Categorized | Global View

In Action for Animals

I began this story in the hopes of finding out why certain animals receive protection over others. After interviewing many people and writing a dry story about animal rights in general, it occurred to me the people were much more interesting than my story turned out to be. So I decided to let them tell it themselves. What follows are six profiles on six people who care about animal rights professionally, or just because they have a natural affinity toward our fellow creatures in the animal kingdom.
The Student Activist
Sean Cook, vice president of Students Promoting Animal Rights
All I was told about Sean Cook was that he looked like a pretty cool guy, which isn’t much to go off when you’re meeting someone in a campus library on a crowded school night. But as soon as I saw him, I knew right away. A skinny junior, he had bright green gloves, fitted pants and a hipster hat on his long hair. He seemed to be able to pick me out, too, as he came right up to me and held out his hand for an introduction. We quickly got through the formalities and picked the only empty table to launch into an hour and a half talk about animal rights. [ani1]
Sean is a recently converted vegan who went the animal-less way for the new year after being a vegetarian for two and a half years. “I realized that if I was going to be a vegetarian, I might as well be vegan. But in the first place I didn’t have any grand philosophical ideas. I just realized I didn’t want to support eating animals anymore. I was eating a shrimp and thought, ‘This is disgusting. This was alive once.’ There was no turning back.” When back at school for the spring semester, he was sitting at Espresso Royale Café one day reading a vegan book and was hailed by the president of Students Promoting Animal Rights, who also frequents the coffee house. “He shouted at me and asked if I was into animal rights and invited me to the next meeting.”
A few weeks later, Sean was the new vice president of Students Promoting Animal Rights, a group he describes as being drastically different from the violent protestors many people associate with animal rights activists. “We are trying to become a new face of animal rights, and completely dissociate ourselves from the image that so many people have of the abrasive paint-throwing activist.”
The group is mostly vegan-centric, but Sean says it’s open to anyone interested in animal rights, which he defined as an active support of the humane treatment of animals. “We allow people of any sort of mindset as long as they have the idea that animals aren’t being treated right.”
The right way to treat animals, however, isn’t just to give them the same rights as humans, he says. “I don’t think we should make pigs under the same laws. If a pig steals, it shouldn’t go to prison. It’s that animals aren’t our property or responsibility.”
As a vegan, Sean would rather see a complete dissociation with animals and for humankind to be completely without animal products of any kind. He says, though, we are still a long way from that point, as most people tend to only favor animal rights for pets. “Cats and dogs have such a connection with humans – we experience their personalities. They’re elevated to another level. We can experience their lives so we have the ability to feel empathy.” Livestock, on the other hand, are seen as a commodity rather than an animal, and with so few cows roaming the streets of urban areas, it’s hard for the average person to relate to the cow squashed in a small cell in one of many U.S. slaughterhouses. “Cattle are 90 percent inanimate and only 10 percent human.”
He goes on about the conditions cows have to face, citing a recent Internet video called “Downer” that received a great deal of press. The video depicted a slaughterhouse and showed cows being dragged behind trucks because they weren’t able to stand. But he said it takes a lot to get people to the level to feel bad about where the meat they eat comes from, and most don’t really care many animals are genetically engineered before they end up on a plate. “Don’t get me started on cloning!” he says, laughing.
Sean has a way of brushing his hair out of his eyes while he talks, making him seem less the soapbox advocator and more just a regular human. But he also has some pretty radical ideas behind his unassuming face. He says the only reason humans eat meat is because we’re raised to eat meat, meaning we’re not natural omnivores. “By and large, if you take an objective human and put them in a situation where everyone is vegan, you’re going to eat vegan and not care. Eating meat is so much a part of how you were raised. You’re taught not to question the things around you. You’re taught to listen. At some point you do question the things around you, but for the most part you keep doing what you’ve done in the past.”
He continues by telling a PETA story: if you put a baby in a crib and give him a bunny and an apple, the baby is going to eat the apple. “The baby doesn’t have an instinct to eat that bunny.” Moreover, he says humans don’t have an instinct to eat meat, period. Humans only have an instinct to survive. Sean says if he were trapped on an island with 1,000 boars, he would die before he killed one. I ask if it was because the pig was more important than his life. “I don’t have the right to say that pig is less important than me. And the fact that I can say that and truly believe it to be the truth means that humans don’t have that instinct born in you and can change.”
