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Wild Animals and
American Environmental Ethics

by Lisa Mighetto

177 pages, paperback, University of Arizona Press, 1991

Americans now stand at a critical point in wildlife protection, wielding the threat of extinction over numerous species. Mighetto places arguments regarding wildlife protection in historical perspective and thus helps us evaluate our inherited attitudes and assumptions about the animal world.

Quotes from Wild Animals and American Environmental Ethics

"Despite the fervor of these protests against hunting, trapping, and vivisection, meat-eating was the one issue on which most early humanitarians stopped short. In this respect they differed from present-day advocates. While the horrors of the slaughterhouse repulsed such activists as Bergh, the practice of eating animals has not been widely questioned until recently. Turn-of-the century vegetarians occupied the fringe of the humanitarian movement. Even other reformers looked upon them as crackpots. H. M. Hyndman, and later George Orwell, regretted that the socialist cause had been tainted by the presence of these 'odd cranks.'

"Modern-day humanitarians, however, are puzzled by their predecessors' refusal to take this last step on behalf of animals. Peter Singer, a leading philosopher of Animal Liberation, has labeled the nineteenth century the 'era of excuses' for its failure to embrace vegetarianism despite its increased sensibility. As early as 1785 humane thinkers felt it necessary to write justifications of meat-eating, indicating their uneasiness. Even those who took the plunge exhibited an inconsistency that could not have aided their cause. In 1909, for instance, the New York Times described a socially prominent vegetarian as a 'strong believer' who nevertheless served 'a roast once in a while to vary the vegetable diet.' Part of the problem was that abstention from meat-eating represented the most radical break from traditional treatment of animals. Of all the 'novel manifestations of sympathy' to appear in the late nineteenth century, vegetarianism, according to James Turner, was 'the most profoundly subversive of conventional value.' "

"While aversion to meat-eating goes back to the ancients, it was not until the last century that vegetarianism gained enough followers to become noticeable as a movement. We cannot, observed a Victorian historian of food reform, 'trace anything like an organized Vegetarian propaganda prior to the present century.' Similarly, a letter to the editor of Outlook noted the 'wakening interest' in vegetarianism. Although he conceded that the 'fatal influence of Butchery is no new theory,' the physician Howard Williams announced in 1896 that the late nineteenth century differed from previous eras in its recognition, prompted by science, of the 'oneness of the higher non-human races, essentially, with the human in mental no less than physical organization.' Meat-eating, he concluded, was no longer morally justifiable. Growing numbers of vegetarian converts in Britain and the United States agreed. Their writings, like those of antihunters and antivivisectionists, revealed the fear that infliction of pain leads to barbarity.

"In the United States, William Metcalfe inspired the movement. He was an English clergyman and physician, who in 1817 established a vegetarian church in Philadelphia. Becoming a vocal advocate of the cause, he helped found the American Vegetarian Society in 1850 and edited its journal, the American Vegetarian. It was in fact at this time that the term 'vegetarian' came into existence. The British Vegetarian Society maintained close contact with its American counterpart, and even in these early days membership on both sides of the Atlantic numbered in the hundreds."

"Soon, however, the center of the movement shifted to Chicago, where a new national organization was founded; in 1893 an international vegetarian congress took place at the World's Fair. Members included such prominent figures as Bronson Alcott, Upton Sinclair, and George Bernard Shaw. For the most part, they abstained only from what was called the 'three F's': fish, flesh, and fowl; dairy products were acceptable to them. So numerous had vegetarian dinner guests become by the end of the century that popular journals were advising hostesses what to serve them. The success of meatless restaurants in both New York City and London, coupled with the wide availability of vegetarian cookbooks, demonstrated the extent to which the movement had taken hold."

. . .

"[H]umanitarians worried about the confinement of wild creatures. Much of their protest against zoos emphasized either neglect of the animals' physical needs or training methods. However, some writers also lamented the sheer indignity that confinement brought to wild animals. An article in the Westminster Review regretted that 'the noble lion, king of the forest,' should be caged in a few yards of space, 'instead of roaming through jungle and thicket.' Because wild beasts have 'sympathies and keen senses,' their imprisonment made 'demoralizing spectacles.' According to Ernest Bell, a friend of Salt, performing animals suffered similar debasement at the hands of trainers whose 'triumph it is . . . to control them to do silly things.' In the early twentieth century the SPCA tried repeatedly to secure legislation prohibiting trained animal acts."

"Such concern was reflected in the founding of the Jack London Club in 1918. This unusual organization required neither payment of dues nor election of officers; participants simply pledged to avoid trained animal performances. During the 1920s nearly every issue of Our Dumb Animals featured a lead article on the Jack London Club, which in less than a decade attracted three hundred thousand 'members.' To advertise its cause, the organization distributed copies of Jack London's Michael--Brother of Jerry.

