Archive for the ‘U.S. president’ category

Abortion and the animal rights movement

January 23, 2009

I’m writing this post in honour of one of President Obama’s first acts as president: today he will or has already overturned the “global gag rule” that banned federal funds from being used in foreign family planning organisations that either offer abortions or provide information or counselling about abortion.

It is known as the “global gag rule” because it denies US taxpayer dollars to clinics that even mention abortion to women with unplanned pregnancies.

The rule was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, overturned by Bill Clinton in 1993, and reinstated by Bush.

The gag rule was just another one of those candies, a “faith-based initiative”, that the Bush regime crafted to reward and invigorate a tightly organised mass of people that votes based on religious sentiment, particularly on a strong opposition to abortion, for their support that was instrumental in getting him elected twice, to the utter astonishment of the rest of the world.

Tightly organised as they are around the issue of abortion, I don’t think they realise that their movement was a contributing factor to the revival of the anti-vivisection and animal rights movements. Six influences on the rise of the animal rights movement were identified by Harlan B. Miller in Ethics and Animals (1983), described by Richard Ryder as:

– the momentum of liberation: anti-colonialism, anti-racismt logical step was anti-speciesism
– scientific evidence that nonhumans share intellectual and perceptual faculties in common with humankind
– the decline in dualistic views separating mind from body: acknowledging that nervous systems in humans and animals are the basis for mental life and consciousness; this factor also relates to a diminished influence of conventional Western or monotheistic religion in public philosophy and politics
– the development of behavioural sciences (sociobiology and ethology) that attempt to draw conclusions about human behaviour from observations of other animals (i.e. that homo sapiens is just another species, albeit a tool-making and book-writing one)
-the rise of environmental and ecological movements
– the ethical debate over abortion, particularly when it focuses on the “person” concept in ethics and law.

Of these six influences on the animal rights debate, I find the abortion one to be the least significant, practically speaking, though it may have lent some moral crusade sentiment to activists.

I work and live with many different species of animals, and I can’t really say whether officially defining them as persons would change much about the way I treat them – which is always with respect and care for their bodies and psyches (at least the ones I get to meet up close); most of the time with love and strong attachment; sometimes with exasperation. Too often, however, I treat them with disregard – I’m not proud of that, but I do have to be honest: I still eat meat (though I try not to), wear leather gloves and use a multitude of other animal-based products that I’m probably not even aware of half the time. And yet if I do wish to consider animals (which ones?) as “persons”, it would only be to improve their overall situation in our society. It seems quite obvious that depending on the species and the context, they share our capacity for suffering, self-awareness, anticipation, fear, pleasure and many other emotions that we think makes us special as humans.

In the same way, I have no quarrel with considering the zygote/embryo/fetus to be human. I don’t see what else they could be, given the DNA involved. But that doesn’t stop me from supporting abortion rights, and from thinking that Canada has taken a wise stance with regard to abortion, that of leaving it unlegislated. To me, this means that when problems of accessing safe abortions are taken care of, it’s a matter that concerns only the woman who inhabits the body where a pregnancy is developing. In general, human zygotes/embryos/fetuses are protected by protecting the health and safety of women, so there is no systematic discrimination against these fetuses, which is one of the more specious arguments of the anti-abortion movement.

Animals on the other hand, face a systematic lack of protection of their bodies and interests simply because they are animals; different species are afforded different kinds of protection according to their status as property or objects of affection. Even though I don’t always completely agree with the focus and direction of animals rights, I am indebted to many animal rights scholars and specialists for helping me understand the status of animals in society, and how we think about them when we do what we do to them in research and in the food industry.

As for the anti-abortion movement, it does not appear to me to have the same universal moral grounding and concern for life that the animal rights/environmentalist movement has. The sole focus is human life in the womb, from the time of conception (and possibly even before that). The big idea is: human life inside the womb has absolute rights, regardless of circumstances. That’s going one further than God, imho. I continue to marvel at the way anti-abortion activists in recent times have aligned themselves with regimes that have been enthusiastic about wars, pre-emptive strikes, environmental despoilment, torture of prisoners and over-zealous military protectionism. A person really has to wonder where they got the nerve to adopt the pro-life moniker.

I think I’ll stick to following what the animal rights’ scholars and environmentalists have to say in the coming years. I find their focus to be a lot less self-serving and chauvinistic than those who want humans to overrun the earth and drag us all into a culture of death by Armageddon.

