Sea Shepherd Weighs In on Cecil the Lion: Insisting on Veganism is “Purism” and “Elitist”

Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd has weighed in on the controversy over Cecil the lion. Watson takes aim at those of us who make the point that there is absolutely no morally significant difference between killing animals for sporting pleasure and killing animals for palate pleasure, and that our objecting to the killing of Cecil requires us to reject killing the other 60+ billion animals (not counting sea animals) we kill to eat.

In “The Cult of Competitive Purism,” Watson maintains that those of us who take this position are “elitist” and guilty of “purism.”

Watson’s position comes as no surprise. But a simple examination of his position shows why he is in error.

Cecils on the Land and Cecils in the Water

Sea Shepherd is a large organization that brings in considerable amounts of money from donors all over the world, many — perhaps most — of whom are not vegan. Many — perhaps most — Sea Shepherd donors look at whales and other marine mammals in the same way that others look at Cecil the Lion and lament their exploitation at the same time they continue to consume other animals. They think marine mammals are special, in part because they are endangered or protected, and think that marine mammals count for more than do other animals as a moral matter. They think that just as Cecil died a horrible, prolonged death, marine mammals are killed in an inhumane way and are treated worse than the animals we eat.

And guess what? That’s exactly what Paul Watson has been telling them.

Here’s what Watson had to say in an interview in the The Guardian:

You cannot compare the killing of animals in a domestic slaughterhouse to the killing of a whale. What goes on with those whales – or dolphins, say, in Taiji – would never be tolerated in a slaughterhouse. Those slaughterhouses would be shut down. It takes from 10 to 45 minutes to kill a whale and they die in horrific agony. That would be completely intolerable and illegal in any slaughterhouse in the world.

Also they’re an endangered and protected species – pigs and cows are not. They’re part of an ecosystem, which pigs and cows are not. It always bothers me that that comparison is brought up. And especially when it’s brought up by the Japanese, who eat more pigs, cows, and chickens than all people of Australia and New Zealand combined. Only one percent of the Japanese people eat whales; for the most part they eat cows and pigs and chickens. It’s a ridiculous analogy.

Note: Watson says:

1. The exploitation of farm animals is less cruel than the exploitation of marine mammals.

We are not sure whether Watson has ever been in a slaughterhouse, but they’re hideous places and animals suffer a terrible death in the long process from arrival at the facility to their actual death on the killing floor. And the distress that those animals experience during that slaughtering process is palpable and every bit as bad as the physical pain they suffer.

Moreover, Watson’s comparison between the time it takes to kill a marine mammal and the time it takes to kill a farm animal is itself problematic. Marine mammals are not domesticated animals who spend their entire lives suffering; marine mammals live in the wild until the time they are killed. We certainly think that the killing of marine mammals or any sentient nonhuman is morally objectionable. But Watson’s statement that the analogy between the suffering of marine mammals and farm animals is “ridiculous” is itself ridiculous and suggests that Watson thinks that the suffering of marine mammals counts for more morally. That is just plain speciesism.

2. Watson is “bother[ed]” by the comparison between farm animals and marine mammals because the latter are “endangered and protected.”

So what? Does that make marine mammals more morally valuable? Not as far as we are concerned. An endangered marine mammal values her or his life just as a cow or pig or chicken or fish values her or his. It is just as wrong to kill a cow (or other sentient nonhuman) for no reason other than palate pleasure as it is to kill a marine mammal for palate pleasure or any other frivolous reason. What Watson is saying would lead to the conclusion that killing marine mammals would be less morally wrong if they were not endangered or protected. Maybe he would accept that conclusion. We wouldn’t.

In any event, Watson is operating a very wealthy charity that has all sorts of non-vegan donors who think of marine mammals as a group of Cecils who live in the ocean. They want to protect the Water Cecils as they continue to eat their animal products. Watson jumps to their defense.

