Economist, 00130613, 8/19/95, Vol. 336, Issue 7928
See also accompanying editorial: What Humans Owe To Animals

This year's unlikely sight of middle-aged Britons taking to the streets to fight the trade in live animals reflects a moral debate that is not going to go away

The organisers expected a thin crowd, but the church hall in Dover is overflowing. There are few suits or ties here, and hardly any rainbow warriors or professional activists. The average age in the crowd of perhaps 300 must be 50; the faces are earnest and concerned, the clothing workaday. After some introductory words ("Live transport must come to an end and be replaced by a meat trade!") the lights dim, and a screen begins to glow with images.

Such images! Calves shoved from lorries, and thrown from lorries' upper decks. More calves, teething the bars of tiny stalls where they are lucky if they can turn around. A bull suspended by one broken leg, then dropped from a height to a hard deck below. A man in an apron kicking a pig, again and again, as the pig shrieks from the blows. ("Sadistic, sick little man!" screams a voice in the crowd.) Pigs and sheep suspended up-side-down, fully conscious (they are supposed to have been stunned but have not been) and still blinking and gulping for a few excruciating seconds as blood floods from their throats. In the crowd, faces are covered, a woman is crying and shouting something about "liars" and "murderers".

Peter Whittam is watching it all, with his wife Marion. He is a 61-year-old who rents out flats, has voted Tory most of his life and has never before attended a meeting about animal rights; his face, stoic and craggy, is the very picture of middle England. As a man near the front stands to announce that he is "prepared to defy the law on this issue", Mr Whittam remarks quietly to a journalist that he has never seen footage showing humans in Nazi concentration camps being treated as badly as these animals.

Would he, then, defy the law? "Basically I'm a very honest person, believe it or not," he says. "But I feel very angry that we can allow that kind of thing to go on. I think the time has come when some form of civil disobedience is definitely justified."

To the surprise of the country's political elites, animal rights has emerged as Britain's closest thing to a mass social movement. Daily demonstrations have gone on for months in Dover, Brightlingsea, Shore-ham and other places whence calves and lambs are shipped to Europe. In the town of Brightlingsea (population about 8,000), the arrests this year number about 550 and the daily police mobilisations have cost around £2.5m ($4m). During the winter and spring, newspapers and television regularly brought pictures of middle-aged women struggling with policemen, waving signs and fists, and shouting furiously at lorries filled with live lambs and calves. Now the news coverage has died down, but the demonstrations continue: at dockside, in London's Parliament Square, and at the European Union's offices in Brussels.

The key to understanding what drives these people is to realise that most of them are quite ordinary. Their unusual behaviour stems not from any obsessiveness or lunacy, but from the nature of the argument about animal rights. This issue is becoming, for Britain, what abortion is for America: a deeply divisive social conflict in which the morally simple positions are the extreme ones, and the middle is morally treacherous. Most people, in Britain and elsewhere, fancy themselves animal-friendly centrists. But how considerate of animals is considerate enough? Between complete indifference on the one side and radical compassion on the other there is no stable stopping point. That is why, although the debate happens to have broken out in the ports of England, it could in principle erupt anywhere. And that is why the protests, once started, will persist.

In their face
Animal-welfare activism is nothing new to Britain. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in 1824, was the world's first group of its kind, preceding the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (which, indeed, was modelled on the RSPCA) by half a century. Today the RSPCA has 500,000 supporters, 200 branches in England and Wales, and 178 affiliated groups around the world. It is only one, albeit the largest, of Britain's pro-animal groups, whose number probably runs to hundreds.

The RSPCA anchors the moderate end of the animal-welfare spectrum. Although on paper it opposes shooting and fishing for sport, in practice it shuns extremism. A more radical brand of activism arose in the 1970s, catalysed by the ideas of Peter Singer, a philosopher, and others who questioned whether the line dividing animals from people was quite as sharp as had been assumed. The newer groups spoke of "oppression" and "liberation" of animals, and contemptuously attacked the "welfarist" approach as favouring "longer chains for the slaves".

In America, where there are now perhaps 400 animal advocacy groups, the focus has been on laboratory animals. Britain has its share of this controversy, but the recent eruption concerns cruelty in farming.

Perhaps the most significant part of what animal-rights groups do is to educate, lifting the veil of ignorance that obscures the realities of farming. The public responds. Since 1984, the percentage of Britons who are vegetarians has more than doubled, to 4.5% (in a Gallup poll in February). Women are almost twice as likely as men to be vegetarian, and young women are most likely of all: one in eight professes vegetarianism.

Yet factory farming has been a fact of life for decades. For that matter, so has been the trade in live animals. In 1963, Britain exported 655,000 live animals to farms and slaughterhouses on the continent, where customers will pay a premium for freshly slaughtered meat; those animals, like many today, might travel 40 hours without food, water or rest. The number of exported animals has risen in recent years, but neither the trade nor animal-welfarists' objections to it are new. Turning vegetarian, the most personal kind of political statement, is one thing. Getting arrested is quite another. What, then, has propelled bourgeois householders to the streets of Dover? In brief: video cameras and accessible targets.

