Last week the Berkeley City Council made history as Berkeley became the second — and biggest — city in the United States to ban the sale of fur. The historic legislation puts Berkeley at the forefront of the social justice movement to end violence against animals. It’s now time for other progressive cities to end this form of oppression against animals and for Berkeley to continue to work until all animals are protected from harm.
Berkeley’s legislation cements a social consensus. Since the early 1990s, a growing wave of public protests and outreach nearly ended the fur industry as members of the public came to see killing and torturing animals as contrary to basic values. In recent years, though, there have been signs of a fur comeback, with fur-trimmed hoods and Canada Goose stores popping up in American cities.
Berkeley residents, organized through Berkeley Coalition for Animals, organized to have Berkeley take a stand for justice. The activist group that I am a part of, Direct Action Everywhere, held a 100-person march to support the ban. Berkeley’s landmark legislation ensures that no comeback for violence will happen here in Berkeley. It enshrines the social consensus in our city’s laws.
There is good reason for Berkeley to ban fur: the fur industry commits violence against animals who, there is little doubt, are sentient. Fur farms are filthy places that intensely confine animals, skin animals alive, and electrocute animals to kill them. The fur industry’s principle concern is to maximize profits; animals’ interests do not factor into fur farms’ calculations. Scientists left little doubt that these animals are sentient when an international group of neuroscientists and biologists signed the 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness affirming animal sentience.
This move fits within a history of Berkeley leading the way on issues of social justice. During a decade of student activism around civil rights and the war in Vietnam, Berkeley’s Free Speech movement was a defining event in the 1960s. Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living has been the heart of the movement for disability rights. South Berkeley pioneered recycling before it was the household norm, the Berkeley City Council paved the way for nationwide marriage equality, and even today Berkeley leads the way in pushing for racial and immigration justice.
Now, Berkeley is leading the way on animal rights. Councilman Ben Bartlett recognized the importance of animal rights as an issue of social justice during the discussion of the fur ban. Bartlett lauded advocates for animals as ethical pioneers, noting the rise of laws and court decisions recognizing nonhuman animals as legal persons in India, Argentina, and elsewhere.
As we celebrate this victory for our fellow creatures, though, we should recognize how much work there is to be done. The fur law itself included an unnecessary last-minute exemption for sheepskin and cowhide out of a sentimental concern for products that the ban did not even include. The exemption arbitrarily condemns sheep and cows to the same use the council rejected for other animals and should be struck from the final version.
Beyond fur, as much or worse happens in countless other facilities: labs, zoos, circuses, and, yes, farms. I myself have been inside farms that masquerade as some of the most humane in the country, and even on these farms, confinement, trampling, suffocation, and mutilation are routine. On one of these so-called “humane” farms, I helped to rescue a turkey who was struggling to breathe in the farm’s toxic air. She was so terrified of what was going on that she was hiding in fear. Just like animals on fur farms, she had never met her mother and had lived her life in perpetual terror.
During the City Council’s discussion of the fur ban, it was clear that every member of the Council recognized that true social justice implies much more than simply banning fur. In seeking to restrict the bill, Councilwoman Hahn noted that the bill drew an arbitrary line in excluding leather and meat. Councilwoman Hahn is right. Now, it’s the job of every Berkeley resident, and every human on this planet, to draw that line progressively further until the day that all animals have the right under the law to be free from harm.