As a relative newcomer to the tradition of anarchist activism in the field of human-animal relationships, I found C4SS Fellow Chad Nelson’s “What’s Wrong with Abolishing Circus Animal Shows?” to be a fascinating read. Although my concern for animals is currently rooted in their welfare rather than their ostensible oppression or rights as free beings, I share Chad’s view that circus animal shows ought to be abolished. The same goes for the consumption of meat and animal byproducts, as well as many other practices that inflict needless suffering on animals.
Let’s leave the philosophical question of animal welfare vs. animal rights aside for the moment. Chad is an abolitionist but also recognizes that the treatment of animals is at the very least an important side consideration. His essay makes strategic arguments that I would like to offer some thoughts on, in the hope of better understanding how the welfarist and abolitionist traditions interact with each other in practice.
His critique of welfarist legislation — in this case the Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act (TEAPSPA) — is that it inevitably represents a suboptimal use of activist resources. Whilst this legislation inevitably faces the prospect of being watered down if it is to have any hope of being passed, it’s undoubtedly better than nothing. Animals will still needlessly suffer if TEAPSPA is passed, but they will suffer less. Palatable versions of welfarism may preserve some harmful assumptions about human-animal relationships, but to say they reinforce them is a stretch. Even if they do, this must still be weighed against the reduction in harm caused by such legislation. And of course, there’s the wider question of whether welfarism is a superior foundation to animal-related advocacy, but I promised I wouldn’t delve into that too much!
Moreover, even if one were to accept that TEAPSPA advocacy was a misallocation of resources, the same does not necessarily hold for other legislative initiatives. Ending corn subsidies springs to mind, although a charitable interpretation might be that Chad is talking more specifically about legislation directly focused on the treatment of animals.
So, what’s the alternative to welfarism? In his piece, Chad advocates for diverting more resources to creative, horizontal vegan education. Admittedly, it’s easy to dismiss any criticism of a particular method of activism by making vague statements about strategic pluralism. Nonetheless, when considering whether to engage in decentralized, abolitionist vegan education or welfarist reformism, my first thought is this: why not both?
The task of convincing people to be vegan and adopt other animal-friendly positions is a long and arduous one. In the meantime, marginal shifts in our attitudes towards human-animal relationships can still make a difference. Chad is correct in saying that “legislative efforts to curb animal mistreatment necessarily have to be watered down in both their message and objective in order to achieve broad appeal.” This applies to non-legislative efforts as well.
In my experience, very few people instantaneously shift their views from one extreme to another. My own introduction to veganism and animal welfare was a gradual, incremental process. Support for “cage-free” eggs and “humane meat”, as well as the existence of many ethical vegetarians who have not yet made the leap to veganism, suggests that I am not alone in this regard. Yes, cage-free eggs, humane meat, and ethical vegetarianism are not enough. But they have significantly reduced animal suffering. Chad’s article has certainly made me reconsider how activist resources can be best used to improve the lives of animals, but I still see some value in reformist initiatives. Perhaps Chad does too, and I’ve misinterpreted him. Or perhaps living in D.C. for ten months has made me more biased towards accepting a plurality of strategies for social change.
Regardless, this is not to say that I reject all hardline rhetoric: especially for those already versed in the language-game of radical politics. We should make it clear that although it’s better than the status quo, piecemeal ‘Meatless Mondays’ welfarism is not enough. But it is better than nothing, and every animal saved from a life of pain and misery matters.