As I reflect on 2015, I am reminded of many wins for animals. Countries banning animal testing. Cities prohibiting bullhooks. Airlines pledging to not transport animal trophies. Activists liberating animals. Is it just me, or do these victories seem to be happening more and more often? Yes, we still have a long way to go, but let’s take time to celebrate some of the many positive changes animal advocates were able to enact.
- Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announces it will phase out the show’s iconic elephants from its performances by 2018 (March)
This is one of my very favorite stories of the year, not just because it’s great news for elephants, but because it demonstrates the power of activism. Animal advocates have been staring down circuses that use animals for decades, and this year, the biggest circus in the world blinked. In the wake of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which exposes the plight of orcas in captivity, and ongoing outreach by activists, public sentiment has gradually been turning in favor of animals, and Ringling Bros. no doubt saw the writing on the wall. Alana Feld, the show’s producer, admitted as much, telling the AP that “a lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”
The move was also prompted by municipalities across the United States—including Austin, Los Angeles, and Oakland—banning the use of bullhooks, which circuses, zoos, and other animal exploiters use to punish and control elephants.
The ordinance, which took effect on May 21, is designed to “protect wild and exotic animals from cruel and inhumane treatment and to protect the public from the danger posed by the use of wild and exotic animals for entertainment.” It bars any public showing, carnival, fair, parade, petting zoo, ride, race, film shoot, or other undertaking in which wild or exotic animals “are required to perform tricks, fight or participate as accompaniments for the entertainment, amusement or benefit of an audience.”
The Motion Picture Association of America argued that the ordinance would prevent animals from working in movies filmed in San Francisco, even if the shows had proper permits and animal handlers approved by the federal government. Supervisor Katy Tang, who proposed the ordinance, said film and TV productions were not exempted because “we don’t want to undermine the underlying message of our legislation that animal abuse is not going to be tolerated.”
It was as quick as it was brazen. Just before 8:00 pm on Friday, May 8, a group of activists walked into Ka Shing Chinese restaurant in Dublin, Ireland, and while some of the activists distracted employees, several others reached into a large fish tank and removed nine lobsters, placing them into plastic bags. As recorded on video, the activists later released the crustaceans into the sea at Clontarf. Laura Broxson, spokesperson for the group, told news media, “For us it was an act of compassion, and we are willing to face any legal consequences brought to us because now these lobsters have a chance of living instead of being boiled alive and eaten.”
While this may not have been the biggest news of the year for animals, I appreciate the courage of the activists and how the story helped raise awareness about the suffering of crustaceans.
It began with a complaint filed by the Indian nonprofit People for Animals (PFA) against a pet shop owner in 2014 and ended with Justice Manmohan Singh declaring, “Birds have fundamental rights, including the right to live with dignity, and they cannot be subjected to cruelty by anyone. Therefore, I am clear in mind that all the birds have fundamental rights to fly in the sky and all human beings have no right to keep them in small cages for the purposes of their business or otherwise.”
PFA said the pet shop owner was selling the birds in tiny cages without enough food or water. But a trial court released the birds back into his custody on the grounds they were his “pets.” Appealing to a higher court, PFA demonstrated that the owner was selling the birds for profit and neglecting them. “This court is of the view that running the trade of birds is in violation of the rights of the birds,” said Justice Singh. “They deserve sympathy.”
You may recall that in 2013, India banned dolphin shows, saying that because dolphins are by nature “highly intelligent and sensitive,” they ought to be seen as “nonhuman persons” and should have “their own specific rights.” Now the country seems to be on the verge of banning elephant rides.
In 2014, we reached a tragic tipping point: There are now more elephants being killed than being born. At this rate, conservationists say, we could lose these animals entirely within 20 years. Driving this slaughter is ivory, which is seen around the world as a luxury item. Many consumers don’t realize the toll this product takes on the lives of elephants and other animals, such as hippos and walruses (whose teeth are also used). China represents one of the world’s largest markets for ivory, so their announcement that they will be banning all sales and manufacture of ivory products is good news indeed. What remains to be seen is exactly how and when they will do this.
- New Zealand amends law to recognize animals as ‘sentient’ beings, bans animal testing on cosmetics (May)
It’s been a good year for animals in New Zealand. The government proposed a ban on the use of animals in testing cosmetics in March, and then enacted that ban in May by amending its 1999 Animal Welfare Act to formally recognize animals as “sentient beings that can experience pain and distress.” This is the first time this shift in perception and policy has been extended to all animals, not just chimpanzees, orangutans, or dolphins. The decision to ban animal testing comes after the Green Party and animal rights advocates lobbied for a year to criminalize cosmetics testing on guinea pigs and rabbits.
On the downside, this new law does not include a ban on the sale of animal-tested cosmetics imported into the country.
