The Animal Rights Challenge
An Animal Rights Article from


Kim W. Stallwood, The Grumpy Vegan
Presentation to Minding Animals Conference, December 2008

The objective of my presentation is to make the case that the animal rights challenge is to establish the moral and legal status of animals as a public policy issue. Presently, animal rights is primarily framed as an optional lifestyle choice issue. Notwithstanding important philosophical differences, I use animal rights in this paper to mean all pro-animal advocacy ideological positions. I define the animal rights movement as a social movement whose constituent organizations range in their ideological perspectives. I critique the movement’s traditional activities, propose a five-part evaluation process and offer practical, measurable steps to making animal rights a mainstream political issue.

Part I

What is the mission of the animal rights movement?

Is it to intervene in abusive situations to save animals from suffering? Is it to bring public attention to the most egregious examples of animal cruelty? Is it to act provocatively to attract the media’s attention? Is it to create a more humane world? Is it to challenge the institutional exploitation of animals? Is it to convince consumers to boycott animal-based products and adopt a cruelty-free vegetarian or vegan lifestyle?

The movement’s activities – past and present – demonstrate that all of the above – and more – are among its objectives. The movement’s principal focus is getting the individual to act. As the Australian Animal Liberation Victoria group puts it: “Think. Care. Act.”

Notwithstanding important philosophical differences, I use animal rights in this paper to mean all pro-animal advocacy ideological positions. I define the animal rights movement as a social movement whose constituent organizations range in their ideological perspectives.

At the heart of the movement’s public education strategy of “Think. Care. Act.” is the “moral shock.” The personal transformative moment when outrage is experienced at the injustice perpetrated toward animals. The impact of the moral shock may be immediate or it may require some time before it makes its effect fully known.

The moral shock may be prompted directly or indirectly by the movement. Or, as in my case, when I worked in a chicken slaughterhouse 35 years ago, it may occur without any influence of the movement.

Regardless, the moral shock of the personal transformative movement is so powerful that it overwhelmingly forms the rationale behind the movement’s repertoire of protest. Just consider for a moment the images and rhetoric used by the movement throughout the world and in every chapter of its history.

The moral shock opens our eyes to animal cruelty. We see what has been previously hidden from view. We discover animal exploitation is present throughout our world, in the lives we live, the products we buy and where we work and play. We seek out animal suffering. We prevent its occurrence. We want others to see what we now see. We want them to experience their personal transformative moment. We become “Caring Sleuths,” as described by my Animals and Society Institute colleague, Ken Shapiro. We believe society will change if enough people experience enough moral shocks. This is why the movement and its repertoire of protest rely upon fomenting public outrage. The emphasis is on the individual to think, care and act. Go vegan! Go cruelty-free! Don’t buy fur! Boycott zoos. If I can change, you can, too.

The movement’s emphasis on personal lifestyle choice to achieving institutional change is inadequate. It may help some individual animals and inspire some people to make compassionate lifestyle choices. But it is not for everyone. Lifestyle choices can be a fickle friend as trends and fashions change. Not everyone is the same. Not everyone does change. Not everyone is willing to forgo what are commonly perceived as rights (e.g., human rights trumping animal rights), entitlements (e.g., animal tested medications) and pleasures (e.g., fox hunting and eating meat). They don’t want us to tell them. They don’t want to see the photos and DVDs. We can’t tell them what they can and cannot do. They’re only animals. People are more important.

This is the frame around the animal rights movement’s mission and its repertoire of protest. Caring Sleuths live inside the frame with our alleged self-righteous attitudes, seemingly smug vegan/vegetarian cruelty-free lifestyles, perceived radical boycotts and protests, and superior rescued cats and dogs. Everyone else lives outside the frame. They look in. They ask “Am I one of them?” “Do I want to be like them?” “Do I even like them?”

The movement’s obsession with personal lifestyle choice stops us from understanding the immensity of the animal rights challenge.

Clearly, some will change and others will go where a significant minority takes them. This is how social change is achieved and how social movements achieve change. A critical mass reaches a tipping point when what was once fringe goes mainstream. Smoking tobacco in public places and civil partnerships for gay and lesbian couples moved in recent times from the side to the centre of the political arena, notwithstanding a minority who resolutely oppose both.

Animal rights, too, has the potential to move to the mainstream from society’s margins. But this can be only achieved if the animal rights movement responds to two important points.

First, to understand how social movements advance their mission from obscurity to acceptance.

Second, to learn how to implement a strategy that balances the utopian vision of vegan idealism with the pragmatic politics of achieving the possible.

Part 2

The animal rights movement primarily consists of well-intended organizations led by charismatic individuals each pursuing their own vision and their own campaigns. Tactics include animal rescue, demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, various outreach efforts, direct mail appeals, newsletters and magazines and Web sites. They are used to educate the public and recruit new members and retain them through annual renewals. Welcome to the business world of charities and not-for-profit organizations. I know because I have more than 30 years of experience in leadership positions with some of the world’s foremost organizations.

