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Randi Milgram
Randi Milgram
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Discriminating the Animal Kingdom

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On August 10, 2011, the New York Times published an op-ed by Representative Roscoe G. Bartlett (R – MD) calling for the end of experimentation on great apes. Animal advocates might be expected to wholeheartedly support the legislation Bartlett has introduced. But the faulty logic behind such a decision, and the ramifications such a law could have on future progress, prevent me from supporting the speciesist proposal.

Bartlett’s argument for his legislation, which would phase out “invasive research” on great apes, is primarily that in his experience, he has learned that primates can suffer physically, mentally, and emotionally. From my perspective, the obvious response to this obvious statement is that other animals can suffer as well. From there, the question is, is the ability to suffer what you suggest as the test for whether animals should be protected from experimentation, thereby leaving the door open for expansion of the protection? Or are you only concerned with primates?

In this situation, the arbitrary basis that can easily give rise to law is clear. As Bartlett said, given the effect of such experimentation on primates, he “no longer believe[s] such experiments make sense – scientifically, financially or ethically.” His words raise a most basic question faced in matters of animal law: Where do you draw the line? More importantly, why do you draw that line?

In theory, I completely agree with the opinion – testing on apes should not happen. But the thought process that allows an opinion to stop where Rep. Bartlett’s does reflects the kind of mental gymnastics that has hindered logical development of animal law. Choosing only primates as the proper animals to save from the hell of experimentation is no more rational than the choice to protect cats and dogs from certain harm but leave farm animals to the discretion of the industry. (Or as rational as the decision to eat a cow but not a dog.)

Rep. Bartlett’s argument that apes can suffer physically and emotionally has no merit as a means for distinguishing apes from other animals, as it has been proven (and I’m sure anyone with pets would agree) that apes are not the only animals that can experience physical and emotional suffering.

One practical problem with this type of species-specific legislation is that, without being based on solid reasoning, it can seriously hinder future efforts to expand such protection to other animals. Stating that this phase-out from testing would apply to only apes does nothing to help the efforts to stop testing on every other animal. If it was made clear that apes were protected because they can suffer, that would invite an inundation of research and proposals showing that other animals suffer too. This would force our society to look at all the other, equally terrible and sometimes worse ways it uses animals, which is something most people are neither ready nor willing to do. That kind of potential situation is what stops many from taking logical arguments seriously when it comes to animals.

While very few people would defend testing on apes, the analysis usually stops there. There is undeniable reluctance to give the same consideration to, say, pigs, because if you admit that testing on these intelligent animals is ‘wrong’, it would then be too difficult for any person to rationalize eating pigs as well.

And therein lies a fundamental problem with speciesist decision-making. Arguing that such legislation is a big step in the right direction is valid. However, the ramifications of drawing arbitrary lines are too great to ignore.

But the bigger point is, no matter how and where you draw the line, nonsensical rationalization is at play. Such arbitrary guidelines should raise red flags, but when it comes to animals, we get away with a lot of faulty (or nonexistent) reasoning that should not fly in the legal realm.

While Rep. Bartlett’s opinion is a necessary start, the line he suggests shows the rampant illogic behind many social ideas about different species. Why these animals, why these criteria, when the same decision, based on the same or various other criteria, could easily apply to other animals? We want our laws to at least pretend to make sense, right? The last line of the op-ed piece reads, “Americans can no longer justify confining these magnificent and innocent animals to traumatic invasive research and life imprisonment.” This is absolutely true. But, Rep. Bartlett, that sentence applies to more animals that primates.