From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2012:
Don’t let irrational extremists define the cause
This April 2012 ANIMAL PEOPLE editorial is written amid an unusually fiercely contested series of primary elections and state caucuses to select the Republican nominee for U.S. President in the November 2012 national election.
Animal issues have barely surfaced during the many months of speeches, debates, and electronic media commercials through which the candidates seek to rally the electorate. Almost the only mention of animals so far has come from a web site called Dogs Against Romney, posted to publicize and decry how front-runner Mitt Romney in 1983 hauled his family’s English setter Seamus on a 12-hour drive to Canada in a carrier tied to a roof rack. Several Dogs Against Romney viewers demonstrated against Romney on Valentine’s Day outside the Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York City.
Yet, though animal issues are not prominent in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, strategic issues have come to the fore that invite parallels to the conduct of some of the animal advocates who still style themselves “the animal rights movement”–and believe themselves to be the whole of it, dismissing others of differing views about animal rights as “welfarists” or worse. Overlooked by name-callers is that the spectrum of those who are termed “welfarists” runs all the way from those who are struggling to maintain the status quo in agribusiness to those who are continuing the initiatives to dismantle intensive confinement husbandry begun by Henry Spira, who helped to spark the contemporary animal rights movement by founding Animal Rights International in 1976, and later founded the Coalition for Nonviolent Food.
Critical to note is that for the most part the narrowly self-defined animal rights movement of today is no longer the movement in which Spira participated. That movement, long before Spira’s death in 1998, grew into a highly diverse and still fast-growing animal advocacy sector of unprecedented size and influence. Even by 1998 the animal rights movement of decades ago had matured and mainstreamed itself effectively enough to win the passage of many pro-animal ballot initiatives, made achieving no-kill sheltering a popular political goal in countless communities, and had begun to put vegetarian and vegan foods into the freezers of almost every supermarket.
That momentum continues. Though most animal rights movement goals of 20 and 30 years ago have yet to be won, almost everyone in the developed world and most educated people in the developing world can cite at least a few “animal rights” goals–and most people express sympathy for some of those goals, even in places such as Africa, China, and eastern Europe, where at Spira’s death organized animal advocacy had been introduced repeatedly during the preceding century but had mostly failed to thrive.
Part of the process of maturing and mainstreaming involves shedding the hard shell of defiance and exclusivity through which activists resist social pressure to yield and conform, while growing into political and economic strength. A “movement” confronts the rest of society, but a mature cause welcomes and encourages fellow travelers, whose transformation may be less profound and complete than activists might like, yet are nonetheless moving in the right direction. Self-conscious movement identity drops away as demands for change are more broadly accepted. Fewer sympathizers express their views on bumper stickers, but thousands more cast pro-animal votes and make pro-animal choices while shopping–and for many, this is just a matter of reflexively reaching for the brand of milk or eggs with some sort of humane certification on the label, instead of the cheaper brand without. Animal advocates would of course wish that the reflexive reach was for non-animal products, but more people are reaching for non-animal products too: USDA data indicates that U.S. per capita meat and poultry consumption fell 12.2% between 2007 and 2012. Meanwhile, that humane certification even exists is a quantum leap ahead in public awareness of farm animals from 15 years ago, when such certification had yet to begin in the U.S.
Animal rights activists of a generation ago may still think of themselves as participants in the “animal rights movement,” though remaining involved chiefly as donors. But many of them, now newly retired and/or with children grown, are reconnecting with participatory advocacy, and more than just a few are shocked to discover through online forums, and especially the AR-series of conferences hosted since 2000 by the Farm Animal Reform Movement, that a small but noisy sub-sector of the self-defined animal rights movement of today has become an ugly caricature of itself.
Twenty-odd years ago some of the major animal use industries employed agents provocateur to promote the use of violent tactics and rhetoric–and these agents provocateur were flushed out in several instances precisely because they advocated actions which were at odds with the goals of a cause which exists to extend principles of non-violence, non-exploitation, and non-coercion from human relations to our relationships with animals. There were always some organizations whose names sounded militant, but the former peace activists who founded Animal Rights Mobilization had no truck with armaments. Some activists praised the covert tactics of the Animal Liberation Front when those tactics focused on procuring evidence of cruelty or on actually rescuing animals from laboratories where the animals were subjected to horrific experiments–but most of the activists who praised ALF actions quickly distanced themselves from vandalism, and at least two onetime prominent “ALF spokespersons” dropped their representation of ALF in 1996 when arsons and bombings done in the name of the ALF put human and animal life at risk.
There was always admiration of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose 1979 debut in the public eye was ramming the pirate whaler Sierra on the high seas–but Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson himself was outspokenly critical of ill-considered and reckless activities that might harm innocent people and discredit the animal cause.
“Our movement needs humor, it needs imagination, it needs evolution, and it needs flexibility. We do not need the shroud of violence and dark, evil associations with the tactics of the Irish Republican Army, the CIA, and the Red Brigade,” Watson wrote in a March 1994 guest column for ANIMAL PEOPLE. “Leave the bombs and the torches to those who would negate life by taking it,” Watson counseled.
