animal rights activists
For animal-rights activists, arson was a way to save lynx from a new ski resort, Vail, Colorado, 1998.

I received a phone call the other day from a very frightened fur retailer. Two young women had come into his store while he was serving a customer and begun lecturing him about the evils of selling fur. He had tried to stay cool and asked them to leave, several times, but they kept at him until, finally, he lost it and said things he wasn’t proud of. They had filmed him too; now his outburst was on an activist website and his Facebook page had been bombarded with comments accusing him of being a sexist thug.

“Am I finished?” he asked, shaken. “That’s not me, but they were so aggressive; honestly, I was frightened.” I told him to remove the threatening posts from his Facebook page – but to take screen-grabs first, for the record. I also advised him to make a police report about the women who had harassed him, and to ask the police to keep an eye on his store at night. (The windows of several fur stores in the same town were broken in the weeks that followed.)

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. An outerwear store that sells fur-trimmed parkas in Vancouver has endured rowdy protests several times a week for more than a year. Activists now often follow fur-wearers down the street, haranguing them. DxE (“Direct Action Everywhere”) activists invade department stores, intimidating consumers and thumbing their noses at store security. At the opening of new Canada Goose stores in New York and Toronto, protesters carried “F*ck Canada Goose” posters. (So much for compassion and intelligent dialogue!) “Fur police” recently patrolled the streets of Hamburg, Germany, lecturing fur-wearers and giving them “tickets”.

READ ALSO: “Meat of the Matter: Peace-loving avengers,” by Dan Murphy, for Dairy Herd Management.

Fur is still a favorite target but any animal-based business can find itself under attack. An infuriating new tactic of animal rights activists is to blitz commercial Facebook pages with negative ratings and comments, as a Vancouver chef recently discovered when he added seal meat to his “sustainable and cultural foods” menu. (Ironically, activists often claim that the seal hunt is immoral because only the fur is used!)

Here are 5 reasons why animal rights activists are becoming more aggressive … and why it will likely get worse before it gets better.

1. Aggression Works

Activists have learned that many retail stores – even those of large corporations – have a low tolerance for confrontation. Things were different when most furs were sold by furriers running multi-generational family businesses; fur was what they knew, and they defended it with passion. With fur now popular for trim and fashion accessories, it is sold in a much wider range of stores.

This is putting fur on more people than ever before, but it also makes retailing more vulnerable: if fur represents only a small fraction of your sales but generates 99% of your security and PR problems, caving in to PETA is a tempting option. Unfortunately, the message to animal rights activists is that threats and intimidation work.

Simplistic, vulgar, and arrogant. PETA speaks the language of contemporary youth culture.

2. Pop Culture

If you have seen a music video recently — or follow much of what passes for political debate these days — you understand that the vulgar, arrogant and often aggressive tone of animal rights activists (“F*ck Fur!”) is very much in tune with certain elements of contemporary culture. And because there’s no sign of popular culture becoming much more polite any time soon, we can expect the arrogance and aggressiveness of these activists to intensify too.

3. Animal Rights Activists Are Getting Frustrated

Cleveland Amory, founder of the Fund for Animals, began campaigning against the fur trade in the late 1960s, almost 50 years ago. Protests intensified in the 1980s and then, again, with the emergence of media-savvy organizations like PETA. The traditional fur coat was also challenged by more casual lifestyles and the availability of less expensive winter clothing materials.

But just when it looked like Western consumers were abandoning their furs, the trade reinvented itself. Suddenly fur is everywhere, not only on 70% of designer runways, but in the streets – as trim on coats and parkas, on handbags, vests, scarves and boots. As trim and accessories, fur is more affordable and is being worn by more young people than ever.

Like old-time Stalinists frustrated with the “false consciousness” of workers who didn’t support The Revolution, many activists have concluded that, if moral persuasion isn’t working, it’s time for more vigorous methods. “As long as they do the right thing, we don’t really care why they’ve done it,” says PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman when asked whether companies give up fur to avoid harassment, rather than because they share PETA’s views.

If activists produce a video of “rabbits that are having their fur ripped out, … everybody watches it.”  That doesn’t mean that it’s normal practice. See:“Is PETA’s Angora rabbit video staged?”

4. Social Media Encourage an Escalation of Emotion

Animal rights activists have always used disturbing images, but mainstream media rarely broadcast the most gruesome of them. In the Brave New World of social media, however, the gorier the better. As PETA’s Tracy Reiman says, “… we put out a video of rabbits that are having their fur ripped out, and everybody watches it.”

It is not hard to understand why normally compassionate people would be horrified by some of the images circulating on the Internet. If I thought these images really represented the fur trade, I would be against it too. So don’t be surprised that some idealistic young people decide it’s time to take stronger action to end such (apparent) atrocities.

The anonymity of social media also encourages more radical and polarized opinions, in all types of politics.

5. “Animal Rights” Is a Fundamentalist Ideology

The previous four points provide ample explanation for the more aggressive tone of animal rights activists. A more troubling question is whether the “animal-rights” philosophy itself may inevitably lead to more aggressive behaviour.

Despite all the media coverage of PETA’s antics, few people – journalists included – understand the profound chasm separating traditional “animal welfare” values from the radical and comparatively new “animal rights” doctrine. Animal welfare refers to our responsibility to minimize suffering for the animals we use. Hopefully everyone reading this post agrees with this. Animal rights, by contrast, says that humans have no right to kill or use animals at all, even for food or important medical research.

A more troubling question is whether the “animal-rights” philosophy itself may inevitably lead to more aggressive behaviour.

But if we truly believe that killing and eating an animal is the moral equivalent of murdering and eating another human being, then how far should we go to stop such “crimes”? Seen this way, activists who become more aggressive or even commit illegal acts are not “going too far”; rather, they are reading their animal-rights philosophers correctly.

“Animal rights” — like other fundamentalist doctrines — does not allow for respect or tolerance of differing views. In this sense, the increasing aggression of animal rights activists is not an accident or an aberration. But if intolerance and aggression are the logical conclusions of “animal rights”, maybe it’s time we took a much more critical look at this radical new philosophy. This will be the subject of a future article.

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