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The 'Extremist' Factor: Why British Animal Rights Campaigners Aren't Taken Seriously

Twenty years ago, animal rights activism was the cause of the day. What happened?

Animal rights protesters outside the Greyhound of the Year Awards. Photo by Chris Bethell.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

According to the UK's right-wing press, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) could soon be taken over by a bunch of human-hating extremists intent on ensuring that no animals are ever kept as pets. We are witnessing "a hardline attempt to seize power at the RSPCA," declared The Times. The Telegraph and The Daily Mail offered similar warnings.


The people in question are those running for the charity's ruling council, a 25-strong board of trustees, voted in by RSPCA members. Among them are several radical campaigners who were singled out to illustrate how this charitable institution is being infiltrated. However, while one candidate, Peta Watson-Smith, has compared factory farming to the Holocaust—quite rightly provoking fury—the shock-horror line of reporting says less about what's really happening than it does about a predetermined stance on the part of the papers.

Dan Lyons is another candidate, and CEO of the think-tank Centre for Animals and Social Justice, which works toward finding a way for animals to be represented in democratic systems. He has never set fire to an animal testing laboratory or sent a letter bomb to a politician.

"There seems to be an ongoing campaign being waged against the RSPCA by some of the media," Lyons told me. "I would speculate that it's motivated by a combination of factors, but a likely prime cause would be relationships between the executives of these outlets, hunting and shooting interests and parts of the Conservative Party."

Although the RSPCA told me the overwhelming bulk of their press is good and that some criticism is healthy and expected, when I did a search on The Times website these are the latest headlines relating to the charity: "RSPCA should forget foxes and focus on essentials;" "'Ban all pets,' says radical who wants to control RSPCA;" "'How we killed your cat was wrong,' says RSPCA;" "RSPCA takes heat off foxhunting;" "RSPCA zealots put down family cat for long hair;" "RSPCA to stop chasing hunts after backlash."


In other words, the RSPCA are a bunch of animal-murdering zealots with a penchant for lost causes. Not, perhaps, the most balanced way to describe an organization that, in 2013, answered more than 1.3 million calls about animal cruelty, rescued over 245,000 animals, and has been responsible for setting vital national standards for the treatment of farmed animals.

That even the moderate, respectable RSPCA has been tarnished with the brush of extremism is part of a wider shift that has seen animal rights campaigners resigned, in the public imagination, to the realm of patchouli oil and mad cow disease: unfortunate relics of our past, irrelevant today.

How did this happen?

The late 1980s through to the mid-90s were a heyday for animal rights activism. It was the cause of its day. But alongside teenagers giving up meat and wearing slogan T-shirts from The Body Shop, the movement's militant epicenter was becoming increasingly extreme.

To begin with, gestures such as the Animal Liberation Front's attacks on furriers and its rescue of animals from research centers were viewed benignly. However, as humans, rather than property, became targets, opinion changed. In 2004, the Animal Rights Militia—which had been responsible for sending letter bombs to Margaret Thatcher and other MPs in the early-80s— dug up the body of Gladys Hammond as punishment to her family, who ran a business breeding guinea pigs for research.


The FBI branded the UK "the global center of animal rights extremism." Back home, the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit was created to deal with animal rights protesters and, in particular, the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign, which targeted Huntingdon Life Sciences, an organization that still tests non-medical products on thousands of animals every year.

The violence was a godsend for those who wanted to discredit the cause. Like other social movements that become too popular, focusing on the actions of an extreme few both makes a juicier story and is much simpler than looking into activists' demands.

Even without the fire-bombings of the past, there are valid criticisms to be made about animal activists and their campaigns. PETA's "Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur" crusade has been slammed for misogyny; the movement has tended to be overwhelmingly white and middle class; and with allies like Morrissey, any other bad press is just fluff.

However, racism or a lack of intersectionality clearly isn't what the right is fussed about. Search for "animal rights" on the Telegraph website and these are the latest stories: "Kim Kardashian mobbed by animal rights activists during book signing;" "Animal rights blackmailer is jailed;" "Animal rights bomber dies;" "Animal rights saboteur is jailed." The message? Animal activists are dangerous criminals, end of story.

Veteran animal rights campaigner Kim Stallwood, once at the helm of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection and Compassion in World Farming, says that, in part, the movement has simply lost its sting because many big goals have been achieved: being vegetarian or vegan is now mainstream; cosmetic testing on animals has been banned across the EU (though household products are still tested); hunting wild animals with dogs has ( for now) been made illegal.


But there's more to do. In 2013, the RSPCA investigated more than 150,000 animal cruelty complaints in the UK; products you clean your house with are still tested on animals; the lives of most animals we eat are horrific. There are charities and campaigners out there doing good work, but putting your hand up as an animal campaigner is likely to be met with an eye-roll.

Whatever the reasons for the erosion of faith in animal activism, the establishment has long expected the movement's respectable face—people who put nuts out for birds, walk Labradors, and buy free-range eggs—to not ask too many questions or demand radical change. It's vital, therefore, that the biggest, most powerful and respected animal organization, the RSPCA, not get out of hand.

READ ON MUNCHIES: Animal Rights Activists Don't Want You to Swing Chickens for God

"One constant is the fear the establishment has over the RSPCA electing progressive people to its council," Stallwood tells me. "It's a longstanding battle because they don't want it to become a progressive organization. The last thing they want is an organization with so much public influence being over-critical of factory farming and animal research. The establishment financially benefits from all of this work on animals."

In fairness, the RSPCA is critical of farming practices and animal testing, and has been instrumental in bringing reform. But the organization, from necessity, works hard to remain middle of the road. "The extreme end of any ethos will always attract attention," a spokesman told me.

In the case of Lyons, this "extremism" means wanting policy reform that takes animal welfare into account. "The relevant policy fields in DEFRA, the Home Office, and across government have either been captured by animal harm interests or prioritize deregulation and economic growth over everything else, including animal welfare," he says.

These demands aren't outrageous. That our first reaction to the words "animal rights activist" elicits responses like "crusties," "lunatics," and "thugs" (replies to my not-very-scientific vox-pops) is convenient to those who profit from our complacence.

In the meantime, if Lyons is elected to the RSPCA council, he's expecting more bad press. "I don't see the mass media surrendering their allegiance to elitist, reactionary interests any time soon," he says.

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