Tom Reagan on animal rights activism, violence/non-violence, demonization, and agents provocateur
- "WHO ARE YOU ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS ANYWAY?
essay by Tom Regan, author of The Case for Animal Rights and Defending
Do animals have rights? Different people give different answers.
Sometimes people give different answers because of a disagreement
about the facts. For example, some people believe cats and dogs,
chickens and hogs do not feel anything; others believe they do.
Sometimes different answers are given because of a disagreement over
values. For example, some people believe animals have no value apart
from human interests; others believe the opposite. Disagreements of
both kinds are important certainly, and both will need to be explored
along the way. As important as these kinds of disagreements are,
neither touches a third, more basic source of division, this one
concerning the idea of animal rights itself.
Some people think this idea is synonymous with being kind to animals.
Since we should be kind to animals, the inference is obvious: animals
have rights. Or they think animal rights means avoiding cruelty. Since
we should not be cruel to animals, the same conclusion follows:
animals have rights. Given either of these two ways of understanding
animal rights, it is hard to explain why the idea is so controversial,
with animal rights advocates on one side, and animal rights opponents
on the other.
The heated, often acrimonious controversy that pits advocates against
opponents tells us that these familiar ways of thinking (we should be
kind to animals; we should not be cruel to them) fail to capture the
real meaning of animal rights. Its real meaning, as it turns out, is
both simple and profound.
Animal rights is a simple idea because, at the most basic level, it
means only that animals have a right to be treated with respect. It is
a profound idea because its implications are far reaching. How far
reaching? Here are a few examples of how the world will have to change
once we learn to treat animals with respect.
1. We will have to stop raising them for their flesh.
2. We will have to stop trapping them for their fur.
3. We will have to stop training them to entertain us.
4. We will have to stop using them in scientific research.
Each example illustrates the same moral logic. When it comes to how
humans exploit animals, recognition of their rights requires
abolition, not reform. Being kind to animals is not enough. Avoiding
cruelty is not enough. Whether we exploit animals to eat, to wear, to
entertain us, or to learn, the truth of animal rights requires empty
cages, not larger cages.
UNTRUTH IN LABELING
Opponents think animal rights is an extreme idea, and it is not
unusual for them to pin the label "extremists" on animal rights
advocates. It is important to understand how this label is used as a
rhetorical tool to prevent informed, fair discussion; otherwise,
chances are we won't have an informed, fair discussion.
"Extremists" and "extremism" are ambiguous words. In one sense,
extremists are people who will do anything to further their
objectives. The terrorists who destroyed the twin towers of the World
Trade Center were extremists in this sense; they were willing to go to
any lengths, even if it meant killing thousands of innocent human
beings, to further their ends.
Animal rights advocates (ARAs) are not extremists in this sense. Let
me repeat this: ARAs are not extremists in this sense. Even the most
militant advocates of animal rights (the members of the Animal
Liberation Front, say) believe there are absolute moral limits to what
can be done in the name of animal liberation, acts that should never
be performed, they are so bad. For example, the ALF opposes hurting
let along killing human beings.
In another sense, the word "extremist" refers to the unqualified
nature of what people believe. In this sense, ARAs are extremists.
Again, let me repeat this: ARAs really are extremists, in this sense.
ARAs really do believe that it is always wrong to train wild animals
to perform tricks for human amusement, for example. But in this sense,
everyone is an extremist. Why? Because there are some things all of us
(one hopes) oppose unqualifiedly.
For example, everyone reading these words is an extremist when it
comes to rape; we are against rape all the time. Each of us is an
extremist when it comes to child abuse; we are against child abuse all
the time. Indeed, all of us are extremists when it comes to cruelty to
animals; we never favor that.
The plain fact is, extreme views sometimes are correct views. That
being so, the fact that ARAs are extremists, in the sense that we have
unqualified beliefs about right and wrong, by itself provides no
reason for thinking that we must be mistaken. So the question to be
examined is not, "Are ARAs extremists?" It is, "Are we right?" As we
shall see, this question is hardly ever fairly asked let alone fairly
answered. Collusion between the media and powerful special interests
sees to that.
One barrier to fair discussion of animal right is the media. As so
often happens today, our perception of the "real world" is based on
what we see on television or read in the newspaper. This should raise
a red flag immediately. Think about it. The media loves a plane crash.
Safe landings? Not newsworthy. As the first axiom of news reporting
states: "If it bleeds, it leads." The second? "Good news is no news."
