When People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals launched it’s anti-fishing billboards and radio ads in June, it provoked a lot of interesting commentary, with much of it directed at ridiculing PETA. But even in some of the otherwise excellent anti-PETA articles there was a lot of fuzzy thinking about animals, humans and nature that is the source of what little strength the animal rights movement possesses.
The actual ads PETA tried to take out were amusing. To coincide with Wal-Mart’s BFL Tournament, PETA produced a radio ad featuring “reformed fisher” Jay Kelly. Here’s how PETA described Kelly’s view in a press release,
As a child, Kelly fished with his family. He now realizes that fish have feelings, too. “Fishing is just as cruel as beating a puppy,” says Kelly. “When those fish on your hook move their lips, they aren’t just whistling Dixie, they’re trying desperately to keep on breathing. They know they are suffocating to death.” Kelly hopes that fishers will toss their tackle, pitch their poles for good, and take up harmless outdoor activities like hiking, badminton, and lawn-bowling.
The claim that a fish’s efforts to continue breathing is proof that a fish is self-aware is a genuine surprise, since that standard would imply that creatures that have even extremely primitive nervous systems have rights. Usually when anti-animal rights activists ask if animal rights activists want to protect insect rights or worm rights as well, they are accused of creating a straw man, but Kelly’s standard means almost all living organisms would be accorded rights which is so absurd that most animal rights activists won’t even go there.
PETA claims that fish feel pain, and in a letter to The Washington Times, PETA staffer Paula Moore offered the organization’s incredibly weak argument in favor of that position which backs up Kelly’s claim. Essentially, PETA is claiming that since fish exhibit many of the same responses that mammals exhibit when in pain, “including rapid startle reactions and simple nonspecific flight,” this must mean that they are really experiencing pain. But one of the problems with this is that fish lack a neocortex, which is widely regarded as being the source of higher order responses to pain.
And again, if PETA is serious, then almost every complex organism will have rights, and we are back to debating whether or not cockroaches have rights.
Some of the anti-PETA opinions, however, were almost more annoying than PETA’s own anti-fishing claims. Sports Illustrated‘s Rick Reilly wrote a hilarious column about PETA with lines like,
“Why do we throw a Frisbee to some animals and a barbed hook to others?” PETA asks on its web site.
And, of course, the answer is: Because fish really suck at catching Frisbees.
The weird thing, though, is that in the middle of his anti-PETA rant, Reilly takes time out to elaborate on his anti-hunting views. According to Reilly,
…sitting in the back of a pickup, taking a rifle with an infrared scope and killing a deer from 1,000 yards away is not early the same thing as standing up to your spleen in icy rushing river water, trying to cast the perfectly tied fly into the perfect eddy to catch a rainbow trout. … Tell you what: I will get behind hunting when hunters come up with a shoot-and release program.
Unless Reilly is a vegetarian, which seems extraordinarily unlikely, this is an extremely myopic and hypocritical claim. As someone who has never hunted, I don’t see how anyone could consistently say that it is wrong to shot a deer from 1,000 feet a way with a scoped rifle, but it is okay to buy meat that comes out of slaughterhouses.
Similarly, Richard Louv of The Denver Post wrote a wishy washy sort of anti-PETA article in which Louv apparently couldn’t help but say that although he disagrees with PETA, the animal rights movement “is not entirely without merit.” Again, presumably like many who have come under attack from the animal rights community, Louv is certain that when he kills a fish that is perfectly fine, but he’s not so sure about what happens when a researcher performs a medical experiment or a circus trains elephants.
The animal rights activists aren’t the only ones with clouded thinking about animals and ethics.
PETA’s Anti-Fishing Radio Ad Targets Animal Tournament. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Press Release, June 12, 2001.
Fish may not be cute, but they feel pain. Paula Moore, The Washington Times, June 12, 2001.
Scales of injustice. Rick Reilly, Sports Illustrated, June 26, 2001.
The Angler’s Manifesto: PETA’s anti-fishing campaign all wet. Richard Louv, The Denver Post, June 3, 2001.