Liberation Zoology

Animal-rights activists won't be satisfied with preventing cruelty. That's why they're dangerous.


Scientists proclaimed it the "most dramatic success to date" in the battle against AIDS. Last December, researchers at Tulane University announced that they had successfully immunized eight rhesus monkeys against simian AIDS. It was certainly the biggest breakthrough in AIDS research since scientists first isolated the HIV virus in monkeys back in 1985. The experts caution that it will probably take another 5 to 10 years of experiments—many of them on animals—to develop an AIDS vaccine for humans. But if a growing number of animal-rights activists have their way, those experiments will never occur. "Animal experimentation is just plain wrong," says Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. "Human beings have no right to the knowledge gained from experimentation on animals, even if it is done painlessly."

Traditionally, animal-interest organizations have devoted themselves simply to improving the welfare of animals. Groups such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Humane Society picked up strays, urged us to spay or neuter our pets, and fought for cleaner and more-humane living conditions for lab animals. But in the 1980s, a new breed of activists began to dominate the animal-interest movement and dictate its demands. The new animal activists don't talk of animal welfare; they want animal rights. For them, all sentient beings have equal moral status.

In the words of Ingrid Newkirk, founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and one of the most influential of the new breed of activists, "When it comes to feelings, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals. They all feel pain. There is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights." For the Newkirks of the world, any use of animals by humans is immoral. Their list of demands goes far beyond eliminating fur coats, giving lab animals bigger cages, and finding homes for strays. They want to stop all animal experimentation; end meat eating, hunting, and the use of animals in farming; dismantle zoos, and even prevent people from owning pets.

Behind it all is the ideology of animal rights—an ideology that is, on the surface, enormously seductive. It appeals to our desires for a less complex and more humane world. But dig behind that beautiful facade, and you find that the animal-rights philosophy is an ugly mixture of misanthropy, Luddism, and fear.

At least 70 animal-interest groups formed during the 1980s. They range from small, single-issue groups such as Save Pound Animals from Experimentation, to large, multiple-issues groups like PETA. All are self-described animal-rights organizations.

Currently, the fastest-growing animal rights group is Newkirk's PETA. Founded in 1980, PETA now claims 270,000 members, a staff of 70, and a $7-million annual budget. While PETA is active on a number of issues, its biggest campaign has been against fur. Newkirk claims that animal-rights protesters, led by PETA, are responsible for a three-year decline in fur sales. (The fur industry denies any decline in sales.)

PETA and other animal-rights groups have fought a number of political battles with varying degrees of success. Thanks to their efforts, 13 states forbid local pounds from selling animals to labs to be used in medical experiments. In January, the California Assembly approved a bill that would have banned the testing of cosmetics or household products on animals, but the state Senate rejected the measure. And in February, voters rejected a highly publicized measure that would have banned the sale of fur in Aspen, Colorado.

While PETA fights its battles on the political and public relations fronts, some activists have used more-violent tactics. For the last decade, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) has made headlines by breaking into labs and stealing animals. In the process, ALF has destroyed millions of dollars in lab equipment, threatened researchers, and sometimes "liberated" creatures infected with diseases potentially lethal to any human who handles the animals. Last year, ALF claimed credit for destroying equipment on and "liberating" cattle from several Western ranches.

Most of us have some sympathy for animals. Only a handful of sadists can stand deliberate cruelty to animals. Animal-rights activists play upon this sympathy, and our own fuzzy thinking on the matter, to advance their agenda. If they were upfront with their beliefs, few would take them seriously. Most of us would probably sacrifice a rat to save a boy's life. And who would agree with Ingrid Newkirk's suggestion that pet ownership is immoral—"an absolutely abysmal situation brought about by human manipulation"? So animal-rights activists generally press their agenda on a case-by-case basis, explaining their ideology only when asked.

Writer Katie McCabe reports that John McArdle, then director of lab animal welfare for the Humane Society of the United States, told delegates at a 1984 Humane Society convention to "avoid the words 'animal rights' and 'anti-vivisection.' They are too strange for the public. Never appear to be opposed to animal research." [Emphasis added.]

The animal-rights movement chooses its targets and its arguments well. While opposing all uses of animals, activists have been most outspoken on the issue of fur. PETA, for example, sells "Fur Is Dead" T-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers. And the Humane Society pushes a "Fur Shame" line of products. Neither group hawks an "End Cancer Research on Animals" button.

