The debate over the treatment of animals at SeaWorld seems likely to soften now that state legislators have punted the issue into let’s-study-this oblivion. But the broader modern-day battle over animal rights — now some two centuries old — is never-ending.
Diane Beers, a history professor at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, tracked the recent history of the animal-rights movement in her 2006 book “For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States.”
In a Q-and-A this week, I asked Beers about the evolution of the animal-rights movement and how the dispute over SeaWorld fits in.
A lot of the criticism of SeaWorld has to do with the apparent intelligence of animals like killer whales and dolphins. How has the animal rights movement’s concern about animal intelligence evolved over the years?
Bentham, who argued, “The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?”
However, as we get into the era after World War II, intelligence is a growing point of argument.
The theory of evolution and the abolition movement were both major players in the 19th century, when the animal-rights movement began to grow. Did they affect people’s interest in animal rights?
Darwin knocks people of the proverbial pedestal of superior and separate. He shows humans as part of the tree of life, not separate from it, that we’re not as removed from non-humans as we think.
As for slavery, many of the animal rights movement’s founding advocates were involved in social justice issues generally, including opposition to slavery, women’s rights, penal reform, child welfare and urban reform.
One of the most common myths about animal advocates — past and present — is that they are not concerned with human issues and are even anti-human. My research found this to be overwhelmingly false regardless of what time period of animal advocacy you are discussing.
PETA drew mockery by making a legal argument against SeaWorld that holding killer whales in captivity is the equivalent of slavery. Has the slavery analogy played a role in the animal rights movement before?
Definitely. Since many of the founders of the American movement came out of the abolition movement, they were thinking broadly about forms of oppression that resembled human forms of slavery.
There’s also concern that the animals at SeaWorld are forced to perform tricks for us to enjoy. What were the early concerns in the movement about using animals as tools for entertainment?
Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, campaigned actively against P.T. Barnum for both his treatment generally of animals and the methods of training those animals.
For example, circuses would get bears to dance by burning the pads of their feet and lions to sit on stools by whipping and pitchforking them.
Later on in the early 20th century, author Jack London became equally outraged about making wild animals perform tricks for humans. According to London, animal acts represented “cold-blooded, conscious, deliberate cruelty. … Cruelty as a fine art has attained its perfect flower in the trained animal world.”
Was there ever much concern before now about creatures of the sea?
Yes, there is concern surprisingly early. Animal-rights activist Caroline Earle White put her pen to the cause of the slaughter of baby seals in 1890, which is pretty amazing.
She used shock tactics in the form of her graphic written images of seal hunter’s clubbing and skinning methods.
More recently, animal advocacy groups such as the Animal Welfare Institute were very much involved in anti-whaling campaigns in the early 1970s, specifically the “Save the Whales” campaign.
What should the media and the public keep in mind about the animal-rights movement as the SeaWorld debate heads into a new chapter?
There are many simplistic views of animal advocates in our society today that fail to capture the complexity of this movement currently or historically.
One of the simplistic ways it gets portrayed today is that one or two groups represent all animal advocates. Sometimes media tends to zero in on PETA or the Humane Society of the United States. While they are certainly important parts of the cause, and they often use shock tactics to get publicity, they are just one part of the cause.
Animal advocacy is not simply represented by this group or that campaign. We do the past and even the present an injustice when we reduce important stories to one-dimensional assumptions or portraits. And it is just way more interesting when we dig a bit deeper.