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January/February 2004
Ten Signs of Hope for the Animal Rights Movement

By Bruce Friedrich

 

Bruce Friedrich.
Photo courtesy of PETA

I’m an upbeat person. At PETA, I’m often referred to as “Bruce Poppins,” because I tend to ignore the bad and accentuate the good, sometimes a bit quixotically, I will admit. Basically, I figure that worry and pessimism are a prescription for burnout, not empowerment. If we lose our sense of humor and optimism, we’re bound to be less effective as activists. Labor organizer Joe Hill told us that mourning was not an effective method of change (“Don’t mourn. Organize!”), and Emma Goldman declared, “If I can’t dance, I want no part of your revolution.” But the strongest impact on my outlook is the closing song of the best movie ever made, Monty Python’s The Life of Brian: “Always look on the bright side of life.” If you haven’t seen this flick, put this article aside and proceed to the nearest video store.

When I look at the world around me, I am filled with vicarious pain at the level of suffering in the world, but also with hope at the number of selfless people working to make it a better place. As I pondered a list of ten, I came up with about 25 things that give me an amazing amount of hope, and struggled to limit them. So I decided to confine myself to the things that have blossomed for me in the past two years.

Vegan Video Brigades
Praise be to Eddie Lama. From Lawrence, Kansas, to Asheville, North Carolina, to Seattle to San Francisco to Minneapolis to Washington to more and more cities, activists are showing people how meat is made—taking TV/VCRs, generators and literature, setting up at metro stops, outside concerts, at fairs, and so on. To my great delight, PETA’s Meet Your Meat seems to be the video of choice. Of course, PETA is happy to supply a free two-hour loop to anyone who would like a copy to show. We also have details of how to do this event on the “Great ways to promote vegetarianism” link at GoVeg.com. Watch the video, narrated by actor Alec Baldwin (a sign of hope himself!) at www.MeetYourMeat.com.

Farmed Animals are People Too

Animal behaviorists are finally studying society’s most neglected animals—rats, mice, and farmed animals (chickens, pigs, cows, and fish), and publishing their findings. So we now know that rats and mice dream, play, and have a sense of fun, and that chickens, pigs, fish, and cows are every bit as interesting and intelligent as any dog or cat. In 2003, The New York Times and The New Yorker both did stories discussing the fact that chickens score better on cognitive function tests than dogs or cats, and pigs do even better, showing mental acumen beyond that of a three year-old human child. We learned that fish have long-term memory and can use tools, abilities once thought by anthropologists to distinguish humans from other primates. Once people start to see chickens, fish, rats, mice, and other animals as interesting and deserving of respect, some basic protections are sure to follow, and fewer and fewer people will eat them or torment them in labs.

The Christian Vegetarian Association and Father John Dear, S.J.
There’ve been Jewish vegetarian groups for years; finally, the religion that comprises about 90 percent of Americans has a vegetarian group of its own. The Christian Vegetarian Association’s “What would Jesus eat?” pamphlet (from ChristianVeg.com) is excellent, and can be placed in the literature area of your nearest Christian church (you don’t have to belong or even be Christian to do this). Similarly, the first piece of literature by a member of the Catholic clergy to invoke animal cruelty as a reason to adopt a vegetarian diet, Christianity and Vegetarianism by Fr. John Dear, S.J., also came out about a year ago (available from PETA for free to anyone who wants to place them in Catholic churches).

Felony indictments for cruelty to farmed animals
Farmed animal abuse, for the first time in U.S. history, has resulted in felony indictments a few years ago after a PETA investigation of a pig farm in Belcross, North Carolina, and more recently in Guymon, Oklahoma. That district attorneys in rural regions could look at the abuse of farmed animals done under the auspices of massive corporations and indict people for felonies strikes me as a true indication that the animal rights movement is winning.

The BK Veggie & soy cheese at Pizza Hut
March 2002 saw the largest vegetarian product introduction ever, when Burger King started offering the “BK Veggie” in more than 8,000 stores. More recently, McDonald’s started selling its “McVeggie” in all Canadian and California outlets, and Pizza Hut and Taco Bell have started experimenting with soy cheeses. Since the most common problem for animal lovers who are not yet veggie is convenience, I celebrate the growing ease of access to vegetarian products.

Farmed animal welfare improvements
For our entire history as a country, “farmed animal welfare” has been determined, exclusively, by industry profitability. In September, 2000, for the first time, a major corporation said, “certain things are not okay” and “birds have interests that must be considered.” In addition to the significant amelioration of abuse in the lives and deaths of millions of animals (most notably chicken slaughter), these industries have changed the scope of the debate. I am convinced that people continue to eat animals because they see animals as insignificant, completely “other.” Because the most frequent defense of eating animal products is some brand of dismissal of the animals’ suffering, then the point at which someone says, “cruelty to farmed animals is not okay,” is the point at which we’ve moved them more than halfway to veganism. Once it is granted that farmed animals have some interests that must be respected, it becomes much harder to justify using them for our purposes, period.