Clearly, fur is an easy target for the animal-rights movement. While most everyone eats meat and wears leather, only a small, relatively wealthy minority owns mink coats. Indeed, even sympathetic observers point out the class-based nature of many of the attacks on fur. In an article in the Utne Reader, writer Richard Ryan observes, "The District of Columbia, where I live, has been blanketed with posters showing a well-to-do young blonde sporting a beautiful fur coat and hiding her face with shame. Significantly, she is hiding her face with her pocketbook."

Ryan continues, "It's not hard to see that the attacks on fur-wearing females (as opposed to leather-wearing men) play simultaneously on cheap populism and cheaper sexism. You can scream at women in mink coats emerging from ritzy department stores and be fairly certain they're not going to physically retaliate.…It would be more interesting to watch zoophiles gathered in front of a biker bar, hollering slogans at the leather-sporting clientele as they swagger up to their Harleys. But we're not likely to see that anytime soon, are we?"

And some less sympathetic observers accuse antifur protesters of playing loosely with the facts. For example, one charge repeated by many animal-rights activists is that most fur animals are trapped with painful steel-jaw leghold traps. "That isn't true," says Tom Riley, vice president of the Fur Information Council of America. "Eighty percent of the fur sold in the United States comes from fur farms."

Cite the Fur Council's figures to them, and antifur protesters will quickly say that fur farms are like "Nazi death camps." PETA literature, for example, alleges that fur-farm animals spend their lives "crowded into tiny, filthy, wire mesh cages, where they suffer from poor diets, inadequate water, contagious diseases, parasites, and severe stress." The fur industry says that about the only truth to this is that the animals are kept in cages. Indeed, in February, ABC's "Nightline" did a piece on fur farms, and the cameras revealed the farms to be exceedingly clean places and the animals to be quite healthy.

"A fur farmer's income depends on the quality of his pelts," says Riley. "It's good business to take care of these animals, to give them good food and water. An animal suffering from severe stress probably isn't going to have a quality pelt, and it definitely will not breed."

But that argument will not impress activists. Ultimately, their position is based on a belief in animal rights. If all creatures possess a right to life and liberty, then it is wrong for one to enslave and use another for her purposes. The question of cruelty is irrelevant. No matter how humanely an animal is treated, it is simply wrong to wear its skin. It would be immoral to imprison, kill, and skin another human being, and it is just as immoral to do that to any other creature.

While they are a little reluctant to discuss these ideas with the general public, animal-rights activists have not been afraid to announce their goals to the more-moderate members of the animal-interest movement. Indeed, by consistently and persistently pressing their case, they have made their position seem less radical and more acceptable to the more traditional animal-welfare groups.

For years, the more radical animal activists argued that cosmetics testing on animals was wrong. Now that position has been adopted by virtually all animal groups, and the radicals are pushing for an end to all animal experiments. After convincing their more moderate allies that veal ranching is cruel, the animal-rights types turned their guns on mass factory farming. Now even ASPCA President John Kullberg rails against the "application of mass production techniques to animal rearing practices." But the animal-rights movement will not rest until all use of animals in farming is abolished. Meat eating is "primitive, barbaric, and arrogant," says Newkirk. "Meat is murder," says ALF.

Hardcore animal-rights activists are slowly drawing the rest of the animal-welfare movement closer to their position. In 1986, the Humane Society's McArdle told Katie McCabe that "the HSUS is definitely shifting in the direction of animal-rights faster than anyone would realize from our literature." Today, the Humane Society still does not officially label itself an animal-rights organization, but many of its officers reportedly believe in animal rights, and society literature proclaims that "there is no rational basis for maintaining a moral distinction between the treatment of humans and other animals."

Animal-rights thinking now infects every part of the animal-interest movement. ASPCA President Kullberg proclaims, "The major success of this decade [the 1980s] has been the reapplication of the concept of rights in the human population to nonhuman species." Officers of the ASPCA, the Animal Protection League, and the Animal Rescue League now condemn animal research with language almost identical to Newkirk's. Newkirk herself proudly claims that "humane societies all over the country are adopting the animal-rights philosophy, becoming vegetarian, and working harder to get into labs."

The abolition of medical experiments involving animals is probably the most controversial goal of the animal-rights movement. But even here, it is having some success.

Animal-rights activists play upon our sympathy for animals. PETA literature, for example, is filled with photos of caged and bandaged animals, seemingly suffering just as we would if we were confined, poked, prodded, and injected. And activists seem to delight in relating the most graphic details of animal experiments. Every severed limb, each swollen eye is described in horrific terms. To hear them tell it, experimental animals (victims is the preferred term) are doomed to short, painful, tortured lives. Labs are compared to Nazi death camps, and scientists described as little more than sadists. Or as animal-rights activist Axel Munthe puts it, "The wild cruel beast is not behind the bars of the cage. He is in front of it."