Watson objects to our making crystal clear that there is a blatant moral inconsistency between objecting to the killing of Cecil the lion and continuing to consume animals because he does not want anyone saying that to those who fetishize marine mammals in addition to, or instead of, lions. In other words, Watson does not want anyone telling his donors that they are morally obligated to go vegan.

That’s no surprise.

What’s Really At Issue Here: Support for Single-Issue Campaigns and Vegansim as a Moral Imperative

We certainly agree with Watson that we should never treat as “inferior,” demean, or ridicule anyone who objects to the killing of Cecil, or the killing of dolphins or whales, or the eating of dogs in China or Korea, or the exploitation of any animal in any situation. That is why we spend a considerable portion of our time discussing animal ethics with people and groups who are not part of any “animal movement.” That is why we wrote Eat Like You Care: An Examination of the Morality of Eating Animals. We believe that anyone with a moral impulse or moral concern for animals is ripe for a consideration of the ethics of consuming animals and a candidate for the adoption of veganism as a moral principle.

But we do believe that we have an obligation to be crystal clear and to educate those who are concerned about particular acts or forms of animal exploitation that, if they are not vegan, they are active participants in the very conduct that they claim to decry. That is what we owe to the human who is, by expressing concern about a particular situation, trying to find her or his moral compass. That is what we owe to nonhumans, who are victimized in the hundreds of millions every single day.

We stress that vegan education — the clear, patient, comprehensive discussion of the ethical principles at issue — is the most effective act of activism that any individual can do to move the issue forward. Not yelling, not shaming, but discussion and education. At the same time, we are concerned that the “business model” of the large animal charities has a need for donations that steers them to animal welfare reforms and single-issue campaigns.

Sea Shepherd is an organization that promotes variations of the same single-issue campaign: the protection of marine mammals. What really concerns Watson is that those whom he denigrates as “elitists” and “purists” will not support such single-issue campaigns that are his stock in trade. In other words, those who express concern about Cecil, or whales and dolphins, or seal cubs, or whatever animal is being exploited should be “nurtured.” And what does that mean? It means that those people should be funneled into the web of groups like Sea Shepherd or one of the countless other groups who will “nurture” compassion by soliciting donations for their single-issue campaigns and never confront donors with the reality: Veganism is not an option; it’s a moral imperative. If animals matter morally, we cannot justify eating, wearing, or using them, and until we go vegan, we are active participants in institutionalized animal exploitation.

Single-issue campaigns — however different — are structurally identical. They all involve coalitions of people many of whom engage in behavior that is not morally different from the behavior that is the target of the single-issue campaign.

So a single issue campaign focused on the Taiji dolphins will have many people who object to the killing of dolphins but who shovel animal products into their mouths as they voice their concerns. The only way that such people are going to support such a campaign is if they are made to feel comfortable about their exploitation. And they are made to feel comfortable by an insidious pretense that the target of the campaign is immoral and their own conduct is not immoral, or is so much less immoral that they can never be thought of in the same way as the people who kill the dolphins. This makes people feel more comfortable about their own behavior that exploits animals and perpetuates it — and it also means that they donate.

As part of providing the comfort level that encourages support, these campaigns demonize those people who are involved in the targeted behavior in an effort to distinguish between them and the “good” people who are protesting the killing of the dolphins. This often results in and reinforces racist, ethnocentric, and xenophobic conduct on the part of “animal people.” One need only look at the sorts of vile anti-Asian comments that appear almost immediately following any story about Taiji, Japanese whaling, or the eating of dogs in China and Korea. The campaign against Andre Robinson elicited horribly racist slurs, as did the campaign against Michael Vick.

Watson thinks that to not support and to criticize these campaigns is “elitist” and represents “purism.” He’s wrong. Abolitionists just refuse to participate in and perpetuate the unjust fantasy that there is a difference between killing a dolphin and killing a chicken so that people who care can become “nurtured” by Sea Shepherd and other groups and never be confronted with the moral reality. Abolitionists want to promote the idea that if animals matter morally, veganism is the only rational response. Abolitionists want to promote the idea that we cannot justify treating any sentient nonhuman exclusively as a resource.

