Learning From A Landmark Animal Rights Campaign
While social movements are often grounded in activism, no two campaigns are alike. Furthermore, most campaigns go through a number of successes and setbacks. Regardless of a movement’s outcome, there are always learnings for future advocates to grow from.
A recent case study of the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign is one example. The goal of SHAC was to shut down Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), an animal testing company that drew controversy for documented abuse against beagle puppies, monkeys, and other species. Today HLS is part of a company called Envigo, which continues to sell non-human animals to researchers along with offering various “services” (e.g., surgical alteration and gene editing).
The report, produced by the Social Change Lab, tries to answer a handful of questions about SHAC’s campaign against HLS. These include which of its tactics were particularly successful (and unsuccessful), why it attracted negative attention from the public, media, and government, and what today’s advocates can learn from it to inform their own social movements.
SHAC was founded in the U.K. in 1999 in response to a media exposé about animal cruelty taking place at HLS. Some of its early tactics involved overwhelming the company’s phone lines and fax machines, “flyposting” graphic information about its animal welfare violations in public locations, and hosting public meetings and demonstrations. Other early actions included campaigning against HLS employees and shareholders as well as companies and individuals that did business with HLS. While SHAC released a regular newsletter, it was a “leaderless resistance” movement, meaning that it was largely made up of independent activists who were encouraged to take action on their own.
Although SHAC activists employed a wide variety of protest tactics, over time the campaign received publicity for several controversial acts of protest committed by a small minority of participants. For example, a few activists attacked the managing director of HLS in 2001 with heavy wooden objects. One scientist associated with HLS received a package of explosives in the mail, while some HLS employees’ cars were firebombed between 2000-2001. SHAC also received backlash for demonstrating at HLS employees’ and shareholders’ homes, particularly when children were present.
Nevertheless, SHAC was highly successful in some of its efforts to advocate against HLS. For example, major companies including HSBC and Merrill Lynch cut ties with the organization, as did the U.K. Labour Party and many individual shareholders. The New York Stock Exchange delayed HLS’s listing for 15 months. In turn, although perhaps not due entirely to SHAC’s efforts, HLS’s stock dropped significantly between 2000 and 2004.
The author argues that SHAC’s successes were largely due to its adaptability. Its activists had a large repertoire of tactics that they were able to use (or abandon) depending on what was working for them, and they could make decisions quickly. The author also believes that SHAC’s singular focus on targeting HLS helped streamline its efforts and minimize distractions.
SHAC ultimately ceased operations as of 2014. The author believes increased government crackdowns in the U.S. and U.K. in response to extreme forms of activism was the major cause. Indeed, the author points out that people in the U.S. and U.K. became more fearful of extreme demonstrations after the September 11th terrorist attacks, and both governments enacted legislation to protect animal testing and pharmaceutical companies and to condemn controversial forms of animal activism. Several SHAC leaders were arrested in the course of the campaign, which may have posed challenges for its activists.
The author argues that SHAC also received negative attention from the media and the general public, which they attribute to the activists who carried out the most controversial forms of protest. The public and courts viewed home demonstrations especially poorly, although the author points out that these demonstrations could have been effective in persuading influential individuals who were receptive to SHAC’s arguments. However, following some invasive approaches (such as one activist who stole and sold an HLS employee’s underwear), some people branded the entire SHAC organization as terroristic — even though many of SHAC’s activities were nonviolent.
What lessons, then, can be drawn from the SHAC campaign? The author argues that organizations with a “leaderless resistance” structure (i.e., not having an obvious leader or core) must be strategic in how they carry out their campaign tactics. It’s important to take a clear position on what an organization supports and doesn’t support. Furthermore, organizations should make it as obvious as possible that they condemn violent and dangerous methods of protest.
SHAC’s successes can also be a learning for animal advocates. Specifically, their singular focus on HLS gave them a clear mission. By focusing on one company in particular, instead of the larger industry of non-human animal testing, they were able to keep their activists and goals on track. Next, having a diverse array of tactics to pull from allowed SHAC to experiment and choose what was most effective. Diversifying tactics can make a movement more palatable to people who might prefer one type of advocacy over another. Last, achieving small wins along the way to a broader goal can help to keep members motivated and involved in the campaign.