The cover story from the Philadelphia City Paper,
7 September 2000
Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?
By Vance Lehmkuhl
"I understand why a lot of people think these are crazy ideas," Gary Francione assures me, his tiny eyes peeking out over the top of his sunglasses. "No, I really do."
And well he should: "Animal Rights" is a concept that doesn’t mix too well with cheesesteaks, horse carriages, hot dogs, ice cream cones, circuses, zoos, cream cheese and other things many Philadelphians take for granted.
And the phrase, which both activists and their detractors tend to use, is imprecise. The average listener will hear it and say, "Ah, I understand. You’re completely off your rocker."
Still, Francione kept it in the title of his new book Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? (coming soon from Temple University Press) exactly because it is "inflammatory" and he could get people’s attention for his heavy-duty argument against animal exploitation.
"You see," he’s saying, as we sit on his patio on a recent Sunday afternoon in Chester County, "I want to take that reader who will say, this guy’s a kook because he wants rights for animals, and say, nothis is the same thing you believe in, if you just examine it."
Francione, 46, has had two other books published by Temple, but this one has the potential to reach beyond the academic world where he routinely causes a stir.
"The approach is very straightforward and basic," Francione says. "The argument is soundI mean, this is a theory that Joe Blow can understand right away. You don’t even need the concept of animal ‘rights’ to make it work. You’re already with me on this if you think aboutRobert!"
It’s hard at this point not to think about Robert, a long-haired-dachshund-German-shepherd mix who is sitting up on his hind legs and pawing the air repeatedly in a bid for some table scraps.
"Robert!" Francione chides him. "Stop it! That’s pet behavior; you’re a companion animal. We don’t do that here."
Francione is joking about the distinction, but Robert doesn’t get the joke. And if he and his ilk can’t even get a simple joke, how can they be trusted with rights? This is one of the ways of thinking Francione is working to dispel.
"Yeah, most people hear ‘Animal Rights’ and think of animals driving, animals voting, animals bringing lawsuits. No. I’m talking about one right: not to be property. That’s all."
The only problem, he notes, is that making good on that one simple notion would turn our whole society inside out.
"I know," he says, leaning back in his chair, "that’s why it’s called revolution."
It might be a hard sell.
"He’s probably the most influential animal rights lawyer in the world," says Stuart Deutsch, dean of Rutgers Law School in Newark, where Francione is a tenured professor.
"He is an enormously talented, enormously productive person, and whether you agree with him or not, he makes people think about why they believe the way they do. No lazy thinking is allowed."
Deutsch credits Francione for almost singlehandedly establishing the discipline of animal rights law in the ten years since he began teaching courses in the subject at Rutgers. Today, Deutsch notes, "Animal rights courses of one sort or another are being offered at at least a thirdif not halfof the law schools in the country."
"He’s accomplished a great deal," says Deutsch, "and he’s done it with a fair amount of flair."
A flair for making legal arguments, or a flair for making trouble? Deutsch diplomatically says that "he’s operating in a field that generates a lot of controversy, and he doesn’t shy away from controversy."
"Shy" would not be the word.
Francione has found himself in confrontations from pigeon shoots to sit-ins to public debates, and in the process he’s gotten plenty of people pissed off at him. His participation in Fur Free Friday in Central Park in 1996 led to a death threat credible enough that the police wrapped him in a bulletproof vest, surrounded him at all times and had a helicopter looming overhead for the whole event.
He takes extreme positions that some find antagonizing. For instance, where many local groups are working to improve carriage horse conditions and limit working hours, and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is involved in prosecuting one of the company owners, Francione has a simpler idea: The whole industry should be banned. Now.
"The concept that in the year 2000, almost 2001," he snorts, "that it’s ‘charming’ or ‘romantic’ to be in the middle of a major high-tech industrial area with some poor horse pulling you around the streetthat’s idiotic."
Francione has gotten into heated debates with hunters and animal researchers. Jerald Silverman of MCP Hahnemann School of Medicine, a lab animal veterinarian who’s friendly with him, admits that Francione can be "a bit of an absolutist. Compromise to Gary means eliminating an entire class of activity, whereas others are more willing to work for animal welfare."
But the disagreements have also been between Francione and other animal activists.
For one thing, Francione draws distinctions between his thinking and that of many who use the phrase "animal rights," such as Peter Singer (see sidebar) and Tom Regan, author of The Case for Animal Rights.
This is where "your child" and "the dog" come in. Francione believes that our model for measuring human interests vs. animal interests is distorted, rigged so that our interests will always outweigh theirs.
