JESSICA RINALDI / REUTERS An ownerless dog in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana, September 2005. 

The Long Road to 
Animal Welfare

How Activism Works in Practice

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On election night in November 1992, I waited anxiously with other animal welfare activists at the Radisson Hotel in Denver, Colorado, to learn the outcome of a statewide ballot measure to ban the baiting, hound hunting, and spring hunting of black bears. The initiative was a big deal both for me (it had been my idea) and for the animal welfare movement more generally. Colorado was a political redoubt for the National Rifle Association and other pro-hunting groups; if the ballot measure passed, it might inspire other reforms for animals, and if it failed, it might set the movement back years. Most of my fellow activists had been skeptical about the initiative, arguing that it was a fool’s errand because the hunting lobby was too strong to defeat. But the leaders of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)—then as now, the largest animal protection organization in the country—had overruled their political staff and decided to support the effort, on principle. “It’s too important not to try,” John Hoyt, then the group’s president, told me. “If we lose, I want to be on the side of the losers.” In the end, we won big, getting 70 percent of the vote.

Colorado Democrats were also holding their election party at the Radisson that night, and as the votes were counted, they, too, were celebrating, because the Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, carried the state and the country. The animal advocates decided to hold an impromptu victory parade through the hotel, led by one of our members in a bear costume, and the partying Democrats cheered us on as we passed by. But then the mood darkened: as later returns came in, it became clear that Amendment 2, a major statewide anti-gay-rights measure, had also passed. Dejected gay rights activists slumped along the walls of the ballroom, embittered by the realization that the same people who had voted to protect bears had declined to protect gay and lesbian humans.

Sixteen years later, I found myself in a similar situation, this time in California. On election night in November 2008, I was celebrating the landslide approval of Proposition 2, a statewide ballot initiative to stop the extreme confinement of pigs, calves, and hens on factory farms. Once again, the Democrats also celebrated that night, cheering the victory of Barack Obama. Yet once again, gay and lesbian activists were despondent, since the same voters who had established greater protections for farm animals and voted for the country’s first African American president had also passed Proposition 8, a measure that would amend the California constitution to forbid same-sex marriage.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. Several years on, the gay rights movement has raced forward to extraordinary success: the Supreme Court declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional before it took effect and overturned portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, three dozen states struck down gay marriage bans, and Obama repealed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. It now seems inevitable that gay marriage will be the law of the land. After generations of thankless activism that brought more ridicule than results, and more dejection than hope, suddenly gays and lesbians have found themselves on the winning side of a string of court verdicts and legislative and ballot-box battles.

Rather than begrudging other causes’ success, those of us in the animal welfare movement take heart from it, because it shows that dramatic progress not only is possible but also can happen in short bursts. In any major social reform movement, one that confronts entrenched ideas or formidable adversaries, there are going to be setbacks, and even moments of desperation. But history demonstrates that if a movement can withstand the brickbats of its adversaries and tap into a country’s core values, being smart and opportunistic about what to fight for and how, it can eventually build momentum and achieve a tipping point. It can transform the world in ways even its most optimistic advocates could barely imagine.

FROM CRISIS TO REFORM

In 2004, Michael Vick was the highest-paid player in the NFL. The Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback was also an enthusiast of dogfighting, heading to a hideaway in rural Virginia each week to stage death matches for fun. According to filings in federal court, when Vick’s home was raided in early 2007, investigators found “sheds and kennels associated with housing the fighting dogs and hosting dog fights; approximately 54 American Pit Bull Terriers, some of which had scars and injuries appearing to be related to dog fighting; a breeding stand; a ‘rape stand’ [for female dogs] . . . ; a ‘break’ or ‘parting’ stick used to pry open fighting dogs’ mouths during fights; . . . and other items.” The case provided a rare window into a barbaric American subculture, and a dog-loving nation did not like the view.

The publicity surrounding the Vick case helped spur animal protection efforts nationwide. Many people had no idea that dogfighting was so prevalent and wanted to do something to stop it. In the two years after Vick’s arrest, the HSUS and its partners helped upgrade 40 state laws against animal fighting. Congress amended the federal law against dogfighting and cockfighting, making possession of fighting animals a felony and criminalizing the watching of fights. And Vick himself joined the cause, saying in a 2011 interview, “During my time in prison, I told myself that I wanted to be a part of the solution and not the problem.”

Former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick during a statement to the press in Richmond, Virginia, August 2007.

