animal ethics

Harrison’s Worth

Written by Eric J. Prescott

Unlike the stately courtrooms portrayed in typical on-screen dramas, most real-life American courtrooms tended toward the institutional. The whitewashed, windowless chamber in which Kevin and Becky Anderson awaited the outcome of their case had been stocked with a government seal and furniture appropriate to carrying out a trial. The centrality of the judge to this whole process was established by virtue of the bench’s position below the seal at the front of the room. But, other than this special layout, Kevin and Becky could have been waiting in a generic room in any number of utilitarian government facilities.

The stark environment didn’t reassure Kevin of a favorable outcome for their claim against Dontanville County Animal Care and Control, whose employees were responsible for killing their dog, Harrison, after he burrowed his way out under the backyard fence and had the misfortune to wind up in a cage at their facility. This though Kevin had successfully tracked down Harrison and received assurances from the shelter that they would hold on to the dog until Kevin could get there from work to pick him up.

Kevin, still reeling from the news of Harrison’s death upon arriving at the shelter, stood astonished in a dingy office as the shelter director asked whether he wouldn’t be so kind as to take home one of the other animals caged there on death row. Of course Kevin didn’t want any more animals to die, but he had only just learned that Harrison had been killed–by this very shelter–and it sure did seem as if the shelter director was suggesting that it would be perfectly acceptable to simply swap in another dog.

Say what you will about dogs; Kevin had certainly said his share. He had delighted in mocking the slobbery, needy, gullible Harrison as he’d spent more and more time with Becky and her dog in the early months after they had first met out jogging three years ago. But anyone who has ever known a dog knows that they’re not interchangeable.

Kevin had initially been so enthralled by his unexpected and implausibly successful romance with Becky–he’d all but given up on meeting someone in whom he could invest himself so fearlessly–that he hadn’t noticed how much he’d also grown to care about her dog. But eventually Kevin had became aware of the relationship that had developed between them, a genuine relationship between two individuals. A limited one, certainly, but real and unique all the same. Not that this ended Kevin’s good-natured mocking; one of the benefits of the language barrier was that Harrison simply adored it when Kevin made fun of him, seeing as how it always put him at the center of attention, right where he loved to be. His tail would thrash from side to side as Kevin scratched his chin and, in his sweetest baby voice, he called Harrison a pathetic goober.

Having never been responsible for another animal, nor even a child, Kevin had learned from Harrison what it was like to look out for someone else’s best interests. Harrison had depended completely on Kevin and Becky for his health and safety, thriving under their care. But then he got loose, in a world more dangerous for dogs than Kevin ever would have imagined. There really was no place for a dog out alone in the world, so it wasn’t long before Harrison was collected and taken to a shelter. And dependent though he was on humans to take care of him, he had been betrayed by them.

At a shelter.

Betrayal. Anger. Sorrow. Kevin’s emotions surged, as they had many times since the incident. Sharpening his own grief was the anger he felt for Harrison: Harrison had lost his life. One day he was tearing up grass in the backyard, chasing birds and living life to the fullest, and the next day his life was ended. But the judicial process had no room for that loss. Didn’t, in fact, recognize that loss. To explain why, Kevin and Becky’s lawyer, Gary, had explained that the law divided all before it into two legal categories: persons and property. Harrison had the misfortune to fall into the wrong category.

“Persons possess legal rights to protect their various interests, property rights being among the most important. Property has no legal rights. It cannot sue or be sued, like a person can. Property is basically a thing, something a person uses to further their interests. So, in cases like these, the law is merely concerned with addressing harms to the right-holder caused by the property loss, not with addressing any harms to the property itself.” In other words, even though Harrison was practically family, the law regarded him as little more than any of Kevin and Becky’s many other things. So, no matter what Kevin and Becky might feel about conducting the trial on Harrison’s behalf instead, the court would and only could recognize Harrison as the object of their property loss claim.

How had it come to be that someone as conscious and full of joy as Harrison could be lumped into the same legal category as unfeeling things, a mere object with no recognized value in his own right? It made no sense. It was hardly a secret that animals were capable of feeling. This was, in fact, why there existed numerous anticruelty statutes. But those laws were embedded in a legal context that systematically placed animals’ interests below those of humans, fatally undermining any protection the statute might have offered. No, the law was not for animals–except perhaps in cases of egregious neglect or sadism, and even then the concern was over the impact such inhumane behavior might have on people–the law was for persons. And Kevin couldn’t see how, as long as animals were considered property, cases like his and Becky’s would ever amount to anything more than humans suing each other over their stuff. And this is what had him feeling like these proceedings were a sham.

Becky squeezed Kevin’s hand.

“It’ll be all right.” She spoke quietly, a bid at privacy in the sparsely-populated courtroom.

When he looked back at her, he could tell that she was having misgivings, too, despite her words. She knew as well as he did that, whatever the outcome, Harrison was gone forever. It wouldn’t be all right. Nothing would really change, regardless of what Judge Spooner said. Having come around to this view, Kevin had a hard time seeing the point of sticking around for a verdict. He didn’t think he could be more disillusioned about the justness of the legal system at this point.

Despite many a person’s grand projections onto the legal system about its ability to provide emotional redress, or even justice, this was, all told, nothing more than a venue for processing cases through a judge’s interpretation of the applicable laws. If watching legislators make laws was supposed to be like watching sausage get made, to what could one compare watching those laws get interpreted and upheld? How does one begin to capture what it is that we call justice? Regardless, whatever it might look like, Kevin was confident that ‘justice’ was not imminent.

A nondescript door in the wall behind the bench swung open. With the return of Judge Spooner, the courtroom staff smoothly resumed their well-rehearsed roles. There was no jury. The shelter director had opted for a bench trial in order to reduce the risk that a jury’s emotions would play into the verdict.

“All rise.” The bailiff addressed the room, another of the many formalities.

Kevin wasn’t fond of formalities, generally, and he was feeling fairly resentful about the whole situation by now, but choosing not to rise out of some misplaced disgruntlement wouldn’t be particularly conducive to–well, anything good–so he joined the others, feeling unusually heavy as he stood. Becky noticed and draped a supportive arm around his waist. Feeling her pressed next to him, warm and alive, helped him drop his tensed shoulders a little. He wrapped his arm around her, too.

“Court is now in session, the honorable Judge Lillian Spooner presiding.” The judge finished crossing the distance to the bench and gathered herself and her robe comfortably into her seat. She drew a document closer for a brief inspection before dropping it back again.

“Please be seated.” Other than the bailiff, the scattered handful of people assembled in the gallery retook their pews. Judge Spooner surveyed the room, lingering thoughtfully on Kevin and Becky for a moment before shifting her sharp gaze to the shelter’s director. His attorney seemed to have a sense of the verdict already, looking ready to grab her briefcase and go.

