by Norm Phelps
Lantern Books (1 Union Square West, Suite 201,
New York, NY 10003), 2007. 367 pages,
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
If anyone wrote a history of animal advocacy before Noah built the ark, it missed the boat. Histories of animal advocacy have mostly missed the boat ever since.
Many have been plagued by the usual vexations of historians: lost sources, missing pieces of contextual understanding, and partisan ax-grinding, sometimes by the authors, more often by surviving sources who take the opportunity to posture over the achievements and failures of the deceased.
A complicating factor, not afflicting most histories, is that the subjects of animal advocacy not only cannot speak for themselves here and now, but never could and never did. Some narratives survive even from slaves and victims of genocide, but there are no clandestinely scribbled memoirs to be found from the Little Brown Dog, the Silver Spring monkeys, or any Atlantic Canadian harp seals.
The frustrating aspect of The Longest Struggle is that Norm Phelps covered so much, so well, that the errors and omissions are especially glaring–and, one suspects, could have been corrected with some well-informed proofreading.
To Phelps’ credit, he acknowledged and adequately covered the influence on animal advocacy of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, which have been glaringly overlooked in most previous histories of animal advocacy–at least in the west.
Unfortunately, after summarizing these sources of ideas, Pythagoreanism, and the major pro-animal teachings originating out of Judaism, Phelps leaped 1,200 years, from Jesus to St. Francis, in a mere two pages, with only one passing mention of Islam, none of Mohammed, and none of the Cathari.
This matters, because while Christianity did little to suppress blood sport between the epoch in which Christians were fed to lions and the rise of Oliver Cromwell, Islam discouraged cruel spectacles. While much of Europe tormented captive wildlife as public sport, Islam harbored the invention of zoos as educational institutions, within which the animals were supposed to be treated well.
Overlooked Cathari, too
The Cathari even more directly influenced the west, as the first people who brought ideas from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism to Europe. Arriving by trade routes in the wake of the early Crusades, the Cathari were educated merchants, probably descended from the Thari people of Pakistan and Rajasthan. Like the Bishnoi, who still dwell in Rajasthan, they were strict vegetarians.
The less educated gypsies, who were teamsters, animal exhibitors, and meat-eaters, appear to have traveled with the Cathari, perhaps as servants. The language of those gypsies who reached Ireland, called Shelta-thari, was in the 19th century recognized as a Thari dialect.
The Cathari had long since been exterminated by the Inquisition, after their teachings caught on so well in much of Europe, including southern France, as to challenge the dominion of the Roman Catholic Church. Though what little survives of Cathari belief was filtered through the perceptions of their persecutors, traces of ideas can be discerned that resembled modern Jainism.
Especially of note is that St. Francis and several other saints who were contemporaries of the Cathari seem to have appropriated the most popular of their beliefs, including the idea of being kind to animals, without the culturally problematic moral opposition to meat-eating and defiance of Roman authority. Though the Cathari were centuries ahead of their time, and St. Francis may not have been the unequivocal animal advocate that history remembers, as Phelps discusses, the Cathari influence appears to live on in the image of St. Francis and the work of generations of pro-animal Franciscans.
The American Humane Association
Most of The Longest Struggle concerns the past 200 years, and especially the most recent 50 years, in keeping with Phelps’ thesis that animal advocacy really only began to shift from an “animal welfare” to an “animal rights” focus in recent times. Ironically, this thesis might have been strengthened by paying more attention to the evolution of the American Humane Association, which Phelps portrays as the primary bastion of “welfarism.”
Both “rights” and “welfare” factions were active within the AHA from the founding meeting. Internal splits over “rights” vs. “welfare” issues produced the American Anti-Vivisection Society (1883) and the Humane Society of the U.S. (1954).
A perennial problem was–and is–that the AHA has always tried to maintain positions on animal issues that harmonize with their positions on child protection, the dominant AHA mission during the first half of the 20th century.
For example, the AHA leaders felt that they could not endorse vegetarianism because they believed that the orphans in their care needed meat. The leaders acknowledged that adults could live well and long without it.
The AHA stalwartly opposed sport hunting, including in a position statement issued soon after the U.S. entered World War II, but dropped this position postwar, as it phased out operating orphanages. The idea was to seek a political alliance with hunter/ conservationists on behalf of protecting wildlife, but the alliance never materialized.
