All around us are signs of momentous change in the relationship between human beings and animals. The widespread concerns over genetic engineering, cloning and patenting of animals illustrates the new attitude - as does public disquiet about the live export of farm animals; about stag and fox hunting; the burying of yet more countryside under concrete and tarmac; the use of animals in cruel cosmetic tests; and the exploitation of wild animals by old-fashioned circuses. Then there is the BSE catastrophe and its likely origins in unnatural methods of factory farming.
In every social group and across the age range, people are looking for ways to lead lives in harmony with nature and without causing needless animal suffering. Today, the words of 19th century novelist Thomas Love Peacock - widely accepted in his time - find little echo: 'Nothing could be more obvious,' wrote Peacock, 'than that all animals were created solely and exclusively for the use of man.'
More convincing, as we approach the new millennium, is the assertion by African American author Alice Walker:
'Animals of the world exist for their own reason. They were not made for humans anymore than black people were made for whites or women for men.'
The transformation in attitude is of historic proportions and arises from two main developments:
The first is the recognition that animals are more complex and sensitive than has been commonly assumed.
The second is the accumulating evidence about the price human beings invariably pay when we exploit animals. We see this in the health problems associated with eating the diseased, contaminated and enfeebled products of intensive farming. Equally, using animals as 'models' for human beings in the development of new drugs or surgical procedures, generates data that, when applied to people, can cause great damage.
The desire for a new accommodation with animals is, therefore, as much rooted in human self-interest as in the growing sensitivity about animals' needs and vulnerabilities. When animals are afforded justice, human beings benefit; when animals are exploited there is a price we must pay.
Those who recognise the truth in this simple formula are in accord with a fundamental principal underpinning the philosophy of animal rights. But, of course, the very term 'animal rights' reverberates negatively in the minds of many people because of the way it has been defined by important sections of the media and by those with a stake in the industrialised exploitation of our animal kin.
In reality, animal rights is overwhelmingly a peaceful movement, one directed at reducing violence and exploitation in the world. It is not about loving animals and hating people, nor about putting animals' needs ahead of our own. It is concerned with protecting animals from unjust treatment, just as we would expect all human beings to enjoy such protection.
Animal rights has also been characterised as a forbidding creed that excludes 'ordinary' people - people who might want to begin exploring the underlying philosophy but who are not necessarily ready for wholesale changes in their lives. This is another misconception. The animal rights movement is inclusive of anyone whose goal is a new, fairer deal for animals. Today - in Britain alone - such people can be counted in their millions.
Reasons to be proud of the movement for rights for animals
The modern animal rights movement dates back to the early 1970s and the frustrations borne out of the dismal treatment of animals that still prevailed despite decades of welfare campaigning. In response to the lack of progress, a new breed of dynamic activists began engaging in street protests, leafleting and 'rescues' from farms, labs and the hunting fields.
Then, in 1975, Australian philosopher Peter Singer published, to explosive effect, Animal Liberation (Jonathan Cape). Singer argued that 'there can be no ethical justification for refusing to extend the basic moral ideas or equality and rights' to animals just as they - at least in theory - apply to all human beings. Animals should receive 'equality of consideration', though not necessarily the same treatment as humans since their needs and sensitivities are different.
Singer emphasised the capacity of animals to experience pain, while preferring to talk in terms of animal liberation rather than animal rights. It was American philosopher Tom Regan, with his 1983 volume, The Case for Animal Rights [University of California Press], who articulated the rights doctrine. Regan conferred 'inherent value' on all humans and animals. Being possessors of inherent value, all animals were thereby owed the right to be treated as individuals with a life of their own and not a means to a human end.
The doctrine of animal rights, though apparently extreme when first advanced, seems less so now to a public increasingly aware of the scale of cruelties in which - as 'consumers' - they are often inadvertently complicit. They see also, through the lessons of BSE and the degrading, polluting effect intensive farming practices have had on natural landscapes, that current habits are not merely oppressive, they are unsustainable.
It is also more readily appreciated that, far from being a hostile and irrational creed, the movement for animal rights is one more chapter in the history of social progress movements. Other entries include the struggle to end human slavery and the extension to women and the lower classes of the rights to vote in elections and to receive proper protection under the law.
Because of the history of animal exploitation and the conditioning that has gone with it, many people struggle to extend the same consideration to an animal raised for slaughter as they would to a 'pet' cat or dog. For others, the conditioning goes deeper: the notion that animals have any kind of emotional life is an absurdity. When they see animals they see only chaos and unceasing violence. They detect no family or social group loyalties. They grant them no intelligence, let alone the capacity to remember and to plan - only 'instinct'.