So if something happens and it doesn't bleed or isn't bad? Well, it's
probably not worth reporting, at least not in depth. Any doubts about
this, just watch the news tonight or read the paper tomorrow.
Because the media looks for what is sensational, there is a strong
tendency for them to cover animal rights only when something unlawful
or outlandish occurs. Members of the Animal Liberation Front firebomb
a lab. An anti-fur activist throws a pie in Calvin Klein's face. These
are the sorts of stories judged to be newsworthy. As for the peaceful
protest that took place outside a fur store yesterday, or the lecture
on animal rights given at the law school last night? Forget about it.
Non-sensational news is not news; it doesn't "bleed" enough for the
media's tastes. No wonder the general public views ARAs as a band of
merry pranksters and social misfits. With rare exceptions, this is the
only message that works its way through the media's filters.
SPECIAL INTEREST POLITICS
That the general public tends to have a negative picture of ARAs is
not the result only of the media's appetite for the sensational; it is
also due to what the media is fed by the public relations arms of
major animal user industries. By "major animal user industries" I mean
the meat industry, the fur industry, the animal entertainment
industry, and the biomedical research industry, for example. The
people who work in these industries speak with one voice, tell the
same story, even use the same words to denigrate their common enemy:
animal rights extremists.
The origin of the most recent chapter in this story is not hard to
find. It begins in 1989, with the publication of the American Medical
Association's white paper, "Use of Animals in Biomedical Research: The
Challenge and the Response."(1) Among the AMA's recommendations:
People who believe in animal rights "must be shown to be not only
anti-science but also (a) responsible for violent and illegal acts
that endanger life and property, and (b) a threat to the public's
freedom of choice." ARAs must be seen as people who are "radicals,"
"militants," and "terrorists," who are "opposed to human well being."
By contrast, sane, sensible, decent people must be shown to favor
animal welfare, understood as humane, responsible use of animals by
humans, for humans.
The AMA's strategy was both simple and inspired. If the public's
perception of using animals in research could be structured as a
contest between no nothing animal rights extremists who hate humans
and have an insatiable appetite for terrorism, on the one hand, and
wise scientific animal welfare moderates, true friends of humanity, on
the other, ARAs would be repudiated and the ideology of humane,
responsible use would prevail.
Since 1989, a steady stream of press releases, memos, email messages,
press conferences, and web site miscellany, denouncing ARA extremists
and lauding reasonable animal welfarists, has flowed from the AMA's
and other biomedical research industry's public relations offices
straight into the hands of reporters, news directors, and editors. How
does this work? Here is one example.
The Foundation for Biomedical Research describes itself as "the
nation's oldest and largest organization dedicated to improving human
and animal health by promoting public understanding and support for
the humane and responsible use of animals in medical and scientific
research." FBR's web site includes a page entitled "Journalist
Resources," featuring three links. One is "Expert Opinion," which is
described in this way. "FBR works to bring scientists and journalists
together to inspire exceptional, outstanding and ongoing news coverage
that contributes to public understanding and appreciation for the
humane and responsible use of animals in medical and scientific
research. When you need to quote an expert from the American research
community, contact us first."
"To inspire exceptional, outstanding . . . coverage." That's positive
and appealing. Who could be against that?
A second link is "FBR News Tips," described as "a monthly tip sheet
for journalists that promotes story ideas that will strengthen public
understanding and respect for the humane and responsible use of
animals in medical research. It provides a summary of the latest
medical discoveries, as well as reliable contact information. In every
case, the research described demonstrates the essential need for lab
animals in medical research."
"Humane and responsible use of animals in medical research," which is
"essential." Hard to be against that, either.
And the third link? This one is "Animal activism," where FBR presents
(quoting) "a record of all known criminal activities committed in the
name of `animal rights' since 1981."
Let's see, now. "Animal activism" equals "criminal activities
committed in the name of `animal rights'," which equals "illegal and
violent acts." If that's what `animal rights' involves, who (except
those who support criminal, illegal and violent acts) could possibly
be for it?
There we have the basic story: Animal welfare moderates versus animal
rights extremists. Wise scientists who treat animals humanely versus
no nothing, emotionally overloaded ARAs bent on destruction. This is
the message special interest groups like FBR spoon-feed the media.
Does it work? Does the media slant its coverage because of efforts
like FBR's? Before we answer, let's do some imagining. Here we have
Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet. His beat includes
biomedical research. On a monthly basis, he receives FBR's tip sheets.
