Animal Writes
21 January 2001 Issue
Curious George

Law and Order gives animal rights thorough, thoughtful coverage.
by [email protected]

"Curious George," the LAW AND ORDER episode that aired on Wednesday, January 17, gave the animal rights position extraordinary coverage. Viewers were so immersed in animal rights philosophy that it is going to be hard for me to pick and choose what to share. This alert will be long, because the show was remarkable.

Law and Order is almost always based on a murder case. This episode dealt with the death of an AIDS vaccine researcher who died from an unexpected allergic reaction to a monkey bite. We find out that animal rights activists had freed all of the lab monkeys, but had lost hold of one and were unable to grab him and take him to sanctuary. He was left loose in the lab. When the researcher tried to put him back in his cage the next morning, the researcher was bitten.

One of the cops told Detective Briscoe (Jerry Orbach):
"Two guys who work here got him back in the cage. They said when one of them gets out, they fight like hell not to get put back in."

Briscoe said: "So Would I"

I knew we were off to a good start.

The episode covered so much ground. A friend of the main suspect, George Peevy, describes his eating habits:
"He said there's enough other protein sources on the planet so that we don't need to slaughter animals."

Whenever the cops talk about the monkeys being stolen they are corrected by activists and told that the monkeys were rescued.

The suspect, George Peevy, was presented very sympathetically. His lawyer, Mr. Oyler, tells the judge that he wants to present an argument that is:
"An expansion of self defense. A 'justification defense' is available when someone uses force under the reasonable belief that it was necessary to defend themselves or others... Mr. Peevy was of the belief that certain circumstances required him to take the action that he did."

When McCoy (Sam Waterston) objects saying, "Your honor, The law of justification defense does not pertain to the defense of monkeys..."

Oyler retorts,
"135 years ago, justification defense didn't pertain to the defense of slaves. Law, your honor, evolves."

The judge grants, "...You got your forum counselor, I trust you will use it to serve your client and not your cause."

I'm thrilled to say that later in the show, when George is offered a plea bargain that would grant him less jail time, his lawyer and activist girlfriend do not push him to reject it. They tell him he has already done plenty for the cause. Thus the show did not reinforce the myth that animal rights activists are militant ogres who care for non human animals but not for humans. George shares his thoughts that lead to his rejection of the plea bargain:
"Ever heard of this guy John Brown who made this raid at Harper's ferry to steal guns to free slaves... Pretty brave guy."

An actor playing a professor of bioethics on the witness stand presents Peter Singer's views with less charisma than the man himself, but still somewhat effectively. He says,
"I believe there are other ways of conducting research that don't require the torture and slaughter of animals. If I told you we could cure cancer by sacrificing ten infants for research, would you approve? Let's make it easier - ten convicted murderers. As a society we wouldn't allow it. The life and liberty of a human being is inviolate."

When challenged about lines in his writing that say that one commits a greater offense against nature by killing a healthy primate than a severely retarded child, he says,
"What I am attempting to put across is that a healthy primate can experience both pain and the anticipation of pain more acutely than a severely retarded infant, hence the primate suffers more."

When asked if the primate's suffering is more offensive he says,
"They are both offensive to me. I am not opposed to one and indifferent to the other."

George's girlfriend's testimony about the birth of his interest in animal rights is very powerful. First she says,
"I started talking to George about animals being more than just property. I told him how Gandhi said you judge a civilization by how it treats animals."

But referring to the day he became a committed activist she says,
"It was when I told him about the pigs. Experiments were conducted on how severe burns effect pigs appetites. The pigs were tied down fully conscious and burned with blow torches. I showed him a video of it - he hasn't been the same since."

I am sure that this sort of information, about the way researchers treat animals, was news to 99.9 percent of Law and Order viewers.

