Suppose you were a furry or feathery creature, confined to a cramped crate or a tiny cage, with your sole purpose in life to produce eggs for some human's plate -- or to end up on that plate yourself. Don't you think your keepers should at least provide you with enough room to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and stretch your limbs?
Well, you don't get to vote on this question. American members of species homo sapiens are voting on this matter, however, and they seem to favor awarding you these minimal rights, available to any convicted murderer on death row. In 2008, a California ballot initiative to write the "turn around freely, lie down" language into law for farm animals passed with 63.5 percent of the vote, despite intense opposition from agricultural interests arguing that complying with this costly standard would drive producers out of the state.
OK, that's California, on the Left Coast. But Ohio, a heartland state in which agriculture is a $93 billion-a-year business and provides jobs to one in seven workers, is expected to put similar language before its voters in November. The measure would cover 27 million egg-laying hens and 170,000 breeding pigs -- and probably tens of thousands of veal calves. The vast number of the hens and majorities of the pigs and calves raised in the state are confined to quarters that don't meet the proposed minimum standards.
So, is Ohio's agricultural industry confident of defeating this initiative, for which animal-advocacy groups are busy collecting signatures? "Hell no," Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said in an interview. Even though farmers are gearing up to spend $10 million or so on a public-relations and advertising campaign to persuade voters to vote no on the question, they expect the national coalition of advocacy groups to spend at least as much money to rack up yes votes. "We're in the big leagues here," Cornely said.
He's right about that. Animal rights, circa 2010, is a sophisticated, well organized, mainstream movement -- with far-reaching implications for ordinary Americans and American businesses. So far, the movement's greatest successes have come at the state level, but activists have now firmly trained their sights on Washington.
De minimus rights for the millions of animals on so-called factory farms are but one prong of an ambitious agenda. Other goals include a federal agency to safeguard and advance the interests of animals; legal standing for animals, with humans as their representatives, to file lawsuits to prevent violations of animal-protection laws; a federal law to end to the use of chimpanzees in "invasive research" at U.S. facilities; and humanlike rights for chimpanzees, gorillas, and other highly intelligent creatures that Charles Darwin, for one, believed possess rich emotional lives. Science, through the work of primatologist Jane Goodall and other pioneers, is confirming that view.
Take notice, for it is often the case with social causes that the marginal becomes the mainstream. That was the course of things in the movements demanding civil rights for women, for African-Americans, and, most recently, for gays and lesbians. Animal-rights activists are studying the history of those causes, as well as efforts to protect children from harsh labor practices and other abuses, and they are applying the lessons to their legal and political strategies. Look for intensified political, economic, and cultural warfare as advocates for animals seek nothing less than to include nonhuman creatures in America's promise of liberty and justice for all.
The Second Wave
If that vision sounds far-fetched, consider that the modern animal-rights cause already is in what can be called its second wave of activism. The first wave was inspired by the publication, in 1975, of Animal Liberation -- the landmark tract by philosopher Peter Singer that baldly declared, "All animals are equal." Early activists were known for such confrontational tactics as splashing blood-colored paint on fur coat wearers. Second-wave activists are more about garden-variety political tactics used by the National Rifle Association and other successful lobbies.
Today's animal-rights activists include suit-and-tie squares such as David J. Wolfson, a partner in the blue-chip corporate law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. From the firm's New York City headquarters at One Chase Manhattan Plaza, Wolfson advises Farm Sanctuary, one of the nation's primary farm-animal protection organizations, and other grassroots advocacy groups.
At a recent conference on the future of animal law, sponsored by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and held at Harvard Law School, Wolfson drove home a pragmatic imperative: "We need politicians."
