Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Confusing Case of Michael Vick

With his release earlier this week from federal prison, the animal abuse case involving former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has returned to the news. Vick was convicted in 2007 of running an interstate dog fighting operation.

From the beginning, this case and its media coverage has been steeped in hypocrisy.

Vick grew up in a subculture where dog fighting was accepted. While this is by no means justification for his actions, it’s an explanation. In the larger culture it’s considered acceptable to eat animals—to the tune of 53 billion land animals (plus an unknown number of marine animals) killed each year worldwide for their flesh and secretions.

What Vick did was clearly wrong, but morally no different from what most people do every day. Like the dogs that Vick trained to fight, animals raised for food suffer terribly so that people may be entertained. There is no more need for humans to eat animals than there is for humans to watch dogfights. Either way animals are needlessly exploited and harmed. What really matters is not how they are harmed, but that they are harmed.

The National Football League (NFL) quickly suspended Vick without pay following his conviction on the federal charges. His various corporate endorsement deals were either not renewed or were suspended, as additional ugly details about the situation surfaced throughout 2007. Clearly these corporations were trying to appear conscientious to their consumer bases. But the NFL accepts advertising from firms whose operations revolve around the exploitation of animals. Hot dogs, ice cream, and other animal products are sold in the stadiums during the football games. One of Vick’s sponsors was Kraft Foods, a huge marketer of animal-based foods. He also had a deal with Nike, until it was suspended amidst all the bad publicity. Nike sells shoes made with leather, and is on record for egregious worker exploitation.

In an earlier blog post I wrote about how our culture’s deeply entrenched speciesism has most of us valuing the lives of dogs far more than the lives of chickens, cows, or pigs. That’s why so many people who think nothing about routinely carving up “food animals,” are outraged with what Vick did.

We’re brainwashed into valuing dolphins over tuna, primates over rodents. To some extent this is understandable. Whether we’re selecting among different animal species or different subgroups within the human population, we tend to have an affinity bias in favor of particular categories of beings who we have personal relationships with (dogs, cats, and human family members), or who we perceive to be more similar to us (other primates verses rodents, people of the same ethnicity verses those of a different ethnicity). But the ability to suffer (sentience) transcends all these categories. That’s why discrimination is wrong.

It may not be possible, or even necessary to eliminate all of our biases. But we need to recognize and understand them, then direct our actions accordingly to eliminate avoidable harm.

If Vick wishes to redeem himself, he ought to start by going vegan and educating others why being a vegan is the best way each of us can help animals. Simply denouncing dog fighting and becoming a spokesperson for yet another single-issue animal welfare campaign that fails to shine light on the connection with the far more widespread problem of animals tortured and killed for food, will inevitably result in the fortification of existing speciesist thinking.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Decades Later, Astronauts Still Trying to Feel Good About Nonhumans Forcibly Strapped into Capsules and Shot into Space

When I transitioned to an abolitionist a couple years ago, my eyes were opened to the speciesism and associated contradictions that I now see at every turn. So when I recently came across the article Astronauts Pay Respects to “Space Chimps” on CNN.com, I felt compelled to come up with an alternate or translated title that made sense to me.

The news story is about two retired American astronauts—Scott Carpenter who orbited the Earth in 1962 as a member of NASA’s original Mercury Seven, and Bob Crippen who piloted the first Space Shuttle flight in 1981—who last week visited a nonprofit sanctuary in Florida that serves as the permanent home for rescued chimpanzees, including many who once served as research and test subjects for the space agency and the US Air Force.

In the early days of the space programs, nonhuman animals were used in projects to assess the impact of space flight on living bodies. Ground-based experiments eventually culminated in actual test flights into space. In 1957 a dog named Laika became the first animal to venture into outer space when the Soviet Union launched her as the sole occupant of Sputnik 2. Tragically she was also the first person to die in space. A malfunction in the spacecraft’s thermal control system is believed to have been the cause of her death from overheating a few hours into the flight.

It was only after a chimpanzee named Ham—one of several known as “space chimps”—returned successfully to Earth after a suborbital flight in a NASA Mercury capsule, that Alan Shepard Jr. became the first American human to venture into space in 1961, also in a Mercury capsule.

“We’re paying them back for their service.” Carpenter said as they utilized golf carts to tour—with reporters and camera crews—the sprawling 200-acre grounds where 150 chimpanzees reside on a series of islands.

"There were a lot of unknowns back in the '50s about how the human body would react to space and some real bad concerns that you might die," Crippen added. "And these guys opened that up to at least give people confidence that it was okay to go put Al Shepard and the guys up for the first time."

There are two problems with these remarks. First, while it’s very fortunate that this sanctuary is available for these previously caged chimpanzees that cannot survive in the wild, to live out the rest their lives, I would not characterize the situation as “paying them back for their service.” I think of service as something that is voluntary and meaningful on the part of the individuals involved. The space flight experiences of Ham and Carpenter could not be more different. Carpenter, Crippen, Shepard, and all other human astronauts and cosmonauts choose their destiny; while Ham, Laika, and the other nonhuman research and test subjects did not. I would instead describe the situation as paying restitution to individuals who had been wrongfully imprisoned and unjustly experimented upon over several decades.

Secondly, while acknowledging that nonhumans exhibit sufficient physical commonality with humans to “… give people confidence that it was okay to go put Al Shepard and the guys up for the first time," Crippen conveniently overlooks their cognitive commonality in order to morally justify launching them into space ahead of the willing astronauts, to investigate those “… real bad concerns that you might die.”

This is just one of innumerable examples of people rationalizing the exploitation, oppression, and devaluing of others based on some irrelevant characteristic. In the case of the “space chimps” half-a-century ago, that characteristic happened to be species. But essentially the same thing is occurring when we base our discrimination on race, age, religion, sexual orientation, or any number of other things that have absolutely nothing to do with self-awareness and the desire to avoid suffering and death.