Animal Rights

It’s a fraught issue, I think… To be honest, I only started giving the animal rights thing a lot of thought after my little sister came to visit. She’s not a deer or anything, it’s that she’s just gone vegan and joined some animal rights group at her uni (I think it’s the ALF [although, now I’ve finished this piece, I’ve found out that I’m actually wrong on that front: it’s a small Kent-based group who’re a bit less crazy-nuts bonkers]).

You see, as an argumentative and scientific-minded sort, I found something to disagree with on my sister’s assertions that all creatures have a right to exist and [something something something…]. I stopped listening after a while. But my sister definitely got me thinking, so I suppose she succeeded in at least one sense. Since I’m basically a geek, my curiosity got the better of me, and lo and behold I found myself reading animal rights law at 2am on a work night. After a little research, here’s what I found:

The Law as it Stands

The first thing to note is that the Animal Rights legislature in Britain is actually fairly up to date. The last major paper, the Animal Welfare Act, was introduced in 2006 (2008 in Scotland, with a few changes). Its remit is for the care of domesticated and farm animals, and is actually pretty strict. What it doesn’t cover is laws on humane slaughter for meat, minimum space requirements for kept animals or using animals in scientific procedures or experiments.

Bear with me while I take a quick walkthrough of some of the specifics, there’s nothing quite as dull as legislation, but I feel a sense of thoroughness is pretty important in a domain with as much strength of feeling (and, of course, misinformation) as that of animal rights.

First, the legal definition of an animal – or at least, a ‘protected animal’. I don’t care how much you love creatures of all type, the law is never going to prosecute you for killing a fly or using anti-bacterial hand-cream (bacteria are living organisms too, after all). And so long as you’re not a future serial-killer, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that hurting cats is wrong.

So where’s the cut off? The law’s actually pretty clear on this, as I suppose it ought to be:

In this Act […] “animal” means a vertebrate other than man. … An animal is a “protected animal” for the purposes of this Act if—

  1. it is of a kind which is commonly domesticated in the British Islands,
  2. it is under the control of man whether on a permanent or temporary basis, or
  3. it is not living in a wild state.
The specific provisions throughout the Act concern the prevention of unnecessary harm or suffering, mutilation or administration of poisons, as well as laws on animal fighting (it’s illegal). It also include requirements for providing a minimum level of care:

This is all very well and good, but I think we can all agree (I’m assuming that any readers I do end up having are compassionate freethinking individuals, and not twisted and embittered misanthropes like myself) that animals deserve appropriate care while in someone’s care. For the record
  1. A person commits an offence if he does not take such steps as are reasonable in all […] circumstances to ensure that the needs of an animal for which he is responsible are met to the extent required by good practice.
  2. For the purposes of this Act, an animal’s needs shall be taken to include—
    1. its need for a suitable environment,
    2. its need for a suitable diet,
    3. its need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns,
    4. any need it has to be housed with, or apart from, other animals, and
    5. its need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.
  3. The circumstances to which it is relevant to have regard when applying subsection (1) include, in particular—
    1. any lawful purpose for which the animal is kept, and
    2. any lawful activity undertaken in relation to the animal.

Now, again, I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to assume that if we are going to keep domesticated animals (we’ll be getting on to this later), that we owe said animals some kind of proper care. The contentious issues in animal rights lie elsewhere, and the two biggies are scientific experimentation and farming. But before we do start looking at relevant legislature, I think we need a picture of something cute to stave of the waves of boredom that I’m absolutely certain reading about law brings to you:

This picture was stolen (borrowed?) from here, the first hit when you search ‘cute animal pictures’ in Google. I truly am a tireless researcher in the field of baby animal pictures.

Okay: Farming and (don’t get too squeamish) slaughter next. Laws on farmed animals understandable differ from that of domesticated animals, and the pertinent legislature is The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulation 2007 and The Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995. Mostly this adds to the Animal Welfare Act, providing specifics of space and care requirements for common farm animals. The laws on slaughter, though interest me greatly.

