Posted by: Renee Owens | March 6, 2010

Healing the Great Divide

This article first appeared on January 1, 1996, in but it is an important issue that is just as relevant today. As our environmental woes and battles grow exponentially (out of control oil spills, climate change, rampant development, pollution, invasive species,  capitalism gone amuck), it is time the environmentalists and like-minded animal preservationists stopped quibbling about the other, and started working together towards a common goal: a healthier, happier mother Earth, where all its inhabitants can survive and even thrive without suffering or abuse.

The great divide: 12 environmental and animal rights leaders talk about what separates them – and what can bring them together. (Our Agony Over Animals, part 3) E Magazine

In this, the third installment of E Magazine’s series “Our Agony Over Animals,” we’ve asked a panel of 12 distinguished representatives of the animal rights and environmental movements about “the great divide” that keeps the groups – which share many goals and philosophies – from working together. Our apologies to the people who were asked to participate but, because of severe space limitations, are not included here.


JONI PRADED is the editor of Animals, a national magazine published by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

A few years ago, wildlife officials in South Africa’s Pilanesburg National Park received an interesting proposition: A wealthy American, bent on shooting something impressive, offered to pay $500,000 to kill one of the park’s rhinos. The officials had a candidate, a past-his-prime bull too old to breed. The money could finance the struggling park for a year, and the viability of the endangered species wouldn’t be affected. But according to one South African conservationist, fear of a public outcry from beyond the nation’s borders quelled the plans.

The bull was saved. But in the conservationist’s eyes, an opportunity had been lost to what he called a radical fringe – a fringe that included animal advocates who he felt lost sight of the big picture by focusing on the well-being of a single animal.

But in reality, compassion for animals – individually or as a group – is not fringe at all. It’s a part of every person who shares his or her life with a cat or dog, who marvels at the sight of a hawk circling evergreen spires, and who relishes a world made up of many creatures – each with its own worth, each worth treating with respect.

Compassion was a part of this conservationist, too. He wasn’t a cruel man; he simply felt he could no longer be a purist. After all, there was a planet out there that needed saving, In his view, animal advocates were running amuck, killing it with kindness.

One would think that those who advocate for animals and those who advocate for the environment would work in concert, and many times they do. Schisms develop when a certain question arises, and that question is: How far do we drop a certain standards for letting animals live uninterrupted lives when faced with desperate situations? No simple solution exists. Even among animal advocates, the answer to this question will vary.

The Pilanesburg incident typified another question increasingly arising in the arena of international wildlife conservation: Where do we draw the line when trading life for cash in the name of conservation? Some would argue that there’s no line to be drawn, no compromise to be made if it involves any degree of animal suffering. Others would argue that such “sustainable use,” the new conservation buzzword, is the only answer to keeping habitat protected so that wildlife has a home. Most, however, would fall somewhere in the middle, choosing to evaluate situations on a case-by-case basis, take the best possible course of action for the animals involved, and work toward a day when, through increased awareness, animals can be valued for their own individual worth.

While sustainable use is hotly debated around the world, U.S. environmentalists have been slow to take a stand on animal issues closer to home – even though a concerted effort by both camps would do animals and the environment well.

Take the case of hunting. Most people, hunters included, don’t realize that traditional wildlife management has deliberately and artificially boosted the numbers of “game” animals. The result has been an erosion of the natural balance of wildlife, with predators virtually eliminated and popular hunting targets like white-tailed deer elevated to perilous proportions.

Or take the case of laboratory animals, creatures that many would not ordinarily associate with the environment. Yet vast numbers of research subjects are plucked directly from the wild – and always in larger numbers than needed, since many die during transport. Animal advocates not only want to eliminate unnecessary suffering in laboratories, they also want to plug the drain on wild populations.

The battle to reduce farm animal suffering, too, has environmental benefits. Waste from factory farms causes massive pollution; growing the grain to feed food animals consumes tremendous resources and habitat; and providing water to intensive agricultural systems has already bludgeoned the western landscape.

