History and Evolution of the Animal Rights Movement

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History and Evolution of the Animal Rights Movement

By Will Tuttle, Ph.D. as Presented at the Animal Rights 2009 National Conference, July 2009

Good evening, fellow animal rights activists. I am honored to share with you for the next few minutes my perspective on the history and evolution of the animal rights movement that we are here to celebrate and promote at this conference. All of us in this room have some basic things in common. We all care about the suffering imposed by humans on non-human animals and we all are working in our own ways to reduce this. But beyond this, all of us have deeply questioned the official story of the culture into which we have been born. This questioning is at the heart of our movement. The official story is that non-human animals were put on this Earth for us humans to use and that the violence this entails is perfectly acceptable.

When we question this official story, we also question the power structure and world-view of this culture, as well as our culture’s standard interpretation of its history. We all know that there are countless examples of official stories that are false, both currently and historically. For example, here are a few: “If you don’t eat any meat, dairy products, or eggs, you’ll probably die within 24 hours of a protein deficiency.” “If you don’t fluoridate the water, you’ll get lots of cavities.” “ The World Trade Center towers were destroyed by Arab terrorists.” “Animals don’t have a soul.” “U.S. foreign policy is to promote freedom and democracy throughout the world.” “To be healthy, you have to have vaccinations and medications.” And so on. At its core, the animal rights movement is about questioning the official story of our culture at the deepest level. This is why animal rights is so threatening to the existing power structure. Essentially, the animal rights movement is about vegan living as minimizing our cruelty to animals, and when we trace it all back, we find that our movement has ancient roots in questioning the official story of this culture.

According to anthropologists, around 8 to 10 thousand years ago, in what is today Iraq, people for the first time began the practice of herding -- owning and confining animals for food – first it was wild sheep and goats, and around 2,000 years later, cows, and eventually other animals. This was, I believe, the last major revolution that our culture experienced, and it changed our culture, and us who are born into this culture, in a fundamental way. For the first time, beings were reduced to mere property commodities, rather than being mysterious, autonomous, and respected cohabitants of the Earth with us. This changed the essential orientation of the culture, and a wealthy elite emerged that owned livestock as their wealth, the first large-scale wars evolved, and indeed, the first word for war that we know of is the old Sanskrit word “gavyaa,” which means “the desire for more cattle.” Capitalism (from the Latin “capita,” meaning “head” as in head of cattle and sheep) emerged with warfare as profitable for the wealthy livestock-owning elite, along with the ownership of humans as slaves—often people vanquished in war—and the systematic reduction in the status of women, who by the arrival of the historic period, roughly three thousand years ago, were bought and sold as chattel property. The reduction of wild animals to the status of pests because they could threaten the herders’ capital, and the development of science as a method of dominating animals and nature followed, as did the arising of a new and different role model for boys of the macho male herder, tough, disconnected, and capable of extreme violence and cruelty toward both animals and rival herders. This bellicose culture spread gradually and relentlessly throughout the eastern Mediterranean, eventually to Europe, and to the Americas and is still spreading, and we are born into this culture, which has the same basic attitudes, behaviors and practices to this day.

Shortly after the beginning of the historic period, roughly 2,500 years ago, we have the first cases of prominent and respected people urging compassion to animals and what we would call today veganism. In India, two contemporaries, Mahavir, a significant teacher in the Jain tradition, and Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, both preached and practiced a meatless diet, and required their students to observe strict codes of conduct that prohibited them from owning animals, harming animals, and eating animals. Both traditions, the Jain tradition in particular, claim that they go back much further than 2,500 years; that the practice of nonviolence that they enjoin is an unbroken teaching extending back centuries earlier into pre-history.

These are the first animal rights activists that we are certain of today, and the basis of their activism was the teaching and understanding of ahimsa. Ahimsa is the doctrine and consciousness of non-violence: that violence toward other sentient beings is not only unethical, and brings suffering to them, but that it also inevitably brings suffering and bondage to the perpetrator and society as well. It is very interesting that both of these traditions are essentially spiritual traditions, and they focus not so much on animal welfare, but on what we would call today animal rights and animal liberation. Ahimsa is the essence of veganism, which is the commitment to minimize cruelty and exploitation by not interfering with animals at all, or as little as possible, and allowing them sovereignty in their lives in nature.

