Sunday, August 23, 2009

Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right (But Three Lefts Do)

This is a response to the article Animal Rights is Wrong by Loretta Baughan, via @GrrlScientist on Twitter.

I have to start by saying I've surprised myself for wanting to defend the Animal Rights community at this point in my life. A long time ago I went to animal rights meetings, was vegan, raised vegetarian, the whole deal - but for the past 5 years or so I've been distancing myself more and more from the community, and I'm not even always vegetarian anymore. The truth is, most people who participate in animal rights groups and their activities are fairly neurotic and obsessive, and groups can become cult-like (no more than your average church, mind you).

That being said, most of these people are also very hard-working and compassionate. They volunteer an insane amount of time, donate a lot of money, and rescue loads of animals in need. i.e. they do a lot more for animals than your average pet owner who thinks dogs are there to be paraded inside tiny purses and have their fur dyed pink.

So take this as an opinion of an insider-turned-outsider who, as far as I've been told, has pretty balanced views. Here are some of the points implied in the article that I want to address:

  1. Those involved in animal rights groups are largely ignorant of animal husbandry practices.
  2. The true "experts" who actually care deeply about animal welfare are farmers, hunters, fishermen, ranchers and dog breeders.
  3. Animal welfare and animal rights are the opposite of each other.
  4. Being anti-circus, anti-rodeo, recommending eating less meat, and encouraging the use of alternatives to animal testing are "radical beliefs", "un-American," and "dangerous".
  5. Animal rights activists wish to devalue human life by dictating how we live and controlling what we can and can't do.

Now on to a slightly different view on the matter. Here's how I see it:

1. People who believe in animal rights are not ignorant of animal husbandry. The people I know personally are people who take care of dozens of abandoned animals at home and in sanctuaries and shelters, who work in veterinary clinics, who are ecology and biology researchers in universities. The stories I have heard from people who turned vegetarian include ones who were attached to a pet chicken as a child only to see it turn into dinner; ones who saw a pig being slaughtered for the first time after raising them; ones who were taken hunting by their dad and did not enjoy the emotional experience of taking the life of a beautiful animal. So, it's not true that AR people are ignorant urbanites. It's something really unfair to say and shows that the author doesn't personally know anyone involved in AR. To me, ignorance means you've never heard the sound of a pig being slaughtered, which is something the majority of meat-eaters are shameless in saying they never want to hear because it would "turn them off pork."

2. Hunters are the ones who care deeply about animal welfare? Really? Do you mean those same guys who were responsible for the extinction of the woodland bison, the eastern elk, the red wolf, the eastern cougar, the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, the Ivory-billed woodpecker, the snowy egret, the heath hen, and Stellar's sea cow? The same guys responsible for endangering the bobcats, the Pacific grizzly bears, the white rhino, the ibex, the musk ox, and the scarlet macaw and countless others? With friends like these, who needs enemies? According to PacificWild, 430 grizzlies were killed in one year by sport hunters despite the fact that
Conservationists and independent scientists have been saying for years that the continuation of the sport hunt in its current form reveals a provincial government sorely out of step with reality [...]
As far as fishermen, farmers, and dog breeders, there's that pesky global fishery collapse due to the fact that quotas are politically motivated and completely ignore scientific advice, farming practices are becoming increasingly industrialized and intensive, and dog breeders continually push for breeding dogs that are unhealthy and have aesthetically "appealing" malformations and for culling perfectly healthy puppies because they don't fit breed standards (see the awesome BBC documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed).

Personally, I'm not saying that hunting should be banned, as in some rare well-research instances it can help conservation. I am sure the author is speaking for herself and she does care deeply about animals, but to say that people who kill animals are the only ones who care deeply about them is a slight leap in logic. If this has convinced you of anything, please let it be that the burden of proof lies on the person who makes a statement like that.

3. "Animal rights" is not the opposite of "animal welfare". Animal rights organizations oppose the use of animals as an end goal because this is the ideal situation for them. They are not trying to ban people from eating meat or having pets. The only thing I have ever seen AR activists do is to convince people that these things are not good, so that they make their decision to not do those things, e.g. not eat meat, etc. But it's their right to evangelize. I haven't met any AR activist who tried to incite hate, apart from online (where everyone hates each other by default).

