At the Animal Rights 2010 National Conference, taking place just a soy bean’s throw from our nation’s capitol, you’ve got more than 1,000 people spending the better part of four days talking about how it’s a rotten idea to eat meat–or dairy or eggs—and about how to get other people to feel the same way.
Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) has organized the conference for a couple of decades, drawing speakers and participants from a broad spectrum of perspectives on some highly controversial issues.
Friday, 10:30 p.m.: You visit the hotel gift shop in pursuit of mindless bedtime reading material. The cover of Glamour magazine proclaims that actress Vanessa Hudgens, photographed with a pair of white kittens, is an animal lover.
“I love animals,” runs her Glamour quote. “Love, love, love, love animals. I have a toy poodle, Shadow. She’s a little whippersnapper. And I love little monkeys.”
Fellow patrons of the gift shop are a pair of middle-aged female tourists who—bottle blonded and sunburned, with polyester-clad waistlines that have seen wispier days—look not at all like Vanessa Hudgens.
With complaints about the stultifying heat they’ve encountered while attempting to see the sights of D.C., the tourists purchase gum and candy. They can barely walk, they say. They can barely breathe. Their feet hurt, too, and they think they’ll stay in the room to watch movies from now on.
Boarding the elevator along with them and a couple of passengers who wear Animal Rights 2010 conference badges, you notice that the gaze of one of the tourists settles on those badges, and on your own AnimalBeat.org T-shirt.
“Animal rights, huh?” the tourist mutters, elbowing her companion. Her mouth curls into a grin that you’re pretty sure you saw on Anthony Hopkins when he played a guy named Hannibal. Then she looks right at you.
“I love animals,” she says, that grin triggering a chill up your spine.
“Oh?” you reply, the perfect stooge. “That’s great.”
“Oh yeah, I love animals,” she repeats. “I sure do.” Then after a dramatic pause, “They’re delicious.”
One topic of discussion in conference presentations that day was how to behave in moments just like this, and how to respond to comments just like this.
If you’re a reporter, your job is to observe and ask questions. But how will the animal activists aboard the elevator behave and respond? This could get interesting.
“Create a positive experience and impression,” Caryn Ginsberg advised attendees at the “Winning Hearts and Minds” morning workshop she gave in tandem with FARM president Dr. Alex Hershaft. Because if you don’t, she said, “the next person who takes on the issue will have a higher hurdle.”
Ginsberg’s Priority Ventures Group consults for organizations like FARM, Farm Sanctuary, and The Humane Society of the United States on how to effectively promote their messages.
But in about the same acid tone you might use on somebody who cuts in front of you in a lengthy conference buffet line, one of the activists on the elevator says to the tourist something like, “Eating animals isn’t loving them.”
The tourist’s grin shifts. Her mouth, into which go some 35 land animals per year, according to Dr. Hershaft’s figures for the typical American meat eater, twists up biliously.
Suddenly you remember that the hotel has 29 floors. It’s going to be a long ride, and there’s not much space between you and any possible altercation.
So out of your mouth, in the positive tone recommended by Ginsburg and Hershaft, comes what you imagine they would want to be said. “Do you have any animals?”
“Yes,” the tourist says. “Ten.”
“Wow, what kind?”
She lists the names and breeds of dogs, cats, and rabbits.
“Any rescues in there?” you ask, smiling encouragingly.
“Oh yeah.” She nods. “I’m a sucker for a sad story.”
In the workshop Hershaft had said to look for similarities between yourself and the person you’re trying to win over. Anything you can think of. If the person is from Iowa, and you happen to have gone to college there, mention it. Whatever might help establish common ground.
And here’s common ground like crazy! This woman rescues animals, too.
You expect your fellow AR 2010 attendees to seize the opportunity. But they can’t. There’s still smoke billowing out of their ears.
Compulsively, you chatter, “Oh yes absolutely. Sad stories—there are a lot of those, aren’t there? That’s for sure. Sad stories all around when it comes to animals.”
Now, you think, now one of the AR participants is bound to jump in and add something like, “Gosh yes there certainly are a lot of sad stories. Like for farmed animals. Animals used for food. In those factory farms? They have nothing but sad stories. Their situation is really awful. They go through misery. Lives of total misery.”
Maybe the AR conference participants are thinking about saying something like that, based on what we learned during the day, but before they have a chance, the woman tells us, “I hate those things on TV with the sad stories about the animals. Can’t watch ‘em.”
“Like… you mean the ASPCA ads?” I ask.
“Yeah, where they show the puppies and kittens. Can’t watch that.” Her distress is palpable.
Aha! Under the snarky comments and the anthropophagous grin she’s a person with feelings.
“Ultimately we’re trying to change behavior by winning hearts and minds,” Caryn Ginsberg had said about the process of spreading the word on the plight of animals.
Opportunity alert! Heart and mind right here on the elevator, crying out to be won.
The AR folks could try something like, “Gosh yeah, that’s how I feel about watching the undercover videos from slaughterhouses—the abuses against cows and pigs and chickens. Really rough. Have you seen those yet?”
Instead, one of the AR participants, not even looking at the tourist—with her back actually turned to her, growls, “Hmph. That’s how I feel when I watch McDonald’s commercials.”
“Our job is to make opportunities out of our encounters with people,” Karen Davis told attendees at that day’s closing plenary session. Chickens, turkeys, and other birds have a passionate advocate in Davis, who founded and runs United Poultry Concerns on their behalf. “You want to be ready with an answer, and be friendly. Friendly and firm.”
“Be friendly,” Hershaft also had emphasized. “Be friendly, humble, and humorous.”
The elevator arrives at your floor. You consider staying on for the ride to see what happens next. To see if the AR people turn friendly. Right now they’re looking pretty firm. Friendly, not so much. Humble? Humorous? Like, not. But it’s been a long day.
“Most of us come to things over time,” Ginsberg had said. “Few of us go 100% immediately. So it’s more effective to ask for a small step.”
“Goodnight ladies,” you say as you exit the increasingly warm elevator. “Keep your ears open.”
Trudging to your room down the long hall, you realize it’s going to take a lot of small steps.
Not just to get to your room.
Not just to sit down with your conference-boggled brain to bang out some articles.
Not just to manage to get into bed with that mindless magazine and end up 12 seconds later with it thwacking your face after you’ve zonked out.
And not just for the animal movement to change hearts and minds.
But also for folks within the movement to search their own.
Oh, and also for Vanessa Hudgens to explain what the heck she means about those “little monkeys.”
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Katerina Lorenzatos Makris (a.k.a. Kathryn Makris) has written 18 books for major publishers and hundreds of articles for publications such as National Geographic Traveler, San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, and two regional news wire services.
A cofounder of AnimalBeat.org, she holds a B.A. in Environmental Science Studies and a lifelong interest in animal issues.
Among her books are Your Adopted Dog: Everything You Need to Know about Rescuing and Caring for a Best Friend in Need (The Lyons Press), coauthored with Shelley Frost, and The Eco-Kids, a series of novels for tweens (Avon Books).
Her story Small Change placed as a finalist in The Bark magazine’s short fiction contest and will be published this year.
She may be reached at [email protected].