The problem with PETA

As part of this week’s series of organisations that are getting a blog-punch in the face, I am finally posting this article I wrote on Peta a while ago and that I actually remembered to post. So huzzah etc.

After the Bullshit! Episode about PETA, July 2011

It is difficult, as someone who does try to work for animal rights in whatever small way possible, to admit that there are organisations that make the rest of us look bad. PETA’s support of violence wouldn’t be so worrying if they had outwardly admitted and condoned it. Its the hiding of their violent alliances and euthanisation of animals that they so lambast others for that is problematic.

Sometimes I also want to take the war to the animal labs, particularly cosmetics labs. While there are arguments for medical research, there are definitely none to support the vanity industries of fur and cosmetics. Both are grotesque and wide-reaching in their torture of animals for the sake of eyeshadow and stoles, neither of which are necessary in a world where there are already many alternatives.

I personally feel that the way we harvest animals for meat is unacceptable, not only because it is hard on the environment and requires twice as much to produce than non-flesh foods, but simply because nothing that is sentient deserves to be factory-farmed. Factory-farming is a response to a global demand for meat with every meal that is as unhealthy as it is unnecessary. There is undoubtedly a food chain, if since animals eat other animals, its not such a weird idea that as animals, we eat other animals too. That makes sense to me. What I really don’t see a need for is the massive industrialisation of meat-harvesting that has led to a shortage of grain and pollutes water supplies. Not only that, but the land required to feed livestock could be used to feed people far more effectively.

My point is that that there are still very, very good reasons to work for the rights of animals, and to understand that if people want to eat meat, they should understand how it gets to their plate, and what the overall cost of that meal is.

The problem with the Bullshit! episode is that it still works from the point of view that animals can only have rights in so far as they are of use to humans. This is animal welfare, not animal rights. Whereas PETA does grasp the idea that animals should be able to enjoy rights such as freedom of movement and access to light, space, food and water, it unfortunately shits all over the credibility of the idea with its violent tactics and generally batshit-crazy approach.The links between the Holocaust and factory-farming are not specious: animals and concentration camp inmates endure branding, overcrowding, disease, separation from their loved ones and mass slaughter. In the case of puppy mills, all unwanted pets are gassed to death over 20 minutes of suffering. Slaughter animals watch each other get cut up and open and panic and slip in the blood of their kind. Just as Jews knew they were going to die, so do animals. So I disagree with Bullshit‘s comment that PETA is wrong for drawing the conclusions that are quite obvious. Unfortunately, as long as animals are seen as ‘stock’ and not sentient beings, a lot of the changes won’t be made.

The meatpacking industry relies on uneducated, desperate labour and the unquestioning stomachs of millions of people. Eventually though, as grain becomes scarcer due to biofuel demands and the encroaching needs of people who need land, meat will eventually become too expensive to farm. It can’t get any more cost-effective, but the resources it relies on will not always be so stable. Perhaps this will do more damage than a few hysterical protesters covering themselves in red paint and chaining themselves to things. Unfortunately, they make all animal rights activists look idiotic.

My biggest hope is that one day, meat will be produced in labs, big vats of it that require a few steaks to start. It will hopefully be cleaner, use less water and require a great deal less suffering. That feels like the future to me, never mind clear screens like Minority Report.

I admit that I am a part-time pescatarian, usually because my family still can’t quite grasp the concept of vegetarianism, and out of respect to their sensibilities I will eat fish in their presence so that they don’t think I have an eating disorder and am slowly starving to death when not under supervision. I still hope that one day I can become a proper vegan, but I’m not sure how to do it in a country so unforgiving of the lifestyle. Anyway, my biggest reason for not eating meat is that I really don’t like where it comes from and how it gets to my plate. I know there are problems with how soya is farmed and maize, but I love animals and not entirely comfortable with something flailing in its own blood and shit, terrified and alone, just so that I can have a hamburger. That’s my reason, and it works for me. People ask, “but don’t you miss meat?” and sometimes I do. I miss the camaraderie of a braai, something that mostly disappears when one becomes a vegetarian and automatically Other at a braai. Many people are accepting, and many people are hooting dickholes about it.  Either way, I’d prefer it if they just shut the fuck up and left me alone.

And the idea of violence as a tool for activism is interesting. There is arguably a place for it, since there hasn’t yet been a change of regime, anywhere, in the world, brought about through writing letters to the editor and getting petitions signed. And sitting in a post-apartheid South Africa, some very serious questions have to be asked about the validity of peaceful protest as opposed to violent protest. The ANC got sweet fuck-all done with petitions and peaceful protests. While bombing people is never acceptable, I don’t see much issue with bombing installations that cripple the ruling power’s ability to torture and abuse. After all, given the opportunity to bomb Unilever’s animal testing lab, I would gladly do it because no one needs to test spices or ice cream or goddamn shampoo on animals. But if it was a lab working to cure Alzheimer’s, I might hesitate. (Yes, Unilever produces foods, household cleaning agents and toiletries. They are also an incredibly foul and abusive company that does not deserve your money.)

Humans are animals, and we treat our own as badly as we treat animals. There have been human testing trials in POW camps and concentration camps, and no doubt we rape and torture widely despite the idea of a human being as being somehow more sacred than an animal. That we treat animals so incredibly badly is no surprise then. Perhaps it is a symptom of our inability to show empathy. And its not a nice point, and no one wants to make it or say, but its true. Our current world relies on the subjugation of anyone who is useful and dispensable. Virginia Woolf pointed out that there have been no great civilisations without a slave class. And while humans often think it is a specious point, we do treat animals like slaves. We treat each other like slaves, and in our speciest behaviour get mostly upset about the latter.

I’m not saying animals should get the right to vote, or have abortions. These are not the rights they seek. And I don’t care that chickens are stupid, because so are human babies and they both deserve light, love and space. And it doesn’t matter that a cow can’t recite the national anthem: it still doesn’t deserve to have its child separated from it to be put in a box for six weeks so that it can turn into veal and the mother turns into a Macdonalds patty after four years of standing in a box, giving birth and then dying from overwork and disease. If you can’t see that this is the cruel treatment of something we share genetic material with, that we see them similar enough to test on but not enough to care about, then I can’t really help you. It took me a while to realise how ridiculous some of the arguments are for an animal-abuse lifestyle, and only relatively recently have I started making sense of all the implications our lifestyles have.

So, yes PETA does retarded shit and they should be held accountable for it. But likewise we must also realise that, however skewed their ethos has become, they started from a good place: wanting better lives for animals. I don’t think taking guide dogs away from the blind is a great way of going about it, but working for the happiness of the guide dogs is the way forward. By monitoring breeders and stamping out those awful puppy mills, the guide dogs get respected and the blind get an invaluable companion that not only assists them in everyday life, but remains a source of comfort and love. I would never take that away from anyone, and it is not anyone’s place to do so.

No one can stop people eating meat, and it would be ridiculous to try. But there have to be better ways of eating and farming that does not require the torture and slaughter of millions of animals daily as well as the contamination of water supplies through abattoir run-off. Animal groups must continue doing good work, but they should not do it in a way that compromises the integrity of the movement through facile violence and terrifying fascist demagoguery.

‘Think about the animals used in product testing. Think about the monkeys shot into space. “Without their pain, without their sacrifice,” Tyler says, “we would have nothing.”’

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