More Room to Die

Imagine that you are on Death Row, but innocent of any crime. Clinging to the hope that the legion of supporters working on your case will achieve a breakthrough before it’s too late, you prepare yourself for an update on their campaign. Yet nothing in your recurring nightmares can hold a candle to the news you are about to hear.

The messenger -speaking on behalf of a cadre of marquee advocacy groups- informs you that your closet-sized living area will be expanded by one-square foot and the quality of your food will soon be improved. He also reports that, when the time comes, care will be taken to provide you with a less painful method of execution. When you press him about efforts to secure your release, he confesses that he and his peers have adopted a more pragmatic philosophy -assigning a growing percentage of their resources to programs designed to “alleviate unnecessary suffering,” while simultaneously distancing themselves from the goal of saving lives.

The aforementioned scenario does not, in any way, represent the real-world commitment of those seeking justice for men and women who’ve been wrongly incarcerated. However it does bear a striking resemblance to the transformation that’s taken place within the mainstream animal rights movement.

Though a handful of organizations have stayed true to their core belief that animals deserve to live free from exploitation, many, including those with the highest profiles, have aligned themselves with corporations that profit from killing innocent creatures. Such support ranges from backing federal legislation and ballot initiatives that would purportedly enrich the lives of doomed farmed animals to literally placing a stamp of approval on the finished product, provided she was rendered “humanely.”

To get a sense of this metamorphosis, consider the content of “A Pig’s Tail,” a four-minute animated children’s film from The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Released on 24 October 2012, the cartoon chronicles a piglet’s escape from a factory farm, where living in a body-sized gestation crate is the norm for impregnated sows, and concludes with her arrival at what she believes to be a safe harbor. “A place” she says, “where a pig can be a pig.” To which her steward replies: “And a farmer can be farmer.” Sunbeams fill the sky and smiles ensue. Absent from the script is any indication that her life there will end violently and prematurely.

With its finely-tuned marketing department; assets approaching a quarter of a billion dollars; and staff additions that include former animal rights activists and a Vice President who raises hogs for a major grocery store chain- the modern incarnation of HSUS has crafted a Zelig-like identity in the eyes of the general public. In doing so, it is able to operate in the space between two oft-polarized factions: those who support animal welfare policies and those who believe in abolishing human-driven animal exploitation.

By blurring the distinction between these two doctrines, HSUS -as well as other groups who promote the myth of humane farming/slaughter- offers an easy out for anyone contemplating a lifestyle guided by the principles of nonviolence and unconditional compassion. And billions of animals pay the ultimate price.

If I’ve learned anything from decades of advocating for both human and animal rights, it is that honesty is the core ingredient of any successful social justice movement. But, with an increasing number of organizations fearful of driving away their supporters by asking them to make a significant change in their lives -such as becoming vegan- the unvarnished truth is often conspicuously absent from their campaigns. The inevitable result is a series of hollow “victories” celebrated under the guise of progress.

By adopting this strategy, the animals rights movement has sold itself and the animals short. And while it is possible to reverse this trend, that will only happen if and when activists begin to trust, rather than underestimate, their audience.

My confidence in the public’s ability to confront and respond positively to the truth stems from the feedback I’ve received from scores of children and adults who’ve attended compassion-themed presentations I’ve delivered.

When asked to identify instances in which animal’s lives are compromised by human behavior, fourth grade students have, without fail, rattled off countless examples, including the killing of animals for food, clothing, recreation, experimentation, and convenience. Seared into my memory are the words of a nine-year-old girl who suggested that we “rip hunting season right off the calendar.”

An insight from a sixth grade student also left a lasting impression. At the conclusion of class, I was asked a series of questions, ranging from “Did you have any pets when you were growing up?” to “Do you eat meat?” My answer to the latter inquiry was “No,” followed by an explanation that I was vegan. In response to the former, I spoke fondly of the dog who lived next door to me for 17 years. After considering my replies, a young boy raised his hand and proclaimed: “You decided not to eat animals because you loved your friend, the dog.”

Of all the teaching experiences I’ve had, one, more than a decade ago, may have been the most revelatory. During a classroom discussion about the validity of animal rights, a graduate student who identified himself as “a hunter” dominated the conversation by challenging anyone whose views ran counter to his own. In an effort to change this dynamic, I shared the story of how I came to embrace the principles of nonviolence and unconditional compassion. You could have heard a pin drop.

When class was over, several students remained behind to speak with me. It wasn’t until after they’d left that I noticed the hunter had been biding his time near the door. What happened next was something I never saw coming.

He began our interaction by thanking me for the respect I’d shown him during class, before segueing into a description of an internal conflict he was facing. All of his friends were hunters, but he did not want to kill animals anymore. Fearful of being both ridiculed and ostracized, he had kept his feelings to himself.

For the better part of an hour, we talked about friendship, values, and the courage of one’s convictions. And while I can’t be certain about how he resolved his dilemma, no one has ever shaken my hand with greater sincerity.

Anyone who’s taken on the responsibility of becoming a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves knows that it is not an easy task. And setting the bar lower will not make it so. In moments of reflection, I sometimes wonder what the animals would ask us for?

The bet, here, is it wouldn’t be: More room to die.