He was referring to the ramping up of operations such as Humane USA, a political action committee headed by leaders of the Humane Society of the United States. The nonprofit society, based in Washington and headed by its aggressive and savvy president, Wayne Pacelle, has emerged as the Goliath of the animals' cause. In the 2008 election cycle, Humane USA spent some $355,000, including nearly $212,000 in contributions to federal candidates and $20,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The Humane Society and its affiliates have $200 million in assets, an annual budget of about $150 million, and a network of 11 million donors, concentrated in wealthy suburbs, who have made contributions within the past four years.
The movement needs politicians to marshal congressional support for ambitious initiatives such as the establishment of a Federal Animal Protection Commission, modeled on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that Congress created in 1957 at President Eisenhower's urging. The hoped-for animal protection agency would have the all-important subpoena power to investigate possible violations of laws and regulations. Today, animal-advocacy groups mount difficult and risky undercover investigations to expose abusive practices at factory farms and biomedical facilities. Federal authority to visit such operations and flash a badge could be vastly more effective in bringing abuses to light and -- perhaps more important -- deterring bad practices.
Advocates also see such an agency as a crafter of model legislation to advance the interests of animals. A model bill drafted by the Civil Rights Commission was the basis for the seminal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The legal brain behind the drive for a commission for animals is Daniel Press, a 1968 Yale Law School graduate who is a veteran Washington practitioner at Van Ness Feldman. At the Harvard conference, Press began his talk with a mock warning, just in case (unlikely) any tea partiers were in the room: "We are going to be talking about making Big Government even bigger." It is virtually always the case, he emphasized, that "progress" on social causes comes only when the federal government seizes the initiative.
Participants asked Press how they could best help to make an animal protection commission a reality. Should they go to work on Capitol Hill, for example? Sure, he replied. "Become an inside agent" for the cause. Annie, a corgi in attendance, barked with apparent approval.
Yes, Animal Rights
Do you believe that animals deserve basic legal rights? The Animal Legal Defense Fund greeted the folks registering for the conference with that question and asked them to push for an "animal bill of rights" to "show Congress a groundswell of support" for such legislation.
Although it is possible to talk about the cause in terms of "protection" or "welfare," the prism of "rights" is an apt one, as this is the concept that energizes the movement and ties its various facets into a coherent philosophical whole. The impetus has migrated from heartfelt sentiment for animals' well-being to a more elemental and sweeping concern for their plight as a matter of justice. The basic challenge is that the law still regards animals as "property," Joyce Tischler, a founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said in an interview.
Animal Liberation is instructive on this point. What Singer and other grand theorists want to construct is a world that is less humancentric than the world, at least our Western world, traditionally has been. These advocates seek a worldview that is more regardful of animals as beings occupying an important position on the planet. This viewpoint tends to be distinctly secular: It explicitly challenges the traditional Judeo-Christian perspective toward animals as little more than soulless tools to serve human needs. In a 1984 reader survey by Animals Agenda magazine, 65 percent of respondents identified themselves as atheists or agnostics, a rate at least five times higher than in the U.S. population.
"Most families now are two or three generations removed from rural life."
-- Bud Pidgeon, president, U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance
All social movements have their totems and taboos -- signifiers of what to embrace and what to reject, for the purposes of correct thinking and action. In today's animal-rights cause, one unifying symbol is a commitment to the vegan way of life. The Harvard conference offered a vegan-only menu -- including faux cream cheese for the bagels. A dedicated vegan consumes no animal products -- no fish, pork, chicken, or beef -- but also no cow's milk, no chicken's eggs, and, maybe, even no bee's honey. Veganism also eschews the wearing of products derived from animals; even a leather jacket is taboo. The idea is to refrain from any exploitation of animals.
The Humane Society was founded in 1954. Fifty years later, Pacelle became its first vegan president. In an interview, he recalled his undergraduate days at Yale in the mid-1980s, where he led demands to make vegan meals available in all of the university's dining halls. Pacelle started what he called an animal-rights group at Yale and got arrested for disorderly conduct in demonstrations against fur stores and the like. "This is a vibrant social movement that is questioning the idea that animals are just commodities," he said. Asked where he stood on hunting, he replied that although "hunting has always been part of the equation with males," and may be "something logically hardwired in us," that "doesn't mean we have to do it."