More than 125 years ago, founders of the U.S. animal protection movement believed that encouraging respect for all living things would not only make life better for animals, but also for the environment and for people. Compassion, they thought, was such a simple tool, yet we’d forgotten how to use it. Today animal advocates operate under the same impetus – one that an increasing number of environmentalists share.

DR. MICHAEL FOX, a veterinarian, is vice president for bioethics and farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He is the author of more than 25 books about pet care, animal philosophy and biotechnology.

Unfortunately, we’ve been arguing the case for recognition of our kinship with animals and their sacredness in rationalistic, legalistic “rights” language. I advocate going beyond the rights

concept because it is polarizing, setting animal rights against human rights. We need a whole new frame of reference.

Animals should have rights. But that important idea, through rationalism, can be defeated, out-argued, out-legislated and under-prioritized.

Forging a spiritual linkage is what’s missing in the legalistic approach. The universe is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects. We have to reconnect to the sacramental, creation-centered spirituality of people like St. Frances of Assisi and Father Thomas Berry.

I’ve spoken to many shamans and medicine men and they say, basically, that people in the modern age are not in their right minds, not in a right relationship with nature, and that’s why there’s so much suffering, disease and chaos.

Biotechnology and genetic engineering are the ultimate expressions of human chauvinism and arrogance. Implicit in this thinking is the belief that we can improve on nature before we really understand her. It fundamentally shocks me, but that view is common. I read, in a London newspaper six years ago, that a conference of the leaders of the world’s monotheistic religions, Judaism, Islam and Catholicism, had issued a unanimous declaration that they saw nothing wrong in turning pigs into organ donors because, they said, “After all, animals were created for man’s use.” We have to get people to change their thinking because we’re not in our right minds.

JOHN ROBBINS is the author of Diet For a New America, and the founder of EarthSave, an organization dedicated to “helping create a better world by showing the powerful impacts of our ordinary eating habits and promoting positive alternatives?

I think it’s important that environmentalists be concerned about animal rights, because the essence of the environmental movement is a shift from an attitude of exploitation to one of respect vis-a-vis the natural world. We have to think in terms of the whole Earth community, which includes the less fortunate of the world, the biosystems, the resource base and the animals. If we’re going to make the transition to a respectful relationship with the natural world, we need to respect its other inhabitants, and that certainly includes the other animals.

People who identify themselves as strictly environmentalists or strictly animal rightists are probably going to be in conflict, and I don’t think that either is going to fully appreciate the other’s point of view. I don’t have an answer, for instance, to the problem in Hawaii, where The Nature Conservancy and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are at odds over the trapping of non-native wild pigs and goats. I think we need a shift in thinking somehow. I keep working to find a way that’s more inclusive, that can respect the individual animal, while also holding a vision for the whole ecological fabric.

Environmentalists tend to discount one of my areas of deepest concern, factory farming, because they see it somehow as an issue outside the natural environment. But the environmental impact of factory farming is prodigious and very destructive. Amory Lovins did a report called “A Tale

of Two Burgers.” He tracked the energy use involved in the production of a beef patty that comes from feedlot beef, compared to a patty from a family farm animal that was grazing. It was an unbelievable difference. Cornell University also did a study a few years ago that showed that the amount of energy consumed to produce a pound of protein from feedlot beef was 22 times greater than that consumed in the production of corn or wheat, and 39 times greater than that for soybeans.

I think we need to expand the definitions of “animal rightist” and “environmentalist.” The way they’ve been defined in the narrow sense makes it appear that there’s an inherent contradiction between them. But, essentially, the spirit that motivates both of these social movements is one of wanting to move from a dominating, exploitative mentality toward the natural world and its inhabitants to a more respectful one.

PRISCILLA FERAL is president of Friends of Animals, the group well known for its “spay/neuter” programs in local communities around the country, and for its ubiquitous “Warning: I Brake for Animals” bumper sticker.

