As a vice president for PETA, I have debated animal protection issues around the world, frequently engaging with representatives from the meat, fur, animal-experimentation and circus industries.
But a funny thing started happening about seven or eight years ago: The other side stopped showing up. Although PETA is always happy to discuss and debate animal rights issues, the animal exploiters are no longer willing to. I believe their newfound timidity may have something to do with the fact that their positions are so transparently indefensible and that the public can see right through them.
One would think, however, that this reluctance would not extend to academia. Surely university professors should welcome an open and respectful forum to discuss the issues that they work on.
On numerous occasions, representatives of the Michigan State animal rights group, Students Promoting Animal Rights, attempted to arrange for a forum to include me and Dean Jeff Armstrong of the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. I was prepared to argue that animal use is not necessary and that modern slaughter methods and factory farm confinement practices are cruel, and he would have no doubt taken the opposing view, as he has for years as chair of the United Egg Producers Animal Welfare Advisory Committee and as an advisor to McDonald's on animal welfare issues. Considering that he lends his name and prestige (and his MSU affiliation) to these methods and practices, he seemed to be the ideal advocate for those who support animal use.
Sadly, Armstrong flatly refused to participate. The most remarkable thing was how he refused. Armstrong actually stated that "a holistic perspective that acknowledges the integrated relationships of many stakeholders" requires that PETA be excluded. He also said that he had spoken with others who might otherwise have been appropriate advocates for the pro-animal side, but that none of them were interested in participating as long as PETA was represented.
In fact, if Armstrong wanted to be honest with the students (and himself), he would have acknowledged that support for "a holistic perspective" that includes all stakeholders means support for hearing all opinions, not just the ones that he approves of.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that PETA recently lifted its moratorium on its campaign against McDonald's (this happened after Armstrong had already rejected the forum invitation) because the company's suppliers cram mother pigs into crates that are too small for them to turn around in, cram hens into tiny cages that cause their muscles and bones to waste away from lack of use and kill chickens using a method that guarantees that every year millions of birds will still be conscious when they are immersed in tanks of scalding-hot water to be defeathered. Readers can learn more about the campaign at McCruelty.com.
All things considered, it's understandable why representatives of the meat industry would be afraid to hold an open and honest forum, but if Armstrong believes that he is doing honorable work, it's less clear to me why he refuses to participate. My father has been in academe for more than 40 years, and I have the deepest respect for university communities, which traditionally foster the free exchange of ideas. My respect for and knowledge of academic institutions makes Armstrong's bizarre rhetorical gymnastics -- on behalf of himself and anyone else he could think of who might be appropriate for this forum -- all the more difficult for me to understand.
Here's the reality: Animals living on factory farms and dying in slaughterhouses face abuses so severe that they would warrant felony cruelty-to-animals charges if dogs or cats were the victims instead of cows, turkeys, pigs and chickens. For example, chickens killed for KFC and McDonald's are bred to grow so large that they can barely walk, and they frequently suffer crippling leg deformities. At the slaughterhouse, they are dumped out of their transport crates and hung upside-down by their often bruised and broken legs, which are forced into metal shackles. Every year, billions of them have their throats cut while they are still conscious, and PETA investigations have proved repeatedly that sadistic abuse on the part of workers is the norm, not the exception.
Despite Armstrong's refusal to debate the issues surrounding factory farming, the event will go on. If the seven class talks I've given over the past few days are any indication, discussion and debate will be fast and furious. And just in case Armstrong changes his mind, we'll save him a seat in the front.