The animal rights movement has a unique problem compared to most social justice causes. The victim is not the activist. That's not to say non-human animals don't show resistance, they do so, every single day in farms, slaughterhouses, abusive homes, zoos, labs, circus', racecourses, etc. But they're not on the streets, telling their stories - nor should they. Human animal rights activists are a type of translator; communicating the non-human suffering to human understanding. A variety of tactics are used by activists to convey the message effectively. Yet how do we effectively bring non-human animal suffering into focus without either adding to their suffering, or trivializing it?
Non-human animals are represented everywhere in our arts and culture, although very much as a tool to enhance a human story, or be a metaphor for human life. George Orwell's masterpiece Animal Farm is a prime example of anthropomorphism to represent human political behaviors, although Old Major's speech at the beginning could be mistaken for an animal rights manifesto. Animated film Chicken Run brilliantly tells the stories of chickens planning a 'great escape'. Yet these characters could be any species, the choice of animal is merely a vehicle to shape stereotypical comedy within a basic story of self-liberation - which ironically is very much in realm of animal rights themes.
Anthropomorphism is harnessed by animal rights activists and organisations. A recent example is the Humane Society's animated short film 'Save Ralph', where an animated rabbit explains his day as a lab rabbit; being tested on for cosmetic products. This humanising of Ralph seems to achieve an empathetic bridge to his character; applying a human narrative reveals the true torment non-humans suffer in testing. Yet the lengths to achieve this connection may be disingenuous to the actual non-humans being tormented. Ralph comes across as a polite and passive character that tests are being done on him and there are no alternatives. Yet the reality is more stark. Beings aren't just confined because of a reaction to being tested on, they are imprisoned and dominated in every single inch and second of their lives. Ralph's 'home' is homely and characterful, like it is his job to be tested on - not a slave being denied basic liberties.
The question remains, does it matter that the activism is not genuinely representing the non-human animal experience? Short-term, perhaps not. It gets the message out there clearly, invoking human emotions and reactions. Long-term, there is a danger that the speciesist narrative continues, carried by the animal rights movement itself. A video by exciting animal and climate justice group Animal Rebellion, built on this speciesist narrative with a comedy sketch to support their pressure campaign against dairy giant Arla. The sketch focused on a human in a cow costume, dancing in a field celebrating the end of diary, in a utopian dream-like sequence. The frivolity and slightly sexual tone seemed to trivialise the extensive suffering cows endure within the dairy industry. Since then, Animal Rebellion have seemed to steer away from this type of messaging, and even stopped including non-human representation all together for now.
Although anthropomorphism has a close affinity with speciesism, how else are we supposed to understand a non-human's experience, their suffering? An empathy between human and non-human animals is seen most prominently in children, who have the most exposure to anthropomorphised non-humans, via animated television shows and films, non-human animal toys, and so on. Yet this doesn't translate to mainstream attitudes towards non-humans, the same morning they are rooting for Peppa Pig on the TV, they are enjoying a bacon sandwich with little protest. This is mainly due to adults controlling the speciesist narrative, yet these adults were children once. Clearly this distinction between the non-human animal and their human-ised representation is substantial enough for humans to facilitate violence towards non-humans without flinching. Anthropomorphism looks like it's facilitating this cognitive dissonance, or at least highlighting the presence of the dissonance.
So what do we do? How do we bring the non-human to mind, without representing them? Some activists subvert the non-human and focus on the animality, our commonality between the human and the 'others', by placing themselves in their space. A recent example of this is Abi from Animal Autonomy, tagging her ear in an act of solidarity for the non-humans in the agricultural systems. By highlighting her ability to endure pain, as a non-human would, with something seen as so minimal as ear tagging, Abi builds a bridge for the audience; to share the pain that is present with all those who endure the act. Images of blood, as well tools of piercing and pressing, draw an understanding of pain that is universal in sentient beings. Abi places her human self in the non-human space, if but for a moment, and strips the human of it's rank of non-animal, joining the chorus of the feeling animals. Examples of tapping into animality can be found in theatrical demonstrations of humans in cages, being slaughtered, being tested on or shrink wrapped like a product.
Activists like Daniel Hellmann interweave species further, with interspecies performances via drag artistry. Dan's Soya the Cow harnesses the fluid nature of drag to induce a hybrid, shared animality as human-cow, or cow-human. In the Performing Animal Rights Podcast Series, Dan talks of his relationship with Soya and how she speaks to an urgency to understand each other as animals, as well as ourselves. Whether non-human animals are 'truly' seen by audiences, remain to be clearly seen, as the movement remains small enough to be drowned out by cultural and commercial narrative of human supremacy. Yet an embracing of our animality as a way of focusing on the non-human, via looking more closely at ourselves, shows captivating promise and sense of authenticity. Breaking free of imposing on what the non-human is thinking and feeling, we can place ourselves in their positions and experience how we think and feel, even if just for a moment, just a glimpse of their suffering.