ON THEIR OWN TERMS
Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth: An Interview with Lee Hall
There is no shortage of writers who are trying to define what the animal rights movement is and what it means to be vegan. Yet few authors inspire us the way Lee Hall’s new book, ON THEIR OWN TERMS, Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth, inspires. Hall is now vice president of legal affairs for Friends of Animals. I’d like to share with our readers a special interview I conducted for this issue.
In your new book, On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth, you note the connection between animal agribusiness and climate. How does this business affect the environment – and the free-living animals that depend on it?
Lee Hall: Enormous amounts of water are used and trees are felled unnecessarily by animal agribusiness. Those are the planet’s protective climate buffers. Of course, climate changes naturally. Yet it’s now widely accepted that new climate disruptions have been set in motion, with industrial causes, that threaten humans and all other animals alike. So the animal-rights discussion should come to the fore of all the discussion of “sustainable” gatherings and products.
We see them everywhere these days, right? Those promotions for sustainable animal agribusiness or sustainable meals made with local vegetables and flesh of pigs, cows, or fish purchased from small farms or local waters. Often, people who organize these promotions do not know why the concept of respect for other animals is relevant. They want to talk about sustainability, not animal rights.
It’s important to meet these organizers where they are: to acknowledge their concern about a topic of great importance, and to move them from there to the question of whether human domination is sustainable.
Ask them: Is it not the human custom of conquering the Earth and its conscious beings that brought us to a sustainability crisis in the first place? The book goes into it, in depth. It’s a really big question!
What do you think is the best way to bring together the animal rights and environmental movements?
By acting as a model for that togetherness. Be both!
When Friends of Animals’ work is joined with groups such as WildEarth Guardians and Denver University’s Environmental Law Clinic, we share ideas and draft our arguments for habitat together. We do our best to work existing environmental law into a channel for actual respect for animals who live in nature. This is where real animal-rights work takes place. Environmental law can and must begin protecting habitat because the lives and dignity of its residents depends on it.
The people we know at WildEarth Guardians already avoid eating animals, so that means they do address the roots of farm animal exploitation. They simply don’t show up when animal agribusiness wants customers! They don’t eat the products of the kind of agriculture that takes up many, many times more space (to grow feed) and water than we really need. Good on them; they are a model for others. And with that covered, we work in the sphere where animals’ autonomous lives can be respected.
We are showing our supporters the reasons it’s so important to defend communities of animals living on their own terms. How could this be done without a merging of animal advocacy and ecological wisdom?
And as your book specifically states, animal-rights has to apply not to domesticated animals but to free-living animals. This is a new idea to people; most groups talk about “farm animal rights.” Can a cow have rights?
Well, we know a cow has feelings. A cow has interests. But how many people have thought about how we’d feel if we were purpose-bred for some reason? Just today, my mechanic, who is also my friend, asked me a sincere question: If Spain ends bullfighting, won’t those bulls stop existing? After all, there is just no place for these bulls to roam freely in Spain these days, so that’s not occurring. If we don’t breed these animals for some reason, won’t they be gone forever?
So I asked my mechanic: How would you feel if another, more advanced species - maybe from another planet - was able to manipulate us and breed us as gladiators. Would you want to be born for that kind of life? Would it make a difference to your answer if this planet were endangered and the only way humans could be preserved was to be bred as gladiators? Would that be OK with you? Maybe some people would say it would. I’d resist that. What do you think?
At the same time, some free-living animals still can and do live in the world. They live on their terms, not ours. Animal rights is about respecting that.
There are labels everywhere stating that eggs, meats and dairy are “humane.” People want to believe it, and will pay for it. But is this just an advertising ploy?
Well, as long as people are buying eggs and other animal products, they aren’t learning the most humane possible way to cook and prepare food: the vegetarian way.
Let’s ask this: What do we want to accomplish with our days? What if we only had one day left? Do we produce a concerted campaign for bigger chicken confines, or a well-presented vegan cookbook? The cookbook is a real part of politics, a real contributor to animal-rights theory, a real form of direct action for animal rights.
The vegan advocate stays on topic not because it’s fun to be contentious, but because the only way respect-based activism can emerge is by more people committing to it. And overall, there’s something self-defeating about lesser evils becoming the regular way of doing activism.
“I inspected and visited the most ’humane’ of ’humane’ agricultural operations in my days as a Humane Officer,” says Cayce Mell. “I can tell everyone first-hand there is no such thing as humane farming or humane slaughter. Exploitation is exploitation and execution is murder no matter how ’gently’ it is performed.”
So the popular family-farm ideal is wishful thinking, nostalgia for the days when fluffy-coated animals scampered over the grass and nuzzled their siblings and parents, under the care of a kindly farmer. But they, in all their fluffy coats, would end up in the same place, a place where rights will never be found.
We aren’t any close to the end of animal use when people choose organic goat milk or uncrated veal instead of high-volume veal. Fortunately, we do make progress when people learn to prepare guacamole instead of quesadillas, and there is wonderful advocacy potential in the creation of a new way of growing, preparing, and sharing the food that sustains us. As it turns out, the best form of advocating for animals doesn’t depend on putting them in the middle of our campaigns: Perhaps it’s not being an animal person that puts one on the road to the end of animal use, but being a vegetable person!