“Mr. Fisher, your staff was informed that the animal in question belonged to the plaintiffs. Further, you have acknowledged that the plaintiffs had claimed and intended to collect their animal the day it was put down. Finally, the record shows that your staff neglected to take a basic, mandatory procedural step to avoid this error. You have mounted no defense, merely excuses.” Spooner held her withering look on Fisher and his attorney for a moment longer before proceeding.

“The court finds that the defendant willfully, improperly, and negligently destroyed the plaintiffs’ property, entitling the plaintiffs to compensation for their loss.”

Fisher looked annoyed, but the verdict was what everyone had pretty much expected. The negligence had been so glaringly obvious that the Fisher had admitted immediately their failure to properly remove Harrison from the kill list after Kevin had called in. The shelter had publicly apologized to the community, too, but Dontanville County Animal Care and Control had been raked over the coals in the local news anyway. This had sparked a larger national discussion about whether shelters should be killing animals at all, though that broader discussion had already fizzled out with the ever-shifting news cycle.

So a guilty verdict had been a foregone conclusion, but what was still in question was whether the suit had been a total waste of time. The damages were the only reason to have shown up at the court that day. From the beginning, Kevin and Becky had been pushed by a desire to punish the shelter, and had determined that the whole thing would be pointless if the court found that Harrison’s death merited little more than the reimbursement of his original adoption cost, which was a real risk. Gary had made it clear from the time they first retained him that, while their case was unusually open-and-shut, they shouldn’t expect much in the way of damages.

“Judgments are typically based on the fair market value of property, which can vary,” Gary had instructed. “A court might find that a shelter animal is worth practically nothing, while a purebred dog or horse might be valued higher if the market value can be demonstrated. However, some courts have more recently offered damages in recognition that the animal property in question had a special value beyond that of any common thing. Such damages are generally limited to what a court might provide if the property in question were something particularly unique, like an irreplaceable family heirloom.”

The best case they could expect, then, was recognition from the court that, from the standpoint of determining a monetary award, their dog was a special kind of thing. That was the closest thing to justice that this court was capable of providing Harrison.

“Mr. and Mrs. Anderson,” Judge Spooner continued. “I own a dog myself, the sweetest little terrier, and it does pain me to consider what it must be like to be in your shoes right now.” Leaning forward on her elbows and addressing them very plainly, she looked quite sincere. Pained, even. Kevin was taken aback. In both Gary’s prep work with them and the judge’s demeanor up until now, he had been led to expect the judge to be more or less impersonal, coldly logical, and even conservative in applying the law and rendering a verdict. But Judge Lillian Spooner was indeed human. A human who also loved a dog. Though Kevin didn’t believe she could possibly know what it was like to be in his and Becky’s shoes at the moment, despite her apparently sincere efforts.

“We expect our shelters to do the right thing when it comes to animals. Lives are quite literally on the line. And when staff are negligent and cause the needless death of a loved one, it harms all of us: You lose your beloved Harrison and the community loses trust in its shelters.” No mention of Harrison’s loss, of course. Kevin hadn’t expected any. But he was amazed again at the person Harrison had helped him to become, to be able to hear so keenly Harrison’s absence from that list of stakeholders, and to comprehend how absolutely typical it is for that absence to go unnoticed, even among those who claim to love animals.

“Now, the matter before us is strictly a property case. Your property was destroyed negligently, and that requires compensation to the owner in accordance with that property’s value, immeasurable as it might be.

“I understand that losing Harrison is unlike losing any old thing you could go out and buy again, like a car, and I know that no one could ever expect you to assign a monetary value to him, but the court must do its best under the law to compensate you for your loss. To my mind that means also recognizing Harrison’s sentimental value.” Judge Spooner leaned back into her seat again, that intimate demeanor fading back into business as usual as she reviewed the damages.

“The defendant shall pay the plaintiffs $70 for the fair market value of plaintiffs’ property. To this the court adds $5,000 for special value and an additional $5,000 penalty in light of the egregious failures on the part of the defendant which led to the destruction of the plaintiff’s property.”

Becky squeezed Kevin’s hand hard, startling him. Despite himself, he was actually glad to see her feeling good, considering how down they’d both been, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to feel it, too. He felt numb.

They’d gotten what they came for, and it was a big award, no doubt. Not the biggest he had come across when reading about cases similar to Harrison’s on the web–and there were too many of those–but it was still a rather sizable award. The shelter had been punished. Despite this best-case outcome, despite it not being a “waste of time,” Kevin felt empty. At the end of this long road to a judgment, he was no longer interested in punishing the shelter. The underlying problem was much bigger than Dontanville County Animal Care and Control.

“Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, I know full well that this award cannot compensate you for your loss–none can–but perhaps it can go some way toward putting Dontanville County Animal Care and Control and other shelters on notice. Having entrusted them with our most precious property, they must regain our trust. I don’t want see any more people in my courtroom who’ve been betrayed by a so-called shelter.”

Feeling the judge’s sympathetic gaze, Kevin nodded in acknowledgment. That was more intense experience than anything he expected from the court. Still, it kind of missed the point. Harrison himself was betrayed. All animals were. We could claim all we want that we care about animals and that we want to protect them, but this was pretty much the best we could ever hope to do for them. And, despite Judge Spooner’s words, there was truly nothing to keep this from happening again. The penalty wouldn’t make a dent in the underlying problem–couldn’t, in fact–because the underlying problem wasn’t that staffers at animal shelters were occasionally careless. The problem was systemic. As long as animals’ lives counted for so little that shelters extinguished millions of those lives every year–as long as animals continued to be regarded as mere things in the first place–there would inevitably be more Harrisons.

Now that he and Becky had taken their case as far as they legally could, Kevin wanted to get out of that courtroom. Barely present, he waited for the formalities to conclude, shook Gary’s hand, promised to call him, and accepted Becky’s hand as she guided them to the exit.

° ° °

Drinking a beer an hour later and barely tasting it, Kevin sat listening to Becky in a booth at one of their favorite restaurants. It was one of those places that helps justify its entrée prices with trendy art and fixtures, white table cloths, rich woods, leather upholstery, and strategic mood lighting that helped make the large space feel more intimate. Coming here was a weak stab at restoring normalcy, but the conversation was still drawn to the verdict.

“Of course it doesn’t make everything all better. I know that. But I think it means something that the judge recognized that Harrison had “special value.” And the five grand award for that, plus penalties… She practically threw the book at the shelter. It’s everything we were hoping for.” Her eyes sparkled. As she almost always had in their relationship, she had found some way to focus on the positive.

Kevin shrugged. “I’m sure we did just about as well as anyone could under these circumstances, but that’s sort of my problem with this whole thing. What’s the award supposed to accomplish? We don’t need the money, it won’t bring Harry back, and nothing will change in the long run. Honestly, at this point I’m more concerned about whether our award is going to deprive the shelter of funds it needs to take care of other animals. Now that we’re at the end of it, I just don’t see any upside.”