“Why?” I hear you querulously ask the computer, thereby falling into my fiendishly clever trap of making talk to your computer aloud like it’s alive or can think or something. The answer, you see, is that the laws on slaughter are exactly what I thought they were before the argument with my aforementioned sister (if you can remember that far back). What follows is the law for England: the law differs ever-so-slightly in the rest of the UK – if you care enough to look up exactly what those differences are then I shall take my hat off to your dedication to proper research, before muttering vague insults under my breath about your inability to talk to people at parties.

All animals for slaughter in England must be stunned before being killed, in order that they sustain as little unnecessary pain as possible:

Where any soliped, ruminant, pig, rabbit or bird is brought into a slaughterhouse or knacker’s yard for slaughter, that animal shall be—

  1. moved and lairaged in accordance with Schedule 3;
  2. restrained in accordance with Schedule 4;
  3. subject to regulation 22, stunned before slaughter […]; and
  4. bled or pithed in accordance with Schedule 6.

This is quite an important point. I won’t go into much detail of the methods for stunning, because it would take a while and isn’t really necessary for this discussion (it suffices to say that the methods are as humane as is possible, short of not bothering to kill the animal in the first place; again, that’s a topic for later in this article). Not stunning an animal before it is slaughtered is quite blatantly, as I’m sure we can all agree, wrong – an unnecessary amount of suffering for a creature which has committed no more heinous a crime than having been born delicious:

Schedule 5 (which relates to the stunning and killing of animals) shall not apply to any animal which is slaughtered in accordance with Schedule 12 (which relates to slaughter by a religious method.

I’ll come back to this later, but we’re going to finish our slog through the impenetrable legislature of Her Majesty’s Government with the laws on experimentation on animals as they stand today. For the full bill, check out the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. Understandably, restrictions on this sort of thing are strict – I’ll invoke Godwin’s law now and mention that the Nazi’s claimed all of their eugenics stuff was science, and excused their human rights abuses by calling it experimentation. Thus it’s important that what we do to animals (and humans, obviously) be regulated in such a way that the ‘science’ being investigated is of genuine use and that any pain or distress caused is only that which is necessary for the advancement of that science. In such vein:

No person shall apply a regulated procedure to an animal unless

  1. he holds a personal licence qualifying him to apply a regulated procedure of that description to an animal of that description;
  2. the procedure is applied as part of a programme of work specified in a project licence authorising the application, as part of that programme, of a regulated procedure of that description to an animal of that description; and
  3. the place where the procedure is carried out is a place specified in the personal licence and the project licence.

A personal licence is a licence granted by the Secretary of State qualifying the holder to apply specified regulated procedures to animals of specified descriptions at a specified place or specified places.

So in order to do any experimentation on animals, you have to prove (to the Secretary of State, or at the very least, one of his cronies) that you’re capable of doing so humanely. There are further controls on the minimum qualifications required in order to hold such a licence (which could be summarised as: be a scientist), and on the requirements on a project receiving a licence.

For this, a project leader needs to prove the the results of the experiment will advance our understanding of the world, and contribute toward improving conditions of living for either humans or other animals. You also (remember this, it’ll crop up later) need to prove that there is no other way to investigate the particular phenomena the experiment is to address. The two additional requirements are also pretty obvious – you must ensure that the experiment is designed to cause as little distress as possible and that the animals used have the least developed nervous system possible.

I’ll explain this last point briefly with an example. Lobsters lack a highly developed immune system. In particular (for those who enjoy eating this sort of thing) lobster, boiled alive is actually a very humane manner in which to eat lobster. You see, when dropped into boiling water, the first thing that dies on a lobster is its pain receptors and so it feels a pretty minimal amount of pain (it’s the old joke about a silverback gorilla having time to kill you before it even realises it’s dead. But backwards…).

This lack of sophistication of nervous system (contrast nervous sophistication, also known as the Hugh Grant school of performance) lends itself well to scientific experimentation. Some experiments that would cause considerable pain and distress to a mammal will cause almost none at all to lobster-like shellfish. So, if it is possible to such experiments on a lobster and still gain meaningful results, the law forbids the use of a mammal in its place.

