BOOKS: The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2008:

The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA
by Norm Phelps
Lantern Books (1 Union Square West, Suite 201,
New York, NY 10003), 2007. 367 pages,
paperback. $20.00.

If anyone wrote a history of animal
advocacy before Noah built the ark, it missed
the boat. Histories of animal advocacy have
mostly missed the boat ever since.
Many have been plagued by the usual
vexations of historians: lost sources, missing
pieces of contextual understanding, and partisan
ax-grinding, sometimes by the authors, more
often by surviving sources who take the
opportunity to posture over the achievements and
failures of the deceased.
A complicating factor, not afflicting
most histories, is that the subjects of animal
advocacy not only cannot speak for themselves
here and now, but never could and never did.
Some narratives survive even from slaves and
victims of genocide, but there are no
clandestinely scribbled memoirs to be found from
the Little Brown Dog, the Silver Spring monkeys,
or any Atlantic Canadian harp seals.
The frustrating aspect of The Longest
Struggle is that Norm Phelps covers so much, so
well, that the errors and omissions are
especially glaring–and, one suspects, could
have been corrected with some well-informed
To Phelps’ credit, he acknowledges and
adequately covers the influence on animal
advocacy of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism,
which have been glaringly overlooked in most
previous histories of animal advocacy–at least
in the west. Unfortunately, after summarizing
these sources of ideas, Pythagoreanism, and the
major pro-animal teachings originating out of
Judaism, Phelps leaps 1,200 years, from Jesus
to St. Francis, in a mere two pages, with only
one passing mention of Islam, none of Mohammed,
and none of the Cathari.

