Some modest proposals for animal rights supporters looking to make their case without resorting to harassment, intimidation, or violence.

I take it that a good number of animal rights supporters feel that their position is philosophically well-grounded, intuitively appealing, and compatible with the flourishing of humans as well as of non-human animals.

As such, I would argue that animal rights supporters can, and should, advance their position without resorting to tactics that depend on harassment, intimidation, or violence. (At least some animal rights supporters agree.) Especially since the hope is to win the hearts and minds of the larger public to the cause of animal rights, supporters of this position might want to hold on to the moral high ground.

How can they do this? Here are four options that leap to mind:

1. Present the philosophical grounding of your view to the public.
Make that basis, whether it be an animal's ability to feel pleasure and pain, or an animal's being a subject of a life, or what have you, as clear as it can be. You found it persuasive. Trust the others to whom you are reaching out to find it persuasive.

If people don't find your view persuasive, then what? Are they at fault for resisting the coherence of the view? Probably it's good to ask why they do not find it persuasive, or what the philosophical grounding of their differing view might be. You may not agree with that differing view, but you may have to admit that the disagreement is an honest one, rather than one driven by selfish reasons.

2. Help to develop the alternatives you want people to adopt, especially in the scientific arena.
Work out effective and ethical animal-free ways to evaluate new drug compounds for safety and efficacy, to discover the neurological bases for addiction, to develop new surgical techniques, and to help build basic knowledge about physiology, metabolism, genetics, development, etc. (And, help to develop animal-free media for growing tissue cultures.)

Animal-based research is expensive, and dealing with the regulatory oversight can demand significant amounts of time and effort from researchers. If you build animal-free alternatives that work -- that provides reliable data relevant to the scientific questions researchers are investigating -- researchers will use them.

Of course, you'll need to demonstrate (with scientific evidence) the efficacy of the alternatives you're helping to develop. And, if you're not scientifically trained yourself, you'll have to work with people who are. To the extent that you draw on the expertise of others, you'll also have to trust their expert opinions of what is possible and what is feasible. The scientific experts who help you will, in turn, have to trust their fellow scientists to evaluate the alternatives they're offering. That's how science works.

3. Vote with your pocketbook as well as your voice.
Don't buy any animal-based products. Don't buy any products that are the result of animal testing (and, recognizing that the cruelty-free label may indicate that the testing required by law has been outsourced to another company, write letters or make phone calls to establish where in the chain animal use has taken place). Let your health care providers know that you will be refusing all treatments that were developed with the help of animal research. Write to pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies to tell them that you will not be using any new therapies they might develop with the help of animal research.

Companies that are trying to make a profit will drop products for which there's no demand.

4. Work to make a lifestyle free of animal products more accessible to others, especially those with less freedom to exercise "consumer choice".
Work with your local school district to help ensure that their lunch program offers vegan options and plenty of fruit and vegetable options so appealing that all the kids will want them. Write to your lawmakers and to government agencies (like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services) to support aid to farmers and aid to hungry people that is focused on a plant-based diet. When supporting businesses that make animal-free products, buy extras to donate to the local food pantry, clothes closet, or shelter.

Each of these strategies is a plausibly effective way to engage the larger society (including the research community, the private sector, the schools, and the government) to make your case. And none of these requires making incendiary devices, donning a mask and banging on a researcher's windows, or following anyone's kids to school.


More like this

Not having found any mention of young children being stewed, roasted, baked or boiled, I am forced to suspect the modesty of your proposals.

This incorrectly establishes the burden of proof. Animal abuse is illegal except for a narrow exemption carved out for licensed research. The legal burden of proof is always on the researchers to demonstrate that their specific activities do not lie outside this narrow exemption.

For this reason, there is no need for animal rights people to present a "philosophical basis" for their stance. The philosophical basis against cruelty to animals is already embedded in established laws prohibiting animal abuse and is the basis of these laws. The very nature of the narrow exemption carved out for animal testing, and the regulatory mechanisms for review of proposals, demonstrate a clear statutory intent to reduce as much as practicable lethal animal testing and an expectation that researchers will always seek out and use the least onerous techniques available.

For the same reason, the burden is upon researchers, who have a professional level of expertise in their specific field, to seek out and develop cruelty-free alternatives. Asking non-professionals to take the lead on this is absurd since the learning curve is practically unattainable for laypeople. This is like asking a layperson to propose to doctors a less-invasive form of brain surgery.

It's important to remember that opponents of animal cruelty have very little sway or influence. The researchers themselves, the facilities in which they work, and their funding organizations have 99.999 percent of the influence and sway, meaning that positive change needs to come from within. Is the research community up to the task? Does it take the task seriously? Does it even accept the philosophic basis for statutes prohibiting cruelty? This is why researchers questioning whether animals are 'sentient' or can 'feel pain like we do' are disturbing, since they directly question the entire legal basis for existing laws against animal abuse. If some researchers don't even buy into the scientific and philosophical basis for existing abuse laws, it is hard to see how the public can or should have faith they are committed to a program of positive, internal change in their fields.