My objective today is to explain how and why animal rights groups essentially function at the level of intervention and public education and not at the level of public policy and legislation. My core message is this: The animal rights challenge is to make the moral and legal status of animals a mainstream political issue. How do we respond to this challenge?

This is the animal rights challenge: Making society’s treatment of animals the responsibility of society, not just the individual responsibility of some. The challenge is to bring animal rights into the political mainstream and make it a legitimate public policy issue. The present emphasis on individual action (“Go vegan!”) must be expanded to include a political agenda for institutional change. Yes, individually, we’re all responsible for what happens to animals in our personal and professional lives but collectively the commercial exploitation of animals is the responsibility of society and government.

According to a 2008 survey published by the Food Standards Agency, 2% of respondents were found to be “completely vegetarian” and an additional 5% “partly vegetarian.” And, so, yes, we need more individual action but we need institutional change more.

Animals are, of course, already in the political arena. It’s their representatives who we should be concerned about. Powerful commercial interests that profit from animal exploitation are well established political players. Their involvement in the political process helps to maintain the status quo, adopt regulations and pass laws that help animal users more than the animals. Of course, this political bias in favor of animal exploitation is reinforced by our continued use of animals.

Animal rights is framed by those who profit from animal exploitation as:

• An emotional, irrational and sentimental issue
• A personal lifestyle choice, which implies that animal use should be self-regulated and is not a public policy issue
• A competition between humans and animals
• A hot-bed of violent radicals who use force against those who use animals

The movement’s present repertoire of protest demonstrates our political naivety. Actions frequently occur in isolation and absent any long-term strategic, organized political vision or mission. They do not make a coherent long-term, macro-strategy to achieving institutional change. Surely, the mission of the animal rights movement is to encourage individual change as well as to work for regulatory and legislative victories. Yes, I know the movement has had some successes in elected bodies. These activities, however, are a small part of our overall endeavor. Even the ballot initiatives in the United States, as successful and important as they are, are extensions of public education campaigns. It is important to note that California’s Proposition 2 to stop the cruel confinement of farmed animals passed by a vote of 63% to 37%. Nearly 6.3 million Californians voted for Prop 2 and their exercise in democracy will positively impact 20 million factory-farmed animals in the state.

Part 3

So, how do we respond to the challenge of making the moral and legal status of animals a mainstream political issue?

Let’s start in 1977 and the RSPCA’s Animal Rights symposium in Cambridge. I was fortunate to attend as CIWF’s campaigns officer along with its founder, Peter Roberts. I recall Lord Houghton of Sowerby, the Labour Peer and member of the Labour Cabinet in the 1960s, saying

My message is that animal welfare, in the general and in the particular, is largely a matter for the law. This means that to Parliament we must go. Sooner or later that is where we will have to go. That is where laws are made and where penalties for disobedience and the measures for enforcement are laid down. There is no complete substitute for the law. Public opinion is what makes laws possible and observance widely acceptable.

Houghton challenged our naïve thinking about animal rights. Even though CIWF made general appeals for legislation to improve the lives of farmed animals, we did not understand factory farming to be a political issue. We saw it only as a public educational issue. Throughout my involvement with the U.K. and U.S. animal rights movements, Lord Houghton’s profound message of to “Parliament we must go” is a constant reminder of what should be done.

A quick take on the British and American animal rights movements reveal many similarities, including:

* Activists and supporters are mostly female whereas many of the organizations’ leaders are male

* Longstanding commitment to humane education and public education programs that also demonstrate a consistent concern for the welfare of children, people and the environment

* Strategy that highlights egregious examples of animal cruelty and exploitation which seek to portray similarly all the ways in which animals are used

* Calls to action, including the adoption of cruelty-free, vegetarian and vegan lifestyles

* And, not surprisingly perhaps because of the enormity of the challenge, both movements struggle to reconcile the tension between utopian idealism and pragmatic politics

Regardless of these important similarities, there is one key difference between the British and American movements: the former has succeeded in making animal rights a mainstream political issue whereas the latter has not. This is not to say that the movement in this country can rest on its political accomplishments – the prospect of a future Conservative government and their wish to overturn the Hunting Act is, indeed, a sobering thought – nor does it diminish the significant accomplishments achieved in the US when animal issues are placed onto state ballots.

Part 4

As a social movement practitioner I study the academic literature on social movements. Sociologists define social movements as “collective, organized, sustained, and noninstitutional challenge to authorities, powerholders, or cultural beliefs and practices.” (Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper (eds.), The Social Movement Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), p.3.) From the perspective of practice and theory I conclude there are five basic stages that social movements, including the animal rights movement, must pass through from obscurity to victory.

The five stages of social movements are:

1. Public education, when people are enlightened about the issue and embrace it into their lives

2. Public policy development, when political parties, businesses, schools, professional associations, and other entities that constitute society adopt sympathetic positions on the issue

3. Legislation, when laws are passed on the issue

4. Litigation, when laws are implemented and enforced on the issue

5. Public acceptance, when the issue is embraced by the majority of society

I acknowledge, before I go further, simplistic schematics of this kind are problematic; however, I offer this as a tool to help assess what’s been accomplished and what’s left to be done.

