Prologue: The Cat

A few years ago, the Home Box Office (HBO) network aired a program entitled “To Love or Kill: Man vs. Animals.” It told a fascinating and, at the same time, a disturbing story about how different cultures treat the same animals differently. One especially chilling segment took viewers out to dinner in a small Chinese village. You know how, in some American restaurants, patrons get to choose from among live lobsters or live fish?

And how, after they make their selection, the animal is killed, and the chef cooks a meal of their choice? At this Chinese restaurant, things are the same except the menu is different. At this restaurant, patrons get to select from among live cats and dogs.

The video takes its time. First we see the hungry patrons inspect the cats and dogs, jammed cheek by jowl into wooden cages; next we see them talk it over; then we see them make their selection; finally we see the cook, using long metal tongs, yank a white fluffy cat from her cage and hurry into the kitchen. What follows does not make for pleasant reading, so feel free to skip the next paragraph.

While the cat claws and screeches, the cook hits her several times with an iron bar. Clawing and screeching more now, she is abruptly submerged in a tub of scalding water for about ten seconds. Once removed, and while still alive, the cook skins her, from head to tail, in one swift pull. He then throws the traumatized animal into a large stone vat where (as the camera zooms in) we watch her gulp slowly, with increasing difficulty, her eyes glazed, until — her last breath taken — she drowns. The whole episode, from selection to final breath, takes several minutes. When the meal is served, the diners eat heartily, offering thanks and praise to the cook.

I have never been more stunned in my life. I was literally speechless. Like most Americans, I already knew that some people in China, Korea, and other countries eat cat and eat dog. The video didn’t teach me any new fact about dietary customs. What was new for me, what pushed me back in my chair, was seeing how this is done, seeing the process. Watching the awful shock and suffering of the cat was devastating. I felt a mix of disbelief and anger welling-up in my chest. I wanted to scream, “Stop it! What are you doing? Stop it!”

But what made matters worse, at least for me, was how the people behaved. For them, everything was just so ordinary, just so ho-hum, just so matter-of-fact. The diners said, “We’ll have this cat for our dinner” the way we say, “We’ll have this roll with our coffee.” And the cook? The cook could not have cared less about the cat’s ordeal. The poor animal might just as well have been a block of wood as far as he was concerned. I have never seen people behave so nonchalantly, so comfortably, so indifferently in the face of an animal’s suffering and death. I don’t think many Americans could watch this episode and not ask themselves, as I asked myself, “What is this world coming to?”

In the years since I first saw “To Love or Kill,” I have imagined different variations of the episode I have just described. First variation: Everything is the same as in the original video except the dogs and cats are housed in large cages rather than jammed together. I ask myself, “Would making their cages larger make a difference in my thinking? Would I say, ‘Well, since the cat lived in a larger cage, I no longer object to what happened to her?” My answer is always the same. I would still object to what happened to her.

Second variation: In addition to living in a larger cage, the cook handles the cat gently and ends her life by giving her a shot of sodium pentobarbital, from which, to all appearances, she dies peacefully. Aside from these changes, everything else in the video remains the same. I ask myself the same kinds of question. “Would these changes make a difference in my thinking? Would I say, ‘Well, since the cat lived in a larger cage, was treated gently, and died peacefully, I no longer object to what happened to her?” My answer is always the same. I would still object to what happened to her.

Does this mean that I think these imaginary variations are just as bad as the original? No. Larger cages are better than smaller cages. Gentle treatment is better than violent treatment. Nevertheless, when that fluffy white cat is killed and skinned for dinner, even if she had lived in a larger cage and was killed without undue suffering, I would still want to shout (or at least plead), “Stop it! What are you doing? Stop it!” I cannot help thinking that the vast majority of people throughout the world, including many Chinese and Koreans, would agree with me.

Animal Rights Advocates
For reasons I explain in Part I, people like me, people who believe in animal rights, feel the same way about eagles and elephants, pigs and porpoises as most people feel about cats and dogs. Don’t get me wrong. Animal Rights Advocates (ARAs) don’t want pigs sleeping in our beds or elephants riding in our cars. We don’t want to make “pets” of these animals. What we want is something simpler: we just want people to stop doing terrible things to them.

Why do ARAs think this way? What explains our beliefs and values? There is no one-size-fits-all answer. ARAs take different paths to reach the same destination. It is important for people who are not ARAs to know something about those of us who are; it increases the chance of polite discussion. Which is why I will be saying something about my journey, along with the journeys of others.

My path has this odd twist to it. Part of the reason I became an ARA is because I studied philosophy. My teachers taught me to prize clear, rigorous, logical, fair thinking when I found it in others, and challenged me (my, how they challenged me!) to bring my own thinking up to these lofty standards. In quiet homage to them, this is what I have tried to do in my philosophical writing for the past thirty years and more.

