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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 12 June 2001 Issue:

by Judith Marie Gansen
Activism and Breaking the Law

One issue I agonize over since I am both a spiritual person and an animal protector / advocate is how far should we go to help an animal?  Is it okay for us to break the law, commit acts of violence, etc.?  Most reasonable people would describe themselves as being nonviolent, however, one thing I am certain of is that most mothers would become violent if someone tried to harm their children.  Most people would make some attempt to protect a loved one if they saw them being attacked regardless of their religious beliefs -- I believe it is almost instinctive to do so.

Not long ago someone dear to me found herself in a bad financial situation due to a husband losing a job and she also had a serious medical situation in the family, etc.   She ended up desperately needing a job right now.  She went to work for a temp agency and despite being an animal lover and rescuer, found herself working at a fairgrounds office.  Shortly thereafter, as the person who answered the phone, she became the target of a well-meaning activist who called about the fact that a rodeo was being held there and began to verbally attack her.  She never attended rodeos and tried to be courteous to the activist while her boss listened to her end of the conversation.  She couldn't explain to the activist that she was on the side of the animals.  Sometimes compassionate educating results in what is known in conflicts as "collateral damage."  This was a minor example.  The receptionist was very hurt for being attacked in this manner and later wrote to the activist group explaining she was on their side but for personal reasons found herself working there and she received an apology.  The point of the story being that time they were going after the wrong person.  Imagine the injustice if the activist group had used more aggressive tactics with her than they did.

Is the quest for Animal Rights a war?  There are some in the movement who believe this.  I decided to do some searching and came up with the following thought-provoking website with some excellent bibliography info.  I thought this would help us decide whether this is a "war" and how much of this information can relate to our movement. Click on:   War  It is from Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy and I admit I needed a dictionary. I think there are some things that can apply to our movement on that site, however.

One of the reasons for war mentioned was the harming of innocents.  Animals to me are innocents.  If the animals being tortured in research labs today were people, there would be massive protests because humans generally believe that people have rights.  The outrage would be everywhere and if the law didn't help those "test subjects" then many would feel it would be okay to take the law into their own hands to free those people.  This action would be justifiable because those people were being tortured and killed and were suffering horribly.  It would be said that people of reason and justice need to break the law to achieve freedom for those innocent lives.   Few would argue that the heinous torture committed by someone like Dr. Joseph Mengele in the Nazi Concentration camps was the work of a monster, yet his "work" was considered moral and ethical by the Nazis who hated the Jewish people and others because they were considered to be subhuman.  The living creatures we are discussing, however, are animals and so some feel it is okay to do this to them.  To torture, kill, maim and put them through unspeakable pain to "test" a product or achieve some scientific purpose.  They believe we have the right to kidnap an animal from its native home or drag domesticated animals who are former pets from shelters and put them to our use.  Or to harm animals for our entertainment as we do with bucking straps in rodeos or use cruel hooks on elephants for circuses.  People who believe these crimes are acceptable are guilty of speciesism -- the arrogance of believing that we are superior to all forms of other life.

Throughout history there are examples of issues being held to be "legal" in various countries while violating someone's rights.  Things that come to mind include slavery, child labor, selling babies on the black market, etc.  Further back in world history babies and women were sacrificed because it was believed that was needed in various religions for some form of appeasement.  There was political oppression.   At some point in time it took the courage of a few compassionate people who saw the suffering to speak out against it.  This is what prompted change.  Sometimes it took violence to stop this oppression, for example, the Revolutionary War.  In every war innocents get killed and injured and I think we need to remember that.

However, at Michigan State University a few years ago there was a break-in and a fire set which resulted in a firefighter being injured.  An activist was arrested.   In that situation my heart was right with the animals but what did animal rights accomplish if an innocent firefighter was harmed in the process?  That incident is now constantly brought up and used against our movement by the media.  Another incident recently concerned an activist spraying the face of an employee from Huntingdon Science Labs and this was done in front of his young daughter.  Please remember I am on the side of the animals but what harm did we do to the little girl who saw her dad get sprayed?  I feel the resulting violence overshadows any accomplishment made and becomes a weapon used against us.