Watson disagrees with all of this. He admits that he thinks that marine mammals are special. He makes clear that Sea Shepherd is “promoting veganism not for animal-rights reasons but for environmental conservation reasons.” It can’t get any more clear than that. He rejects the very foundation of the abolitionist movement, which is that all sentient beings are equal in that all should be accorded the moral right not to be used as human resources. And that we ought to make that crystal clear today, right now.

We’re delighted that Watson serves vegan meals on his ships even if he does so for reasons of conservation alone. But go to the Sea Shepherd website. We did. We were unable to find anything that even hinted at the moral obligation to go vegan if one thought that killing marine mammals was morally wrong. We found one essay by Watson where he said:

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is one of the very few, if not the only marine conservation organizations in the world that actively promotes and practices veganism.

Why? Because we see the connections between animal husbandry and pollution in the ocean, diminishment of life in the seas, the destruction of the rainforests and climate change.

Veganism is real conservation in action. It goes beyond talking about climate change and diminishment of biodiversity and actually does something to address the problems.

But he made clear that veganism has nothing to do with any moral obligation that we owe other animals (apart from marine mammals):

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is not a vegan or vegetarian organization however, nor are we an Animal Rights or an Animal Welfare organization. We are a marine wildlife and habitat conservation movement.

So why are all the meals on Sea Shepherd ships vegan?

The answer is because vegetarianism and especially veganism are powerful alternatives to eight billion human beings and their domestic animals eating the oceans alive.

Watson’s environmental arguments for veganism are terrific, but they do not in any way involve getting “compassionate” people to see that there is no difference between killing a whale and eating a chicken. Indeed, Watson rejects that position.

Do Chickens Matter as Much as Whales?

Watson claims that:

Social revolutions do not happen overnight. I have watched the vegan movement grow from something no one had ever heard of to the dynamic and ever growing movement it is today. The growth in awareness has been incredible. What we don’t want to do is isolate or discourage potential advocates of veganism.

We have been involved in this movement for about the same period of time that Watson has. We like Watson; we just disagree with him.

We could not disagree more that the vegan movement is doing well, as he seems to think. On the contrary, the vegan movement has been hijacked by the “happy exploitation” movement that is now ubiquitous. Peter Singer, the so-called “father” of the animal movement, declares himself to be a “flexible vegan” and all of the large groups reject veganism as a moral baseline and promote it only as a way to reduce suffering — along with cage-free eggs, crate-free pork and the Whole Foods Animal Welfare Rating program. Abolitionists are trying to create a vegan movement of people who see veganism as a principle of fundamental justice.

Watson seems to think that we cannot make the abolitionist argument because “there are lots of stupid people out there” who just don’t see the connections and who must be “nurtured.” Putting aside that Watson’s characterization of everyone as idiots is curious given that he claims that vegans are “elitists” who look down on others, abolitionists believe that people are not stupid and that most, or at least a great many, care about nonhuman animals. People also know that animal products do not grow on trees and that animals suffer and die in order to end up on our plates. They may not know the particulars of what happens in raising and killing animals and that’s the point — the particulars are irrelevant. Going vegan should not depend on whether there are “abuses” at the slaughterhouse or on the factory farm. Going vegan should depend on a simple fact: that animals die so that we can eat and wear them. Just as those objecting to the killing of Cecil or to the killing of marine mammals would not stop objecting even if the killing process were made more “humane,” the morality of eating or wearing animals does not rest on how the animals are treated but only on that the animals are used in the first place.

We have an obligation to make clear that single-issue campaigns miss the point by perpetuating the fantasy that there is a difference between a whale and a cow, or between fur and wool. And it’s not a matter of “elitism.” Indeed, there is nothing more elitist than the idea that it is acceptable for us to exploit vulnerable nonhumans — and that is exactly what single-issue campaigns perpetuate.

