Animal Rights, Past and Present – Larry Weiss at VegFest 2016



I’m going to start with the past of the animal rights movement and move forward. A lot of people feel that the animal rights movement grew out of the environmental movement, but that’s actually not accurate. The animal rights movement preceded the environmental movement by about a hundred years. It grew out of the abolitionist movement in the early 19th century. One of the early guiding voices in the abolitionist movement, William Wilberforce, was also the founder of the RSPCA in 1824. These two were linked, and it was felt they had a common mission moving forward, in our country, to the Civil War.

Right after the Civil War, a lot of organizations began having as their purpose the protection of animals and children. What happened then is very odd. The children’s protection movement continued to grow. There were child labor laws passed, there were prohibitions on children’s labor, there was mandatory schooling, there were social agencies, there were all these things happening in the field of child protection. But what happened in the field of animal protection? After about thirty years, it stopped. There were animal cruelty laws passed in the 1870s, 80s, and 90s in all states, and that was it.

Now why did one protection movement keep going, while the other one died? It’s because animals are property. That is the legal basis of their exploitation. And that’s what we have been fighting ever since: the notion that animals are property.

Going ahead now, to about 1975, there was a new feeling in the air. The 60s and 70s were a time of great turmoil, all the “isms” were being challenged – colonialism, sexism, racism – and it occurred to a few of us that there was another one, speciesism. This was something we felt was not being addressed any place else, so we decided that, okay, we think animals are not ours to wear, eat, or experiment on. What issues should we work on?

I’ll give you a few examples of the kinds of things we worked on in the 1980s and 90s. We worked on companion animal issues: spay and neuter became a big thing, and now we have spay and neuter vans, and low-cost surgeries. We worked on animal cruelty laws during that period. Cruelty laws were generally misdemeanors, but became felonies in all fifty states. So that was accomplished during the 80s and 90s.

Other things we did included dealing with animals in entertainment: circuses, zoos, rodeos. They all became subject to potential criticism. A lot of roadside zoos shut down on cruelty grounds. Circuses, well, there began to be circuses that didn’t have animals. And in terms of rodeos, a lot of things happened there too. There was now a requirement in most states that a vet be present at rodeos, and the most egregious acts in rodeos, such as the tripping of animals, were banned in most states. So you had movement in all these animals-in-entertainment issues.

Another area we did was product testing and medical testing, experimentation on animals, and I have to say that PETA was right in the front of this. PETA was the group that brought to our attention what happens in labs. The first case where this occurred was called the Silver Spring Monkeys case. This happened in 1981, when Alex Pacheco, one of the founders of PETA, got into the labs, took photos of monkeys being tortured, and made them public. This resulted in the first police raid of a lab on cruelty grounds in the United States.

As for product testing, it was just as bad. There were two main tests: there was the Draize Test, and the LD 50 test. The Draize Test involved dripping into the eyes of small animals – usually rabbits – toxic substances such as Drano. If you can imagine Drano being poured into your eyes, they wanted to see what happened, and of course the rabbits went blind under terrible torture. PETA made this public also. There was another kind of test, the LD 50 test. LD stands for Lethal Dose. So Lethal Dose 50 meant that the amount of toxic substances fed to the animals would kill 50% of the control. We publicized the heck out of this. They’re still legal, unfortunately. The Draize Test and LD 50 test are still legal, but very, very seldom used, and this was the result of the intense publicity.

Another area we worked in was wildlife. We had a new tool, the Endangered Species Act. What were we going to do with it? We had to get the species listed. We had to go to the Interior Department, which was the first department to administer this, to get the species listed. So we got the species listed, and now we had to get enforcement, so we really worked on the enforcement aspect of the ESA. The ESA became our greatest tool and our greatest friend.

Another thing that happened in that period in terms of wildlife was that we publicized what happens in fur farms. We had photographs of animals being anally electrocuted so as not to damage the fur. We had pictures of animals biting off their own legs in steel-jaw traps to get away. Nobody knew what a steel-jaw trap was, nobody knew what happened in fur farms. This was all the result of undercover videos.

So we did that too – I’m giving you a summary of what happened in the 80s and 90s.

