Animal Protection >
The Role of Radical
as Information Providers to Consumers
The use of illegal
activity to fight the exploitation of animals has both costs and benefits. When
utilized to liberate animals who are suffering in extremely cruel and inhumane
conditions, it can have a direct benefit to those particular animals liberated.
Direct action can also successfully gain media attention when legal means seem
to have little impact. A good example of this is the recent increase in press
devoted to fois gras following a series of animal liberation actions focusing on
restaurants and production facilities in Northern California. Although the press
accounts following these incidents were typically not favorable to the animal
liberationists, there was at least some coverage of the issue. This was a
dramatic change from the media treatment of the issue before illegal activity
took place. In addition, the coverage explored the possibility that the
production of fois gras may be inhumane, potentially increasing public knowledge
on this topic. However, at the same time, a credible argument can be made that
activities which lead the public to distance itself from animal causes may in
the long term erode public support, while activity which leads the public to
identify with animal causes builds long-term public support (Carlisle-Frank &
assessing the costs and benefits of illegal acts, one dimension that is often
overlooked is the role of animal liberationists as information providers. There
are institutional barriers between the public and industries that exploit
animals which cause the public to base consumption and political decisions on
very limited information. Often the only information available to the public has
its origins in illegal activity. Animal liberationist activity plays an
important role in bringing this information to the public--a role that has often
been overlooked and that is explored further here.
2. The Economics of
Ethics and Ignorance in Consumption
Economists and policy makers
often assume the relevant attributes of a consumer product to be either directly
or indirectly observable upon consumption. This is inconsistent with reality
since consumer preferences often contain important intangible components,
including an ethical dimension. In fact, almost every consumer product has been
subject to boycotts or a change in demand due to some ethical consideration at
one time or another. In addition, when it comes to regulation, proponents of an
extreme free market perspective sometimes argue that regulation is unnecessary
because ethical issues can be resolved within the marketplace by consumers
making choices based on their ethical preferences (for example by choosing
'humanely' farmed products).
However, for consumers to effectively 'vote with their dollars,' they
must be fully aware of much information that is not visible in a final product.
There is a growing movement internationally to provide greater information to
the public in general known as the 'Right to Know' movement. Much of what this
movement is concerned with is the rights of citizens internationally to know
information about their government. However, the movement also covers actions by
corporations. In fact, a coalition of prominent organizations have formed the
'International Right to Know Campaign' to push for legislation that provides the
public with information on the conduct abroad of U.S. corporations regarding
human rights, worker treatment, and environmental damage (IRTK, 2004). Though
the focus has not been on animal treatment domestically, increasing information
available to the public on this subject fits in well with the goals of the
The ethical dimension of a consumer good is generally intangible and
therefore highly sensitive to the information environment. For industries that
use animals, the production process is of vital importance to consumers if they
are to make an ethical choice. However, this is generally proprietary
information that is not accessible to consumers. The recent case of Mad Cow
disease in the United States
demonstrated that there are other reasons in addition to ethical concerns for
production process information to be considered relevant. The use of rendered
animals as feed for livestock and the processing of downed animals both create
risk for disease that cannot be observed in the final product by beef consumers.