[cook]I ask him if that means we should remain completely separate from animals, and he tells me the direction evolution is going is to ultimately nonviolent, peaceful coexistence. He relates the story of Grizzly Man to me (the man known for living peacefully with bears) and says that’s the next step – getting rid of perceived threats on both the human’s and the animal’s part. “Humans have the ability to realize that’s not solving anything. There hasn’t been a creature that’s reached that next level – we’re the first animal who really has the choice of what to eat and what will live. It’s an important moment in the history of evolution. As a species, our diet did consist of meat, but now it doesn’t have to. For the first time we have the ability to be completely altruistic in the history of animals, and we’re throwing it away and we don’t care.”
The Vegan
Tammie Ortlieb, staff writer and freelancer for vegan publications
It wasn’t easy for Tammie Ortlieb to become a vegan. She first became a vegetarian for six months, then went back to eating meat until her son and daughter came back from a week-long visit to their cousin’s house. The cousin was a big vegetarian activist, and Tammie’s children came back much the same way. Tammie decided she would try again with them, and this time stuck with it for five years. She tried another three times to go vegan, having difficulty figuring out how to make the switch without gaining a lot of weight, but a year later, she’s not only vegan but writing for a number of vegan publications, both in print and on the Web. For Tammie, it was the cruel practices of factory farming that converted her. “I try to live as kind a life as I can live. I do think that any living creature deserves a measure of respect. Animals don’t exist for us to hang them by their feet and slit their throats.”
Tammie, who is from New Jersey but now lives in Michigan, remembers growing up with pigs at one time, and says the problem now is we’re removed from the animals that end up on our plates. “The pig left the yard one day and went to visit the man down the street. The next morning there was a plate full of bacon. Now, if you can’t see it, you don’t have to think about it, and if you don’t have to think about it, then it really isn’t an issue,” she says of slaughterhouses. “We just throw it in a shopping cart when it’s on sale. If more people had to kill their own food or had to see it being killed, a lot fewer people would eat meat.”
It wasn’t until her pig, Jeffrey, showed up at the dinner table that she stopped liking pigs, but by naming the pig, she gave it more human characteristics – characteristics that we tend to give pets. “We’re horrified when a neighbor leaves a dog outside with no care, but we don’t mind at all if somebody chops off the head of a fish and we cook that in a pan,” she says. “I think we tend to protect animals that seem more like us – sizewise, feeling or thinking. We’re a lot more compassionate toward a chimp than a honeybee.”
I ask Tammie what exactly animal rights means to a vegan. To her, the term animal rights refers to animals deserving a certain amount of respect because they are living creatures. She says her generation has gotten far away from treating animals with respect, but that the younger generation, including her son, who is part of the university’s animal rights group, is paying more attention to the issue.
She recounts a story from her own childhood where she and her friends used to take the light part off fireflies to put on their ring fingers to pretend they had a diamond. “That’s just cruel! We tore the bug in half for a ring. What difference does it make if they think or feel at all? They’re living creatures, put here like we are. Just because they don’t look like us or think or feel, does that mean we have to squash them?”
For Tammie, vegan is the best way to go to protect animal rights. But she doesn’t necessarily expect every human to give up eating and using animal products. “It’s my personal choice to do this. I think it would be great if everybody did, but I know that realistically that will never happen. I just like to see any progress toward veganism – if somebody’s trying to be a vegetarian or somebody stopped eating meat.”
Unlike Sean, she doesn’t necessarily advocate dissociation so much as retaining a level of dependence on both the animal’s and the human’s part. We can’t just let domestic animals go back to the wild, but nor can we ignore animals already in the wild. “Just enjoying the birds outside my window, just watching the seagulls on the beach – that’s a dependence. But not dependent on them for survival – emotionally dependent.”
The Lawyer
Joyce Tischler, founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund
When I e-mailed the Animal Legal Defense Fund requesting an interview, it took founder Joyce Tischler only a couple hours to respond, telling me she’d be delighted to talk to me, even that same afternoon if I wanted. I called her a few days later, and she talked to me until my cell phone became so hot I could barely hold it. With a voice that made me imagine her as a kindhearted grandma, she launched into her story, telling me her interest in animal rights was genetic. As a little girl, she was always bringing home injured birds and cats, and that didn’t stop in college in New York City, where she fell in with a group of people concerned with cats. Known as the “Campus Cats People,” they organized a type of shelter and treated about 100 cats per year.
It was when she read Peter Singer’s book on animal liberation she found the language to express her concern for animals. “It really gave us a language to speak that was different from ‘I love animals’ language to ‘animals have feelings and they’re not inanimate objects.’ They deserve to have their interests balanced against those of human beings.”
