Animal Writes
7 May 2000 Issue
The Importance of Activism

by Marc Bekoff - [email protected] 

"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 (, 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 ( 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 influence.

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 Colorado ( 

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 offense.

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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