The 5 Key Challenges Facing Animal Advocates
In a famous study of U.S. presidential elections, social researchers Nelson Polsby and Aaron Wildavsky summarized public opinion in this way: Most people don’t think about most issues most of the time. So maybe we shouldn’t take it personally when a Google search returns 15 times as many hits for “Pokemon” as it does for “animal rights” (no really, give it a try). Even the environmental movement — arguably the animal movement’s older and better-dressed sibling — has trouble getting traction. A June 2007 survey by NBC/WSJ found that only 6% of U.S. adults think the environment should be the government’s top priority.
It may not be surprising that media attention to environmental and animal issues pales in comparison to corporate advertising and issues like war and terrorism. In fact, a 2000 survey by HSUS found that nearly half of adults in the U.S. could not name even a single animal organization. But despite this lack of engagement, people are overwhelmingly supportive of animal issues. A 1994 Pew Research study found that two-thirds of adults have a “favorable” perception of the “animal rights movement” (SpotCheck #: 69). More recently, a 2000 Gallup Poll found that 72% of adults said they “agree with the goals of the animal rights movement” (SpotCheck #: 67).
There is a clear disconnect between the lack of public engagement in animal protection vs. the generally strong support that most people express for animal issues. “On paper,” people think that animal protection is important, maybe even a priority. But in reality, animal protection — like environmentalism — gets lost amid the myriad responsibilities of everyday life and the issues du jour that dominate the media. As a result, animal advocates are often forced to be “creative” (and occasionally outlandish) just to be heard above the din; though even our creativity seems to have done little to increase awareness and engagement.
Challenge #1 for animal advocates is therefore just getting animal issues “on the map” of public consciousness and concern. Moreover, advocates must do so in ways that boost their credibility and avoid playing into negative stereotypes of animal advocates. Efforts to increase awareness of animal protection issues and the perception that they are a priority would also be most effective if they take into account the other important challenges faced by animal advocates. Here are 4 more key challenges, based on past research findings and the Faunalytics’s ongoing analysis of the animal protection movement.
Challenge #2 is what Faunalytics calls the “Freedom of Choice Imperative.” Most people resist big, sweeping changes or far-reaching restrictions on their behavior. Banning certain practices can work for niche issues like foie gras or intense confinement, but in general “bans” are met with stiff resistance. For instance, most people oppose any sort of ban on hunting despite the fact that hunters are a small minority of the population. This stems from the innate sense of individuality and personal “freedom” that many feel is an inherent human right; this “freedom of choice” is often perceived to trump the rights of animals.
Challenge #3 is the notion that humans should always come before animals. This is closely related to the Freedom of Choice Imperative, but is even broader. A 1994 General Social Survey found that only 26% of U.S. adults agree that “animals should have the same moral rights that human beings do;” twice as many (51%) disagreed (SpotCheck #: 98). For animal advocates, this poses a clear challenge. Human oppression is a serious and ongoing problem, of course, and the widespread belief that humans are more important than animals gives some people license to de-prioritize (or even ignore) animal issues as long as humans are suffering. If the issues are considered mutually exclusive, human issues tend to be prioritized.
Challenge #4 is the belief that the policies currently in place to help animals are adequate. Many people seem to think this is the case regarding laws, and many also believe that animal “caretakers” such as farmers, lab technicians, etc. have animal welfare as a top priority. Episodic types of animal cruelty (e.g., teens lighting a dog on fire) are obvious and abhorrent to most people, but “institutionalized” animal abuse (e.g., factory farms) is not. The challenge for animal advocates is to demonstrate that these institutional abuses are as bad as or worse than the episodic cruelty situations with which most people are more familiar.
Challenge #5 is the perception that the beliefs and tactics of animal advocates are “extreme.” A 1990 study by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (note the source) found that 43% of adults agree that “animal rights activists are well meaning, but their positions are too extreme.” This is a large segment of the population that believes animal advocates” beliefs and ideologies are “extreme,” likely due to perceived limits on “freedom of choice” and/or the notion of placing animals before humans. The same is true of many advocacy tactics, and animal advocates face the challenge of at least not reinforcing the stereotype that they are extreme.
In a nutshell, these are the top 5 challenges for animal advocates, based on Faunalytics’ experience conducting research for more than 20 animal protection groups over the past 7 years. Do you agree or disagree? What are some other key challenges facing animal advocates? Registered users, please give your thoughts by clicking on “add new comment” below.