Asked to endorse the surgical procedures for sterilizing dogs and cats, while battling eugenicists who favored forcibly sterilizing the poor, the AHA at first respectfully declined; a decade later denounced dog and cat sterilization as “vivisection,” though the AHA was not formally opposed to animal experiments; and held that position for 50 years, apparently forgetting why it was taken.
Overlooking the internally conflicted history of the AHA led Phelps to other noteworthy omissions. One was that the origin of well-funded opposition to animal advocacy began long before he supposed, with the formation of some still extant pro-hunting advocacy groups in the mid-19th century, the American Farm Bureau Federation in 1919, and the National Society for Medical Research in 1945, ancestral to the National Association for Biomedical Research, founded in 1979.
The nucleus of the organized opposition to animal rights was accordingly well -funded and well-connected, warning the animal use industries against threats that had yet to materialize, long before the animal rights movement existed.
Another omission was that there was sporadic humane opposition to the Atlantic Canadian seal hunt–and to a similar hunt formerly held in the Prilibof islands off Alaska–for at least 70 years before the International Fund for Animal Welfare made Atlantic Canadian sealing an enduring public issue. Opposing sealing helped to rally the animal rights movement, but this was a case of new activists revitalizing an old cause.
Omitted key groups
At that, Phelps gave IFAW just one mention, and the Animal Welfare Institute none, though both were instrumental in developing the tactics that built the animal rights movement. Phelps gave Friends of Animals one mention. Phelps did not mention the founder of the once influential National Alliance for Animal Legislation at all; Phelps credited her successor, under whom it imploded, with her work.
Most egregiously, Phelps wrotes of Best Friends Animal Society cofounder Michael Mountain, “Had he been born 20 years earlier, Michael Mountain might have been a hippie in Haight-Ashbury.” Born in 1947, Mountain was a hippie in Haight-Ashbury, though he spent much more time elsewhere. Even then, Mountain and several other cofounders were building the network that became Best Friends.
Phelps did much better in tracing the rise of the Fund for Animals and PETA, and the evolution of HSUS. Phelps recognized the enduring influence of Henry Spira, who died in 1998 but whose strategic views and emphasis on not eating animals are more widely appreciated now than ever in his lifetime.
“Do not expect to win overnight”
Phelps’ overview is plausible, though his statistics on animal shelter killing were already 15 years out of date at publication and–like others who fail to correct for inflation–he appeared to be unaware that in inflation-adjusted dollars, the U.S. retail fur trade has never recovered from the sales collapse of 20 years ago.
There are other ways to assess the longterm trends, especially if one gets the numbers right, but Phelps’ conclusion seems right on the mark: “Today’s activists do not expect us to win overnight, and perhaps not even in their lifetimes. But they do expect us to win…A generation of activists has come of age who did not experience the disillusionment that their elders lived through. When they came into the movement–for the most part, within the past dozen years–it had become obvious that animal rights was a marathon, not a sprint, and so they took up activism with no illusions about how hard or how long the struggle would be.
“Because of this, they measure success by a different yardstick than the activists of the eighties. Instead of disappointment because they cannot get everything they want, they feel a sense of accomplishment at every gain…Insisting on all or nothing is isolating and alienating, and creates a siege mentality in which we begin to see our own fecklessness as a sign of intellectual and moral superiority. This in turn leads to a kind of fundamentalism, a holier-than-thou mindset that pursues strategies designed to preserve our own moral purity and intellectual rigor rather than to relieve the suffering of animals.”
Phelps wrote The Longest Struggle to help empower new generations of activists, not to carve a stele in stone for all time. It is the most thorough history of animal advocacy published to date, and when a more comprehensive history is produced, The Longest Struggle will be the one by which it is measured.
Norm Phelps responded:
I very much appreciate your review of my book The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA.
When my friend of long standing Merritt Clifton said that it will be the standard against which future histories of animal advocacy are judged, that was both gracious on his part and gratifying to me as the author.
As to the “glaring omissions” that you found, I can only quote from the introduction: “. . . of necessity, there have been omissions, and I regret every one…If an advocate, group, or campaign is missing that you believe should be included…I am sure you are right. But had I given every leader, group, and campaign the space they deserve, ‘the longest struggle’ would be the reader’s effort to make it to the end of the book.”
