Animal Rights: A Social Justice Movement

In this blog I will discuss the Animal Rights Movement. The Animal rights movement is a diverse movement which goes back centuries. However, I will limit my discussion to the movement that began with the work of Henry Spira in the 1970’s. Typically when theorists discuss social justice movements, they do so in terms of raising class consciousness. The emphasis is on helping people to realise they are being exploited so that they can fight back against injustice. However, animals do not have the capacity to have their consciousness raised, and this poses terminal difficulties for any analysis of the animal rights movement in terms of class consciousness. To understand animal rights as a social justice movement the author used Sidney Tarrow’s definition of a social justice movement and will demonstrate that Spira’s movement is a social movement in Tarrow’s sense. To demonstrate that Spira’s movement meets Tarrow’s criterion I will detail the history of how his movement got started (philosophical influences), the political opposition it faced, and the successes it achieved. With this done the author will analyse some weakness with Spira’s movement and discuss the importance of framing for any social justice movement.

                           Spira’s activism as a Social Justice Movement

The animal rights movement is diverse and has a long history culminating in the antivivisectionists in the 18th century. However, the movement only began to achieve concrete results in the 1970’s when activist Henry Spira started using a pragmatic approach to achieving narrow limited change in decreasing animal cruelty. Spira’s tactic was to pick out companies which were vulnerable in some way, and to negotiate with them first, and if the negotiation failed, he would stage escalating protests.

In his ‘Power as Movement’ Sidney Tarrow defined social movements as follows:

  • “I shall argue that contentious politics emerges in response to changes in political opportunities and threats when participants perceive and respond to a variety of incentives: material and ideological, partisan and group-based, long-standing, and episodic. Building on these opportunities, and using known repertoires of action, people with limited resources can act together contentiously-if only sporadically. When their actions are based on dense social networks and effective connective structures and draw on legitimate action-orientated cultural frames, they can sustain these actions even in contact with powerful opponents. In such cases-and only in such cases-we are in the presence of a social movement.” (Tarrow: 1994 p. 16)

Tarrow’s description of a social movement offers a very specific vision. It will be instructive for our purposes to see if the Animal Liberation movement as exemplified by Henry Spira’s work matches Tarrow’s criterion.

As I mentioned above attempts of antivivisectionists to stop animal cruelty traditionally failed. With Spira’s activism this changed, and more practical results were achieved. Spira’s activism did spring from a perceived opportunity. He noted that corporations were increasingly concerned with their public image and spent millions to cultivate this image. This need for corporations to protect their public image presented an opportunity for activists. They could present evidence of the disturbing experiments being done on animals and demand that the experiments be made safer, or the evidence could be used to tarnish the reputation of the corporations.

A further material and ideological opportunity that presented itself to Spira was that the animal rights movement was beginning to have a respectable face to the general public. Novelist Bridget Brophy’s 1965 article in the Sunday Times alerted the public to the issue of animal rights and inspired philosophical debates on the nature of animal rights. Culminating in a series of academic books and articles on the topic (‘Animal Rights Movement’ Wikipedia p.2 ).

The publication of ‘Animal Liberation’ by Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer in 1975 was a game changer. The book popularised the phrase Speciesism. Singer defined Speciesism as follows:

Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favouring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.” (Singer 1975 p. 9)

In his book Singer detailed experiments that were done on animals and critiqued the scientific validity of the experiments. His measured arguments and lucid prose made his book popular with the public, as well as with academics. Furthermore, his book boosted the image of animal rights activism. At the time animal rights activists were portrayed as irrational dogmatists who were led entirely by emotion and who couldn’t be reasoned with. With this image prevalent before the public mind; big business could dismiss the concerns being raised by activists. Singer’s book helped change this perception. And the changed perspective created opportunities for people to get a seat at the table in negotiations with businesses that otherwise wouldn’t have taken them seriously. Spira was able to utilise this greater public reputation of activists to get himself into meetings with business who were practicing unethical experiments on animals.

On Tarrow’s analysis a key component of being a social movement involves having dense social networks that can involve sustained effective connective structures and legitimate action orientated cultural frames (Tarrow 1994 p. 16). Using these dense social networks and action orientated cultural frames gives a movement the ability to launch sustained actions against more powerful opponents (ibid p.16).

Spira used a four-fold technique to try and achieve change on behalf of the animals he was advocating for; persuasion, facilitation, bargaining, and coercion (Munro 2002 p. 175). The first three techniques were typically used by Spira when he was negotiating with business. But the fourth technique; the use of coercion, involved social networks, high connectivity, and legitimate culturally framed acts. So, in this sense Spira’s animal activism meets Tarrow’s criterion of being a social movement. To understand the social networks Spira utilised, and the actions they mandated, it will be helpful to consider some of his campaigns.

