Four Takeaways from the Effective Animal Activism Symposium

By Zach Groff

  Animal Charity Evaluators  Executive Director Jon Bockman on the importance of numbers.

Animal Charity Evaluators Executive Director Jon Bockman on the importance of numbers.

This past weekend, Animal Charity Evaluators and the Princeton University Center for Human Values co-hosted a Symposium on Multidisciplinary Research in Effective Animal Advocacy that brought together academics, advocates, and others to discuss evidence and new strategies to change the world for animals. The conference was a welcome reminder that when it comes to animal advocacy, we are all on the same team even in the face of strategic differences. Here are a few lessons from the conference that should affect our future advocacy:

1. Research on animal advocacy is growing and has a bright future.

Years ago, the bulk of the research on animal rights activism was done with little effort to follow scientific protocols and think rigorously about cause and effect in activism. Now, activists are working increasingly with academics like Eva Vivalt at Australia National University and Bobbie Macdonald at Stanford University to be careful and transparent in research. Moreover, considerable money is being poured into studying animal advocacy, including the Animal Advocacy Research Fund, which is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on research to inform animal rights activists.

 A fish uses a shell as a tool to eat food ( via Wired ).

A fish uses a shell as a tool to eat food (via Wired).

2. The evidence that fish have complex feelings is increasingly hard to deny.

Animal psychologist Becca Franks at the University of British Columbia is producing a powerful body of evidence that fish seek out “cognitively demanding activities—learning, exploring, discovering, remembering, and problem solving” and that there are signs that these activities leave fish better off. Despite this, fish are killed in terrifyingly large numbers (well documented by The Humane League’s Harish Sethu), numbers so large that industry does not even bother counting individual fish - only their weight. The mass murder of fish in our society is increasingly unconscionable - quite possibly the gravest crime in human history.

3. Conflicted omnivores are everywhere, and humane meat is a palliative.

 Lisa Simpson,  conflicted omnivore .

Lisa Simpson, conflicted omnivore.

Psychologist Matt Ruby at the University of Pennsylvania (co-author of that 4Ns of meat consumption study many vegans have talked about) has a fascinating paper forthcoming on the characteristics of conflicted omnivores - people who eat animals’ bodies but wish they did not. Much has been made in the past year of a recent Gallup poll that 32% of Americans support equal rights for animals, with many animal advocates pessimistically saying that these Americans are not thinking about animals raised for food. Ruby found that a nearly identical percentage of people eat animals but lament it - suggesting that the animal rights movement, including those fighting for farmed animals, has a lot of public support. If we want to capitalize on this public support, we need to stop attacking conflicted omnivores as hypocrites and start giving them opportunities to support our movement through grassroots organizing, legislation, and more efforts to frame our movement as a struggle against unjust institutions.

Interestingly, about half of conflicted omnivores surveyed reported seeking out humane, local, or free range meat as one way they dealt with the moral conflict - suggesting that knocking down the “humane meat” myth is an important strategy for getting conflicted omnivores to more consciously oppose animal agriculture. This is especially the case given psychological evidence that omnivores who justify their practices by purchasing humane meat are far weaker supporters of animal rights than those who take a stand against meat entirely and given the failure of green marketing in the environmental movement.

4. Discussions around evidence in animal advocacy are opening up.

In a novel development for a conference on evidence in animal advocacy, the recent symposium included talks on racism in animal activism, systemic change, and how focusing on non-farmed animals - specifically, the abolition of practices more widely opposed than animal agriculture - can help farmed animals. This is a welcome sign that the animal rights movement is starting to take wider forms of evidence seriously, something we’ll need to do to start building a movement that does not change individuals one by one but instead changes the whole world.