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Like any social-justice movement, the struggle to advance the interests of animals has its share of detractors. The most vocal of these critics come from animal enterprises such as factory farms, labs, puppy mills, circuses and other industries that exploit animals for profit. And, of course, there’s a segment of the population ― sport hunters and those who believe they have a “right” to eat animals, for example ― that enjoys blogging about their affinity for cruelty.
But there are some within the animal-protection movement itself who criticize the methods other individuals and organizations use to advocate for animals. Chief among these cynics’ targets are Farm Sanctuary, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Those who disparage these nonprofits argue that they have sold out to animal agriculture and non-vegetarian businesses by cooperating with them. Here’s one example: Following pressure from Farm Sanctuary, HSUS and PETA, Smithfield Foods — the world’s largest pork producer — announced in 2007 that it would begin phasing out cruel gestation crates on all its company-owned farms. While many lauded this as step forward for animals, one longtime critic of animal-welfare campaigns decried it as a “sad defeat for nonhumans” and cynically labeled it a fundraising ploy.
Although I agree with those who argue that “humane meat” is oxymoronic, I believe that while we promote the benefits of veganism, we owe it to farmed animals to fight for every bit of humane treatment we can win for them as soon as we can. I understand there are those who think this position only benefits animal exploiters; yet, if that were the case, you would expect agribusiness and fast-food chains to be thanking animal advocates.
Let’s consider some of the comments from agribiz. Corporate farmers across the U.S. have their collective knickers in a twist in the wake of California’s Proposition 2 ― which, in case you’ve been meditating in a cave for the last year, will make it a crime to confine hens in battery cages, pigs in gestation crates and calves in veal crates and was primarily sponsored by HSUS and Farm Sanctuary. As Bryan Black, president of the National Pork Producers Council, put it: “It is regrettable that animal rights groups were successful in vilifying hardworking, honest farmers and ranchers who treat their animals humanely and provide them with a healthful and safe environment in which to grow.”
More to the point was Steve Kopperud, senior vice president of Policy Directions, Inc., which lobbies on behalf of agribusiness. Kopperud told attendees at a farm forum in Ohio this month: “The Humane Society of the United States say they aren’t pushing for a vegan society; however, if you cut the crap you’ll find they are in a PETA-kind of agenda. If you think you can sit down with an animal rights group and give them something and they go away, you are absolutely insane.”
Doesn’t exactly sound like they consider HSUS or PETA to be helping them, does it? In fact, Kopperud and many others declare animal rights organizations to be the biggest threat to their way of making a buck: raising and slaughtering animals for food.
And these complaints go back well before Prop 2. In its 2006 outlook report, Poultry Times quoted United Egg Producer President Al Pope (since retired), who noted that at a recent convention, an HSUS official stated that “its goal was to ELIMINATE the poultry industry.” The report goes on with more of Pope’s concerns: “Activists’ actions force the industry to add substantial costs to producing its product. Higher prices affect the customer’s willingness to purchase as we compete with other protein products. Long-term this issue has the potential of greatly impacting the demand and thus the economic well-being of the industry. It is imperative that animal agriculture look beyond 2007 and recognize ‘WE ARE AT WAR.’”
Gene Gregory, now president and CEO of United Egg Producers, used similar rhetoric three years ago in an Egg Industry Magazine article. “I’m afraid we’re losing the battle,” he said. The article described Gregory’s struggle “to compete with the budget of $100 million that the Humane Society of the United States has, and it’s relatively easy for the Humane Society to recruit members on college campuses…. [Gregory] also thinks that when universities go cage-free, it means egg consumption declines because total costs go up and that translates into fewer eggs that end up on student plates.”
