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Ten Years of Animal Liberation

Modern Meat: Antibiotics, Hormones, and the Pharmaceutical Farm

by Orville Schell
Random House, 337 pp., $17.95

Farm Animals: Husbandry, Behavior, and Veterinary Practice

by Michael W. Fox
University Park Press, 285 pp., $25.00

Of Mice, Models, and Men: A Critical Evaluation of Animal Research

by Andrew N. Rowan
State University of New York Press, 323 pp., $39.50

Victims of Science: The Use of Animals in Research

by Richard D. Ryder
National Anti-Vivisection Society (London), revised edition, 190 pp., £3.75 (paper)

Man and Mouse: Animals in Medical Research

by William Paton
Oxford University Press, 174 pp., $6.95 (paper)

All That Dwell Therein: Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics

by Tom Regan
University of California Press, 249 pp., $18.95

The Case for Animal Rights

by Tom Regan
University of California Press, 425 pp., $24.95

Animals and Why They Matter: A Journey Around the Species Barrier

by Mary Midgley
University of Georgia Press, 158 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Rights, Killing, and Suffering: Moral Vegetarianism and Applied Ethics

by R.G. Frey
Basil Blackwell, 256 pp., $29.95

Interests and Rights: The Case Against Animals

by R.G. Frey
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 176 pp., $27.95


The rise of the animal liberation movement, in the view of a number of commentators, is to be traced back to the publication of my essay “Animal Liberation” in these pages just over a decade ago. That essay was followed by the book of the same title, which was also published by The New York Review.1 What has happened, in theory and in practice, in the intervening years?

The essential aim of the essay and the books was to show, on a rational and philosophical level, that nonhuman animals are an oppressed group. We treat them as if they were things to be used as we please, rather than as beings with lives of their own to live. In both the essay and the book, I singled out two practices as involving the largest and yet least known forms of animal exploitation: animal experimentation and factory farming. To see whether the animal liberation movement has made any practical difference, then, we must look at what has happened since to both practices.

One change is that animal experimentation is no longer a little-known form of animal exploitation. Ten years ago there were long-established antivivisection organizations which had kept alive a tradition of concern for laboratory animals; but their followers were widely regarded as irrelevant cranks, and their effect on curbing the use of laboratory animals was nil. When some of these organizations were founded, more than a century ago, the number of animals used each year in the United States was in the hundreds; it has since risen to somewhere between 60 and 100 million. Ten years ago, there was not a single recorded instance of an experiment on animals being discontinued because of the activities of those opposed to animal experimentation.

As far as farm animals were concerned, the situation was even more depressing. There simply were no organizations interested in the fact that hundreds of millions of factory farm animals are, every moment of the day, denied such elementary freedoms as the space to walk a few steps, to turn around, and even to stretch their limbs.

The animal liberation movement has yet to have an effect on the conditions of American farm animals. Here the United States lags behind other countries. In Europe and Australia there is now considerable public concern about the confinement of laying hens in small wire cages, and of pigs and veal calves in stalls so small they cannot walk a single step or even turn around. Switzerland has passed legislation to phase out the cage system for hens; the West German state of Hesse recently announced that it would follow suit; in Britain a House of Commons agriculture committee recommended the same step. Throughout Western Europe and Australia, “free range eggs” from unconfined hens are widely available in health food stores, and consumers understand the difference. Yet Americans buying their eggs at the supermarket still seem wholly unaware of the fact that the hens who laid them live crammed five or six into a wire cage measuring eighteen by twenty inches.

The situation is similar with pigs and with veal calves. Britain’s largest veal producer recently bowed to a widespread consumer boycott of veal and moved its calves out of their bare, wooden, five-feet-by-two-feet stalls into group pens with room to move and straw for bedding. In the Australian state of Victoria, confining calves in stalls without bedding, and feeding them on an all-liquid, iron-deficient diet, would be a violation of government codes of animal welfare practice, and thus subject to prosecution. This is the standard method of rearing used in the United States for the production of luxury veal for the restaurant trade.

Two developments are promising for American farm animals: one is the formation of a new organization, the Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM), which plans to fight the veal business head-on,2 the other is the discovery of the long-sought “smoking gun” evidence of the health risks of eating factory-farmed animals, routinely dosed with antibiotics to enable them to survive in a stressful environment. As Orville Schell has noted in Modern Meat: Antibiotics, Hormones, and the Pharmaceutical Farm, the introduction of antibiotics as food additives first made it possible for farmers to confine large numbers of animals indoors and keep them healthy—or at least healthy enough to get them to market. A ban on the routine feeding of antibiotics to farm animals just might reverse the trend to more and more animal confinement. The FDA proposed such a ban in 1977, but the political muscle of the farming industry was too much for it. Now that the long-suspected link between the use of antibiotics in farm animals and human infection by resistant strains of bacteria has been established, the FDA at last has an overwhelming case.3

Right from the start, the animal liberation movement in America has had more success in tacking animal experimentation than in confronting factory farming. The first campaign of the new movement began at the American Museum of Natural History in June 1976. It was led by Henry Spira, a New Yorker who, ironically, first heard of animal liberation when he read an attack on the original New York Review article in the Marxist Guardian. Wondering if there might not be more to it than the writer of the derogatory article was willing to allow, Spira went to the original piece and soon found himself convinced that here was the logical continuation of the work he had done fighting for the exploited as a union reformer and marching for civil rights in the South.

