Toward a Winning Animal Rights Strategy

If asked, most people would say that they love animals. Children play with stuffed animals and take them to bed. They love to see movies and television programs involving animals. Petting zoos are increasingly popular, and young children squeal with delight at a chance to pet animals. Millions of people go to zoos annually, because they are intrigued by animals and want to learn more about them. Many people have pets and spend much time and money taking care of them. Most people get upset when they hear about the mistreatment of animals.

Yet, there is tremendous abuse of animals in our society, a fact that many people are reluctant to face. The number of farm animals slaughtered for food per year has been increasing sharply, and is projected to exceed 9 billion in 1997.

Why is there such a glaring contradiction between people's concern for the well being of animals and the increasing mistreatment of animals? In the minds of many people, largely because of the effective propaganda of animal exploiters, there is a picture of animal rights advocates as people who condone violence, are more concerned with animals than with human beings, are not willing to harm an animal even if a human life could be saved, and readily equate the massively cruel treatment of animals with the Holocaust or other events involving the death of many people. Unfortunately, some of the statements and actions of dedicated animal rights advocates reinforce these beliefs. This often gives people an excuse to ignore the horrible treatment of animals, by rationalizing that they do not want to be associated with people with such extreme views.

Let us consider a debate which took place on June 27, 1997 on KABC radio between Ingrid Newkirk of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the host, writer Dennis Prager, who had severely criticized PETA on a previous program. (The transcript is in "The Prager Perspective", July 1 and 15, 1997.) Ms. Newkirk started off very effectively: "I don't see how you can be so opposed to PETA when we're simply opposed to any cruel thing. Our philosophy is that if there is something that's cruel, there's an alternative to it, and if you can't find it yourself, please allow us the opportunity to help find it for you - whether it's something to eat that comes from the slaughterhouse, a cosmetic or a shampoo that's tested on animals, or dissection in school. Whatever it is, please allow us to help you find a compassionate choice. What's arguable about that?" Prager did not have an answer. Therefore, he immediately changed the topic by stating that, while every group has some lovely positions (including Communists and Nazis), PETA had some positions that "border on evil".

Dennis Prager, who boasts of pro-vegetarian sympathies and advocates that people not eat veal, who states that "I do care about how animals are treated", preferred to subvert a potentially constructive dialogue in favor of an entertaining but meaningless debate. Much of the rest of the program was devoted to quasi-theological issues, such as whether animals and people are different, whether the slaughter of 6 billion chickens could be compared to the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, whether it was acceptable to kill a fly, and related questions. Dennis Prager even stated: "It would be that simple, if you had the position, 'People come first, but people should care about animal suffering,' I would then join your group. But you don't believe people come first."

After many digressions related to a comparison of the treatment of human beings and non-human animals, the debate could be scored as roughly a tie. Newkirk avoided questions related to issues like would she save a human baby or a dog first, and Prager avoided Newkirk's challenging questions and statements related to the cruel treatment of billions of animals. However, if we hope to improve current conditions for animals, we cannot afford such standoffs when we have a chance to educate people about conditions for animals today.

Animal rights activists are generally very sincere and committed people, but I believe that some, including several leaders, have locked themselves into positions that are actually very harmful to the just cause they so zealously promote. We should recognize that those who exploit animals and those who feel somewhat guilty about not doing more to alleviate animal suffering are looking for ways to dismiss the legitimacy of the animal rights critique by pointing out what many consider the extreme views and tactics of animal rights advocates. Hence, we should be ready with answers that will not be self-defeating. The following suggested responses to common challenges to animal rights activists are offered respectfully in the hope that they will lead to productive discussions that will further the animal rights cause. While you might not agree with every one, I hope that you will find some of value, and will also consider other responses that will help keep the focus on issues that will lead to positive results for animals. Comments and suggestions are very welcome.

A. You are more (or at least equally) concerned with animals than you are with human beings:

1. It is not a choice between the well being of animals or of people. When animals are mistreated, it generally also has negative effects for people. For example, the consumption of animals and animal products has been linked to heart disease, stroke, various types of cancer, and other degenerative diseases. Modern intensive livestock agriculture significantly contributes to ecological threats, such as air and water pollution, soil erosion and depletion, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and global warming, the wasteful use of water, fuel, land, fertilizer, and other agricultural resources, and the growth of disease-causing antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This industry must also share responsibility for the deaths of 15 to 20 million people per year because of hunger and its effects, as 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States and over one-third of the grain produced worldwide is fed to animals destined for slaughter.

2. Some of the greatest humanitarians were also involved in the struggle for animal rights. These include Mahatma Gandhi, Tolstoy, Leonardo da Vinci, Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Concern for animals and for humanity are certainly not mutually exclusive.

3. Many animal rights activists today are also involved in causes that benefit people, with regard to such issues as controlling pollution, reducing disease, helping the homeless, and enhancing communities.

4. One does not have to equate animals and human beings to be appalled at current mistreatment of animals. Concern for animals and the refusal to treat them brutally and slaughter them for food that is not necessary for proper nutrition and, indeed, is harmful to human health, does not mean that animals are regarded as being equal to people. It acknowledges that they do have value and should not be mistreated.

B. Why are you concerned about animals when there are so many problems facing people today?

1. As indicated above, one of the main causes for many human problems is our mistreatment of animals. A shift to vegetarianism is arguably the most important thing that a person can do for his or her health, for the environment, for billions of hungry people, and, of course for animals.

