Politics of Animal Protection

There has been a lot of commentary online about the Inside Higher Ed article about an UCLA primate researcher who quit his research due to being terrorised by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), and the follow up article about the steps UCLA and other Universities are taking to ensure the safety of their faculty and staff:

The announcement by Abrams follows an upswing in activities in which UCLA professors who work with animals have been targets. In June, the Animal Liberation Front took credit for trying to put a Molotov cocktail on the doorstep of Lynn Fairbanks, a researcher who does experimentation on animals. The explosive was accidentally placed on the doorstep of Fairbanks’s elderly neighbor’s house, and did not detonate, but had enough power to be lethal. This month Dario Ringach, an associate neurobiology professor, decided to abandon his research on primates because of pressure put on him, his family and his neighborhood. UCLA researchers and their family members have received threatening phone calls and e-mail, and had protests at their homes. (UCLA is also under pressure to protect Khaled Abou el Fadl, a professor who is an expert on Islamic law who has been a leading critic of Muslim fundamentalism and who has faced death threats and a bullet fired into his home.)
Generally, she said, targets are more likely to be professors who work with non-human primates or animals like cats or dogs, since many people have close emotional connections to such animals. Trull also said that animal rights groups are more likely to go after basic researchers. Many members of the public don’t understand that basic research is a necessary prelude to studies that can more directly be linked to a cure or treatment for a disease, she said. “It’s all about the PR,” she said.