Two years before Vick’s arrest, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans residents were forced to evacuate without their pets. Many left large food and water bowls behind, enough to get their animals through a long weekend before things returned to normal. Few guessed that floodwaters would submerge whole neighborhoods, prompting the National Guard to seal off the city and prevent evacuees from returning for weeks.

The HSUS and other animal protection groups deployed to the Gulf Coast and raced to save the more than 15,000 animals left behind before they succumbed to dehydration, starvation, or accidents. As rescuers pulled animals from fetid, moldy buildings, television viewers cheered their heroism. And as Americans gave billions of dollars to help Katrina’s human victims, they gave additional tens of millions of dollars to fund the animal rescue effort. It did not take long for those watching to realize that the plight of New Orleans’ pet population was hardly a trivial concern, because for many locals, their own fate and those of their animals were inextricably bound together. Evacuees implored us to smash down their front doors or break in through upstairs windows to bring food and comfort to their dogs, cats, and birds. People who had lost everything breathlessly searched our emergency pet shelter, some reuniting with their companions and finding an emotional lifeline that helped them survive the trauma.

In the wake of Katrina, emergency responders and others recognized that disaster response could not be successful if it failed to account for the bond between humans and animals. Soon, more than two dozen states passed laws to include animals in disaster plans, and Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, requiring all other state and local governments to do the same if they hoped to secure federal disaster assistance.

Such twists of fate are not unusual in social activism. Unjust practices or abuses of power may spur the rise of a reform movement, but it often takes specific events to crystallize the problem for society at large and catalyze significant change. As the psychologist Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature, American history has witnessed a progressive extension of moral concern along with declining violence and cruelty. But often, change comes in spurts rather than in a steady flow.

After the American Civil War, the Radical Republicans drove the passage of a series of amendments to the Constitution abolishing slavery, establishing voting rights, and requiring every state to provide equal protection of the laws. From the 1890s to the 1920s, the Progressive movement helped pass a wave of reforms to promote the direct election of senators, women’s suffrage, antitrust protections, consumer protections, food- and worker-safety standards, and the conservation of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands. In the 1960s and 1970s, protesters marched for civil rights, women’s rights, and an end to the Vietnam War, and the period saw a renaissance in the environmental and gay rights movements.

Often, change comes in spurts rather than in a steady flow.

All these pulses of change put the nation’s conduct in closer alignment with its values. Most Americans now take most of the reforms for granted and wonder why it took so long to embrace them in the first place. But in each case, some sort of crisis was required to drive progress. And in each case, it took activist leadership, resolve, and the participation of millions of regular Americans to push a movement from the margins into the mainstream.

BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT

The notion of animal protection has a long history in human culture, from Buddha’s preaching about nonviolence toward animals and Plutarch’s espousing of vegetarianism in the ancient world, to Saint Francis of Assisi’s preaching of kindness to all creatures in the Middle Ages, to the British evangelical leader William Wilberforce’s co-founding of the world’s first anti-animal-cruelty organization in the 1820s. In 1866, appalled at the routine abuse of horses and other creatures, Henry Bergh formed the first American animal protection group, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and in the decades that followed, activists founded hundreds of similar local groups in communities across the nation. There was forward progress, many setbacks through the decades, and a wave of lawmaking in the early 1970s, but the biggest catalyst for change came with the publication of Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation in 1975.

Singer argued that the most relevant moral characteristic to take into account when considering the interests of animals was their capacity to suffer. The Australian-born, Oxford-educated philosopher claimed that humans were guilty of speciesism, unjustly excluding nonhuman creatures from their sphere of moral concern, just as whites often excluded blacks because of skin color and men often excluded women because of gender. Concern for dogs and cats was laudable, he noted, but to be morally consistent and to deal with the biggest crises for animals, the movement needed to address not only cute pets but also the large-scale commercial use of animals in areas such as factory farming, medical and product testing, clothing, and entertainment.

Around this time, moreover, something of a scientific revolution occurred in discussions about animal intelligence. Although some scientists still treated animals as mere production units or living test tubes, others were taking a fresh look at animal cognition. The zoologist Donald Griffin challenged long-accepted notions of behaviorism, the theory that animals act on the basis of instinct and primal desires alone. Scientists working in the field, such as Jane Goodall with chimpanzees, Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole with elephants, and Irene Pepperberg with parrots, showed that animals have complex social and emotional lives. Today, countless books and a wealth of television programs have made the old ideas about animals as programmed solely by instinct and being incapable of thought or choice seem absurd. People were getting to know animals, and to know more about them, just as millions of Americans got to know openly gay and lesbian Americans when they came out in droves in the last quarter century or so.