Photographic and video images are some of the most powerful tools in the animal activist’s toolkit. Undercover videos of animal agriculture workers violently abusing animals and images of farmed animals living in deplorable conditions are as heartbreaking as they are horrifying, yet they serve an important role in educating the average consumer about where their food comes from. But as more ag companies are being caught on camera and called out for their cruelties, they have teamed up with legislators to make capturing unauthorized photos and videos on farms a crime in many states.
One such state to attempt to enact a so-called “ag-gag” law was Idaho. In February 2014, the state’s governor signed the “Agricultural Security Act” into law, which imposed fines and jail time on activists who secretly film abuse on Idaho’s commercial farms. (This was in response to a video taken by Mercy For Animals that depicted animal abuse by workers on Bettencourt Dairy farms, including the sexual abuse of cows.) On August 3 of this year, a U.S. District Court struck down the Act as unconstitutional.
In the wake of the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, major air carriers including American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Airlines, Lufthansa, Qantas, and United Airlines pledged they would no longer transport buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard, or rhino “trophies.” In other words, a well-heeled hunter who travels overseas to kill an animal will have no stuffed carcass or head to display on his or her wall at home. This should remove at least some of the incentive to shoot these remarkable beings.
Not surprisingly, Safari Club International is doing its best to get these bans reversed.
- Whole Foods Market ends sales of rabbit meat (September)
Regular readers of this blog know I have a huge soft spot for rabbits. But what I especially love about this story is it demonstrates the power of activism. (Read more about this in a previous blog.) Kudos to everyone who stood outside their local Whole Foods Market to leaflet and educate consumers, who let store managers know how they felt, who signed petitions, and who reminded others that advocating on behalf of rabbits didn’t mean we felt they were more deserving of protection than cows, chickens, pigs, fish, or other species—only that the last thing Whole Foods needs is another animal to exploit and kill. Moreover, we knew that as a retail trendsetter, if Whole Foods succeeded in creating a market for rabbits, other store chains would follow.
After years of legal challenges by Canada and Norway, the European Parliament voted to strengthen the EU ban on trade in commercial seal products. The ban was introduced in 2009 amid public outrage at the cruelty involved in seal “hunts.” International observers have witnessed seals as young as three months old drowning with gunshot wounds and being bludgeoned to death. But seal hunt nations Canada and Norway had attempted to overturn the ban ever since in a series of legal challenges.
The vote deleted the so-called “Marine Resources Management” exception—extending the ban to products resulting from hunts to protect fishing stocks—and made minor modifications to the Indigenous Communities exception. It brings the EU embargo into line with World Trade Organization rules, and campaigners say it will protect millions of seals from commercial slaughter.
Although the use of bear bile for traditional medicines in Vietnam is now technically illegal, bear-bile farmers take advantage of loopholes, and authorities lack resources to enforce the law, so the practice continues. According to the nonprofit Animals Asia, there are now some 1,245 Asiatic black bears being held in Vietnam, down from about 4,000 in 2014, as more medicine practitioners make use of non-animal alternatives for their curative powders, ointments, and pills.
Yet the bears who remain in captivity suffer unimaginable pain and stress. According to Animals Asia, bears either undergo a crude surgery every three months to remove the bile from their bladders―usually dying from infection after the fourth operation―or they are restrained and repeatedly jabbed with long hypodermic needles until the gallbladder is located. A pump is then attached to the needle and bile is drawn into a large glass bottle. Though the surgical method is no longer widely practiced, the latter procedure is as terribly unhygienic, and bears often suffer a lingering, agonizing death from peritonitis (abdominal inflammation).
Now, thanks to negotiations with Animals Asia, Vietnam’s Traditional Medicine Association has promised to completely end the use of bears by 2020. This won’t completely end the bear-bile industry—other cultures have a long tradition of using bears—but this is certainly a huge step forward.
- 2 years after retiring most of its chimps used for research, the NIH is ceasing its chimp program altogether (November)
“This is how social change happens: not with a bang but a whimper. The government is effectively saying that any medical advances that may be achieved by using apes are irrelevant; the scientists are effectively saying that using apes is not worth the trouble; and society is heaving a big shrug and assuming this was all figured out a long time ago. Only the activists who worked for decades on this issue—who were vilified as anti-science, anti-human, and unrealistic—know how hard it was to move us to this point. It is to them, and not the government or the scientists or society as a whole, that I offer the deepest of bows. All of us are in your debt.”
Finally, I had every intention of listing the news from July that Nepal will no longer sacrifice animals at its massive Gadhimai festival—a victory activists have been working hard on for years—but there are conflicting stories about the status of the ban, as you can read here. The next festival will be held in 2019, so let’s hope we get confirmation the ban is indeed in place well ahead of that.
Other stories of the year worth noting:
Luxembourg bans fox hunting (January)
Guinness to go vegan (November)