“We’ll donate the money, of course.” She seemed a bit deflated now. The sparkle had faded. But she hadn’t hesitated. “Definitely I would want it to go back to directly helping animals.” She grew thoughtful. Kevin nodded, glad that Becky had brought that up. She’d always cared about animals; Harrison was a rescue. Her compassion for animals had rubbed off on him. They had even done walks and runs to raise money for animals. But what he wanted for her to see, that he was now seeing, was that animals needed more than compassion if they’re going to be properly protected. How best to explain where he was at when he could barely articulate it to himself? It was right there, had been in the courtroom, connected deeply to the property problem, he knew it. He frowned in thought.

“There’s something fundamentally wrong with the whole thing.” Kevin stopped, dissatisfied with the vague start. Becky leaned in, picking up more of the overhead lighting in her face, looking almost angelic as she attentively watched him search for the right words.

“Remember the way your cousin, Krista, bought that dog last year because she wanted a small, apartment-friendly dog that was supposedly non-allergenic and good with kids?”

“She researched it on the internet and everything.” She shook her head. As someone who could never buy an animal while millions were dying in shelters, she’d tried to talk her cousin out of it, but couldn’t convince her. She had to have that particular dog.

“She did. She was educating herself as a consumer,” Kevin elaborated, “the way someone picks out the right TV or car for their lifestyle. That whole situation annoyed me, too, but back then I didn’t understand why it bothered me so much. Now I do.” He spoke slowly, deliberately. “It’s because she saw that dog as a thing. Not the way we saw Harrison. She was looking for something that was part companion, part accessory. The dog was a commodity in a marketplace. And that’s what Harrison was in that courtroom today, as far as the law was concerned: our thing. To suit our interests. I hated that feeling, as if Harrison was just some thing we could go out and replace at a pet store. Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Of course,” she stated it as obvious, with a shrug, but then she seemed to sort of drift off for a moment. In her eyes Kevin could see her thinking.

“I did have that sense that we were basically talking around him the whole time,” she revealed. “Like, the whole case was about us when it should have been about him.”

“Exactly.” Kevin leaned in eagerly, getting somewhere. “In that court, Harrison’s interests as a dog, as a being, were totally ignored–totally irrelevant. But the law couldn’t disregard animals like that–it would actually protect them–if we all stopped seeing them as commodities, as our things.” Kevin paused and chewed on that, now that he’d said it out loud. It was a big statement.

Becky leaned back into her seat and they sat, regarding each other over an empty table as they weighed the implications of his conclusion. It was a pretty big leap to make, he thought. Big for her, because they had only just started talking about it, but it was kind of a big leap for him, too. Despite having thought about this stuff for a little while now, he had only recently come to think of all the companion animals like Harrison who might end up in a shelter. And it was only at this very moment that was he making a connection between Harrison and pretty much any other animal. He could feel his perspective shifting, like a seemingly immutable constellation had changed while he looked away. This wasn’t where he thought he was going when he started talking to Becky, but it made logical sense. She leaned back in, having grabbed hold of an idea. Her eyes were bright again.

“If the best we can do for even our most beloved animals is to regard them as ‘special’ things, something is pretty messed up.” He nodded, recognizing his earlier thought. He liked that Becky was thinking along these lines, too. Made it easier to consider these thoughts when they were on the same page.

“No doubt,” he said. “So what about all the other animals, for whom we have no special feelings? What’s the best possible scenario they can experience as someone’s property?” He hadn’t only asked her. He thought about it for himself, too, trying to imagine the best practical scenario for animals used for human pleasure and convenience. It wasn’t good.

“If the best we can do for a given animal is what was done for Harry,” Becky replied, “then the protection provided to animals who don’t have his ‘special value’ must be practically non-existent.” She looked pensive, deeply saddened by this revelation. It hurt to see, and it hurt to think about it, too. But he knew he couldn’t put the thought out of his mind. He couldn’t comfort her, or himself. They had to face reality. Harrison had one more lesson to teach them.

One of their regular servers, Brian, stopped by the table to deliver their usual comfort dinner: Kevin, a thick, chargrilled steak; Becky, roasted chicken with rosemary. These dishes had become routine favorites out of comfort and familiarity, the way the crisp grilled flesh felt under the teeth and the juices slid over the tongue. But as the plates were set in front of them, Kevin stared back at his, wrestling with nagging thoughts. Becky regarded her plate, too, doubtful.

“Bon appétit!” Brian, an affable lifer in his late 30s, observed that something unusual was going on this evening, and so the server quietly slipped away with the serving tray.

Leaden, Kevin picked up his fork and knife and cut open the chargrilled steak to reveal the pink muscle inside, a gaping wound staring back at him. He stopped cutting and let his fork and knife clank hard against the table. Becky saw Kevin’s expression slacken and she leaned forward again to put her hand on his. He could feel her watching him. He wanted her to see what he was seeing. Better yet, how he was seeing. He didn’t know how to put it into words, but he had never seen it quite so clearly: Sitting in front of him was muscle tissue carved from another being. It was part of someone else’s body. He thought of Harrison’s too-mortal flesh, also meat. Meat he never would have dreamed of eating. He had never thought of it this way before, never even thought of thinking this way before. He supposed he hadn’t had to. Human privilege had its benefits. But now he did think about it this way. He intuited that he must.

To eat the steak before him would require believing that the animal from whom it was taken was meaningfully different from Harrison, the moral equivalent of a thing. But no meaningful differences came to mind. The fact that Kevin had known Harrison personally didn’t change whether it was wrong to eat him. It didn’t matter that Harrison was bred for a non-food purpose, as the only reason some animals were used for food and some animals for other purposes was simply because of tradition. Because someone said so.

Here it was, staring him in the face, the thing that tied it all together: There simply was no morally relevant difference between Harrison and other animals. That changed everything.

He looked at his plate again. The animal from whom his steak had been cut had been an individual, like Harrison. Like Harrison, he would have had interests of his own–interests in avoiding suffering and death, for example–interests far greater than Kevin’s own transient and trivial interest in eating a steak that he’d forget by dessert.

He couldn’t look at the plate in front of him anymore, much less eat it. He kept seeing Harrison there instead. It was a dark, cruel twist that caused him to make that connection, but it couldn’t be unmade, and he knew it would haunt him. Still, if anything worthwhile was going to come of Harrison’s death, it was going to be the understanding that Kevin couldn’t continue to use animals for his own benefit any more than he’d ever thought of “using” Harrison for his own benefit.

If Becky agreed with what he felt they must do–and, given that she had already covered her plate with her cloth napkin, he was pretty sure she would–she would no doubt find the positive in it. But first he had to get out of there.

Kevin unfolded his napkin and placed it over his plate, too. Then he shuffled some money out of his wallet and onto the table. Together, he and Becky left the restaurant.

Walking to the car, Kevin broke his silence.