When we want to eat a steak, but a cow wants not to suffer and die, what’s the basis for resolving that conflict? Well, imagine this, Francione argues. "You arrive home and find your house burning. There are two occupants alive inside the burning structure: your child and your dog. You are the only person in the vicinity. The fire is burning so furiously that you have time to rescue either your child or your dog but not both. Which do you choose?"
Any average reader would sensibly answer "your child," and that’s right, says Francione. In any situation where there really are equal interests between humans and animals (in this case the interest in not perishing by fire), we should choose the human. Fine. The problem, he says, comes in using this same rationale to settle the steak vs. cow conflict, which happens all the time.
"We drag the cow into the burning house and then wonder what to do," he says. In other words, we wind up choosing the trivial (and patently unnecessary) interest of the human in having a steak over the essential interest of the cow in living and not suffering only because one is a human and the other is an "animal."
Such a choice would at least make sense, Francione argues, in a society that admittedly considered animals to be things. But we don’t, he says. Your Child or the Dog? opens with stats from various opinion polls showing that by and large we do recognize animals as something other than things. For example, two-thirds of Americans polled by the Associated Press in 1996 agreed with the statement, "an animal’s right to live free of suffering should be just as important as a person’s right to live free of suffering."
Francione sees his task as supplying that two-thirds of our population (and the other third as well) with the logical building blocks to go from point A to point B, with the latter being the commitment to abolish animal exploitation.
Otherwise, you’re stuck with what he calls "moral schizophrenia."
Meat Without Eyes
And it sometimes seems that set of people might include every other human on the face of the planet.
Everyone, that is, except Anna Charlton. Charlton, 43, is Francione’s partner at home, in print and in the classroom; she’s an accomplished animal rights lawyer herself. She passes through, attending to the couple’s seven dogs (one is sick today) and helping to scold Robert for being so stubborn. Like Francione, she refers to the dogs as "the kids." (The two have elected not to have children.) They met in York, where Francione had gone in 1976 after graduating from the University of Rochester. He was studying the philosophy of science, she medieval studies, and they hit it off.
"On our first date," Francione recalls, "we went to this restaurant and we both ordered trout. And they bring the goddamn thing with the eye in it. And we end up like not eating because we’re thinking ‘it freaks me out’ and she says, ‘I really feel uncomfortable eating something with an eye, because it really brings home that you’re eating an animal,’ and I’m like ‘yeah I know,’ and so we end up sort of eating around it, eating all the vegetables and stuff like that, but we just were not making the connection. So even when we came back to the U.S., we’re still continuing to eat meat, just not meat that has eyes! Stupid criterion, huh?"
In 1977 Francione entered the University of Virginia for law school, and also picked up a master’s in philosophy there. During a discussion, a fellow student charged that Francione was failing to give serious consideration to the moral status of animals. Francione agreed to visit a slaughterhouse with the student, and what he saw immediately changed his philosophyand his diet.
"It was an experience that had a profound effect on me," he says. "I stopped eating meat that day. I literally came home from the slaughterhouse and I said to Anna, ‘I can’t do this anymore’ and she said, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about it too,’ and we just said let’s get rid of it. So we did."
Francione got his J.D. in 1981 and after clerking for Judge Albert Tate of the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, he was recommended by the judge for a plum assignment: law clerk for Sandra Day O’Connor, the newly installed Supreme Court justice.
"Justice O’Connor," says Francione, "is a remarkably open-minded person. She has a tremendous respect for religious and spiritual and ethical beliefs, and we would talk about animal issues and she was always very interested and respectful. Plus, she always went out of her way to make excellent vegan food when she had me over to the house."
Justice O’Connor’s beneficence even bent the rules of the Supreme Court. Francione would find dogs that had been hit by cars or endangered strays and would hang onto them until D.C. Animal Control came to pick them upin Justice O’Connor’s chambers.
She was "an absolute angel when it came to allowing me to bring injured animals into the Supreme Court when there was a rule against having animals in there at all. Nobody else on the court would have let me get away with that.
"I mean," he adds, chuckling, "if I had been clerking for Justice Rehnquist, come on, I probably would have been shackled to my chair!"
One day, a D.C. Disease Control officer named Ingrid Newkirk showed up to collect an injured dog. The two got to talking and found enough similarities (in addition to their vegetarianism and animal activism, Newkirk, like Anna Charlton, was from England) to share a meal the following week. Newkirk and Alex Pacheco had just formed a group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and both came to dinner at Francione and Charlton’s apartment.
"They had been in Louisiana," Newkirk recalled in a phone conversation, "and I didn’t know that you could have red beans without meat, and they served this lovely red-bean dish." At one point, she got up and opened the refrigerator to get a drink refill and found a gallon of milk. She picked it up and held it out, saying "What is this???" Francione calmly pointed out that "they don’t kill the cows for that, Ingrid."
