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March 2004
Looking at the Bigger Picture: Violence, Change, and Public Opinion

By Wayne Pacelle and J.P. Goodwin


Throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s, activists in Holland had organized one of the world’s most effective anti-fur campaigns. Domestic fur sales shrank 90 percent, with 105 of the nation’s 125 fur stores closing by 1999. Legislators banned fox and chinchilla fur farming, and were taking a serious look at outlawing mink ranches—which produced a staggering 10 percent of the world’s mink pelts.

In 2002, an animal rights campaigner assassinated Pim Fortuyn, the leader of a marginal right-wing political organization that had been outspoken in its sympathy for fur ranching. Though he later claimed he targeted Fortuyn because of his anti-immigration policies, the shooter also lodged a bullet in the heart of the anti-fur campaign. Fortyn’s assassination prompted a wave of sympathy votes for his party in a national election, resulting in the seating of more of his followers in parliament than ever before. In a more lasting sense, the assassin’s action caused average citizens to associate animal activists with extremism and violence—diminishing sympathy for the goals of the movement and calling into question the judgment and character of its adherents.

Fortunately, no animal advocates have chosen murder as a political tactic here in the United States. Yet, there has been a ratcheting up of rhetoric, and a slew of illegal acts by self-proclaimed animal activists who operate under the mantra “by any means necessary.” This brand of activism will only retard, not hasten, progress for animals.

Take the case of the anti-cruelty ballot initiative campaign in Arkansas in 2002. The proposed initiative would have made certain acts of animal cruelty, including cockfighting, a felony offense—not a small matter in a state with more than 400 “farms” raising tens of thousands of gamecocks for deadly fights.

Early polling showed support for the initiative at around 80 percent. After volunteers gathered 80,000 signatures to place the measure on the November 2002 ballot, its enactment seemed inevitable.

Prior to the launch of the initiative and continuing throughout the signature gathering campaign, however, some animal activists had mounted a high-profile effort targeting a Little Rock-based corporation called Stephens, Inc., which had multiple business holdings, including an investment company and several television and newspaper outlets throughout Arkansas. The campaign—dubbed Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC)—centered on forcing Stephens, Inc. to divest its resources from Huntingdon Laboratories, which in the United Kingdom had been charged by animal activists with torturing dogs in needless experiments.

The SHAC campaign involved the application of pressure by legitimate means such as letter writing, phone calls, demonstrations, and media exposure, but it went much further. Campaigners obtained credit card numbers of the executives of Stephens, Inc., and ran up tens of thousands of dollars in purchases. They also vandalized company property, harassed executives at their homes, threatened them, and destroyed their private property. All of this activity attracted enormous press attention—in a state where one of every two people holds a hunting or fishing license and where agriculture is the dominant industry.

During the election, the Arkansas Farm Bureau and other campaigners against the anti-cruelty initiative reminded voters about the “radical” views and tactics of animal advocates, exploiting the climate of anger related to the SHAC campaign. Aggrieved by the personal attacks on it, the Stephens family put tens of thousands of dollars into the opposition campaign.

On election day, voters rejected the initiative, with 62 percent casting ballots against it. In neighboring Oklahoma, however, voters handily approved a ballot initiative to make cockfighting a felony. And also in the South, Florida voters approved a ban on keeping sows in gestation crates. There were no comparable SHAC campaigns in either state.

Experienced campaigners know that winning reforms is tough, even when the stars are aligned in our favor. When people within our movement pursue tactics that are viewed as far outside what’s generally acceptable, and in fact deploy behaviors that conflict with the basic tenets of respect and compassion that animate our movement, it hurts us all; effecting change becomes even more complicated and difficult.

Some in our movement consider illegal actions heroic. Indeed, there is some courage involved in breaking the law and putting one’s freedom at risk. But when individuals resort to property destruction, arson, and intimidation, we think more of hopelessness than heroism. Only people who feel impotent and marginalized resort to vandalism and threats as a means of social change.

As a practical matter, it is naiïve to think that multi-million and billion dollar industries will be toppled by sporadic acts of vandalism and intimidation. These companies are large and powerful, and they can easily sustain broken windows, destroyed equipment, and spray-painted slogans on their walls.

In fact, the smartest of these targeted companies leverage these incidents to position themselves and shape public opinion to protect their interests. The companies that harm animals on a daily basis cast themselves as victims. By engaging in these acts, our movement cedes them the moral authority. And often, in the end, the animals are removed from the picture, while the illegal tactics are imprinted in the public’s minds.

In some cases, sophisticated industries will use these incidents to try to stifle legitimate dissent. Take the case now of the bills advanced in state legislatures at the behest of factory farmers and other animal-use industries that seek to criminalize even the taking of photographs on private property.

We must have confidence in our ideas. We have to believe that our ideas can transform individuals and institutions. This isn’t wishful thinking. The signs of positive change for animal protection abound in our culture. Public attitude surveys demonstrate that a majority of Americans oppose intensive confinement of animals on factory farms, oppose the use of steel jawed leghold traps, and oppose painful and duplicative animal tests, to give but a few examples.

There is no question that the work of social change, especially for animals, is arduous and that the road is long. Of course, we are frustrated that the pace of change is not quicker. And, yes, it is exasperating to see both the indifference of average Americans and the strength of corporations that abuse animals.

But there is no shortcut to lasting and meaningful social change. Civil rights activists and women’s rights activists fought hard for decades and they effected real change by working within the system. Gay and lesbian activists are now achieving enormous success through political organizing and basic education; almost overnight, their issues have been incorporated into television scripts for millions to see and hear, and their issues have been injected into the center of the national political debate, when just a few years ago elected officials considered the subject radioactive.

For animal activists, meaningful change on factory farming, animal testing, sport hunting, and other issues can only be achieved by diligent grassroots organizing, active recruitment and education, and clever and ethical campaigning. During the last 12 years, voters have approved 15 statewide ballot initiatives to protect animals—including bans on cruel traps in five states, hound hunting in four states, cockfighting in three states, horse slaughter in one state, and gestation crates in one state. It occurred after thousands of activists gathered hundreds of thousands, even millions, of signatures. During the last five years, the torrent of calls and letters generated by animal activists prompted Congress to pass 15 new laws to protect animals. And major fast food corporations, such as McDonald’s and Burger King, have acknowledged for the first time ever that animals matter and that they are taking preliminary steps to provide humane treatment of farm animals.

It is a romantic ideal to think we can break down all laboratory doors and knock down the walls of factory farms today or tomorrow and free the animals. That simply won’t happen, and to pursue that approach in lieu of more lasting and meaningful types of activism squanders our time, talent, and energy, and in the process hands a strategic opportunity to our opponents.

We can choose to use physical force and sabotage as a means to achieve our goals—and the result will be frustration, arrest, incarceration, and, ironically, the strengthening of animal use institutions. Or we can choose the path of grassroots campaigning and organizing that every successful social movement in recent times has pursued.

Wayne Pacelle is a Senior Vice President at the Humane Society of the U.S. ( J.P. Goodwin is Grassroots Outreach Coordinator at the Humane Society of the U.S.



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