any given moment, many of us in the animal rights movement may be frustrated with
the relatively small number of people active in the struggle. We are disappointed
with the meager turnouts at our demonstrations and outreach events. We wonder
why no one else seems to care. Most distressing of all, people who once fought
along side of us disappear, never to attend another protest or leafleting.
why is it that once-dedicated activists leave the movement and seemingly abandon
the cause they once fought so hard for? To answer that question, we first need
to examine why people become involved in the first place. Human behavior is complex,
and each person has his or her own unique reason for becoming an activist, but
for the purposes of this article, I will be fairly simplistic. People become activists
for two main reasons.
First, people have a desire to belong. We want to
be a part of something, whether its a particular social scene or a social
justice movement. Human beings are social animals, so it is only natural to seek
out a community with which we share a common cause.
Second, our motivations
are altruistic. Websters dictionary defines altruism as: 1. the principle
or practice of unselfish concern for the welfare of others 2. behavior by an animal
that may be to its disadvantage but that benefits others of its kind. I
think both of these definitions apply to animal rights activists. We merely extend
our circle of whom we consider to be our own kind.
of these motivations, why do people leave? I believe a persons reason for
dropping-out is directly correlated to his or her reason for involvement in the
For those who become activists for primarily altruistic reasons,
burnout can play a major factor in their departure. Burnout is kind of a general
term that refers to a state of exhaustion brought on by stress or overwork, and
it can come in various forms. Some people simply agree to do more than they can
handle. They become overwhelmed with obligations and end up becoming victims to
their own zealousness. Their flame burns oh-so-brightly until all their fuel runs
Compassion Fatigue is a fancy term that psychologists
use to describe one particular type of burnout: the fatigue and apathy that come
from working in a field of high emotional stress. It is usually applied to animal
shelter workers, paramedics, or other people whose work exposes them to populations
in distress. I think this can accurately be applied to animal rights activists.
By our very nature, many of us are acutely sensitive to the suffering of others.
That is what drew us to do this work. We do what we can to alleviate this suffering,
but ultimately our efforts can feel futile. In a world where the majority seems
to care very little about the things that matter to us most, and where we see
oppression and pain in every meal we share with non-vegan friends or family, this
feeling of futility can be overwhelming. Sometimes that is enough to thwart our
intentions to right these wrongs.
Another contributing factor to burnout
can be doing work that we feel isnt making any difference. For instance,
working on a campaign that seems un-winnable or too broad in scope, or conversely,
working on a campaign that is too narrow (and therefore still may be ineffective)
can leave an activist feeling useless and apathetic.
For activists whose
primary drive for getting involved was the need to belong, their reasons for leaving
may be vastly different from those of the altruist. The reasons for leaving may
be that same need for a community that got them to join in the first place. For
those of us who started out without many friends who shared our views on the world,
becoming an activist meant finally feeling a sense of kinship with a larger social
circle. It was an immense relief to know that we were not alone in the world,
and this may have helped us adjust to our changing ideas of the world. Unfortunately,
this need for community can also work against us.
While becoming part of
the animal rights movement may lead to friendships with people whose values closely
mirror our own, it also may lead to more distant relationships with people we
once considered close friends. Our perception of the world is now viewed through
the lens of an activist, which can mean isolation from mainstream society. For
many, this may be a blessing. For others it may be frightening. This isolation
may be unwelcome for many, and some may choose to leave their lives of activism
to re-enter the mainstream.
Many activists, however, are searching for a
community that does not embrace mainstream culture. The animal rights movement
may be just what they were looking for. Or maybe any alternative to the mainstream
will do, so once theyve tried animal rights on, they move on to the next
social justice movement that will have them.
Others may not have been accepted
the way they wanted to be. While we may not want to admit it, we can be clique-ish
and can have a hard time accepting newcomers. We may be suspicious of people eager
to join the fight, or simply unsure of what tasks we can hand off to someone else.
For some potential activists this can be off-putting, and just enough to keep
I am not suggesting here that folks become activists merely to
find a good party. As I stated earlier, human behavior is complex. Our motivations
are rarely that simple. I am just suggesting that our altruistic intentions or
our desire for a community may play a bigger or lesser part in ones actions
depending on the person.
Now that we know why people join the movement and
why they leave, how do we make them stay? I dont think it is important to
examine each individuals motives in order to keep each person interested
and active. Having a general idea of the reasons behind dropping out can give
us a guide to retaining activists. For new activists, its important that
we break out of our comfort zone and welcome them. Give them tasks that make them
feel they are involved. Make them aware that their contributions are valued.
is also important to nurture the activists that have been around awhile. Those
people who we think would never give up the fight may be just the ones who are
most susceptible to burnout. Dont ask people to do things that you know
will overload them. Remind your friends, too, if you know they are working too
hard, that they need to pace themselves and not take on too many commitments.
For new and old activists alike, design your campaigns with a clear goal
in mind. One that is winnable and yet still likely to make an impact will keep
more people involved for the long haul.
Its funny; the very thing
we are fighting against is the one subject that is often unlikely to come up in
conversation. We already know where our fellow activists stand on the subject
of animal oppression and exploitation, so it isnt something we need to discuss
with them. However, this may only serve to deepen our feelings of anger and frustration
at the world. It can be important to talk about this so we dont fall victim
to our own rage and become apathetic and therefore inactive.
Even with all
of our efforts to keep activists involved in the movement, people will continue
to burn out, or simply drop out. It is important, therefore, to keep this in mind
and not let ourselves become too discouraged by this inevitability. Above all,
appreciate the activists we do have, who continue to fight each day for our mutual
goal: animal liberation.