Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Animal Rights? My Talk At Urban Academy

Urban Academy is a small high school in New York with a unique teaching philosophy that foregrounds critical thinking and does away with standardized tests. Earlier this month, they invited me to come and speak to the school about animal rights and brought in an animal researcher to give the opposite point of view. Then we played "hard-hitting questions." It was all kind of intense and awesome. This is the talk I gave:

My name is Jack Shepherd, and up until recently, I worked as the chief blogger for an animal rights group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (or PETA). While I was at PETA, I helped to create various campaigns that were designed to encourage people to think in a different way about animals, their rights, and our own responsibilities towards them.

One example of the campaigns that I worked on for PETA was a website that encouraged people to stop calling fish fish and start calling them Sea Kittens, with the idea that nobody would ever want to be cruel to a Sea Kitten. As incredibly stupid as this idea was, it got picked up by a lot of major TV networks and talk shows, which meant that we had a week or so when the entire news media was having a discussion about the ethics of eating animals, which was a big victory for us.

Now the actual issue that we were trying to get people to think about with Sea Kittens and other similar campaigns is kind of a complicated one, so I'll stop here and go over a few of the finer points. The first and most important question I want to ask is about rights. What are rights, and how would it be possible for an animal to have them? I would imagine that most of us here are agreed about some basic human rights that we enjoy in this country - that we have a right to speak freely about issues that are important to us; that we have a right to practice a religion, or no religion; that we have a right to vote for those people we want to represent us in government.

And I think we can probably also agree that it would be pretty ridiculous for anyone to try and extend those kinds of rights to animals. If I tried to give my cat the right to vote, she wouldn't even know how to vote for, like, a cat president. The whole thing would be an embarrassing disaster for everyone involved.

What we mean when we talk about "animal rights" is actually a very basic right that touches on something that every person - regardless of their mental abilities or social status or any number of other factors - shares with every animal: We are all capable of suffering - and we all, I believe, have a fundamental right to be free from avoidable suffering. We have a right not to be tortured, or mutilated in medical experiments, or kept confined in cages and prodded with sticks.

Which is all very nice for us. But the flipside of that right is a responsibility: We have a responsibility not to do those things to others. And I feel very strongly that those others - because they have the same capacity to suffer and experience pain that we do - include cats and dogs, and mice and rabbits, and cows and pigs, and a long list of other animals who are way less cuddly and cute but who have a basic right to be left alone to slither around in a hole, or whatever it is that they do for fun on the weekends.

Unfortunately, up to this point, we've been enjoying the right and totally shirking the responsibility.

The cows we raise for beef have their throats slit and their skin removed while they're still fully conscious; egg-laying chickens are kept confined for their entire lives in cages so small they have no room even to spread a wing. To prevent them from pecking each other to death in these conditions, their beaks are sliced off with a hot blade when they are less than 10 days old. Mother pigs are forcibly impregnated and crammed into cages called "gestation crates," which are so small that they are unable to stand up or even turn around for their whole lives.

I really do believe that in a few generations, we're going to look back on all this and wonder how we ever thought it was a better idea than, like … not doing that to animals and maybe eating veggie burgers instead.

Part of the problem, I think, is that it's just what we're used to. It's hard to get people to change what they're doing when everyone else around them seems to be totally cool with it. But the consequences of this sort-of "everyone else is doing it so it must be OK" attitude can be pretty drastic, and I want to just finish up very quickly by looking at how this attitude plays out in the field of animal experimentation, which, next to the meat industry, is the area where the largest number of animals suffer the most.

Every year, more than 100 million animals are killed in U.S. laboratories for chemical, drug, food, and cosmetics testing, as well as plain curiosity-driven research. Mice, rats, cats, dogs, rabbits, and monkeys are subjected to experiments that blind them, give them seizures, bore holes through their skin with corrosive chemicals, and any number of terrifying and usually fatal procedures that range from research on disease to developing lipstick.

Now there are two standard arguments that people like me tend to use against animal experimentation: The first is that it's not effective. Animals are not like humans – and what could be harmless to an animal might be fatal in humans, and vice versa. This is why so many animal-tested drugs have to be taken off the market when they fail human trials.

The second argument, and the one that I'll finish up on, is much more simple: It's wrong, regardless of the outcome. It's wrong for the same reason that it's wrong to experiment on the poor, the mentally disabled, on the institutionalized.

I've talked a bit about the rights we do have, but there are also some rights we don't have: I believe that we don't have the right to torment and terrorize others simply because they are smaller, weaker, or less intelligent than we are. This goes for children; it goes for our pets; and it goes for the hundreds of millions of animals confined in laboratories who we have to speak up for, because they have no ability to speak up for themselves.