The Farm Animal Movement:
Effective Altruism, Venture Philanthropy, & The Fight to End Factory Farming in America
by Jeff Thomas
Lantern Publishing & Media, P.O. Box 1350, Woodstock, NY 12498
200 pages; $19.95 paperback.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Former Humane Society of the United States [HSUS] policy analyst Jeff Thomas has previously been mentioned in ANIMALS 24-7 only twice, both times in connection with lawsuits against HSUS and other former HSUS personnel.
Those cases had origins in the 2018 sexual harassment scandal that led to the exits of former president Wayne Pacelle, former Humane Society Legislative Fund president Mike Markarian, and former farmed animal campaigns manager Paul Shapiro.
Thomas was an unsuccessful whistleblower, beginning around a year before any of the scandal hit the media.
Thomas, however, brings to The Farm Animal Movement: Effective Altruism, Venture Philanthropy, & The Fight to End Factory Farming in America considerably more background than his whistleblowing and what led to it, including degrees in engineering and public health, and authorship of two books on Virginia political history.
Two generations younger than the reviewer, Thomas also has a distinctly different perspective on animal advocacy, history, and strategy, reflected more in seeing from a different angle than in conclusions which are mostly similar.
Much of The Farm Animal Movement focuses on strategic issues involving money, political influence, and investment in alternatives to animal products which were barely pipe-dreams for the animal advocates of 30 years ago and longer.
Most of the people Thomas profiles remain obscure, at best, to even the most dedicated street level animal advocates.
They remain obscure, apparently mostly by choice, even though their achievements in building plant-based industries, improving legislation, and influencing public opinion in many cases dwarf those of the much older, more famous, more visibly charismatic people who built the animal rights movement, including most of the organizations prominently working on behalf of farmed animals.
From Henry Spira to today
For instance, among the people Thomas introduces and praises most highly is grant administrator Lewis Bollard, who heads the farmed animal welfare division of The Open Philanthropy Project, founded by Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskowitz and his wife Cari Tuna.
Except that Bollard is 6’6”, Thomas mentions, he would probably not stand out in a crowd. Yet Bollard each year channels into farmed animal advocacy more money than was the total combined budget of all farmed animal advocacy organizations circa 20 years ago.
The first three chapters of The Farm Animal Movement primarily review how farmed animal advocacy evolved in response to the advent of factory farming, parallel to the modern animal rights movement that rose in the 1970s and 1980s, but not central to it until after the 1998 death of Animal Rights International and Coalition for Nonviolent Food founder Henry Spira.
Spira, whose pre-1980 campaigns against cruel animal experimentation and testing brought the first major victories of the animal rights movement, had ironically insisted all along that the movement should focus on farmed animals, since farmed animals did about 99% of all the suffering and dying of any animals in human hands.
Thomas concludes on pages 74-75 with a summation of what he believes to be the major lessons to be learned from the 50 years between when Spira began his animal advocacy and today, headlined “Farm Animal Politics: Myths & Realities.”
Myth 1: We need to pass a federal law to help farm animals.
Reality 1: The farm animal movement has won many victories with its current effective altruist movement and strategies.
Myth 2: There isn’t much political support for farm animals.
Reality 2: There is widespread political support for farm animal welfare amongst the public. The problem is that few people vote for politicians based on farm animal policies. Farm animal laws are written by Big Ag lawyers and Big Ag politicians to maximize profits.
“Don’t need no more stinking lobbyists!”
Myth 3: We need to start a lobbying organization.
Reality 3: The farm animal movement already has lobbying organizations. Founding [a new] organization would actually waste time and money.
Myth 4: If we spend enough money, we can pass laws in Congress.
Reality 4: The farm animal movement does not have enough money to outspend Big Ag.
Myth 5: We need to lobby Congress.
Reality 5: The movement should focus on where it can win politically: ballot initiatives, liberal states and localities, and smaller federal issues that one or a handful of allied politicians and their staffers can influence.
Myth 6: We can convince people to support us.
Reality 6: Politics are not driven by rational arguments; politics are driven by money, emotion, and tribalism. What can we do? Move and communicate. Be realistic. Don’t forget effective altruism.
Effective altruism means, in translation, donating and investing money and time in the activities and organizations that do the most to help the most animals.
