Food Movements and Food Courts: A Thought from Sioux Falls

The Food Movement wants to reform our broken food system. This is an admirable goal that I fully support. Where I differ from the Food Movement is that I want it to engage an essential question: how do we ethically justify commodifying, exploiting, and killing sentient animals for food we don’t need?

This is a discussion that’s long overdue. It’s happening–but only among philosophers, some theologians and legal scholars, and animal rights advocates. The leaders of the Food Movement won’t go near it. And the longer the movement avoids the issue the more its chances of achieving meaningful  change diminish. I’m inspired and in full agreement with the movement when its leaders call for food justice, fair access, living wages, improved welfare, and the end of corporate abuse and unfair subsidies.  But . . .

What confuses me is why, in light of these concerns, the movement fails to justify its implicit promotion of unneeded suffering. Raising an animal to kill and eat, or raising an animal to purloin is milk and eggs, causes suffering. We don’t need meat, dairy, and eggs–in fact, most humans would be much healthier without these products. So, I genuinely wonder: why is it okay to produce these goods?  To say we’ve always done it, or that these products taste good, or that its “natural,” or that the animals were raised with respect, or that I killed the animal myself–these aren’t legitimate answers. They’re evasions.  They beg the question.

I just walked through a Food Court at a mall in Sioux Falls, SD (the town where I’m giving a talk this evening). My experience reminded me that not only am I glad I’m not a teenager, but that Americans are killing themselves with junk food that’s overwhelmingly based on processed animal products. My mind wanders in these settings. I think to myself: will currently unthinking consumers ever be willing to radically reduce the amount of animals they eat? I’m deeply skeptical that that will ever happen.

Then I wonder something else:  how many of these consumers gorging on animal products live with a companion animal for whom they deeply care?  And I wonder how many of them would think differently of eating animals if they knew that the animals they were eating shared so many qualities with the animals waiting for them to come home. And I wonder if, based on this connection, they could break the speciesist barrier and stop eating animals. And, for a moment, however naively, I feel a spark of hope.


Monkey Business: The Dubious Role of Animal Experiments

Relatively recent reports confirm that the National Institute of Health (NIH) spent almost four million dollars over the last ten years funding research into how monkeys react to methamphetamine, heroin, PCP, and cocaine. This particular study placed special emphasis on how addiction to these narcotics influenced primate menstruation. When CNSNews  caught wind of this choice federal expenditure they awarded it a “What Were They Smoking?” award. What rationale, it wondered, could justify “sponsoring an outrageous government spending program that sends taxpayer dollars up in smoke”?


No doubt, the study was a colossal waste of money. But the fact that taxpayer dollars went up in smoke strikes me as insignificant compared to the fact that monkeys were transformed by scientists into toxic dump sites. Not only are monkeys sentient, self-referential beings capable of feeling empathy and experiencing autonomy, but they also, as has been recently confirmed, exhibit a clear sense of altruism, morality, and fairness. As Frans de Waal, a professor of psychology at Emory and author of the recent study documenting these primate qualities, explained, “There is enough evidence  . . .  to agree that some of the stepping stones towards human morality can be found in other animals.”

Regrettably, most people aren’t ready go there. Indeed, a common defense of animal-based research–and animal objectification in general–instinctively falls back on a rigid conception of the species barrier to justify denigrating sentient non-humans. We are human, they are not, end of story. This line of defense is not only simplistic, but it’s deeply rooted in, among other traditions, a fundamentalist Christian belief that morality is granted by God exclusively to humans in order to distinguish us from non-human animals, to whom we’re evidently superior and, as a result, in a position to own, control, and exploit.

But there’s a more scientific way to critique the common practice of ending compassion and morality at the species barrier. Instead of issuing a fundamental distinction between the human and non-human animal world, basic evolutionary biology conceptualizes all animals on a finely-grained continuum of anatomical and cognitive differentiation. Forgive the following block quotations, but in explicating this continuum, the following scientists cast the federally funded drug monkeys in a new light, one that makes it much harder to justify their exploitation on the basis of their non-human status.

Donald Griffin, the father of cognitive ethology–the science of animal thought–writes:

 The central nervous system of multi-cellular animals all operate by means of the same basic processes regardless of the species or even the phylum in which they are found. Because we know that at least one species does indulge in conscious thinking, and take it for granted that conscious and unconscious thinking result from activities of the central nervous system, we have no solid basis for excluding a priori the possibility that conscious thinking takes place in any animal with a reasonably well-organized central nervous system.  

Bernard E. Rollin, a leading authority on veterinary ethics, echoes this theme of continuity in his book Animal Rights and Human Morality:

 For Darwin himself, and for the nineteenth-century biologists (at least in England and America) who carried forth his ideas, thought and feeling in animals was an inevitable consequence of phylogenic continuity. If morphological and physiological traits are evolutionarily continuous, so, too, are psychological ones.” Rollin deems this idea central to “the foundational theory of modern biology.

