The Road To Helping Animals Is Paved With Good Intentions (AV Magazine Article)
This article appeared in the summer 2008 edition of AV Magazine
People love animals. And while people mostly love their companion animals and fellow primates, they also indicate strong support for the welfare of farmed animals, wildlife, and research animals. Most also think we should have strict laws enforcing protection for all types of animals. In an abstract sense, a strong majority of people support not just reducing animal suffering, but even eliminating it entirely.  This is the good news about the public’s attitude toward animals.
For animal advocates, the bad news – or perhaps the challenge – is that despite these positive attitudes, people still engage in and/or tolerate animal unfriendly behavior. Due to both lack of awareness and an unconscious unwillingness to face animal cruelty, most people do not acknowledge how their behavior results in animal suffering. This “disconnect” is further complicated by other social issues and the fact that not all animals are (perceived to be) created equal.
Certain American traditions are rooted in activities like hunting and trapping and beliefs of “manifest destiny,” which tend to pervade a society’s consciousness with an attitude of dominance over animals. Similarly, many “traditionalist evangelical” Christians, who make up 13% of the U.S. population , believe in the superiority of humans over other animals. Of course, people’s concern for animals also varies by type of animal. We care more about the animals with whom we can most easily relate, including those with expressions and mannerisms like our own.
People generally show less concern for animals they least understand, like chickens and fish and insects, as well as rats, mice, and birds. It may be that it’s difficult for people to empathize with birds, for instance, in part because they do not smile or frown (as we perceive it). Not surprisingly, these animals who seem least like us are also the animals we typically use in the greatest numbers for experimentation, food, etc. It is not exactly indifference that leads to our use and abuse of animals; rather, it’s a lack of personal connection with these more “commoditized” animals.
It may simply be an issue of awareness. In a famous study of U.S. presidential elections, the researchers summarized public opinion in this way: “Most people don’t think about most issues most of the time.”  For animal issues, which rank poorly compared with the Iraq war, the economy, and other issues, this is an understatement. Even the environmental movement, despite all of its recent progress, has trouble getting traction. A March 2008 survey by NBC/WSJ found that only 4% of U.S. adults think the environment should be the government’s top priority. 
It may not be surprising that the public’s attention to animal issues is overwhelmed by corporate advertising and issues like terrorism and politics. Despite this lack of engagement, however, people are strongly supportive of animal issues and of animal advocates. In fact, a 1994 Pew Research study found that two-thirds of adults have a “favorable opinion of the animal rights movement.”  More recently, a 2000 Gallup Poll found that 72% of adults said they “agree with the goals of the animal rights movement.” 
However, there is a clear difference between the lack of public engagement in animal protection and the generally strong support that most people express for animal issues. “On paper,” people think that animal protection is important, sometimes 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. Again, it’s not that animal issues are considered unimportant, just less important.
The primary challenge for animal advocates therefore remains tapping into public consciousness and concern. Research indicates that the most successful advocates find ways to boost their credibility and avoid playing into the negative stereotypes of animal advocates. For vivisection in particular, credibility is a critical factor because scientists and researchers enjoy relatively strong credibility on the issue, while animal advocates do not. The recent successes achieved by the American Anti-Vivisection Society and others are more reflective of a growing realization that animal testing is junk science (along with investments in alternatives) than an overall shift in public opinion.
With that said, animal protection groups ranked second only to veterinarians when it came to perceived credibility regarding general animal welfare information. This is according to a recent annual survey called the Animal Tracker, a study initiated by the Faunalytics, a nonprofit that provides strategic research for animal advocates (founded by this article’s author). In that same survey, about four in ten U.S. adults said that they have purchased a product labeled as “not tested on animals,” specifically because of their concern for animal welfare.  Another study found that a vast majority of people (95%) think that it is important for parents to teach their children compassion and kindness toward animals (“humane education”). 
There is yet more evidence that people have an innate feeling of compassion and empathy for non-human animals. Two thirds (67%) of adults in the U.S. strongly or somewhat agree that “an animal’s right to live free of suffering should be just as important as a person’s right to live free of suffering.”  If you think about it, that’s a pretty startling figure; it’s also more than a little ironic when a common criticism of animal advocates is that they care more about animals than people.
In addition to raising awareness, a key challenge for animal advocates is determining how to persuade more people to act on their core sense of compassion toward animals. It is arguably not peoples’ attitudes that inhibit advocates’ ability to create a kinder world for animals. Rather, it is the disconnection mentioned earlier – between attitudes and behavior – that needs to be addressed. While it is laudable to seek a change of “hearts and minds,” the final goal must involve changing behavior to meaningfully reduce animal suffering.
The point is that a shift in attitudes is not always necessary to induce behavior change. This is fortunate, because as Faunalytics has confirmed in our many research projects, changing attitudes is a slow process requiring incremental approaches and lots of patience. For some issues, long-term and meaningful change will require that advocates simply commit to the slow process. For other issues, real change may only come if animal advocates find innovative solutions or create paradigm changes, such as through existing or new laws, corporate policies, and technological innovations.
In the end, however, attitudes are important. For the animals’ sake, it’s encouraging that public opinion is on their side, even if it’s only in a general and abstract sense. The work of animal advocates would be much more difficult if the predominant attitude toward animals was one of antipathy instead of compassion. With kindness as the default, however, animal advocacy is really just teaching people why and how they can live a life more consistent with their own beliefs.
1. According to Faunalytics’ Animal Tracker survey (wave 1); results released in summer 2008.
2. The American Religious Landscape and Political Attitudes: A Baseline for 2004, by John C. Green,
3. Presidential Elections: Strategies of American Electoral Politics, Nelson Polsby and Aaron Wildavsky, http://www.jstor.org/pss/1035640
4. Problems and Priorities, by PollingReport.com, http://www.pollingreport.com/prioriti.htm
5. People, The Press & Politics Poll, https://faunalytics.org/feature-article/people-the-press-politics-poll/
6. The Gallup Poll, https://faunalytics.org/feature-article/the-gallup-poll-2/
7. Faunalytics’ Animal Tracker survey (wave 1); results released in summer 2008.
8. National Council for Animal Protection study, https://faunalytics.org/feature-article/u-s-public-opinion-about-the-animal-protection-movement/
9. Associated Press Poll, https://faunalytics.org/feature-article/associated-press-media-general-poll/