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Animal Spirits

In 2003, PETA launched its “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign. For two years, the group disseminated brochures and exhibited posters that juxtaposed pictures of concentration camp victims with pictures from factory farms and abattoirs. The most insidious of these images showed a pile of human corpses next to a pile of dead pigs. PETA’s message was clear: using animal products is a kind of Shoah. The exhibit was accompanied by a text proclaiming that “the leather sofa and handbag are the moral equivalent of the lampshades made from the skins of people killed in the death camps.” That is, humans and animals have the same moral worth. Or as Ingrid Newkirk, the head of PETA, once said in an interview, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals.”

Newkirk’s syllogism is perhaps more pertinent than one would think. On April 20, the Supreme Court struck down a law banning the sale of videos portraying animal cruelty. The law was crafted in 1999 to fight “crush films,” videos in which kittens, puppies, or other small and cute animals are slowly crushed or impaled by women wearing heels. It was overturned when a Virginia native named Robert Stevens appealed his three-year prison sentence for selling videos of dog-fighting and his case made its way to the Court. The majority ruling, written by Justice Roberts, stated that federal law had overreached: dog fighting and crush films were not the same as child pornography.

In his new book, Wesley J. Smith takes aim at Newkirk’s statement, and PETA, and the animal rights movement, and the belief that valuing humans over animals is a form of discrimination. Smith, a lawyer by training, stopped practicing in the mid-1980s to become a writer and commentator; the majority of his work has presented a conservative approach to medical ethics. The premise of his book is that granting animals the same ontological or even legal status will diminish “the unique status of humans.” Humans, Smith argues, are the only moral creatures: they have innate moral worth and their well-being always takes precedence over the well-being of animals, who are amoral creatures. Humans do indeed have a moral obligation to promote animal welfare, but they are also entitled to use animals, particularly if the use of animals alleviates human suffering. 

Smith’s defense of human exceptionalism piggybacks (if you’ll pardon the expression) on his work in medical ethics. If we adopt the viewpoint of the philosopher Peter Singer, who believes that personhood should be based on cognitive capacity and so animals deserve equal consideration with humans in determining the greatest good for the largest number, we are saying that it might be preferable to experiment on developmentally disabled humans over some fully functioning primates. Not surprisingly, Smith spends considerable time combating Singer, whose “subversion of human exceptionalism and of the intrinsic sanctity of human life is the precondition for animal rights/liberation advocacy.” 

But his book is not as philosophically rigorous as it might be. (Dean Koontz’s foreword—“truth is what it is”—doesn’t help.) Though we have an obligation as the only moral creatures that care for the welfare of animals, Smith might also have discussed the inverse. Does mistreating animals diminish our humanity? Smith focuses too much on attacking the opposition, lobbing criticisms at everyone from Richard Dawkins to Jane Goodall; and the result is a fragmented book whose closing discussion of “The Importance of Being Human” fails to unify. 

Insofar as the book is interesting, it is for its almost salacious expose of the animal liberation movement, which is surprisingly violent for its allegedly non-violent goals. This is particularly true of the fringe groups Animal Liberation Front, Earth Liberation Front, and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, which have terrorized researchers and corporations alike, setting fire to labs and breaking into workers’ homes. Their efforts often extend to the companies that do business with labs that use animals; it even targeted the New York Stock Exchange in 2005 after the Exchange announced that Huntingdon Life Sciences, a contract animal testing corporation, would be listed on the Big Board. 

Smith amasses a rather impressive collection of crimes and malevolent quotations attributed to animal rights activists. In 2007, the ALF sent Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a death threat in an attempt to coerce him to change the city’s animal shelter practices. In Britain, one researcher’s children were sent letter bombs wrapped with HIV-infected needles in the mail. Fifty-one out of fifty-eight of the incidents of domestic terrorism identified in the FBI’s report Terrorism 2002-2005 were suspected to have been perpetrated by animal rights activists. The list goes on. By the time Smith starts using bullet points to assemble his indictments, one wonders if the book would not have been more effective as a piece of investigative journalism. 

It would be easy to dismiss the violence of the animal liberation movement as a fringe phenomenon that only finds expression in small zines and radical websites. But Smith links PETA and other major animal welfare organizations to the animal liberation movement. In 1995, PETA donated over $45,000 to the defense fund of Rodney Coronado, who pled guilty to arson after burning down a Michigan State laboratory. “Arson, property destruction, burglary, and theft are ‘acceptable crimes,’” said the PETA cofounder Alex Pacheco, “when used for the animal cause.” Ingrid Newkirk, PETA other co-founder and current head, comes off particularly poorly in the book. She is less forthright but still faintly condones violence: “I would hazard to say that no movement for social change has ever succeeded without ‘the militarism component’.”  

Smith should be credited for highlighting the class-based nature of the animal liberation movement, which thrives among the educated in cities but is relatively absent from rural communities where agriculture or hunting are a way of life. But in arguing against the animal rights movement, Smith finds himself stalwartly defending corporate interests. When he writes that PETA will not stop its campaign to force KFC’s suppliers to adopt more humane farming methods, he charges that PETA will not rest until KFC is in “the permanent peace of the corporate grave.” This reader shed no tears of sympathy.

Smith’s conservative economic leanings are particularly pronounced when discussing factory farms. He becomes something of a cheerleader for the meat industry and cheap protein. The sources that he cites in his defense of various industry practices are industry-funded groups such as the Center for Consumer Freedom—sources that are biased, to say the least. Agriculture, however, is not his strong suit, and he fails to note that while factory farms may allow for cheaper meat production, the money saved at the supermarket is generally passed on to the consumer in the form of waterway cleanups and diminished property value for those homes in the vicinity of factory farms.

Smith has often served as a talking head on cable news stations, and unfortunately the punditry finds its way into the book. Often I had the feeling that I was reading a book written for high school debate students arguing against the merits of animal rights. Worse, the book is written in the vein of what has become the preferred MO of conservatives: the politics of grievance. Smith warns readers that the animal liberationists “seizing control of the moral values that drive public policy”, and he ends his chapter called “Proselytizing Children” with this: “The question now is: What are your kids learning about animals in school?” Of course, a rat is not a pig, which is not a dog, and none of them are a boy. But the way Smith makes the point leaves me wondering if A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy is not just another brick lobbed in the culture war.

David Michael is the editor of Wunderkammer.