by Ed Duvin
I have not written for publication on animal rights and animal sheltering since 1993, as I had largely achieved what I set out to accomplish and it was time for new voices to be heard.
Having joined the animal rights movement in 1979, after working in the civil rights and anti-poverty causes, I turned my attention to long-postponed challenges in other areas of social justice.
I never thought of it as leaving the animal rights movement, as I see all injustice as one monster with many heads. Although not active, my heart remained in the struggle for animal rights––an indelible commitment that I could never abandon.
Much has been written about the shelters transitioning to no-kill, the latest being Susan Houser’s book Prodigal Pets, and the comprehensive review entitled “Orphans abandoned” by ANIMALS 24-7, both adroitly depicting the period of my direct involvement.
It needs to be stressed, however, that my efforts––along with those of numerous others––would have been largely futile, were it not for all the pioneers who paved the way.
Many were mercilessly ridiculed as “little old ladies in tennis shoes,” but they were neither intimidated nor discouraged by those who deprecated their efforts on behalf of our nonhuman family.
I have never presumed expertise on animal sheltering, as my sole objective was to challenge the prevailing ethos.
I was heading an ethics institute when I wrote my essay “In The Name of Mercy,” summarized in Prodigal Pets and “Orphans abandoned,” and found the “loving them to death” mantra incomprehensible among humane organizations.
The deeper I delved into sheltering, the more heartsick I became due to systemic deficiencies falling woefully short of professional standards. My findings threatened many, resulting in a file full of death threats. I understood, as shelter workers loved animals and only knew what they were taught by leaders suffering from a lack of vision.
To be clear, my criticism was passionate, but I refrained from ad hominem attacks on shelter workers. Indeed, my focus over the years has been on principles, not personalities.
I say that absent any self-righteousness, but I found it more efficacious to focus on moral imperatives than to become embroiled in personal disputes.
After publication of this guest column, however, which goes light-years beyond sheltering, many old friends will likely be sending arrows my way! That’s fine if it leads to more constructive discourse on some highly sensitive issues.
“Flawed and often morally inconsistent”
The animal rights movement, not unlike our troubled culture, is polarized to the extent that critical analysis and independent thought have become foreign words.
For example, the founder of one prominent activist organization adheres to practices vis-à-vis feral cats and other companion animals that I perceive as lethal hubris. My understanding of that organization’s rationale is that a humane death is preferable to a life of uncertainty and suffering.
By that standard, none of us should have a pulse, as all animals––human and nonhuman––face lives of uncertainty and suffering.
Yet, this same organization was instrumental in bringing animal rights to the forefront. One aspect of what it does, and has done, does not justify the other, but the contrast portrays an all too common portrait of our species: flawed and often morally inconsistent.
What has been the historical effect of domestication?
That same lack of critical analysis of moral consistency applies in all aspects of animal advocacy, with even our mission statements often written in the most amorphous terms.
Ideological disparities and interpersonal disputes often supplant our raison d’etre–our reason for being. For me, in every cause I have had the privilege of serving, my motivation remained constant: putting ourselves out of business.
Here is where the tomatoes start flying, as that translates into rejecting anthropocentrism––the shameful view that humankind is the central and/or most important component of existence. Absent that unfounded predicate, who or what grants us the entitlement to domesticate other species, even with benign intentions?
What has been the historical effect of domestication in this nation and across the globe? It has proven beneficial to humans, who have used other beings in every conceivable fashion that serves our narcissistic needs.
“Is there dignity in domesticating other beings?”
Over the years, animals have provided transportation, labor, food, entertainment, clothing, tortuous laboratory testing, and yes, loving companionship. But domestication has served as speciesism’s version of slavery, as even our precious companion animals are living unnatural lives in fulfilling our needs.
We recently lost two giants in the quest for justice, former Congressional Representatives Elijah Cummings of Maryland and John Lewis of Georgia, both of whom devoted their lives to the struggle for human dignity.
Is there dignity in domesticating other beings? As Cummings and Lewis fought to liberate their sisters and brothers from exploitation, is there not an imperative for us to do the same––striving to end domestication that subordinates other species to our needs and desires? Not only has our self-absorbed species threatened the planet’s survival, but we ordained ourselves to have dominion over other beings. From the perspective of speciesism, that is nothing less than forced enslavement.
“The less we tamper with Nature, the better”
Unlike the aforementioned organization that might seek these same ends––ending domestication of other beings––I find their means antithetical to every humane principle.
I advocate protecting and cherishing each animal presently under our care, while seeking an end to the breeding of future generations.
Would some species likely perish? Tragically, yes, just as we’re losing some 8,700 species a year in the wild according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
Through the larger lens of biodiversity, however, the less we tamper with Nature––even with good intentions––the better.
“Our goal should be ‘wild and free'”
Will any organizations have the courage, or even inclination, to expand their mission? Will newborns ever see an end to the domestication of other beings? Both are unlikely. Aside from public/commercial resistance, even many animal activists would be loath to end the breeding of certain species––most notably, companion animals.