Most issues start in stage one and expand to the others but not always in a clear sequential order. As it progresses through each stage, an issue’s influence and resistance to setbacks increases proportionately. Further, the role of animal advocates must also expand from the Caring Sleuth, formed by the personal transformative moment, to also include the role of public policy maker in order to make animal rights a mainstream political issue.

Hunting in Britain, for example, existed in stage one, public education, for decades with occasional success in stage two, public policy (e.g., opposition from county councils). After many attempts at legislation in Parliament (stage three) as private members bills, the passage of the government (non-opposition) backing of the Hunting Act 2004 triggered the next stage, stage four, litigation. Pro-bloodsports enthusiasts failed in their attempts to sue the government in the House of Lords and for civil liberties in the European Court of Human Rights. The abolition of bloodsports has enjoyed public support (stage five) for many years; however, a law is only a law as long as the legislation is on the statute books—an important point to remember should the Conservatives form the next government. The passage of the Hunting Act legitimized the public policy position that hunting is a cruel and ineffective wildlife management tool deserving of prohibition. It also empowered hunt opponents to become public policy makers and hunt proponents to become the protestors.

The present Labour Government has achieved a great deal for animal rights since its election in 1997. These accomplishments – and others – were achieved because the issues were moved along by the movement through the five stages. More can be accomplished if the movement does more to expand the animal rights frame from personal lifestyle choice to mainstream politics. In the words of Lord Houghton, “Go to Parliament.” The Hunting Act became law because of a multi-decade effort to put animals into politics at general elections since 1976. This included securing manifesto commitments from the political parties. Consequently, hunting became a political issue. Contrast this with other animal issues that are not presently framed as legitimate public policy. For example, the breeding of so-called pedigree cats and dogs and its impact on overpopulation. There’s also a lack of action by the government to promote a vegan diet and lifestyle as beneficial for human health and well-being as well as the environment and challenging global warming. Regrettably, some animal issues have become politicized hostile to animal interests. For example, animal research is viewed as “my baby vs. a rat in a laboratory cage.” Instead, it should be: Is animal testing an effective public policy to determine product safety?

Part 5

I referred earlier to the ban on smoking in public places and the legislation enabling gays and lesbians to form civil partnerships. These are significant developments in the public’s understanding of contentious issues and changes in public policy codified in legislation that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. It’s instructive for the animal rights movement to look at other social movements and their organizations to learn how these and other changes in public policy were accomplished.

For example, Action on Smoking and Health works with and receives funding from such professional associations as the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK. One of its strategic priorities is to “press for concrete and evidence based measures to effect policy change and reduce the harm caused by tobacco.”

Similarly, Stonewall, a relatively new organization founded in 1989, develops ideas and policies to remove discrimination and improve the lives of lesbians, gay men and bisexual people. Stonewall’s accomplishments include, for example, equalizing the age of consent, lifting the ban on gays and lesbians in the military and civil partnerships.

Both ASH and Stonewall place more importance on public policy and legislation than most animal rights organizations do. Even though they each have their own personal transformative moments (e.g., the commitment to stop smoking and coming out of the closet).

Why haven’t the animal rights movement achieved more in Parliament or in other elected bodies? The answer lies in our obsession with strategy to foment personal transformative moments or Stage 1: Public Education. When we frame an issue as a political one we expand the strategy from Stage 1, Public Education, to Stage 2, 3 and 4 (Public Policy, Legislation and Litigation respectively). We, in the words of Lord Houghton, “go to Parliament.” The Hunting Act became law because there’s been a multi-decade effort to put animals into politics at general elections since 1976. This included securing manifesto commitments from the political parties. Consequently, hunting became a political issue. This is in contrast to other animal issues that are not considered a matter for public policy, including the breeding of so-called pedigree cats and dogs and the government’s lack of promotion of a vegan diet as a healthy lifestyle.

How do we respond to the challenge? I make the following suggestions:

1. Evaluate, develop and reassess long-term strategies with the Five-Stage Analysis

2. Position animal rights as a Public Education and as a Public Policy issue

3. Build alliances with non-animal rights organizations, civic groups, professional associations, businesses, NGOs, etc.

4. Invest in international coalitions with like-minded groups

5. Position animal rights within a larger social and political context

6. Establish a permanent movement-wide initiative targeting local, general and European elections

7. Stay focused on political parties, elected representatives and government employees to ensure accountability

8. Join political parties, get active and stand for election

9. Target elected representatives who consistently oppose animal interests

Finally, I want to make one more suggestion. We need a think tank committed to creating the political ideas and hosting the policy debates to make the moral and legal status of animals a priority in British politics.

To conclude the only way to respond to the animal rights challenge is to, first, understand how social movements advance their mission from obscurity to acceptance, and, second, implement a strategy balancing a vegan utopia with the pragmatic politics of the possible. Then, and only then, will animal rights become a mainstream political issue and we will be in Parliament.

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