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The Face of Animal Rights

What does an animal rights activist look like? If you get your images mainly from news reports, it may seem there's a simple answer to that question. Young. Angry. And, more than likely -- especially if the activist in question has managed to catch the notice of a camera crew -- prone to violence, either real or symbolic.

But there's another face to the animal rights movement. In fact, there are millions of faces. Many are young, yes, and some are understandably angry; what caring person, seeing the unspeakable cruelty visited upon so many animals day after day, has not experienced anger? The media's narrow focus, however, yields a distorted picture of what is in fact an increasingly diverse, mainstream movement. Rarely glimpsed are the myriad means by which animal advocates turn the welter of emotions stirred by needless suffering -- outrage, empathy, love -- into action.

That's a shame. Vast numbers of Americans recognize that animals have lives and interests of their own, unrelated to the property rights of their "owners." (If you've ever lived with a dog or cat, you're probably in this group yourself.) Yet while this awareness forms the very foundation of the animal rights movement, our cause doesn't yet resonate with much of the U.S. public. Despite the attention lavished on animal issues by the media -- or perhaps, given the myth of the Activist as Outlaw, because of it -- vast numbers of Americans still aren't getting the message.

What we have here, in that famous phrase, is a failure to communicate.

Sadly, many can't seem to hear the message for the messenger. And the real story -- the appalling, systematic abuse and exploitation of animals -- is too often lost in rhetorical storms over tactics. For champions of the status quo, the popular stereotype of the militant, violence-prone animal rights activist is a useful fiction. It diverts the nation's eyes from the plight of animals, and offers a handy alibi for failing to see. It is disinformation, a lie with a purpose. In truth the movement is far more broad-based and law-abiding -- and thus more threatening to the corporate ranchers, researchers and "factory farmers" who regard animals as commodities -- than the cartoon version regularly beamed into America's living rooms.

The truth is emerging. So, too, are new messengers, willing and able to carry the message to a wider audience. The animal rights movement has grown up. Its ranks today include professors, politicians, police officers and, of course, lawyers -- marching side by side with truck drivers, file clerks, sons and grandmothers and neighbors. People, in other words, who resist caricature as a lunatic fringe. People with a story to tell. And whose message will be heard.

We will always have our militant wing -- every movement does -- and for that we need make no apologies. But it's just one part of the story.

The rest, as they say, is history. And that, fortunately, is in our hands.

For the animals,

Steve Ann Chambers
President, Animal Legal Defense Fund

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