A Brief Overview of the Strategies of the Animal Rights Movement
Barbro Nordling, Oscar Horta and Andres Cameselle.
struggle for animal rights has been waged by means of different
strategies, based on various analyses of the context and their
possibilities for success. Those who have defended each of these
different strategies have worked hard to help nonhuman animals, and we
can only applaud their wholehearted efforts and sacrifices for the
cause. This must not, however, lead us to overlook the importance of
continued analysis of what have been the advantages and disadvantages
of the different ways of working to accomplish the aims we all should
share. Reflection and constructive debate are among our most powerful
1. Regulationism. From bigger cages to empty cages?
“animal welfare” movement started at the beginning of the nineteenth
century. Its objective was, and continues to be, to ensure that the use
of animals entails the least possible suffering for them. Another
movement appeared in the 70s, whose aim was not to ameliorate the
conditions in which animals are used, but to end animal use altogether.
This was called the animal rights movement, as its aim was to grant
nonhuman animals the legal status of right holders (which would imply
the end of their status as chattels and their subsequent use as
resources). Thus they are two movements with altogether different
objectives. Welfarism (the animal welfare philosophy) accepts what animal rights defenders challenge: the use of animals as commodities.
given the difficulties in accomplishing the objectives of the animal
rights movement, there have been a number of organisations and
activists within it who have chosen to adopt a regulationist strategy.
This consists of engaging in different campaigning and lobbying tactics
to achieve regulation of the ways in which animals are used, in order
to alleviate the suffering of those animals that humans use as
resources. (These regulations are generally legal ones, but can also
consist of a private initiative by a company that uses animals, in
respect of how this use may take place.)
The most common arguments in favour of this regulationist strategy are:
i) It will achieve concrete improvements and do it now,
It will bring about changes in the law, as these allegedly have real
significance, amounting to more than what can be achieved by changes in
iii) Welfarist campaigns will eventually lead to the abolition of the use of animals due to the progressive raising of awareness on the issue.
These arguments can be criticised on several counts:
Regulationism defends only some interests of animals. Many of them,
sometimes their most fundamental interests, would still be thwarted
even if so-called “welfare” regulations were implemented. This happens,
for instance, when killing animals is accepted and only the infliction
of what is considered “unnecessary pain” on them is objected.
Significant changes are those that take place in people’s attitudes, at
the level of public opinion: changes in law being a mere reflection of
these. We can see this if we analyse the way in which speciesist
discrimination of nonhuman animals is articulated today.
Current status of nonhuman animals:
Reasons for nonhuman animals status assignment
Human moral agent’s socialisation in a speciesist context
Discrimination against their interests
Discrimination against their interests and use for human purposes
Status of nonhuman animals
Beings not fully significant in a moral sense.
Resources for human purposes
Consequences that status brings
Discrimination against their interests
Use for human purposes
Lack of legal rights
We can see in this diagram how it is actually the attitudes that people
hold that cause animals to be used, and this determines what
consideration animals will be given in law. The general consequence to
derive from this is that it is at the level of public attitudes where
the struggle for the end of discrimination against nonhumans has to
take place. The struggle at the economic and legal level must depend on
There is no relation between incremental reforms and abolition:
reducing animals’ suffering does not bring any nearer the end of their
use. As a result of regulationist campaigns, rather than being drawn
towards a close, animal use is legitimised and reinforced with such
regulation. Indeed, those who utilise animals also defend “animal
welfare”: One just needs to look at the fact that many companies or
bodies interested in the use of animals themselves have launched their
own animal welfare initiatives (see, for instance, the National Animal
Interest Alliance in the USA, or in the UK the Research Defence Society
commitments to animal welfare –with its annual animal welfare prize).
Hence, there is a paradox, as animal utilisation advocates and
regulationists generate the same thinking in the minds of the public:
we can exploit animals, as long as their suffering is minimised.
It is true that this conclusion need not follow from regulationism.