Again, animal-rights types may be willing to play a little loosely with the facts in order to convince us that their world-view is correct. Take, for example, the case of the Silver Spring monkeys.

In 1981, police raided a lab in Silver Spring, Maryland, seizing 15 monkeys and arresting the lab's director, Dr. Ernest Taub, on charges of animal cruelty. An undercover investigation by Alex Pacheco, one of the founders of PETA, produced a stunning videotape of the lab, showing monkeys with atrophied limbs and unbandaged wounds. Largely on the basis of Pacheco's investigation, Taub was convicted of mistreatment of animals.

The event was a watershed in the animal-rights movement, providing a platform for PETA and a model for antivivisection activists around the world. Even today, PETA reportedly uses the video in its fund-raising activities.

But here's what the video doesn't tell you: Taub was later exonerated by a Maryland Court of Appeals and the U.S. Public Health Service. His treatment of the monkeys was far from simple cruelty. Taub was investigating the effects of spinal-cord injuries and had severed the nerves entering the limbs of the monkeys to mimic those injuries. He felt that bandaging the wounds would not realistically recreate actual injuries. Scientists who testified at his trial were split on this issue. Still, it was clear to the appeals court that Taub had not acted maliciously.

In addition to the Pacheco videotape, PETA also uses photos of a macaque monkey named Britches in its fund raising. The photos were taken by members of ALF after they broke into a lab at the University of California, Riverside. Britches's eyes had been sewn shut in a sight-deprivation experiment, and again, the pictures are hard to look at.

But once more the photo doesn't tell the whole story. After the raid, the National Institutes of Health investigated the lab and exonerated the facility of all abuse charges. NIH cited inconsistencies in the evidence submitted by ALF and suggested that the group "deliberately attempted to misrepresent the facts concerning the living conditions of the macaque monkey." The report also cited videotape of ALF members using sharp-pointed scissors to cut off Britches's head bandage and exposing the light-deprived monkey to intense light in order to take photos.

Most researchers claim that actual abuse is very rare. Sometimes the nature of the experiment, such as Taub's, requires treatment that is seemingly unkind, but scientists strive to reduce the suffering of their animals. Scientists stress that they are human and do not care to see unnecessary suffering. But they also have another reason to care for their animals. As heart-surgery pioneer Dr. Michael DeBakey observes, "The simple truth of research is that one cannot achieve good or meaningful results by mistreating animals."

Animal-rights activists have a slew of arguments to back up their position. They say that animal models are not applicable to humans or that computer models or tissue culture research can replace animal experiments; some even suggest replacing animals with criminals, vagrants, and brain-dead humans. In turn, scientists point to the numerous drugs, vaccines, and surgical techniques first perfected on animals as proof that animal models are valid; and they argue that, while computer models and tissue cultures are useful complements to animal testing, they cannot fully capture the complexity of a living organism. Even The New Republic's Robert Wright, in an article otherwise sympathetic to the animal-rights movement, admits, "The idea repeated mindlessly by so many animal rights activists—that there's almost always an equally effective non-animal approach to experimentation—is wrong."

Animal-rights activists are on more solid ground when they suggest that government subsidies for animal research have prompted many useless or redundant experiments. In his book Slaughter of the Innocent, antivivisectionist Hans Ruesch provides an account of some of the experiments paid for by the U.S. government. Among them: $500,000 to see why monkeys clench their jaws when angry, $102,000 to compare the effects of gin and tequila on fish, and $525,000 to see if dogs vomit differently from cats. These are certainly silly examples, but it doesn't prove that all animal experiments are useless or cruel. Agriculture subsidies cause grain surpluses, but that doesn't mean that corn is bad.

Again, the antivivisectionist argument finally rests on the assumption that it is simply wrong to use animals for our purposes. Tom Regan, the animal-rights movement's leading theoretician, proclaims that "the rights view will not be satisfied with anything less than total abolition [of animal experiments]. The practice remains wrong because it is unjust. If it means that there are some things we cannot learn, then so be it. We have no basic right not to be harmed by those natural diseases we are heir to."

Australian philosopher Peter Singer is the intellectual father of the modern animal-rights movement. His 1975 book Animal Liberation—described by no less an authority than Ingrid Newkirk as "the Bible of the animal-rights movement"—sets forth and attempts to defend the idea that we owe animals the same ethical considerations that we do humans. As a utilitarian, Singer argues that we should act in ways that reduce pain and promote pleasure, and since animals can feel pain and pleasure just as humans do, we should include them in our moral calculations. To give humans greater consideration than nonhuman animals is to commit the sin of speciesism.