On a daily basis, he receives the latest installment of authoritative
quotes from "experts" who support research using animals. And on a
timely basis, he receives an up-to-date inventory of "criminal
activities committed in the name of `animal rights'."
So let us ask ourselves: what are the odds of Clark's giving an
impartial, fair story about the "latest medical break-through using
animals"? Might the odds be just a tiny bit skewed in one direction
rather than another? Should we mention that among the Daily Planet's
biggest advertisers are major animal user industries, including
economically powerful interests (major pharmaceutical companies, for
example) represented by FBR? Or that Clark's 401(K) is heavily
invested in these same industries, as are those of the Daily Planet's
publisher and editorial staff? Can we really think, when we think
about it objectively, that the odds of an impartial, fair story about
the "latest medical breakthrough using animals" are even-steven?
There may be some people who will answer yes, but my experience tells
me they would be in the minority. Most people, once they understand
how the cards are stacked, understand why the news is dealt the way it
is. Remember the old adage: "Those who pay the piper call the tune?"
Its truth did not pass away when paid pipers became an extinct
species. The plain fact is, many people have a negative image of
animal rights because the media relentlessly presents ARAs in a
And the media relentlessly presents ARAs in a negative light because
the media is relentlessly fed a negative image by the financially
powerful and influential spokespersons for the major animal user
industries. It's not all that surprising, once we stop to think about
With so prestigious a group as the AMA having raised the sails, it did
not take long for other major animal user industries to come on board.
The meat industry. The animal entertainment industry. Sport hunters
and rodeo enthusiasts. The story is everywhere the same. Animal
welfare moderates versus animal rights extremists. Law-abiding
citizens versus law-breaking terrorists. By way of example, consider
the following discussion of animal welfare and animal rights from the
Fur Information Council of America. First, we have a description of
the sane, sensible position of those who favor animal welfare.
Animals enrich our lives in many ways. They provide food, clothing and
companionship. Animals used for medical research have given us
important advances in medicine that have saved millions of lives. Most
people today recognize that the use of animals under humane
circumstances is important.
Animal welfare organizations also support the wise use of animals
under humane conditions. The animal welfare ethic has been promoted
over the past century by many groups, including the fur industry.
Working with the government and the veterinary community, industries
that involve animal use have adopted high standards for the treatment
of animals. For instance, today there are strict regulations governing
livestock; guidelines have been implemented for the care of animals
used in medical research; and humane care standards have been
implemented by the fur industry.
Next, we have a description of the "out-of-touch-with-reality"
extremists who favor animal rights.
In the past few years, however, an extreme movement called "animal
rights" has emerged. The basic philosophy of these groups dictates
that humans have no right to use animals for any purpose whatsoever.
These groups oppose the use of animals for food, clothing, medical
research, and in zoos and circuses . . .
The majority of Americans support animal welfare groups, but do NOT
support [any] out-of-touch-with-reality, publicity-hungry animal
rights groups . . . Animal welfare groups support humane treatment and
responsible care of animals while the animal rights philosophy not
only condemns the use of all animals for any purpose but it also is
known for its increasingly terroristic tactics. The current mindset of
the animal rights movement is, "Believe what I believe . . . or else."
True to the spirit of the AMA's white paper, the debate over fur is
here framed as a contest between animal welfare moderates, who favor
"humane treatment and responsible care of animals," and animal rights
extremists who, like the criminals who blew-up the twin towers of the
World Trade Center, resort to "terroristic tactics."
But (you might well ask) is this true of all ARAs? Do we all favor
terrorism and intimidation? This is what the Fur Information Council
is saying. They presume to tell us what "[t]he current mindset of the
animal rights movement" is, not what a small handful of ARAs think.
The mindset of the movement is, "Believe what I believe . . . or else,
" where the "or else" carries with it the threat of one "terroristic
tactic" or another. ARAs must really be terrible people.
"THEY WOULD NEVER DO THAT, WOULD THEY?"
Having adopted a pro-active strategy, one pillar of which is the
depiction of ARAs as lawless terrorists, the major animal user
industries face a daunting challenge. For their strategy to work,
there has to be illegal, terroristic activity attributed to ARAs. And
not just a little. What is needed is a lot. It did not take long
before anti-ARA forces decided that they would need to do a little
free lance terrorist work of their own.
