[Ed. Note: Also read Life as a Vegan Abolitionist: Spotlight on Dallas Rising, July 2013]
Thanks so much for having me, it's a true honor to speak at this conference.
In this time where our freedom of speech is being compromised, courtesy of the AETA [Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act], some groups in our movement have started to censor their events. I wanted to give a similar presentation to this one at a conference in the Midwest, held just a mile from my office, but my proposal was rejected because of the content. So I would like to acknowledge the organizers of this conference for their commitment to an open and inclusive platform.
As was mentioned in my introduction, I have also had the great privilege of being part of this nation's first open rescue team in 2001. An open rescue is really a unique idea because it seems to be something that most people in the animal rights movement can get behind. It was direct action because we removed hens from a place of abuse. It was education because we documented what we did and did our best to share it with the word. We even attempted to dialog with the company whose farm we visited. We didn't damage property, but we did break the law. At the time, I was thinking that this was a perfect way to be able to expose, address, and intervene in systemic animal cruelty without pushing anyone's buttons. Many members of our movement praised us, and most members of the public were in support of our choice to take the hens and get them the vet care they desperately needed.
While I think we did a lot of things right, I have come to realize that we made one big mistake.
The mistake was that the main message that we pushed on our website, in our media releases, and even on the shirts we wore on camera was "Ban Battery Cages." We had chosen to focus on factory farmed eggs, and many groups have chosen to follow our example since, because of the extreme cruelty inherent in intensive egg production. Our message was a welfare message.
The problem with it is that we stopped short of where should have. By focusing on the battery cages, we implied that the only thing we wanted changed was the cages. This was way off base. It should not have been the thrust of our entire campaign. The message should have been "Don’t Eat Eggs" or "Go Vegan."
Definition of Abolitionism
Let me take a moment to clearly define what I mean when I say I am an abolitionist. There are a lot of misconceptions about our ideology, often caused by confusion over the tactics we employ. While other panel members will be speaking about tactics, I think it is necessary to attempt to clear up some of this confusion.
Abolitionism is not militant direct action, though some abolitionists support and engage in these tactics. Not all abolitionists support the ALF [Animal Liberation Front] or even strategies carried out by SHAC [Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty] or WAR [Win Animal Rights], and some even disagree with the need for these tactics at all.
It doesn't call for exclusively education-based efforts, either, though some abolitionists support and engage in these tactics. Not all abolitionists believe that animal liberation can come about solely through outreach efforts based in education alone.
Now for what abolitionism is. It's an umbrella term for efforts to abolish animal slavery. It can be applied to any tactic: from direct action, to humane education, to protests, to legislative efforts (as long as they are rooted in eliminating animal cruelty, and not only regulating it). Simply put, abolitionism is founded on the conviction that animals should not be thought of as the property of humans, culturally or legally. And we leave no room for misinterpretation or suggestion that we would settle for anything less for non-human animals.
It is this conviction that some in the animal rights movement think is too extreme for the public. But when we water down our message in an attempt to make it more palatable for them, this unintentionally limits and even damages the progress of our movement. We never want to suggest or imply, directly or indirectly, that we want anything less than total animal liberation. Our job should be to point out that what is being done to animals is extreme, and what we're working for is entirely appropriate.
Another argument used against abolitionism is that our stance divides the movement.
Abolitionists have always believed that it will take a variety of methods to reach animal liberation, and have embraced education and legislative efforts rooted in eliminating, not simply regulating the abuse of animals. However, some animal welfare advocates have gone out of their way to condemn, belittle, alienate and discriminate against abolitionists. The rejection of my workshops from the conference I referred to is just one example.
Perhaps the most frequently and most distressing argument used against an abolitionist approach is something many of us have heard lately: that "We should be supportive of every effort to help animals now, even if it's in minor ways."
They claim that these small improvements are steps on the path to animal liberation. However this claim ignores the rather large consequences of these small improvements.
In fact, helping animals in small ways can actually hurt them in bigger ways.
For example, animal welfare improvements in the British veal industry resulted in a new product called Rose veal. This product differs from conventional veal in that is produced in a slightly less cruel fashion, by eliminating the confinement of calves in veal crates. After some media attention and the applause of a large animal advocacy group in Britain, veal sales increased by 45% in the first supermarket to carry it.
We are seeing the same thing happening here in the States with regard to cage free eggs. These eggs are marketed as a humane alternative to conventional eggs and advertisements for cage free eggs are everywhere. People gladly pay a premium for products that they believe are produced humanely, ignorant of the cruel realities of agribusiness thus perpetuating the myth that animal foods can be produced in a humane way.
The animal welfare approach sometimes prescribes working in cooperation with agribusiness to achieve minor improvements for animals (but often misleadingly calls these minor improvements "significant"). This approach is great for the industry and the animal welfare groups but not for the animals. One notable example of this approach is the touted victory regarding gestation crate use by Smithfield Foods. In 2007, Smithfield agreed to phase out the use of gestation crates for sows by 2017 – giving them a ten-year deadline. The animal advocacy groups gained a victory to put on their fund appeals and Smithfield got the benefit of appearing to be concerned about the welfare of their sows, not to mention free advertising courtesy of the animal advocacy groups and press.
However, just a few weeks ago, Smithfield announced that the phase-out is being indefinitely postponed. The pigs have yet to see, and may never see, any improvement at all.
Perhaps worst of all, the most harmful consequence of the argument that "we should be supportive of any effort to help animals, even if it's in minor ways" is that it legitimizes the idea that animal slavery is a necessary evil in need of improvement. This approach is downright offensive as it fails to challenge the speciesist ideology inherent whenever we use animals for our own pleasure, convenience, amusement or simply out of habit.
Abolitionism Bottom line
Our mission is to eliminate cruelty, not only alleviate it. Not regulate it.
No law regulating or lessening cruelty to animals addresses, or challenges, the core issue that they would still be considered the property of a human being.
And while it is critical that there be a universal agreement other animals can and do suffer, animal suffering is not the core issue. Animal use is the core issue. By focusing exclusively on simply reducing suffering, we open the debate about how to use animals humanely instead of confronting the bigoted belief that they are "ours" to do with as we please in the first place.
It is because of this ethical disconnect that animal welfare is not a path to animal liberation. Every dollar, every hour, spent on pursuing a welfare effort is a dollar and an hour not spent on conveying the most important and fundamental message of our movement, the message we neglected to push with our open rescue campaign: That animals matter for their own reasons. That they should not be considered the property of human beings. And that animal slavery is never necessary nor justifiable.
Dallas Rising is the program director for the Animal Rights Coalition in Minneapolis, MN . She accepted the position because the Animal Rights Coalition is an abolitionist animal advocacy group. One of the first areas on which she focused was confronting the humane farming myth. Dallas has done investigations on multiple egg farms, a turkey farm, stock yards, and was part of the first open rescue team in the United States. She is the current president and one of the founders of Support Vegans in the Prison System (more commonly known as Support VIPS). She applies her approach to animal liberation to Small Dog Rescue of MN as the president and board chair, challenging people to reconsider the relationship that people have to animals there, too, and her rescue is helping to raise the standards and expectations for all rescues in her region. In recent years she has become increasingly outspoken about the necessity for clear, consistent abolitionist messages in our movement.