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Unkind to Animals

Animal Liberators: Research and Morality

by Susan Sperling
University of California Press, 247 pp., $19.95

Use of Laboratory Animals in Biomedical and Behavioral Research Research; the Commission on Life Sciences, National Research Council; and the Institute of Medicine

by the Committee on the Use of Laboratory Animals in Biomedical
National Academy Press, 102 pp., $11.95

Now I know something of how American Indians and Trobriand Islanders must feel. I have been a subject of “ethnographic” research by a postdoctoral fellow in anthropology at the University of California. Not in person, admittedly, for I was not privileged to be one of the nine animal rights activists with whom Dr. Sperling had “extended conversations” during the fieldwork phase of this study, which lasted from June to September 1984. I count myself as one of her subjects nonetheless, because she quotes me as frequently as she does any of those she did interview. (Although to establish this I had first to decipher the author’s practice of dividing her index references to my book, Animal Liberation,1 between “Singer, P.” and a hitherto unknown alter ego, “Singer, J.”)

There is an old joke to the effect that the distinction between anthropology and sociology consists in whether we are looking at “them” (in which case it is anthropology) or “us” (when it is sociology). What then is an anthropologist doing studying the animal liberation movement in the United States? (Sperling writes of both “animal liberators” and “animal rights activists,” and I shall use the terms interchangeably.) Sperling’s reason is that the distinction between human beings and animals is just the kind of cosmological category-making anthropologists like to study when they visit other cultures. So why shouldn’t an anthropologist examine the way this distinction is drawn by a group within our own society, a group that appears to challenge the standard way in which the categories are demarcated in Western society? Put this way, the idea seems splendid, but as we shall see, in this instance, the anthropological perspective has acted as a distorting lens on the subject of the research.

Sperling’s book suffers from another distorting influence too. During her graduate training in anthropology, under the supervision of Phyllis Dolhinow, a primatologist, Sperling carried out research on langur monkeys. Some of this involved separating infants and their mothers. Harry Harlow had already carried out a long series of maternal deprivation experiments on rhesus monkeys, and had found that the infants showed a variety of abnormal, depressive, and neurotic behavior. Dolhinow’s team wanted to know if the same thing would happen with langurs. Sperling believes that this work was justified because “we were testing hypotheses about an important issue: the well-being of a young primate who temporarily or permanently loses contact with its mother.” She was surprised when Dolhinow, whose work “had always seemed a model of humane concern,” was subsequently criticized by the local animal rights movement. In the acknowledgements that appear at the start of Animal Liberators, thanking people for their support for the project, the first person mentioned is Phyllis Dolhinow. One might well wonder whether such a background augurs well for an objective study of the animal liberation movement; but Sperling’s preface disarms such criticism by a passing reference to the “futility of ethnographic objectivity,” which, we are informed, has been “the subject of a refined discourse in recent anthropology.”

Quite apart from any possible bias on the question of the animal liberation movement’s opposition to animal experimentation, however, the way in which Sperling has come to this study has led her to make a fundamental mistake. She sees the modern animal liberation movement as almost exclusively an antivivisection movement. She thereby fails to grasp what the movement is really all about.

This mistake becomes clear when Sperling discusses parallels between the antivivisection movement in late Victorian Britain and the contemporary movement which is the subject of her study. Both movements, she writes, “have focused protest specifically on the use of animals by science, rather than on the general issue of humane treatment of animals in all contexts.” Such a statement could only be written by an American who is ignorant of the fact that the United States animal rights movement is a branch of a worldwide movement that had its birth in Britain, and who is blind to much that has been going on in her own country as well.

Part of the problem is that Sperling did her research in 1984 and has made no serious attempt to bring it up to date for publication. In 1984 the United States animal rights movement was concentrating mainly on the use of animals in scientific research. Even then, this was not an exclusive concern. Sperling really should have known this, for at one point in her book she raises the question of the total membership of the animal rights movement. By way of a partial answer, she names three “large national groups with animal rights platforms” and gives their combined 1982 membership as 446,000. The three groups are Friends of Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Fund for Animals. Yet none of these groups had then, or has now, animals in research as its major interest. Friends of Animals and the Fund for Animals have strong concerns for wildlife, with Friends of Animals also having at various times worked for the protection of farm animals. The Humane Society of the United States is concerned with the entire spectrum of animal welfare and no one could think of it as primarily concerned with animal experimentation. It is in any case an odd group to list in a book that repeatedly insists on the distinction between the “humane movement” and the animal rights movement; for most animal rights activists think of the Humane Society of the United States as no more than one of the more progressive of the traditional conservative humane groups.