If two final goods are identical, economists and policy makers often
erroneously assume that the production process is irrelevant; and since this
assumption is often unspoken, it goes unchallenged. The one arena where rules
regarding the relevance of process have been made very explicit is in trade
organizations such as the World Trade Organization, the North American Free
Trade Agreement, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. According to
WTO rules, mandatory labeling for process and production method information is
not legitimate unless it is related to product safety (Hobbs,
et al., 2002). Conclusions of these trade organizations which exclude ethical
considerations as irrelevant to the final product have some very important
The discourse in the United States over both recombinant bovine growth
hormone (rBGH) and genetically modified (GM) foods implies an assumption that
ethics and other process attributes unrelated to safety or final good
characteristics are irrelevant. In the debate over rBGH, although there were
legitimate animal welfare concerns and other ethical concerns at issue with the
use of the technology, the technology's proponents argued that labeling products
would imply a safety hazard to the public that did not in reality exist (Buttel,
2000). Thus, the validity of labeling for non-safety issues was pushed aside. GM
foods also present possible environmental and moral issues aside from any safety
issues (Giannakas and Fulton, 2002). Yet nevertheless, the debate regarding GM
food labeling again focused on whether food safety concerns were scientifically
legitimate (Scandizzo, 2002), thereby once again marginalizing any ethical and
Intangible ethical considerations clearly have an effect on
consumption. For example, a can of tuna may be labeled 'dolphin safe.' Without
the label, the product cannot be differentiated by the consumer from a
non-dolphin safe can of tuna; yet nevertheless, Teisl et al (2002) found the
label to be relevant to consumers. When the authors estimated tuna consumption
as a share of all canned meat products, the dolphin safe label was found to
raise tuna's market share by about one percentage point, implying that the label
increased tuna consumption between five and seven percent. It is worth noting
that there are still significant ethical issues with the 'dolphin safe' label.
First, many consumers may not realize that thousands of dolphins are still
killed even after implementation of the label. Furthermore, there are issues
with international standards that have resulted from the Bush administration's
recent efforts to loosen standards allowing Mexican tuna to be imported as
'dolphin safe' (Defenders of Wildlife, 2004).
Economists have a long history of following the principle 'De
gustibus non est disputandum' (there is no disputing taste). In other words,
economists must accept the preferences of consumers, whatever these preferences
might imply. Using this principle, ethical attributes of consumer goods are
relevant regardless of whether they are observable in product performance. They
are relevant for the simple reason that consumers care about these attributes.
Strong proponents of free market capitalism should be the first to
recognize and encourage the provision of full information in markets. Virtually
all economists would agree that the proper functioning of economic markets
depends vitally on access to information. Why should consumers not make
decisions based on all information that they find relevant? Even if only human
interests were assumed to matter, surveys suggest that most consumers find the
treatment of farm animals relevant. Therefore, consumers should have full
information regarding any production conditions that are relevant to their
Animal exploitation is clearly of significance to consumers. A 1983
survey found that 15 percent of people said they had boycotted a company or
product because they were believed to harm animals (DDB Needlam, 1983). A recent Gallup poll found that 62% of people believe that there should
be strict laws passed regarding the treatment of farm animals (Moore,
2003). Another recent national poll found that two-thirds of people agreed that
an animal's right to live free of suffering is just as important as the right
for a human to live free of suffering (ICR Survey Research Group, 2003). A poll
in New Jersey similarly showed high levels of concern regarding animal suffering
Consumers clearly care about animal issues if they are adequately
informed, but they have little to no direct information regarding these
attributes of products. Without labeling or other additional information, animal
treatment during the production process is unobservable in the final good. But
even when traits are unobservable, economists would generally acknowledge that a
socially optimal market would provide consumers with all information they find
relevant (note here that we are talking about what is socially optimal for the
humans involved--this does not take into account the utility of the
animals themselves). Therefore, with animal-based goods, there is an information
deficit and consequently serious problems in getting markets to function
3. Ignorance in
Consumption and Animal Exploitation
Ethical considerations and
ignorance are particularly important to the consumption of animal products in
society. Becoming aware of the processes behind creating animal products can
have a powerful effect. Observing footage, or otherwise being given detailed
accounts of animal exploitation, is a 'moral shock,' and has often been the
turning point in recruiting members of the public into the animal rights
movement (Jasper, 1995). Observing footage of factory farming has also often
been a catalytic event in the decision for some to become vegan (McDonald,
2000). From personal experience as the executive director of an organization
that screens videos involving graphic animal exploitation, I have observed that
this footage often has a powerful impact on people, even those who have low
involvement and knowledge regarding animal issues.
