Can Animal Rights Go Too Far?

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George Lepp / AgStock Images / Corbis

Egg-laying chickens in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Starting in 2015, every egg sold in California will have to comply with strict hen-rights rules. Cages will have to be large enough for the birds to stand up, lie down and spread their wings without touching each other or the sides of the cage. California voters adopted these rules for in-state egg producers two years ago. Last week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law that extended the rules to out-of-state producers who want to sell their eggs in California.

The move was just the latest example of how animal rights are on the march — in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. Even as human rights seems to have taken a few hits of late — with the U.S. government endorsing harsh interrogation techniques, also known as torture, and the Supreme Court whittling away at race-discrimination laws, defendants' rights and the Voting Rights Act — animal rights has moved further into the mainstream.

This enthusiasm for animal rights is also fueling a national movement to rein in the chaining of dogs, a practice animal-rights advocates regard as cruel and dangerous for the dog. Thirteen states now have laws that limit the chaining or tethering of dogs outside, such as to a metal pole or a tree. Several more states are considering such laws, which impose restrictions like requiring that chains be of a minimum length. Animal-rights activists have also been targeting foie gras in recent years because it is made by force-feeding ducks and geese in a way that many consider to be cruel. California has banned force-feeding to create foie gras, and Hawaii is currently considering banning the sale of the delicacy.

Animal-law courses are now taught at many of the nation's leading law schools. Harvard Law School recently hosted a "Future of Animal Law" conference sponsored by the Animal Legal Defense Fund. A prime financial backer of the rise of animal law is Bob Barker, the longtime host of the game show The Price Is Right and a prominent animal-rights advocate. He has given $1 million gifts to the University of Virginia Law School, Columbia Law School and Duke Law School — among others — to endow animal-law programs. (Barker is also funding a $1 million campaign to stop live-pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania.)

It was not long ago that animal rights was all but an oxymoron. With few exceptions, you could do what you wanted to an animal — and it seemed bizarre to argue otherwise. Then, in the 1970s, animal-liberation activists followed in the footsteps of the civil-rights movement, the women's liberation movement and the gay-rights movement, and argued that "species-ism" was wrong and had to be defeated.

If Barker is one of the financial leaders of the animal-rights movement, its intellectual leader is Peter Singer, a Princeton professor of bioethics, whose 1975 book Animal Liberation is often credited with giving birth to the modern movement. Singer and others have laid out the philosophical groundwork for regarding animals as deserving of greater respect and legal protection. (Singer, however, is not an absolutist: on a FAQ on his Princeton website, he allows that if a fire was threatening a human and a mouse and he could only save one, he would save the human.) Animal-rights supporters have even dug deep and discovered a little-known history of anticruelty laws, dating back to a 1635 Irish statute prohibiting pulling wool off of sheep (rather than shearing it) and pulling horses by their tails.

Important as these intellectual underpinnings are, what is driving the animal-rights movement today is simple: a surprisingly strong level of popular support. When California's egg referendum was on the ballot in 2008, it won in a landslide, taking more than 63% of the vote.

Europe is still far ahead of the U.S. in recognizing animal rights. Spain's parliament caused a stir two years ago when it passed a resolution calling for legal rights to be extended to nonhuman primates — a law that Singer declared to be of "world historical significance." The resolution urged that chimpanzees, gorillas and other primates have the right not to be used in medical experiments or circuses.

Yet even Europe has its limits. Switzerland has a 160-page animal-rights law with some of the world's stiffest rules for the treatment of nonhumans, including the minimum amount of space that Mongolian gerbils must be given (1,500 sq cm) and a ban on keeping social animals, like goldfish, alone. In March, however, Swiss voters soundly defeated a referendum that would have created a state-funded system of lawyers to represent animals in court. Animals in Zurich remain in luck, however, since that canton has its own law giving animals legal representation.

In the U.S., the animal-rights movement remains on the upswing, and it is not only on the East and West Coasts. This month, Governor Ted Strickland of Ohio — a major farm state — brokered a deal between the Farm Bureau and the Humane Society. In exchange for the farm group's commitment to work toward a list of tough new animal-rights laws — including phasing out a particularly harsh kind of crate for pregnant sows and banning the strangulation of pigs and cows — the Humane Society is holding back on its plans to put an anticruelty referendum on the ballot this November.

If animal rights can make it in Ohio, it can probably make it anywhere — and that is a good thing. Like any worthy cause, animal rights can be taken too far, and sometimes it is. (In a world full of woe, it is hard to get too worked up about the solitary goldfish.) But requiring animals, including animals that produce or become food, to be treated decently while they are alive ennobles not only the animals but us as well.

Cohen, a lawyer, is a former TIME writer and a former member of the New York Times editorial board