In strictly numeric terms, this means focusing on farmed animals first and always.
While not disagreeing with Thomas’ emphasis on farmed animals as first priority, which was also Spira’s, ANIMALS 24-7 has significant criticisms of “effective altruism” as practiced by many of the organizations that Thomas most highly recommends.
Wolverines matter too
In particular, ANIMALS 24-7 must point out that what is most effective is also what best responds to what donors and volunteers feel is most urgent and important, keeps donors and volunteers involved, and rewards donors and volunteers with feelings of accomplishment.
If all animal advocacy volunteers had to keep themselves motivated was whittling away tiny fractions of percentage points of meat and dairy industry growth and profit margins year after year, the animal advocacy sector could probably be stuffed inside an old refrigerator and sunk in a lagoon of hog slurry.
Winning “threatened species” status for about 300 surviving wild wolverines after a 48-year legal battle, accomplished toward the end of November 2023, was a small victory indeed compared to any of the needs of farmed animals, but was a major accomplishment along the way to establishing the right of animals to exist, regardless of economic benefit to humans.
Pig wheels vs. glass walls
At the bottom of page 78 Thomas recites another of the tedious myths afflicting progress for farmed animals, attributed to musician, composer, and longtime vegan advocate Paul McCartney:
“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.”
This saying, popular for decades among animal advocates, is belied by the reality that the biggest tourist attractions in Cincinnati, Chicago, and Kansas City from the late 19th century until the mid-twentieth century were huge outdoor “pig wheels,” to which screaming pigs were shackled upside down and rotated skyward to upstairs killing floors.
The killing floors were upstairs so that blood and offal would easily drain downward.
Millions of people watched pig slaughter for decades. The watching appears to have done little or nothing to turn those people into vegans.
“Part of the urban skyline”
For Cincinnati, Chicago, and Kansas City residents, the “pig wheels” were just part of the urban skyline. The pigs’ screaming merged into the sounds of traffic and other industries.
This should be no surprise, looking backward, since slaughter was until then done mostly in public streets and alleys, one animal at a time, just as it is still done now outside the developed world.
Even today, much of the world sees animal slaughter routinely, from an early age. Those folks are mostly not the people giving up meat.
Undercover videography of animal suffering in factory farms and slaughterhouses has emotional power for millions of people in the developed world today precisely because slaughterhouses do not have glass walls.
Most people in the developed world have for several generations not had the opportunity or emotional need to inure themselves against animal suffering.
This leads to Thomas’ observations on pages 82-83 about how “The power of emotional intelligence has benefitted the movement’s leaders. Luminaries like autistic savant Temple Grandin, philosopher Peter Singer, and labor organizer Henry Spira helped address some of the worst abuses of factory farming,” Thomas writes.
Unfortunately Thomas credits Singer while omitting mention of Jim Mason, who did the greater portion of the work on Animal Factories (1980), co-authored by Singer.
Also worth mentions and credit Thomas did not give them, possibly because he never knew most of them in their prime, if at all, should be Alex Hershaft, who founded the Farm Animal Reform Movement (now called the Farm Animal Rights Movement) in 1976 when there was no other organization in the U.S. dedicated to helping farmed animals; Brad Miller, who founded the Humane Farming Association in 1985; Gene Bauer, founder of Farm Sanctuary in 1986; and especially the late Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns in 1990.
Davis, arguably the most charismatic advocate for farmed animals ever, almost single-handedly made the treatment of factory-farmed chickens and turkeys a leading advocacy concern.
“They all had been arrested”
“Many of the successes of the current farm animal movement,” Thomas assesses, “were dreamed up by a group of young friends who undertook a tactical shift in the early part of this millennium. Josh Balk, Matt Ball, Bruce Friedrich, Erica Meir, Myun Park, Matt Prescott, and Paul Shapiro lived in the Washington D.C. area and came of age practicing the tactics of an older vegan activism. They all had been arrested for various forms of civil disobedience,” Thomas summarizes.
For instance, “Before he turned to animals, Friedrich was a Christian pacifist who served time as a 24-year-old for sneaking onto an Air Force base and bashing in the nose of an F-15E fighter jet with a hammer alongside Jesuit former priest Philip Berrigan.”
