There’s an excellent article by Michael Specter in this week’s New Yorker on the animal rights movement. It focuses on the sensationalistic, successful (750,000 members) and much-reviled organization called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and its founder and leader Ingrid Newkirk. I’m a strong supporter of animal rights, but the tactics of PETA have always troubled me, so I read the article with trepidation. As usual, however, the New Yorker provided an informative and balanced report. Since the article is not available online, here are a few key excerpts:

PETA describes itself as an “abolitionist organization” and its mission statement is: Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment. PETA believes that [all] animals are on Earth to occupy themselves and for no other reason. That humans take advantage of other animals in any way, simply because we are stronger or smarter, PETA sees as the abiding moral outrage of our time. The organization has offended so many people in the two decades since it was founded that just to hear the word PETA is enough to make many people shudder — from fear, disgust, or simply weariness.

There is a quotation from da Vinci chiselled above the PETA reception area: “The day will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals the way they now look upon the murder of men.”

It has been argued many times that in any social movement there has to be somebody radical enough to alienate the mainstream — and to permit more moderate influences to prevail. For every Malcolm X there is a Martin Luther King Jr., and for every Andrea Dworkin there is a Gloria Steinem. Newkirk and PETA provide a similar dynamic for [moderate] groups like the Humane Society of the U.S., the biggest animal welfare organization in the country.

Americans kill nine billion animals each year, mostly for food. We routinely starve, force-feed and mutiliate animals in order to enjoy a more pleasant, affordable or exotic meal. Experiments are performed on animals manufactured by the million and sold like commodities, at nearly every major university and scientific institution. And largely for fun, millions of Americans train weapons on tens of millions of birds and mammals each year, [and line up to watch often-abused animals perform in circuses]. After looking at the lives of farm animals [almost all of them now kept in horrendously small, dark, stench-filled enclosed indoor spaces all of their lives in factory farms — description in the article, enough to make the bravest reader ill, depressed and disgusted, removed] and watching PETA work for a while, it seemed to me the animal rights movement was going nowhere.

Ingrid Newkirk says “Temple Grandin [designer of the now widely-used slaughterhouse layout that mimimizes cruelty and trauma to animals awaiting slaughter] has done more to reduce suffering in the world than any other person who has ever lived.”

The organization is completely unrepentent for their outrageous tactics including inflammatory ad campaigns and destructive acts like throwing paint on women wearing furs. They are believers that any publicity of the situation summarized in the fourth excerpt above is better than permitting people to remain oblivious to these well-concealed ‘atrocities’. They are believers that the ends justify the means, and while they avoid the violence of other radical groups, they don’t condemn other animal rights groups that do use such tactics.

All of this leaves me ambivalent. I’m a radical environmentalist, by which I mean I think drastic action is needed to reduce human impact on our planet and to reduce the cruelty and suffering we cause to the rest of our planet’s creatures. But I’m also a strong believer in building consensus for change rather than imposing it, and that if something is instinctively improper or morally repugnant, simply telling people the facts should suffice to bring about a ‘popular’ change, as occurred when we ended slavery, gave women the vote, and ended the war in Vietnam. Newkirk would undoubtedly call me naive, and she may be right.

How do we explain the fact that the non-smokers’ rights movement, which didn’t exist twenty years ago, has been so successful at bringing about a massive change in popular sentiment, and commensurate legal changes, to achieve their goals? Animal rights movements have been around for well over a century, yet the situation for animals is virtually unchanged. In fact, thanks to the profitability of factory farms, it has arguably worsened.

I don’t believe the striking contrast in the success of these two movements has to do with the reaction against extremist groups like PETA. I also don’t believe it’s an issue of visibility: second-hand smoke is even harder to make visceral than the plight of the billions of animals imprisoned behind factory farm walls. It isn’t an issue of technology, either. Substitutes for animal food and clothing products are readily available, inexpensive, and comparable in every quality to those made from animals. It isn’t an issue of power: As consumers, we have made smoking unpopular and unprofitable in the face of fierce lobbying from the tobacco industry, and have forced improvements in auto safety and many other products simply by flexing our buying muscle. If we all started eating vegan tomorrow, the food industry is ready to respond, and in fact have already responded by significantly increasing the production and shelf space of organic and vegetarian products. Many of them are produced by the same companies that manufacture animal products.

So what is it? Can we, the same people who dote on and spend billions on our animal companions, really be so indifferent to the suffering and slaughter of nine billion living creatures every year in America alone, that we’re unwilling to shift our buying from Big Macs and KFC to equivalent, readily available alternatives to stop it? I don’t get it. Can somebody tell me what I’m missing, please?