"Like Salt, London was a socialist who was sensitive to the suffering of animals as well as humans. His book detailed the miseries of a variety of creatures--most of them wild-- undergoing training for public shows. In his introduction London pointed out that he was hardly a 'namby-pamby.' While many humanitarians were viewed by the public as excessively softhearted and ignorant of the processes of nature, London had spent his life 'in a very rough school,' observing 'more than the average man's share of inhumanity and cruelty.' Yet what really angered him was the 'cruelty and torment' of 'animals being broken for the delight of men.' Like the antivivisectionists, he regretted that those humans responsible possessed a 'controlled intelligence.' Besides, watching animals in pain was degenerating to the audience. In 'The Madness of John Harned'--the story of a bull fight--London wrote, 'It is degrading to those that look on. It teaches them to delight in animal suffering.' "

"Eventually, [attacks against trained animal acts] affected the trained animal industry. Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, for example, dropped their wild animal acts from 1925 to 1929. Charles Ringling explained that 'criticism by the public' was his motivation, for an increasing number of Americans feared that wild creatures 'are taught by very rough methods, and that it is cruel to force them through their stunts.' "

. . .

"[S]urveys of attitudes have demonstrated that most Americans still worry more about individual suffering than the maintenance of animal populations. Their continued emphasis on sentience-- which requires the ability to empathize--is related to their preference for humanlike animals.

"Among animal lovers, a schism has resulted, for this humanitarian bent conflicts with biocentric concern for the diversity of species. During the 1980s membership in animal rights organizations increased dramatically. By 1989 the largest of these, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), had attracted 280,000 people. In the tradition of Henry S. Salt, PETA goes far beyond the early humane movement's general interest in kindness and mercy to 'inferior' animals to a belief that other creatures have rights. Although the implications of this point-- ethically and legally--are vague, PETA's position is that animals do not belong to humans. To date, this organization has protested the use of animals not only in biomedical research, but also in zoos and circuses.

"Animal rights advocates believe that sentient creatures should be 'liberated,' just as oppressed groups of humans have gained freedom. Drawing from the rhetoric of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, they predict that the cruel treatment of animals which today might seem acceptable will one day be condemned as intolerable behavior. Biocentrists, on the other hand, are more interested in the rights of the natural world in general than in those of individual creatures. Their arguments derive from the principles of ecology. Both positions are represented in such organizations as the Sierra Club and Earth First!, which sometimes creates friction between members.

"The first animal rights advocates--who emerged from the humane movement of the nineteenth century--perceived other creatures in human terms. To be sure, they denied that animals exist for human use; they were in fact the first conservationists to reject the anthropocentrism of Western civilization. Yet Salt himself, who vigorously defended the autonomy of animals, could not avoid humanizing the natural world. His rejection of predators further demonstrated the limitations of the humane position. While the attribution of human characteristics to animals helped muster support for their protection during the last century, the popular naturalist John Burroughs had warned of the pitfalls of this tendency. 'I would only help my reader to see things as they are,' he explained, 'and stimulate him to love the animals as animals, and not as men. 'Burroughs was careful to distinguish 'the animal on the animal plane' from the 'animal on the human plane.' Similarly, the New York Times complained in 1905 that, 'the dog, as we know him, is a human manufacture, rather than an animal.'

"From the turn of the century, such anthropomorphism has led to a preoccupation with feeling which has persisted to this day. Peter Singer, a spokesman for modern animal rights advocates, continues to argue that sentient creatures have the right to live free from suffering; in his estimation, the capacity to suffer, as outlined by Jeremy Bentham in eighteenth-century England, remains the best criterion for moral standing. 'If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, ' he maintains, 'there is nothing to be taken into account.' The arguments in Singer's book Animal Liberation are based on the ability of other creatures to feel.

"Biocentrists, on the other hand, insist that humanizing animals is no longer an appropriate approach to protection. At the very least, the humane perspective is 'sentimental'; at worst, it obscures what is to them the central concern of modern protection--the integrity of ecosystems. J. Baird Callicott, for instance, dismisses the moral system of the 'neo- Benthamites' as biologically unsound. He in fact claims that the 'idea that pain is evil and ought to be eliminated' is 'preposterous.'

"Certainly humane condemnation of animal suffering has been difficult to extend to wildlife. Although ecological awareness has required humanitarians to revise their initial response to predators, hunting and meat-eating remain controversial topics. Feeling threatened, modern sportsmen have complained about the humane 'hang-up about death,' as well as the pervasive ignorance about conditions in the wild. Even now, humanitarians do not completely accept the naturalness of predation. Yet Aldo Leopold did not find hunting to be inconsistent with his land ethic. To his mind, shooting animals was an acceptable activity so long as it was carried out in a spirit of respect for the natural world. In any case, numerous biocentrists have noted the impossibility of protecting wild animals not only from humans but also from each other.

"Nor are biocentrists concerned with the claims of domestic creatures. Callicott characterizes them as the stupid and docile creations of man. Refuting Singer, he writes that chickens and cows are incapable of 'natural behavior' and therefore cannot experience frustration in factory farms. 'It would make almost as much sense to speak of the natural behavior of tables and chairs,' he sneers; hence, domestic animals cannot 'be liberated,' as Singer wishes. More importantly, the presence of domestic creatures can disrupt the ecosystem, thereby violating the land ethic. Clearly, Leopold's philosophy accorded rights to soils, waters and plants as well as to animals."

Table of Contents of Wild Animals and American Environmental Ethics

  1. Science and Sentiment: Animals in the "New School" of Nature Writing
  2. Wilderness Hunters and Bird Lovers: Early Motivations for Wildlife Protection
  3. The New Humanitarianism
  4. The Barbarisms of Civilization: An Analysis of Humanitarian Protests
  5. Working Out the Beast: American Perceptions of Predators
  6. Biocentrism: A New Ethic for Wildlife
  7. New Directions for Protection

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