Animal Rights Activism in Sobriety
Fighting injustice while living by the principles of the Serenity Prayer can be a fine line to tread, I've found.
Before I got sober, I was educated by a friend about the unspeakable suffering of animals in the food, clothing, entertainment and medical research industries. The more I learned about the pain they endure, the more I felt pain myself. Sometimes I felt like I couldn't bear to live in a world where animal suffering was so rampant. Drinking helped shut those images out of my mind.
When I got sober and became functional professionally, I managed to land a dream job at a well-known non-profit animal rights organization. I worked as a shelter caseworker, trying to improve animal shelters and provide support and guidance to shelters across the country, along with educating the public about the companion animal overpopulation crisis and the need for spaying and neutering of these animals. Every day I was faced with graphic testimonies and images of animal suffering. Yet I didn't drink anymore, so I carried these images with me. Sometimes it was impossible to sleep at night after what I had seen that day at work.
I discovered that there were several staff members at the organization who were recovering alcoholics. Most of them had stopped going to meetings and participating in AA because they could no longer believe in a benevolent Higher Power watching over them after seeing all the pain so many animals endure. How could God allow this suffering of innocent creatures? For a while I tried to do my job and attend AA, but as the years went by, I began to understand how these colleagues felt.
Yet I try not to judge those who do not change their behavior. I no longer yell at people wearing fur, particularly not in AA settings. That's not what we are here for in meetings.
Part of working at this activist group involved getting arrested for civil disobedience protesting animal abuse. I was first arrested by US Marshals as part of a sit-in at the Department of Agriculture, protesting DOA subsidies to pig farmers. We received some media attention for chaining ourselves to each other by the neck with bicycle locks. This publicity mainly was in the form of small articles in the back-pages of newspapers.
I was also arrested for a “boutique blitz” at Dolce and Gabana, protesting the designer's use of fur. Three of us entered the boutique, handcuffed ourselves to each other to make extraction more difficult, and smeared red paint on the window and on our donated fur coats, chanting “Fur on your back; blood on your hands.” After dragging us out of the showroom, we were taken to New York City's Central Booking and processed like everyone else arrested for a crime. In a moment of levity, some of the men being processed alongside us marveled at this unusual sight: women in fur coats covered with what looked like blood.
“Yo, those rich bitches fucked somebody up!” They said. This action led to five days of cleaning up cigarette butts and used condoms in Tompkins Square Park wearing orange vests that screamed “Criminal.” Unfortunately, there was very little media coverage of the protest.
I began to wonder: had I really changed anyone's behavior by putting myself in legal danger? Would anyone stop eating pork after reading about the DOA arrest? Stop wearing fur after seeing a blurb on Fox News about the Dolce and Gabana protest? What had I really accomplished, other than getting a permanent criminal record?
I tried to apply the Serenity Prayer to this issue of animal rights.
"God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change." Animals are abused and tortured in factory farms, yet people continue to eat meat. Elephants are beaten and chained into submission in circuses, yet people continue to take their kids to see these shows. Primates are caged and tortured in medical research labs, yet these vivisectors continue to get grant money to fund the abuse. Millions of unwanted animals die in shelters every year, yet people continue to breed dogs and cats.
"The courage to change the things I can." Can I convince people to stop eating meat? Can I educate people about animals suffering in circuses, and convince them to boycott animal acts? Can I facilitate the end of the use of primates in medical research? Can I open people's eyes to the companion animal overpopulation crisis and stop the breeding of dogs and cats?
"And the wisdom to know the difference." That's the crux of it. I am still searching to find this wisdom. What if abolitionists had “accepted” slavery and had not tried to change the laws allowing this suffering? What if suffragettes had “accepted” the second class citizenship of women? What if civil rights activists had “accepted” segregation?
Yet trying to change people's behavior flies in the face of AA teachings. I have learned in AA and Alanon that I am powerless over alcohol, but also over people, places and things. As one member said in a meeting recently, “I am powerless over anything outside my hula hoop.”
So what is the answer? Well, like my colleagues at the animal rights organization, for a while I tried to put the fellowships of AA and Alanon on a shelf and focus on trying to change the world. I stopped going to meetings. And like so many before me who have tried to “graduate” from AA, I drank.
Thankfully I am sober again, but I no longer work professionally as an animal rights activist. I am still searching for that “wisdom to know the difference.”
Just how do I “Live and Let Live?” I try to make compassionate choices in what I eat, wear, the entertainment I enjoy, and the medical research I support. If people are interested in why I make these cruelty-free choices, I share what I know about animal suffering. Yet I try not to judge those who do not change their behavior. I no longer yell at people wearing fur, particularly not in AA settings. That's not what we are here for in meetings. I live my life the best way I know how in the light of what I know about animal abuse. I try to commit myself to the belief that everything that happens to me, to my family and friends, and even to the animals of the world, happens for a reason, although I can't understand why.
And I continue to say that Serenity Prayer. Perhaps, someday, I really will have that wisdom to know the difference between what I can and cannot change when it comes to animal rights. I do know that the only way I am going to succeed at anything in this life, including educating people about animal rights, is if I stay sober.
Sadie Long is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about bipolar disorder.