Life & Style

It’s Time to Re-Evaluate Our Relationship with Animals by Lesli Bisgould (Transcript)

Transcript: Lesli Bisgould, Canada’s first animal rights lawyer, discusses It’s Time to Re-Evaluate Our Relationship with Animals at TEDxUofT.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: It’s time to re-evaluate our relationship with animals by Lesli Bisgould at TEDxUofT


I want to begin by making two statements, one at a time. And I’m going to ask you all, if you don’t mind, to raise your hand if you agree.

So here’s the first one. Ready? Animals should be treated humanely. I can barely see it, but it looks like lots of hands going up. OK, thanks. You can put your hands down.

Here is the second one. Animals should not be made to suffer unnecessarily. Thank you. It seems like most people agree.

And I would bet that if I ventured outside and put those statements to passersby, I would likely find that most people out there agree, too. It’s not really surprising, is it? More than half of the households in North America have companion animals, and most of us are very upset when we hear the occasional story in the news about some horrible act that’s been done to a dog, or a cat, or other animal.

And the law codifies this perspective, which is to say that virtually every jurisdiction in North America has laws that say animals should be treated humanely, animals should not be made to suffer unnecessarily. And those laws are useless. They do nothing, and they in no way protect animals from human-caused suffering, in any meaningful way, I should say.

So, I thought what I would talk about is why that’s the case and why it’s time to re-evaluate our relationship with other animals and the emerging field of animal rights law, that is doing just that.

So, let’s say that I wasn’t really here because I cared about doing this talk, but because my child has a heart problem and is in need of a transplant to save her life, and I wanted access to a large group of people whom I could discreetly look over, while I was doing this talk, to see who among you looks nice, and healthy, and strong, and when this event ends, I were to kidnap one of you, whisk you away to a secret surgery, where I could remove your heart to be donated to my child. It’s nothing personal, you all seem very nice, but I don’t love you as much as I love my child, and your heart is necessary for her survival. Would that be morally or legally justifiable? Certainly not.

Well, you’re using your heart. No other person can claim any moral or legal right to it, no matter how compelling the reason. Among legal equals, it’s absurd to use the word “necessary” in this context, and we just don’t do it. But it’s different when it comes to animals. When we see that laws protect animals from unnecessary suffering, they seem superficially impressive, but it doesn’t take long and you don’t have to be a lawyer to figure out that, if the law prohibits causing unnecessary suffering, it creates a corollary, meaning it permits us to cause necessary suffering.

What is necessary suffering? Well, we write the laws, we enforce the laws, we interpret them. It turns out it’s necessary for an animal to suffer whenever we say so. So our laws prohibit gratuitous suffering, the kind that’s caused sheerly by what we might call wicked intent. But as soon as there’s a human purpose, and really almost any purpose will do, that suffering is necessary and protected. And it’s been that way for a really long time.

Remember philosopher John Locke? Can you think back to the 17th century? So, he conceived of the notions of property that are now central to our legal system, in part because he was trying to find a way to allocate competing human interests in animals and other “natural resources” in a principled way, and of course, back then, nobody thought of animal interests as one of those principles to consider. So, in a system of laws that grew to esteem property rights, animals became property, and humans became property owners. And so it remains.

And a central rule of property is that an owner can use her thing however she sees fit and do whatever she wants with her things, so long as she doesn’t use that thing to hurt somebody else. But the thing itself has no rights. So, this idea that animals are things that serve our purposes, that they are our property, has been really powerful, it has entrenched, and it now facilitates the systematic suffering of billions — with a B — of animals every year in North America, in a variety of industries.

So, I’m going to give you just one example. In the Canadian agriculture industry alone, every year, 700 million animals are intensively confined, are mutilated in a variety of very painful procedures without anesthetic. They’re living in their own waste. Many of them are sick and diseased, with broken bones and open wounds. They’re beaten, electrocuted. You know, when you see them traveling in those trucks on the highway, on the way to slaughter, for many of them, that’s the first time they’ve ever been outside in their lives. And they’re so depleted that several million of them arrive every year at the slaughterhouse already dead.

Then there’s research, and fashion, and entertainment, and sports. So, for every story that we hear in the news about some terrible act of violence having been done to an individual animal, there is an industrial counterpart where that violence is normalized and multiplied by hundreds, or thousands or millions of times. So, it’s the institutional imperative that is such a big problem for animals today. And Chomsky has discussed this in other contexts, how even really good people can do really bad things, when institutions demand it.

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