"Human beings have come to realize that they are animals themselves," writes Singer. "It can no longer be maintained by anyone but a religious fanatic that man is the darling of the whole universe, or that other animals were created to provide us with food, or that we have divine authority over them, and divine permission to kill them."

Ironically, Singer never uses the words animal rights. The concept of rights has no place in Singer's utilitarian philosophy. Singer simply believes that the pleasure we humans take from eating meat, wearing fur, or experimenting on animals does not exceed the pain that these practices cause to animals, so these things are wrong on that count. But presumably if we could somehow prove to Singer that these things did produce net pleasure, he would have to approve of them.

From the beginning, animal-rights activists have rejected this last notion. But it wasn't until the 1983 publication of Tom Regan's book The Case for Animal Rights that animal rights received a rigorous, scholarly defense.

For Regan, as for Singer, the capacity for pleasure and pain is the characteristic that distinguishes moral entities from non-moral entities. A rock cannot feel pain, so it would be absurd to say that we owe it some sort of ethical duties. However, a horse can feel pain, so we should treat it ethically.

But Regan rejects Singer's utilitarianism. For Regan, an entity that can experience pain and pleasure is what he calls the "subject of a life." Once a creature has this status, it acquires certain rights. Its life may not be taken away or injury inflicted upon it, and it cannot be coerced into serving the ends of others. Animals can feel pain, so their lives have inherent value. We can no more use animals for our ends than we can use other human beings. Even if animal experimentation could produce some surplus of pleasure, it would still be wrong because it involves the coercing of some individual animals into serving the needs of others.

Regan's argument, or some mixture of his ideas and Singer's, is now the standard defense of animal rights. But it doesn't stand up to close scrutiny.

Granted, animals may have a greater moral standing than trees or rocks, but do they have rights? Consider what rights are and how we acquire them. "Rights" is a moral concept. It is a claim against others. A right is, in effect, a "No trespassing" sign beyond which others may not venture. And if others do trespass upon us, we may defend our rights with force.

Clearly, rights have meaning only in a social setting. It would be foolish for Robinson Crusoe alone on his island to claim, for example, a right to free speech. Against whom would he claim it? Of course, once Friday arrives, then Crusoe may well want to assert his rights.

But living in a social setting is not sufficient to grant one rights. Ants and wolves live in communities, but they do not have rights. Their interactions are controlled largely by instincts hardwired into each individual. They act as they do because they cannot do otherwise. They have no volition, so they cannot act ethically.

With humans it is different. We live in social situations, but we are not governed by instinct. We must choose how we will treat others, and we must have signposts telling where we may not venture. As Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Biomedical Ethics puts it, "'Rights' are a natural result of the unique way that humans have come together to form societies. We depend upon each other for survival; therefore, we must respect each other's rights."

As a philosopher, Caplan worries that Regan, Newkirk, and their allies are unwittingly debasing the meaning of rights. "If you cheapen the currency of rights, attribute them to entities that do not possess rights, you have to worry that rights may not be taken seriously. Soon you'll have people arguing that trees have rights and rocks have rights. And the tendency would be to say. 'Sure, but they don't have important rights.'" And that could lead, Caplan worries, to a denigration of real human rights. We could wind up arguing, for example, that blacks or women or Asians have rights, but they don't have important rights. We don't have to respect those rights.

"It's not just a debate about the meaning of words," says Howard University philosopher Charles Griswold. "It's a debate about our future, about our idea of what it means to be human. The thesis that there is no difference between a boy and a pig debases man."

When Ingrid Newkirk solemnly announces that "six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses," she may think that she is making us more sensitive to the plight of barnyard fowl, but she is really muting the horrors of the Holocaust. By placing chickens and Jews on the same ethical plane, she means to make it more difficult for us to kill the birds, but she may just make it easier for some future Hitler to herd millions of humans into the gas chambers. (Incidentally, the only modern Western country to adopt antivivisection as a state policy was Nazi Germany.)

Lurking behind much of the animal-rights rhetoric is a profound contempt for humanity. "At its core, the animal-rights thesis is a degradation of what it means to be human," says Dr. Frederick Goodwin of the federal Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration in a recent Washingtonian magazine article. "As a psychiatrist I see in that a kind of giving up on the human endeavor, a sense of hopelessness and despair."

Dr. Goodwin is correct. If you want misanthropy, talk to an animal-rights activist. "Human beings are the only creatures that sit in smoke-filled rooms and plot the destruction of their own species," says Trans-Species Unlimited President George Cave. "What other animal has two world wars and a Holocaust to its credit?" Ingrid Newkirk is, as usual, even more blunt: "We [humans] have grown like a cancer. We're the biggest blight on the face of the earth."

