I never met anyone that said, “I effing hate animals, all of them.”
In fact, I don’t know anyone that can resist the urge to pet an unfamiliar dog. We all marvel at the flight formation of Sand Hill Cranes in migration, we stop to watch a horse gracefully gallop across a pasture, and I change the damn channel when I see those forlorn images of abused pets that can be allegedly patched up for ninety cents a day.
We are intrigued by wild animals, we value the companionship of the domesticated ones. At the same time many of us have opinions about the necessity of zoos, meat consumption, animal research, and breeding animals as pets. But throughout all of these gray areas that teeter on our individual values, knowledge, and worldviews, the central adoration of non-human animals is at the universal core of these concerns.
This is where animal rights organizations make a tremendous strategic mistake. Through violent or unethical acts of character assassination, vandalism or other aggressive gestures, those attempting to create a change in the interests of animals actually drive the people they are most likely to influence in exactly the other direction.
Devious acts only reinforce militant motivations of the converted, those with similar fringe views on animal husbandry and treatment. They alienate the crucial middle ground, the person that is queasy with a rare hamburger so they order it well done and unrecognizable. They lose the person that is contemplating a rescue pet rather than one from a breeder. They fail to capture the sympathies of the person staring at the malaise of a majestic lion in the zoo enclosure, wondering if the great cat’s captivity is akin to human imprisonment (without free cable TV and a weight room).
This is the animal activists’ strategic failure. They have the same interests of animal lovers, yet instead of courting their favor, they shove them away by being awful. They alienate their potential allies.
A great example is how PETA recently targeted Dr. Christine Lattin, a postdoctoral researcher at Yale. Dr. Lattin is at a critical career precipice. She studies bird behavior, because she loves birds. She’s analyzing their stress responses during habitat destruction and climate change, using invasive house sparrows as models, because she loves birds. Birds are captured and imaged, blood samples drawn, and relationships are drawn between animal physiology and current conditions, because she loves birds.
Here is a researcher using taxpayer money, testing on an invasive species (to not impact on natural ecology), and asking important questions that may positively affect the course of avian conservation. She’s a mom, an accomplished scientist, and a STEM role model for young women everywhere. What’s not to love?
That is exactly makes her possibly the worst possible target PETA can take on. Scientists see these attacks as a powerful resource-rich multinational corporganization harassing a junior scientist at a vulnerable point in her career. They are not targeting the Ivy League might of Yale University. Instead they target a young scientist that is following her passion to help animals. The general public sees PETA acting reprehensibly, spending valuable time targeting an early career scientist that cares about animals, when they could be caring for those forlorn animals on those damn television commercials.
They make the Misplaced Activism 101 error—pissing off the people that can actually create the change you wish to see.
They breed disgust, rather than garner trust.
Again, animal research is a gray area for many people, as they realize its necessity yet are uncomfortable with its reality. Organizations like PETA would be better served working in nuanced ways, maybe identifying areas where animal research is used to meet antiquated standards that are perhaps no longer relevant to safety evaluations. They could positively influence the animal-loving middle to make an incremental change in line with their interests, rather than failing at drastic across-the-board reform by force. They’d be heroes, not hated.
This is how change toward animal care is happening. Reforms over the last fifty years have greatly benefitted animals on the farm, as well as those in captivity like zoos and circuses. Laboratory use of animals now requires tremendous oversight, ensuring minimal discomfort and decreasing the numbers of animals used. These are all positive trends that came about because of the average person’s love of animals.
In a way it feels strange to provide advice and guidance to hostile groups I don’t agree with. I appreciate their passions and their advocacy for animals, and I believe that the majority of them feel they are doing the right thing. My hope is that they’ll re-evaluate their efforts, focus on education, communication, and egregious example of abuse we all recognize as starting points. Codify consensus and strive for baby steps in concert with a compassionate public. Make slow change. They must stop the repulsive actions that toxify their cause.
Compassion for animals can’t be mobilized through abuse of people.