There’s a concept in politics called the Third Rail. Like the electrified rails that power subway cars, you touch it and you die, politically speaking.

It’s been applied to various issues over the years: killing Social Security, raising taxes, sitting during the National Anthem. Go there, and you just killed your chances of being accepted by the majority of the public.

That same rule applies to animal activists and their various campaigns. You can advocate and agitate and postulate about factory farms and animal abuse and circus elephants until the sun goes down, and all you’ll hear in response are cheers and hosannas.

But the Third Rail in animal activism is a four-letter word that you’d better not denigrate, and that word is “pets.”

That didn’t stop a guy named Gary Francione, a vegan (naturally) and a law professor at Rutgers University. He’s not just onboard the animal rights trains – he fancies himself at the controls up in the locomotive.

Here’s the opening line of an essay he wrote with fellow Rutgers law professor Anna Charlton titled, “The Case Against Pets:” “We oppose domestication and pet ownership, because these violate the fundamental rights of animals.”

I’m guessing that Francione imagines himself as one of those snarky attorneys whose seemingly preposterous defense strategy occasionally gets the better of District Attorney Jack McCoy on “Law and Order:” Make an outrageous assertion to the jury, and then work your way through a complicated argument that eventually proves your point.

“When we talk about animal rights, we are talking primarily about one right: the right not to be property,” they wrote. “The reason for this is that if animals matter morally — if animals are not just things — they cannot be property.”

With that statement, Francione and Charlton didn’t just touch it, they crawled down, stretched out and laid themselves across a Third Rail that effectively killed any chance that even diehard veggie believers could go along with the idea that caring for rescued puppies or kittens is the equivalent of running the household version of a factory farm.

For starters, there are some 160 million dogs and cats sharing American homes with tens of millions of their owners, and it’s doubtful that many of those owners would suddenly wake up one day to their personal Road to Damascus moment and then . . . what? Give away Fluffy or Fido? Hope they die in their sleep? Have them euthanized?

Owning a pet is decidedly not about owning property. With property, you can sell it, trash it, or dump it into one of those Salvation Army donation bins. When people acquire a pet, they sign a proverbial lifetime contract, to death do they part.

Not to mention that the average American pet enjoys a lifestyle that billions of people around the world can only dream about: Plenty of food, warm, comfortable sleeping quarters (also known as “furniture” or beds), with rare exceptions, no requirements to do anything other than lope around and sleep, interrupted only by eating, playing, more sleeping and a couple minutes a day spent in a litter box or out on somebody’s lawn or tree.

And Francione and Charlton are going to make the case that all this represents “abuse?”

An historical perspective

But they didn’t stop there.

“My theory of animal rights is that all domestication is morally unjustifiable,” they wrote. “You can’t justify domesticating animals for human purposes . . .for food or for experiments or for clothing or for anything else.”

You don’t need to be an anthropologist to recognize that in all of human history, the seminal milestone that advanced humanity’s transition from Australopithecus to Homo sapiens was the domestication of animals.

Without animals, the earliest humans couldn’t have developed agriculture. Without agriculture, there is no collective food surplus. And without a surplus of food, there’s no specialization, no division of labor, no development of all the science and technology that eventually created what we now understand as civilization.

Without domestication of animals, we’d all still be wearing fur and animal skins and spending our days tracking, hunting and killing wild animals as our primary source of sustenance.

Do animal activists ever consider the alternative to domestication?

Do bears do their business in the woods?

And ironically, the process of domestication began not with work animals or food animals, but with pets. As best we can tell, the first animals humans managed to tame were the descendants of the prehistoric wolves that circled the campfires around which cave dwellers huddled.

Finally, here’s the best part of Francione and Charlton’s anti-pet ownership rant: Together, they own six dogs. How do they justify that? Same way that anyone making radical demands of society tends to carve out exceptions for their personal lifestyle.

Francione maintains that he loves his dogs, but as an article in The Daily Targum (the Rutgers college newspaper), noted, if it were up to him, he would choose to not have dogs.

“If there were two dogs left in the world, and you asked us, ‘Would it be okay to breed them so we could continue to have pets?’ the answer would be no,” he said.

That sizzling sound you hear is the electricity coursing through the Third Rail that just destroyed any credibility Mr. Animal Law Professor could have hoped to retain.

This is where we cut to the concluding moment of the show when the judge asks, “Has the jury reached a verdict?” And the foreperson replies, “We find the defendant . . . guilty.”

And everyone files out of the courtroom to head back home. So they can walk the dog and feed the cat. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator