On Oudry, Animal Liberation, and Jailing Animal Activists as Terrorists
Peter Singer interviewed by Dean Kuipers
Los Angeles CityBeat, June 3, 2007

Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s exhilarating 18th century painting of Clara the rhinoceros, now on exhibit at the Getty as part of a show of his work, The Painted Menagerie, merits endless wonderment in its detail as both a masterful zoological rendering and a sympathetic depiction of the animal’s oddity and majesty. But Peter Singer, noted Princeton ethicist and the author of the groundbreaking Animal Liberation (among many other books), wants us to take another look. In a talk at the Getty last week, he reflected on Clara’s life, having been captured in India and carted around Europe as a curiosity in the mid-1700s, and asked the question: Do these paintings adequately honor her sacrifice, and how do they reflect – and affect – our attitudes toward animals?

As a leading figure in the animal rights movement, and a leading bio-ethicist, Singer has taken a career-long interest in these questions of applied ethics. The touch of sadness painted into Oudry’s work is an opportunity to talk about these issues – not to denigrate the works, but to explore what they contain. In Animal Liberation, Singer argues eloquently against speciesism, making a utilitarian case for the moral consideration of the suffering of animals – a position that, when it came out in 1975, helped spark a global campaign against such unnecessary practices as testing cosmetics on animals and gave rise to groups like PETA seeking legal protections for animals. His work in both the U.S. and his native Australia includes the Great Ape Project, which seeks a United Nations declaration giving apes the rights of personhood, and he is president of Animal Rights International. He talked to CityBeat in Santa Monica’s Ambrose Hotel.

CityBeat: How did your work lead you to Oudry?

Peter Singer: I used [The Painted Menagerie] as a take-off point … as a way to look at our attitude towards animals as they’re reflected in art, to look at the reality of our use of animals and the way that we treat animals, and also to look at a couple of modern artists who see the role of art as not just reflecting the way we use animals, but trying to make us more aware of animals as individuals and more aware of the way that we exploit animals, so to challenge prevailing attitudes, too.

Which modern artists?

Sue Coe is probably the best known. I just looked at a couple of works by an artist called Federico Uribe, who is having an exhibition in Chelsea in New York at the moment. And an Australian artist called Barbara Dover.

Is there a particular problem with the way that animals are depicted in art, such as in this Oudry show?

I think that the problem is that the animals are there as things for us to gaze at, rather than: Here are sentient beings that are trying to live their lives that we have captured and put constraints on. They’re often not that kind of more sensitive portrayal of an animal that you can get from some artists. You can debate whether there was some sensitivity in the painting to apply to the animal as a captured animal far from home, or not.

Have attitudes toward animals changed in any big way in the U.S. since you wrote Animal Liberation in 1975?

Yeah, they’ve certainly changed. People are more aware of issues regarding animals, as a serious ethical or even political issue, now. Attitudes have changed more than practices, so far. But just in the last year or so, there’ve been some encouraging signs that practices may be changing, as well.

What are those?

The referendum in Arizona at the last election, where a 65-35 majority of citizens of Arizona voted against gestation crates for sows and individual crates for veal cows. If Arizona votes 65-35 against it, you can pretty much assume that the country is against it. Of course, the country doesn’t get a chance to vote on it. But some major producers have taken note of those results – like Smithfield, the biggest pig producer in the country, said that they will phase out the gestation crates for sows. And I think a couple of veal producers have also said they’ll get rid of the crates. Certainly, the animal movement is getting more organized, politically, and have actually targeted some of congressional representatives who are hostile to animals and they’ve contributed to their defeat.

How does the U.S. compare to other countries on animal welfare issues?

The U.S. is clearly lagging behind Europe in terms of progress on animal issues, especially farm issues, which is where the greatest amount of animal abuse is. Europe, over the last decade, has moved substantially ahead in terms of beginning to phase out some of the major abuses of factory farming, including veal crates and sow stalls, and the standard battery cages for hens.

Has any society moved toward according “rights” to animals?

Not exactly. Austria passed some interesting legislation which sets up a kind of animal ombudsman to check on the conditions of animals. That could be seen as giving animals a voice, or a representative, something like rights.

How would it change our society if animals did have rights?

If they were really to get the equal consideration that I believe they should, we wouldn’t have commercial animal production in this country. It would have major ecological benefits – it would drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it would reduce water pollution across the country. And it would probably improve our health.

How would this affect global warming?

A lot of people are suggesting now that, given the urgent nature of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, reducing animal consumption is the way to go. Because that is intensive in fossil fuels, and also produces a lot of methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who has been a leading advocate of change, has actually suggested that cutting back on methane production could be one of the quickest ways of reducing our overall greenhouse gas consumption.

In Australia, somebody wrote a paper calculating that, without the government actually having done anything significant, Australia is going to comply with its Kyoto target largely because market forces have greatly reduced the number of sheep in the country. And since sheep produce methane, that is going to make a very sizable reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions.

What do you think of the U.S. now using terrorism laws against animal activists?

I don’t believe it is appropriate to use anti-terrorism laws against these people. I mean, there’s such a dramatic difference between people who set out to kill and injure innocent people, and people who are being very careful not to kill or injure either people or animals. They’re acting to prevent violence inflicted on animals. To lump them together with people who set off bombs in trains or fly planes into buildings seems ridiculous.

When you were first working on this issue in the early ’70s, did you see that this kind of action would arise?

At that time, there was a lot of civil disobedience against the war in Vietnam. And there was some non-violent direct action, I guess, so I thought it was possible that those tactics would extend to the animal movement once a lot of people would start to see how serious what we do to animals really is. I didn’t envisage acts of burning down labs or anything like that. But that came later.

What was your reaction to that?

I was concerned, I have to say. I wasn’t opposed to breaking the law to defend animals – as Martin Luther King had broken the law to defend the rights of African Americans, or as people opposing the Vietnam War had broken the law in peaceful, nonviolent protests. But I was opposed to things like arson, because even if you are careful, it can lead to people being injured or killed. Burning down buildings may save some specific animals at a specific spot, but it’s not really likely to win over the majority to support your cause.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'On Oudry, Animal Liberation, and Jailing Animal Activists as Terrorists', interview with Dean Kuipers