Pacelle's reference to the outmoded wiring of the human male notwithstanding, Joyce Tischler affectionately refers to him as an "alpha male" who, if he were in the corporate world, would probably be a Gordon Gekko-like raider. "We are more formidable and powerful than any group that has ever emerged on animal protection," Pacelle told National Journal. He has been quoted as saying he wants to make the Humane USA PAC "a National Rifle Association of the animal-rights movement."
Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Humane Society's campaign to give farm animals their "turn around freely, lie down" rights, is also an experienced street activist. In 1999, before he joined the group, he was photographed standing atop a McDonald's restaurant in Washington holding a banner declaring, "Don't Support McMurder. Go Vegan." The exhortation was part of a commemoration of the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, whom many in the animal-rights movement revere for his brilliance as a protest leader and his refusal to eat meat.
Asked by National Journal whether he still stands by the "McMurder" slogan, Shapiro replied, "When I was a teenager, I did some things that I think were largely ineffective forms of animal advocacy. I guess teens can do worse things than hold banners on Gandhi's birthday with strident slogans, but still, I think the work I'm doing today does more to help animals than much of what I did in the '90s."
A hallmark of the Humane Society's milder tack is its astute use of professional pollster-tested language designed to appeal to the political middle. Asked about his preference for the term "animal protection" over "animal rights," Bob Meadow, the society's longtime pollster and a partner in the Lake Research firm, said, "Other groups and activists may prefer 'animal rights,' but I know I do not want to get into equating humane treatment and well-being of animals with 'rights' which are for humans -- either God-given or through social compacts. I have not tested that vocabulary."
It's clear that the cause -- however its leaders choose to label and package it -- drives its opponents bonkers. Jack Fisher, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau, is facing the very real prospect that Ohioans will side with Pacelle and Shapiro on the factory-farm ballot initiative. "They want to take meat, milk, and eggs away from the diet of Americans and, indeed, people of the world," he said. That did not sound like spin -- it sounded like what Fisher despairingly believes.
Driving this counterargument home is a Washington outfit called the Center for Consumer Freedom. The group's annual budget of about $2.5 million is supported by food-industry interests "from farm to fork," as its research director, David Martosko, said in an interview.
One major project is tracking the Humane Society's agenda and framing the group as beyond the political pale. The old photograph of Shapiro with his "McMurder" banner appears on Humanewatch.org, a website that Martosko's group launched in February. The Ohio Farm Bureau has invited him to talk to its members about strategies for combating animal-rights activists on the factory-farm initiative. The real aim of such initiatives, he told NJ, is to make animal protein "prohibitively expensive" for consumers.
The Center for Consumer Freedom is distributing to journalists and others free copies of a new book, A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement, by Wesley J. Smith, which sharply challenges the philosophical premises of the animal-rights cause. The title is taken from a 1986 comment by Ingrid Newkirk of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a leading animal-rights group. "Over the past 30 years, the concept of 'animal rights' has seeped into the bone marrow of Western culture," Smith notes in the introduction. "I will mount an unequivocal defense of the belief that human beings stand uniquely at the pinnacle of moral worth."
In the book's foreword, Dean Koontz, the best-selling novelist whose supernatural thrillers are informed by his Catholic faith, writes that if the "antihuman" animal-rights activists "ever succeeded in their goals, if they established through culture or law that human beings have no intrinsic dignity greater than that of any animal, the world would not be a better place for either humankind or animals. Instead, it would be a utilitarian nightmare in which the strong would destroy the weak." As far as Koontz is concerned, "Not being God, we cannot grant rights to animals any more than we can grant ourselves the right to take our neighbors' property or their lives."
Whatever one makes of these spiritual arguments, the modern animal-rights movement contains an undeniable paradox. It has grown in strength in the United States and in Western Europe as these societies have become increasingly urbanized and suburbanized and farther removed from nature. For most people, contact with animals is chiefly through the family dog or cat.
