Matt C. Abbott
'Animal rights' versus good stewardship
By Matt C. Abbott
May 18, 2010

The other day I received a brief e-mail from Laurel, who was responding to a past column of mine regarding PETA and so-called animal rights.

"You're pretty silly," Laurel says. "I assume your argument of humans having dominion over animals comes from the Bible, a fictitious piece of literature. Maybe I should start living my life by the tenements of Green Eggs and Ham and try to force everyone to do the same. It makes about the same amount of sense."

Laurel is a perfect example of a God-less "animal rights" supporter — and, sadly, such individuals are legion in today's rotten culture.

Which brings me to author and bioethicist Wesley J. Smith's latest book A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement. Below is the book's Introduction (minus footnotes). Many thanks to Lauren Miklos of Encounter Books for granting me permission to reprint, and providing me with, said material.

Introduction to Wesley J. Smith's

A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement

The Walt Disney Company used to advertise Disneyland as the happiest place on earth. But for my money the Assistance Dog Institute of Santa Rosa, California — "helping dogs help people" — is more joyful. The Space Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean rides are certainly fun, but for pure bliss, nothing beats being surrounded by friendly and happy dogs!

Assistance dogs are remarkable canines specially bred and trained to help people with physical and developmental disabilities lead happier and more independent lives. As I walked into ADI's offices in preparation for writing this book, I suddenly found myself awash in beautiful and energetic golden and Labrador retrievers: I stuck my head into the office of Bonnie Bergin, president of ADI and creator of the assistance-dog concept, and saw four or five eager dogs leaning forward for a scritch. I walked down a short hall and a big golden put his front paws on the closed bottom half of a Dutch door, looking for a quick chin chuck and a hand to lick; Then, I was told to be very quiet as I watched a specially trained volunteer "puppy petter" softly stroke a tiny days-old puppy whose mother was nursing the puppy's siblings nearby. Finally, in the large training room, I laughed as a rambunctious puppy named Trixie opened a refrigerator door on command by biting on a cloth attached to the door and pulling. Hearing an enthusiastic "Good Girl!" she leaped into her trainer's arms for more praise and a good snuggle.

By the time they are six months old, assistance dogs in training like Trixie have learned obedience and gross retrieval skills. As they mature, their training intensifies and they acquire astonishingly sophisticated abilities. By the time they "graduate" at about eighteen months, assistance dogs can respond to no fewer than ninety-four commands, such as "closer," "tug," "drop it," "hold," and "release." The next step is to pair a disabled person with the dog that will become a loving assistant and companion. The two will bond intensely as they learn how to work together, so the dog can perform everyday tasks that may be of urgent concern for people with disabilities: opening and closing doors, retrieving dropped items (phone or keys, e.g.), turning lights on and off.

The practical benefits of service dogs are obvious. But they can also provide an even more valuable service, as "Frank" the service dog did for Kip, a young man disabled in an accident. Kip's mother, Lisa, wrote:

There is no doubt in my mind that Frank's most critical job is to open the door socially [for Kip]. Prior to Kip's injury, he was a strong, healthy, active, physically fit young 18 year-old. To go from being the high school athlete to being in a chair, there is not a person who did not approach him differently, if they even approached him. Most people would tend to just ignore Kip's presence; looking right over him. . . . What Frank has done is open the door for people so they can communicate directly with Kip. Frank's presence helps people get over their fears about approaching Kip. The conversation usually begins with, "What a beautiful dog," or "What's your dog's name?" or, "May I pet your dog?" To have people acknowledge Kip's presence through Frank has been life-changing for Kip.

One would think that organizations like the Assistance Dog Institute — and others like it throughout the United States such as Canine Companions for Independence — would be uncontroversial: The dogs are happy and well cared for; the students at the institutes are happy; those receiving the canine services are overjoyed. But if animal rights activists had their way, ADI would not exist. They believe that all instrumental uses of animals are immoral, no matter how benign to the animals or how beneficial to humans. And so for the past three-plus decades they have mounted an increasingly radical campaign aimed at the eventual "liberation" of animals from humans — a campaign that has left virtually no animal use untouched.

It is not my purpose in this book to act as a defender of animal industries. Rather, my goals are primarily to expose the antihuman ideology of the animal rights/liberation movement, expose its many deceptions, and warn against its sometimes violent tactics. I will also defend the use of animals as necessary and appropriate to promote human welfare, prosperity, and happiness. Finally, I will mount an unequivocal defense of the belief that human beings stand uniquely at the pinnacle of moral worth, a concept sometimes called "human exceptionalism."

