Public Perceptions of Animal Advocacy in the UK: Preliminary results of a small-scale (pilot) project.
Dr. Paula Arcari
The animal ‘movement’ is consistently critiqued in academic and activist communities for failing to bring about substantive change for animals. Considerable resources are expended on determining more effective engagement strategies. However, research suggests perceptions of the movement as a whole, and/or certain organisations, may have a more overarchingly detrimental effect on these efforts. In other words, the perception of the messenger matters as much as the message, shaping how the latter is understood, and indeed, whether it is afforded any regard at all.
For example, in their exploration of effective messaging for vegan transition, Claire Parkinson and Richard Twine found advocacy messages were regarded as the least credible and lacking in evidence (2018: 62). Buddle et al. (2018) found Australian meat consumers did not engage with or entirely dismissed information from PETA and Animals Australia because advocacy organisations were not considered credible sources of information. Beyond food-related advocacy, an examination of US public opinion of the animal protection movement found half the adult population thinks the movement is ‘extreme’ while a quarter could not name any associated organisation (HRC 2005).
Previously, I have argued that an absence of critical animal perspectives in animal advocacy contributes to the illegitimacy of these perspectives in mainstream discourses (Arcari 2021). In a forthcoming paper, I suggest that a combination of fragmented and inconsistent goals, visions, and strategies, and an overall lack of coherence contribute to perceptions of ‘the animal movement’ as illegitimate and lacking credibility. In both analyses, I highlight a gap in understandings of how animal advocacy is perceived in the UK, specifically by those who do not consider themselves part of or aligned with it. Such knowledge is crucial for gauging the movement’s position socially and ideologically, identifying where it may be misfiring, and improving engagement strategies. This small-scale study is intended as a first step towards addressing that gap.
Research design and methods
Edge Hill University provided funding for a four-month research project, approved by the Social Sciences Research Ethics Committee (SSREC), exploring public perceptions of animal advocacy. A questionnaire was developed, and anonymous, non-identifying data collected between April and July 2022 via an online nationwide survey (n=211) and face-to-face interviews at various locations across England (n=200).
Questions—30 in total including 10 demographic questions—explored respondents’ familiarity with and understandings of certain terminology used in animal advocacy, associated issues, organisations, and campaigns, their dietary practices, political views, and understandings of ‘the movement’ as a whole—its perceived legitimacy, unity, and goals. Open fields invited respondents to comment on and qualify their answers. This allowed the meanings they associate with certain terms and concepts to emerge, reducing the risk of misinterpretation and false assumptions that can result from closed-ended surveys.
A key aim of the project was to gather the views of a wide cross-section of the general public, mitigating the bias that can inhere in studies targeted or skewed towards academic/student cohorts and/or reliant solely on web-based recruitment methods.
Significant differences emerged between the two cohorts that have important methodological implications. For instance, 20% of online respondents identify as vegan compared to the 1.5% national average, and almost 70% hold a bachelor or post-graduate degree—almost double the UK average. These and other differences, and an account of recruitment methods, will be presented in more detail in a forthcoming paper. The following provides a brief overview of findings thus far:
- 68% female
- 94% identify as White; 2% as Asian/Asian British; 1.5% as Mixed/Multiple Ethic; less than 1% as Arab; and less than 1% as Black/African/Caribbean, Black British.
- Even distribution across most age ranges (15% to 20%)
- 15% completed school; 29% further education; 30% hold a bachelor degree (UK average 23%); and 27% of hold a Masters or PhD (UK average 2-3%).
- Terms most associated with animal advocacy (by between 77% and 85% of respondents) are ‘animal rights’, ‘animal ‘welfare’ and ‘conservation’.
- Between 60% and 75% of respondents are not familiar with the terms ‘animal liberation’ and ‘animal advocacy’.
- From open responses, the three main issues that animal advocacy/activism/protection is understood as trying to address are: reducing, preventing, or ending animal cruelty (or abuse/harm/mistreatment); animal experimentation; and protection of habitats.