That said, can we not for once soberly look at what Homo sapiens have created, recognizing that our goal should be to work for a day when other beings are where they should be, wild and free, not commodities to be used for human purposes with impunity.
The domestication of nonhumans began some 15,000 years ago, according to the American Museum of History, and if that remains acceptable to those responsible for the well-being of other species, then shame on us all.
Response from ANIMALS 24-7:
Ed Duvin’s call, above, for “protecting and cherishing each animal presently under our care, while seeking an end to the breeding of future generations,” has many antecedents in the literature of the late 20th century animal rights movement.
Most notoriously, in April 1993, then-Fund for Animals national director Wayne Pacelle, later president of the Humane Society of the United States from 2004 to 2018, and now president of Animal Wellness Action, claimed that Kathleen Marquardt of the long defunct anti-animal rights organization Putting People First had quoted him out of context in a syndicated column.
According to Marquardt, Pacelle at an animal rights event had “succinctly described the official animal rights plan for phasing out pets.”
“One generation and out”
Marquardt quoted Pacelle as saying, “One generation and out. We have no problem with the extinction of domestic animals. They are creations of human selective breeding.”
The remarks created a furor. While the notion of ending all deliberate human manipulation of animal breeding had long been discussed by animal rights theorists as a hypothetical ideal, as an extension of the concept of encouraging a vegan world, this was the first anyone in a leadership role within the animal rights movement had ever heard of ending animal breeding as an alleged plan, official or otherwise.
Indeed, neither then nor now was there any entity entitled to adopt any “official” plan, strategy, ideal, or even vague abstract tenet of belief on behalf of the entire animal rights movement, which was and remains nothing if not highly diverse in goals, campaigns, and even basic outlook on just what should be an animal’s rights.
Pacelle contended that remarks were actually made at a public gathering in response to “questioning which assumed the hypothetical scenario of an immediate end to meat-eating and the dilemma about the future of the surviving farm animals. The gist of my response,” he continued in an open letter, “was that we have no ethical obligation to preserve the different breeds of livestock produced through selective breeding.”
Pacelle’s position, interestingly enough, was almost word for word identical to that of spokespersons for the animal agriculture and biomedical research industries when questioned a few years later about their ethical obligations toward new species of animals created through transgenic experimentation.
Some of those spokespersons also paralleled Duvin’s words, in acknowledging an ethical duty to provide a high standard of welfare to creatures brought into being through experimentation, but not to preserve artificially created species, even cloned re-creations of extinct species, if those animals could not be kept safely and in good health in our present world.
Zoo people agreed, too
Pacelle went on to repeat the phrase “One generation and out” at an April 1994 conference of zoological conservation experts at the White Oak preserve in Florida.
This too was widely quoted out of context by opponents of the animal rights movement, but as the recorded, transcribed, and published minutes of that conference confirmed, what Pacelle said then was that “‘One generation and out’ should be the policy for keeping wild animals in captivity at zoos.”
Instead of trying to breed animals in perpetuity to live in small concrete and steel prisons, Pacelle argued, zoos should focus on helping to preserve species by protecting those animals’ wild habitat––and many of the assembled leaders of the zoo community agreed, at least in principle, with that.
Beside the point
ANIMALS 24-7 tends to regard the whole discussion of “one generation and out,” or of “seeking an end to the breeding of future generations,” as rather beside the point.
At issue for us, in any context, is whether the animal is harmed or exploited by the circumstances.
ANIMALS 24-7 argues, for instance, that humans should not breed pit bulls and other fighting dogs, who have no analogs in nature and have been created through extreme inbreeding for the sole purpose of killing other beings, not to eat them but for human amusement.
ANIMALS 24-7 also agrees with many leading animal advocacy organizations, including some associations of breeders, that dogs should not be bred for traits that are delirious to their own health, such as the extremely wide heads and flat faces of many purebred English bulldogs and the abnormally sloping backs and short hips often seen in purebred German shepherds.
But that many dogs are harmed and exploited as result of having been bred and kept by humans, is hardly an argument that dogs should never be bred and kept by humans, when vast numbers of humans keep vast numbers of dogs who plainly enjoy their lives and human companionship.
Reduce & prevent animal suffering in the here & now
Cats, in particular, throughout the past seven thousand-odd years of human history, have notoriously often voted with their feet whether to consort either with specific humans or with humans in general. The advent of spay/neuter has markedly reduced feline freedom of choice in reproduction, but even in the U.S., where up to 90% of the owned cat population may be sterilized, a majority of the cats born are still conceived beyond the reach of human control, and have the opportunity to evade human control if they so choose.
Looking beyond dogs and cats to farmed animal species, “one generation and out” would appear to be an appropriate goal for any animals conceived and raised specifically to be killed and eaten, skinned for fur or leather, or to be experimented on, be hunted, or be used in exploitive entertainments.
Yet, since the possible extinction of common livestock breeds is unlikely to be anything more than an abstract possibility within the lifespan of anyone alive today, or of any of our immediate descendants, it is also rather absurd to be discussing this hypothetical “what if?” scenario, instead of focusing on reducing and preventing actual animal suffering in the here and now––especially by not eating animals, so that fewer will be bred to suffer.