A Call to Progressives to Embrace a Wider Ethic That Includes Animals

I’ve worked for more than 25 years to end the oppression of people and animals and to protect the environment upon which all life depends. For me, these are inextricably connected concerns.

I’ve been frustrated that animal protection is often ignored (at best) or disdained (at worst) by progressives, even though the systems that perpetuate oppression are the same, whether they are perpetrated on human or nonhuman animals. The irony is that the systems that abuse animals often lead to our own suffering and death. Eating animals is perhaps the most powerful example.

One trillion animals are killed every year around the world for food. Tens of billions of chickens, turkeys, cows, and pigs are tortured in our factory farms. They are intensely confined and mutilated (castrated, dehorned, debeaked, de-toed, and branded) without any painkillers. If someone did to their dog, cat, or bird what is routinely done to farmed animals, they could be thrown in jail. Calves are kidnapped from their mothers at birth so that we can take their mothers’ milk, (an odd thing really: to drink the milk of another species and so long after weaning). Those cows are forced to produce 7-10 times the amount of milk they would normally produce for their offspring (imagine a mother having to nurse 10 babies instead of one), which means that half wind up with mastitis, a painful udder infection necessitating antibiotics. Farmed animals are then dispatched in slaughterhouses so sped up to increase profits that millions die as they bleed to death hanging upside down, or worse, in scalding tanks.

The rest of the trillion are sea animals, victims of long line fishing and nets that gobble up everyone in their path, laying waste to the oceans. These trillion animals die in the most torturous ways.

Our system of meat procurement is not only unimaginably abusive to animals, it has contributed to soil erosion, water pollution, water depletion, global warming, deforestation, ocean dead zones, and poisoned and depleted populations of sea animals, as well as escalating rates of various cancers, heart disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, mercury poisoning, antibiotic resistance, and more. Choosing to eat fewer, or no animals or animal products would not only go far toward our own health (and save massive amounts of money on healthcare), but also toward protecting our environment.

Progressives have rightly exposed the atrocities of human experimentation but are too often mute when it comes to egregious animal experimentation. For example, in the realm of positive psychology one man, Martin Seligman, stands as the movement’s highly respected leader, and barely a month goes by without media and academic accolades, including in progressive circles. Yet, amidst all of the praise, there is never a mention of the cruel experiments he conducted on dogs that made him famous (rather than infamous).

Seligman delivered intense electric shocks to dogs that led to his theory of learned helplessness. But if you read his Wikipedia page, you would never know this. The description of the experiments is simply this:

“Seligman’s foundational experiments and theory of “learned helplessness” began at University of Pennsylvania in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression. Quite by accident, Seligman and colleagues discovered that the conditioning of dogs led to outcomes that were opposite to the predictions of B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism, then a leading psychological theory.

Dig a little deeper than Wikipedia and you find Seligman describing his own experiments this way:

“When a normal, naïve dog receives escape/avoidance training in a shuttlebox, the following behavior typically occurs: at the onset of electric shock the dog runs frantically about, defecating, urinating, and howling until it [sic] scrambles over the barrier and so escapes from shock. On the next trial the dog, running and howling, crosses the barrier more quickly, and so on, until efficient avoidance emerges.”

Cruel as this was, however, the point of the experiment was to prevent some dogs from ever escaping the shock, which “proved” his theory of learned helplessness, as the dogs ultimately gave up trying to escape the intense shocks. This theory was then used to describe what happens to victims of domestic violence in which people do not perceive the possibility of escape. There are ways other than torturing dogs to help those who are persistently abused. Imagine how much good might come if the tax dollars spent on such cruelty were spent instead on helping victims of violence.

If such experiments were ancient history, there would be little point in writing about them here, but they are not. There is no animal experiment, no matter how cruel or frivolous, that is against the law in the U.S., and tens of millions of sentient animals suffer and die in laboratories, often to test new and improved personal care products and weapons.

It’s my fervent hope that all progressives concerned with human rights and environmental preservation will embrace a more expansive ethic that includes other species, and that we’ll come to acknowledge that treating everyone with respect and care – humans, nonhumans, and the environment – is part and parcel of creating a just and healthy world.

Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE) www.HumaneEducation.org which offers the only M.Ed. and M.A. programs in comprehensive Humane Education, linking human rights, environmental preservation and animal protection and is the author of several award-winning books, both fiction and non-fiction.

Image courtesy of meddygarnet via Creative Commons.


W. C
W. C2 years ago

Thank you.

William C
William C2 years ago


michele m.
m. mooney7 years ago

I've often wondered why Liberal-Progrssives were only "humane" towards humans . Their concerns seem to stop there. I've tried to communicate through emails, blogs, snail-mail, pleading for them to embrace the cause of animals but the some replies - if any- I received dealt either with PETS or the conservation of wildlife . Were it not for Rep Dennis Kucinich, there would be no speaker on behalf of non-humans in the House, although most of the members claim to LOVE ANIMALS ( I love them, I have 2 cats and a parakeet).
Their concern stops when it approaches the majority of voters who will reelect them and who are Pro-research, pro-hunting, wear leather and eat animal flesh . Then, the elected will avoid the questions . Thank you for your article, there should be more of you . Keep it going, please

Joy Dantine
Joy Dantine7 years ago


Robyn B.
Robyn B7 years ago

Many thanks to Zoe for posting this article since it aptly describes the struggle that empathists feel for the fate of living beings on this planet every minute of every hour every day. Apathists just don't get it.

Amanda M.
Frank M7 years ago

Martin Seligman is a modern day Nazi. No way has he ever been a leader. I agree with you that the use and abuse of animals has been marginalized, but I think that is changing. Because the issue is becoming more mainstream there is now an all out war with those who perpetrate harm effecting legislation that protects their right to keep on doing that. We must move beyond being viewed as extremists or terrorists and we must move to effect legislation that promotes our ideals. We must appeal to the basic instinct for decency that most people have in order to get support to protect animals. Lets cast aside labels of party and class, in my view and experience those really dont matter when it comes to generating support for animal protections.

Sue Matheson
Sue Matheson7 years ago

thanks for the post.

Brigid C.
Brigid C7 years ago

Thanks for your caring Sue, very good article

Heidi R.
Past Member 7 years ago

I was sent a link to this article from another source. It is a very important article and concept and I am so pleased that your message is getting across from many different sources!

Valerie Gagnon
Val G7 years ago

Great article!