The power to act for animals – to work for change on behalf of the voiceless – is within all of us. It does not require a vast amount of knowledge, although understanding the abuses animals suffer will make you more effective. Activism does not demand a lot of time, either: you can make a difference even if you limit your involvement to an hour a month. You needn’t be an extrovert or polished speaker – although such traits may come in handy and indeed may develop as you become more accustomed to addressing friends and the public about animal issues.
Animal activism only requires a desire to help and that you follow that desire with action.
Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism is intended for the person who agrees with the premise that animals are mistreated in our society, believes that the public has a moral obligation to speak out against this cruelty and who wants to be directly involved in opposing animal exploitation in its many forms. This is a guide to the most pragmatic opportunities available for speaking and acting on behalf of animals. We will examine tried-and-true models of activism and explore some modern tactics that are gaining traction among advocates with a talent for using technology.
You may wonder if animal activism itself is even worth it. Does it have an impact at all? Since 1950, worldwide meat consumption has increased more than fivefold. A rise in the Earth’s population can account for some of that expansion, but such a spike occurring concurrently with an increase in animal-rights activism and vegan outreach is troubling at the very least. Worldwide, an estimated fifty-five billion animals are now raised and killed for their flesh each year. How are we to account for this? Part of the answer lies in how animals have come to be mass produced, commodified and marketed in the last half century. Today’s industrialized farming practices mean that most of the pigs, cows, chickens, sheep, turkeys, goats and other animals raised and slaughtered for food are regarded as little more than units in a massive corporate enterprise designed to make meat, eggs and dairy as cheap and accessible to consumers as possible. Make no mistake: This is a multi-billion-dollar industry, giving the companies that exploit animals the deep pockets and political influence necessary to keep the killing machine moving forward at an ever-growing pace.
The same is true for businesses that use animals for their skin and fur, as well as for product testing, medical research and entertainment. Even the pet industry, which contributes to the constant cycle of breeding and selling, is responsible for making animals suffer.
Yet, animal activists do make a difference, and those who blatantly disregard animals are nervous. A recent editorial in Feedstuffs , the weekly agribusiness newspaper, reads: “Why are [animal activists] winning? It’s simple. They have their game together, while animal agriculture and its allies have a fragmented, hopelessly under-funded, ineffective, reactive approach. The activists are engaged and taking their campaign to chefs, foodservice managers, dairy and meat case managers and policymakers from city councils to the US Congress.”
Animal activism is a struggle for change, and the reality is the human species is hard-wired to fear change. But we have two powerful weapons in this battle: the public’s innate sensitivity and a tremendous amount of animal abuse as evidence. Most people believe animal abuse is wrong; in fact, a Gallup poll found that ninety-six percent of people living in the US oppose cruelty to animals – I doubt you could find that level of unanimity on many other issues. Similar results have been published in New Zealand, where a survey by the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies found that one hundred percent of participants (meat-eaters and vegetarians alike) are against factory farming, regarding the practice as cruel and indefensible. A poll of Canadians, meanwhile, revealed that seventy-three percent of those surveyed regard the humane treatment of farmed animals as very important. Australia’s Sunday Mail published results of a national survey that asked people what they wanted to see in 2004: eighty-three percent wanted improved conditions for battery hens. And polls conducted by the British research firm Ipsos MORI reveal that the majority of citizens in the United Kingdom favor the hunting ban (by a three-to-one ratio), are against fur farms (seventy-six percent) and the trapping of animals for their fur (eighty-eight percent) and believe the use of wild animals in circuses should be banned (eighty percent).
People are revolted by animal exploitation – once they learn about it. So, if we can educate people enough so that they can see that their daily choices are supporting practices that they actually oppose, then we can change them, one by one. And as more people change, eventually society will change.
When we consider how long humans have been using animals, the history of animal-rights activism is surprisingly brief. Of course, the world has always had those who abstained from eating animals, though they weren’t always known as vegetarians or vegans. And there have long been people who have spoken out in favor of animal welfare; that is, a concern for the well-being of animals, who were still regarded as useful to society. But an organized movement – or, more accurately, a movement consisting of many organizations established to advance the interests of animals – is really only about two centuries old.
True, the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted what is likely the first law to protect animals in Western civilization in 1641, but the Puritans were motivated less by a belief in the intrinsic rights of animals than in safeguarding their property and the ideal of Christian charity.
It was not until the nineteenth century that philosophical principles and an increasingly industrialized society would inspire the first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (later renamed the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in England in 1824, a concept that would span the Atlantic in 1866 with the founding of the first chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York. Other milestones soon followed, including additional SPCA chapters across the US and the founding of the American Anti-Vivisection Society. Reformer Henry Salt published Animals’ Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress in 1892 (and still in print), setting forth his argument against the exploitation of animals and influencing the beliefs of vegetarians like George Bernard Shaw and Gandhi, who credited Salt with guiding his thoughts on civil disobedience.