"Animal abuse is illegal except for a narrow exemption carved out for licensed research."

Douglas, the meat industry? University researchers are picked on because they are soft targets and what they do is public record (funny how pharma gets a pass). By sheer volume of cruelty, the food establishment should be the focus of animal rights activism, but of course they are powerful and have lawyers, and are therefore harder to intimidate with the frat-boy tactics of university-focused activists. I have been told by someone eating pork dumplings that there is no legitimate purpose to biomedical animal research.

That said, I am a biologist who refuses to do research on mammals (this is personal and I don't have a moral problem with most rodent research) and I think that all use of apes should be banned and a good chunk of research on primates is useless or needlessly cruel, likewise dogs, cats, and pigs. While I think it's true that we don't know where in basic research breakthroughs will come from, we do know they will not come from bad research done by mediocre scientists. There is a lot of third-rate research done with primates.

I strongly concur with *miko's* position. Generally, on a visceral level I agree with his position on research, but also have a problem with the notion that a group wants to demand change, but refuses to promote viable alternatives.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 01 Mar 2010 #permalink

Thanks for writing this; you really hit it out of the park. It seems like all 4 points should be obvious, but it seems to be distressingly rare for folks in the animal rights movement to really grasp points 1 and 2.

I've been talking with another vegan friend about this whole episode lately, and we both agree that it's a shame to see how the science blogging community has been able to quickly recognize, digest, and articulate all these internal problems within the movement.

One that falls outside the scope of this post but which I believe does deserve mention is simple misinformation. The animal rights movement maintains a very highly-developed echo chamber, and most AR folks get their information on subjects like animal experimentation exclusively from sources within the echo chamber. . . which leads to a situation where a lot of folks are woefully misinformed about all sorts of aspects of the issue. For example, a huge part of why there aren't many people encouraging the development of alternatives to animal models is that most AR folks "know" that these alternatives already exist and have existed for decades, but are not adopted because scientists are too cheap and lazy. (Even ignoring any factual error, I couldn't begin to guess why being cheap and lazy would encourage anyone to unnecessarily devote time and resources to caring for and feeding 100 rats. But that does illustrate the depth of understanding of the subject we're working with.)

Posted by: Douglas Watts | March 1, 2010 8:15 AM

Ah, another drive-bye spamming of ignorance I see.

By Sean O'Doherty (not verified) on 01 Mar 2010 #permalink

"There is a lot of third-rate research done with primates.

Posted by: miko | March 1, 2010 10:21 AM"

Please explain. Do you believe there is something about primate research/researchers that makes it more likely to be third-rate? Or are you suggesting that there is 3rd rate research across the board and controls of primate work naturally need to be more stringent?

By nra_4ever (not verified) on 01 Mar 2010 #permalink

One might argue, miko, that the nonhuman primate is rarely the ideal species for "cutting edge basic research" in the sense that this is where the most uncertainty and risk of outcome lies. The closer to the cutting edge, the more likely are experimental results that may fail to live up to expectations or even to render interpretable results.

We should perhaps have done a bit more in other species before concluding that it is necessary to evaluate something in the nonhuman primate. These conclusions may be driven by the understanding that it is a last transitional check before human trials, or that other so-called 'lower' models have been tried and found to be insufficient, etc. I suspect, however, that the increase of animals used, increase in uninterpretable outcome, etc, that attends using nonhuman primate models at the very forefront of the most basic research will not be palatable to the moderate middle view that has a consensus species hierarchy of use.

By Cleveland (not verified) on 01 Mar 2010 #permalink

I'm a farmer who raises animals for meat, so I clearly disagree with many of the premises of the animal rights movement, but I'm interested to see that you give such a narrow view of possible options. Were I making a list for *anyone* attempting to change the public perception of *any* issue, I'd also include techniques that are, frankly, far more likely to affect public perceptions than "make your philosophical case to the public" - things like advertising, non-violent civil disobedience (which doesn't include the targetting of researchers' children), public protest, satire, social pressures, etc...

These are all things the animal rights movement already know, of course, but I do think it is a central point - the strategies that one uses for just and moral issues have to be available to your opponents even if their ideas are wrong.


I disagree with a range of the characterizations of primate use in biological research. In the domain of neuroscience, in particular, the role for the primate is irreplaceable... to the extent that it cannot be relegated to a "transitional check". For example, say that your research is oriented at understanding the functions of the human, binocular, trichromatic vision system; primates are a required model system. Let's say that you are interested in explaining the neural mechanisms of executive functions; neurobiological studies in primates are the only way to go. As far as "basic" research is concerned, I would argue that understanding how the brain functions always has a strong "basic" component even though - at the same time - it helps build the foundations for intervention-based research.

