Andrew Hunt

To advocate for the rights of animals is noble. But there is a wrong way and a right way to do it.

Let’s begin with the wrong way. Threats or violence never work. When flamboyant American figure skater Johnny Weir arrived in Vancouver recently for the Winter Olympics, he received numerous threats because of a piece of fox fur he attached to his costume.

The threats were serious and had Weir fearing for his life. He pointed out – quite correctly – that figure skaters wear skates made out of leather from dead cows. So why is the life of a fox more meaningful than that of a cow?

Weir admitted he likes “wearing dead animals.” He also added: “I just don’t like how animal groups go crazy about a fox or a beaver but say nothing about cows dying for shoes. They always seem to pick the cutest animals.”

The barrage of threats against Weir prompted him to jettison the small strip of fox fur on his outfit. He traded it in for pink ruffles and a pink tassel. But the episode left a bad taste in his mouth. It also made animal rights activists appear to be, in the words of Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford, “lunatics.”

Another example of the wrong way to approach animal rights occurred last month, when a misguided militant tossed a tofu pie in the face of federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea during a speech. Whatever moral high ground the animal rights movement enjoyed was momentarily lost on that day.

Such desperate protests do not help animals. Instead, the public gets caught up in the outrageousness of the act itself.

Animal rights activists have a powerful ally on their side: Truth. And they should use it to their advantage. Make whatever arguments you want to support killing animals for fur and leather, but it’s impossible to deny that it’s an ultra-violent act. Similarly, the factory farm system in North America kills billions of animals every year, yet it’s no accident that those companies make every effort to conceal the killings from the public eye.

Why? These companies know that millions of consumers engage in disassociation and denial every day in order to purchase their products.

Outrageous protests fail to draw attention to this reality. More often they end up polarizing the issue and marginalizing the fanatics.

Right now, the animal rights movement is at about the same stage the Civil Rights Movement was when the Montgomery Bus Boycott commenced in 1955. And the animal rights movement can go one of two ways: It can adopt the same rage-filled tactics used by the people who threatened Johnny Weir and the activist who tossed a pie at Gail Shea. Or it can move beyond these dead-end methods and follow the nobler path established by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of reaching out to foes, educating the public and protesting nonviolently.

There are local groups such as the Canadian Animal Liberation Movement who are mounting effective and nonviolent protests to educate people about the suffering of animals. The organization has just launched a local anti-fur campaign and they engage in other creative forms of outreach.

Similarly, in St. Catharines, a peaceful anti-fur protest on Feb. 13 did a wonderful job of shining the spotlight on animal cruelty.

Some militants will insist the nonviolent route is ineffectual. But historically, in democratic societies, it has always been the surest way to spread awareness and win converts.

Andrew Hunt is an associate professor of history at the University of Waterloo.