In July of 2015 near Toronto, animal-rights activist Anita Kranjc approached a truckful of pigs on their way to slaughter and gave some of them a drink from a water bottle. She and the truck driver argued over what was in the water, and the issue went to court, with Kranjc facing a mischief charge.
During closing arguments last week, in what has blown up into one of Canada’s most publicized animal-law cases, the court heard that Krajnc’s actions were akin to those of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, and that pigs being taken to slaughter are like Jews being led to Nazi death camps.
The comparisons were made by Krajnc’s lawyer, Gary Grill, but Krajnc—a vegan and longtime activist for Pig Save Toronto—had made some of them herself before. Such grotesquely swollen language is an indicator of how much political tension might distort the seemingly humane act of giving water to an animal.
From kindness to equality
It is difficult to point to a watershed moment, but it is clear that the avant-garde of the animal-rights movement in the Western world has abandoned humaneness towards animals in favour of equality with them. From the justice-for-pitbulls groups that have recruited the anti-racist slogans of the 1960s Civil Rights movements, to the furor over the shooting of the gorilla Harambe in May 2016, attitudes equating animals to human beings have become increasingly common.
In the baldest examples—previously used by ecological terrorists—animals have even appeared superior to human beings, standing beyond human moral codes and incapable of evil acts. PETA, with whom Krajnc has worked — and whose president Ingrid Newkirk flew to Canada for the last day of the trial— has often likened industrialized farming to a modern-day Holocaust.
From pets to ‘furbabies’
Krajnc and her followers are extremists, but we are all, more than ever before, being influenced by such extremes. They appear to be at the cutting edge of philosophy, and their publicity baits us into hypothetical arguments that avoid reality’s touchstones. However, not every equation of human beings to animals—and vice versa—is so blatant, or recognizable.
Singles and couples without children can be found referring to themselves as parents to their pets—dressing them up, , including their names on Christmas cards, calling themselves “Mommy” and “Daddy”. Couples with children sometimes do this as well, calling their pets “furbabies” to distinguish them from their offspring. For the most part, it is done tongue-in-cheek, and received with fond eye-rolling. There are times, however, when the comparison of pets to children verges on equality, and intrudes in the most innocent of places.
Fido and Felix line up to see Santa
My wife and I take our children to see Santa Claus at the mall every year. They dress themselves in their best red and green, and they rehearse what they’ll say. It is a precious tradition, and the photos are priceless. This year, for the first time, pets—dogs—were in the lineups with the children.
In the first mall we went to the line was so long, you couldn’t see Santa from the end of it. A mother ahead of us, holding several children’s coats, wearily observed it was also “pet night.” Facing an hour-long wait with anxious young children, we went to another mall, only to find the same thing there. The barking and the scratching of claws on the tile was cacophonous.
I’ll be honest. Before children, we had taken our cat in a sweater to see Santa. But this was at a pet food store, for charity, and as part of a Christmas promotion. It was understood to be ridiculous. To have Rottweilers and huskies lining up inside fancy malls among toddlers in their Christmas finery is worse than ridiculous; it’s unfair. Here’s how it played out for us.
The coordinator runs up, and tells that, with half an hour left before closing, we cannot see Santa. In the line-up is mostly dogs. Everyone hears what she tells us. No one in the line says a word. We’ve been let ahead of lines in airports and restaurants with our children, but not here. Our children are getting upset. It’s already past my son’s bedtime. We say we’ll risk the wait, and I watch the Malamute ahead of us urinate on a length of garland.
The older woman in front of looks down at our children, and asks in a pitched voice whether they’re going to go see Santa. My children nod hopefully. She then turns to her adult son’s dog and asks in the same voice whether the dog “is going to get a picture for Grandma?”
Up ahead, two dogs make a lunge at each other. Their owners haul them back. The indignity is mortifying. We end up seeing Santa after all, but only because he stays late. He stinks, and the chair is covered in dog hair.
To oppose this intrusion into our ritual is not to hate animals. It is to ensure that a custom designed for children remains enjoyable for them and their families.
We can love animals without hating people
The truth is that most of us feel a kind of kinship with animals, especially those we have domesticated. Under normal circumstances, there’s no cuter combination in the world than a young child with a puppy or kitten. Despite their asynchronous life spans, they seem made for each other, partners in mischief and discovery. Even more so than with adults, their partnership is culturally iconic. From Peter Pan’s canine nurse, Nana, to Old Yeller, they are familiar witnesses to the magic of childhood, and their life-spans are just as brief; for many of us, the death of a pet is our first experience of true grief. But they are not the same, and nor are they equal.
This is not to say that putting people before animals is always easy. Privileging one’s child ahead of someone else’s dog is simple, but what of a putting a stranger—especially one of evil intent—before one’s own beloved pet? The choice baits our misanthropy like few others. For animal rights activists, however, dislike of the human race is kept continually on the boil by the industrial scale of what they perceive as – and sometimes results in – cruelty to sentient creatures. In this way they can lose all perspective on an issue that many balanced people now regard as an ethical one.
The most powerful, indeed staggering, expression of human affection towards animals I have read is that of American philosopher George Steiner. In My Unwritten Books, he writes about the beauty of this fondness, but also about its dark side:
“It is, for so many of us, dogs who embody the folly of utter human devotion. Cats are another kingdom. […] Something in their ancient eyes finds our love a touch ridiculous. Dogs can be loved with every nerve and fibre of one’s being. Their mien can become a talisman of mutual recognition. They seem to reflect in mysterious foresight both their own incipient death and ours. We listen for, we identify the step of our dog, his or her bark, the growl emitted in half sleep as we do our own. When our dog dies, our existence fractures. The house turns empty. The blanket, the bowl left behind seem unbearable.”
At the same time he understands how this sentiment is consistent with a real contempt for and even cruelty to one’s fellow man:
“A troubling paradox attaches to this love. There are those, possibly numerous, who cherish animals more than they do human beings. This truth is rarely discussed. The illness or death of an animal may solicit depths of emotion beyond those occasioned by human infirmity. […] To cherish animals more than men may testify to some visceral though undeclared contempt for man’s inhumanity, for his “bestiality”. There is an intuition that animals may possess a dignity, a loyalty, an endurance under pain and injustice denied to all but a handful of men and women. This might account for the disturbing fact that a particularly acute love and compassion for animals occurs in men of a despotic and hateful ideological temper. They are not a reassuring lot: Caligula and his horse; Wagner and his Newfoundland; Nietzsche’s mental collapse at the sight of a horse being flogged; Hitler, if legend is correct, wept when his beloved Alsatian, Blondie, had to be put down in the hell of the bunker.”
That Steiner himself is Jewish, and a scholar of the Holocaust, puts the salvific bombast of the animal rights activists beneath the hardest light of all. Though many good people love animals, a person does not need to be good to do so. That activists invoke Mandela, Gandhi, and King in defence of saving pigs is not simply silly, but sinister. They cannot recruit philanthropists to their cause while demoting the anthropos.
When the court returns with a verdict on Krajnc’s mischief charge, the decision must address not only agricultural property law, but also, referring to the defense’s own rhetoric, why animals cannot be equated to human beings. Such a decision needs not rule out humaneness or compassion towards other species. A decision will come in May.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com