The Phenomenon of Doing Without Achieving
By Henry Spira
While recognizing that most people care deeply about
the well-being of animals, it’s crucial to remember that right
thought and right speech, by themselves, are not enough. For activists
who want to make a difference, thinking must be linked with doing, Henry
Spira explains in this article, originally published in the
June, 1996 issue of Satya.
For some time, the animal rights movement has been trapped in the nightmare
in which you run as hard as possible but can’t seem to move forward.
For all its growing resources and considerable energy, the movement
is barely scratching the surface of animal suffering and misery.
This is a tragedy, given the remarkable progress made in the 1970s,
a period in which activists convinced society that the suffering of
animals matters. Today, polls suggest that more than 95 percent of Americans
care about the well-being of animals.
Twenty years ago, animal activists challenged the status quo of lab
animal testing, focusing on the Draize blinding test and the LD50 death
tests. The victories which followed reshaped scientific and corporate
thinking and set the stage for alternatives to the traditional use of
laboratory animals. For animal protectionists, an important bridge was
crossed. But instead of moving on to tackle even greater areas of animal
suffering, many activists continue to run back and forth across the
Looking at the universe of animal suffering in America today, we see
pain dominated by the more than seven billion farm animals. Roughly
95 percent of all animal misery is endured by animals raised for food.
Why then has the movement allocated only a fraction of its time and
resources to their plight? This is something that is only now, slowly,
beginning to change. Sometimes it seems as if more time is spent discussing
whether or not the public functions of animal organizations should be
vegetarian than fighting to protect farm animals. Meanwhile, farm animal
suffering is on the increase.
Many of Us, Few Achievements
How can so many activists with so many resources achieve so little?
Of course, this problem is not unique to the animal movement; there’s
a tendency among most social change organizations to repeat old strategies
that produced success in the past, rather than thinking ahead to the
future. Lack of imagination and bureaucratic inertia become the norm
and organizations just keep doing more of the same, year after year.
Rather than moving ahead and looking for new horizons, animal protectionists
too often settle into the creeping routine-ism for which we criticize
animal researchers. Campaigns such as the ongoing bashing of cosmetics
companies have evolved into mindless rituals without beginning or end.
What, other than raising funds, is gained by activists continuing to
attack companies who have spent tens of millions of dollars responding
to the issues raised nearly 20 years ago? Clearly, this discourages
the corporate world from being responsive to new activist concerns.
In addition, it encourages cynicism inside and outside the movement.
Ironically, it may be the financial success of many animal organizations
that is proving to be the largest barrier to progress in the farm animal
arena. Faced with the need to maintain budgets and infrastructures,
many organizations are pressured to choose campaigns on the basis of
popular appeal rather than the urgent need to fight animal suffering.
If the public is more predisposed to opening its wallet for bunny rabbits
than seven billion chickens, it is not because they are any less deserving
but that the movement has yet to make a compelling enough case for their
misery. It’s worth remembering that some 20 years ago, the public
did not appear concerned with cosmetics testing on animals until the
issue was spotlighted through full-page advertisements in the New
Failure to assess priorities and undue emphasis on lesser problems can
also muddy the real issues. For the last few years environmental organizations
have wallowed in their victory in persuading the fast food industry
to switch to more environmentally friendly hamburger packaging. The
fact of the matter is that the contents of the packaging represent the
real environmental threat, yet this continues to be largely ignored.
Focusing on the Fundamentals
Much of the above would suggest that the movement lacks a common objective.
While none of us can define exactly what an overarching strategy should
look like, we can probably agree on certain fundamentals. One such fundamental,
it seems, would be to acknowledge that the general awareness-building
which was necessary in the 1970s and perhaps in the 1980s, needs to
be refocused. Right now, the urgent need is to focus on making a difference
in the lives of billions of farm animals.
We should try to persuade the public to include all animals in their
circle of concern. In its April 1, 1996 cover story, Barron’s,
the Dow Jones business and financial weekly, reported that “surveys
show that seven out of 10 American pet owners now think of their pets
as children, and they are willing to spend on their pets as if they
were children.” There is no unbridgeable gap between companion
animals and farm animals, though it may be convenient for those who
eat animals to think that there is. Is it not possible for the public
to share some of their affection for their nonhuman roommates with their
roommates’ close relatives? The needs and opportunities have never
been greater. And 95 percent of the American public wants to end animal
suffering. Within that framework, we need to assess how to use our energies
Let’s get out of the past and stop ignoring the vast majority
of animal misery. We activists need to remember our objectives and why
we’re doing what we’re doing. This involves a realistic
recognition of the problems, a sense of what’s possible, the ability
to search out and seize opportunities as they appear and, whenever necessary,
to switch gears. Rather than daydreaming about perfect and absolute
solutions, activists need to push for the most rapid progress. Above
all, we need to continually assess what differences we are making. Are
we accomplishing all that we can to reduce the total universe of animal
pain and suffering? Clearly, we have the tools. Do we have the will?
Henry Spira was the coordinator of Animal Rights International
and a regular contributor to Satya. An activist for more than 50 years,
Spira is the subject of a documentary and book by Peter Singer,
Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement.
Henry Spira died of esophageal cancer on September 12, 1998, at age
71. This article originally appeared in the June,
1996 issue of Satya.