How I Became an Animal Rights Activist

The impulse was always there. Why hadn’t I noticed sooner? Years ago, at a New England whaling museum, hadn’t I been horrified at battle-worn harpoons spiraled into children’s scribbles? Wasn’t I sorry for the lobsters queued up at a Bar Harbor lobster pound, even as I anticipated eating one? Didn’t I consider my annual excursions to the Dutchess County Fair the most fun anybody could have? One year, an especially friendly milk cow licked me so thoroughly even my handbag was wet.

Suddenly, the reality and immensity of animals’ suffering at the hands of humans came crashing into my consciousness as forcefully as the floods of New Orleans. I couldn’t sleep at night thinking about factory farms, leg-hold traps, puppy mills – the list was endless. If you let your empathy neurons work overtime, you can become paralyzed with grief. To prevent going totally insane, as the budding animal rights activist in the film Year of the Dog briefly did, I decided to focus on the Canadian harp seal hunt. Conducted by a small group of fishermen in a limited geographic area, the hunt seemed like something that could, possibly, be stopped.

Many knew of the seal hunt from past decades, but too few realized that it was still going on. Pouring over my copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point like a law student studying for the Bar exam, I set out to distribute flyers from coast to coast. Once the facts were out, little ripples of interest would surely grow into great waves of indignation and, as Abe Lincoln said, “Public sentiment is everything.” Putting my fledgling copywriting and design skills to use, and with an enthusiasm reserved only for the naïve and uninitiated, I embarked on my plan.

The flyers were actually glossy cards, and I felt virtuous lugging the heavy box home from the printer through the quirky streets west of the Flatiron building. A humane organization’s website provided me with a list of demonstration leaders, and I sent out emails en masse. “Hello Activists!” Pressing the send button was akin to jumping out of a plane. There was no turning back.

Armed with stacks of my newly minted creation, I also hit the sidewalks of Manhattan, and approached everyone – big aloof muscular guys, preoccupied businessmen, elderly ladies in hats and jewelry clinging arm in arm, giggling teenagers. Some praised me and some cursed me. One young woman called me a liar. Another, flyer in hand, walked away looking stunned and wounded. I dismissed hurtful remarks and damaged psyches alike, secure in the worthiness of my purpose.

Meanwhile, requests for flyers started popping up on my computer screen from southern California, Albuquerque, Omaha, Austin, a small town in Georgia, Boston. “So this is how it feels to be subversive,” I thought on my way to the Post Office. Tipping point! One activist from across the country kept asking for more flyers. Every day I received her emails on the latest developments to end the killing of baby seals. When she wrote “their little souls in heaven are thanking you,” it was as if she could see a part of my soul. Sue kept me going.

My “audience” did too, regardless of the occasional rebuff, and many passersby stopped to engage me. I discussed whale hunting with an Australian man at a street fair in Chelsea, a young anarchist from Central America shook my hand in Times Square, a musician singing John Lennon songs came over to chat at the Imagine Circle in Central Park. The encounters were thrilling though, strangely, I also had the vague sense of being an impostor. Despite the authenticity of my mission, the role of activist seemed to make me both more and less myself. I loved the role. It allowed me to be fearless. Yet it also set me uncomfortably apart.

Recently, I witnessed a man walking his dog across a busy intersection. He tightened the leash to a chokehold, and the dog started yelping. Pandemonium ensued. Pedestrians called out in protest from all four corners. A head emerged out of the side window of a large truck stopped at the offending scene. “You leave that dog alone!” shouted the driver.

Most of us do care about animals when confronted with individual cases of cruelty. The key lies in translating that outrage into action on a larger scale. To do this the abstract must be made tangible and real. That’s where the resistance lies. Two years and four flyer designs later the annual seal hunt continues. I haven’t given up, and I am heartened by observing hundreds of people reading the flyer. Turn it over and you see the devastating numbers of baby seals that have been slaughtered – but on the cover is a picture of just one.

Alice Bruckenstein is an animal rights activist living in New York City. Her not-for-profit "Song for Canada’s Harp Seals," after over 9,000 views, was recently censored on YouTube, and she has created a petition to unflag the song. Read other articles by Alice.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on November 24th, 2008 at 9:38am #

    animals probably have feelings similar to ours or same. they even may believe in god(s); thus, may be henotheistic. and, most importantly, they have no mad priests nor the ‘holy’ books written by extremely deluded other animals/priests.
    thus no religious wars; no antihomosexuality, nuns.
    they all love humans. and all humans who r kind to them!
    also sprach zarathustra! thnx

  2. Wanda said on November 24th, 2008 at 4:43pm #

    The last time I checked the Canadian harp seal hunt was neither a conservation nor an animal welfare issue. It’s considered a worthy cause by the most extreme of animal rights nuts, and those who are gullible enough to believe that it is in fact either a conservation or an animal welfare issue.
    If you think it’s wrong to kill animals why don’t you start in the country you live in, the United States? Currently there are 10,000,000,000 animals killed commercially in the US each year to fulfill people’s needs. It’s all legal and well accepted by the American public. Is it easier to target people who have no voice in the politics or media of the US to defend them? I don’t think you are very compassionate if you think it’s ok to demonize people and destroy their livelihood because they are a “small group of fishermen in a limited geographic area”.