The last thing we did, and this is the hardest, was animals in factory farms. We are not winning that issue. There are more and more vegans, I mean look at this hall, there are more and more vegans but guess what? There are more and more animals being killed every year in slaughterhouses. There are more and more animals in factory farms. So how do these two things go together? How can we be having all these vegans and yet the situation is worse? It’s because of the increase in human population. You flowchart it back to that, that’s the problem. And everything we do in terms of veganism, in terms of restrictions on pollution, in terms of carbon credits is going to be swallowed up by human overpopulation.

So that’s the bad news. The answer to this is that there has to be a worldwide movement to empower women, to have fewer children if they so desire, or to have no children if they so desire. That is at the heart of the overpopulation problem, and that’s what we have to work on. When Janet and I go to conferences, world human overpopulation is barely mentioned, because it’s a toxic subject. Nobody wants to address it. Not many people on either the Democratic or the Republican side want to mention one word about it, and that’s why I’m bringing it up.

So these are some of the issues we worked on in the 80s and 90s. I guess this is the time to mention what I did during that period. My background is in criminal law, so I was the attorney and defender of the animal rights activists who got arrested in the 80s and 90s. There were a lot of interesting cases, but I’ll just give you one.

There was a hunt planned for a park adjacent to San Francisco Bay, and the night before police had blocked up the park, putting up all these concrete barriers to prevent activists from going in there. In the morning, when all the hunters came to have their licenses checked, they came through and there were twenty activists there behind them. They had come there from across the bay, they slept there and as the hunt began, they would rise up like ghosts out of the bushes and blow horns to scare the animals. I don’t think one animal was killed that day. Those were the kind of people I liked to defend, it was an honor to defend them.

Other things I did, I defended the people who were called before federal grand juries. There were a lot of witch hunts in those days and they needed someone who knew that area of law, and I was happy to do it. So that’s my participation.

Now moving on to the present. A lot of things have changed. The main thing I see that’s changed is the assumption that humans are a superior species, when there’s so much evidence to the contrary. Take this case of the gorilla [Harambe] and the little boy. The gorilla was shot, as you all know, but a lot of people felt the gorilla shouldn’t have been shot. What if there had been five gorillas? Shoot them all? What if there had been twenty gorillas standing around the little boy? Shoot them all? This discussion is on the table now, and wasn’t thirty years ago. It is no longer assumed that human interests will always triumph over non-human animal interests, and that used to be the assumption.

So given that fact, we wanted to move forward and build upon that. So I’m covering now the year 2000 up to the present. Several things have changed. The first thing that has changed is that there is less conflict between people who are talking about animal rights and animal welfare. That used to be a big subject: who’s animal rights, who’s animal welfare, in arguments. That’s less the case now than it was then. You hear the term “animal protection” a lot, and animal protection indicates that we have now realized that there is a continuum, and wherever you are on the continuum, do it and stop arguing over these terms. So that’s less an issue than it used to be.

Another thing that’s less of an issue is the conflicts that used to exist between the animal rights movement and the environmental movement. It used not to be easy. I represented people who were arrested in both, and there was not a unity of interest. And now the environmental movement has realized, it’s not just about numbers, not just about sustainability. You can have sustainable populations, but what about the individuals? These are individual animals with families and feelings. And there’s a lot more veganism in the environmental movement. Some of the first environmentalists were big meat eaters and hunters, and that’s all changed.

On the animal rights side, it’s changed too, because there was a realization that if we don’t act for clean air and clean water, we’re all going to die. Not just the animals, not just the people, all of us. So there’s a lot of feeling that we have to put our energy behind things that aren’t just specifically animal related, such as the antibiotics issue. There is this huge corroboration between the environmentalists and the animal rights people on the antibiotics issue.

So talking about current trends. There’s a lot more going on education than there was back then. All those stupid charts about the four food groups, those are gone, and people have realized the benefits of veganism in schools. Thank God, it’s in schools. And the educational piece, especially with farmed animals, Mercy For Animals has been one of the leaders. They’ve been really fabulous at letting people know that what happens in factory farms isn’t what you see in Charlotte’s Web, they’re not the animals running around in green fields anymore. You see that when you go into markets, you look at butter containers and you see this happy cow on them, but no. So the education is there, that piece is in place.

