A disparate group of "humans first" activists rallied in front of Golden Gate Fields last Saturday, arguing that an animal rights movement that seeks to elevate other species to the level of humans is misguided and dangerous. Even by Bay Area standards, this demonstration was unique. A true united front of farmers, horse-racing fans, cosmetics executives, Christian activists, medical researchers, immigrants, and left-wing activists found itself agreeing that the movement to grant animals human-style privileges and rights has gone too far.
In keeping with the East Bay's history as the incubator of new political movements, speakers implored the crowd to spread the message of "humans first" to people throughout the world. Speakers told of the problems for the species if all living beings are considered equal to men and women. "We need the jobs that cosmetics bring," said cosmetics industry executive Giselle Moss, referring to the current human economic crisis. "It is only with the help of our animal friends that we can keep our industry alive. But just because they help us does not mean that they are our equals."
The hypocrisy of animal-rights activists also was a common theme. "Do these animal lovers who own pets let them vote on their conditions?" one speaker asked.
Speakers lauded the new heroes of their movement, the California animal farmers fighting back against the 2008 initiative that banned inhumane conditions on factory farms. In a recent op-ed column in The New York Times, one of these farmers recently slammed animal-rights activists and "Hollywood types," writing, "They think fish are more important than people, that pigs are treated mean and chickens should run loose?"
In one of the day's most passionate speeches, prisoner-rights advocate Ruchell McClain told the crowd, "Americans spend $17 billion a year on pet food and huge sums on health care for their pets but won't fund adequate health care or proper living standards for California's prisoners." Added McClain, who was on a temporary protest furlough from his twelve-year sentence for mortgage and postal fraud: "In California, chickens run free, why not me?"
Conservation Christians from Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union carried signs featuring Biblical verses: "God gave man dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth." One of their numbers cited the recent chimpanzee attack in Connecticut as emblematic of the problems with the animal-rights movement. "The chimp was treated like a king and hobnobbed with Hollywood types in commercials. While many American humans have lost their prescription drug coverage, the chimp even got Xanax when he was nervous," Christian spokesman Wallis Dobson said. "The result of favoring animals over humans is that (attack victim) Charla Nash is in critical condition."
The final speaker was Estrella Caballo, wife of one of the men recently arrested at a large cockfight raided by Oakland police. "Many humans die every year around the world in boxing matches, martial arts matches, and ultimate fighting events," Caballo said through an interpreter. "But when the working men who do the dirty work in our society want to relax with the sport of cockfighting, they are jailed and ridiculed. Why do we allow men to kill men, but put men in jail when chickens kill chickens?"
The demonstration was held at Golden Gate Fields, which recently declared bankruptcy. The track is scheduled to be auctioned on April 3, which could deal a fresh blow to the East Bay economy. Among the demonstrators, Northern California's horse-owning elite, many of whom were clad in fur, stood side by side with seedy-looking punters and union track employees.
As the rally was ending, a small group of left-wing activists marched into the crowd, chanting from Mao's Red Book, "Of all the things in the world, people are the most precious." While the crowd appeared a little uneasy with the new arrivals, all enthusiastically joined their chant.
As might be expected, the intelligentsia was not amused. Jacques Butler, a Cal professor of critical studies, derided the protestors. "This menagerie is just a bunch of specistists. Just like racists and sexists before them, they think they are better than the others on our planet." Swatting a fly off her vegan meal in our interview, she said, "It is time for these human-firsters to realize that we must share with all sentient beings on an equal basis."
The issues these protestors raise are important. Like it or not, in this time of growing economic difficulty, some matters are zero-sum. Watching animal-rights activists fight to stop experimentation on animals that could lead to advances in human health looks to have more and more in common with those who have stopped our use of stem cells for beneficial research. And, talking about animal "rights" leads to an intellectual morass. Human rights come from human laws. Where do animal "rights" come from? Should democracy be mandatory for all species?
But in respect of the issue's complexity, it must be observed in this 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin that the unbroken evolutionary string of life binds humans to other beings in ways we should all ponder.
Recently I was with a group of men and, as often happens when men get together, one told a sexist joke. The punch line revolved around the issue of who is man's best friend, his wife or his dog. At the time I grimaced at the misogynism of the man who told it. But later I thought about the arguments of the human-firsters and wondered if this joke would seem so funny to many if animal rights and privileges were elevated to levels enjoyed by our species.
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