The Split Within The Animal Rights/Welfare Movements

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Before I get into the main topic I would like to remind you that this editorial is meant for everyone, not just animal rights/welfare proponents.  I’m generally not one to push my views on animal rights, veganism, etc. unless baited into the conversation like on Facebook, with friends & family,  or on a vegetarian discussion group or board.  However, my hope with this post is to give some insight to those of you on the outside of this issue and to hopefully find the common ground within the movement.  I hope you enjoy it and by all means please let me know what you think. I’m only interested in actual responses, not name calling or attacks on the movement as a bunch of crazies.  In fact that’s a good place to start.

When are people going to stop labeling everyone outside of the mainstream as crazies and extremists. Maybe if instead of name calling we had an honest debate about the issues we could actually get something done in this country again. Admittedly some of these people are crazy or extreme, but not the majority of the minority.  We all have one nut in the family and we’ve all had one odd individual working with us at some point. Does that make everyone in your family crazy or everyone you know nuts.  Alright, maybe you’re the exception, but I’m saying most people. lol  The ones that I take notice of are people & groups promoting hate, exclusion, and pure propaganda.   Those people are extreme and against the idea of what this country is all about, but that’s a different discussion for a different day.

The Split
The split within the animal rights/welfare movement is over pushing for legislation to improve life for animals destined for dinner tables vs. the abolitionist point of view which if I’m understanding them correctly believe those progressive steps of improving conditions and treatment through legislation only lessen the argument against eating them. They also would argue that we have not made any real change based on the numbers killed each year for food.  They point to the increase in animals raised for food over the years which as most people would agree is correlated to the growth in world population and the rising up of countries like China.  In terms of sheer numbers killed, I would have to concede that point is true.  However, that doesn’t tell the whole story and it isn’t the only measure of progress in this area.  In fact I would argue that it is a bad measurement of progress at this stage in the evolution of the movement.

Photo by Derek Goodwin, for Farm Sanctuary

First let me say, that I would love nothing more than the immediate end to use of animals as food or for any other purpose across the board.  However, I know that’s not realistic and I just don’t see that approach working in the short term. I would also argue that history is on my side of the argument.  Change does not happen overnight and something with such huge social implications is actually more likely to evolve over decades and generations, not years.  You can not get most people (meat eaters) to go from A to C.  Unless there really is some sort of cosmic shift that many dream of, I don’t see it happening overnight.  I would love to be proved wrong though.

Take for example the evolution of views towards African Americans and gays which are both still progressing.  I’ll spare you the breakdown, but I think it’s pretty obvious that some have progressed more than others in terms of accepting these people and treating them as equals. I realize they are two completely different groups who have vastly different experiences, but I think there are a lot of parallels between the two struggles for equality. I think it’s a shame that more people don’t realize or acknowledge that, but I’ll leave that for a future rant.

I think like most people who are working towards positive change I started off with the attitude that compromise was unacceptable and change just needed to happen.  That feeling is particularly intense when that light bulb goes on for the first time and you feel as though you’ve awoken from a dream.  Once you realize something is wrong you naturally want to make it right. The problem with many causes like animal rights, gay rights, and environmental consciousness is not just apathy, but the fact that you come up against the wall of:  Acceptance of your position weakens my position, therefore I attack your position and your sanity.  That immediately causes many on the fence to retreat until it becomes more mainstream and both sides entrench.  I could spend days going into the politics of it all, but for me it all boils down to things like pride, insecurity, denial, and the ever popular money and power.  Anytime you challenge the status quo there is going to be push back and probably retaliation.  It’s like school yard politics if you really step back and look at it.   So why do I knowing all of that, have any faith or energy left to devote to all the subjects I just listed above? 

I still believe that people are good at their core.  Yes I think there are a lot of people who are cold and completely desensitized to any feelings or emotions, but they are the exception and not the rule.  Moreover I would argue that the majority of the non vegetarian public if truly forced to face the horror of their dietary choices would stop and change. Telling them and having it really it sink in are not the same at all.  I’m not going to argue that point today.  Anyone following the magazine for any reasonable length of time already knows the impact of their diet on themselves, the inhumane treatment of the animals and their babies, and the damage to the planet’s habitability long term.   And every poll I’ve ever seen suggests that most Americans want the animals treated humanely. They just don’t generally want to know the details and refuse to listen to them most of the time. There’s always a few sadistic smart asses out there who know and think it’s funny or a big joke, but most people have compassion and would rather not contribute to suffering.  You just can’t overwhelm most people with it or they will give that well I guess everything is bad response that means they are shutting down from overload. You have to slowly chip away at that wall. 