And what about the law? We have laws now we never had before. We have felony laws in all 50 states. We have CITES. I don’t know if any of you have ever heard of this, but I’ll talk about it. It’s the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, and it’s worth knowing about. It’s supposed to do internationally what the ESA was going to do nationally, but CITES has been a big disappointment. They do the same thing as the ESA, they list species, they prohibit the trade in animals themselves or parts thereof, but the problem with CITES is it was left to the individual countries to enforce, and enforcement is nil in some countries. Look what’s happening to the elephants. There’s all these laws against elephant poaching and the selling of ivory. Some countries are not enforcing CITES, and that’s where the problem is. It’s a work in progress.

Other things in the legal field, there’s been a lot of success here. I have to say that Animal Legal Defense Fund, whom I work with very closely, they’ve been at the forefront of this. What they do is to help prosecutors have successful prosecutions, and they’re very good at that. They bring attorneys together so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you write a brief. They put you in touch with experts in your area whom you can get in touch with for your cases. It’s been wonderful.

Other things that are happening: In the legislative field, there’s a lot going on. First of all, there are now animal friendly caucuses. In Washington for example, there’s an animal friendly caucus. There’s one here in Denver, called the CLAW Caucus, and they meet with legislators. If you’re ever interested in actually talking to the legislators, asking them questions, why they vote for something or why they don’t, come to CLAW Caucus. Just Google it.

And this ties back into education, because I can tell you from experience that if you talk to the legislators, they’re going to want to know if this is something the people are aware of. You’ve got to show, when you go into legislative offices and talk to the legislators or their aides, that there’s a movement behind this. There’s ten thousand people writing letters, it’s in the papers, on the Internet, it’s everywhere. Because otherwise you’re not going to get any traction at all. So education is essential to the legislative piece.

Last of all, but not least certainly, is what is going on with a humane economy. All these years we’ve been focused on morals, that it is wrong what you are doing to animals. And of course it is. But in the last few years we’ve been able to argue that, it’s good for your corporation, it’s good for your PR, it’s good for your bottom line, to go humane.

Examples of this are in ecotourism. It’s a big business now. And a lot of countries have been approached in Africa saying, you’ve got to keep these elephants alive. You make a lot more money from ecotourism than you do from having these animals killed. And the same thing is happening in places like PetsMart and PetCo. They don’t sell puppies anymore. What they do is they make their facilities available for adoptions from local SPCAs. And by doing so, they get great PR, they get people to come into their stores and buy all their accouterments. It’s a win-win. And there’s a lot of this going on.

When I come to this part, I have to mention HSUS and Wayne Pacelle. Wayne has written a brilliant book called The Humane Economy, and it lays out numerous instances of how companies can be persuaded to be more humane. Not necessarily because they have big consciences, but because it helps their bottom line. Another example is how after the lion was killed, Cecil the lion, several airlines refused to carry animal parts anymore from trophy hunts, Qantas and Air France among them. I’m not sure they were doing it out of their golden hearts, but they weren’t losing any money by doing it, because it was great PR for them. And if you approach them and say look, it’s going to help you and not hurt you, then you have a situation where people get on board with you, and it’s not as oppositional as it was in the 80s and 90s. And that’s the new trend. And again, HSUS has been great on this.

I want to leave time for questions and answers, so I’ll just say this. We’ve had a lot of successes. Condors are coming back, eagles are coming back, mountain lions are coming back. Wolves, that’s a work in progress. But we have had a lot of successes, and we’ve defended throughout our country, and throughout the world, that animals have some rights. And if we can get one animal to have rights in this country, we will have broken through the wall of property, and that’s what the Non-Human Rights Project – you may or may not heard of it, that’s Steve Wise, and Steve by the way is coming to Denver, to D.U. in the fall. Go see him, he’s good!

What the Non-Human Rights Project is, it’s a desire to show how similar in DNA, how similar in behavior, how similar in feeling primates are to us. So there will probably be one primate that’s granted the status of person, which is the legal definition of having rights, and if you have that in effect – personhood – you can use the models we have for guardianship. They’re already in place for minors, small children, and we can use them for animals. But we have to have one animal that’s given personhood, and that’s what that project is about.

