The Animal Activists’ Dilemma

I received the following letter from an animal rights activist. I reprinted it with her permission.

Hi Andrew,

I really appreciate your insight into veganism and I was wondering if you could give me some advice, or perhaps write a blog, about a particular aspect of activism — keeping one’s sanity in the face of such horrors. Yesterday, I saw photos of two puppies being boiled alive and trying to escape and I feel completely traumatized by it. How do we remain strong in the face of such horrors?

Here is my updated Facebook status from yesterday: “I need a Facebook break after that horrible thing I saw on here today. It was actually way worse than I thought. I am so torn because people need to know this is happening and it has to stop! But, it just pulverizes me on the inside to continually see such images on a daily basis, but if I stop looking, seeing, feeling and telling then I feel like I’m letting the animals down. But, it’s such a dark place to be all the time. Where do I draw the line between protecting my sanity while helping animals? Or, is that even possible?……Any advice?”

Any advice would be welcomed. I need to build a protective armor and learn how to stay strong in the face of such unthinkable abuse.

Many thanks!


Dear Erika,

Thank you for your heartfelt and poignant letter. Millions of animal advocates throughout the world share your feelings of despair and uncertainty. I hope my response brings you peace, guidance, and inspiration.

Let’s begin by debunking some common myths.

Myth #1: If I stop watching videos and looking at images of abused animals, I will let the animals down.

No. While it feels good to think animals in far away places know we care about them, they don’t. Whether you watch a video of their abuse or not, their pain and suffering remains the same. What you do matters, not what you see.

Myth #2: I need to keep seeing the abuse to effectively advocate for animals.

No. You don’t. You’ve already seen it. Why do you need to see more of it? To make yourself sick? That’s not in the best interest of you or the animals. Recognize animals are treated in unthinkable ways. Now select causes that matter most to you where you believe you can make a difference and make it. If you reach a point where you want to get back in touch with the pain they feel and the death they die and watch a cruelty investigation video, use what you see to fuel you to work harder and smarter for the cause. Focus on solutions.

Myth #3: There is too much pain and suffering to make a difference, ergo, do nothing.

No. Simply by not eating animals, you save dozens of animals from enduring abuse, confinement, and slaughter every year and your reduced carbon footprint leads to significant environmental preservation. Your decision not to attend the rodeo, zoos, the circus, wear animals or buy products tested on animals adds many more animals to your total saved list. By persuading others to join you, your impact multiplies exponentially. It’s conceivable for a person who only eats plant-based foods to be responsible for saving the lives of thousands of animals in his or her lifetime through personal decisions and advocacy. While we would all like to save 100 billion every year, in any social change movement, progress depends on practical approaches. Cruelty to animals didn’t happen overnight and it won’t end overnight. It’s a long and arduous haul. Calculate, embrace, and celebrate your impact. Surround yourself with positive people. Everything everyone does matters because it all adds up. If you adopt an all or nothing mentality, you will live in constant disappointment.

Myth #4: Some animal advocates can block out the pain and suffering of animals.

No. They don’t. None of us can. We care too much. We’ve seen too much and heard too much — the look of fear and sadness in their eyes and their cries for help. Every time we see the abuse, a part of us dies with each animal. We will never be the same again. This is the life we choose. Our feelings of grief pale in comparison to what the animals endure though. Ignorance is bliss; awareness is a burden. We carry it without reservation. Resign yourself to the fact that it will always be on your mind but that you are in the best company — a hero for a cause as important as any in human history. Take breaks when you need them. Keep yourself healthy. Spend time with animals to remind yourself how many experience a life of freedom and love. Ensure balance in your life.

I’m sorry you saw what you saw. The dogs remain in our thoughts. Your feelings of devastation are justified and shared. These acts of barbarism make us question the heart of humanity. To watch others idle while it happens drains our capacity for patience but we must rise above indifference and focus on creating a kinder world. There are many people who simply don’t care. Be someone who does.

We can’t identify with the abuse but we can continue to prevent and defeat it through grassroots activism and legislation. Do not expect the perpetrators to lay down their arms. In order to knock down the dominoes of cruelty, we must band together, remain strong, strategize, and always strive to make a positive impact in the lives of animals through our individual and collective actions. You are not alone Erika. Channel that sadness, anger, frustration, and despair into action. Everything you do matters and the animals need all of us doing something.

18 thoughts on “The Animal Activists’ Dilemma

  1. Thank you Ericka and Andrew – I’m glad to hear that I’m not letting the animals down if I don’t daily witness the horrors that these dear souls go through. I am vegan, I’ve written the first children’s book in literature where the throwaway dog was vegan, and I encourage all my friends to consider a healthy compassionate diet. I could do more and I will but to lose energy trying to buck up from
    the horrors one sees on FB is not necessary to doing more. Nor will I watch Earthlings but I do have a minute from PETA about how animals are treated and will send it out to those that I think will receive it. I truly don’t know how those brave undercover people who film especially for MFA can bear it. We all do our best and will do better. Much heartfelt thanks again. Marian