I know there is a stereotype of ARAs out there that pictures all of us as emotionally unbalanced bunny-huggers who wouldn’t recognize a logical argument if one fell on us. I will address the origin of this and other ARA-myths in Chapter One. Here it is enough to express my hope that reading about my journey will go some way towards taking the air out of this particular stereotype. There is a rigorous, logical philosophy that supports what ARAs believe, one that treats fairly those with whom we disagree. In Part II, I do my best to explain this philosophy, as clearly and as simply as I can.

Explaining this philosophy also provides an opportunity to address another myth about ARAs: that we are misanthropic. We may love animals but by golly we hate human beings. My journey towards animal rights illustrates how far this is from the truth. I would never have become an animal rights advocate if I had not first been a human rights advocate, especially for those humans (the very young and the very old, for example) who lack the understanding or power to assert their rights for themselves. ARAs do not hate humanity. How could we? Any success we might achieve in the days and years ahead requires the cooperation of the other human beings with whom we share this fragile planet. In the struggle for animal rights, all humans are potential allies whose dignity and rights ARAs unreservedly affirm.

More Variations
Earlier I described two variations on the cat episode. Here is another one. Variation three: What happens is exactly as shown in the original video except in this one I confront the cook and charge him with cruelty. He is shocked that I think so ill of him. He treats his cats and dogs “humanely,” he insists, with “due regard for their welfare.” I say, “You can’t be serious!” He replies, “I am!”

What are we to make of a disagreement like this one? Should we say that the cook treats the white fluffy cat humanely because he says he does? That he acts with due regard for the cat’s welfare because this is what he says? I don’t think so. Humaneness is not in the eye of the beholder. The cook acts inhumanely. This is an objective fact in the world, not a subjective projection onto it.

To make my point clearer, consider this scenario. Variation four: Everything is the same as in the original video except it is your cat that the cook takes to the kitchen. Not for a moment would you say, “Yes, the cook certainly treated my cat humanely; after all, this is what he said he did.” Not for a moment would you even dream of saying such a thing! Well, inhumane treatment does not become humane treatment just because some other cat is on the receiving end. If the cook says he treats cats humanely, we are certainly right to say, “No, you do not.”

The reason I have included this fourth variation has little to do with what a cook in China might say and much to do with the actual words spoken by representatives of the major animal user industries. (We examine their rhetoric in Part III). Like the Chinese cook in the third variation, representatives of the meat industry and greyhound racing, for example, say their industries treat animals humanely; like him, they say they always show due regard for their welfare. However, after we confirm (in Part IV) that these industries treat animals just as badly if not worse than the cat was treated by the Chinese cook, it will be hard to believe them anymore.

Some people, I am sure, will doubt the truth of what I have just said. Surely these industries do not treat animals just as badly (let alone worse) than the Chinese cook. Surely I must be exaggerating. Would that this were true! As we will see, compared to how animals are treated by the major animal user industries in America, and despite industry assurances to the contrary, that fluffy white cat was one of the lucky ones.

My discussion in Part IV is limited for the most part to the American scene. Much as I would have liked to have been able to include discussions of how the major animal user industries operate throughout the world, both the constraints of space and the limits of my knowledge worked against my doing so. In general, however, I do not think that how these industries do business in other countries differs greatly from how they do business in America. Granted, sometimes some animals in some places might be treated better, just as sometimes some animals in some places might be treated worse. As a general rule, however, I do not think there are vast, systemic differences from one nation to the next.

A second limitation should be noted. Humans exploit so many different kinds of animals, in so many different kinds of ways, that it is not possible to cover every form of abuse. Organized dog fighting. The whaling industry. The plight of America’s wild horses. Manatee preservation. The anachronism of “modern” zoos. The barbarities of roadside animal displays. The poaching of African wildlife. Bullfighting. The many torments animals endure in the name of religious practices and festivals. It is not hard to make a long list of omissions.

In lieu of trying to cover many practices superficially, I will be describing a few of them in some depth. Readers looking for more information, both about the issues covered in these pages as well as those that are not, can find this in our Resources section. Other resources on this site include photographs and videos that depict the beauty and dignity, the grace and mystery of other animals. In addition, some of these resources (the hard ones, so to speak) realistically depict the treatment animals receive at the hands of the major animal user industries. Be forewarned (and you will always have the choice to view them or not): these visuals do not try to conceal or minimize the tragic truth.

Billions of animals live lives of abject misery and go to their death in the unfeeling clutches of human cruelty. These are painful truths, but truths they are. One challenge ARAs face is to make the invisible visible; otherwise people will never fully understand the history of the meat on their plate or the wool on their back, for example. In this regard, the “hard” photographs and videos play an essential educational purpose.

A Final Variation
We return to the cat one last time, in the Epilogue, where I describe a fifth and final variation. Prior to this, in Part V, I explore a variety of ways in which people are turned-off by ARAs and try to put these turn-offs in perspective. The Triumph of Animal Rights is bleak if too few people want to make the goals of animal rights a reality. Like other social justice advocates, ARAs make our full share of mistakes. My hope is that people will not let the self-righteousness, tastelessness or violence of a small handful of ARAs prevent them from becoming ARAs themselves.