No less a thinker than the late Stephen Jay Gould has similarly complicated the human/non-human barrier by highlighting the problem of excluding humans from the family Pondigae (the family which includes the great apes). He writes in The Dinosaur in the Haystack:

Humans arise within the Pondigae, and cannot represent a separate family, lest we commit the genealogical absurdity of uniting two more distant forms (chimps and gorillas) in the same family and excluding a third creature (humans) more closely related to one of those two united species. I surely cannot claim to be more closely related to my uncle than to my brother, but we make exactly such a statement when we argue that chimps are closer to gorillas than to humans.

If Griffin, Rollin, and Gould are right–that is, if the deepest principles of evolutionary biology prevent us from limiting the scope of moral concern to humans–then the act of pumping heroin into an ape, even for the noble purposes of research, becomes profoundly troubling. It must be acknowledged that the act of using non-humans as research subjects is based on an unspoken paradox: scientists use non-human because they are not like us and, at the same time, they use them because they are like us.

Gorilla Humor: The Hidden Power of a Good Joke

I’ve spend much of the last week compiling the most critical excerpts from the animal welfare/animal rights volumes I’ve been reading. What strikes me about many of my chosen excerpts is that they’re what a skeptic would quickly dismiss as anecdotal. But what’s wrong with a relevant anecdote? Too often the scientific rebuke that a particular piece of evidence is “merely anecdotal” serves as a weapon to reinforce the status quo.  This is regrettable because, especially when it comes to animal behavior, anecdotes combined with common sense can offer privileged access to a deeper understanding of animal thought and behavior.

Take the case of a gorilla named Koko, recounted in Steven Wise’s Drawing the Line. An anthropologist asked Koko’s handler to point to her own nose, ears, mouth, chin, eyes, and forehead and ask Koko to imitate her. Koko complied without hesitation or confusion. When the anthropologist came back several weeks later to repeat the experiment and film the results, Koko became mischievous. She studied his handler’s gesture carefully and promptly botched the imitation. For example, when the handler pointed to her nose, Koko pointed to her chin. She repeatedly made these “errors.” When her handler became frustrated and signed “BAD GORILLA,” Koko responded by signing back “FUNNY GORILLA” and laughed.

The possibility that a gorilla not only grasps but can execute a joke bears heavily on how we evaluate her intellectual capacity. The problem, however, is that from the perspective of conventional science it’s impossible to empirically prove that Koko was in fact being funny. “There is,” writes Wise, “no penetrating the thicket of gorillas’ intentions.” Neither, for that matter, is it really possible to understand, or empirically confirm, the deeper impulses driving human motivation. The inner working of the mind do not lend themselves to concrete conclusions. We thus have no choice but to derive meaning from logical assumptions about clearly expressed intentions. What else can we do? Plus, how many jokes would a gorilla have to make  before skeptics would be convinced that this is in fact a laughing matter?

If we cannot draw conclusions from anecdotes, we’ll never advance our knowledge about the minds of the animals that amaze so many of us.

PETA and Pets: An Unacceptably Low Adoption Rate


This piece ran two days ago at Needless to say, it generated a firestorm. My primary point was that an animal advocacy group with over a $30 million budget should have a better rate of pet adoption. 


In 2011, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) behaved in a regrettably consistent manner: it euthanized the overwhelming majority (PDF) of dogs and cats that it accepted into its shelters. Out of 760 dogs impounded, they killed 713, arranged for 19 to be adopted, and farmed out 36 to other shelters (not necessarily “no kill” ones). As for cats, they impounded 1,211, euthanized 1,198, transferred eight, and found homes for a grand total of five. PETA also took in 58 other companion animals — including rabbits. It killed 54 of them.

These figures don’t reflect well on an organization dedicated to the cause of animal rights. Even acknowledging that PETA sterilized over 10,500 dogs and cats and returned them to their owners, it doesn’t change the fact that its adoption rate in 2011 was 2.5 percent for dogs and 0.4 for cats. Even acknowleding that PETA never turns an animal away — “the sick, the scarred and broken, the elderly, the aggressive and unsocialized…” — doesn’t change the fact that Virginia animal shelters as a whole had a much lower kill rate of 44 percent. And even acknowledging that PETA is often the first to rescue pets when heat waves and hurricanes hit, that doesn’t change the fact that, at one of its shelters, it kills 84 percent of supposedly “unadoptable” animals within 24 hours of their arrival.

