Activists seek personhood for animals

Biomedical researcher traces history of animal rights movement
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People for the Ethical Treatment of animals, along with several other animal rights and protection groups, publicly criticized the AVMA recently for its positions on induced molting of laying hens and sow gestation stalls. So Dr. B. Taylor Bennett's presentation on the animal rights movement July 21 at the AVMA Annual Convention in Denver could not have been timelier.

As a biomedical researcher at the University of Illinois and alternate delegate for the American Society of Laboratory Animal Practitioners in the AVMA House of Delegates, Dr. Bennett is well versed in the philosophies, goals, and tactics of animal rights activists.

He believes that the protest and media campaign directed at the AVMA in July during the Denver convention are just the beginning. "The AVMA is now going to come under attack, and they're going to have to deal with it," he said.

PETA has launched a Web site——where the question is asked, "Would you take your dog to a veterinarian who thought it perfectly fine to keep animals in small crates with cement floors for most of their lives?" The question refers to sow gestation stalls. (The AVMA House of Delegates called for a scientific review of the impact of such stalls on sows' health and welfare (see JAVMA, September 1, page 573).

Dr. Bennett began his presentation with a review of the AVMA position statements distinguishing animal welfare from animal rights and the recently adopted statement opposing the trend in several cities and municipalities to refer to pet owners as pet guardians.

Effectively countering activists' claims is a monumental hurdle. Debate is waged in the public arena in 60-second sound bites, pitting facts against feelings, Dr. Bennett explained. Most scientists are generally ill prepared to argue the issue, he added.

Seventy-four animal rights groups currently operate in the United States. By capitalizing on people's fondness for animals and their lack of scientific sophistication, these groups raise an estimated $140 million annually, according to Dr. Bennett.

These funds are then used to sway public opinion and affect legal rulings concerning the status of animals. The U.S. legal system currently recognizes only property and persons, with animals falling into the former category. Animal rights groups employ a strategy Dr. Bennett called "benign lobbying and litigation."

Through constant lawsuits, rights groups hope to one day get the courts to classify animals as persons entitled to equal consideration under the law, Dr. Bennett explained. For instance, the international organization The Great Ape Project was founded for the purpose of "include(ing) the nonhuman great apes within the community of equals by granting them the basic moral and legal protection that only human beings currently enjoy."

But how did we get to this point?

Dr. Bennett recounted how, prior to the Industrial Revolution, society's attitudes toward animals were based on religious values. But then came the "flowering of humanitarian sensibilities." Several animal protection groups emerged in England and America that century, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and its American counterpart.

Later, English political theorist and utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote concerning animals: "The question is not, 'Can they reason?' nor 'Can they talk?' but 'Can they suffer?'" With the publication of Darwin's "The Origin of Species," the gulf between man and animals that had existed for centuries was considerably reduced.

During the 1970s, the animal rights movement came into its own because of participation from philosophers and activists. In his seminal work "Animal Liberation," ethicist Peter Singer popularized the term "speciesism"—prejudice or bias for one's own species—and accused humans of systematic exploitation of animals.

By linking equal consideration for animal interests to the interests of women and minorities, activists were extremely effective in disseminating their arguments.

In 1980, Ingrid Newkirk and Max Pacheco founded PETA. Highly organized, well-funded, and boasting well over 700,000 members, PETA is dedicated to establishing and protecting animal rights. Compared with the 68,000 AVMA members, "We are outnumbered in this issue," Dr. Bennett observed.

Newkirk has referred to members of her organization as "media sluts" who grab public attention through oftentimes graphic publicity stunts. A recent PETA campaign, "The Holocaust on Your Plate," compared the killing of six million Jews to eating meat.

Newkirk is infamous for stating, "I don't believe human beings have a right to life. This is a supremacist perversion. A rat is a pig is a boy. We are all mammals."

The 1990s saw a wave of lawsuits from activists seeking to influence regulatory agencies on behalf of animals. Now, six state bar associations and the District of Columbia have animal law sections or committees, 28 law schools offer animal law courses, and 43 law schools have student animal legal defense groups.

Rights groups' Web sites proliferated during the '90s and have been extremely effective in propagating their message, Dr. Bennett said.

There was also an escalation in violence on the part of some activists, specifically the Animal Liberation Front. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, ALF was the most active domestic terrorist group in the United States. Even now, the FBI considers ALF one of the most dangerous threats in the country.

Dr. Bennett discussed the case of the London-based Huntingdon Life Sciences, which has offices throughout Europe and America and conducts animal research to produce such products as pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals.

Activists have been waging the "Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty" campaign since 1996. This campaign, Dr. Bennett claims, has redefined how animal activists operate. Their tactics include invading Huntingdon offices, demonstrating outside the homes of employees, firebombing employees' parked cars, and physical assaults. They also target Huntingdon's vendors, suppliers, and financial backers.

Not surprisingly, ALF activists have been linked to the SHAC campaign.

Although questions about the moral status of animals have been around for some 220 years, the past two decades are unprecedented in terms of the fervency with which some activists have sought answers—sometimes by litigation, but increasingly by violence. It remains to be seen, Dr. Bennett said, what the next 20 years hold in store.