Animal Advocacy

The animal advocacy movement has won significant progress on behalf of animals. Achievements by animal welfare organizations include the development of alternatives to many forms of whole-animal testing, successful voter referendums, and the creation of statewide feral cat and low-income sterilization programs.


Animal Advocacy can be defined in terms of both its substantive and strategic aims.

Substantively, Animal Advocacy has ranged from an “animal welfarist” or “reformist” approach emphasizing gradual improvements in animal care and a reduction of animal suffering, to an “animal rights” approach promoting wholesale change including the protection of animals from being used or regarded as property by human beings (Encylcopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare; Briefing Paper: Animal Ethics).  The latter, “abolitionist” position

argues on behalf of ending human practices that routinely utilize nonhuman animals (for example, as a source of food or as models in scientific research).  A reformist position accepts these institutions in principle but seeks in various ways to improve them in practice (for example, by enlarging cage sizes for animals used in research) (Defending Animal Rights). 

Strategies to effect change equally fall on a continuum.  Historically, animal welfare-oriented organizations have tended to be charities, their lobbying expenditures and activities limited by federal and state law. In particular, their advocacy initiatives must be issue-based and may not include efforts to influence electoral outcomes (i.e., “electioneering”) (Get Political for Animals and Win the Laws They Need).  Such limitations on electioneering activity apply equally to those charities with an animal rights, as opposed to animal welfarist, bent. 

Animal welfare- and animal rights-oriented charities have also increasingly turned to litigation as an important component of their strategic repertoire.

Significantly, some animal welfare and animal rights advocates have recently chosen to establish organizations that forego the tax benefits accorded issue-oriented charities in order to impact the electoral process – and ultimately law-making and enforcement – through candidate endorsements and the promotion of individual legislative campaigns. 

Other animal rights proponents – both organizations and individuals – have also pursued their objectives outside legal norms and structures, resulting in blowback from government at the state and federal levels. For example, in 2006, President Bush signed the much-criticized federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which, among other things, criminalizes traveling in interstate commerce “for the purpose of…interfering” with the operations of an animal enterprise, and “in connection with this purpose,” damaging “real or personal property…used by an animal enterprise” or belonging to a “person or animal enterprise having a connection to, relationship with, or transactions with an animal enterprise.”  AETA also imposes significant criminal penalties (even where there is little or no property damage). (Green is the New Red)

Historic Roots

Animal advocacy emerged as a social movement in early 18th century England.  Over time, membership has transcended class, but economically privileged, politically influential individuals have also traditionally been enlisted in support, or have led the charge (Encylcopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare). 

Early movement efforts had varying success.  For example, despite the involvement of individuals prominent in law, government, and the church, as well as highly publicized 19th century exposes of animal experimentation, advances in infectious disease prevention and treatment “effectively killed public support for antivivisectionism until late in the 20th century.”  By contrast, the 19th century humane movement enjoyed victories such as the institution of laws to protect domesticated and captive exotic animals from cruelty, as well as the formation of entities to enforce these laws, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in England and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York (Encylcopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare).  The prominent New York philanthropist and diplomat Henry Bergh also oversaw the formation of SPCAs in other parts of the United States, each of which was independent in its organization, finances, and functions – a quality that “likely simplified the rapid organization and spread of the effort to protect animals” but “also likely contributed to the confusion and lack of consistency often seen in the enforcement of animal cruelty laws” (Kindness Crosses the Hudson).

An “upsurge in animal-related activism that rivaled 19th century efforts” occurred in the wake of the 1975 publication of Animal Liberation by Australian philosopher and animal rights advocate Peter Singer.  Considered the “bible of the modern animal rights movement,” Animal Liberation “advocate[d] for equal consideration of interests” (Briefing Paper: Animal Ethics), terming the human exploitation of other animals “specieism.”  Singer’s ideas “found a receptive audience,” prompting large donations to existing organizations and the formation of new organizations such as “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which grew from 25 to 250,000 members during the 1980s” (Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Welfare).  The activism of Henry Spira (discussed below) was also deeply influenced by Singer’s philosophy (New York Times).


