by Alice Bruckenstein / November 24th, 2008
The impulse was always there. Why hadn’t I noticed sooner? Years ago, at a New England whaling museum, hadn’t I been horrified at battle-worn harpoons spiraled into children’s scribbles? Wasn’t I sorry for the lobsters queued up at a Bar Harbor lobster pound, even as I anticipated eating one? Didn’t I consider my annual excursions to the Dutchess County Fair the most fun anybody could have? One year, an especially friendly milk cow licked me so thoroughly even my handbag was wet.
Suddenly, the reality and immensity of animals’ suffering at the hands of humans came crashing into my consciousness as forcefully as the floods of New Orleans. I couldn’t sleep at night thinking about factory farms, leg-hold traps, puppy mills – the list was endless. If you let your empathy neurons work overtime, you can become paralyzed with grief. To prevent going totally insane, as the budding animal rights activist in the film Year of the Dog briefly did, I decided to focus on the Canadian harp seal hunt. Conducted by a small group of fishermen in a limited geographic area, the hunt seemed like something that could, possibly, be stopped.
Many knew of the seal hunt from past decades, but too few realized that it was still going on. Pouring over my copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point like a law student studying for the Bar exam, I set out to distribute flyers from coast to coast. Once the facts were out, little ripples of interest would surely grow into great waves of indignation and, as Abe Lincoln said, "Public sentiment is everything." Putting my fledgling copywriting and design skills to use, and with an enthusiasm reserved only for the naïve and uninitiated, I embarked on my plan.
The flyers were actually glossy cards, and I felt virtuous lugging the heavy box home from the printer through the quirky streets west of the Flatiron building. A humane organization’s website provided me with a list of demonstration leaders, and I sent out emails en masse. "Hello Activists!" Pressing the send button was akin to jumping out of a plane. There was no turning back.
Armed with stacks of my newly minted creation, I also hit the sidewalks of Manhattan, and approached everyone – big aloof muscular guys, preoccupied businessmen, elderly ladies in hats and jewelry clinging arm in arm, giggling teenagers. Some praised me and some cursed me. One young woman called me a liar. Another, flyer in hand, walked away looking stunned and wounded. I dismissed hurtful remarks and damaged psyches alike, secure in the worthiness of my purpose.
Meanwhile, requests for flyers started popping up on my computer screen from southern California, Albuquerque, Omaha, Austin, a small town in Georgia, Boston. "So this is how it feels to be subversive," I thought on my way to the Post Office. Tipping point! One activist from across the country kept asking for more flyers. Every day I received her emails on the latest developments to end the killing of baby seals. When she wrote "their little souls in heaven are thanking you," it was as if she could see a part of my soul. Sue kept me going.
My "audience" did too, regardless of the occasional rebuff, and many passersby stopped to engage me. I discussed whale hunting with an Australian man at a street fair in Chelsea, a young anarchist from Central America shook my hand in Times Square, a musician singing John Lennon songs came over to chat at the Imagine Circle in Central Park. The encounters were thrilling though, strangely, I also had the vague sense of being an impostor. Despite the authenticity of my mission, the role of activist seemed to make me both more and less myself. I loved the role. It allowed me to be fearless. Yet it also set me uncomfortably apart.
Recently, I witnessed a man walking his dog across a busy intersection. He tightened the leash to a chokehold, and the dog started yelping. Pandemonium ensued. Pedestrians called out in protest from all four corners. A head emerged out of the side window of a large truck stopped at the offending scene. "You leave that dog alone!" shouted the driver.
Most of us do care about animals when confronted with individual cases of cruelty. The key lies in translating that outrage into action on a larger scale. To do this the abstract must be made tangible and real. That’s where the resistance lies. Two years and four flyer designs later the annual seal hunt continues. I haven’t given up, and I am heartened by observing hundreds of people reading the flyer. Turn it over and you see the devastating numbers of baby seals that have been slaughtered – but on the cover is a picture of just one.
Alice Bruckenstein is an animal rights activist living in New York City. She has a number of letters published in the New York Times and is the composer of Song for Canada’s Harp Seals, which can be heard on YouTube. Read other articles by Alice.