Working in Defense of Animals
by Matt Ball
Co-founder Vegan Outreach, Oct. 2003
Since the publication of Animal Liberation in 1975 and the founding of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in 1980 (to mention just two seminal events), animal rights and welfare organizations have spent hundreds of millions dollars, with volunteers working endless hours, trying to improve the treatment of animals in the United States. PETA alone has over 600,000 members and an eight-figure annual budget. From McDonald’s reforms and the Florida breeding sow initiative to a New York Times Magazine cover story and widespread media coverage of open rescues of laying hens, the treatment of animals is now a matter of wide public debate. Animal advocates and the term “animal rights” have become fixtures in American society.
The State of Animals Today
A few years into the new millennium, with several decades of animal advocacy behind us, it is shocking that the number of animals exploited and killed in the United States has more than doubled since 1975. At the same time, the treatment of most of these animals is worse today than ever before.
Although every animal in a lab, pound, or fur farm deserves our consideration, more than 99 percent of all the animals killed in the United States are killed to be eaten. In recent years, the annual increase in the number of land animals slaughtered for food has been much greater than the total number of animals killed for fur, in labs, and at shelters, combined. In other words, each year in the United States:
• The number of animals killed in shelters is approximately equal to the human population of New Jersey.
• The number of animals killed for fur is approximately equal to the human population of Illinois.
• The number of animals killed in experimentation is approximately equal to the human population of Texas.
• The increase in the number of land animals farmed and slaughtered is greater than the total human population of the United States.
• The total number of mammals and birds farmed and slaughtered is approximately equal to one and two-thirds times the entire human population of Earth.
Hidden away from the public eye, farmed animals endure an excruciating existence. Written descriptions can’t convey the true horror of what goes on in factory farms. Photographs and videos come closer — layer hens with open sores, covered with feces, sharing their tiny cage with decomposing corpses of fellow hens whose wings, faces, or feathers were trapped in the cage such that they couldn’t get to food or water (Compassion Over Killing’s “Hope for the Hopeless”); pigs sodomized by metal poles, beaten with bricks, skinned while still conscious (PETA’s “Pig Farm Investigation”); steers, pigs, and birds desperately struggling on the slaughterhouse floor after their throats are cut (Farm Sanctuary’s “Humane Slaughter?”, PETA’s “Meet Your Meat”). But even these tapes can’t communicate the smell, the noise, the desperation, and most of all, the fact that each of these animals — and billions more unseen by any camera or any caring eye — continue to suffer like this, every minute of every day.
If we are concerned with the suffering of all animals, not just those in labs or fur farms or shelters, these facts demand we reconsider our focus. As The Economist pointed out in a 1995 cover story, animal advocates in the United States have focused on fur and medical research, while advocates in England and much of Europe have focused on animals killed for food. As a result, not only is vegetarianism more widespread in some countries in Europe, animals there are also afforded much greater protection.
The Choice for Activists
Given the unfathomable horrors of factory farms, the overwhelming numbers of animals involved, and the fact that every individual in society makes choices every day that can perpetuate the suffering or help end it, it is hard to imagine a compelling argument as to why the animal liberation movement should focus on a different issue. Of course, it would be nice if we could address all areas of exploitation and suffering at once. But as individuals and as a movement, our time and resources are extremely limited, especially in comparison to the industries we seek to change or abolish. When viewed in light of the vast annual increase in the number of animals bred and killed in the United States each year, the truism “When you choose to do one thing, you are choosing not to do another” is more poignant than ever.
Having participated in a variety of animal advocacy measures — from protests, public fasts, and civil disobedience to presentations, tables, and letter writing — I have found no more effective way of working in defense of animals than promoting vegetarianism through positive outreach. Showing people what goes on in factory farms and providing them with alternatives can serve not only to remove support from factory farms, but also to bring about a significant change in society’s fundamental view of animals. Even without including the abstract idea of “societal change,” the numbers are compelling. On average, each American eats nearly three dozen factory-farmed mammals and birds a year — over 2,700 in a lifetime! Convincing just one person to change his or her diet can spare more animals than have been saved by most of the high profile campaigns against animal research, fur, canned hunts, and circuses.
Purity vs. Progress
Addressing modern animal agriculture is the best use of our limited time and resources to alleviate animal suffering. How, though, should we proceed? For caring people who are aware of what goes on in factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses, outrage and anger are common — almost inevitable. The difficulty is in finding a constructive outlet for this anger. With meat eating firmly entrenched in our culture, factory farms hidden, and people’s inconsistent attitudes towards animals (those we love, those we eat) tolerated, promoting veganism can be taxing on activists. Frustrated by their inability to make large changes in society — to organize armies to storm the factory farms or pass laws abolishing them — and feeling that incremental, one-person-at-a-time change is too slow, many activists give up on outreach-based advocacy altogether. They may then turn to what they can control: themselves. They may pursue personal purity, eschewing whey, honey, sugar, film, pesticides, manure, concrete, medicine, etc. — everything they perceive as connected to animal exploitation.
The desire to avoid complicity with any aspect of animal exploitation is understandable, but this inward turn can actually counteract efforts to prevent animal suffering. In a society where the cruelty inherent in eating a chicken’s leg is not recognized, few people will be able to identify with an activist who shuns a veggie burger because it is cooked on the same grill as beef burgers. Unnecessary suffering and cruelty-free options are no longer the focus if, in our zeal to defend veganism, we equate the suffering of oysters and shrimp with that of veal calves and breeding sows. Most people are going to have a hard time giving vegetarianism serious consideration when they perceive us to be concerned about insects’ rights, sugar processed with bone char, microingredients such as diglycerides, and so forth.
