Consider the lives of animals

Choices: Activist argues that we have created a double standard whereby we protect certain creatures because they're cuddly, while we kill others because they're tasty.

July 25, 1999|By Colman McCarthy

WITH MORE positive publicity than a president could hope for, Bill Clinton recently welcomed to the South Lawn of the White House a 10-year-old bald eagle named Challenger.

Stately, behaved and, for sure, eagle-eyed, the national symbol perched itself a few yards from the president and the press corps, as Clinton celebrated the removal of the once-imperiled fowl from the list of endangered species. One prominent newspaper headlined its story, "Marking a Victory for Eagle Rights."

Other species, too, have had their rights to existence legally protected by federal law. Since 1978, more than 20 categories of fish, fowl and mammals have made comebacks from near-extinction.

As welcomed as these recoveries are, America is anything but hospitable to nonhuman animals. For food, many millions are killed each year in the nation's slaughterhouses and by hunters, and many millions more are exploited or killed annually for biomedical experiments.

Unwittingly, a double standard has been created. Differences in how we choose to treat animals reveal an inconsistency by which some animals are allowed to live and some are condemned to die. A line separates animals into two main categories: the venerable and adorable, and the expendable and consumable.

The bald eagle at the White House is venerable. Let it be protected.

Canadian seal pups are adorable. Let them not be clubbed to death for fur coats.

Keiko the orca whale is the adorable movie star in "Free Willie."

Canada geese befouling golf courses and parks are expendable, as are deer nibbling on backyard flowers. Kill them.

Animals become consumable when money can be made. Cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, buffalo, geese and others, fish or fowl, have their bodies hacked, packaged and shipped for profit. In the market economy, they are "consumer units." Legislatures and courts align themselves with this commercialization of animals by passing and upholding animal-welfare laws.

Selectivity is the result. In "Animals, Property and the Law" (Temple University Press), Gary Francione, a law professor at Rutgers University, argues that regulatory laws for animal welfare do little or nothing to establish or protect the interests of animals.

"Animal welfare," Francione writes, "is the view that it is morally acceptable, at least under some circumstances, to kill animals or subject them to suffering as long as precautions are taken to ensure that the animal is treated as 'humanely' as possible. That is, an animal-welfare position generally holds that there is no animal interest that cannot be overridden if the consequences of the overriding are sufficiently 'beneficial' to human beings."

In the courses on nonviolence that I teach to high school, college and law students, the issue of violence to animals provokes prolonged discussion. After reading some of the literature on peaceful coexistence with animals -- by Gandhi, Tom Regan, Carol Adams, Alice Walker, Heidi Prescott, Paul Shapiro, Nancy Perry and Kim Stallwood -- most students readily grasp the hypocrisy of loving some animals because they're cuddly while eating others because they're tasty. Many move from intellectualizing to personalizing: They make cruelty-free choices in their diets and clothing.

Students have little trouble extending the ethic of living nonviolently with animals to that of living peaceably with humans. The Humane Society of the United States, among others, has produced a growing body of evidence documenting the opposite: the links between animal cruelty and human violence.

Cruelty, violence link

In "Cruelty to Animals and Interpersonal Violence" (Purdue University Press), edited by Randall Lockwood and Frank Ascione, about 70 authors offer essays on the correlations between anti-social behavior and the physical abuse of animals.

Lockwood and Ascione write: "Most of the research on animal abuse and adult crime has indicated that the first instances of cruelty to animals take place early in the abusers' lives. As anthropologist Margaret Mead noted, 'One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or torture an animal and get away with it.' Nearly all young children go through a stage of 'innocent' cruelty during which they may harm insects or other small animals in the process of exploring the world and discovering their abilities. Most children, however, with proper guidance from parents and teachers, can become sensitive to the fact that animals can experience pain and suffering and thus try to avoid causing such pain. Some, however, seem to be locked into a pattern of cruelty that can last a lifetime."

The moral argument for consistently respecting the rights and interests of animals -- bald eagles and cows, dolphins and tuna, Babe and all pigs -- was articulated by Albert Schweitzer in his enduring essay "Reverence For Life." He wrote, "Anyone who has accustomed himself to regard the life of any living creature as worthless is in danger of arriving also at the idea of worthless human lives."

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