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Animal Rights vs. Common Sense
by George Shadroui
2 September 2003

Animal rights groups are taking a generally decent concern and turning it into a joke. Many animal rights groups seem less concerned about preserving our environment and wildlife than they are in converting every person into an animal rights activist. There is, in each of their well-meaning souls, an "inner-Disney" at work.

In his book, the Quest for God, Paul Johnson, the conservative historian, argues that one of the great moral debates facing human beings in the next millennium will be our treatment of animals.

It surprised me, to be honest, that Johnson, known for his tough analysis of liberal and politically correct dogma, came down so soft on the issue of animal rights. You just don't find many conservatives willingly identifying with animal rights concerns. (NR's Matthew Scully and James Buckley being a few of the exceptions). It is Rush Limbaugh, after all, who takes so much pleasure spoofing animal rights activists -- one of his funnier concoctions was a video tape of a fish bowl. Put in the tape, simulate the experience and save those gold fish!

Walter Williams, another admired conservative, recently told a radio audience that he simply did not care about deer that came on his property. He would just as soon shoot a deer as save it. Though James Buckley is from the royal house of conservatism, and admonished his conservative friends for taking lightly environmental concerns, should you raise the issue of animal rights or the environment in some quarters you are immediately put into the category of "squish," a nice way of saying your conservative credentials are suspect.

Let me concede that animal rights is a difficult issue for those of us prone to sympathize with the creatures who are routinely slaughtered, abused or destroyed in the name of food, profit and development. Most of us eat meat and fish, have engaged in outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing at one time or another, and benefit from the economic and business activities for which nature often pays a dear price. And like so many other issues -- from law enforcement to racial concerns -- the common sense middle ground gets lost on the edges of the ridiculous extremes.
Still, if conservatives can be accused fairly of being a little deaf to reasonable concerns for animals, it is just as true that animal rights groups are taking a generally decent concern and turning it into a joke. Let me just cite a few examples, without throwing stones at particular groups.

· National animal rights groups rallying thousands of people to oppose a coon hunt that is really a training exercise for dogs -- no racoons are hurt, but the charity benefiting from the event (doesn't sponsor it) has been demonized.
· One group has a campaign that -- I am not joking -- enlists convicted felons to write about what it feels like being caged. (How about victims writing about what it is like to run into a freed felon at the wrong time?)
· A scientist in England literally fears for his life because he engages in the lawful use of mice and rats for his research. He was targeted by an animal rights group in England and does his work now under armed guard, behind high security fences.

This is a step forward in our moral evolution?

Many animal rights groups seem less concerned about preserving our environment and wildlife than they are in converting every person into an animal rights activist. There is, in each of their well-meaning souls, an "inner-Disney" at work, if I might borrow a phrase I once heard a scriptwriter in Hollywood use. They anthropomorphize animals -- as if a raccoon that lives in the wild was minding its own business having a café latte when these coon dogs came along and chased him up a tree. In the process, they ignore the larger context in which animals live and survive.
I am no fan of hunting, especially when it is done for sport rather than for food. There is also no question that in American history abuse of nature and wildlife became the norm. I need not recount the list of slaughters -- buffalo, carrier pigeons, wolves, bears -- in which men measured their virility in part by the number of wild animals they could kill. That is an unfortunate legacy we are still trying to reverse. But I am not prepared to label all hunters or fishermen extremists. Many of them have a deeper understanding of nature and the wild than their critics, and many I have met are deeply concerned about protecting the wild in order to preserve a way of life they love.

Somewhere between the extremes there is a vast ocean in which most of us swim. Some animal rights proponents consider any use of animals abuse. On the other side, harsh opponents of animal rights sound like one hunter who told me on the phone: "I'd run over a hundred coons with lawnmower to save someone with cancer." Thanks, but no thanks.
Franz Kafka, master of the bizarre scenario, posed this one: can an otherwise perfectly just society be just if that justice depends upon the suffering of one creature? Kafka's question stimulates others we might consider. How many animal lives is a human life worth? To what uses can we justly put animals? How does an enlightened society deal with animals? Are there not ways for us to deal with issues such as pet stores, zoos and the meat, fish and poultry industries so as to be more decent to the creatures from which we derive so much benefit?

As a lover of God and nature, I cannot take these issues lightly, much as I enjoy sitting down to a nice steak once in a while. If as a spiritual people we believe the holy scriptures of Jews, Christians and Muslims, then we must also believe that God made the heavens and the earth. Are not the creations of God sacred? Is not an animal that took millions of years to evolve according to the timetable of God worthy of consideration and concern? Can we not somehow find a balance between the view that any use of animals is immoral and the equally extreme view that any concern for animal life is absurd?