There are a range of neural systems level analyses relevant to higher level cognition that simply cannot be performed in rodents. At least in the neurosciences, research in the non-human primate is absolutely at the forefront of "cutting edged" science and will be until the methodology exists to conduct such studies in humans through non-invasive methods.

By David Jentsch (not verified) on 02 Mar 2010 #permalink

Having seen a lot of effective activists in action (Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy in particular), it does confound me sometimes what some animal rights activists consider to be "effective." I mean, winning hearts and minds by dressing up like ninjas and spray painting garages? And of course there's PETA with the lettuce leaf bikinis.

In my opinion there is a fair-sized contingent within the movement that at some level does not want or expect to "win." That's why they haven't figured out Janet's points for themselves (although HSUS has shown signs of political astuteness lately). They're more interested in venting hostility.

I think part of the problem is that at some level, they realize that the concept of "animal rights" is an oxymoron; "rights" are privileges and responsibilities mutually granted and accepted within a community of like minds. It's a contract. A human contract among humans. Animals don't want to be part of our society.

The best way for animal rights activists to be successful would be to become animal welfare activists instead.

People, if you choose to lecture to animal rights activists about what to do, how come you make no notice of the power imbalance? Writing letters... yeah. Suure. That'll get results!

If you want to continue with primate research, make the moral argument for it. Can you?!

This whole thing will change when those in science have a change of mind and heart. Then they will develop all those alternatives mentioned above. But as someone else said, those whose livelihoods depend on not understanding something, will likely not want to understand it.

Sharon @9,

Of course, this was not meant to be an exhaustive list of strategies (note the post title, "Some modest proposals ..."), and I agree that in a pluralistic society, the acceptable tactics for making your case ought to be available to all with a case to make.

Is being clear about the philosophical grounding of one's view less likely to persuade than advertising? As a philosopher, I admit I'm biased in favor of the former (and goodness knows some of the advertising I've seen undermines my sense that animal rights supporters are engaged in a struggle for social justice -- thus making it persuasive in the opposite direction). As well, advertising is the kind of thing that usually requires lots of money (and thus perhaps a big organization raising the money).

But sure, advertising, non-violent civil disobedience (which back in the day involved filling the jails for the cause), public protest, satire, social pressures, all on the table.

Professor Jentsch, I think you slightly mistook my position. You have very nicely outlined a case in which other models have been found to be insufficient, so therefore the use of monkeys is well justified. The major point here is that there is a valid, scientific reason that monkeys have to be used. They are not the option of first resort, they are the option of last resort.

We are in complete agreement that some of the higher level cognitive processes are simply not able to be appropriately studied in, e.g., a rat. This brings up a good question for the supposedly moderate ARA position which is only or primarily objecting to monkey research. How do you meld your fin principles around the fact that, for some things, rodents are an inferior model and will only get you the roughest approximation of an answer? More animals will be required for less predictive outcome- isn't this what you object to in a broader sense?

I understand that there may be some differences of opinion in the AR camps but there seem to be some fundamental philosophical conflicts here. If you want the best prediction, as with that Niall guy, sometimes that actually *demands* the use of dogs, cats, rabbits or monkeys over mice or rats or fruit flies. Somehow I never see the quality-of-prediction fans making this argument though...

By Cleveland (not verified) on 02 Mar 2010 #permalink

@nra_4ever and David Jentsch: There is third-rate research across the board, I am not singling out primate research in this regard. But I think use of primates needs to reach a higher threshold of quality and importance (I know, subjective) for invasive, terminal or painful experiments. And to some extent it does, although I would characterize the current system as simply more paperwork and little coherent policy--we know how IRBs are. David, you mention some examples where we want to study primate-specific anatomy or neurobiology--that's a good argument, but I don't think it covers a majority of primate research.

If rationally making your case on reasonable grounds were a successful strategy, we wouldn't have the problems we have with climate deniers, etc... ;-). I like those kinds of arguments as well, but I think I'm in a distinct minority, and one of the reasons I think that scientists have lost ground is because they tend to prioritize exactly the kinds of reasonable, rational responses you list above - rather than using agitprop (which I know is a loaded word, but an accurate one) and other, stronger techniques. As long as people keep taking the high road, and overestimating the attention span of the general public ;-), I think they keep losing.


I don't think it covers a majority of primate research.

What is the "majority" of primate research in your estimation, miko? You can "think" all you want but going by the average ARA nutters who have not the slightest idea what the "majority" of nonhuman primate research consists of, I have my doubts that you have any idea at all.

By Cleveland (not verified) on 02 Mar 2010 #permalink

Ah, Sharon... they have lost on moral grounds already. Using slick agitprop is not going to fix it.

