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Including Animals in Our Circle of Concern

As someone who’s worked for twenty-five years to end the oppression and exploitation of nonhuman animals, alongside my human rights and environmental protection efforts, it’s a relief that animal protection is no longer a fringe issue. Yet, too little has changed, and animal protection is still not embraced by most progressives as integral to the important work of creating a just and healthy world.

This need not be so. There is no benefit to neglecting the suffering and exploitation of animals in our efforts to end the suffering and exploitation of humans. The systems that perpetuate oppression are the same whether they are perpetrated on human or nonhuman animals. And we should not fail to note the irony that the systems that abuse animals often lead to our own suffering and death. Eating animals is perhaps the most powerful example.

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One trillion animals are killed every year around the world for food. Tens of billions of land animals (primarily chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, and sheep) are literally tortured in our modern factory farms. They are confined so intensely they often cannot move. They are mutilated (castrated, dehorned, debeaked, de-toed, and branded) without any painkillers or anesthesia. If someone did to their dog, cat, or bird what is routinely done to farmed animals, they could be thrown in jail for animal cruelty. Calves are kidnapped from their mothers at birth so we can take their mothers’ milk, (an odd thing to do really: drink the milk of another species and do so long after weaning). Those dairy cows are forced to produce 7-10 times the amount of milk they would normally produce for their offspring (imagine a mother having to nurse 10 babies instead of one), which means that half wind up with mastitis, a painful udder infection necessitating antibiotics. Farmed animals are then dispatched in slaughterhouses so sped up to increase profits that millions wind up dying as they bleed to death hanging upside down, or worse, in a scalding tank.

The rest of the trillion are sea animals, victims of long line fishing and nets that gobble up everyone and everything in their path, laying waste to the oceans, and causing species after species to become endangered or extinct. But the ecological implications aren’t the only concern; these trillion animals die in the most torturous ways at our hands.

Our system of meat procurement is not only unimaginably abusive to animals, it has contributed to a host of problems, from environmental catastrophes as soil erosion, water pollution, water depletion, global warming, deforestation, ocean dead zones, and poisoned and depleted populations of sea animals, along with human health problems such as escalating rates of various cancers, heart disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, mercury poisoning, antibiotic resistance, and more. Choosing to eat fewer, or no animals or animal products would not only go far toward our own health (and save massive amounts of money on healthcare), but also toward slowing global warming and protecting our environment.

There are many progressives who include animals in their circle of concern, but still far too few, and too often those who express heartfelt concern for humans show disdain for nonhumans. I remember when Neal Conan was taking calls on Talk of the Nation after Hurricane Katrina, and he shamed a caller desperate to find someone to save the horses she had to leave behind during the evacuation, questioning whether she (and we) ought to concern ourselves with animals in the midst of a disaster affecting people. My heart ached for that woman, and I felt ashamed of Neal Conan for humiliating her. There was just no need.

Progressives have rightly exposed the atrocities of human experimentation but are too often mute when it comes to animal experimentation, even in situations that are so obviously unconscionable. For example, in the realm of positive psychology one man, Martin Seligman, stands as the movement’s highly respected leader, and barely a month goes by without some media and academic accolades, including in progressive circles. Yet, amidst all of the praise heaped on him, there is never a mention of the cruel experiments he conducted on dogs that made him famous (rather than infamous).


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Seligman delivered intense electric shocks to dogs that led to his theory of learned helplessness. But if you read his Wikipedia page, you would never know this. The description of the experiments that made Seligman so well known is simply this:

Seligman's foundational experiments and theory of "learned helplessness" began at University of Pennsylvania in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression. Quite by accident, Seligman and colleagues discovered that the conditioning of dogs led to outcomes that were opposite to the predictions of B.F. Skinner's behaviorism, then a leading psychological theory.

That’s it. But dig a little deeper than Wikipedia and you can find Seligman describing his own experiments this way:

When a normal, naïve dog receives escape/avoidance training in a shuttlebox, the following behavior typically occurs: at the onset of electric shock the dog runs frantically about, defecating, urinating, and howling until it [sic] scrambles over the barrier and so escapes from shock. On the next trial the dog, running and howling, crosses the barrier more quickly, and so on, until efficient avoidance emerges.

Cruel as this was, however, the point of the experiment was to prevent some dogs from ever escaping the shock, which “proved” his theory of learned helplessness as the dogs ultimately gave up and no longer even tried to escape the intense shocks delivered to them in the “shuttleboxes” in which they were imprisoned. This theory was then used to describe what happens to victims of domestic violence and other situations in which people do not perceive the possibility of change or escape. Certainly there are other ways to help those who are persistently victimized and abused than torturing dogs, and imagine how much good might come if the tax dollars spent on such cruelty were spent instead on helping victims of domestic and other violence directly.

If such experiments were ancient history, there would be little point in writing about them here, but they are not. There is no animal experiment, no matter how cruel or frivolous that is against the law in the U.S., and tens of millions of sentient animals suffer and die in laboratories, often for such things as testing new and improved personal care and cleaning products and weapons.

It’s my fervent hope that all progressives concerned with human rights and environmental preservation will embrace a more expansive ethic that includes other species, and that we’ll come to acknowledge that treating everyone with respect and care – humans, nonhumans, and the environment – is part and parcel of creating a just and healthy world.

We can begin by assessing the ways in which our daily choices, from what we eat, wear, and buy, can be an expression of justice and compassion toward people, animals and the environment, and expand the vision of our activism, volunteerism, and participation in changemaking so that it excludes no one.  

Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), where she created the first graduate programs in comprehensive Humane Education linking human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection offered online through an affiliation with Antioch University. Zoe is a frequent keynote speaker at education and other conferences and has given six TEDx talks including her acclaimed TEDx, “The World Becomes What You Teach.” She is the author of seven books including "The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries" (2016); Nautilus silver medal winner "Most Good, Least Harm" (2009), Moonbeam gold medal winner "Claude and Medea: The Hellburn Dogs" (2008), and "Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times" (2003).

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