Why activists win

To illustrate the mechanism of why activists win, I thought I'd use as an example something most people don't consider a hot button issue -- elephants in the zoo.

To a small minority of activists, of course, animal rights is not only a hot button issue, it is the only issue. So they're demonstrating -- right here at the Philadelphia Zoo. Their demand? Basically, they want the zoo to get rid of its elephants:

Competing visions of what's right for the elephants clashed this week at the Philadelphia Zoo as animal activists stepped up their free-the-herd campaign and administrators pushed a fund-raising drive that they hope will allow them to enlarge the habitat and add more of the majestic mammals.

The activists distributed leaflets outside the zoo gates calling the pachyderm quarters cramped and hazardous, and gathered signatures on a petition demanding that the herd of four be released to a sanctuary.

"We really want them to close that exhibit," said Rowan Morrison, who is organizing the demonstrations.

Zoo officials continued to raise money for a planned 2.5-acre, $22 million savanna that they want to unveil in 2008. Failing that, they plan to continue showing the older elephants, Petal, 49, and Dulary, 41, who have lived here since they were babies.

"They're well-adjusted here," said Kim Lengel, senior curator of mammals at the zoo. "This is their home, and they get excellent care."

The demonstrations, which will continue through Sunday, coincide with the national observance today of Elephant Appreciation Day and come at a time when elephant welfare is in the spotlight.

It's as if the activists have already won, because zoo officials are bending over backwards to accommodate them, acceding to the moral authority of the activists' "principles" -- obviously wishing and hoping that once this demand is met, they'll go away and never come back. This reminds me of the way corporations will bend over backwards to accommodate almost any kind of pressure group -- such as demands by gay activists, which only encourages demands and threats of boycotts by anti-gay activists like WorldNetDaily. (Ditto for Jesse Jackson-style corporate shakedown demands.)

The problem is that it's easy for me to sound off, as I'm not running anything, nor am I running for anything, so I don't have to deal with the physical realities -- both personal and economic -- which public pressure by demonstrators can bring to bear. I don't blame the zoo for being terrified. Zoos are frequented by children, and the last thing zoo employees want is to be pestered by well-meaning questions from kids about elephants being mistreated, being taken away from their homes on the savannah, etc. (Hell, Dumbo was more of a tearjerker than Bambi.)

Naturally, the organizers of the protest have sites like these devoted to "saving" zoo elephants. The lead organization, In Defense of Animals, has another save-the-elephant site, and their Philadelphia area supporters also do things like protest Mayor Street's rat poisoning in Philadelphia.

The emotional and PR value of rats in urban areas is probably questionable, but one of the IDF causes which has shown some success is the campaign to stop goose liver foie gras production:

According to Bryan Pease, co-director of the Animal Protection and Rescue League (APRL) in Hillcrest, the production of foie gras is “inherently cruel” and always involves mechanical force feeding of geese through metal tubes to enlarge their livers. After paying a visit to a foie gras farm in Stockton, his non-profit group came away with photographs and videotape of geese that he said were suffering from “lots of anal hemorrhaging and pressure on their organs from the force feedings.”

Those images, combined with pleading letters to chefs and the threat of APRL pickets in front of the restaurants, resulted in the recent removal of foie gras from the kitchens of Pamplemousse, Nine-Ten, Top of the Cove, Arterra and the Rancho Bernardo Inn, to name a few.
Yet in a series of columns that Wischkaemper wrote for the online publication Voice of San Diego, she questioned APRL’s tactics and its lack of campaigning against food producers in the egg, chicken and veal industries, where conditions reportedly aren’t any prettier. The articles generated a flurry of letters attacking her gastronomic point of view in defense of foie gras availability.

“I have no problem with animals being raised for consumption, and don’t give much thought to how a goose feels when it’s force fed,” says Wischkaemper. “I’m much more concerned about starving children. Nobody is forcing the protestors to eat foie gras, yet they’re forcing me not to eat it. If APRL had their way, nobody on the planet would eat anything that’s alive. I don’t think that I’m the devil incarnate because I enjoy meat.”

Pease, who advocates for vegan and vegetarian diets through his organization, says, “Foie gras production is drastically different compared to other meat industries, which can at least be improved.

What's always lost in the debate over the merits of each "cause" is that true activists never lose sight of the big picture. Individual "causes" are means to an end, but the people who are confronted by activists are only interested in making the immediate problem go away. In so doing, they end up strengthening and emboldening the movement behind the particular cause.

In military terms, this strategy would be called "appeasement," and it's generally not considered to be a winning one. Not for the appeasers. For the activists, it's playing right into their hands.

At the risk of sounding like an appeaser, I'll go so far here and now as to actually declare that I think the force feeding of geese is cruel. But if I ran a restaurant and complied with the demands of activists, would it end there? The prohibition on foie gras is merely one step for them towards an ultimate goal of enforced veganism. The restaurant owners who take the foie gras off the menu will next be asked to eliminate veal, then chickens raised in factory farms, and so on. Similarly, activists who demand the removal of confederate flags have no intention of stopping there. Next will be statues of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, as well as streets named after them. From there it's a short step to Lee's relative, slaveholder George Washington. Should there be a slaveholder on the dollar bill????