In contrast to the grumbling from Big Ag, which is vociferous and frequent, you don’t hear much from fast-food companies, even though Burger King, Carl’s Jr., KFC, McDonald’s and Wendy’s have all been targets of campaigns encouraging them to adopt policies that reduce cruelty to animals (usually by sourcing from suppliers with higher welfare standards, such as not keeping laying hens in crowded cages, or that slaughter animals using methods that minimize suffering, such as controlled-atmosphere killing). That’s not to say these restaurant chains don’t have their gripes against animal activists ― not by a long shot. They just let front groups like the ironically named Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) do the griping for them. You’d be hard-pressed to find many purveyors of hamburgers or chicken nuggets complaining in public about PETA, Farm Sanctuary or HSUS. It’s much easier for them to support CCF, infamous for fighting consumers’ right to have nutrition labels in restaurants and maintaining that humans must eat animal flesh to be healthy. CCF has complained about PETA offering anti-meat and anti-dairy “propaganda” to children, has called Farm Sanctuary’s Adopt-a-Turkey project “a farce” and continues to criticize efforts by HSUS to outlaw cruel agricultural practices, to name but a few examples. (As a paid lobbyist for tobacco, alcohol, meat, soft drink and fast-food interests, CCF is likely to attack anyone who criticizes their clients’ products.)
Animal rights organizations are also putting pressure on corporations by owning stock in the company. PETA, for example, which currently owns 478 shares of Smithfield Foods stock, recently submitted a shareholder resolution calling on the company to publicly disclose a timeline for fulfilling its promise to phase out gestation crates, and McDonald’s shareholders will soon be asked to vote on HSUS’ resolution urging the chain to begin switching to cage-free eggs.
It is not my contention that the tactics and campaigns of Farm Sanctuary, HSUS and PETA are always right. They have their share of misses just like any organization. But when animal exploiters or those paid to shill for them are raising the battle cry against animal advocates, I know we’ve got them on the run. Their vitriol is a signal that we ― the individual activist and nonprofit group alike ― are impacting their bottom line and making a difference for animals.
I love how Steve Kopperud, the trusted advisor to factory farms, characterizes the situation. Warning his Ohio farm forum audience about the reforms animal-protection organizations are working on, he said: “This is a collective threat. If all of the Ohio agricultural community does not sit down and figure out a collective way to stop this right now, you will all wind up as crop producers.”
And that’s supposed to be a bad thing?
You don’t need to look at a calendar to know Easter is just around the corner. The stores are already stocking pastel-colored baskets and Easter greeting cards, Easter specials are being advertised on TV and some of our pious brethren are wondering aloud what to give up for Lent. And you’ll probably be seeing another annual tradition that heralds this holiday: pet stores and breeders promoting “Easter bunnies” for kids.
Thanks in no small part to children’s stories, songs and legends, rabbits have become indelibly linked to Easter. Unfortunately, rabbits are not ideal companion animals for small children. As prey animals, rabbits do not like to be picked up, for example, and children are generally too active for these gentle animals, who prefer quiet environments. Rabbits also do not thrive in backyard hutches; in fact, relegating a rabbit to an outdoor hutch constrains their natural behaviors and subjects them to the danger of predators and inclement weather. Rabbits flourish indoors, where they can run, dance and play in safety. You can even train them to use a litter box. But your home needs to be bunny-proofed, since rabbits, who are natural burrowing animals, have a strong biting instinct and will chew on your baseboard or nip through telephone cords. They also need frequent grooming.
So when well-meaning parents, unaware of what it takes to keep a rabbit healthy and happy, buy a bunny from the pet store, the frequent result is a bored or frustrated child. Soon Thumper is left at an animal shelter, or worse, abandoned in a park, where he or she will not survive.
Make Mine Chocolate!
Fortunately, rabbit-rescue organizations have begun promoting alternatives to the “Easter Bunny” problem. In 2002, the Columbus, Ohio, chapter of the House Rabbit Society (CHRS) started an awareness campaign called “Make Mine Chocolate!,” the aim of which is to educate the public about the realities of living with a rabbit and to discourage giving live rabbits as Easter gifts. The Make Mine Chocolate! campaign uses ceramic pins shaped like chocolate bunnies as conversation starters; comments about the pin provide the wearer with an opportunity to talk about rabbits as companions. These informal conversations are supported by a card that is distributed with each pin and by business cards that can be handed out to interested parties. Both the pin card and the business card list important facts that should be considered before bringing a rabbit into the home. Although rescue groups do want every rabbit to find a loving home, they’d rather someone buy a chocolate bunny for Easter if a live rabbit is only going to end up discarded after the novelty has worn off.
“For this year’s Make Mine Chocolate! campaign, our goal is to increase our community outreach by doing multiple radio and television appearances leading up to the Easter holiday,” says CHRS’ Heather Dean, who has already done one major television interview. “Also, we continue to develop new partnerships both in the US and beyond. In fact, the Hay Experts in the UK have started the ‘Make Mine Chocolate!’ campaign across the pond.”
