Abolition and Incremental Reform

In response to my essay about veganism, a number of animal advocates have written to me and have asked me to discuss what other sorts of incremental reform—apart from our becoming vegans—are consistent with the abolitionist position.

This essay is an initial response to those requests and I will follow this from time to time with further essays on strategies for incremental reform.

Let me say as a preliminary matter: our personal decision to embrace veganism is the most important incremental change that we can make. Veganism is the most important form of activism. And it is the one thing that is within the power of each of us to do. Now.

For too long, the animal movement has itself treated veganism as “extreme” and has promoted the myth that animal foods can be produced in a “humane” manner and that we can be morally “conscientious omnivores.” For too long, the movement has characterized conscientious veganism as “fanatical.”

If the animal movement is ever to be anything more than a cheering section for well-off elitists who buy their “happy meat,” free-range eggs, and organic dairy products from places like Whole Foods, or a movement that promotes as ”visionary” measures designed to keep the meat industry running “safely, efficiently and profitably,” veganism must be placed front and center as a movement baseline.

There is a qualitative difference between the animal rights position and the animal welfare position. The former regards veganism as a moral baseline; the latter does not.

Veganism is the application of the abolitionist principle to the life of the individual. It is not an option; it is essential. It is extremely difficult—perhaps impossible—not to be at least indirectly complicit in animal exploitation as consumers in a society underpinned by animal exploitation, but we can nevertheless be clear that if you are not a vegan, you certainly are an animal exploiter. It’s that simple.

Vegan Education

In addition to our individual decision to embrace veganism, there are certainly other forms of incremental change that we can pursue. I discussed these in my 1996 book, Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement.

Just as the decision to become a vegan is the most important form of incremental change we can make on a personal level, educating others about veganism is the most important form of activist incremental change on a social level. It is certainly a more significant form of incremental change than is campaigning for larger battery cages or promoting the vendors of “happy” meat. Every person we educate is someone whose personal life we can affect in significant ways. Every person who embraces veganism represents a reduction of demand for animal products and another addition to a base that can serve as the foundation for a real social and political movement and a step away from the ineffective, counterproductive, status-quo welfarist movement that currently exists.

Here are some examples—and only a few—of things you can do:

  • Distribute literature about veganism at places where large numbers of people gather. There are grassroots groups that focus almost exclusively on distributing literature about veganism and the abolition of animal exploitation to the public. Many of these groups produce their own literature.
  • Set up a vegan food stand at a local weekly market or community event, such as a festival. Many people have never tasted vegan food. Introduce them to something tasty. Send them away with literature in addition to a positive eating experience.
  • Give presentations on veganism at your local high school, community college, or college.
  • Help students form vegan advocacy organizations so that they can get vegan food options at their schools, thereby raising consciousness about veganism as a general matter.

If you have one afternoon per week to spend on animal issues, putting your time into these sorts of educational activities will be much more productive than spending your time working for larger battery cages or other welfarist regulation.

There are many more things that you can do to educate. In future blog essays, I will explore different types of abolitionist education. I emphasize that this is an initial response.

Campaigns to Target Specific Animal Uses

What about campaigns (legislative or otherwise) to target particular practices or uses involving animals? In Rain Without Thunder, I argue that advocates are probably better off spending their time, energy, and money on veganism and vegan education. There really is not sufficient public support for the sort of legislation that would make any real difference. As a result, efforts to secure legislation invariably result in laws that do little more than make minor changes that benefit the exploiters far more than help the animals.

In any event, to the extent that advocates want to pursue campaigns that concern discrete uses or practices, they should seek to reduce incrementally the property status of animals. That is, animal welfare regulations generally require only that humans exploit nonhumans in an efficient way. It is theoretically possible to reduce the property status of animals in an incremental way through measures that reflect that nonhumans have an inherent or intrinsic value, and not merely extrinsic or conditional value.

Advocates who want to go in this direction (and I am not advocating it as I strongly favor of vegan/abolitionist education) should pursue prohibitions (rather than regulations) of significant institutional activities. These prohibitions should be based explicitly on the inherent value of animals, and not on the notion that the measure will be beneficial for the exploiters as well as the animals. This inherent value should be recognized as not subject to being ignored merely because it will benefit humans. Campaigns for these prohibitions should not propose to substitute a more “humane” form of the same exploitation, and should always be coupled with a clear and unequivocal demand for the abolition of all animal use. Abolitionists should always be upfront and honest about the goal: abolition of animal use.

An example of a campaign that would fit this description: The prohibition of all animal use in circuses for the reason that it is immoral and cannot be justified irrespective of economic benefit. Advocates should be clear that the uses of animals for other forms of entertainment or other purposes, including for food, are similarly objectionable.

As opposed to: A regulation that requires that all circus animals be treated more “humanely.”

Another example of a campaign that would fit the description: A prohibition on the use of any animal for a particular sort of experiment coupled with a clear demand for the abolition of all vivisection.

As opposed to: A regulation that requires that animal use in experiments be “humane” and monitored by an Animal Care Committee.

