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PETA 1

It’s been called our next big moral challenge. Over the next century, activists say, we will come to see animals in a different way and recognize that we can no longer use them for our own ends.

Just as no one would now argue in favor of slavery, in the future no one will argue for using animals to test medicine, killing them to provide food or burdening them to do our work.

“Animal rights means that animals, like humans, have interests that cannot be sacrificed or traded away just because it might benefit others,” says PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

In their quest for better treatment for animals, such groups make the case that animals have — or should have — legal rights. In opposition are those — many with an economic interest in the status quo — who think of PETA as a bunch of spit-gargling extremists bent on disrupting our way of life.

But no matter which side you land on, there is a problem at the heart of the issue that has not been solved.

Man and Beast

At the core of the animal rights issue is the question of exactly what, if anything, separates human beings from animals — or from other animals.

All the remaining issues, from the biblical verse giving “man” dominion over the beasts to whether Sharon Stone should wear fur, pivot on this single question. And it is a question with many gray areas and no satisfactory answer.

Animal rights activists, such as members of PETA, emphasize the similarities between animals and humans. They point out that the chimpanzee, for instance, shares more than 98 percent of its DNA with the human. Not enough of a difference, they say, to warrant treating these apes as property.

The Judeo-Christian tradition emphasizes the distinction in Genesis, when Jehovah creates Adam in his divine image and grants Adam dominion “over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth.”peasant and oxen

This has been considered as theological permission to use the animals for food, for transportation and for medical research.

Since then, however, science has had trouble with the border between human and animal. It’s been forced constantly to retreat from its definition of what distinguishes the two. Once, we were the toolmaking animal, until we learned that chimpanzees can make a primitive form of chopsticks to pluck termites out of their nests. Then we were the linguistic animal, until gorillas started learning sign language.

By now, science can only fall back on DNA: Humans are genetically distinct. That’s not much of a mandate to reign over Creation: After all, each species is genetically distinct.

This gradual blurring of the human-animal border would seem to benefit PETA. However, it could end in confounding their own argument.

Great chain of being

Traditionally, we have thought of life on Earth as a hierarchical “great chain of being,” in which certain species are “higher” or more advanced than others. PETA’s argument tacitly accepts this principle, even when others are finding it outdated or even paternalistic. PETA wants to “raise” animals to a human level by including them in our laws.

If you approach equality from the top down, as PETA does, and you see the question as raising the animals up to a human level, you get one set of answers. But you can also blur the line between humans and animals without recourse to the hierarchical principle. If you do, you get an entirely different result.

PETA’s argument, essentially, is that animals are people, too. But you make the same argument with different results if you state it in reverse: That people are animals, too.PETA collage

Another problem with PETA’s paternalism is that it treats intelligence as a shibboleth. If, for instance, science can show us that whales and dolphins are intelligent, or that gorillas or chimpanzees can learn to use sign language, does that mean those animals should receive special recognition under the law, and that dumber animals should not?

After all, we don’t give more legal rights to smart people over dumb ones. Why should animals be different?

Is intelligence the determining factor in deciding what animals have near-human legal rights? And if we decide that is not the case, then why are humans accorded special distinction among the animals, unless by divine fiat?

Animals are people and people are animals

More important, if you erase the line between human and non-human, you may end by making the case for the opponents of legal rights for animals.

For since the case can be made that human beings are also animals, one species among many, we have no reason for assuming our laws — the recorded customs of our species — can work for animals but not the other way around. Turnabout is fair play: If we start applying our laws to animals, why is that preferable to applying animal laws to humans?

Why should humans not be asked to conform to the moon-baying, alpha-male pack organization of wild dogs?lions eating

In fact, the chief reason humans exercise dominion over other animals has less to do with Scripture or law than it does with sheer power: Humans dominate other animals because we can. No rational person doubts that, say, mastodons or sabertooth cats would dominate the Earth — including humans — by force, if they could.

Further, animal rights activists talk about “species-ist” behavior — parallel to racist behavior — in which we favor our own species over others.

“I care about animals,” the late former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop once said, “but I care about people more.” It’s a common sentiment.

Species-ist dominance

Yet, in the animal world, each species favors its own over other species. Our own species-ist behavior is something we share with other animals, and if our behavior underlines the distinction we draw between ourselves and the beasts, it weakens the argument that animals should be treated like people.

