There has been a lot of commentary online about the Inside Higher Ed article about an UCLA primate researcher who quit his research due to being terrorised by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), and the follow up article about the steps UCLA and other Universities are taking to ensure the safety of their faculty and staff:
The announcement by Abrams follows an upswing in activities in which UCLA professors who work with animals have been targets. In June, the Animal Liberation Front took credit for trying to put a Molotov cocktail on the doorstep of Lynn Fairbanks, a researcher who does experimentation on animals. The explosive was accidentally placed on the doorstep of Fairbanks’s elderly neighbor’s house, and did not detonate, but had enough power to be lethal. This month Dario Ringach, an associate neurobiology professor, decided to abandon his research on primates because of pressure put on him, his family and his neighborhood. UCLA researchers and their family members have received threatening phone calls and e-mail, and had protests at their homes. (UCLA is also under pressure to protect Khaled Abou el Fadl, a professor who is an expert on Islamic law who has been a leading critic of Muslim fundamentalism and who has faced death threats and a bullet fired into his home.)
Generally, she said, targets are more likely to be professors who work with non-human primates or animals like cats or dogs, since many people have close emotional connections to such animals. Trull also said that animal rights groups are more likely to go after basic researchers. Many members of the public don’t understand that basic research is a necessary prelude to studies that can more directly be linked to a cure or treatment for a disease, she said. “It’s all about the PR,” she said.
If I am correct, Erin O’Connor was the first to take this article out of obscurity and she wrote an eloquent post and a plea for the blogosphere to cover this issue more deeply. Several bloggers took her advice and responded with thoughtfull articles, including Timothy Burke, Richard Chappell, Rev. Dr., Brock and PZ Myers (which covers the political spectrum pretty much from one end to the other).
Now, I am certainly not new to this fight and, as I do not write about Middle-East, this is the topic that gets me the most vociferous trolls in the comments. It did back in February and August and October of 2004, and May of 2005, and July of 2006. And it is not just online, but also on the radio. And I am sure it will again on this post and the one just preceding it. That comes with the territory. And the attacks come mostly from the Left, for reasons explained below.
While those bloggers, as well as most of the commenters, did a great job explaining what is it that animal researchers actually do (and no, we do not torture animals just for kicks), I want to focus on something else – the political side of it.
Why is it that people like Senator Inhofe, the main villain in the Republican War On Science, supports a piece of legislation created to give special protections from harassment to people (researchers included) who work with animals? While I do not see the reason for singling out people who work with animals – aren’t we all nominally protected from threats, harassment and violence – it is interesting to wonder about Inhofe’s motivation for pushing this bill. And this is not new – another arch-enemy of science, reason and rationality, Jesse Helms, routinely sponsored and voted for bills that protect animal researchers (I guess he did not realize how many of those are evolutionary biologists), or voted against bills that would ban various activities using animals.
I think that their main motivation is to “stick it to the liberals”, in an uninformed notion that liberals are not going to like those bills because liberals are all animal rightists. How about all those liberal scientists who happen to like those bills? But where does this confusion come from?
It comes from a concerted efforts by animal rights organizations to confuse the people. The Number One strategy of organizations like PETA and ALF is to blur the lines between Animal Welfare (AW) and Animal Rights (AR).
If an AW organization discovers a case of animal cruelty in a factory or a farm, AR groups run with the story and the pictures as if they did the discovery. If an AW organization stages a protest in front of such a shady business, the AR groups are sure to show up as well. The only way that AR groups can fill their coffers is by tapping into popular love for animals and through constant efforts to confuse the public, i.e., to erase the difference between the two approaches. And the two approaches are diametrically opposed on more than one level – something that bloggers and commenters cited above do not appear to understand.
Animal Welfare is a liberal cause. It has its historical roots in the anti-vivisection movement of the 19th century England and its modern roots in the environmental movement, with some ideas added from the civil rights movement with a dash of liberal Christian notions of our duty to be keepers and protectors of the natural world.
AW is based on the notion of moral duty towards nature. Nature includes animals, so we have a duty to protect and care for the animals, both entire species whose environments we are destroying and individual animals that come into our care because we use them. It is a realistic movement, attempting to make a better world by emphasizing our responsibility. The members of AW groups are likely to shun fur, but are otherwise reflecting the general society – some are vegetarian, some are not – and will use greater awareness in choosing their food and clothing. But that is really not as important as the actual work they do voluntering or working at animal shelters and donating money to ASPCA or The Humane Society.