Joyce went on to law school, where she discovered there was no such thing as animal law. She met David Favre, who is currently a professor at MSU, in 1981, and they formed a small group of attorneys who met monthly and started teaching about laws related to animals. Late in the year, the group announced it was going national, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund came into being. “We built from the ground up this area called animal law and worked to get animal law classes taught at every law school we could get it taught in. We’re trying to develop cutting edge litigation to establish that animals have interests.”
As Joyce takes a breath, I ask how far animal legal rights have gotten today. “As far as society allows them to go. But when you get up in the morning, what do you do? Have a breakfast of eggs, bacon, ham, then have a glass of milk or coffee with milk in it. Then you brush your teeth, put on shoes that are leather, sit in a car with leather seats, you have clothing and coats and belts and shoes – do you see where I’m headed?”
“So many things we do rely on the exploitation of animals. Everything in our society dictates against granting animal rights, even more humane treatment, because it’s convenient and preferable not to treat animals well and raise them in masses.”
She does stress, though, that animals shouldn’t necessarily receive the same rights as humans and equality isn’t a concept of treating everybody the same. Instead, one needs to balance the interests of the animal against the interests of the human. In the world of legality, though, the only animals that are really affected by anti-cruelty laws are the ones we keep as pets. “If a dog is violently tortured by someone who is standing out on the street, that person can be charged with cruelty. Take that same dog and put it into a research lab where an experiment is being done to see if the dog can become addicted to cocaine, and no laws cover that dog.”
[tischler3]I ask if it’s because of the perceived cognitive ability of animals like pets that gives them more rights. In response, Joyce tells me of her experience in giving a number of radio interviews about the rise of animal law. When she talked about chimpanzees, who are closest in DNA and intelligence to humans, she said people politely listened to her, but there was no dialogue. However, when she talked about the pets that often become members of the family, she said the phones rang off the hook. But that could be a good thing: “The idea is to try and get people to tap into their own compassion that may have started with the family dog and hopefully get them to extend that compassion to other beings.” But she also says that animal rights, even with companion animals, go out the door when money comes into play.
“At the core of the issue, we provide the most protection to animals when it’s in our interest to do so. As soon as we have another interest such as doing research, raising them for food, hunting, trapping, circuses, zoos, rodeos, entertainment, advertisements, then the protection just dies. Generally, animals are almost always trumped by human interest for making money from them.”
I ask Joyce about zoos, if they are the best way to make humans more aware of animals they may not come into daily contact with. She says zoos were not where she developed her appreciation for animals and when she was a child, she used to think the animals all must be pretty bored at the zoo. “I’ve learned more by watching TV and seeing National Geographic specials. Animals in captivity on display are no more natural than human beings would be in the same situation.”
She says through polling, the Fund has been able to tell more Americans are aware of animal rights, especially in regard to companion animals. But the American-dammit-I’m-gonna-do-what-I-damn-well-please-with-this-animal attitude still exists, and as a result has put the United States behind the European Union in animal rights. The first law passed in England for animals used in research came 100 years before the first American law, Joyce says. She partly blames this on the Vietnam War, when a lot of people in the ’60s were focused on war activism rather than animal activism like other countries were. She wraps up the interview by giving me an analogy:
“Today the animal rights movement is in some ways where the abolition movement was in the 1820s, not where the Civil Rights movement was in the 1960s. Animals are slaves. We’re in such an early stage in the development of animal rights that I fear we cut conversation short when we talk about how far animal rights can go. We need to get people to understand how bad things are right now and how desperate the need is for improvement.”
The Philosopher and Scientist
Paul Thompson, professor of agricultural economics
I worked through Paul Thompson’s secretary to arrange an interview. Apparently as a professor, he needs his own assistant to schedule meetings. When I walk in, he needs me to refresh his memory of who I am and why I’m there, but when I tell him, he seems enthusiastic and glad to meet me. Thompson is a professor of agricultural economics and holds a chair in ethics relating to food and community. He’s worked in both philosophy and biology as they relate to animal rights and is quick to point out animals don’t experience the world in the way humans do and that we can’t take our own experiences and perspectives to understand them or their interests. This is a theme he continually references when talking to me.
He begins by giving me categories of animals. Wild animals really don’t get much protection because people are more concerned with preserving the habitat than protecting the animals. In addition, a friend of his works with robot dogs and had so far found humans respond much in the same way to robots as they do to live dogs, which he says suggests a major part of how we treat animals depends on the things humans project on animals.