Another example that causes me to question breaking the law was a young woman who began an animal rights organization where I live. A situation came up where an animal was being neglected.  She decided to take the animal and care for it -- she had tried speaking to the person who cared for the animal.  She ended up getting arrested for stealing the dog.  In speaking with her I asked her if she went through proper channels before taking matters into her own hands.  She said "no, they never do anything."  Well, she may have been right but reasonable people expect us to try proper channels first and I couldn't make her see that.  She couldn't see that by breaking the law in a very conservative community she caused distrust among the very people whose financial support she needed. The newspaper loved making an example of the animal rights activist that broke the law.  Sadly her organization folded and has not been replaced.

Without sounding too paranoid I have sometimes wondered if some of the activists who break the law and make national headlines might even be "plants" put into place by someone whose profits are being hurt by our movement.  What better way to discredit us?  Or is it that we have become so overburdened with the horrors of animal cruelty that we feel our progress is too slow and violence will speed things up?   History does show that at times the only thing that worked was violence but shouldn't we be more enlightened now?  Shouldn't we realize that when you declare a "war," that the collateral damage may end up being someone's Mom or dad or an animal's guardian?  Is terrorism the way to get our important message across?

Animal Rights is a David and Goliath situation.  The money and power of our own government, well-funded companies, rich hunting organizations and lucrative medical establishments can easily out spend us.  They have "connections" and political clout.  We are a small army of grassroots volunteers and paid staff who believe that our purpose is to alleviate suffering -- any kind of suffering.  When we hear of an animal being tortured or killed it is like someone has torn out our hearts.   We feel for our fellow creatures as others do not.

I think people should try very hard not to judge the activists who choose to break the law, however.  At times they are the ones going undercover which takes great courage and perhaps people would be more likely to say -- "yes, we must break the law," if they were the ones seeing firsthand the atrocities against innocent creatures.  I can't bear to look at the photos or videos of tortured innocent animals -- they often have to look at the animals themselves or worse be there to witness the horrors committed against them.

Not long ago a nature center became the center of controversy because it chose to hunt deer who were damaging certain plants they were trying to save. They brought in hunters to kill the deer.  Some activists came on the land early, illegally trespassing, and scared many of the deer away so they couldn't be killed.  They broke the law but in that situation no one got hurt and some of the deer were saved.  Other activists are working to educate the nature center on alternative humane methods of keeping deer out of certain areas.  In that situation both types of activists working together felt the need to act on the same problem but in a different manner.

In exploring this issue, I think I feel overall that while I couldn't break the law personally and generally feel it is wrong,  I have finally come to the conclusion that I can't always condemn those that do to help animals.  However, I feel that any illegal action that any animal rights organization takes (illegal actions most often I believe are done by the organizations that are "underground") need to be scrutinized with great care with all of the ramifications examined.  Public opinion is very important to our cause because without it we are lost.  Since many of us "speak" for the animals, we must also be their ambassadors of goodwill.  We need people to trust us so we can teach them.  You can't teach anything if people fear you.

Some people who either fear or dislike animals (I believe that fear is behind most people's feelings who dislike animals) will not be reached in appealing to their compassion.  We will reach them through showing them that their health can improve by not eating animals.  Show them they can save money by being vegetarian and that many animal rights organizations have found duplicate research studies being done by universities and that in turn saves money as well as research dollars by consolidating information.  We can teach them that non-animal research is more reliable and the very act of raising animals for food wastes precious land that can be used to feed people.

I don't have all the answers on the issue of whether this is a "war" or not. I have deep respect for all the veterans that fought for our country and while an actual war between countries is certainly on a larger scale and much more horrific, there are similarities with the animal rights movement.  Might does not give us the right to do things that are inhumane and unethical.  Each of us has to sort out our own feelings on how far is too far. I hope that I have inspired people to think, to learn and to grow.

One of my favorite quotes is from our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln:

"I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being."

(Taken from the book The Extended Circle, a Dictionary of Humane Thought, Centaur Press Limited, 1986, edited by Jon Wynne-Tyson, Page 179, quoted from the Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln.)

Return to Animals in Print 12 Jun 2001 Issue

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