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Animal rights activists often go too far

Two Views • Nonhuman rights is uncharted territory for human law
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT 95 cats and two dogs rescued from a Damascus home last month allegedly were malnourished, diseased and living in in a home full of urine and feces. Some animal welfare advocates want to increase the penalties for animal neglect.

Americans love animals. We keep more pets than any country in the world, and we treat them like family: celebrating their birthdays, including them in vacation plans, even hanging stockings for them at Christmas.

We also abhor the abuse of animals, and our laws and behaviors reflect this. Animal cruelty is a criminal act, and the outrage expressed when a story of animal cruelty is covered in the news is oftentimes more intense and vitriolic than that which accompanies reports of human suffering or abuse.

At the same time, at least 97 percent of Americans eat food derived from animals, while a majority uses animal-based products and enjoy sports, entertainment and educational activities showcasing animals.

Animals also work for us in a wide variety of ways - as service animals, in search-and-rescue, even as transportation - and when we fall ill, we are blessed to have a wide range of effective medicine and treatments available, nearly all of which were developed using animal research.

The fact that humans can love some animals like family and eat other animals for dinner demonstrates the ability of most people to clearly distinguish between and support different human-animal interactions and uses. This idea - that it is appropriate for people to utilize animals for the benefit of humanity so long as they do it humanely and responsibly - is called the animal welfare ethic. It is by far the most common view Americans hold in regards to the treatment of animals, and it stands in stark, incompatible contrast with the animal rights philosophy.

While supporters of animal welfare may disagree on where the line between responsible animal use ends and animal abuse begins (see "New law school program unleashes animal rights," Nov. 24), the animal rights philosophy allows for no such distinction. Spawned in England by anarchists and Marxists, and imported into the United States in the 1970s, this movement believes that any use of animals by humans - food, clothing, entertainment, research, even keeping pets - is a form of exploitation, and thus unacceptable.

Simply put: for the animal rightist, the goal isn't helping farmers find ways of improving the care and comfort of their chickens, the goal is to prevent farmers from keeping chickens at all.

It might seem impossible to promote such a philosophy in a democratic society where at least 97 percent of the population doesn't hold such extreme views, but the animal rights movement has adapted brilliantly. Utilizing our rich traditions of free speech, the expansion of human rights, respect for whistleblowers and progressive activism, they have co-opted the language of animal welfare, taken advantage of our desire to protect and care for animals, and moved the debate in an altogether different direction.

Having succeeded in equating the concept of animal protection to human rights in the mind of the public, the animal rightists have created a playing field where opposing their agenda is the moral equivalent of kicking puppies, a playing field where disagreeing with them places you on the team that wants animals to suffer.

This is a game that the sophisticated marketers in the movement play with unrivaled skill: every dog breeder is a puppy mill, every trainer of wild animals an exploitative abuser and every farm a factory of cruelty. Such labels make their cash registers ring.

Because we cherish freedom of speech, little can be done by a person or organization caught in the crosshairs of an animal rights campaign - even when the labels prove untrue. For example, if an animal rights activist wants to shut down a farmer, labeling him a horrific animal abuser in the process, the activist's speech is protected from charges of defamation, even if the farmer isn't an animal abuser in any legal sense of the word. The activist's belief that farmers are inherently abusive renders him free to express his unproven views in both words and carefully edited videotape, regardless of any damage to the farmer.

Willingness to attack others for their beliefs points to one of the prime differences between mainstream animal welfare organizations like our own and those who promote the animal rights agenda. Although we disagree with the animal rights world view at National Animal Interest Alliance, we take a live-and-let-live approach to those who hold different views, so long as they are honest and operate within the law.

If someone is a vegan, that is their business. If somebody doesn't believe that elephants or other animals belong in zoos or circuses, they have a right to that view.

What is not acceptable, though, are tactics that seek to impose the activists' values on the majority through dishonest presentations, paid whistleblowers, violent protest, intimidation, harassment, and even terrorism - tactics that are all too common in the animal rights movement.

Patti Strand is the national director of the National Animal Interest Alliance in Portland.