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  1. Heather says:

    I largely agree with you here. While I often read the PETA web site, and agree with many of their tactics and campaigns (I have no problem with the offensive advertisements–I’ve seen plenty of disturbing television commercials speaking out against smoking, drugs, or drunk driving), I also think that PETA is often too radical to get their message across.What I see as the problem with the animal rights movement (and why it hasn’t been as successful as the anti-smoking movement) is that animal suffering is so ingrained into our culture and so easy for most people. We no longer have to go out back and slaughter the pig in order to eat bacon, we can buy the pre-sliced, pre-packaged bacon at the supermarket. Very few people see the face of the animal they are eating or wearing, and so can blissfully ignore it while lavishing their companion animals with gourmet pet food and expensive toys. Additionally, the nutrition/medical establishment continues to subscribe to the notion that meat is good for us. Just yesterday I read of yet another study about the health benefits of eating fish (which didn’t mention the many harmful chemicals fish can carry in their flesh). When mainstream medicine begins to seriously promote the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle (instead of mentioning it as one “option”), and when mainstream media publicizes the suffering of factory-farmed animals, I think that more people will be persuaded.

  2. Rayne says:

    Heather is right, in part, when acknowledging culture as a root cause. It’s a little larger than that, though. Humans are omnivores. We thrived on animal-based protein. Medicine is beginning to acknowledge that humans have not yet evolved to a carbohydrate-rich diet (see Atkins diet); as little more than cavemen, we still need more protein than carbohydrates to avoid human scurges like heart disease and diabetes.True, plant protein is now much more widely available. But that’s barrier two — the business case hasn’t been made successfully. As a society we need to see the same kinds of numbers that we see about cigarette smoking/not smoking. Until PETA or other animal-rights groups figures out how to do a better job of marketing to present the business case that vegan is by far better for our human health and economic welfare, they’re relegated to the fringe.Realistically, it will take a minimum of 3 to 4 generations for this cultural shift to work. We’re dealing with what may be a hardwired meme, deep in the genes; to unprogram and reprogram out the eating of meat will be timestaking, broad-based, intensive.As for the substitution of non-animal materials for animal, again a memetic at work. Look how long it is taking us to accept that petroleum is not conducive to long-term sustainability. It will take as long to get rid of petroleum consumption as it will animal consumption. And petrol reduction is farther ahead because of the business case made to support its elimination.Bottom line: Money talks when culture is stuck in neutral.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Interesting point, Heather — thanks. The idea that doctors could be key to changing eating habits is one that animal rights groups would be wise to think about. As for the media, I get the sense most of them don’t want to make viewers feel guilty — it’s like biting the hand that feeds them, though the CBC has been a notable exception.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Rayne, I think two things could accelerate the culture shift you describe: meat substitutes that not only are nutritionally equal to animal products, but are indistinguishable tastewise from animal products (example: artificial vanilla now tastes just like the real thing at 20% the cost, while soy milk still tastes, well, disgustingly un-milklike); and more animal-disease scandals like mad-cow. Barring that, I fear you’re right, and it’s more than meme, it’s gene — after all, we are what we eat.

  5. Marie Foster says:

    I would add one thing further. It is nearly impossible to eliminate dependence on animal products even with the most extreme vegetarian diet, avoidance of leather shoes, etc.I know that for me, it is one of those things that I think is pretty hopeless to be able to change.As to PETA. I belonged once, but even thinking of innocent animal suffering is enough to just cause me to break down into a puddle of goo on the floor. All they wanted to do is preach to the converted in their literature. I mostly can handle verbal descriptions. But they continually pushed pictures in my face that made me wall off the problem.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Well Marie, it’s been said that the first step in solving the problem is to recognize there is one. I’m delighted that, so far, the comments to this post have been sympathetic with the goal, rather than the anti-PETA vitriol I had expected. No matter how hopeless it seems, if there’s broad human support for doing something, it will get done. Not so long ago votes for women and an end to slavery were considered ‘hopeless’, too. Cheers, -/- Dave

  7. Wowbagger says:

    The animal rights movement is unlikely to gain popular support simply because most people still think animals are somehow inferior to humans. It’s “okay” to eat animals, but eating humans is “wrong”.

