A Change of Heart: Kathy Rudy in The Chronicle
The world of animal rights is busy, perplexing, and uneven. Sometimes, people who call themselves animal-rights activists simply mean they don't eat meat or wear leather, sometimes they eat fish, cheese, or eggs, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes activists break into scientific research labs and steal animals. Sometimes activists kill animals in "shelters." Sometimes the term "animal rights" applies to people who rescue injured wildlife for rehabilitation and release them back to the wild. Sometimes it means people who run permanent sanctuaries for retired entertainment animals or exotic pets; other times it refers to people who believe wild and/or exotic animals should not be kept at all, and work to shut such sanctuaries down. Sometimes people who say they're into animal rights mean they really love animals, and share a large portion of their lives with them, even trying various sound and unsound methods to communicate with them. Other times being an animal-rights activist means holding a strict abolitionist policy with regard to all animals, and condemning zoos, pet ownership, and all other venues in which humans come into intimate contact with nonhuman animals.
It's not easy to make sense of all these conflicting views. Indeed, all these projects have something to do with animals, otherwise it isn't clear what holds these agendas together. It's even more confusing when the general public sees animal-rights activists as extremist food police; when I try to persuade women's-studies majors to take an animal class, for example, their response is almost always "I can't because I'm not a vegetarian." It reminds me of the way people in the 1970s equated feminism with lesbianism: "I can't be a feminist because I like men." The public discourse around feminism has changed, and it's time for the conversation around animals to change as well.
For animal rights to become a mainstream movement, advocates must change the way the public thinks about animals. "Women's rights" does not mean the same thing in every pocket of feminism, nor does "gay rights" or "civil rights." Those terms point to orientations around social change, not specific, agreed-upon agendas. Indeed, inside each of those other movements, arguments and conflicts abound; what holds them together in the public eye, though, is a fairly general cultural acceptance. The same thing needs to happen for animal rights.