Just as opposition to the use of animals is independent of any facts of
how animals are used in practice, inversely improving animal conditions
need not logically contradict the argument against speciesism. However,
things are not that simple. The fact is that for many people abandoning
some of their habits that involve using animals requires much of an
effort. For this reason, welfarist arguments often serve as an easy
excuse not to fully consider the arguments against animal use. That is
why, at the end of the day, regulationism presents an obstacle for the
understanding and acceptance of the antispeciesist case.
welfarist campaigns, aimed at bringing about legal changes, are
enormously costly in terms of resources. These are, then, wasted, as
they could have a much greater impact if they were directly dedicated
to campaigns aimed at arousing public concern. It is, in fact, the
public who can really decide whether animals are used or not, basically
through their choices as consumers.
2. Rescues and attacks on centres where animals are used
strategy entails means such as rescuing animals from premises where
they are kept, or damaging the facilities employed for animal use. This
usually involves a breach of the law.
The different objectives that motivate this kind of action are the following:
those animals taken from centres of exploitation. The interests of
those individual animals are considered to be what matters,
independently of any other repercussions the action may have.
the collapse of animal abusive businesses through economic sabotage.
Those actions that destroy property are supposed to bring animal
exploitation to the point where it is no longer profitable.
3) Creating a public debate about the animal rights issue by making use of the publicity created by these actions.
first glance, this strategy might seem not only a logical but also
quite an effective way of achieving these goals. Nevertheless, there
are several reasons to doubt such an assumption:
statement that those who matter are the individuals, as they are the
ones who possess interests, seems indeed accurate. Accordingly, it
appears that we should develop those activities which can save the
highest number of individuals. Carrying out actions that rescue a few
of them, instead of engaging in activities that raise awareness about
the issue (thus saving many more animals) is losing the point that
drove someone to carry out the action in the first place. If by running
stalls, giving conferences, organising informative demonstrations and
other actions aimed at raising public awareness we save a very
significant number of animals by reducing their use (which appears to
be the case), going to a farm or lab to save just a small number of
them makes little sense.
criticism is deepened by the fact that the vast majority of the animals
rescued are replaced, meaning that, in terms of numbers, no animals are
really saved. Rescuing some of them implies condemning those that will
occupy their places.
rescued animals need appropriate care and attention, which means
employing a substantial amount of the time of many activists who could
be working in other, more effective ways, as well as a great deal of
money –needed for sanctuaries, food, vets, and the like–.
idea of making animal exploitation unprofitable by means of economic
sabotage seems attractive at first, but cannot be maintained in light
of the actual situation we face. As has been argued before, animals are
used not because there is a small number of individuals who have an
interest in exploiting them, but because the whole of society demands
their use. In our current situation, when most human beings use animals
as slaves and this is rarely questioned, trying to bring down all
animal abusive practices by destroying property seems to be doomed to
failure. It amounts to starting a war against virtually the whole of
humanity and believing it can be won.
Actions involving destruction of property, such as burning down a meat
truck or smashing the windows of a fur shop, are regarded by most of
society as outrageous (even by many of those who otherwise would be
prepared to support the animal rights cause). This does bring the
animal rights issue into the public arena, but in what way? A number of
actions receive coverage by the media just to be severely condemned,
portraying animal advocates as “terrorists” or “thugs”, and hardly ever
explaining anything about the rationale behind their actions. As a
result, the debate these actions provoke has nothing to do with the
arguments for and against speciesism, being diverted, instead, to the
morality of the means used.
resorting to those actions to promote the case for animals seems
actually to be particularly counterproductive. It does not help to
create a debate about how fair it is to undervalue the interests of
animals, and it alienates many from the animal rights discourse without
even getting to know it.
objections do not entail taking any moral stance against this course of
action for being illegal or coercive. One does not need to morally
disapprove damaging animal use-devised facilities to oppose it on
strategic grounds. What is claimed here is that given the current
social context, these tactics are counterproductive in furthering the
case for animals.
are, however, other kinds of actions which deserve a separate
evaluation. These are the ones in which the purpose is getting images
(through photo or video footage) of the animals kept for human use, so
that public awareness about their fate can be raised. There is of
course the possibility that our message will be misunderstood, and that
the public believes that it is the conditions in which animals are
used, rather than their actual use that we oppose. Nonetheless, the
problems we have highlighted above regarding destruction of property no
longer apply, here, as trespassing in order to publicise facts does not
generate the strong opposition that causing damage does.