Livestock are in between wild animals and pets, and also are one of the most contested areas since, at the end of the day, livestock are slaughtered, no matter how they are treated. And the last category is lab research animals, where he again tells me we shouldn’t necessarily expect animals to respond to research in the same way humans might.
I ask him if animals can feel, and he says generally people say there’s no way to know, but that he thinks it’s possible to design experiments that can reveal certain things about what animals are feeling. “But it’s impossible to know for sure what’s going on. But then again, it’s almost impossible to know what’s going on in the head of another person. Emotion is a very complex notion. It’s difficult to sort out what we mean by it in different contexts. The notion is difficult to define just with humans. Animals’ behavior suggests they have cognitive needs, but we can’t infer their experiences are totally like ours.”
Paul’s interest in animals comes from his background in agriculture. He got into studying animals while looking at ethical ways to produce animals. “That got me into other issues because you can’t understand these types of issues separately from each other.” The issue he’s most concerned about is housing for chickens, but he wonders whether housing is really worse off for the animals, since it’s difficult to get chickens to go outdoors. After all, none of us are chickens and know what they want for sure.
Paul likes to categorize. I ask him where animal rights fit into his interests, and he lists the three types of people in relation to animal rights. There are the people that take all of an animal’s needs and address them. Then there are the people who see doing more scientific research as important before undertaking major reform. And lastly, there are those who just don’t really care all that much. “I fall in the middle group. I think there are things that we have done and are proposing to do that are not beneficial to animals and actually harm animals. I would like to see reform of animal use make a real attempt to see how animals are affected.”
But he’s quick to point out animal rights aren’t strictly science. “Philosophical issues have to be a part of the debate. I like to see both science and philosophy working together.” And he’s even quicker to point out animals shouldn’t be given the level of rights humans get. “I don’t even necessarily endorse those rights for humans. In animal welfare (in which he works), I see the concept of rights as a limit. At the bottom is more the welfare view.” The two concepts sometimes are very different and sometimes conflict, as Paul says he even sees human rights that cut against the welfare of humans.
I ask him how religion and cultural values fit into all of this. He says religious tradition leads to different outlooks on animals and the belief animals should be regarded as sacred, citing Buddhism as an example. “But not all Buddhists are vegetarians. And Buddhists say we should regard life as sacred, but that doesn’t mean ethical.”
Paul isn’t an advocate of radical change. In another set of categories, he tells me he’s comfortable at a level where he cares about individual animals, not just animals in general, and that he doesn’t follow any specific diet restrictions. Moreover, he says plants deserve more moral consideration as well. “We should regard all other living things and nonliving things as having moral value and our interactions as having moral significance.”
The Welfare Expert
Janice Siegford, assistant professor of animal behavior and welfare
I expected Janice Siegford to be a lot older. But when I walked in, she looked fresh out of college. The walls in her office were decorated with pictures, some artistic, many depicting animals. The desk was cluttered, and she told me to wait a minute while she finished an e-mail. When she turned to me, I began with a fairly easy question, though one that needed answering. What exactly is the difference between animal welfare and animal rights?
“Animal welfare looks at the quality of life for an animal, looking at animals that are affected by humans and under our control. Rights implies animals have legal or ethical rights equivalent to humans. They can overlap, but welfare people are not trying to end human use of animals. I’m just worried if animals are enjoying a good life.”
Janice’s main contribution to my quest to learn about animal rights deals with the issues of emotion and pain. She defines pain and emotion as two completely separate entities, saying pain is a more of a sensation that can lead to feelings. “Pain is a reflexive, physical experience that induces perception or threat of physical injury. In welfare, until proven otherwise, we assume animals can suffer and experience other feelings. We judge how we’re placing animals in terms of moral status in how they manage pain. But it’s subjective – you have to take into consideration our impressions of animal emotions.”
She told me to consider a situation. Say you’re looking at a horse on a windy day, and then a horse in a nice warm box stall with shavings on the floor. We as humans may like to be out of the cold, but the horse would still rather be outside. “We have to be careful with the species we’re dealing with,” she added. We have to be careful not to anthropomorphize, which is a fancy word meaning judge another species by your own qualities and perceptions.