Photo by Derek Goodwin, for Farm Sanctuary

How I Got Here
In order to effectively support my argument, I think I need to start by telling you how I got here in the first place.  I grew up in sunny California in the 70’s as the hippie movement was dying off.   No my parents weren’t flower children, far from it in fact.  We always lived in a middle class neighborhood kind of like the wonder years, but we always lived on a culdesac.  I can still see and smell the giant flower bed of daises and pansies that my mom planted around the lush green lawn as if I were there yesterday.  I learned to ride a bike without training wheels off of that very driveway in Hacienda Heights.  I also remember my mom taking us shopping at Gemco (Before Target), Ralphs, or the weekly stop at the butcher shop.  Yeah, I think that’s where it started for me.  I remember cutting off the fat of whatever my mom had cooked and my dad yelling at me for being weird and wasting it. 

As the years went on I just learned to deal with it and I put it out of my mind most of the time.  When I got old enough to start watching the news and to understand what was going on I started to believe in the importance of environmental responsibility and awareness.  As time went on I saw the connection to the animals and I started having concerns about the rainforest and the impact on the earth if we loose it.  It was at that point that a friends wife pointed out to me the impact of my diet on the rainforest.  The funny thing is that I was always the guy making fun of vegetarians as weird and I even went as far as to cook meat around a vegetarian friend just to mess with her. Yes I was arrogant jerk in my youth.  And it wasn’t like I had never heard that argument made before, but for whatever reason my guard was down and it just made sense to me.  I stopped eating red meat immediately and then after a few days of cooking just chicken I started to think more and more about what it was. I finally acknowledged it was more than a package I picked up at the grocery store and realized what it really was.  You have to be open to questioning your own beliefs to change your own perspective like that, and that scares a lot of people. No matter what your choices are in life I think you should be able to question and defend them.  Anything less is very telling.

How Do You Measure Progress?
One of the biggest disconnects between the two positions in the animal rights split is how both sides perceive progress.  The side I’m on sees it as changing the overall public psyche to acknowledge that animals have feelings, experience pain, and should be treated with respect.  The other side sees it as though it is making it harder to convince people to go veg because the arguments against eating meat are diminished by the fact that the animals are being treated better.  I see their perspective, I just don’t agree.

In the time since I went vegetarian I have seen huge moves forward in terms of attitude and acceptance, not to mention the availability of veg and vegan food choices. When I, and many of us first went veg, there were very few choices and much of the food tasted like cardboard.  Okay, some still does. lol  My point is that the increase in vegetarians has caused the market to react and provide more choices.  The more choices, the more people that transition because it isn’t as hard as it used to be to go veg.  All of that change in attitude and availability to me, comes out of the movement and the orgs that are continually helping push it forward. I believe the voices of the many combined outweigh the voice of just one. I’m all for the one on one dialog, but I still say you have to get the story out on a much larger scale to be effective. 

Photo by Derek Goodwin, for Farm Sanctuary

My Historical Perspective
I went vegetarian in 1991, so next year will be 20 years for me as a vegetarian.  I went full vegan about 7 years in.  The thing that amazes me more than anything is the amount of products that have come into existence during that time, the number of places where you can buy those products continues to increase and become more mainstream all of the time, and the number of restaurants that now have vegetarian and often times vegan options on the menu.  And I mean more than just a green salad or something that tastes like someone without taste buds created it. You long term vegetarians know what I’m talking about.   Being vegetarian is so much easier today than it was back when I started and then think about the hippies and how it was back then.  It takes a lot less sacrifice now to make the change and I love that!  The easier it is, the less resistance there is to converting over.  The more of us that convert, the more people are exposed to the lifestyle, the facts about inhumane treatment of animals, and the health benefits of going veg. So considering those evolutions in society, I think they show that the movement is gaining momentum, acceptance, and support.  I don’t have actual numbers to quote, but as a business major I can tell you that it’s simple supply and demand.  The supplies are increasing everywhere only because the demand is increasing.  That in turn is exposing more and more people to vegetarian products.  In fact I think the other side would agree with this entire paragraph and they would argue that people can be swayed and change can happen.  I would agree.  Wow, common ground, what a concept.

