So, how do we respond to the challenge of making the moral and legal status of animals a mainstream political issue?
Let’s start in 1977 and the RSPCA’s Animal Rights symposium in Cambridge. I was fortunate to attend as CIWF’s campaigns officer along with its founder, Peter Roberts. I recall Lord Houghton of Sowerby, the Labour Peer and member of the Labour Cabinet in the 1960s, saying
My message is that animal welfare, in the general and in the particular, is largely a matter for the law. This means that to Parliament we must go. Sooner or later that is where we will have to go. That is where laws are made and where penalties for disobedience and the measures for enforcement are laid down. There is no complete substitute for the law. Public opinion is what makes laws possible and observance widely acceptable.
Houghton challenged our naive thinking about animal rights. Even though CIWF made general appeals for legislation to improve the lives of farmed animals, we did not understand factory farming to be a political issue. We saw it only as a public educational issue. Throughout my involvement with the U.K. and U.S. animal rights movements, Lord Houghton’s profound message of to “Parliament we must go” is a constant reminder of what should be done.
A quick take on the British and American animal rights movements reveal many similarities, including.
- Activists and supporters are mostly female whereas many of the organizations’ leaders are male
- Longstanding commitment to humane education and public education programs that also demonstrate a consistent concern for the welfare of children, people and the environment
- Strategy that highlights egregious examples of animal cruelty and exploitation which seek to portray similarly all the ways in which animals are used
- Calls to action, including the adoption of cruelty-free, vegetarian and vegan lifestyles
- And, not surprisingly perhaps because of the enormity of the challenge, both movements struggle to reconcile the tension between utopian idealism and pragmatic politics
Regardless of these important similarities, there is one key difference between the British and American movements: the former has succeeded in making animal rights a mainstream political issue whereas the latter has not. This is not to say that the movement in this country can rest on its political accomplishments – the prospect of a future Conservative government and their wish to overturn the Hunting Act is, indeed, a sobering thought – nor does it diminish the significant accomplishments achieved in the US when animal issues are placed onto state ballots.