Remember the advertisements, “Is it live or is it Memorex?” That’s still the company’s catch phrase, though you don’t see those advertisements much anymore.
Today, whenever I hear about a celebrity campaigning for animal rights, or a teenager who claims to be a vegetarian, the Memorex jingle comes to mind. “Is this real?” I wonder, “Or is this animal rights/vegetarian movement just a fad?”
For some Americans, at least, it’s not a fad. HBO, the premium cable television channel, celebrated People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ first quarter-century last month with the premiere of the documentary I am an animal: The story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA. Newkirk, of course, is the co-founder and president of PETA.
Directed by Matthew Galkin, I am an animal provides “an unprecedented portrait of a very private person committed to a very public crusade, and offers a glimpse into the inner workings of the animal rights movement.” (You can view the film at PETA’s Web site, www.peta.com.)
The film includes some very graphic video of animal cruelty that drives many of Newkirk’s campaigns against research facilities, meat-processing factories and clothing stores around the world. Newkirk is portrayed as a single-minded leader, who is both revered and despised for her uncompromising beliefs in the rights of animals.
PETA, which has 300 employees and a $25 million annual operating budget, has become the trendy Hollywood cause. The film contains praise for the movement from Pamela Anderson, Alec Baldwin and Bill Maher. But also some criticism of PETA appears in the documentary from the likes of Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, an advocacy group unaffiliated with PETA, who said, “They (PETA) have trivialized animal rights. They have exploited racism and women in campaigns, using people as props to project animal rights, and you can’t do that. You can’t sensationalize an issue involving a lot of pain, a racist issue for example, and expect to advance an ethical cause in doing so. The means don’t justify the ends.”
The end Newkirk seeks is “total animal liberation” — with no meat or dairy, aquariums, circuses, hunting or fishing, fur or leather, or medical research using animals, even if human lives can be saved. PETA is even opposed to the use of seeing-eye dogs.
If you think Newkirk’s vision is extreme, you’re not alone. A recent survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation in cooperation with Oklahoma State University found the public cares more about human welfare and farmers than it does farm animals. OSU economist F. Bailey Norwood says respondents rated the financial well-being of U.S. farmers as twice as important as the well-being of farm animals, and poverty, health care and food safety as five times more important. In addition, consumers understand animal welfare is a result of their shopping decisions in addition to farmer decisions. They realize they have a choice of purchasing meat from traditional production or, if they prefer, paying for meat from alternative production systems.
Of course, the Farm Bureau/Oklahoma State survey does not imply that farm-animal welfare is not important. But despite the efforts of animal rights groups, it does imply, when forming public policy, the interests of farm animals take a backseat to the interests of humans. Proposed policies that raise food costs leave consumers with less money for funding programs benefiting humans.
While the survey of American attitudes toward animal rights is encouraging, the untruths from the misguided continue to try to mislead the masses. For instance, the following comes directly from a page about cows on PETA’s Web site:
Studies have found that ranchers maximize profits by giving each steer less than 20 square feet of living space — the equivalent of putting 12 half-ton steers in a typical American bedroom! Instead of treating them humanely, they are fed a steady diet of hormones to fatten them and antibiotics to keep them alive.
The broadcast of I am an animal on HBO provided PETA invaluable publicity for its cause and should erase any misperceptions that the animal rights movement is a fad. Indeed, the movement has now become big business, with hundreds of millions of dollars funneled into dozens of organizations.
American agriculture has not totally ignored the animal rights movement. But clearly, we have been outspent and out-maneuvered by a misguided minority who are savvy communication and political professionals. It’s time that changed.
An organization working for you is the Animal Agriculture Alliance (www.animalagalliance.org). Visit its Web site to see how you can participate in combating the untruths about animal agriculture.