I think that the appeasement of forces which are ultimately dedicated to the wholesale destruction of the appeasers is shortsighted at best. But business and idealism mix about as well as politics and idealism. The bottom line is staying open for business, or staying in office.

That's why the activists win.

Not that there's any connection between elephants and politics.

I mean, is anyone trying to save the Rechimplicans?

posted by Eric on 09.22.05 at 08:22 AM


I will vote for the Elephant. I will vote Republican. The party of Lincoln, Goldwater, and Reagan. As to George Washington, the part they always leave out is: he freed his slaves. Besides, those who attack the Father of our Country would themsrlves own slaves if it was still legal and if they had the money. The only reason they don't is because Republicans abolished slavery a century and a half ago.


Back to your main point: Appeasement of our enemies, whether abroad or here at home, will destroy us. We must instead stand uncompromisingly for our values. We can't rely on businessmen infected with range-of-the-moment pragmatism, we need intellectual activists to articulate and uphold the values of our Western civilization. Objectivists must uphold the supremacy of man's mind and his right to live and to pursue his own happiness on this earth. Christians must uphold man's God-given dominion over the earth and the beasts, birds, and fish as stated in Genesis. I myself must stand 4-square for my absolute values, my holy dogmas, of Polytheistic Godliness, Selfishness, Sexiness. This is what the battle demands. Nothing less will do.

By all means, free the herd - and let it march down Roosevelt Boulevard. I'd pay a few bucks to see that.

CGHill   ·  September 22, 2005 4:53 PM

Easy for you to say, Charles, but you're ensconced in Oklahoma. There are a number of liquor stores on Roosevelt Boulevard, and elephants are prone to go binge drinking, after which they rampage.

It's not funny at all:


And as far as I know, Philadelphia doesn't have a chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Elephants to protect us from this threat.

Eric Scheie   ·  September 23, 2005 2:57 PM

Steven, thanks! You're prescient with that remark about George Washington freeing his slaves. (See my later post.)

Eric Scheie   ·  September 23, 2005 9:21 PM

Not sure how the zoo officials are appeasing the activists, but glad to see that you think they are.

Just last week, one of the elephants was severely injured in a struggle with another elephant because of the lack of space in the Philly Zoo. Are such things really worth it so your kids can see a live animal standing around? If so, my values are a little different than yours.

Rowan Morrison   ·  September 28, 2005 10:30 PM

Rowan, thanks for visiting.

While I think animals in zoos deserve the most humane treatment possible, I nonetheless think zoos perform important educational and conservational functions. In general, they afford animals a life free from predation, cruelty, poaching, and disease which shortens their lives in a natural state.

My point is that I don't think the ostensible goal (of "saving elephants") is the real goal of the organizations behind this issue. Ultimately, I think they'd like to abolish zoos entirely, because they want to reorder man's relationship with animals.

Author and animal rights activist Dale Jamieson explains:

Zoos teach us a false sense of our place in the natural order. The means of confinement mark a difference between humans and animals. They are there at our pleasure, to be used for our purposes. Morality and perhaps our very survival require that we learn to live as one species among many rather than as one species over many. To do this, we must forget what we learn at zoos. Because what zoos teach us is false and dangerous, both humans and animals will be better off when they are abolished.
I disagree with this philosophy, and its agenda.

I see the elephant issue as merely one step towards advancing it.

Eric Scheie   ·  September 28, 2005 11:32 PM

Mr. Scheie,

One wonders if Mr.Jamieson is somehow connected to the recent exhibit in the London zoo that you wrote about here:

Mr. Rowan,

Philadelphia's zoo is, according to google, America's oldest. Well, certainly, it seems plausible that our zoo would be one of the nation's oldest, given Philly's relatively ancient stature amongst American cities. And thus, lamentably, it was built before the advances in zoo design that have brought us such gems as the San Diego Zoo and Wildlife Preserve. I love the story told at the Preserve of the rhinos that would not breed until they were free to roam in the 18 - acre central part. It turned out that a "nanny", a second female rhino to bring up the rear of the procession of the mother and child, was needed before the pair would mate. And this would have never been discovered had they kept the pair confined to more traditional quarters.

But we are not in Southern California, but rather West Philadelphia, and that comes with its own set of constraints. And we must strive for the best outcome given these constraints, yes, taking into consideration the children of Phildelphia (especially those who are not fortunate enough to be able to visit San Diego, let alone the Bronx).

Why not devote your energies to helping the city raise funds to improve the elephant habitat, rather than demanding its closure?

Justin Case's Former Personal Secretary   ·  September 29, 2005 12:20 AM

"Why not devote your energies to helping the city raise funds to improve the elephant habitat, rather than demanding its closure?"

