Jane Dalton: animal rights journalist
By BEL JACOBS
The plight of farm animals around the world has remained hidden for too long - largely, in part, due to the side-stepping of the topic in mainstream media. Jane Dalton - a long-time Fleet Street journalist, who has been a reporter, editor and sub-editor for the Press Association, the BBC, the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph among others, and who now writes for the Independent - specialises in reporting and commenting on animal welfare news. “I do this in an attempt at offering a little modest compensation for the deficiencies in mainstream media coverage of vital animal-welfare issues,” she once said. HowNow talks to Dalton about the true extent of animal suffering, the vital links between animal and human suffering and why it’s more important than ever to speak out on behalf of animals.
How has the animal rights movement changed in the past few years - and why?
The biggest change has been the emergence and popularity of social media, which - while many people criticise it, often for good reason - has allowed campaigners and individual animal-lovers to spread information far more widely than they could ever have dreamed of in the old days of Royal Mail. I have no doubt at all that exponential numbers of shares has opened the eyes of many people both to many hidden horrors and to the fact that they are not powerless. This spread of information online has also led to animal welfare starting to become more acceptable in the mainstream media - meaning both online and print media. Broadcasters, however, have yet to open up their minds from their traditional set agendas.
What has inspired your own focus on animal rights?
When I was at university, I started to question some of my values. Perhaps it was living away from home that started that. I went vegetarian fairly gradually over the course of a couple of years, which seems slow now. But it was a long time ago, in the days when even being veggie was considered hippy-ish and radical. Around that time, I saw some leaflets from PETA and Compassion in World Farming, which shocked me, too - and I decided animal welfare was possibly the biggest hidden scandal and the biggest cause of suffering in the world. There came a point, after blogging was invented, when I realised I could combine my reporting skills with animal welfare interest to expose some of the horrors.
Often, people feel unable to take on board the true extent of animal suffering which can lead to inaction. How do you juggle - or not - that balance?
The information available now can be overwhelming, it's true. But everyone who isn't already vegan is capable of at least reducing their contribution to the suffering, without it costing much. People stick to what they know because of a fear of ridicule or criticism. But hypocrisy is a very overrated vice. People feel they dare not take animal suffering into account or become vegetarian for silly reasons such as the fact they still buy leather shoes, which would make them "a hypocrite". As a society, we should stop being so judgmental because just doing something to reduce suffering is better than doing nothing. Anything at all is better than doing nothing. Switching to plant-based milk, cheese or ice cream - even if it's with alternate shops - means you halve the amount of money you give to the dairy industry, for instance.
I'm vegan, but I applaud rather than condemn meat-eaters who try to cut down their consumption. Realising you can do something - whether it's boycotting Spain over bullfighting or not betting on horseracing - is a positive mindset. I get more annoyed with people who fall back on the lazy "hypocrite" argument to justify their own inaction than I do with anyone making an effort, however imperfect. I don't really understand people who know about cruelty and choose to do nothing when they know they could do something.
From acts of individual cruelty to industrialised animal suffering, how do you encompass the extent of animal suffering?
It can be difficult to take in the extent of it, which is why it can be overwhelming. But it's good to prioritise. Factory farming - industrial-style farming - is the biggest cause of animal suffering worldwide. And it's easy to see why, when billions of animals globally are reared in cruel systems that deny them the chance to behave naturally, such as flapping their wings, dust-bathing, suckling their mother's milk in the open air, feeling the grass beneath their feet and breathing fresh air. And that's without the horrors of slaughterhouses worldwide.
Many breaches of rules aimed at preventing suffering at the point of death have been exposed in the UK alone where standards are regularly claimed to be higher. The suffering in abattoirs worldwide doesn't bear thinking about. But factory farming doesn't just subject those billions of sentient beings to lives of misery, it also causes environmental destruction, for example, through slurry and pollution run-offs, it also harms wildlife conservation, killing some of the world's most threatened and most precious species, including jaguars, Sumatran elephants, penguins. All because people insist on eating meat, for Heaven's sake. Philip Lymbery's Dead Zone should be compulsory reading.
After industrial farming, I guess we can all create our own hierarchies - from hunting in the UK to making foie gras in France, from animals used in tourism to dog meat markets in the far East, and from elephant poaching to polar bears kept in misery in China's shopping centres. They all inflict horrific suffering, but the answer, as previously mentioned, is not to close your eyes to it. Boycotting places involved in cruelty - and crucially telling the authorities and tourist chiefs just why you are boycotting them - is a positive step.
Two practices that particularly enrage me are the annual capture and slaughter of dolphins at Taiji, Japan, and by the Faroes; and the deliberate torture of elephants in Indian temples. They blind them, whip them, beat them, starve them, chain them. The sheer hell is unimaginable and it's a scandal that the Indian government allows it. My heart weeps when I see individual acts of cruelty against a single animal, but I don't cover them as news stories.
Why is animal rights important in a world that has so many other ongoing human and planetary problems?
It would be wrong to ignore the vast, vast suffering humans are inflicting 24 hours a day, every single day, on billions of sentient beings worldwide. How could that possibly be right? And then, of course, it's been proven that domestic violence and murder often happens after culprits started out by abusing animals. Some of the world's most notorious abusers and killers, including the Moors murderer Ian Brady, first practised their torture on animals. If such people are identified at an earlier stage, a lot of suffering could be prevented. I very recently wrote about the work of Teesside University researchers on this. The links between violence to humans and animals are well known but nowhere in the world yet has enough joined-up thinking to intervene.
And yes, we are facing a climate emergency, and for some of us how to prioritise in our own minds which issues are most urgent can be a dilemma. But there is a vast amount of overlap, so it's great to see the Committee on Climate Change and the UN at long last linking the damage done by the meat and dairy industries to rising temperatures and the biodiversity crisis. Of course, there is a lot of terrible human suffering too, but it seems to me animal suffering is much more hidden and under-reported.
What gives you hope?
The fantastic work done by groups and organisations big and small, from Humane Society International and Animal Defenders International, who rescue animals from horrific fates abroad, to Kent Action Against Live Exports, who monitor every sailing of suffering sentient beings from the port of Ramsgate. Then there's the Save Movement, local groups whose members help shine a light on slaughterhouse horrors. And, back to the first question, that information - such as undercover exposes - now reaches many more people than ever before.
Our generation has started to shift its mindset towards being more compassionate (note the rise in popularity of going vegan). If the next generation down shifts its mindset a little more further, we may start to see some of the worst horrors being dismantled. We do need to work with those who hold the keys, of course, and not just attack them angrily. Winning hearts and minds is more constructive in the long run than total condemnation, which can get people's backs up and make them react the wrong way.
Although many were dismayed at Boris Johnson's becoming prime minister, it may not be all doom and gloom. He is surrounded by excellent influences - both his father, Stanley, and girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, are passionate conservationists, as is Zac Goldsmith, who has been given the job of Defra minister. Even Johnson himself has spoken out against live exports in the past. Brexit may bring terrible news for animal welfare, but some good may yet emerge.