Though Berrigan, a passing acquaintance of ANIMALS 24-7, was sincere, his tactic was not especially effective, nor was his goal very practical in a world full of armed and aggressive enemies.
“Holocaust on your plate”
Neither did some of the other activists Thomas mentioned demonstrate particular “emotional intelligence” in their early animal advocacy.
Matt Prescott, in particular, who is himself Jewish, orchestrated the 2003 “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that probably alienated more Jewish animal advocacy donors and activists than it saved animals from being eaten.
Henry Spira, a Jewish survivor of Krystalnacht, and Alex Hershaft, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, among many others, had already made the same comparison, but in a manner that evoked thought and sympathy, rather than shocked outrage.
Younger activists learned
Thomas’ key point, though, is that these younger activists for the most part learned from the failures of their forebears, even as participants in some of the failed actions, and did build upon their knowledge.
Friedrich in particular built directly on campaign foundations built by Spira, who had initiated negotiations on behalf of animal welfare and obtaining non-animal-based alternatives to menu offerings with several major fast food companies in the half dozen years before his death.
Spira for more than a decade hoped that Perdue Farms, headed by founder Frank Perdue (1920-2005), would eventually lead the way to humane reform of factory-style chicken production.
Therefore Spira in 1987 targeted then Frank Perdue in his first major campaign on behalf of factory-farmed animals.
Spira believed that Frank Perdue’s reputation for vanity, plus his personal identification with his company––he featured himself in Perdue Farms television commercials–– might lead Perdue to try to be seen as a leader in animal welfare.
Twenty-seven years later, eighteen years after Spira’s death, Spira turned out to be right about Perdue Farms, anyhow, but a generation late.
Frank Perdue’s son Jim Perdue on June 27, 2016 announced a four-point program to improve chicken welfare.
Thomas extensively discusses how that came to pass on pages 87-88 of The Farm Animal Movement, while profiling Mercy for Animals chief executive Leah Garcés,
Leah Garcés, 45, was formerly a senior executive at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (now called World Animal Protection) and founder of the U.S. branch of Compassion In World Farming, but despite her accomplishments and influence at a relatively early age, could still walk into any vegan gathering or activist conference and be mistaken for the help.
This may be because her generation of animal advocacy leadership are the help, in the sense of building organizations, institutions, and influence, as opposed to merely building recognition for the cause in a manner that tended to make stars of the most successful activists of the Baby Boom generation.
It is the help, not the stars, who tend to get the job done in practically any walk of life.
Nathan Milo Runkle
Observes Thomas after reviewing the rise of Mercy for Animals from a high school animal rights club begun by Nathan Milo Runkle, “The founding and operations of Mercy for Animals are a quintessential model for animal advocates. The organization now has over one hundred employees and a yearly revenue and budget of nearly $20 million.
“Thanks to the vision and will of people like Nathan Milo Runkle and Leah Garcés,” Thomas suggests, “humans no longer have to work for farm animals out of their parents’ basement. These two sacrificed their young adulthoods to run an organization that will outlast them and, ideally, will one day be so successful that it will no longer need to exist.”
No use for “lettuce ladies”
Thomas, while praising Mercy for Animals and several other organizations advocating for farmed animals that have emerged in the present century, has little evident use for some of the older organizations dabbling around the edges of farmed animal advocacy.
“It is a small victory,” Thomas writes on page 104, “that farm animal organizations have not participated in the offensive and counter-productive stunts involving typically white, female nude models PETA is known for.”
On page 109 Thomas adds, “I cannot in good conscience recommend that any employee, volunteer, or donor have anything to do with HSUS. The executives at HSUS are the most dishonest group of people I have ever met.”
How many people does Thomas know?
From the perspective of having probably investigated, written, and published more exposés of sleaze, corruption, campaign dishonesty, and just plain stupidity at HSUS than all other media critics combined, ANIMALS 24-7 wonders just how much Thomas really knows about some of the other people and organizations he mentions in passing.
HSUS at worst has always had some people on the payroll who actually give a damn about animals more than about their salaries. ANIMALS 24-7 does not hold that opinion of quite a few other seven-plus-figure-a-year animal advocacy groups.