It is likely that much of the public would be strongly opposed to many
common practices in the production of animal-based goods if they were fully
informed. Therefore, ignorance plays a large role in perpetuating the
mistreatment of animals. One example of public opinion changing after a major
revelation came following publication of Upton Sinclair's --The Jungle-- in 1906.
The book affected confidence in the meat supply and sales, and led to major
legislation within six months. However, Upton Sinclair was not satisfied with
the results, since the public focused on the book's health implications rather
than the implications for labor, capitalism in general, and animal exploitation.
As Sinclair put it, he had intended to reach the public's heart but instead only
hit them in the stomach (Block, 2004).
A survey was conducted recently by Rutgers University of
residents of New Jersey regarding humane standards for the treatment of
2003). The survey was prompted by new proposed animal treatment standards
created by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. Roughly nine in ten
residents knew 'not much' or 'nothing' about the new standards. Yet between 74%
and 83% of residents were opposed to common farming practices that would still
be legal under the new regulations such as tail docking, severe confinement of
veal calves and pregnant pigs, and forced molting after simply being informed of
the practice. The researchers conclude that the public is largely ignorant of
farm practices and that the public in New Jersey
is concerned about humane treatment of animals.
The greatest barrier to reform in the exploitation of animals for
commercial purposes appears to be ignorance. Because of the institutional
framework of the United States
and developed countries in general, the information available to the public is
limited. In addition, the information that does become available often comes in
forms (such as the internet) that require active searching or are limited in
their distribution. Animal exploiting industries have strong incentives to
deceive the public or to downplay the nature and extent of the harm caused to
animals. Furthermore these industries have repeatedly demonstrated in practice
their willingness to mislead the public and even use false information when not
diligently monitored and challenged.
Ninety-six percent of Americans say that animals deserve at least some
protection from harm and exploitation (Moore,
2003). Yet often this concern does not translate into behavior given the high
level of animal exploitation in a variety of industries such as factory farming.
There is strong anecdotal evidence from people who work to educate the public
regarding animal issues that (1) the public is largely ignorant of the details
of animal abuses, and (2) many members of the public do react strongly against
such exploitation when they learn the full details of the harm to animals. In
animal use industries, the public is kept far-removed from the details of the
production process. From re-labeling animal parts as something that does not
resemble an animal to using euphemisms for killing and inflicting extreme
suffering, the wording used in animal exploitation industries is designed to
distance the public from the gory details of the production process (Dunayer,
2001). The public is generally not aware of the extreme level of confinement and
sensory deprivation occurring in factory farms or animal laboratories, the high
error rate in stunning animals that results in them being dismembered or boiled
alive in slaughterhouses, the level of pain involved in many animal tests, the
level of suffering inflicted by prevalent fur farming and trapping techniques,
nor the death and suffering involved when elephants or marine mammals are
captured from the wild to perform at a circus or amusement park. Generally, the
public is highly sensitive to all these issues and many others, but they have
little access to the relevant information. Examples of negative public reactions
when animal exploitation information becomes available include the decline in
veal sales when some of the public gained partial awareness of the process, the
decline in fur usage as awareness rose (though most of the public still had only
a dim awareness of the process and fur sales have started to rise again), and
the 'dolphin-safe' tuna example previously discussed.
It is important to make a distinction between superficial information
(such as a one sentence description of animal confinement in an opinion survey),
and more rich information sources such as videotapes that actually show mass
confinement facilities. Anderson (2003) demonstrates
that the use of pictures can dramatically alter survey responses. Anderson
hypothesizes that items without pictures may be discounted or dismissed. Among
the examples he gives demonstrating the power of visual stimuli is the effect
footage of seals being clubbed had on reducing the market for baby seal skins.