Spira selected the Museum of Natural History as his target because he had learned that the museum was conducting a particularly pointless series of experiments which involved mutilating cats to investigate the effect this had on their sex lives. In June 1976 Spira and his supporters began picketing the museum, writing letters, advertising, and gathering support. They kept it up until, in December 1977, it was announced that the experiments would no longer be funded.

Spira and his friends had saved about sixty cats from painful experimentation, more importantly, they had shown that a well-planned, well-run campaign can prevent scientists from doing as they please with laboratory animals. Spira used this victory as a base for bigger campaigns. He now runs two coalitions of animal groups, which concentrate on the rabbit-blinding Draize eye test and on the LD50, a toxicity test designed to find the lethal dose for 50 percent of a sample of animals.4 Together these tests account for the deaths of more than five million animals yearly in the United States alone.

Already the coalitions have begun to reduce both the number of animals used and the severity of their suffering. US government agencies have responded to the campaign against the Draize test by moving to curb some of the most blatant cruelties. They declared that substances known to be caustic irritants, such as Iye, ammonia, and oven cleaners, no longer need be retested on the eyes of conscious rabbits. If this seems too obvious to need saying by a government agency, that merely reveals how bad things were until the campaign began. The agencies have also reduced by one-half to one-third the suggested number of rabbits needed per test for other products. Two major companies, Procter & Gamble and Smith, Kline & French, have released programs for improving their toxicology tests which should involve substantially less suffering for animals. Another company, Avon, reported a decline of 33 percent in the number of animals it uses.

In the most recent and potentially most significant breakthrough, the United States Food and Drug Administration has announced that it does not require the LD50 test. At a stroke, corporations developing new products have been deprived of their standard excuse for using the LD50—the claim that the FDA forces them to do the test if the products are to be released onto the American market.

Some four hundred animal rights groups with an estimated two million members are linked in Spira’s coalition. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the animal liberation movement is so large; some of the groups in the coalition are relatively conservative humane organizations. There is, however, an increasingly large number of people who really are committed to ending the exploitation of animals.’ To avoid participating in such exploitation themselves they have become vegetarians, or even “vegans”—avoiding eggs and dairy products as well as meat. Some, loosely allied under the banner of the “Animal Liberation Front,” have lost patience with conventional channels for change. In Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, France, and West Germany, laboratories have been broken into and animals taken away. In a recent break-in at the University of Pennsylvania, videotape records of monkeys undergoing head-injury experiments were removed and copies sent to television stations. They confirmed what animal liberationists have been saying all along: animals do suffer in experiments, and some experimenters are too callous to take steps to avoid inflicting pain.

Within the animal liberation movement, these break-ins are highly controversial. Provided that there is no violence against any animal, human or non-human, many activists believe that they are justified. They compare these actions with the illegal, but surely justified, underground railroad which assisted black slaves to make their way to freedom; or with the smashing of shop windows which did so much to draw attention to the cause of votes for women in Britain. But is direct action effective as a tactic? Does it simply polarize the debate and harden the opposition to reform? So far, one would have to say, the publicity gained—and the evident public sympathy with the animals released—has done the movement more good than harm. This is, in large part, because the targets of these actions have been so well selected that the experimentation revealed is particularly difficult to defend.

In another highly effective intervention, Alex Pacheco, a member of an animal rights group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,5 got a volunteer job at the Institute for Behavioral Research, in Silver Springs, Maryland. There he was able to observe the atrocious condition in which seventeen monkeys were kept. Pacheco found that the monkeys, who had disabled limbs as a result of surgical interference, received no veterinary care. They had numerous self-inflicted wounds. Two had bones protruding through their flesh. Others had bitten off their fingers. These wounds had not even been dressed, and the cages were caked with feces. Periodically the monkeys were tested to see how well they could use their limbs; the punishment for not performing well was electric shock.

Pacheco discussed what he had found with Ingrid Newkirk, an organizer with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and widely regarded as one of the sharpest strategists in the movement. They decided that Pacheco should bide his time, taking advantage of opportunities to photograph the laboratories and even to bring in, at night, independent veterinarians and experts on primate behavior. Finally Pacheco went to the Maryland police with his evidence. This resulted in the first police raid on a research facility suspected of violating laws to protect animals. The director of the laboratory, Dr. Edward Taub, was charged with seventeen counts of cruelty to animals. At the first trial Taub was convicted on six counts, but following two appeals, the Maryland Court of Appeals held that animal experimenters who receive federal tax funding do not have to obey the state anticruelty laws. This judgment is widely regarded as having a slender legal basis, but it effectively closed any further avenue of appeal. Perhaps more important than the conviction of any person, however, is the fact that the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s principal source of funding for animal experimentation, cut off the funds for Taub’s research and is now strengthening its guidelines for animal experimentation.

  1. 1

    Animal Liberation” appeared in The New York Review on April 5, 1973; the essay was a review of Animals, Men and Morals, edited by Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris (Taplinger, 1972). Animal Liberation (A New York Review Book, 1975) is now available as an Avon paperback.

  2. 2

    Box 70123, Washington, DC 20088.

  3. 3

    For a summary of the situation concerning antibiotics in animal feeds, see two articles by Marjorie Sun: “In Search of Salmonella’s Smoking Gun,” Science, vol. 226 (October 5, 1984), pp. 30–32; and “Use of Antibiotics in Animal Feed Challenged,” Science, vol. 226 (October 12, 1984), pp. 144–146.

  4. 4

    The Coalition to Abolish the Draize Test and the Coalition to Abolish the LD50 are at 234 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10001.

  5. 5

    Box 56272, Washington, DC 20011.

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