A Pragmatic Fight for Animal Rights
Despite criticism, we at Peta believe compromises and funny antics are necessary to the real work of animal protection
In recent years, there has been a controversy swirling in animal rights circles, as some people such as Victor Schonfeld object to the work of groups such as Peta, which, while abolitionist and determined to get animals off the dinner plate and out of the fur farms, circuses and laboratories, have nevertheless been working with corporations to achieve animal welfare reforms within their industries. A few outspoken critics of such "half measures" or "baby steps" have gone so far as to argue against Peta's campaigns for improved slaughter practices for chickens, better living conditions for hens and larger cages for animals in laboratories. We find this attitude unhelpful to the goal of animal liberation.
Not only is it possible to work for an end to animal slavery while simultaneously supporting incremental change, moving the bar closer to that goal also seems to us to be an important step. Yes, it is more comfortable for industry and consumers alike, but short of a bloody revolution of the sort history has witnessed in other social movements, it is also nearly impossible to move a society forward in any other way. The vast majority of people, if they care about animals - and consumer surveys show that they do - support incremental improvements, even if the increments are far from wholly satisfactory to the animals, who would rather not be caged and mutilated, hung upside down and killed, and to the liberationists, who chafe at such slow progress. It seems obvious that society is more likely to progress in a way that causes particularly abusive systems to be improved or eliminated before full animal liberation is achieved.
If society's perspective is that animals should have no rights or interests at all, then moving from that mentality to complete animal liberation will require an impossibly enormous shift in viewpoint, no matter how much more enlightened this generation is than the last when it comes to understanding the complex behaviour and needs of all the various species from dog to duck. However, once society gets the picture provided by ethologists and others who study animals in nature and captivity, the interests not only of great apes and whales but also of the "humbler" species we have long taken for granted and whose fundamental interests have been totally disregarded, including chickens, pigs and other animals, will be understood and begin to be respected. That is when massive changes will come about in what we eat and wear and how we test chemicals. Not to change would be an indictment of our humanity, our societal values, ourselves. Now that some of the world's largest corporations are saying, "Yes, we understand that animals can suffer, and we see that this is a real concern," the discussion has begun in earnest.
For those who decry gradualism, the practical philosopher Peter Singer would ask, "Would you prefer to live in the horror you're in, bred to grow seven times more quickly than natural so that your bones splinter and your organs collapse, or would you prefer to be able to live without chronic pain? Would you prefer to live your life crammed into a small cage, unable to lift your wings, build a nest, or do almost anything else that you would like to do, or would you prefer to, at the very least, be able to walk? Would you prefer to be hung upside-down by your feet and then scalded to death or lose consciousness when the crate you are in passes through a controlled atmosphere stunner?" The answers should be clear.
Campaigns against the practices of fast-food chains and the campaign to ban battery cages, which have been heavily supported by the hard work of tens of thousands of grassroots activists, have improved the living and dying conditions of millions of animals. As the industries change and evolve, the improvements will apply to billions of animals every year. At Peta, we completely understand the appeal of battle cries such as "Not bigger cages - empty cages!" But giving a little comfort and stimulation for animals who will be in those cages their whole lives is worth fighting for, even as we demand those empty cages. Not only is it the best thing for the animals in the cages, it's also the best thing for animal liberation. It's a stepping stone on the road to animal liberation.
As for the sexy women in our ads, the silly costumes, the street tableaux and the tofu sandwich give-aways, in a world where people want to smile, can't resist looking at an attractive image and are up for a free meal, if such harmless antics will allow one individual to reconsider their own role in exploiting animals, how can it be faulted? Yes, Peta could restrict its activities to scientific work, but how often do you read of that in the papers? It could just hand out lengthy tracts about ethics, but how many people would stop and take one, let alone read it? Any peaceful action that opens eyes, hearts and minds should be commended, not condemned. Victor Schonfeld's film is a wonderful milestone and provides an excellent education, but there must be constant incremental daily efforts - not just big hurrahs - or we will never succeed. Too many lives depend on that success for us to be worried about how grand and perfect we are on the way to saving them.
© 2010 Guardian News and Media Limited