Archive for May 2009

Michaëlle Jean eats seal heart, makes a dishonest point

May 26, 2009

Yes, I’m sure I could eat raw heart too, and I imagine it would taste much like sushi – i.e. like not much at all. Fresh as it is, I’m sure just a few bites would contain your RDA in iron and B12 vitamin, in addition to all that good animal protein and blood. Probably chewy too; good for the teeth. You’re not risking much, eating fresh heart muscle – apart from the brain, it’s one of the most sterile organs you can find in the body.

OK, enough with the nutrition lesson. Yesterday in Nunavut, Michaëlle Jean recently proved that she can not only eat heart, but also bond with Northern communities over seal hunting – and I don’t really have much of a problem with that. The problem is when she (implicitly) uses that occasion as a support for the commercial seal hunt, and to protest the European ban of two weeks ago on seal fur and other products derived from seals hunted commercially.

Equating traditional seal hunting with the commercial hunt is somewhat like comparing a person who builds her own home out of wood she has cut herself from the forest using handsaws and axes, and Domtar doing a clear-cut of an entire forest stand, and shipping the timber down to the United States to build a suburb of cheap houses. You just can’t compare the two and retain a sense of honesty.

In much the same way, pro-commercial seal hunters will insist that there are no baby seals killed in the hunt. That is another dishonest argument, because seals can be killed from the age of 14 days, when they start to lose the pure white colour from their coat. They are still “babies” in my books.

And again, people will trot out the old argument that hunt protesters and the European ban itself is based on “emotion” rather than on “fact”. But it is a fact that the idea of mass seal slaughter is upsetting to a lot of people. Other people are upset at the attack on (a portion of) their livelihood. I see emotions and facts on both sides – the question is: whose emotions, and whose facts are more important?

From the seals’ point of view, I’d like to think that while they might object to being slaughtered in any kind of way, it may very well be that they adapted along with humans over a few thousand years to a small-scale slaughter that doesn’t cause them mass terror at a predictable moment every year – right when their young are at their most vulnerable. This mass commercial slaughter is not sustainable – it is simply too much, too often. And that is regardless of how a person might feel about the human-animal bond and the ethics of seal slaughter.

People complain that we treat animals like objects, but in fact we treat them as prisoners of war….We had a war once against the animals, which we called hunting, though in fact war and hunting are the same thing (Aristotle saw it clearly). That war went on for millions of years. We won it definitively only a few hundred years ago, when we invented guns. It is only since victory became absolute that we have been able to afford to cultivate compassion. But our compassion is very thinly spread. Beneath it is a more primitive attitude. The prisoner of war does not belong to our tribe. We can do what we want with him. We can sacrifice him to our gods. We can cut his throat, tear out his heart, throw him on the fire. There are no laws when it comes to prisoners of war.

(from Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee, p.104 – hardcover version, Random House)

An event of historical proportions

May 24, 2009

Those aren’t my words – those are from Tom Regan himself, one of the Grand Old Men of the animal rights movement. (Actually, he looks and talks as if he were 50 instead of 70.)

The event he was referring to was the colloquium on animals and the law held in Montreal this past Thursday and Friday, May 21-22, 2009 and organised by GRIDA (Group de recherche international en droit animal) at the Université du Québec à Montréal. The promise of seeing Regan in person, in addition to getting an hour or so of continuing ed credits was more than enough to pry me out of my rural hideaway and launch me into the underground labyrinth of metros and interconnecting university pavillons. With my above-average sense of orientation and signage reading ability, I made it to the Thursday afternoon session right on time.

The first afternoon panel session was led off by Dana Campbell, attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF – aka “we may be the only lawyers on Earth whose clients are all innocent”), who gave a short presentation on the Connection between Human and Animal Violence. The data, mainly from the FBI, clearly shows that every serial killer on record has either participated in or was forced to witness animal cruelty as children. This includes the Columbine killers. Studies of “domestic violence” show that the abused family’s animals are usually victims of the same type of treatment. Campbell’s big message: Violence against animals is not a PRECURSOR to violence against humans, it is a PARTNER.

Campbell was followed by Ronald Sklar, professor of Criminal Law and originator of the Animal Law course at McGill University. Sklar participated in the unsuccessful 2002 attempt to overhaul the law on cruelty to animals in Canada, in which one of the changes proposed was to move animal cruelty from the category of a property crime to a morality crime. The proposed amendment was accepted in the HofC, but died in the Senate, where some of the Senators were worried that people would no longer be allowed to drown kittens or raise hens in cruelty cages without being at risk of committing a crime. Sigh. Sklar also noted that the definition of “animal” in anti-cruelty statutes does not include wild animals, nor does it include chickens (what about pigs, I wonder?) Cruelty must also be “willful” – the 2002 amendments would’ve removed the distrinction between negligence and wilful negligence.

