By William Urban


            This book by Wesley J. Smith, subtitled The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement, takes on one of the educated class’s most popular causes. I say educated classes because the heart of this belief system beats in elite universities and large cities, in groups where emotion rather than logic rules — in short, in Woody Allen’s America, except that he makes fun of the eccentricities and excesses of his particular corner of la-la land that old-timers called Bohemian New York. California, its true heartland, Woody Allen said, was only good for being able to turn right on red. Actually, he meant Los Angeles, but that city is better known today for gang wars than its highway system; for animal rights enthusiasm one has to go to San Francisco and nearby Berkeley.

            We don’t have too much of this locally. My memory is that one fanatic burned down our animal shelter, perhaps, but otherwise people who live in farm country behave more sensibly. We don’t even have much of the “Bambi syndrome” during deer hunting season — we are very aware that the deer population has gotten dangerously large; and my son once had his car totaled by a deer he had slowed down to avoid hitting. But there is a good part of the country where hunting is considered purely evil. Just look at the reaction to Sarah Palin. Whatever your thoughts are about her readiness to be president, you might have noticed that decades of feminist arguments that women should feel entitled to pursue masculine activities vanished when she told interviewers how much she enjoyed moose hunting, and that she even cleaned her own kills. “Yuck,” you can imagine them saying, “She puts her hands right into the guts!” As if female doctors and nurses don’t do that all the time.

            It is that attitude among the anti-hunting, anti-farming, anti-pet, anti-meat crowd that Smith takes on. The title comes from a statement made by PETA head, Ingrid Newkirk, to a reporter from the Washington magazine in 1986: “They are all mammals.”

            Smith knows that it is a lost cause to argue with anyone already enrolled in the church of Animal Liberation — logic can rarely change the mind of someone who has adopted an idea on emotional grounds. In late November I read an article in the New Yorker on food faddists who live on garbage and insist that bacteria are good for us. Obviously so, since without bacteria we couldn’t digest anything. But there are limits. One of the leading voices of the branch of this cult being interviewed died of parasites because, believing that doctors and hospitals were evil, he refused medical treatment. His followers do not seem to have lost faith in the body being able to heal itself naturally. Similarly, if you believe that it is wrong to use animals in medical experimentation, Smith’s naming new medicines that have been produced in this way will not change their minds.

            We no longer hear of activists throwing paint on fur coats, but that it because fewer people wear fur nowadays. That may be a reaction to the cost of fur coats, but it more likely reflects the success of the anti-fur movement. It is not that Smith is in favor of clubbing seals or open season on everything; he merely thinks that the extremists are so much out of control that they represent a danger to the rest of us. To put the proper name on it, he calls them terrorists.

            Smith is not a hunter himself and really has a problem with trophy hunting; however, he does like to fish, another activity extremists find problematical. He also likes zoos, and pets, and the occasional steak. When it comes to guaranteeing that animals’ lives (and deaths, too) are as happy and natural as possible, he must be ranked among the tender-hearted. But he recoils at the thought of letting animals roam freely through towns and playgrounds, of not spaying or neutering them, and at demands that their welfare should count as much as that of human beings.

            Humans are superior to animals, he argues, in their having moral values. A dog, for example, has a natural instinct to nurture its young and to share with a pack; however, it would never enlarge this vision to include all other dogs, much less cats and school buses. Humans may fall short in applying this kind of moral knowledge, but they all have the capacity to do so. Hence, humans have to care for animals, just as they must care for the environment, for one another, and for themselves.

            If humans are just another animal, he asks, what responsibility do we have to care for them?


             Review Atlas (Dec. 31, 2010), 4.