In 1990, Compassion in World Farming, a pro-animal group in the vanguard of the recent wave of British protests, sent people to make video footage of a slaughterhouse in Spain. The results were among the horrendous scenes described above. To be told what happens to chickens in giant poultry sheds is merely off-putting. To see the birds squeezed into tight battery (group) cages, barely able to move and all but featherless from neurotic pecking, or to see a goose with a funnel rammed down its gullet for the force-feeding used to make foie gras--that is not soon forgotten.

What television did for the opponents of the Vietnam war the videocassette recorder has done for the animal-rights movement. In America, a controversial video called "Silent Scream", which graphically depicted a fetus as it was vacuumed from the womb, had a similarly strong effect.

Then, last year, when Dover's big ferry companies bowed to protests and stopped carrying live animals, the trade was diverted to small ports, where roads to the docks lead right through town streets. If you stand at the kerb in Colne Road in Brightlingsea, the lorries come nearly close enough to touch. Through slats in the sides, week-old calves stare out, often bound for a lifetime in narrow crates that are illegal in Britain. "You can see, hear, smell the cruelty you're protesting against," says Philip Lymbery, of Compassion in World Farming.

Mr Lymbery, like many animal-rights organisers, is a vegan: he consumes neither meat nor animal products. His T-shirt says "Stop Factory Farming". The people lining the streets mostly would not go so far ("I'm not a dippy vegetarian," says one man in Brightlingsea). Most of them want a ban on live-animal transport, though some want an end to factory farming generally. What is most striking, however, is not what they want but how. They view their demands not as an ordinary political goal but as a crusade, and they view the response of the system as a burning indictment of the system itself. All this for the sake of a few lambs? No: for the sake of moral consistency.

Like people, a little
Consider a human fetus. One way to view it is as a bit of tissue in a woman's body, no more special than a scraping of fingernail or, at most, a liver with a future. On that view, a woman ought to be free to dispose of the fetal tissue as she pleases, so long as she does no harm to others (for the fetus itself is not an "other"). Another way to view the fetus is as a partly formed human being which happens still to be enclosed in another person's body. In that case, the woman's right to dispose of it is virtually nil, because a second party is involved: one which cannot defend itself.

For most Americans, the former view is unacceptably crass, the latter unacceptably intrusive. So they flail for stable ground in the middle. But the middle is not solid rock but treacherous screen. If a fetus is at all human-like, should one not give it the benefit of the doubt? Only this delicate question separates the befuddled centrist from the anti-abortion crusader. A bit of thought, a sermon or two and a few activist friends are more than enough to convince many middle Americans--not the sort who believe that the United Nations is invading Idaho--that a holocaust is happening in their midst.

That is why abortion is, in America, the social issue from hell. Its politics are strikingly like those of animal rights in Britain. Hundreds of people, unremarkable except for their anger, blockade clinics/docks, seeking to stop women/calves from reaching the door/ship. The resemblance is not coincidental. Indeed, it is inherent.

A calf, like a fetus, is helpless and has human-like traits. It has consciousness, it can feel fear and pain: in short, it can suffer. Like a fetus, it is more than an object and so should not be casually abused. So far, pretty well everybody agrees. If you are content to leave animals in this grey zone, somewhere between human and object, there is not much of a problem. But there is not much moral clarity, either. Those who seek to locate animals more precisely on the moral spectrum soon face a choice, with not much philosophical manoeuvring room.

One view--which one might recognise as traditionalist or disparage as speciesist--sees animals as morally different from human beings, so that kicking a child and kicking a pig can never be equated without gravely demeaning the child and ludicrously fetishising the pig. The other view--call it universalist-sees higher animals as different from people (and from each other) in many ways, but fundamentally alike in that they are sentient and share the capacity to suffer.

People of both views may agree that improving animal welfare is a good thing to do. But for whose sake? Traditionalism sees humane treatment of animals as good insofar as it dignifies and civilises human beings, which it does do; but there can be no moral "conflict" between a human and an animal, because there is only one party to the case. The question is always, "What is best for the moral and economic condition of people?" Animals in human custody are therefore to be regulated as a form of property in which the larger community takes an interest. You can do as you please with the animals you own, except where the process of democratic lawmaking restricts you.

That is the current regime, more or less. It is quite coherent, and allows for as much (or as little) animal-welfare regulation as the public can be persuaded to support. But it is emotionally rickety, for it flies in the face of the way most people actually feel about animals (or, at least, about the pleasanter kinds of animals). Beholding a frightened calf confined in a tiny box for life, part of every humane person rebels against the notion that the calf has no moral standing except that which an all-human political system happens to give it. Surely, in some sense the calf is a party to the proceedings?

Here too, however, the ground is slippery. Concede that man-calf relations involve two interested parties, not one, and radicalism is but a nudge away. If animals are in some way humanish, perhaps they should be given the benefit of the doubt. But how much consideration is enough?