So PeTA thinks people shouldn't have pets. It's a theoretical position - most animal rights people in fact do have pets, probably ones they adopted from a shelter. But by having an "opposite extreme" position they can highlight the problem of puppy mills and abandoned animals, and they certainly don't disagree with adopting animals from a shelter, as a matter of fact they encourage it. And what's so bad about encouraging people to adopt a dog rather than buying one from a puppy mill, anyway? It sounds good to me. And if you ask anyone in the animal rights movement in person they will 100% support any animal welfare measure as a pathway to the "ideal" of not using animals at all. I personally guarantee it. Try it. I will give you a $50 for each animal rights activist you speak to who does not agree that it's a good thing to reduce animal suffering by giving them more comfortable lives even if they are not "liberated".

I mean, if you want to hate PeTA, do it because they like to scare little children, and because they are sexist assholes. But remember, PeTA doesn't represent the entire world of animal rights.

One last thing: The animal welfare position is that some uses of animals are unaceptable, including animal testing for cosmetics, and some forms of hunting!

4. Being anti-circus and recommending eating less meat are not radical ideas. Come on, even the United Nations and the Mayo Clinic recommend that you eat less meat. It's bad for you and bad for the environment. This is mainstream and widely accepted. AR is indeed against animals in circus, and this isn't a radical idea, either. The RSPCA, a moderate, mainstream animal welfare organization, is completely against the use of wild animals in circus because animals are subjected to "frequent travel, restricted movements, poor living conditions and loud noises." A lot of very reasonable people agree. It's no surprise that non-animal circuses like Cirque du Soleil are incomparably more popular - they've realized that audiences really don't like looking at miserable-, sick-looking elephants parading around in tutus, and lions endangering themselves by jumping through tiny hoops engulfed in flames. I don't get a kick out of that at all (most people don't).

I know there are extremists in the movement, as there are in any organization or religion. But I don't go around saying that Christianity is immoral because Christians murdered Dr. Tiller, or that Islam is completely wrong because Muslims bombed the twin towers. So, you shouldn't say animal rights is wrong just because there are crazies in there. The author quotes this Steve Best guy to represent the entire group of animal rights supporters. I've never heard of this guy, and I tried to look around for opinions on him, and the only one I found (he's not very well known) is by this one vegan who thinks his approach "is more like that of a Hitler Youth rally." Now, why would you choose the most extreme position you can find to discredit an entire group of people who are actually doing good work?

5. There is already something that dictates what we can and can't do: it's called the law. There have been animal cruelty laws since 1635! That's almost 400 years of "disrespecting your freedom" to do as you wish with your animal property! That's 200 years before slavery was abolished. We already do take owners to court because of their animals - That's how Michael Vick was sentenced. He shouldn't have the right to do as he pleases just because the dogs belong to him. This is why we arrest and fine animal killers and animal torturers. Animal rights activists are not radicalizing this idea, they are merely trying to strengthen it. Making cruelty to animals illegal does not devalue human life - quite the opposite, IMO.

And seen as evidence shows that scientific advice on hunting quotas is mostly ignored, and quotas are disrespected and underenforced, it's no surprise that AR groups want to ban hunting altogether. Hunting laws are there because you can't just go around killing everything in sight and expect them to still be there next year. But the point is that you wouldn't know if you've killed everything in sight in the wilderness, and this is why quotas are determined scientifically. Just because you see "a lot of them" doesn't mean they are not endangered.

By the way, the EU is now seriously considering banning animal testing on great apes. Imagine that. I mean, if communicating with sign language doesn't save you from being experimented on, there's not much else that would, right?

I understand why people get defensive and upset about animal rights, especially online, where people like to take out all the anger and frustration of their daily lives. I myself don't participate in any of these awful forums where activists get together to berate each other about what they are and aren't doing. Some people think pets shouldn't be fed meat, some people don't. Some people think the pitbull ban is bad, some think it's good. Some wear second-hand leather, some don't. Some love PeTA, many hate PeTA. But regardless of the many different opinions fostered there, animal rights is not wrong.

The End.

This absurdly long post is brought to you by: ad breaks during Mad Men. Yay spare time!
The heavy use of italics brought to you by: Reading too many graphic novels. This whole post is like one big speech bubble.

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