Brazil NGO Interview

When you began your animals activist action, could you imagine the way animals were treated?

For half of my life, I did not know the full dimensions of the undeclared war humans are waging against other animals. My wife and I ate meat of every sort and description. When our children were born, we fed them the same way. We went to Burger King and McDonalds, circuses and zoos. And we did this even as we had cats and dogs as “members of our family.” For the rest: those animals might as well have been sticks or stones. Our eyes were blind, just as our ears were deaf.

So, no, we could not have imagined the tragedy of how animals are treated. Back then we had no (or at the most very little) animal consciousness.

To defend animals rights is different than to defend animal’s welfare?

In theory, animal welfarism says, “Let’s treat animals as decently, as compassionately, as humanely as possible even as we turn them into food, turn them into clothes, and turn them into tools, for example.” At its best, animal welfarism is a reformist philosophy: humans continue to exploit animals but do so “nicely,” so to speak.

This is a very different perspective from the one I favor: animal rights. From that perspective we should not be turning animals into food, turning them into clothes, or turning them into tools. We should stop turning them into what they are not. At its core, animal rightism is an abolitionist philosophy: animal exploitation should end, however “nice” it may be.

You used to defend the end of animal’s exploitation. In your opinion, the animal killing for human feeding purpose is a form of exploitation and should be fought?

Yes, this is one thing that needs to be abolished. We humans do not need to eat animal flesh — or any animal by-product, like eggs and butter. These sources of nutrition are not necessary for human survival, health, vitality or longevity. In fact, relying on these foods as a primary source of nutrition actually is seriously harmful to our health, vitality and so on. That much duly noted, the central moral point remains: raising and slaughtering animals for food violates their rights and, from an animal rights perspective, should be stopped — one person at a time, if it comes to that.

We know that you are totally against the use of animal research. But do you think it might be fair in some cases? How could a new vaccine, for instance, be tested without submitting human beings to its potential risks?

The animal rights answer is the same: we should not be turning animals into experimental tools. Morally, it is wrong to do so. It all should end. “But,” many people say, “won’t this mean that humans will be deprived of vaccines and other vital medicines?” I encourage people who read these words, whatever they think about animal rights, to do some Google research of their own. For example, do a Google news search for “Monkeys and drug research.” What people will find is that a drug that nearly killed human volunteers was given to monkeys without the least bit of ill-effect. In other words, what we learn is that drugs that are absolutely safe when given to animals, even “close relatives” like monkeys, can be lethal when taken by humans. So (I ask) why should we rely on vaccine tests developed using animals? My answer is simple: we should not rely on such tests. What’s happening is, many people are making a great deal of money by convincing lots of us that we “need” research using animals. There is no scientific rationale for this sort of research. The rationale is . . . money.

In São Paulo, for a long time the animals rights movement have been trying to implement policies to make sterilization of abandoned animals instead of killing them with a lethal injection, which is the city hall method. Are you in favor of animal population control?

Companion animals (and I mean cats and dogs in particular) are caught between two worlds. On the one hand, they don’t belong in the wild. Think about putting a poodle on an ice floe and saying, “Good luck! Hope you manage to survive!” That would be cruel and inhumane. But picture this same dog in a small apartment. What sort of life is that? My answer is: not much of a life. No, if we have companion animals, we have a very weighty obligation to make sure they have a rich life, full of rambunctious exercise and play — hours of play a day. Are we equal to the task? Few of us are. Until the day dawns when we are, we are duty bound to limit the numbers of these animals coming into a world that does not welcome them. So, yes, without a doubt: we should limit the number of these animals under the hand of human responsibility, even if this means spaying or neutering their unclaimed and unwanted numbers in our midst.

For some people it is difficult to realize that they have equal rights. Many people think they are superior because of their religion, ethnicity or culture. Do you think humanity is ready to assimilate that the animals have the same rights as humans?

Well, first, I would never say that other animals have all the same rights as humans do. Take such rights as the right to vote, to marry and divorce, to practice a religion of one’s own choosing, or to have access to a quality education. I think all humans have these rights, but other animals do not have any of them. No, the rights we share with them are really basic rights: our rights to life, liberty and bodily integrity are three such rights. Even more fundamental is our right to be treated with respect, meaning that our most important goods (our life, liberty and bodily integrity) must never be sacrificed in the name of benefiting others. These are the rights that are central to the Animal Rights Movement.

Is humanity “ready to assimilate” these ideas? The honest answer is: yes, some of us are but many of us are not. It’s the people in this latter group for whom I wrote my book, Empty Cages. I used to belong to that group. For over half of my life. So I have a great deal of sympathy for people who don’t believe in animal rights. Through my book I want to have a conversation, not a confrontation, with them. I understand that the kind of change we are talking about takes time and patience. All I can try to do — all any of us can try to do — is create an opportunity for other people to take a step in the direction of animal rights. Just one step. Myself, I am convinced that, if people take one step, they will find it impossible not to take a second, and a third, and so on. If enough people start moving in that direction, then, yes, humanity will be “ready to assimilate” animal rights.

A lot of people here argue that they won’t care about animals while children in Africa are suffering of hunger. Do you often see this kind of argument? What do you think about it?

My experience has been that the people who say this very often are not doing anything to help the children who are starving to death in Africa. In fact they frequently are not doing anything, not in any large way at least, to try to make this a better world. In other words, these people very often are just plain hypocrites.

Still, I think the best answer to this question is the most obvious answer: people can both try to help these children and move their life in the direction of animal rights. Let me be specific. People can stop eating animal flesh, stop wearing fur or wool, stop going to zoos and marine parks, stop attending rodeos and gray hound races AND also work to help the children in Africa. The moral choices we face are not either/or: Either we help the children or we work for animal rights. The choices are both/and: we work both for the children and for the animals.

What do you think are the biggest weakness and difficulties of the animals rights movements?

Our most fundamental problem is: there are too few of us. Unless or until our numbers grow very dramatically, we will lack the power to influence what is done to animals. Again, let me be specific: if only 2% of the population is vegetarian (that’s the figure for the U.S.), then billions of animals (10 billion in the U.S.; 58 billion worldwide) will continue to be slaughtered annually. We need to increase our numbers thirty-fold, forty-fold to have a dramatic impact. Put in the simplest terms, this is our most fundamental challenge: to grow the movement.

Do you know if people in Brazil are concerned about animals since we have a great biodiversity?

Having Empty Cages translated into Portuguese by my Brazilian publisher is my first introduction to your country, so I don’t have much basis for answering your question. Let me just say that the people I am meeting, mainly via email, have impressed me with the depth and breadth of their knowledge and commitment. I am hoping to learn more when my wife and I visit your country in August. Everything I have learned to date gives me great hope for someday seeing Brazil taking a leadership role in advancing the cause of true animal liberation.