Humans have moral responsibilities. And we do pass laws which require us to respect various moral and ethical concepts, first and foremost, not to cause gratuitous harm.

Sometimes it’s easy to justify harm to the few in favor of the many. Sometimes environmentalists say that humans must avoid causing the extinction of “species,” but they stop short of advocating rights for individual animals. But what is a species other than a group of closely related individuals? A “species” is an abstraction; you cannot hold it, weigh it or measure its metabolism. The individual is the functioning unit of a species, indeed, of life itself. Only an individual is sentient. Only an individual can reproduce, be aware of pain, sense cruelty, be joyful. Unless we respect the individual animal, we cannot say honestly that we are behaving responsibly toward the environment.

Environmentalists have two options. They can rest their beliefs on simple self-interest – protecting the environment because they want it for their own use or they can recognize that the environment is the support base for all life and respect all life on an equitable basis.

If the environmentalist seeks to be ethical, he or she must also assume a just and impartial attitude toward individual animals, even butterflies, which are an integral part of their environment. It is quite inconsistent to claim to love the whole but to disregard – or be callous toward – individual parts of that whole.

SCOTT MCVAY is executive director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He has published 25 papers and articles on whales, including the pioneering “Songs of the Humpbacked Whales” (with Roger Payne), which appeared in the journal Science in 1971.

Our relationship with the natural world has evolved over the long sweep of history through a series of changing ideas and perceptions, so we need to look at the animal question in that

context. Several “shocks” have affected our interaction with nature over time. Copernicus and Keppler, for example, challenged the notions that the Earth was flat and that the other planets revolved around it. It wasn’t the idea of a round Earth moving around the sun that bothered people, but the idea that the Earth and humans were not at the center of the universe.

The next affront was from Charles Darwin, who said in 1859 that all life had evolved over a long span of time. Freud delivered the next one, challenging the idea that as individuals we are masters of our own destiny; maybe instead, he postulated, we are the sum of everything that happens to us.

The next shock was the realization that our dominion over the animals was neither assured nor appropriate. Humankind’s most pronounced feature as a species may well be language. But bottlenose dolphins have brains and nervous systems that are highly developed and beautifully differentiated, suggesting a level of consciousness that is analogous to our own. Similarly, we now know that sperm whales have brains six times bigger than ours. And humpback whales have been travelling across the ocean in a world of highly complex sound for 25 million years. We’re only now beginning to tune into that music, which is their dominant form of exchanging information.

I would submit that postulating a consciousness in marine mammals that is analogous to ours, however alien, represents another shock to the prevailing body of assumptions about the natural world. It’s a happy shock, though.

There has also been pathbreaking work in the study of DNA. For instance, higher primates have a genetic makeup dose to ours. Our genes are 96.4 percent convergent with the orangutan of Borneo, 99.7 percent identical to the gorilla, and 98.4 percent the same as two species of chimpanzee – a genetic distance of 1.6 percent, substantially less than two closely related bird species, the red-eyed and white-eyed vireos, who have a genetic distance of 2.9 percent.

As we get to know the natural world better, our chance of doing the right thing improves. In the 1960s, the focus of the conservation movement was on protecting “charismatic megafauna,” the big vertebrates. In the 70s, concern shifted to wildlife habitats. Then, in the 80s, we realized that there were people living in most of these areas, too, so people became part of the effort. Now, in the 90s, our focus is on mediation, conflict resolution and conciliation.

We are slowly beginning to craft a new ethic that takes all forms of life into account. Many of the trend lines are quite discouraging, which is why people who provide a voice for animals are going to be better heard in the years ahead.

JUDI FRIEDMAN is the chairperson of the Connecticut-based People’s Action for Clean Energy (PACE). She is also the author of 13 environmental books for children and young adults, including Jellyjam the People Preserver, which has been published worldwide. Friedman is currently working on adaptions of it in Portuguese and Spanish.