Call it the animal rights Catch 22.

In other words, if there is no distinction between animal and human behavior in species-ist behavior, then there is a valid line between humans and animals and no logical reason to grant animals the legal rights we grant ourselves. To do so is to deny our animal natures and pretend that human beings are different from animals. And if we do pretend that humans are substantively different from animals, we again make the case against smudging the legal line between animal and human.

“Alle Menschen werden Brueder”

Of course, all this reflects only on the legal question — and underscores the point that the treatment of animals is properly a moral, not a legal, issue. PETA may be barking up the wrong tree.

Still, PETA may be on the right side historically.

One must remain humble about the possibility. Before the Civil War, there were intelligent, moral-minded people who defended slavery on logical, historical, religious and ethical grounds. And in the 1850s, abolition often seemed championed by crazy-eyed radicals and fringe elements in society. If you were a moderate then, you would probably have considered abolition “crazy,” or at least, precipitate, even as you recognized the need to treat slaves humanely.

Now the question of humane treatment of slaves seems entirely beside the point. Slavery itself seems patently inhumane and indefensible.

So instead of merely condemning animal rights apologists out of hand, we might consider that we, ourselves, could be in the same moral position: That in 100 years, animal rights may seem as obvious as emancipation seems to us now.

Obviously, we cannot know if this will occur, but whether we worry about the historical argument or not, we can still do our best to function ethically and morally on all fronts in the present.Buber

One does not need to make the legal case that animals are humans to recognize the fraternity of Creation. We need only see all that is not ourself as equal to ourself. In other words, recognizing the aliveness, existence and independence of the teeming individuals on the planet, we see in them the mirror of ourselves.

This is the basis of human morality: To see, as theologian Martin Buber has put it, the other as a “thou” rather than an “it.” It has always been easier to see family, or clan, or tribe, or nation as “thou,” and easier to see strangers or foreigners or different races as “it.” But that argument is just as compelling when you look into the eyes of a dog, or a horse or a canary.

We easily see our pets as “thou.” But just as moral action requires we see other people as “thou,” we shall have to begin considering animals other than our pets as “thou,” also.

Life feeds on life

rembrandt oxThis may not make PETA entirely happy, because even when we recognize other people as “thou,” we may still find just cause to end their lives. And even when we take animals as “thou,” we may find it acceptable to eat them.

Many tribal cultures have done just that, revering the animals they kill and eat. All life is a smorgasbord, with one species eating another. Even if we become vegetarians, we kill plants. Life feeds on life; life is not gentle. There is a certain sentimentalism to the PETA point of view.

The moral action is not necessarily to refrain from causing injury, but to take responsibility for it, and never to cause injury blindly and blandly. Making a law to enforce action — such as proper treatment of animals — tends to take away our personal responsibility and lets us obey blindly and blandly. This might be just as bad.

egyptian geese 2

You enter the cave, walk through tight spots, crawl on hands and knees and come out, 100 yards later, into a dark room, a widening in the cavern walls, and see, if you point your lamp at them, some of the most beautiful animals ever drawn by human hand.chauvet

The very first art — some 30,000 years old — is some of the best, and what you have are pictures of animals. On the walls at Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira in Europe, you find bison and elk, aurochs and rhinoceroses. When you find people drawn on the cave walls, they are hardly more than stick figures, but the animals are often so realistic you can identify them by genus and species.

You can see it in the Egyptian tomb paintings, too. Human figures are stiff, in the artificial “King Tut” poses so familiar from the hieroglyphs. The humans are stylized and symbolic rather than naturalistic. But the animals don’t share that fate: They are seen with a grace and directness at odds with all the machinery of symbolic hieroglyphs — a real duck, a real hippopotamus, a real ibis.knossos

You can see it too at the Palace of Minos in Knossos, where the mural is filled with graceful dolphins and mackerel.pompeii fish

Or in the mosaics at Pompeii, with its seafood menu of crustaceans, eels, octopuses and seabass. Animals have a special place in art.leonardo

They speak to us in a special language, even when they exist as a smaller part of another painting: the dog in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, or the mink in Leonardo’s Lady With an Ermine.

It is an element that reflects us and we can’t seem to do without. But what is that element?