Along with their contempt for mankind, animalrights activists have a strong antipathy toward science and progress. "Science recommends that we blot out our sensitivities and just go with the cold, calculated things you can show," says Ingrid Newkirk. "But your emotions and gut feelings, your instinct, are part of you that guides you.…I think that emotion is part of the human make-up and should be acted on, not stifled." This statment reveals a profound ignorance about who scientists are and what they do.

No scientist would uphold emotion as a tool of cognition, but that doesn't mean that they lack feelings. One only has to read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, for example, to see the passion that a scientist can bring to his work. Of course, Hawking's is a passion for knowledge—a need to understand the universe—and this sort of emotion may not win the approval of animal-rights activists.

But it isn't the only sort of passion that motivates scientists. The AIDS researchers at Tulane didn't inject those monkeys with an experimental vaccine just to see what would happen. Ultimately, they want to find a cure for AIDS; they want to end human suffering. These scientists want to end AIDS because of their feelings for their fellow men and women. But these feelings can't tell them how to cure AIDS—that will require research.

In addition to their distrust of science, animal-rights activists seem to share a strong antagonism toward economic growth and urbanization. "When we build an attractive home," says Newkirk, "we raze land on which animals have already built their homes. They have nowhere to go."

But there is nothing new in any of this. The first great wave of antivivisection and animal-welfare activity occurred in Great Britain during the rapid industrialization of the middle and late 19th century. As Susan Sperling documents in her book Animal Liberators, the Victorian activists saw antivivisection as but one part of a greater protest against urbanization, capitalism, and technology. Sperling writes, "Symbolically, the animal represented to the antivivisectionists the 'natural' aspects of the human body increasingly besieged by science. Underlying this symbolic meaning of animals as 'victims of science' was a deep identification with them."

For the antivivisectionists, science and capitalism reduced living creatures to mere cogs in a machine and robbed the world of any spiritual meaning. Sperling quotes Stephen Coleridge, one of the leading Victorian antivivisectionists: "The worship of Science, which has depressed this country for the last 50 years, is a very degrading episode in our history, it has ridiculed a classical education because human letters conferred mind upon mankind instead of money, and it has elevated a sterile materialism to the dignity of a religion."

As Sperling notes, both the Victorian antivivisectionist movement and the contemporary animal-rights crusade share "an apocalyptic vision of the destructive potential of technology and have suggested redemption through a realignment of the entire relationship between our species and the world of nature."

Ultimately, animal-rights activists want to tear down modern civilization and return to some imagined past free from suffering, science, technology, and complexity. Michael Fox, environmental studies director for the Humane Society, called it a "return to Eden" in a 1980 book by that title. Ingrid Newkirk evokes a similar vision of the future where "the lion will lie down with the lamb, where man will live in harmony with nature, where when two animals fight, human beings will intervene."

"This is a very seductive message," says Howard University's Griswold. "The animal-rights position is, essentially, that nature is good, man and technology are evil.

"Today, more than ever, this message has an enormous emotional appeal. Science has provided us with tremendous tools and weapons, but it offers no guidance on how to use them. Increasingly, our social relations are more complex, and our lives are affected by unseen strangers. People feel cast adrift, and there's a certain comfort in the vision presented by the animal rightists."

There may be comfort in the vision, but there is little truth. "They live in some Disney world where all the animals are good and kind," says the Fur Council's Riley. "But real life isn't a cartoon. In the wild, most animals don't die of old age. They are killed by predators or illness."

Anyone who has ever watched Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom" or one of the other nature shows has seen the terrible beauty of a leopard chasing down and crushing the throat of an antelope or a pack of wolves ripping apart a moose. And anyone who has ever raised cats knows that a queen must hide her kittens from predators, including her own mate. Given the opportunity, many toms will eat their young about as quickly as they eat a mouse.

Mother Nature may be very beautiful, but she is also very cruel. Similarly, modern civilization is complex and sometimes confusing, but it also provides tremendous material and spiritual treasures for millions of people. Science has created the atomic bomb, but it has also given us heart surgery and electric power. The simple arguments of the animal-rights activists overlook these facts. Far from a return to Eden, the animal-rights philosophy would, in fact, lead us back to a state of nature more like that described by Thomas Hobbes, where life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

So the next time some TV "Golden Girl" urges us to stop wearing fur, we should ask what she will demand of us next. Before we set off on the path proposed by animal-rights activists, we should try to find out where it will take us. If we aren't careful, we could end up sitting in a cave somewhere without even a bearskin to cover us.

Charles Oliver is assistant editor of REASON.