I believe that animal rights people and environmentalists are after the same basic goal, which is respect for all life, the understanding that all life is interconnected. Animals should be seen simply as other nations, all part of the continuum of existence.

I think there are extremists in both the environmental and animal rights camps who work to divide us, and we need to shy away from them. Environmentalists need to recognize that for animal rights people, the individual is very important, and animal rightists need to see the importance of protecting species. But there’s such huge overlap that we shouldn’t be fighting, we should be working together.

Both animal and environmental groups also need to think about the ways we hurt animals just in our lifestyles. If the cleaning products we use in our homes poison living things, we should work to change that. Just about every choice we make – whether to wash our clothes ourselves or send them to the dry cleaner, whether to eat organic food or not – is an environmental choice that affects living things. We should be working together to make the right choices in our lives, and that’s a very tall order, as well as a powerful economic force we have to influence the economy. But we also have to recognize that we’re all human and make mistakes.

As in the old idea of the miner’s canary, animals are acting as early warning systems for us. When their thread of life becomes weakened, ours will be weakened also. In their vulnerability, I compare animals to children. Our environmental standards are set for the strongest members of society. If toxic chemicals in the air and water pollution affects animals, it also affects the most fragile members of our society, children.

Many people don’t understand the suffering that animals endure in providing products for humans to use. I think many people would change their minds about eating meat if they knew about the factory farms where it comes from. I think they’d also make changes if they knew about the pain and suffering caused by the testing of cosmetics. And, again, these are changes that have profound consequences in the economic sphere.

JAN HARTKE is president of EarthKind, a division of the Humane Society of the United States that seeks to promote concern for the planet and for animals. He is a former New Mexico state treasurer, attorney and public defender.

In a 1992 speech to The Humane Society of the United States, the then-president of the League of Conservation Voters (now Secretary of the Interior) Bruce Babbitt, explained why he saw a great convergence taking place between the animal protection and environmental movements. Environmentalists, he observed, were gradually coming to understand that: “Ultimately, there isn’t a chance of persuading people, civilization and countries to take biodiversity seriously unless they first understand from the depths of the human spirit the suffering and mistreatment of animals, and to have a larger, holistic, spiritual view of what Creation is about.”

This great convergence between animal and environmental protectionists is an important new development in the global effort to build a more humane and sustainable civilization. It is

occurring because society is coming to understand that all things, animate and inanimate, are profoundly interdependent. Our kinship with other creatures and every facet of our environment is not just a pretty poetic image or a pleasing metaphor.

We would expect to find common ground on endangered species, but we should also be finding it on factory farming. Not only do factory farms treat cows, pigs and chickens like unfeeling cogs in an industrial machine, but they pollute the water and the air. Here then, is a confluence of interest formed by empathy and scientific findings. In many cases, what is bad for animals is also deleterious to the environment.

Often, our detractors try to pose a false choice by saying they are concerned with human needs, not animals or trees or wilderness. Such a view misunderstands the nature of compassion. Compassion need not be used sparingly as though there is not enough to go around.

Albert Einstein framed the problem and the solution this way: “A human being experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness.” This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

WINONA LADUKE is program director of the Seventh Generation Fund, a Native American grantmaking organization based in Minnesota. She is also campaign director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, and a board member of Greenpeace USA.

I oppose laboratory testing on animals, factory farming and fur farms – I think all of them are obscene. But to the people who oppose indigenous hunting and trapping rights, I say try to live in the sub-Arctic and eat broccoli. I’ve lived there, and I know the situation. These are people who’ve spent their whole existence being carnivores, who live off these animals and believe that they reincarnate as them. They are intimately aware of the cycle of those animals and the need to preserve them. It’s also worth pointing out that, in these remote northern communities, the prices at the food stores are five to 10 times what urban people are accustomed to paying.

I will oppose anyone who says indigenous people don’t have the right to harvest animals, because that is integral to our existence. I fish, and about 60 percent of the meat I eat is hunted or trapped. If all my food came in cans stamped by the Department of Agriculture, I would cease to exist in the way I need to live.

