The animal advocacy movement (AAM)1 has been around in many Western countries for at least the past four decades. But only for the last two decades or so has this new social movement started to emerge in contexts where the entire civil society and citizen activism are relatively recent phenomena, such as in post-socialist and post-Soviet Europe. Thus far, animal advocacy activism has remained virtually unstudied in this part of the world.
In this article, I focus on the AAM in the three Baltic countries formerly part of Soviet Union, but part of EU since 2004: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I am interested in the membership and inclusivity of the movement: is it equally accessible to all social groups and if not, who gets excluded and what are some barriers to participation? I discuss participation in the AAM in terms of social categories such as gender, ethnicity and class – as well as their intersections.
The issue of who participates in the animal advocacy movement is significant. It has implications for spread of the movement, and its capacity to promote not only animal liberation, but also a wider intersectional agenda of social justice
In discussing these questions, I draw on interviews conducted in 2015 with 15 key animal advocacy activists in these three countries.
Gender, Race, Class and the Animal Advocacy Movement
If we are to make the AAM more inclusive, it is vital for us to first understand why it remains such an exclusive club.
Exclusions, privilege and inequalities have been studied previously in relation to the animal advocacy and vegan movements,2 primarily in the North American context. For example, it has been pointed out that these movements in the West are overwhelmingly white and middle-class, consisting mostly of privileged individuals in terms of these categories.3
Also, gender has been examined in the context of the AAM.4 While proportionally more women than men participate, vertical segregation is present, with men often occupying the highest and most visible positions in the movement. While women outnumber men in the AAM, this has not always resulted in gender sensitivity. PETA – one of the most visible organizations in the AAM – often uses sexist advertising. This undermines basic gender equality goals.5
These largely unexamined privileges based on gender, class and race in the AAM hinder its ability to include less privileged activists of various backgrounds as well as its capacity for coalition building with other social justice movements.
These exclusions do not usually result from intentional activities by members of the AAM, such as their individual biases towards some individuals and groups, but have to do more with structural obstacles that prevent certain social groups and communities from joining (for example, structural discrimination based on gender, race, class and other categories; cultural traditions; geographical location). Nevertheless, the low awareness of more privileged members of the AAM on these issues needs to be critically reflected on, as the inaccessibility of the movement to some groups is detrimental to its capacity to end human-caused animal suffering.
AAM in the Baltics and Participation
The emergence and development of the AAM in the Baltics should be understood in the context of profound social and political transformations that the three countries underwent since the late 1980s.
In much of Eastern and Central Europe, social movements could only emerge after the collapse of the socialist regimes, at the beginning of the 1990s. Partly due to the Soviet socialist legacy, civil society activism in this region is still comparatively weak today. Radical social movements such as the feminist, LGBT, anarchist or anti-capitalist movements – which would help to pave way for the AAM – are virtually absent or rather weak.
The AAM saw its beginnings in the three Baltic countries only in the early 2000s. Despite still relatively small numbers of activists, the movement is rather visible and vocal today. This may be in has part due to the smallness of the Baltic societies. Here, populations range between 1.3 million in Estonia to 2.9 million in Lithuania. This has perhaps helped the AAM to get coverage in the mainstream media. Today, in total, five animal advocacy organizations work in the Baltics – all with minimal funding and mostly on a voluntary basis.
Baltic animal activists share a familiar profile: they are typically educated, urban, young, white, ethnic-majority women.6 Often, both implicitly and implicitly, the messaging of animal organizations in the Baltics is also directed at this demographic. This has to do with the (perceived) ease of reaching audiences that are similar to one’s own profile, as well as some other reasons I will discuss below.
Baltic activists characterize the context where they work as socially conservative. They identify this as a major challenge to their activist work. Since the early 1990s conservative, right-leaning nationalists have dominated politics in the three Baltic countries. To this day, serious critique of capitalism is virtually absent (even among academic researchers). Any idea that is remotely associated with socialism is often considered tainted, and treated with contempt and scorn. Most people consider lassez-faire capitalism as the only possible course of development for these societies.
In the following sections, I examine four categories based on which exclusion and inclusion predominantly occurs in the AAM in Baltic countries: gender, ethnicity, age and class. Others, such as education, able-bodiedness and sexual orientation, while certainly important to consider, remain outside the scope of this discussion. I will first look at each of these categories individually, before examining some important intersections. Throughout this, I will highlight how the Baltics compare to Western contexts.