"Most families now are two or three generations removed from rural life," Bud Pidgeon, president and CEO of the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, lamented in an interview. His group, which supports hunters and trappers, often finds itself in battle against the Humane Society and its allies. "They don't have a connection with wildlife or where their food products come from," he said.
Certainly, we have come a long way from the time of the coonskin-capped pioneer. The irony can be piquant. A premier voice for animal rights is the Lewis & Clark Law School, in Portland, Ore., whose Center for Animal Law Studies collaborates with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. The center's stated mission is "to ensure the legal interests of animals are given consideration" in society.
The school is named for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the legendary explorers who two centuries ago mapped a route by water and land from St. Louis to the Oregon coast of the Pacific. Their "consideration" for animals was of a somewhat different order. "Having for many days past confined myself to the boat, I determined to devote this day to amuse myself on shore with my gun," Lewis wrote in a September 17, 1804, journal entry. "My object was if possible to kill a female Antelope."
This Is A Culture War
The clash over the role of animals in modern society is, yes, about economic interests -- not least, the interest of agribusiness in producing beef, pork, poultry, and eggs at the lowest possible cost -- but it is more deeply about embedded values. Indeed, it amounts to a culture war, pitting, in broad terms, animal rightists against "human exceptionalists," as Koontz's opposing camp might be called.
History suggests that culture wars almost never end with a surrender at Appomattox Court House -- that is, with both parties accepting that one side has proved the stronger. Rather, these crusades tend to go on for decades, with one side usually gaining the upper hand but the other side only slowly, if ever, conceding defeat.
So it looks for this struggle. Each camp has its strengths and weaknesses. Opponents of animal rights have a firmer base in Washington, including on Capitol Hill, where they hold a commanding influence on the Agriculture committees.
The Humane Society is pushing legislation, modeled on the California factory-farm ballot initiative, requiring that any food purchased for federal government programs come from animals raised with enough room to "stand up, lie down," and all the rest. This is not small stuff: Washington spends more than $1 billion a year on food for the armed services, federal prisons, and other programs, according to the Humane Society. Once enacted, of course, that mandate could be the fulcrum for legislation to apply this standard to all food purchased in the U.S.
A leading sponsor of the House bill, H.R. 4733, is Rep. Elton Gallegly, a Republican representing California's 24th District, who has received $23,500 in PAC contributions from Humane USA dating to the 2000 election cycle. Supporters and opponents alike, however, doubt that the bill will get a hearing from the Agriculture Committee, of which Gallegly is not a member. Gallegly was the driver of a federal law passed in 1999 to ban the creation and selling of videos depicting cruelty to animals -- the statute overturned by the Supreme Court on April 20 on free-speech grounds. He did not respond to requests from National Journal for comment on his support for animal causes.
"For so long the animal-protection movement was written off as just a movement of silly old women in tennis shoes."
-- Joyce Tischler, founder, Animal Legal Defense Fund
Outside of Washington, the public-relations campaign to paint the Humane Society as an extremist organization may be making some headway. Animal-rights activists in such culturally conservative states as Idaho and Texas now worry that Humane Society backing of any initiatives could come with too much political baggage.
For the most part, though, the landscape beyond the Beltway is hospitable to the animal-rights camp. Advocacy groups can take their message over the heads of politicians directly to pet-owning citizens, and they can do so in creative, imaginative ways that capture the spirit of their cause without sounding shrill and smarmily self-righteous. For the California ballot initiative, Proposition 2, proponents produced a brilliant piece of image-making -- an animated video with a pig, surrounded by fellow creatures in their tiny cages, belting out, "There's a proposition, to save us from this hell," to the tune of Stevie Wonder's song "Superstition." As intended, the video went viral on the Internet, according to the Humane Society's Shapiro. It's difficult to watch it without a smile.