Differing Views
Here’s where we differ.  They believe all the energy should be put to ending the eating of the animals and they don’t want the argument being watered down with legislation that lessens their argument against cruelty.  There are also those that believe animal rights legislation is just a giant conspiracy  to appease peoples emotional needs and to manipulate the public into feeling good about it.  Like most things in life I have to concede that anything is possible, but regardless I don’t see how that would change anything in terms of supporting animal rights legislation and groups fighting for that.  Think about it.  If we stopped fighting against inhumane treatment of the animals and all put that energy into converting others, do you really think that would suddenly change large amounts of peoples minds?  People only move towards something as dramatic as a life shift like this when they are ready.  You certainly couldn’t force everyone to go vegetarian.  And I suspect those of us who are veg are already speaking to or dropping hints around those who we think might be open to the idea eventually. If we suddenly started hounding those people with razor like focus it would probably have the opposite effect.  Any long term vegetarian knows you have to chip away at the myths and the entrenched traditions slowly and carefully or you will alienate the person you are trying to bring along.  So if someone can explain to me how it is that this sudden mass acceptance is going to happen, I’m all ears.  My experience tells me otherwise, but I would happily listen to any ideas or perspectives on it. 

Here & Now
And what about all of the animals who are suffering now?  This is what troubles me more than anything with that position.  Every single abuse that we prevent or stop through laws is a major deal to me.  If I was an animal going to slaughter, I sure as hell would want someone like me on my side rather than an abolitionist who may help one of my future relatives, but certainly not me.  Don’t we have a responsibility to reduce and hopefully eradicate any suffering of any kind?  I completely understand that the animals endure abuse all throughout their lives and the food chain cycle, but every reduction in that cruelty that they face makes life just a little bit better.  And I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to call the groups supporting animal rights as pushing a marketing slogan or fund-raising agenda as some have suggested.  That completely disregards all of the passion, compassion, and hard work that is behind those groups.

Photo by Derek Goodwin, for Farm Sanctuary

I suspect that the two factions within the animal rights/welfare movements will actually re-converge at some point down the road.  It seems inevitable to me.  The abolitionists perfect situation is not going to happen in our current society, but the trend towards improving conditions is happening already and continues to happen.  As more and more laws are passed and as situations like the egg recalls increase, the public awareness is also increasing. At some point, probably not in our lifetimes the number of vegetarians will start to outweigh the meat eaters.  When the percentages grow large enough the momentum will push the laws all the way to outlaw killing animals.  That’s assuming that synthetic meat hasn’t been developed and gained widespread acceptance already.

In closing I would just like to recap and tell you that I see the animal rights movement as changing the overall public psyche to acknowledge that animals have feelings, experience pain, and should be treated with respect.  That change is slow like most change in this world, but it is progressing and it can be measured when looking over a few decades even.

I also think the split in the movement is unfortunate, but understandable.  When I was younger I believed in the all or nothing approach to a lot of things.  Wrong was just wrong.  Call me jaded, call me callous, but I now know that injustice is all around us in many forms and the all or nothing approach rarely works.  The only thing I see working is slow incremental change and for me that starts with changing how people perceive the animals and their treatment.  Once the barrier is down, then I believe the argument can be extended and moved forward into the vegan approach.  I realize we’re talking many many years for this approach, but I believe based on my own observations that it is working.   Again, I’m all for their idea of talking with people, I just don’t see it as the end all.

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  1. Great article ! good points on both sides ,i hope we can all come together in the end and we can agree for the good of the animals .

  2. Well written. There were 3 turning points in my life in the spring of 1988. #1: there was an animal science course taught at my school where students would have to witness a cow’s slaughter. #2; I read about the psychology experiment that involved the monkey baby’s choices – a wire surrogate mommy or a terry-cloth surrogate mommy. Seeing that baby curled up on the terry-cloth mommy broke my heart. I can’t remember the third anymore. #3, God spoke to me – if you think animal experiments are wrong, then how can you eat them?

    The next day, I woke up a humane vegetarian.

    I too thought vegetarians were loony before I made the change. One of my good friends back then thought I was loony. Well, guess who is vegan now? That same friend!

    I think people will come around gradually. I disagree that making conditions more humane is better than stopping the meat industry altogether. If given the choice of being free and alive, dying a cruel death or dying a “humane” death, wouldn’t we all choose being free and alive? Humane and cruel deaths are still deaths.