Advocacy organisations and activities
- Over 70% of respondents consider the efforts of animal advocates and related organisations to be legitimate. Only 10% considers them illegitimate.
- Reactions to advocacy campaigns depend on the associated use and/or category of animal being targeted, how, and by which organisation.
- Over 80% of participants have heard of WWF, RSPCA, and PETA, and almost 70% recognise the Dogs Trust. From here, recognition rates drop more than 20 percentage points to between 18% and 45% for Born free, Animal Aid, CIWF, and Cruelty Free International.
- Remaining organisations, including Viva!, World Animal Protection, Animal Rebellion, Humane Society International, Mercy for Animals, Animal Justice Project, Freedom for Animals, and CagedNW have recognition rates between 18% and 4% respectively.
- 45% of online and 22% of face-to-face participants are members of, or otherwise aligned with, an advocacy organisation. Cited organisations are heavily weighted towards animal welfare (RSPCA, RSPB), local pet rescues, shelters, sanctuaries, and wildlife trusts.
Animal advocacy and veganism
- Most respondents (81%) associate the promotion of veganism and/or plant-based diets with animal advocacy. Open comments from 26% of participants indicate the link is not always clear and/or they may agree a link is made but question its validity.
- Veganism/plant-based diets and animal advocacy are not considered mutually contingent. As one respondent phrases it, vegans/vegetarians are not exclusively capable of compassion towards animals.
- Participants’ understandings of veganism, in their own words, overwhelmingly relate to food and diet (88% of responses).
- Less than 14% of responses associate veganism with broader practices in terms of being a way of life, causing no harm to any animals, excluding the use/exploitation of animals, and respect for all life. This figure may be lower as it cannot be assumed that references to ‘harm’ or ‘reverence/respect’ are critical of animal use.
- Nearly 70% of respondents describe their diets as omnivorous (meat-eating) or flexitarian/reducetarian. A further 6% self-describe as pescetarian, 12% as vegetarian, and 13% vegan.
- Dietary identifications for online and face-to-face respondents are comparable and reflective of UK averages in every category except ‘vegan’. A fifth (20%) of online respondents report following a vegan diet compared to 7% face-to-face.
Movement unity and goals
- The majority (50%) of respondents regard animal advocacy as a range of quite or totally separate organisations. Only 12% perceive it as quite or very united, while the remaining 38% are neutral on this question.
- Asked (open format) what ‘the movement’ is trying to achieve, or its ultimate goal (if it has one), participants most frequently cite positive goals (79% response rate). Improved welfare is the dominant theme encompassing: better/improved/correct treatment or care of animals; protection and improvement of welfare standards (including the five freedoms); and upholding protections and rights.
- Added comments include calls for “good farming” (of animals) and “ethical meat”, and caveats such as “but I eat meat”, “I’d like to think these animals are not exploited”, and “I choose organic” or “happy animals”. Protections and rights include the “right to be killed humanely” or to a “pain-free death”.
- Uncertainty around the goals of animal advocacy is expressed in 26% of responses. The most common theme (16%) is that participants are unsure, goals are unclear, or there is no ultimate/single goal. Around 5% indicate they do not know what the movement is trying to achieve.
- Added comments call for greater unity, both as a movement and in relation to goals: “Perhaps if they did work as one we would achieve more”; “That’s the issue. No clear goals”; “If they were united they’d be very powerful.”
- Goals that are more clearly and comprehensively anti-speciesist, such as stopping/eliminating animal exploitation/oppression and/or human dominance, and achieving sovereignty or liberation for animals, have the lowest rate of mention at 18%.
This limited survey of public perceptions of animal advocacy in the UK indicates that animal advocacy is perceived as a broad church, encompassing the work of local wildlife trusts, pet rescue groups, protection societies (particularly the RSPCA and RSPB), international wildlife and conservation organisations (notably WWF), single-issue, and larger organisations—ones that focus on welfare and those that are more rights/liberation focused.