Similar analysis applies to the recent efforts to ban the forced molting of laying hens in Illinois and California, veal crates in New Jersey, and the Florida ballot initiative that banned gestation crates for pigs. For the first time, entire states are discussing whether it’s acceptable to treat animals as we currently do to satisfy our palates.

Live liberations
Grassroots groups in California, New York, Minnesota, Ohio, Iowa, and Washington, DC (so far!) are taking a page from Patty Mark and her band of rabble rousers in Australia, by going into animal torture dens, taking photos and video, and bringing animals out. In addition to being the ultimate hope for the animals rescued, these are the first Gandhian-style acts of direct action in the U.S. on behalf of animals. In each case, the activists press for charges and take full responsibility for their nonviolent actions.

Ocean Robbins
John Robbins is one of my heroes, and now his son is too. I heard Ocean speak at the VegSource.com E-vent (actually, that conference deserves to be on this list; the Nelsons are amazing!), and he was (don’t tell anyone I said this) as good as his dad. Everyone I spoke with was blown away by his compassion, humor, and ability to connect with the audience. Plus he’s young, and has grand ideas for how to reach our nation’s youth. Watch out! I sense a revolution brewing.

Matthew Scully
From the opposite end of the political spectrum, enter Mathew Scully, special assistant and senior speechwriter for George W. Bush. Scully worked both on the Bush campaign in Austin, and then in the Bush White House in Washington. He temporarily quit working for Bush to promote what HSUS’s Wayne Pacelle expects “will be the most influential book on animal protection in the last 25 years.” Titled Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, Mr. Scully’s book is a fast-paced and eloquent defense of compassion for animals. Although I take real issue with a few things (gender- exclusive language, the attack on Peter Singer), Scully’s book is still just excellent, including a section where he does the best job of getting inside the mind of a pig that I’ve read. His book has shaken the conservative establishment, netting positive reviews from the likes of Chuck Colson and Pat Buchanan (who did a front page feature of it in his magazine, American Conservative).

The Onion
Okay, this isn’t technically new, but The Onion is indeed “America’s Finest News Source,” serving up mock “news” stories week after week. My favorite stories remain: “Heroic PETA commandos kill 49, save rabbit” and “Animal rights activists release 71,000 cows into wild.” Okay, there are some funnier stories at TheOnion.com, but they’re not appropriate for the family journal you’re reading. When you need a laugh, and we all do if we’re doing advocacy for animals or the environment, look no further than The Onion.

Conclusion
We can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to be a battery hen or a pig in a gestation crate; the suffering of animals on factory farms and in slaughterhouses is beyond our worst nightmares. So yes, there is ample reason to become dispirited, misanthropic, and generally unhappy. But that won’t help animals, and really, we have come a remarkably long way in, historically speaking, almost no time at all.

It is interesting to recall that slavery on this continent flourished from the 1520s until the mid-1860s, women were only given the right to vote in the U.S. in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, and African Americans not until 1965 under the Voter Rights Act. Many people reading these words probably have close relatives who were alive when there was a spirited debate in Congress about whether the Union would dissolve if women, those irrational creatures, were given a say in governance. One hundred years ago, there wasn’t a single law against child abuse in this country. Not one. Your child was your property.

For a bit of historical perspective here, let’s recall that Socrates, the father of philosophical thought, was teaching 2,600 years ago, and Shakespeare, who remains our most oft-performed playwright, was writing 500 years ago. But we just got around to saying, “Hey, maybe people shouldn’t hold slaves,” and “maybe people shouldn’t be free to beat their children,” and “maybe women are rational enough to be given a say in governance,” fewer than 150 years ago.

I mention this only to point out how quickly things change. Not long ago, society believed with complete certainty the diametrical opposite of what we believe—and with equal certainty—to be true about some basic human interactions.

Of course, the challenge is not to say, “Hey, look what those moral reprobates were doing to one another back in the dark ages!” but to ask, “What are we doing today that is equally wrong-headed?” What we are doing to other animals today is the moral equivalent of what we did to other people just a short time ago, and future generations will look back on this period with the same awe and revulsion.

Look how far the animal rights movement has come in just the past 20 years: Science has shown that a low fat vegan diet is the healthiest; environmental researchers have proved that eating meat, dairy products, and eggs is not sustainable. Even more importantly, the scientific view that animals don’t feel emotion has been replaced by a belated understanding that, of course they do. In just the past few years, the issue of animal treatment on factory farms has taken center stage, with the U.S. Congress decrying slaughterhouse treatment of animals, the fast-food giants requiring some improvements for animals, and the Washington Post running front-page stories about some of the abuses.

The 18th century saw the beginnings of our democratic system, which was the first to suggest equality within species (“all men are created equal”) and which established, under the law, basic freedoms such as the rights to assemble peacefully, practice one’s chosen religion, say and print what one likes. The 19th century abolished chattel slavery in the developed world. The 20th century abolished child labor, criminalized child abuse, and gave women the vote and blacks wider rights. If we all do as much as we can, the 21st century will be the one for animal rights.

Bruce Friedrich is the Director of Vegan Outreach for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). He encourages those interested in becoming more active to visit the “Great ways to promote vegetarianism” link at GoVeg.com. The views expressed are his own.

 


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