If we are to work effectively on behalf of animals instead of in defense of our veganism, we must encourage everyone to boycott cruelty. We can’t do this by fostering the impression that “It’s so hard to be vegan — animal products are in everything,” acting as if veganism is a religion with adherence to dogma the sole issue, implying that every farm — from the largest mega-factory to the smallest free-range organic farm — is equally cruel, or arguing that harvesting honey is a holocaust.
As Cleveland Amory commented, people have an infinite capacity to rationalize — especially when it comes to something they want to eat. It follows that the vast majority of people are more than happy to ignore the implications of eating animals, and instead bicker over the number of field mice killed during crop harvests, “your baby or your dog,” whether milk is a “deadly poison,” the plight of third-world farmers, gelatin in film, and so on. Anything that keeps the focus off factory farms is more than welcome to people who are understandably resistant to separating themselves from friends and associating with a judgmental vegan crowd.
Our example must always reflect our underlying goal — our actions should be clearly motivated by a reasoned, practical opposition to cruelty. Rather than simply avoiding something because it isn’t “vegan,” we should always have a clear explanation for the consequences of our actions. It is better to allow for uncertainty — for example, telling people that we have decided to give clams the benefit of the doubt because we don’t know whether they are capable of the subjective experience of suffering — than to simply recite “clams aren’t vegan.”
Beyond Sound Bites, Beyond Veganism
At Vegan Outreach, we have found the most effective way of getting past these barriers is to avoid making ourselves or our veganism the issue. Rather, we work to keep the focus on undeniable yet avoidable cruelty. Since most individuals have a cursory awareness of vegetarianism and animal rights, to effect real change in people’s attitudes and actions, it is necessary to move beyond sound bites to distributing compelling and accurate information. This can be done in a number of ways that avoid making people feel judged or opening irresistible topics such as Grandpa Carnivore living to be 94. The easiest way to reach out to people is by distributing literature. Providing others with printed information allows them to digest the ideas and implications on their own time, without becoming defensive and feeling the need to justify themselves and their past actions.
Even in this least confrontational setting, we shouldn’t give people a reason to ignore the issue of cruelty or dismiss the message because of the messenger. The general public is constantly bombarded with “documented facts” from all sides (the healthfulness of the meat-heavy Atkins diet, the welfare benefits of farrowing stalls, and so on). These “experts” are often totally and passionately convinced they have the truth on their side. The public won’t be swayed by what we say simply because we, too, are convinced our arguments are correct. We need to be appropriately wary of repeating claims that support our position and dismissing those that don’t.
Knowing the “truth” is cold comfort if we can’t create any change for those suffering. Not only should we stick to materials that our target audience will find convincing, we also need to meet people halfway, reaching out to them in a way that opens them up to considering the ideas. For example, if avoiding the words “vegan” or “animal rights,” or handing out a Christian booklet such as What Would Jesus Eat…Today?, or displaying happy animal images instead of graphic pictures of cruelty makes a certain person or audience more likely to read the information, this is what we should do
Positive, constructive outreach requires that we check our egos at the door. Everyone is unique, and to maximize the amount of good accomplished, we need to understand people’s motivations and goals. A good way of doing this is to read Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People, as well as Robert B. Cialdini’s books on the psychology of influence.
We must do everything we can, but we can’t expect (our vision of) perfection from others. Given that per capita consumption of animals is at an all-time high in our country today (ERS Agricultural Outlook / January-February 2002), it is unrealistic and counterproductive to expect everyone to convert to our particular vision of pure vegetarianism. Rather, we need people to recognize the cruelties of modern agriculture and take steps — however tentative or gradual — to end their support of factory farms. If they buy meat from an organic farmer down the road, or continue to eat fish, or don’t avoid all dairy, we should neither vilify them (“Go vegan or go ... jump in a lake!!”) nor spend our limited time and resources trying to “fully convert” them. Instead, we need to support and encourage everyone in the steps they take, and reach out to others.
We don’t have a duty to speak for the animals; we have an obligation to be heard for the animals.
A History of Success
Our experience at Vegan Outreach shows it is possible to be honest while still being efficient and effective. Each day we receive feedback from individuals who have stopped eating animals and become active in helping them after receiving a copy of Why Vegan? or Vegetarian Living. With a budget that is a tiny fraction of the major animal groups’, the members of Vegan Outreach distributed over half a million copies of our literature in 2002. For each person convinced to change their diet because of a piece of literature such as Why Vegan? or Vegetarian Living, the cost per animal saved is a fraction of a penny. The investment is only as much time as it takes to stock a public display, or to ask someone if they would like some information on vegetarianism.
At its core, the compelling concept behind being a vegan is working to end suffering. But we must always remember that the bottom line is suffering, not veganism. Being vegan is a powerful response to the tragedy of industrial animal agriculture, but it is only the first step. Supporting and participating in positive, constructive outreach will have an impact that is orders of magnitude greater than being a pure — but isolated and impotent — vegan.
Our ultimate goal must be for everyone to act from respect and compassion. Our actions should promote these values.
For more information, contact Vegan Outreach.