“They connect us to something larger or greater than ourselves, or with a past we’ve forgotten,” says painter Anne Coe, whose work is well known for its sometimes satiric use of animal imagery.

And, in fact, the animals in paintings almost always have an ulterior reason for being there. They are doors to something. “Something larger,” as Coe says.

But it’s a two-way door, and what the animals mean depends on your direction as you pass the portal.

Almost like choosing which end of the binoculars to look through, you get very different takes on what animals are and what they mean.

Going one way, the animals are symbols. They stand for all kinds of things: sometimes totemic, sometimes archetypal, sometimes they are as simple as elephants for Republicans and donkeys for Democrats. But they stand for something other than themselves. Perhaps the Democrats would be better symbolized by a platypus or the GOP by a warthog, but there you go: We are stuck with the symbols. Everyone understands them; they’re shorthand.medieval animals copy

Medieval and Renaissance art is filled with this kind of symbology. The dog stood for faithfulness, the goat for lust, the lion for nobility. Of course, for the medieval mind, everything was a symbol.egyyptian bee

We still have some of this emblematic symbolism with us: busy as a bee; crazy as a loon; the industrious ant vs. the lazy grasshopper. We tell Aesop fables to our children to warn them about bad behavior.

But going through the door in the other direction, the animals are steadfastly not symbolic, and force us to see them for themselves as separate entities in the universe. They force us to recognize them as “thou” in theologian Martin Buber’s formulation of “I-thou,” as distinguished from “I-it.”

You look at the eyes in a painting by animal portraitist May Cheney and you see the “there” there. There is no mistaking the cat or dog or goat for an insensible beast.

“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language,” Buber himself said.may cheney dog

Cheney says, “The animal is present and looking back at you.”

And you are forced into the awareness that symbols are already several removes from reality, and that sometimes it is good to re-experience the world as it actually is.

When animals are symbolic, they are in some sense projections of ourselves. When they are not, they are reminders of all the rest of the universe. In either case, they kick-start us into the recognition of the larger connection we have with the world. And that is their function in art. After all, art itself is there to slap us into awareness, the way a doctor slaps a newborn into breath.

But whether the animals are symbolic or not, they also make us see them — as we come in the door or go out — either as kindred spirits, beings like us but in different form, or the opposite: beings that make us face the ineffable otherness of the world.

But there are more dichotomies, and more art to express them. Even if we see them as ourselves in fur or feathers, we have to ask: Are they similar to us because they are like us, or because we are like them? Are they people, too, or are we also animals?

“There is not an animal on the earth, nor a flying creature on two wings, but they are people like unto you,” it says in the Quran.

Western civilization has a long history of making a distinction between human and animal. The Bible gives us “dominion” over the beasts. We come up with all kinds of distinction to prove we are not animals. We have language, tools, laws, poetry. But looked at from the other side of the door, animals are no less distinct, no less deserving, no less intelligent than we are: Bees can make honey; humans don’t know how.

Mark Twain made fun of our presumed superiority to the animals: “I have been studying the traits and dispositions of the ‘lower animals’ (so called) and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man. I find the result humiliating to me.”hiroshige fish

You can see these choices played out in art, and not only in European art. It is there in the manga drawings of Hokusai and book illustrations of Hiroshige, the temple carvings in India, the Mayan glyphs and in the Chi Wara antelope headdresses of Africa.chi wara

Animals mean something to all cultures. You can see it most directly in the paintings of children.

When they are introduced to animals in the classroom by a teacher who brings a bunny or a turtle, the children respond intensely. You don’t have to teach them anything about art: They burn to make paintings of the animals. You can’t stop them.

And their paintings in the first or third grades parallel the adult art, although in childhood terms: Sometimes they see themselves as the animal, playing baseball or caring for the animal babies, and sometimes they see the animals as something foreign, exotic and emotionally powerful. Boys, especially, love to paint sharks or dinosaurs.kid shark

The untutored and spontaneous identification with the animals is so deep that you can’t prevent it from happening. This may or may not be animals’ primary virtue, but it is one too often overlooked when we consider their value as pet, draft animal or cutlet.

They are there in all our art: The animals are either mirrors or windows. We look into the animals’ face and see.

Ultimately, the animals are a connection with the world: They allow us to deflate our species’ solipsism and recognize that connection.pompeii fish 2