Birthday Suits and Business Suits

Published on: 09:55AM Mar 29, 2011

Just like agriculture itself, the organizations that vigorously oppose livestock production are a diverse group:  there are at least ten active, visible animal rights groups that engage in a variety of stunts, campaigns and polemical assaults to oppose livestock production.

I thought it worth considering how distinct some of these efforts are, and ask which really have the most impact.  Let’s start with the best known of the bunch:  People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.  PETA’s been around for a generation, and certainly has an unparalleled knack for sometimes witty, always wacky activities that give them attention, if not credibility. 

Here’s a great recent example:  a couple of (apparently) naked young ladies showered on the streets of Los Angeles, in full view of a passers-by. 

110322 peta shower demonstration dsc 5719


This spectacle was actually performed a couple years ago in Washington, DC, as well.  Two things were interesting about this: 1) the nominal focus of this was not why eating meat is bad for the animals, but why meat production is bad for the environment.  Perhaps PETA is realizing that most omnivores aren’t putting much stock any longer in the “meat=murder” meme they’ve been spouting for years.  And, 2) PETA’s staff/volunteers see nothing inherently conflicting about exploiting themselves, using titillation to draw attention to the alleged unethical exploitation of animals.  An interesting paradox, in that that some forms of exploitation are ethical if the ends justify the means.

One of my personal PETA favorites, going back now more than a decade, was the “Got Beer?” effort, where they encouraged college kids to drink beer instead of milk.  Not only did it really rile up Mothers Against Drunk Driving, it was really superfluous…like most kids on college campuses need that type of encouragement?

Then you have the group Mercy for Animals, which hires activists to go undercover to record what they feel are exploitive and abusive practices on farms and ranches.  This results in a predictable procession of “gotcha” videos, even though what they “got” ends up being perhaps less than it seems at first (actual animal health experts, in following up on allegations of abuse last year at a dairy farm in New York, found out that there wasn’t abuse taking place, other than the actions of one individual who was prosecuted).  In this age of instant video sharing across digital media, it’s all too easy to record scenes lacking context, absent any rules or attempt to seek the whole truth, in order to score political points.  MFA is now taking its efforts on the road to share those videos with others.

Then you have the suits of the animal rights community, the Humane Society of the United States.  HSUS has showered (in private), shaved and bought a tie, all in the effort to make the animal rights movement appear more credible.  And doggone it, such efforts are bearing fruit.  They were the impetus behind ABC News using the MFA undercover video last winter and turning it into an expose – and just recently, HSUS returned the favor to ABC by giving them an award.  So much for media objectivity.

More importantly , HSUS is going around state by state to promote a series of ballot initiatives that would restrict or extinguish livestock farming operations if they are adopted.  They’re doing something like that right now in my native state of Nebraska (which is fighting back tooth and nail).  This video, prepared by a farm group in Missouri, nicely enumerates the resources that HSUS is bringing to bear in these campaigns, which don’t involve the more wacky or histrionic techniques that other groups employ, perhaps because they’ve figured out that street theater and scare tactics repel the mainstream consumers they’re try to reach.

The lesson from all this is that farm groups likewise need to defend and promote their industry using technologies, language and messengers that are every bit as credible and appealing as what today’s animal rights activists are doing.