House Rabbit Society & Other Groups
Other chapters of the House Rabbit Society (HRS) have joined the bandwagon, explains Margo DeMello of HRS. “We really try to promote the hell out of Make Mine Chocolate!,” she says. “On top of that, our chapters all do different stuff. At headquarters in Richmond, California, we’re doing a spring photo day on April 11, Wisconsin HRS is doing three educational events plus an annual Easter letter to all newspapers across the state of Wisconsin, Miami HRS had an outreach event at a local chocolate festival and promoted Make Mine Chocolate!, South Carolina HRS is doing a series of children’s educational events at local elementary and middle schools, and I know other chapters are planning events as well.” And that’s just off the top of her head.
In Canada, the Ontario-based nonprofit Rabbit Rescue is busy working with local merchants to get the word out. “Our main Easter event is our paper bunny campaign,” says Haviva Lush, executive director. “We partner with stores and vet clinics, provide the paper bunnies, posters and such. They encourage people to ‘sponsor’ a rabbit for $2.00, sign their name on the paper bunny, and the stores tape them up. It’s a great fundraiser for us, and it brings about awareness and hopefully discourages people from buying that Easter bunny.”
What You Can Do
This is a great time of year to talk about rabbits. They do make wonderful companions, but they are not for everyone. Alternatives to live rabbits as Easter gifts include chocolate bunnies (preferably vegan, of course), stuffed animals and books. If you know of anyone who plans to bring home a rabbit this Easter ― or any time of the year ― please encourage them to learn about rabbits and rabbit care. (I highly recommend Stories Rabbits Tell by Susan Davis and Margo DeMello.) If they still want a rabbit, urge them to adopt from a shelter or rabbit-rescue organization.
With a little knowledge about rabbits, you can speak up for them every Easter. Please consider the following:
Letters to editors – the Letters page is one of the most highly read sections of newspapers and magazines, so a letter to the editor encouraging readers not to buy an “Easter bunny” is a great way to spread the word. For advice on how to write letters to editors, click here.
Social-networking sites – post links and information about rabbits on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other sites.
Auto-signatures in your email – include a link to a rabbit-rescue organization (see below).
Blog comments – when commenting on animal-related blogs, take the opportunity to remind people that rabbits do not make appropriate Easter gifts and that many of these animals end up in shelters or dumped in parks. Better yet, if you have a blog, why not post something about rabbits in the next few weeks?
Consider sponsoring a needy bunny – every little bit helps!
PETA (page on rabbits)
A few weeks ago I got an email from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) with the subject line “Tell President Obama: No compromise on saving whale’s lives.” The body of the email contained a link to a page that, with a single click of my computer mouse, would send a message to the president expressing my concern that the US is not taking a strong enough position against whaling. I obligingly sent the message; then I wondered: How effective are these kinds of emails?
If you’re a member of one of the many major animal advocacy groups, you’re no doubt familiar with these messages. Heck, you don’t even need to be a member: emails like these can be forwarded to friends, and online petitions are as common as recycle bins at a Prius convention. But I’ve never felt completely satisfied that this one-click activism was benefiting animals. I was curious, and I wanted to make sure I was being effective as an advocate. Do elected officials and other decision-makers even care about the mass emails they receive?
So I called the office of Dianne Feinstein in Washington, DC, figuring my state senator would be only too happy to answer my questions. (No, I am not thrilled she co-sponsored the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, but that’s another topic.) I spoke with David Hantman, an aide in Senator Feinstein’s office. “I would say those emails are very effective,” he says. Hantman explains that when such emails come into their office, they are forwarded to the person in charge of the issue, who then discusses it with the senator. “They will then work on a response with the senator.” If it’s an individual sending the email, the senator will know that one person wrote about an issue. “But if it’s a campaign of 10,000 emails, she won’t go through them all; she’ll see that 10,000 people emailed her on one issue.” Does it make any difference if she receives thousands of emails on a single issue versus, say, five? “Definitely,” says Hantman. “She knows that that many people care about that issue. If she were to receive five emails on any given issue, she may say, ‘This may not be as important to my constituents — only five people have written me — compared to 10,000 people on this other issue.’”