But until comparatively recently, the 'lower orders' of humanity were believed to lack the intellectual faculties of the upper classes. It was thought that they were unable to experience their full measure of pain and elation - such things being the preserve of their social betters.
Just as evolving humanity has discarded these offensive notions, so history seems to be charting a course towards a point where the doctrine of animal rights will be broadly assimilated, and people will begin making adjustments in the way they live their lives to reflect that greater awareness.
Will we stand the change?
While it is true that animals are today often central to the production of many foods, clothing, 'entertainments' and laboratory research, they are replaceable in all these functions. Human society has repeatedly shown that, when it chooses to discard exploitative practices, it can readily adjust to new circumstances.
James Boswell, chronicler of Dr Samuel Johnson, called the trade in African slaves 'so very important and necessary a branch of commercial interest' and the campaign of opposition 'the ranting of a handful of moralistic bigots'. [James Boswell, Life of Johnson, 1791]
The trade ended because there was finally widespread recognition among the masses that it was disadvantageous - morally and in every other way. Similarly, the doctrine of animal rights and all that follows from it cannot be imposed upon the world by a minority group. No fundamental change will occur until there is a stirring in the majority. The argument must first be won and the momentum for change must then swell to irresistible proportions.
There are signs that those early stirrings have already begun. The sheer volume of animal rights discussion in the media, through university syllabuses and in secondary schools is one strong indicator. Another is the fact that around 5,000 people every week in the UK are turning to the vegetarian diet.
In the key marketplace of the United States, a Yale University survey found that 'those who are older or less educated are more likely to see animals as resources, whereas those who are younger or more educated tend to view animals with compassion'. [Scientific American, Feb.1997, p72]
The same February 1997 edition of Scientific American magazine reported that public support for animal experimentation in the US dropped from 63 per cent to 53 per cent between 1985 and 1995. Support throughout Europe is lower still. And surveys in Belgium, France and Italy have shown that 'greater scientific literacy is connected with an increased rejection of animal experimentation'.
Hunting is now opposed by the majority in most industrialised countries. Even in Russia there was public revulsion over news that a hunting party, which included the Prime Minister, killed two bear cubs and their mother after using dogs to rouse them from their den where they had been in hibernation. The weekly magazine Ogonyok commented: 'One is overcome by a feeling of bitter irritation that the leaders of a country with great humanitarian ideals should find time for a hunt which is more like common murder.'[The Observer, Feb. 9, 1997]
A dominant feature of some animal rights media reporting over the last several years has been the fixation on 'extremist actions' - property damage, personal threats and physical attacks - rather than the cruelty issue itself. Such reports are inevitably seized upon by rights opponents in an attempt to invalidate the whole message. The vast majority of animal rights campaigning is peaceful. And, increasingly, it attracts broad-based community support when - for instance - objecting to plans for a new facility to breed animals for vivisection; or opposing the live export of calves and sheep.
Prompted by bitter frustration, some campaigners do engage in damage to vivisection labs, slaughterhouse lorries, fur shop windows and the like. Intimidation does also take place, although physical attacks are rare and none that we are aware of has resulted in substantial lasting harm, let alone a fatality. By contrast, three British animal rights campaigners have been killed in recent years and many others have suffered severe injuries.
Animal Aid's own position on this question is unequivocal. We engage only in peaceful, non-intimidatory campaigning. We oppose all violent methods - just as we oppose the violence of the vivisector and the slaughterhouse.
Reasons to be proud of animals
One of the 'trick' debating questions often used in an effort to defeat animal defenders is along the lines: 'What about the life of a worm or a mollusc? How far would you go to protect them?' The implicit message here is that such creatures are beneath serious consideration, the trash of life.
Those who take such a view fail to understand the inter-connectedness of all life. Molluscs and worms - and even smaller beings, such as insects, spiders, bacteria and invisible scavengers - provide our eco-system. Without them we would have no crop pollination, no soil formation, or water management. Because of human population growth (currently standing at six billion globally but predicted to rise to 8-9 billion in the next 40 years ) these life-sustaining creatures are likely to be hit extremely hard. [The Guardian, Nov. 25, 1997]
The lives of the invisible scavengers remain a relative mystery. We know more of the larger animals with whom we share the planet - and knowing them is to appreciate that the old 'dog-eat-dog' clichés simply do not apply. Other species are not 'stupid' and disorderly. Many have qualities we should celebrate. They display intelligence, sensitivity, organisational skills, the ability to withstand extremes of temperature and to navigate vast distances without the aid of silicon chip technology. Many are not 'red in tooth' but plant-eaters (the gorilla, horse, zebra, deer...) and live co-operatively within sometimes vast and intricate social groupings.
