The fall of an animal-rights pioneer
Alex Hershaft should have retired gracefully years ago. He didn’t.
This should be a moment of opportunity for the animal rights movement. The case against eating animals — for ethical, environmental and health reasons — has never been stronger. Covid-19 may have begun at a live animal market in Wuhan and, so far, the virus has infected more than 41,000 workers at US meat and poultry slaughterhouses, according to the Food and Environmental Reporting Network,
All of that and more could have been fodder for this year’s Animal Rights National Conference, which was going to be held, virtually, in July.
Then it was cancelled — largely because of the behavior of Alex Hershaft, who started the event nearly four decades ago.
That’s a shame for the movement. Conferences are places to learn, to network, to hash out ideas and to rejuvenate. For Hershaft, well, he has no one to blame but himself.
Hershaft, who is 86, is a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and a pioneer of the animal rights movement. He has a powerful personal story to tell. The Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), which he started in 1976, says it is the US’s first organization dedicated to protecting animals raised, abused and killed for food. When VegNews imagined a vegan Mount Rushmore, Hershaft’s face was carved into rock. This summer, Hershaft created his own Animal Rights Hall of Fame and installed himself as a member. Humble, he is not.
Unhappily, Hershaft failed to adapt to the times or listen to multiple warnings about his behavior. He ran FARM out of his home, repeatedly exposing staff members to pornography (and occasionally to his half-clothed torso). He has been hostile to feminists and supported men credibly accused of sexual harassment. He was slow to showcase women and people of color at the conference, and to respond to allegations of sexual harassment at the event.
In 2018, at the height of #MeToo fervor and shortly before my blogpost about his treatment of women, Hershaft turned leadership of the animal rights conference over to Jen Riley, a longtime associate. Riley is widely credited with bringing fresh voices and a more inclusive spirit to the event. But she quit as chair in July, which effectively forced cancellation of the event.
On Facebook, Riley explained:
My team and I faced challenges relating to persistent workplace issues as well as public comments made by FARM leadership that not only undermined our vision for the conference, but also went against my own beliefs and values. While I sought to pursue suitable solutions including trying to separate (the conference) from FARM, none were successful. As such, I was left with no other option than to resign from my position as Conference Chair.
By email, Riley told me she could not continue to work for Hershaft because his private behavior and public comments tainted the conference. “I made the difficult decision to resign,” she wrote, “because I felt it necessary to remove my affiliation with views that are not only in opposition to my own values, but that I believe are detrimental to the positive growth and evolution of our movement.”
A case of founder’s syndrome
This is a classic case of founder’s syndrome, a disease afflicting nonprofits whose founders hang on past their sell-by date. [See, for example, my story, Woodstock Sanctuary, Jenny Brown and the perils of charisma.) The cure for founder’s syndrome is an engaged and independent board of directors that does the work it is supposed to do — provide oversight, set the direction of the nonprofit and ensure that its staff is safe.
FARM’s board missed opportunities to ease Hershaft into retirement, despite entreaties from staff, going back years. The board was, and is, chaired by Hershaft, a poor governance practice. He cannot oversee himself.
“The board has fallen short of its legal, ethical and moral obligations,” says Krista Hiddema, an animal rights activist, an expert on governance and a consultant to nonprofits. The failure of boards to oversee leaders of animal groups “is a pervasive problem in our movement.” Board failures led to problems at the Humane Society of the US, Mercy for Animals and Alley Cat Allies, among other places.
Ethan Eldreth, a longtime FARM employee who filed a sexual harassment complaint against Hershaft this summer, told me: “I have lost any faith in the board doing what is right for FARM, for all past and future employees and most importantly for the animals.”
What do Hershaft and FARM say? By email, Hershaft blames his critics, including this reporter. He wrote:
This beautiful annual event that had brought our movement together for the past 20 years is now dead, thanks in part to your enabling its takeover by a handful of anti-establishment activists.
Seth Tibbott, the founder of Tofurky and one of four FARM board members, sent me a statement from the board, saying, among other things, that Hershaft’s decision to step away from the conference in 2018 was “part of a move towards retirement.” As for the FARM workplace, the board said:
When issues arise concerning the work environment and/or that threaten our mission, the issues and surrounding facts are explored, carefully analyzed, and changes implemented as needed. We have done that and are planning to implement more changes. FARM cares deeply about its employees, volunteers, and supporters, and its unique and important place promoting abolition in the AR movement.
Riley, Eldreth and other former staffers don’t see it that way. They view the board as well-meaning but inept — my words, not theirs. Eldreth experienced emotional pain and discomfort during his time at FARM, he told me.
Hershaft’s unprofessional behavior goes back decades. A book called Girls to the Front, about the DC women’s punk rock movement, quotes a woman who in 1991 worked “at the Farm Animal Reform Movement, whose director was an old guy who wouldn’t stop staring at her breasts.”
Hershaft’s battles with strong women exploded into view at the 2002 conference during a banquet chaired by Howard Lyman, a cattle rancher who became an animal rights activist. Lyman ogled women as they left the stage, leading to protests, according to an account by activist pattrice jones. Hershaft tried to ban the protestors from the conference.
Hershaft has expressed regret, but he hasn’t changed. Eldreth, who did tech help as well as conference planning for FARM, says that they were asked to transfer a hard drive with folders of explicitly-labeled porn from one of Hershaft’s computers to another. (This was long after Hershaft had been asked by staff not to store or watch porn on his work computer.) This summer, FARM’s board hired an outside HR firm, called CSI HR Group, to investigate, but Eldreth says its investigation was unduly limited.
Meantime, Hershaft was attacking the #MeToo movement, writing on Facebook:
The hysteria associated with #MeTooAR has been the greatest self-inflicted threat to the success of our movement since we got it going 40 years ago.
About Black Lives Matter, Hershaft wrote:
I get it. Black lives matter. But then, shouldn’t our message be directed at the black people in Chicago and other major cities, who kill 90 percent black people? The police are responsible for less than a dozen.
Uh, no. The number of Black people killed by police is not “less than a dozen” but well over 200 a year, according to Mapping Police Violence.
A patriarchal model
The cumulative effect of Hershaft’s words and actions was too much to bear for those who want to diversify the animal rights movement. A gold sponsor withdrew its support for the conference. Some speakers pulled out, too.
“I was uncomfortable being part of an event that Alex Hershaft had a role in putting on,” says Aryenish Birdie, the founder of Encompass, an animal protection group that focuses on social justice. “It has come to the point where we have to say that we are not going to validate this person’s actions anymore.”
What’s ahead for the conference is unclear. FARM has hired a new executive director, Eric Lindstrom. The conference website says “stay tuned for more information about 2021.” Riley says that, with others, she is thinking about organizing “a fresh new event that supports a positive evolution of the movement.”
Carol J. Adams, a veteran of the movement and the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, says Hershaft stayed on far too long. For years, she says, the conference showcased “heroes” and diminished the importance of the women who predominate in the movement.
“It was,” says Adams, “a very patriarchal model.”
Whatever comes next will surely be better.