A History of Antivivisection from the 1800s to the Present: Part III (1970-2009)

PART III: The Philosophers and Writers of the Modern Animal Rights Movement

The Birth of the Modern Movement

“The modern animal rights movement may be dated to the 1975 publication of Animal Liberation by Australian philosopher Peter Singer,” declared Newsweek of the first edition of Singer’s book on philosophy, animal experimentation and animal agriculture, which described in detail animal suffering, discomfort and pain on farms, in abattoirs, and laboratory experiments.1 Singer’s work emerged from the post-Second World War generation’s push for civil rights for all groups of society, anti-establishment protests and a desire to construct ideas and morality in an academic framework to foster more inclusiveness and tolerance of differences among humans. Singer simply extended this concern for fair treatment and ethics to animals, especially those with scientific and economic value.

ALF activists after removing beagles from laboratories of Boots the Chemist.

ALF activists after removing beagles from laboratories of Boots the Chemist.

The civil rights and anti-war sit-ins and protests of the late 1960s found their echo in the animal rights movement a short time later through organizations such as the ADLF (Animal Legal Defense Fund) and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the latter organization which continues to use various high-profile tactics and celebrity advertisements to attract public attention to the way animals are used in Western societies. Some more radical elements and individuals, such as the ALF (Animal Liberation Front), have organized break-ins to laboratories and fur farms to rescue animals and damage buildings and equipment. As well, they have often organized more or less clandestine veterinary care and adoption of rescued animals. The ALF’s sister organization, the ELF (Earth Liberation Front) is involved in similar actions to sabotage economic exploitation of the environment. The origins of both entities can be traced to anarchist philosophy of the 1970s in the United Kingdom, and are examples of “leaderless resistance”. They are now considered by the FBI and CIA to be domestic terrorists, but spokespeople from the movement have disputed that label, claiming they have harmed no one. Nevertheless, in spite of good intentions and a clean official record (excluding property damage and reports of death threats) the explicit anarchism of the movement, combined with volatile individual members and the potential for accidents, poses a significant problem both for the integrity of the movement as well as for animal scientists and laboratory employees.

Peter Singer: Animal Liberation Philosophy

Singer’s animal rights philosophy allows that animal rights are not the same as human rights. He has stated that “there are obviously important differences between human and other animals, and these differences must give rise to some difference in the rights that each have.” In an explicit parallel to racism and sexism, Singer argues against speciesism, discrimination against other beings on the grounds that they are not human. The term speciesism was most likely coined in 1970 by Richard Ryder, a psychologist and former RSPCA chairman.2

Singer’s Animal Liberation begins with a reference to Mary Wollstonecraft’s late 18th century feminist writings, and in particular her Vindication for the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft’s philosophical treatise was parodied in a pamphlet entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes (i.e. animals) by an anonymous writer, who was later determined to be the British Platonist philosopher Thomas Taylor.1 At the time, Taylor thought he had produced a clever rebuttal to the argument for women’s and children’s rights, but Singer re-envisioned it as a sound logical implication. Singer’s argument is that the interests of all beings capable of suffering are worthy of equal consideration, and that giving lesser consideration based on animals’ having wings, fur, or non-opposable thumbs is no more justified than various forms of discrimination based on skin color or gender. In particular, he points out that intelligence or ability based on human criteria do not constitute solid grounds to deny rights to humans, as many severely retarded humans have an even lower mental cognition and ability than many animals.

With particular regard to animals used in medical experiments, Singer is generally condemnatory, but because his philosophical framework weighs benefits against harm, he has more recently come out in reluctant favor of at least one experiment on Parkinson’s disease. In this experiment, the human neurological disease was induced in approximately 100 primates to study the area of the brain known to be unaffected by Parkinson’s and which is nevertheless overactive. By carrying out a surgical intervention on that part of the brain, researchers showed it would significantly improve the condition. In an exchange with one of the lead researchers, Singer stated: “Well, I think if you put a case like that, clearly I would have to agree that was a justifiable experiment…I do not think you should reproach yourself for doing it, provided — I take it you are the expert in this, not me — that there was no other way of discovering this knowledge…I could see that as justifiable research.”3

Singer’s response illustrates a fundamental dilemma for antivivisectionism in its broadest sense, with the words “that there was no other way of discovering this knowledge.” Many people in the contemporary animal rights movement who militate against animal experimentation do not accept the appropriation of knowledge as a justification for tolerating many kinds of research using animals. Nearly all of current and orthodox medical and veterinary knowledge and practice is based on some form of animal experimentation; it is therefore impossible to turn back the hands of time and determine if this knowledge could have been obtained in any other way. Supporters of animal experimentation are as categorical in their belief that there was and is no other way to obtain reliable and useful medical knowledge than through the massive use of animals in medical experiments as its opponents are in believing that the suffering of any number of animals vastly outweighs and counteracts the benefits that may emerge from such research to directly benefit humans, or even other animals.

