Animal Protection > Worldwide Actions > Finland

15 Jun 2005

Silly little girls or dangerous terrorists?
By Pihla Tiihonen

The original "fox girls" gave a face in the Finnish media to the wave of protest of the whole previous decade. However, sociologist Esa Konttinen feels that it would be a mistake to see all types of activists as extremists.

Mia Salli (left) & Minna Salonen (center) at Helsinki news conference in 1995

In Konttinen�s view, fur auction demonstrations, McDonald�s boycotts, laboratory animal thefts, and other types of activism involved young people who reacted in a sensitive manner to various negative aspects of society.

"Animal activists were accused of not caring about people. In reality, young people who were interested in animal rights were also active in Amnesty International, for instance. Raids were conducted by very few. Most of the activity was peaceful", notes Konttinen, who has researched the environmental radicalism of the new generation.

"The public image of the activists was in stark contrast with reality. Seeing them as enemies of society and as terrorists represented an image of the enemy, which was based on a new and strange phenomenon."

Finnish Fur Farmers in Kaustinen in 1998

Pirita Juppi, who wrote a doctoral thesis on the handling of the animal rights movement in newspapers in the 1990s, says that the movement was easy to dismiss, because the idea that individual animals might enjoy rights was foreign to politics. In addition, destruction of property and operating in secret violated the national traditions of civil disobedience.

The word "terrorism" was used surprisingly frequently in the media, in Konttinen�s view.

"In this respect the press was non-analytical. Terrorism is a concept that imposes a stark label, and should be reserved for other uses. Animal activists do not even approve of using violence against people."

Journalism researcher Juppi agrees. She says that it was perhaps difficult to understand the multiplicity of variations that exist between traditional organisation work and international terrorism, because there had been no real political terror in Finland in decades. "However, this does not explain why terrorism was used in connection with the animal rights movement even after September 11th, when there was widespread media coverage of real terrorism."

Dismissing the activists as "little girls" - downplaying them on the basis of their age and gender was, according to Juppi, the second-most common attitude taken toward animal rights activists. When the perpetrators of the fur farm raids did not fit the image of terrorists, a theory was concocted that they were a naive misguided flock led by a dangerous core of radicals.

"Talk about fox girls was a derisive attempt to portray the animal rights movement as a bunch of spoiled urban brats alienated from nature."

The third-most common view was to label the animal rights activists as ordinary criminals.

"The decisive factor was violating the law, not the motives of the movement", Juppi explains.

In more recent fur farm raid stories, police have been interviewed more than they were in older media stories on the subject. The fur farmers have also been allowed to have their say more frequently than before.

The novelty of the first fur farm raids worked partly in the activists� favour. Mia Salli and Minna Salonen shot to celebrity status.

"When the women tried to attract attention by holding a press conference, the journalists focused on Mia�s wig, instead of writing about what the women had to say", Juppi notes.

The journalists� opinions could be seen more clearly in the articles written on animal rights activism than usually is the case in the Finnish media. Negative attitudes, or feelings of understanding, could sometimes be detected in stories on the news pages.

"Newspaper editorials tried to evoke a moral front against the animal rights movement. The media was not very successful in promoting debate on the social questions, because the movement was excluded from serious debate. I would like to believe that it would be possible to ease conflicts through dialogue."

Too harsh a response can, in Juppi�s view, even lead to a spiral of radicalisation.

"If the media paints a picture of a violent movement, it can turn into a reality, when the movement starts to attract certain types of people. Fortunately this kind of development has not been seen in Finland."

As a former active member of an animal welfare organisation, Juppi has first-hand experience of what it is like to be labelled.

"Nevertheless, as I was writing my thesis, I felt that I benefited from knowing the movement from the inside as well. I do not believe that a researcher can live outside society in an ivory tower. I do not think that it is even desirable."

Why did the 1990s go down in history as a time of a rising animal rights movement? Konttinen feels that defending animal rights spread to Finland surprisingly late. In Sweden, the movement existed already in the 1980s. She explains the delay with this country�s late urbanisation; a strong agrarian culture did not take very easily to the idea of the immorality of utilising animals.

There was also fertile ground for an animal rights movement, when large-scale farming with pigs and poultry being raised in massive units became more common in the 1980s.

Juppi feels that Finland is no longer the country that it was before the animal rights controversy. She feels that attitudes toward protest have become more negative, which is reflected in calls for a ban on wearing masks during demonstrations.

Slight cultural changes have happened in the direction that the animal welfare movement had hoped for. Fur farming has turned from a self-evident acceptable livelihood to a practice that needs to be defended. Animal rights have become a part of public debate alongside simple animal protection.

"One invisible revolution has been the increase in vegetarianism among young adults. They will probably raise their children as vegetarians as well, which means that the lifestyle will become more common", Juppi says.

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