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September 04, 2008

Violence Hurts Us All

In any social movement, there must always be a robust discussion about tactics and strategy. That discussion is especially important in the cause of animal protection, with its many cultural, economic, and philosophical complexities. Our movement is a mosaic, not a monolith, and that’s the way it should be.

We at The HSUS don’t feel certain that everything we do is always right. We play a role as an aggressive and credible and mainstream voice of advocacy for animals, and we hope we get it right on a consistent basis. We are constantly examining our work and measuring our investments and results, and recalibrating to do the best we can.

But we are quite certain that some tactics are out of bounds. A movement built on the principles of kindness and compassion cannot logically resort to violence and other illegal behavior (beyond peaceful civil disobedience). Such conduct is ethically wrong, and is simply dissonant in terms of our movement’s core values and messaging. Think about the radicals in the pro-life movement who threatened and actually killed medical doctors. How can a movement be pro-life and kill? And, for us, how can a humane movement cause emotional distress and threaten people, even if we  disagree with what they do? We ask Americans not to selectively apply the principles of kindness and compassion. We cannot be selective about our application, either.

crime scene tape
© iStockphoto

What’s more, it is hypocritical to ask Americans to play by the social and legal rules we help to establish—laws against animal cruelty, cockfighting, inhumane farming practices, and more—but then to ask society to suspend the rule of law when we want an exemption.

And resorting to violence and other illegal tactics is a sign of weakness. It betrays an inability to win the argument, the vote, or the campaign, and it is an escape route for people who cannot do things the right way. Sadly, it is more than just a personal failure. It weakens our movement by giving our opponents a tactical opportunity to marginalize animal advocates.

When The HSUS sees or hears about any instance of violence, threatened, alleged, or carried out and proven, we condemn it. Most recently, we did so in the case of the arson attack against two California scientists in early August.

A few critics have expressed anger that The HSUS put $2,500 toward a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the crime. Several assumed that The HSUS had presupposed that animal people were responsible for the attacks.

We hadn’t.

In the late 1980s, after college, I was a leader in the grassroots animal protection movement in my home state of Connecticut. That’s when I encountered Mary Lou Sapone, who appeared suddenly on the activist scene and was occasionally heard to advocate illegal tactics—including the harming of other human beings.

Repelled by such ideas, I began to distance myself from her, and also began to suspect she was an infiltrator. I began to warn other people about her, and eventually was part of a small group of people who exposed her.

And it wasn’t long afterward that Sapone was identified as an agent of Perceptions International, a firm hired to infiltrate our movement. All of this came out after the folks at Perceptions shamelessly exploited a mentally fragile woman in a contrived bomb attack against an executive of U.S. Surgical, a company that was long criticized by animal advocates because of its inhumane and unnecessary use of dogs in sales demonstrations. The reckless plot unraveled, and Sapone vanished from our radar screen. I often wondered how this woman could live with herself and her role in attempting to incite violence. But I just figured she was for hire, and would do just about anything for money.

In a remarkable coincidence, the Santa Cruz arson attacks took place just as news came that Mary Lou Sapone had resurfaced—and again been unmasked as an infiltrator—this time seeking to undermine the gun control movement.

So, if the perpetrators of the Santa Cruz attacks turn out to be agents hostile to animal protection, it would not surprise me, because this is a tactic that malicious forces have used in the past to discredit many good causes.

I’d feel especially good if our reward money helped to catch an infiltrator and exposed this person to the harsh glare of public opinion. And if it does turn out that the criminals were people who claim to be animal advocates, then I will be glad that The HSUS helped to root them out—just as we use our reward money to root out dogfighters, wildlife poachers, and others who break the law. The people who committed these appalling acts in Santa Cruz have done damage to the animal protection movement.

When cases of violence allegedly done by animal advocates come to light, I want the public to know that the established humane organizations would never have anything to do with such conduct. I want them to know that such behavior is abhorrent to a movement built on humane principles.

One need only take a quick glance at history to reveal that such tactics retard the progress of our movement.

The 2002 murder of the anti-animal Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn prompted a wave of sympathy votes that put more of his followers into office. That same year, in Arkansas, a campaign of vandalism and harassment targeting a company involved with animal experimentation instead turned public sympathy against an anti-cruelty ballot measure, and it was defeated.

In my two decades of activism, I’ve witnessed lasting animal protection successes secured without violence and illegal conduct. Banning cockfighting in five states where it was legal in the last decade. Banning steel-jawed leghold traps and other body-gripping traps in a half-dozen states. The end of the Hegins pigeon shoot. The ballot initiatives in Arizona and Florida to ban factory farming practices. Dozens of companies—from Tommy Hilfger to Calvin Klein to Overstock.com—halting their sale of fur. The adoption of the Three Rs (reduction, refinement and replacement of the use of animals) by scores of companies that market cosmetics and personal care products and by national and international agencies responsible for safety testing protocols. The recent USDA prohibition on the slaughter of nonambulatory cattle. And the list goes on and on.

These and other successes came not from the misguided violence of a few people; they came from the determined engagement of humane advocates committed to public education, grassroots organization, lobbying, and direct animal care work. It reflected a sturdy confidence in our values and the consonance of our views with those of the vast majority of Americans.

We can win, and we will if we exhibit the intelligence, fortitude, and diligence that the animals so desperately deserve from us.

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