"Where do you think they end up, Club Med?" she retorted. She went on to argue that dairy cows are exploited and then slaughtered after more prolonged suffering than even beef cows. Francione listened and found the argument valid.
"I looked over at Anna," he recounts, "and I said, fine, you know, I never really thought about that. And that was it, that was the last time I had a dairy product."
"That is one of the things Ingrid did for me," he grins, "for which I am most grateful."
Rude to Rudy
Take Rudy Giuliani, for example. The feisty New York mayor is still deciding whether to sue PETA for the "Got Prostate Cancer?" billboards which have appropriated his image and, some believe, made light of his serious disease. The billboard company has now removed the ads and Giuliani has gone out of his way to spotlight milk at his public appearances. Although Francione worked with PETA throughout the ’80s, this type of campaign, he says, can only hurt the movement’s credibility.
"I don’t believe you should use morally problematic means to get to whatever ends you want to get to. That’s exactly why vivisection is problematic, exactly why a lot of forms of animal exploitation are bad." Throughout a previous book (Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement.), and in parts of the current one, Francione argues that ends-justifies-the-means thinking is responsible for a lot of bad steps taken by both meat-eaters and animal activists.
"Look," says Francione, "whatever one wants to say about Rudy Giuliani, his prostate cancer is off limits. You don’t make fun of a guy’s disease and that sort of stuff, you talk about the fact that he’s probably one of the worst things that’s happened to New York City in the later part of the 20th and early part of the 21st century. But it’s not because he’s sick."
For her part, Newkirk (now managing director of PETA) does not believe the billboards made light of Giuliani’s problem. "My own father had prostate cancer," she says, "and he died this year with numerous diet-related problems. If I could have put his picture on those billboards I would have, but nobody would have given a damn. This way, we’ve got a huge number of people now coming to our Web site and finding out about veal calves, slaughterhouses, all the other reasons they’d want to avoid milk."
In other words, the ends justify the means. "Everyone will hate us," she says, "but that’s okay. Kill the messenger, but read the message."
Since that conversation, PETA has put a halt to the advertising campaign and apologized to Guiliani. Still, in Francione's opinion, the damage done by a first impression is difficult to overcome.
"I was once with Cleveland Amory," Francione says, referring to the animal-loving author of The Cat Who Came For Christmas, "and he walked up to a woman in a fur coat in front of the New York Hilton and said ‘You know, you look fat in that coat.’ And I wanted to crawl under a rock! I said, ‘You know, Cleveland, you’re fat even without a fur coat, number one, and number two, why do you have to make it about her being fat or not? You just lost her, you just made her basically think we’re all nutcases. Sexist nutcases!"
Francione’s feminism is straightforward and frank, almost inevitable, because it’s all about equal consideration. He sees the struggle against animal abuse as firmly analogous to fighting racism, sexism and homophobia. Our current "moral schizophrenia" and all of the forms of our intolerance are laid squarely at the feet of patriarchal culture. It’s no coincidence that Francione stopped doing legal work for PETA at the time they launched the "I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur" campaign.
"Did it get people to look at billboards?" he asks rhetorically. "It sure did! They’d draw huge crowds, because people like to see naked supermodels. But what’s the result? Well, many of these supermodels are now modeling fur, and whatever’s happening to fur production in the US, fur production is going up everyplace else and indeed it’s now being made in countries where it’s being produced even cheaper!"
McDonald’s, of course, didn’t just come up with these out of thin air; PETA has been pressuring the company for two years on just these issues. So isn’t this a victory for the animals? It depends on whom you ask. Peter Singer, who played a role in the policy change, says that "the McDonald’s development is a good example of the difference between Gary and myself. I regard it as the most significant development for farm animals in the U.S.A. in recent years. For Gary, presumably, it is worse than useless."
Francione does not disappoint. "Giving them a few more inches [of cage space], stopping forced molting and stopping debeaking is, as far as I’m concerned, very little comfort for those animals, and what McDonald’s gets in return is enormous. They are now seen as allies of the most ‘radical’ animal rights group in the country."
"No wonder people are confused," he continues, warming to the argument, "if I were thinking about this issue and I was saying, now PETA says animals have rights and we shouldn’t eat them but PETA approves of these standards and praises them, I’m confused, does that mean I’m supposed to eat McDonald’s’ products or I’m not supposed to eat McDonald’s’ products? And if I’m sitting on the fence, I get in my car and take my kids to McDonald’s, and I say ‘Don’t feel bad, you can eat your Babe happy meals with impunity: PETA loves these people!’ I think that’s fucked up. As far as I’m concerned, that makes no sense. Now if [PETA] came out and said, ‘McDonald’s is adopting these standards and we say OK, less suffering is better than more suffering, but bottom line, nobody should be eating any of McDonald’s products and we’re going to drive them out of business!’that’s the right response."
