Animal Rights
Animal Rights

Making the Abuse of Circus Elephants More 'Humane'

| by Gary L Francione
I frequently get inquiries from undergraduate students who tell me that they want to go to law school so that they can study “animal law” and ask my advice about how to become “animal lawyers.” I respond that what is commonly referred to as “animal law”–veterinary malpractice cases, “pet” custody cases, “pet” trust cases, and cruelty cases–does not in any way move nonhuman animals away from their status as human property. Indeed, for the reasons explained in our video on animal law, it further enmeshes them in that paradigm. I tell those students that if they want to do something useful, they should: (1) become vegan; (2) educate others about veganism; and (3) do pro bono work as lawyers for advocates who are promoting veganism and who need legal protection, which is often the case. I have represented many such activists over the years.

The problems with “animal law” are illustrated by a pending lawsuit by a group of welfarist organizations and a former elephant trainer against Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The issue is whether the use of hooks and metal-tipped prods to control elephants violates the Endangered Species Act.

According to an article (”Animal rights, circus lawyers differ on elephants”) about the lawsuit:

Under questioning from the judge, Meyer [the attorney for the plaintiffs] acknowledged that not all use of chains and prods would violate the law. She said she hopes that [the judge] will require the circus to get permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use the tools. But she could not say specifically what treatment should be allowed or just how long elephants could legally be kept on chains.

I know Kathleen Meyer, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs. She is a fine attorney. It is, however, sad that the “animal rights” position is that we need to regulate the use of hooks and prods, and require that circuses get permits. The idea that the “animal rights” position concerns how long elephants can be kept on chains is disturbing on a number of levels.

How many dollars contributed to help animals are being used for this effort? More importantly, why does anyone think that this sort of lawsuit will do anything to lead in the direction of abolishing animal exploitation or even providing any increased protection for animals? Perhaps we should consider that the money would be better spent educating people as to why they should not attend circuses that use any nonhuman animals. It is a zero-sum game; every dollar we spend on regulating the use of hooks and prods is a dollar less that we spend on decreasing the demand for such spectacles through creative, nonviolent abolitionist education.

But the issue always comes back to veganism. As long as we are killing 56 billion per year for food (not counting aquatic animals) with our best justification being that we enjoy the taste of animal products, it is unlikely that we are going to develop the consciousness that will lead anywhere except to supposedly more “humane” exploitation. Regulating regulating the use of chains and hooks is not going to provide much, if any, benefit to the animals; it will, however, make us feel more comfortable about exploiting them.

But then, making us feel better–making us feel that we are “good” people; making us feel that we are a “humane” society–is what animal welfare and animal law are all about.

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