By Catherine Clyne
I met my life partner at the
AR 2001 conference. I also met Satya’s Managing Editor, Assistant
Editor and former Assistant Editor at the FARM-organized animal rights
Despite the sometimes tumultuous atmosphere of animal-related events,
I make it a point to attend due to the many, many really inspiring
people I continue to meet who do very real positive things for animals.
These heartfelt connections are the backbone of the positive changes
we seek to facilitate.
Over the years, I’ve questioned whether the panels and discussions—while
helpful and informative to newcomers in particular—actually solve a lot.
Sure, it’s important to foster debate and discuss strategy, campaigns and
theory, but some of us have been having variations of these same debates for
years. Occasionally, there’s a kernel of insight or new information to
be shared, but most of the time, we get a steady diet of what we want to hear.
A familiar buffet of repetition and rhetoric, a lot of ballyhoo about tactics
and ample portions of theoretical grandstanding.
Heated debate is nothing new within the animal rights movement: rights vs. welfare,
grassroots vs. national, celebrity appeal vs. animal suffering, mainstream vs.
radical, aggressive vs. nonviolent…these debates have all been covered
within these pages and elsewhere. But have the divisions between us become more
influential than the similarities? Moreover, has resentment over these differences
turned the animal rights movement into the animal rights stagnant?
I Pledge Allegiance To…
While the philosophical divide faced by animal advocates may seem largely theoretical
at first, its impact becomes glaringly apparent if we consider the division lines
drawn by our various (and some might say competing) conferences.
For the past several years, the premiere gathering for animal activists has been
the annual AR conference organized by Alex Hershaft and the Farm Animal Reform
Movement (FARM). Originally held in the Washington, DC area, it now alternates
between DC and Los Angeles. This year, it takes place in the City of Angels.
Frankly, I’m not much interested these days in the hubbub over the organizing
of FARM’s conference. Alex Hershaft stepped in to organize a national AR
conference when others were either unwilling or unable to do so. He deserves
credit, and thanks, for his commitment. That said, many of the problems and criticisms
of his events have merit and have been widely discussed, sometimes ad nauseum.
Critics have charged there has been woeful little democracy involved in the selection
of speakers and panels. The usual suspects appear over and over; topics are recycled
year after year. Although it has gotten easier for newcomers (read as non-sponsors)
to get on the agenda in recent years, there have been major problems with sexism,
something Alex and the FARM staff have struggled to address appropriately. And
I’m happy to see some of the power being shifted into the able hands of
Dawn Moncrief, a long-time conference organizer and the new Executive Director
of FARM. There’s also been very little progress in terms of reaching out
to other movements and addressing some of the pressing issues plaguing animal
rights activism, such as racism, homophobia and the exclusion of people with
Many surmised, myself included, that if the agenda of FARM’s conference
didn’t reflect the needs and desires of the movement, the movement would
simply move elsewhere.
It should come as little surprise then that, in recent years, a number of other ‘alternative’ conferences
have popped up. Perhaps the biggest and potentially most influential is “Taking
Action for Animals,” which takes place in Washington, DC the weekend after
this year’s FARM event. This conference is organized by the large national
organizations who have broken their allegiance to FARM over the years, including
HSUS, PETA, the Animal Protection Institute, Doris Day Animal League, and Farm
When I pressed a senior HSUS executive about this, the pithy response was that
this movement is large enough to accommodate different major conferences and
encompass all points of view. This might be valid if the conference were scheduled
some months after its primary competitor, but putting it the weekend after? Come
In his interview in this issue, HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle was a little more candid.
The objection to the FARM conference is about the presence of activists who promote
the use of illegal tactics involving violence, he says, namely property damage
and threats. What he’s referring to specifically is the inclusion of speakers
from groups like Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty and the Animal Liberation Front.
More tellingly, with Taking Action for Animals, Pacelle thinks it’s important “to
reclaim the core values of the movement.”
Perhaps the sprouting of conferences is a good thing and I’m just being
resistant to change. Although it had its bumpy moments, I was very impressed
with April’s relatively democratically organized Grassroots Animal Rights
Conference here in New York. There is true potential there. And the Student Animal
Rights Alliance “Liberation Now!” conferences have created a dynamic
place for young activists to learn from and network with others, as have the
Culture and Animals Conferences organized for many years by philosopher Tom Regan
in North Carolina.
United we Stand, Right?
Clearly, the conference onslaught will, despite what soothing voices may profess,
force some activists to choose between one conference or another in a power struggle
not of their choosing. Will advocates choose sides, simply going with the grouping
that more closely reflects already established views? Will animal rights activists
continue their exodus away from each other to swirl in ever-shifting, progressively
shrinking circles, until people give up on “the movement” altogether
and simply work on more local endeavors? Will they just quit in frustration?
From the outside, the summer conference wars seem more about defining a movement
and who gets to do it than about organizing positive change for animals. It bears
reminding ourselves that regardless of who is jockeying for the pole position
at this conference or that one, it is ultimately about the animals.
This summer, at Taking Action for Animals, HSUS, PETA and company will put forward
their agenda, while AR 2005 will continue FARM’s traditional mix of panels,
workshops and plenaries. The same weekend as the FARM conference, Friends of
Animals has its own, “The Foundations of a Movement,” featuring FOA
staff members and a handful of others and taking place in New York City. To get
in on the action my life partner, Lawrence, has joked about hosting LARC—the
Lawrence Animal Rights Conference—schedule and location to be determined
later, probably in our backyard. At least we know who’ll be giving the
Still, despite understandable frustrations we should also remember the positives—whatever
the subject and whomever the organizer. What I gain most from AR gatherings is
usually not a topic addressed in a keynote address or workshop. It is the people
I meet and relationships I forge—folks I encounter during panels and at
mealtimes, in the bar, and at the tables in the exhibitor’s area. I suspect
for many of us, the true benefit of AR conferences is just this: the opportunity
to be with our community. Those are core values we can all get behind.
Clearly, we have ample opportunity to build a stronger community in Summer 2005.
Let’s do so.
For the animals,