If I am correct, Erin O’Connor was the first to take this article out of obscurity and she wrote an eloquent post and a plea for the blogosphere to cover this issue more deeply. Several bloggers took her advice and responded with thoughtfull articles, including Timothy Burke, Richard Chappell, Rev. Dr., Brock and PZ Myers (which covers the political spectrum pretty much from one end to the other).
Now, I am certainly not new to this fight and, as I do not write about Middle-East, this is the topic that gets me the most vociferous trolls in the comments. It did back in February and August and October of 2004, and May of 2005, and July of 2006. And it is not just online, but also on the radio. And I am sure it will again on this post and the one just preceding it. That comes with the territory. And the attacks come mostly from the Left, for reasons explained below.
While those bloggers, as well as most of the commenters, did a great job explaining what is it that animal researchers actually do (and no, we do not torture animals just for kicks), I want to focus on something else – the political side of it.
Why is it that people like Senator Inhofe, the main villain in the Republican War On Science, supports a piece of legislation created to give special protections from harassment to people (researchers included) who work with animals? While I do not see the reason for singling out people who work with animals – aren’t we all nominally protected from threats, harassment and violence – it is interesting to wonder about Inhofe’s motivation for pushing this bill. And this is not new – another arch-enemy of science, reason and rationality, Jesse Helms, routinely sponsored and voted for bills that protect animal researchers (I guess he did not realize how many of those are evolutionary biologists), or voted against bills that would ban various activities using animals.
I think that their main motivation is to “stick it to the liberals”, in an uninformed notion that liberals are not going to like those bills because liberals are all animal rightists. How about all those liberal scientists who happen to like those bills? But where does this confusion come from?
It comes from a concerted efforts by animal rights organizations to confuse the people. The Number One strategy of organizations like PETA and ALF is to blur the lines between Animal Welfare (AW) and Animal Rights (AR).
If an AW organization discovers a case of animal cruelty in a factory or a farm, AR groups run with the story and the pictures as if they did the discovery. If an AW organization stages a protest in front of such a shady business, the AR groups are sure to show up as well. The only way that AR groups can fill their coffers is by tapping into popular love for animals and through constant efforts to confuse the public, i.e., to erase the difference between the two approaches. And the two approaches are diametrically opposed on more than one level – something that bloggers and commenters cited above do not appear to understand.
Animal Welfare is a liberal cause. It has its historical roots in the anti-vivisection movement of the 19th century England and its modern roots in the environmental movement, with some ideas added from the civil rights movement with a dash of liberal Christian notions of our duty to be keepers and protectors of the natural world.
AW is based on the notion of moral duty towards nature. Nature includes animals, so we have a duty to protect and care for the animals, both entire species whose environments we are destroying and individual animals that come into our care because we use them. It is a realistic movement, attempting to make a better world by emphasizing our responsibility. The members of AW groups are likely to shun fur, but are otherwise reflecting the general society – some are vegetarian, some are not – and will use greater awareness in choosing their food and clothing. But that is really not as important as the actual work they do voluntering or working at animal shelters and donating money to ASPCA or The Humane Society.
On the other hand, Animal Rights groups do not do anything to help animals and are deeply anti-environmental – they simply do not care about species and ecosystems, only individual animals. They do not have animal shelters. They do not have the know-how about animal care. As people send them stray dogs and cats, PETA does not know what to do with them, so they butcher them in the back of the truck – the feelings of those poor animals do not really matter to them because their cause is political and their motivations ideological – they have nothing to do with animals and all to do with the emotions of animal rightists.
The AR ideology is at its core a conservative ideology. It is an intellectual descendant of Puritan unease with the animalness of humans. You do not need to believe in evolution to notice that we are indeed animals. We eat, drink, sleep, pee, shit, copulate, give birth in pain, get sick and die. Our bodies produce fluids like blood, lymph, puss, sweat, semen, milk, smegma and earwax. They find this disturbing. They find this unclean. Unsaintly and non-angelic.
But what can they do about it? Well, if they cannot deny humans their animalness, they can elevate animals to saintly hights. They can pick out some pretty animals, those we think of as smart or cute or “noble” (check some of the images in this post – those are the animals that AR people like to talk about the most, revealing the deeply anti-evolutionary thread underlying their ideology) and make them equal with us, that is, clean.
It is telling that the membership of AR organizations (I mean the core membership, not the naive kids who got duped into donating to PETA because they thought it had something to do with saving stray dogs and cats) is very similar to the membership of anti-choice organizations – hugely populated by urban (at least second generation in a big city), single, childless women. Just like anti-choice groups, they vent their anger by threatening people and bombing stuff. Just like anti-choice people they do not know any biology and refuse to learn lest they lose their beliefs.
Only hyper-urban people, people who did not grow up on farms, appear to join AR groups. I guess it takes a large degree of alienation from nature in order to swallow the ideology of AR. It would be difficult to work hard for an idealized – and wrong – notion of animals if one had first-hand experience of animals by growing up in the country, feeding the pigs, riding horses, seeing chickens being slaughtered (and eating the chicken soup an hour later), going hunting with Dad, taking in and nursing back to health injured young of wild animals, and having pets.
I give everyone the benefit of the doubt about personal choices, but, as a group, it is intriguing that so many members – both male and female – are single and childless. Is their disgust with animalness of their own bodies part of the reason? They may not be able to live without eating and sleeping, but they can at least deny their animal nature by refraining from copulating (“sex is dirty”) and having children. They may have to pee and q-tip their ears, but they can isolate themselves from such bodily secretions as semen, smegma and milk. There is something deeply disturbed about their sexuality, something artifical and superficial, alienated from itself and very conservative. Why they keep trying to recruit guys into the movement by trotting Playboy plamates as spokesmodels and pulling the nudity stunts? Why are almost all of them white?
So, think of AR as a Right Wing ideology. They try to present themselves as the same as AW, just like Creationists (and climate-change deniers, etc.) try to sell themselves as “scientists”. Just like David Irving tries to sell himself as a “historian of the Holocaust”. And just like it never occurs to creationists to actually do any research (not they would have a faintest idea how research is done), so it never occurs to animal rightists to actually do something towards animal welfare (not that they would know how to handle an animal) – because it is not about animals after all: it is about healing emotional wounds from childhood.
When pushed to do research, creationists come up with some really bad mathematical arguments. When given animals to take care of, PETA kills them in the back alleys. While AW folks roll up their sleeves and help thousands of animals every year, one animal at a time, AR folks do not do that stuff (too smelly and dirty?) so they have plenty of time to pull PR stunts in supermarkets, or to go around terrorizing people, bombing buildings, or breaking in the labs and releasing non-native or domesticated animals into the local environment where they are promptly killed and eaten by local predators, or themselves become invasive species, destroying the local ecosystem.
So, to get back to congressional politics. Every Democrat who ever supported a bill drafted by AR lobbyists was duped into supporting a conservatively-motivated bill. Every Republican who votes for a bill regulating animal use and protecting animal research, with the intention of “sticking it to liberals”, unwittingly supports a liberal cause – the Animal Welfare.