Either Sperling must be wrong about the main interests of the animal rights movement or she must have chosen the wrong groups for her membership figures. In fact she is wrong on both counts. She does overlook what animal rights activists have done for farm animals, wildlife, zoo animals, domestic pets, and so on. Had she taken this into account, her book would have given a very different picture of the animal liberators. But it is also true that the groups she has chosen in discussing membership figures are not representative of the American animal rights movement—they all predate it, for a start. They seem to have been selected only because their membership figures were conveniently available in a single source. Sperling failed to do the serious research that would be involved in finding out and adding up the membership of the many more local, and sometimes more short-lived, groups that make up the existing animal liberation movement. (Perhaps the use of such quantitative methods would have taken the study into the realm of sociology rather than anthropology.)

Had Sperling looked at the animal liberation movement throughout the world, she could not have made such an error. She would then not have overlooked the importance of Animal Factories, Ruth Harrison’s early exposĂŠ of factory farming.2 She should have noticed that my own book gives at least as much emphasis to farm animals as to animal experimentation. She would better have understood the importance of vegetarianism, which was rarely practiced by the leaders of traditional antivivisection organizations but is practically universal among the more prominent animal liberationists. She would have realized that in Britain and Australia, the campaign against modern intensive farming practices has been at least as prominent as the campaign against animal experimentation. In particular, the British animal liberation movement has succeeded in persuading Her Majesty’s Government to put an end to the abhorrent practice (still standard in the United States) of producing veal by confining calves for their entire lives in wooden crates too narrow for the animals to turn around and too short for them to walk a single step. The animal liberation movement has also sought to stop egg producers from keeping laying hens crowded four or five to a cage too small to permit the birds to stretch their wings. Here too there has been some success, for Switzerland and Sweden have announced phase-out periods for the cages, and everywhere in Europe and Australia, shops offer “free range eggs,” from birds able to walk around outside.

The belief that animal liberation is essentially about the abuse of laboratory animals is the basis of Sperling’s major thesis: that the animal rights movement is “a vehicle for charismatic emotional expressions of alienation” from the values of modern technological society. If Sperling had looked at the animal liberation movement as a whole, her readers might have been spared such “explanations” for the existence of the animal rights movement as the following:

It seems likely that some of the emotional meaning of vivisection, its revolting and fearsome nature, derives from its resemblance to universal aspects of witchcraft‌. Vivisection is the symbolic nexus for all the damage wrought by the forces of technology and its specialist-practitioners. Both literally and symbolically, it embodies all of the elements involved in the scientific manipulation of the body and of nature. It is thus a perfect symbol for the modern dominance of technology over life.

Not only witches, but also charismatic cults and the millenarian sects of the Middle Ages get dragged into Sperling’s account. Taking her words from a recent essay on charisma,3 she tells us that animal rights activists “claim ‘the charismatic capacity to dissolve the integument of an integrated order.’ ” Then she borrows from Norman Cohn’s classic, if a trifle overused, Pursuit of the Millennium,4 in order to liken the animal rights movement to medieval sects that saw the world as “dominated by an evil, tyrannous power of boundless destructiveness” and sought to posit instead “a mystical holism of humans and nature.”

Reality is, as usual, rather more ordinary. The organizations concerned with animal liberation with which I have worked, not only in Australia but also in the United States, Britain, and many continental European countries as well, are seeking above all to prevent needless and unjustifiable suffering. There are a few fanatics with bizarre ideas who attach themselves to any movement for change. I have held “extended conversations” with many more than nine animal rights activists and nearly all of them resemble not the millenarians depicted by Sperling but those other activists, sometimes idealistic, sometimes entirely realistic, who try to prevent needless and unjustifiable human suffering, for example, by working against nuclear weapons, racism, and apartheid, or for women, the environment, or aid for poor third-world countries. Indeed many animal liberationists have worked for such causes, and continue to do so while working for animals. The chief difference between them and those who work exclusively for human welfare is that the animal liberationists have pushed the boundaries of their concern back one stage further. They see nonhuman animals as another oppressed group, suffering from blatant exploitation by a species that has unlimited power over other species and uses this power for its own selfish interests.

  1. 1

    A New York Review Book, 1975; reprinted as an Avon paperback, 1977.

  2. 2

    London: Vincent Stuart, 1964.

  3. 3

    D. Handelman, “Charisma, liminality, and symbolic types,” in Comparative Social Dynamics: Essays in Honor of S.N. Eisenstadt, eds. M. Lisak and U. Almagor (Westview Press, 1985).

  4. 4

    Oxford University Press, 1961.

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