Two of World’s Most Influential Opinion Makers On Animal Rights
An Animal Rights Article from


James McWilliams
March 2014

opinion head in sandHere is a discussion between Gail Collins and David Brooks, both of the Times op-ed page, where they are columnists. This is not a parody. I have made none of it up. You will be stunned at the . . . oh, never mind. Just read on. (And please follow on twitter @the_pitchfork. -jm

Gail Collins: David, here in New York we’ve been having a crisis over swans. Can we talk about that today? I don’t think we’ve ever discussed large fowl before.

David Brooks: I’d be really happy to talk about them, but when I was growing up we called them pigeons. The only birds I remember in New York were pigeons — and maybe sparrows, but sparrows manage to live without actually entering the consciousness of the creatures around them. I’m guessing you’re referring to pigeons and that now we’re calling them swans in the hopes that it will boost their self-esteem.

Gail: Wow, I’m getting a vision of pigeons tattooing each other and shooting up steroids. I think we have another movie script idea. But no, this involves real swans – mute swans, to be precise.The New York Department of Environmental Conservation wants to get rid of virtually all the mute swans in the state. Apparently they eat up a lot of aquatic vegetation. But their main crime is being nonnative. Rich people brought them over from Europe to swim around in their estate ponds and now there are about 2,200 of them. Actually, that doesn’t seem like a lot of birds for a state this big. But the officials want to declare the swans a “prohibited invasive species.”

Doesn’t that seem sort of un-American?

David: My view is that the swans should be able to claim political asylum to escape all the Frenchmen chasing them for their foie gras. Yes, I know foie gras comes from geese, not swans, but I’m not sure U.S. immigration officials know that.

Gail: I’m generally in favor of government intervention in animal-management situations, but I’m coming down on the swan side. If New York is going to worry about wildlife overpopulation, they should concentrate on the deer and the geese. Or send all their troops west to block the path of the wild pigs. Do you know how many feral hogs we’ve got in this country? They’re taking over!

David: We’ve got feral hogs in Washington too! Many with law degrees. I’m not sure what the best method to reduce their number is, though bow hunting strikes me as a promising approach.

As for your animal problems in New York, I’m sensing an agreement between us. I‘d take care of the excess deer first. Then I’d take on the geese. I was once almost killed by a very angry mama goose while out for a run in Tarrytown. Since then I’ve been terrified at the prospect of being killed by anything essentially vegetarian. I wouldn’t mind some carnivorous bear or a lion taking me down, but I’d hate to be gummed to death by a grass eater.

Gail: You’ve been thinking a lot about ethics lately. Where do you come down on human rights versus animal rights?

David: My thinking about animal rights is evolving, I guess. On the one hand, I eat animals. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be impressed with the moral sophistication of some animals. The question to me is whether animals have souls. I guess I don’t think any have the sort of souls that could be saved or damned. But I do think elephants, dolphins and dogs exhibit soul-like behavior — that is to say, they seem to exhibit moral virtues, like empathy and loyalty.

Last December I gave a Sidney Award to an essay on the soulful behavior of elephants. In one story an elephant who had been abused at a circus greeted a new acquaintance by showing her all the places where she had been injured. The other elephant touched each injured spot with her trunk, as if to say: I feel for you. I am with you.

I wouldn’t be comfortable eating an animal who could do that.

On the other hand, when it comes to geese and deer, I’m like: Go ahead, make my day. I guess I’m describing a slippery slope between animals that seem to have soul-like pieces and animals, like cows, that don’t. This may be extremely self-justifying and bogus, but I’m comfortable with slippery slope arguments. Much of life is about making decisions on a continuum.

Gail: I believe humans come first, and that our main responsibility to the animals is not to cause them unnecessary suffering. If there are too many deer or geese, it’s O.K. to get rid of the excess. But we have to do our best to kill them fast so they won’t die in pain.

David: I’m totally with you on the reducing pain element. Here the laws of kosher killing seem wise. It’s amazing, by the way, how late this sensibility entered human history. For centuries and centuries, even after civilization was quite far along, many smart, caring people were utterly insensible to the suffering of animals. They would have considered it bizarre to care as we do.

Gail: I’m also a big fan of protecting endangered species, but to tell the truth, that’s mainly because they’re a good warning indicator. The things we have to do to protect endangered species are almost always things we need to do to protect the planet for ourselves. Otherwise, to be honest, I could be pretty serene about the passing of the stubfoot toad.

David: Here I slide back onto my continuum. I’d be for preserving endangered animals as long as the human costs aren’t too high.Absolutists sometimes seem on the verge of stopping economic growth for the sake of a few snail darters. More generally, I’m for saving truly homely animals. We have to fight our natural tendency to favor the adorable. It’s a good moral discipline to defend the stubfoot toad, while forcing koalas to take care of themselves.

Gail: Our national attitude toward wild animals has too much of a pro-cuteness bias. If deer had tusks and little beady eyes, we’d have long ago figured out how to reduce the deer population.

David: I’m trying to think of the ugliest animals we allow to live among us. Donkeys I guess. Plus journalists.

Gail: And then there’s meat-eating. How far do you think we’re obliged to go in making sure the animals we eat weren’t tortured on their way to the dinner table? Nick Kristof wrote a columnrecently about factory farming, where animals are squashed so close together that they spend their lives unable to move.

I’m not sure we have an ethical obligation to give livestock full and rewarding lives, but we should at least face up to the way these animals are treated. Right now this is one of the many, many aspects of society where we tend to vote for avoidance.

David: If anybody really wants to think hard about this, I recommend Jonathan Safran Foer’s book “Eating Animals.” For myself, I prefer not to know. I’ve definitely practiced avoidance all my life. I don’t suppose there is any nonmessy way to kill large numbers of large animals, though obviously I’d be for humane treatment on the way to the culling floor.

Gail: How do you feel about hunting? I can appreciate the intense feeling a lot of people have for hunting – although the business about standing in the water waiting for a duck to fly by still escapes me. And while it’s good for gun control advocates to make sure they aren’t mistaken for anti-hunting crusaders, some politicians do go overboard on that point. Listening to some liberal Democrats talk about the glories of shooting partridge, you’d think they were refugees from “Downton Abbey.”

David: I respect hunting as a social institution and I defend it ideologically, but to be honest I could never hunt myself. I have a problem with the idea of sitting around waiting for something and then I have a problem with the act of shooting a creature. That pretty much takes me out of the two big sides of the hunting vocation. I say that aware that I grew up in a big city and I have a certain urban value set so I’m hesitant to impose it on others. I do understand the mental and physical challenge of the sport.

Gail: By the way, what’s your favorite wild animal? Years ago, I did a story about the Bronx Zoo, and I went looking for an animal that was so unlovely, nobody even went “aww” at the babies. I finally settled on the bats. I’ve been a big bat fan ever since.

David: O.K., now we’re crossing the credibility threshold. Do you mean to tell me if a bat landed on your shoulders you wouldn’t immediately flop around frantically trying to get the ugly little bugger off you? I definitely would.

Gail: You’ve got me. Last year, I was in the country and grabbed a book from the shelf. A bat fell out and landed on the desk in front of me, hissing. I instinctively clobbered it with the book before I had a chance to contemplate the critical role of bats in the circle of life.

David: I guess my favorite ugly animal would be the sloth. It’s not only truly ugly, it’s a moral role model. It teaches us to slow down and enjoy life.

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