2. Vegetarianism is not only an important personal choice today, but it is increasingly a societal imperative. The production and consumption of animal products has very negative economic and ecological effects. In 1993, almost 1,700 of the world's scientists from 70 countries, including 104 Nobel laureates, signed a "World Scientists Warning to Humanity", which stated that "a great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated." A shift to vegetarianism is an essential one of the changes necessary to help steer our imperiled planet away from its present dangerous path.

3. Many of the problems facing people today are the result of lack of respect for others' lives. Concern for animals teaches respect for the sanctity of life. While one may strive for one's own betterment, it is not acceptable to cause suffering to others in the process.

C. How can you compare the treatment of animals to the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust (or some other great human tragedy)?

1. Some people, including Isaac Bashevis Singer, who stated that for animals every day is like Treblinka, have made this comparison, because they are aware of the incredibly cruel ways that animals are raised on factory farms today. For example, dairy calves are removed from their mothers after at most one day of nursing; laying hens are crammed into spaces so small that they can't even raise their wings; over a quarter of a billion male chicks are killed almost immediately after birth, because they cannot produce eggs and have not been genetically programmed to give much meat; and geese have huge amounts of grain forced down their throats in order to produce pate de fois gras. Hence, some make this comparison, not out of disrespect for the 6 million Jews and 5 million other people who perished in the Holocaust, but out of their disgust at the massive mistreatment of animals.

2. Most animal right activists recognize that such comparisons are counterproductive and that there are better ways to make people aware of the terrible conditions that animals are forced to endure.

3. Maybe the best way to end the comparison of factory farming brutalities to the unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust is to end the abuse of animals.

4. One of the lessons that we should learn from the Holocaust is that while it unacceptable to treat people like cattle, perhaps we shouldn't be treating cattle so terribly either.

D. How can you be against animal experimentation? If it was a choice between your child and a dog, wouldn't you sacrifice the dog in order to save your child or another loved one?

1. Certainly I would favor my child's life over a dog or any other animal, but that is not really the choice.

2. Animal experimentation, which involves trying to find cures by artificially inducing diseases in animals, and then extrapolating results to human beings, is not an effective way to find cures for diseases, and, as a matter of fact, has often led researchers in wrong directions, hence slowing down progress toward cures.

3. Ask: If scientists are so concerned about human health, why don't they promote vegetarian diets and other lifestyle changes that have been found to promote health, and thus would save more lives than animal experimentation? Why has preventive medicine been so neglected? Could it be that the present medical approaches have greater financial incentives?

4. Ask: Do you believe, for example, that a drug that is good for a cat is necessarily good for a dog? In many cases drugs that improved the health of laboratory animals had negative effects for people, and vice versa. For example, aspirin is deadly for cats, and thalidomide, a drug that was extensively tested on animals, caused terrible birth defects in humans.

5. Because of the billions of dollars devoted to animal experiments, they may have led to some medical advances. However, improved hygiene and positive lifestyle changes have been far more effective then the use of drugs based on animal experiments in reducing disease.

6. There are other techniques, including epidemiological studies, clinical studies, computer simulations, and in vitro studies that have successfully provided useful information on the prevention and cure of disease.

7. Ask: If animal experiment are so valuable, why have cancer rates been increasing, in spite of all the billions of dollars devoted to cancer research using animal experiments?

E. Animal rights activists are involved in acts of violence, which are inconsistent with their views that there should be no violence against animals.

1. Most animal rights advocates do not engage in acts of violence and the destruction of property, and oppose such acts. Many believe that the animal rights movement should pattern its strategies after those of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and other advocates of non-violent resistance.

2. As indicated above, many animal rights advocates are frustrated at the public apathy in the face of unbelievably cruel treatment of animals. This leads a relative few to believe that acts of violence are necessary to strike back against animal exploiters who collectively cause far more violence to people as well as animals and/or to get people's attention.

3. Without in any way comparing human and non-human animals, the tremendous violence involved in the meat industry should also be considered, in terms of violence to animals (9 billion killed annually for food in the United States alone), destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and indirect violence to the billions of people who suffer from hunger, as major areas of land, often the most fertile land, in countries where there is widespread hunger, are used to grow feed crops exclusively for animals.

4. A movement of millions of devoted, sincere, peaceful people should not be judged by the actions of a very small segment of the movement.

F. My religion permits the slaughter of animals for food, so why should I be a vegetarian?

1. Your religion may permit the eating of animals, but you have a choice. Shouldn't you make that choice based on the highest religious teachings that mandate that we treat animals with compassion, guard our health, share with hungry people, protect the environment, conserve resources, and seek peace, and thus point to vegetarianism as God's ideal diet today?

G. in advocating vegetarianism, aren't you being more righteous than God, since God gave permission for people to eat animals?

1. God gave reluctant permission for people to eat animals. But can you believe that God, who is concerned about human health and welfare, the environment, the proper use of resources, the fate of hungry people, and how animals are treated, could possibly want people to have a diet that has so many negative effects in all of these areas?

2. Recall that God's first dietary law, according to the Bible (Genesis 1:29) was strictly vegetarian, actually vegan.

3. When God fed people directly, He gave them manna, a vegetaqrian food. When he reluctantly provided flesh (quail), it was to punish them for their lust and gluttony.

In summary, fellow animal rights advocates, let us disarm our opposition by keeping the discussion focused on the fundamental points about the horrible treatment of animals, the many negative environmental and other effects of factory farming, and the many humane alternatives to these practices.

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