So we’re on the brink of a lot of stuff. Let’s see, I’ve talked about the past, the present. If you want to hear about the future, you have to come back next year. Or better yet, you make the future! Make it a compassionate, caring future, you can do it.

Questions and answers:

Q: The courts are breaking on the characterization of animals as property. Do you see that going forward with the Oregon case that came out about a month ago. Could you comment on that and tell people what that’s all about?

A: The case he’s referring to had to do with blood drawn from an animal. The case was contested on the grounds that the animal is property, and drawing blood is seizing property without a warrant. And the courts said no, this is a different kind of property with the animal having its own interests, and they [the officers]need to find out for the benefit of the animal what kinds of substances were in this animal’s body. So this is another way of chipping away at animals as property. We’re not all the way there, but the fact that they said this isn’t like your television, that we can’t go in and look at your television or your computer without a warrant, but we can for this animal’s benefit because this animal is a living being, shows we’re halfway there. Thank you for your question.

Q: Given the current status of animal protection, what do you see as the place for direct action? Undercover work, protests, things like that.

A: So the question was, what is the place for direct action these days? There is a place, there’s always going to be a place for direct action to push the boundaries, no matter where we are. You know what direct action is. …Let me define activism, let me back up another step here. To me, activism is a two-step process. Step one is, you’re refusing to commit the cruelty yourself. You’re not eating the animals, you’re not going to the circus where the animals are being mistreated. That’s all great, and essential. But part two is, you’ve got to go out and do something about what other people are doing. For me to recognize somebody as an activist takes more than the one step, it’s two-step. You have to go out and write letters, go to the circus protests, come here [to VegFest], donate, do something besides simply not inflicting the cruelty yourself – which I respect also!

So the question again is, what is the place of activism? Undercover videos are our biggest tool. We can’t do it without the undercover videos. I spoke about how PETA used them, we need them still. And this is the reason why the abusers are focusing so strongly on ag-gag laws – they’re afraid of undercover videos. And that’s your direct action. We need those videos to show what’s really going on behind these fences. And there’s times for protests, for circus protests, which I go to, to let people know what’s going on. Ringling Brothers is no longer going to use elephants. They didn’t do it because people were just sitting at home, they did it because people were out there publicizing what they were doing. So there will always be a place for direct action to push the boundaries. But we also have to consolidate that which has already been pushed, and that’s what I talked about with the humane economy. So it’s all of this at once.

Q: So what I’m hearing is that the animal rights movement is directly connected to the feminist movement. Is there anything you can speak to on that, to empower women to be responsible for their bodies?

A: The question was, what is the relationship between the animal rights movement and the feminist movement and empowerment of women worldwide. It’s a strong connection. I’ve been going to these conferences since forever, and there are always representatives from Feminists for Animal Rights. They’ve been here since the beginning, when they stood up and said, we know how this feels and we’re going to apply this to animals. So this has been one of the strongest foundations of the animal rights movement, the feminist support for it. When feminism turned into a worldwide movement for the empowerment of women around reproductive rights, the animals stood to benefit tremendously, because of the overpopulation issue, but also because traditionally women make more compassionate choices. I’m not going to try to hide that, that is the case. And I think that is something that we as men need to speak to. Why are we making such macho choices all the time? I don’t know why. I spent my life not doing that, and when I see myself doing that, I tell myself don’t do it anymore. So there’s always going to be that linkage.

Q: Are there any recommendations that you can provide for accesses, ways for feminists to be active. Are there more effective forms of activism for feminism, or any kinds of groups you can recommend?

A: Contact Feminists for Animal Rights, Carol Adams. They give an entire list of things that can be approached from a feminist perspective, in terms of mistreatment, in terms of kindness, in terms of feminist-led organizations also acting as conduits for the humane economy. If you go into these mutual funds, you see that there’s a large joining of these two things. Many of these are organizations that will promote women to the top, break the glass ceiling. These are organizations that have a humane economy and buy into a humane economy, so yes.

Q: First, thank you for all the work that you’ve done. All critters deserve committed people. The Colorado state law says that all wild animals are the property of the state, including individual wildlife. Any suggestions on how to change this?