All Baltic countries exhibit major gender gaps in several domains of life, more so than the EU average. In the European Union Gender Equality Index, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are located in the lower half of the scale, along with other former socialist EU member states.7
Traditional notions of gender are still widely present, particularly among older generations. For example, traditional anti-egalitarian masculine identities are prevalent and paid work is the primary source of identity for most men in Estonia.8
Work in the civil society is underpaid and undervalued the world over, but particularly here in the AAM in the Baltics, where women do the bulk of voluntary work. As men are still often seen in the role of a breadwinner, low paid or volunteer work in the NGO work does not generally attract men to the AAM.
Gendered socialization encourages girls to be more empathic. This is among the key reasons why more women than men become involved in animal activism. The recruitment of new members of one Baltic animal advocacy organization takes this gendered picture into account in their communication and recruitment of new members, as two key activists from this organization explain:
In our organization, we rather focus on the female audience, because it is easier to get them on board. Directing all resources towards young women makes sense, because young people are generally more open to change, plus women are more emotional. As a result you might have 100 new vegans, so you achieve a better impact on animals.
If you look at our Facebook page, you’ll find quite a lot of cute animal videos along with cute messages. These are directed at women and young people mostly. If you look at our Facebook statistics, 85% of our followers are women, who like our Facebook posts. This tells you a lot. It is overwhelmingly women who take interest in this topic.9
These ideas follow particular implicit assumptions about gender. In trying to reach more people with animal justice messages, activists risk reproducing gender norms. This might at the same time discourage some groups, such as feminists, to join the movement. For example, as this organization is currently thinking how to reach male audiences, there is a danger to reproduce traditional masculinity and stereotypical understandings of what it means to be a man, as one of these activists also pointed out.
The biggest ethnic minority in all Baltic countries are Russians, who arrived after WWII as a result of the Soviet repopulation policy. Integration of Russian-speakers in the Baltic countries has not been entirely successful and ethnic tensions linger to this day. Today, Russian-speakers constitute around a quarter of the population in Estonia and Latvia, and less than 10% in Lithuania. Yet, despite these large numbers, Russian-speaking people are virtually absent from animal activist communities in these countries.
They face some similar barriers that affect people of color in many Western countries, such as in the US: marginalization due to a stigmatized racial or ethnic identity position and/or citizenship status constitute structural obstacles that often prevent many from taking action on behalf of animals. For example, nearly 20% of Russians in Estonia do not have Estonian citizenship, or indeed the citizenship of any country. The same problem is present in Latvia. The fact that white and ethnic majority groups do not have to deal with the negative consequences of racial or ethnic discrimination and issues related to equal citizenship rights makes it easier for them to devote their efforts towards helping animals. This is often a privilege that remains unnoticed to those who enjoy it.
Also, reasons include lack of other animal activists or vegans (as role models) in minority communities and poor availability of vegan options – for example, Russian-speakers in Estonia are concentrated in Eastern Estonia and in parts of Tallinn and other cities which have very limited vegan options when eating out.
Barriers of language and access to information are also important. While most young Russians are fluent in the official state languages, their parents and grandparents are less so. Many receive most of their information through Russian state media. This, exacerbated by spatial segregation in many cases, leaves them in an information desert, which prevents them from learning about local actions on behalf of animals.
The interviewed activists did consider the lack of Russian-speakers in the movement a problem, but offered few ideas on how to include them. Thus far, they have not made particular efforts to reach out to these communities, other than occasionally publishing information materials in the Russian language.
However, activists display sensitivity around marginalizing Russians-speakers further, in a key animal justice issue in the Baltic states today that could easily be ethnicized – the question of animal circuses:
And you know, the problem is, as you said, mainly Russian people go to the circus. And if you [demonize them for this], they just continue going there, so… And you would disconnect from the Russian-speaking population forever. They would never listen to whatever you would say from that point on.
While not generally participating in other causes beyond animal justice, activists are mindful not to directly cause further injustice or inequality with their activities.
The Baltic societies are currently experiencing the coming of age only of the first generations of young people who were born after these countries re-gained independence in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Particularly for older generations, the memories of living under a totalitarian regime are still well alive and shape their behavior as citizens today. Freely organized citizen activism was impossible in the Soviet Union. This partly explains why the phenomena of activism and protest culture in the Baltic societies today are often misunderstood and frowned upon, particularly by older generations (indeed, animal activists are among the few groups who regularly hold public protests).
An apt explanation is offered by Císař, who argues that in the post-independence Eastern Europe, “political freedoms acquired in the new democratic regimes were not viewed as an opportunity to finally express genuine social needs, but as an opportunity not to participate at all. For post-Communist citizens, freedom literally meant the liberal notion of ‘freedom from politics’, not a republican concept of freedom to ‘take part in politics’”11. In the Baltics, these neoliberal ideals of negative freedom have been embraced.