  2. It’s hard knowing that so many animals suffer everyday at all times. I watch all the videos and feel sorrow and pain, but I know I can’t give up and keep the faith in that some animals will be saved and that every year more and more people are becoming compassionate. It kills me that I can’t save more animals … I try to do all I can, but everyday I cry, I can’t help it. I will NEVER give up they need me, even if it’s one at a time. Thank you Andrew and Erika with people like you I know we will make a difference in the lives of our helpless animals. Vegan is for LIFE

  3. Andrew, your response is very helpful. I too am disheartened in learning of the abuse of animals. I have seen many videos of the horrific lives and deaths of factory farm animals. I continue to view them because they make me bolder and more outraged. I am more able to speak up and vocalize my opinions. It is too easy to think that maybe things aren’t so bad, surely people at these farms do not abuse the animals, but when you see the videos, you cannot avoid the fact. The reality of their lives and deaths is more horrific than can be imagined.
    I try to encourage everyone I know to view them. I think some people refuse to see the videos because they don’t want to take responsibility. Becoming vegan would be a start.

  4. Thanks so much for your comments. The horrors that animals endure are an abomination and I thought use of the phrase of being pulverized on the inside so completely true. I have gotten to the point of hiding several purveyors of these horrors, not because I disagree with their right or intention to make us aware, but because I cannot stand it. I see the images for weeks and feel helpless. So, thanks..I will continue to do what I can in my own sphere of influence and eat a plant-based diet.

  5. Thank you Erika and Andrew. A really important letter that all animal activists would understand, and a wonderful, uplifting response. It is a dilemma, and it is different for each individual how we handle the horrendous images and information we deal with. Andrew’s response reminds us that we are not alone in our grief, and it reinforces the importance of continuing in any way we can, never giving up on the animals who need us to keep fighting for them long term. Thank you both for your beautiful words, and making us feel connected.

  6. “Use what you see to fuel you to work harder and smarter for the cause. Focus on solutions.”

    Thank you for your amazing advice, Andrew. From today on that’s my slogan.

    1. Thank you Anri. It sounds trite but the solution is solutions. Every time we donate money to an animal rescue organization, pass out a leaflet, advocate for pro-animal legislation, attend a protest, introduce people to plant-based food, give someone a book about animal agriculture, share a documentary like Cowspiracy, etc., it is a solution. We are the solution. It’s helpful to remember that animal advocacy is not an all or nothing proposition.

  7. Exactly my problem. I already suffer from depression and when I saw all the information about the cruelties when I first got the internet, I went vegan but I also lost my sanity and life-wish for many months, and am still not really recovered, after 7 years. Some people call it a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the stress we suffer being to witness the million times worse stress and pain and horror that the animals suffer. I often say to vegans who know I am vegan that it is pointless to ‘preach to the converted’, but I try to Share as much as I can on my Facebook as I have some omni friends and family and I so long for them to be moved to make the change. Also I try to sign as many petitions as I can, hiding any photos but even the words upset me and I can’t sleep for a week. I just feel I can’t live a happy life while all this cruelty is happening. And I know that does not help the animals one bit, and if I were to end my life, that would be one less vegan (and one less pigeon-feeder…)(those poor hated birds). We can’t give up on them. But we can’t bear it. I wish there was some kind of ‘support group’ for upset vegans. This i sthe nearest I have seen to such a support network. Florence in Glasgow.

    1. Florence, you have a great idea there – a support group for upset vegans/animal advocates is exactly what’s needed! I have a friend on facebook who is devasted by these horrors every day. I went through a dreadful bleak period myself a while ago, trying to find a way through it, and still have to withdraw at times (am in one of those times at the moment). We could all benefit by linking up and talking it out together, don’t you think? Please don’t ever feel alone with your grief. We all feel it too. Linda x

    2. Instead of feeling sorry for ourselves because we has to witness what the animals are forced to endure, we should put all this energy into stopping what we witness. That will solve both problems: our relatively unimportant sadness of having to see the images, and the life and death painful physiological and physical torture the non-human animals have to live day in and day out.

      The support group is activism. Instead of crying about it, lets get together to fight against the exploitation and killing. I find that the more I do to speak out and educate about what happens to animals, the less powerless I feel and the less despair I feel because I know I am working every day to stop what is happening.

  8. Thank you for that letter, Andrew. I have always felt so bad and guilty that I am not out on the front rescuing and protesting. But now I know that what little I do, DOES make some difference. There is some peace in knowing that.

  9. As a vegan of 21 years and a vegan AR activist for 18, 14 of which has been full time running Action for Animals, I’d like to add a few thoughts…

    While I agree you don’t need to see the images of animals being exploited and murdered to remain a passionate and dedicated activist, it does help, a lot. You certainly don’t need to watch it every day, but if you go months or years without seeing what the animals see and live daily, you have a much better chance of forgetting how desperate their situation is and how much they need you right now, and every day! Some people can see something one time and stay as dedicated to the animals” cause every day after, but most people cannot. So I encourage everyone to see what is happening to the animals on a regular basis, to keep you motivated and passionate so that you keep speaking up and speaking out, so you keep leafleting, tabling, protesting, sharing, talking to people, etc. every day, every opportunity, every time!

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