art by Eric Spitler
IS IT MY IMAGINATION, OR IS ALL HELL BREAKING LOOSE?
Vegan and animal rights activists seem finally to have caught the attention of animal exploitation industries, and the war between them has escalated to intense battles in the streets, courtrooms, boardrooms, and media.
Hardly a day goes by that the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Earth Liberation Front (ELF) have not freed animals from their cages in fur farms and laboratories or destroyed the property of industries killing animals or damaging nature. From burning biotech research labs and destruction of ski lodges to firebombing meat companies, these underground liberation groups have resorted to militant tactics that have earned them the FBI label of "terrorists" as the government now works toward criminalizing animal rights activities through legislation such as the "Patriot Act" that allows the government full powers of surveillance, search and seizure, and suppression of dissent.
The militancy of these liberation groups inspired the most powerful animal rights campaign yet--that waged against Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) by Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC). HLS is a large and particularly heinous drug and chemical testing company with offices in England and New Jersey. They profit from pouring industrial chemicals into the eyes of rabbits and pesticides and herbicides down the throats of beagle puppies. A series of five undercover videos exposed the world to just how vicious this company is, documenting how HLS is sadistically beating and killing 500 cats, dogs, rabbits, and chimpanzees a day, 180,000 a year. In one HLS lab report, some of the animals were recorded as "rotting, but still alive." HLS performed necropsy (dissection) on living monkeys and numerous employees were convicted of violating animal welfare laws by the USDA and almost shut down by the UK government. In the late 1990s, outraged activists in England and the U.S. formed SHAC as a militant and ultra-confrontational group. Hardly satisfied with letter writing and petitions, SHAC activists have made their case through property destruction, hassling of executives and employees of HLS and their investors at their workplaces and homes, and raucous demonstrations.
While one can question some of their tactics, one cannot argue with their results: over a dozen major investors have pulled out of HLS. With some just cause, the SHAC website boasts: "The campaign to shut down Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) is fast becoming one of the most significant in the animal rights movement's history. The speed, methodology, and determination with which one of the world's largest animal testing laboratories is being brought to its knees, almost entirely by the efforts of volunteer grassroots activists, denotes the endless possibilities of what a small community of passionate campaigners can do. The closure of HLS by an animal rights campaign will not only mean saving the 180,000 animals that die annually in HLS laboratories, but will also signify another nail in the coffin of the vivisection industry."
HLS was on the brink of collapse but was saved at the 11th hour on January 29th, 2001, by Stevens Inc. with a $33 million bailout. That earned Warren Stevens and his company something he was not ready to contend with, the wrath of SHAC activists. SHAC was hit with Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) suits used by the government to target "terrorist" organizations, but they have persistently dogged Stevens, Bank of America, Morgan Dean Stanley Witter, and other unconscionable HLS investors. Major protests followed in areas such as in Little Rock, Austin, and Dallas. By January 2002, Stevens announced they were pulling out all investments from HLS, delivering a serious blow to the company; other companies abandoned HLS at the mere threat of a SHAC attack. Meanwhile, the University of Cambridge (UK) announced that it would not open a new animal laboratory for fear of animal rights activists, as some British scientists vowed to fight back against the new anti-vivisection movement.
It seems a new animal rights movement has been born, one that will have to deal not only with the stigma of "domestic terrorism," but also the spies, harassment, and persecution of the federal government in a time of great paranoia over "homeland security." A prime example of the new attacks on vegetarian and animal rights groups as fanatics and even "terrorists" arrives in the form of the newly created Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), a coalition of 30,000 restaurant and tavern operators adamantly opposed to vegetarianism, animal rights, anti-biotechnology activists, anti-smoking lobbying, organic foods advocates, and any "food cop" who dares to question or regulate consumption of the goods related to their industry. A vivid illustration of economically conditioned blindness, CCF denies the reality of dangers in second-hand smoke and even that there is an obesity epidemic in American society, which lately has received much media attention. No vegetarian or animal rights individuals or groups fall outside the huge net cast over today's "nanny culture" of politically correct whiners. Besides SHAC and People for the Ethical Treament of Animals (PETA), CCF's favorite target is the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), an organization led by Dr. Neil Bernard and comprised of scientists, medical doctors, researchers, and others who advocate veganism and the abolition of animal experimentation.
