From Fur to Foie Gras: Animals Are on a Winning Streak

While Trump has loosened some federal protections for animals, activists are gaining ground on the local and state level.

Andrew Schwartz November 26, 2019

Anti-fur protesters rally Nov. 23, 2018, in Beverly Hills, Calif. The state passed a law banning fur outright this October. (Photo by Ella DeGea/Getty Images)

Activists with Slaugh­ter Free Chica­go (SFC) gath­ered Novem­ber 7 at City Hall to push the city — once, says SFC founder Robert Gril­lo, the slaugh­ter cap­i­tal of the world” — to elim­i­nate its remain­ing slaugh­ter­hous­es. Dozens of pro­test­ers sang, spoke with may­oral staff, and invoked the mem­o­ry of the social­ist writer Upton Sin­clair, whose book The Jun­gle exposed the squalid work­ing con­di­tions of the city’s meatpackers.

In Milwaukee, activists organized a successful resistance against a proposed plan to build a slaughterhouse.

Pub­lished in 1906, Sinclair’s nov­el gal­va­nized land­mark leg­is­la­tion empow­er­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to reg­u­late meat qual­i­ty. But the plight of the work­ers them­selves (let alone the ani­mals they killed) went large­ly unad­dressed. I aimed for the public’s heart,” Sin­clair famous­ly wrote, and by acci­dent hit it in the stomach.”

The lat­est wave of slaugh­ter­house crit­ics hopes this time, it can hit the heart.

On the sur­face, the sit­u­a­tion for ani­mals is grim: The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has loos­ened gov­ern­ment pro­tec­tions in areas from wildlife refuges to tro­phy hunt­ing to the meat indus­try, and cli­mate emer­gency is poised to threat­en wild ani­mal pop­u­la­tions world­wide. Though Trump did sign a fed­er­al ban on inten­tion­al ani­mal cru­el­ty Novem­ber 25, it specif­i­cal­ly exempts farms, slaugh­ter­hous­es, hunters, fish­ers and research labs, ren­der­ing its scope lim­it­ed. But a series of high-pro­file ani­mal rights vic­to­ries has swept the coun­try in recent weeks, sug­gest­ing more sub­stan­tive reform may be possible.

On Octo­ber 30, activists in the pub­lic gallery at a New York City Coun­cil meet­ing thrust jazz hands to the air in cel­e­bra­tion of a ban on foie gras pro­duced from force-feed­ing, amid a raft of ani­mal wel­fare leg­is­la­tion that includ­ed the estab­lish­ment of a city office explic­it­ly ded­i­cat­ed to ani­mal wel­fare con­cerns, new data-keep­ing require­ments on ani­mal cru­el­ty reports, vac­ci­na­tion require­ments, equine work­ing con­di­tions, and reg­u­la­tions pro­mot­ing shel­ter adop­tion — many of which reflect active ongo­ing cam­paigns else­where. May­or Bill De Bla­sio signed the leg­is­la­tion Novem­ber 25.

Ear­li­er in Octo­ber, Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Gavin New­som signed laws ban­ning the man­u­fac­ture or sale of new fur prod­ucts, as well as the use of most ani­mals in cir­cus acts. In August, Illi­nois became the third state to out­law the sale of cos­met­ics test­ed on non­hu­man ani­mals, fol­low­ing Cal­i­for­nia and Neva­da. And in Mil­wau­kee, activists orga­nized a suc­cess­ful resis­tance against a pro­posed plan to build a slaugh­ter­house in a long-vacant north Mil­wau­kee busi­ness park, in a cam­paign part­ly inspired by SFC.

The 21th cen­tu­ry, thanks in part to activist efforts, has seen a loos­en­ing up of the instru­men­tal per­spec­tive on ani­mal use,” says Bernie Unti. Unti, a senior pol­i­cy advis­er to the pres­i­dent of the Humane Soci­ety of the Unit­ed States (HSUS), has writ­ten exten­sive­ly on the his­to­ry of the ani­mal pro­tec­tion move­ment. In the ear­ly-to-mid 20th cen­tu­ry, Unti says, the move­ment large­ly focused on more mod­est cam­paigns such as those sur­round­ing dogs and cats in pounds; a fast-grow­ing meat indus­try par­ried any more ambi­tious pro­pos­als. But shift in pub­lic atti­tude, com­bined with tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions in cloth­ing, research and fake meat, is mak­ing reforms an eas­i­er lift than in decades past.

A com­mon mis­con­cep­tion about ani­mal rights activists is that we only care about non­hu­man ani­mals, and that we’re dis­cred­it­ing human cul­ture and human behav­ior,” says Amy Zignego, who helped orga­nize the Mil­wau­kee cam­paign. We always have to be real­ly sen­si­tive. We don’t want to be per­ceived as a bunch of white vegans.”

