Advocacy at Work...Changing Behavior

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Advocacy at Work...Changing Behavior

[Ed. Note: Read other articles about effective animal advocacy - Animal Rights Strategies.]

By Marji Beach, Animal Place Sanctuary
May 2011

What animal activists are doing is working! And, all of us have the opportunity to assist in continued behavior change with our activism. This study confirms what we already know: people can change, and we can help them. Ten billion cows, pigs, sheep, turkeys, chickens, goats and other farmed animals depend on us.

A former dairy cow nearly impaled, pushed by a forklift. A cow with no strength to stand, hosed in the face by a worker. Cows poked and stabbed to get them to walk on the kill floor. The video footage taken by an undercover investigator at the Westland/Hallmark slaughterhouse in southern California horrified the nation in 2008.

The massive media attention resulted in the passage of a law, closing loopholes that allowed non-ambulatory animals to be killed. While it did not improve the lives of farmed animals, new evidence is emerging that this type of negative publicity for agribusiness is positive for animals.

A dramatic shift in the public’s awareness of animal welfare issues has occurred in the past decade. Between 1999 and 2008, publication of animal welfare articles on pigs increased 181.3% and articles on poultry increased 253%. Public understanding is spurred by animal protection groups through undercover video, welfare initiatives, large-scale rescues and food recalls. But it is also fostered through individual action such as letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, social networking and the like.

Animal and crop agribusinesses have taken note. In January of this year, more than 20 organizations with a vested interest in continued intensive crop and animal production formed the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. It includes the United Egg Producers, National Pork Board and Beef Check-off and has an annual budget in the millions of dollars.

When member organizations were asked if producers were doing a good job at guiding the debate on farming, including animal welfare issues, 81.3% said no. That is, even with their multi-million-dollar budget for advertising, legislation and campaigning, agribusiness recognizes they are failing at shaping public opinion on farming and ranching.

Not only are the leading farming industries failing to guide the debate on animal welfare issues, but two corporate giants, Monsanto (producer of bovine growth hormone) and Smithfield (one of the nation’s largest pork producers), are ramping up their paid advertising campaigns to counteract negative publicity generated from questionable growing processes and undercover video of cruelty. Animal agribusiness recognizes the efficacy of animal activists at shaping public opinion on farmed animal issues.

And they should be concerned. A 2008 Gallup poll asked people if they thought strict laws should be passed to protect farmed animals, and 65% said yes. With the advent of 24-hour news and easily accessible information and opinion via the internet, television and radio, it’s easier than ever for animal activists to counter the multi-billion-dollar message of animal agribusiness.

New research out of Kansas State University is giving animal activists hope. Researchers analyzed a decade’s worth of media coverage on animal issues. What they discovered gives inspiration to animal activists everywhere that while the challenges are still large, some solutions are working. During the study period, as mentioned above, reporting on animal welfare increased between 180-250%, but it isn’t the percentage increase that is so valuable, it is how people behaved.

During that 10-year period, people consumed 2.65% and 5.01% fewer pork and poultry products, respectively.

People ate fewer animals! More importantly, when people eliminated or reduced their consumption of these animal products, they did not replace them with other animal sources. That is, a person who decided to replace chicken with another protein source did not decide on beef. Instead, they switched to plant-based options.

What does this mean for animal advocates?

This study shows that it is not so much what animal protectionists do, but how often their issue is in the public eye. For example, ballot measures or welfare legislation that offer incremental change by improving current living standards (like increasing cage size) can help facilitate behavior change because of the media attention they garner. Additionally, ballot initiatives result in laws that help make life for existing farmed animals marginally better. They also lay the groundwork to pass stronger laws. Undercover investigations and playing off of food recalls can have the same effect. Targeted and prolonged advertising campaigns can also serve similar purposes. Animal Place’s Rescue Ranch ensures continued public awareness on the issues facing hens in the egg industry, as every rescue we do garners media coverage.

What animal activists are doing is working! And, all of us have the opportunity to assist in continued behavior change with our activism. Changing someone’s consumer habits can be as simple as writing a letter to the editor or as expensive as funding a ballot initiative for welfare reform.

This study confirms what we already know: people can change, and we can help them. Ten billion cows, pigs, sheep, turkeys, chickens, goats and other farmed animals depend on us.