                             The Natural History Museum Campaign

Spira saw a report published by United Action for Animals about experiments being done on cats in the American Museum of Natural History. These experiments typically involved cutting out sections of the cat’s brain and measuring how this effected the Cats sexual behaviour. So, after the operation the cat was placed in a room with various animals, and the scientist would observe which animals (if any) the Cat would try to mount. Being a pragmatist by nature Spira picked the Natural History Museum because it involved a somewhat easy target. While from a logical point of view it makes no difference whether the animal being experimented on is a rat or a cat, they are both sentient creatures; from an emotional point of view, it is easier to elicit sympathy for a household pet being experimented on (Singer 1998 p, 52). Furthermore, the experiments didn’t have any immediate scientific applications that were useful in curing any diseases, so it would be easy to convince the public that the experiments were pointless as well as cruel. These experiments were also funded by public money, and it was a useful tactic to convince people that their tax money was being misused (ibid p. 53).

Spira’s pragmatic approach coheres with Tarrow’s suggestion that using emotional laden cultural packages is important in building a social movement:

“From assuming grievances, scholars of social movements now began to focus on how movements embed concrete grievances with emotion-laden “packages” (Gamson 1992), or in “frames” capable of convincing participants their cause is just and important” (Tarrow 1994 p. 26)

We can see that Spira’s tactics which focused vivisections being done on animals which are considered in our culture cute and loveable, and on vivisectionists who were getting paid to torture animals with public funds made framing the issue easier. People were being given a concrete target; and easily digestible, but emotionally laden facts, about what this target was doing wrong.

Spira began his campaign by gathering data through reading publicly available reports on the contents and results of the experiments which were being done. When he had done his research, he began by sending a letter to the Natural History Museum followed by series of phone calls (Singer 1998 p. 54). These letters and phone calls were ignored. So, he began a media campaign; he appeared on the Pegeen and Ed Fitzgerald radio talk show, got an article in published in ‘Our Town’ a Manhattan weekly paper (ibid p. 55). He also began circulating materials to other animal rights organisations. This work helped to create a connected network of actors all working towards a common purpose.

With the media and animal rights organisations to some degree involved in the campaign against the vivisections being done in the Natural History Museum, they had the numbers to protest outside the museum. These protests were supported by Society for Animal Rights, and Friends of Animals, as well as by interested members of the public who heard about the campaign through the media.

The protests went on for over a year (ibid p. 56). And of course, the protests led to more media coverage which in turn inspired more and more people to join the protests. Another tactic used was contacting the benefactors of the museum and detailing to them the nature of the experiments being performed. This tactic resulted in the museum losing substantial funding. Congressman Ed Koch, inspired by the protests visited the museum and found the experiments lacking in scientific importance and commented that the government had paid nearly half a million dollars to fund these experiments (ibid p. 60). This led to 120 members of congress writing letters to the NIH asking about the nature of the experiments. Prompting the Natural History Museum to review the experimental procedures and exonerating themselves of any wrongdoing (ibid p.58). Letters from congress, weekly protests, radio show appearances etc gave great publicity to the movement.

As a result of the increasing publicity the famous journal Science ran four-page article on animal liberation in general, and the protests against the Natural History Museum in particular (ibid p.62). The article was written by Nicholas Wade and in it he noted the low citation index for the experiments on the Cats. This led him to question the scientific importance of the experiments. This article was particularly important; scientists generally dismissed animal rights activists as illiterate lunatics, and this was the first time a scientific magazine spoke about them as reasonable people (ibid p.64). In August 1977 the museum stopped its experiments on the Cats. The Animal liberation movement had won its first battle to get experimentation stopped.

When explicating the nature of social justice movements Tarrow made the following important point:

“Contentious politic is produced when threats are experienced and opportunities are perceived, when the existence of available allies is demonstrated and when the vulnerability of opponents is exposed.” (Tarrow 1994 p. 33)

My brief description of Spira’s campaign against the Natural History Museum shows that his campaign meets all the criterion set by Tarrow for something to count as a social movement. Furthermore, Spira’s social movement was extremely successful from a pragmatic point of view.

                                              The Revlon Campaign

Spira launched a campaign against the cosmetic company Revlon. They like all other cosmetic companies used animal experiments to test their products. Spira singled out Revlon because they had a carefully honed public image which they wanted to protect. He reasoned that it was easy to make the case that their tests were frivolous and cruel (Singer 1998 p, 69). He noted that most people would agree that blinding a rabbit in the name in making a new type of shampoo was extremely cruel. The Draize test was a test performed on Rabbits by cosmetic companies which was designed to see what damage various chemical combinations would have when sprayed in the animal’s eyes. 

Spira followed a similar campaign as he did against the Natural History Museum. He adopted a pragmatic approach and didn’t demand to stop all animal testing. He just asked for Revlon to donate a percentage of their profits to finding a less cruel manner of testing. A similar pattern emerged. The company ignored them. Spira arranged protests; fund-raised for advertising that hurt the public image of the company and eventually the company gave way and submitted to the demands.

