Friday, July 12, 2013

More thoughts on the human-animal relationship...and PETA

Flickr: Jan & Peggy
A few months ago, I read an article about an animal 'shelter' run by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) that was so horrific I felt I couldn't even blog about it without labeling it 'not safe to eat before lunch.'  However, after the New York Times featured a similar (although less graphic) piece on PETA quite recently, I felt a need to speak out on it.

The photos are so bad, btw, I am just going to post a really cute picture of a bunny (bunny pictures make everyone feel better) because you will need it if you read either article or my rant which follows. 

Basically, the gist of both pieces is that PETA--a self-admittedly radical vegan organization that tries to make people feel bad if they eat honey or cheese made from free-roaming cows (and has engaged in such er, quirky self-promotional campaigns such as suggesting human breast milk as an alternative to cow's milk ice cream and has used hatred against fat people to market its dietary agenda)-- euthanizes up to 89 percent of the animals at the shelter it runs.

While PETA claims that most of these animals are 'hard up' cases that are considered unadoptable, given that it has euthanized puppies and kittens (which tend to be the easiest critters to find homes for) as well as does not seem to have a viable spay/neuter/vaccinate/release program for feral cats, this seems pretty disingenuous.

When I posted on Facebook that it was hypocritical that PETA would say, get all bent out of shape about using service animals and then do this, a number of my friends pointed out that technically speaking, it wasn't all that hypocritical, given PETA's official position that pets are bad: According to PETA:

"But as the surplus of cats and dogs (artificially engineered by centuries of forced breeding) declined, eventually companion animals would be phased out, and we would return to a more symbiotic relationship — enjoyment at a distance."

Okay, the grammarian in me is riled up, too--isn't the antithesis of a 'symbiotic' relationship usually being 'at a distance' from something?

 In a weird way, I see PETA as yet another reflection of the various 'anti-science movements' that have cropped up in modern culture, along with creationism, the anti-vaccine movement, the 'fluoride in the water is killing us' PETA's view, humanity and technology is a blight on the planet and everything we do in conjunction with animals harms them.  It's like Bambi, a la Disney--before human beings, all creatures live in a happy, mysterious vegan technicolor harmony eating soy burgers together, until big, bad MAN comes along with a flamethrower and a gun.

Don't get me wrong--human beings and the modern lifestyle have done many bad things to the planet. But one of the main problems I have with very radical movements like PETA and to some extent, radical environmentalism like Deep Ecology as well, is this self-flagellating attitude towards human existence.

First of all, it is hard to deny that 'self-preservation' is a pretty natural instinct, and a movement which is based upon the idea that human welfare should be a low priority is honestly never going to gain much traction with the public.  Yes, PETA, some crazy celebrities might pose naked in your advertisements about how they would rather go naked than wear fur, but then they will go on to wear leather if their latest film contract demands it.

I guess I feel so strongly about this was when I was twelve or so, I wrote (snail mail style!) for PETA's literature and accepted it uncritically. And much of what that early literature said was right--factory farming is horrible, for human health and animals.

But there is much, much more to PETA than advocating for better conditions for animals--the talk of animal rights is window-dressing. PETA has a self-hating attitude against HUMANS (meat eating, environment-destroying humans) and anything associated with humans, including pets, ergo, is EVIL in PETA-land.

Once again, I recognize that human beings have done really bad things to the planet.  But I don't accept PETA's pre-human Disney-esque fantasy of natural life.

Nature is amoral, with or without humans.

For a long time, nature--with its struggles of dominance of the stronger versus the weaker, its blood and sex and freedom--was seen as horrific and distasteful.  The flip side of this is to see nature as supremely moral and inherently better than anything humans have constructed (except when animals eat other animals, I guess).  I even heard a vegan criticizing the immorality of meat-eating because 'we' eat the gentle, non-predatory animals.  I hate to say this lady, but um, the predator-prey dichotomy in nature would exist even without human beings at all.  But then again, I am invoking sixth grade science class, and science is scary...

It is much harder to accept the ambiguous idea human society has created some wonderful things (art, music, literature, philosophy, cheese, the ability to travel long distances quickly, sneakers) and also some horrible things (ethnic cleansing, factory farming, Velveeta) and there is no easy moral equation to say how all of this balances out.

