Those of us working to advance animal welfare in America currently find ourselves in an exciting—and unusual—moment. The most mainstream of audiences are seriously considering stances that just a few years ago might have seemed extreme.
Just look at the carriage horse debate currently swirling in New York City, which reached its apogee during last year’s mayoral elections; voters prompted candidates to voice their position on the treatment of the city’s horses. Meanwhile, leading media outlets are devoting increased air time and column inches to animal issues: Influential columnists Frank Bruni and Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, for example, have both devoted pieces this year to animal sentience and welfare. And SeaWorld continues to endure an ongoing firestorm of criticism following last summer’s smash documentary Blackfish, which changed viewers’ perceptions—seemingly overnight—about the keeping of marine mammals in captivity. These examples might seem disparate, but taken in sum, they show a shift in perceptions of animal welfare by thought leaders, governments and businesses, and consumers. And make no mistake: This has never been the norm.
While animal-related causes are a priority to some devoted philanthropists, such as the Animal Grantmakers Association, they have traditionally been underrated by thought leaders and in policy priorities. It’s hard to imagine, say, President Obama bringing up the treatment of animals in American factory farming systems—abhorrent by any measure—during a State of the Union address. Our society frequently writes off donations to animal charities as knee-jerk or emotional impulses—well meaning, but hardly a serious attempt to tackle urgent global concerns.
But animals are far from a fringe concern. They are integral to pressing international problems: global poverty, environmental sustainability, public health, and disaster recovery. Almost one billion of the world’s poorest people rely on animals for transportation, food, and income; working to ensure adequate protection of these animals before and following disasters is critical to preserving livelihoods in the developing world. In North America, the number of animals currently suffering in the confines of factory farming is in the multibillions, and we have the potential to significantly better their lives and our food quality by enforcing higher standards for them.
In the United States, calls to protect animals are growing louder—and at long last, lawmakers and others are listening, resulting in tangible advances for animals. Beginning in 2015, hens, pigs, and veal calves in Californian farming systems must have enough living space to stand and spread their limbs or wings. This requirement might seem paltry—and indeed, it doesn’t go far enough—but it’s still a significant improvement over existing, minimal welfare standards for farm animals in most states. The deplorable King Amendment, a proposed proviso to the Congressional Farm Bill, would have weakened many state animal protection laws and was thankfully dropped from the final version of the bill that passed this winter.
Growing scientific knowledge of animal sentience has also proved critical to galvanizing public support. This is nowhere more evident than in the reception of Blackfish, which persuasively made the case—with testimony from experts and scientists, along with former SeaWorld trainers—that orcas aren’t suited for lives in confinement. Following its theatrical run last summer, the film aired on CNN to robust ratings among viewers in the coveted 25-54 demographic, besting both FOX News and MSNBC in the same time slot. The movie spurred California Assemblyman Richard Bloom to propose new legislation banning the keeping of orcas in captivity statewide. While a vote on the bill has been delayed, pending a formal study, the fact that the state legislature is seriously examining this issue and that its findings are so highly anticipated by the public, indicates real progress.
Animal-related causes are currently having a moment, but we must make sure that’s not all it is. In the national arena, animal issues are still rarely a priority. Earlier this year, for example, President Obama missed an opportunity to send a strong global message against commercial whaling when he declined to enforce trade sanctions against Icelandic fishing companies illegally hunting whales.
But there’s definite cause for hope. This moment is reminiscent of the environmental movement in the early 60’s, which gained significant traction following benchmark events such as the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the subsequent creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Groundbreaking at the time, the findings of Carson and early environmentalists like her are now widely acknowledged.
As we learn more not only about the conditions that so many animals are currently enduring, but also about their capacities as thinking, feeling, social beings, we must use this knowledge to sustain a movement that lasts and takes its rightful place at center stage.