10 responses to “Politics of Animal Protection

  1. I wonder which way AR people tend to vote. I am wondering because I have tended to see AR as the left’s version of the more extreme sectors of the pro-life moveement. But maybe they do tend to the conservative side. It would be interesting to find out.
    You are right about AR having very selective care for animals. I came across a news report recently where one group was feeding feral cats and resisting efforts to impound them, even though these cats were threatening a colony of endangered piping plovers.

  2. I am pulling numbers out of deep memory from a book I read 5-6 years ago: most are too high-fallutin’ indignant to vote for anyone. The rest split between Green and Libertarian. Not much Dem or GOP voting. Talk about an unthinking fringe!

  3. I have to wonder how many AR activists you know, Coturnix (I’m usually pretty much in agreement with what you write, but this seemed a little over the top). While I know many (admittedly young) AR activists who are childless, not a one of them seems sexually repressed (quite the opposite, in fact). The typical political viewpoint seems to be the opposite of what you said: instead of elevating “cute” animals to the status of humanity, the AR activists instead seem to be lowering the status of humanity to that of “cute” animals.
    If we are going to define “Right-Wing ideology” as that of people that are ignorant of basic facts of reality, then yes, AR activists are Right-Wing. I, however, think that this is entirely untrue. The decision not to procreate is not one of sexual repression. Two, the fact that all the AR activists are white is pretty typical of the “liberal guilt” type causes, which as a whole tend to be wastes of time. However, they do ignore basic science – just like Creationistas, anti-environmentalists, antivaccination crusaders, and AIDS deniers. And the latter two are on the side of the liberals.

  4. I define conservative psychology as hierarchical and the Great Chain Of Being is definitely there. The lowering of humans is the inadvertent side-effect of their attempt to elevate animals. Sexually promiscuous (if that is what you saw) behavior, just like sexual repression, are symptoms of unhealthy attitude towards sex – overcomepnsating instead of repressing.

  5. As far as elevating animals: most AR people that I know do not see anything special about humans in general, as most of them do not see anything special about technological/mental superiority. Therefore, I would argue that AR activists are lowering the status of humanity as it is generally known.
    As far as sexual promiscuity – nymphomania may be harmful. But the fact is, we Westerners are so socially isolated anyway that additional sexual contact is almost certainly not harmful. I’m not talking about people that have sex with 100 partners a year; more like 10 per year. That may be considered unhealthy in the modern Western context, but when the proper precautions are taken, what is the pathology? And besides, oversexuality seems to invalidate your original point that AR people are not in touch with their down-in-the-dirt roots.
    BTW, I am speaking as an avowed vivisectionist – I have ‘sacked’ more ‘cute’ animals than anybody else I know.

  6. It may be that the situation is different in USA, but this rant against animal rights activists have little resemblance to what I’ve encountered in Sweden. There you can have AR-activists living happily with some “liberated” (i.e. stolen) hens, which they do know how to care for. As with all ideological movements you have the incompetents or downright wierd people, but totally focussing on those is not helping a constructive debate.
    Your argument does bear a striking resemblance to how some Southern slave owners claimed that people in northern states who opposed slavery didn’t really care about the slaves but only about their own emotions. That they never spent any time caring for actual black people but only lobbied for new laws to hurt the South. To some extent these complaints were probably right, but this doesn’t change the fact that slavery was bad.
    If you really want to argue that experiments on animals are justified, do so. Don’t just try to depict all opponents as evil or sick people. How many children AR-activists have is simply irrelevant to the question! (Besides, people worrying about human overpopulation and resource consumption may decide not to have children for rational reasons, not because they think sex is dirty).