The family loyalties of animals can be witnessed over and over, in the way mothers feed and protect their young, or in dramatic incidents such as the five wild elephants who drowned in the storm-swollen Teesta river in West Bengal as they tried to rescue a calf who had been swept away in the current. The calf survived, according to a September 1996 report in the Hindustan Times. [The Guardian, Sept. 12, 1996]
Evidence that animals share our capacity for grief can be found in the story of the love-sick elephant at France's Pankov zoo, who - unable to cope with the death of her partner, Mako - refused food and drink for more than a month before dying on Valentine's Day. The pair had been incarcerated together for 24 years. [Evening Standard, Feb.17, 1998]
That life is precious to animals - including those destined to be turned into meat - is illustrated by the newspaper report of a cow who survived a 150 foot fall from a cliff in north Wales and stayed afloat for 24 hours in the Irish Sea before being rescued by a lifeboat and fishing vessel. [The Guardian, Sept. 20,1997]
Evidence of the ingenuity and unfathomable talents of animals is also all around us. Examples include:
- The use of sponges by dolphins to stir up food on the sea bed and to protect themselves against the hazardous spines and stings of creatures such as stonefish and stingrays. [The Times, July 17, 1997]
- The dogs who detect the early signs of skin cancer in their owners, or who warn them in good time of an impending epileptic fit. [The Times, May 30, 1997]
Animals also know about self-healing and disease prevention - an example being Calcutta's sparrows, who traditionally lined their nest with leaves of the neem tree, but switched to the quinine-rich leaves of the krishnachura tree. The change coincided with a malaria outbreak and was almost certainly a protective measure. [New Scientist, Jan. 3, 1998]
An example of the exquisite sensitivity some animals exhibit can be found in the way sea horses order their lives. A 'married' sea horse of either sex cannot be persuaded to cheat on its mate and the pair 'reaffirm their bond each morning through a courtship ritual of quivering, tail-wrapping, and dancing round and round a blade of sea grass like figurines on a music box. Eventually their bodies harmonise...' Sea horses are harvested by the tens of thousands for use in traditional Chinese medicine and are also made into key rings and paper weights. [The Observer, Nov. 2,1997]
Defenders of cruelty
Despite such evidence, there are those who continue to define animals as crude and unfeeling. They dress up their views in quasi-religious or philosophical garb, accusing animal defenders of misanthrope and ignorance of the natural world. Their low regard for animals is not the product of simple ignorance, but is necessary in order for animal exploitation to be legitimised and sustained.
In this, we see a direct echo of the status accorded Africans during the era of slavery, or to women pre-emancipation. The ugly, demeaning language used against these human groups was/is a feature of an ideology of exploitation, whose function is to negate worth and reduce value.
Both groups went through similar phases. First they articulated their pain, thereby ending long years of stoic, often fearful endurance. They then threw off the mantle of negativity, asserting in its place a conspicuous pride and confidence. In other words, they retrieved what had been stolen from them. So it is with animals. On their behalf, people of compassion must directly counter the negative imagery attached to animals. For it is this negativity that justifies animals' continued exploitation in factory farms, vivisection laboratories, the hunting field and other such places.
In recent times, much of the hostility to the animal protection cause in the UK has coalesced around a pro-hunting moral philosopher, called Roger Scruton. At the heart of Scruton's argument is the notion that animals are not genuine individuals. They are not part of a 'moral community', complete with responsibilities for others. They are incapable of true suffering - as opposed to momentary physical pain - or of entering into reciprocal relationships with others.
It is also generally the case - according to one key Scruton supporter (Daily Telegraph July 7, 1996) - that the uglier an animal appears to human beings the more undeserving it is of sympathetic treatment, since its ugliness means it is even more lacking in intelligence and feeling.
Scruton and his defenders charge animal advocates with ignorance of the natural world, but it is plain from their one-dimensional definitions of animals that they have much to learn about the richness of animal culture - their powerful social bonds, their capacity for grief and sensual pleasure, their organisational and tool-using skills, their ability to think strategically, to work co-operatively, and much else.
Scruton was at his crudest in a book review he wrote for The Times on December 19, 1996. The volume under consideration, by a 'pious Catholic' and public school Classics master, described the author's 'sporting' exploits in Cumbria. Scruton wrote approvingly of the writer's 'defiant celebration of the act of killing fish and birds in quantities that far surpass his gastronomic capacity...
'I find nothing strange,' Scruton commented, 'in the fact that these activities should be the high point of someone's life, and the object of powerful religious feelings.'
