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Professor bites into issue of animal rights

As part of the Road Scholars Lecture Series, USF professor Steven Tauber discussed law, politics and animal rights Wednesday night at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library. ORACLE PHOTO/ZACH LEETE

Humans share 98 percent of their DNA with chimpanzees, our closest living relative in the animal kingdom, but share zero percent of the rights.

To address the politics of animal advocacy in the U.S., Steven Tauber, chair of USF’s Department of Government and International Affairs, talked to an audience of around 50 on Wednesday at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library as part of the Road Scholars lecture series. 

“The animal advocacy movement is a wide-ranging, mass public social movement that seeks to improve the treatment of nonhuman animals,” Tauber said. 

Animal advocacy, Tauber said, is divided into two major social movements: animal welfare and animal rights.

Animal welfare activists seek better treatment of animals, but do not object to humans using animals for their own purposes. 

Animal rights activists reject the concept that animals are property, and oppose humans using nonhuman animals for food, clothing, entertainment and scientific research. 

Animal welfare activists focus on winnable campaigns that will create tangible improvements for animals instead of spending resources on pursuing — what animal welfare activists view as — unrealistic goals set by animal rights activists.

“The concept of animal welfare … focuses on small incremental changes that will work to improve how animals are treated within the framework of animals being property of humans,” Tauber said.

Animal rights activists, on the other hand, rely on litigation to gain rights for animals. 

“This is an important strategy because it follows how other civil rights groups and movements have gone about getting rights through specific court cases,” Tauber said. 

Tauber compared the current litigation of animal rights to litigation campaigns leading up to the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, whose parties were also at a political disadvantage.

“If you want to affect change you go to your Legislature, that’s a fundamental aspect of democracy,” Tauber said. “African-Americans were disenfranchised and couldn’t vote, so they had no political representation. They couldn’t go to the state Legislature, governor or Congress, so they relied on litigation.” 

Blacks lacked political power and resorted to litigation, eventually winning their civil rights with the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

“Litigation is a product of the politically disadvantaged, our courts respond to law not politics,” Tauber said. “Animals rights activists are politically disadvantaged as well. People like to eat meat, go to zoos … circuses … there are more people who believe the moon landing was staged, than (there are) vegans.”

While this makes for an arduous political climate, animal rights activists now attempt to win a similar civil rights battle for animals. In 2011, PETA tried to cite the 13th Amendment as their basis for argument in Tilikum v. SeaWorld.

Although the media largely mocked this attempt, inciting a string of lampooning from “Fox News,” “The Daily Show” and other news outlets, Tauber said he supported PETA’s end goal, but believed their tactics were not effective for litigation.

PETA is known for their reliance on publicity stunts to affect change in animal rights. PETA’s president, Ingrid Newkirk, is unabashedly straightforward when discussing PETA’s methods.

Newkirk has been quoted saying: “Probably everything we do is a publicity stunt … we are not here to gather members, to please, to placate, to make friends, we’re here to hold the radical line,” as well as saying, “We are complete press sluts.”

Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is another active player in the fight for animal rights. Tauber said that unlike PETA, Wise filed cases using a novel but reasonable argument based on state common law and habeas corpus. 

He also consulted with biologists to find plaintiffs and with social scientists to find politically advantageous jurisdictions. Though the adorable chimpanzee plaintiffs in the case — Tommy, Kiki, Hercules and Leo — lost the case, the media embraced Wise’s direction and he garnered positive feedback from NPR and Stephen Colbert.

Tauber also discussed the importance of public opinion in the wake of trials, citing George Zimmerman and O.J. Simpson as two examples of court rulings with controversial outcomes but widespread shifts in public opinion.

Regardless of the courtroom losses suffered by animal rights activists, animal rights and welfare have advanced significantly since first anti-cruelty laws were established in 1860.

“Up until 1860 it wasn’t a crime to treat your animals however you wanted, “ Tauber said. “Whatever you wanted to do, whether beat or kill, it was legal.”

One hundred fifty years later, the treatment of animals has improved significantly, but there are more battles to be won, most taking place in a court of law.

“Our judges are unelected and unaccountable, they can’t be removed for making unpopular decisions,” Tauber said. “They respond to legal arguments.”