Indeed, it would be hard to imagine how the campaign could have been nearly as
powerful without the images of seals actually being killed. While some may argue
that such footage is emotive rather than information enhancing, it is probably
closer to the truth that words like 'baby seals were clubbed' simply cannot give
a reader or listener the full impact of what is happening the way a simple photo
or video clip can. In fact, this is true for most animal exploitation
situations. Saying an animal was 'severely confined,' was 'beaten into
submission,' 'gnawed it own leg off in a steel-jawed trap,' or 'squealed while
being cut up alive' simply cannot fully convey the reality of the situation.
Only showing extreme suffering in photo or video images or other nonverbal
stimuli can come close to bringing across the level of harm done. Even with a
video, saturation with video violence and the general tendency towards
protective denial suggests that, if anything, there will still be bias towards
underestimating the harm done.
Clearly even footage of the torture or death of a living creature is
much less traumatic and powerful than actually being at the actual scene. And
even the actual live viewing of the death or suffering of a person or other
animal is far less powerful without full contextual background regarding that
animal--i.e., seeing that creature in enough depth and varied settings to view it
as a true individual with preferences, awareness, intelligence, personality, and
the ability to suffer. Only in the last situation would a person be truly 'fully
informed' regarding the process behind the production of a hamburger. Thus, even
providing every consumer regularly with graphic footage of factory farm
conditions and slaughter is giving consumers only partial information, though it
is vastly superior to the level of knowledge most consumers currently possess.
4. The Role of Animal
Fur processors, factory
farmers, puppy mills, animal laboratories, circuses/animal parks, and other
animal exploiting industries all have a strong vested interest in minimizing the
amount of information that the public receives. General privacy laws limit the
ability of the public to gain access to these facilities, and additional
legislation with very harsh criminal penalties for anybody attempting to
trespass at animal-related facilities was introduced in seven states in 2003
(Nguyen, 2003), including California, New York, and Texas. The Bush
Administration has also drafted legislation that would expand on the original
Patriot Act including targeting 'domestic terrorism.' What would qualify as
illegal activity under this potential federal legislation could be interpreted
to include investigative reporting or other nonviolent actions such as
photographing the abuse of animals (Best, 2003).
early example of a law specifically designed to suppress information regarding
animal exploitation was Canada's 'Seal Protection Act.' The law was hastily put
together in 1976, specifically in response to plans of activists to campaign
against the seal hunt. Contrary to what the title suggests, the law did not
protect seals, but rather protected seal hunters by preventing people from
approaching areas where the seal hunt was taking place. The law appeared to be
enforced with the intention of suppressing information. In 1981, the law was
used to impound an International Fund for Animal Welfare aircraft used to take
photographs of the hunt. When Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation
Society was sentenced to twenty-one months in prison under the Seal Protection
Act, the case was taken to the Canadian Supreme Court, which resulted in the law
Although government inspections are required at some types of animal facilities,
the regulatory bodies are closely linked with the industry and may have a shared
interest in maintaining the status quo. Individual 'whistle-blowers' and
pro-animal organizations give a long list of specific examples of information
regarding animal cruelty and regulation violations being suppressed. For
example, Fleshler (2003) cites an example of a whistle-blower allegedly being
fired for complaining about animal cruelty, while SHAC (2003) cites an alleged
example of USDA inspectors finding violations and reportedly being told by
supervisors that 'this is political' and that the alleged breaches should not be
filed. Food producers have also been fighting an active campaign to suppress
public information. 'Food disparagement' laws have been passed in at least 13
states and there is an orchestrated campaign by food producers to pass similar
laws in all 50 states (Lilliston and Cummins, 1997). These laws make free speech
difficult by shifting the burden of proof onto the speaker for proving that
their claims are scientifically sound. In addition, often the threat of legal
action by a powerful industry is enough to suppress the speech of individuals
who are not in a position to pay for a court battle. In fact the use of 'SLAPP'
(Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) has been an ongoing strategy
by animal industry organizations to suppress critics by intimidation rather than
by winning actual monetary awards (Munro, 1999).