Sklar was followed by Marsha Baum, Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico, who talked about the legal treatment of animals in times of weather disasters. Essentially, the images and reports from the aftermath of hurricane Katrina highlighted the precarious condition of animals in times of disaster, and inspired changes in the law, in which companion and service animals can now be considered for evacuations along with their humans. As Baum mentions, this is a good first step, but not a final step, because the law does not mandate anything, it only mentions that animal evacuation must be “taken into account” (ie. pet and service animal evacuation is to be taken into account…but not necessarily acted upon in the event of a disaster). As well, the law on evacuation does not even attempt to address farmed animals in confinement, captive animals, research “supplies” or wildlife…

The second afternoon session was on the extension of fundamental rights to animals. I must admit that my conception of rights isn’t very well-formulated. I get uncomfortable when people start talking about rights because from my observations, people’s assumptions as to what rights imply can be wildly different depending on their educational or cultural background or upbringing. I still don’t know what to think about animal rights and how they could possibly fit into the framework of human law and society, but I am a firm believer in the need for reforming laws – all kinds of changes are well past due in farming, research and companion animals (in that order).

The first presenter was Jean-Marie Coulon, an administrator with the Animal Rights League in France, and the first honorary President of the Appeals Court in Paris. His presentation was much as I would have expected from a Frenchman – very wordy and kind of hard to follow. Even though I’m bilingual, my French is strongly conditioned by the Quebecois, and as such I have trouble with French from France: I understand most of the words, but the meaning often escapes me. All I can say is that Mr Coulon encouraged me with words that went along the lines of “we must approach the issue of animal rights with seriousness and serenity”; and that the basis of our laws need to shift from anthropocentrism to biocentrism. I am sorry that I could not do more justice to his entire presentation, but he reminded me too much of my first year anatomy professor, another French dude I couldn’t understand very well and who did irreparable damage to my understanding of anatomy and surgery.

Tom Regan came next, with a historical perspective and update on his 1979 presentation at an international congress on legal and social philosophy; at that congress, back at the beginnings of the modern animal rights movement, he presented his philosophical arguments for animal rights to a very small audience that in his view was alternately bored and outraged at the very idea that animal might be attributed rights. His “prejudice” argument goes like this:
1- our legal system should free itself from prejudice
2- denying rights to non-humans is a product of prejudice
3- Therefore our legal system should recognise their rights.

Regan was a very affable and entertaining speaker, but he was followed by a much younger woman who to me represents what the future of the animal rights and welfare might bring.

Ani Satz is an associate professor at the Emory University School of Law, Rollins School of Public Health. Her field of study is in interest convergence, where she notes that laws on behalf of animals are only passed when there is sufficient convergence between human and animal interests. As with the other presenters, I was only able to take some handwritten notes of her presentation, but what I managed to gather was that if there is sufficient proof that cheap food (as we obtain presently from industrial agriculture) is harmful to humans as well as animals, it is only then that we will make some headway in terms of animal livestock protection in the law. She notes that currently there are too many inconsistencies with regard to definitions of “animals” (and “welfare” and other such terms), with respect to different individuals of the same species (depending on who owns them and for what purpose), and with respect to similar animals of different species (such as pigs and dogs – both omnivores, with similar cognitive abilities, lifespans, sentience, etc.) Satz advocates a radical approach to assessing animals’ needs in terms of welfare, and the implications include “no more factory farming”. Amen to that.

At the end of this session questions were taken. A zoologist, followed by a veterinarian stood up to complain that these philosophical and legal people were totally unscientific in their approach to animal welfare and human use of animals. The two men could barely contain their scorn and their fear that these radical animal rights people would be coming around to put a giant cramp in their lifestyle and livelihoods. Now, to me, this was a predictable response coming from predictable quarters. For one thing, men tend to get very emotional when it comes to questioning their activities; they don’t like to be told What They are Not Allowed to Do to Animals and What Animals Need. And for another, the question of science often comes up in these types of debates: how does science require that we proceed; just look at the benefits of science for the human race; be careful you don’t do something “unscientific” and cause more harm than good, etc. I tend to have a jaded view of science by virtue of my generation – the post-modern generation of scientific venture; while we are generally unquestioning of the benefits of science – and I would add: the scientific basis of modern hygiene – we are also more than aware of its downfalls: nuclear weapons, environmental ravages due to industrial “scientific” agriculture, mining and exploitation of other natural resources, etc.

So I stood up to speak at the microphone in an attempt to defuse some tension. I stated that I was also a veterinarian, so I could understand how large animal and regulatory vets and scientists might feel set upon because their work involves some procedures and interventions that are definitely ambiguous in terms of animal welfare. However, I pointed out, there is a persistently significant shift in veterinary graduates turning to companion animal medicine because they have no interest for farm animal, research or industrial medicine, and no stomach for it. Many large animal vets practice for a few years and opt out as I did, turning to companion animal medicine.

If vets (and animal scientists) are people who want what is good for animals, they will naturally turn to companion animal medicine, or even wildlife rehabilitation, because that is where they feel they are doing the most good. But if vets who really believed in the importance of animal welfare, and who could at least understand the argument for animal rights, were to stay in large animal practice, I think some headway could be made to improving conditions for animals, and perhaps even making some fundamental and radical changes. That however, will take a lot of time and courage – but I think that is what most people really would like to see happen.