We’ve never been more aware of animal suffering, but does animal activism do anything for the vegan movement, asks Charlotte Willis.
Animal activism. Two words, which, when strung together, breathe quite distinctive reactions into individuals, both inside and outside of the vegan movement. For some, animal activism is at the crux of what it means to be a vegan. For others, it’s something that negates the progression of veganism into the consciousness of the wider population.
Where it all began
Animal rights activism, also termed animal liberation movements, can be traced back to the animal protection movement in Victorian England. Here, early campaigners responded to the cruel treatment of workhorses and stray dogs in urban areas. The modern animal rights movement in the UK is said to have been founded in the 1970s by a group of Oxford University graduates, who began to actively encourage others to view animals as having moral rights by arguing their case to philosophers at the university.
The movement gathered momentum, inspiring other academics and notable figures to join the movement in the 1980s and 1990s, introducing the world to the necessity of animal protection from human exploitation. Animal activism, from the view of those of us within the vegan movement in particular, recognises the need for animals to be regarded as sentient beings, whose voices are worthy of being heard and whose lives are equally as important as our own.
As such, modern activism encourages the public to voluntarily stop using animals in day-to-day living, in every aspect including food and clothing. United in this one belief, organisations such as Surge, PETA and Viva! were born, with a mission to educate the public about animal maltreatment.
Awareness is essential
We’ll all have seen striking campaigns by PETA against the use of animal fur, and more recently, the work of Anonymous For The Voiceless, staging Cubes of Truth in city centres around the UK. These groups work to raise awareness of the horrific, yet lesser-known, ways in which animals are treated and ultimately killed for human consumption. This is done via exposure strategies, which show members of the public images or footage depicting animals caught up in the trappings of the meat, dairy and egg industries. These are powerful messages, which gather mixed reactions from onlookers.
There’s no doubt that these exposure strategies of animal rights groups gather crowds. Quite often, if the reaction is salient enough, group action will result in animal rights organisations receiving newsworthy attention.
Large-scale events such as the record-breaking turnout at the Official Animal Rights March, organised by Surge last summer, and the blockade of Smithfield Meat Market by Animal Rebellion in October last year, hit the headlines, bringing the importance of animal advocacy to the forefront. An important stand for animal liberation, these events are designed to unite individuals who wish to publicly speak up for animals under human control.
Is activism the way for all?
Whilst raising awareness is critical in order to encourage the public to make a connection between the foods they eat and the lives at stake, some methods of animal activism aren’t effective, or practicable for all. For example, some people will not find witnessing disturbing footage of benefit. Not because these individuals refuse to accept that it happens, or are blind to animal suffering, but because the footage is actually quite traumatising to witness, leading to a startled reaction and a tendency to avoid witnessing such violence.
Other activist methods, such as taking animals from farms, invading slaughterhouses or creating barricades around higher profile areas, may cross the line into illegal activity — the actions of which have led to a heightened police awareness and vigilance surrounding animal rights protests. To exacerbate the situation, police interventions are often streamed live on social media and shared amongst protesters within the community, adding to the ‘them vs us’ mentality. Such treacherous protests are encouraging to some, but nothing more than a nuisance to others, and may even present a barrier when it comes to having a considered conversation about animal ethics and the global need for dietary change.
Activism for you
Concerns for animals’ welfare is one of the main reasons individuals give for making the decision to try veganism, and as such, animal activism should remain an important aspect of every vegan’s work to encourage a mass change in dietary choice. However, that’s not to say that we all begin eliciting an ‘anything goes’ policy. It is important to remember that not everyone will respond to, or feel comfortable participating in all methods of activism — and that’s perfectly ok.
What we should be doing is finding smaller ways to incorporate activism in a practice which we as individuals are comfortable with, and can include in our everyday lives. Whether this be sharing a post about animal welfare on Instagram, donating to an animal sanctuary, or simply starting a life-changing conversation with a friend or family member, activism can be as small or large-scale as you like it to be, so long as no one is harmed, and the message is peaceful and progressive.
Charlotte Willis is a freelance journalist and health writer who’s worked with Veganuary and The Vegan Society. She is researching the links between food and psychological health while taking a doctorate degree in counselling