And that nature contains startling beauty and evidence of animal compassion and also startling cruelty.

Or that morality as we humans think about it really has nothing to do with how nature operates at all...nature simply exists.  Industrial pollution makes the earth warmer, and that sucks, and we need to figure out how much we have to give up to reduce its risks. Some animals have evolved or been bred in a certain way that makes it difficult for them to live as anything but companion animals, some animals eat other animals, and even if you don't like these facts, you have to deal with them.

I think both extreme views of the environment and animal rights are similarly unbalanced--the idea the planet is like a giant box of Kleenex that we can dispose of as we chose and of better living through chemistry certainly hasn't served us well, but there is no 'going back' to some pure, pre-industrial Eden, since our vision of what that entailed will inevitable be romanticized.

And even in hunter-gatherer societies, we were, as a species still fighting and struggling to stay alive and, however imperfectly, remain in some state of homeostasis with the planet. From what I've read about native life, there was  sense of gratefulness to the earth for supporting human life, not a sense of guilt and shame for being alive next to animals.

It is so tempting to impose moralistic views upon our relationships with nature and animals--I remember once taking a class in graduate school on religion and animals, and I was very much persuaded by the professor's contention that one reason we have such difficulties in understanding other animals is that we either a. sentimentalize and anthropomorphize them (and then get upset when they are not like us) or b. objectify them and treat them as property.  Neither view is correct or particularly useful to humans or animals.

The idea that something can be alive and have free will and is 'not us' can be challenging even when dealing with another human being, let alone an animal. But the solution isn't to ignore animals and withdraw from them like PETA suggests.

I think that the human-animal bond and the human-nature body is not only beautiful, but also a very necessary part of leading a healthy life.

Being around an animal can help us escape some of the worst aspects of our species, including its over-thinking, anxiety, and solipsism.  That doesn't mean that we as humans have a 'right' to do whatever we want with animals.  Instead, we need to ask--given the conditions in the here and now-- how can we benefit one another?

There is a mutually beneficial sense of obligation that must be created, I think, between human beings and their relationship with all species and with nature itself.

And it makes me sad that because of the harms that have been done to the environment by humans....PETA has turned against pets, of all creatures, to vent its inchoate rage  and I know some people will continue to support and to donate to PETA because the bumper stickers look good on their cars, not because they have done any research about the organization.


  1. UGH PETA really annoys me, and now even more so after reading this. How is it okay to kill animals just so they don't become pets but not to eat? Seems weird to me.

  2. I'm not going to read the NYT or HuffPo articles because pictures of suffering animals fill me with despair and I have a lot to get done today. And the idea that they're euthanizing adoptable animals because that's somehow more ethical than making them be pets and live in houses and have regular meals makes me want to leave a head-shaped dent in my desk. I haven't thought this through, but at first blush, it seems to me that if we try to divorce ourselves from companion animals and just let them be as they are in nature, we would see a population explosion in feral cats and dogs, rather than a decline in "the surplus" as PETA so charmingly puts it.

    My work non-friend Carol was a big PETA supporter; also, Carol's favorite animal was the crow, which gives you some idea of how cuddly Carol was. She informed me numerous times that she hated cats on the grounds that they were predators, but she also owned an unusual breed of large dog (I can't now remember what it was, but I'd never heard of it before) that she kept to protect her chickens against raccoons and possums and the like. I guess she thought her dog was discouraging the raccoons and possums by giving them a stern talking-to and asking them to leave the premises.

  3. @flurrious--I feel as if I know Carol, without knowing her! I admit that I do like crows, but I can see how as scavenger birds their innate 'freeganism' would jive with her eating habits.

    I have two vegan friends who own cats and are very conflicted about the fact that cats biologically have to eat meat. One feeds the cat non-vegan pet food but gets upset when someone is cat sitting and gives the cat tuna as a treat, because that is somehow worse. Another turned an outdoor cat into an indoor cat because the cat was catching mice and bunnies.

    This whole story is so strange that it is hard to believe it isn't concocted by PETA haters, but PETA's website has a long essay defending 'kill' shelters so I guess it is.