Sep 11 2017

PETA’s Counterproductive Attack on Young Researcher

PETA_Protest_onlineIn North America house sparrows are a menace. They are an invasive species introduced in the 19th century, and have established themselves as a large population. Unfortunately they do so by displacing many local species, such as blue birds. They are cavity nesters and will use up many of the prime nesting spots before migratory native birds get a chance. Their presence reduces the population of many native species.

Birders have a special disdain for house sparrows and European starlings (another invasive species). They are both a threat to bird biodiversity. They are also not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which means it is legal to remove their nests and even to capture and euthanize them (you can then donate them to raptor refugees for food). Many birding enthusiasts recommend active measures to control house sparrows and minimize their impact on native species.

Partly for these reasons house sparrows are an ideal target for scientific research. They can be legally captured, and the research will then serve the extra added small benefit of removing house sparrows from the wild.

All of this makes it all the more ironic that PETA has chosen to target a young researcher (a post-doc) for harassment due to her research on house sparrows. Really, PETA, you have chosen the wrong subject to defend, the pests of the birding world.

The irony does not stop there. Christine Lattin, the post-doc in question, is an animal-lover herself. She is researching stress on captured birds to better understand how different bird species respond to stress. She hopes this research will lead to more effective management of rescued birds. Lattin laments herself:

 “I’m trying to reduce the number of animals used in research, protect endangered species, and help animals in general,” she says. “I think we could find common ground.”

So PETA has chosen as their villain du jour a young researcher who is just trying to protect animals, and as their poster-child of animal rights the asshole of the birding world. That is some solid PR work there.

But of course it gets worse. PETA is now also using all the worst tactics of social media trolls, aligning themselves in behavior with the worst elements of our society. As Science reports:

Then the protests began. In mid-June, about 20 activists—most PETA employees—demonstrated outside a conference building in Long Beach, California, where Lattin was presenting her work. Signs read: “Christine Lattin: Stop Torturing Birds!” A month later, posters appeared across Yale urging the university to shut down Lattin’s work, and more than a dozen PETA supporters held signs on a busy street corner in downtown New Haven, Connecticut. And in August, PETA posted a video on its Facebook page featuring ominous music and pictures of Lattin overlaid with text claiming that she lured birds from the wild to torture them. The video received nearly a million views, and protesters demonstrated again, this time outside Lattin’s research building. PETA is organizing another protest—outside Lattin’s home—on 13 September. It has shared her home address and a Google map of her location with its supporters.

They are protesting at her work and her home. She is getting daily death threats and harassment. She is currently living in fear for her family, including her young child.

As evidence that this campaign will likely not have the intended effect PETA hopes for, just read the comments to the article on Science’s Facebook page. They are mostly critical of PETA (yes, I know, a self-selective group) and hit many of the proper themes of this criticism. They point out that PETA is hypocritical, choosing the wrong target, and employing radical methods that just relegate them to the fringe.

I think the comments accurately capture why this campaign will likely backfire. PETA’s efforts serve to undermine the very cause they claim to promote.

The fact is, most intellectuals and researchers, like Lattin, support animals rights and the ethical treatment of animals. That is the mainstream of opinion on this issue, and it has been institutionalized. All animal researchers must be trained and certified on the proper treatment of animals in their care. PETA wants to move further in the direction of animal protection. I understand that, and I do not fault them for advocating for their ethical position (even though I disagree with it).

I strongly disagree with PETA’s tactics, however. It is supremely self-righteous. They are so convinced not only that they are correct, but that they have the moral high ground and those who disagree with them are evil. Some of the e-mails to Lattin make this clear:

 “You should kill yourself, you sick bitch!” Then the messages on Facebook and Twitter: “What you’re doing is so sick and evil.” “I hope someone throws you into the fire …”

I understand that sometimes in order to make meaningful social change you have to get attention and take extreme action. But that should always be a careful judgement, not a knee-jerk reaction. Not everything deserves all out social war. You can also try to change minds through debate and discussion. If you think you are correct, your ideas should speak for themselves. Ideas can be more persuasive than protest, if you are actually in the right.

PETA, however, does not act like an organization with a thoughtful ethical position, dedicated to changing society for the better. They act like a group of misguided fanatics most concerned about feeding their own sense of self-righteousness. The current debacle is not just a miscalculation on their part – it is a reflection of their core problems.

I also think that PETA acts out of desperation because they are not in a strong ethical position. They are not right, and that is ultimately why they have a hard time convincing many people.

All animals do not deserve the same rights. Their frequent claims of – we don’t do this to humans so why would we do it to animals – just doesn’t resonate with many people. It’s because animals are not people.

We should afford some rights to animals and we should treat them humanely. Those rights should be in proportion to their sentience, which I think is an ethically reasonable position. We slaughter billions of bacteria each time we take antibiotics to fight an infection, and no one worries (or should worry) about killing so many organisms.

No one worries much about baiting hooks with worms, or exterminating termites.

However, the more neurologically sophisticated organisms are, the more they can experience their own existence, to experience suffering, the more protection they deserve. A sliding scale of rights and protections is therefore a reasonable ethical position, and I think where most people fall.

I also don’t think that simply killing animals is unethical, as long as they don’t suffer in the process. We should focus on minimizing stress and suffering, rather than worry that they are ultimately sacrificed. Death is part of the experience of all animals, and in fact most animals in the wild are going to suffer when they die. Most animals will end up as prey, or die from injury or disease.

In response to this argument when I have given it, some have responded that at least it is not by human hands. We are responsible for the death we bring, not death in the wild. I don’t find this argument very compelling, however. There is a small point here, but it fails to address the main issue – do you care about animal welfare, or only about our own culpability? Is this about feeling good, or protecting animals?

Further, we need to meaningfully address the question of what it means to protect animals. I honestly don’t think that most animals need to live meaningful fulfilling lives, because they are not capable of doing so. At best they can lead content lives free from suffering. If a cow’s existence consists of grazing and mating, and at one point that existence ends without stress or pain, I see no ethical problem with that.

Some animals are stressed by captivity, and that needs to be considered. Ironically, that is exactly the focus of Lattin’s research – she wants to better understand how different birds are stressed by captivity in hopes of minimizing that stress.

This brings us back to how PETA’s efforts are so misguided that they are unethical on many levels, and if anything are counterproductive to the cause of protecting animals. And if you disagree with this position, have the courage of your conviction to defend your ideas, rather than resort to harassing and trolling people who disagree with you.



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