When I contacted PETA for a comment on these numbers, Amanda Schinke, a spokesperson for the organization, sent a thoughtful and detailed response. In it she explained how “euthanasia is a product of love for animals who have no one to love them.” She called their killing a “tragic reality,” one that forthrightly acknowledges how “sometimes [animals] need the comfort of being put out of their misery — a painless release from a world in which they were abused and unwanted.” Noting that PETA, unlike many “no-kill” shelters, turns no animal away, Schinke added, “we do everything in our power to help these animals.” The harsh reality behind the grim numbers, she noted, should never be forgotten: “Millions of homeless animals are euthanized in animal shelters and veterinary offices across America because of simple math: too many animals and not enough suitable homes.”

But is this really a simple math problem? Nathan Winograd doesn’t think so. Winograd, a Stanford Law graduate and former corporate lawyer, is the author of Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart and Soul of America’s Animal Shelters. When the data on PETA dropped, he posted a scathing article insisting that the organization’s almost 100 percent kill rate was due not to laziness or poor management but to “something more nefarious.” Winograd asserts that PETA’s failure to find homes for impounded companion animals is the result of founder Ingrid Newkirk’s “dark impulses.” Performing a virtual psychological vivisection, Winograd diagnoses Newkirk as a “disturbed person,” a “shameless animal killer,” and the executrix of a “bloody reign” of terror over dogs and cats. At one point, he even compares her to nurses who get a thrill from killing their human patients.

Look past the rage, though, and it becomes clear that Winograd has an important case to make. In PETA’s response to me, Schinke wrote, “Winograd dishonestly and viciously attacks all open admission shelters, those that do not shut the door to any animal, even those for whom peaceful release is a mercy.” This is another way of saying that because PETA accepts so many dire cases, cases in which euthanasia may very well be justified, it should be excused for killing over 99 percent of the animals under its care. Winograd, however, argues persuasively that PETA euthanizes far more than just the unadoptable cases. In the following excerpt from his blog, he reveals that Newkirk admits to killing animals that are “adoptable”:

In a December 2, 2008, interview with George Stroumboulopoulos of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Stroumboulopoulos asks Newkirk: “Do you euthanize those pets, the adoptable ones, if you get them?” To which Newkirk responds: “If we get them, if we cannot find a home, absolutely.”

In an email to me, Winograd elaborated, noting that when The Daily Caller asked PETA “what sort of effort it routinely makes to find adoptive homes for animals in its care,” PETA responded with the ever convenient “no comment.” He also observes that the numbers PETA reports historically come from Virginia, which compiles data only for animals taken into custody “for the purpose of adoption.” Winograd thus concludes that PETA’s claim that it kills so many animals because they are unadoptable is, as he puts it, “a lie.” He goes on:

It is a lie because rescue groups and individuals have come forward stating that the animals they gave PETA were healthy and adoptable. It is a lie because testimony under oath in court from a veterinarian showed that PETA was given healthy and adoptable animals who were later found dead by PETA’s hands, their bodies unceremoniously thrown away in a supermarket dumpster. It is a lie because, according to The Daily Caller, “two PETA employees described as ‘adorable’ and ‘perfect’ some of the dogs and cats they killed in the back of a PETA-owned van.”

So yes, Winograd is angry. But even if his argument is only half right, an animal rights organization with a $30 million budget should be able to do a whole lot better.

Renaissance Animal: Thinking Beyond the Species, Embracing the Individual

I read a fascinating article over the weekend about portraiture in the Italian Renaissance.  A distinguishing feature of this seminal artistic moment was the intensified focus on the individual. Before the emergence of Renaissance values, western society was conceptualized as a hierarchical stack of broad categories. Individuals were subsumed under the rigid rubrics of serf, peasant, slave, noble, gentleman, nobility, royalty, whatever.  Women were virtually invisible. It is in the portraiture of the Italian Renaissance, however, that we see a movement away from this solidified ethos. It was during this period that everyday people began to peek under the cloak of the collective and, however tentatively, demand recognition as individuals.  

What happened in the Renaissance was the start of trend that’s only intensified with time. Today western culture veritably fetishizes the individual.  The individual is the gold standard of identity.  In so many ways the social history of the United States is about the expansion of individualism to groups previously identified exclusively in collective terms: slaves, laborers, women, and gays, to name a few.  Consciously or not, the strategy employed by crusaders to break the oppressive barrier of the “generalized other” has been to tell stories. Stories of individuals. From Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, from the dark closet to the open activism of Harvey Milk, and from the suffragists to Betty Friedan, oppressed groups in the twentieth century clamored to define group identity through heroic individuality. Only then did rights ensue.

So it will go with animals. We speak casually of pigs, cows, chickens, and sheep. Much of our collectivist language derives from necessity—we simply must, most of the time, speak in these terms.  That said, the more we are able to individualize animals the better. In many contexts—as the above image suggests—we instinctively individualize animals. The man in the above picture–taken in the aftermath of a recent tornado that blew through Alabama– is assuredly holding a animal whom he considers to be an individual. The poignant expression on his face–he was stunned to find his dog standing proud inside the shell of his destroyed home– tells it all.