Singer’s book spurred advocates to form hundreds more local and national animal protection groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in 1980. I was part of that wave, forming an animal protection group as an undergraduate at Yale University in 1985, protesting cruelty, screening films, and generally trying to shine a light on large-scale systemic abuses that few wanted to acknowledge. This grass-roots activism pushed established groups to step up their calls for reform and adopt more campaign-oriented tactics. Nevertheless, throughout the 1980s, the animal protection movement was still fundamentally about protest. The issues that animal advocates raised were unfamiliar and challenging, and their demands were mainly for people to reform their lifestyles. Asking someone to stop eating meat or to buy products not tested on animals was a hard sell, because people don’t like to change their routines, and because practical, affordable, and easily available alternatives were scarce.

The United States, once the greatest whaling nation in the world, is today a leader of the anti-whaling movement.

It was not until the 1990s that the animal protection movement adopted a legislative strategy and became more widely understood and embraced. A few groups had been doing the political spadework needed to secure meaningful legislative reforms, focusing mostly on the rescue and sheltering of animals. Then organizations such as the HSUS and the Fund for Animals started introducing ballot measures to establish protections, raise awareness, and demonstrate popular support for reform. The ball got rolling with a successful initiative in 1990 to outlaw the trophy hunting of mountain lions in California, which was followed by the 1992 vote in Colorado to protect bears. Other states followed suit with measures to outlaw cockfighting, dove hunting, greyhound racing, captive hunts, the use of steel-jawed traps for killing fur-bearing mammals, and the intensive confinement of animals on factory farms. Today, activists are working to address the inhumane slaughter of chickens and turkeys, the captive display of marine mammals, the hunting of captive wildlife, and the finning of sharks for food. The United States alone now counts more than 20,000 animal protection groups, with perhaps half of them formed in just the last decade. The two largest groups, the HSUS and the ASPCA, together raise and spend nearly $400 million a year and have assets approaching $500 million.

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SURVIVING THE BACKLASH

As the movement has grown stronger, however, so has the backlash against it, with industries that profit from animal cruelty mobilizing to fight reform, fearing that small steps will spur demands for ever more change. One tack in this countermovement has been to assure the public that industry has everything under control. Established interests used to dismiss the very idea of animal welfare as radical and dangerous; recognizing that such an approach is no longer acceptable, they now claim to have cared about it all along. In their attempts to convince the public that factory farms are in the vanguard of progressive change, for example, the leading pork industry trade association established the Swine Welfare Assurance Program and the cattle industry maintains its Beef Quality Assurance program. And almost all relevant industries now claim to adhere to voluntary best-practice standards regarding the treatment of animals, from large-scale dog breeders to fur farms to research labs.

At the same time, these industries try to prevent outsiders from either investigating their conduct or telling them how to run their operations, making use of long-established political connections enjoyed by the farm lobby, the hunting fraternity, and other groups opposed to reform. They have pushed state-level constitutional amendments to establish a “right to farm” or a “right to hunt,” enshrining the status quo of farm-animal confinement and trophy hunting. In 2014, Missouri lawmakers even contemplated a “right to rodeo.” During congressional debate over the 2014 Farm Bill, rural lawmakers came close to passing an amendment, proposed by the Republican representative Steve King of Iowa, to preempt all state laws regulating the sale of agricultural goods. Also in 2014, six state attorneys general, led by the Missouri Democrat Chris Koster, challenged California’s law restricting the sale of eggs that come from hens kept in barren battery cages—tiny, crowded cells in which the vast majority of egg-producing chickens spend their entire lives. “I don’t believe voters in California should be able to set agricultural policy in Missouri,” Koster told members of the Missouri Farm Bureau as he prepared to file his case.

Hens at an egg farm in San Diego County, California, July 2008. 

In response to covert reporting that has exposed the mistreatment of farm animals, horses, and chimpanzees in laboratories, nearly half of U.S. states have considered “ag-gag” measures that would effectively criminalize undercover investigations. Reacting to successful animal welfare ballot initiatives, the farm and hunting lobbies have attempted to increase signature-gathering requirements for animal protection initiatives and have even tried to prevent them from appearing on ballots in the first place. Utah now requires a two-thirds majority to pass a wildlife protection ballot initiative, and Florida requires a 60 percent majority for any ballot initiative—a standard that came into being after voters had the temerity to approve a constitutional amendment banning the confinement of pigs in small crates. And super PACs and front groups now spend millions to attack the brands of animal protection groups, trying to prevent their cause from capturing mainstream public opinion.

