View Point

By Eric Bahrt

Saturday, May 17, 1997

Animal-rights critics
barking up wrong tree

When it comes to animal rights where do we draw the line? After my article "Why worry about animals?" (View Point, Nov. 30) appeared in this paper, one letter writer asked me if I believed it was wrong to kill cockroaches. And my relative, to whom I had sent a copy of my article, asked me if I supported the "rights" of "suffering" bacteria.

(In case anyone is wondering why my relative would give me a hard time, I should point out he has been involved in animal research.)

While I assume that these two people thought they were being very clever with their sarcastic questions, I think they were being silly. If I step on a cockroach am I a hypocrite to say it's wrong to eat a factory-farmed veal calf?

If I swat a mosquito, am I a hypocrite to say it's wrong to pour burning chemicals into the eyes of rabbits for the purpose of putting another cosmetic on the market? If I wash my hands and kill bacteria, am I a hypocrite for saying it's an atrocity to try to give AIDS to apes who are so similar to humans that some scientists argue that they are members of our own species?

Either we try to save all living things or we're hypocrites to try to save any? Is that rational?

Animal rights is not a religion which demands total purity. It is a philosophy which combines kindness with common sense -- something my critics should try doing once in a while. Getting malaria because you don't want to kill mosquitoes is not common sense. But becoming a vegetarian because you care about animals, human health and the environment makes enormous sense. Certainly rational people can see the difference. Look at it this way. Practically everyone believes that in general it's wrong to kill humans. But there are exceptions to that rule -- such as in the case of self-defense. But what about war, euthanasia, capital punishment or abortion? Are they murder? Or can they be morally justified under certain circumstances? You answer that.

So even when it comes to killing humans we don't all argree on where to draw the line. Yet I'm supposed to answer every hypothetical question about when it is or isn't appropriate to kill animals? Does that sound fair?

Actually, the animal-rights movement does address some insect issues. Many activists avoid honey out of concern for bees and avoid silk because silkworms are boiled alive. Since it is neither necessary to consume honey or wear silk, I think these are sensible positions. But activists would agree that with billions of sentient, vertebrate animals being tortured in either fur farms, factory farms, research labs, bullfights, cockfights or what have you, we simply lack the time and energy to involve ourselves in cockroach "rights" or bacteria "rights."

The point I'm driving at is that the focus shouldn't be on where to draw the line. Many animal- rights activists are still debating that question among themselves. But rather the focus should be on what can we as caring, compassionate consumers do to dramatically reduce the suffering of billions of vertebrate animals who we know can suffer as much as we can.

If you don't want to kill cockroaches, fine. If you would rather die than kill your bacteria, it's your life. But nothing can justify the unnecessary pain and torture that we impose upon billions of vertebrate animals. (The fact that I emphasize vertebrate animals doesn't mean I don't care about invertebrate animals. But with limited resources we must give priority to the animals who have the greatest capacity for suffering. That's not hypocrisy, that's common sense.)

But let me assure my relative that after we save the pigs, the cows, the chickens, the dogs, the cats, the monkeys, the apes and so on, I will immediately join forces with people for the ethical treatment of bacteria. But in the meantime there are more pressing matters at hand.

Eric Bahrt is a Honolulu writer and animal rights activist.
The opinions in View Point columns are the authors' and
are not necessarily shared by the Star-Bulletin.

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