BOOK REVIEW: Animal rights: Stories of people who defend the rights of animals

 Animal rights: Stories of people who defend the rights of animals

The introduction by Dr. Michael W. Fox promises of Animal Rights:

It will undoubtedly be a source of lively classroom debate and should do more than merely sensitize young adults to the plights and rights of animals. It exposes them to those values and attitudes associated with our regard for and treatment of animals.

The following chapters each focus upon an animal advocate working in a specific field; unfortunately, they are not true stories but fictionalized accounts based upon actual events.

In line with the priorities of the animal rights movement of 30 years ago, the first chapter focuses on vivisection. The author notes the deficiencies of the Animal Welfare Act, the federal law which sets standards for the care of animals in laboratories.

Unfortunately, while the Animal Welfare Act is better than nothing, it has some big loopholes. First, the act applies to only about 4 percent of the animals used in laboratories …Second, the law does not limit the cruelty of experiments that may be performed—it is directed mainly at the housing and care of lab animals. Third…it exempts researchers from using pain relievers if they say pain is a necessary part of the experiments. … Another loophole is that emotional pain is not even mentioned in the Animal Welfare Act.

The first story ends with an Animal Liberation Front raid, which will likely trouble modern activists who have seen the ALF morph from a clandestine group that swiped rabbits from experimental tables into an outfit better known for aggression and property destruction. While Curtis calls the ALF’s animal removals “extreme and illegal,” it’s still clear she’s writing from the perspective of her time. The chapter nods to a positive newspaper story that came as a result of removing 11 beagle puppies from a laboratory, and the main character at one point states, “But I did whatever I could with the ALF—I liked them for their spirit. So did many Britons.” That’s hardly the case today, as both the press and the public have turned away from the ALF—generating a storm of controversy among animal activists, most of whom reject the modern group’s tactics. Unfortunately, young readers encountering the animal rights movement for the first time in this book may deduce involvement with the ALF is necessary to oppose vivisection.

The kinder, gentler ALF is not the only out-of-date aspect of this book.

At the time this book was written, 14 million pets were destroyed yearly in shelters, some of which still used decompression chambers. Today, the number of animals euthanized has fallen to 4 million, and decompression chambers are used nowhere in the United States.

In 1980, some humane groups were pushing for the development of a “truly humane trap,” whereas today animal advocacy organizations realize that the only way to end the cruelty of trapping is to take a firm stance against the wearing of fur.

Circuses were a much more acceptable form of entertainment thirty years ago, so much that Curtis seems apologetic to even raise the fact that wild animals used in circuses are frequently abused. She calls the traditional circus a “beloved spectacle”, admits she has “trouble making some people believe there could be anything wrong with such an innocent show”, and opines, “how can we take a stand against something that is so much fun?” Today, few kids would choose an old-fashioned circus over a game of Wii, entire countries have banned the use of animals in circuses, and even Time magazine admits that an animal circus in the new millennium is the “interspecies version of a minstrel show.”

Curtis calls out the International Whaling Commission:

The object of the commission is to save the whaling industries of the world, not to save the whales for their own sakes.

However, neither she nor other activists of the era seems to see the portent shown by this ‘Cove’-like massacre of dolphins in Japan:

In 1978 a bunch of Japanese fishermen drove a school of hundreds of dolphins ashore and clubbed them to death because they said the dolphins were eating the fish they wanted to catch.

Nor did most activists have much knowledge of the dog fighting industry, only a fraction of the size it is now. Curtis writes:

Small-time dogfighters do not use pedigreed, highly bred fighting dogs, but will take ordinary dogs from animal shelters, give them drugs, and work them over with electric prods to make fighters of them.

It is true that amateur dogfighters typically don’t use top-of-the-line fighting dogs, and they have been known to burglarize shelters for pit bulls, especially after a fight bust has netted them as evidence. Cruelty is, as we all know, part and parcel of the “game.” But the idea presented here that dogfighters adopt any old poodle or beagle from an unsuspecting shelter and turn them into a fighter is patently wrong. The breed that has been abused almost exclusively for fighting for generations has been the pit bull terrier and its close relations. In 1980, the pit bull breeding machine wasn’t yet in full swing and the dogs were still relatively rare, both as house pets and in shelters.

At times, however, Curtis’s measured approach is an improvement over that of modern activists. Curtis is not rigidly anti-zoo in the manner of quite a number of today’s AR crusaders. Curtis recognizes some of the good accredited zoos do, concluding that they “don’t have to be prisons for animals.”

During a time in which few animal advocates cared about farm animals as more than an afterthought, and many animal advocacy groups even served meat at their fundraising functions, Curtis recognized:

In terms of sheer numbers, more farm animals suffer than any other animals in the United States. … Virtually all the poultry and most of the meat we eat comes from huge factory farms where millions of animals live out their short lives confined…

Curtis continues: “Some people object so strongly to the killing and eating of animals that they become vegetarians. Some vegetarians will eat fish, some not.” (Reality: No vegetarians eat fish. People who eat fish aren’t vegetarians.) She goes on to state that most vegetarians and vegans want a cruelty-free wardrobe, but are “hard pressed to find nonleather shoes.” (Thank god for the Internet .)

While Curtis believes that dwindling resources will one day force the human race to adopt a plant-centered diet, she says,

Until that time, possibly the only hope for meat animals is to enact stronger humane laws governing the way they are raised, shipped, and slaughtered—and enforce them.

The defeatist talk continues:

[T]hough I am a vegetarian myself, in my work I do not try to convert people to vegetarianism. Instead I concentrate on helping animals through what I think we can achieve right now—better laws, more information, and humane changes in intensive agriculture.

Well, three decades on, the number of animals slaughtered in the US has exploded to ten billion per year, and the abuse has grown even more out of control. Activists have found it nearly impossible to make meaningful changes in farm animals’ lives while going through the agribiz-dominated state and federal legislatures. By taking the issues directly to the people, we are just now beginning to see a few cracks in the armor of the mighty factory farming machine. However, as long as Americans consume animal products at their incredible current rate, there’s only so much that can be done. Ten billion animals simply can’t be raised in a way that puts their comfort and welfare above profits.

So think of how things might have been if the AR folks of thirty years ago didn’t have such a defeatist attitude. What if a Vegan Outreach had existed in 1980? Would ten billion animals still be slaughtered in 2011? Would more headway have been made against the evils of battery cages and gestation crates? Just imagine.

(Review originally appeared at


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