Organised religion is the seat of much anti-animal sentiment, even though passages within holy books such as The Koran and the Old and New Testaments are amenable to an animal-friendly interpretation. During a public audience on January 19, 1990, the Pope declared that:
'animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethren'.
But the traces of centuries of religious prejudice are still etched deep. In Catholic Medieval Europe, the Church believed that animals were not simply soul-less but a hiding place for demons. It was, therefore, considered a good thing to beat them, their screams and writhings being evidence of demonic discomfort. [See: The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, by E.P. Evans, Faber and Faber, 1987]. Animals who had transgressed by, for instance, causing human injury or by being 'party to' a bestial act with their owner, might be dressed in men's clothes and publicly hanged. This was not infrequently the fate of pigs.
Science has also concocted potent justifications for the exploitation of animals. A guiding light - even today - is 17th Century philosopher, René Descartes, who taught that animals were incapable of feeling pain since they were nothing more than complex machines. Their screams when cut up alive by the thousand during physiological studies, were regarded as mere reflex actions with no more meaning than the ticking of a clock.
When the screaming became too disturbing to the vivisectors, they sliced the animals' vocal cords and - to prevent their escape - dogs' paws were nailed to boards.
Vast numbers of animals (over 2.5 million every year in the UK alone) continue to be surgically mutilated, poisoned, blinded, scalded, tortured in psychology experiments, destroyed in weapons tests, infected with lethal disease organisms and given cancers. How is it possible? Because there is still much of Descartes in modern scientific thinking: the great scientific sin is not to abuse a laboratory animal but to identify too strongly with it - the sin of anthropomorphism.
'We were taught as undergraduates not to think of animals as other than stimulus-response bundles,' a fish expert at the American Museum of Natural History told the magazine, Scientific American [Feb. 1997, p.72]. 'The dogma is you can't credit them with feelings.'
A clear guide to animals and the pain question was offered in the same article by Iowa University veterinarian, Gerald Gebhart. The pain sensing apparatus is the same throughout the vertebrate kingdom, he declared, and offered this rule of thumb:
'If it hurts you, it probably hurts the animal'.
But while animals feel like us, there are important differences in the way each species reproduces, digests food, responds to specific chemicals, and to various environmental stresses. They also get different diseases from each other (humans included) and some perish after consuming a chemical that might be harmless to another species. That is why using animals to study human disease or to develop new drugs meant for human beings is a foolish and potentially catastrophic enterprise.
Old bad habits, however, die hard, especially when powerful academic or business interests are involved. But die they will.
Layer by layer, the religious and scientific prejudices are being stripped away. Instead, opponents of greater protection for animals are falling back on the kind of philosophical objections raised by men such as Roger Scruton. Animals cannot have rights, Scruton argues, 'for you would then be forced to treat animals as members of the moral community, with the responsibilities and duties that stem from that. You would be forced to take towards them attitudes - such as accusation, punishment, judicial prosecution - which are the price exacted for the gift of sovereignty.' ['Beastly Burdens', Roger Scruton, Times Higher, Aug. 30, 1996]
In fact, animals are already subjected to exacting punishment at the hands of human beings - without them enjoying the benefit of judicial hearings. 850 million are slaughtered every year in the UK for meat; none gets its day in court. Thousands are hunted, millions are exposed to lethal experiments, millions more are displaced and/or dismembered as countryside gives way to motorway or out-of-town shopping centre.
What really concerns those who make the 'moral community' argument is not that, by extending rights to animals, human beings would be obliged to hold to account other species. Their concern is that the freedoms they themselves currently enjoy - to exploit and kill with little encumbrance - would be curtailed. It is they who would be confronted with new responsibilities.
It is sometimes suggested that extending rights to animals means people reverting to a Stone Age existence. But the new mood is about looking forwards not backwards. Today, there is a rapidly growing range of products and services that don't depend on animal exploitation. They include foods, clothing, cosmetics, medicines, household products and even high-yielding pension and investment packages whose profits derive from supporting ethically sound businesses.
Just a few years ago, it was considered 'cranky' to adopt any of these options. Not anymore. Equally, the public recognises that by taking a relatively small step - for instance, buying cruelty-free toiletries rather than those tested on animals - they have done something valuable.
It is better to be 'inconsistent' and go part of the way towards a cruelty-free lifestyle than be 'consistent' and do nothing. The simple message is: Why Be Cruel When You Can Be Kind.
If you object to animal cruelty. If you are uneasy about developments in factory farming and genetic engineering, if you are disturbed by the wanton destruction of the countryside, or by the use of millions of animals in lethal laboratory experiments every year, then you are part of a growing movement whose goal is a new, fairer deal for animals.