  3. fossil said on November 24th, 2008 at 4:50pm #

    OK. But just what do you propose to do about all the polar bears that slaughter seals, or all the wolves that slaughter caribou, or all the orcas that slaughter grey and sperm whales, or all the mink that (when released from ranches) slaughter whatever small creatures they can fin, or all the lions that slaughter zebras, or all the leopards that slaughter antelope, or all the sharks that slaughter damn near everything that comes within range–but why go on? All the pain and terror that happens everyday as a consequence of a complex biome on this planet dwarfs the “animal suffering” caused by humans. Moreover, the net result of “animal rights” daffiness is to intensify, somewhere down the line, pain, suffering, and death among fellow human beings. As a father whose child’s life was saved by years of medical research and innovation (doubtless involving the death of thousands of lab animnals), I find the ethical case for “animal rights” to be hollow and meretricious. It’s more a matter of self-ascribed moral “superiority” (for which, read egotistical arrogance) than any real concern with the evils of this world (which, as I have pointed out, will continue unabated even in the utter absence of human beings). The only serious question, then, is how animal rights trumpery has insinuated itself into the spectrum of left-wing orthodoxy. One would think that serious social activists would have more brains than to take this preening folly seriously.

  4. Neda said on November 24th, 2008 at 10:02pm #

    All animals live in harmony with nature except one. All animals kill out of instinct except for one, which kills often for ‘fun’. It kills other species as well as its own. It discriminates and rapes all it can. All animals experience suffering but only one has become lord over all on earth. Some choose to lord as executioners, others as stewards and keepers.

    If I am to choose a fate for other creatures, and I am in control of their destiny, I have one divine gift, free will; the knowledge between right and wrong. I choose be kind at every opportunity I can. Those who choose cruelty are the true beasts of this earth will reap the rewards of their own inequity in the end. No un-repented sin goes unpunished.

    And for those that experience misfortune, but had been cruel and inhumane at every turn in their life to others, should think before asking God why? What were they like when they were in charge of the welfare of others? Never seek kindness from others if you were so unwilling to grant it yourself.

    Well done Alice, you are doing the right thing!! Every little step counts. Don’t feel discouraged when those that do nothing criticize someone doing something. You are just making them feel their ineptitude. Even doing 1% is more than doing nothing…

    Every little step counts. Every little kindness counts. Think positive, you have many supporters everywhere…

  5. Tricia said on November 25th, 2008 at 1:24am #

    In response to Fossil, animals kill other animals by instinct, whereas humans have managed to devise diabolically ingenuous means to torture and kill others not of their species, animal research being a prominent example. At least animals kill quickly; animal “research” can go on for months and years. I doubt you know the details of the experiments animals suffered on your behalf and probably don’t want to. Also, I wouldn’t be too sure that animal research saved your child even though you were undoubtedly told that by the doctors and vivisectors who benefit from it. Animals and humans are so different biologically that animals are pretty useless when it comes to predicting results in humans.
    You seem to consider yourself a ” superior creature” that has the right to inflict suffering and torment on other living creatures for your own benefit. This is not my definition of “superior.” You in fact represent the worst of human nature: selfishness and self-centeredness. You subscribe to the point of view that asserts that humans are the only species that counts, and that it sits atop a human constructed hierarchy that allows it to use (in the worse sense) all other living beings, rather than recognizing that all living beings have value and we all are important. Animals have rights to live their lives according to their own interests and not ours.

  6. SOS said on November 25th, 2008 at 1:36pm #

    One evening in 2006, I watched the drama unfold as Paul McCartney and his estranged wife Heather Mills protested the seal hunt on the ice floes in Newfoundland. Later that evening, I watched a CBC News Special documenting the lives of six families from Harbour Breton, Newfoundland. An overgrowing seal population feeding on cod is partly to blame for the closure of several fisheries in small Newfoundland communities. The fishery in the village of Harbour Breton was one of those affected. Rather than asking for welfare assistance, the men of these six families chose to move to Calgary, Alberta in search of work.

