My Thoughts on Single-Issue Animal “Rights” Campaigns


[cover photo courtesy of Abolitionist Vegan Resources]

I had a light bulb moment one afternoon when thinking about welfarism vs. abolition.  I’m sure the idea was inspired by Professor Gary Francione’s work and exists in much simpler terms, but I suddenly saw it so clearly that I practically danced around the room:

When we educate a person that veganism needs to be the moral baseline for our treatment of individuals of other species and s/he stops eating animals and starts living vegan, that person pretty quickly ceases complicity in most of the atrocities and abuses that single-issue campaigns (SICs) focus on and will usually carry the vegan message to others, hence much is accomplished.  Conversely, when any of the donation-based welfarist groups I call Donations Over Animals educates a person that fill-in-the-blank-single-issue is wrong and leaves out the vegan education component (intentionally most of the time), that person might withdraw their support from that particular issue while remaining complicit in all the rest, hence nothing meaningful is accomplished and a valuable opportunity is wasted.

When it comes to SICs, my contention is that we are striking at the branches of a very diseased tree rather than at the root where the problem begins, and are therefore keeping the status quo rolling along.  Working to find acceptable ways to do unacceptable things normalizes the unacceptable things – namely, enslaving and commodifying animals to be used for food, clothing, entertainment, laboratory testing and human conveniences – and makes them seem acceptable.  Over the course of a decade of welfarist outreach, I’ve spoken with countless non-vegans who said the same thing – “Eating animals is fine, it’s normal.  I’m never gonna stop.  They shouldn’t abuse them, though.  That’s just wrong”.  If we focus our time, effort and energy on minimizing the discomfort of the animals who will ultimately be killed and eaten regardless of their comfort level, it only serves to make it even easier for people such as I’ve described (again, those were actual experiences and quotes) to keep on eating animals, drinking their secretions, wearing their skins and lining up for seconds, sometimes doubling their complicity in animal exploitation by, say, having a hot dog at the circus or a burger at the zoo.  If those people felt a twinge of conscience for a second about the abuses we showed them, that’s sure to be alleviated once the abuses seemingly stop or are at least reduced.  So it seems that when we work to reduce – but not eliminate – animal suffering (as is the hallmark of all the welfarist organizations), there’s an unintended consequence – non-vegans can keep eating and otherwise exploiting animals now with a clear conscience and no reason nor desire to ever stop.

From my perspective, that’s the opposite of progress.

Please read this wonderful essay from There’s an Elephant in the Room for what I consider to be a brilliant take on the issue:

My thoughts on petitions and single issues

Image courtesy of Vegan Trove (
Image courtesy of Vegan Trove (

I’ve been accused of having an all-or-nothing attitude of “you have to choose one or the other”, however that is not my attitude.   Each individual is free to do as they choose and will make the choice that best suits them, their morals and their ethics.  My belief after a decade of welfarism is that when we have the opportunity to choose to educate people about veganism as a moral imperative, then as vegans it is incumbent upon us to do so.   Educate one person to become vegan and you almost immediately eliminate support for literally dozens of animal exploitation issues.  Educate ten and you multiply the effect accordingly.  Conversely, educate one person that fur is bad (a popular SIC) and that person may or may not stop wearing fur, and probably won’t make the connection about other animals not used in the fur trade.  Which sounds more effective?  Once a person stops going to the circus… well… they stop going to the circus.  For most people, that’s pretty much where it ends:

“Look, people holding signs!  Losers!  Get a life! –> Huh?  What’s that sign say?  Circuses hurt elephants?  That can’t be! –> Oh, here’s some literature about circuses, hmm, maybe they’re right  –> Well, I don’t want elephants to be hurt… –> OK, I’ll stop supporting circuses –> I did a good thing! —–> We’re leaving, kids.  I’m hungry, I think we’ll stop on the way home for some cheeseburgers and milk (they’re elephant-free)”.  They don’t necessarily start living vegan or stop being complicit in any other form of animal exploitation, and why would they if no one has taken the time and effort to educate them properly?  And again, it’s my belief and observation that single-issue campaigns leave out the vegan piece almost entirely.  I can point to numerous publications and campaigns by PeTA, Mercy for Animals, Compassion Over Killing and Veg(etari)an Outreach (more like outrage…) that either don’t mention the word “vegan” at all or bury it so far in the conversation that it’s hardly noticeable.  After all, donation-based animal welfare corporations don’t want to alienate the donor base and risk losing the donor dollars that keep them in business and employed.  If they pooled their resources and put their focus, energy and money toward proper vegan education, they would eventually put themselves right out of business and that’s just not part of a sound corporate business model.

