Has Public Interest in Animal Rights Peaked?
By: Harold A. Herzog
By: Harold A. Herzog
Department of Psychology, Western Carolina University
The animal rights movement has emerged over the past 20 years as a highly visible and effective social movement. The growth of public interest in issues associated with the treatment of animals, and especially with their use in behavioral and biomedical research, has been spectacular. The use of animals in psychological research has come under particularly heavy criticism from animal activists. For example, Rollin (1981) has referred to experimental psychology as "the field most consistently guilty of mindless activity that results in great suffering" (p. 124). Although psychologists who work with nonhuman species have mounted a counterattack (e. g. , Miller, 1985), the negative image of behavioral research with animals persists among many segments of the public. Domjan and Purdy (1995) have recently argued that even the authors of introductory textbooks seldom acknowledge the contributions of animal studies to advances in psychology.
Although it is commonly believed that the rise of widespread animal protectionism is a recent phenomenon, this is not the case. An organized antivivisection movement emerged in England and the United States in the latter half of the 19th century. Victorian animal activists, like their modern counterparts, were particularly critical of psychological research with animals (Dewsbury, 1990). However, public interest in social issues rises and falls (Hilgartner & Bosk, 1988). For example, the high point of Victorian anitvivisectionism was reached in the years preceding World War I. By 1920, interest in animal protectionism had largely declined, only to reemerge several generations later. In this comment, I report evidence that a similar decline in the public visibility of this issue may now be taking place in the United States.
Concern with a social problem is reflected by the degree of media attention it receives. The number of magazine and newspaper articles devoted to a social problem can serve as a gauge of public interest. For example, Phillips and Sechzer (1989) examined awareness of ethical issues associated with the use of animals within the scientific community by analyzing the coverage of the topic in scientific books and journals. They found an explosive rise in the number of articles appearing in the scientific literature during the period 1965-1985. I have surveyed recent trends in the coverage of topics related to the animal rights movement and the treatment of animals in popular periodicals and in major newspapers. The results of my analysis suggest that the visibilty of the animal rights movement has leveled off and may be declining.
I manually searched The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature and conducted a computer search of Newspaper Abstracts to examine changes in the coverage of the animal rights movement over the past 20 years. The Reader's Guide is a bibliographic index that surveys 250 popular and semipopular periodicals. I began the Reader's Guide search with articles published in 1975 (Volume 35), the year of publication of Peter Singer's influential book Animal Liberation , often referred to as the bible of the animal rights movement. I ended the search with Volume 54 (December 1994). All articles related to animal welfare issues and the animal rights movement were included in the tabulation. The key words and phrases used to access the articles varied from year to year as the movement developed. They included animal experimentation, animal treatment, animal rights movement , and animal liberation. Articles dealing with a wide variety of topics, such as the treatment of particular species, the search for alternatives to the use of animals in consumer product testing, the campaign against furs, and articles about animal protection organizations (e. g. , People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Animal Liberation Front) were included in the tally. Articles related to wildlife management, hunting, trapping, and the smuggling of animal products were not counted unless they were directly referenced under a topic such as animal treatment.
The bound edition of the Reader's Guide does not include newspaper articles. I searched Newspaper Abstracts through FirstSearch, an online information service. Newspaper Abstracts is a bibliographic database that covers 25 major newspapers published in the United States. (It also includes one foreign newspaper, the Manchester Guardian. Articles from the Guardian were not included in this tally. ) Newspaper Abstracts is more limited than the Reader's Guide in that it only covers issues of newspapers published since January 1, 1989. The computer search was conducted using the key word phrase animal rights or animal treatment .
The Reader's Guide results are shown in
Figure 1. Throughout the 1980s, there was a general increase in articles devoted to animal welfare and the animal rights movement. But the number of articles peaked in 1990 and has shown a significant decline since then. The same trend was evident in the number of articles appearing in American newspapers. The number of articles listed in Newspaper Abstracts doubled between 1989 and 1990, from 163 articles to 338 articles. Since 1990, however, there has been a steady downward trend (245 articles in 1991, 208 in 1992, 191 in 1993, and 142 in 1994).