3. Closing down business where animals are utilised
recent years, a new course of action has emerged within the animal
defence movement. Its objective is the gradual elimination of centres
where animals are utilised, such as vivisection laboratories, or farms
supplying animals for experimentation.
reasons for adopting this course of action are various. It is regarded
as forceful because a chain effect is expected – by closing some places
down it is thought that the industry as a whole will be less
economically profitable and it will be made more difficult to carry on.
Therefore, many businesses would, allegedly, give up (or not start up
in the first place).
Sometimes this approach seems to stem from frustration at seeing how
slowly progress has been made. Moreover, the question has been raised
as to whether changes in public opinion regarding animal use are
possible at all. For this reason, the image created of the movement is
considered to be secondary or even of no significance. The only
repercussions considered are those that have to do with the supposed
victory/failure (closing down a business, or failing to do so).
in mind the strategic objective, the tactics can be more properly
assessed. As the aim is to close down particular, specific places, all
means that can bring this about are considered effective. This is
clearly illustrated by the wide spectrum of tactics employed, ranging
from intimidating workers, demonstrations at the site of the
exploitation centre and economic sabotage, to leafleting and street
stalls. The material, however, is generally not focussed on the issue
of animal rights. Instead, it is aimed to draw attention to the single
place which is the target of the campaign. Thus, we see a plethora of
welfarist propaganda, information on illegal matters or breaches of
regulations and, in the case of vivisection laboratories, descriptions
of badly-conducted science.
an analysis of the causes for and background to animal use, the true
advantages of a strategy cannot be evaluated. Let it therefore be said
that if it were the case that exploitation were restricted to certain
businesses and establishments, few in number, the strategy makes
perfect sense. With public support for and full understanding of animal
rights, all means that can close down the places in question are
this is hardly an accurate analysis of the way things are. Such a
scenario has little to do with what is actually happening around us. As
we have said before, in the world today, animals are not used because
some evil people, a cruel or greedy minority of society, ruthlessly
want to inflict harm on them. Those who farm, kill, or harm animals in
any way do so simply because of public demand. It is the people (or
most of the people, at any rate), who want to use animals; not because
they want to harm them, but because they want to obtain certain animal
products and other advantages from their use. Today, virtually everyone
agrees with the idea that nonhuman animals can be utilised by humans.
Exploitation does not exist in isolation, but rather is the norm. So we
cannot expect to end it by confronting some of the very particular
places in which, among many others, it takes place.
main problem implicit in this strategy, however, is not that it misses
the point when selecting its target, but that it brings serious
As it selects one specific centre of utilisation of animals as its
target, it conveys the idea that the problem is not animal utilisation
as such, but the way in which it is taking place in that particular
place. This is reinforced by all the arguments that intend to discredit
the place(s) rather than animal utilisation and speciesism as such.
The use of such “non-anti-speciesist” arguments also gives the idea
that human interests are still, after all, most important, as even
those who claim to defend animals mainly use arguments that are not
Finally, the use of tactics that a large part of the public sees as
unacceptable (such as intimidating workers employed in the places
targeted) alienates many people. This is a result of not taking into
account the fact that the general idea society has of animal rights
defenders may, by extension, apply to the animal rights arguments
4. Gradual prohibitions
of the strategies used nowadays by animal rights advocates is focussed
on achieving gradual prohibitions of certain practices, as a means to
achieve the total abolition of the use of animals. Unlike the case of
regulationism, the prohibitions this strategy intends to achieve are
not reforms in the ways animals are treated when used. On the contrary,
it aims to ban altogether certain practices in which animals are used.