MANY PATHS UP THE MOUNTAIN

Before the recent leap forward in public and legal acceptance of gay rights, advocates had been working on the cause for decades. The AIDS crisis in the 1980s claimed the lives of many of that movement’s leaders, but it also spawned a deeper involvement in politics in order to increase public spending on finding a cure. The Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, striking down sodomy laws in 14 states and making consensual homosexual sex legal in all 50, marked an important victory and demonstrated the potential of using the courts to drive change. And two decades of increasingly positive representations in popular culture, along with countless individual coming-out stories, had helped change popular attitudes on the subject. By 2012, polls showed a narrow majority of Americans supporting gay marriage, giving judges and politicians greater latitude to side with gay rights advocates, and the shift in attitude has been particularly pronounced among younger Americans. There are still opponents of gay marriage and of other rights for gays and lesbians, but increasingly, they are fighting a rear-guard action at the political fringes. The United States’ biggest and most powerful corporations—from Apple to Walmart—now speak out in favor of gay rights and against legislative maneuvers to foster discrimination.

The task of securing across-the-board gains for animals has its own special complexities. The cause is ultimately about setting standards for how billions of people interact with tens of billions of animals, including members of thousands of species used in several major sectors of the economy. This will inevitably be a vast, ongoing, multifaceted project. The challenge, therefore, is figuring out how to devise and advocate for plausibly acceptable reforms in the short and medium terms, while linking those to a broader strategy for triggering a revolution in moral consciousness over the long term.

There is no simple formula for change, no one strategy to drive reform. Progress comes from working through multiple channels, often simultaneously. To improve the lives of farm animals, the HSUS managed to pass an anti-confinement ballot measure in Florida in 2002 and one in Arizona in 2006. In 2007, after undergoing years of criticism from activists, the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, and the veal industry moved to undertake voluntary corporate reforms. And then California’s Proposition 2 and a follow-up law helped convince many retailers that they had to change their procurement practices for eggs and pork.

The United States alone now counts more than 20,000 animal protection groups.

The cause has also gained momentum by linking animal protection to other social concerns: animal fighting is usually tangled up with others forms of organized criminal behavior, factory farming causes food-safety problems, and animal abuse is associated with domestic violence. Each of these issues creates opportunities for building coalitions and expanding networks of activism and support. When activists campaign against factory farming, for example, they can build alliances with small farmers, farm workers, environmentalists, and medical professionals, and when they campaign against animal fighting, they can join with law enforcement. Those are tough coalitions for opponents to beat.

Technological innovation, moreover, is making many forms of animal abuse obsolete. The United States once was the greatest whaling nation in the world, but today it is a leader of the anti-whaling movement, with a growing whale-watching industry that favors protecting and expanding whale populations rather than hunting them to extinction. Why? In part because there are now better sources of fuel and light than rendered blubber or spermaceti. Similarly, the United States is currently one of the biggest meat- and fur-producing nations—but it may soon be one of the biggest plant-based-protein and faux-fur nations, as more appealing and cruelty-free substitutes come on the market. And developments in laboratory tests, such as in vitro testing and robot-assisted experimentation on chemicals, are increasingly making animal testing appear slow, unreliable, costly, and obsolete.

LIVING IN TRUTH

People’s relationship with animals is fraught with contradictions. They express love and appreciation for them and have enacted laws to forbid cruelty to them. The United States is a pet-keeping society, with more dogs, cats, parrots, hamsters, and other pets combined than people and a $60-billion-a-year industry for their care. Millions of Americans are engaged with wildlife in some way, and some of their happiest and most transcendent moments are spent in unspoiled settings. And yet at the same time, they exploit animals on a massive scale, with billions of creatures killed or abused every year for food, clothing, research, and other purposes.

Americans have become masters of distancing themselves from these more unpleasant uses of animals, physically and linguistically separating them from the nation’s consciousness and their conscience. On factory farms, operators call animals “units of production”; in laboratories, they are “tools for research”; and in wildlife management, they are “game” to be “harvested” on a “sustained yield basis.” Such usage turns animals into objects or commodities, things that have practical value but are themselves morally neutral or empty. And most consumers end up getting a sanitized version of the product, with all evidence of its animal origins or connections either masked or eliminated. (The exceptions—the wearing of fur or the mounting of stuffed heads—display the larger contradictions in microcosm: people proudly showcase the beauty of the creature that was sacrificed for their pleasure.)