Consider this possible scenario.(2) Why not hire someone to infiltrate
the animal rights movement, as an agent provocateur, with one main
purpose: to find a malleable person in the movement who could be
"encouraged" (shall we say) to try to do something that would really
discredit ARAs. Like, maybe this person could be "encouraged" to try
to murder someone. And not just anyone. No, the "someone" should be a
pillar of the community, someone who (what an odd coincidence) just
happened to be a leader in a major animal user industry, someone who
just happened to have been famously outspoken in his criticisms of
ARAs. An attempt on his life would be perfect. It would show the
public that ARAs really are extremists who will stop at nothing to
further their ends. It is not hard to visualize the headline: "Animal
Rights Terrorist Attempts to Murder Pillar of Community."
A few problems would have to be solved. It takes time to find the
right person for the job. It takes money to pay all the players. Who
is going to come up with the necessary cash? Well, suppose the pillar
himself could pay for the attempt on his life. Suppose the pillar
himself (such is his influence) could arrange to have the local police
on hand to arrest the would-be murderer. "Nah," you might say, "This
is too fanciful, too conspiratorial. I don't think anyone in a major
animal user industry would ever do anything like this." Think again.
Leon Hirsch, president of the Norwalk, Connecticut-based U. S.
Surgical company, played the role of the pillar of the community.
Hirsch's company manufactures staples used in place of ordinary
sutures in many operations. Physicians receive training by practicing
on live dogs, who are vivisected, then killed. ARAs (led by Friends of
Animals, also located in Norwalk) mounted an in-your-face campaign
against Hirsch and his company back in the late 1980s. His ingenious
way of getting even was to put-up the necessary money to arrange for
an ARA to try to murder him.
On November 11, 1989, a man on the payroll of a firm Hirsh had hired
drove a young woman named Fran Trutt, a self-professed ARA, along with
her two recently purchased pipe bombs, from New York City to Norwalk.
When she placed the bombs adjacent to Hirsh's parking space, Hirsh's
friends in the Norwalk police department just happened to be on hand
to arrest her.
The resulting story (not the bombs, which never exploded) was the real
bombshell. There it was: "Animal Rights Terrorist Attempts to Murder
Pillar of Community." As John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton observe,
"Normally, of course, company presidents do not arrange their own
murder, but Hirsch was neither crazy nor suicidal. He was trying to
engineer an embarrassing scandal that would discredit the animal
Hirsch would have succeeded, too, except for one thing: the ensuing
trial brought to light extensive tape transcripts that implicated
everyone, from Hirsh on down, who had hatched the plot to discredit
ARAs. Friends of Animals sued Hirsh, but their suit was unsuccessful,
and he never faced any criminal charges. Perhaps not surprisingly,
Fran Trutt was the only person to serve time (a year in prison,
followed by a year on probation). She seems to have left the movement.
IT ONLY GETS WORSE
This is not the only case where people in major animal user industries
have taken on the job of trying to make sure there is enough "ARA
terrorism" to go around. Books, not just people, can be deceiving. The
infamous Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke, knows this. One of his
books, African Atto, is a manual written for violent black street
gangs, supposedly authored by an "insider" (that is, a gang member).
Another of his books (like the first, this one was not published under
Duke's name, for obvious reasons), is a sex manual written by and for
the "liberated" woman. You know the type: mindless of "family values,"
lusting after sexual adventures with the next guy to turn the corner.
In both cases, Duke's books were written to reinforce prejudicial
stereotypes of the sort Duke wants his constituency to fear: the
predatory black male, in the one case, the "liberated" woman (whatever
her race), in the other. Given the familiar stereotype of ARAs as
misanthropic violent law-breakers who are anti-science, anti-reason,
anti-American, anti-everything any decent human being values, one
might expect to find a fraudulent animal rights expose written by
someone posing as an ARA insider.
This expectation was fulfilled with the publication of A Declaration
of War: Killing People to Save Animals and the Environment, written
anonymously by an author identified only as "Screaming Wolf."(4) A
real charmer, Screaming Wolf makes it clear that there is no limit to
the violence real ARAs ("liberators") are prepared to carry-out. It is
not just the university researcher who uses animals in harmful
studies, not just the furrier, not just the hunter, whose lives are at
risk; it is the researcher's children, the furrier's rabbi or
minister, the hunter's friends or business associates. In short,
anyone can be chosen as a legitimate, justifiable victim by the army
of "liberators" who have decided the time has come to kill people in
order to save animals and the environment.
Haven't the major animal user industries been saying as much?