Mutual fund brochures routinely caution readers that past performance is no guarantee of future behavior. The same proviso applies here. In the long run, the decline in coverage of the animal rights movement in newspapers and periodicals may reflect merely a transient downturn in public interest. On the other hand, it is possible that, like Victorian antivivi-sectionism, the contemporary animal rights movement is running out of steam.
There are other signs that suggest that interest in animal protectionism may have peaked. In recent years, contributions to animal rights organizations have not followed the pattern of dramatic growth seen in the 1980s. Trends in the consumption of products in the United States offer other examples. Animal activists sometimes take credit for the fact that fur sales declined 40% between 1987 and 1991. However, sales of fur coats have increased 20% over the past two years. The consumption of meat by Americans has followed a similar pattern; the number of beef cattle raised anually declined steadily between 1984 and 1988, but has increased since 1990.
Several factors might explain the decline in media coverage of the animal rights movement. First, legislative reforms such as the 1985 amendments to the Animal Welfare Act have led to enhanced oversight of animal research and may have taken some of the wind out of the sails of animal activists. Second, some animal protection organizations have shifted strategies away from the barricades and toward courtrooms and statehouses. A report by the United States Department of Justice on terrorist activities by animal activists indicated that the frequency of incidents such as the theft of laboratory animals and harassment of researchers increased steadily between 1976 and 1988, but it has subsequently shown a consistent decline (U. S. Department of Justice, 1993). Clearly, fire bombings are more likely to attract media attention than subcommittee hearings.
Finally, as evidenced by the 1994 elections, the mood of the public has become decidedly more conservative. The contemporary animal liberation movement is the direct descendant of the civil rights and women's movements (Singer, 1975). It is no surprise that animal protectionism, like other social causes based on liberal political principles (in a broad sense), may have a harder time attracting attention and public sympathy in the Gingrich era.
There is no doubt that the animal protection movement has had a major and possibly permanent impact on how people perceive other species and our moral obligation to them. A 1990 survey of Americans found that 80% of the public agreed with a statement indicating that animals have rights that should limit the way they are used (Orlans, 1993). And the movement continues to generate controversy and significant, albeit reduced, media coverage. Increasingly, the battle for the "hearts and minds," particularly with regard to the use of animals in research, is being played out in educational settings as partisans on both sides attempt to sway the opinions of young people (Blum, 1994), and the long-term effect of the debate over the moral status of animals remains to be seen. Recent trends in media coverage, however, suggest that animal rights activism may be following the cyclical pattern that is characteristic of other social movements.
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2. Dewsbury, D. (1990). Early interactions between animal psychologists and animal activists and the founding of the APA Committee on Precautions in Animal Experimentation. American Psychologist, 45, 315-327.
3. Domjan, M. & Purdy, J. E. (1995). Animal research in psychology: More than meets the eye of the general psychology student. American Psychlogist, 50, 496-503.
4. Hilgartner, S. & Bosk, C. L. (1988). The rise and fall of social problems: A public arena model. American Journal of Sociology, 94, 53-78.
5. Miller, N. E. (1985). The value of behavioral research on animals. American Psychologist, 40, 423-440.
6. Orlans, F. B. (1993). In the name of science: Issues in responsible animal experimentation. New York: Oxford University Press.
7. Phillips, M. T. & Sechzer, J. A. (1989). Animal research and ethical conflict: An analysis of the scientific literature: 1966-1986. New York: Springer-Verlag.
8. Rollin, B. E. (1981). Animal rights and human morality. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.
9. Singer, P. (1975). Animal liberation. New York: New York Review of Books.
10. U. S. Department of Justice. (1993). Report to Congress on the extent and effects of domestic and international terrorism on animal enterprises. Washington, DC: Author.
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Source: American Psychologist. Vol. 50 (11) November 1995, pp. 945-947
Accession Number: amp5011945 Digital Object Identifier: 10.1037/0003-066X.50.11.945