Wanted: rights for animals. Volunteers support cruelty-free treatment

HE thought it was a kitten limping across the dark road, possibly hit by a passing car. Pulling over quickly, he approached the animal as it tried to scurry away. But it wasn't a kitten, and it hadn't been hit. It was a rat with an electrode in its head.

He took it to the local Humane Society and went home to call his friend Nadia about the freak circumstance. An animal lover, Nadia got the animal from the Humane Society and had the electrode removed by a veterinarian.

The animal turned out to be an affectionate pet, but she never found out how it had gotten on the road. It had either escaped from a experimentation laboratory or had been in transport from one to another. The result, in any case, was that Nadia decided to become a volunteer at the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS) to help fight against the inhumane use of animals.

Millions of animals are used for product testing and medical research each year. Millions in the United States alone are raised on ``factory farms'' and slaughtered for food.

Each year, more than 45 million wild animals are trapped in the US and Canada for their pelts, and 30 million more are raised on fur farms. Several countries still permit whaling and sealing. Meanwhile, ``sport hunting'' continues. Dog racing and fighting are on the rise - and millions of pets are abandoned each year.

Although the number of animal rights supporters is growing, the number of actual volunteers fluctuates widely month to month.

Unlike the people whose volunteer work starts and ends at the doors of a chosen establishment, volunteers in this movement are constantly aware of their commitment to animal rights, of what they eat, what they wear, and what they buy as consumers.

Scott Van Valkenburg is in charge of volunteer work at the Anti-vivisection Society. He became involved in animal rights in seventh grade, when he saw a news item showing the clubbing of baby harp seals in Alaska. When he saw an advertisement for an organization that opposed it, he immediately joined.

In high school, Mr. Van Valkenburg decided to become a vegetarian, but it wasn't until he read Peter Singer's ``Animal Liberation'' that he broadened his outlook on the animal rights movement.

``When I read [it],'' he says, ``it clarified my feelings about animal rights, and I moved from an animal welfare perspective to one of animal liberation. It clarified the corporate source of suffering - that there was a profit made [by animal abuse].''

Many others were affected by ``Animal Liberation'' in the same way.

The direction of the movement shifted from animal welfare to animal rights - the conviction that animals not only should be cared for properly, but that they have inherent rights to a life without exploitation by human beings.

``I'm just as concerned about the mice and the rats that are used in the labs or the chickens [raised on factory farms for food] as I am concerned about the whales. They're all equally important,'' Van Valkenburg says.

Once limited to a small cadre of activists, the animal rights movement is becoming larger and more diversified.

``Tremendous gains have been made in the last five years,'' Van Valkenburg says. ``A number of states have passed pound seizure laws [to keep pound animals from being sold to laboratories for experimentation], and more and more people are aware of the suffering of animals in laboratories from things like cosmetics testing, and they're making a choice not to purchase those [products] that are tested on animals.''

Van Valkenburg recently organized a group of 30 volunteers during World Week for Laboratory Animals. Dressed in huge bunny suits, the volunteers took to the streets of Boston (with some ``human companions'') to hand out information about laboratory animals.

One of the pamphlets they handed out was a wallet-size ``cruelty-free shopping guide'' which lists makers of health, beauty, and household products which do not use animal testing. These products, made by about 150 relatively small manufacturers, are made from ingredients already known to be safe.

Animal testing for cosmetics is not the innocous process that people often suppose it is. The two most commonly used tests, the LD-50 acute toxicity test and the Draize eye irritancy test, have been the targets of anti-vivisection groups for years.

The LD-50, which stands for Lethal Dose 50%, is the amount of a substance that will kill half of a test group of animals within a specified time period.

In the Draize test, chemical mixtures and other substances are applied directly to the eyes of restrained rabbits, whose sensitive eye tissues make the resulting damage easy to observe.

Although alternative tests are available - at least 19 - many manufacturers continue to use tests that blind and kill laboratory animals every time a new line of cosmetics is introduced or ``improved.''

While NEAVS focuses almost entirely on anti-vivisection, there are many other animal rights groups, such as the Coalition to End Animal Suffering (CEASE), which covers the whole range of animal rights issues.

Evelyn Kimber, a volunteer who has worked closely with CEASE and other groups for the last four years, is concerned about the state of society, both for humans and animals.

``There isn't a person who reads the newspaper who can't see that the world is in a very serious situation.

``I see our attitude toward nature and our respect for all forms of life and species and the natural world as being very closely aligned with the way we treat each other.''

Ms. Kimber works closely with the public in her work with various animal rights groups. She organizes demonstrations such as the Great American Meatout and World Farm Animal Day.

Kimber also works with the news media in order to reach the public in ways that will interest people in animal rights.

``Public education really is of tremendous value, because people simply aren't aware of what's happening,'' she says emphatically.

``And the media can play such an important role in that because they can reach a large number of people at the same time.... We can do outreach tables at fairs and shows and on street corners, and reach hundreds ... of people in a weekend, but the media can reach a half a million, or a million or more.

``So bringing these issues to public consciousness is primary, and then helping that consciousness be exerted through the legislature.''

Once people become interested in animal issues, there are many ways to be involved in the movement. Becoming a volunteer is one. But just being aware of the issues is also important.

A ``change of life style is a really big thing - what you buy at the market, what you choose to eat, what you choose to wear,'' Van Valkenburg stresses, but ``just being informed is the biggest part.''

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