“Racism & Color-Blindness”
Chapter 6 of The Farm Animal Movement, “We are hurting so much,” subtitled “Racism and Color-Blindness,” is the first in-depth examination of that issue, outside of our own, that ANIMALS 24-7 has seen in any animal rights movement history and/or strategic analysis in our more than thirty years of urging animal advocacy organizations to hire and promote what are now euphemistically called “people of color.”
There have long been a few people of Hispanic background prominent in animal advocacy, especially in in the U.S. Southwest and Florida, but African-Americans and Asian-Americans have equally long been conspicuous by their absence anywhere.
Even more disturbing than that is that animal advocacy in the early 20th century was the most racially integrated cause of any social movement except the civil rights movement itself.
Focused on treatment of farmed animals
Further, the work of the African-American “humane evangelists” employed by the American Humane Education Society to tour the South and Midwest from circa 1900 to the onset of gasoline rationing in World War II was overwhelmingly focused on the treatment of horses and other farmed animals.
Unfortunately, Thomas’ chapter “We are hurting so much” relies excessively on academic theory when real-life examples are amply abundant at our own Black history & animals archive.
Animal advocacy chose to segregate itself
Reality is that animal advocacy is largely racially segregated because it, as a cause, chose to segregate itself, even as the rest of society was slowly accepting racial integration, and will remain racially segregated until it consciously, deliberately decides not to be segregated.
All the academic theoretical discussion in the world does not accomplish as much toward desegregating animal advocacy as, for instance, Mercy for Animals recently hiring Ronika McFall as a spokesperson. McFall’s face, a few days ago, was the first African-American face ANIMALS 24-7 had seen as the sender of a media release from a major animal advocacy organization in more than 50 years of covering “the movement.”
“Part of this problem lies with older people”
Thomas moves on to other issues before making his most cogent relevant observation, which actually applies to quite a lot:
“Part of this problem lies with older people in the animal movement who came to it when it was less established and the barriers to entry were lower. They fill the ranks of the older animal organizations and are, consciously or not, keen to hold on to power.”
Though nominally pursuing radical goals on behalf of animals, the upper echelons of animal advocacy organizations tend to be deeply conservative in many ways, especially to avoid displeasing major donors who might leave the organizations substantial bequests.
Direct mail appeals continue to emphasize the same issues as the direct mail appeals of forty years ago, whether accurately or not, because this is what direct mail donors have long been conditioned to respond to.
Electronic appeals––most conspicuously those of the American SPCA, ASPCA for short–– usually do not emphasize any issues at all. Grassroots donors, far from being educated about the issues of today, are deliberately being kept uninformed and ignorant, lest they stop donating to the organizations that already have their attention.
Most of The Farm Animal Movement is about money and power, from an inside, behind-the-scenes perspective that animal advocacy organizations and major companies in the plant-based and “clean meat” industries try to conceal from muckrakes.
A key observation in an extensive chapter on the rise of animal advocacy law is that, “While politics are driven by money and personality, policy is written by lawyers.”
Many animal advocates, back when almost all of the lawyers addressing the issues seemed to be employed by the other side, were of the view that “The only good lawyer is a dead lawyer.”
However, as Lord of the Rings dwarf hero Gimli observed in The Return of the King, while helping a ghost army to break the siege of Minas Tirith, “These fellows can come in handy.”
Most animal advocacy progress since the 2003 release of The Return of the King film has been made at least in part by lawyers, to the point that animal use industry front groups now lament the abundance of lawyers opposing them.
What “effective altruism” is & isn’t
This brings us to our deepest disagreement with Thomas: his glowing praise of some of the leading organizations in “effective altruism.”
Back in 2015 ANIMALS 24-7 published an enthusiastic review of a book by “effective altruism” guru Nick Cooney entitled How to be Great at Doing Good: Why Results Are What Count and How Smart Charity Can Change the World.
Our enthusiasm, however, was short-lived. In 2017 our colleagues at Showing Animals Respect & Kindness [SHARK] posted an extensive exposé of Cooney’s organization Animal Charity Evaluators, revealing that while it purports to be helping donors to assess animal charities in a fair and unbiased manner, in practice it steered a great deal of money toward charities that Cooney himself was involved with.
Explained SHARK, “Animal Charity Evaluators has specifically chosen to primarily focus on one niche of the animal protection movement (farmed animals), which has limited it to pre-selected organizations.