  8. Rayne says:

    Oh, Dave, I can’t agree on the substitution thing at all — and I use several pounds of soy protein products a week instead of meat. It’s something that for some people will simply be an acquired taste (if ever). We should write off many adults as potential converts. What’s more important to societal acceptance is introducing soy products to children, not as substitutes, but as essential elements of a meal. My kids like tofu in lasagna, textured vegetable protein in their nachos; they’ll expect and demand the same as adults. I neglected to add this point yesterday: Another critical problem in tandem with the switch to non-meat is GM/GE plants. Soy is highly at-risk. A barrier to transition may be that plant protein may be seen as riskier than meat. (This could change rapidly if meat in North America becomes contaminated with BSE.)p.s. vanillin (artificial vanilla flavoring) and vanilla cannot be mistaken for each other by someone who loves real vanilla. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but I can tell the difference, even without tasting. The nose knows.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Rayne: I think you’re right about how the politics of GM/GE could impact acceptance of meat alternatives, and I’m sure you’re right about women’s superior sense of smell (see my post today). I do think there is a capability to produce much better substitutes, that is only awaiting sufficient market demand to become commercially viable (at the risk of excessive irony, this is a bit of a chicken-and-egg issue). I hope we don’t have to rely on ‘acquired tastes’ to bring about the change, because that will take much, much longer.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Wowbagger: I’m not sure inferiority has that much to do with the issue of morality of animal cruelty. There is certainly a popular consensus, even among creationists, that needlessly hurting animals is immoral and should not be tolerated. That would suggest that we should have much stronger laws banning cruelty in animal testing, and banning most of what happens in factory farms, even if that means increased cost of food. If there was a referendum saying “Do you favour prohibiting practices that lead to the needless suffering of animals, even if that prohibition doubled your food bill”, I think the majority would say yes (provided the measures of suffering were clearly laid out, reasonable and not determined by PETA). But I don’t think we will see such a referendum, and not just because of the meat lobby, but because our society doesn’t want to face up to the current reality. They just don’t want to know about it, just like they don’t want to know about the massacres in East Africa that have killed millions of people, so the media obligingly ignore them.

  11. Marie Foster says:

    Well, in truth if I thought that I could do something for animals by going onto the mall in Washington DC and immolating myself I would. A few Buddhist monks brought down the Diem regime in S. Vietnam by doing that just a few years ago.Alas, I think most of the messed up people in the world now would just cheer.

  12. Chris Dent says:

    On the question of why anti-smoking is seeing success and organizations like PETA still struggle.I think the answer is simple and unfortunate: People are selfish. They are more concerned with creatures of their own kind. When Grandpa dies of lung cancer that is far more meaningful (to some) than when Bessie was sold at the 4-H fair.

  13. This is a strange discussion for me. I understand the position of those who want to see animals treated humanely, but I just can’t see it as a metaphysical issue. We are animals ourselves: part of nature, not above it. That will remain true no matter how much control our technology gives us over our environment. It strikes me as remarkably arrogant to somehow suggest we can step out of nature and claim some kind of special responsibility or stewardship that imposes unique restrictions on us. I don’t expect due process from the bear who attacks me in the woods, after all.The way we interact with our environment and other species has practical importance in our future quality of life, but beyond that, I can’t find room to criticize someone for eating meat or wearing leather (I do both myself). Do it, or not – whatever works for you – but don’t claim the moral high ground about it. Morality is a human creation, to govern human affairs, and there’s plenty to be outraged about within our own species. Is it “selfish” to relate better to other humans than to animals? Again, that’s a personal decision, and no one can claim to know the right answer for everyone. But our social organization – a natural form, by the way – exists to enhance the species-survival of humankind. There’s nothing unfortunate about that in my opinion.

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Rob: When asked, two thirds of men and four fifths of women believe that the minimization of suffering to all creatures on Earth is a relevant moral issue for humanity, a goal worth actively striving for. Roughly the same proportions also believe in non-smokers’ rights. These are moral issues, and I’m trying to figure out why, with equal levels of moral commitment to change, one of these movements has been so much more successful than the other. There’s some interesting clues in the thread above, but no compelling answer.As for whether the “species-survival of humankind” is “enhanced” by our present social culture, I’d have to say I think the answer is undoubtedly no, but that’s a heavy-duty intellectual and philosophical argument, not a moral one, and I’d rather focus on the moral issue right now, and save the philosophy for one of the many Darwinian threads that keep cropping up in the slogosphere.