Let me cite a story by Garrison Keillor. As a young boy, he observed a pig slaughter, the story goes. The people who killed the pigs were very serious about their work and went about it with respect, almost reference, for the animals that they would kill. That surprised him and when he started to taunt the pigs by throwing pebbles at them, his grandfather grabbed him by the arm and promised a whipping if he did it again.

In this story is a powerful parable -- that suffering is a part of life and all of us, right on down the food chain, face an end that is difficult and often frightening. The animals that give us nourishment, joy and entertainment of the grandest kind at the very least deserve to be handled with concern and care, out of respect for God's creation and in recognition of our own biological vulnerability.

Animal rights folks on the extreme will scoff -- how can you honor nature and animals and then kill them? I would argue that if animals are honorable, then there is nothing inconsistent about using animals in a way that minimizes suffering. Animals kill routinely, not from a malicious desire to inflict pain (usually) but out of instinct, survival and even play. Human beings likewise evolved as creatures that needed animals for clothing and food. We still do. Yes, vegetarianism is an option, but it is not an easy option given our histories, traditions and needs. It would require research, study, and carefully planned diets -- and not all of us have the time, resources or inclination to go this far.

Are we all heartless people who hate animals? Not hardly. Perhaps we understand something deeper than my animal rights friends can grasp -- life is fleeting for us all, and use of animals for food, entertainment or recreation is part of the joy of living in this imperfect world. If animals themselves instinctively respond this way, why are humans expected to detach themselves completely from the very "nature" that animal rights groups claim to cherish?

It is politically correct for animal rights advocates and conservation groups to talk about the deep wisdom of Native Americans -- but even a movie like Dances with Wolves, a romantic view, does not hide the fact that they used buffalo for a variety of purposes, including food. It was not use of animals that caused them moral outrage, but the abuse of them -- waste, pointless slaughter, needless cruelty. These are fair concerns from any cultural standpoint and defining the acceptable uses of animals is a worthy discussion.

I suspect even the most extreme animal rights folks, when pushed to the logical conclusion of their world view, would have to concede their own hypocrisy. The other day, while cleaning out my back yard, I cut limbs, raked leaves and generally civilized it. I suspect, in doing so, I stepped on a few hundred ants, swatted a few mosquitoes, and perhaps robbed a few worms and snails of their homes. Where does this abuse of life fall on the animal rights advocate’s moral barometer? Well, insects are different I hear them say. So there is a hierarchy, I might respond. Where does the hierarchy begin and end and who decides?

If a raccoon chased up a tree justifies severing ties to well-meaning people who love dogs and who enjoy the outdoors, what driving an automobile that harms our eco-system and results in the countless slaughter of animals on our highways. Have animal rights advocates given up their cars, or their homes, which were built in the middle of wilderness at one time or another, or their leather shoes, or other products derived from animals? These are necessities, some argue, and our response is: necessary to whom?

It becomes clear rather quickly that value judgments have to be made, and that each of us carries our own system of values into this emotional discussion. That is a start of a dialogue, but certainly not a conclusion of the debate.

I would suggest that there are greater environmental issues facing us as inhabitants of this planet than the agenda put forward by many in the animal rights camp: over-population, endangered species, oceans being depleted and polluted, proper management of resources; real abuses of animals, of the kind that probably occur in our mass production meat industry and in the mass transportation of exotic animals for pet stores and zoos, a terrible waste of nature that makes Rush's television idea actually less comical than it seems. But many of these groups seem more intent on getting a headline than getting something valuable done.

By all means fight for more ethical treatment of animals. Raise the consciousness of people about the world in which we live. But while you are at it, acknowledge that the world in which we live is fallen and imperfect by design -- the cycles of life and death are as natural as the air we breathe. Waste is by-product of biological life, and production of any kind entails costs. Nature is a tough taskmaster and if we claim to love nature, then we must also reconcile ourselves to its ways.

Jesus gave fish to the masses to eat, Abraham sacrificed a lamb as a tribute to God, and millions of people sit down to dinner truly thankful for the gifts we receive. The respectful use of animals for food, clothing (as a byproduct of food products, I would hope) or entertainment is hardly criminal. We should cherish and revere the gifts that God and nature have given us, and we should do what we can to protect and respect this wondrous planet. That is a sacred obligation – but vegetarianism is not.

George Shadroui is a Memphis based writer who has been published in more than two dozens newspapers and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com.

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