On the other hand, Animal Rights groups do not do anything to help animals and are deeply anti-environmental – they simply do not care about species and ecosystems, only individual animals. They do not have animal shelters. They do not have the know-how about animal care. As people send them stray dogs and cats, PETA does not know what to do with them, so they butcher them in the back of the truck – the feelings of those poor animals do not really matter to them because their cause is political and their motivations ideological – they have nothing to do with animals and all to do with the emotions of animal rightists.
The AR ideology is at its core a conservative ideology. It is an intellectual descendant of Puritan unease with the animalness of humans. You do not need to believe in evolution to notice that we are indeed animals. We eat, drink, sleep, pee, shit, copulate, give birth in pain, get sick and die. Our bodies produce fluids like blood, lymph, puss, sweat, semen, milk, smegma and earwax. They find this disturbing. They find this unclean. Unsaintly and non-angelic.
But what can they do about it? Well, if they cannot deny humans their animalness, they can elevate animals to saintly hights. They can pick out some pretty animals, those we think of as smart or cute or “noble” (check some of the images in this post – those are the animals that AR people like to talk about the most, revealing the deeply anti-evolutionary thread underlying their ideology) and make them equal with us, that is, clean.
It is telling that the membership of AR organizations (I mean the core membership, not the naive kids who got duped into donating to PETA because they thought it had something to do with saving stray dogs and cats) is very similar to the membership of anti-choice organizations – hugely populated by urban (at least second generation in a big city), single, childless women. Just like anti-choice groups, they vent their anger by threatening people and bombing stuff. Just like anti-choice people they do not know any biology and refuse to learn lest they lose their beliefs.
Only hyper-urban people, people who did not grow up on farms, appear to join AR groups. I guess it takes a large degree of alienation from nature in order to swallow the ideology of AR. It would be difficult to work hard for an idealized – and wrong – notion of animals if one had first-hand experience of animals by growing up in the country, feeding the pigs, riding horses, seeing chickens being slaughtered (and eating the chicken soup an hour later), going hunting with Dad, taking in and nursing back to health injured young of wild animals, and having pets.
I give everyone the benefit of the doubt about personal choices, but, as a group, it is intriguing that so many members – both male and female – are single and childless. Is their disgust with animalness of their own bodies part of the reason? They may not be able to live without eating and sleeping, but they can at least deny their animal nature by refraining from copulating (“sex is dirty”) and having children. They may have to pee and q-tip their ears, but they can isolate themselves from such bodily secretions as semen, smegma and milk. There is something deeply disturbed about their sexuality, something artifical and superficial, alienated from itself and very conservative. Why they keep trying to recruit guys into the movement by trotting Playboy plamates as spokesmodels and pulling the nudity stunts? Why are almost all of them white?
So, think of AR as a Right Wing ideology. They try to present themselves as the same as AW, just like Creationists (and climate-change deniers, etc.) try to sell themselves as “scientists”. Just like David Irving tries to sell himself as a “historian of the Holocaust”. And just like it never occurs to creationists to actually do any research (not they would have a faintest idea how research is done), so it never occurs to animal rightists to actually do something towards animal welfare (not that they would know how to handle an animal) – because it is not about animals after all: it is about healing emotional wounds from childhood.
When pushed to do research, creationists come up with some really bad mathematical arguments. When given animals to take care of, PETA kills them in the back alleys. While AW folks roll up their sleeves and help thousands of animals every year, one animal at a time, AR folks do not do that stuff (too smelly and dirty?) so they have plenty of time to pull PR stunts in supermarkets, or to go around terrorizing people, bombing buildings, or breaking in the labs and releasing non-native or domesticated animals into the local environment where they are promptly killed and eaten by local predators, or themselves become invasive species, destroying the local ecosystem.
So, to get back to congressional politics. Every Democrat who ever supported a bill drafted by AR lobbyists was duped into supporting a conservatively-motivated bill. Every Republican who votes for a bill regulating animal use and protecting animal research, with the intention of “sticking it to liberals”, unwittingly supports a liberal cause – the Animal Welfare.