Animal activist and founder of Zoocheck, Rob Laidlaw opens up on the coming of age of the animal rights movement.

“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.”

Alice Walker, author of The Colour Purple.

Rob Laidlaw is an acclaimed animal activist and founder of Zoocheck, one of Canada's leading animal rights organisations. He began his animal protection work in 1979, investigating slaughter houses and farming practices in Ontario. Since1984, he has been involved in wildlife issues, with an emphasis on the welfare of wildlife in captivity. His work has included successful campaigns to change wildlife protection policies and laws in many jurisdictions, as well as the closure of a number of substandard zoos. For the past 10 years, he has also been involved in numerous international initiatives, with a particular emphasis on wildlife in captivity issues in Asia.

Laidlaw has authored several children's books on animal issues, such as On Parade, The Hidden World of Animals in Entertainment and Wild Animals in Captivity is a Chartered Biologist, and a former Humane Society Inspector, past member of the board of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies and past Project Manager/Technical Advisor for the World Society for the Protection of Animals operating in 91 countries around the world. He currently serves as Director of Zoocheck Canada.

I met Laidlaw when he was in India collecting information and photos for two children's books: one about dog issues and the other about rescue centres and sanctuaries. Here, Laidlaw talks about the larger concerns of the animal movement, its history and trajectory in comparison to other social movements and the new directions it should take.

What made you take up the cause of animals?

I've always had a very strong empathy for animals ever since I was a child. In 1979 at the Toronto Festival of Festivals, a film called “The Animal's Film” by a filmmaker from New York was screened. It was a two and a half hour film showing what humans did to animals – food production, animals in entertainment, laboratory research and testing and many other issues. At the end there was a call to action. The very next day, I decided to actively take up the cause of animals.

Tell us about Zoocheck Canada.

I started Zoocheck in 1984, originally as a vehicle to put pressure on the government to regulate zoos in my home province of Ontario. Zoos were completely unregulated and as a result there were a large number of very amateurish roadside zoos as opposed to professional zoos. These amateur zoos have little money and untrained staff and leave a lot to be desired in terms of animal care.

You have worked with the animal movement for the last 31 years. What does the movement look like now? Is the movement still considered a fringe activity and marginalised by the state and society?

Yes, absolutely, though the movement has grown in numbers. Take the U.S for instance. There are at least 20 million people who support animal rights organisations. It is getting increasingly entrenched in popular culture like Hollywood movies. I saw a film recently where Hugh Grant is chased by a bear and, as he runs, he shouts, “I'm a member of PETA!” But unfortunately, it hasn't progressed much in terms of behaviour change on the part of individuals, at least not yet, or political action. That's a huge gap. But this is a movement that has come of age.

What is the history of the modern animal movement?

Peter Singer released Animal Liberation in the mid-1970s in the U.K. and U.S. I would date that as the start of the modern animal movement, though traditional societies have always had customs and philosophies aimed at protecting animals. So, roughly, it's about 35 years old which makes it a young movement. We are still in the process of developing. That's part of the frustration for us at the front end, whereas the other social justice movements such as the anti-slavery movement, the environment movement and the women's movement, which are longer term movements, have made some progress. Compared to them we are in our infancy, which is sad for animals that are there now considering what is happening to the population explosion.

To these movements that are making progress, I would add the Dalit movement in India. But all of these are human-centred where the players can speak for themselves and demand their rights. But The animal movement is different from other movements in that animals cannot speak for themselves and are entirely dependent on humans to speak for them. Do you see this as a huge handicap in the trajectory of growth of this particular movement?

Oh absolutely. For instance, look at the anti-slave trade movement. At one point, there were close to 1200 anti-slavery organisations in the U.K, you had countries applying international pressure, you had the slaves themselves staging revolts, speaking at different fora and organising themselves. The same is the case in the women's movement. But, in the case of the animal movement, there are not enough activists, less sophistication and diversity, and, most importantly, the animals can't advocate for themselves. If they could, they would be able to completely turn the tide. But unfortunately, animals can't communicate with us and campaign on their own behalf and That is a huge handicap.

Though that is true, I feel that this is not the only reason that this movement has not become as important as it should. First and foremost, The human mind is conditioned to believe that “they are only animals,” that their lives are not as important as ours. I think the need of the hour is to promote the idea of a rights-based movement for animals.

Exactly. I think the biggest goal for the animal movement should be to abolish their definition as “property” under any law. Under most laws, they are no more important than say, a chair, a bed or a toaster. They have no more rights than those objects, because they are the property of humans. under the law. So what they need are their own kind of rights to exist and not suffer. Every animal, whether in wildlife or on urban streets ought to have rights under the law. It is not a question of humans versus animals. They should be governed by their own rights and not considered as “owned” property so that we humans can do with them as we will.

Do you see the animal movement becoming a priority item on the agenda of this millennium?

