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October 1999
Media Watcher

A Law Unto Themselves By Anne Sullivan



To be honest, I’m not a bit surprised by the knee-jerk reaction of so many mainstream media columnists to the newly publicized idea of legal rights for animals. You’d think they all took the same class in journalism school (“Really Lame Attempts at Humor 101”), and consider parody an appropriate response to the challenging topics facing them. Those guilty as charged include Maggie Gallagher at the New York Post, USA Today’s Walter Shapiro, and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial features editor Max Boot. The latter’s piece described a futuristic world where all animals enjoyed the “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as stipulated in the “Declaration of Animal Rights.” Boot made reference to the “Monkey Trial of ‘99” as the turning point in his invented society, stating “I suppose we should have seen it coming. But the first signs, back in the ‘90s were pretty hard to read. Oh sure, those PETA people were going around attacking women wearing fur coats.” He continued with his yarn, lamenting, “Too bad ‘Porky Pig’ cartoons have been outlawed. You know, currency just ain’t what it used to be, either. ‘Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad’? I can remember when the bills still said ‘In God We Trust.’” I suppose we can’t blame a heel like Boot for his extravagant narrative as he must get bored providing readers with fact-based headlines again and again. But his fable clearly mocked the efforts being made to raise the legal status of animals and I couldn’t help but wonder what place it had in a publication such as The Wall Street Journal.

The New York Times covered the issue in a front-page story and again in its “Week in Review.” While critics of animal law were represented in both pieces, extensive coverage was given to experts in the field like Joyce Tischler of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Gary Francione of Rutgers University, and Steven Wise, who will teach the course in animal law at Harvard this spring. The Times explained that a goal of this “increasingly credible group of animal-rights lawyers” was “to make it intellectually uncomfortable for the legal system to continue to declare that animals lack legal rights because they are property.” According to the lawyers, the anticipated “Monkey Trial” and the mere presence of an animal, specifically a great ape, in court would raise tough questions about the line drawn in the legal system between humans and animals. In response to critics who question where a new line would be drawn (chickens and lobsters and cows, oh my!), Tischler responded “Where do I stop? My perspective is: I’d like to get started.” I can only imagine the line outside Ms. Tischler’s office door: pissed-off research chimps—mad as hell (and not going to take it any more), circus elephants, declawed cats, backyard dogs, agitated turkeys (imagine the appointment book around Thanksgiving!), vindictive boiler hens (can you blame them?), and cows at their wits’ end, all in need of good legal counsel. You get the picture.

Though the usual suspects tried to pooh-pooh the idea of animal law, it was great to see ample press coverage and consideration of such an important issue; I really got a sense of the “power of the press.”

We now move to the power of protest. According to stories in the Marin Independent Journal (CA) and The New York Times, the Smithsonian Institution canceled a celebration of foie gras after complaints from animal rights advocates, including Sir John Gielgud and Bea Arthur (who, by the way, stated in her letter of protest that she is not a vegetarian). A Smithsonian spokesman said officials were worried that “something untoward” might happen at the gathering. I’d like to think that after receiving letters from animal advocates detailing the cruelty of foie gras production, the better judgment of Smithsonian representatives prevailed. Maybe they couldn’t sell enough tickets to the event and needed an excuse to cancel. It’s just easier to blame animal rights activists, I suppose, instead of thanking them for sparing attendees a night of worshipping fattened duck liver. As much as I hate the phrase “Get a life!” (especially when it’s shouted at me from moving vehicles), I do think it’s quite appropriate here.

I plowed through the extensive Vanity Fair article on Stanley Kubrick to find a reference to the deep respect for animals he was said to possess. Seeing that it was Vanity Fair I was reading and not Animals’ Agenda, I didn’t hope for much. Deep in the text, however, a quote by actor Matthew Modine offered some insight: “Right underneath that veneer is a very loving, conscientious man, who doesn’t like pain, who doesn’t like to see humans suffering or animals suffering. I was really surprised by the man.” Hmmm, maybe I’ll put aside my reservations and rent his last film Eyes Wide Shut; I’m just not as enthusiastic about seeing Tom and Nicole in the raw as 99.9 percent of movie critics seemed to have been when the film came out.

Kubrick, a Bronx native, had made England his home before his death. After reading an article in the Daily Mail, I can understand why. Apparently, the Political Animal Lobby “pressure” group has given the Labour Party large monetary gifts. Critics of the transaction point out that the group is trying to push its anti-hunting agenda and hold Tony Blair to his pre-election promise to end hunting. Any American familiar with the U.S. political system understands that special interest groups work very hard to gain the attention of those involved in government (remember Tyson Foods and Mike Espy of the USDA?) and probably won’t be fazed by this story. But the fact that this is an animal lobby group is striking. Can you imagine if the cattle ranchers, dairy or pharmaceutical industries were to have a formidable opponent in their pursuit of U.S. government officials (one as cunning, deceitful, and rich as all three)? Of course, that would mean stooping to their level. But to update the adage, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” I say, “if you can’t beat ‘em, start fighting dirtier.” I hope England’s Political Animal Lobby gives those stuffy fox hunters a run for their money.


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