Very few things burn me more than cruelty to animals. Every time I see a story in the news regarding the mistreatment of horses, dogs or other domestic or wild animals, it produces a visceral reaction in me not unlike an urge to violence. Images of half-starved farm animals, or domestic pets in horribly overcrowded and squalid conditions, are finely calculated to get the Ozboy blood boiling. Give me five minutes alone with the bastard, is what my gut says. Or, let’s chain him up by the neck in a paddock for a week with no food or water, and see how he likes it. I’m fairly certain most of you have similar reactions to watching such stories.
With biodiversity now in the mainstream media as the likely successor to Global Warming, the rise in prominence of animal advocacy organizations bears some scrutiny. So I thought I would take a brief look at the history of animal welfare movements, how they have morphed into animal rights, and in the process been corrupted; in many cases by some very familiar suspects.
Animal Welfare organizations internationally actually begin with a long and honourable history. In England, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed in 1824 by several prominent citizens, including MPs such as abolitionist William Wilberforce. Its founders’ purpose was primarily to improve the treatment of working animals such as pit ponies. Their efforts resulted in the passing of the Cruelty To Animals Act 1835; following Queen Victoria’s issuing of a Royal Warrant, they became known as the RSPCA and gave rise to sister organisations in Northern Ireland (1836), Scotland (1839), the United States (1866), Australia (1871) and New Zealand (1882).
These societies have overwhelmingly remained faithful to their original charter, and today finance and run animal shelters, perform rescue operations and enforce local Cruelty to Animals laws. Such is the high regard in which they are held by the public that, in the case of Australia, RSPCA inspectors are accorded the legal standing of special constables, giving them powers of search and arrest. My own chief criticism of our local RSPCA is that they are underfunded and undermanned; I have personally had cause to report a couple of situations to them, and have seen first-hand how thinly they are spread.
Animal welfare groups received a boost from an unexpected quarter when, in 1933, the National Socialist government in Germany under the vegetarian Hitler passed Tierschutzgesetz, the world’s strictest animal law code. Vivisiction in Prussia was outlawed, the penalty being deportation to the concentration camps, while wolves, eagles and even pigs were accorded a legal status below Aryans but above Jews, who shared co-equal status with rats. This law was followed up in 1934 by the Reichsjagdgesetz, proscribing hunting, and in 1935 by Naturschutzgesetz (Law on Nature Protection), word-for-word vestiges of which remain today in the EU statute books. The link between animal welfare, environmental activism and totalitarianism was thus established.
The emergence of 1960’s Western counter-culture and revolutionary groups led to a further departure from the original premise; that is, that animals are capable of suffering in various degrees, and for humans to unneccessarily cause animal suffering, by commission or omission, demeans us. Beginning in the 1970s by a collection of academics known as the Oxford Group, a new notion arose that animals themselves had rights, and that human beings as their oppressors had the obligation to uphold those rights. In 1975, Australian bioethecist Peter Singer published Animal Liberation, regarded by some (but not all) animal rights advocates as the bible of their movement. Singer draws a moral equivalence between humans and animals, coining the term speciesism to denote discrimination between the two. Singer rejects the philosophical notion of inalienable rights for both animals and humans and, employing a teleological approach that draws a moral judgement of acts (our treatment of animals in particular) by their consequences. Having dealt already on this forum with the philosophy of rights, we can dismiss such a notion by merely observing that animals as a class are incapable of assuming responsibilities beyond the instinctual, or of making moral choices, rendering otiose any claim on their behalf of rights. I will be returning to the good Professor Singer in an upcoming LibertyGibbert article dealing with abortion.
Common sense however, not being the strong point of 1960s revolutionaries, did not stop them from forming various activist or even terrorist organisations, whose philosophies bore a close resemblance to the nihilism of the Flower Power era. The year after the publication of Animal Liberation, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF, pictured above) was formed in Britain. Like Singer himself, the ALF supported only non-violent means of protest, but after a few years, the latent impulse for violence of many of its members proved too strong to resist; the breakaway group Animal Rights Militia (ARM), which over recent decades has carried out a program of letter bombs, car bombs, food poisoning, grave robbing and other activities. The United States Office of Homeland Security has identified both groups as terrorist organisations.
