Natural Selections: Animal Wars

In an animal rights publicity circus, the animals lose.

By Mary C. Pearl|Wednesday, April 25, 2007
RELATED TAGS: EVOLUTION

“From July 1998 through December 2005, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) killed over 14,400 dogs, cats, and other ‘companion animals.’ That’s more than five defenseless creatures every day. PETA has a walk-in freezer to store the dead bodies and contracts with a Virginia Beach company to cremate them.” This incendiary quote comes from the Web site petakillsanimals.com. While I know PETA tactics are often sensationalistic, I was surprised that someone was apparently using PETA’s own techniques against it. Was there any truth to the claim? The Web site is sponsored by the Center for Consumer Freedom, created by a public relations firm that represents a coalition of animal-based consumer products companies, restaurants, and “concerned individuals”. The more I looked into it, the more it seemed that animal welfare was not the true issue here. Two big interest groups were duking it out, and sensationalism was the easiest way to get public attention.

PETA1-250
PETA1-250
An outspoken PETA advertisement protesting
the use of fur for clothing.

The Center for Consumer Freedom Web site is filled with misleading polemics designed to alarm animal lovers. The killing of “defenseless creatures” refers to the humane euthanization of unwanted dogs, cats, and other pets at a PETA-run animal shelter. Clearly, the goal of the campaign is to weaken the animal rights group, not to save animals’ lives. Of course, PETA itself is no stranger to exaggeration. In its many campaigns, the organization works to create a sense of outrage, regularly inciting a frenzy of misplaced concern when the facts of the matter would not provoke reasonable people to such a response.

Several years ago, unbeknownst to me and my colleagues at Wildlife Trust, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus added links from its Web site to our own (and to those of several other wildlife organizations). Almost immediately, PETA sent us a threatening letter demanding that Ringling Brothers remove the link, citing the thousands of PETA members who would be upset if we didn’t comply. We were given a deadline to respond with the news that we had severed the link. I wrote back, saying that I did not see the harm in luring readers from a circus Web site to learn about elephant natural history and conservation. I never heard back.

I was relieved that Wildlife Trust did not land in the center of the kind of storm of public protest that PETA can create. PETA may seem well-meaning and benign, but scientists and conservationists who work with animals see its other side and are wary of the organization because it attacks research in order to advance its mission. For example, PETA is opposed to the efforts of conservationists to reintroduce predators into ecosystems where they once belonged. In balanced ecosystems, natural predators keep prey species healthy, but PETA activists argue that bringing the wolf back to the American West is cruel. The group can marshal tens of thousands of its members to protest what they think is detrimental to the philosophical position of moral equivalence for humans and nonhuman animals.

PETA may seem well-meaning and benign, but scientists are wary of the organization because it attacks research to advance its mission

Last fall PETA set its sights on a scientist at the Oregon Health and Science University, Charles Roselli, who researches the sexual behavior of sheep. Roselli’s work, like all federally funded research involving animals, is overseen by a special committee composed of veterinarians, biologists, ethicists, and community representatives. His work is important, given that on average, 8 percent of rams seek sex with other rams rather than with ewes. As a wildlife conservationist, I am very interested in understanding what makes an “effective population size”: that fraction of a population that is fertile, actively reproducing, and able to produce the next generation. Roselli’s discoveries about the reproductive behavior of domestic sheep may provide clues to population dynamics in endangered wild sheep. The question of how and why animals choose mates is also one key in the much larger study of how evolution works.

Distorting and then attacking research for political gain is nothing new. Years ago, Senator William Proxmire combed the budget for potentially silly-sounding expenditures. National Science Foundation grants frequently fit the bill, and many of them were ridiculed with Proxmire’s Golden Fleece award. I remember this vividly because I worked on one of the programs he mocked, an examination of the behavior and genetics of wild Himalayan rhesus monkeys. The senator’s scorn was misplaced. Since the rhesus monkey was the most common laboratory monkey at the time and very little was known about its natural behavior, my project was directly relevant to a host of other ongoing research into animal behavior and social dynamics. Moreover, our team drew upon a stockpile of internationally worthless Pakistani currency held at the time by the U.S. government—in other words, no taxpayer money was involved. None of that mattered, because Proxmire’s goal was not to improve science but to attract popular support for Senator Proxmire.

Whether PETA activists are the victims or the perpetrators of emotional and misleading polemics is ultimately beside the point. As an animal lover, I wonder: Where are the animals in this? The extinction of a species could be considered the ultimate cruelty, but neither PETA nor the Center for Consumer Freedom has much to say about the well-being or viability of animals in nature. This is a shame, because stress and suffering in individual wild animals due to the encroachment of humans is contributing to the demise of whole populations. If either of these two organizations was sincerely interested in the full range of alleviating harm to animals, they would find a place in their agendas for this real issue rather than focusing on campaigns of bullying and half-truths.

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