In the last year, PCRM has been featured regularly in the mass media, debating Dr. Atkins over the validity of his high-protein diets, and attacking the food pyramid as, in their words, "a form of rationalized racism that overlooks minority people's health concerns to sell products by the meat, dairy and of industries." PCRM also has publicly urged the government to sue meat retailers for the devastating effects of their products on public health, much in the same manner that tobacco industries were targeted. In a September 1999 press release, Dr. Bernard writes, "Meat consumption is just as dangerous to public health as tobacco use ... It's time we looked into holding the meat producers and fast-food outlets legally accountable."
The CCF rejects PCRM's claims to scientific legitimacy and denounces them as a "terrorist front group" for PETA and SHAC, whom they designate as "domestic terrorist groups." They "expose" the financial and organizational ties between PCRM and PETA (PETA gives PCRM money and they share similar funding sources) and between PCRM and SHAC (Bernard worked with Kevin Jonas, former spokesperson for the ALF and current member of SHAC, on a letter-writing campaign to business leaders of 32 states and 8 foreign countries). In a January 2002 press release, CCF "called on PCRM to stop portraying itself as a medical organization and come clean about its connections to extremist animal rights organizations responsible for acts of violence and millions of dollars in the destruction of property." They also accused PCRM of being "no more than a puppet for PETA to use in spreading its virulent anti-choice rhetoric." PCRM's superb health education campaigns are rejected as nothing but "junk science" and efforts "to dispense dangerous animal rights orthodoxy masquerading as nutritional advice." CCF conveniently fails to discuss the 16 major research studies that link milk consumption to maladies like prostate cancer and heart disease. In September 2001, PCRM received some much-deserved legitimation when the USDA expert panel agreed that the claims made by the "milk mustache" and "got milk?" advertisements made untruthful health claims.
While crying rivers over the loss of inanimate property, CCF shows no regard for the billions of animal lives lost every year in slaughterhouses and laboratories. They excoriate PCRM for their "junk science" but praise HLS--notorious for its drugged-out and drunk employees who falsify data--as scientifically respectable. They say that PETA and other groups use "scare tactics [that] are designed to intimidate people into accepting a ridiculously small set of food choices" with no acknowledge-ment to the diversity of vegetarian options including a remarkable soy analogue for any and every meat taste and preference. Is CCF a bunch of insipid morons who make Rush Limbaugh seem sagacious? Yes, but they are also the blowback symptoms of the industry's vow to retaliate against vegetarian and animal rights campaigns.
Similarly, the American Meat Association has countered PCRM since at least 1999, when they passed a formal resolution calling on Bernard to stop "the unethical tactics [his] organization uses to manipulate public opinion." They warned that they will "aggressively counter fallacious clams about biomedical research being made by animal rights groups, especially the Physician Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Medical Research Modernization Committee, two animal rights organizations that purport to speak for medicine." They claimed they find "the recommendations of PCRM irresponsible and potentially dangerous to the health and welfare of Americans" as they continue "to marvel at how effectively a fringe organization of questionable repute continues to hoodwink the media with a series of questionable research that fails to enhance public health." All this, and not a word about the devastating effects of animal fat consumption on humans and the disinformation of the meat and dairy industries.
As evidence of increasing tensions, and especially after the events of September 11, there has been a growing tendency here and abroad to criminalize animal rights activities and brand them not simply as "radical" or "extreme," but rather as "terrorist" --a term that should be reserved to mean inflicting pain and violence on innocent living beings for nefarious political or economic goals.
The war for the public mind unfolds on other fronts. In January 2002, Ringling Bros. Circus and PETA waged mighty courtroom and media battles. The Humane Society of Santa Clara (not PETA) claimed that animal trainer Mark Oliver Gebel bloodied an elephant with a bull hook. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) launched a letter-writing campaign to persuade the district attorney's office to prosecute Gebel, which it did. Ringling Bros. CEO Kenneth Feld argued it was a "crime manufactured to satisfy a political agenda" and apparently the jury agreed as they acquitted Gebel after only two hours of deliberation. Unlike many industries under attack by animal rights activists, Ringling Bros. fought back after the acquittal by taking out full-page ads in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Feld signed an "Open Letter to Animal Rights Activists" and singled out PETA for "targeting responsible animal care providers [!] for political reasons."
