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 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.



Terrific piece!
Great article! It explains why I am so often confused and aghast at how animals continue to suffer even though people seem to care. As Karen explains, our laws do not reflect our values. That seems to reveal the problem. I'm inspired to do what's necessary to change the laws.
This article seems particularly topical as we read about the battles the makers of vegan “Just Mayo” have had with the egg board. Though the outcome announced today was favorable, it was disgusting to see our government get in there and fight dirty on behalf of the egg lobby. It’s time for the animals to have a lobby that is willing to fight back hard
An excellent article that clearly reveals the many ways we need to change. A vegan life can solve all of these challenges. Well done!
Not only do our legislators and laws not help animals, by subsidizing the meat and dairy industries the government actively harms animals, as only the cruelty of mass production can supply the artificial demand. And it harms the public by encouraging unhealthy diets, when every reputable health advisor recommends that we consume more plants and less animals.
Sad that so few animal advocates are involved in the legislative process. Sad, too, that animal and environmental issues are not more bi-partisan. I recently perused the bios of all 120 members of the California State Legislature. Only THREE noted concerns about environmental issues, and NONE mentioned animal welfare or rights. As the late Molly Ivins wryly noted, "All anyone needs to enjoy the state legislature is a strong stomach and a complete insensitivity to the needs of the people." This needs to change. I've read that the pro-animal constituency is the largest in the country. That is certainly not reflected in our state legislatures. As a movement, we need to elect many more pro-animal advocates to office. Nor should we overlook the ballot initiative process. x Eric Mills, coordinator ACTION FOR ANIMALS Oakland
Thank you for caring about those that have no voice, might it be that someday soon, a politician here and there can get a question directed on to their ballot box, to give creatures a voice, it's certainly long overdue.
This is very well written, and makes some excellent points. BUT........ The fact that the Animal foods industry, is factually responsible for more Earthly decimation, pollution, degradation, far and away than any other endeavor; that research shows that it as well creates human starvation, that being hundreds of millions of people, a billion, no less; that no family does not know heart disease, cancer, kidney disease, diabetes, auto immune, neuromuscular disease, with the eating of foods derived from Animals, again, being the #1 cause of ALL these maladies, makes the prohibition of " Animal agriculture ", a priority of unprecedented proportion. Of course the insane abuse rendered in the amusement arena, and the totally unnecessary, insane, sadistic, laboratory experiments and the like, the vile use of Animal body parts in all commodities, must follow, with the recreation of our sanity, based on a foundation of a sane food policy.
I am so excited about this article by Karen Dawn. It is long overdue. Thanks for publishing this article. Politicians should do what they're supposed to do as unbiased leaders of those who voted them into parliament. If the voters out-vote the meat/wildlife farmers their vote in favour of better treatment of animals should be heard and the laws should change in favour of the animals. It's high time that animal head-hunters power to shoot and kill which ever way they like (because the laws protect them) be cut off at the knees so that shameful oversights like the "Cecil-Lion" shooting and other like issues not be repeated again. Also its high time that meat farmers be cut off at the knees as their improper treatment of animals and exploitation of their lives for their meat and derivatives (and selling thereof to the public) has caused the earthlings of this planet to become diseased and sick and caused untimely deaths. This planet has been polluted because of these money driven organisations (plastic and manure pollution of the ocean's and rivers - breeding of farm animals for meat & dairy) What more must the World Health Organisation and other scientists and doctors do to get the attention of politicians and governance to put laws into place that will phase out these FAT-FARMERS who have made their living through exploitation of animals and people through consumption of animal products?
Thank you for placing this article by Karen Dawn in your newest publication. Her emphatic but also realistic views on animal protection and rights are well written without condemning or aggressively attacking those not (yet?) involved in this worthy cause.


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It's time to stick up for journalism.

The movie crosscuts between the desperate newcomers and longtime Italian inhabitants, who lead simple lives.

It is unacceptable to send our students to deficient schools and expect taxpayers to continue funding those schools...

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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