You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2009.

When animal advocates want to measure how far we’ve come as a movement, I can think of no better barometer than the burgeoning field of animal law, which works to stop animal cruelty and suffering through legislation and litigation. Once considered a niche area of legal practice, animal law has expanded over the last 20 years to become one of the rising stars of jurisprudence. Consider, for example, that 10 years ago students interested in animal law had only a handful of schools to choose from. Today, there are more than 100 animal law classes being taught at colleges throughout the United States and Canada. Some of the biggest news concerning animal cruelty is coming out of the US Supreme Court, which earlier this month heard arguments regarding free speech and animal fighting videos ― it’s the first case involving animal cruelty the high court has considered since 1993, when, by the way, only seven states had felony-level anti-cruelty laws; now 46 states do. Even China, where animal welfare is not given much value (the country is notorious for its widespread and indiscriminate killing of dogs, for example), recently drafted its first law to protect animals from abuse. And of course the high-profile Michael Vick dogfighting case did much to push the importance of animal law into the public discourse.

Lewis_and_ClarkSo it was a genuine privilege for me to speak at the 17th-annual animal law conference at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, last weekend. I was on a panel with Bob Roop of the Humane Society of the United States; Bob spoke about secondary trauma, which he described as the stress caregivers such as shelter workers experience, and I addressed the issue of activist burnout. The session attendees were very engaged in this topic, and it felt good to discuss such an important issue.

The rest of the time I got to take in what was, for the most part, a terrific event: great vegan food, excellent speakers, and a schedule that was extremely well organized. And, of course, you can’t beat Portland, which ranks as one of the best vegan cities anywhere. In keeping with the theme of this year’s sold-out event, “The Links,” the conference explored animal law and its connection to other areas of the law and professional disciplines, philosophies, and social justice movements, including domestic violence, the environment, international trade, religion, and the media.

Scott Heiser, director of ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program, offers tips for persuading prosecutors to pursue animal-cruelty cases.

Scott Heiser, director of ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program, offers tips for persuading prosecutors to pursue animal-cruelty cases.

I found three panel sessions to be particularly interesting. The first was “The People v. Animal Cruelty: Criminal Prosecutions,” led by Scott Heiser, director of the Criminal Justice Program for ALDF, and Heidi Moawad, deputy district attorney for the Multnomah County, Oregon, district attorney’s office. Heiser and Moawad, both highly experienced animal attorneys, offered advice for motivating district attorneys who are reluctant to prosecute animal abusers (e.g., go to the press, use social media), and they emphasized the link between cruelty to animals and other forms of violence. “People who abuse animals are five times more likely to commit a violent crime against humans,” said Heiser. He noted that public opinion is very important to prosecutors, so writing letters to editors applauding their good work on behalf of animals makes a real difference. Moawad, meanwhile, stressed the need for citizens to report cases of animal abuse or neglect. “Get involved,” she said. I appreciated that the panelists offered suggestions that anyone can do.

Next up, animal law experts Katherine Meyer (partner, Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal) and Bruce Wagman (partner, Schiff Hardin LLP) presented a number of “Hot Topics in Animal Law,” including the aforementioned US Supreme Court case, better known as the United States v. Stevens, which will decide whether video depictions of animal cruelty are expressions of free speech and thus protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. An appeals court had ruled that the government did not have a compelling interest in the animal cruelty shown in dogfighting videos produced and narrated by defendant Robert Stevens, and that “Preventing cruelty to animals, although an exceedingly worthy goal, simply does not implicate interests of the same magnitude as protecting children from physical and psychological harm.” Although Meyer feels the Supreme Court is likely to rule that the ban on such videos, as currently written, is unconstitutional, she said, “The good news is they may say the Third Circuit [Court of Appeals] was wrong when they said the government does not have a compelling interest in protecting animals.”

In his segment of the panel session, Wagman said that as a lawyer, he tries to put himself in the animal’s place, asking “What would they want?” He highlighted seven current cutting-edge animal law issues, including species-specific legislation (e.g., dogfighting statutes); exotic animal ownership; horse abandonment, which has gotten worse in this down economy; animal hoarding; shelter practices (no-kill vs. humane euthanasia); understanding the opposition, which tries to marginalize our interests; and farmed animals. Of the latter, Wagman said, “They’re born into misery, they live in misery, and they die in misery. There’s no moment in their lives when they’re not being mistreated in some way.” Bruce closed the session by suggesting a “compassion revolution,” emphasizing that advocates need to keep their eyes on the prize and promote kindness. “It is emotionally crushing to do this work,” he said. “It’s an effort to redeem our species from eternal shame.”

Finally, “Killing with Keystrokes: CITES, African Elephants & Internet Trade” featured Special Agent Ed Newcomer of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Paul Todd of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Not surprisingly, the Internet has helped fuel trafficking in wildlife items, including animal skins, endangered butterflies, elephant tusks, and exotic birds. According to Todd, the US is responsible for two-thirds of the worldwide illegal trade, which represents at least $20 billion a year. Only illegal drugs and weapons are bigger markets, he said. Todd gave a great case study that showed how online auction site eBay has finally banned ivory sales in compliance with the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) treaty, an agreement among 172 nations meant to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Elephant parts account for 73 percent of the world’s illegal trade in animals, said Todd, and a whopping 98 percent of that is ivory.