“They didn’t deserve to die any more than he did.”

“I know. It’s okay. I get it. We don’t have to participate in that.”

Kevin stopped and looked at Becky closely in the dim light out front of the restaurant. A weight seemed to be lifting. He took her hands in his. She looked up at him with the strength of love and a shared certainty of purpose, a sparkle in her eyes. For the first time in a long while, Kevin smiled.

Creative Commons License
Harrison’s Worth by Eric J. Prescott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
The source can be found at https://ericprescott.com/2014/02/08/harrisons-worth/.

Thought for the day – Francione

Mary Martin deconstructs an editorial in today’s New York Times, which states in no uncertain terms that “animal husbandry has been turned into animal abuse.” I’d like to chime in on a quote Mary pulled from a Pew Commission report referenced in the editorial:

“The present system of producing food animals (sic) in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food.”

(emphasis mine)

I was surprised Mary didn’t include a deconstruction of the hideously speciesist term “food animals” (i.e., nonhuman animals bred, confined and killed for the purposes of consumption), but she was already taking on a lot with that post, primarily the underlying assumptions in the editorial and these reports. It would seem that they all take for granted that consuming other beings is necessary.

As vegans know, there is some faulty thinking behind this assumption, and I wanted to expand on Mary’s post briefly by offering an excerpt of my own, from Gary L. Francione’s Introduction to Animal Rights, in which he works from the principles that inform our animal welfare laws and builds out from there, doing the proper mental math:

…we are supposed to balance our interests against those of animals in order to determine whether particular animal use or treatment is necessary. But because animals are property, and because we have great respect for property rights, we have decided–before we even start our balancing process–that it is morally acceptable to use animals for food, hunting, entertainment, clothing, experiments, product testing, and so forth. That is, we generally do not question whether particular institutions of animal use are necessary; rather we inquire only whether particular practices that are part of those various institutions are necessary.

(emphasis mine)

This is a very important distinction, but it is frequently overlooked even by animal rights advocates. Focusing on how animals are treated takes as its base assumption that using animals is necessary and acceptable in the first place. Those of us who purport to advocate animal rights ought to be focusing everything we have on exposing the inaccuracy of this assumption, not reinforcing it with activism that seeks to regulate the ways in which humans treat nonhumans.

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Hypocrisy and animal advocacy

Hypocrisy on the High Seas

In a new article published by the German newspaper, Die Welt, Australian philosopher and bioethicist Peter Singer attempts to shift the international debate over whale hunting and slaughter from protecting an endangered species to protecting whales as “social mammals with big brains, capable of enjoying life and of feeling pain – and not only physical pain, but very likely also distress at the loss of one of their group.” In doing so, he turns the tables on Westerners who condemn whale hunting while continuing to support other forms of hunting, and to consume the bodies and secretions of other morally relevant ‘factory farmed’ beings. However, it is odd that he narrows the hypocrisy to consuming factory farmed beings. After all, animals bred, confined and killed in non-intensive conditions have as much an interest in avoiding pain, suffering and death as factory farmed animals, much less free-swimming whales.

Singer’s basic assertion in this piece is that it is impossible to humanely kill whales, and thus whaling is unethical. It’s hard to disagree with this statement, though whaling is unethical even if suffering could be eliminated, and it begs the question of whether it is possible to humanely kill other beings. Later in the article, Singer refers to sentience as a basis for extending moral consideration to other beings (“the wrongness of causing needless suffering to sentient beings is not culturally specific”) but, unfortunately for some animals, he does not seem to view sentience as a sufficient characteristic for protection from being unnecessarily treated as a means to human ends. When it comes to the wrongness of unnecessarily killing sentient beings for our purposes, presumably without causing them suffering, Singer looks to their cognitive capacity, a characteristic that is irrelevant to whether or not they deserve moral consideration.[1]

Are some animals more equal than others?

While Singer maintains that an animal’s sentience is sufficient for us to avoid unnecessarily causing him or her any pain or suffering, it is conceivable under his theory that unnecessarily killing certain animals could be justified. One gets the impression from his work that it does not harm some animals to be killed, assuming it is done painlessly. In his book, Practical Ethics, he states that there is

no single answer to the question: ‘Is it normally wrong to take the life of an animal?’ The term ‘animal’–even in the restricted sense of ‘non-human animal’–covers too diverse a range of lives for one principle to apply to all of them.[2]

Here he determines quite arbitrarily that sentience alone is insufficient for determining whether or not it is acceptable to kill animals in the normal course of events. For Singer, there must be some criteria other than sentience we must take into account when giving equal consideration to their continued existence:

Some non-human animals appear to be rational and self-conscious, conceiving of themselves as distinct beings with a past and a future. When this is so, or to the best of our knowledge may be so, the case against killing is strong, as strong as the case against killing permanently intellectually disabled human beings at a similar mental level.[3]

Singer basically layers cognitive capacities over sentience in order to determine whether or not it is morally acceptable for us to (painlessly) kill other beings. For Singer, the wrongness of (painlessly) killing animals derives from the loss of pleasure that it may involve, not ignoring an individual being’s interest in continuing to exist. So, even if a whale could somehow be killed painlessly, it would still be wrong to kill her because she presumably has a sense of self, a sense of the future, and because any calves she had might suffer psychologically (and even physically) from the loss.

This theory is all well and good for cetaceans, primates of all species and probably most mammals, but what of beings with diminished, indiscernible, or simply no higher cognitive abilities? Do they not have an interest in continuing to survive? We can’t say that they do, for that would be biologically and evolutionarily counterintuitive, regardless of their ability to conceive of themselves, the future, or any other cognitive characteristics. All sentient beings have an interest in survival, so any additional criteria are irrelevant.

Sentience: The basis for animal rights

Apparently Singer believes that non-rational, non-self-conscious sentient beings do not have an interest in continuing to exist, which justifies taking their lives for our benefit so long as it is done painlessly and so long as we replace such beings with new ones to continue experiencing pleasure in their stead, as if individual beings are somehow replaceable. He asserts that a “wrong done to an existing being can be made up for by a benefit conferred on an as yet non-existent being.”[4]

First of all, if killing a being is wrong, as Singer states it is, shouldn’t we avoid committing that wrong in the first place? Second, this statement suggests that the individual matters less than that individual’s capacity to sense. As long as the sensations continue, the individual sensing them appears to be totally interchangeable.

Fascinating.

How might we replace individual beings with like beings? Animals are not inanimate, insensate household furnishings you can replace at will with a quick trip to IKEA. In fact, it is this attitude toward animals that leads to problems like overpopulated shelters and rampant animal cruelty. Unlike furniture, sentient beings have a demonstrable interest in continued existence, whether or not they are rational and self-conscious, and so it harms them to end their lives, regardless of whether or not they are killed painlessly, much less “replaced” by someone else.

