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Pets are people, too?

Culture | Animal-rights activists are torturing the language and the law

Issue: "The $10 billion gamble," April 6, 2002

A vegetarian is someone who won't eat meat for ethical reasons. Then there are vegans. They not only think it is wrong to eat animals, they refuse to eat animal products, such as milk and eggs. Even though such foods do not involve killing animals, they do come from keeping cattle and chickens in captivity and exploiting them for human use.

Then there are the fruitarians, who consider even vegans insufficiently moral. Vegans still eat plants, and plants are just as alive as animals. Fruitarians believe that the only ethical thing to eat is fruit, since the plants that produce fruit are not destroyed.

Of course, even here the supposed moral purity breaks down. The cells of the fruit are living entities. While plants can generate their own nourishment from the soil and light, animals and human beings can only be nourished by other living things. Whatever we eat-meat, vegetables, or fruit-must die so that we can live. The necessity of sacrifice is both a spiritual truth and a natural fact.

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The various schemes of works righteousness always fail, now that we have fallen from Eden-where eating a fruit got us all in trouble. But now Christians live in the freedom of the gospel, the good news that Christ died so that we might live, continuing to feed us with His Word and sacraments, something signified every time we sit down to a meal.

But today many people are too squeamish for the gospel and want to justify themselves by their own exquisite moral perfection. Many radical environmentalists and animal-rights activists find in their cause a secular moralism, enabling them to feel self-righteous without having to bother with genuine morality, with its demands about sexual behavior and its authentic ways of being pro-life.

The view that all life is equal-since human beings are animals, animals are as valuable as human beings-has become for many of its adherents a moral crusade, or maybe a religious jihad. As in other legalistic religions, like radical Islam, the ends justify the means, opening the door to terrorism for its most fanatical proponents. Thus, we have the animal-rights guerrillas who vandalize biological labs for experimenting on mice, or the Earth First terrorists who burn down homes in wilderness areas.

More thoughtful militants, though, are working in a more subtle way, trying to change the system from the ground up. For example, a group called In Defense of Animals is quietly working in local municipalities to change the language of pet ordinances. Terms having to do with the "ownership" of pets are being revised in favor of terms that describe a person-to-person relationship. Pet "owners," in the new wording, are pet "guardians."

Across the country, communities from mid-size college towns like Boulder, Colo., and Berkeley, Calif., to small-town bergs like Sherwood, Ark., and Menomonee Falls, Wis., are revising their pet ordinances accordingly. City government is relatively easy to influence, and since the new laws seem to have little weight, they often go through easily.

And the public goes along, thinking, by the prevailing canons of sentimentality, that it is a great idea. "Some of my friends don't understand that these guys," referring to her three dogs, "they're our kids," one Menomonee Falls resident told the Milwaukee Journal.

The relationship between a pet and its master can indeed be a noble and beautiful thing. C.S. Lewis saw having pets as an image of the loving dominion between human beings and animals that God ordained before the Fall.

But In Defense of Animals has a broader agenda. Besides trying now to introduce the anti-ownership laws in state legislatures, where they will have much more effect than in city ordinances, the group is targeting verbs. Instead of "buying" pets, the IDA wants Americans to use terms like "rescuing" or "adopting" a pet.

Meanwhile, animal-rights attorneys are laying the legal groundwork for declaring apes, monkeys, and other primates to be persons under the law. Some human beings used to be considered mere property, argue activists. Now we have become more advanced and recognize that slavery is wrong. The next evolutionary step in the development of society's moral consciousness, they say, is to recognize that treating animals as property is just as wrong.

Working on the grassroots level, they start with easy targets and build from there. From winning over pet lovers, they can then change the status of "higher primates" and then, ultimately, eliminate the feed lots and cattle ranches.

The rash of dog-mauling cases, in which vicious animals attack and kill neighbors and children, might give pause to this movement. Just like others do their children, some pet "guardians" spoil, misuse, and refuse to discipline their animals, whereupon their true bestial nature is unleashed.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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