In this manner, a different way of campaigning for legal advances for
animals can be followed, not condoning the practice itself, as
welfarist campaigns do.
practices towards which the campaigns for bans are directed tend to be
the ones that are easier to tackle. The expectation is that they will
set a precedent for new, more ambitious prohibitions to take place. An
underlying idea in all this is also that changes in law are something
permanent, so that, once we have succeeded in introducing a ban, this
will mean the end of a specific use of animals, though the number of
these will be relatively small, as the prohibited practices will surely
not be the major ones involving animals.
following these campaigns we can certainly spare certain animals from
being used and killed. However, it is crucial to carefully analyse
their utility. We must not assume that demanding a practice to be ruled
out will be effective in itself, regardless of the consequences the
campaign will produce.
the discourse of a pro-ban campaign is fundamentally centred on the
issue of speciesism, and makes clear that the targeted practice is not
less justified than others, it may (in some cases, depending of the
practice that is disputed) prove to be a fruitful campaign. It may be
productive if it leads the public to question discrimination against
nonhuman animals. But there is reason to be cautious, as there is the
indubitable risk of our message being misunderstood. We can give the
impression of considering the targeted practice as particularly
unacceptable, while others are not. For example, demanding a ban on fur
or blood sports can create the impression that fur is somehow “worse”
than leather, or that hunting is bad just because it is “for fun”
(while meat eating could be seen as more justified, as it is not done
addition to this, further problems frequently arise in relation to this
kind of campaign, because the arguments against speciesism are often
neglected. More common are arguments referring to the “cruelty” of the
practices criticised. While this makes putting an end to the practice
easier in the short term, in the long run it can be just as pernicious
as regulationist campaigns: the use of animals (or the way they are
used) is only seen as unjust if it is “excessive” or “cruel”. By
trying to outlaw those practices that many think should disappear, we
could unwittingly justify those that are still widely unchallenged,
when our aim is to communicate to the general public that all uses of
animals are "excessive".
course, that does not mean that bans of this kind are not desirable.
The eventual abolition of the use of animals as resources is, of
course, an objective of anti-speciesist campaigns. But the question
here should be whether to campaign directly to achieve them or rather
to generate a social debate about animal use itself. By raising
awareness about equality among human and nonhuman animals not only will
many animal lives be spared as people cease to consume them: the use of
nonhumans as resources will end up receiving enough opposition by the
public as for being prohibited due to social pressure. Surely, as
defenders of the strategy in question rightly argue, not all practices
will be outlawed at once, but gradual bans will take place as society
changes. Prohibitions will be a subsequent consequence of our
campaigns, directed not against specific practices but towards
discrimination against nonhuman animals in general. Therefore,
questioning speciesism seems to be the safest and fastest way to
achieve a total abolition of all animal use (if that is ever to happen).
this, since our goal is to save as many animals as possible, it can
also be argued that reducing the demand for animal use would be
preferable to banning certain specific practices in which fewer animals
are involved. In this manner, campaigning, for instance, for an
animal-free diet would be more appropriate than advocating the
abolition of, say, rodeos, greyhound racing or fur farming. An argument
against this statement is that prohibitions are something permanent,
that will remain once achieved, whereas changes in public opinion are
changeable, unstable: just as the public can stop using animals, they
can resume consuming them. Nevertheless, this objection, although
sound, is not categorical. Socially significant changes regarding moral
aspects which are relevant to everyone’s life are not likely to be
straightforwardly drawn back. Once the public dismisses one practice as
unacceptable, it is not easy for it to become publicly accepted again,
if the arguments are properly understood (the issue of fur “coming
back” is to be expected, as no anti-speciesist arguments were employed
during the anti-fur campaigns). You do not need a law to persuade you
to take a moral view. To give an example of this: in some countries, it
is legal to shoot people who enter your land. However, there are many
who oppose this, and they would not shoot anyone who walked onto their
property, even if they had the right to do so. There is no reason to
think people will change their view and start shooting trespassers,
just because there is no law against it. On the other hand, laws can be
revoked at some point, and can also be disobeyed.
