Friday, February 22, 2008

Striking At the Roots: a Great Guide For Animal Advocates

Striking At the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism, by Mark Hawthorne; O Books; 282 pages, pbk.

“My wife and I share our lives with the world’s most perfect cat,” says Bruce Friedrich in his Foreword to Striking at the Roots. We cat-cohabitors know just what he means: we all live with the world’s most perfect cat. They’re all perfect and building on that loving link with one animal, many people move on to activist work for all animals. The surprising thing, however, is that so many people don’t. They pamper their pets but still eat meat, for instance, managing to turn off awareness of the sufferings of factory farm animals whose nerves and emotions are just as sensitive as are their cats’ and dogs’.

Striking At the Roots will help some people see the connection. For those already concerned about abuse of factory-farmed, circus, fur industry and laboratory animals this book provides detailed campaign suggestions. It is important for activists to be aware of like-minded people out in the world, because the forces against them are still mighty, and this book provides a sense of connection. It describes the successes of campaigners in many countries, quoting them directly and giving lots of blog and website addresses – an invaluable tool of solidarity. Hawthorne helps both the new activist wanting to “do something” but not knowing where to begin, and the seasoned campaigner facing burnout because after all the efforts of so many people, famous and obscure alike, millions of animals are still being abused.

Simple organization of material, black and white photos, and text boxes spotlighting quotes by activists make this an easy book to get into, but once in get ready for a rollercoaster of ups and downs: descriptions of heartwarming successes on the one hand and horrific animal abuse on the other. This is what met someone liberating poultry from a factory farm (from the chapter on direct action): “… the acrid smell that permeated the huge jam-packed shed … lame, feces-encrusted birds limping about and dead chickens, their ammonia-scalded breasts denuded of feathers, lying where they collapsed from inhumane breeding practices …”

Hawthorne summarizes animal rights law (still in its infancy as a discipline, but growing fast!) as well as laws applying to those who demonstrate for animals (mainly U.S. law). He quotes those who have gone to jail for this work: “… it’s better than a zoo, vivisection lab or factory farm … (no jail is) as bad as every moment of an animal’s life on a factory farm …” says one.

Hawthorne’s handbook is unique in attending to the issue of burnout among activists, and looking at the toll of the “curse of traumatic knowledge.” If you really think about what most animals’ life is like on this planet, get ready for nightmares. And if you think that because you have seen the light and write letters or hand out leaflets, everybody is going to listen and change their ways, get ready for disappointment and anger.

So what to do about burnout? Some prominent activists offer tips: work on tasks within your interest and comfort zone, “throw some jokes in the mix,” and take breaks from bad news. One has to smile at one suggestion: “if you need to take a break from animal suffering, work on global warming.” That may not quite do it, if you need to see solutions within your lifetime.

That is part of the stress: making the world humane is a long process, and a human life is short. One antidote to feeling overwhelmed is to act for the animals immediately around you, focusing on one helped creature at a time: “knowing we’ve given an animal the best life we could is a real comfort,” says one sanctuary worker.

Wisely, Hawthorne ends his book with an encouraging Appendix listing “Recent Milestones For Animals.” If animal rights are your concern, think about the next milestone, not the endgame, and make use of this “Practical Guide” as an invaluable tool.