Because the Philly Zoo cannot provide a healthy and safe environment for the elephants and any "expansion" would be outdated before it is built. The entire zoo is just 42 acres. In the wild, elephants roam up to 30 to 50 miles a day. There are 640 acres in just one mile. The number one cause of death of captive elephants is foot and joint problems, the direct result of the lack of space and exercise.
The average age at death of a captive elephant (excluding infant mortality) is 34, less than half of an elephant's natural lifespan of 70.
Northern zoos such as the Philadelphia Zoo pose additional problems due to climate - the elephants are kept inside in a concrete barn for days on end due to the weather.

The Philly Zoo could use the space and resources planned for the elephants for some of the other 1600 animals in its care. I visited the zoo yesterday and saw the lone rhino bobbing and weaving (signs of neurotic behavior) and facing his barn in his tiny yard. His exhibit could easily be expanded into the former elephant exhibit and the elephants could live in a more suitable environment at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, where they will have access to HUNDREDS of acres of varying substrate. See www.elephants.com.

Also see www.HelpPhillyZooElephants.com for more information.

Rowan Morrison   ·  September 29, 2005 1:03 PM

A spot check exclusively of zoo and science websites reveals little consensus on the maximum age that elephants can reach: anywhere from 50 to 70 years.

Now, the maximum age is not the same thing as the average age. According to the zoo in Seattle (Woodland), the average age of elephants in the wild is 24 years. (This is the only site that I have found that discusses average, rather than potential lifespan.) Man is the only predator, and poachers target the older elephants for their well-developed tusks. If this figure, and the one you cite, are indeed correct, then on average, elephants live longer in captivity.

And, both Petals and Dulary, Philly's old timers, are well beyond both averages (see quote in Eric's original post). While conditions are not ideal, they do seem better than being hunted down by poachers, although perhaps not as nice as the sanctuary that you propose. However, consider the net benefit to elephants world wide if the relatively few that are in captivity serve, by bonding with humans, to advance the overall cause of conservation.

Justin Case's Former Personal Secretary   ·  September 29, 2005 10:23 PM

Correction: it turns out that elephants have one other predator: lions, although they seem to prefer the other end of the age distribution.

JCPS   ·  September 29, 2005 10:33 PM

"Now, the maximum age is not the same thing as the average age. According to the zoo in Seattle (Woodland), the average age of elephants in the wild is 24 years. (This is the only site that I have found that discusses average, rather than potential lifespan.) Man is the only predator, and poachers target the older elephants for their well-developed tusks. If this figure, and the one you cite, are indeed correct, then on average, elephants live longer in captivity."

The natural lifespan of an elephant in the wild is 70 years old.

Captive elephants die at an average age of 34.

If you include the poaching of millions of elephants over the last century, the average age of an elephant in the wild at death could be 24. That is how the Zoo industry is playing with statistics to support their statistics. But no matter how the Zoo industry plays around with the statistics, the natural lifespan of an elephant in the wild is 70 (or more), and elephants in captivity die at roughly half that age.

You can do anything you want to support the indefensible rate of death of captive elephants, but please don't kid yourself- they are not living beyond their natural lifespans and they are dying at alarming rates, which is panicking the Zoo industry since they can no longer take them from the wild and must depend on captive breeding (which has been a miserable failure).

It is more important to some that their children see a live elephant standing around than it is how well that elephant is cared for, I understand that and am not trying to reach those people. It is the people who do care about animals suffering and dying that I am trying to reach with my website

Rowan Morrison   ·  September 30, 2005 1:11 PM

Lions do kill the rare baby elephant, but they are not predators of an adolescent or adult elephant. Baby elephants living with their herd are rarely killed by lions since they are protected by the other elephants; it is only when the baby has been separated from the herd for some reason (usually human intervention) that lions pose a risk.

Rowan Morrison   ·  September 30, 2005 1:14 PM

The term "natural lifespan" makes little sense without reference to life expectancy.

For example, the potential "natural lifespan" of a human is 110, but few make it to that age.

According to Wikipedia, average human life expectancy is 37 years in Zambia and 81 years in Japan.

Is one more "natural" than the other? If so, why?

Eric Scheie   ·  September 30, 2005 4:52 PM

"Is one more "natural" than the other? If so, why?"

IMO, yes. If the forces that reduce the human life expectancy in Zambia are something readily diagnosed and could be corrected - like starvation; solution, food - 37 is not a "natural" lifespan as it could be readily (thought not easily) manipulated to be much longer. Similarly, murder rates. Young urban black males may live longer in prison, that does not reduce their natural lifespan, murder is unnatural (in my opinion - maybe not yours). Ditto with poaching of elephants.

Statistics can always be used to one's advantage, and those in the zoo industry are masters at it. Pretty soon zoos will be doing elephants a favor if the elephants live to be 20 years old.

RowanMorrison   ·  October 2, 2005 7:35 PM

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