One of the most enduring stereotypes about people interested in animal welfare is that they are giant softies who may have gone a bit batty, living in houses filled with cats and rescued guinea pigs and other unwanted and discarded animals. There’s a certain level of vicious contempt in the way society views people who care about animals and it’s borne out in a lot of reactions to the animal welfare movement. Members of the movement are typecast as sour-faced vegans out to ruin everyone’s fun, utterly lacking in a sense of humour and unable to do anything without being either hopelessly radical and extremist, or pathetically idealistic.
The animal welfare movement actually includes people from a broad variety of backgrounds, from farmers interested in improving conditions for livestock to, yes, women involved with cat rescue work who foster cats in their homes. The movement’s origins lie in the Quakers, who laid the groundwork for the modern animal welfare and rescue movement in the 19th century, concerned about the plight of animals in a rapidly industrialising society. Many were concerned specifically with carriage horses and other working animals, and expanded to pets as well as food animals, interested in improving conditions for all animals, not just those seen working on the streets.
This is definitely in keeping with the Quaker ethos of compassion and treating living beings with respect. Unsurprisingly, these early animal welfare advocates were viciously mocked for their involvement, and tellingly, emasculating language was often used to talk about members of the movement. Men who opposed the abuse of working horses in the city, for example, were treated as ‘weak’ and ‘womanly’ for feelings that horses ought to receive better protections, and for speaking up when they saw blatant horse abuse in the streets.
It’s curious to me that some people oppose animal welfare so vigorously, as well as deeply troubling. Most people involved in the movement are involved because they care about animals, view them as living organisms with the capacity to feel pain and emotions, to develop relationships with each other as well as other species. They acknowledge the fact that animals are alive, not simply machines or objects for human use, and they want to see them treated with respect and care, rather than abused. The idea of being opposed to the idea of treating living things with gentleness and kindness, and with proudly touting that, is disturbing.
While the popular perception of the animal welfare movement is often PETA-focused, that organisation makes up only a small part of the larger animal welfare community. Numerous other groups work on various aspects of animal welfare, and some are deeply opposed to PETA’s tactics and the kinds of policies the organisation promotes; many assumptions that people have about animal welfare groups are bluntly wrong, because they’re basing those assumptions on no experience whatsoever. Rather than assuming that the idea of animal welfare is wrong because PETA is gross, people should be assuming that PETA is gross.
Cleveland Amory, a champion for animals until his death, ate meat, and viewed vegetarians with bemusement and confusion. He also supported humane conditions for food animals, and hosted a variety of animals traditionally used for food on his famous Black Beauty Ranch in Texas. Amory, through his books about his cat Polar Bear, was one of my formative introductions to the idea of animal welfare; I read his discussions about the actions of the Fund for Animals and was outraged at some of the abuses they uncovered, particularly involving animals used in research.
How, I asked myself, could anyone support the torture of animals, let alone to no apparent end? The kinds of abuses he documented are still going on in labs all over the world, serving no real function, and scientists openly admit this in some cases. Decades after Amory was promoting non-animal alternatives to cosmetics testing and pharmaceutical research as well as pure research, animals are still being used for these purposes, even though the results of these tests are not necessarily scientifically reliable, and many researchers agree that animal testing is an outdated and ineffective method.
Members of the animal welfare movement are concerned about the abuse of animals; the beating of cows in slaughterhouses, horrific repeat surgeries without anesthetic in experimental facilities, endless pregnancies for breeding dogs in puppy mills, cramming of chickens into cramped holding sheds, and the myriad other ways humans torment animals for profit. If this makes us potty, or softies, than so be it; I’d much rather be a dotty person with too many cats than a heartless and cruel person who cannot acknowledge the fact that animals are living beings who experience pain, fear, and other emotions.
Being involved in animal welfare can take a lot of different forms, and animal advocacy work runs a broad gamut. Some people are strict vegans who think it’s wrong to live with pets, while others are meat eaters who want to see more humanely-sourced meat and other animal products. Some focus on the use of animals in research, while others are concerned about hoarding and what happens when good intentions go wrong and people who love animals start to pose a danger to them. This doesn’t need to be an all or nothing proposition.
I don’t think that ‘softness’ is a poor personality trait. On the contrary, I’d argue it’s a pretty fundamental part of humanity, and it’s a personality recommendation rather than a drawback. Someone who shows kindness to animals, who cares about them and considers their needs as individuals, is demonstrating compassion, not an inability to cope with ‘the real world.’ Someone who ‘speaks for those who can’t,’ as Cleveland Amory said, is merely fulfilling the most basic of duties for humanity, to end exploitation and challenge abuse wherever it’s encountered.