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October 2006
Does Nibbling at the Edges Conflict With Taking a Big Bite?
By Karen Davis


With intentions designed to encompass the mainstream public and win greater sympathy for the plight of animals, many animal advocacy groups are distancing themselves from the “radical” agendas of vegetarian and vegan advocacy and militant direct action. Similar to the mid-19th century debate over slavery—in which anti-slavery forces argued over the use of militant action versus patient education and moral persuasion—an argument rages among animal advocates.

Mainstream organizations publicly denounce militant action in an attempt to advance animal liberation. Others argue that activities associated with the notorious Animal Liberation Front are among the many tactics needed to bring people’s attention to the plight of nonhuman animals by people willing to risk government surveillance, imprisonment and even death.

Promoting a vegetarian diet would seem to be consistent with the anti-violence stance of those who argue that ALF activities violate the core ethic of promoting compassion and respect. However, the mainstream animal advocacy community does not encourage a nonviolent diet to the degree that it could. For example, while the National Association for Animal Protection serves only vegan food at its annual Summit meetings, it does not require member organizations to serve only vegan food at their own functions, yet to join the association, a group must pledge to refrain from violence. Furthermore, the mainstream animal advocacy community does not show detestation of animal slaughter to anywhere near the same degree that it does of violence against humans and inanimate property damage.

The 1990s seemed to be the beginning of a vigorous, full-stride-ahead vegetarian campaign by the animal advocacy movement, yet a retreat appears to be underway. Some vegan advocacy groups are even supporting so-called humanely produced animal products as an alternative to factory-farmed products. However, it is one thing to get people to urge companies to reduce the enormous suffering they inflict on farmed animals and retailers to sell less cruelly produced products; it’s quite another to encourage consumers to purchase “animal-friendly” slaughterhouse products. This is a betrayal not only of animals, but of language and the public trust.

Reasons given for shying away from vigorous vegan advocacy are that the media is less interested in vegetarian campaigns than in campaigns against, say, McDonald’s. And while the number of vegetarians is growing, that growth is slow compared to population growth overall. If this is so, could it be partly the fault of animal advocacy efforts thus far? In weighing arguments, remember that the animal advocacy movement has not vigorously promoted vegetarianism as the way to eliminate farmed animal suffering.

If the public is told it can eat humanely raised and slaughtered animals, what incentive do people have to explore the range of delicious and nutritious vegan products on the market? Should animal advocates make it easier and more comfortable for people to consume meat, milk and eggs? Or was political activist Harriet Schleifer right when she wrote two decades ago: “The difficulty with this approach is that it tends to involve its proponents in deceit”? The public comes to feel that the use of animals for food is in some way acceptable—even the animal welfare people justify it. This only helps in making it more difficult to eliminate the practice in the future.

Karen Davis, Ph.D.?is the President and founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of chickens and other domestic fowl. For information visit


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