I am very well aware that these positions, once almost universally accepted, have become intensely controversial in recent years. Few issues generate such intense emotionalism or fervent support by its adherents as does "animal rights." Thus, I want to make it very clear at the outset — as I will throughout the book — that I love animals and, like most people, I wince when I see them in pain. Moreover, I believe strongly that we as enlightened people have a profound moral and ethical obligation to treat animals humanely and respectfully — a core obligation of human exceptionalism — and by all means never to cause them to suffer for frivolous reasons. I also strongly support laws against cruelty to animals and I favor strengthening them when appropriate. In fact, I believe that animal abuse is a terrible wrong, not only because it causes the victimized animal to suffer, but also because cruelty to animals diminishes our own humanity.

Now, consider why I felt it necessary to make such an unusual disclaimer: Over the past thirty years, the concept of "animal rights" has seeped into the bone marrow of Western culture. (This is especially true among the young.) Part of the reason is that "animal rights" is used so loosely it is often taken to mean little more than being nicer to animals. But this isn't true. Although animal rights groups do sometimes engage in animal welfare — type activism, the term "animal rights" actually denotes a belief system, an ideology, even a quasi religion, which both implicitly and explicitly seeks to create a moral equivalence between the value of human lives and those of animals. This belief was succinctly expressed in 1986 when Ingrid Newkirk, the head of the animal rights absolutist organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), told the Washingtonian magazine, "A rat, is a pig, is a dog, is a boy. They are all mammals."

Animal rights ideologues embrace their beliefs with a fervency that is remarkably intense and sustained, to the point that some dedicate their entire lives to "speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves." Some believe their cause to be so righteous that they are entitled to cross the line from legitimate advocacy to terroristic attempts at coercion. Indeed, what other than intense "true belief" can possibly explain the vicious campaign — of harassment and vandalism, criminal attacks, bombings, and even threats of murder — that has been launched in recent years against medical researchers, the fur and food industries, and others accused of "animal abuse"?

Our Love Affair with Animals

Perhaps we should not be surprised at the growth of the animal rights movement. Americans love animals. We coddle our cats and dogs as if they were human children. We paste "Save the Whales" bumper stickers on our cars. We flock to national parks to catch fleeting glimpses of bear, elk, and antelope — remnants of a wild America. We anthropomorphize the animal world with movies like Bambi and Babe. We want our cheese to come from "happy cows." At the same time, as primarily urbanites, we disassociate ourselves emotionally from the fact that meat comes from killing animals and that our stylish leather jackets were first worn by cows or sheep.

This love affair with animals can be charming, if a bit loopy at times. It is also a potent indicator of our prosperity and cultural success. Most people in the West have become so removed from the struggle for daily survival that we have the luxury of caring deeply about animals and their suffering — which is a good thing. Moreover, our care for animals reflects our empathy, one of the great human virtues.

Our deep affinity with animals begins very early in life. I was reminded of this a few years ago while on a family vacation to Ireland. In the western coastal town of Dingle there is a unique tourist attraction: "Fungi" the lone dolphin. Tourist boats advertise trips into the harbor to see Fungi, with no fee charged unless he makes an appearance. Liking dolphins and wanting to see one up close, my wife Debra, niece Jennifer, and I eagerly bought tickets, and along with about twenty other tourists we were soon on a boat slowly cruising toward the mouth of Dingle's small picturesque harbor.

As if on cue, Fungi arrived, swimming almost within reach on the starboard side. We all pressed eagerly up against the railing to get a good look. I was standing behind a very excited little boy — who couldn't have been older than four — ecstatic at being so close to the magnificent animal. Suddenly, he sighed in ecstasy, held his arms out as wide as he could, and with all the love in his innocent heart, crooned, "Ah, Fungi!"

It was a touching moment. Fungi was utterly indifferent to the child, no doubt swimming alongside the boat knowing he would be fed by a deck hand as his usual cut of the day's profits for making an appearance. But to the little boy, Fungi epitomized the joy and hope of life itself.

On the same vacation, Debra had been enjoying a biography of the great French novelist Alexandre Dumas — until, that is, she came across a disturbing section. It seems that Dumas was traveling across the English Channel when dolphins began swimming by his ship, jumping, squeaking, and riding the ship's bow wave as is their wont. Dumas apparently fancied himself to be a great hunter. He had never killed a dolphin, so he went to his stateroom, got his gun, and killed an "ancestor" of Fungi — just for the fun of it.

"Why did you read us that?" Jennifer and I moaned in unison, our splendid moods of the moment ruined at the thought of such gratuitous cruelty against an innocent animal. The fact that the incident had occurred more than one hundred years ago did nothing to soothe our feelings.