5. Challenging speciesism
what we have discussed so far, it should be apparent that we are in
need of a strategy which really addresses the relevant issues at stake.
To achieve this, we firstly have to distinguish clearly what the
objective of our campaigns should be.
Animals are used simply because people get some advantage from doing
so, as they can obtain certain goods or services. Why are animals bred
or captured for food? Because people want to eat them. Why are animals
bred or captured for their leather, fur, or down…? Because people want
these products to wear. Why are animals bred or captured to be sold in
shops as companions, exhibited in zoos or circuses, or to be used for
sport…? Because people want to use animals in such ways. It is not that
people are callous or that they want to express their dominion over
animals. It is, rather, that people simply want to enjoy the advantages
that using animals gives them (tasting or wearing animal products, or
enjoying animal performances, for example). Most people have never
reflected on the consequences for the other party involved, namely
nonhuman animals. They have been taught since childhood that that is
the way things are. They learn that humans are entitled to use other
animals. They live in a speciesist society and act accordingly, as they
never come across any other point of view on the issue. They never hear
the reasons that refute the various arguments in defence of speciesism
and which explain why nonhuman animals should be considered from a
It could be said that animal experimentation is a case apart, as it is
not always the public who demands it, but instead companies,
institutions and governmental bodies. However, this case is not really
very different from the others. If animal experimentation thrives it is
only due to the kind of mentality now prevalent in society. Companies
are run in order to make profits from their customers, that is, the public,
and governments always have to restrict – to some extent – their
policies in order to maintain some legitimacy. So if they now promote
the use of experimental procedures involving animals, it can only be
due to the lack of public opposition to this practice (mainly to animal
experiments for medical purposes).
Hence, we find again that it is challenging speciesist attitudes that will eventually lead to an end to animal experimentation.
a consequence of what was argued above, it seems clear that if we want
to follow a strategy that truly aims to help animals we should focus on
eliminating the demand for animal use by consumers. Of course, this
could be done by presenting reasons not necessarily linked to animals’
interests. This is something that actually happens when, for example,
vegetarianism is defended on environmental or health grounds. But like
this we would be repeating an error that we have already touched upon
when discussing other strategies: trivialising the case for animal
rights. Besides, the efficacy in the long run of such a course of
action will be minimal. If we campaign for vegetarianism for health or
environmental reasons, then when it comes to opposing animal
experiments what we have been saying in the case of vegetarianism will
not help our cause at all. We will have to start from scratch again.
And, the same way, if we base our arguments on, say, medical concerns
against vivisection, when it comes to wearing animals we will once more
have to use a different argument that has not been presented before.
instead, we argue against speciesism, we will be exposing the whole
issue, regardless of the kind of exploitation we are facing at any
particular moment. All uses of animals have a common root, the reasons
to oppose them are quite simple and should be addressed as such:
nonhuman animals’ interests should be taken into account just as human
interests are. The criteria that are usually appealed to in order to
determine what is morally relevant when defending a speciesist view
(such as the possession of certain intellectual capacities) have no
significance, as they do not determine a subject’s capacity for being
benefited or harmed. The only factor that can be relevant when it comes
to being respected is the ability to feel suffering and joy.
As a result, we can see how this strategy meets the following requirements:
Far from being a utopian approach, as has been claimed by some critics,
it is indeed a highly realistic strategy. It initiates a progressive
reduction of the demand for animal products. This way, it is saving
lives right now, as the public stops consuming them.
the case of regulationism, the reduction of the demand for animal
products means that basic and not only secondary interests are
defended. The animals spared because they will not be used for human
purposes are not just spared some harm when being used, but all kind of
harm inflicted by humans.
