Today, August 24th marks the 44th anniversary of the signing of the Animal Welfare Act.
It has been 44 years since the federal government first acknowledged in a very limited capacity that some treatment of some animals is unacceptable. The act set minimum standards for the treatment of animals in research, in transportation, for exhibition, and by dealers.
While the law is useful at times because it provides a legal basis for filing charges against people who mistreat some animals under some circumstances, it is mired in the same kinds of compromises and exceptions that we in the animal rights community are still fighting today. The law specifically excludes mice, birds, rats, cold blooded vertebrates and invertebrates, or any animal used for food.
These kinds of exceptions call to mind the passage from George Orwell’s Animal Farm when the pigs declare that “All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
In the past 44 years the culture of the animal movement has changed, expanded, mutated, and split. While the idea of respecting animal lives and abstaining from various kinds of animal foods has been around for centuries, the modern animal rights movement is a uniquely 20th and 21st century phenomenon.
The word “vegan” itself wasn’t coined until the twentieth century. The seminal book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer was published after the enactment of the Animal Welfare Act as was the founding of the Animal Liberation Front. Most vegans living in the west rely heavily on animal food analogs such as soy milk and mock meats that require the food production technology of the 20th century to arrive en masse on grocery store shelves. How many vegans can credit their interest in animal rights to a website, a blog, or an online video?
I would never say that the Animal Welfare Act is a meaningful part of the animal rights movement, but rather that it marks a milestone. It was the first piece of legislation that sought to establish any sort of standard for the treatment of certain animals in certain circumstances. The simple fact that mistreatment of animals was even on the empathy radar of enough people to get this legislation passed is noteworthy.
The AWA has been amended and updated several times since it was first passed 44 years ago but there hasn’t been a real rethinking of the paradigm of humans vs animals, us vs them.
Going into the future, let us first rethink the past. Why would some animals be offered some protections while others are offered none? Why are the protections that we offer so sparse, so limited, and so laxly enforced? And the most important question of all is this: if we were to outlaw all forms of animal cruelty, could any animal industries continue to exist?
The truth is that they could not. There is no animal product, no animal exhibit, no animal test that doesn’t inherently violate the basic principle that animals deserve the right to live their natural existence without the interference of humans. Outlawing cruelty to animals would mean outlawing animal products outright. Which means that if you oppose animal cruelty, boycotting animal products entirely is the only logical course of action.
On the anniversary of the government’s failure to effect real change, I implore you to effect that real change in your own lives. Go vegan for yourselves, go vegan for the animals, go vegan for the planet.