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 exposé 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.

It may be objected that so commonplace an account fails to explain why, in the United States, the animal rights movement initially concentrated so heavily on animal experimentation and turned only recently to a serious attack on factory farming. After all, the numbers of animals involved (more than five billion animals spend their entire lives in factory farms each year in the United States alone, as compared with, to take one of the higher estimates, 70 million animals used in experimentation) must mean that the total quantity of animal suffering in factory farming is many times greater than that involved in animal experimentation.

There are several reasons why this greater total quantity has not been reflected in a greater total amount of activity for farm animals. First, though the total quantity of suffering may be greater, people tend to identify with individual animals. The suffering inflicted on farm animals—through overcrowding, constriction of movement, and deprivation of many kinds—may take place among large groups of animals over a considerable period. Moreover, in the United States, animal experimenters have, quite deliberately, inflicted a degree of suffering on individual animals that would be illegal if inflicted under any other circumstances. They have then written up what they have done and published it in journals to be found on the shelves of any good library.5 Many of these experiments would not be legal in other countries, such as Britain, which have stricter laws controlling animal experimentation. This has made animal experimentation a principal target for American animal liberationists.

Another reason is simply that American animal researchers are a smaller and politically less powerful group than American farmers, and they are based in regions where animal liberationists live. They therefore made a more accessible, and slightly less formidable, opponent than the factory farmers for the fledgling American animal liberation movement.

The animal liberation movement is a protest movement along the lines of other protest movements that have become well known since the civil rights and antiwar movements of the last thirty years. That Sperling should have missed so obvious a point is truly remarkable, for the evidence is there in her own book. Sperling writes:

Almost without exception, the activists I spoke with have been involved in other socially ambitious protest movements in the past, particularly the ecology movement, the antinuclear movement, and the women’s movement. Most articulated the belief that there were implicit ties between the ideologies of these causes and animal rights, as all reflect a related critique of certain aspects of Western society.

How is it that Sperling never asked herself why, in view of the parallels she supposes between animal liberation and charismatic, millenarian movements, these activists did not mention narrow escapes from the Jonestown massacre, sojourns with the Orange People, or links with Christian evangelists?

Sperling’s failure to ask this question might be explained by the fact that the commonplace view of the animal liberation movement would not make an interesting study in anthropology as she conceives it. But there is also another possible explanation. Though Sperling never says plainly that the apocalyptic beliefs she attributes to the animal rights movement are mad, most readers will have little trouble in getting the implicit message: the animal rights people are crazies. Like those charismatic sects, they believe that the world is dominated by evil powers and is about to come to a terrible end.

Describing the animal liberation movement in terms better suited to medieval hysterics serves to put a gulf between it and ordinary politics, which, once accepted, will be virtually impossible for the movement to cross. That this is exactly what Sperling wants to suggest is clear from her “Postscript,” which is subtitled “Talking Across the Abyss.” The postscript is an extremely casual attempt to catch up on what has happened since 1984. (The reader is not told why it has taken so long to get the earlier research published.) Some seven of its seventeen pages, however, are taken up by an interview with Sandra Bressler, the executive director of the California Biomedical Research Association, a lobby group for animal experimentation. “Sandra” comes across as “neat”; she displays “composure,” “verbal mastery,” and “rationality is something that she values very highly.” Sperling tells us that “Sandra was a proponent of sound reason as my informants [i.e., the animal rights activists] were proponents of love above reason.”

Forgotten, in these closing pages, are Sperling’s earlier references to the important part played by philosophers in the development of the animal liberation movement. Instead we are told once again that animal rights activists believe that researchers are “avatars of the moral decay of society” and that the “ecological apocalypse and death of all species must be averted by a struggle for human redemption through the recognition of animal rights.” The plot requires that polar opposites collide, and that is what the author gives us. It is the neat, composed voice of reason against the apocalyptic fanatics. Whose side are you on?

There is no need to look for implicit messages in The Use of Laboratory Animals in Biomedical and Behavioral Research. This short report is just what it appears to be: a defense of animal experimentation by a committee set up by the National Research Council (itself an arm of the National Academy of Sciences) and funded by the US Air Force, Army, and Navy; the National Institutes of Health; the National Science Foundation; and more than a dozen drug companies. The project is reported to have cost $315,000.6 The committee included just one person from the animal welfare movement, Christine Stevens of the Animal Welfare Institute, one of the more conservative animal welfare organizations.7 Ms. Stevens, however, refused to sign the report, saying that it “refuses to face the widespread, ingrained problem of unnecessary suffering among the millions of laboratory animals used yearly in our country.”

