24 January 2012

The diversity of influence: Different strategies in animal rights activism

Writing a list of the most influential animal advocacy groups is problematic and not particularly useful.

Animal rights groups with hundreds of thousands of members, massive budgets and established lobbyists obviously possess the most influence in the fight for animal welfare. Rehashing the successes of the big guns -- no matter how awesome and powerful those successes may be -- doesn’t really get into the diversity, richness or potential of animal rights activism.

Activists’ strategies for generating discussion and underscoring the core issues are all over the map: they are conventional and bizarre; reformist and revolutionary; legal and illegal.

Yet all methods move toward a similar, moral end.

This list of three influential animal advocacy groups is less about each individual group’s magnitude of influence and more about the sheer diversity of influence that weaves each one of them together into the complex fabric of a multi-faceted, effective movement.

Whether it's the kind of activism that reaches a few hundred sympathizers through a clever prank, the kind that reaches millions of people through a visceral and disturbing undercover video, or the kind that saves a single creature from undue suffering --

They all say something worthwhile. They all show us how we can work together.

And they all deserve our attention.

Food Liberation Army

A Finnish group calling itself the Food Liberation Army (FLA) created quite a stir last year when it abducted the juggernaut of coercive, child-targeted advertising: Ronald McDonald.

On January 31, 2011, FLA activists casually strolled into a McDonald’s outside of Helsinki and walked out with a statue depicting the corporation’s icon. They then whisked the prisoner off to an undisclosed location.

Following the kidnapping, the FLA released a video satirizing fringe paramilitary groups. Think IRA, but instead of independence they've adopted nutrition as their cri de guerre.

“Two days ago we kidnapped Ronald McDonald,” the ransom video goes, “If you do not answer all of our questions we will execute Ronald on Friday, March 2 at 6:30 pm.”

The masked activists proceed to their questions: Why is the McDonald’s manufacturing process so secretive? What is its volume of unrecycled waste produced annually? What additives are in the food? Why doesn’t the corporation seek ways to prevent diseases associated with unhealthy eating, like obesity and diabetes?

“Do you not think it should be a goal for everyone to serve meat of an animal that has had a good, clean and drug free life? Why is that not your goal?” the ringleader inquires, standing behind Ronald, whose head is covered with a black bag.

When the questions went unanswered, the hostage’s fate was sealed: Ronald was executed by guillotine.

The leader turned out to be Jani Leinonen, an artist known for blurring the line between artwork and life. When word circulated that he was responsible for the incident, he was arrested and briefly incarcerated.

In an interview, Leinonen remarked “We wanted to hand the reporters a really nice package of information and then they would turn to McDonald’s to ask the questions. Instead, the reporters called the police.”

He certainly got some people talking at least, as more than 250,000 viewers witnessed the grisly faux-murder online.

When asked if the FLA was finished, Leinonen resonded: “No, definitely not. I have many plans.”

Sounds like FLA could strike again. Hamburglar, beware.

Mercy for Animals

Undercover video -- perhaps the most enduring hallmark of animal rights activism -- grants people access into the dark entrails of industrial food production, throwing light onto the whole dirty mess. Just last month, we were reminded how effective this method can be.

Mercy for Animals (MFA), a Chicago-based non-profit that promotes animal welfare and vegetarianism, released footage taken by an activist who went undercover at a Butterball artificial insemination plant in Shannon, North Carolina (The DNA of turkeys reared for food is so tampered with, so damaged, that the turkeys cannot reproduce naturally. Hence the need for artificial insemination).

The film is astonishing -- workers are seen bashing in the heads of live turkeys, roughly hauling birds by their fragile wings and neglecting birds with missing eyes and leper-like growths.

One moment involves an employee forcefully inserting his hand into a female turkey’s reproductive organs.

Hoke County police raided the plant on December 29, announcing that it would file charges should evidence of abuse be found.

In response to the video and ensuing outrage, Butterball announced that they would start their own investigation, claiming that the corporation -- America’s single largest producer of turkey -- does not tolerate animal abuse.

MFA’s success in bringing attention to Butterball’s criminality, however, is dampened by a potential FBI prosecution.

See, in 2006 a law called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act passed congress. The legislation outlaws actions conducted “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.”

This purposely vague bill, brought about by industrial farming lobbyists, essentially criminalizes animal rights activists who try to procure tangible evidence of the industry’s institutionalized cruelty.

Under the banner of “anti-terrorism,” this bill and its supporters classify animal welfare supporters as enemies of society, when in reality they are cleverly reappropriating an emotionally charged term for their own business interests, attacking free speech and going after activists whose work strikes at the core of industrial food production.

What’ll happen remains to be seen. As long as there are groups like MFA, however, efforts to curtail animal rights activism will run into some highly publicized scandals that reveal to the public just how destructive animal agriculture has become.

Farm Sanctuary

Some animal welfare organizations exemplify how humans can coexist with animals.

Based in Watkins Glen, New York, Farm Sanctuary is a safe haven for industrial agriculture’s unfortunate fodder -- genetically manipulated animals.

Founded by Gene Bauer in 1986, the organization takes in rescued or escaped animals, letting them roam the fields instead of dying violently on a conveyer belt.

Bauer got the idea when he drove past a group of downers laying in a field (a “downer” is an animal who collapses from poor health or heavy stress. Instead of nurturing them back to health or granting them a quick death, many farm operators take the most cost-efficient route and leave the animals to die slowly).

Stopping to inspect the fallen animals, Bauer noticed one of the sheep move her head. He put the creature into his car and went to a veterinarian, thinking that the animal could be put of her misery rather than left to await an inevitable death.

Much to Bauer’s surprise, however, the sheep stood up after minor medical attention. Turns out the animal’s condition wasn’t fatal. Neglect alone was killing her.

The sheep went on to live 10 years on Bauer’s farm.

Farm Sanctuary has a 175 acre plot of land in Upstate New York, as well as another 300 acre sanctuary in Northern California. The organization has over 200,000 members, granting it the financial capacity to influence local and national policy. Its power, however, extends beyond influence-peddling.

Jonathan Safran Foer, in his seminal book Eating Animals, profiles the organization. Discussing the group’s utility, Foer states that the function of Farm Sanctuary is not “practical in the sense of actually rescuing and caring for a significant number of animals,” but rather that its purpose is “educational (offering exposure to people like me).”

Indeed, as industrial meat production grows more shadowy than ever before -- hiding its operations from public scrutiny, criminalizing those who try unearth what actually goes on -- the opportunity to walk up to and physically interact with the creatures themselves calibrates our perspective.

We see how pigs have been genetically engineered to grow at grotesque rates in order to produce meat
quicker and more profitably. Normally killed at 250 pounds when they are young, 21st century factory pigs that live on can reach an astonishing 800 pounds.

Furthermore, even if the creatures are debilitated by human science, Farm Sanctuary lets them enjoy the environment they were made to inhabit, providing them with a healthier and more dignified life.

Animals, once doomed to a life of no sunlight, now strolling through open fields -- that’s a powerful concept, one that juxtaposes the ills of contemporary food production with the pastoral sensibilities of yesteryear.

These images, side-by-side, help us articulate what’s wrong, and to move in the direction necessary for a more humane and natural future.

Patrick Glennon | Email | Twitter | ITT Profile
Chicago, IL Patrick is a Chicago-based writer and musician. His work has appeared in a handful of publications, including In These Times and the Occupied Chicago Tribune. Among his research interests are animal rights, documentary film, the far-Right and foreign labor struggles. Feel free to contact him via email for any questions, ideas or criticisms.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/jelles