The animal advocacy movement has won significant progress on behalf of animals.  In addition to the early successes noted above, more recent achievements by animal welfare organizations include the development of alternatives to many forms of whole-animal testing, a consequence of the momentum created by Henry Spira’s Coalition to Abolish the Draize test (Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare);  successful voter referendums spearheaded by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Farm Sanctuary to prohibit veal crates and sow gestation crates; and the creation of statewide feral cat and low-income animal sterilization programs.

At the same time, growing recognition of the benefits of electioneering has resulted in the emergence of organizations interested primarily in working to install animal-friendly officials at all levels of local, state, and federal government.

Going forward, the animal advocacy movement faces many substantive and strategic challenges and opportunities.  On one hand, there is an expanding market for animal-derived products in developing countries where regulation of animal use is also nonexistent; continued ambivalence, at best, in many other quarters regarding animal use; increasing human encroachment on animals’ habitats; and a highly organized animal use lobby.  At the same time, there is mounting acknowledgement of the sentience of non-human beings, the power of the human-animal bond (Best Friends Kindness Index), and the humane, environmental, social, and health costs associated with various animal use industries; the scientific community’s growing interest in reducing animal use; and further, rising interest generally in animal advocacy, including the influencing of electoral outcomes. 

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Volunteerism has always been integral to the animal advocacy movement.  Historically, movement leadership was not professionalized, their efforts on behalf of animals sparked only by need and opportunity (e.g., Henry Bergh).  Today, although many organizations have extensive professional staffs, volunteer activists remain crucial both within leadership (especially among smaller organizations), and also at the grassroots level.  Indeed, a large, organized, and active grassroots is an animal welfare or animal rights group’s greatest leverage with local, state, and federal officials whose chief interest is the constituents in their respective districts (Get Political for Animals and Win the Laws They Need).  It is this lesson, in particular, that is being increasingly applied as more animal organizations work to sensitize officials to constituents’ animal-related concerns; mobilize memberships to vote with animals at the polls; and ultimately, elect officials who will feel politically compelled to institute animal-friendly laws, regulations, and policies.

Key Related Ideas

  • Constituent.  A person who resides in the political district of an elected official (Get Political for Animals and Win the Laws They Need).
  • Endorsement. A political organization’s official backing of a candidate instructing its members in the district to vote for that candidate (Get Political for Animals and Win the Laws They Need).
  • Interest group/grassroots interest group. A loose entity with common goals for laws and public policies that is politically organized around an interest or issue.  Examples are business and trade groups (e.g., pet industry, farm bureaus) and grassroots groups (e.g., hunters) (Get Political for Animals and Win the Laws They Need).
  • Lobbying. Communications intended to influence specific legislation.  A “direct lobbying” communication expresses a viewpoint on a specific piece of legislation and is made to a legislator, an employee of a legislative body, or any other government employee who may participate in the formulation of the legislation.  A “grassroots lobbying” communication expresses a viewpoint on a specific piece of legislation and encourages the public, other than the organization’s members, to contact legislators about the legislation.

    The amount of lobbying in which a nonprofit organization may engage depends on how the nonprofit is classified under the federal tax code:  501(c)(3) organizations (i.e., charities) may engage in a limited amount of lobbying; 501(c)(4) organizations may engage in an unlimited amount of lobbying and limited electioneering (permissible – candidate endorsements/scoring of officials’ records on the issues, impermissible – association with a particular campaign); and political organizations (PACs) may engage in unlimited electioneering and very limited lobbying (Alliance for Justice).
  • Political Action Committee (PAC). A political action committee, or PAC, is organized under section 527 of the federal tax code for the purpose of supporting or opposing candidates for office (Alliance for Justice). 

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) – 501(c)(3)
  • Best Friends Animal Society – 501(c)(3)  
  • Humane USA – PAC
  • League of Humane Voters – PAC
  • People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) – 501(c)(3)
  • The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) – 501(c)(3)

Related Web Sites

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Alliance for Justice.

Bekoff, M., ed. 1998. Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Bresch, D. and S. Zawistowski. August 2005. Kindness Crosses the Hudson: Another Look at the SPCA. New Jersey Lawyer. 235: 19-22.

Brown, A. Briefing Paper: Animal Ethics. Learning to
Green Is the New

Lewin, J. 2007. Get Political for Animals and Win the Laws They Need.  Connecticut: National Institute for Animal Advocacy.

New York Times. 1998. In Memoriam, September 15. On Animal Rights International.

Regan, T. 2001. Defending Animal Rights. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.