With the law pretty much covered (you can stop skim reading now), I think I can move on to some of the more meaty moral stuff. The reason I wrote this blog post is so that I could get to grips with the competing claims and counter-claims made by the various groups involved in the field of animal welfare. Since I’m trying to frame this piece around the animals themselves, I’m going to divide up these claims into two groups:

  1. The things that animal rights activists say and do which are either factually incorrect or morally unjustifiable
  2. The things that scientists, farmers and countrified dimwits (the aristocracy, if one prefers) say and do which are either factually incorrect or morally unjustifiable
Ideally, the latter section could be considered a collection of some helpful suggestions to animal welfare activists as to where I think their efforts would best lie (in terms of both chance of success and public support); which will of course be heeded without delay, for I am without doubt the universe’s most influential and respected human being.

The Claims of Animal Rights Activists

The first claim I need to address is one that my sister kept bleating at me (I do love her really), which is that animals are conscious and have thoughts and feelings of their own. Her proof, insofar as it went, is that animals display pain when you hurt them, as well as other emotions (loyalty, familial bonding, aloofness, love, relaxation, and so on). 

It’s actually pretty hard to argue with this – I love animals (I’m a cat person. In the sense that I prefer cats over dogs, not in the mildly aloof superhero sense) and it is indeed very easy to empathise with a creature who will stalk into a room, snuggle into your lap and doze until it notices that you’re wearing a T-shirt of a rather fine weave and so decides now is the best time to pad out its claws on  your chest. Stuff like that is so emotionally recognisable that it’s easy to project these emotions onto other creature – who hasn’t been curled up on their owner’s lap at some point or another? – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the animal is actually feeling these things.

Were I to take this argument to an extreme (and to my mind, ultimately pointless) level, I could point out the frankly idiotic philosophy of Solipsism, where people believe that the only thing we can guarantee to exist is our own mind and anything else is unprovable. In the sense that it could all just be a figment of our own imagination. Yes. Quite.

A solipsist would point out that not only can you not prove that the animal has emotions, you can’t even prove that your best friend does either. In fact, you’d be up against it making the case that either of these two things even exist in the first place (although since you’re reading this, I’d hazard a guess that you don’t have any friends).

I’m going to dismiss solipsism now, being as it is useless in terms of real world investigation, and instead ask the questions scientifically: is there any standard by which we admit an activity is indicative of intelligence and emotion? Can we identify if there’s a fundamental difference between how human beings think and interact socially and how animals do the same thing?

I don’t want to go into too much detail, but the answer to both questions is yes. Or at least it is to scientists (you know, the people that actually investigate this sort of thing). One of the more famous tests scientists use to test for intelligence is to see whether an animal can recognise itself in a mirror. So far three species have passed the test: us, chimp and the lovable dolphin. For those of you who are wondering, the test is done by marking the creature in some way that makes it unique, usually some colouring or paint marking, and putting it in front of a mirror.

Cats fail this test. Which is why my family’s cat, who’s terrified of all the neighborhood cats, won’t go near any mirrors. Personally, I don’t real feel that any creature that is incapable of recognising itself could realistically be termed conscious. But that’s just me, and morality is a kind of sliding scale. The point I’m trying to make is that “Animals are ultimately as free-thinking as we are” doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. Nor, while I’m at it, is another utterance I’ve heard before, after swatting a fly: “Ultimately, there isn’t any fundamental difference between you and that fly.” Yes. Yes there is.

Moving on, I can finally get suck into the ALF. A quick look at their website will reveal two things to you. The first is that their militant reputation is well deserved, at least in terms of how they market themselves, and the second is that they quite like the shameless tactic of providing testimonials and highly emotionally charged messages over providing actual information.

I believe there is a special place in hell (also known as Romford) reserved for people who do this. It is blatantly misleading to present people with your own conclusions and no facts. It is done on both sides of the political debate; and it annoys me because it removes any real sense of free thought from an issue. It polarises a debate, it leaves people feeling like they have no say, and most of all it implies that the correctness of one’s arguments doesn’t need justification. It’s the cry of extremism: “I don’t need proof because I’m already right”.