I guess I must be a “speciesist”, because I definitely do draw a philosophical distinction between humans and animals, even the higher ones; to regard humans as merely one more species of animal is to cascade a string of contradictions; far from elevating animals, it de-humanizes us—literally. The reductio ad absurdum of this line of thinking was (almost) reached in 2008, when the European Court of Human Rights rejected an appeal on behalf of one Matthew Haisl Pan, to grant him a court-appointed guardian and accord basic rights such as life, freedom of movement and welfare. The appellant, being unable to read, write or even speak, and with no prospect of ever being able to do so (Mr Pan being, in fact, a chimpanzee), belonged to an animal shelter in Austria facing bankruptcy. That hasn’t stopped efforts by activists to have him legally declared a human (he now has his own Facebook page – so I guess it’s official). Wouldn’t it be simpler to have the activists declared to be chimps?
On that subject, for sheer treacly sententiousness, try this advertisement for the Humane Society International, which has received saturation airplay on Australian television for over a year:
In the end, animal welfare is important, but human welfare is even more important. A few examples will serve to illustrate:
It is not cruel when I quickly and humanely end the life of pests that threaten my crops. In fact, I’m licensed to do so, although I have gone to great lengths (electric fences and so on) to ensure that these days it almost never comes to that. I also have no compunctions about blasting away any copperhead or tiger snakes I see in my backyard during their breeding season; frankly, my family’s safety is more important to me than the lives of any animals, no matter how endangered (these aren’t). When I come across them in the bush, however, I leave them be; after all, they’re not hurting me, and they’re great at keeping down vermin.
Funny though, for all the good snakes do out in the environment, somehow you never see ALF or PETA on the warpath for their welfare. I guess it’s the misfortune of snakes not to be as cute and cuddly as baby fur seals or orang-utans, and to be demonized (literally) in the Bible: the Jews of the animal kingdom.
Nor is it cruel to raise animals for food, although I believe it is a moral imperative to raise those animals in as close to a natural environment as is safe for them; give them a really good life; and when the time comes for them to be slaughtered, it is done quickly, painlessly and without their knowing that death is imminent. Believe me, meat definitely tastes better this way. I realise this sounds like it pertains only to organically raised meat, but even on industrial-scale production, it remains a guiding principle. I’ve always been impressed by the work of the “cow whisperer”, autistic savant Dr. Temple Grandin, in re-designing stock marshalling infrastructure in slaughterhouses to reduce animal stress.
Mulesing of sheep is another issue animal activists have latched onto, and in some ways is the most misguided. For those of you unaware of the practice, mulesing is an animal husbandry technique involving the removal of the sagging flesh around a sheep’s rump and genitals. It is commonly performed without anaesthetic, resulting in pain for some days until new tighter, bare skin redevelops. If not performed, droppings accrete in the wool about the breech, harbouring maggot eggs and risking the onset of flystrike. I’m sorely tempted to show you a picture of flystrike, or ovine vulval myiasis, but it really is too ghastly, even for this site. The maggots breed underneath the skin and literally eat the host from inside out. Euthanasia in these cases is generally the only practical solution. Serenely unaware of this side of the story, and viewing the practice as too much for their delicate, urban sensibilities, PETA routinely calls for a ban on the use of all mulesed Australian wool (representing about a quarter of the world’s annual clip), staging protests outside New York fashion retail outlets. This is one case where science may ultimately come to the rescue, the CSIRO currently working on developing a strain of bare-breech merino which, if successful, will gradually replace the current strains in Australian flocks over a period of years and render mulesing unnecessary.
Since I began researching this thread a few months ago, things have progressed somewhat. I thought that having a chimp legally declared a human being was the height of absurdity; I was wrong, of course. In April this year, a group of British activists, in a burst of self-righteous fervour, are attempting to stamp out the use of words like pets, on the pretext that it is demeaning to them, and replacing them with terms like companion animals, their owners and masters becoming mere human carers. Newspeak for the masses.
This follows calls by University of Western Sydney academic John Hadley to grant property rights to animals, and assign them—I’m not making this up—human advocates or “guardians”, to speak on their behalf. To quote Dr Hadley,
Ideally, guardians would be registered with an independent tribunal and be qualified to make environmentally and ethically-informed decisions.
I don’t think you have to read too far between the lines to see what is really meant by that. You can read Melbourne columnist Andrew Bolt’s withering analysis here.
The protection and welfare of animals is the responsibility of us all. Not because we are upholding any rights held by animals, or discharging any responsibilities towards them. No, it behoves us to care for animals because, when we fail to do so, it diminishes us, and erodes any moral authority we may have to point to others who deny such rights even to the human members of their own societies.