On Saturday, I went to the Animal Rights 2008 Conference to attend a few sessions and catch up with a few people. I bumped into, and chatted with, more people than I expected. Among them: Josh from Herbivore, the folks from Cosmos Vegan Shoppe, Melanie Joy (who was manning the Lantern Books table), Terry (and volunteer Steve) from Poplar Spring, Eric from An Animal Friendly Life, Gary from Animal Writings, Deb from Invisible Voices, Jonathan Balcombe, Chad and Emiko from Food Fight, and surely others I’m forgetting.
I attended a handful of sessions and thought I’d comment briefly on each:
How to Deal with Despair/Guilt? (dealing with the enormity of our mission and the extent of animal suffering) – pattrice jones
In this workshop, pattrice jones from Eastern Shore Sanctuary (and author of the very good coping guide for activists, Aftershock) facilitated a discussion amongst activists about the inevitable feelings of hopelessness, despair, and guilt that arise when doing animal (or any other social justice) activism. This is one workshop that would definitely be served well by being given a full morning three-hour timeslot. Take note, AR 2009 organizers.
Abuse Abroad (animal abuse in other countries) – Gorski, Marr, Vigo
What really struck me in this talk came during Rattle the Cage’s Tim Gorski when he discussed the things he’d seen while undercover in Southeast Asia. I attended this talk because I really don’t know too much about the animal abuse that goes on outside of the United States and Gorski certainly schooled me. Things I learned:
- The Medan Zoo in Indonesia houses an exhibit with orangutans addicted to cigarettes. Tourists flick butts into the cages at the animals. At the same zoo, stones and slingshots are sold.
- In the Philippines, there is an orangutan whorehouse. Read that sentence again. And, yes, it’s exactly what you think.
- In Northern Burma, gall bladders are carved from live bear cubs, shells are ripped from live turtles, live owls and eagles have their eyes cut out, and bear paws are cooked while still on the live bear cub.
He also discussed elephant trafficking in Thailand, where there are 3000 enslaved elephants that “work” for the tourist industry. There are only 500 wild elephants in the wild in the country.
Speaker Maru Vigo of Derechos de los Animales discussed the connection between the Catholic church and the bullfighting industry in some Central American countries and Anthony Marr of the HOPE-CARE Foundation discussed the Alberta Tar Sands, another subject which I was completely ignorant about.
Perceptions of Animals (public perception of animals as food, companions, laborers, victims; role of language) – Davis, Prescott, Thompson
Eric covered the topic of our perception of animals’ roles and how those perceptions are reflected in the language we use. Karen Davis discussed our perceptions of chickens and how those perceptions are challenged when people visit sanctuaries. Good stuff, but each speaker definitely needed more than 15 minutes.
Engaging Ethnic Minorities – (African-Americans, Latin Americans, Asian-Americans) – Chang, Dalal, Ornelas
Does Welfare Bring Abolition? (should AR activists advocate welfare reforms as a path to abolition?) – Davis
I was expecting some chair-throwing in this workshop moderated by UPC‘s Karen Davis, but things stayed relatively civil. One thing that’s easy to forget when discussions like this happen is that no one is actively trying to do anything to hurt animals. Welfarists aren’t trying to stunt the movement and abolitionists aren’t trying to put theory ahead of the immediate need for welfare improvements now. However, it does seem to me that when these discussions get underway, those supporting the welfare stance tend to get defensive and take criticisms of methods personally.
Something else I noticed is that in defenses of welfare reform, it’s often taken for granted that these welfare changes are actually substantially beneficial for the animals. According to people I know that have seen cage free egg facilities, they say that the differences are minimal or any improvements are offset by a new series of safety issues. Critics of Prop 2 in California (a subject I am admittedly underinformed about) note that not only is the language of the initiative limp in terms of its timeline and actual protections for animals, but attempts to promote the proposition use misleading phrases like “prevent animal cruelty – vote yes on Prop 2.” Can something that still allows the torture and death of food animals honestly be said to “prevent” cruelty?
Perhaps the most important point made during the entire discussion, though, came from someone who pointed out that there haven’t been any well-designed polls or studies that show the effect of welfare reforms on people’s attitudes towards animals and eating habits. I, for one, would love to see some data on how many people avoid vegetarianism (or give it up) when so-called “humane” meat is available. I suspect that a lot of people who aren’t involved in “the movement” look to groups like the HSUS when it comes to animal issues. If the HSUS is supporting a certain welfare reform, many will assume without much critical thought that it’s good enough for the animals, so therefore, it’s still justifiable to use, kill, and eat the animals now that they’re being treated better.
I’m glad I took the time to attend some sessions this year. Though I went to AR 2006 and TAFA 2007, in both cases I didn’t attend any talks (I just went to meet up with Josh and Isa for AR 2006 and to help out at the Herbivore table in 2007). Animal rights supporters are an interesting bunch and getting more and more diverse every year. It’s a good feeling to be around so many other people that are on the same page (or at least in the same book).