Supported by dissatisfaction with the status quo.
In July, an American trophy hunter lured a black-maned lion named Cecil out of a national park in Zimbabwe and killed him. Cecil, who was being studied by conservationists, struck a chord with the public. Facebook pages and Twitter feeds exploded with outrage. Speaking to millions of Americans on his nightly show, Jimmy Kimmel epitomized public sentiment as he said:
“The big question is, ‘Why are you shooting a lion in the first place?’ I am honestly curious to know why a human being would be compelled to do that. How is that fun?”
Kimmel said he understood hunting for food, “But if it’s some a-hole dentist who wants a lion’s head over the fireplace in his man cave, so his douche-bag buddies can gather around it and drink scotch and tell him how awesome he is, that’s just vomitous.”
It seems that a lot of people agreed. Uploaded to YouTube and Facebook the next day, the segment was forwarded so widely it received nearly sixteen million views.
Yet The New York Times reported that trophy hunters kill approximately 600 lions per year. MSNBC recently aired the documentary Blood Lions, about lions being bred in South Africa for the purpose of being shot by people, mostly Americans, who don’t want to bother with a chase. One hunter interviewed said he prefers shooting captive lions, who have been hand-fed by humans all of their lives, because their hides are not scarred by brush and battles. Though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists African lions as endangered, our government grants import licenses for the macabre trophies.
On more than a thousand ranches across the United States, people can pay for guaranteed kills of wild and sometimes exotic animals held captive behind fences. The animals are often completely tame, having been discarded by zoos. Undercover video by the Humane Society of the United States shows investigators visiting a hunting ranch and being able to walk up and pet some of the animals, including a gentle kangaroo. While I am sure the majority of people find the whole thing “vomitous,” it is legal. Our laws do not reflect our values.
That appears to hold true wherever animals are used by human society. In agriculture, entertainment, and in the field of research, we see animals being treated in ways that are unconscionable to most people, but which are nevertheless legal.
On factory farms across America, female pigs, animals known to be more intelligent than dogs, are kept in individual crates so small that they cannot turn around, or even lie down with their limbs outstretched. They are in “sow gestation crates” when pregnant, which is for about 80 percent of their lives, then moved to farrowing crates after they give birth. So each sow spends virtually her entire life in one form of crate or another, with as much room to move as a pair of loafers in a shoebox.
In 2008, a ballot initiative taken to the people of California to ban the crating of sows and similarly cruel confinement for calves and hens passed with 64 percent of the vote, despite intense lobbying by the farm industry and a multimillion dollar campaign against it. It received more affirmative votes than any previous ballot in United States history. But almost half of the states do not allow for ballot initiatives, so animals are dependent not on public kindness but on legislators.
Last year, a bill to ban gestation crates passed the New Jersey legislature with extraordinary bipartisan support. The vote margin was 53 to 13 in the assembly and 32 to 1 in the senate. A Mason-Dixon poll put public support from New Jersey residents at 93 percent. But the bill did not become law; Governor Chris Christie vetoed it. He was congratulated, not by the constituents he was elected to represent, but by the governor of Iowa, who had called Christie asking him to veto the bill. Iowa is the nation’s number one pork-producing state and, importantly to Christie, the home of the first caucus.
That politicians occasionally put political ambition before their duty to represent the will of their constituents is no surprise. But most politicians seem to put almost anything before animal welfare. Democrats are less likely to be hostile to animal issues than Republicans (though there are exceptions on both sides), but outright hostility is no worse for animals than apathy.
In the field of entertainment, the public is starting to understand the cruelty involved in holding wild animals captive and training them to do tricks for our amusement. Since the release of the movie Blackfish, SeaWorld has seen its stock take a dive deeper than any of its orcas ever could. Some of the awareness the film raised has been extrapolated, with people realizing that marine shows are just circuses in the water, and that circus animals suffer similarly on land. There is growing skepticism toward circus owners’ claims that performing wild animals are happy.
If circus animals were trained using positive reinforcement, as claimed, common sense tells us that ringmasters would be holding bags of treats, not whips and bullhooks. A bullhook is a metal rod that looks something like a fire poker, with a sharp hook at the end. The circus industry says that the weapon is used to “guide” the elephants, but graphic undercover video shows the animals trumpeting and even shrieking as they are hit and grabbed with the hooks. USDA inspectors found bloody puncture wounds on Ringling Bros. elephants.
The cities of Los Angeles and Oakland have both passed laws banning the use of bullhooks. The vote in Los Angeles was unanimous. A bill that would have banned their use throughout California flew through both the state senate and assembly. But the ban was vetoed in early October by California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat.
One might surmise that Jerry Brown hates elephants, even those of the nonpolitical variety. But in a veto message to the senate, Brown explained that he was returning a whole group of bills because they would create new crimes during a period in which California’s criminal code has grown to more than 5,000 separate provisions, while the state’s jail and prison population has exploded.
In the same week, Brown signed a bill that changes the definition of a “physical invasion of privacy” to include sending a drone into the airspace above someone’s land in order to make a recording or take a photo. As I live in Los Angeles, I was hardly shocked by that glimpse into California priorities: Celebrities must be protected from cameras but elephants cannot be saved from bullhooks. While I understand that the drone law doesn’t technically create a whole new crime, and we can all appreciate attempts to simplify the criminal code, it is frustrating to see that the addition of one more item to that code was deemed to matter more than animal cruelty.