Watson and the Sea Shepherds are still skirmishing with whalers on the high seas. Their vessels still sometimes collide. But even as Watson flies the Jolly Roger and stars in Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson, a video biography premiering on March 6, 2012 at the Salem Film Festival in Massachusetts, he has kept his “piracy” within bounds which would have been acceptable to “family television” pioneer Walt Disney.
The Animal Planet series Whale Wars, aired since November 2008, features the Sea Shepherds in confrontations with the Japanese whaling fleet which–though consisting of unscripted real-life adventure–somewhat parallel the 1957-1961 Disney drama series Zorro, in that the “outlaws” pursue goals and maintain values which are shared by most of the prime time cable audience. Ineffective “attacks” on the whalers with bottles of rancid butter are slapstick. The activities of the Sea Shepherds probably represent the most extreme and confrontational aspect of the mainstream animal rights movement, the part which has become an enduringly influential aspect of everyday lives.
Failed elements implode
But, while much of the animal rights movement has become ubiquitous, elements who have not managed to win mainstream support have imploded inward. Among them are vegans so extreme that they cannot endorse any reform in agricultural methods short of complete and immediate abolition of animal husbandry; “scientific” antivivisectionists who maintain that all animal experimentation is scientific fraud, regardless of the results; people whose animal advocacy is inextricably intertwined with a variety of essentially unrelated cultural, religious, economic, and political beliefs; and various others whose prescriptions for change are so mixed up with pursuit of personal purity as to have little chance of appealing to anyone less obsessed. Most of these people are well-meaning but ineffectual.
Mingling among them, however, are also passive/aggressive animal hoarders masquerading as operators of no-kill shelters and sanctuaries, dogfighters pretending to be pit bull rescuers, scam fundraisers, recruiters for miscellaneous cults, and a smattering of sociopaths, schizophrenics, and chronic depressives who seek a cause, any cause, within which to vent, rave, and commiserate with others whose approaches have no persuasive appeal.
The net effect resembles the implosion of the “Republican base” much discussed of late by political commentators. Traditional presidential election strategy calls for successful candidates to moderate extreme positions to appeal to “swing voters,” who choose among individuals running for office, rather than voting along party lines. The primary election system, however, in which only members of one party vote to choose the party presidential candidate, encourages office-seekers to espouse the positions that they believe will most appeal to the members of their own party who are most likely to vote in a primary. The early primaries are held in several states of low population, within which voting blocks of relatively little national significance may be disproportionately influential.
The outcome this year, in a closely fought race with multiple closely matched contenders, is that candidates have taken impractically extreme positions on so many issues, trying to win primary support, that the eventual nominee may struggle to repackage himself as “mainstream” enough to get elected. Comparably, within the AR conference series and allied web sites and Facebook pages, would-be leaders compete for the support of the perceived base by taking ever more “pure” positions to the point of practically excluding themselves from any hope of attracting reasonably mainstream people.
So long as the larger animal cause continues to expand and advance, the implosion of unpersuasive elements might be of little concern. To begrudge the excessively purist their social events and a few online meetingplaces would seem mean-spirited. Dozens of other conferences and electronic media are influentially reaching and involving tens of thousands more people, including the young people who are the future of the cause.
Unfortunately, there is reason for concern that the actions of zealots on the fringe of animal advocacy may damage the larger cause–with or without help from agents provocateur. On February 17, 2012–as detailed elsewhere in this edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE–the FBI arrested Meredith Marie Lowell, 27, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, for seeking to hire “someone who is willing to kill someone who is wearing fur.”
The case somewhat parallels the November 1988 arrest of fringe activist Fran Trutt for placing a bomb in the U.S. Surgical Corporation parking lot. Like Trutt, Lowell appears to have been a socially isolated individual who had little actual involvement in animal advocacy. But Trutt turned out to have been befriended and counseled for months by private security operative Marylou Sapone, whose company had been hired by U.S. Surgical. Sapone loaned Trutt the money to buy four pipe bombs, and introduced her to a second undercover operative who drove Trutt to the scene of the crime.
So far there are no indications of an agent provocateur among Lowell’s few animal advocacy contacts. Lowell appears to have been motivated, according to a note to herself that was included in the FBI arrest affidavit, by “Animal rights attourney [sic], activist, rescuer, and vegan [who] says it is okay to risk legal trouble to help animals and I believe this 100%. So, yes, it is okay to risk personal freedom to help animals.”
The animal rights attorney, activist, rescuer, and vegan who inspired Lowell may have been someone whom Lowell only read about online. Possibly that person had no awareness of inciting anyone toward committing or soliciting murder. But this one abortive incident, resulting in no actual harm to anyone, within just a few days produced more than 2,000 headlines in electronic and print media associating animal rights extremism with murder.
There was little follow-up. A school shooting a few miles away soon usurped even local coverage. By itself, the Lowell case is so extreme, so bizarre, as to possibly have no lasting negative effect on public opinion.