So whenever we see stories in the news involving Cecil or any similar situation that elicits an outcry, we ought to use that story as an opportunity to engage in creative, nonviolent vegan advocacy and make clear that there is absolutely no difference between what those of us who are nonvegans do and what the people who have engaged in behavior to which we object do.

We wholeheartedly agree that a person who looks at an animal like Cecil and wants to kill him — indeed, pays a great deal of money to have the experience — seems to have disturbing psychological problems. Yet, as we all know, the animals who were killed for food or clothing were once living beings, no less important morally than Cecil, with their own interests, families, and biographies. Why does the act of ordering a hamburger or eating an ice cream cone, make us any less petty, oppressive, unjust, or cruel? If we do not squarely confront our relentless, ubiquitous, pervasive use of animals for palate pleasure or fashion, nothing will ever change.

So, we have no more excuse, no more justification for our actions than did Walter Palmer, who killed Cecil. We are all Walter Palmer. We need to stop the carnage. We need to stop the injustice. We need to shift the paradigm from property to moral personhood and the only way that we can do that is by working tirelessly to bring about a vegan world. The stronger an abolitionist movement becomes, the more animal exploitation of all sorts will end. Vegans will not go to zoos or sea parks; vegans will not go to the circus or rodeo; they will oppose the slaughter of any marine mammal, other aquatic animal, or land animal; they won’t wear any animals. Cut off the exploitation at the root and we won’t need countless single-issue campaigns, which, some 40 years into the modern animal “movement,” have had no impact.

Watson observes:

The reality is that most vegans were once not vegan. Many vegans started with feelings of compassion for their pets, or for animals they liked. These seeds of compassion, if nurtured by thoughtful education, can be inspired and motivated through positive encouragement.

This is the same old tired nonsense that we get from all of the animal welfare groups: “We’re all on the ‘journey’ and and as long as we are ‘compassionate,’ it’s all fine and no one should say otherwise or they’re just ‘purist’ or ‘elitist.'”

All of the large groups take this position. And it is explicitly speciesist. In order to see this clearly and easily, imagine the following: John was raised in a racist community. For the first 20 years of his life, John uttered racist epithets to every person of color he saw and he considered them to be inferior to whites. And then, one day, John, for whatever reason, saw that racism was wrong. John now wants to work for social justice and equality. Should John adopt the position that because he took 20 years to stop being racist, rejecting racism is a matter of being on a “journey” and that we cannot say that racism is morally wrong and must stop immediately? Of course not. John should take the position that we must educate people about racism but that we must be crystal clear that racism is morally wrong and must stop.

The fact that it may have taken someone a while to see that something is morally odious does not mean that we should not be unambiguously clear that it is morally odious and must stop. We don’t respond to racism with a campaign for “Racist-joke-free Monday.” We respond with a demand for justice.

Abolitionists are not criticizing individuals who are grappling with a new understanding of animal ethics. Where there are instances of personal clashes, that is unfortunate. What we are talking about, and planning for, is a redirecton of the message put out by the large organizations that dominate the arena — those groups that send out the countless solicitations for donation with the atrocity of the day and the appeal, “Help us stop [fill in the blank]. Send your donation for the animals!”

It is sad that Watson thinks that it’s fine — indeed, obligatory — to spend millions equipping, staffing, and operating ships to save a whale but that a sense of urgency and efforts to make clear that there is no moral difference between the whale Watson saves and the many billions of animals that supposedly “compassionate” people consume represent “purism” or “elitist.” Action, including ramming other ships, is fine where whales are concerned. But insisting on veganism as a moral imperative is not.

So, in the end, the question becomes: Does the chicken whose corpse is sold for $1.99 per pound matter as much morally as the whale Watson seeks to save?

We think she does.


If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

If animals matter morally, veganism is not an option — it is a necessity. Anything that claims to be an animal rights movement must make clear that veganism is a moral imperative.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Learn more about veganism at

Gary L. Francione
Board of Governors Distinguished Professor, Rutgers University

Anna Charlton
Adjunct Professor of Law, Rutgers University

©2015 Gary L. Francione & Anna Charlton