How Animal Rights, Once a Progressive Stepchild, Became a Movement 

Photograph Source: Dr. Matthias Ripp – CC BY 2.0

In the 1980s, the animal rights movement was a sorry sight. In Chicago, it consisted of three to five activists handing out soggy leaflets in the rain outside a fur store on a Saturday, one also holding his skateboard. No one remembered to bring the signs and no one could agree whether to protest carriage horses or captive whales at the Shedd Aquarium on the next Saturday.

Passersby were abusive. “Your shoes are leather,” they would yell, a simplistic syllogism that both meant human use of animals was inextricable and that we were hypocrites. Our shoes were not leather.

“Get a job,” they would yell, an absurd allegation since demonstrating on Saturday did not mean we did not have jobs –– we did.

“Why aren’t you helping people?” they would accuse, listing crack babies, AIDS patients, and the homeless. Some of our more interactive activists would fire back, “what are YOU doing for people,” which produced a mute silence. Who were the hypocrites?

“Get a life; you people are clowns,” we also heard a lot.

Trying to get news media or lawmakers to care about veal calves, downer cows forklifted to slaughter, male chicks ground up at birth and other industrial farming practices was a fool’s errand. The media feared losing their food advertisers with animal abuse stories and still do. Lawmakers were more sympathetic to the animal operations that were their rural constituents than high school kids clutching skateboards. They still are.

Animal Rights Changed

How did animal rights change? First, of course, the Internet and nanotechnology heightened visibility, unity, and reach. No more soggy leaflets. Suddenly, undercover activists could record real-time animal atrocities on cameras and directly upload them to the court of public opinion. They could bypass indifferent news media and dissembling food producers claiming “it’s not how it looks.”

Secondly, activists gave up the ineffectual “supply side” tactic of beseeching hostile lawmakers to regulate animal operations in their state for the more leveraged “demand side” –– going directly to food outlets and their customers with proof of grisly deeds. Once the McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFCs and Burger Kings of the world were outed as buying and serving abused animals things began to change….

In fact, going undercover at animal operations and exposing the atrocity verité was so successful, “ag-gag” laws were rapidly written by states that criminalized humane investigators and even media who received their images. Ag-gag or “Animal Facility Interference” laws were successors to “Food Defamation” laws that were introduced in the late 1990s under which Oprah Winfrey herself was tried and acquitted for speaking against hamburgers during Mad Cow scares. The laws are an admission that food producers have a lot to hide.

The Animal Rights Tableau Enlarged

Something else changed in animal rights. “Vegetarian” was no longer considered cruelty-free. Images of veal calves freezing in huts, their moms trucked to rendering plants and dead egg laying hens amid live ones in battery egg operations convinced new generations that dairy and egg productions were as cruel as meat. Wool, leather, down and angora were seen as cruel “fabrics” just like fur.  Zoos, oceanariums, circuses, animals used in research and medicinally, canned and trophy hunting, wildlife poaching, carriage horses, puppy mills and pet breeding, whaling and marine life abuse, ritual animal sacrifice, wet markets, animal “exports” and worse were exposed for their cruelty. Treatment of animals began to be viewed and addressed globally and international organizations formed.

For those not moved by chickens boiled alive or euthanized by gassing, the exposure of Big Pharma’s presence on the “farm” also became a turn off. The diseases animals contracted were shocking –– and what did animal medicines do to people?

For example, Merck markets 49 vaccines for poultry diseases, 25 vaccines for cattle diseases, a myriad of pig vaccines and even vaccines for use in aquaculture.  More than 90 percent of broiler chickens in the US are vaccinated against diseases “in ovo” ­­–– as embryos.

The public was also turned off by hormones, antibiotics and growth promoters (ractopamine, arsenic) on the farm and meat preservatives like chlorine “baths” for chicken, ammonia gas puffs to retard E. coli, carbon monoxide to keep meat looking red and nitrates.

The Animal Rights Battle Is Not Over

Today the public no longer laughs at animal lovers nor do food producers ignore us. Many stores and restaurants offer plant-based meat and cultured meat is just around the corner. But, and it is a big “but,” animal operations trying to protect their profits are, in some ways, worse than two decades ago. For example, the US government has allowed the speed of slaughterhouses’ kill lines to increase, meaning more animals miss the stunner to experience their own deaths and more birds are boiled live.

And there is another “but” –– media still protect meat operations. For example, millions of animals were swiftly and brashly culled by farmers when slaughterhouses shutdown from COVID-19: the animals represented no profit.* How often –– if ever ––  do media report that is the reason that animal prices are now higher at the grocery store? I am still waiting.

*So much for “we treat our animals humanely.”

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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