As to “errors,” there is one that I truly regret. That is my misstatement regarding Michael Mountain’s age and background. I have apologized to him privately, and I would like to take this opportunity to apologize publicly. As readers of the book know, I am a big fan of Michael Mountain and Best Friends.
The other “errors” mentioned are actually disagreements. To cite just one example: The claim that the Cathars were immigrants from India and that Catharism taught animal protection is supported by no credible evidence of which I am aware. The Cathars were ethnic Europeans and spiritual descendents of the Manichaeans and other Gnostic groups. They were vegetarian, for arcane theological reasons, but they were not animal advocates. There was no significant animal advocacy in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Merritt Clifton replied:
Stating “There was no significant animal advocacy in Europe during the Middle Ages” requires defining “animal advocacy” to exclude anything benefiting animals that was (or is) promoted to benefit the human soul.
Most prominent among the exclusions would be the influence of Islam, which discourages cruel spectacles involving animals. Most of Spain was under Islamic rule from 711 to 1492. Portugal was under Islamic rule for much of that time. Bullfighting, then and now, is forbidden in Islam, as then-Egyptian head mufti Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassel reaffirmed in a November 1997 fatwa, and only emerged in Spain and Portugal as a regionally characteristic pastime in the post-Islamic era, coincidental with the rise of the Spanish Inquisition.
Explains bullfighting historian Mario Carrin, “The first historic bullfight, corrida, took place in Vera, Logroo, in 1133, in honor of the coronation of king Alfonso VIII,” a Christian who drove the Muslims from that region. “From that point on,” Carrin continues, “kings organized corridas …After the Spanish War of the Reconquest, the celebration of corridas expanded throughout Spain.”
Much of the other cruelty to animals notoriously practiced as part of Spanish and Portuguese village festivals originated as persecutions of alleged heretics, especially Muslims and Jews. Animals were substituted when alleged heretics became scarce.
Islamic influence on the treatment of animals elsewhere in Europe is less well documented, but by 1396 Islamic rule extended from Albania and the Danube River east, and after the capture of Constantinople in 1453, Islam was regionally dominant for more than 400 years.
There was extensive legal advocacy for animals, which is “advocacy” in the strictest sense of the term, in Christian medieval Europe. This was documented by E.P. Evans in The Criminal Prosecution & Capital Punishment of Animals (1906), reprinted in 1986 by Faber & Faber with a foreword by Nicholas Humphrey. Humphrey saw in the mostly quite serious trials of animals, some of whom were acquitted, an ongoing effort to define the bounds of the animal/human relationship. Reviewers for animal advocacy media recognized in the arguments some ideas which resurfaced in animal rights and animal welfare legal theory. (Those reviews drew my notice to the book.)
The history of the Cathari divides into two portions. From 1143, when the Cathari first challenged Catholic dominion in Europe, until they were exterminated by the Albigensian Crusade in 1329, they were chiefly ethnic Europeans. But their origins are less clear. Mainstream sources such as <www.cath-ar.info/1204_origins.htm> acknowledge that their teachings “probably spread from the eastern part of the Byzantine Empire,” which then extended from Bulgaria to Persia, and that Catharism “may have originated in a form of Manichean belief, itself a melange of Persian Zoroastrianism and early Christian Gnostic dualism.”
Most theological discussion of the Cathari accepts the view that they practiced a heretical variant of Christianity, but I am hardly the first to notice that the Cathari “preached a Jain-like creed of nonviolence,” as historian Frank Lynn wrote in The New Statesman of December 18, 2000, reviewing The Yellow Cross: the story of the last Cathars 1290-1329, by Rene Weis.
Weis apparently observed this too. As far back as 1932, when scholarly study of the influence of eastern religions on Christianity was relatively new, Maurice Magre in Magicians, Seers, and Mystics described the Cathari as “western Buddhists, who introduced a blend of Gnostic Christianity into the Oriental doctrine.”
The distance from Persia to the last Cathari villages in France is about the same, by the western half of the same trade routes, as from Persia to India, through the Thari and Rajasthan deserts, where the Bishnoi of Rajasthan still practice a vegetarian religion similar to Jainism.