics haven’t worked and propose a different approach. The Rutgers law professor created the first animal-rights-and-the-law course in 1985, and he continues to teach it, along with other social-justice-oriented law courses. Francione has been involved in the animal movement for more than 25 years, and in response to the problems he encountered there, he pioneered what he calls an “abolitionist” approach to animal rights—an approach that’s been gaining popularity for being straightforward, genuinely radical, and respectful and compassionate toward human animals as it is to nonhuman animals.

      In a phone interview from Newark, New Jersey, Francione pointed out that the whole raison d’íªtre of the animal-rights movement, like all social-justice movements, is to extend compassion and respect—without discrimination based on factors like race, sex, ability, or species—to all beings.

      “It doesn’t make sense to go around yelling and condemning people....There is a very misanthropic pulse that runs through the animal-rights movement,” he said. “If I was a seal hunter, I would be highly offended and I would be saying, 'Why are they coming after me?’ Well, it’s because I’m an easy target. Similarly, I will have nothing to do with anti-fur campaigns. Should women wearing fur? No. But am I interested in [targeting] women who wear fur? Not really. I’m much more interested in leather, wool—the sorts of things that are worn ubiquitously. The fur issue is so small...it just gives people another reason to go up to women on the street and give them a hard time.

      “Listen, I don’t like what they [hunters and fur farmers] are doing to animals, but I don’t like what any of us are doing to animals, and so I don’t see why they should be treated differently from anybody else. We all share in this mess. We’re all responsible, and we all have to do something about it.”

      He said that although these groups give us many reasons to be alienated by the animal-rights movement, they’re not giving us any reason to change the way we view animals in any meaningful way.

      “Their focus on media [stunts], fundraising, and welfare reform is backwards. Welfare reform serves only to make people more comfortable with the perpetuation of animal use. What is the causal relationship between animal-welfare reform and abolition of animal use? I have been asking myself this very question now for 23 years and I’ve never found an answer. There is no empirical proof that it has worked.”

      So what is Francione’s solution? Throughout his decades of work, his message has remained the same: as long as we socially and legally regard animals as property, there will be structural limitations on the changes we can make in our relations to them. The problem with welfare-reform approaches to animal advocacy—as well-intentioned and hard-working as those advocates are—is that they do not make explicit the notion that animals should not, in principle, be used as mere things. Francione argues that until our education and advocacy work begins addressing the fact that animals are not to be used, rather than that they are simply to be treated better, there will be no progress in the animal-advocacy movement. It’s only in eradicating the property status of animals that we make progress toward recognizing their rights.

      Arguing that we can’t begin this large a change from the top down—because the economy, governments, and media respond to consumer demand—he proposes we take a simple grassroots approach, using creative vegan education to build momentum in our communities. Francione said we need to empower people with information and options until these institutions have something clearer than “we don’t like to hurt bunnies” to respond to.

      “Like any other social movement, we have got to change people first; we have got to shift the social and moral paradigm first...for there to be any effective change,” he said. “You’d be amazed how quickly people get the common sense of veganism and...[animal rights] when you cut to the chase and talk about abolition—it’s very intuitive for us. I do this every day of my life: empower people with information and choices to make their own decisions. It’s like most [animal advocates] think no one can understand these issues but them. Do they think they’re special that they can figure it out and others can’t?

      “I developed the abolitionist approach because the movement...was problematic....We might as well use all of the millions of dollars and resources currently used to pressure the industry and governments [and put it toward] educating and empowering people about veganism rather than educating them about demanding a higher-welfare product, because a higher-welfare product that would make a real difference for animals would be way too expensive to buy.” He said it’s the eating question that really needs our attention.

      “I don’t want people wearing fur, I don’t want rodeos or circuses. But we need to start getting people to reevaluate what we do three times a day...[when we] act out our superiority over animals. We’re all partaking in this hierarchical celebration of violence. Once we see that, and once we get away from that, everything else goes with it. We need to come to a paradigm shift where we see that no animal use, however humane, can be justified.”

      He is, apparently, far from being alone in his thinking. He’s published four books on the subject and his Web site is available for viewing in five languages and contains widely circulated podcasts, pamphlets, essays, and videos. “Since the onset of the Internet, the abolitionist animal-rights movement is growing like nuts...worldwide,” Francione said. “Honestly, I can’t keep up with it. And what I find interesting is the extent to which normal people not at all involved in the animal movement can understand the message. The response has been overwhelming; I’m very encouraged by it.”