The activists' answer is anthropomorphic. If the animals had a voice, they would want to be treated as well as suits themselves, instead of merely being treated as well as suits people. Unless you are willing to make an arbitrary distinction between one level of cruelty and another, you soon arrive at the conclusion that humans have no business harming animals except on the most urgent necessity. "It boils down to as little interference from people as possible," says Mark Glover, of Respect for Animals, a hard-line British animal-rights group.

Animals and Auschwitz
Now adversaries blink at each other across a deep breach. If you believe in the standard liberal model, the animal-welfare policies that are in force at any given moment are by definition reasonable, because people have chosen them and it is people who count. But if you are drawn towards the universalist model, you will start to see any policies fore seeably in effect as oppressive, because they make animals suffer. Once headed in that direction, you will be tugged towards two types of radicalism. That is what is happening now.

The first type of radicalism points to the plight of the animals. On the far fringes of the animal-rights world are a few who embrace violence. In Britain, three extremist groups appear to have been active in a variety of attacks, including the planting of about 50 explosive devices, mostly incendiary bombs. This year animal-rights activists are thought to have been behind a letter bomb and two packages booby-trapped with razor blades that were sent to William Waldegrave, who was then the agriculture minister. But the police put the number of violent extremists at little more than 200, and most other pro-animal activists fervently disclaim violence (though some have fewer scruples against vandalism). Their passion is expressed peacefully, but its depth should not be in doubt.

Wendy Bragg is 52 years old and runs a small bed-and-breakfast in Brightlingsea, a town now festooned with signs saying "Ban the Exports" and "Ban the Crates". Never before had she been politically active or involved in animal issues. Yet she waits on the road to the docks almost every morning and has been arrested twice for obstructing the highway. She says: "I can't bear animals suffering. I can't bear anyone suffering. They've got no one to stand up for them except us. No one else will stop this evil trade--and," she adds with emphasis, "it is an evil trade."

Often these protesters say that animal activism has taken over their lives, or close to it. They say that as long as the lorries keep moving, they will continue campaigning. "Even if there was just one lorry, I'd be involved, it's such a horrific trade," says Heather Macwilliam, a 50-year-old who never misses a morning at the Dover docks.

And if the lorries stop rolling in Britain, there is still Europe, where the dedicated go in busloads for demonstrations at the European Parliament. Comparisons to slavery, to brutality against children and to Nazi atrocities are often heard. Between shouts of "Scum, the lot of you!" as the calves roll by in Brightlingsea under police escort, Marie March, who is 56, remarks that she would not be surprised to see children escorted through in such lorries. "When it comes to animals, our species acts like Nazis," says Andrew Tyler of Animal Aid, a group based in Kent. He says he speaks as a Jew.

The issue is radicalising in a second way. It begins as a protest against abuse of animals. But if the law permits outrages, can ii claim moral legitimacy? And if the police protect atrocities, are they not complicity? Thus pro-animal soon becomes anti-government. "We've started to realise just how corrupt the people in power have got," says Mrs Bragg.

This sentiment is heard again and again: animal abuse has opened up eyes to the insensitivity of government. At the Dover meeting more is said against the government and the police (whose sometimes heavy-handed tactics have not helped) than against the abuse of animals. One man speaks wildly of a "fascist state". Another complains of being treated worse than animals by "the scum in Westminster", and adds, to laughter and applause: "I want to know what I can do to cause as much trouble as I can." The local member of the European Parliament, a Labour Party man, Mark Watts, joins in the spirit of the occasion by referring to "our so-called democracy".

Get that granny
Such talk is all the more extreme in that it comes from otherwise mild people. At a meeting in Brightlingsea, when 60 or so people discuss the pros and cons of going limp when arrested, many of the listeners are grandmothers. "It's changed the people totally," says Maria Wilby, a leader of the Brightlingsea protests. "People are so much more aware of what can be done against them, and how little power we have."

Of late, America's abortion controversy has gone from nasty to violent. In 1993 David Gunn was shot to death as he crossed a clinic's car park. The next year, a well-known activist named Paul Hill killed another doctor and his assistant, and showed no remorse; he was saving babies, he explained. The number of arson attacks on clinics has gone up sharply.

The British animal-rights protests have not been as bloody. But they have a martyr: Jill Phipps, a 31-year-old mother who in February was hit by a lorry carrying calves in Coventry. In Brightlingsea, police worry about a young woman who, they fear, is determined to dive in front of a lorry. For their part, protesters complain of crude and bullying policemen. All agree that if the police were not on hand there would be violence. The two sides are determined to wear each other down.

It will be a long wait. "It's horrific, unbelievable, the cruelty that is done to animals," says Clare Baumberg, an organiser of protests in Dover (and yet another middle-aged, middle-class woman). Asked if there is a stopping point, she thinks before replying: "Probably not. The more you work in animal rights, the more cruelty you find going on." Her story could stand for many others. She is 49 years old and became active on animal issues five years ago, when her children moved away. It is the galvanisation of people like her that makes the animal-rights issue morally compelling and politically intractable.