Sometimes we may wonder where certain words or definitions come from.
If you live in a Latin country – in Italy or Spain, say, or in South America – you will know that a particular word is commonly used to describe people who believe that animals of other species have rights, and who are committed to doing something to see those rights recognised in law and in society at large. That word is ‘animalista’ in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. In French it is ‘animaliste’.
Even as recently as the mid 1980s, in Italian dictionaries the only definition given for ‘animalista’ was a Medieval miniaturist, and for those who had read George Orwell, the word might recall the term used as a metaphor for Stalinism in the novel Animal Farm. Nevertheless, since the late 1970s the new meaning of the word had already started to enter the media and spoken language and – most importantly – the consciousness of many people. How did this happen?
Since 1930, Italians who opposed animal experiments either for ethical or scientific reasons had gathered under the umbrella of the Italian Anti-vivisectionist Union (UAI). When, in the mid 1970s, Hans Ruesch published Slaughter of the Innocent and Naked Empress, several branches of UAI seceded, criticising the organisation for a lack of effectiveness.
The Rome branch – one of those that broke away – was then led by the architect Alberto Pontillo. In 1977, five people led by Pontillo gathered to form the Anti-Vivisection League (LAV). Initially focused exclusively on vivisection (or animal experiments, the politer term often used to describe exactly the same legal but illegitimate crime), LAV soon expanded its scope to cover all forms of abuse of animals, from hunting and the fur trade to laboratories and slaughterhouses. It is in this period that Pontillo started using the word ‘animalista’ in his speeches and writings. It rapidly became a synonym for animal rights supporter or activist. Nowadays the term is used in a broader way by many animal lovers, but originally it implied making specific commitments, which included being a vegetarian or vegan.
A few days ago, social media spread the news of Alberto Pontillo’s death, at the age of 87.
I probably met Alberto for the first time in 1980, when I joined LAV as a teenager. The organisation was to play a fundamental part in my life for the next 25 years. A few months later, Alberto and I were together on a train to Lausanne, as part of a larger group travelling to Switzerland to attend an international demonstration against vivisection (where I also had the opportunity to meet Hans Ruesch for the first time).
After joining as a junior member, I immediately started becoming active in my area, and was soon made a local representative of the organisation. I then opened a branch, and over the years I joined the national board, worked for 6 years as an employee, and took on responsibility for international liaisons, fundraising and various campaigns (including those against cosmetic testing on animals and the abolition of battery cages for laying hens). I gradually undertook the top roles in the organisation, until I left in 2006. I summarise my work in LAV simply to show how much meeting Alberto Pontillo and becoming involved in his NGO formed my character and what I am today.
I am only half ashamed to admit that the last time I spoke to Alberto was 13 years ago, in the spring of 2002.
Alberto had left LAV a few years earlier, after a very tense AGM and a clash with the rest of the board – including myself. He had been LAV’s general secretary since the beginning, and the headquarters were in part of his large flat in Via dei Portoghesi, near Piazza Navona, in the very centre of Rome. The upper floor was full of books, publications and press cuttings, and it served as a meeting room too.
Differences of opinion had gradually emerged between Alberto and the rest of the board, mostly voiced by much younger activists. Tensions had arisen on issues such as the look of the magazine (black-and-white vs colour), the language used in our communications, and involvement in party politics. It was in an AGM in Pescara that all these differences surfaced and took centre stage. Without going into too much detail, this quickly led to emergency meetings of the branches. LAV had to relocate to a temporary office, before properly settling down again. Sadly, the wounds of that period never healed enough for lines of communication to reopen.
After the separation from LAV, Alberto founded Unione Animalista, and all contacts with LAV were severed. He published several articles in his new organisation’s magazine criticising the people (including me) who had strongly disagreed with him. As sometimes happens, we shared the same core ideas, but were unable to talk to each other.
In spring 2002, I was writing the editorial for LAV’s magazine on the 25th anniversary of the organisation, and I felt the need to include a few lines thanking Alberto for what he had done – founding LAV, leading it for 15 years, and being a fertile pioneer of animal rights in Italy. Nevertheless, I was aware that real tensions still existed, and that although my words of gratitude were completely sincere, they might not be welcomed by Pontillo. I decided to pick up the phone and call him, after years of silence, to let him know what I was writing, and to thank him in a more personal way too. It was mostly a one-way conversation, during which I suggested meeting for a coffee, which for some reason never happened.
All this happened a long time ago, but this week I am particularly glad that I made that call and wrote those few lines in the LAV magazine giving Alberto at least some of the credit he deserved. Whether this pleased or annoyed him, I really don’t know.