Presidents, puppies and taking responsibility

December 15, 2008

Although the Obamas have not yet chosen that puppy for their girls, Joe Biden has a new German shepherd (h/t to JJ at unrepentantoldhippie via Huffpost). I was glad to know that the vice-president-elect has experience with German shepherds, because in my experience they have powerful qualities that can become liabilities with the wrong owner. They have that special combination of impressive size, strength, sensitivity and intelligence. As a vet, I have consistently found them to be, um…how I should I put this? – not the easiest dogs to deal with in clinical situations. (The fact that I was taken down by my neighbour’s German shepherd, King, when I was 8 has absolutely nothing to do with my lingering nervousness around shepherds, I swear.)

Ever since I heard that the Obamas were looking for a puppy, I had been thinking about the various options, based on my experience as a vet with a general, non-canine-expert experience with a wide variety of breeds, the fact that my kids are the same age as the Obamas, and my own struggle with various animal and dust allergies. Lately, I can’t help thinking that if I had to make a recommendation, I would point them toward a rescue dog. But not just any shelter “mutt” as Obama candidly mentioned – though of course mutts make wonderful companions and are a great alternative to popular breeds. For the Obamas, I would suggest a greyhound rescue.

Admittedly, I don’t see greyhounds very often in the clinic where I work – only twice so far in fact. The most recent was just a few weeks ago, when a client came in with Daisy, a greyhound he had rescued from Arizona the year before. She was in excellent health; she only had a small but painful superficial wound on her hind leg. Contrary to many dogs, when Daisy was put on the table, she put on a very brave face and let me do what I had to do to allow the wound to heal as quickly as possible. She did not pull her leg away or turn her head toward me to see if she could intimidate me into leaving her alone, instead she only flinched slightly when I examined the wound and applied a gentle antiseptic, noting that she had the typical thin, delicate skin of the breed. Her owner had only praise for her, and I could see why. Not only had she easily adapted to a new home at the age of 4, but she had quickly become the moral support of her new companion, a bossy 12-year-old Shih-Tzu, who now refused to leave the house without Daisy in tow.

My positive impression of the greyhound temperament has been reinforced by the research I’ve done since. Descriptors abound with terms such as “sweet” “gentle” “affectionate” “loyal” and “quiet couch potato”. Granted, the vast majority of greyhounds are not adopted as puppies, because they are specifically bred for sprint racing. Barring injury, their careers usually last between 2 and 5 years, which means they are often available for adoption between the ages of 2 and 5; more rarely, puppies or adolescents can be adopted due to injury or physical unsuitability for racing. Essentially, as with horse racing, when an animal is no longer profitable to the owner, it must be “dealt with”. In the 1980s, some dedicated dog lovers became aware of this sad business, and initiated projects to adopt spent greyhounds into homes. This has led to a rather predictable conundrum: some greyhound adopters remain viscerally opposed to greyhound racing, while others have decided to remain neutral, to avoid driving away the very people who provide them with animals to adopt out…

With the current economic downturn meaning less free-flowing cash, I’m wondering if the demand for homes for greyhounds will suddenly go up, or if this has already happened. It’s important to remember that animals will be the ones who will most suffer from any economic crisis, because they are at the bottom of the chain of concern. Rescues of all kinds will be needed in the coming months and years.

This, to my mind, is where a greyhound for the Obamas would fit in. His looming role as Rescuer-in-Chief needs a mascot: a suitably “vetted” greyhound, with its working-class background, gentle disposition, and short, (hopefully) hypoallergenic coat would make a perfect addition to a household where two young girls would have a beautiful and gentle dog to keep them company as they all adjust together to a new environment. And as we all adjust to a new economy – one that will hopefully bring out our best instincts of rescue, care and concern for people and animals whose livelihoods are all too easily exploitable, and ultimately expendable in a capitalist economy.

Although I am no expert in greyhound health and longevity, I do wish to point out that nearly every breed of dog has its characteristic problems. Greyhounds may not have a typical disease profile that results from intensive inbreeding exacerbated by sudden popularity, but concerns have been raised about a possible increased likelihood of developing osteosarcoma. While I never like to see any breed of dog suddenly become popular, it would be nice to shed some light on this business of raising dogs for gambling, only to see them discarded when they are no longer profitable.