Screaming Wolf (a liberator "insider") is only confirming what these
industries have been saying about ARAs all along. The industries could
not have done a better job of discrediting ARAs if they had hired some
fictitious "Screaming Wolf" to write this book for them. (5)
Which is precisely what happened. At least this is the finding I
believe the available evidence supports. In my judgment, A Declaration
of War is nothing more than a work of fraudulent provocation, a work
of fiction disguised as fact. And a clever work of fiction it is. For
liberators, you see, will rarely take credit for their actions. In
general, they prefer to remain anonymous.
Consider the illogic of this logic. Suppose a researcher's car is
blown up. Or she dies or disappears mysteriously. Or strangers rape
her daughter. Then either liberators will take credit for this or they
will not. If they do, then they did it. If they don't, then they
probably did it anyhow. Here, most assuredly, is a strategy that
cannot fail to create the appearance that animal rights terrorism is
on the rise.
And the moral of the story is? The moral of the story is simple. The
next time the media shows or tells a story about "animal rights
terrorism," we should all think twice before buying into its veracity.
We do not know how often violent, unlawful acts that the media
attributes to ARAs actually were paid for by someone trying to do what
Leon Hirsch tried to do: discredit the animal rights movement by
encouraging an impressionable ARA to break the law. And we do not know
how often violent acts that the media attributes to ARAs actually are
carried out by people who, paid or unpaid, have nothing to do with the
movement. What we do know is, all this happens some of the time, which
should be reason enough to make us raise a skeptical eyebrow when we
open tomorrow morning's paper and read "Animal Rights Terrorists" do
one bad thing or another.
NORMAN ROCKWELL AMERICANS
Let me be perfectly honest. My wife Nancy and I have been involved in
animal advocacy for more than thirty years. During this time, we have
met some people we would not want to watch our children. Misanthropic
people, mean-spirited to the core. People who hate hunters, hate
trappers, hate butchers, hate every living, breathing human being,
even themselves. We have also met ARAs who could be described (to
speak charitably) as weird, kooky, or strange, and others who have had
no respect for reason or science. More, we have known ARAs who believe
violent, criminal acts, as well as personal threats made against
animal users or their family members, when done in the name of animal
liberation, are morally justified. Yes, some ARAs are prepared to go
For a variety of reasons, the attitudes and values of the ARAs I have
just described are regrettable. One reason concerns the public's
perception of animal rights. The violent, lawless behavior of a few,
the hateful attitudes of a handful, is grist for the opponents of
animal rights' mill. Representatives of the meat and fur industry, for
example, want nothing more than to have the general public accept the
accuracy of the stereotype of ARAs as misanthropic violent
law-breakers. Fortunately for industry spokespersons, some ARAs
cooperate by actually being this way. They don't have to be invented.
If I have learned anything from my years of involvement in animal
rights, it is that the ARAs who fit the stereotype are the rare
exception, not the rule. The great majority of ARAs are just ordinary
folks: neighbors and business associates; the family that runs the
print shop or cleaners down the street; the guy next to you on the
exercise bike at the gym; students and teachers in the local schools;
the woman who sings solos in the church choir; teenagers who belong to
Luther League or Wesley Fellowship; the couple that volunteers for
Meals on Wheels; homemakers, nurses and physicians; counselors and
social workers; whites, blacks, browns, reds, yellows, of every shade
and hue; rich, poor, middle class; the old and the young; Protestants,
Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and every other faith, including
those with no faith; political liberals and conservatives; people who
love family and country, who work hard, mow their lawn, and pay their
Moreover, while the ARA message the public receives is one of
negativity (ARAs are against greyhound racing, against sport hunting,
against rodeo, for example), the other, positive side of the story
never gets told. With rare exceptions, ARAs are for love of family and
country, for human rights and justice, for human freedom and equality,
for compassion and mercy, for peace and tolerance, for special concern
for those with special needs (children, the enfeebled, the elderly,
among others), for a clean, sustainable environment, for the rights of
our children's children's children--our future generations.
In a word, the vast majority of ARAs are Norman Rockwell Americans,
straight off his famous Thanksgiving cover for the old Saturday
Evening Post, only with this noteworthy difference. We'll pass on the
turkey, thank you. We don't eat our friends.
So let us put an end to the untruths that the major animal user
industries spread about "animal rights extremists." Not all ARAs are
violent law breakers, and "[t]he current mindset of the animal rights
movement" is not "`Believe what I believe . . . or else.'" This is
just special interest propaganda meant to forestall fair, informed
discussion. That said, it has to be acknowledged that ARAs are, well .
. . we are . . . different than most people. Especially if you're a
Muddler, you have to wonder how we got that way. Answering this
question is a good place to begin the discussion."
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]