Of the dozens of busi­ness-park neigh­bors whose door­bells activists rang, Zignego said, only one per­son had even heard about the slaugh­ter­house devel­op­ment plan, which was, at the time poised to pro­ceed with lit­tle debate. Act­ing quick­ly, activists suc­cess­ful­ly pushed to delay the vote. The district’s alder­man ini­tial­ly backed the pro­posed slaugh­ter­house on account of its poten­tial to pro­vide jobs and accused activists of selec­tive indig­na­tion” Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, cit­ing an over­whelm­ing response from neigh­bors in oppo­si­tion to the project,” he changed his mind. The slaugh­ter­house com­pa­ny pulled out.

Zignego says the cam­paign aimed for an inter­sec­tion­al” approach, argu­ing that the dele­te­ri­ous effects she asso­ciates with slaugh­ter­hous­es — noise, pol­lu­tion, and low-qual­i­ty work — ani­mat­ed the activists just as did straight­for­ward ani­mal wel­fare concerns.

But there can also be ten­sions when human and non­hu­man inter­ests appear to diverge. The fur debates which have raged in Cal­i­for­nia and New York — where the City Coun­cil speak­er pro­posed a ban ear­li­er this year — have in some cas­es stoked resent­ments along racial lines. The pres­i­dent of California’s Black Busi­ness Asso­ci­a­tion, for instance, accused the anti-fur cam­paign of igno­rance,” cit­ing the cul­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance of fur among black women. Cor­po­ra­tions help fuel these ten­sions: The Inter­cept found that some Cal­i­for­nia fur advo­cates received pre­vi­ous­ly undis­closed pay­ments from an indus­try organization.

Some activists acknowl­edge that many high-pro­file move­ment vic­to­ries — even sub­stan­tive ones — can feel some­what parochial: Queen Eliz­a­beth fur free; Pfiz­er banned a forced swim test, Wal­mart ends live fish sales. But many believe such nar­row­er cam­paigns can effec­tive­ly pave the way for change on a larg­er scale.

The Berke­ley, Calif.-based grass­roots advo­ca­cy group Direct Action Every­where (DxE) pushed for the statewide fur ban, but press coor­di­na­tor Matt John­son clar­i­fied the speci­fici­ty of the issue did not reflect the scope of the group’s ambi­tions, which include the end of all ani­mal exploita­tion for food, cloth­ing, sci­ence and enter­tain­ment. But the statewide law, fol­low­ing munic­i­pal fur bans imple­ment­ed in munic­i­pal­i­ties like Los Ange­les and San Fran­cis­co, is con­sis­tent with the pat­tern laid forth in DxE’s 40-year strate­gic roadmap.” This roadmap empha­sizes local seed activism — with Berke­ley as the epi­cen­ter — to force­ful­ly push the prover­bial Over­ton Win­dow, fun­da­men­tal­ly trans­form­ing how the pub­lic and the legal sys­tem con­ceive of non­hu­man animals.

DxE formed this decade, and has gained promi­nence through its open res­cue” actions where­by activists enter a farm with­out autho­riza­tion, doc­u­ment con­di­tions and take with them ani­mals in need. The strat­e­gy, which pre­dates the orga­ni­za­tion, strives to extend legal prece­dent and to pub­li­cize mis­treat­ment of ani­mals. The group takes par­tic­u­lar aim at source farms for retail­ers like Whole Foods that adver­tise as more humane.

A meat indus­try report showed that, while 2017 saw a slight­ly reduced vol­ume of meat sales from the pre­vi­ous year, sales of meat with pro­duc­tion claims” like antibi­ot­ic-free” or organ­ic” increased by more than 38%. For John­son, this dual trend embod­ies the short­falls of con­sumer-based rhetoric, which he doubts can gal­va­nize the fun­da­men­tal change he desires. Unti from HSUS sees valid­i­ty in such crit­i­cisms, but still takes heart in the fact that more con­sumers expe­ri­ence a moral churn as they choose their eggs.

Ulti­mate­ly, both activists agreed the move­ment must shake its rep­u­ta­tion of self-right­eous­ness — jus­ti­fied or not — to be successful.

Crit­ics, Unti says, have charged that ani­mal rights activists are good at one thing: say­ing shh, tsk tsk.’ Telling peo­ple what they should not do.”

The mes­sage is so much cen­tered around go veg­an,’ ” John­son says. It gives peo­ple this impres­sion that you’re either in the snob­by holi­er-than-thou club that no one real­ly wants to be in, or any­one in that club thinks that you’re an evil person.”

Instead, he sug­gests, advo­cates’ mes­sage should be sys­tems-focused. Peo­ple are on your side if you can craft that mes­sage. It feels like we should be at the tip­ping point.”

Andrew Schwartz is an edi­to­r­i­al intern with In These Times. He was pre­vi­ous­ly a reporter for the Wal­la Wal­la Union-Bulletin.
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