Do one-third of Americans really believe that animals should have the same rights as people? In a new Gallup public opinion poll, 32 percent of respondents said that “animals deserve the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation.” But while animal rights activists are cheering the increase from 25 percent who answered similarly in a 2008 poll, their supposed victory rings hollow: Only about 2 percent of adult Americans are vegetarians or vegans, according to the Humane Research Council, a group friendly to vegan activists.
What’s changed is semantics. More and more Americans conflate “animal welfare” and “animal rights” in a colloquial sense, even if they don’t support legal “rights” in the literal sense. After all, that would mean no bacon, burgers or butter. In short, Americans care about animal welfare but don’t have a problem eating farm animals.
Seeing that their effort to convert Americans to veganism has largely failed in the public arena, animal liberation groups like PETA, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) are stepping up their legal activity in order to force their views on us through the courts. (“Animal liberation” is something the public has a more negative view of than “animal rights.”) A visit to the website of ALDF, for example, shows a long list of ongoing court cases against the federal government, states, public universities and private companies.
One lawsuit was filed against the Regents of the University of California and the California State Fair for “transporting, confining, and exhibiting pregnant and nursing pigs” at a state fair livestock nursery exhibit. At the center of their case is the use of farrowing pens. (As expected, the activists don’t just have a problem with maternity pens for sows.)
If its lawsuits are to be believed, HSUS is in the business of protecting the environment. It joined Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and other environmentalist groups in a lawsuit to force the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions from livestock operations. The rationale mirrors another 2013 lawsuit filed by HSUS against the operators of a sow-breeding operation alleging environmental impacts.
As paraphrased by the Topeka Capital-Journal, Aaron Popelka of the Kansas Livestock Association correctly said that “the lawsuits are an attempt to make livestock operations prohibitively expensive and force them out of business.” Which, not by coincidence, is the same motivating factor behind attempts to outlaw individual maternity pens and other common veterinarian-accepted farming practices across animal agriculture.
The list goes on and on. PETA filed a failed lawsuit in 2011 arguing that keeping killer whales at a marine park violates the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which bans slavery. HSUS was involved in two separate unsuccessful lawsuits over pork and beef checkoff programs, one was dismissed and the other was dropped after an inspector general found no evidence of wrongdoing. The Nonhuman Rights Project has been suing to liberate chimpanzees in New York using habeas corpus, which was also used by abolitionists. It’s clear that animal rights groups are operating under the assumption that if they throw enough mud at the wall, something will stick.
There’s no shortage of lawyers in this country, and there’s every reason to believe that the flood will continue. Student chapters of ALDF have grown over the past decade, as have the number of schools offering “animal law” courses. Lawyers need to keep themselves employed, after all, and the ideological ones can go to HSUS, which is flush with money from donors who think they’re helping pets, not attorneys.
Of course, HSUS has had legal troubles of its own. The organization recently paid $6 million to settle a lawsuit brought against it and two of its in-house lawyers under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act for allegedly participating in a scheme to pay a witness who was found to have lied under oath in federal litigation. Court documents indicate that HSUS sent at least four payments as part of the alleged witness-payment scheme. At least one of the checks was signed by HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle himself.
What’s a solution? The most realistic one that comes to mind is an expansion of “loser pays,” whereby the loser has to pay the other side’s attorney fees. That’s a tort reform that would cause animal and environmental activists to think twice. Lawsuits would have less appeal as a weapon to bankrupt and bully, and activists would be held accountable for their harassment campaigns.