Even if we were able to find a suitable replacement, we would not permit the slaughter and consumption of a human being who lacks self-awareness and is irrational. This is not simply out of concern for such a person’s familial attachments, nor is it due to species bias, though that may well be the rationale some individuals use. Ultimately the reason that we do not as a general matter permit the slaughter and consumption of such mentally incapacitated human beings is because we recognize that depriving them of further existence would harm them irrevocably.

By the same token, there is no justification for slaughtering and consuming nonhuman animals. As with human beings, their sentience is a sufficient criterion for us to also protect their interest in continued existence with a legal prohibition, or the basic right to not be treated as a means to our own ends.

Rights? What rights?

Of course, Singer rejects the existence of rights, beyond the term’s rhetorical usefulness[5], so how are we to protect whales under his theory, much less any other beings? He does not prescribe any remedy, other than perhaps an intimation that a morally wrong activity such as whaling ought to be rejected by those in the society that perpetrates the activity, such as Japan. In turn, anyone who objects to whaling would be hypocritical not to reject the killing of any other rational, self-aware beings–such as pigs, cows and, yes, chickens–even if it were done painlessly. But what of those that continue to accept whaling or steak-eating as morally acceptable? Without prohibitions that ban the use of nonhuman animals as a means to our ends, such practices will continue, however unpopular various types use may become.

Many countries provide basic rights for humans to avoid this very problem. Most of us agree that it is wrong to treat humans as a means to our own ends. But because some people do not agree with us, we have passed laws as a means of protecting humans from such people. Any justification for failing to extend similar basic rights to any sentient nonhumans is arbitrary, as they too have a demonstrable interest in not being used as a means to human ends.

Which animals?

If basic rights are legislated on behalf of any beings, they must be legislated on the basis of their sentience, not their cognitive capacity. Otherwise the law(s) would unjustly exclude morally relevant sentient beings. By focusing on whales–and on their cognitive capacity in particular–we risk seeing such laws passed, creating a new, arbitrarily-derived hierarchy under which some sentient beings could legally be harmed.

Certainly we should not ignore the plight of hunted whales. But we must encourage people to see whales as representative of every sentient being, and to encourage an attitude toward all beings that is consistent with their attitude toward whales. We should be asking that every sentient being is accorded the right not to be treated as a means to human ends, not just those with big brains. Otherwise, we too are hypocrites.


[1] The point of this entry is not for me to sit behind a computer and take potshots at Peter Singer, but to critically assess his argument, as everyone should. Because this site aims to promote animal-friendly living, in particular living a life that is consistent with respecting the interests animals have in not being used as a means to human ends, it is my goal here to further clarify the positions animal advocates ought to be taking publicly if they intend to abolish animal exploitation.

I appreciate that Singer and others are attempting to turn the international debate over whaling into one that focuses on the moral problem of unnecessarily harming animals for our benefit, rather than merely the conservation of “natural resources”. However, I am concerned about the repercussions of his exclusive approach. If we base our attitude toward animals on their intelligence, and not on their sentience, we risk leaving morally relevant beings out of the discussion, and that would merely perpetuate the speciesism we are attempting to end.


[2] Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press; 2 edition, 1999) 131
[3] Ibid. 131-132
[4] Ibid. 133
[5] Herbivore Magazine, July 2007, Interview: Peter Singer

Thanking the Monkey

For today’s entry, I originally set out to review Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals (Harper Collins, 4/29/08, $19.95), a forthcoming book written by my friend, Karen Dawn, but I ended up churning out a somewhat rambling essay instead, which some of you faithful readers may have come to expect from me anyway. At this rate, publishers are going to stop sending me books.

Karen’s activism was influential at a certain point in life when I found myself getting involved in animal rights activism (and it’s clear from this book that she intends for a great many other people to get involved in some form of animal activism as well). While we certainly share a number of opinions, and she has written plenty with which I can agree, Thanking the Monkey illuminates various ways in which I have come to see animal rights and AR activism differently from Karen.

Despite her efforts to remain as accessible to as many potential readers as possible–and, for the most part, I think she succeeds here–there are many who will likely reject the book out of hand due to a fundamental difference between her “loose” definition of animal rights and those who take animal rights very much to heart as an ethical matter. It’s no surprise, then, that Karen specifically addresses abolitionism very early on (page 5, “Anti-Welfare Warriors”), though it may be more surprising to some that elsewhere in the book she quotes one of the more outspoken proponents for the abolitionist approach, lawyer, philosopher and professor Gary L. Francione. For those just arriving to the party, abolitionism is summarized by Francione as “a nonviolent approach to animal rights that (1) requires the abolition of animal exploitation; (2) is based only on sentience and no other cognitive characteristic, and (3) regards veganism as the moral baseline of the abolitionist approach.”

I’m not implying that self-described abolitionists will reject this book or be concerned about the impact it might have on readers solely because of this particular passage, thought it does unfairly and incorrectly suggest to readers that abolitionist animal rights activists (ARAs) are “anti-welfare” (not to mention “warriors”, which belies the peaceful foundation of abolitionist ideology). After all, I don’t know any animal activist actually opposed to a meaningful reduction in suffering for any being. Abolitionist advocacy is at odds with welfare advocacy not because it’s “easier to persuade people to stop eating veal while calves are crept in crates and deprived of iron,” as Karen puts it, but because pursuing husbandry reforms as an animal rights activist is defective on both empirical and ethical grounds.

It may well be the case that animal products with “humane certified” labels are more likely to be perceived as ethically acceptable food choices by the public, which may indeed make it more difficult to convince people on certain grounds that animals are harmed when we use them as a means to our ends. But that does not dissuade the abolitionist who knows that, as long as animals are subjected to commodity status by humans, they will continue to be harmed. No, the point is not that husbandry reforms make the job of ARAs harder, or any similar such dubious claim. That point is that husbandry reforms implicitly and explicitly claim that animal use can actually be made humane and, thus, animal rights is rendered moot. For an ARA, it simply makes no logical or ethical sense to promote a “gentler” use of animals that reinforces their status as human property while simultaneously claiming to oppose their use.

So here we have the primary reason most abolitionist ARAs are likely to dismiss Thanking the Monkey. In taking a relatively “loose” view of animal rights, Karen and others in the field of animal protection have stopped advocating animal rights altogether. As she writes, if the world were to go vegan, like Matthew Scully (author of Dominion), “would it matter, at least to the animals, whether or not he spoke about rights?”

Certainly animals don’t have any idea what a moral or legal right is, at least as far as we know. I’m certain, if they could answer us, they would ask us to simply leave them alone. But isn’t that the point of animal rights? It isn’t about their perceptions. It’s about their liberation. If everyone went vegan, of course there would be no profit in commodifying animals. And, certainly in such a world it would likely be easier to pass a law actually granting animals the right not to be used instrumentally. But, how can we ever expect the whole world to go vegan when the “animal rights movement” itself plays down the importance of veganism, and when the majority of activism centers around modifying the treatment of animals, rather than opposing their use altogether?

