Editorial: Lassitude on attitude

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2000:

Beginning on page one of this edition, ANIMAL PEOPLE compares Chinese attitudes about animals, as recently surveyed by professional pollsters, to the attitudes of Americans, voiced in similar surveys done in the United States.

Readers with our own penchant for tracking statistics may notice that in order to find surveys which asked Americans essentially the same questions, we had to use data gathered on 27 different occasions by 22 different polling agencies––and though some of the questions were asked just a few months ago, others were most recently asked 17 years ago.

There were some questions we could find no match for. Hired by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Animals Asia Foundation, and the Hong Kong SPCA, the Chinese pollsters asked not only about issues and practices indigenous to China, but also about forms of animal use and abuse which might be imported, to see what might take hold if allowed the opportunity. Bullfighting and circuses were of particular interest, because entrepreneurs have already brought both bullfights and western-style circuses to the Chinese mainland. Incredibly, though we combed more than six feet of files documenting U.S. activism over animal use in entertainment, we found no indication that anyone here has ever really tried to find out what Americans think about animal spectacles in any kind of detail. All the existing data allows us to say with certainty is that Americans mostly approve of well-managed zoos and overwhelmingly disapprove of cockfighting. Where Americans stand on bullfighting, circuses, and rodeo––which combines aspects of both––is presently measured only by television ratings and gate receipts.

Perhaps no U.S. pollster has recently inquired about American attitudes toward bullfighting because bullfighting, at least to the death, is illegal in all 50 states. Even so-called “bloodless” bullfighting is rarely practiced. Yet American tourists form a significant part of the crowd at bullfights in Spain, France, and northern Mexico, and images of matadors and fighting bulls are used to sell airline tickets and liquor.

Pepsi-Cola was recently so sure that Americans generally approve of bullfighting that it defied a SHARK demand that it quit advertising prominently in Mexican bullrings for 18 months. Only when activists in India joined the boycott did Pepsi back off.

It is understandable that SHARK has not commissioned public opinion polls, because it is a small organization without even any paid staff––but the balance of Spanish and Mexican public opinion tipped against bullfighting more than a decade ago, and the SHARK premise, accurate so far as we can tell, is that the bullfighting industry survives on the margin provided by U.S. tourism and advertising.

If that is the case, SHARK is also correct in assessing that the greater portion of the battle against bullfighting must be waged right here at home.

The World Society for the Protection of Animals and others have sporadically addressed bullfighting in U.S. mailings for at least 20 years. SHARK, however, was the only nationally prominent U.S. group to wage a sustained anti-bullfight campaign during the 1990s.

By contrast, at least 10 major U.S. organizations are prominently opposed to circuses. The two biggest, the Humane Society of the U.S. and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have combined annual budgets of more than $50 million. Yet the only American public opinion data we could find about circus use of animals came from membership surveys of animal rights groups and circus fan clubs. Except that the animal rights group members were on average about 20 years younger than the fan club members, indicating a generational shift in perspective, such limited surveys told little about the outlook of average people.

We found solid U.S. polling data, based on frequent samples of representative groups of people, on only one topic: pet-keeping. Haphazardly tracked before 1985, the data pertaining to pet-keeping is now by far the most cross-checked and thorough, independently investigated and tracked annually by at least half a dozen different agencies. The findings have proved invaluable in helping reduce the death toll in animal shelters by 72% since 1985, even as the number of owned pets climbed by about 20%.

Surveys about animal testing, unfortunately, seem to have ended abruptly after the 1996 “March for the Animals” drew just 3,000 participants after the organizers predicted 100,000. More than a decade of almost annual data collection by one polling agency or another has not been updated––which means anti-animal testing campaigners have no way of estimating progress, checking the success of strategies, or knowing if they are still doing anything but preaching to the choir.

The paucity of data is not because there is any lack of membership “surveying,” we must note. On the contrary, the use of bogus polls as a so-called reply device to get potential donors to respond to direct mailings and send a check has never been more common. We see several a week, easily recognizable as invalid in terms of trying to accurately gauge public opinion because the recipients are drawn from the same pool of names used in other mailings from animal advocacy groups; the questions are emotionally charged and leading, not asked in a neutral manner meant to find out what anyone really thinks; and because the sequence of questions progresses to asking, “How much money will you send?”

Many advocacy organization heads seem to be of the erroneous belief that neutral public opinion polling of the sort recently done in China can be left to the news media, or even to opposition groups. Indeed, most of the credible opinion polls on animal issues in the U.S. have been done by news media and opposition groups––but the news media tend to ask about only the topic of the moment, whatever it may be, while opposition groups ask about only the topics of direct concern to them. This leaves broad gaps in animal advocates’ understanding of what issues are most effectively addressed, which neglected issues could catch fire if someone fanned the flames, and which––for now, anyway––are losers.

Straw polls

With that much said, we are aware that animal advocacy organizations have funded some high-quality polling preliminary to the series of referendum victories won since 1992 in Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachustts, Missouri, Oregon, and Washington. HSUS, in particular, has insisted on strong polling data before committing more than figurative pocket change to state ballot initiatives, and has funded only initiatives worded in ways that the polls indicate will pass with minimal opposition.

The HSUS attention to polling on potential ballot measures shows strategic awareness of public opinion. But we understand from leaked strategy documents that others––mostly local and regional organizations––are expected to assume all or most of the initial expense of advancing a proposal to prominence, and then commissioning the surveys that convince HSUS to come aboard. Once HSUS is committed, they call the shots. Time and again the local and regional organizations have complained to us that they were squeezed out of their own campaigns, and that the language of ballot measures was rewritten, based on polling data, in such a manner as to omit key campaign concerns.

For example, banning commercial and recreational use of leghold traps and snares in California was accomplished at the cost of exempting “nuisance wildlife” trappers, who do most of the trapping carried out in California. Banning bear and puma hunting with hounds in Oregon was accomplished at the cost of exempting coyote hunting––so all the pack hunters now claim to be coyote hunting 365 days a year, and if the dogs take off after a bear or puma, usually no one else is there to see it.

Sacrificing essential objectives to win easy victories amounts to yet another misuse of polling, which would be better used to find ways of winning the essential objectives.

Meanwhile, even the best polling on ballot measures also falls short of producing the breadth of data obtained in China. The Chinese surveys didn’t ask everything to which we’d like to have answers, either, but the pollsters did ask enough questions on a range of topics to provide a good overview of opinion not just on specific issues and proposals, but also on philosophy and general outlook, stratified by age and gender. In consequence, we now know almost as much about the typical Chinese perspective on animals, and where it might be heading, as we know and can document about the typical American perspective.

One question in particular might measure the progress of U.S. animal advocacy: what do we, as a people, think about the sentience, suffering, and moral weight of chickens?

Surveys of participants in the 1990 and 1996 Marches for Animals, done by Scott Plous of Wesleyan University, found that in 1990 vivisection was the big issue for all. By 1996, the younger half of participants saw meat-eating as the biggest issue––as indeed it is, in terms of numbers of animals abused. Does this represent the beginning of a quantum shift in American values generally, or merely a trend among activists?

Nearly four years later, meat industry studies show that each age group eats less meat than the age group preceding it. But the meat industry believes this reflects only the lower buying power of the younger age groups. No one, as yet, has even tried to assess what it means relative to advocacy––past, present, or future––or what it might mean over time to chickens, who continue to suffer and die in ever-increasing numbers, now exceeding nine billion a year in the U.S. alone.

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