With gay rights, familiarity bred acceptance. The animal protection movement has realized that in its area of concern, the opposite might be true—that these days, it is precisely the lack of familiarity with how animals are routinely abused that enables public acceptance of the abuse. So a critical component of the contemporary movement is devoted to calling cruelty by its name, exposing abuses that have long been concealed. With the increasingly universal recognition that cruelty to animals is wrong, highlighting the contradiction between society’s theory and its practice may be the best way to bring these into alignment.

That was the case with the undercover investigation conducted by the HSUS at the Hallmark/Westland cattle slaughter plant in Chino, California. In 2007, an investigator from the HSUS applied for a job at the plant, which specialized in killing and processing “spent” dairy cows—animals too sick or old to produce large quantities of milk. These days, many of the United States’ nine million dairy cows are spent by the age of three of four, which is less than a third of their typical life expectancy, at which point they are sent to the slaughter. The investigator filmed cows arriving at Hallmark/Westland that were too sick or weak to walk—“downers,” as they say in the industry. Rather than euthanize the downers to put them out of their misery, workers jabbed them with electric prods or shot water into their stomachs with hoses to get them moving, or simply wrapped chains around their legs and dragged them inside, where they were killed and turned into food.

The investigative footage, broadcast on the nightly news for weeks on end, generated widespread revulsion. This particular plant was the second-largest provider of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program, making the problem personal for parents across the country. Recognizing that mad cow disease was 50 times as likely to be present in downer cows as in ambulatory animals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered the largest meat recall in American history, covering 143 million pounds of beef. Congress held a series of hearings about the safety of the food supply and the treatment of animals, including discussions of the USDA’s past failings. Ultimately, Obama banned the slaughter of all downer cows for human consumption through executive action after taking office in 2009.

The Hallmark/Westland investigation was very much on Californians’ minds when they voted on Proposition 2, the statewide measure banning the extreme confinement of farm animals. That remains the nation’s most important animal protection ballot initiative, but it is hardly the only sign of progress. Within the last decade, states have passed more than 1,000 new animal protection laws; Congress has banned animal fighting and horse slaughter; federal agencies have cracked down on wildlife trafficking and puppy mills; and dozens of the biggest names in food retail, agribusiness, fashion, and cosmetics have adopted animal welfare reforms. In 2014, South Dakota became the 50th state to make malicious animal abuse a felony—a milestone in universalizing opposition to animal cruelty. And early this year, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus said that it would halt the use of elephants in traveling acts within three years. This action, from a company that had previously fought animal protection reforms by spending millions of dollars and even infiltrating a number of animal welfare organizations, was a huge victory for animal protection.

The veal, pig, and egg industries, meanwhile, are starting to transition away from extreme confinement. Within the last three years, more than 100 major food retailers—from Burger King to Hilton Hotels & Resorts to Starbucks—have agreed not to buy pork or eggs from producers that confine sows or hens in tiny crates. The veal industry is set to complete its conversion away from small crates for calves by 2017. And many of the biggest companies in the egg and pork industries, including Smithfield Foods and Cargill, are swapping out extreme confinement for group-housing systems.

Given the scope of the problem, the animal welfare movement is necessarily a worldwide one. Practices that have been banned in North America and Europe, such as dogfighting and cockfighting, are widely engaged in and legal throughout much of the rest of the world. And with the spread of factory farming, the bush meat trade, the killing of wildlife for their tusks and other parts, and the ongoing destruction of natural habitats, the global demands on the cause can seem daunting. But there are some grounds for optimism. Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the EU recently adopted policies to end the use of gestation crates. All but three countries have stopped commercial whaling, and Canada has been prohibited from exporting hundreds of thousands of seal pelts because of trade restrictions rooted in concern for animal welfare. India and the EU recently banned the sale of cosmetics tested on animals, no matter where the testing occurs.

Industries that use animals are struggling to adapt, caught between their routine conduct and a growing public revulsion with what that conduct involves. Their first line of defense has been to block revelations of standard industry practices by hiding what is done and trying to criminalize exposure of it. When that fails, they try to sanitize the behavior or mitigate some of the cruelty while presenting the rest as unfortunate necessities of life. Over time, however, they—and we—may finally realize that it is possible to find better, more humane ways to consume protein, conduct research, and be entertained. There is no reason why our society cannot combine moral agency with technological and social innovation to eliminate cruelty to animals as an ordinary part of life. And when we have done so, we are likely to wonder why it took so long and what all the fuss was about.

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