Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters
Do small victories affect big picture in animal rights debate?
It was a satisfying week for animal rights activists in Canada. The European Parliament endorsed a long-awaited ban on seal products, and one of Ottawa's most celebrated restaurateurs removed foie gras from his menu, after months of harassment by protesters.
"We're quite happy about the ban. I've been working for 40 years on the seal issue," says Paul Watson, the Canadian founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, one of the most vociferous opponents of the annual seal harvest.
Meanwhile, Jason Halvorson, a leader of the Ottawa Animal Defense League's campaign to rid the city's restaurants of the controversial culinary treat foie gras, said he was thrilled by the group's most recent victory.
Do such successes mean the animal rights movement is winning its long, controversial campaigns to gain the same legal protections for animals as those ascribed to humans?
Certainly the sealers of Newfoundland, or Ottawa businessman Stephen Beckta, might think so.
Beckta is the owner of two popular dining rooms, who succumbed to months of nasty, anonymous phone calls, insulting e-mails, and noisy demonstrations outside his restaurants by animal rights activists protesting the consumption of foie gras, a traditional French delicacy made from the enlarged livers of force-fed ducks or geese.
Beckta said he gave in to the group's demands not because of any moral choice over foie gras but because he couldn't take any more threats, intimidation or sleepless nights caused by the tactics.
And he's not alone. Last year in Nanaimo, B.C., specialty food store owner Eric McLean capitulated to animal rights activists protesting outside his business by removing cans of foie gras from his shelves.
Yet over the long history of animal rights activism in Canada, it's hard to find evidence that the larger aims of such protests are ever achieved. Notwithstanding their local tactical victories, are animal rights protesters really as effective as they appear?
Consider the Canadian seal hunt, one of the longest-running animal rights campaigns in the world. For nearly half a century, protesters from Watson to Brigitte Bardot, and more recently Paul McCartney, have been trying to shut down the hunt.
They came close in the 1970s when Europe banned the import of products from the youngest seals, known as whitecoats and bluebacks. The commercial hunt nearly collapsed, but 20 years later rebounded as worldwide demand emerged for the oil and the spotted fur of older seals. About 300,000 seals are now harvested in Canada every year.
David Barry, the seal network co-ordinator for the Fur Institute of Canada, says the latest EU ban, while problematic for the industry, doesn't mean it's over. For one thing Canada can still export seal products to China, Russia and other nations outside the EU; there are also exemptions in the ban that allow the culling of seals for conservation purposes.
"This won't bring sealing to an end," he says. "The activists could have had an influence on the manner in which sealing is conducted - and they still could - if they want to talk and work with the people in the industry. But if they continue to just take a fundamentalist position against people who live in the same ecosystem as the seals, then they'll never achieve an end to this activity, because these people rely on this for their living."
In other campaigns, foie gras may be off the shelf of Eric McLean's food store in B.C., and off the menu of Beckta's restaurants in Ottawa, but it remains in supermarkets and restaurants elsewhere in Canada and the around the world.
For decades animal rights activists have protested the use of animals in laboratory experiments. Most recently in California, a scientist at UCLA had his car firebombed for the same reason. Only a year after 9/11, the FBI even labelled animal-rights militants one of that country's most serious domestic terrorist threats. Yet in spite of such concerns, laboratory mice continue to be used by scientists at university campuses across North America.
In 1989, activists destroyed two meat markets in Vancouver to protest World Laboratory Animals Day. Two years later, animal rights protesters set fire to a fish-importing company in Edmonton - ironically killing many of the live lobsters and crabs inside - and causing $46,000 in damage. But Canadians didn't stop eating meat or fish as a result.
In one of their greatest achievements, animal rights groups succeeded in convincing the government of former prime minister Tony Blair to ban England's traditional fox hunts. But now, several years later, public opinion is changing on the subject, according to a recent BBC report, and the Conservative opposition is considering revoking the ban if it wins the next election.
Even the whaling campaigns waged by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and others have not produced a complete end to the whale harvest. Whalers from Japan and Norway each still harvest about 1,000 whales a year. That's a big change from the 20,000 whales killed annually during the 1970s, but also proof that eradicating even the most controversial animal industries is a tough, if not impossible, challenge.
"We are fighting an uphill battle," says Watson. "But we just have to keep pushing on."
Barry says one of the shortcomings of the animal rights movement is its propensity to extremism and fundamentalism. If anti-sealing groups were genuinely interested in the welfare of seals, they would have accepted invitations from the sealing industry and the federal government in 2005 to iron out a set of "best practices" for the harvest.
Instead they sought an outright end to seal markets in Europe and the ban there now includes the loophole allowing Canada to cull its seal population without any cruelty restrictions on how those animals are killed.
But Watson says principles are principles, and the ultimate goal of his campaigns is not negotiation, compromise, or even victory.
"We do what we can with the resources that are available to us," he says. "We don't focus on whether we're going to win or we're going to lose. We do what we think is right, because it's the right thing to do. If we don't succeed, well, then it's going to affect all of humanity.
"The goal is the protection of our oceans, and if the oceans die, we die. It's that simple."
Comment: For all our ‘intelligence,’ we are an arrogant, cruel and selfish species, who act toward sentient nonhumans and the environment in a calamitous manner. As long as we have dominion over animals nothing will change for the better. Each and every individual must challenge and revolutionize deeply entrenched thoughts and actions with respect to our position in the social order of life here on Earth. Our relationship must transform itself to one that is non-hierarchical and non-exploitive. The exploitation and use of animals for food, clothing, entertainment, and experimentation cannot continue. Animals are not property, resources, or commodities; they are lives with value. Moral progress is slow, but we must wake up and understand that humans are but mere citizens within the biocommunity, intricately interrelated and equal with all others, and if we don’t evolve our fate will be sealed - we will die. It’s the simple message of Mother Nature.
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ANIMAL LIBERATION * HUMAN LIBERATION