Does One Survive Dealing Day After Day with a Cruel Industry?
By Karen Davis
Several years after we met as hunt saboteurs in
the mid 1980s, I had a conversation with Norm Phelps of The Fund For
Animals, who told me, Ten years ago when I started doing this,
I thought wed end sport hunting in no time. I thought reason would
prevail. It seemed so obvious. In 1994 Peter Singer, the author
of the book Animal Liberation which launched the modern animal advocacy
movement in 1975, said in an interview that in the early 1970s, when
the book was written, My expectations ranged all the way from
having mass support for goals such as getting rid of factory farming,
which seems to me to be absolutely indefensible. But that hasnt
Decades later, our campaigns against factory farming and sport hunting
continue, along with all of our movements other campaigns on behalf
of nonhuman animals. We stopped the Hegins Pigeon Shoot, but the number
of chickens being slaughtered every day in the U.S. has risen from 25
million to 35 million. Weve reduced the number of chimpanzees
in the laboratory but the numbers of birds, rats, and mice being used
are astronomical, and the genetic engineering of animals is in its global
infancy. The movie Chicken Run has an animal rights message, but the
moviemakers joined forces with Burger King in an advertisement in which
the lovable characters directed people to eat beef instead of chicken.
Its easy for an animal activist to become consumed by rage and
despair, to grow exhausted and burn out when confronted with the horror,
each and every day, of our species relentless assault on other
species. Its important not to let this happen. While I have never
burned out, I did drop out once before returning to the movement for
good. Back in 1974, I joined a tour to Grindstone Island in the Gulf
of St. Lawrence that was designed to show islanders that tourism was
a better way to make money from baby harp seals than killing them for
their fur. What I saw there caused me to withdraw from further activity
for animals for nearly ten years.
One spring day in the early 1980s, I walked across a park in response
to a newspaper ad for World Laboratory Animals Day. As I
looked at pictures of animal victims of head transplants and burn experiments,
I pledged that I would never again abandon animals to the iniquity of
our species because I couldnt bear it.
At a workshop I gave last summer at the North American Vegetarian Society
Summerfest on burnout, we identified three major causes of the exhaustion
that threatens all of us in this movement: the endless omnipresence
of animal suffering caused by humans, public resistance to our message,
and letdown by other activists. We start out full of energy, we picture
victory and a crowd of protesters at every demonstration, we envision
reason and compassion taking charge of peoples lives, and then
reality erodes our dream.
I have a motto I once saw pinned on a wall at the University of Maryland,
attributed to a 19th-century European revolutionary whose name Ive
forgotten: Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will.
This expresses my basic attitude towards the work I do. My attitude
is not If I didnt think wed win, Id quit,
to which I would say, Then quit. Working for animal rights
isnt a football game or a beauty contest. Its working to
modify our species attitudes and behavior at a deep level, to
develop a different set of genesfundamental elements of human
nature that have largely been ignored, overridden by other elements
Of course I want to win. I want animals to win, but I realize that working
full-time to achieve this goal is no guarantee of success, because the
forces out there might be too strong to overcome. I value peace activist
Colman McCarthys advice which he gave in an interview in The Animals
Agenda a few years ago. To the question: Do you think well
succeed? he said, Dont worry about being successful,
just be faithful.
While we do not have full control over whether well succeed in
the fight for animal rights, we do have full control over whether we
are, and will remain, faithful. If we are not faithful we will not succeed.
Faithfulness is not about having faith but about keeping it.
Our chicken sanctuary will always protect me from burning out, because
I could never abandon the birds whom I have come to know and love, and
who need me to fight for them. Alice Walker spoke for me when after
watching a hen shepherd her chicks across a road, she wrote: I
can never not know that the chicken I absolutely saw is a sister, and
that her love of her children definitely resembles my love of mine.
This is the positive, obligatory sense of once youve seen
one chicken, youve seen them all. The morality of perception
prescribes there is no turning back.
Activists often say that what burns them out the most is the defection
of local activists, including all those Sorry, I cant make
it to the demo after all last minute phone calls. When you burn
out or dont show up, you encourage others to burn out or get lazy
with you. You let animals and your colleagues down. Here again the activist
who is working to hold the grassroots group together can take heart.
Walt Whitman said, We two form a multitude. Animal activist
Pamelyn Ferdin wrote about being a lone animal rights protester, Its
better to have one person out there, than no one (although it really
irks me when I cant find a few more people to protest with me).
Obviously the more people the better; but dont stay home because
you cant find anybody to go with you. All you need is a huge,
graphic photo and a good caption on poster board.
A committed activist who wont burn out needs three important things:
facts, confidence, and passion. When we know our subject and can articulate
our issues, our confidence grows along with our credibility, and we
become stronger and more effective every time we speak. But facts by
themselves may not be persuasive. If we lack or fail to convey passion
for our subject, we will have a hard time getting peoples attention.
Arthur Koestler, who fought successfully to abolish capital punishment
in England, commented in the Preface to his book, Reflections on Hanging,
My intention was to write it [the book] in a cool and detached
manner, but it came to naught: indignation and pity kept seeping in.
This is perhaps just as well, for capital punishment is not merely a
problem of statistics and expediency, but also of morality and feeling.
Fair pleading requires that ones facts and figures should be right,
that one should not distort or quote out of context; it does not exclude
having ones heart and spleen in it.
I believe this completely and hope I am living up to this measure. We
should rage against the dying of the light in every animals eyes
that results from human cruelty and abuse. The thing is to transform
that pity and rage into ones case for animal rights. Its
hard to burn out once we see ourselves as advocates with a case to put
before the public. What matters is making the most of the opportunity
of being on the right side, win or lose, while we are living.
Karen Davis, Ph.D. is President and Director of United Poultry
Concerns, a non-profit organization which promotes the compassionate
and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. She is the author of Prisoned
Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry.
Her new book, More Than A Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth,
Ritual, and Reality will be published by Lantern Books later this
year. For information, call (757) 678-7875 or visit www.upc-online.org.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in
the St. Louis Animal Rights Teams Newsletter, START Speaking
Out (Fall 2000). To learn more, visit http://www.enviroweb.org/start
www.enviroweb.org/start or email email@example.com.