Taking Animal Advocacy Seriously (Part 2 of 3)

A couple of months ago I wrote a post on why it is that people fail to take animal advocacy seriously. Today I want to elaborate that claim by illustrating it with a recent example. As most readers of AnimalBlawg probably know, President Obama swatted a fly during an interview with John Hardwood several weeks ago. Most viewers and commentators believed the episode was kind of funny. The President was amused by the event and commented on his Miyagi type ability to kill a fly with just one quick hand movement.

The people at PETA, however, were not pleased. Condemning the President’s “inhumane” treatment of the fly, PETA spokesman Bruce Friedrich commented that “[w]e support compassion even for the most curious, smallest and least sympathetic animals…[w]e believe that people, where they can be compassionate, should be, for all animals.” In order to curb similar future incidents, PETA sent Obama a fly trapping device named “Katcha Bug Humane Bug Catcher”.

If all that they were trying to do was poke fun at the President, PETA’s reaction to the incident is amusing. One suspects, however, that PETA is actually taking this seriously. Lashing out against this conduct is misguided at best and counterproductive at worst. There are at least two problems with PETA’s position.

First, it is unclear whether flies are sentient beings. Several scientific studies suggest that flies do not have the capacity to feel pain (see, e.g., Eisemann, et al). Animal interests or rights stem from their sentience. Therefore, animals that do not have the capacity to feel pain should not have the same rights or interests as animals that have such a capacity. If flies are not sentient beings they should have the same interests or rights as other non-sentient beings such as trees and plants. If plants and trees do not have a right to life (as most people would argue), non-sentient animals should not have a right to life either.

Second, and more importantly, assuming that flies have the capacity to feel pain, the problem of insect mistreatment pales in comparison with other more pressing problems for the animal advocacy community. Most animal advocates agree that the chief evil that we should unite against is the incredibly inhumane practice of factory farming. The problem with PETA’s response to the fly swatting incident is that it provides the people we are trying to convince about the evils of factory farming (and other evidently cruel practices) with an argument against taking us seriously in general. The argument goes something like this:

(1)   PETA represents animal advocates.

(2)   PETA believes that swatting insects is immoral.

(3)   PETA’s position regarding insects is ridiculous and should not be taken seriously.

(4)   Therefore, PETA and other animal advocates should not be taken seriously.

I am well aware that (4) does not follow from (1),(2) and (3). I am also aware that PETA does not necessarily represent the animal advocacy community. This, however, is irrelevant. Regardless of the soundness of the argument, I believe it represents the way in which most people think about these issues. Take, for example, a comment posted on MSNBC’s website by a reader:

“Are you kidding me?  PETA is upset because Obama killed a fly?  Comments like this take away from their organizations credibility and make them look ridiculous.  Are there not any other situations they could make an intelligent comment about this week?”

-Rebecca Alford, Hartsville, South Carolina (June 17, 2009).

The problem with this is that we have limited political capital with the community and have to be very judicious in our use of it. We should not use up our precious resources to combat acts that – like fly swatting – are neither clearly immoral nor central to our principal anti-cruelty crusade (eradicating factory farming). The costs of doing so are obvious. It weakens our credibility with the general public. The benefits, on the other hand, are marginal at best. If we want people to start taking animal advocacy seriously we should stop fussing over minor issues that make us look silly and concentrate on big picture issues like factory farming and animal experimentation.

Luis Chiesa

5 Responses

  1. PETA is also asking the band PHISH to change it’s name to “Sea Kittens” to bring awareness to the plight of fish. This is also unhelpful to the movement and frustrating for those of us that don’t subscribe and fuss over these silly issues, not that overfishing is silly, but changing a band’s name clearly is.

  2. To elaborate on Steph’s comment and the post as a whole, the Sea Kittens campaign is a headache at best. Like the fly incident, it undermines PETA’s appearance to the common person, and squanders good will. No, PETA does not represent animal rights across the board, but it does attract a lot of attention. The key for PETA is to realize that not all publicity is good for it. I think Prof. Crawford has already voiced her dissent with the sexualizing of women that PETA uses to get its point across, and I second that emotion.

    If we are going to attain legal rights for animals, we do need to draw some lines. While I advocate staying the President’s hand the next time something buzzes by him, I think some compromises have to be made when factory farming still looms, and I agree with Prof. Chiesa.

  3. Just because the organism being killed was not a sentient being does not necessarily mean sentient beings will not be affected and hurt. When the president sets the precedent on TV that it is ok to swat a fly and kill insects it is sending a very strong message. How? That fly could have very well been the dinner of an insectivorous bat. That bat, a sentient being, may not have the energy to now fly back to his daytime refuge because he was not able to eat that last fly. Even though the animal being killed may not feel the pain, the eggs that the fly did not lay will surely affect a sentient being. After all, insects feed the planet. Bats (like factory farming) are also facing an extremely pressing problem with their populations dwindling on the east coast daily due to a white nose fungus. The last thing this sentient being needs is intentional negative human interference of its food.

    What if an impressionable child just saw the leader of the free world laughingly kill an insect? Is it possible the child may conclude that it is ok to kill an insect? After all, Obama did it. So what possible authority would reprimand that child from stomping out an anthill? Now Ambystoma laterale, a protected NY salamander with a dwindling population, is out looking for its food before a nice spring breeding session. However, the usual ant hill the sentient being frequents has been stomped because of precedent set forth by the, arguably, strongest leader in the world. Due to the animal’s lack of energy to make a fast retreat from a predator, it is eaten by an invasive turtle. The animal will not make it to its vernal breeding pool and a generation of laterale’s are lost. I know this is a stretch…but it does happen. It is a different approach animal groups may take regarding the killing of insects. It is near impossible for most people to sympathize with insects. This is why extreme groups like PETA are branded for their open sympathy. However, people can sympathize with other animals such as mammals, birds, and even many reptiles and if the insect killing is delivered to the public with sympathy focused on these animals it may be received differently

  4. Sure there is a cause and effect to everything, all organisms leave footprints. What we are saying here is that to focus on this footprint, if you will, of killing one insect detracts from larger footprints we are leaving that are destroying ecosystems on a much more massive and harmful scale. This is similar to PETA asking the President not to walk outside in the rain because he might step on a worm. Each footstep could kill a worm, thus affecting their reproduction, thus their population numbers, and thus affecting birds or mammals that feed on them, and the cycle continues up through the food chain. Yes insects are important, yes we need them, as do we need hundreds of thousands of other organisms to keep stability within our ecosystems and thus the planet. But as compassionate as we want to be over sentient and non sentient beings, we are still going to have an impact on the planet whether we want to or not. Focusing on a fly, like focusing on a worm in the rain, makes the movement seem ridiculous and extreme and it gives the impression that we should not have any impact on the environment whatsoever, which is a factually impossible goal.

  5. […] by signing a letter to Puerto Rico’s governor which can be found in PETA’s website. Although I am no fan of PETA, I believe that this is in fact a worthy […]

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