Although Salt decried the public’s mentality of entitlement that continued to subjugate animals and espoused his belief that animals have innate rights, most of the groups and voices of his day were advocating animal welfare. Organizations such as the ASPCA and its many chapters established animal shelters and worked to improve the conditions for urban workhorses, for example, rather than struggling to liberate animals altogether from being used for food, medical research, clothing and blood sports. Of course, one need not accord animals the status of having rights to treat them with compassion, but the idea of animal rights argued that animals have an intrinsic right to exist on their own terms, free from any human exploitation.
What we think of as the modern animal-rights movement took shape late in the twentieth century, with new groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Friends of Animals, as well as charismatic individuals such as Henry Spira, speaking out and asserting that animals should not be treated as property. Spira was active in the American civil-rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s before becoming one of the most vocal and influential advocates of animal rights in the 1970s. His campaigns for the abolition of animals were radical for their time, and many activists today refer to him as the father of the animal-rights movement.
In the UK, committed pacifist Donald Watson started the Vegan Society in 1944. Watson took to heart a Welsh maxim: “When everyone else runs, stand still.” It is in that spirit that he spent most of his life advocating a plant-based diet and a way of life that embraces compassion for all species. In the first issue of the Society’s newsletter, The Vegan News (“Quarterly magazine of the non-dairy vegetarians,” reads the masthead), Watson ponders what they should be called. “As this first issue of our periodical had to be named, I have used the title ‘The Vegan News,’” he writes. “Should we adopt this, our diet will soon become known as a VEGAN diet, and we should aspire to the rank of VEGANS.” A vegan for sixty-one years, Donald Watson died in 2005 at the age of ninety-five.
Another figure often credited with jumpstarting the animal-rights movement by writing his seminal work on behalf of animals is the Australian ethicist Peter Singer. Published in 1975, Singer’s book Animal Liberation described the institutionalized abuse of animals on farms, in vivisection laboratories and more, and it became for many activists the movement’s manifesto. In fact, it was Singer’s book that inspired Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco to found PETA in 1980.
Thus, by the early 1980s, animal activism was becoming entrenched in Western society. Animal Liberation shocked a generation of readers with an inside view of factory farming practices, veganism offered an ethical alternative to an omnivorous diet and organized groups like PETA galvanized animal advocates, helping to convince the average conscientious consumer that their eating and buying habits do make a difference in the lives of animals. The term “animal rights” entered the international lexicon, and soon people were debating the fundamental rights of animals to exist for themselves, rather than as tools for scientific research, sporting events, product testing, clothing, amusement and the human palate. This is not to suggest that those supporting animal welfare or reform simply faded away – in fact, the welfare-versus-liberation argument has never been more vociferous – but in the last thirty years there has been a dramatic shift toward embracing the notion that animals do not belong in cages, laboratories, crates, circuses, rodeos or dairy farms, and that the best way, indeed the only way, to effect change is through activism.
Being an advocate for animals is not always a popular activity, but that should not dissuade you from doing what is right. Every social movement that had any impact – whether it’s the abolition of slavery, the suffrage movement, civil rights, the child-protection movement or reforms for farm workers – was initially backed by a person or a group thought to represent the minority opinion, and those opposed to them tried to provoke the fear that overturning the status quo would lead to chaos: the end of slavery would result in economic ruin, granting women the right to vote or banning child labor would weaken national strength, passing laws against child abuse would dissolve families and so on. Animal-rights activists are now hearing the same sort of nonsense from those who profit by abusing animals. According to them, the only way to feed the world, cure diseases or advance scientific knowledge is by using animals. To them, animals are not sentient individuals with their own interests, but commodities to be exploited for human profit, amusement, convenience or taste.
The following pages will guide you through the fundamentals of grass-roots activism. We will begin with what I and many other animal advocates believe to be the most effective model of activism, and then we’ll progress, chapter by chapter, through the more involved tactics and meet some of the activists who find them successful. Each chapter will end with a list of resources for the model or models discussed. Four appendices will cover milestones activists have won for animals, animal-rights groups worldwide, recommended books, civil rights, a cruelty-free shopping guide, suggested actions you can take today to help animals and other relevant material.
The time is ripe for change. More defenseless beings than ever before are suffering and in need of a voice. All we need are the passionate humans to turn these opportunities into dramatic improvements for billions of animals.
Striking at the Roots – A Practical Guide to Animal Activism
Strike at the Roots of Animal Cruelty! Animal activists shine a bright light into the dark recesses of factory farms, vivisection labs, fur farms, product-testing facilities and animal training complexes. Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism brings together the most effective tactics for speaking out for animals. Activists from around the globe explain why their models of activism have been successful – and how you can become involved. Concise and full of practical examples and resources, this manual for success will show you how many of the world’s most engaged activists effectively speak to the public, lobby policymakers and deal with law enforcement – all while keeping their eyes on the prize of achieving victories for animals. This book will empower you to make the most of your skills. From simple leafleting to taking direct action, each chapter clearly explains where to begin, what to expect and how to ensure your message is heard.
Mark Hawthorne adopted a vegetarian lifestyle soon after an encounter with one of India’s many cows in 1992 and went vegan a decade later. His articles and book reviews have appeared in Satya, VegNews, Vegan Voice, Hinduism Today, Lapis.com and daily newspapers across the US. He serves on the outreach advisory council for Animal Place, a farmed-animal sanctuary and education center in northern California.