Miko points out correctly that non-human primate research is generally held to a higher standard than research on "lower" animals for ethical or emotional reasons, NHP's being a little too close to humans for comfort. But another point about primate research that activists seem to miss is that it is awfully expensive. I have to believe that NHP's are far and away the most expensive research animals to acquire and support. This alone causes me to roll my eyes whenever activists talk about researchers being in it for the money. If they wanted to keep more of the grant money, they'd work on fruit flies. For the cost of a couple of rotten bananas, you've got yourself a research colony!

In addition to your proposals, keep asking "animal rights activists" why do they attack researchers instead of firebombing the local Home Depot? After all, the poisons sold by one such store slowly and painfully kill more animals then all animal research in a good sized university...

Agriculture is another good question. Not the meat industry. Even if you are vegan, you are eating plants that are grown in fields where mice and other rodents have been exterminated. Plowing and harvesting using tractors kills innumerable animals.

Highway system and roadkill. Any protesters out there?

Gah. This is not about saving animals. This is about feeling holy and righteous, while indulging in violence against others.

M: "In addition to your proposals, keep asking "animal rights activists" why do they attack researchers instead of firebombing the local Home Depot?"

M, the reason they go after university researchers is that researchers are a soft target. For one thing, they're working for a semi-public institution, so they're more accessible. That also means that harassment via spurious FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests becomes a viable strategy. But mostly they're an easy target because the public does not understand the purpose of basic biological research, which is what Janet and others are trying to address now.

Miko --

You wrote: "Douglas, the meat industry? University researchers are picked on because they are soft targets and what they do is public record (funny how pharma gets a pass). By sheer volume of cruelty, the food establishment should be the focus of animal rights activism, but of course they are powerful and have lawyers, and are therefore harder to intimidate with the frat-boy tactics of university-focused activists. I have been told by someone eating pork dumplings that there is no legitimate purpose to biomedical animal research."

Changing the subject is never a credible argument. University animal researchers are being paid with my tax dollars and with my implied consent, unlike the horrific factory farms. I do not know of any factory farms that are making dumplings from chimpanzees and bonobos. Do you?

Although it appears I am talking to someone who is, on this issue, at the intellectual level of an Apollo Moon Hoaxer, at least do your homework on the statutory history and framework of animal cruelty laws since the 1800s. I have done this research. It might benefit if you do likewise.

My name is Anna Lekas Miller, I work for GRITtv as their web and marketing intern. I just wanted to let anyone who would be interested know that today we will be hosting David Kirby on the show and he will be discussion factory farming! It will be today, 3/3 at 12 PM EST on, and probably posted as a clip on the same website around 8 PM EST tonight. Embed codes for both clips and livestream are available via contacting GRITtv or the website!

Enjoy! Thanks for your support!

Anna Lekas Miller
GRITtv Web Intern

Changing the subject is never a credible argument. University animal researchers are being paid with my tax dollars and with my implied consent, unlike the horrific factory farms.

Re-stating the same falsified claims over and over again is not credible either.

Agribusiness, big and small, gets tremendous subsidy from public funds in the US and worldwide. You have not just implied consent but unless you have never voted for a winning national level politician, you have likely acted directly to endorse this expenditure of your tax money.

The link above references $2.8 billion in US subsidy for "feed grain" alone in 2004. This link ( suggests yearly totals on the order of $17-25 billion for farm subsidy in the US. Recent NIH budgets have run $25-29 billion for the whole shebang.

You can probably parse both sources of taxpayer expenditure for direct/indirect support of animal research over animal agribusiness/farming if you like. And throw in local tax breaks and public University support figures. I bet you come up with rough equivalencies though. Certainly there is no evidence that the US taxpayer supports "horrific factory farms" any less than it does research in the sort of categorical way that Watts is suggesting.

By bikemonkey (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink

You know what meme I'd like to get rid of?

"_____________ is being paid for with my tax dollars without my approval!"

I've seen that blank filled in with:
Factory farming
The war in Iraq
Animal torture
Gay marriage
Bridges to nowhere
Useless research
Presidential jets
Exorbitant teacher salaries

Our government works by majority rule, not individual donation. Your taxes go into a big blob of money that then funds a huge body of work, ANY SINGLE piece of which somebody, somewhere, will disapprove of. It will also go towards the governmental things you like (i.e., roads, schools, postal service, internet support), and whatever it is you do like, there is somebody somewhere that thinks it is a horrible waste and a travesty. Kindly accept that notion and quit whining about the drops you put in the bucket.

Exactly padraig, exactly. This is what is called an adult, civil society democracy. You can work to politically oppose that which you do not support- fine. However, WATB complaints about what you are being forced to pay for against your will are just juvenile foot stomping. Libertardians and wacky lefties alike seem to make a fetish out of this stuff. Grow up.

By bikemonkey (not verified) on 04 Mar 2010 #permalink