Feld, of course, did not discuss Ringling Bros.' notorious record of animal abuse (such as the recent occasion upon which government inspectors found baby elephants with badly injured legs from rope burns and cuts caused by pulling the baby elephants away from their mothers, or when they were cited for forcing sick elephants to perform leading to one of their deaths). Nor of course does he mention that circus animals are inherently exploited and caged or chained most of their miserable lives. While Ringling Bros. may have won the battle, they and the circus industry have not won the war. Interested in Feld's missive, national media like The Today Show carried the story, giving PETA an opportunity to make their case to millions of viewers. On one notable occasion on January 8th edition of The Today Show, Ringling Bros. failed to show for the debate, and Wayne Pacelle of HSUS and Jane Garrison of PETA made forceful and uncontested points against the circus, backed by compelling videotaped evidence. Subsequently, on January 15th, PETA released a shocking undercover video of elephant trainer Tim Frisco of Carson and Barnes Circus spewing profanity, hurting elephants with metal prods, and teaching assistants to inflict pain behind closed curtains and never before the public eye. On February 6th, 2002, CBS news ran the story on their evening news. Apparently the animal industry has not learned the lessons of the Mclibel suit, when in 1990 McDonalds sued British activists for claiming their products were unhealthy, cruel to animals, and harmful to the environment. McDonalds won their case in court, but not without bruising public relations damage as the activists' claims were aired and confirmed by the British court. "From a PR standpoint," Debbie Leahy of PETA said, "it was probably the dumbest thing [Ringling Bros.] could do. We've been flooded with calls from reporters wanting our response, which has given us many new chances to explain why we think circuses inherently abuse animals."
In February 2002, things heated up between Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK), an animal rights group devoted to exposing and documenting the cruelty of rodeos, and the Olympic committee, which had decided to sanctify rodeo as an official Olympic "sport." SHARK strenuously protested this travesty, and as part of their resistance, followed the passing of the Olympic torch around the country with the celebrated "Tiger Truck" equipped with a massive video screen showing images of rodeo cruelty for all to see. When State Representative Paul Ray (R-Clearfield, Utah) referred to the group on television, in writing, and on the House of Representatives floor as "terrorists" who made "threats of violence" to the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC), SHARK immediately denied the charges and responded with a libel and slander lawsuit, claiming that Ray's remarks damaged their ability to collect donations. As SHARK seeks a trial to sue for unspecified damages, Ray defends the rodeo as "a very important piece of our culture here in Utah" and remains unapologetic about lumping the entire animal rights movement together through the T-word. In the meantime, a chagrined Mitt Rodney of SLOC confessed, "I did not realize how much controversy it would create and how big a hornet's nest I had stepped into." That would be the hornet's nest of the contemporary animal rights movement. Contracted to keep the event, Rodney could not back out, but likely there will not be another Olympic rodeo. Enjoying his own Mclibel effect, Steve Hindi of SHARK has received much media coverage from his "debates" with the rodeo industry (who somehow never manage to show up). The Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City provided over two weeks of time to air animal rights critiques of the rodeo to an international audience.
These are but a few portals through which one can view the intensifying drama surrounding the struggle between vegetarian and animal rights activists, and the animal exploitation industries. From Ringling Bros. and CCF to British vivisectionists and sportmen's advocacy groups, the industry is fighting back at "notorious and extreme" (according to CCF) organizations they feel want to restrict peoples' freedom to consume, wear, experiment on, and be entertained by animals, while health and animal rights activists continue to pose an ever-greater threat to their economic viability.
No one has the right to exploit animals, and here consumer "choices" and even "science" must give way to the rights of animals, unless we are prepared to use the same flimsy rationalizations to experiment on humans too.
The ironies are all-too painful. When puppies are crippled and punched in the face, when pigs are strapped into restraint devices that smash their skulls, when kittens have their brains carved up, and when monkeys are dismembered while still alive, we are asked to believe this is science, not terrorism. When nearly 10 billion animals each year in the U.S. alone are confined and killed in unspeakably vicious ways by the American food industries, we are told this is business, not terrorism. In this sick and violent society, property is more sacred than life, and thus only those who destroy property are branded as criminals while the real terrorists execute their banality of evil in the daily affairs of the animal industries.
Dr. Steven Best is associate professor and chair of philosophy at the University of Texas-El Paso. He has published numerous books and articles on the topics of social theory, cultural studies, science and technology, and postmodernism. His next book will be Moral Progress and Animal Rights: The Struggle For Human Evolution. Some of his writings are posted at utminers.utep.edu/best/.
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