“Out of that niche, ACE has ‘fully reviewed’ only 21 animal organizations, therefore limiting the pool of organizations even further. Out of that tiny number, only those who have a relationship to Nick Cooney have been given Top Charity status. This represents a very significant conflict of interest, for it indicates neither science nor chance, but predetermination.”
Confronted about that point, a representative of Animal Charity Evaluators admitted to ANIMALS 24-7 that what Animal Charity Evaluators is actually going is not “evaluation” at all, but rather “directed giving.”
Fair evaluation would include:
- Comparing each organization’s programs, policies, mission statement, and campaign literature, regardless of what the organization pursues as a mission, to ensure that the organization is actually doing and representing what donors believe it does and represents;
- Conducting on-the-ground program verification, to ensure that claimed projects actually exist and are accomplishing what they are supposed to accomplish;
- and doing this all from an entirely external perspective, as an umpire whose work is clearly visible to the fans, not from inside a team’s dugout or executive suites.
“Effective altruism” vs. honesty to donors
Thomas praises Animal Charity Evaluators because, from a campaign perspective, it is directing millions of dollars per year into farmed animal advocacy, which is a reasonable priority if helping the greatest number of animals possible is an individual donor’s priority.
On the other hand, ANIMALS 24-7 believes being honest with donors should also be a top priority.
Leading donors to believe that animal charities are being evaluated in an even-handed manner while practicing “directed giving” is fundamentally dishonest.
“Effective altruism” obviously has a useful place in farmed animal advocacy, in particular, but when misrepresented to donors is as misleading as the incessant urgent appeals from the ASPCA which never mention that ASPCA president Matt Bershadker now pays himself upward of $1,117,171 per year: nearly three times as much as the second highest-paid executive in animal welfare history.
What donors get for that is not nearly three times as much as anyone else is doing, unless one’s sole criteria for judgement is raising and spending money.
“Clean meat” & plant-based alternatives
Mentions Thomas, “The most in-depth survey of the effective altruism movement found that 90% are millennials, 87% are white, 86% are not followers of a religion, and about half do not eat meat. Interestingly, only 10% of more than 2,000 respondents identified animal welfare as their top priority, though 37% said it was a top priority and 71% said significant resources should be dedicated to it.”
This leads into a concluding discussion of venture capitalism, laboratory-grown “clean meat,” and plant-based alternatives to animal products.
The latter is the direction that ANIMALS 24-7 believes has the best prospects for at least significantly reducing the scope and scale of factory farming, if only because most of the world already eats very little meat compared to most Americans, and plant-based alternatives––such as soy and seitan––are already economically competitive with meat in most of Asia, home to 60% of the world’s population.
“The Model T liberated American equines”
“The antisemitic Henry Ford was hardly an animal lover or humanitarian. Yet it was not the ASPCA,” though ASPCA founder Henry Bergh campaigned most on behalf of horses, “but the Model T that liberated American equines,” Thomas points out.
“The path to success for clean meat may follow the Tesla model,” Thomas suggests.
“Elon Musk understood that he would not be able to outcompete hydrocarbon Fords and Toyotas with his prohibitively expensive electric batteries. In 2006 he released his ‘Master Plan,’ summarized as ‘Build sports car; use that money to build an affordable car; use that money to build an even more affordable car; while doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options.”
“‘Sports car’ meat can fund cheaper ‘clean meat'”
Musk was eminently successful. ANIMALS 24-7 since May 2023 has relied upon a used Tesla Model 3 for transportation, not because we could ever afford a sports car, but because the Musk approach managed to bring Teslas down into the normal quality used car price range, and, already powering our house by solar, we can “fuel” it from our rooftop.
“’Sports car’ meat with higher price points can provide the capital for ‘even more affordable’ clean meat for mass consumers,” Thomas writes, offering examples of lab-grown “clean meat” that are already on the market in Singapore and may soon debut in the U.S.
The Farm Animal Movement is inside information and perspective readers will not get anywhere else. Some years from now it may be a milestone marking the halfway point between the relatively brief discussion of factory farming in Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation and the demise of factory farming, or at least marking a significant distance traveled in a cause which must be won, not only for farmed animals but to keep global warming from cooking us all.