Animal-rights issues don't seem to break along the familiar partisan chasm, as do abortion and some other culture wars. "Republicans, Democrats, most people have had a dog or a cat," observed Joe Trippi, a Democratic political consultant who advised the Humane Society on the California factory-farm initiative and is now aiding the Ohio effort. Trippi and his wife maintain a 47-acre sanctuary on Maryland's Eastern Shore for "saved" animals, including dogs, goats, horses, and rabbits.
But although the face-off does not follow a sharp partisan divide, it does reveal a notable gender gap. Women of all ages are the base for the movement, making up about three-quarters of all activists at the grassroots level and seven in 10 donors to the Humane Society and its related affiliates. Animal advocates like to say, half jokingly, that a hard-hearted Republican male might be prodded in the correct direction by his softer-hearted spouse.
How to explain the preponderance of women in the animal-rights movement? "It is about the emotions," Tischler, of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, suggested. Gender is "a touchy issue," she added, "because for so long the animal-protection movement was written off as just a movement of silly old women in tennis shoes." Perhaps, as a male animal-rights activist opined, helpless animals, like helpless children, tend to bring out females' nurturing feelings. Women dominate these days in America's veterinary schools. Whatever the explanation, the animal-rights movement's appeal to women represents one of its greatest strengths as it moves forward.
Animal rights is not only about federal laws, state ballot initiatives, and city council ordinances. At the cutting edge, and perhaps most fundamentally, the cause is about extracting support and sustenance from the common law, the set of principles that serve as the bedrock for the freedoms now taken for granted in Western societies.
Consider this plausible future: A day when the high court of some U.S. state grants a nonhuman animal -- say, a chimpanzee confined to a zoo or a biomedical facility -- a fundamental right to liberty, according to the ancient principle of common law that no one should be confined against his or her will without just cause.
Making that day a reality is now the consuming work of a prominent animal-rights lawyer, Steven M. Wise, director of the Nonhuman Rights Project in Coral Springs, Fla. Wise, who was born in Baltimore in 1950, taught the first class in animal law at Harvard Law School in 2000. He credits Singer's Animal Liberation with inspiring his passion for the cause. In an interview, Wise described himself as a "secular Jew," explaining that it is "hard to come out of the Judeo-Christian tradition in favor of nonhuman animals." Regarding "animal rights" as too vague a term, he prefers to speak in terms of the rights of particular species, so that the rights of horses might not be the same as the rights of chimps.
At the Nonhuman Rights Project, Wise leads a nationwide team of 30 or so volunteer researchers -- law students, psychologists, and others -- that communicates mostly through e-mail and Skype. One goal is to identify a "plaintiff," probably a chimpanzee, on whose behalf Wise's group could file a lawsuit based on the common law writ of habeas corpus.
Habeas corpus -- Latin for "you have the body" -- dates to Anglo-Saxon times. In 1215, the Magna Carta declared, "No free man is to be taken or imprisoned ... save by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land." As Wise noted, the habeas corpus writ was famously used to free slaves in the British Empire, a parallel that he views as apt to his own "abolitionist" cause.
A second objective of the Nonhuman Rights Project is to identify the most congenial venue for the lawsuit, which Wise said could be filed as soon as 2011 or 2012. For example, it might make sense to target a state Supreme Court dominated by female judges, on the theory that women are more likely to believe that nonhuman animals have legal rights. Or it might be better to go to a state whose Supreme Court has overturned an anti-gay marriage statute, on the theory that such a panel has a demonstrated commitment to a right that traditionalists have opposed.
Should a state Supreme Court grant a writ of habeas corpus and the state's legislature permit the writ to stand, the freed animal might be viewed much like the law regards a 3-year-old child, as "an incompetent rights-bearer," Wise said, and hence put into the hands of a qualified guardian. "Yes, I do expect to live to see this happen," he said.