It makes no difference to the elephants whether California’s progressive governor hates them or is just indifferent to them; they still get stuck with bullhooks.
Last year, a grant-funded study was approved for a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to subject baby monkeys to “stressors” that frighten them to the point that when they are euthanized after the study, their brains show changes indicative of the beginnings of anxiety disorders and depression. The babies were first to be removed from and reared without their mothers, so that the researchers could specifically demonstrate the effects of such stress in an environment of maternal deprivation.
Anybody who has taken Psychology 101 knows that the results have been in for half a century. There’s even an old joke about the issue:
“How many baby monkeys do you have to take from their mothers to prove that maternal deprivation is harmful?” The answer: “As many as the NIH will pay for.”
Thanks to the vigilance of activists in publicizing the proposed study, there was much public outcry and the particularly archaic maternal deprivation factor was removed. The baby monkeys will still be subjected to terrifying stress for a year and then killed so that their brains can be examined. That kind of exploratory work on fellow primates offends most people’s sense of common decency, but it will proceed nevertheless, and will be government funded.
Animals get little attention from either side of the political aisle. Conservatives know that protecting animals can mean interfering with business. Some have even pushed through laws that turn misdemeanors, such as vandalism and trespassing, into felonies if they are committed against animal enterprises such as factory farms, puppy mills, or animal testing laboratories. Progressives are traditionally more willing than conservatives to challenge commerce in order to protect those being victimized by it, but that protection is mostly prescribed for humans.
There may even be a tendency among progressives to view animal advocacy as elitist—a nice hobby for those who are out of touch with human suffering, seen as being of greater importance. For example, in response to the outcry over Cecil, The New York Times published a rebuke from a U.S. doctoral student from Zimbabwe. Recalling growing up in an African village terrorized by a lion, Goodwell Nzou wrote: “We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.”
I can’t imagine anybody would have faulted the dentist, Walter Palmer, if he had shot Cecil to save a child the lion was attacking. We rarely face such either/or predicaments, and when we do, even those of us who devote our lives to helping animals would generally choose to save the humans. But one can care about African people and African animals, just as in this country one can work on wage equality while also campaigning to get sows out of crates. Paying attention to one important issue need not preclude showing serious concern for another.
As we encourage the public to explicitly condemn abuses of animals that we know it does not condone, animal advocates need to recognize that we are sometimes our own worst enemies.
A recent headline proclaimed that animal rights activists had interrupted a speech by Chris Christie. I saw pictures of activists holding up photos of pigs in gestation crates and was pleased that Christie was getting pressure for having flouted the will of his constituents, by vetoing the gestation crate bill. Then I saw that the signs condemned not just gestation crates but the eating of pork, and in the media I heard the protesters shouting that animals want to live.
As a vegan animal rights activist, I am personally sympathetic to that message, but I know that my personal sympathies do not help animals—strategic activism does. On the issue of gestation crates, animal advocates have common ground with the vast majority of the public. But instead of grabbing that low-hanging fruit, which would at least help alleviate some of the worst suffering for many millions of animals, they were focusing on an area in which we have the support of only a few percent. They were distancing our movement from both the crowd at the event and from those watching later in the media.
Asking Christie to acknowledge that the animals he has singularly chosen to keep locked in crates should not be bred for food at all is asking him to fly when he has not yet learned to crawl. He laughed off the protest in a way that he could not have laughed off a serious question about his veto of a bill that had extraordinary bipartisan support in his legislature and his state.
Vegans can’t expect a vegan world while most people are yet to be convinced that one is desirable. Meanwhile, we fail animals as we focus only on our highest goal, rather than shoring up the support we already have for the steps along the way. We must not lose the opportunity to get laws passed in areas where we already have public opinion on our side.
I remember a quip from Marianne Williamson in which she explained that people who oppose the most trivial gun legislation, or who zealously champion cutthroat capitalism, don’t outnumber those who wish to see a kinder world—they just get up earlier in the morning. If people who care about animal cruelty want to see laws that reflect our values, we have to set our alarm clocks; we must get organized.
We must harness the passion of those who tweet about Cecil, or rail against the Danes for killing zoo animals, and find a way to get those people to the voting booth. Many elections are won or lost by just a few percentage points. If animal advocates get out and vote, as a bloc, we can swing some of those elections. That will put animal issues on the political radar.
Prioritizing animals will not mean abandoning all of our other values. Donald Trump is unlikely to roll out an impressive animal welfare platform as he defends his sons’ recent African safari killing spree, so voting for animal protection will not mean voting for him or anybody similar. But we must be willing to persistently ask more compassionate candidates about their stances on animal issues, making it clear that we may choose among them accordingly.
Most people hate to see cruelty to animals. Yet the institutionalized abuse of them is legal, and legislators feel comfortable ignoring their plight. Let’s embrace our common ground with regard to the most egregious animal abuse, and work as an organized force to shake that comfort. Only then will we see animal cruelty laws that reflect our values as a society. ω
This piece was published in the Dec-Jan 2015 issue of the Progressive Magazine. Karen Dawn runs the animal advocacy site DawnWatch.com and is the author of Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals (HarperCollins, 2008). She has written on animal issues for the Huffington Post, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and The Guardian.