This “humane movement” has turned the animal rights movement into a loud call to reduce suffering, an honorable cause to be sure, but one which does not ask that people go vegan, and which does not even challenge the use that makes their suffering inevitable. Yet animal exploitation will not be abolished while all our attention is focused on how they are treated, and as long as the assumption that their use is justified goes unchallenged. It is this very assumption that is at the root of the problem that ARAs seek to address.

Over the past year or so, AAFL has made more of an effort to focus better on the roots of animal exploitation, which has led me to a greater awareness of what “animal rights” really means. At least two years of my life as an animal rights activist was spent doing work that, as I later understood, had nothing to do with animal rights. Sure I was raising awareness of institutionalized animal cruelty and promoting veganism, but I didn’t even fully understand or express the concept of “animal rights” until just over a year ago. You can imagine how floored I was once I actually “got it”, when I realized that “animal rights” activism as I had previously understood it was actually welfare activism, the pursuit of husbandry reforms within animal agribusiness, not advocating the basic moral right of animals to be free of unnecessary and harmful human domination.

Unsurprisingly, many activists within the “animal rights movement” are caught up in the welfare paradigm of “animal rights”. So many of us became vegan and got interested in helping animals due to the efforts of organizations that conduct these husbandry reform campaigns, which seems to have led to a type of circular thinking along the lines of “That’s how I went vegan, so it must work. Why fix something that isn’t broken?” The problem is that, while some people are disgusted enough by institutionalized cruelty toward animals that they go vegan as a result of husbandry reform campaigns, the actual animal rights message is left out, and activists end up spinning their wheels chasing after the myriad forms of suffering caused to animals that will continue so long as their use goes unchallenged.

I know that, when I went vegan, I didn’t have any real clue about animal rights, and part of the reason is because no one seemed to be talking about it. I figured, like so many others, that if the people at “animal rights” organizations call themselves animal rights activists, what they do must be what ARAs do, so I followed the recommendations of those who had been around for a long time and surely knew better than myself what I should be doing. And, hey, who doesn’t want to end animal suffering?

I didn’t understand the root causes of all this animal suffering until later on. Like other new activists, I was under the impression for a time that the best and most “pragmatic” way to help animals now was to pursue an agenda that focuses on means-to-an end tactics and panders to public sentiment, whether it be the health argument, the environment or reducing animal suffering. I’ve even been at a demonstration where one activist got in everyone’s face and loudly claimed that they’d never need Viagra if they only went vegan. It was offensive and embarrassing. All these approaches ignore the issue of animals’ rights altogether, apparently out of fear that the public will not relate or will tune them out. Of course, I saw a lot of people tuning out the Viagra message, too.

It’s a little like a popularity contest, isn’t it? Don’t challenge the status quo if you want people to like you. Dilute yourself to the point where you won’t offend anyone’s sensibilities–play down any differences you might have–and you will find more people accepting you. By pandering to the public and keeping sights aimed so low, this conformist strategy appears to have worked for the humane movement, at least in terms of mainstream acceptance.

Animal welfare organizations have grown rather prominent and–dare I say?–influential, prompting a lot of back-patting and general sentiment that animals are being taken more seriously than ever, but in what way? And to what effect? We’ve seen no discernible shift toward a world that understands animal rights, much less one that embraces its ideals. The number of vegans in our society is still statistically insignificant–a rounding error, if you will. I do see a lot more attention around “conscientious omnivorism” and “humane” labeling, but certainly an ARA shouldn’t be promoting or otherwise endorsing the exploitation and consumption of the very animals they seek to protect.

Unfortunately, animal rights ideals have been misappropriated and misrepresented in the course of compromising “the message” to connect with a wider audience. As some in the “animal rights movement” will tell you, “animal rights” is a really just a catch-all term that doesn’t necessarily refer to the moral or legal rights of animals at all. Ironically, the so-called “father” of the animal rights movement, Peter Singer, does not even accept the concept of rights (Karen also points this out in Thanking the Monkey). Like many in the humane movement, Singer prefers to use the term “animal rights” as a handy rhetorical device, or a banner under which to operate dramatically in the public eye, which is a clear misrepresentation.

When polls indicate that a majority of the public agrees with certain AR views, what we are seeing is merely an agreement with the diluted, “loose” perception of animal “rights” as being anything meant to improve the conditions of animals exploited for human benefit. In effect, that sympathetic portion of the public associates AR with improvements in animal treatment, not the abolition of their use altogether (though traditional welfare advocates are doing their best to make sure that their constituencies are clear on what both abolitionists and new welfarists[1] ultimately want). Of course, the only people I’ve come across that disagree with improving conditions for animals are those primarily concerned with keeping the cost of their hamburgers, burritos and pizza low, no matter what the cost is to the animals.

Perhaps it’s these very people that have convinced many would-be animal rights activists that we shouldn’t be focusing on spreading abolition of animal use by promoting veganism and animal rights. After all, people like those described above will “never” go vegan, or so the story goes. Instead, we’re told we should be seeking to engage a broader population that agrees that factory farming is horrible and will support efforts to make animal agribusiness more “humane”. In this way, we will at least reduce the amount of suffering encountered by billions of animals every year. If, in the meantime, our campaigns manage to shock some of the more sensitive types into going vegan altogether, then so much the better.

But isn’t this backward? Shouldn’t animal rights activists be promoting veganism and, you know, animal rights? Shouldn’t husbandry reforms be a “side effect” of our work, as the industry responds to the inroads we’re making with veganism and AR, instead of veganism (and more often vegetarianism or “conscientious omnivorism”) being a side effect of “animal rights” activists promoting the consumption of less-cruelly-treated animals and their secretions?

Why would animal rights activists behave like traditional or “classical” welfarists when their end goal is abolition? New welfarists are doing the sort of work that you would think should be done by traditional welfarists and the industry or, in other words, by the very people who believe it’s acceptable to harm animals by using and killing them, so long as they lead “happy” lives in the span between their artificially-induced births and prematurely-induced deaths.

The ethically consistent stance of an ARA, on the other hand, is that it is never acceptable to harm sentient beings unnecessarily, and that our means should resemble our ends. We should not be partnering or otherwise aiding animal exploiters in profiting off the bodies and deaths of animals. We should clearly, consistently and rationally–even emotionally–promote veganism and animal rights together as inseparable concepts.

Surely if we lead unwaveringly with this stance, a society that is already horrified by a variety of unnecessary animal uses will eventually follow. By focusing consistently on veganism and AR as moral imperatives, we push the envelope, dragging everyone else behind us (despite some kicking and screaming), thus sparking reactionary husbandry reforms as the animal use industries vainly struggle to salvage their profits. This can be done without having to compromise our own vision and ethics in the process, and without resorting to the same “ends justify the means” mentality people use to rationalize animal use and consumption.

