Animal-rights activists are famous for talking about what we don’t want. But what kind of rights do we want? Let’s start by thinking about why we use the term “rights” at all.
We’ve constructed a system that treats everything and everyone on the planet as a person or as a piece of property. Water and seeds, trees and beaches: all for sale. Conscious animals too are classified as property, available for use by “persons” (including businesses). Only those legal persons have rights — socially created shields which oblige us to respect other people’s interests.
Which brings us back to animal-rights activists. People who are serious about nonhuman rights wish to discontinue the system that makes human interests the top priority and then controls all other beings for our uses and conveniences.
The animal-rights idea has been around a long time. Henry Salt, author of Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress (1892), asserted that the human habit of raising other animals in order to consume them is to inflict unnecessary harm on sentient beings. Salt, as well as Anna Kingsford (who graduated from medical school in Paris in 1880, unique in doing so without having experimented on a single animal), influenced Gandhi to decide it’s a moral duty “not to live upon fellow-animals.” And in 1944, the word “vegan” was coined to express the idea of conscientious objection to war against our fellows. The vegan peace declaration is a commitment to avoid the products of animal use, such as dairy items, flesh, eggs, and honey. By preferring melon slices or a plate of stuffed grape leaves, vegans erode the custom of animal breeding — a custom that, at the same time, uses habitat needed by animals who could live free.
In its broadest sense, veganism is the cultivation of a society that renounces domination and systematic killing. This is the core of animal-rights theory: the forthright claim that all conscious beings, human or not, should be allowed to live on their own terms, not the terms set down by those who seek to control and exploit others.
Plea From Planet Earth
Imagine the day the extraterrestrials pay us a visit. Being more capable and advanced than ourselves (get a load of that spaceship), but not having any way of hearing or understanding our words or cries, they debate whether to consume us, experiment on us, or wrap us up and carry us home as playthings. Our options end. They decide to enlist us in fulfilling their interests in food, research and entertainment. We’re frightened and appalled, even by the ones who only insist on doing it for our own good (stewardship, we Earthlings have called that). We like to decide what’s good for ourselves.
“Please, let us alone,” we beg. “Don’t split up our families to introduce us into your more advanced culture; don’t talk about how well you should care for us before using us up. Don’t try to mimic our natural habitat so we can live and reproduce when you display us. Don’t do it even if you know we’ll blow ourselves up or go extinct under the melting ice caps. Just go in peace.”
Could we ourselves heed that plea? Most people will call it impossible, saying we must be realistic; they’ll say patterns of domination and subjugation, and hierarchical ideas about species, are too ingrained in human thinking to be undone. Whether they are right or not, most people thereby perpetuate the power structures humanity has constructed. The first step to achieving change is conceiving it, and that’s what the vegan proposal has done. At its best, our movement inspires society to accept risk, to respect other beings even if that means accepting some level of danger, to ensure that we leave animals capable of living and moving freely in spaces to which they’ve naturally adapted, and to refuse to alienate them from those habitats.
Plain fairness challenges us to intervene in the cycle of breeding animals, and to stop sending domesticated cats, tropical birds, school-raised ducklings and other displaced animals into the world to fend for themselves in biocommunities that are ill-equipped to sustain or cope with them. To leave birds in their own forests rather than remove them and cage them as decorative or talkative pets, to let chimpanzees live in their natural territories rather expect them to have babies in zoos and language labs, to let bats and wolves and jaguars migrate without impediments, to respect turkeys’ natural lives rather than consider their slaughtered bodies essential to our holiday buffets; to leave fish in their waters, swimming free. The dignity of freedom, along with life itself, is at the core of what rights are meant to defend.
That doesn’t mean we ignore the dependent and domesticated — abandoned rabbits or feral cats or dogs in need of homes. Animal-rights theory challenges the cycle of making animals vulnerable and then coming to their rescue; yet it is not a pass to ignore the welfare of dependent animals who are already born. We are all members of humanity, the class we’ve constructed in order to bestow on ourselves the right to control all the others. Where we’ve endangered our fellow-animals and made them dependent, we have a collective responsibility to care for them today. So a caregiving ethic properly applies to cats, dogs, and other purpose-bred animals, while animal rights means preventing the cycle of control in the first place, preventing the destruction of communities of deer and coyotes, elk and wolves, wildcats, whales, bats and bees. This is why the strongest case for animal rights must be engaged with environmental advocacy.