  7. This started out bizarre and just turned alien through the comments. I support AR but an not extreme about it; likewise, I’m gay, a progressive liberal, an environmentalist and conservationist, am absolutely not put off by my own body and acting out because of it, certainly am not by no stretch of the imagination “deeply disturbed” sexually, and do support science and happily am pro-evolution, not to mention the exact opposite of what you think AR advocates are like. I stand in stark contrast to your stereotyping and irreconcilable view of this group; perhaps that means I’m an exception, but many others like me who I know would seem to negate that premise. There was nothing useful in this post simply because it was a partisan finger-pointing party instead of relevant analysis, and all that comes from a completely wrong view of those demonized.
    And then Brian says he “would argue that AR activists are lowering the status of humanity as it is generally known.” That’s when it became alien. Humanity is to blame for massive extinctions, environmental disasters, war, religion, politics, genocide, and most of the ills of the world. It seems impossible to lower their status more than the species has already done for itself. Maybe that was just filler and can be dismissed as gibberish — or at least should be dismissed as such. Picking on the weak and using them in research can be justified for science and medicine, but it goes beyond that. What of testing cosmetics and shampoos and inducing diseases just to test dog food? And AR goes well beyond that as well, for the premise encompasses as much the humane law-endorsing as it does the anti-research crowd. Like every other movement in society, dumping every AR supporter into the same bucket simply proves this is a partisan discussion. Instead of realizing how much territory the label covers and how few of those included actually fit the fringe description used, you end up insulting all of them out of innocence or ignorance, or both. Thomas is correct: this has no resemblance to reality, whether that be in Sweden or elsewhere, and I’m saying that from the inside looking out instead of from the outside where you are.
    To point out the major fallacy, it is the “use it because it’s all there for us” mentality that is quite pedestrian and conservative, very Christian in fact, and certainly very GOP. Republicans would be proud of this analysis, methinks, for it is an exact match to the related piece of their platform. As for the rest of the argument, it falls apart after that and really can’t be argued against, as it’s nothing more than sophistic bluster.
    Gandhi had it right: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Sadly, this whole thread demonstrates the very nature of the beast he was speaking against.
    Now I suppose this makes me a “vociferous troll in the comments” to which you so eloquently gestured when you started. Unfortunately, that remark showed you knew you were hitting a subject people had differing opinions on, so you immediately insult those who disagree with you as being ranting loons. That’s probably not the best way to influence people. But that’s okay. It doesn’t make you a bad guy; it just makes you wrong on this issue — IMO, of course.

  8. That’s actually what I meant, Jason. I wasn’t saying that AR activists were themselves lowering the status of humanity. I meant that they hold humanity in a lesser regard than most other people do, not that they necessarily hold animals in a higher regard.

  9. Martin Fweemer

    Your definitions differ from what I’m familiar with. I’ve heard “animal welfare” used to refer to the general idea that other species are entitled to some consideration, but humans always come first; that humans have a right to shoot deer for fun, but should try to make it as pain-free as possible. “Animal rights” refers to the idea that nonhuman interests can have equal priority; that the pain and death of a deer is not justified by the small fleeting pleasure the hunter gets out of it. The people described in your post seem, to me, to be stereotypes- or worse, people who claim to be in favor of AR without doing it, similar to the creationists who genuinely believe that they’re real scientists.
    Suggesting that only people who “don’t work with” other animals can be in favor of granting them rights seems misleading to me; I have 3 pets at home, and I’m in favor of granting them some form of legal rights. (Perhaps, for example, legal rights similar to those granted to young children.) The people who “work with animals” that you speak of are those who kill them- the factory farmers, and the people who hunt for “sport.” Naturally, the people who perform objectionable activities would oppose banning said activities.
    Your notion that people support AR because they’re ashamed of being animals seems absurd to me. I’m an animal, yes, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of it. I don’t try to cover this fact up and play a fantasy game that I’m God’s Special Acme Super Creation. I am single, and I don’t have kids, but I’m also under 20, so my current lack of offspring is reasonable.
    I don’t think PETA and ALF are trying to “blur the lines” between AR and AW. I think PETA and ALF are pseudo-AR groups trying to pass themselves off as legitimate in the same way that the Discovery Institute tries to pass IDC off as science.

  10. So, you are AW, not AR. When you use the word “rights” you are really talking about legal protection, which is AW. This just shows how well have PETA and ALF done their job at confusing people, including you.