the huge barriers to legally obtaining animal exploitation information, illegal
animal liberation and undercover activities play a vital role in recording and
publicizing information that is currently inaccessible to the public. Some of
the effort to record and publicize information on animal exploitation can be
conducted legally using undercover methods. The undercover method has been used
both by the media (e.g., by shows such as Dateline) and by animal organizations
(e.g., PETA has sent workers undercover into animal laboratories). However,
legal undercover investigations have their limitations. The media has shown a
strong reluctance to investigate systematic animal abuse by industry. Perhaps
this is due to the great influence these industries have both as advertisers and
through political channels. Legal undercover work by animal organizations is
limited by the time, expense, and difficulty of successfully passing an
investigator off as a legitimate employee with the skills needed for a
particular job and keeping them on the job for a sufficient amount of time to
gather evidence. It also requires finding a person who cares deeply about
animals yet who is simultaneously willing to stand by and not take action when
they potentially observe horrific acts of cruelty and abuse. Surreptitiously
filming some activities, particularly in secured facilities, may also prove
difficult. In addition, even filming animal exploitation could be illegal. In
addition to recent laws that specifically seek to prohibit the free flow of
information regarding animal abuse, recording without consent is illegal in some
states. Furthermore, confidentiality and other contractual agreements between
the employer and employee could also leave the undercover investigator
vulnerable to legal action. Therefore, in many situations illegal activity is
necessary to uncover animal exploitation.
the most compelling information on animal exploitation has come from taking
possession of existing records and footage, which typically requires breaking
the law. A good example of this was a videotape taken from the Head Injury
Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania by the ALF. The tape not only clearly
showed severely painful head injuries being inflicted on baboons at up to one
thousand times the force of gravity, but also the unprofessionalism of the
researchers, who joked about, mocked their subjects, and treated them roughly.
The video also revealed that the baboons were not properly anesthetised,
contrary to the researcher's claims. Importantly, we might note that this case
illustrates that cooperation between underground activist groups and above
ground organizations can be both politically efficient and successful, since
PETA used the ALF footage to create the well-known video 'Unnecessary Fuss'
cases where illegal or undercover documentation have been key to advancing
knowledge and public debate regarding animal exploitation are too numerous to
fully cover here. Some recent examples include the previously mentioned fois
gras activity in Northern California, which resulted in activist footage of fois
gras farm conditions being aired on television, an undercover investigation of
Iams animal testing conducted by PETA, and footage of a dolphin slaughter in
Japan by Sea Shephard Conservation Society. Well known films such as 'Meet your
Meat' and 'The Witness' have used such footage for a powerful effect.
'Unnecessary Fuss,' as already discussed, came from footage obtained illegally
through the ALF. Many other well-known raids by the ALF have resulted in footage
or documents which were later used by the media or investigators. The 1984 raid
of 'City of Hope' included video documentation and logs that helped to lead to
the loss or suspension of millions in grant funding. A 1985 raid of University
of California at Riverside resulted in powerful footage of 'Britches,' a baby
monkey whose eyes had been sewn shut for questionable experiments. A 1986 raid
at the University of Oregon again resulted in documents and photos that had a
media impact. This tactic has been so successful that an animal
liberation-affiliated publication declared that 'it was the A.L.F.'s steps to
'expose' which would ultimately be the vivisectors' biggest threat and what
would bring the A.L.F. and the animals their greatest victories' (No Compromise,
can be no doubt that such illegal and covert entry is vital to monitoring animal
exploitative industries, particularly in an environment where regulators are
frequently lax or have an unhealthy connection with the industries they
regulate. Again, one of the chief problems facing animal welfare advocates today
is disseminating accurate information to the public, which is countered by the
ease with which animal exploiting industries can simply discount or deny the
accuracy of charges from whistleblowers. This is a simple yet effective tactic
on the part of such industries since there is so much asymmetry in the
information producers have relative to that available to the public, and since
animal exploiters and their allies have been successful in portraying the
perspectives of animal advocates as radical in the minds of ordinary people. The
best method of counteracting this tactic is to have well-documented evidence
that cannot be easily denied. Yet this information is simply not readily
available to the public or other outsiders. The media, just like any other third
party, also does not have wide access to this information. Furthermore, there
are strong corporate interests that can exert influence to limit journalistic
investigations towards gathering such information. In the current institutional
structure, therefore, obtaining and publicizing documentation of animal abuse
often requires non-violent illegal action.