It should, ideally, but I think it's unlikely. We might have symbolic pronouncements from governments, even the UN, but at the ground level things are different. We humans are far too anthropocentric, always placing our interests above those of animals. We need to place this movement side by side with housing, poverty, healthcare or child rights. The animal movement is part of the environment movement though many environmentalists don't see it. The real challenge is to see the obvious connections of the animal movement with other social change movements. such as the feminist movement for example. It is a campaign for rights — whether of women, children or animals — and ultimately for ourselves.

Apart from keeping people informed, has the Internet really been able to substantially reduce cruelty? If anything, the anti-animal behaviour is escalating.

It is escalating because of massive human population growth and rising materialism. Most futurists do not think human population is going to level off for another three decades. So we are talking close to a million more people on the planet every four days. So This tidal wave of human population has only escalated the human-animal conflict and animal exploitation. I wonder why so few governments are focusing on the reduction of human population. If you talk to anybody who is trying to preserve wild spaces, save the environment, fight poverty or just make life better in other ways, they will often point to this mass of humanity that keeps growing and growing. Even if you are a part of that mass that is ethical and compassionate, there are still huge numbers of people that are not. We should all be talking about stemming human population growth.

Do you think working for animals is futile?

What I like about working with animals is that, while the big picture seems bleak, you can make a difference to animals at the individual or collective level. At the micro level you can have some wonderful successes; – you can make the lives of so many animals so much better, you can achieve measures that make a difference. Hopefully those measures will act as precedents and spur other actions that would be more broad-based, more comprehensive and more far reaching in the future.

When you “murder” an animal it is not considered a crime just because they are not human. Do you think good legislation is the solution to end brutality towards animals?

You can't legislate morality or values. But still lots can be done. We need strong punitive laws. I was talking to some people in Bangalore. Most said the laws are poorly written and implemented; almost impossible to enforce and most people don't even blink at fines. It's the same in Canada and the U.S. The point I am trying to emphasise is that few legislators and governments are really serious about animal rights. It is not given the importance it deserves. The laws of many countries, such as India, seem kind enough, but enforcement of laws is often pathetic. If real laws are put in place and enforcement is taken seriously, we may see some significant reduction in animal cruelty.

How do you think consumer trends are affecting the plight of animals?

Look at the rich nations. Giant multinational corporations of a few rich countries control consumer trends. Take whaling. Japan is a wealthy nation but is the lynchpin in the worldwide continuation of whaling. It is often the rich, not the poor, that contribute the most to large-scale commercialised animal cruelty and exploitation.

I would say that animals are the worst victims of globalisation, which has seen the influx of exotic “global cuisines.” These are imitative and fashionable cuisines that do not concern themselves with the ethical production of meats and dairy. How farm animals are treated would bring tears to our eyes.

I agree entirely. For example, if you look at sheep transportation from New Zealand by ship, it is horrendous. There's a huge matrix of problems caused by globalisation that directly affects animals. It's a complicated mess of abuse. The average activist, though, is not very political, with little understanding of international treaties, concerned as they are with animal care work, which is important too. But there are, now, a relatively small number of activists who are lobbying with industry and understand how WTO works. I hope their numbers grow.

So do you think that the next leap of growth in the animal movement concerns itself with political activism?

I believe that's what some activists are aiming to achieve, to raise the political sophistication of the movement, to engage in ballot and lobbying initiatives locally, regionally and nationally and to affect the outcome of international conferences and treaties, including challenging the politics of the WTO. We want laws and changes in behaviour and real political action. We need to create a real political movement where there's only a pseudo movement right now.

I have always believed that we need a separate animal police force and animal courts. Our judges are not educated in animal laws. Maybe we in India should lobby for this.

It is a great idea and with political will could be implemented in a relatively inexpensive way. There should be a professional, exclusive animal police force that has the authority to write tickets for offences and to arrest people for more serious cases of abuse and neglect. Hefty fines should be levied. Creating real costs for bad behaviour is a good step toward dealing with animal abuse.

Also, we need to bring in the animal law component into every law school and re-educate the judiciary. Animal crimes should be raised in stature from being ‘misdemeanours' or minor offences to major offences. Even for the most heinous crimes against animals, offenders rarely, if ever, receive the maximum allowable sentences. Institutionalised crimes against animals that are less visible such as laboratory research and testing, confining calves in veal crates, improper animal breeding and so on are completely ignored by most laws. Industry has to be made accountable. Ninety five percent of animals do not get the protection they deserve. If animal courts can be established, it will be a huge step in the legislative process and in protecting animals.

Shouldn't children and young people be given the first inputs through humane education?

Yes, humane education should be built into every curriculum in every school. At present, science is taught as the science of the dead with dissection of animals and the compartmentalising of nature. ‘Biology' should shift to ‘ecology' where animals are seen in totality as a part of nature, and not divided into tiny components of nature, the reductionist approach to science. We need to inculcate an emotive response in children. We need them to be aware of Jeremy Bentham's words, “they can't talk, they can't reason, but they can suffer.”

The writer is a Delhi-based social and animal activist, editor and writer.