"Alert Status Red:" Animal Law Conference a Success

Posted on July 18, 2008

By: Julie Muir, PEJ News

know you’ve been to a successful event when people are wishing it could
have lasted longer, with time to sort through with other participants
the knowledge you’ve absorbed. In fact, (the University of Victoria
School of Law’s) second annual conference on animal rights and the law
was excellent, lacking only the means for conference-goers to connect
and build greater community to last us until the next one. Despite
somewhat of a lack of publicity, attendance was solid at about 60
people. The lecture room was comfortable and high-tech, and at
lunch-time, the mountains of sushi, roasted vegetables, stuffed
pastries and other vegan delectables catered by the university were
scarfed down gratefully by attendees. The speakers ranged in experience
from thesis students to seasoned activists to lawyers and law
professors, and though the range of topics they covered were diverse,
it seemed that common themes were echoed and reinforced throughout the
day’s presentations.

One theme played on the idea of “interlocking
oppressions” – that it’s not just the abuse of animals which concerns
us, but a whole system built upon exploiting the environment, animals,
and other humans – a system which perpetuates domination across all
spheres. Amber Prince, a masters Law student, addressed the conflict
between animal activists and Aboriginal interests in Canada, pointing
out that the animal rights movement can at times be insensitive towards
a population that is the country’s most economically and socially
vulnerable. To recognize “interlocking oppression” means activists need
to understand that Aboriginal people have been victimized by the same
structures and economic forces that are so destructive and cruel to
animals, instead of painting them as the enemy for their continued
reliance upon animal products.

Prince urges activists to become more educated
about Aboriginal culture, whose subsistence use of animals over
thousands of years has built up a complex relationship bounded by rules
and ceremonies and pregnant with social meaning. A culture that views
animals as equal, non-human persons and venerates them as literal
ancestors has much to teach the animal rights movement, which should
try to build common ground with Aboriginal communities and to aid them
with their own struggles. Though Prince leaves space for criticism of
practices such as leg-hold traps or hunting endangered species, animal
activists’ fight should be against animal industries, where animals are
violently degraded and viewed as “production units” or “models” for
scientific research. Prince’s fresh perspective, as a vegetarian from
an Aboriginal community, was a unique contribution to the conference.

Another example of “interlocking oppression” drove
Maneesha Deckha’s presentation, in which she explored the problematic
imagery which the large animal rights group PETA has been using to
further their cause. Deckha showed us ads where white, pretty, skinny
women holding fluffy white bunnies posed naked with slogans such as,
“I’d rather bare my BUNS than wear fur!” Black men and women pictured
laid on the floor, or crouched in a cage painted up like an animal.
PETA’s use of celebrities, nudity, sexualization and hierarchical
messages about men, women, and non-white people are problematic. Deckha
suggests that the organization may be resorting to cheap publicity
since issues of animal rights are still in such a marginal position.
Many animal activists experience trauma, both from viewing disturbing
images of animal cruelty in their research, and also from being
ridiculed by general society. PETA seems to be responding to this
difficulty, trying to use humour and common culture to appeal to the
broader public, yet their use of sexuality and idealized body images
remains problematic. Conference-goers’ opinions were firmly mixed on
the issue; some believed the ads useful, funny, and even empowering,
while others were deeply offended by the imagery PETA chose to use.

Another main focus at the conference revolved
around tactics, as speakers denounced the idea of violence and coercion
in the name of “animal rights” and sought to define effective means of
liberating beings that cannot speak for themselves.  Lee Hall, a
powerhouse presenter, brought us right to the edge of the most radical
thoughts in animal liberation in discussing tactics for activism.
Structuring her talk around her new book Capers in the Churchyard,
Hall accused “militant” animal rights activists of being opportunists
who make all activists into targets. She charges that their actions do
nothing short of playing into the hands of people who would like to
continue exploiting animals: they polarize public opinion when they use
destructive tactics, such as bomb scares and intimidation of
vivisection researchers at their homes.  Supported by  a turn in public
opinion against “eco-terrorists” and animal rights activists following
such debacles, the recently passed Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act
makes it possible to punish anyone who causes loss of profits for
animal industry businesses, so activists can now be sued or sent to
jail whether they are leafletting or firebombing.  The antagonism
engaged in by militants also plays right into the prison industrial
complex in the United States, which has 5% of the world’s population
but 25% of its prison population. Hall asks the (often young) activists
who engage in these desperate, violent attacks: “Do you think it
advances the rights of animals to offer your body as raw material for
the industries that make the cages?”

Another problem with trying to coerce society into
changing its ways, is that this approach is antithetical to the whole
animal liberation movement, which at its heart is a movement of
non-violence and respect for all beings. For Hall, true radicalism
involves respecting and having faith in other humans; in such a
long-term struggle as the liberation of animals, avoidance of
violence is far more radical, since it speaks of patience and hope for
the future. She leaves us with food for thought as she asserts that
veganism, the exclusion of all animal products from one’s diet, is
radical, direct action, since it immediately produces relations of
respect towards animals. It spares animals from being used and killed,
and spares rainforests from being chopped for their pastures. Lee Hall
asks, “Isn’t that Heaven on earth right now?”

All in all, this conference was a tour de force of
new directions for the animal rights movement to absorb, with all
participants and speakers expressing great concern for community, for
supporting one another across struggles, and for careful thought and
peaceful activism to further the cause of animal liberation.  In total
there were six speakers at this conference; for brevity’s sake I have
not reviewed the presentations of Valery Giroux, Matthew Penzer or
Anthony Marr.  To find out more about the conference and keep up to
date on next year’s schedule, please visit the Student Animal Legal
Defence Fund website at www.law.uvic.ca/saldf.

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