As a general matter, the sorts of prohibitions that represent the incremental eradication of the property status of animals are going to be difficult, if not impossible, to get at the present time given that there is no politically organized abolitionist base to support them. This may provide at least a partial explanation for why almost none of the campaigns conducted by the large national animal organizations in the United States fit this prohibition model and the few that do suggest explicitly or implicitly that other forms of animal exploitation may be more acceptable. For example, a campaign to prohibit “canned” hunting that suggests that “sport” hunting is in some way less objectionable than canned hunting, is problematic. A campaign against fur that suggests that there is any difference between fur and other types of clothing made from nonhumans (leather, wool, etc.) is problematic. A call for a boycott on eating Canadian seafood as part of a campaign to prohibit the seal slaughter implies that eating Canadian sea animals is acceptable if the seal kill stops. These campaigns may involve prohibitions rather than regulations, but they send a confused and confusing message.

In any event, I emphasize that as a matter of doctrinal consistency as well as pragmatic strategy and the efficient use of movement resources, the most effective form of campaigning at the present time is to educate the public about veganism.

Don’t Forget Individual Animals

The corporate animal movement—at least in the United States—has put the care of individual animals—particularly ones that have been domesticated to serve as human “companions”—at the very bottom of the list and, in some cases, does not include it on the list at all. Although there are many animal organizations with multi-million-dollar endowments, a tiny fraction of those dollars are devoted to the care of actual nonhumans. Indeed, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals justifies killing healthy dogs and cats, opposes no-kill shelters, and opposes TNR (“Trap, Neuter, Return”) as a way of caring for feral cats.

Although we ought not to bring more nonhumans into existence, we certainly should care for the nonhumans whom we have caused to come into existence.

I have had animal advocates claim that providing a home to dogs, cats, or other domesticated nonhumans, or doing TNR work, is “welfarist” because it assumes that we know what is best for these nonhumans. These advocates claim that we ought not to interfere with these animals at all if we really think that they are morally significant beings.

That position involves a misunderstanding of the meaning of animal welfare. Animal welfare is the position that it is acceptable to use nonhumans for human purposes as long as we treat them properly. Welfarists differ as to what constitutes proper treatment, but they all assume that the primary problem is not that we use nonhumans, but only how we treat those nonhumans. The idea, explored in my essay on domesticated nonhumans, that we should stop breeding more animals but that we should care for those who are here now is not only not welfarist, but it is the opposite of welfarism in that it explicitly rejects the notion that humans have any right whatsoever to continue to use nonhumans for any purpose.

I do agree with the observation that caring for individual nonhumans involves our managing their lives and having to decide about what is in their “best interests.” That is, of course, true also for human children. But the need to make these decisions for nonhumans continues over the life of the nonhuman. It never ends. That is the consequence of our forcing into existence creatures who do not belong in our world and cannot survive on their own. It is a powerful reason why we should bring no more domesticated nonhumans into existence but it does not support the conclusion that being concerned about the welfare of individuals is a matter of animal welfare theory.

Caring for individual nonhuman animals is an extremely important form of activism, particularly when it is informed by an abolitionist perspective. I want to share with you the stories of two people who are, in my view, making a difference and are contributing more to achieving animal rights than the large corporate welfare organizations could ever hope to do.

Shell Sullivan is an animal advocate in New Jersey. She is strict vegan. She is one of the nation’s leading experts on TNR. She has a website that strongly promotes veganism, but her primary focus is on providing comprehensive information, support, and resources about TNR both for the general public and for caregivers of feral cat colonies. She receives hundreds of inquiries every week from people all over the country who are interested in learning about TNR and who want to be networked with other caregivers in their area, as well as from caregivers who need information on how to deal with particular issues.

Shell works directly with cat colonies in need of sterilization. She traps unaltered cats and brings them to the vet for sterilization and a rabies vaccine. The cats recover at her house or at the vet’s office and, after recovery, she returns them to their colony.

On the weekend, Shell does cat adoptions at the PetSmart in Bridgewater, New Jersey. She does this in conjunction with a rescue group, Homeless Animal Lifeline. Many of the kittens and cats who are up for adoption were found in feral cat colonies. They were either tame to begin with or have been socialized for adoption. Shell also runs HAL’s Feral Cat Fund, which helps to educate the public about TNR and ferals, as well as care for feral colonies.

Shell does not take a salary. She is a volunteer.

The notion that corporate welfarists do not support these sorts of efforts, preferring instead to use donations to arrange self-promoting media spectacles where advocates “go naked rather than [fill in the blank]” is a sad comment.

Eileen Chamberlain is an animal advocate from Pennsylvania. She is a strict vegan who is a strong supporter of abolition. For more than 20 years, Eileen has been doing spay/neuter work in the greater Philadelphia area. She has gone into some of the city’s poorest areas and has persuaded people to let her take their animals and have them sterilized, after which she returned them to their homes.

Eileen’s recent efforts have involved her being an adoptions volunteer for a local shelter that kills when it runs out of space. Eileen is opposed to killing healthy animals and, unlike many who complain about shelter killing but do not do much else, she puts her time, effort, and her own resources where her mouth is. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Eileen takes some of the saddest of the shelter’s animals—animals who are old and blind or who have medical needs and who are likely candidates for being killed—to a local shopping mall and, more recently, to a local PetSmart. Her success at finding terrific homes for these animals is legendary. (We have adopted six dogs, including Simon, our blind dog, from Eileen.)

Eileen has worked closely with the shelter to encourage an aggressive spay/neuter campaign and to assist TNR efforts. As a result, the kill rates at the shelter have plummeted.

Never doubt that going to your local shelter and adopting an animal—particularly one who probably will not otherwise get a home, such an older animal or one with a physical disability or medical problem—is a vital form of animal rights activism.

When you give a loving home to a homeless and often abused and always neglected animal, you change the entire world for that nonhuman person. That is incremental progress.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione