The Armchair Activist, Revisited.


In the early 1980s, I met a very interesting woman named Margaret Asproyerakas.   We had been recruited —as volunteer organizers, to recruit other activist to  protest at several Regional  Primate Centers.  We were protesting cruel treatment of animals,and, in our case, the experiments of Harry Harlow (& in fact, they keep replicating these horrible ‘experiments’) but the movement  brought together a disparate group of people with  varying concerns:  treatment of animals in zoos, circuses, rodeos,  factory farms, animals being bred for fur,  people concerned about the environment and habitat loss, animals being captured (and bred) for the pet trade,  the steel jaw leg-hold trap used by hunters, and  product (and medical drug) testing on animals.  In the end, we got about 5000 people to each of the regional primate  centers to protest.  Hardly successful at all, but  it at least got us in contact with each other, so we could help each other.

Remember, this was the early 1980s.  Before the internet.  Successes?  It  became gauche to wear fur, many companies stopped testing products on animals and started promoting themselves as ‘cruelty free’.  Zoos started  addressing  the stress of their  inmates, and finally, in 2014, many zoos are no longer keeping elephants if they can’t keep a social  group.

No, we haven’t affected Sea World or the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and puppies  are still being bred like livestock.  People in developed countries are more aware, however, and we  don’t seem to be as radical as we once appeared to be.  I remember in the early 1990s, I was on public transportation, and I had a button that said  “Dolphin Safe Tuna” on my bag that Starkist was handing out.  Someone asked me, “Do you think it’s really Dolphin safe?”    “I am not sure”  I replied, ” But  this is a response to is all the regular folks, housewives, kids, just people, contacting the company.  We made an impact. They know it is an important issue to us.”

Margaret had an idea for a brochure. It would be printed on an 8.5 x 11 ” piece of paper, on both sides, that could be folded over and stapled together.  It was just 12 little pages. Now,  this was the days before laptop computers as well, so I suggested that we get all the ideas together and type them out, and then put them together.  Margaret did copy right it (1984), but she wanted it to be simple enough for any animal welfare group to copy.

The first page—the cover, was a little cartoon of a bird, a dog, and a cat  around an armchair, with some  copy that   said: “Animal rights activists disable pirate whaling ships, liberate animals from laboratories, disrupt annual baby seal hunts, airlift burros from the Grand Canyon…as much as we may want to help, there may be no way for us to participate in these forms of activism. So…presenting ARMCHAIR ACTIVIST  Easy, inexpensive, close-to-home ways to make a positive difference for animals.”

We left page 2 blank, so any group could copy the brochure and  put information about themselves on that page.  On actual page 1, we started our ideas.  We called it “A penny for your thoughts”: We suggested contacting local animal shelters to find out what they felt was important, and learn from the national groups what  their issues were—and to write letters.  We encouraged  people to write their elected officials as well. These days, it is so easy to email, but back then, we encouraged the sending of  postcards—especially if you were writing the head of a company,  With a postcard, not only did you NOT have to look for an envelope, it forced you to be concise, and every one from the people in the mail room to the CEO’s  secretary would see it and be affected.  This had a huge impact on so many companies.  It still does.  Now we also have Change.org and The  petition site—and  it is so much easier.

We told people to put their 2c in, and when they saw something to say something:

to zoos with  jail like ‘habitats; circuses  which promoted unnatural behaviors and very confined housing;  rodeos;  street fairs that offered pony rides and petting zoos, or allowed  giving away of pet animals;  carriage horses—having to work in terrible heat and cold, in very stressful traffic conditions (I mean, how  romantic is that?), cattle trucks;  live poultry markets; dogs tied up outside stores or left in  parked cars (always an issue…still…), pet shops;  school science classes that demanded experimentation on live animals, including frogs and guinea pigs; initiation rites (swallowing goldfish).

We asked people to check hardware stores to  request they not sell steel jaw leg-hold traps, or glue traps  for mice.  We encouraged people to keep prestamped postcards to  write to sponsors of TV shows that  made light of animal suffering.  We protested  sweepstakes that gave away fur coats ( how many of you  remember Bob Barker on The Price is Right?  Not only would he not be a party to giving  away furs, he ended the show by saying, “Please spay or neuter your pet!”  That became part of Drew Carey’s  contract with the show as well).

We asked people to monitor the classified ads in the Sunday papers and call  people who  offered free puppies and kittens (these days, I would ask you to flag the idiots  who post on Craigslist—they post in pets , farm & garden, & general for sale).  Free pets generally end up either being neglected or  tortured…still. The person who won’t go to an animal shelter & pay the fee—which  generally includes shots & neutering, will also balk at paying for veterinary care and even  dog food.

We encouraged people to watch the editorial pages of local papers, and challenge inaccurate information.  Keep in mind  that many localities in the US still ban Pit Bulls—when  Pits are not the problem—the owners are ( see Malcolm Gladwell’s essay, “Troublemakers”).

We encouraged people to SPREAD THE WORD:  to ask local clergy to address compassion towards animals, or offer to speak to your own congregation, or  boy or girl scouts, or a classroom.  Some newspapers allow people to  post free personal ads, and we encouraged people to  advise pet owners to spay or neuter their pets.  We asked people to order  brochures on these topics , or make up their own, and post them on public bulletin boards. We encouraged  people to  volunteer their time and talents, either directly working with animals or offering to do administrative, book keeping, or fundraising  help for animal shelters .We encouraged  people to make donations-in-kind (shelters always need  towels, blankets, paper towels,  pet toys, collars and leashes…and can sell whatever they don’t use).

We encouraged people to make crafts, design t-shirts and bumper stickers, and offer to pay for these things. These days,  many people may not be able to permanently keep a pet, but they might help with fostering.  In Chicago, we have volunteers  who play with and even train many  ‘court case dogs’.  These are dogs taken as evidence when  a defendant  doesn’t want to sign over, so the dog is in the city pound as long as the case is active.  Continuances can go on for years.  That’s a terribly long time for a formerly pet dog  to sit in what should be a temporary boarding situation.  Very stressful. We got court permission to exercise these dogs and prepared them for a life  in a home if a judge decided a defendant could not get his dog back.

Margaret’s book was a forerunner to the very popular 50 things you can do to save the earth.  We didn’t address recycling in our brochure, or keeping the size of your birth family small if you decided to have children, but those are 2 more things you can do if you want to help animals.  Recycle your material trash, compost of veggies scraps, cut your  meat (animal) intake and go vegetarian—start 2 days a week.  Go go the Greater Good Animal Rescue site & sign up to do the daily clicks to fund shelters and projects.  It costs nothing.

Now, with social media, more  people are aware of all these ways of changing what is wrong.  I hope you will copy this and share this with friends when they tell you they wish they could ‘do something’.

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