Just because it’s conceivable that a welfarist approach may someday meaningfully reduce some of the most egregious suffering caused to animals does not make it animal rights work. It’s welfarism, plain and simple. Now, new welfarists are obviously different from traditional welfarists in that, unlike the classical welfarists, new welfarists claim to seek abolition, but they do believe that continuing the centuries-long welfare tradition of attempting to reduce the suffering of institutionally exploited animals will somehow inexorably lead to animal liberation, or will at least pave the way for a world that accepts that animals ought to have rights.

This view has led people who once sought the complete abolition of animal use to pursue activism that is inconsistent with their belief that it is wrong to use animals, typically in order to achieve apparent compromises from industry. But this assumes that any sort of gain in the negotiations between animal exploiters and reform advocates results in progress for animal rights, which is simply not the case. These compromises are only accepted by the industry when they are good for PR or otherwise improve the bottom line, with very little exception.

The animal use industries will, of course, fight with every last dollar any action meant to totally abolish its use of animals. There are obvious, deep-rooted reasons of self-interest for this, not to mention fundamental ideological differences, and that is precisely why any “victory” claimed by “animal rights” advocates in this situation cannot be said to be a victory for animal rights. The only regulations with any chance of being approved are those which merely specify how animals may be used, not whether animals may be used for a given purpose in the first place.

What’s more, much new welfarist activism actually supports the efforts of classical welfarists and even the animal use industries itself. Examples include partnering with or applauding “humane” label certification programs, generating reports to demonstrate how certain husbandry reforms are more efficient and profitable, publicly honoring slaughterhouse designers, and promoting companies like Wolfgang Puck and Burger King, which traffick almost exclusively in the flesh and secretions of sentient beings. These campaigns make it rather hard to tell the difference between the new welfarist and the traditional welfarist.

Now, this isn’t to say that those working at organizations who partner with agribusiness don’t personally believe in abolishing animal exploitation. Clearly many of them believe that, somehow, by engaging in these compromises and trade-offs that keep animals entrenched as property in an exploitative system, they will someday get them out of it. But it just doesn’t add up, logically, nor in terms of moral consistency. I don’t write these things to belittle or otherwise denigrate anyone’s beliefs or the work they have done and continue to do to try to help animals. However, I think it is vitally important for all of us to think very critically about our activism, and how we go about living animal-friendly lives, and that is why I am asking you to strongly consider my words.

Regulating animal enterprise’s treatment of animals does not address the fact that they are being used in the first place, which is of course the root of the problem. We cannot solve the problem without addressing it directly. Using the closest human example of slavery as an analogy, requiring slave owners to exploit their property more gently would have done nothing to get slaves out of servitude. While slaves might have welcomed a gentler whip, or a cap on the number of lashings they might have received per day, they would still have remained the property of other human beings and, as property, their interests in pretty much anything would have remained necessarily subservient to those who owned them, even the most “humane” masters.

Similarly, despite all the cries of victory when a husbandry reform is approved to phase out a particular method of animal treatment in, say, 10 or 20 years, such regulations (assuming they are not overturned or circumvented) do not lead to the abolition of animal use. Animal rights is not even on the table, and most welfare-oriented organizations–craving “legitimacy”–are eager to keep actual rights for animals away from the table, out of concern that AR is simply too radical a position to put forward for mainstream acceptance.

Of course, animal rights won’t come at the legislative level any time soon, and that will continue to be the case until a much larger percentage of the population accepts the moral right of all animals not to be treated as a means to our ends. But this doesn’t mean that ARAs are doomed to fail, or that we should set our sights on a completely different kind of activism. Laws are passed in response to voter demand, which of course changes over time. One day the public will be as outraged over the use of animals for unnecessary purposes like food, clothing and entertainment as they currently are about dog- and cock-fighting, but only if we convince people that such uses are morally similar, not if we give them the impression that certain uses are acceptable as long as they do not involve the most egregious cruelties.

The effect of demand holds true for the corporations that exploit animals as well, for obvious reasons. Some day, animal enterprises will either have to shift to a vegan model in response to evolving market pressures or fold. Of course, neither the laws nor the industry is going to move away from our current paradigm unless voters and consumers do. But public demand will not shift away from animal use as long as we settle for “Humane Meat,” “Free Range” eggs, etc. These labels, and other public relations “carrots” offered to animal exploiters, have the effect of promoting “gentle” animal use, which has lead to a rather profitable market segment characterized by people (including former vegans) who believe that it is acceptable to use and consume animals as long as they are not being treated certain ways. How can we say that this leads us to a vegan world?

In effect, the activism of some very outspoken (former) animal rights advocates has, on the surface anyway, become nearly indistinguishable from the traditional welfarism that existed in Western culture for hundreds of years before animal rights rose to prominence in the 1970s. A movement that once sought to banish the use of animals for any purpose now trades away the lives of some animals in expectation of reducing the suffering of others, figuring that those sacrificed for gains today can be addressed when the winds of change are more favorable to them. Such an approach may be expedient, but it assumes that this “pragmatic” trade-off will succeed in achieving narrowly defined goals, and it tramples all over the moral rights we claim to accept for all animals.

For instance, in order to help end the annual Canadian seal slaughter, the humane movement has traded away the interests of other sea animals who are considerably less cute and, thus, less popular with donors who want to keep eating animals and their secretions, but don’t see the value in killing baby seals. People are told quite plainly by animal activists (frequently called animal rights activists by the media) that, if they boycott Canadian “seafood”, but eat “seafood” from other regions, they will help save seals from being massacred.

Someday, this campaign may actually generate enough support to pressure Canada’s government into abolishing the seal hunt, but history has shown that to be fairly unlikely. In the meantime, “animal rights” activists are trading away the interests of fishes and other sea creatures to benefit seals, which is just fine by “cuddlytarian” supporters, who have nothing to lose. They don’t benefit from the exploitation of baby seals, so ending their slaughter doesn’t negatively impact them. But asking them not to eat any animals from the sea does, so that campaign is swept under a rug, presumably for a later day.

But if ARAs don’t stand up for animal rights and veganism now, who will? How will AR and veganism ever be widely accepted if we are constantly downplaying their importance or backing away from them? If we don’t fully embrace AR and veganism and “own” their ideals unapologetically, then we have given up before we ever started, and that’s a great way to sell ourselves, the animals, and our fellow humans short. When we tell people that the only obligation they have to animals is to reduce their suffering, when we tell them that veganism is too hard or even optional, and when we distance ourselves from the idea that using animals as a means to our ends is unnecessary and harmful to animals, we “give away the store”. What a pessimistic approach.

There is no way that path will ever lead to animal rights. It leads away from the abolition of animal exploitation, and we would do well to pull out our compass right now and reorient ourselves. To use another metaphor, we cannot build an abolitionist house on a foundation that views unnecessary animal use as potentially ethical.