Tom Regan: Animals as “Subjects-of-a-Life”

Tom Regan is an American philosopher and animal rights activist, currently professor emeritus at North Carolina State University, who argues that animals are “subjects-of-a-life” in the same way humans are.4,5

The crucial attribute that all humans have in common is not rationality, but the fact that each of us has a life that matters to us; in other words, what happens to us matters to us, regardless of whether it matters to anyone else…The basic right that all who possess inherent value have is the right never to be treated as a means to the ends of others.5

This argument for animal rights is based on the generally accepted concept of individual rights that applies to the ethical treatment of human beings. However, critics have pointed out that the lack of certainty with regard to how the “subject-of-a-life” status is determined – some might interpret it, with varying degrees of good faith, to include “lower” animals, plant life, etc. – and that the list of conditions he provides, including sensory perception, beliefs, desires, motives, and memory, may simply reduce the argument to one of similarity to humans. An argument based on similarity to humans is perhaps a tenuous base for attributing rights to animals, but it is also one which we are fully able to comprehend.

Gary Francione: Animals as Property

Gary Francione is an American legal scholar at New Jersey’s Rutgers University who developed a framework to understand the status of animals as property as it relates to their treatment by society.6,7 He argues that there is an enormous contradiction between public sentiment and legal treatment when it comes to animals; in particular, he notes that while there is vast public consensus that animals should be treated humanely and not be subjected to unnecessary suffering, the legal system does not uphold this “moral” principle because animals are regarded as property. He makes the explicit parallel between slavery in the United States prior to the 1861-65 Civil War, in which slaves were considered property and the law relied on the assumption that owners would treat their property appropriately according to its economic value. Francione believes that the same logic is now applied to animals: whether they belong to a farmer, an agricultural corporation, to a university or to a private individual, it is assumed that they will be treated in consideration of their (economic) value. Whereas humans, under the law, are granted “respect-based” rights, animals have legal consideration only in terms of their utility and economic value – in other words, existing animal laws protect property and value attributed by owners, rather than their inherent value as living beings.

J.M. Coetzee: Animal Rights in Contemporary Literature

John Maxwell Coetzee is a South African/Australian novelist and 2003 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature. Upon receiving the coveted prize, he was praised for his work, and particularly for the “innumerable guises” through which he portrayed the involvement of the outsider. He was a powerful and controversial commentator on the ravages of apartheid during the late years of that South African regime. In at least two of his more recent novels, Disgrace (1999) and Elizabeth Costello (2003), Coetzee wrote on the difficult issue of how animals are treated by humans. Elizabeth Costello is the fictional account of a celebrated but taciturn and conflicted novelist as she travels from Europe to South Africa and to the United States to give a series of university and popular lectures on subjects such as literary realism and the problem of evil. However, as the story progresses, her reflections and speeches increasingly turn to the lives of animals: her lectures on “The Philosophers and the Animals” and “The Poets and the Animals” are the longest sections in the book. The disturbing question she raises is: by raising billions of animals before slaughtering them for meat, skin or knowledge, are we all complicit in a “crime of stupefying proportions”?
Elizabeth Costello is a complex novel that weaves philosophy into the story of a writer’s life. Driven by ideas, and often delivered in the form of lectures, the central theme in the novel is expressed in Costello’s words to her grown son who is disturbed by her opinions on the “human-animal bond”:

‘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.’8

In a response to Costello’s lectures on animal rights, a philosophy professor responds:

‘The notion that we have an obligation to animals themselves to treat them compassionately – as opposed to an obligation to ourselves to do so – is very recent, very Western, and even very Anglo-Saxon. As long as we insist that we have access to an ethical universal to which other traditions are blind, and try to impose it on them by means of propaganda or even economic pressure, we are going to meet with resistance, and that resistance will be justified.’8

To this, Costello admits that she is unable to give an adequate response. Nevertheless, she points out that human kindness – including the understanding that we are all of one kind with animals – has also been widespread in human-animal relations throughout history and pre-history, and not just in modern “pet-keeping”. She states:
‘While I concede your main point about Western Cultural arrogance, I do think it is appropriate that those who pioneered the industrialization of animal lives and the commodification of animal flesh should be at the forefront of trying to atone for it.’8

Conclusion: The Veterinary Response?

In the general history of antivivisectionists and animal experimentation, veterinarians have until recently been conspicuous by their relative absence from debate and activity. This is hardly surprising, and not only because there is a corresponding absence of doctors, as a body, from civil and human rights debates. Aside from certain organizations such as Doctors Without Borders or Physicians for Human Rights, human doctors are not fundamentally perceived to be advocates for all human beings. Advocacy takes place at the individual doctor-to-patient level, where it is implicit in both the Hippocratic Oath and the trust-based relationship. In veterinary medicine, the doctor-to-patient relationship is a modified one: it is a veterinarian-to-owner relationship, in which even the best possible advocacy a veterinarian can muster for an animal patient is always filtered through the owner’s desires, expectations or budgetary considerations, in addition to the “purpose” of the animal’s existence, from the human point of view. This is the case in all sectors of veterinary practice – farm, research, working/sports and companion animals.

