I've changed my mind on animal rights

It became clear how shallow it was to dismiss an entire movement because of the rantings of its thickest members
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The Independent Online

George Bernard Shaw used to say, "We would have had socialism in this country long ago, if only it were not for the bloody people who become socialists." I'm not sure about that, but if it were not for the bloody people who become animal rights activists, we would certainly be a lot closer to treating animals decently.

George Bernard Shaw used to say, "We would have had socialism in this country long ago, if only it were not for the bloody people who become socialists." I'm not sure about that, but if it were not for the bloody people who become animal rights activists, we would certainly be a lot closer to treating animals decently.

They've done it again. This week, a handful of thugs has managed to make the animal rights cause seem repulsive once again, by intimidating the contractor Montpellier out of being involved with a proposed primate testing lab in Oxford. Because of the protesters' recourse to threats, harrassment and violence, swathes of the British public have concluded that defenders of primate rights have no real arguments at all.

One fevered five-minute conversation on Oxford Street a few years ago crystallised the reasons why I so often find animal rights campaigners unbearable. Two people manning an animal rights stall handed me a leaflet protesting against the eating of dogs in South Korea. Now, I don't think it's very nice to eat dogs, but why - except for daft sentimental reasons - is it worse than eating cows or sheep? I put this to the protester.

"But look at the dog!" he said, thrusting the leaflet at my face. "Don't you have a pet dog? Don't you see its little eyes?" I shifted tack. "Two million people have been murdered by the tyranny in North Korea over the past decade. Why do you seem to care more about some dogs a few miles away than about them?" He nodded sympathetically. "Ah," he said, "but the dogs are innocent."

Then a few months ago I was forced to change my mind. I prepared for an interview with Peter Singer, the intellectual guru who inspired the animal rights movement. Slowly it became clear how shallow it was to dismiss an entire movement because of the rantings of its thickest and most aggressive members.

The first thing that is striking about Singer's writing is that he doesn't even particularly like animals. "I'm not a 'dog person' or anything like that," he has explained. "Some people think you have to like animals to believe they shouldn't be abused. It's like the old racists who said that the people who opposed slavery and the abuse of black people had to be 'nigger-lovers'." So if - like me - you find animals boring (and with a distressing tendency to bite and urinate), that's no excuse.

Singer argues that we are still trapped in an outdated conception of animals. Rationalists of the 16th century such as René Descartes saw animals as machines with no feelings. He set a pattern for Western thought that survives today. Due to advances in scientific knowledge about the nervous systems and brains of animals, we now know Descartes was wrong and that mammals feel pain similar to our own. Most of us assume we have moved beyond treating animals as insentient things. In reality, our mechanised food industry and scientific practice have not responded.

I could always see the cruelty of factory farming if I had cared to think about it as I dipped my nuggets into their barbecue sauce. But medical experiments? I was for them - and then Singer slapped into my mind some facts it's hard to forget. The primates being experimented on in British laboratories share over 95 per cent of their DNA with you. They can learn to use language to the same level as a three-year-old human. They display familiar emotions, like grief and love. They recognise themselves in a mirror.

Of course that does not mean they should be granted equal rights to human beings; this would be madness, and only the most barking of animal rights activists propose it. But it does mean that torturing primates is wrong. A primate is equal to many mentally disabled human beings in his capacity to feel pain and in his mental capacity. For this reason, Singer says we should treat them the same. We can't use the fact that they belong to a different species as an excuse. The species barrier is an arbitrary product of evolution, not a moral criterion.

Scientists are legally required to give very good reasons for imposing extreme pain and trauma on primates - but, Singer asks, is any reason good enough to torture so sophisticated a creature? If my use of the word "torture" seems emotive and unnecessary, then you should check out the details of quite routine primate research. One Israeli ex-medical researcher, Mary Hoffman, has recently documented what she witnessed; it was rare for video footage to be leaked of such an experiment.

As part of research into memory activity in the brain - with potential application to Alzheimer's - a primate called Malish had his brain sawn into, and electrodes implanted - all while he was fully conscious. After the surgery he was transferred into a tiny and cramped cage where he lived for several months. He was deprived of drinking water; he had to "earn" it by proving his visual memory capabilities, a task he found hard to master. The primate showed signs of extreme distress and misery. Experiments more extreme than this, Hoffman explains, are common.

I looked for excuses to get me out of this ethical conundrum. Equating some human being with animals is instinctively disgusting, I declared pompously. Humanism is an important part of the Western intellectual tradition; it is at the root of many people's belief in human rights. But I found it impossible to answer Singer, except by saying "but... but... they're animals!" "Don't you see," he replied, "that's just like saying to an anti-racist but... but... they're black people." It's not an answer. It's a recitation of a prejudice.

The implications of Singer's arguments are devastating; you are forced to feel empathy where once you saw only beasts. He calls it "expanding the circle of moral concern". One moral imperative emerging from an understanding of the nervous systems of primates is developed by the Great Apes Project (GAP), backed by Richard Dawkins and other distinguished scientists. The GAP seeks to enshrine in law certain basic rights for higher primates, similar to the rights accorded to more mentally limited human beings. Although Britain has accepted many of these proposals in the past few years - we now test only on lower primates - the EU has not done so yet.

Too much of the debate has focused on the use of the term "rights" and its technical definition. Nobody proposes that a three-year-old child or a 90-year-old in the last stages of Alzheimer's should be allowed to live alone or to vote. Instead they propose limited rights - call it a duty of care if that terms hangs you up - which includes protection from abuse. It doesn't seem much to grant our closest relatives in the animal kingdom; but it would require medical researchers to stop torturing apes.

This is not a wild fantasy. New Zealand has already signed up to all the GAP principles. To see this as progress, you don't have to possess a sliver of sympathy for the maniacs who demonise scientists who test on animals and threaten to murder them.

I didn't want be persuaded of this case. I'm not sentimental about animals, and the people who obsess about the rights of animals while neglecting those of humans repulse me. But when it comes to primates, at the very least, I have been persuaded despite myself. If you would object to the torture of a mentally disabled human being for medical research, then you have no moral choice but to oppose the primate-testing scientists in Britain who are torturing very similar creatures for that reason.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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