Monday, February 21, 2005

Making Animal Rights More Human

It's easy for advocates to be (mis)characterized as radicals, no matter what the cause. As someone who instinctively advocates for the rights of non-human animals, it's fairly easy to paint me as a nut. I've been a vegan for seven years, an in that time the novelty of my "lifestyle" (I hate that word) has yielded incredibly dumb yet understandable questions from omnivores.

"Would you eat meat to save your life?" Yes, of course. But, as we learned from the "Lord of the Flies" parody episode of The Simpsons, wherever there is an animal to eat, there is a plant food source, too. (For all you nerds out there, episode 198 is officially named "Das Bus," and it originally aired February 15, 1998.)

"Would you shoot a bear if it were chasing you?" First of all, I would never put myself in a situation where (a) I was trampling on bear territory or (b) I was carrying a gun. But, for the sake of argument, yes, I would shoot a bear if he or she were chasing me. (You'd be shocked at the number of people who have asked me that exact question. It's easily in the dozens. Why is it always a bear? Do Americans have a deep subconscious fear of bears? Why not a tiger or Ted Nugent?)

"If you had to choose between saving a cat and saving a human, which would you choose?" Sigh.

And so on.

I think we animal rights types need better PR. We need someone out there to lend legitimacy to the belief that non-human animals, though certainly not privy to the same protections as us bipedal mammals, have the right to not be tortured.

Enter Bruce Wagman, Boalt School of Law professor here at Cal, who teaches an elective on animal protections in law. As it stands, pets are loosely treated as any other piece of human property - like a furry television or feathered bicycle. There are some limitations on the treatment allowed to pets - obviously you can't go around performing vivisections on Rover or sticking fire crackers up Tabby's ass - and clear-cut neglect or torture is not allowed.

In San Francisco, in fact...
A new "backyard dog" law says canines are entitled to a change of water once a day, palatable and nutritious food in a non-tipping bowl, and a dog house with a top, bottom and three sides. Tying up the dog is highly discouraged.
As Wagman and many other non-human animal rights advocates like to remind pthe public, though, no farm animal in any municipality is protected under anti-cruelty laws. Handlers aren't even required to anesthetize kitchen-bound creatures before slaughter the way any semi-intelligent animal must be before being sacrificed to the scientific community.

The point of this post isn't to describe why I think pets and farm animals are entitled to greater legal protection. Instead, I'm trying to assess whether these legal measures make us rights advocates simply appear silly to the general public, or if such legislation actually encourages citizens to reconsider the cognitive abilities of dogs and cows alike.

The answer may lie in a semi-analogous example: smoking restrictions in California. As laws against smoking in this state have gotten more prohobitive and as state taxes on tobacco have increased, smoking rates have decreased. California has the second lowest smoking rate among states, and smoking prevalence here has decreased at a higher rate than the national average. My assertion is that the law directly influences consumer behavior. This isn't to say that citizens accept law as moral code; rather, the inconvenience imposed by law gives citizens no choice but to change their behavior, indirectly forcing them to accept the moral code implied by the law.

Similarly, forcing pet owners to treat their "property" as sentient beings would probably force them to mentally accept that dogs and cats have feelings.

I would be curious to know if there are any books out there debating this relationship between law and cultural psychology. Undoubtedly I have as many supporters as I do adversaries. I'm not terribly well-read in law theory.

Regardless of public opinion, I feel protection laws benefit non-human animals in the long run. It would be convenient, however, if these laws could protect animals and simultaneously not induce the average person to think that animal rights types are insane.


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