By following this strategy, many people will find our position
unacceptable –from a speciesist point of view. But it cannot be
otherwise: the message we promote collides abruptly with the present
common view that people have of animals. However, the more people get
used to our argument, the less shocking they will find it. If the AR
movement starts focusing on challenging speciesism now, a real change
in people’s mentality may occur relatively soon. This will not happen
if we don’t address the problem as what it is (for example, referring
to cruelty or compassion instead of injustice or arbitrary
discrimination). Nevertheless, while our argument will sound very new
to many today, it will seem less strange once the debate about the
issue is widespread due to anti-speciesist campaigns. While it is
harder to change someone’s mind if they have never questioned their
views on something, the change of mentality is much easier for someone
who has heard certain arguments while growing up. New generations will
be brought up within a context of debate about animal equality, which
will allow them to understand and accept the idea much more easily.
This is far from what is happening nowadays, as almost the whole of the
movement is neglecting the promotion of the very argument on which it
is based: speciesism is unjust.
there is a clear difference between the kind of rejection that the
challenging of speciesism often receives and the one caused due to the
use of tactics that people consider unacceptable. The first one
is unavoidable if we want to create a debate on the ethics of using
animals. On the other hand, the second one is unnecessary for
accomplishing that task. It generates a debate not about speciesism
itself, but on the acceptability of using certain methods, which is obviously not what we should aim for.
It is sometimes claimed that, even if one strategy may be very
effective while others are not, following several strategies will take
our struggle further. As we have seen here, this does not seem to be
the case. Following fundamentally flawed approaches to activism can
severely impair our case, and seems illogical when we have other ways
which will better address our tasks to accomplish the objectives we all
share. However, of course, campaigning by challenging speciesism can be
done in many different ways. Campaign methods as described above are
many and various. There is a wide spectrum of possibilities for
effective activism challenging speciesism: information stalls on city
streets, conferences, street actions aimed at attracting media
attention, demonstrations, letters to newspapers, articles and
publications, info-spreading through the internet, the use of art as a
way to promote our message… Each of these should be considered and put
into action according to what seems appropriate at the time.
can be said that the rest of the strategies (regulationism, focusing on
closing down a particular business, gradual prohibitions, rescuing
animals or attacking the different kinds of places where animals are
used) can also question speciesism, even without overtly addressing the
arguments against it, by implicitly showing it as unjustified. But that
seems rather implausible. Public debate about species discrimination is
practically inexistent today, so it is virtually impossible that people
can understand that those who carry out these actions do so to question
speciesism. Surely the public will be aware that there are people
opposing certain uses of animals. But that does not mean that they will
get the idea that those activists oppose all animal use. Most
importantly, neither does it entail that the reasons behind such
opposition will be understood.
there can also be other motives why one can use or support those
strategies. One could just consider unjustified the actual way in which
animals are treated. One can be a speciesist who finds acceptable the
use of nonhuman animals as long as this implies the least possible
suffering for them. Therefore, one would support the rescuing of
animals to stop their use in particularly harsh conditions, the
introduction of regulations to ameliorate their situation, the closure
of those centres in which they are worst treated or the prohibition of
those practices that are considered more “cruel” and “unnecessary”.
This shows how all these strategies can also be perfectly consistent
from a speciesist point of view. Therefore, it is quite dubious whether
they can serve to spread antispeciesism. The best proof for this is
that today, although animal rights campaigns appear repeatedly in the
media, public understanding of why speciesism is unacceptable is
is important to remark that the analysis made here is a strategic, not
an ideological one. The goal that all the strategies we have examined
aim to accomplish is the same: the end of animal use. The differences
that we can find among them have to do with their efficiency to achieve
their goals. They are not right or wrong in themselves, but can be so
in relation to the setting in which they are put to practice, and the
results they hence obtain. We do not support or oppose any of the
strategies described for any moral or ideological reason, but because
of strategic considerations.
The question is not only what are we entitled to do to end animal use, but also what will help better to accomplish that task.