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Watching Animal Cruelty
By Kim Stallwood on Animals and Society Institute
I used to be able to watch films and videos that document the violence we inflict on animals. I particularly recall the profound impact of "The Animals' Film" when we screened the final rough cut at a Coordinating Animal Welfare public meeting in London in 1981. Victor Schonfeld's film documented animal cruelty and exploitation, from big-game hunting to vivisection, from research to factory farming, and from trapping to zoos. It is astonishing to recall how Britain's Channel Four broadcast "The Animals' Film" in its inaugural week in 1982. It was watched by 1.5 million people. Graphic footage showing animal exploitation was rarely seen on British television nearly 30 years ago.
The videos and films enabled me to witness vicariously the violence of institutional, commercial animal exploitation. In particular, PETA's videos documenting its unique undercover investigations (e.g., "Silver Spring Monkeys" and "Britches") during the 1980s exposed in shocking detail what many of us long suspected was the banal everyday cruelty of the factory farm and research laboratory. These videos inspired my activism. They fuelled my anger toward animal abusers, my contempt for the uncaring public and my disdain for many animal advocates as inept. Everyone, I believed, should look into the hidden face of animal cruelty that I now saw. I wallowed in my self-righteous indignation as I picketed Harrods fur boutique or organized national demonstrations against Britain's leading research laboratories. I helped to lead the radicalization of organizations and behaved contemptuously toward my predecessors. My arrival on the scene was the beginning of the animal rights movement!
As PETA's first executive director, I played a prominent role in developing its "media-first" strategy. This included such publicity stunts as throwing a vegan cream pie in the face of the Pork Queen, the Jeffrey Dahmer ad that likened his horrific murders to how animals were slaughtered everyday for meat and the "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" protests. Our job was to get the media, who reached more people than we ever could, with our message. Blinded by my own arrogance of believing that virtually anything could be justified ("Animals are suffering now!" we shouted), I did not care whether anyone was offended. I did not even question whether we were conveying the right message. We measured our effectiveness in newspaper column inches and TV minutes of coverage regardless of how the story was framed and whether the story reported positively about animals.
My decision to leave PETA in 1992 and the subsequent opportunity to revitalize The Animals' Agenda magazine forced me to fundamentally question my relationship to animal rights, including assumptions I originally made when I first became active in the mid-1970s. (The Animals' Agenda and its not-for profit publisher, the Animal Rights Network, went onto eventually merge with Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to form the Animals and Society Institute.)
I began to seriously reconsider strategies, tactics and messages. It was one thing to be a self-proclaimed "PETA animal rights media whore" but it was something else to publish a magazine committed to reporting accurately animal cruelty and the activities of the animal rights movement. This role reversal provided me with an opportunity to develop my then privately-held, nascent concerns about the future of animal rights. For example, in a 1993 Animals' Agenda editorial I wrote.
However much we may abhor what humans do to animals, we cannot hate that which we wish to change. Animal abuse is a human problem. The animals are not causing their suffering. We are. And we have to change ourselves, our family, friends and colleagues by learning about animal cruelty and discovering how we can stop it. We must always remember our first steps into a compassionate lifestyle and remain patient for those who are now taking their first steps. I make these points as someone who, exactly, twenty years ago, was working in a chicken processing plant.
Of course, I am still angry at the violence we cause toward animals. But I no longer believe my anger entitles me to be arrogant and inconsiderate to those who disagree with me. Compassion is the emotion that inspires me now to make a difference. I no longer feel the need to be shocked or outraged or the desire to force people to feel these emotions. I have concluded that self-righteous indignation is not conducive to engaging people and changing their hearts and minds. It may succeed in getting their attention. It may even work for some people. It may even make me feel important. But I question its effectiveness in the long term in inspiring the majority of people to change their attitudes and behavior as well as achieve institutional and legislative change for animals.
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