How the Animal
Movement Can Succeed
By Zoe Weil
Photo courtesy of Zoe Weil
At a strategy session during
an animal rights conference last year, a woman raised her hand to
speak. In a loud and angry voice she said
the following (or at least a very close paraphrase): “I’m
tired of people saying, ‘Factory farmers aren’t bad people,
they’re just doing bad things; vivisectors aren’t bad people,
they’re just doing bad things.’ What I have to say to these
people is ‘FUCK YOU!’ Factory farmers are bad people. Vivisectors
are bad people!” To the sound of scattered clapping, she sat
I was horrified. My heart pounding in my chest, my hand flew up in
the air to respond. After 17 years of active involvement in the animal
movement, I had never
felt less a part of it, and I’ve never felt as hopeless about our potential
to succeed in creating a more humane world.
While I can thoroughly sympathize with this woman’s rage (I’ve felt
that rage more times than I can say, and never has my anger about what is happening
to animals abated), I’ve seen what inspires compassion and change in people,
and it’s never hatred and name-calling. When my husband decided to stop
doing animal research and gave up his lab, his grant, and his career to return
to school to become a veterinarian, it was not because I or anyone else yelled
at him, called him names, or judged him by a single standard. The tens of thousands
of people I’ve taught over my career as a humane educator didn’t
change their lifestyles, redirect their energies, start activist clubs, and begin
volunteering for change because I told them they were bad people if they (choose
one): dissected animals, ate meat, hunted, fished, bred their cat, bought a dog
from a pet store, wore a down jacket, etc.
When I pointed out at the conference that by the standards of this speaker we
were all bad people since it was likely most of us had articles of clothing that
were sewn in sweatshops, or ate chocolate produced in part through child slave
labor, I was corrected by another woman who made a point of saying that those
were “not her issues.” Aghast at the hubris of this comment, I felt
even more hopeless.
How on earth can we expect that others will want to join our movement of compassion
when we call them “bad people” for not adhering to our standards
of humaneness while scoffing at other equally important and valid standards?
Frankly, if we want to start pointing fingers, I’d say we were a room full
of “bad people” vis a vis even animals. The conference hotel wasn’t
providing organic meals so each of us vegans who ate in the hotel were responsible
for the death of countless animals who succumbed either to direct pesticide application
or the ensuing trickle down deaths caused by polluted air, land and water. Nor
were the majority of participants eschewing material consumption (the exhibit
hall was filled with all sorts of items to buy), and the consequences of plastic
and paper production, fossil fuel-based transportation, disposable packaging,
etc. was surely causing animals to suffer and die as their habitats were degraded
or destroyed. I wonder if I’d accused everyone of cruelty (with a hefty
dose of vitriol in my voice) whether the audience would have been especially
open to change, to learning more, to finding out how their lives could cause
less harm and more good and better reflect their values. Somehow I doubt it.
So, how can the animal movement succeed? Here’s my recipe:
1. Be willing, open, and eager to learn how your life can cause more good and
less harm to animals, people, and the earth
(as far as I’m concerned these are one and the same).
2. Don’t bother judging people—it’s a waste of your time and
it doesn’t make people want to change. Instead, judge
acts not individuals and try teaching, inspiring and offering alternatives that
3. Be a representative of a club worth joining. Who’s going to want to
join a movement in which people point fingers, yell, and insult others? A peaceful
life can lead to the greatest joy and fulfillment—if
you demonstrate this, people will flock to the humane movement.
4. Ask yourself, “Does what I’m about to say or do help ____________
(fill in the blank: animals, the earth, those suffering from cruelty, slavery,
injustice or prejudice, etc.)? If it isn’t going
to truly help those whom you so desperately want to help, then what else will?
Do what will do the most good.
5. Stay humble. None of us knows everything about living a compassionate life.
Remember that you have much to learn, too, and invite others to teach you what
they know just as you hope to teach what
6. Build bridges. Although it’s often easier to isolate ourselves with
like-minded people and reject others who don’t
live the way we’d like them to, we’re more effective advocates when
we go out into the world in a loving way with a sense of humor, joy and compassion
to share in abundance.
7. Be a problem-solver: think about creative things you can do that genuinely
produce constructive change for animals, and
then do them.
8. Become part of the peace and justice center in your community, or become a
member of a neighborhood environmental organization, or volunteer at your local
food pantry, or join a service group
like Rotary or Kiwanis—be a voice for animals in groups such as these that
are already dedicated to helping others.
9. Make your life your message. If your message is truly compassion, show compassion.
Strive to be like Gandhi who in
response to a reporter asking him “what is your message” responded, “My
life is my message.” Gandhi was the Mahatma (someone deeply revered for
wisdom and virtue) because he practiced what he preached each day.
There’s so much work to be done for animals, for people, for the earth.
There’s a peaceful, sustainable and compassionate world to build. In my
mind the animal movement will succeed when it is no longer perceived as a movement
that cares nothing for other people or for the environment. It will succeed when
it has embraced the value of kindness so deeply and in such a far-reaching way
that it is a beacon for a better world. As long as the animal movement stands
alone and disconnected from other movements to create a just and peaceful planet,
I believe it will fail to achieve its goal—an end to animal exploitation
and cruelty. Conversely, as soon as the humane movement is the largest, most
progressive, most solution-oriented movement dedicated to creating a humane world
for everyone, the sooner we shall succeed in having other sentient animals accepted
into the sphere of compassion.
Zoe Weil is the author of Above All, Be Kind and
The Power and Promise of Humane Education and the co-founder and president
the International Institute for
Humane Education (IIHE), a nonprofit dedicated to creating a humane world for
all. IIHE trains people to be humane educators through its Master of Education
degree and Certificate Program in Humane Education, and its Sowing Seeds Workshops.
Contact www.IIHEd.org or (207) 667-1025.