Another issue between the generation gap in participation has to do with the availability of information accessible to older generations regarding animal justice and veganism. Due to the fact that younger generations in the Baltics are fluent in English and the smallness of the countries, information on the social media is often shared in English, besides in local languages.
Animal advocacy organizations in the Baltics have thus far largely excluded older generations from their targeted communication.
Out of the social categories I discuss here, class is perhaps the most curious and complex one in the Baltic context. This has largely to do with the legacy of the Soviet era, where the class system present prior to occupation was obliterated.
Socio-economic inequalities are rife and increasing in the Baltic societies today. For example, Estonia is one of the most unequal societies in Europe; yet talking about inequality here is unpopular.12 Most of the population has adopted a neoliberal logic, which largely dismisses structural inequalities. The marginalization of the public discourse on class in post-socialist societies makes it difficult for the most economically vulnerable segments of the population “to resist the extreme market-oriented policies”13. Divisions in the Baltic countries are seen primarily along ethnic lines. Thus, paradoxically, despite increasing socio-economic divides which started to emerge since post-independence, we still think of ourselves as “classless” societies.
Not surprisingly, key animal activists do not highlight class or economic factors as barriers to participation. This might also have to do with the vulnerable position of most activists themselves in this respect. Interestingly, most participants in the AAM come from backgrounds that are far from affluent – if anything, many grapple with economic insecurity themselves. For example, most key activists hold full-time “day jobs” elsewhere, which in some cases also involve unskilled work. However, the opportunity to engage in animal activism in their free time is facilitated by these activists being privileged in terms of other social divisions – they are young, members of ethnic-majority, educated, internet-savvy, fluent in English, and live predominantly in urban areas (some might receive economic support from their parents). However, many less privileged people, might not afford to spend extra time and effort to become involved in animal activism or even go vegan. This is particularly evident with Russian-speakers in rural areas where information and vegan products tend to be difficult to access and no animal advocacy organizations are present.
Intersections and Interlinked Oppressions
When considering the accessibility of the animal advocacy movement to people based on the categories discussed above, it is clear that those at particular, often disadvantaged, intersections are left out. A good example is older, economically deprived Russian-speakers living in spatially segregated areas.
Thus far, I have been discussing structural barriers to participation in the AAM. It must also be considered that on the other side of the coin, are some privileged groups, such as affluent, urban, ethnic majority men, who lack these barriers, but nevertheless are overwhelmingly not part of the AAM, and whose lifestyles contribute most to perpetuating animal exploitation.
To better achieve actual impact on the material conditions of animals and to promote fundamental institutional reforms to change the way we treat other animals, widespread public support is needed, from various segments of the society. Membership within the AAM also reflects profound social inequalities in the Baltics. Hence, it is important for activists and animal advocacy organizations to understand these dynamics of participation and pay attention to structural inequalities if they are to make a meaningful impact on the lives of animals.
Ultimately, this involves understanding the interlinked nature of all forms of oppression. For example, ecofeminism scholars have demonstrated important links between the exploitation of women and animals in the patriarchal capitalist system and argue that animal justice should be seen as a feminist issue.14 It is also important for animal activists to consider ways in which not only animals but also the most marginalized human groups, such as slaughterhouse workers, suffer more than most in the animal-industrial complex.
A broader intersectional agenda is needed to end violence and oppression towards animals and humans. Hence, the paradigm of total liberation, which involves “an ethic of justice and anti-oppression for people, nonhuman animals, and ecosystems”15 should be the ultimate aim of activist work.
However, putting this idea into practice has proved to be a difficult task, as the experiences of the Baltic animal activists suggest. While most are well aware of some of the key dimensions of exclusion of the movement and while their own personal views support total liberation as an ethical ideal, they are hesitant to put this in practice. Instead, organizational strategies are oriented towards narrowly focusing on animal-related issues and single-issue campaigns, avoiding joining other social justice causes. As one activist explains:
If you communicate one message to someone, then they either agree with it or not. But if you communicate lets say three or four… for example, animal rights, feminism, racism and anti-capitalism…and if they disagree with at least one of them, then there is a big chance that they will refuse your leaflet. They do not take the message so openly. So therefore, I tend to think that in the public communication it does not make sense to bring in different aspects, just because this can be ineffective.