Some say, “repeat something enough times and people will begin believing it as fact.” Do campaigns that seek to treat animals in agribusiness more “humanely” create complacency in the animal-advocacy community?
I think we can safely say that wealthy groups can stay wealthy that way. If 98% of a given population consumes animals, that’s where they see their biggest possible donor base. Most people want to believe we can use animals. So the popular thing to do is to say animal use can be gentle and humane.
Some urge us to alter animals to the point where they no longer feel pain. Are these attempts a way to justify animal slaughter?
Yes, we’ve reached a point where people are starting to consider biotech fixes. Some people are claiming that animals can be engineered to feel no pain when they’re used by us. Maybe that’s possible. I doubt it, but I’m not a scientist, and I don’t know. What I do know is that none of this challenges us to live in new ways. Instead of altering animals so that they don’t feel pain, why not just opt out of animal agribusiness? It’s doable, and we don’t have to wait for scientific “breakthroughs” to make it happen.
I have to say here that going vegan took a great weight off my shoulders. I knew I had managed to free myself from that oppressive role we humans have for so long acted out.
In your book, you mention the psychological effect of seeing a barrage of gory images, and ask if they numb us after a time. Do you think these “humane treatment” campaigns have desensitized us as well?
Yes. The companies like to get involved with “humane treatment” because that will keep us distracted a long time from the real question: Why do we think other animals belong to us?
You come up with a challenge -- and not the same kind as in the prior animal-rights literature -- to all levels of animal agriculture and ownership. Would you say non-profit groups have wasted valuable time and effort pushing for reform, when they should have advocated for stronger policies to end these practices all together?
I think it’s important not to expect anything from the world’s wealthiest non-profits that they are simply unable to deliver. We’re all too busy with animal rights and we need to focus on the successes. For example, this year, the deer in Valley Forge National Historical Park are safe from sharpshooters, thanks to our deliberate focus, and our members’ steadfast support. We need to pay real attention to the communities of animals for whom we advocate. Let’s be critical thinkers, but not waste a lot of time trying to get the big-money groups to reform. They are about making the use easier to stomach. They aren’t going to change their position. So let’s support the daring folks who will come out and say that domination, use, and killing is outright unnecessary and we can live in a completely different way. That’s what will keep the deer safe, and stop birds from being put into cages.
In your book, you promote vegan-organic farming as an alternative to widespread farming methods. How do you believe that veganic farmers are challenging traditional agriculture practices?
By learning to cook and to get involved in vegan-organic (also called “veganic”) farming, people get beyond animal agribusiness. They find alternative nutrients to fishmeal, powdered feathers, animal wastes and blood. For soil fertility, they rely on clover, kelp, and composts. Vegan-organic growers avoid harmful chemical pesticides and weed killers; they use no genetically engineered anything. At the same time, they avoid generating the runoffs of chemicals and wastes that so badly damage marine life.
They say: Here’s how you can eat locally grown food, in season, delivered with as little packaging as possible. And on their land, they are champions of natural diversity. This results in a respectful view of individual animals, even as it encourages a local biocommunity that’s resilient to climate changes.
The more support these growers have, the better. They remind us that all life ultimately depends on plants, which do not have to be passed through an animal in order to be nutritious. They challenge centuries of agricultural practice, and the idea that purpose-bred animals bring ecological harmony. Encouraging their work is a great use of energy.
Already, vegan-organic methods are being introduced to schools, and schoolchildren are growing their own salad crops. Expect vegan-organic farming to be then way of the future. And you can do it yourself. If you are growing herbs, fruits or vegetables without pesticides and without animal by-products, count yourself as a veganic grower!
Having taught immigration law at Rutgers University, you have a deep understanding how borders affect human rights. Do you believe borders also affect animals?
Yes, it’s interesting that we don’t give ourselves the right to move freely across the face of the earth. This is a hot topic in immigration law right now. But it also has something to do with why we keep containing other beings, don’t you think?
You quote Mark Twain: “A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.” If you were to guess how long it would take for our movement to hit a peak, when would you guess it would be? A decade, a generation, or longer?
I think it’ll take a generation and then start tipping, and we’ll become an entirely different community, one that respects the other living communities in our midst. We have to do this if life on Earth is to continue more or less as we know it. We’ve overstayed our welcome on this planet if we don’t become different people quite soon. The good news it this: It’s possible to change.
Compare what we’re bringing about to the Copernican revolution. Before that, everyone took for granted that Earth was central in the cosmos; everything revolved around us. When it became clear that our planet revolves around the sun, we ceased to be the focal point of creation. Our perspective changed.
Likewise, the vegan principle challenges an old view that we’re central and that everyone and everything revolves, eternally, around us. Environmentalists have discovered how incorrect the all-for-us view is, from a biological perspective. Earthworms and bees and other supposedly insignificant beings are now understood as quite influential.
We don’t know the tipping point; it could be a small amount of people who are working on a problem now, and the next generation could be the one for which everything falls into place.
Lee Hall is a lawyer who has been with Friends of Animals since 2002. In addition to authoring two animal-rights books and co-authoring a cookbook, Lee wrote the "Vegetarianism" and "Environmental Racism" entries for the Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice, has taught both Immigration and Refugee Law & Policy and Animal Law, and speaks frequently on food security, climate change, the importance of the ecology to animal rights, and the culture of the cage.