                    Was Spira’s campaigns a success?

                           Animals and Legal Rights

As we saw above Spira achieved more concrete results than his predecessors. His pragmatic approach helped him work well with businesses and get them to concede something. For Spira who was a Utilitarian; since he was reducing the percentage of animal suffering, he was achieving the ends he set himself. However, some people argued that merely decreasing a percentage of suffering wasn’t enough. Animals have rights and we need to work towards, arguing for those rights philosophically before trying to enshrine them in the law. If we could enshrine animal rights in law, then we wouldn’t need to negotiate with big business to get them to make minimal concessions. Tom Regan’s ‘The Case for Animal Rights’ (1983), which a was criticism of the utilitarian philosophy inspiring Spira, was the first step in the direction in trying to get animal rights taken seriously. These philosophical debates have moved on to more practical legal based arguments where organisations like bring legal cases before courts in order to enshrine rights for animals in the court of law. It is an open question whether this rights-based approach will achieve more protection for non-human animals than Spira’s pragmatic utilitarian approach.

               Direct Action Group: Beyond the Law

Spira, the pragmatist and utilitarian, adopted the tactic of working with big business to try and achieve incremental change. And some rights-based approaches sought to use the law make it illegal for animals to have their rights violated by either big business or government labs. Both views are operating within existing legal systems. Direct action groups sometimes operate outside the law and break into labs and businesses to try and expose the conditions that animals currently live under. While they don’t recommend violence against humans they do engage in vandalism in labs and operate on an underground system which makes it difficult to discover who, if anyone, is in charge of the group.

Whether this moving beyond the law is justified is beyond the remit of this blog. In his ‘The Justification for Civil Disobedience’ John Rawls argued that there are four conditions which justify civil disobedience: (1) When Normal political appeals to the majority have already been made in good faith and been rejected. (2) When fundamental equal liberties are denied (minorities not being given the right to vote) (3) When the protester acknowledges that any other party subjected to a similar degree of justice has an equal right to protest in a similar way. (4) When the protest is rational and has a good rational chance of achieving our aims. (Civil disobedience would be pointless if we had no chance of achieving our aims) (Rawls 1969 p.187). I will leave as an exercise for the reader to reflect on whether animal rights organisations which break the law meet the criterion set out by Rawls.

                   Francis Power Cobbe and the Power of Framing 

As we discussed above Spira’s lasting contribution was his concrete achievements which resulted in decreasing animal experimentation. I contrasted these concrete achievements with the antivivisectionist movement which preceded him and their lack of pragmatic success. One of the explanations I gave was that philosophers like Peter Singer managed to reach a popular audience, and an academic audience with his Animal Liberation, and this helped to improve the movements image and made it more respectable to the general public. I argued that the image enhancement of the movement made possible by the likes of Singer gave Spira the opportunity (in Tarrow’s sense) to build his social movement. However, while it is true that Singer did improve the image of the antivivisectionist movement. This improved image was only necessary because of caricatures that existed in the public. Most antivivisectionists at the end of the eighteenth century were women. And one of the most prominent antivivisectionists was an Anglo-Irish lady named Frances Power Cobbe. Cobbe was an accomplished philosopher who had published dozens of books on animal rights and other philosophical topics (Frances Power Cobbe Wikipedia p.1). She was far from the hysterical illiterate caricature of animal rights activists that existed prior to Singer’s publications. Cobbe was up to date in both the best science and philosophy of her day and wrote cogent reasoned arguments against vivisectionists.

So why did it take Singer’s arguments to help animal rights activists to get a reputation for being reasonable and educated people? A possible hypothesis is that the Misogynistic society in which Cobbe and her colleagues were working in made it easy for opponents to frame a women led movement in such an unflattering manner. Certainly, there was no sensible argument to be made that could portray Cobbe as anything other than an intelligent capable activist and scholar. The fact that vivisectionists managed to paint Cobbe et all in such an unflattering and inaccurate manner demonstrates the importance of cognitive frames in any social movement.


Munro, L. (2002) ‘The Animal Activism of Henry Spira (1927-1988) Society and Animals, 10 (2): 173-191.

Regan, T. (1983) The Case for Animal Rights. California: University of California Press.

Singer, P. (1975) Animal Liberation. New York: Harper Collins Publications.

Singer, P. (1998) Ethics in Action. London: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Rawls, J. (1969) “The Justification of Civil Disobedience” in Freeman, S. (EDS) John Rawls Collected Papers. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 176-190.

Tarrow, S,G. (1994) Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wikipedia. (2021) Animal Rights Movement [Accessed on the 3/1/22]

Wikipedia (2021) Francais Power Cobbe [Accessed on 3/1/22]

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