So how do we build an abolitionist foundation?

Start by first understanding that animals will never be free from unnecessary harm so long as they are dominated by humans, regardless of how they are treated by some. Recognize that animals must be granted the right to not be treated instrumentally by humans if they are ever to be free from this subjugation. Our use of animals must simply be abolished. Of course, this means abolishing animal use in your own life by going vegan, if you haven’t already. This is very much living the idea of being the change you wish to see in the world.

Next, learn to discuss with others how their behavior is inconsistent with their belief that it is wrong to unnecessarily harm animals, and encourage them to also go vegan. Promote the view that using animals as a means to our ends violates their basic interests as sentient beings and that, as fellow sentient beings, we cannot tolerate this lack of respect and consideration.

Spread these views throughout your circle of influence as far as you can, as intelligently as you can, and with as much confidence as you are capable of mustering. You will be taken more seriously and, consequently, so will the animals for whom you advocate. A movement grounded in this level of respect, clarity and consistency is the only long-term path to abolition.

[1]Defined by Gary L. Francione as “animal advocates … who claim to embrace abolition as the long-term goal, but who argue that welfarist regulation in the short term is the only thing that we can, as a practical matter, do now to help animals.”

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse…

BusinessWire: Eggology Becomes First Egg Products Brand “Certified Humane” By Animal Welfare Auditor, Humane Farm Animal Care

According to Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), and their partners at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Eggology egg products are humane. There you have it. No reason to go vegan, you crazy animal huggers. Animals like to be killed for trivial reasons, such as the taste of scrambled eggs.

How is anyone supposed to explain that veganism is a moral obligation when HSUS, the ASPCA and HFAC are all saying that eggs can be produced humanely? You certainly can’t do it by stating that eggs are inherently inhumane. Why? Because that “radical animal rights organization,” HSUS, and other animal lovers say they can be produced humanely; you just gotta follow some simple guidelines…

With certified humane egg products on the market, you’ll be hard-pressed to convince the average Joe that an omelette made with Eggology, Hope Acres cheese and Prather Ranch ham is bad for animals. Heck, if you subscribe to the utilitarian point of view, you may be morally obligated to eat this breakfast, since those animal exploiters brought much happiness into the world by breeding, raising and killing those animals so that Average Joe could enjoy his tasty, “humane” breakfast. 

I am so disgusted.

If you are wondering why vegans and vegetarians have gone back to eating certain animal products, wonder no longer. These folks have, unfortunately, bought into the notion that it is humane to extinguish the life of another being for the sake of profit, to utilize others as a means to our ends when it is entirely unnecessary to do so.

If there is any doubt that animal welfare activism (masquerading as animal rights activism) harms the animal rights and vegan movement(s), I should hope this would make you think about it differently. We may well end up with a few countries in which the vast majority of animal products consumed by people that can afford it are produced outside of typical factory farming conditions. 

This may mean fewer people eat animal products. It may even mean that fewer people will be eating animal products than if we saw a doubling in the number of vegans over the same time period. But animals would still be human property. Their basic, primal interest in continued existence would be negated by our desire for food that we have become accustomed to, and which many people find delicious, but which is by no means necessary for our own continued existence. Their deaths would still be unnecessary blood on our hands. It would still be unjust.
Now, seriously, you can go into vegan outreach with your game face on, because you know that it is never humane to kill another being simply for our own enjoyment, but that conversation is becoming harder and harder than ever, and it’s all because of our friends at various animal protection organizations working so hard to help animal exploiters prove that animal products can be produced humanely!
Good luck, activists. You’re gonna need it.

Fish have personalities (duh)

SOURCE: The Vancouver Sun: Nothing fishy about personality traits in animals, study finds

Of course, in typical fashion, researchers note that wild fish may have personalities, then they decide to grab a bunch of them for their study. Evidently, in their minds, having a personality has no relationship to having an interest in being left alone.

McLaughlin and student Alex Wilson found that the personalities stayed distinct even after the young fish, still just two to four centimetres long, left their natural homes.

For instance, he put the fish in a dark tube in the aquarium. The more active fish were always the ones that emerged into the main body of the tank first. They were more ready to take risks, and less afraid of unfamiliar objects in the water.

“What they do in the field predicts what they do in the lab,” he said. “We were getting this sense that they perceive the environment differently, and the kind of things we measured are part of what people are starting to call personality traits in animals.”

Is it just me, or do some scientists occasionally act like little children, sort of like pulling the tails off gerbils just to see what happens? And, of course, we tell children not to harm animals…

Maybe this will get easier as more and more people recognize animals as individuals with distinct personalities.

The idea of personalities is starting to spread across our views of the whole animal kingdom, says Rob McLaughlin, the Guelph biologist who ran the study. This seems obvious in the case of dogs or chimpanzees, but less obvious among fish.

Of course it’s obvious, mainly because we have more experience with them, but there’s also the consideration that some animals seem more neurologically advanced than others. But people need to stop assuming that non-humans and humans do not share certain basic, evolutionarily-developed traits like pain, fear, affection (love) and even personality. The pressures applied to our respective species, and our ability to adapt to them as individuals, result in different outcomes for each of us. Look at the difference between feral cats and house cats for one patently obvious example of how one’s environment shapes personality in animals.

The more rational course, in my opinion, would be to work from an assumption that all animals are unique beings with fundamental interests and leave them alone, rather than exploiting them to find out where we are right or wrong. Because, when we’re right–when we do research on an animal and find that they do, in fact, experience pain and have personalities–it’s at the expense of another being that we now know didn’t deserve to be treated like an object.

I wrote some more letters

I write lots of letters. I’ve been kind of remiss in sharing them here, but I’ll post a couple that I just wrote, so you can see what keeps me awake at night.

This first one is actually a bit late in coming for the editor to consider publishing it now, so that’s all the more reason to post it here, in response to this piece from Australian newspaper The Age:

Your article asks, “You wouldn’t keep a dog in a cage so small it couldn’t turn around, so why do we think it’s all right to do it to pigs?” But the question doesn’t go far enough. The question ought to be: “You wouldn’t breed dogs for food and eat them, so why do we think it’s all right to do it to pigs?”

Pigs are morally no less significant than dogs. If people don’t see a practice as acceptable for one animal, than surely they shouldn’t see that same practice as acceptable for any other animal.

And here’s one for the foodies, in response to an article in the November issue of Common Ground Magazine called The Carnivore’s Dilemma (yeah, I know, shades of Omnivore’s Dilemma… what dilemma?):

In regards to Chris Cosentino’s quote in your article, “An animal is giving its life for you to eat,” need I remind your readers that the animals do not willingly give their flesh to us? It is taken from them, along with their lives. Rather than eating unconsenting animals, we ought to consider eating a plant-based diet. To quote Cosentino, “It’s just the right thing to do.”