This matters, because while
Christ-ianity did little to suppress blood sport
between the epoch in which Christians were fed to
lions and the rise of Oliver Cromwell, Islam
discouraged cruel spectacles. While much of
Europe tormented captive wildlife as public
sport, Islam harbored the invention of zoos as
educational institutions, within which the
animals were supposed to be treated well.
The Cathari even more directly influenced
the west, as the first people who brought ideas
from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism to Europe.
Arriving by trade routes in the wake of the early
Crusades, the Cathari were educated merchants,
probably descended from the Thari people of
Pakistan and Rajasthan. Like the Bishnoi, who
still dwell in Rajasthan, they were strict
The less educated gypsies, who were
teamsters, animal exhibitors, and meat-eaters,
appear to have traveled with the Cathari,
perhaps as servants. The language of those
gypsies who reached Ireland, called
Shelta-thari, was in the 19th century recognized
as a Thari dialect.
The Cathari had long since been
exterminated by the Inquisition, after their
teachings caught on so well in much of Europe,
including southern France, as to challenge the
dominion of the Roman Catholic Church. Though
what little survives of Cathari belief was
filtered through the perceptions of their
persecutors, traces of ideas can be discerned
that resembled modern Jainism.
Especially of note is that St. Francis
and several other saints who were contemporaries
of the Cathari seem to have appropriated the most
popular of their beliefs, including the idea of
being kind to animals, without the culturally
problematic moral opposition to meat-eating and
defiance of Roman authority. Though the Cathari
were centuries ahead of their time, and St.
Francis may not have been the unequivocal animal
advocate that history remembers, as Phelps
discusses, the Cathari influence appears to live
on in the image of St. Francis and the work of
generations of pro-animal Franciscans.
Most of The Longest Struggle concerns the
past 200 years, and especially the most recent
50 years, in keeping with Phelps’ thesis that
animal advocacy really only began to shift from
an “animal welfare” to an “animal rights” focus
in recent times. Ironically, this thesis might
have been strengthened by paying more attention
to the evolution of the American Humane
Association, which Phelps portrays as the
primary bastion of “welfarism.”
Both “rights” and “welfare” factions were
active within the AHA from the founding meeting.
Internal splits over “rights” vs. “welfare”
issues produced the American Anti-Vivisection
Society (1883) and the Humane Society of the U.S.
(1954). A perennial problem was–and is–that
the AHA has always tried to maintain positions on
animal issues that harmonize with their positions
on child protection, the dominant AHA mission
during the first half of the 20th century.
For example, the AHA leaders felt that
they could not endorse vegetarianism because they
believed that the orphans in their care needed
meat. The leaders acknowledged that adults could
live well and long without it.
The AHA stalwartly opposed sport hunting,
including in a position statement issued soon
after the U.S. entered World War II, but
dropped this position postwar, as it phased out
operating orphanages. The idea was to seek a
political alliance with hunter/ conservationists
on behalf of protecting wildlife, but the
alliance never materialized.
Asked to endorse the surgical procedures
for sterilizing dogs and cats, while battling
eugenicists who favored forcibly sterilizing the
poor, the AHA at first respectfully declined; a
decade later denounced dog and cat sterilization
as “vivisection,” though the AHA was not
formally opposed to animal experiments; and held
that position for 50 years, apparently
forgetting why it was taken.
Overlooking the internally conflicted
history of the AHA leads Phelps to other
noteworthy omissions. One is that the origin of
well-funded opposition to animal advocacy began
long before he supposes, with the formation of
some still extant pro-hunting advocacy groups in
the mid-19th century, the American Farm Bureau
Federation in 1919, and the National Society for
Medical Research in 1945, ancestral to the
Nat-ional Association for Biomedical Research,
founded in 1979.
The nucleus of the organized opposition
to animal rights was accordingly well -funded and
well-connected, warning the animal use
industries against threats that had yet to
materialize, long before the animal rights
movement existed.
Another omission is that there was
sporadic humane opposition to the Atlantic
Canadian seal hunt–and to a similar hunt
formerly held in the Prilibof islands off
Alaska–for at least 70 years before the
International Fund for Animal Welfare made
Atlantic Canadian sealing an enduring public
issue. Opposing sealing helped to rally the
animal rights movement, but this was a case of
new activists revitalizing an old cause.
At that, IFAW gets just one mention,
and the Animal Welfare Institute none, though
both were instrumental in developing the tactics
that built the animal rights movement. Friends
of Animals gets one mention. The founder of the
once influential National Alliance for Animal
Legislation is not mentioned; her successor,
under whom it imploded, is credited with her
Most egregiously, Phelps writes of Best
Friends Animal Society cofounder Michael
Mountain, “Had he been born 20 years earlier,
Michael Mountain might have been a hippie in
Haight-Ashbury.” Now 60, Mountain was a hippie
in Haight-Ashbury, though he spent much more
time elsewhere. Even then, Mountain and several
other cofounders were building the network that
became Best Friends.
Phelps does much better in tracing the
rise of the Fund for Animals and PETA, and the
evolution of HSUS. Phelps recognizes the
enduring influence of Henry Spira, who died in
1998 but whose strategic views and emphasis on
not eating animals are more widely appreciated
now than ever in his lifetime.
Phelps’ overview is plausible, though
his statistics on animal shelter killing are 15
years out of date and–like others who fail to
correct for inflation–he appears to be unaware
that in inflation-adjusted dollars, the U.S.
retail fur trade has never recovered from the
sales collapse of 20 years ago.
There are other ways to assess the longterm
trends, especially if one gets the numbers
right, but Phelps’ conclusion seems right on the
mark: “Today’s activists do not expect us to win
overnight, and perhaps not even in their
lifetimes. But they do expect us to winŠA
generation of activists has come of age who did
not experience the disillusionment that their
elders lived through. When they came into the
movement–for the most part, within the past
dozen years–it had become obvious that animal
rights was a marathon, not a sprint, and so
they took up activism with no illusions about how
hard or how long the struggle would be.
“Because of this, they measure success
by a different yardstick than the activists of
the eighties. Instead of disappointment because
they cannot get everything they want, they feel
a sense of accomplishment at every
gain…Insisting on all or nothingŠis isolating
and alienating, and creates a siege mentality in
which we begin to see our own fecklessness as a
sign of intellectual and moral superiority. This
in turn leads to a kind of fundamentalism, a
holier-than-thou mindset that pursues strategies
designed to preserve our own moral purity and
intellectual rigor rather than to relieve the
suffering of animals.”
Phelps wrote The Longest Struggle to help
empower new generations of activists, not to
carve a stele in stone for all time. It is the
most thorough history of animal advocacy
published to date, and when a more comprehensive
history is produced, The Longest Struggle will be
the one by which it is measured.

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