By now, we are probably all familiar with studies that indicate animal activists* in the U.S. and elsewhere are predominantly white, female, with at least some college education, and have a middle-class or higher income (Plous, 1991; Galvin & Herzog, 1996).
But such a characterization leaves a lot to be desired. Even if these demographics are accurate, they don’t tell us much about the personalities, beliefs, values, or lifestyles of animal activists. To put a face on animal advocacy, I reviewed studies from a variety of perspectives, including psychology, social science, theology and history. Most of the studies were qualitative – that is, they consisted of a small number (typically 35 or fewer) of in-depth interviews or surveys with open-ended questions, rather than asking a large number of people a list of questions with predefined answer options.
While studies of this type cannot be taken as representative of all activists, they are interesting, nonetheless. Activists had higher than average empathy towards animals starting in early childhood (Lewis, 2007; Pallotta, 2008). In several studies, most subjects were involved in at least one other movement. Negative impacts to relationships with friends, co-workers, family members and partners due to animal activism are common, yet they still perceive activism as an affirming experience that enhances their sense of agency, and provides opportunities for personal growth and the expansion of skills (Galvin & Herzog, 1996; Gaardner, 2008).
Most do not regularly attend church services (Kruse, 1999; Lewis, 2007), but there may be a spiritual aspect to participation in animal activist communities of support and shared values that resembles the community-bonding function of churches in many ways (Jamison, Wenk & Parker, 2000; Jacobsson & Lindblom, 2013; Jacobsson, 2014). Contrary to hostile characterizations, most animal activists are not opposed to science in general, but are concerned about the direction it has taken, pursuing commercial interests without regard to impacts on other species and ecological balances (Taylor, 2009). They have a nuanced approach to the intersection of the interests of animals and indigenous peoples (Wiles, 2003). And to further debunk negative stereotypes, very few activists in these studies valued animal life over human life (Plous, 1990).
The studies cited above, among others, give us a fuller picture of a certain face of activism. Most of the researchers selected subjects to fit a standard conception of "activist" that applies across many movements - those who self-identify as "activists," join groups, attend conferences, pass out leaflets, lobby legislators and go to protests. Indeed, many of the subjects were recruited for the studies from conferences or animal advocacy groups.
This concerned me. Combined with the qualitative nature of these studies, it made me wonder if we were really getting an accurate picture of animal advocates. What is the effect of focusing on this rather narrow definition of advocacy as if it was the only one (or the only one worth researching)? While larger, quantitative studies show a similar demographic profile, what about the many advocates who match only one - or none - of the demographics and characteristics we have discussed so far? We should be cautious when generalizing about animal advocacy not to let an average become an absolute. Generalizations can easily become a self-sustaining prophecy, excluding future advocates who don't fit the profile of current day advocates, or causing them to exclude themselves.
There may be many people who don’t identify as advocates, yet are in fact working with and for animals in important, even crucial, ways. What about an introvert who “only” writes letters to legislators, grocery store chains and personal care products manufacturers? Or a person with a 60-hour a week job who “only” donates money? Or the animal guardian who “only” adopts a companion from a shelter? Or the vegetarian in a meat-identified subculture who patiently explains reasons and weathers harassment from unsympathetic family, friends, or co-workers, just to put vegetarianism on the conceptual map in his/her community? Or the voter who "only" makes a point of getting to the polls to vote yes on a spay/neuter or anti-cruelty initiative?
Then there is the companion animal rescuer who may feel that an activist is “someone out there, really out there in the public doing things,” while they “tend to do things in a quiet way” (quotes from Greenebaum, 2009; see also What’s Your Advocacy Style?). And the volunteer who spends time with shelter animals to make their lives better today, even though they may be euthanized tomorrow. And what about the researcher who performs high quality studies year after year that document animal pain, empathy or intelligence, undermining many of the claims used to justify exploitive treatment of animals?
All of these people have an impact. In fact, every one of them is necessary to normalize the notion that animals matter. I’d love to see an “I’m an animal advocate. How about you?” series of 2-minute diverse bios in mainstream and social media.
Regan, Francione, and many others discuss animal advocacy as if it was a 0-10 spectrum from welfarism to abolitionism. If we agree that the over-arching goal of all animal advocacy is the denormalization of animal exploitation, does stratifying advocacy help us get there? Opponents of advocacy goals are swift to exploit divisions within animal advocacy by negatively stereotyping one group to render it suspect to another (see some of the wildly inaccurate beliefs companion animal rescuers had about “activist” animal advocates in Greenebaum, 2009).
These negative portrayals not only marginalize advocacy arguments before they are even heard, but can alienate people who spend substantial amounts of times or energy on animal well-being from identifying as advocates, and isolate them from sources of support. For example, I don't buy the argument that caring for animals in a welfarist context always affirms the property status of animals. On the contrary, expending personal time to care for the well-being of animals in any context walks the talk of prioritizing animals, and should not be overlooked as a significant indicator of progress. The number of hours volunteer companion, equine and wildlife rescuers in the U.S. devote to animals every day is enormous, and largely unsung. More and more rescue organizations are springing up in communities of all sizes and orientations. And yet, are these efforts thought of as animal advocacy by "activists," or even by the rescuers themselves?
Cruelty to animals will only end when it becomes unthinkable to a critical mass of people. To reach that goal, breadth is crucial. Lots of letter writers, donors, vegetarians, rescuers, and sympathetic researchers may be easier to achieve - and ultimately more effective - than a few full-time advocates. It's important to focus at least as much on what advocates are doing as on what they're not doing. If someone spends 20 hours a week on companion animal rescue, but isn't a vegetarian, they are a lot more likely to become one if they are embraced by a community that validates and appreciates their labor than by one that makes them feel they don't belong.
As consciousness and condemnation of animal exploitation increases, animal supporters will inevitably become more and more diverse, until they are indistinguishable from the mainstream because they are the mainstream. This can be a little threatening to any movement – outsider communities have a special energy that is difficult to find elsewhere, and can be central to the identity of participants. But advocates have to prepared to grieve that and let it go when the time comes, recognizing that the loss of outsider status is a major milestone on the road to rendering animal advocacy unnecessary.
In the meantime, let's embrace - and support - our allies, in all their diversity, where we find them.
*Although we prefer the term “advocate,” the subjects in most studies cited in this post self-define, and/or are defined by study parameters as “activists.”