Animal ethologists are routinely discovering how adept farm animals are at distinguishing the identities of many different handlers. They see us as persons. Shouldn’t we do the same for them? Shouldn’t we grant animals their Renaissance? Shouldn’t we embrace them, literally, as unique and beautiful individuals?

Happy Bacon and Sad Pigs: The Cultural Contradictions on a Restaurant Sign

There’s a marquee-type sign outside a neighborhood cafe here in Austin that, on one side, reads “I love happy bacon.” On the other side is this: “dog friendly.” I’m certain that the owners were not trying to be paradoxical. To the contrary, they were almost surely appealing to the inner desires (and wallets) of consumers. It’s considered perfectly normal, after all, to love eating pigs as it is to adore dogs. Of course, anyone who takes just a fraction of a step outside “normal,” and looks at the matter from this slightly refreshed angle will see that it is sheer lunacy to think that it’s okay to kill pigs for food but not dogs. Nothing could be more contradictory.

Pointing out this contradiction is easy–it’s all around us. The more difficult task is to understand how our collective cultural thought came to tolerate this state of confusion. I often read and hear vegan advocates lash out at people for being both pro-bacon and pro-dog. Yes, there is thoughtlessness involved in eating bacon while loving Fido. But eating bacon while loving Fido is more an indication of an unthinking decision than it is a reflection of stupidity or maliciousness. To some extent, even if only a small extent, pig-eating dog lovers can claim a modicum of innocence. The dots have not been connected in the public sphere in a powerful enough way to excoriate such a paradox. In part, the task of vegan advocates is to figure out exactly how to do this in an effective manner. How do we make what’s hidden in plain sight plainly visible?

That’s easier said than done. The issue of human-animal relations has been so fragmented by so many forces for so long that the dots connecting bacon and Fido have been secreted into the most obscure and inaccessible corners of our cultural consciousness.  At least a century of branding and propagandizing, undertaken by many interested parties, has ensured that mainstream consumers of animals almost instinctively fail to juxtapose the messages displayed on opposite sides of a single sign. Why?

Now there’s a question. I suppose volumes could be filled explaining the underlying processes creating the disconnect between our feelings for pigs and dogs. I’ve no idea how to pin down this insidious phenomenon.  Still, language is certainly a key aspect of it: we speak of “happy bacon” to obscure the sad pig. Just about a mile from my neighborhood cafe with its “happy bacon” sign lived, until yesterday, a sweet pot bellied pig. It was the loving companion of a neighbor and the big guy’s name was Thomas. Every time I saw Thomas he made me smile, no matter how down my mood. His personality was big. He died yesterday. The neighborhood list-serv was filled with tender outpourings of sincere regret.

I wonder how many of those kind sentiments came from people who had bacon for breakfast. And I wonder how they would feel if the local sign read “happy bacon from Thomas the pig.” And I wonder how long it will take for mainstream consumers to see that we cannot continue to have it both ways.

“Animal Lover”: Emotionalism vs. Objectivity in Animal Rights

A day after writing about the importance of seeking animal rights through the emotional love we have for animals (previous post), I came across this passage by the Oxford theologian Andrew Linzey, a pre-eminent supporter of moral rights for animals:

Rights talk moves the discussion away from feelings and sympathy to what is objectively owed to animals as a matter of justice. This represents an improvement on previous appeals to care based purely on emotion, which is typified in the expression “animal lover.”  (Why Animal Suffering Matters, 161)

I love Linzey’s work. But I think the theologian errs in this commentary: first, he unjustifiably separates thought and emotion; second, he forgets that there are multiple paths to social change.  Humans do not connect with ideas in a vacuum. We’re drawn to “objective” criteria through the vagaries of our emotional lives. Linzey’s fear here is legitimate, to be sure. He’s worried about the cat lover who just adores her cat–and thus all cats–but cannot seem to extend this emotional fetish to all animals in general. As Linzey sees the matter, emotionalism obscures the transcendent principle of animal rights. This is a fair concern, but–given that, on some level, we all negotiate the world of ideas through our emotions–I think it would be more productive to spin our innate love for animals in a more optimistic direction.

Specifically, I see nothing standing in the way of abstracting from an emotional attachment. In other words, loving a particular animal or species strikes me as a useful, and readily accessible, starting point towards an appreciation of objective animal rights. I love the dogs I live with (well, most of the time) and, although I’ve never spent significant time with pigs, I can certainly imagine loving pigs much as I do dogs. That’s a leap–but a pretty realistic one. Once that leap is made, the groundwork is laid for an objective, rights based approach to conceptualizing animals. To think this journey can be emotionless is to defuse the passion that drives our connection to the non-human animal world. I have no problem admitting that my “objective” right-based stance on animals has its roots in a sentiment for dogs dripping with the sap of emotion.