"A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy." Like no other, this pronouncement by Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), appeared to lay down the gauntlet, an inviolate line in the sand that animals deserve the kinds of legal rights we recognize for people. In other words, if you would not eat a boy, you should not eat a pig. If you would not poison a boy, you should not poison a rat. If you would not abuse a boy, you should not abuse a dog. I agree.
Now, science has vindicated Newkirk's pronouncement, at least as it relates to dogs. In "Dogs Are People, Too" from the New York Times, Dr. Gregory Berns writes, "The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child." His research, showing striking similarities between humans and dogs in regions of the brain associated with positive emotions, is shared by other scientists. Not only has the pioneering work of some biologists shown that animals also have complex systems of justice and order their lives for purposes of maximizing both survival and happiness, but that they also feel a strong sense of loss as a result of death just like we do.
Cats will cry at the loss of a mate, elephants will reverently caress the bones of a departed friend even years after their death and dogs and rabbits mourn, too. In "The Mystery of Animal Grief," Time magazine author Jeffrey Kluger writes that, "[S]orrow following a death has been observed on the farm--among goats, pigs, ducks--and in the oceans..." Indeed, there is great evidence proving that, like humans, animals "honor, mourn and even hold wakes for their dead."
Animals grieve, and grieving requires awareness of a before and an after, a difference between then and now, of possession, or for the purposes of this discussion, the presence of someone dear, and the subsequent loss of that someone and the pain and emptiness that their departure creates. Like us, animals suffer from death--not only do they flee harm that might cause it to themselves, but they feel pain from the death of other animals with whom they are bonded. It is no surprise. In humans, mourning is controlled by the frontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens and the amygdalan, the parts of our brains which process emotions. Animals share this same basic anatomy.
And this, writes Dr. Berns, "suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs."
[R]ecent rulings by the Supreme Court have included neuroscientific findings that open the door to such a possibility. In two cases, the court ruled that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As part of the rulings, the court cited brain-imaging evidence that the human brain was not mature in adolescence. Although this case has nothing to do with dog sentience, the justices opened the door for neuroscience in the courtroom.
Perhaps someday we may see a case arguing for a dog's rights based on brain-imaging findings.
Accordingly, Dr. Berns posits that neuroscience warrants changes in how we view and treat dogs, namely that the law should not regard dogs as property, but as legal persons, and that puppy mills, vivisection and dog racing should be banned. His research also demands that it should be illegal for "shelters" to kill them. If a dog is a boy, as Newkirk says and science proves, why is it wrong to kill a boy, but according to PETA, not wrong to kill a dog? In other words, when PETA kills healthy and medically treatable dogs, defends the killing of healthy and medically treatable dogs, and fights legislation that would prevent the killing of healthy and medically treatable dogs in shelters, a dog is no longer a boy. What accounts for Newkirk's hypocrisy, her betrayal of the most fundamental right that arises from her pronouncement and which science itself now validates?
While it is logical to assume that the philosophy dictating every position the animal rights movement holds and which every one of its so-called "leaders" espouse are guided by the principles to which every other rights based movement in our nation's history has subscribed--the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--sadly, that is not the case. The animal rights movement in practice today is a morass of incoherent and incompatible contradictions. Its precepts are based not on inviolate, uncompromising principles, but on what should be two entirely irrelevant criteria when determining the particular rights of animals: the species to which an animal belongs and who it is, historically, that has violated the inherent rights of that species. If an animal belongs to a species that has historically been killed by self-professed members of the animal protection movement, such as dogs and cats in "animal shelters," then that killing is not only morally acceptable, it is often regarded as morally compulsory. In short, according to many groups and individuals which claim to be a part of the animal rights movement today, there is no such thing as "unalienable" rights for animals.
Today, your average animal rights activist believes in killing dogs and cats, defends the killing of dogs and cats, and adheres to principles laid out by organizations that engage in the mass killing of dogs and cats. The most basic right which every human being cherishes above all others and without which no other rights can be guaranteed--the right to life--is not, as it should be, ground zero in the struggle for animal rights, but rather a fundamental principle which many "animal rights activists" carelessly and casually disregard. In fact, many individuals and groups that self-identify (falsely, it turns out) as "animal rights" do not actually believe in the rights of animals.
To PETA, an organization that systematically puts to death thousands of animals every year and fights to defend the "right" of shelters to kill millions more (even in the face of commonsense, readily-available, lifesaving alternatives), their philosophy seems to boil down to a simple adage: It is bad for dogs and cats to be born but good for them to be killed; a viewpoint they endorse to extreme in killing 96% of the animals they seek out, while adopting out only 1% (and then primarily, if not exclusively, to staff who express interest in animals otherwise slated for killing).
Not surprisingly, PETA's embrace of shelter killing as an expression of their view that "it is good for animals to be killed" undermines their belief that "it is bad for them to be born," as shelter killing empowers and benefits puppy mills and breeders. By fighting shelter reform and both defending and promoting killing--which PETA does--they discourage the adoption of shelter animals. By embracing draconian adoption policies, they drive good homes to breeders and pet stores, fueling these markets. When they fight efforts to increase rescue partnerships at shelters, they lessen the supply of available shelter/rescue animals, again, increasing the demand for purposely bred animals. Moreover, shelters that kill discourage adopters by the very fact that they kill, as many people, concerned for the welfare of animals, feel uncomfortable visiting places that harm them, and therefore don't; again, benefiting those who supply commercial sources of animals to the American public. But neither consistency nor thoughtfulness has been PETA's strong suit and in fact, philosophy is not why PETA embraces the policies that they do.
In reality, PETA is not interested in pursuing the rights of animals (they themselves admit they "do not advocate right to life for animals"), but in providing political cover for the deadly impulses of Ingrid Newkirk. To Newkirk, killing is the goal because animals want to die. It is, as she writes, a "gift," the "greatest gift of all," a mindset in which she schools her staff who then emphatically argue, like she does, that killing healthy companion animals is of no moral consequence as long as it is done with an overdose of barbiturates. It is no surprise then that PETA has even called for an end to the sharing of our homes with dogs for the simple reason that they do not want them alive. When a rights-based movement is taking direction from an organization that is itself the functional equivalent of a slaughterhouse, it can't help but get it pathologically wrong.
It is easier for PETA to kill and to defend killing if they can downplay the gravity of what they are doing by continuing to maintain the fiction that animals are not like us when it doesn't suit them. So long as animals are incapable of grief, so long as they cannot conceptualize death, so long as they do not have sentience, so long as their brains aren't "strikingly similar," killing them (if it is done by lethal injection) doesn't matter to PETA, effectively eviscerating not just the science, but the entire philosophical and ethical foundation of the animal protection movement itself. In both its practices and its defense of killing, PETA models to the American public the very notion that, above all others, they should be working hardest to overcome: the lie that robbing animals of their lives is of no moral consequence.
It most certainly is. After all, the science is in: dogs are people, too.