Activists perceive the generally socially conservative sentiments in the Baltic societies as major obstacles to link the struggles against various forms of oppression, at least in their public communication. Also, dealing with other causes is seen as a difficult task, given the limited numbers of animal activists and scarce financial resources for animal advocacy in the Baltic countries.
These obstacles which activists experience daily in their work, are certainly very serious. Yet, in the long term, in order to advance the agenda of total liberation, we must find ways how to transcend animal issues and show solidarity with other struggles.
There is an urgent need for all activists, not only in the animal liberation movement, to understand the interrelated nature of all oppressions and build intersectional coalitions16 with other groups battling oppression. This includes reaching out to those positioned differently from us as well as critically reflecting on our own privilege.
Some of my ideas here are based on and inspired by my collaboration with Nick Pendergrast in co-writing a paper on intersectionality and the animal advocacy movement. Also, I am indebted to Kristina Mering who helped to conduct interviews with the Baltic animal activists.
- Other terms, such as “animal rights movement” or “animal liberation movement” are used to denote activism on behalf of other animals. I use “animal advocacy movement” here to encompass various forms of such activism, as not all strands are operating within a rights-based framework. I also use the AAM here as an umbrella term encompassing various individuals and groups (often working from diverse perspectives and holding conflicting views) working towards animal justice.
- While these two movements are in many ways distinct in terms of their focus, strategies and activities, there are also important similarities. As the Baltic societies are small and activism on behalf of animals is relatively new; vegan and animal advocacy activism are often conducted together, by same individuals and organizations. As boundaries between the two strands of activism are blurred, I often discuss these together here.
- See for example Harper, B. “Race as a ‘Feeble Matter’ in Veganism: Interrogating Whiteness, Geopolitical Privilege, and Consumption Philosophy of “Cruelty-Free” Products”, Journal for Critical Animal Studies, 8(3), 5-27, 2010; Nocella, A. “Challenging Whiteness in the Animal Advocacy Movement”, Journal for Critical Animal Studies, 10(1), 142-152, 2012
- See, for example Gaarder, E. Women and the Animal Rights Movement, New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press 2011
- Glasser, C. L. “Tied Oppressions: An Analysis of How Sexist Imagery Reinforces Speciesist Sentiment”, The Brock Review, 12(1), 51-68, 2011
- No statistical information is available on the exact composition of the movement in terms of these demographics. This analysis is based on my observations and experience as a long-time activist in the Estonian animal advocacy movement.
- European Gender Equality Index. <http://eige.europa.eu/gender-statistics/gender-equality-index> 2012
- Pajumets, M. Post-socialist masculinities, identity work, and social change: an analysis of discursive (re)constructions of gender identity in novel social situations. Doctoral dissertation, Tallinn University 2012
- Quotes in this article are from activist interviews in Baltic States 2015. For purposes of discretion, activists are not identified. Interviews on file with author.
- Baltic countries have very small numbers of new migrants, including migrants of color. Therefore, my focus here is on the Russian-speaking minority and on the category of ethnicity, not race.
- Císař, O. “Post-Communism and Social Movements”, In D. Snow, D. della Porta, B. Klandermans, and D. McAdam (Eds), Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements, Vol 3, p. 994-999, London: Blackwell 2013
- Helemäe, J; Saar, E. “Estonia – Highly Unequal but Classless?” Studies of Transition States and Societies, 4(2), p 49−58, 2012
- ibid, p 49
- There is a rich modern literature on animal liberation, veganism and feminism; see Gaard, G. “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay”, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 23(3), p 117-146, 2002; Adams, C. The Sexual Politics of Meat. A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Continuum: New York, London, 1990; Donovan, J. “Animal Rights and Feminist Theory”, Signs, 15(2), p 350-375, 1990; Kemmerer, L. Sister Species: Women, Animals and Social Justice, University of Illinois Press: Urbana, Chicago, Springfield, 2011; Kheel, M. (2004). “Vegetarianism and Ecofeminism: Toppling Patriarchy with a Fork”, in Sapontzis, S. F. (Ed.). Food for Thought: The Debate Over Eating Meat p 327–341 Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004; Kheel, M. Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008; Glasser, C. L. “Tied Oppressions: An Analysis of How Sexist Imagery Reinforces Speciesist Sentiment”, The Brock Review, 12(1), p 51-68, 2011.
- Pellow, D., Brehm, H. “From the New Ecological Paradigm to Total Liberation: The Emergence of a Social Movement Frame”, The Sociological Quarterly (56) p 185-212, 2015
- Hancock, A-M. Solidarity Politics for Millennials. A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011