Sorry, back to the ALF. From their Mission Statement page (supposedly the dispassionate statement of their main aims and goals. A statement of their mission, if you will):

Here are some suggested things to consider when evaluating a potential AR activity (beware of ?paralysis of analysis?): […]

4. Public opinion. (one of my mistakes: rescuing an animal and then, in frustration, spray-painting an obscenity on the wall). The obscenity made the news (nowadays there is no news without pictures) and the slant of the news-story was anti-AR. Poor result: More folks think AR activists are out of control.

Indeed they would. What is supposed to be the main place where interested parties can go to find they goals of a mature and well-organised “liberation movement”, we instead get the childish opinion pieces of a person who seems unwilling to back up their arguments with something so sordid as actual information.

And a quick visit to their press office reveals nothing more than a list of facilities which the ALF have raided, hate essays against “snitches” and a rather gleeful collection of  stories where animal handlers have amusingly come a-cropper. Are there any facts or statistics on this website?

Yes. But again, we are simply provided with the conclusions and no background information. It could quite easily have been made up on the spot by somebody with an agenda, but of course I wouldn’t want to imply that. So I checked some of these “facts” out:

At least 450 methods exist with which we can replace animal experiments.

A quick google search on 450 methods to replace animal experimentation give about 1.5 million hits, 42 of the first 50 are verbatim republished versions of the ALF list. The remaining hits mostly reference chemical tests and a certain P-450 requirement. Surely some animal rights activist would have bothered to publish a list of these alternatives – it would after all, advance the cause to have a document outlining viable alternatives.

95% of drugs passed by animal tests are immediately disgarded [sic] as useless or dangerous to humans.

Even if this is true: So? The number of compounds that will be tested in any way is huge (from Wikipedia):

Basic scientific research will identify new biological targets which may be amenable to chemical alteration (e.g., to inhibit or stimulate an important enzyme, to alter a metabolic pathway, or to change cellular structure). New chemical entities (NCEs) can be produced through novel chemical synthesis or extracted from natural sources (plant, mineral, or animal). The number of compounds that can be produced based on the same general chemical structure (or “pharmacophore”) can run into the millions.

And this is only to bring one drug onto the market. Ultimately, the sum total of human knowledge doesn’t really provide a complete understanding of our physiology. We can’t know before we start what a compound will do to humans, and so rigorous testing is entirely necessary.

In point of fact, their statistic is also blatantly untrue: it is estimated that about 2% of all drug compounds that make it to animal testing will pass that stage, and of these about 1 in 5 will make it to market (note that the remaining 4 in 5 are not immediately discarded, but fail the testing procedure in humans).

Here we run into a problem because the animals rights activist would point out (as they later do in the same document) that tossing a coin would do better. This may sound like it’s worth investigating to you. It may even sound like a good point: Animal testing raises the probability of success to 20% or so, whereas a coin toss has a 50% chance of success. Animal testing’s actually worse than random…

It even got me for a moment. But it’s a false analogy. You see, a coin has only two alternatives. Heads or tails. If only pharmacology were that simple, we probably could have cured cancer by now. When we test a new drug, we don’t have to choose between Compund-Heads and Compound-Tails. There are millions of possible compounds we begin with. By the time we reach the animal testing stage we’re down to about 250 to bring a single drug to market (1 in 50 passes animal testing, 1 in 5 of these human testing).

So in reality, the “random” option is less like tossing a coin and more like tossing a dice with 250 sides, and praying that your number comes up – the probability of which is about 0.4%. So animal testing actually is statistically significant. It does work, and it does improve our ability to bring drugs to market. The fuller morality of doing it in the first place I’ll leave for another time.

I think I’m just about done with the ALF now, I don’t want to bore you with any more of their ideas about animal testing. Some people might accuse me of picking out the easy targets in that list of fact – the truth is that I probably did, I don’t want to put in any more work than is necessary – but the point you should take away is this: Groups that disseminate information in this way don’t usually care too much about the truths they put forward. And they would much rather they were accepted at face value instead of being subjected to any kind of scrutiny. Especially if there’s an ideological gain to be had from it.

The Meat Brigade

So, having laid into my Animal Rights straw man, I’d like to take a gander at some of the legitimate concerns animal rights activists have (actually, I should probably talk about animal welfare at this stage. The ALF website explains that there’s a difference). My first target is something I mentioned earlier – Kosher and Halal meat. It turns out that Kosher forbids electrical stunning of slaughter animals. Halal doesn’t specifically forbid it, but large portions of Halal meat aren’t electrically stunned before slaughter.

