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April 2004
Our Activism Is Our Ethics and Our Medium Is Our Message

By Michael Markarian and Norm Phelps


One of our guiding tenets in the animal rights movement is that the ends do not justify the means. We argue, for example, that research on animals would be ethically unacceptable even if it produced long-term health benefits for people. We need to take a long, hard look at our own tactics, and apply this same principle. Arson, bombings, property destruction, and intimidation—whether or not you call them ‘violence’—are intrinsically wrong whether or not they result in benefits to animals, because they violate the core ethics of a movement based on kindness and compassion.

Advocates of property destruction often hang their hats on the claim that no person has ever been harmed in an arson or bombing on behalf of animals or the environment. But the results of explosion and fire can never be predicted with certainty. So far we have all been lucky. But how much longer will the perpetrators of these attacks continue to play Russian roulette with lives, before a person or animal is killed?

Besides being ethically inconsistent, these actions are also strategically flawed. Freeing animals through open rescues and other liberations, however, not only saves lives, but also effectively educates the media and public about the cruel conditions from which the animals were saved—winning sympathy for them as victims who got a second chance. Property destruction and intimidation, however, turns the targets into victims whom the public will support and defend. Do we want people sympathizing with tortured animals, or with harassed vivisectors?

Proponents of these actions also claim that other methods of reform take too long. Smashing a computer or making a threatening phone call may be psychologically soothing for activists who want to feel that they are “doing something,” but if it costs us public support, it harms animals. And the first time a firefighter is killed fighting a blaze started by activists, the public support that we have worked for a generation to build will be lost altogether. We have to be honest with ourselves in asking the question: Which is more important, instant gratification or long-term change?

In a post-September 11th world, firefighters are the greatest heroes and terrorists the greatest enemies. However we may define our terms, the majority of Americans view property destruction, arson, threatening phone calls and letters, and harassing people and their families at home as acts of violence. Reading about things like this being done in the name of animal rights makes average Americans far more likely to believe the propaganda that lumps us with real terrorists.

It is not as if these actions deal a crippling blow to animal abuse. Property destruction does not even make a dent in the level of exploitation. The exploiters are mostly multinational companies who write the damage off on their taxes and keep on exploiting without missing a beat. The same is true for any increased cost of security and insurance.

What these tactics do accomplish is the alienation of the winnable public—your everyday meat-eaters and cosmetics users; they are not vivisectors, they are not slaughterhouse operators, and they have basic feelings of compassion. But they are accustomed to eating, wearing, and using animal products, and they need to be convinced to give them up. They can be won over—slowly but surely they are being won over—and alienating them would be a disaster for animals because they are the ones who will ultimately decide the animals’ fate. We need to bring people into our movement, not drive them away. All of our actions should be conducted with this in the forefront of our minds.

True change takes time—and hard work. The Fund for Animals and many other organizations, supported by thousands of activists, in 1999 put a halt to the Hegins, PA, pigeon shoot. It took more than ten years of protests, civil disobedience, litigation, lobbying, advertising, and so on. No one tactic by itself worked. But because everyone was willing to settle in for the long haul and do the hard, tedious work, the campaign succeeded. No more pigeons die at Hegins.

On the other hand, in 2002 activists launched a ballot initiative in Arkansas to make extreme animal cruelty a felony—a very public-friendly issue. After starting with more than 80 percent voter support, the initiative went down in flames at the polls because the medical research industry linked it in the minds of voters to “animal rights violence.” The animals have plenty of obstacles against them already, we don’t need to provide our opponents with more ammunition.

There is no question that change in Washington and state capitals around the country is too slow. Animals are suffering and dying every day. But the only way to change laws is for more people to become engaged in the political process. We need to start with public education and sympathy and then translate those into laws that make lasting change for animals. Because activists passed a law, no pregnant sow in Florida will be forced to live in a gestation crate in which they don’t have room to turn around. Seal fur coats are common in Europe and Asia, but because activists passed a law, they are forbidden in the U.S.

Too many of us have been ambivalent on the issue of violence for too long, trying to have it both ways by saying that we “neither condone nor condemn” the tactics of other activists, no matter how far they cross the line. We need to demonstrate the courage of our convictions by speaking out against unethical and counterproductive tactics, leaving no doubt that we are a movement of nonviolence and compassion. Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip “Pogo” once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” If backlash against the misguided actions of a small minority cripples the animal rights movement, the animals will find no comfort in being the victims of “friendly fire.”

Michael Markarian ( is president of The Fund for Animals, a national animal rights group founded by Cleveland Amory. Norm Phelps ( is spiritual outreach coordinator at The Fund and author of The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible (Lantern Books, 2002). His new book on Buddhism and animal rights is due out from Lantern Books in June. Visit to learn what you can do to help animals.





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