    At the close of the program, their children and wives were watching a video of the men sitting around the kitchen table in their small apartment in Calgary. They were sending a bit of themselves back home to their families through the TV. Their jovial hellos had their wives and children laughing and their emotional goodbyes left them with tears streaming down their faces knowing that they probably wouldn’t see them again until Christmas time….. maybe.

    Bardot’s tears for the seals and photographs of McCartney and Mills stretched out across the ice certainly pales in comparison.

    Studies have shown that the seal hunt is as humane, or more humane, than the other methods typically used to kill animals for human consumption or benefit. None of which is pretty, by the way. But then, chickens and cows are not as cute as those seals, are they?

    My ancestors were proud Newfoundlanders who were respectful of the natural world, and were more attuned to nature than many contemporary urban environmentalists. My family hunted and fished to put food on the table… to feed themselves and their families. It was never a sport to them. Seal pelts were used for clothing, seal oil was used in lamps and a small amount of seal meat, particularly the flippers, was consumed. Today, sealing is still an important part of Canada’s cultural heritage.

    It was in 1975 when my grandfather predicted what is now happening on Canada’s Atlantic Coast… no fish to catch and an over-populated seal problem. I recall him saying, “My dear, soon the seals will be coming up from the bay and all the fish, they’ll be gone.” I never thought I’d see the day!

    I can foresee that the over population of seals will soon become a major problem for ships carrying cargo to the island. As the vessels cut through herds of seals swimming in the channels, the ships’ propellers chop the seals into thousands of pieces leaving the vessels to chug through an ocean of blood and mangled meat. A horrific scene indeed.

    Many celebrities look for opportunities to get their photograph in newspapers rather than investigating the root of the problem and working towards a solution that makes sense for everyone involved. These media seekers should not only have sympathy for the seals, but should show compassion for the displaced families and hurting communities as well.

    Instead of exploiting the issue by having their pictures taken on the bloodstained ice, celebrities should come together with the seal hunters, animal activists, and community leaders to brainstorm solutions that would work for all concerned. They should sink their money into supporting communities that need assistance. Because the problem is so complex, a workable solution cannot be achieved overnight. It takes time and effort to come to a resolution that is sustainable; one that benefits seal hunters, animal lovers, citizens and their communities.

    It’s important that we not jump on any celebrity bandwagons. They have little or no understanding of what it’s like to live in a Newfoundland outport. Instead of supporting self-serving organizations such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare who have used manipulative sentiment in highly-sophisticated media campaigns and celebrities who are pseudo experts, I encourage the European Union to make certain that they have correct information before banning seal products from Canada or any other countries that export seal products.

    Get the real facts about Canada’s Atlantic seal hunt at:

    7 things you didn’t know about HSUS:

  7. Dave Shishkoff said on November 25th, 2008 at 2:46pm #

    SOS – i’m curious if you even read the materials you’re promoting?

    Nowhere on the Fisheries and Aquaculture website do they blame seals for eating cod, as it’s a non-issue:

    (See #5.)

    I’m not going to bother refuting the remainder of your arguments, i think it’s only fair that it’s up to you to prove your point now with facts, rather than behaving like those blame and making up information.

    As far as livelihoods, fur (which is what the seals are killed for) is decreasing in popularity. This is a global trend, and will only continue.

    If someone *really* cares about the people in Newfoundland and Labrador, they’d realize that it’s time that the dangerous (and even lethal) job of killing of seals needs to stop, and real long-term, respectful and responsible employment be found for these people.

    Isn’t the province now posting of being a ‘have’ province? Let’s see some responsible action taken that doesn’t require hundreds of thousands of animals slaughtered each year. These seals just want to live their lives, not unlike you, me or the people in Newfoundland. Surely we can make that happen.

    Dave Shishkoff
    Victoria, BC

  8. Mark Hawthorne said on November 25th, 2008 at 10:02pm #

    Thank you for your heartfelt post, Alice. Your experiences illustrate a key point about animal activism, I think: Most people abhor animal abuse; the problem is, they almost never see it. And when they do — whether it’s from a flyer you distribute or a dog being mistreated in public — most people are outraged. This often leads people to reexamine their behaviors and their consumer choices, and this leads to positive change. Sometimes that change means boycotting a company, other times it may mean embracing vegetarianism, or maybe it means adopting an animal instead of buying from a pet store. Whatever the case, these are important changes, so please keep up the good work!

    With your help, and the hard work of activists like you, we can finally ban Canada’s tragic annual slaughter of baby seals. Wouldn’t that be a change worth fighting for?

  9. Russell said on November 26th, 2008 at 7:58am #

    You better check again, Wanda. It’s both an animal welfare issue and a conservation issue. As you can see from other posts the cruelty defenders still blame the seals for the human overfishing that decimated the cod fishery.

