Practical Considerations for Nonviolence in the Animal Rights Movement
An Animal Rights Article from


Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.
November 2005

Most members of the animal advocacy movement have pursued nonviolent activism. Reasons for this strategy vary and include religious, ethical, and practical considerations. Limiting my comments to practical considerations, I will argue that many home protests and certain ALF activities are violent (as defined below) and hurt our movement.

From a practical standpoint, there are several advantages to nonviolence. Nonviolent campaigns tend to be much more successful in winning converts from those who are initially neutral or even on the opposition’s side, whereas violence (which generates fear) tends to polarize people against one’s cause, particularly the police, who may fear a violent movement. In response to violent opposition, defenders of the status quo often find it easy to justify killing or imprisoning their opponents. They are often ill-equipped to deal with a nonviolent movement, because harsh measures against a nonviolent opponent often turn public sympathy in favor of the nonviolent cause. Finally, all exploitative institutions, however ruthless, ultimately depend on the cooperation of the people. Nonviolent non-cooperation, if widely practiced, can be very effective. In contrast, violence can only succeed if its firepower is sufficient to bring its opposition to its knees.*

There is considerable disagreement among animal protectionists about what constitutes “violence.” Since this commentary has a practical orientation, I will define as violent those activities that the general public (not reactionary commentators on the one hand or animal activists on the other) regards as violent. I acknowledge that this still leaves gray areas. Activities that clearly endanger humans and/or other animals are violent. However, damaging property, while not initially intended as violent, is potentially violent, because people may be harmed inadvertently (e.g., a fire in a vacated building could hurt a firefighter) or people may be harmed as activists try to avoid arrest (e.g., while speeding to escape, upon encountering a security guard, or after identifying an informant).

Home protests strike me as violent in that (as best I can tell) the public generally perceives them as physically threatening. From what I’ve gathered from diverse reports, it seems to me that the home’s occupants have often been terrified by angry crowds chanting and shouting insults at people. There may be no immediate danger, but we all know that members of a crowd that hate a certain individual can sometimes later pursue violence, as has happened in the anti-abortion movement. To illustrate this point, I think many of us would be frightened if a crowd of religious fundamentalists were chanting and shouting in front of our homes that, as animal advocates, we were aligned with the anti-Christ, fighting against God (as a few fundamentalists actually believe). When the public sees terrified children, they wonder who the violent people really are – animal exploiters or animal defenders.

I think there are good reasons to doubt whether violence assists our cause. One important clue is that our opponents have been very eager to label us as violent, indicating that they believe that the public will reject our message if the public perceives us as violent. An unpopular violent movement can nevertheless succeed, if it has sufficient firepower. However, in the case of the animal protection movement, there are far too few people willing to risk imprisonment or death to successfully intimidate vivisectors or factory farmers into abandoning their source of livelihood. Furthermore, violent movements need secrecy in order to avoid arrest, which limits movement size, increases distrust among its members, and facilitates the opposition’s efforts to misrepresent their motives and goals. Indeed, the openness and truthfulness of nonviolent movements often contrasts with the duplicity of its opponents, enhancing nonviolent movements’ public support.

Effective violent movements (as opposed to the haphazard hits of violent animal protectionists) require authoritarian leadership to coordinate attacks, whereas nonviolent movements (which have much less need for secrecy and are generally undermined by secrecy) can publicly articulate strategy such that the arrest of the movement’s leaders often fails to significantly impact their programs.

I don’t see violent animal protectionists significantly impacting the animal abuse industries. They may intimidate a few corporations (e.g., the guinea pig breeder in the UK) to close down, though this will likely serve only shift animal abuse activities to other companies and/or other locations. It would take many dedicated people, willing to risk lengthy incarceration or death, for violent tactics to lead to animal liberation. Such an army of animal protectionists doesn’t exist.

Some animal activists favor more violent strategies because they have been frustrated by the slow progress towards animal liberation. I think there are effective nonviolent options out there; the challenge is finding people willing to engage them. For example, many people reduce or eliminate animal consumption when they find out about animal abuse. Many people have been deeply moved by PETA’s Meet Your Meat video or Vegan Outreach’s literature. Another strategy, which Gandhi used effectively, was to openly violate unjust laws. For example, there are states in which videotaping CAFOs is a crime. Openly videotaping animal abuse runs risks of rough treatment or even arrest, but perhaps the same people who are currently willing to accept these risks in activities the public regards as violent would consider such nonviolent activities.

From a practical standpoint, there are effective nonviolent strategies available to us that offer much more promise that activities that the public regards as violent.

* It is true that violence can occasionally assist in liberating some animals. However, such actions, at best, relieve only a very small fraction of the exploited animals from their misery. If this is the best the animal advocacy movement can hope for, then the outlook for animals in general is indeed very grim.

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