It’s important to understand that owning animals as property to be killed and eaten is the hidden and defining core of our culture, and that all of us were, and are, routinely indoctrinated into the mentality of domination, exclusion, reductionism, elitism, and disconnectedness required by the food practices of this culture. The spiritual sages of India, with their propagation of ahimsa, rejected and boycotted the core of cruelty of our herding culture 2,500 years ago, and were the earliest vegans we know of, consciously attempting to minimize their violence to animals, and to spreading this to others. This powerful time in our cultural evolution, called the Axial Age by Karl Jaspers, saw similar ethical giants emerging simultaneously or shortly thereafter: Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Socrates in the Mediterranean, Zoroaster in Persia, Lao-tzu & Chuang-tzu in China, Isaiah and the later prophets in the Levant. All emphasized compassion for animals, the rejection of animal sacrifices, and the fact that violence toward animals boomerangs as violence toward humans. As we sow, we will reap. These ideas spread through spiritual teachers and philosophers over the centuries, and by the beginning of the Christian era, for example, Buddhist monks had established centers as far away as England in the West, China in the East, and Africa in the South, and brought ahimsa and veganism with them. I am using the word veganism here explicitly because unlike the word vegetarian, the word vegan stipulates that the underlying motivation is to minimize violence to sentient beings.

With all the cross-pollination of ideas in the ancient world, it is not surprising that many of the ancient historians record that Jesus and his disciples were well-known abstainers from animal flesh, and it is documented that the early Christian fathers were vegetarians and most likely vegans. A few centuries later, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, the practice of compassion to animals by Christians was viciously suppressed, with Constantine’s soldiers reputedly torturing to death anyone who refused to eat meat. This attitude continued in the centuries that followed after the fall of Rome, with vegetarian Christians in Europe in the medieval period, such as the Cathars and the Bogomils, being suppressed and eventually exterminated by the church. There were other strands and individuals promoting nonviolence toward animals in the ancient world going into the medieval as well, in the neo-Platonist, hermetic, Sufi, Judaic, and Christian traditions.

With the Renaissance and subsequent Enlightenment in the 16th to 18th centuries, the influence of the church waned as reason and modern science began to ascend, but unfortunately, this was not good news for animals, and signaled the beginning of a much more ferocious exploitation of them for scientific experimentation, as well as for entertainment, clothing, products, and, of course, food. While there had been some modicum of respect for and protection of animals as God’s creatures under the old order, under the new materialism, they were reduced to mere resources and commodities in the clutches of a surging industrialism and population expansion of omnivorous humans that continues unabated to this day, and is threatening all animals, and indeed all of nature and even humanity itself, with destruction and perhaps complete annihilation.

The cross-currents of intercultural dialog have always served to help people question the official story of their culture, and in the 19th and 20th centuries, we saw this happen in the striking rebirth of vegetarianism and animal protection, inspired to a great degree by the rediscovery of Eastern thought in Europe and North America. With the translation of ancient Buddhist and Jain sutras, as well as the Upanishads, Vedas, Tao Te Ching, and other Indian and Chinese texts, as well as the discovery of vast populations thriving on essentially plant-based diets, more people in the West began to question the routine violence toward animals that characterized their culture. The word vegetarian was coined in 1850 to replace the old word Pythagorean, and experimenting with and promoting vegetarianism became popular with many influential writers such as Shelley, Byron, Shaw, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Emerson, Alcott, Besant, Blavatsky, Tolstoy, and Gandhi, among others. There was also a Christian strand as well, with several church leaders such as William Cowherd in England and his protégé in America, William Metcalfe, advocating compassion for animals, with some, like Ellen White of the Seventh Day Adventists and Charles and Myrtle Fillmore of Unity School of Christianity advocating a the main tenets of veganism forty years before the word was invented. They were aided in this by the pioneering work of early vegetarian proponents like Graham, Post, and Kellogg who raised consciousness about the health benefits of plant-based eating, as well as the animal cruelty involved, and also by the efforts of the first animal protection societies such as the RSPCA, ASPCA, and the Humane Society.

In 1944 Donald Watson in England strengthened the foundation for the modern animal rights movement by coining the word vegan and founding the Vegan Society in London, directly challenging the official story and the underlying core of our culture. He defined veganism as “a philosophy and way of life which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.” Thus the vegan movement was born as a continuing manifestation of the ancient and universal wisdom teaching of ahimsa, and is at the heart of today’s animal rights movement.