A: The question involves parks and wildlife. The parks and wildlife department, it’s pretty Stone Age actually. They have a commission, the commission has eleven members, and of the eleven members, six are by law hunters and ranchers. So on every vote that comes up, no matter how reasonable, you’re outvoted. So that would be my first recommendation: change the constituencies that make up the commission that, perhaps, used to be representative of Colorado demographics. I don’t think it ever was. But to have a majority on that commission that are hunters and ranchers, that’s the first thing that I would suggest you go after.

The bigger issue of course has to do with respect for species, and listing endangered species. I just went to the hearing that addressed that very issue on mountain lions. They want to kill all these mountain lions, over 300 mountain lions a year, and they say it’s a sustainable population. Well, it isn’t, but as long as you have a majority of the commission that feels that way, they’re going to say, it’s sustainable for us because we don’t want a single one of them killing our cattle. So a lot of it has to do with putting species on the endangered species list, listing them as threatened or endangered, and then they can’t touch them, the state can’t touch them. So that’s another thing we can do.

And last but certainly not least is animals as property. Until we get through that, it’s going to be a long road.

Q: How do we get prairie dogs delisted as agricultural pests? They’re killing thousands in the Front Range alone.

A: The question is, how do we get prairie dogs delisted as agricultural pests, and the answer is, I don’t know. I wish I knew. I wish I could help you on that one. Prairie Dog Rescue, work with them, another great group. I love them. What else?

Q: I’ve heard that animal activists can now be prosecuted as domestic terrorists in some cases. Can you speak to that?

A: Oh boy. Do I have to? The question was, can animal activists be prosecuted as domestic terrorists, and the answer is yes. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act allows those who engage in concerted action to disrupt the activities of a legal corporate proceeding or endeavor to be prosecuted as terrorists. This was directed specifically at environmental and animal rights people, because they mention the animal rights codes in there.

What happened before is they had RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act]. I don’t know if you know what RICO was, but before this came into being, they had RICO, and RICO was hard to prove. They tried to get people under RICO and it failed every time, so they passed what was called the Animal Enterprise Protection Act in the 90s. But they felt that was too weak, so they came back under the Bush administration and upgraded this to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in, I think it was, ’05 or ’06.

And they’re prosecuting a lot of people under that. They got the SHAC people – I think they still got the SHAC people under the old one, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. But what they’ve done is, they’ve made people afraid to go out and speak out, because if you speak out against these groups, and somebody else acts out against these groups, they might say you were part of a conspiracy, and you come under this statute. So people have to be very careful of what they say. Or, they don’t have to be, but they tend to be, because they’re intimidated. And our job is to not be intimidated, to speak out anyway.

So that’s the use of that, and it’s only been used one or two times, but they will use it, and it hangs over the head of people, and this ties into the grand jury thing I was talking about. They try to get you up in front of a grand jury and testify in front of your friends: what did you see at the demonstration? Who did you see? What did they say? And they give you immunity. The way this works with a grand jury is, you’re called up, you don’t want to testify, and you say okay, I’m not going to testify, and I take the Fifth Amendment. So what they do then is they say, okay, we give you immunity so you can’t be prosecuted based on what you say. But guess what? The person next to you will be prosecuted based on what you say, and you’ll be prosecuted on the basis of what they say, so you’ll both still be prosecuted under the AETA.

So the grand jury is a witch hunt, and these are tools to intimidate people. So don’t be intimidated, just go and live your life. And the people I represented did that. And I can tell you that ninety percent of them are glad they did what they did, and some of them went to jail and some even went to prison, and I would stand up and talk for them, and they wanted me to tell the jury why they did what they did. Tell them how it felt on Thanksgiving, when you sit around and there’s a dead bird with its feet sticking up, and if felt to us like there might as well be a cat on the table with its feet sticking up. They wanted me to talk to the jury about that. These were brave people, they are brave people, and there’s going to be a move for activism and they’re not going to scare us.

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About Author

Larry Weiss is a retired attorney who earned a B.A. from the University of Chicago and a law degree at the University of California at Berkeley. He practiced law in California for 36 years, first as a criminal defense attorney and then in the field of animal law. Larry specialized in the defense of animal activists. Larry believes that the exploitation of animals is a branch of the pervasive tree of dominance that exists within our society. "If we create a culture of true respect and compassion toward animals then this will change everything." Click to see author's profile.

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