Joseph Turner, Global Animal

(ANIMAL WORKSHOP) Over the weekend, Emory University hosted an animal conference titled “An Uncomfortable Conversation: Human Use of Animals,” featuring lecturers from disciplines such as law, philosophy, and English. The two-day interdisciplinary conference was divided into four sessions with a total of 14 speakers. The workshop was held at the Emory University Center for Ethics.

The conference was divided into four sections over two days.

I attended the morning session on March 31 titled “Human-Animal Conflict and Vulnerability.” Carter Dillard from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Professor Mylan Engel Jr. from the Department of Philosophy at Northern Illinois University, and David Wolfson, a partner at the law firm Milbank, Tweedm Hadly & McCloy spoke at this session. While the three speakers looked at animals from different angles, their unifying message was that animals need to be treated more humanely and respectfully.

Looking at animals from legal theory, Carter Dillard focused on the concepts of legal personhood, and the ideal legal person as well as the issue of vulnerability. He made the distinction between people who choose not to harm animals because they are complying with the law, and those who choose not to harm animals out of empathy. While laws exist to protect animals giving them legal personhood, animals cannot follow, make or comply with laws, which are necessary in order to be classified as an ideal legal person. Despite these laws, animals are still vulnerable. In order to protect them, Dillard believes that animals need people enforcing the law “who can respond to their unique vulnerability.” Thus, people drafting and enforcing laws pertaining to animal welfare must be able to sympathize with them.

Professor Engel then looked at animals with respect to biomedical experimentation. He believes people rejecting the theories of Tom Regan and Peter Singer do so because they believe that animals do not have rights in the first place. The goal of Professor Engel’s lecture was to block this “casual dismissal,” by establishing three common ground principles that even those supporting the use of animals in biomedical experimentation would accept, thereby making medical testing on animals virtually unjustifiable.

Professor Engel talked about an experiment that was ruled humane where beagles were burned in order to test a vaccine. Since the experiment 30 years ago, the vaccine has still not been approved. When dealing with animal protection, Professor Engel believes we need images, such as the one he presented of the beagle, in order to see animals as “not numbers but individuals who suffer terribly.” In addition to harming animals, he believes biomedical testing may harm people as drugs that test safely on animals may be harmful to people and drugs that are unsafe for animals may be beneficial for humans. Thus,  a lot of potentially beneficial drugs are kept from people although they may be beneficial. Ultimately, Professor Engel concluded that animal testing is an unreliable method for testing drugs.

Professor Engel talked about an experiment involving the burning of beagles. Photo credit:

David Wolfson spoke thirdly in the session, focusing on the rights of farm animals. Between nine and ten billion farm animals are consumed each year which makes addressing their legal rights difficult. “How do you deal with abuses on such a large scale?” Wolfson wondered as he often contemplates whether it would be better to focus on securing animal rights on a state level or on a federal level. On the one hand, Wolfson mentions a federal scheme would be effective in terms of enforcing and not requiring a warrant. However, animal legislation on the federal level would need to be written in a way that would pass Congress, perhaps weakening the effort. On the state level, Wolfson says ballot initiatives have been successful in making living conditions better for farm animals. However, laws protecting farm animals then vary state-by-state depending on the specific ballot initiative and the fact that some states, often the ones with large amounts of agriculture, do not have ballot initiatives. However, these ballot initiatives are only a foundation, as harvesting animals for consumerism still exists.

Moreover, proposed laws regarding the status of animals often undergo fierce battles between animal supporters and those supporting industry. For example, the groups for and against the recent egg bill operate under similar names, making it confusing for voters to honestly learn about the issue.

In order to accelerate the movement toward compassionate living, we need to become more aware of how animals are treated and from there take action to help protect animals from harmful and careless behaviors. This weekend conference was a good start in engaging people on our ethical responsibilities toward animals. Hopefully, Emory will continue to further the dialogue on compassion toward animals and other universities will follow in the conversation.