The defense lawyer's closing speech is one of my favorite segments in the history of television:
"There can be no argument but that what George Peevy did, he did out of conscience. This was not a crime of vengeance, or greed - his actions were motivated solely by the compassion he felt for the suffering of another living creature. We are not accustomed to worrying about suffering when it is other than human suffering. We think nothing of killing animals to mount their heads over our mantles or to test for hairspray. And when objections are raised, the people raising them are mocked as kooks, hopelessly outside the mainstream, because the basic unassailable principle that allows us to take animals and do whatever we want with them is that they are property. Much like a lump of coal or a plank of wood or a truck or a shovel or a hammer or a nail belongs to its owner, so too does an animal. I'd like to remind you of a time in the not too distant past when that same distinction was drawn based on the color of one's skin - when Africans were packed into ships like cord wood and brought to this continent as property of their owners, and they had no rights, and their suffering did not matter, and anyone who objected was a kook and outside the mainstream. My client is one such person. He saw suffering and he sought to end it. That his efforts brought about the unanticipated tragedy in the death of Ronald Lee should not force us to criminalize his intent because his intent was good and decent. It was his belief that to save an animal from suffering and death would be an action held reasonable by any enlightened society. I believe one day our society will be so enlightened. I hope and pray that day is today."

I also include for you the prosecution's closing argument. It shows how beautifully Law and Order attempts to present both sides of a case. And I think it makes the jury's decision to convict understandable in terms of regard for the law, and not a statement by the producers against animal rights. Verdicts on this show are very often not what the viewer has been guided to desire - the producers aim to present what they feel is a realistic outcome.

McCoy discusses the control of rat populations to stem the plague and then closes,
"...We as a society value human life over nonhuman life and proceed accordingly. Does that mean we have no compassion for human suffering? Not at all. I believe the men and women in this lab care deeply for these monkeys. It is just that they care for the men, women and children who suffer and die from AIDS more. But all of that is beside the point. How we treat animals, whether or not animals suffer is not the issue. The nobility of the defendant's motives is not the issue. The only issue in this case is whether the defendant it criminally responsible for the death of Ronald Lee. There is no question here, the defendant willfully, knowingly broke into that lab and took those virally infected monkeys out of their cages. It was that action that created the potential for harm. It was that action that caused the death of Dr. Lee. So now I ask you to do what the law requires."

George is found guilty. We flash to the office of District Attorney Nora Lewin (Dianne Wiest):

McCoy: "Man's dominion over the animals remains intact."

Carmichael (Angie Harmon): "A jury decides to follow the law."

Lewin: "And a hero is born."


I almost jumped through the TV screen to hug George and all of our heroes on the front line.

You can send a written hug to Law and Order at the NBC feedback page:

NBC Feedback

You will need to select Law and Order from the pulldown menu.

I have spoken to one or two other activists who were concerned that the efficacy of animal research was not questioned in this episode. I greatly admire the work of people such as Ray and Jean Greek who argue against it, on grounds of bad science, magnificently. However, thanks to the strong biomedical lobby and its well funded public relations machine, I am not sure that this is a notion that the American people are ready to accept, yet. At this time, I think the moral arguments are just as powerful; They were presented beautifully.

Of course, when the researcher is working on an AIDS vaccine, the moral argument will not be as clear cut to most people as when cocaine research, for example, is being conducted. I thought Law and Order gave us a lovely tip with the following exchange in the District Attorney's office, half way through the court case:
Lewin: "What's the sympathy factor for the defendant going to amount to?"

McCoy: "Hopefully less than for a victim who dedicated his life to AIDS research."

In other words, if we want public sympathy, our front-line heroes will get it easily, by liberating animals from studies that could not be considered to be lifesaving to humans.

Did mainstream, public relations conscious, media friendly DawnWatch just subtly condone illegal activity? If so, perhaps I was inspired by last night's episode of Law and Order.

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(DawnWatch is an animal rights media watch that looks at animal issues in the media and facilitates one click responses to the relevant media outlets. To subscribe to DawnWatch, email [email protected] and tell me you'd like to receive alerts. If at any time you find DawnWatch is not for you, just let me know via email and I'll take you off the subscriber list immediately.)

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