Even when they are for a
worthy cause, direct action strategies have both positive and negative
consequences that must be weighed carefully. However, regardless of the other
social consequences of these actions, covert and sometimes illegal animal
liberation/animal rights activity is necessary to provide information to the
public in the current institutional system.
It has been established
here that providing additional public information about animal exploitation is
important and socially beneficial, even when only human interests are taken into
consideration. When animal interests are taken into consideration, this
information becomes even more vital. This information, though important, is also
generally inaccessible to the public through legal means. Therefore, animal
liberationists play an important and socially beneficial role as information
providers, even though they must sometimes use illegal methods to obtain this
information. With animal exploiters attempting to direct public attention to the
property damage and alleged intimidation conducted by animal activists, the role
of animal activists as providers of valuable and socially beneficial information
has often been overlooked. Given the frequent criticism of animal liberation
activity in the media, whereby the ALF and other direct action activists are
branded as 'eco-terrorists,' those in the movement would be well-served to focus
attention on the important role they have played in monitoring animal
exploitation and providing much-needed industry scrutiny to the public.
activists do have a credibility problem among the public and mainstream media.
This reduces their effectiveness in bringing instances of animal exploitation to
light. One way to help counter this, as previously mentioned, is to bring
forward hard evidence that speaks for itself and is difficult to dispute, such
as the footage from 'Unncessary Fuss.' Even then, building credibility is a slow
building process since cases that are brought forward are often dismissed by the
opposition as 'exceptions' or even as somehow 'staged.' This argument may be
convincing to the public in individual cases. However, it can be countered if
the animal advocates are viewed by the public as credible, or if the weight of
evidence is strong enough that these counterarguments start to ring hollow
(i.e., if enough cases are brought forward, it is hard to call them all
credibility issues could also be partially addressed by putting more of a focus
on media relations and being more savvy and organized in handling this aspect of
their efforts. However, this is difficult to do given the considerable power,
sophistication, and media access of the organizations attempting to discredit
animal activists. Some credibility can be gained simply by highlighting the role
of activists discussed in this essay 'i.e., liberationists' role as providers of
socially beneficial information.
A more extreme but
perhaps appropriate measure would be to delink organizationally efforts to
expose animal abuse from other illegal activities by creating a new underground
organization that is solely focused on exposing abuse and providing information
to the public by whatever means are necessary. Currently, these two functions
often share information, personnel, and resources. Sometimes, documenting abuse
and other illegal actions are done in the same event. However, from the public's
perspective, activities linked with vandalism, sabotage, and intimidation will
be viewed disfavorably. At the same time, documenting abuse depends critically
on the documentor's credibility. Therefore, it would be beneficial to isolate
the important job of documenting industry abuse. This would also serve to
highlight the information gathering function for the public, making it more
difficult for supporters of animal exploiting industries to portray illegal
activity as only about property damage and intimidation (in their efforts, for
example, to push for anti-activist laws).
From a public policy
perspective, activities which the public may find objectionable should become
transparent, thereby making illegal activity unnecessary for information
collection purposes. Most likely, consumers will not have the time or resources
individually to monitor industry activities, even if they are publicly
accessible. Therefore, intermediaries such as animal advocacy organizations
should be encouraged and enabled to perform such monitoring. As a starting
measure, the current trend in laws that increases penalties for nonviolent
activities that have been labeled 'domestic terrorism' should be reversed.
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