A call for a rational approach to animal rights

The recent furor over the PETA billboard comparing obese Americans to beached whales (see here: http://airamerica.com/montelacrossamerica/blog/2009/aug/19/fat-women-beached-whales-audio) got me thinking about animal rights advocates and rational approaches to the concept of animal rights. Any notion of animal rights must be balanced against the idea of human rights. It is irrational to argue that nonsentient entities be afforded the same rights as humans. Nonetheless, there are people whose ideas and opinions I otherwise respect (I’m thinking of Alec Baldwin and Bill Maher) who seem to have “drunk the Kool-Aid” in regards to animal-rights extremism. So here are my thoughts on the following topics:

Animals as performers:

I see little harm in television shows that chronicle the habits of animals in their natural environments (provided that the presentations are not disingenuous) or zoological displays. Zoos serve a valuable purpose in educating the public and inspiring (hopefully) in visitors a love of animals, even those such visitors might never see in the wild. My caveat for all of these discussions is that collections should be made in such a way as not to harm or injure the individuals or to endanger the wild populations; wild animals in captivity or captive-bred animals kept for whatever reason should be provided with a naturalistic habitat setting, adequate food and water supplies, and (if applicable) suitable equipment and/or areas for recreation and exercise. Circuses, on the other hand, tend to provide poor environments for the proper care of mammals like tigers, lions, and elephants; such travelling shows should eliminate so-called animal acts. Desmond Morris has an excellent book on this topic called The Animal Contract.

I don’t think animals should be exploited by putting “cute” versions of human clothing on them for contests, turning them into transvestites for absurd and stupid movies, making them run in ridiculous and abusive races for our amusement, or making them fight one another for a similar sick pleasure. Whatever uses we derive from animals we should bear in mind that they are living creatures who deserve to be treated with respect.

Animals as suppliers of meat, clothing, or other goods:

This is a somewhat complex topic, so I’ll break it down into subtopics, starting with the use of animals and/or animal products as sustenance. Simply put, humans have evolved as omnivores and it’s not natural for humans not to consume red meat, fish, chicken, and other animal products. Humans are not cows; a cow has 4 stomachs and an intestinal tract roughly seven times the length of a human’s. Why is that? That “processing power” is needed to fully digest the grasses and (especially in the case of farm-raised cattle) grains that comprise their diets. I know vegetarians and I know that such folks adopt this “lifestyle” for a variety of reasons, but none of them has a basis in biology. A human can obtain all required nutrients and minerals from a vegetarian diet but it must be a very carefully constructed one. The billboard in question was promoting eliminating meat from a person’s diet as a way to lose weight; another recent example of PETA’s misinformation campaign on this topic is the suggestion that consumption of cow’s milk leads to an increased risk of prostate cancer. Actually, the idea that consumption of various animal products is directly linked to an increased risk of developing cancer is a popular and nebulous claim by many vegetarians; once again, these claims have no basis in fact (it is, of course, just as easy to lose weight by through moderation of intakes of foods of all types and a suitable regimen of exercise).

PETA is also opposed to fishing and presumably hunting as well. I will find just this much common ground with that organization: such activities should not be pursued solely for recreational purposes. If a fisherman or hunter throws back his catch or leaves his kill to rot on the ground, that is a waste of a valuable resource. If, on the other hand, he (or she) properly cleans the carcass and makes some use of it, that is a valid activity.

Harvesting animals for skin products is as old as the concept of hunting. As I’ve stated above, as long as it can be done in a sustainable way, this should not present a moral problem. Interestingly, biologists tend to find themselves on opposite sides of this issue. There are those who have a tendency to view the notion of individual animal preservation as paramount, such that a single specimen harvested is wrong; on the other hand, many biologists view a controlled harvest as a means to an end (i.e., a sacrifice of individuals to conserve populations and habitats). This concept is known as value-added conservation. The idea is that a government or regulatory authority may allow a controlled harvest of a population of reasonably abundant animals in order to preserve populations and secure habitats. This is a sound and reasonable strategy for populations of organisms that can sustain this kind of harvest; for those animals already too endangered to do so, obviously more rigorous protections are needed. Balancing these kinds of conservation philosophies can be difficult challenges, but I think the take-home message is that it’s not unreasonable to expect that humans will want to (and should be able to) obtain resources from their local ecosystems; however, this resource utilization should not be taken to such a degree that habitats are decimated and species are driven extinct.

Animals as companions:

Over the span of human evolution on this planet, men have domesticated certain mammals for various reasons, including some already mentioned. The vast majority of domesticated animals have been altered in this way in order to provide us with companionship. This is a mutually-beneficial relationship, for although human keepers of pets sacrifice resources such as time, and money to care for their charges, they gain a source of love and sometimes other benefits, such as assistance with chores or with guarding the home; the animal companions, on the other hand, have sacrificed to a large degree their ability to function in the natural world, but they gain a source of guaranteed (at least in most circumstances) love, shelter, food, and medicine in perpetuity. This is another topic discussed in great detail by Morris in The Animal Contract. Provided that the companion animals are suitably cared for, there should be no moral issue with this kind of relationship.

Animals as subjects of experimentation:

Primates are an interesting test case of this concept. Many Western countries have banned the use of primates for research; the U.S. is the primary exception to this rule. Why conduct research using primates? Well, the obvious answer is that because we share virtually all of our genes with chimpanzees, they make an ideal test model for us to be able to understand the effects of disease and treatments on the human body. A chimp makes a far better model than a mouse or some even further removed critter. Why not conduct research using primates? Well, the countries where such research is banned argue precisely because we share such genetic similarities and close evolutionary ties that it is inherently unethical. Unfortunately, I have to call on a dominion argument here: Man won the intelligence and adaptability race and frankly we deserve to place our own interests above those of the other inhabitants of this planet. While it doesn’t mean we should abuse or neglect the planet in some ridiculous belief that somehow “God” will fix everything, it does mean that if we can cure debilitating illnesses by conducting research using our close cousins, we are morally obligated to do so. As I stated previously, any animal used for such purposes should be treated with dignity and cared for as one would a beloved pet. It also doesn’t mean that we should cause animals unnecessary pain or subject them to pointless experiments; this is why institutional animal use and care committees exist at most American universities.

This is probably an appropriate place to discuss the dissection of frogs and other model organisms. Frog and invertebrate dissections are commonplace in many schools throughout the country and, of course, in advanced anatomy classes, other model organisms like cats, pigs, and (in medical training programs) humans are also studied. Many people have suggested that it is cruel and unnecessary to use these animals for these purposes. I disagree. Yes, there are computer models that can show “virtual frogs” and for some applications (perhaps at the primary or secondary-school level) these may be appropriate, but for teaching anatomy, there really is no substitute for feeling the proper way to separate epidermal layers from the underlying superficial musculature or being able to hold and feel the texture of a gall bladder or liver. I believe this is a valuable component of pre-med or general biology training and I hope it continues to be so.