Keith in full welfare mode
Keith in full welfare mode, January 2009.

One of the SICs I worked on passionately for ten years, both through protests and legislative means, was Ringling Brothers and their treatment of elephants and other exploited circus animals (as can be seen in the photo above, not only am I foregoing any chance at vegan education in lieu of focusing on this single issue, I am also promoting not one but two welfarist organizations, Farm Sanctuary and Animal Rights Foundation of Florida.  I am not proud of this image).  When the news broke in 2015 that Ringling is planning to “retire” their performing elephants, everyone and their mother trumpeted “VICTORY!” from every available mountaintop.  I also thought we had achieved a victory – for about five minutes, until I looked a little more closely and saw the reality of the situation: Ringling has agreed to do nothing more than move their slaves off the road – years in the future – and back to their own breeding facility in Florida (it ain’t no sanctuary…) – the SAME facility in which these suffering individuals were tortured (Ringling calls it “training”), had their spirits broken as babies, were introduced to bull hooks and electric prods and completely subjugated to the will of men.  What kind of victory is that?  They’re returning to the exact location where their physical and psychological trauma was born, which is tantamount to sending a neglected foster child back home to her abusive foster parents except that, in the elephants’ case, they’ve been with their abusers the entire time.  Did anyone believe life was gonna get better for them once they returned “home”?  Oh, and Ringling is also going to loan them out to zoos (I believe that’s being done already) for breeding purposes, as they are still property to be used as Ringling sees fit, which continues their enslavement and brings in a new generation of slaves.  The slaves remain slaves – we just don’t get to see public displays anymore.  Also, Ringling is bringing other animals on the road to replace the elephants, so we’d better hurry and get out our markers and change our protest signs from elephants to camels.  This is not a victory – this is a ploy to appease some activists and remain profitable.  Ringling didn’t suddenly have a change of heart and realize that what they’ve been doing for over a hundred years is wrong. They just found a way to do damage control.  I never once saw anyone doing vegan education at a Ringling protest, as these events are simply not conducive to that happening.  When we did manage to turn people around from entering the circus, we can rest assured they simply went home a few hours earlier to the neighbor’s barbecue and stopped at McDonald’s on the way.  I find that kind of “victory” hollow at best and counterproductive at worst.

The distinction between abolitionism and welfarism was being made as far back as 1967 by H. Jay Dinshah
The distinction between abolitionism and welfarism was being made as far back as 1967 by H. Jay Dinshah

I’ve been told by animal welfarists that “there is room for us all”, which is almost an exact quote from a presentation I attended in 2009 by World Heavyweight Champion welfarist and consummate salesperson Wayne Pacelle, CEO of H$U$, “the nation’s largest and most effective animal protection organization” (I recall him using the phrase, “We’re a big tent movement”, which at the time I thought was great.  I washed it down with a cup of Every Little Bit Helps Kool-Aid).  This guy is head of an organization that, in the course of raking in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, offers bacon coupons(!!!) on their Facebook page, hosted an atrocity called “Hoofin’ It“, “a 4-night slaughter-fest dining event featuring a menu of cows, pigs, bison, and sheep” [description courtesy of Bob Linden](!!!!) and cozies up with animal agriculture/exploitation organizations while promoting countless SICs every year to make sure the animals their friends are going to kill, butcher and eat are comfy in their slave quarters beforehand.  Animal protection, my ass.  I can’t be the only one who finds those kinds of mixed messages maddeningly confusing, utterly disheartening and completely unacceptable, and yet the donations keep pouring in by the millions.

If we should be out protesting something, it should be against welfarist organizations like that, which gives us the perfect opportunity to blend protests and vegan education: “Hey, if you’re vegan, why are you picketing PeTA?”  “Because, while PeTA is pointing you in these fifteen directions, here’s the most important thing they’re NOT telling you: The simplest and most immediate action one can take to stop the violence, oppression and exploitation of the most vulnerable members of our global society – non-human individuals – is to start living vegan.  There are no valid reasons not to; there are only morally unjustifiable excuses to hide behind”.

I was once asked if I want a vegan world.  I do, absolutely.  That’s why I’m doing what I believe will have the greatest impact – clear, consistent, unequiVOCAL vegan education – and leaving behind that which I believe will not.

Keith Berger

Live vegan.  Educate others.  Start now, here’s how:
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