In turn, animal-rights theory presents environmentalists with their strongest case. After all, a society that seriously considers animals’ claims to their habitat would refuse to let Mobil, Shell, and BP — or the Nature Conservancy, which has profited from drilling for natural gas in the habitat of highly endangered speckled grouse — ignore the interests of animals. Animal rights would change humanity’s way of doing business.
Tom Regan’s Case for Animal Rights (1983) urged: “With regard to wild animals, the general policy recommended by the rights view is: let them be!” These three little words go right to the core of the theory, and they free the spirit of activism. Regan’s three little words also highlight the need for a positively framed right for free-living beings to exist. If the rights proponent focuses simply on “abolition” — that is, on removing animals from the property category — there’s a danger of missing the positive need for free animals to procreate and experience their lives. We could stop bringing other animals into being for our purposes but ignore the loss of communities who enter the world for their own; and animal rights is a hollow idea if animals don’t survive to benefit from the concept. This means we’ll need to control our own numbers and learn to respect the environment not just for our health or aesthetic satisfaction, but because it’s home to other living beings.
Evolution of Animal-Rights Activism
One of my co-workers in the movement, Peter Wallerstein of Friends of Animals’ Marine Animal Rescue group, is an expert at assisting coast-dwelling animals who get caught in anglers’ gear. The idea is to free animals from dangers humans have caused (consistent with this mission, Wallerstein won’t eat fish), and quickly return them to their normal lives. To rescue is to exert control over a seal or a pelican, so Wallerstein believes interventions should be temporary: just long enough to enable the animals to return safely to their sea or skies, where they might flourish on their terms. In most cases, for Marine Animal Rescue, the interactions are brief — although some sea animals are found so debilitated they need long-term care; and unusual algal blooms, thought to be connected with warming oceans, cause domoic acid poisonings, which are often fatal to sea lions and seabirds.
Some others — spider monkeys, chimpanzees, gibbons, parrots, and various animals kept in human settings and then discarded, such as the ones who now live at our San Antonio sanctuary — need a caregiving ethic, and they need it for life. Primarily Primates offers its animals private space, and publicly challenges humanity’s feeling of entitlement to use other animals. And that, in turn, means confronting any business which breeds domesticated animals into existence, displacing habitat where free-living animals once thrived. So the evolution of our work now includes collaboration between the rescue and rehabilitation community and animal-rights theorists. We point out that advocates can and do care for the animals caught in our current system yet at the same time organize a new cultural reality, so that whole communities of animals won’t be driven from their lands and waters, selectively bred to meet our specifications, or in some way pressed into positions of needing refuge.
We know we’re asking questions that challenge many, many generations of our cultural patterns. In light of the tremendous responsibility we’ve accepted, what kind of rights should we seek?
Seen in its strongest and best light, the animal-rights proposal does not present a list of demands, but cultivates an attitude of respect. A willingness to live gently on the land and walk respectfully along the ocean without seeing either as a store of resources for us. A desire to allow natural plants to flourish for bees, to grow our crops with an appreciation for the animals who move beneath and over them. We need to learn, as much as possible, to let other animals be.
To respect the lives of seals means respecting the lives of fish and other animals in their waters. Respecting the lives of primates would necessarily mean respecting tree frogs in the forests that need us to put down our logging machinery. What other members of Earth’s biocommunity need from us is a robust movement to defend what natural places remain.
Once we agree in principle what animal rights should be and then implement it, cultivating a society that can outgrow its drive to kill and conquer, we then decide the best approach in specific situations. Some difficult questions will involve conflicts we might have caused or aggravated between living communities, given our outsized population and the ways we have already changed the face of the planet. The key will be mindfulness, so as to steadfastly avoid reinstating the primacy of humans over the other animal communities.
Because it defends the vital interests of our fellow-animals in viable habitats, the vegan declaration of peace presents the most serious challenge to those who deforest the land, commodify life, and pollute the earth, water, and atmosphere. As such, it’s not only a key to our becoming full moral actors on the ecological stage, but also needed for keeping that stage from falling apart. We cannot afford to surrender to the loss of whole biocommunities and the meltdown of major ice sheets; if we don’t change soon, our options will run out. Never has it been more important for vegan advocates to know just what we’re asking for, and be heard.