Defending the birds and the beasts

The animal-rights movement once operated on the fringes of society. But in recent decades, these advocates have made surprising progress. What are the movement’s ultimate goals?

What do animal-rights advocates believe?

That all creatures, from slugs to swans, deserve exactly the same rights, privileges, and dignity as human beings. The 13-word mission statement of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the best known and best funded of the movement’s many groups, sums it up: “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment.”

What is the movement’s strategy?

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To provoke people into re-evaluating the idea that animals are lesser beings. PETA and like-minded groups have challenged the status quo through publicity stunts, displays of political theater, and occasional acts of violence. To discourage the wearing of fur, PETA members have splattered paint on women in minks and sables, and dumped a dead raccoon at the lunch table of Vogue editor Anna Wintour. To stigmatize meat eating, PETA recently launched an ad campaign headlined “The Holocaust on Your Plate.” In words and photos, it likened the food industry’s treatment of animals to the extermination of Jews by the Nazis. Some groups, like the Animal Liberation Front, favor the more direct approach of freeing animals from farms, fur breeders, and labs. The ALF claims that in 2001 it helped “rescue” 3,000 minks, 1,047 ducks, 469 chickens, 200 horses, 62 pigeons, 44 beagles, 28 rabbits, 12 perch, 10 ferrets, 2 hermit crabs, and a snail.

How long has this been going on?

The cause has been gathering steam since 1973, when Australian philosopher Peter Singer published an article titled “Animal Liberation” in The New York Review of Books. Singer rejected the notion that animals are lesser beings than humans simply because they aren’t as intelligent. Instead, he hearkened to 18th-century British utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who famously asked, “The question is not, can they reason, nor can they talk, but can they suffer?” The answer, Singer said, is assuredly yes, and he argued that the “tyranny of human over non-human animals” is tantamount to slavery. Singer’s manifesto was the shot heard round the animal-rights world.

Has this idea been influential?

More than most people realize. Over the past two decades, animal-rights activists have steadily lowered the threshold of what society sees as unnecessary cruelty. Since 1990, for instance, statewide animal-rights ballot initiatives have passed 24 out of 38 times, outlawing everything from cockfighting to the use of steel-jawed hunting traps. Many young women today wouldn’t even consider wearing a chinchilla or mink coat; in just one recent year, U.S. fur sales dropped by 9.5 percent. Attitudes toward animal research have also changed.

How so?

Five years ago, the United Kingdom outlawed the testing of cosmetics on animals. Many American cosmetic companies now eschew such testing, and label their makeup as “cruelty-free.” Animals are still widely used for medical research, such as testing AIDS vaccines, but under much tighter strictures. The U.S. Department of Agriculture re-drafted the Animal Welfare Act in 2000 so that rodents and birds used in research would be granted the same protection against suffering that had been accorded to cats, dogs, and rabbits. By one estimate, the number of animals killed in experiments has declined by as much as 50 percent.

What’s next on the agenda?

Ending the practice of eating meat. As a first step, PETA and its allies have targeted the giant “factory farms” where chickens, pigs, and cows are often penned up in tiny spaces, fed until they’re fat enough to eat, and killed in bloody assembly lines. Popular books such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation have given a vivid picture of the miserable lives of these creatures. At least partly in reaction to these revelations, millions of people have given up meat eating; today, 20 percent of all college students classify themselves as vegetarians. Even some conservatives are jumping on the vegetarian bandwagon. Matthew Scully, a former Bush speechwriter, has published Dominion, a book that argues that animals should be treated in accordance with Christian principles.

Does mainstream society really care?

Major food companies seem to think so. Partly in response to a global PETA boycott this year, Kentucky Fried Chicken is investigating killing its birds with gas, rather than shocking them with electricity and slitting their throats. Recently, hundreds of meat industry officials attended consciousness-raising workshops on topics like “In the Mind of a Steer,” “Humane Turkey Production,” and “Creating an Animal Welfare Mindset in Your Company,” all sponsored by the American Meat Institute. “If you had told me 10 years ago that any of this would happen,” said Temple Grandin of the Food and Drug Administration, “I would have laughed in your face.”

What does the future hold?

If public opinion is any indication, the animal-rights movement will continue to gain ground. In May, a Gallup Poll found that 96 percent of Americans believe animals deserve some protection from harm and exploitation. A surprising 25 percent said that animals deserved the “exact same rights” as people. But winning the majority of people over to that idea will be a major challenge. Most Americans still believe that only humans have a soul, and occupy a higher moral rung on the ladder of creation. Nearly two of three Americans believe it’s appropriate to experiment on animals to find cures for AIDS, cancer, and other major diseases. Eventually, animal-rights activists say, that attitude will change too. “Even if animal research resulted in a cure for AIDS,” said PETA’s founder and president Ingrid Newkirk, “we’d be against it.”

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