  10. Wanda said on November 27th, 2008 at 6:56pm #

    Please do some research if you want to take part in the debate Russell. I have checked many time and I know that it is neither a conservation nor an animal welfare issue.
    Google the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and the Independent Veterinarians’ Working Group. You’ll find solid peer reviewed scientific studies, rather than the self serving misinformation circulated by special interest animal rights groups.
    Russell there are 6 million harp seals of the coast of Canada, and guess what? When they get hungry they don’t go to McDonald’s or order pizza. They eat fish. A lot of it. They may or may not have caused the decline of the cod. But everyone agrees that an unchecked seal population is hurting the chances of the cod stocks ever recovering.
    @Mark Hawthorne: The Canadian seal hunt is no more a tragedy than the legal, well accepted slaughter of 10,000,000,000 animals a year in the US is a tragedy. Learn to accept that people in other countries and other cultures utilize different species.

  11. Alice Bruckenstein said on November 28th, 2008 at 12:02am #

    I want to thank everyone who commented on my article, especially those who recognize the brutality of the annual Canadian harp seal hunt. It is truly a senseless slaughter. Hundreds of thousands of baby seals are killed each year, not for meat, but for fur that is used to make fashion items that are sold in Europe and Asia. Seal fur is banned in the U.S., and the European Union is considering a proposal to ban its import into their member countries.

    It is well-documented that the “hunt” is inhumane. I use quotes because that term is misleading. What is called a hunt is really a massacre that takes place in an outdoor nursery. The seal pups clubbed on the ice are too young to swim away and have no means of escape. Killing seals is a treacherous business and the ice is too dangerous for the sealers to hang around and check to make sure each pup’s skull has been cracked sufficiently to cause it to die instantly after being bludgeoned on the head. As a result, many pups are left to die in agony. A scientific study conducted by veterinarians examining carcasses on the ice has concluded that 42% of the seals are skinned alive.

    In 2007 the ice floes melted, due to global warming, before the seal pups could learn to swim. Many thousands drowned, and yet the hunt continued. Sealers used guns and shot the (slightly older) seals swimming in the water. Many more wounded seals sunk to the bottom and they too died a slow agonizing death. These seals were not included in the official count of those killed.

    Seals eat many varieties of fish, including predators of cod. The Canadian fishermen may very well be contributing to the collapse of cod stocks not only from their over-fishing, which is a known cause, but from the seal hunt as well. When will the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans recognize the fragility of their beautiful but vulnerable marine ecosystem?

    The sealers make only a fraction of their income selling pelts. Markets are closing. (“Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Germany, France, Mexico and Panama have either banned seal product trade or have announced their intention to do so”—HSUS) The Canadian government, in fact, subsidizes the hunt, which is an off-season activity for its east coast fishermen, to the tune of over 10 million dollars. This includes Coast Guard assistance to sealing vessels, the DFO’s patrols to find seal herds and report their location to the hunters, grants to seal product marketing companies, government lobbing for the sealing industry, and, in 2007, millions of dollars in compensation to hunters affected by the diminished ice cover.

    There is an answer for both the sealers and the seals. Ecotourism would benefit the fishermen and their families. Instead of a landscape stained with blood, the pristine birthing grounds of the Canadian harp seals would be a source of income for neighboring communities and a source of inspiration for all who came to see.

    To learn more about the seal hunt and how to stop it visit and

  12. Lynne said on November 28th, 2008 at 6:14pm #

    Wanda, you need to get in touch with your heart.. and stop speaking in support of killing innocent and helpless seals. Do you ever wonder that it seems a bit convenient to blame seals for the decline in cod? It does seem to me to work with some people who then, without thinking any further, accept all the barbaric killing. Watch the link Dave Shishkoff posted…

  13. Kelli said on October 6th, 2009 at 7:52am #

    I think the argument that we kill animals for food all over America/the World, that animal testing occurs, that economy depends on “harvesting” wild animals, etc. in irrelevant. I think it’s a cop-out for a greater sickness in humanity. We too seldom don’t revere life, animal or human. Infliction of violence and pain on animals when there is an alternative contributes to a further deadening of humanity. Unless people speak out, no matter the opposition, it will continue on a trajectory of suffering and brutality that perpetuates more of the same. It effects us all. For those who think people who speak out should just shut up…Well, think of how your life has benefited from people fighting the status quo (i.e. slavery, war, etc.). Nothing positive ever came from just letting things be the way they are. Apathy is an epidemic. We should all be so lucky to feel a connection to a cause and have the courage to try and make a difference, despite waves of ignorance and anger against it.