I’m most concerned about the crash of ecosystems and long-term habitat sustainability. There is a need to work on animal issues. But I also think there are endangered human cultures as well as endangered animal species, and many of those cultures are made up of people intergenerationally related to animals. There are only 300 Seminole people left in the Florida Everglades, and they are squatters on their own land. They have their own language, ceremonies and education programs. They are Panther Clan Seminoles, and they are as endangered as the panthers. For

them, the panthers are important, but not just because they’re an endangered species – they have an entirely spiritual relationship with them. There are also only about 30 of the Northwest Salmon people left, and their culture is entirely based on those disappearing fish. Where there is an endangered animal, there’s usually a people who are just as endangered.

ANDREW ROWAN is the director of the Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy in Boston.

The notion that environmentalists should or should not be concerned with animals and animal rights is a false dichotomy – some will be and others won’t be, and it doesn’t make any of them better or worse. If people are asked if animals have rights, 80 percent will say yes. However, if they’re asked if animals should be killed and eaten, 80 percent will also say yes.

Both the animal rights and more radical environmental activists tend to see nature as munificent, as always making the right choices for itself. Conservationists see nature as inherently neutral – they think that if we want nature to work properly, we sometimes have to interfere with it.

Where no one is promoting human intervention, and where there’s no conflict between protecting species and protecting individuals, the groups work together well. Efforts to save whales are a good example. Animal rights people applaud when the government sends icebreakers to save Humphrey the humpbacked whale, but environmentalists see that as diverting attention from saving species.

I’ve been working with zoos, which most animal rights activists think are an abomination. But the better zoos employ a lot of wildlife professionals whose job it is to promote conservation at home and overseas. Most of the people working in zoos are there because they love animals. Some 110 million people visit zoos in the U.S. every year, and one hopes some conservation message is getting out.

Until there’s mutual respect, animal and environmental people will miss out on a lot of opportunities to work together. I like to encourage finding a common ground, but it’s not easy to develop a trusting relationship.

CHRIS WILLE is a representative of the Rainforest Alliance in Central America, and co-directs the Conservation Media Center and the Tropical Conservation Newsbureau. He is a former vice president for conservation information at the National Audubon Society, and served as editor of Audubon Activist.

Cruelty toward pets, livestock, medical research subjects and feral animals must not be ignored, but it can seem trivial compared to what I see as the real “animal rights” issue: Human population growth and feverish consumption has set in motion the greatest extinction crisis since the apocalypse that claimed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We could lose one out of every four species during our generation. The quintessential “right” of any living being is the right to

pursue life and reproduce, and we are depriving not just individuals but entire species of that right at the Earth-shattering rate of three species an hour.

Much of this is happening in the tropics, as rainforests fall at a rate of 100 acres per minute around the clock. What could be more cruel – what could be a greater violation of rights – than to deprive every member of an entire species of a place on this Earth?

Animal rights groups are draining precious energy and resources from conservationists. While these groups raise thousands of dollars to free one Willy, conservationists are lobbying for better laws and trade sanctions to save whole sea-fuls of cetaceans. While animal rightists make midnight raids on medical laboratories, conservationists are risking their necks in confrontations with ranchers and loggers to save whole forests full of biodiversity.

Animal lovers split long ago into two camps. One would sacrifice the wholeness of a high desert ecosystem and many of the plants and animals that live there to protect the rights of a band of overgrazing mustangs. Conservationists – yes – would sacrifice some of the ponies to save the ecosystem.

The good news is that many activists who began with “animal rights” issues are gaining a more holistic perspective and joining conservationists in the deepening trenches. The two groups have much to learn from each other. And the environmental crisis is so complex and urgent that the “rights” of humans and other animals hang on the hope that we can all work together.