In the decades since, there have been many books and studies written, many organizations and periodicals founded, many documentaries filmed and websites created as part of humanity’s effort to reduce our violence toward animals. Veganism and animal rights issues are becoming increasingly mainstream as a result of all these efforts, and the momentum continues to build in spite of enormous resistance by all the institutions in our culture, and in spite of the difficulties in responding to pervasive cultural hostility and the complexity of the issues involved. For example, it is increasingly clear today that our violence toward animals is a primary driving force behind environmental devastation, physical and psychological illness, war, hunger, inequity, and social violence, besides being ethically wrong. Groups and individuals align themselves with and promote the animal rights agenda for varying combinations of these factors, depending on their predilections, and so there are a number of competing perspectives.

Besides this, there has emerged a tendency, especially on the part of the larger organizations, to engage in campaigns that attempt to engage with and influence animal abuse industries to get them to reduce the cruelty of their practices. These campaigns, while they may be financially successful for the organizations by encouraging generous contributions that lead to what are proclaimed as victories for the enslaved animals involved, run the risk of ultimately, and ironically, harming the animal rights/vegan movement. This is for many reasons, such as the fact that the animal use industries have enormous power, and can thus turn what seem to be defeats into de facto victories; that we lose the moral high ground when we argue over, for example, what type of slaughter is more humane than another; that consumers are more likely to consume more animal foods and products when they are assured that they are humane; that the status of animals as mere property commodities is actually reinforced by these campaigns; and that as a movement we are failing to encourage people to go vegan, but rather to vote with their votes and their dollars for animal violence that is disguised as being compassionate and humane. This has led to the current state of our movement as being in many ways co-opted and undermined by the animal abuse industries, which is understandable, given their power, and divided by conflicting perspectives on how best to actually liberate animals from the human violence that is inevitable when they are reduced to property status.

In sum, we live in a culture that has as its core official story the complete domination of animals, and everyone is indoctrinated into this from birth. When we question this we become part of an ancient and ongoing effort to liberate animals, and this is the essence of both ahimsa and veganism. The vegan movement (which is another, more pro-active name for the animal rights movement) is a movement of complete cultural transformation, and in this, it is different from other justice and liberation movements. The routine violence toward animals for food corrupts and undermines our essential wisdom and compassion, and creates the essential context within which other animal abuse occurs, as well as the domination and exploitation of humans. The vegan movement is radical in the sense of going to the essential root of all our dilemmas and violence and requires of all of us who would promote veganism and animal rights that we purify our consciousness of the violence and exclusivism that our culture has planted in us, as the ancient spiritual teachers who started the animal rights movement emphasized. We can only harm animals by excluding them from the sphere of our compassion, and so veganism is radical inclusion, and as vegans we are called to practice this radical inclusion that includes not only animals, but all humans in the sphere of our compassion. Thus, it may not be appropriate to compare our movement and tactics to those of other movements. The vegan movement requires us to become the change we wish to see, and treat all beings, including our so-called opponents, with respect. This is the essence of ahimsa and veganism as historically understood and taught.

And finally, we live at a time of immense and growing crisis that gives us unprecedented opportunities. The old complacency is being stripped away by the multidimensional crisis facing our culture. More and more people are realizing that the only viable future for humanity is a vegan future. Rather than negotiating with the suppliers of animal cruelty, we can see from the wisdom of those who have gone before us that the real power we have is in reducing the demand for animal foods and products by raising consciousness and educating and encouraging people to reduce and eliminate animal-sourced foods and products. Thankfully, we see this happening today with the proliferation of both secular national, international, regional, and grass-roots groups and efforts to spread vegan ideals and practices, and also, increasingly, religious and spiritual groups and efforts that are similarly doing this.

This is the way forward. The idea of ahimsa and the idea of veganism are so powerful because they resonate with the core of our true nature as beings of love, awareness, creativity, sensitivity, and compassion. Donald Watson and the other sages that have gone before us have planted a seed deep into the core of the obsolete story that has mired and encrusted our culture and that threatens to destroy all life on this planet. As we each water that seed and plant our own seeds, a new garden of compassion will grow that will inevitably break the bonds of violence that enslave all of us. People will realize that as we have enslaved animals, we have enslaved ourselves.

The vegan revolution – the animal rights revolution – has been coming for a long time now. We are entering the final stages of its realization, and it is a revolution of benevolence, joy, and creative celebration, and it needs all of us! So plug in, join in this noble and ancient work, and together we can transform our culture. Liberating animals, we can liberate ourselves and allow the Earth to heal for our children and the children of all living beings.

The pull of the future is stronger than the push of the past. The future is vegan!

May all beings be free. Thank you.


Will is the author of The World Peace Diet: Eating For Spiritual Health And Social Harmony.

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