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The Nonhuman Animal

Wesley Smith on the human cost of the animal rights movement.

By From the July 2010 - August 2010 issue

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A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement
By Wesley J. Smith
(Encounter Books, 249 pages, $25.95)

The title of Attorney Wesley Smith's book, A Rat Is a Fish Is a Dog Is a Boy, was borrowed from Ingrid Newkirk, president and co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Smith, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and counsel for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, uses Newkirk's line to sum up the attack on human exceptionalism by advocates of the oxymoronic "animal rights movement."

Smith introduces us to the major players and groups, explaining their philosophies, exposing their tactics, and warning of the consequences if their misanthropic activities are left unchallenged. He begins by noting the difference between "animal welfare" and "animal rights." The first is a well-established and quite legitimate cause that calls for the humane treatment of animals, while the second is a movement that puts forth the dubious notion that all sentient beings have inalienable rights to life and liberty akin to human rights. The idea that animals have rights is illegitimate because, he says, animals "are amoral and cannot conceive of the rights of others or of bearing obligations."

The animal rights concept gained a foothold in the academic world during the early 1970s when Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer claimed that most people are guilty of "speciesism." This is an imagined form of discrimination defined as "a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interest of members of one's own species and against those members of other species."

Singer's outlook is entirely "utilitarian" and not concerned with rights, per se. The criteria by which he determines the "worth" of any life are consciousness or "quality of life," and he holds that "animals deserve the same consideration as humans" in such evaluations. But while his work advanced the animal rights cause, his views are offensive to hard-core movement activists because, at bottom, Singer doesn't believe in intrinsic rights for either humans or animals.

According to Gary L. Francione, professor of law at Rutgers and an animal rights proponent, sentience (conscious awareness) is "the only characteristic that should be required for personhood status and for having a right not to be treated as a thing." Thus, an animal's awareness of its surroundings or its impulses -- to whatever limited degree it can be aware -- is sufficient to imbue it with rights equal to those of human beings.

Despite such a radically egalitarian outlook, animal rights activists rely heavily on certain distinctively human emotions to gain sympathy. Groups such as PETA and the Animal Liberation Project (ALP) frequently employ graphic photos of animals suffering in laboratories and slaughterhouses. They make Holocaust analogies or employ anthropomorphic depictions of animals that would make Walt Disney blush. Their tactics range from educational propaganda, deceptive "investigative" journalism, political lobbying, and litigation right up to outright threats.

Smith cites the Silver Spring monkey case as an example of one approach. He describes the actions of PETA co-founder Alex Pacheco taken against medical researcher Dr. Edward Taub. Over a hellish period of seven years, PETA continually harassed Taub, who was experimenting with monkeys to find ways of rehabilitating patients suffering from loss of feeling in their arms due to traumatic injuries. Smith recounts how Taub was forced to stop his research and was even tried in criminal court for violating the Animal Welfare Act. Eventually, Taub and his experimental methodology were exonerated of all 119 counts of animal cruelty brought against him.

The holy grail of the animal rights agenda -- and its most dangerous goal -- is the establishment of constitutional rights for animals. Smith examines a 2002 voter-approved amendment to the Florida state constitution which granted a pregnant pig the "right" not to be kept in a gestation crate (a container humanely designed to prevent a sow from rolling over on its young). The practical prudence of the amendment aside, Smith notes that approaching this issue from the perspective of "rights," as opposed to merely restricting a particular animal husbandry practice, has far-reaching implications. He insists that Florida's constitution "is about the rights and responsibilities of people, not pigs." To extend rights to pigs undermines "the unique status that humans enjoy under law above the natural world of flora and fauna."

Smith debunks activist claims of the need for animal rights, providing numerous examples of efforts to treat animals humanely. He shows how laboratory protocols and even slaughtering techniques have been scrutinized and improved so that animals will feel as little anxiety and pain as possible. He also describes how zoos and aquariums have been improved to provide safe and comfortable environments. Such institutions, he says, are regulated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which sets forth strict guidelines for the care and housing of animals.

But Smith's primary concern is with the degradation of the human person inherent in the attempt to make animals equal with people. He demonstrates how this leveling harms science, medicine, education, good nutrition, and, of course, human dignity -- all of which reflect the ultimate objective of the movement: elimination of people.

This anti-human agenda has progressed to the point at which some now assert that even plants may have rights. Smith relates how the Swiss added a provision to their constitution requiring that "account is to be taken of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants, and other organisms." This has been interpreted by the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology to mean that plants should never be harmed or destroyed "arbitrarily."

Smith doesn't connect animal rights activism with the broader environmental movement, but the similarly anti-human aspect of the "green" agenda demonstrates a natural linkage (which would make an intriguing subject for a follow-up book). One need only look at the environmentalists' emphasis on caring for the ecosystem while decrying the damage done to it by human beings with their infernal "carbon footprints." Both movements seek the reduction of human presence on the planet through birth control, euthanasia, eugenics -- even by starvation, if you carry the policies they advocate to their natural conclusions.

Legislation and court rulings that buttress the concept of animal rights (and now, plant rights as well) undermine critical thinking about the uniqueness of the human species. Smith has done a marvelous job in pointing out the absurdity of animal rights and the concrete danger it poses. This book should be read by anyone concerned with human welfare. Religious leaders, especially, should take note and warn their adherents of the underlying threat that this radical movement poses to our Judeo-Christian belief system and to all human life.

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About the Author

Rev. Michael P. Orsi is a chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at the Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Florida.