  15. Rob Paterson says:

    What has really moved the anti-smoking mesage here on PEI, where we have a very high smoking participation, has been a shift in message and in the position of the messengerWhat did not work was the mesage that smoking is bad for you given by a “superior” being. The reaction was “don’t tell me how to live my life.” The felt emotional reaction to the “superior voice” is often similar to how we react to a nagging spouse or mother telling us to wear a hat on a cold day. We get angry and rebelliousWhat is working here is a new message and a new position. The messenger is someone like you telling me that my smoking in the restaurant is killing me,your waitress -who is a real person in the ad. Ot we show images of a family playing cards with the parents smoking and the children coughing but with no spoken message. The picture is clear. This ad was followed up with a picture of the same game of cards but with the father smoking on the porch and coming in to play his hand. The message is “Don’t let your smoking hurt innocents or those that you love” The messenger is not an expert but your real neighbour. The real drama of the impact of the smoker on others is shown for real.I think that there is a huge message here for all of us that want to change what seems to be “bad” behaviour” Self righteous talking down from the expert position is a poor messenger role. We hear best from peers. Secondly many object to well meaning, even informed and correct advice given to “improve us”. Speaking as a man, when I hear my “mother’s” voice I tune out or even rebel. Appealing to my better nature is however a very acceptable message. We show the dad in the ad being responsible and caring. We acknowledge in an unsaid way that he might find giving up smoking himself too hard. But we reward him for being caring enough to protect his childrenAnother reason why anti-smoking is working is that there is no dispute that smoking is bad for you. I think we need to separate the issue abouthow dreadfully we keep and kill animals to the issue of whether meat is good or bad for us. The science is by no means on that meat is on its own bad for us. In fact much of the science, especially taken from the field of evolutinary biology makes the case that meat is critical for brain development is has no substitute.There is no question however that how we treat animals is terrible. If you could show the public what it means to have cheap chicken, pork or beef, I think that many would be appalled and think of an alternative if it was availableIf we could show the effect of how badly we treat animals that we eat in terms of additives and the “wrong food” and how their conditions create stress and hence poor meat. If we could show how the huge killing factories set up the conditions for bacteria and hence food poisoning risk – mainstream people might react and emand better conditions if only to protect themselves and thei family.However if you play the card thasteating meat is bad for you you are in trouble. I am afraid though that you will have a tough time avoiding the evidence that human brain development is directly tied to our success in hunting and accessing large relative amounts of meat based protein. You also fall into the trap of being Mummy. This time Mummy who may not be right as well as being a nag.Isn’t the key issue to change how badly we treat animals?In the 17th century everyone thought that human slavery was the natural order of things. The Quakers and the Brits challenged this meme and while slavery still exists, it has largely been overcome. If we were to challenge how we treat animals and reward those that treat them well, I think that we could make more progress

  16. The claim that PETA has 750,000 members is bogus. Yes, PETA tosses those numbers out there, but I’ve never seen it define what qualifies as a member nor is its membership audited (technically, PETA is set up in such a way that there are actually only a handful of members in order to prevent someone else from gaining control of the organization).PETA is likely counting anyone who has ever contributed to it as a member.Why is the anti-tobacco movement successful while the AR movement not? Because the AR movement isn’t really trying for the same sort of success. PETA is quite clear that it doesn’t expect major changes anytime soon. It knows that people are not going to stop eating meat tomorrow just because it shows off some video of a slaughterhouse.So PETA is intentionally positioned to generate media attention rather than legislative and social change. Yes, it does occasionally accomplish that as well, but PETA never does the sort of heavy lifting that you see groups like the Humane Society of the United States do.But the problem from PETA’s point of view is that in doing that heavy lifting of getting legislation passed, HSUS is not able to put forward an abolitionist stance which PETA is free to do since its major audience is the media.PETA’s other problem is that it is no longer shocking. It has had to go to increasingly bizarre lengths to attract media attention and at some point the media just stops paying attention to the underlying message.

  17. Mara Rigge says:

    I don’t belong to PETA, but I support many of their campaigns by writing letters or making phone calls. They have also helped me with literature against dissection in my local high school. Instead of judging organizations for their choices, we should support them if their intentions are good. So far I’ve seen only good from PETA. It might help them in the mainstream media if they toned things down, but that’s not their style. Radicals are the ones that get attention. Julia Butterfly Hill was in a tree for two years up here where I live, now she’s known world-wide. You go, girl! None of the large animal rights organizations have seriously taken on the Canadian Harp Seal Slaughter to the degree that it needs to be. There has been no media coverage like there was in the 70’s and 80’s and the slaughter is worse now then it was then. Over 1 million baby harp seals will die within the next three years. Hundreds of thousands have already been butchered this year. The helpless babies are only a couple weeks old and can’t swim and are being beaten to death or shot while they beg for their mother’s help. Their mothers watch as they are skinned alive. Please sign my petition to Canada’s Prime Minister: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/150408370 Please tell him you will boycott Canadian products until the butchering stops. Thank you!!

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