Newcomer, a former state prosecutor, draped several confiscated animal skins across a large table at the front of the room. The skin of a dog imported from China was particularly haunting; two almond-shaped holes where the eyes had been gave the skin an eerie, Halloween mask feel. The skin had been expertly dyed to resemble that of a leopard, and it lay between a genuine leopard skin and a tiger skin. Neatly folded beside the dog skin was a large swath of elephant hide, which was passed around the room. It felt surprisingly soft — though I’ve never touched an elephant ― and Newcomer explained the skin is often used for pillow cases. The Internet has had a devastating impact on wildlife, he explained, because it has created a demand in the market for illegal specimens. He used the online sale of an endangered Asian elephant head as an example. “Five people bid on something and one person wins. What do the other four people do? All of a sudden, they need to find themselves an Asian elephant head or some other body part!” Poachers and smugglers are using Skype and online newspaper posts to aid their crimes, but Newcomer said Craigslist is the worst. “It’s the wild west of animal trafficking,” he said.

Newcomer’s final comment, made as an aside, caught my interest. He explained that agents with USFWS get their enforcement authority from the Lacey Act, which prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold. But something else falls under the Lacey Act, he said: preventing animal enterprise terrorism. “Fish and Wildlife Service is the agency responsible for enforcing the Lacey Act. There are no agents in Fish and Wildlife interested in the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, but the FBI is all over it!”

I have one minor quibble with “The Links,” and having considered this blog post for several days, I have to be candid. While the conference was motivating, informative, and very well executed, it featured one panel that was, in my opinion, a mistake — or at the very least, poorly handled. “The Role of Animals in Indigenous Cultures” was little more than a forum for justifying the exploitation of animals by Native American tribes and criticizing groups working to protect animals. Attendees sat dumbfounded as Native American activist Se-ah-dom Edmo and professor of law and tribal judge Robert Miller, a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, discussed why Native Americans have a right to kill animals for food and religious purposes. It was clear that the two panelists were as uncomfortable as their audience when no one laughed at their playful swipes at the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Though I recognize the value of understanding everyone’s legal rights, I had to wonder what these clearly intelligent speakers thought they were accomplishing by addressing a roomful of animal advocates. I’m neither an attorney nor a law student, so perhaps the significance of this discussion was lost on me; however, during the lunch break that followed this panel, many attendees complained that such a presentation had no place at an animal rights gathering. This isn’t the first time I’ve attended an AR conference that featured exploitation apologists, and my suggestion is that if such sessions are allowed, they should be moderated debates that allow ample audience participation. All questions at this panel had to be submitted in writing. A session arguing the need for killing animals and poking fun at activists only leaves attendees at these otherwise uplifting events feeling disempowered.

That criticism aside, the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (SALDF) of Lewis & Clark Law School, which hosted the conference with the college’s Center for Animal Law Studies, did an extraordinary job. The sessions moved like clockwork, speakers were well prepared, and the subject matter was highly relevant. Kudos to the unflappable Liberty Mulkani, who coordinated the three-day event with confidence and a smile. My sincere thanks to the conference organizers for inviting me to speak this year.

As with many animal activists, my path to advocacy has been crisscrossed with life-changing intersections and punctuated by important milestones. One of the most influential landmarks in my road to activism was Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, which compares myths about meat-eating with myths about what it means to be a man. Reading Carol’s book, it is impossible to ignore how a patriarchal society has marketed eating animal flesh as manly and debased women along the way. She’s also the author of many other books, including Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook, and co-editor of The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics: A Reader. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Carol about animal activism. Our conversation ranged from using social networks to whether activists need to watch disturbing undercover video footage. Not surprisingly, Carol began with a topic that’s close to her heart.

“We’ve got a problem with sexism in the movement, so that the people who traditionally have cared, who are women, are not always heard as well as male philosophers are,” she said. “The male philosophers the animal rights movement has held up are really wonderful people, but they draw on a male-based philosophy — that of rights or Utilitarianism — and this assumes the individual is autonomous, and it’s a male model, emphasizing rationality over caring and autonomy over interdependence. One thing the animal rights movement needs to do is to become more alert to incorporating feminist attitudes throughout the movement. So instead of having nearly-naked women saying, ‘Stop harming animals,’ we should have a variety of people saying, ‘I care about animals, and I’m a better person for that.’ Not, ‘I’m a better person than you, but maybe a better person than I was.’ Instead of being absolutely confrontational, so that we allow other people to take their unease with emotions and bring it out of themselves and blame us for making them feel uncomfortable, we can find a variety of ways to help people sit with their feelings and learn how to listen to those feelings.”

