Activist: An especially active, vigorous proponent of a cause, especially a political cause.
Animal rights: The idea that the most basic interests of non-human animals should be afforded the same consideration as the similar interests of human beings.
Okay, are we clear here? No? I wish I could say I'm surprised. I'll expand. There will be some three-syllable words (including "syllable") so pay attention.
An animal rights activist is someone who expends substantial time and energy in the political and social arena advancing the proposition that a dog, chicken, ebola, non-human primate, cuttlefish, etc. has moral claims on human beings that are ethically indistinguishable from the moral claim that one human being has on the conduct of another human being.
Someone who just kind of vaguely thinks that "equal rights" for cute animals is a good idea and doesn't do much about it -- no rallying, canvassing, protesting, letter-writing, petition-circulating, Thanksgiving dinner-ruining, lobbying, campaigning, megaphone-wielding -- is not an "activist." Not eating at McDonalds is not activism.
This guy -- probably an "activist."
Someone who likes animals, loves animals, works with animals, makes a career of animals, volunteers with animals, rescues animals from adversity, is not on that basis, either a political/social activist or a believer in the political/philosophical doctrine popularly referred to as "animal rights."
Indeed, most people who work closely with animals (as careers or as part of a serious avocation) and understand the difference between the radical philosophical doctrine of "animal rights" and the mainstream proposition that people ought to treat animals humanely explicitly do not support the doctrine of animal rights. This appears to have something broadly to do with actually hands-on mastery of skills and knowledge about specific kinds of animals interfacing with an appreciation of what repercussions a gormless equivalency would have on those animals' actual lives. In other words, animal experts for the most part reject (the popular notion of) animal rights because they like animals too much and understand them too well to abandon them to the enthusiasms of knowledge-free activists who are in love with their own notions about what is good for animals.
Environmentalism -- even when the environmentalist is absolutely an activist, and is trying to do things like protect condors from DDT or wolves from Sarah Palin in a Piper Cub -- is not "animal rights." Aldo Leopold hunted his whole damned life, before and after the revelation of the fierce green fire.
A daft looney who makes her tiny dog wear tafetta dresses, insists that a clinically insane Capuchin monkey that has been ripped from his real mother's breast is her "son," or lives holed up with 80 cats (in squalor or not) is not an animal rights activist. She's just a daft looney who finds animals to be convenient as well as helpless to avoid her deranged projections.
Here's a partial list of animal-related professions and, shall we say, avocations, whose practitioners are typically not "animal rights activists," despite journalists' proclamations to the contrary:
Veterinarian -- not an animal rights activist
Horse lover -- not an animal rights activist
Search and rescue dog handler -- not an animal rights activist
Cat-show hobbyist -- not an animal rights activist
Zookeeper -- not an animal rights activist
Breed rescue volunteer -- not an animal rights activist
Humane enforcement officer -- not an animal rights activist
Wildlife rehabilitator -- not an animal rights activist
Dog trainer -- not an animal rights activist
Prosecuting attorney -- not an animal rights activist
Doting pet owner -- not an animal rights activist
Government kennel inspector -- not an animal rights activist
Neighbor who complains because you are beating your cat -- not an animal rights activist
Animal shelter employee -- not an animal rights activist
Forest ranger -- not an animal rights activist
Are you getting this down in your little reporter notebook? Too many to remember? Let me make it easier for you:
Stop calling everyone who works with animals or tries to make the world better for them an animal rights activist. Because it pisses us off.
Unless someone tells you (you can ask)* that he is an animal rights activist, he probably isn't.
Even if he does tell you that this is what he is, you should follow up with two lines of inquiry:
1) Does this person engage in sustained activism -- political or social conduct that is more than ordinarily frequent, vigorous, and intense -- in order to advance...
2) ... the notion of legal, political, and social equivalency of the interests of non-human animals relative to those of members of homo sapiens?
Unless you can answer yes and yes upon exploring those two questions, cool it with the "animal rights activist."
You should probably use a grain of salt when anyone in the entertainment industry or the Why-the-hell-is-this-idiot-famous industry gets naked on a PeTA billboard. Activist? Maybe. Whore? Definitely. Career in need of a boost? Ding ding ding ding ding ... The same whore is going to order medallions of veal for dinner tonight and will be sporting a baby panda-skin hoodie the first time the "It" designer throws one at her.
I'm not going to get into further details here. I'm not going to explain that animal "rights" is a misnomer when applied to this political/philosophical camp, because the doctrine is actually a form of unreformed radical Utilitarianism that rejects the notion of rights for anyone and substitutes a pleasure/pain calculus that does not respect individual boundaries. I'm not going to give you a condensed history of the animal welfare movement or explain the difference. I'm not going to dust off my political philosopher hat and explore what a rights-based construct of our obligations towards non-human animals might entail. (It would probably be a Rawlsian/Kantian framework, with some touchiness in the hard details.) I'm not going to lay out all the reasons why PeTA is not, in fact, an organization with any expertise about animals or a sliver of moral standing to speak for them,** or why veganism is not the same thing as eating while mindful of one's environmental impact or effect on animal welfare. I'm not going to expose HSUS and ASPCA and Best Friends Animal Sanctuary as unprincipled fund-raising mills that snatch food from the mouths of puppies and kittens in animal shelters nationwide.
I'm not even going to promise to find the next "journalist" who invokes "Fluffy and Fido" in his next pet-related article and beat him until his liver turns black.
Another day, another savage mauling. For today, just knock it the hell off with the "animal rights activist."
* Our former neighbor Larry actually introduced himself that way. Swear to Dog, his first words to us when we moved in to Baldwin were, "Hi, I'm Larry, I'm an animal rights activist."
Seriously, how does one respond to that?
He was walking his nice little shepherd mix, Duchess, at the time. Duchess was wearing an improperly-fitted chain collar that Larry didn't know how to use, so it was a true "choke collar." And remained so. Poor Duchess. PeTA didn't approve of training her. She never got off that leash.
** And thus, why any reporter who quotes PeTA about any animal welfare issue is a lazy sack of shite who should have his space-bar thumbs cut off and fed to the ferrets.