RIC O’BARRY is the director of the Florida-based Dolphin Project, which works to free marine mammals from theme parks and research labs. During the 1960s, O’Barry captured and trained more than 100 dolphins, including the TV star “Flipper.” Author of the 1989 autobiography Behind the Dolphin’s Smile, O’Barry gave up animal training after one of his charges died in captivity.

Some people I work with question why I spent so much time and energy rehabilitating and then releasing Flipper, the last captive dolphin in Brazil. Why spend so much time on one individual when the whole species is in danger?

Some say that the individual doesn’t count, it’s the masses you have to deal with. But that’s like saying something should be done about child abuse, and then ignoring your own next-door neighbor abusing his children. I oppose cruelty and abuse to animals wherever I see it, and I usually see it on an individual basis. When abuse is absolute, you have to oppose it absolutely.

Some people wonder why so much attention gets paid to the “Free Willy” case, as opposed to the whole killer whale species. But individual marine mammals are powerful symbols. I just released 12 dolphins into the wild, and the story of their release has been in National Geographic and on television, including the Super Channel in Europe. The message that dolphins are important reaches hundreds of millions of people, and it’s all because of a few individuals who were given names and personalities.

The Flipper TV show was both the best and worst thing to ever happen to dolphins – it made them popular, but it also created a billion-dollar captive marine mammal industry. People who watch dolphin shows have the illusion that the captives are happy because they have that smile, which explains the title of my book. You have to look at their eyes to know what’s really going on, and most captive dolphins keep their eyes shut. I want to hold a debate on the captivity industry at Sea World, and I think we should hold it in the petting pool, so the public can see the habitat of a captive dolphin just four blank walls, a chlorinated box.

We’ve been making lot of progress on this issue, but there are still 1,000 marine mammals in captivity. I’ve been swinging on this vine for 25 years, and I’d like to see some of the big animal protection organizations pay more than lip service to it. A lot of the money being raised on behalf of dolphins goes to groups that don’t really do anything for them.

KATHRYN RULLER is president and chief executive officer of The World Wildlife Fund.

As something of an inveterate consensus-seeker, I’ve never really understood what keeps conservationists and animal rights advocates periodically squared off like armies on opposing sides of a river. It takes just a slight shift of perspective to understand that we are not fighting each other but rather living in each other’s camps – and drawing water from the same source.

That source, of course, is an ethic, a shared set of values that underlies each group’s larger activities, connecting them even when they seem most divergent. Maybe that common provenance has become harder to see as groups like The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) cross over into areas once considered “out of bounds” for conservationists addressing the larger social and economic forces that dictate the consumption of natural resources.

But no matter how complex or broad-ranging our programs become, our work remains steeped in the very philosophy that shapes the animal rights movement: an unstinting, unqualified regard for life in all its variety.

Some conservationists may be academics…but none of us is academic about what we do or why we do it. What drew me to conservation was not some dry, vaguely held notion of biodiversity. It was a passion for animals. And I would hazard a guess that the millions of people who support and carry out conservation work are in the grip of a similar passion. How else could we derive such a profound moral and emotional importance from our work? How else could we care about animals and natural environments we’ve never seen?

So when conservationists seek to maintain the ban on commercial whaling, for instance, we do so not just because whales are a vital linchpin in marine ecosystems, but because they are magnificent creatures intrinsically meriting protection. The same is true for every species that comes under our umbrella, whether a giant panda or a monarch butterfly or a hyacinth macaw. Wildlife is why WWF and other conservation organizations exist.

Indeed, I hope animal rights advocates will continue to keep us honest – by reminding us that, no matter how much we learn about nature, we must never unlearn the simple but powerful passion

that first drew us to nature. It is this impulse that I hope will propel both the conservation and the animal rights movements forward against daunting odds.

Citation Details


Title: The great divide: 12 environmental and animal rights leaders talk about what separates them – and what can bring them together.(Our Agony Over Animals, part 3)
Publication: E (Magazine/Journal)
Date: January 1, 1996
Publisher: Earth Action Network, Inc.
Volume: v7    Issue: n1    Page: p36(6)


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