Janice notices my “Australia” bag and tells me she’s studied abroad in Australia before. We get to talking about animal rights in foreign countries and if there can be such a thing as universal animal rights. Her answer is no, because it’s hard enough to get universal animal rights in just one country, let alone the whole world. She looks at it from an economical point of view. “Western societies have the luxury of having more money than they need to survive. I don’t know how to convince someone starving in India to not eat that pig roaming by. It depends on the moral philosophies of cultures. In some, they still think men are the only worthy beings – they’re unlikely to extend a moral quality to animals.” [ani2]
Some cultures are barely able to subsist, but even in the United States, there are many that are below the poverty line. Their economic status affects the animals they choose to protect, if any at all. “Most people, once given the freedom to not be living paycheck to paycheck, tend to make broader choices. It’s hard to make those choices when you don’t have that luxury. There are harsh realities in what we can afford to do. If you’re a single mom who needs to feed her child protein, you have to think realistically.”
The Vet
Britt Larson, veterinary medicine sophomore
As a sophomore in veterinary medicine, Britt Larson has already shadowed a variety of vets and gotten real world experience in the areas of horses, pets and marine animals, and is familiar with mainstream animal rights organizations. “One of the things that turns me off from official terms like animal rights is organizations like PETA that may have good intentions but take it to the extreme, and they make the rest of society think animal rights means terrorist type activity.” The Animal Liberation Front is the group connected most with terrorist activity, and actually set fire to someone’s lab on campus for using animals in experimentation, destroying thousands of dollars of equipment.
“All people just see is the destruction of property and people acting insane ways. They may have their hearts in the right place, but their heads are all wrong,” Britt says.
Britt is more on the welfare side of looking at the humane treatment of animals. It seems to be the place most vets fall in, as by definition, their jobs deal with caring for animals, not necessarily advocating the non-use of their products. Britt currently works most with horses, researching the way their limbs and muscles work while moving. She’s dissected a horse neck before, and has some ideas of where horses fall in animal rights issues. But horses are a difficult one to figure out, and the protection that’s placed on them depends on how they’re viewed by their owners.
“Horses are kind of stuck in the middle. Some treat them the same way they would a dog or a child. Other people are on the opposite extreme, and they’re seen as a commodity to make money.”
The United States just banned the slaughter of horses in our country, she says. She blames this legislation on the American conception of the horse as a noble animal and a symbol of how America was built. Most vets, she says, don’t agree with this ban, which seems contrary to both an animal rights and welfare view until she explains to me there’s an overpopulation problem with horses. Whereas before the animals were killed and then used as food, the welfare people like Britt no longer have any control over where the horses end up. Many end up in Canada or Mexico after spending hours in a trailer with no food or water, and there’s no way to regulate how they’re killed.
But at the same time, Britt’s not a big advocate of animal rights, per se. “I don’t think we should compare human rights to animal rights. All living things should have the right to freedom from pain, the right to food and water and the right to life.” But not necessarily human rights like voting and owning property.
Britt has much of a scientific background, and she’s inclined to think animals have feelings, even though no one knows for sure. Yet. She blames a lot of the uncertainty on science in general because you never accept a hypothesis – you just fail to reject it. “Animals don’t have emotions because you can’t prove it, but I say animals do have emotions because you can’t disprove it. If I didn’t believe animals had personalities and emotions in their own lives, I don’t think there’d be a point in being a vet.”
[larson]Intelligence is another thing that’s difficulty to quantify, but Britt poses the idea we can be smarter than animals in some ways, but that it also works the other way around. “If we looked at the human species from the perspective of a hawk, we would be completely inferior. We can’t fly, we can’t see more than a few feet away without it blurring, we don’t have talons for catching prey. Compared to a lot of animals, our bodies are ill-equipped. The only thing that we have that’s better than any other species or more developed is our brain.”
Recently Britt has given up eating mammals, but she doesn’t envision herself giving up meat entirely. She does have her inhibitions about factory farming, but still says it’s hard to make the call of exactly what an animal wants, even those kept in cages. She gives me a new term to end our interview: “umwelt,” or the perception and idea of how you see the world and how it differs between individuals and species. “It’s hard to imagine for someone other than yourself because we all see the world in different ways,” she says.
The Student Activist, Part II
Sean and I are now Facebook friends. He messaged me to tell me that if I ever wanted to discuss being a vegan and vegetarian over sushi to let him know. We went to dinner once for another story I’m writing dealing with animal abuses in circuses. As I sat eating my sweet potato tempura rolls (Sean’s favorite vegetarian option), I thought about how far this two-month long undertaking has led me and how I still thought I had no definite answers and no way to organize all my notes into something coherent or decently interesting. But then I realized I did have a definite answer, though not the one I was looking for or expecting. I realized animal rights activists come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s not just the hardcore PETA people. And I found I could identify with something in each one of them, regardless of what I personally believe about animal rights.

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