At a session of the animal law conference billed as "Almost a Person: What Lies Ahead for Chimpanzees?" Michael Schocket, a law student and a researcher for the Nonhuman Rights Project, dazzled the audience with a rapid-fire talk on its mission, delivered with passion and ending with a plea for volunteers. He won a recruit in Dana Daum, a 52-year-old air traffic controller who came to the gathering on his own dime from Chapel Hill, N.C. In an interview, Daum said that his "skill set" as a numbers-cruncher might be useful to the project. Animal rights, he said, is where his heart is.
The Enlightenment Lives?
From the vantage point of an animal-rights advocate with a vegan lifestyle, the world must look pretty grim, indeed horrific. A Saturday-night drive around any suburban commercial strip will find large numbers of Americans rapturously tearing their way through charred chunks of cow flesh -- known as steaks. Pass the A.1. sauce, the diners might say, as they mop up the bloody juices with a buttered roll. Annual per-capita consumption of meat and poultry in the United States has increased from 175 pounds in 1965 to 219 pounds today, according to the American Meat Institute.
"We can probably already prove that pigs are as intelligent as dogs. Is that going to stop people from eating pigs? No," Tischler said ruefully. She added, "with anger and bitterness," that "medical research will not stop using animals unless it becomes faster, cheaper to use nonanimal alternatives."
Vegan America shows no sign of arriving. Surveys indicate that 2 percent, tops, and perhaps not even 1 percent, of all Americans are vegans. But the notion of a world that is less humancentric, that gives more legal weight to nonhuman animals, is not a chimera, for that world is already taking shape.
Consider how far the movement has come over the past 30 years. The ranks of law schools offering courses in animal law have grown from a handful more than a decade ago to more than 100 today. The number of states that treat animal abuse as a felony has increased from eight in the 1980s to 46 today. A bill requiring a public register to identify animal abusers, a parallel to Megan's Law for sex offenders, cleared the Tennessee Senate, and similar measures have been introduced in California, Louisiana, and New York. Chicago provides for court-appointed special advocates for animals in cases of animal-protection violations.
Animals are finding friends in high places, even in inhospitable Washington: In his days as a legal scholar, Cass Sunstein, now head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama White House, supported the idea that animals should have the right to bring lawsuits to prevent violations of the law.
"They want to take meat, milk, and eggs away from the diet of Americans, and, indeed, people of the world."
-- Jack Fisher, Ohio Farm Bureau
And surely Shapiro had reason to smile when a recent report of a commission established by the Pew Charitable Trusts -- hardly a citadel of extremist thinking -- cited U.S. industrial agricultural practices for "inhumane treatment" and called for industry-wide adoption of the "five freedoms" for farm animals: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.
These freedoms, now emerging as a global standard, are the legacy of the landmark Brambell Committee Report in the United Kingdom in 1965, which was viewed as "radical for its time" in its emphasis on the "feelings" of animals, the Pew commissioners noted.
Such pronouncements are making it harder for opponents to brand the animal-rights crowd as an extremist fringe movement. As Ohio farmers reconsider their animal-confinement practices, it may make sense to "give some social-conscience relief to customers," Fisher of the Ohio Farm Bureau conceded. "They want changes. So many people consider themselves a mother or father to a pet," and "we have to understand that."
The animal-rights movement gives the lie to the trope that we are living in a postmodern world in which meaning is fragmented and values are relative. These advocates burn with an old-fashioned Enlightenment fervor -- an unhealthy zeal, critics believe -- in this quest to extend liberty to nonhuman beings. The ridicule that sometimes greets their cause is unlikely to deter it, because in this respect, too, there is a comforting precedent.
At the close of the 18th century, one savant scoffed at the idea of equal rights for women by penning a satirical treatise in favor of the "rights of brutes." It was, an animal-rights advocate later observed, "a notable instance of how the mockery of one generation may become the reality of the next." The generational tides just may be flowing in favor of the animal rightists.
This article appears in the May 22, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.