But small mobs of activists using Lowell-like rhetoric are another matter. Hardly anyone likes masked nightriders, or menacing anonymous callers, such as the six individuals associated with “direct action” animal advocacy and the organization Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty who were convicted in 2006 of conspiracy to commit animal enterprise terrorism and interstate stalking against employees of Huntingdon Life Sciences and companies that did business with Huntingdon.
The SHAC web site offered personal information about targeted individuals, including not only names, addresses, and home telephone numbers, but also in some cases the schools that their children attended, the names of their teachers, and their after-school activities. Several of the targets testified that “they were besieged by screaming protesters outside their homes at all hours, deluged by threatening phone calls, and were sent pornographic magazines they had not ordered,” summarized Wayne Parry of Associated Press. “One woman said she received an e-mail threatening to cut her 7-year-old son open and stuff him with poison. A man said he was showered with glass as people smashed all the windows of his home and overturned his wife’s car.” The testimony was supported by videos of some of the home demonstrations.
Animal advocacy leaders who are attentive to public opinion had already distanced themselves from SHAC. Most of the animal advocacy cause, in the six years since those convictions, has avoided tactics and rhetoric which might appear threatening and invasive to average citizens, who tend to favor being kind to animals but not anti-social displays, regardless of the pretexts of the sociopaths.
Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK) has tested the bounds of public perception of tactics by using long-range cameras and sky-spy drone helicopters to identify and expose pigeon shooters in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. But SHARK has videotaped and exposed only armed men, who four times have shot down the drone helicopters and on another occasion pointed a gun at founder Steve Hindi.
Once, about 15 years ago, SHARK participated in a demonstration outside the home of a protest target. Hindi concluded that this was an inappropriate tactic. Hindi has since then drawn a hard line against confronting anyone in protest who is not actively engaged in obvious violence against animals. The SHARK exposés of pigeon shooters and rodeo cowboys succeed because they show the violence and often show the participants trying to avoid identification even as they commit acts that most of the public will find offensive.
But while SHARK carefully positions itself on the side of public opinion, the AR conference series has in recent years developed an expanding reputation as an assembly point for mobs whose tactics approach lynching and whose rhetoric goes farther.
AR conference series founder Alex Hershaft, also founder of the Farm Animal Reform Movement, in 2000 invited ANIMAL PEOPLE to participate in the first revival of the series, which had been suspended for a decade, but ordained that we would have to comply with a gag order to not say anything critical of other animal advocacy organizations. ANIMAL PEOPLE of course declined. Hershaft several times in the next few years repeated the invitation, with the same gag order. The invitation was declined each time.
But eventually ANIMAL PEOPLE president Kim Bartlett did attend an AR conferences in Los Angeles, and was appalled to discover that while Hershaft muzzled criticism that he felt might show portions of the animal rights movement in a poor light, he allowed militants to organize “home visits” similar to those for which the SHAC members were convicted.
Hershaft did not put a gag order on the organizers of mob action, even though it has such demonstrated potential to harm the whole cause of animal advocacy that animal use industries have paid millions of dollars to the several dozen agents provocateur who have been unmasked in court, and may have paid millions more to others who have evaded exposure. Instead, “home visits” have become a regular if unofficial feature of the AR conference series, while the roster of speakers has increasingly spotlighted people who promote these tactics and others that tend to alienate most of the public.
Hershaft has thus far not answered ANIMAL PEOPLE president Kim Bartlett’s February 2012 inquiry as to whether he would allow “home visits” to be organized at the AR 2012 conference. Hershaft and other AR 2012 conference attendees should take note, though, that intimidation does not win over the public. Rather, intimidation tactics tend to create sympathy for the targets, regardless of whatever those people may have done behind closed doors. Likewise, gratuitous vandalism done in the name of animal advocacy, whether by the “ALF” or anyone else, tends to take public discussion away from what is being done to animals by the people whose property has been vandalized, and instead spotlights what the activists have done to people engaged in “lawfully conducted enterprises.”
Nightrider tactics are often cited by animal use industry fronts in their efforts to railroad ag-gag laws like the one recently passed in Iowa through state legislatures. (See page one.) Ag-gag legislation is directed at organizations such as Mercy for Animals, whose undercover video exposés of factory farming in countless venues is precisely the sort of activity that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was written to protect: nonviolent documentation and exposure of abuses which without freedom of speech and press might never be brought to light and redressed.
The animal use industries could not win legislation breaching or circumventing the First Amendment by forthrightly acknowledging that they wish to suppress evidence of cruelty to animals. Instead, the promoters of ag-gag laws equate undercover videography with “terrorism” that might somehow threaten the U.S. food supply. For example, warned the Animal Agriculture Alliance, “At AR 2011 the recommended tactics discussed [included] use of violence, sabotage to farms, and other illegal actions.”
Animal advocates should understand that giving a platform to people who advocate violence and tactics of terrorism entails bearing some responsibility for what happens when impressionable and irrational people hear the message–and recognition that animals pay the biggest price when ill-considered tactics backfire. Hearts are not won over by coercion or intimidation but by persuasion.
In the words of Martin Luther King, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
The truth has power. We should believe that our cause is just, and that justice will prevail over time, through exposure in the court of public opinion.