However, analysis of individual responses reveals the implicit dominance of a welfarist ideology. Advocacy aimed at generating ethical concern for the treatment and suffering of animals, and for the impacts of animal use on human health and the environment, is viewed mostly positively but is interpreted from within a paradigm of acceptable use – what Kymlicka terms an “ideology of humane use” (2022: 214). Advocacy that extends beyond this ideology, challenging the fundamental rationale of all forms of use and not just the how of certain uses (primarily farming animals for food), is not often recognised. If it is, it is perceived pejoratively at the extreme end of advocacy and as lacking legitimacy.
The prevalence, and increasing normalisation, of an ideology of humane use has been an arguably predictable outcome of a strategic move over the past two to three decades that has seen animal advocacy organisations focus more on individual behaviour change (with a predominant emphasis on diet), effective altruism, and single issues, at the expense of more politicised visions for comprehensive social and systemic change targeting the animal-industrial complex in its entirety.
These findings reinforce previous observations that the animal advocacy movement is failing to communicate the need and rationale for challenging human relations with animals in more fundamental and comprehensive ways (Arcari 2021, Forthcoming 2022, Forthcoming 2023). The implicit message continues to be that certain practices, primarily involving physical harms towards animals, are problematic and need to be addressed because they are cruel, unsustainable, environmentally damaging, and/or unethical. Perpetuating this understanding reinforces the idea that ‘care’ and ‘kindness’ towards animals is compatible with use, as long as that use can be made humane, sustainable, environmentally friendly, and ethical.
If the movement’s longstanding commitment to more radical and meaningful change for animals is to be maintained (and strengthened), then the increasing acceptance of welfarist frameworks and the assumption that public concern for animal welfare is by itself a positive sign must be challenged. This will also mean pushing back against the widely held view (also observed in the survey data) that the perceived ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of using animals is a matter of personal choice and (like climate change a decade ago) a topic for balanced discussion and debate rather than a collective moral issue.
In short, animal advocacy organisations urgently need to embark on some level of unification and a re-politicisation of intentions to contextualize welfare gains within a broader understanding of animal oppression and a longer-term vision (and articulation) of liberation.
Thank you to Ms Lisa Hall, a wonderful research assistant who undertook all data collection activities for this project and provided valuable insights and observations along the way.
Paula Arcari recently completed a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship within the Centre for Human Animal Studies (CfHAS) at Edge Hill University, UK. Her three-year project, ‘The Visual Consumption of Animals: Challenging Persistent Binaries,’ aimed to support transformational change in the way humans conceive and interact with nature and other animals.
Arcari, P. 2021. ‘The Covid Pandemic, ‘Pivotal’ Moments, and Persistent Anthropocentrism: Interrogating the (Il)legitimacy of Critical Animal Perspectives’, Animal Studies Journal, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 186-239.
Arcari, P. 2022. ‘(Animal) Oppression: Responding to questions of efficacy and (il)legitimacy in animal advocacy with a new collective action/master frame ‘, Animal Studies Journal.
Arcari, P Forthcoming, 2023. ‘(More than) Food, farms, and freedom: Turning exclusions in ‘pro-vegan’ documentaries into productive interventions for animal advocacy’, in C Parkinson (ed.), Animal Activism On and Off Screen, Sydney University Press, Sydney.
Buddle, EA, Bray, HJ & Ankeny, RA 2018. ‘Why would we believe them? Meat consumers’ reactions to online farm animal welfare activism in Australia’, Communication Research and Practice, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 246-60.
HRC. 2005. US Public Opinion About the Animal Protection Movement, Humane Research Council.
Kymlicka, W. 2022. ‘Membership Rights for Animals’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, vol. 91, pp. 213-44.
Parkinson, C. Twine, R. & Griffin, N. 2019. Pathways to Veganism: Exploring Effective Messages in Vegan Transition, Centre for Human Animal Studies (CfHAS), Edge Hill University, The Vegan Society.