Many years ago8 I criticized Ms. Steven’s organization for being too close to people who want animal experimentation to continue. I should now congratulate her for keeping her distance on this occasion. She is absolutely right. This report must be the most complacent exercise in self-congratulation it has been my misfortune to read. It is also exceedingly dull. It contains a chapter on patterns of animal use which has no new information because the Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources has been unable to complete a planned update of its 1983 survey. The figure given for the number of animals used is therefore the estimate of “17–22 million” cited by the Office of Technology Assessment in its 1986 report.9 It would be more honest to say that we simply don’t know how many animals are used in the United States, because the data collected by the US Department of Agriculture leave out rats, mice, birds, and wild animals; and rats and mice certainly make up the majority of the animals used. Other chapters are essentially lists of, first, the benefits that we owe to animal experimentation, next, the possible alternatives to the use of live animals, and why they cannot replace all animal research, and then the regulations that cover animal experimentation.

None of this is new, and on alternatives in particular, the story was better told by the Office of Technology Assessment. Under pressure from animal liberationists over the last decade there has been a revolution in the development of cell and tissue cultures as a means of testing new cosmetics, drugs, and household products. There is now a major Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins University, and several new journals—In Vitro Toxicology, Molecular Toxicology, Toxicology in Vitro, and Cell Biology and Toxicology—have appeared within the last five years. Without these alternatives, the total number of animals suffering severe pain in American laboratories would have been still greater than it is today. But it did not need a $315,000 study to point out that there is a limit to the kind of experiments that can be replaced by such methods. Some human diseases involve breakdowns of complex interactions in whole organisms, and no alternative to the use of a whole living organism is likely to assist us in understanding the nature of such diseases—although if we give genuine consideration to the interests of nonhuman animals we will not assume that this fact alone entitles us to use them to obtain this understanding.

The committee’s recommendations are mostly what one would expect from such a body. The ones that reveal the real point of the entire project are the recommendations that no new laws or regulations affecting the use of animals in research should be promulgated at the present time, and that pound animals should be available for use in research. Most of the other recommendations are nothing more than statements of benevolent intentions, such as that animals should be treated “humanely,” and that researchers should “consider” possible alternatives before using animals. I trust that reaching agreement on these recommendations makes the members of the committee feel good: it is hard to see what other good it is likely to do. The one positive proposal that may have some value is that sufficient federal funds should be appropriated for the inspections required for the enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act. That the committee and the animal liberation movement would agree on this point is an indication of just how scandalous (from any perspective) the absence of such funds in past years has been.

More significant than any recommendation printed in the report is the one that is not there: a recommendation requesting the secretary of agriculture to issue regulations under the Animal Welfare Act extending its protection to mice, rats, birds, and farm animals used in research. Since the act was passed in 1966 we have had the continuing farce of a law that on its face protects all warm-blooded laboratory animals from gross neglect in breeding, transport, and housing (unless the conditions are part of the experimental design, in which case the law is powerless to intervene) but that because of the failure of the secretary of agriculture to issue the necessary regulations, does not cover 85 percent of the animals used in American laboratories. According to Christine Stevens, such a recommendation was at one stage approved by a majority vote of the committee, but was reversed at the only committee meeting she did not attend.

Stevens documents, in an “Individual Statement” printed at the end of the report, the way in which the report was tailored to suit the experimenters’ views. Information showing increases in the number of animals used in experiments, in the use of primates in particular, and also in the number of animals reported by institutions as experiencing unrelieved pain was omitted from the report. So was material on the benefits of regulation of animal experimentation, and on how this regulation has developed in Europe. Well-documented cases of abuse of animals in American laboratories were glossed over. In discussion, she tells us, committee members asserted that we have no moral obligation to animals.

All this is depressing to read. Ironically, animal liberationists will be more encouraged by an “Individual Statement” by Dr. Arthur Guyton, chairman of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine. Like Stevens, Guyton is critical of the main report, but for very different reasons. He thinks the report “fails to make clear how seriously the Animal Rights Movement and increasing government regulation are impeding essential medical research.” He is worried that “the necessity to obtain prior approval before performing each type of animal experiment” may cause delays of up to two months. He also objects to what he considers to be the excessively strict standards of care set for survival surgery on rabbits and larger animals, and to the regulations on cage sizes. All this, he says, has made animal research more costly.

Guyton acknowledges that new federal regulations “are similar to those established in Europe several decades ago.” In other words, they do no more than bring the United States somewhere near the very minimal standards accepted a long time ago in slightly more civilized parts of the world. (In fact there is still a significant gap, because many European nations have improved their standards in the last five years.) But Guyton is most unhappy about the prospect of facing the controls with which European researchers lived quite easily for decades, and concludes by saying that he cannot recommend to young researchers that they pursue careers in those types of medical research that require the use of animals. I am glad to hear it. I hope that these young researchers heed his call, and turn instead to tasks such as health education and the distribution of our existing medical techniques to those places where the need is greatest. In that way they will make a greater contribution to human health than they would ever be likely to make by experimenting on animals.

This Issue

February 2, 1989