As well, doctors and veterinarians are neither philosophers nor writers, and therefore their presence cannot be expected at the forefront of debates on animal use with regard to legal-ethical issues or reflections on history and the human condition. In relation to animals, the role of veterinarians has been to use surgery, pharmaceuticals, procedures, nutrition and protocols to improve physical condition, eradicate certain diseases through testing and culling of affected individuals, and hopefully to minimize the health effects of intensive agricultural systems.

But with the relatively recent and dramatic rise in the importance of companion animal care – a significant majority of veterinary graduates in North American colleges now gravitate to some kind of companion animal practice, including increasing levels of specialization – veterinarians must constantly deal with complex issues of conflicting interests and ethics, such as when owners’ expectations do not take the physical and emotional well-being of animals into account, or when cost-related issues set budgets and attitudes in conflict with best available care.

Veterinarians therefore find themselves in an odd position with regard to the objects of their care. Nearly half of all companion animal owners in the United States in 2006 considered their animal to be a “family member”.9 Although this obviously does not confer a pseudo-human status to the animal, it does indicate a significant level of attachment; any practicing companion animal veterinarian can attest to the fact that many owners are willing to make significant efforts (and payments) to maintain or improve their animal’s health and well-being.
The Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR) was founded by two veterinarians in 1981 and until 2008 was based in Davis, California. In founding the association, the members gave voice to their concern that “the nonhuman animals they were trained to care for, treat, and heal in veterinary medical schools were routinely being used and abused by society, sometimes for the most trivial of reasons. They recognized that the veterinary profession, under the banner of ‘adequate veterinary care,’ often supported practices which were completely contrary to the well-being of the animals.” Echoing the philosophy of animal rights’ groups, the AVAR stated that “all nonhuman animals have value and interests independent of the values and interests of other animals, including human beings.”10 The AVAR expressed its frustration with veterinary associations such as the AVMA by its stance on both animal research and agriculture, especially its close ties to industry. As of January 2008, the AVAR had 3500 affiliated veterinarians.

In the beginning of 2008, the AVAR and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) announced that their respective boards of directors had created a new entity, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA), which would provide veterinarians, veterinary students and veterinary technicians the opportunity to participate in animal welfare programs, including disaster response; expanded hands-on animal care; spaying and neutering; and advocacy for legislative, corporate and veterinary medical school reforms. The HSVMA is currently based in Washington, D.C.11

Although the AVAR had few, if any, student chapters in late 1990s when I was a student, I remember those years as being characterized by an openly discussed unease with some of our anatomical and physiological models. Mine was among the first generation of veterinary students to be introduced to alternative models such as computer simulations and dummy models, which were used along with traditional live or dead animals. Some students questioned the provenance of the dogs we used to learn basic anatomy, and confronted professors with their opinion that living animals should not be used to practice certain techniques, such as rabbits used for intra-cardiac injections or beagles for demonstrating and practicing anesthetic techniques. Some of our questioning and obvious unease may have led to the discontinuation of certain practices, and with attrition in the faculty body, new approaches were implemented and some vivisectionist practices fell into disrepute.

Each new generation of veterinarians has a new and changing set of challenges, perceptions and expectations to work with. In the early 20th century, veterinarians were faced with the encroaching disappearance of animal-based transportation and labor, and wondered if their profession would remain relevant to society. Veterinarians in the early 21st century may wonder what the conflicting roles and perceptions of animals in societies throughout the world, particularly in a troubled global economy, will mean for them as they enter practice. The ever-shrinking interest in non-companion animal practice would seem to indicate that young veterinarians are less willing to engage in fields of practice that they perceive as less rewarding and which may be less well-respected or even invisible to most of society. It will be instructive to see how veterinary medicine provides individual and corporate responses to the challenges of a society with increasingly informed and evolving perceptions of all animal species and the veterinary care they require.

Click here to return to Part I.

Click here to return to Part II.


1. Singer P. Animal Liberation. Harper Collins, United States: 1975, 1991, 2002.
2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2005/aug/06/animalwelfare
3. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-2471990,00.html
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Regan
5. Regan T. Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.: United States, 2003.
6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_Francione
7. http://www.libraryindex.com/pages/2158/Animal-Rights-Debate-HISTORY-ANIMAL-RIGHTS-DEBATE.html
8. Coetzee JM. Elizabeth Costello. Random House (hardcover): Great Britain, 2003. p.104.
9. http://www.avma.org/reference/marketstats/sourcebook.asp
10. http://www.avar.org/about.asp [accessed in December, 2007 – page no longer available online, redirected to http://www.hsvma.org%5D
11. http://www.hsvma.org


I would like to thank Susanne Whitaker, AVMHS Secretary-Treasurer and Reference/Collection Development Librarian for providing me with much of the literature on which I based this historical overview, particularly for Parts I and II.

One Comment on “A History of Antivivisection from the 1800s to the Present: Part III (1970-2009)”

  1. […] The Black Ewe (2008): A History of Antivivisection from the 1800s to the Present: Part I, Part II, Part III. […]

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