Hantman stresses that every piece of communication counts. “Even if one person is writing, the Senator knows it is something that is affecting her constituents, but when more people email, she knows more people are concerned about that issue.” Plus, emails, letters and phone calls inform her (and any legislator) about what’s happening in, for example, the animal protection movement. “Animal welfare is one of the main issues she’s concerned with,” Hantman told me, “so when animal issues are brought to her attention, they’re definitely things she wants to investigate. It may be something that wasn’t even on her radar until someone writes her about it. So writing always helps.”
“These emails do work, but as part of a larger campaign,” says Grace Markarian, HSUS’ manager of online communications. HSUS combines these alerts with information on its Web site and on social-networking sites or even direct mail. Grace admits that asking people to contact President Obama is rare; it’s far more likely an email will target a company like Ben & Jerry’s. In 2006, as they were trying to get the frozen-dessert company to adopt a policy of using only cage-free eggs in its ice cream, HSUS sent an email alert to their members, resulting in so much communication to Ben & Jerry’s that the company, which responds to all its mail, couldn’t keep up. “Being able to say Ben & Jerry’s received 60,000 emails from customers demonstrates a tidal wave of response,” adds Erin Williams, communications director for HSUS’ factory farming campaign. Not only did the campaign work, but people could quickly send Ben & Jerry’s a thank-you email via the HSUS Web site.
Kim Sturla of Animal Place agrees one-click activism can be effective, but she warns that you can’t generalize. “Some aides don’t tally, for example.” Kim says her organization has struggled with the e-alert issue as technology and communication methods have evolved, but the results are still positive. “You’re encouraging people to become more active,” she says. “Maybe next time they’ll send a letter.”
Two other animal advocacy groups that use email alerts, Farm Sanctuary and PETA, are adamant they do make a difference. “If it weren’t effective, we wouldn’t be doing it so much,” says Tricia Barry, communications director for Farm Sanctuary. “We ran a report in January, and we found it’s become even more effective. From the action alerts we sent in January, we had sixty-six hundred letters sent to various legislators on various issues. It definitely prompts action.”
“I think they’re probably more effective for PETA than for other organizations because most people seem to use them to contact legislators and other government officials,” says Joel Bartlett, who manages PETA’s online marketing department. Joel explains that people also use them to communicate with corporations, allowing them to voice their displeasure over, say, a company selling fur. “Ten thousand people send them a message over a weekend and they’re like, ‘Uh-oh.’ We win campaigns thanks to our online action alerts.”
So click away, activists. You never know which piece of information is finally going to make the difference, and it all adds up.
“Animal Terrorist Group Foiled by Informant Dressed as a Beagle,” declared a headline in The Sunday Times on March 1. The article by Jack Grimston details how Adrian Radford, an intelligence services instructor and former member of the British military, spent three years inside the Animal Liberation Front. Radford, who used the name Ian Farmer, was widely known for the beagle costume he wore at demonstrations; the costume had been supplied by the police. According to Grimston, Radford allegedly participated in a number of raids and supplied his handlers with information that Grimston implies led to the arrest of activists with the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign.
In January 2009, seven members of SHAC ― Daniel Amos, Gregg Avery, Natasha Avery, Gavin Medd-Hall, Heather Nicholson, Gerrah Selby and Daniel Wadham ― were sentenced to prison for their six-year campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences after having been found guilty of conspiracy to blackmail.
Grimston writes: “In January 2007, the police finally pulled Radford out to allow them to round up the group’s leadership without arousing suspicion. They put him under surveillance so that it appeared to the ALF that he was compromised and being panicked into leaving.”
Activists posting comments on the UK’s Indymedia site, however, have a different view. They have pointed out a variety of errors in Grimston’s reporting, such as stating that ALF has leadership.
“[Radford] knows full well that SHAC is NOT the ALF and that Greg, Natasha, Heather and Mel [Broughton] are NOT ALF leaders, the ALF is an idea, it has no leaders, ” writes UK activist Lynn Sawyer.
A campaigner using the name Ian Skivens (actually a police officer well known among UK activists) adds: “It’s quite funny really, that this guy achieved nothing, except according to the article, supplying SHAC with a nice beagle costume. Thanks NETCU [National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit] — keep the gifts coming!”