by Marc Bekoff -
"Save the whales." "Med school can be a real killer."
The first slogan calls attention to the plight of whales who were
decimated by human hunters while the second concerns itself not with how
difficult medical school is, but with the killing of dogs by medical
students in physiology classes.
There are numerous sound bytes that connote
dissatisfaction with any number of things that are happening in the
world. And luckily, behind the verbiage are people who get out there and
make a difference because they walk their talk, because they deeply
believe in one or another cause.
Activism certainly takes time away from other activities
that consume us each and every day. But speaking ones voice - taking an
active role to stick up for ones values and beliefs - is essential for
making informed decisions.
There are many different forms of activism "activism"
isn't synonymous with "radical." Nor does activism mean violence or the
destruction of property. Boycotting is a form of activism as are silent
candlelight vigils. Gandhi was an activist and so was Mother Teresa.
There are numerous examples of how activism pays off.
Some of the examples with which I'm most familiar deal with animal
exploitation. A classic example of a person who truly made a difference
is the late Henry Spira, founder of Animal Rights International. While
Spira isn't a household name, the results of his efforts are well known
to most of us. Spira was deeply concerned with animal abuse and first
focused his attention on experiments on reproductive behavior in cats
being conducted in the mid-1970s at the American Museum of Natural
History in New York City. There, a group of researchers regularly
performed surgery on cat's genitals and pumped them with various
hormones to see how they would respond sexually. Spira was incredulous
that such abuse could happen and be sanctioned by the U.S. government.
He organized protests outside of the museum and as a result of Spiras
grassroots efforts, the National Science Foundation mercifully stopped
funding this research.
Spira also was deeply concerned with the use of animals
to test cosmetics. He formed the Coalition to Abolish the Draize Test,
eventually achieving radical changes in product safety testing
world-wide. In the Draize test, a liquid or solid substance is placed in
one eye of a group of rabbits. Changes in the cornea, conjunctiva, and
iris are observed and scored. Both injury and potential for recovery are
noted. The Draize test is a horrible test, and the rabbits suffer
immensely. Consumer protests against the Draize test created the
momentum that led to the development of non-animal alternatives to many
types of animal testing. By 1981 the cosmetics industry itself awarded
one million dollar to Johns Hopkins school of Hygiene and Public Health
to establish the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing. Indeed, most
cruelty-free products trace their history back to Henry Spira's tireless
and unflagging efforts to stop animal abuse.
Many people claim we should act locally and think
globally. Indeed, the Boulder-based Rocky Mountain Animal Defense (RMAD)
has had numerous successes in halting animal abuse. One major
achievement was defeating the attempt to build a plexiglass zoo at the
entrance to Rocky Mountain Park in Estes Park. The vote was extremely
close and it was RMAD's efforts that swung the decision in favor of the
animals. Indeed, these efforts won honorable mention at the Genesis
Awards hosted by the Ark Trust (www.arktrust.org),
recognition for animal-friendly movies and activism that rivals that of
the traditional Oscars. Other successes for RMAD include stopping the
city of Lakewood from poisoning prairie dogs, securing a moratorium to
prevent exhibiting exotic animals at the Boulder Creek Festival, getting
Celestial Seasonings to adopt a progressive prairie dog management
policy, restricting contest killing in Colorado, and putting an end to
pig racing by the Winecoop restaurant.
There's also been much controversy over the using and
killing of dogs at CUs medical school (www.bouldernews.com/opinion/columnists/bekoff.html).
RMAD's unflagging efforts to stop this practice, numerous protests, and
essays in local media have had their effect. Channel 7 news and the
Camera have called for an end to the use of dogs as have State
Representatives Tom Plant and Dan Grossman. Two years ago five medical
students opted out of the dog labs, last year 15 made this choice, and
this year 31 did so. It's safe to assume that activism has had some
Despite numerous successes, there are also costs to
activism that often become personal. Activism can make one vulnerable to
their opponent's onslaughts, especially when an activist is thought to
be of "inferior" status. Recently, a medical student has claimed that
she's been harassed because of her criticism of the dog labs (Colorado
Daily, April 20, 2000). If she wasn't having some effect, why would she
be bothered by faculty and other students? My own concerns with the use
of dogs was met head on by a disparaging letter from 11 professors at
the medical school (Silver & Gold Record, December 16, 1999) who claimed
that I wasn't a reliable judge of whether the dogs labs were essential.
The fact that numerous prestigious medical schools have stopped their
dog labs made little impression. Interestingly, these professors also
claimed in the same letter that the dog labs weren't essential but they
didn't want outsiders telling them that! I also have felt the effects of
attempts to silence my resisting the reintroduction of lynx into
Costs of activism - harassment and intimidation - are
part of the price of putting one's feelings on the line. Nonetheless,
it's important to speak your mind and follow your heart. Due to pressure
from activists, Sears, Roebuck, and Company stopped supporting Ringling
Brother's Circus, veal consumption plummeted because of public outrage
over the horrific conditions in which veal calves are imprisoned before
being killed, and numerous clothing designers have stopped making fur
and leather products.
Be patient. Activism takes time, but its well worth it.
Protest gently but forcefully. No one likes to be bullied and changes
that come about due to heavy-handedness are usually short-lived and make
little difference. Deep-rooted changes take time, and often it takes
many efforts to accumulate the momentum that's needed to produce deep
changes in attitude and heart that truly make a difference. It's
important to listen to all views and master opponents' arguments. Only
by knowing the tactics of your opponents can you mount a serious
Freedom of speech is a guaranteed right for all of us.
We need not fear airing views that are counter to those of the majority.
Every individual counts and every individual makes a difference.
Creative proactive solutions drenched in deep caring, respect, and love
need to be developed to deal with the broad range of problems with which
we are currently confronted. Activism often underlies their development
and implementation. Rather than take a doomsday view that the world
won't even exist in 100 ears if we fail to accept our unique
responsibilities, it's more disturbing to imagine a world in which
humans and other life coexist in the absence of any intimacy and
interconnectedness. Surely we don't want to be remembered as the
generation that killed nature. Please act!
Marc Bekoff teaches in Environmental, Population, and
Organismic Biology at CU-Boulder.
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