Now, unthinkable as it is that somebody would criticize a religion for having unethical practices, there is an issuer here – can Kosher and Halal meats be justified under the moral standards we hold “secular” meats? Personally, I think not, but it is allowed in law.

Where I begin to get a little bit apoplectic is the fact that this meat doesn’t need to be labelled as such. I have no issue particularly with irreligious people eating meat slaughtered by a religious method in principal, but I do have an issue with unknowingly eating meat that wasn’t electrically stunned before slaughter.

So, personally, I’m not going to try and convince people that religiously slaughtered meat should be banned: religiosity is a battle for another day, and right now banning anything religious is a losing battle. But I do believe that it’s vitally important that the buying public are fully informed as to how their meat was slaughtered, especially since quite a lot of the meat you’ll eat will be Halal or Kosher without being labelled as such. Just a simple “This animal that this meat was derived from was not electrically stunned” would suffice.

The National Secular Society have taken up this issue in the past. They lobbied (eventually unsuccessfully) to have such a law ratified. The opposing lobby worked along rather transparent lines:

Shechita UK has argued that unless meat from religiously slaughtered animals is allowed to slip into the general market covertly, this meat will become commercially unviable [sic].

Above is the NSS’s interpretation of the lobby. The crux of Schechita UK’s point is that if people can consciously make a choice between stunned and non-stunned meat, then the market for Kosher meat will dry up, leading to the collapse of an industry – reduced profits, job losses, etc – and for this reason we should continue to allow non-stunned meat to slip under the radar. However, to me this seems a simple admission that people are morally opposed to eating meat that wasn’t stunned before slaughter, and that their slaughter methods are only justifiable on religious grounds.

My personal issues with religion aside, using “economics” to justify misleading the buying public is quite simple immoral.

Okay, moving on. Fox Hunting (capital F, capital H). Even to this day, it represents the divide between cultured city folk and animal-slaughtering country bumpkins (it may be rather easy to see where I lie on this issue). I know it’s technically illegal and stuff, but there remains to this day a very strong pro-fox hunting lobby in the UK.

The explanation for this is two-fold. These people are (fairly tirelessly) campaigning for a repeal of the anti-hunting law, and don’t see a problem with what they’re doing – in their minds they’re a sort of dashing rebel, fighting a system of oppression of traditional countryside ways. The second, more important, part is that hunts can still happen with a ‘false scent’ trail; where nothing actually dies at the end.

It seems that even this isn’t quite enough for them – like when some American kid goes on a random shooting spree and people blame it on him bringing his ‘violent video games’ into the real world. In the case of the ‘violent video games’ excuse, that’s usually wrong, the problem is far more deep-seated. But in the case of fox hunting, it’s not – a simple facsimile of a hunt just isn’t quite enough for these people. No, if an animal isn’t killed at the end there’s just no satisfaction.

What this does mean (on a more positive note) is that a lot of the arguments against introducing a hunting ban become a little invalid. The pro-hunting lobby claimed that the hunting bill would lead to massive job losses and the end of the hunting industry as a whole. Unfortunately I can’t be bothered to look up pre-2003 employment figures, but the current figures are actually pretty stable: £14.9 million income p.a. from hunts, a further £4.5 million from social and equestrian events.

The hunting industry (just fox hunting here) directly employs just under 1000 people and a further 3000 or so are ‘puppy walkers’ on behalf of the fox hunting industry. So there really isn’t any defense in adding mammalian murder to the end of the hunts as they stand.

Quite frankly, there are idiots on both sides of the animal welfare issue. Violent, horrible, hateful idiots in some cases. I am an animal welfare-ist. Anyone who wants to kill animals gratuitously, when it doesn’t improve the state of living for humans, or without trying to reduce suffering as much as possible is in the wrong. Equally those who try to prevent legitimate research into reducing suffering because they think they understand sentience better than the rest of humanity is equally wrong.

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Filed under Animals, Ethics, Law, Science

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