I still believe that in our final disputes he was wrong, and he probably maintained the opposite till the very end, but after all these years the question is hardly relevant. Much has happened since then. In 2006 I left LAV too, and others who were members of the board or in charge of national campaigns in that period are no longer in the organisation either.
Why do I still feel the need to write this article, then? Communication with Alberto Pontillo was never properly re-established, but what has remained with me – and with many others, whether they are aware of the source of such ideas or not – is a long list of things I have to be grateful to Alberto for. I will take this opportunity to mention a few that come to mind.
Pontillo’s LAV was the place where my being an ‘animalista’ took concrete and effective form. No other organisation and no other leader could have offered such an uncompromisingly determined and result-oriented environment to transform my feelings into effective action in support of abused animals. Many of the seeds that Alberto planted in my mind still influence my actions today.
Joining an organisation of like-minded people undoubtedly helped me to become a vegetarian in 1983, in a country like Italy where such a choice was still rather unusual at the time.
When the Animal Liberation Front started its activities, clandestine actions might have seemed rather appealing to some of us as a way to accelerate the liberation of animals from slavery. But Pontillo promptly wrote an editorial, which remains valid today, in which he stressed the importance of engaging in activities out in the open in order to achieve lasting results and to change public attitudes. He warned us against some of the risks inherent in ALF actions, such as alienating the public, the potential for such actions to be exploited politically to justify animal abuse, and the danger of drifting towards violence, whether against things or people. Pontillo’s public position – which was proven right in countries where ALF was more active – prevented the development of clandestine actions in Italy, where they remained a very marginal phenomenon. This encouraged larger parts of the population to support animal rights campaigns, and helped to achieve historic results. Among other things, in the early 1990s Italy became the first country in the world to legalise conscientious objection to animal experiments, both for students and professionals.
Nevertheless, we did conduct some civil disobedience actions, usually in front of the media, and sometimes calling the police ourselves (in the non-violent way adopted by Gandhi and others before us) to denounce the fur trade and other forms of animal abuse.
Back in the late 1970s, we were able to use the support of the first openly supportive MPs, such as Filippo Fiandrotti, Adele Faccio and Gianni Tamino, as the first step towards building majorities in the Italian parliament. We were among the promoters of the national referendum against hunting: with more determination than financial resources, we collected more signatures than any other NGO, including the environmentalist ones that were far bigger and richer than us.
Space in the media on the rights of animals was very limited at the time, but the fact that there were fewer TV channels made LAV’s rare TV appearances – especially in the dedicated programme for NGOs, ‘Programmi dell’Accesso’ – particularly effective in increasing the support base.
Not that Pontillo particularly enjoyed this media exposure, or appearing in public. The rare photo of Alberto that accompanies this article originally featured in a long piece published by the music magazine Tuttifrutti in 1987. They dedicated 8 full pages to LAV’s work, so Alberto could hardly begrudge them a photo! In his hands is the cigar stub he was never seen without.
Every day, Via dei Portoghesi was buzzing with activities of all kinds: preparing leaflets and articles, or press releases to be hand-delivered to the newspaper offices; organising demonstrations; drafting laws; photocopying our mailing lists onto regular paper and then spending whole crowded evenings with glue sticks in our hands putting address labels on each LAV magazine, tying them into bundles according to postcode, and wheeling them to the post office piled up on trolleys. It was lots of work (we were all volunteers – we could not afford to pay a single person at the time), but lots of fun too. We simply believed that a better world for all animals was possible, and we did the only thing that made sense: we rolled our sleeves up and made it happen.
Those days and evenings: the night we spent at a police station together with a dozen other people waiting for our documents to be checked after we disrupted a fur show with banners and leaflets; the countless tables in the streets to collect signatures and funds; the party at the top of the tower of Via dei Portoghesi to celebrate the collection of the referendum signatures; the ever-present half-smoked cigar; the shoeboxes filled with index cards, one for every supporter (with something rather unflattering written by Alberto on mine!); the clattering of the old typewriter; our massive arguments over the second colour for the magazine; above all, our shared willingness to spend our lives trying to make those of abused animals better. Such memories belong to the past, certainly, but they also provide potent fuel for future action.
Our last conversation was 13 years ago, but in truth our cooperation has never ended. Despite everything, without Alberto Pontillo most of my work for animals worldwide – call it rights, welfare or protection, as long as we do it! – would never have seen the light. I know that many others who met Alberto feel the same way.
It will be hard to single out Alberto’s greatest achievement, because the number of animals he has helped cannot be counted. That number is increasing by the day thanks to the seeds he planted, which continue to grow and flourish.
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