Morally, maybe. But would that change the situation for chickens any sooner?
According to Singer, the bottom line is that now "millions of hens will be better off, even if only slightly so." But Francione counters that "you don’t know and I don’t know if those regulations are ever going to be implemented. As far as I know, most of those meat regulations from 1996 aren’t implemented yet."
This may be where Francione gets his reputation as an absolutist. Jerald Silverman, the Hahnemann veterinarian, offers that "if you’re going to wait until you can right a moral wrong, a great many animals will have suffered in the meantime. You have to see this as like a salesman getting a foot in the door."
Another Foot in Another Door
"So I was standing before this six-judge panelI think it was six judges," Francione relates, "arguing that this practice must not be condoned. And one of the judges asked, now, this is different from kosher slaughter, right? And I said yes, judge, it is. I argued it on the point of regular USDA inspections, which kosher slaughter has to abide by and which they had no right to be exempt from. And let’s be clear, that was legally correct. But it was not what I felt. There was nothing legally dishonest about the distinction I was making, but it was morally vacuous. That should tell you something about the relationship between the legal world and morality."
Although Francione underscores that Cravath was "a great firm that did a lot of great work helping people," they did, in his opinion, represent a number of animal-exploiting companies, and he began to be frustrated that his pro bono work for animal groups had a tendency to run up against conflicts of interest with some of the firm’s clients. He became convinced that he could not do the kind of work he wanted to do as a lawyer in a large Wall Street firm, and turned toward academiaa world where ideas can bloom and blossom unencumbered by real-world obstacles.
At least that’s the theory. In practice, of course, Francione’s professorial days have seen him stirring up more controversy than ever.
By the time he began his assistant professorship at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the Gennarelli head-injury lab had already been broken into and he had become involved as a central player in this groundbreaking case (see sidebar).
Francione represented Gloria Binkowski and Eric Dunayer, the first two veterinary students in the country to challenge the mandatory "dog lab." He also began teaching animal rights at Penn as part of his jurisprudence course. During the mid-’80s, Francione pushed his activist peers for more radical action.
"People were paying attention to what we were saying then, and I said we should grab the podium and take the position that none of this is justifiable and that it all must stopwhich may have appealed to a very small number of people, but we would have gotten them." He pauses. "That’s not what happened, of course. Instead it evolved into a movement of movie stars, rock stars, $250-a-plate celebrity benefits and awards ceremonies for guys like G. Gordon Liddy and Hugh Hefnerthe man most responsible for chattelizing women."
But Francione has not been completely demoralized by the spread of moral relativism.
"I have to say, begrudgingly, that my hope has been rekindled by some of the animal law students I've seen lately."
For example, Megan Metzelaar completed Francione's animal rights class, and completed her law degree, this spring.
"One of the things that made him a great teacher," she says by phone, "is that in law school, you're always reading cases, looking at the laws on the books, looking at precedent, whereas he wants you to look at what's really going on out there in the world and say, is it right? And if it's not, then get involved and do something about it."
Metzelaar, at 27, has already gotten involved, prodding the New Jersey SPCA to enforce animal cruelty laws in the case of the guard dog industry. She began her crusade after noticing the dogs guarding a vacant lot she passed on her way to class every day. When she asked Francione for advice, he told her to document the conditions with photos, videotape and sound recordings.
Metzelaar came up with the idea to build a Web page to post the photos and draw attention to the issue. She then secured hosting for it and bought the domain name: www.newjerseyguarddogs.com.
Francione beams as he describes her initiative and tenacity.
"You know, the revolution might indeed be possible!"
And the march of time may be a partner: Humans' insistence on "separating" ourselves "from the animals" could be going out of style. The day after the McDonald's regulations were announced, a science journal reported that dolphins give themselves names in the wild and use the names to refer to each other. The more we learn about animals, it seems, the more we're forced to think about justice and ask how far it extends.
"You have to understand that Gary is a leader in a context of a changing society," says Newkirk. "George Washington University is starting an animal rights course. People are learning more about the issue. Our eyes are opening in our society. Judges are saying you know, maybe animals aren't just property."
Meanwhile, Gary Francione is talking to the dog again, telling Robert he's only getting a treat this time because it's necessary to stop him from distracting us, explaining to the dog that he's part of a utilitarian equation.
I'm about to tell him to stop trying to explain such things to a dog, but I stop.
Because, hey, you never know.