    1. Hey Veggie Girl,

      Thanks for the feedback! Just so you know, I wasn’t trying to say making conditions more humane is better, I simply meant that stopping the meat industry altogether is a much bigger hill to climb and won’t be attainable until more people are open to the subject. If I had my way the meat industry would already be history, I just don’t see that approach working in our current society is what I meant. 🙂

  3. Wonderful article! My experiences have been very much like yours, and I suspect most others too. Vegetarian for years, then switched to vegan. It’s a good time to go vegan. I tried before years ago and it was so hard. This time, I am vegan for life. It’s so easy now!

    I agree with you that all or nothing doesn’t work. What I have found, is that if you start talking animal rights/animal welfare, people think “oh no,PETA!” and you can see them just shutdown right out of the conversation. (Unfortunately!)

    I think perhaps we need to focus on getting more people into eating vegan as regards their health. Even though people may care about animals, when you add in their personal health concerns, that might just be the push needed to bring them into a vegan diet. It was with me!

    Let’s face it, people are selfish and convincing them to change on their own heatlh basis might actually work better with some. With the explosion of diabetes in this country, a vegan diet is just the right recipe for health. I try to push it to everyone. When they change, coincidentally the animals are helped.

    Your caring style and humble approach to animal welfare will bring more people to your cause than militant views that leave no room for our flawed human race. Yay for Dr. Neal Barnard and the PCRM and for people like you who help to get the conversations started and get the ideas flowing! Thanks! 🙂

    1. Thank you Carol! You are absolutely correct that appealing to peoples selfishness is the way to go. The PETA barrier is real to people on the outside of the movement, but personalizing it to the person you are speaking to removes that roadblock. A lot of people in the movement have mixed feelings about PETA stunts, but there is no denying that they know exactly how to get media attention on important issues and their investigations have helped a lot of animals and helped change many laws.

  4. I think this is an extremeley well written and carefully considered piece – and I thank you so much for that.

    Of course, my gut reaction is “extreme”, however, my sense of reality tempers my instinctual reactions as I don’t wish to alienate people, but rather bring them on board through education and enlightenment.

    What may seem to be baby steps are important: my lovely 85 year-old mother is now hitting the health food shops/specialist supermarket aisles for vegan mayo, cheese, pate, burgers and sausages. This may seem inconsequential, but to me it’s a wonderful advancement. A generation that were brought up on meat and two veg can still change! Her 84 year-old brother (my uncle) is up in arms about the way hens are treated in barns and batteries! He had no idea about the appalling changes in farming (i.e. factory farming) until he watched Jamie Oliver & Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (their anti-battery stance) on TV and reconnected with hens (my rescues).

    I really feel that education is a powerful tool and that it should be used in conjunction with legitimate protest. I am a supporter of PETA and think they do a fantastic job – which reaches a certain sector of society. But the message needs to go beyond that, and I think your piece highlights this – softly, softly…etc….


    1. Thank you Frances! I just love hearing about the older generation coming around too. My mom isn’t vegan, but she only eats vegetarian, at least around me. 🙂 I also agree it makes more sense to be supportive and inclusive through education rather than critical like so many people tend to be. You want to make it a positive feel good experience or you’re only going to push people away. Good for you for recognizing and practicing that!

  5. Forgot to mention (apropos of nothing!)-

    I lost a load of weight just simply by going vegan from vegetarian. By eliminating egg (because it’s usually from barn/battery hens – and a lot of “free-range” is suspect in terms of welfare), I also eliminated so much other processed food “crap”. And, wow! What a differnce to how I feel! I had no idea the veggie to vegan transition would be so beneficial!

    Just thought I’d share this!

    F x

  6. thought provoking. you made one comment about most people assuming there is no compromise when they first get involved with animal rights causes. i’m wondering about that…. for years, i was one of those vegetarians who didn’t make too many waves bc i didn’t want to be thought of as a freak, plus i had plenty of personal issues on my overloaded plate. i wonder if more women tend to take the soft line approach from the start, a kind of survivalism. just a thought.

    1. Thanks Deb! I was only basing that on personal observation not just for myself, but with people I’ve met online and through veg meetings, etc. Although maybe it’s just that they are vocal that I’m aware of them. 🙂 Hmmmmm, maybe we should poll this to see. 🙂

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