      So why are most animal advocates working so hard to keep the big “animal-rights agenda” a secret? With the intent of trying to ease people into it, they’re alienating most of us and further entrenching the notion that animals are ours to use. If animal advocates are sending us a message that animals don’t matter in a real way, how are the rest of us supposed to figure it out? They’re not really presenting us with all of the choices; it’s not only an insulting strategy but an ineffective one. Whether or not people are ready to respond to the information is up to them, but it’s better we all have a discussion about what’s really at stake so people consider the central issue: what it means to respect animals and their interests.




      Dec 17, 2009 at 8:27am

      Get's you thinking. A very good article.

      Frank Ronald

      Dec 17, 2009 at 9:07am

      About time someone said it. For once a consistent message.


      Dec 17, 2009 at 10:17am

      So... you're telling me horses and camels are doing just fine?


      Dec 17, 2009 at 11:11am

      A very interesting and well-written article about the growing importance of animal rights. Thanks!


      Dec 17, 2009 at 11:16am

      Nicely written, and some very good points.

      I do wonder, though, what good for animals do articles like this do? Do they get published because they are potentially controversial? Would this space have been better filled with arguments about why people should consider going vegan instead of criticizing other activists and groups?

      I also have some issues with the real lack of evidence on all sides for considering incremental change or straight -on arguing for veganism. This article exemplifies the reliance on speculation as evidence - even though there is no real data to back up any of the claims. I know that doing outreach on the street talking to people about single issues (the environment, factory farming, turkeys, etc) that I have seen people give up meat. I have seen people go vegan after reading Foer's "Eating Animals".

      I really wish that an article on animal rights in the Georgia Straight had talked about animals, even a little bit. This article is likely most interesting to people who want to see division in the AR movement and people who want to find a reason to dismiss AR campaigns. And it does nothing to convince anyone that animals are worthy of concern or have rights.


      Dec 17, 2009 at 11:26am

      Excellent article! Thank you!


      Dec 17, 2009 at 11:38am

      that thing is so cute


      Dec 17, 2009 at 11:41am

      As people who love animals we expect that the general society will have respect and compassion for animals. But mostly this does not show up in interest or behaviour. Sometimes the only way to get anybody's attention, including the media's is to do something bold. If people's hearts were based mostly on compassion there would be no need for animal activism in the first place. Unfortunately society does not hold the lives and sentience of animals very dearly and somebody must speak up for them.

      Anne Birthistle

      Dec 17, 2009 at 12:31pm

      The article raises a good point for animal advocates to consider: why try to ameliorate the suffering for animals used in industry if we could close down animal- fueled industry completely? Then it answers its own question: people really just don't get it... Not to sound elitist, but sincerely the average joe can watch a chicken slaughterhouse investigation on the 6 o'clock news and still go out for KFC... He'll listen to the possible side effects of a given medication advertised on the same news programme - a drug that was force-fed to animals mutilated, crushed or harmed in other ways by scientific research, in no way foretelling the often-disastrous side-effects of the drug on humans - and still make a mental note to himself to 'ask his doctor' .....


      Dec 17, 2009 at 12:38pm

      What's the Abolitionist action plan? Go vegan and complain about what other groups are doing wrong? This is what I've been able to gather from every encounter I've had with Abolitionists. As a vegan who is not interested in complaining about animal rights organizations I disagree with (or at least not making it the focus of my activism), I find myself unable and unwilling to fit in to the abolitionist movement.

      This article, like everything I've heard and read from Francione, starts and ends with complaints about what others are doing wrong. I find this approach simply counter productive.

      I think a lot of lazy people use the "Abolitionist Ideology" as an excuse to not do anything for animals. I've been deemed worthless by an "Abolitionist" while giving out Vegan Outreach pamphlets because I also participate in what he considers "welfare" campaigns or perhaps Vegan Outreach is simply not vegan enough. What an easy cop out.

      Most people who participate in (insert a long list of AR organizations that are not vegan enough for the Abolitionists) protests are vegans and would not wear leather. And what do you say to people who want to help animals but are in the process of "the transition"? Do you say, sorry, we can't let you protest with us because your concerns are invalid because you are wearing leather? Is that even productive? And how is this article productive?