By Suzanne Bopp
Consider these facts: Ninety-five law schools now offer at least one course in animal law. A publication exists called the Journal of Animal Law and Ethics. The World Bank has created a publication on animal welfare.
Animal rights issues have permeated our culture, and animal agriculture is seeing the effects. So in May, when farmers, legislative leaders, veterinarians, issue management specialists, government officials and others interested in the future of agriculture came together in Arlington, Virginia, for the Animal Agriculture Alliance's Stakeholders Summit, that's what they talked about.
This year's theme was "Politics, Activism and Religion: Influencing the Debate on Animal Welfare in America."
Here are some of the highlights.
There was a warning from Wes Jamison, associate professor of communications at Palm Beach Atlantic University: animal rights activists are using messages with religious themes and language to advance their agenda: vegetarianism.
Part of what makes it possible for groups to use religious language is that so many people today have a vague and undefined religiosity, a lack of doctrinal anchor: they are attracted to the language and the ideas. Their lack of theological understanding makes it difficult for them to refute an argument couched in religion. "We're in a post theological world, adrift without a rudder," he said. He referred to the animal rights groups as "meaning entrepreneurs": their audience is in search of meaning, and the groups are trying to fill that void.
Dr. Jamison explained two major reasons driving the activists to take this route. The first is that people motivated by religion tend to donate money generously; the second is that people motivated by religion can maintain the intensity of their beliefs over time. Religious converts tend to be very motivated - and interested in creating more converts.
This approach also allows for groups to attract bipartisan support; religious feeling crosses party lines.
So does pet ownership, and pet owners are particularly vulnerable to the guilt on which animal activists thrive. Pet owners have to find a way to deal with a certain cognitive dissonance in their lives: they live with some kinds of animals as pets/companions, while they eat other kinds.
The guilt involved in treating pets one way and food animals another way goes to one of the activists' core messages; people donate money to alleviate that guilt. Other religious-themed messages relate to the value of individual worth (God knows every animal, but factory farmers commodify animals); asceticism (animals suffer for our gluttony); and compassion, what Jamison called "the big message to the middle. All religions stress compassion. God is compassionate; factory farming is not." The theme of responsibility - that humans should do what they can to restore the planet - appeals to what Jamison called today's "meism": the growth of narcissistic self-importance.
Bruce Vincent, a third generation logger from Montana, also gave an impassioned talk, warning that animal rights groups thrive on conflict - in fact, they must perpetuate conflict to survive. It is a conflict industry, he said. "Groups involved in this industry generate cash by marketing fear." He warned that activist groups put before the public false choices, especially on animal welfare and the environment (the only way to have clean water is to eliminate animal agriculture, etc.).
Because he believes "the world is run by those who show up," Vincent urged people in agriculture, and other resource-based industries, to become activists themselves: to add a line item for activism to their business plans, ensuring they set aside both time and money to do the work.
"America is ready for a new leader and a new vision, based on hope instead of fear, science instead of emotion, education instead of litigation and resolution instead of conflict," Vincent said. "That new leader should be us."
Vincent is the executive director of Provider Pals (www.providerpals.com), a cultural exchange program that links classrooms with farmers, ranchers, miners, loggers, oil field workers, commercial fishermen and "others who provide the basics of everyday life."
Don't make HSUS the subject. If you talk to PETA, you've lost.
If you think Washington thinks for your industry, think again. Bring he who has risk in the industry to speak for you; lawmakers will listen.
Don't tell consumers what you want them to know - tell them about what they are concerned about. Don't do away with the discussion; take it over. Americans won't put up with anything that seems anti-animal or anti-environment.
If agriculture allows animal rights groups to start state initiative process, they'll end up playing defense.
The Internet may have an effect; activists have learned to use the Internet better than industry has.