Carol, who has devoted much of her writing to exploring the links between species oppression and gender oppression, said the animal rights movement often disowns women and disowns emotions that are equated with women. “So I feel like we have to evolve the movement to lift up caring and lift up the people who care — i.e., women — rather than sexualizing them, and appealing to socialized men who have been taught that maleness equals not caring.” She believes that when it comes to animals, many otherwise caring people keep their feelings at arm’s length. “When someone tells me, ‘I don’t want to know what’s happening to animals; I’m afraid to care,’ I often say, ‘Tell me about your childhood relationships with animals.’ I want to know what kinds of scars there are from a time when they might have cared and what happened to that caring. I’ve looked at how families handle the death of a pet in the United States, and they do it really terribly — ‘Oh, it was only a pet,’ ‘We can get a new one,’ ‘Oh, stop crying’ — so that part of the movement to adulthood is putting down the feelings that are associated with being a child. But those are really good and honest feelings. That’s why in my own writing I’ve written prayers that speak in the voice of a child who’s lost a beloved companion animal to provide a way to show that grief is part of what we are going to feel if we care about animals, and to model how to move through grief.”

Yet in responding to the plight of farmed animals, Carol said, female animals are often overlooked. “It’s this abuse of female reproductivity that disappears from the radar so often. I mean, I know that animal rights groups are lifting it up more and more, but I still think that the fate of the dairy cow and the egg-laying hen is one of the most serious issues for us to address. If we eliminated forcing cows to get pregnant, you’d eliminate 50 percent of hamburgers, too.” She noted that meat-eating would not exist if female animals were not exploited. Yet, she observed, meat-eaters still manage to take credit for the presence of animals on Earth. “Meat-eaters argue, ‘Well, the animals come into life, into existence, because we want to eat them. The animals owe us their lives.’ No, the animals come into existence and owe their mothers their lives. It’s the mothers who are being the most oppressed because they’re going through constant pregnancy.”

As our conversation turned to the use of hidden cameras to capture graphic images that can be used to educate consumers and activists alike, Carol said she worries that the animal rights movement might focus too narrowly on these upsetting videos. “I think that sometimes that’s not necessarily going to be the best way to change people. I don’t want to just shock people. I know some people are changed that way. I remember when I used to go to AR conferences they’d have this one room that just showed a film with one horrible image after another. The young people coming out of that room were weeping and feeling so powerless. In terms of change, I know there’s a new Mercy For Animals video that’s tied to the egg industry. I appreciate their work, but I can’t watch these anymore, and I think it’s OK to say to people, ‘You don’t have to watch these. What we’re looking for is consciousness.’ We don’t need, necessarily, to have these images burned on our retinas.”

When I mentioned that some activists feel we owe it to the animals to watch such videos, she said, “Again, it’s a male model of change versus a feminist model of change. It’s not about owing. It’s about asking, ‘How can I nurture the best relationship possible for all animals?’ I’m an animal, too. I do not need to inflict suffering on myself if the consciousness of what’s going on is already there. I think women often are going to be more obedient to these exhortations because, again, of the sexism in our society. But if a lot of women already are socialized to care, then our experience of those videos may be drastically different, and I think that needs to be acknowledged. Extraordinary expectations do not need to be laid down on animal activists. We’re already there. We should ask, ‘What’s the best I can do as an individual linking up with others?’ Everyone answers that differently, but our answers become part of a chorus that’s the same.”

Besides videos, then, what tools for change does Carol recommend? “In Living Among Meat Eaters I ask, ‘How do we know how change happens? Why do we think there’s one model for change?’ I think we fail to recognize that the right brain can also bring about change. That you can incubate and you can be stimulated by art to change. I think because activists are often more likely to be left brained and rational, they fail to take account of the way the right brain can be enlisted to help people change. In the book I say that meat-eaters are perfectly happy eating vegan meals, as long as they don’t know that’s what they’re doing. What I mean by that is people hate being self-conscious about what they’re eating. Eating is supposed to be directly experiential — it’s not supposed to have a theory to it. People think vegans are going to examine everything. One of the most important things I think we do is just having vegan meals for people. They leave and think, ‘Gee, Carol’s a vegan. That was a really great risotto; it was so creamy. So…that was a vegan risotto.’ So I’ve given them a chance to incubate, and the next time they come back to me they’re not as threatened, because I’ve enlisted their right brain to work with me rather than just arguing with the left brain that might not want to change.”Carol also likes Facebook, which she joined earlier this year. “When I get friended by someone I don’t know, I generally accept the friending, but I’ll ask them to tell me about their activism,” she said. “Oh my gosh, the wonderful responses I’ve gotten! People write, ‘Thank you for asking,’ and often they’ll talk about the influence of my books. Some will say, ‘I’m a quiet activist. I’m uncomfortable speaking in public. But I make vegan meals.’ Some say, ‘I’m a full-time teacher, but I also write letters, or rescue strays and help them get new homes, or I’m doing this or organizing that.’ I’m just so grateful for them. No one has to tell them to go watch a video. They’re way beyond that.”

My sincere thanks to Carol Adams for her time and her contributions to the movement. You can learn more about Carol’s work at her Web site.

Welcome to the official blog for Striking at the Roots by Mark Hawthorne, your source for interviews, profiles, and advice for more effective animal activism.

Get the Striking at the Roots Blog delivered to your email

    Follow me on Twitter