And yet: Killing animals has always been and remains inextricably bound with human thriving. We do so for food and leather, in medical research, in sport, and to ensure environmental balance when necessary. More to the point, there is a lot at stake in this debate. Pause a moment and ponder the consequences if we were prevented from domesticating animals, as animal rights/liberationists advocate. Medical research would be materially impeded. There would be no more fishing fleets, cattle ranches, leather shoes, steak barbeques, animal parks, bomb-sniffing or Seeing Eye dogs, wool coats, fish farms, horseback riding, pet stores, perhaps not even attractions like Fungi. Millions of people would be thrown out of work, our enjoyment of life would be substantially diminished, our welfare and prosperity reduced.

How We Shall Proceed

To understand why animal rights/liberation is such a serious threat to human well-being, we must begin at the level of core ideas and fundamental beliefs. We will first look into the basic differences between animal welfare or animal protection on the one hand, and animal rights on the other. Here too we will examine the common belief that unites the disparate animal rights/liberation philosophical approaches: the belief that it is wrong to treat human beings differently from animals — to practice what is known as "speciesism," which many consider to be as odious as racism or other forms of bigotry against particular categories of people.

Next we will examine the utilitarian philosophy of the Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer. Contrary to popular understanding, Singer does not believe in animal rights per se. But his call to grant animals "equal consideration" with people in judging the morality of actions and public policies revolutionized thinking in this area and jump-started what became the animal rights/liberation movement.

We will then explore the purist animal rights ideology as articulated by the most prominent thinkers in the field. Included here are the preaching of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the abolitionist philosophy of Gary Francione, and the influential Tom Regan's call to treat animals equally with people as the "subjects of a life."

From abstract ideas, we move into the various advocacy campaigns playing out in the public square. First up will be the Great Ape Project, the explicit purpose of which is to demote human beings from the exceptional species into members of a "community of equals" that also includes great apes — an idea that, alarmingly, has already achieved some success. We will also review the true story of the notorious "Silver Spring monkey case," a successful political and legal attack that helped make PETA a political force as it nearly destroyed the life and work of a prominent medical researcher who was targeted because he used monkeys in important experiments aimed at developing a new treatment for victims of stroke. Among other disclosures, you will learn that pregnant pigs have been given certain constitutional rights under the Florida Constitution, how and why the Australian wool industry is under threat of international boycott because of a method for protecting sheep against a terrible maggot infestation, and the manner in which your children are being proselytized by animal rightists, often in the schools.

Everyone has the right to advocate for their beliefs in a free society, of course, no matter how ill-advised their goals. Alas, some animal rights activists aren't content merely to persuade but increasingly seek to impose their views by threats of violence and acts of outright criminality. Loose groups like ALF (Animal Liberation Front), ELF (Environmental Liberation Front), SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty), and other anarchists attack and threaten scientists, labs, animal-processing plants, fur ranches, and other places where animals are used for human benefit. Like all terrorism, these activities have two purposes: to harm the specific person or group targeted, and on more broadly to scare other similarly situated people into thinking of themselves as potential targets. We will name names and go into details about these more extreme animal rights radicals — and show that rather than being separate and apart, the terrorists within the movement are, if not mainstream, certainly not outcasts among co-believers.

One of the primary threats posed by the animal rights movement to society is its unremitting campaign to thwart the advance of science and medicine by means of animal research. We will explore this area in detail, exposing the patently false argument made by many liberationists that using animals in research is both scientifically unnecessary and harmful to human health. We will also discuss why animal research is necessary — for example, as a way of protecting human research subjects — as well as the efforts being made by researchers to minimize the use of animals and the harm caused to them in experiments.

From there, we will turn to some of the other areas in which humans benefit from the proper and humane use of animals. Here we will focus primarily on animals as food. Animal rightists promote veganism and vegetarianism as a matter of both ethics and human health. But human beings are biologically omnivores, and meat is a natural part of our diet. Still, our raising of food animals does entail important animal welfare issues, particularly regarding the acceptability of industrial farming and the best practices for slaughtering food animals. And while it is impossible to examine every controversy involving the use of animals, we will also look into the debates over fur, zoos, and hunting.

Our concluding chapter returns to the realm of ideas. The great philosophical question of the twenty-first century, it seems to me, is whether we will knock human beings off the pedestal of moral distinctiveness, or move forward to create a better world for people and animals alike from the position of human moral responsibility. This goal, I argue, requires not the relinquishing of human exceptionalism, but rather its wholehearted embrace.

The stakes in the animal rights controversy are larger than the sum of its parts. It is my hope that after finishing this book, readers will agree that it is a distinctly human and noble calling to continually improve our ways of raising and caring for animals. But this effort must not and cannot include granting rights to animals as if they were people. I hope this book will convincingly demonstrate that the very concept of animal rights should be rejected because by seeking to destroy the principle of human exceptionalism, the movement subverts human rights as it undermines our ability to promote human health, prosperity, and well-being.

Related link:

"Animal Rights: A Primer"

© Matt C. Abbott


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media, and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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