The surprising reason why the animal rights movement is failing

The way we treat nonhuman animals has never been worse, say activists Lori Marino and Michael Mountain

Published December 21, 2014 2:00PM (EST)

  (James Harrison/Shutterstock)
(James Harrison/Shutterstock)

Lori Marino and Michael Mountain have spent much of their lives fighting for the rights of animals (or, as they'd prefer we call them, nonhuman animals) — she as a leading authority on marine mammal intelligence and in her role as science director at the Nonhuman Rights Project, he as the co-founder and, until recently, director of the Best Friends Animal Society. Yet despite their efforts, and those of many others, both say that the situation for nonhuman animals has never been worse.

After all, for every national chain that announces it's going to start treating its livestock more humanely, there are countless factory farms where deplorable conditions are still the norm. And that's not to mention this whole matter of our being on the brink of a sixth mass extinction, in which we stand to lose 41 percent of all amphibians, 26 percent of mammals and 13 percent of birds, according to one analysis.

Where have we gone wrong? For one thing, there are so many more of us, and many of us have an insatiable appetite for meat. But Marino and Mountain have a doozy of a theory, to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Anthrozoos, that they think gets to the heart of the matter. It's based on the work of a social anthropologist, later taken into the lab by social psychologists, called Terror Management Theory. And what it comes down to is basically this: humans are afraid of death. That fear, encompassing as it is, compels us to think of ourselves as being different from the other animals -- even though, really, we aren't -- and as a way of expressing that difference, we treat them like... well, animals. Or, worse than that, like "spare parts, commodities and property," further disguising the similarities between us all.

This is a problem. After all, they write, "at a time when human civilization is being impacted more and more by climate change, conflict over food and water, zoonotic diseases, and all the other effects and consequences of our attempts to control nature, our relationship to the other animals and to the planet overall is arguably the single most important issue facing humankind."

Salon spoke with Marino and Mountain about their research, and about why making the world a better place for nonhuman animals could end up making it a better place for all of us. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You both have a long history advocating for animal rights. What inspired you to take this very philosophical approach to the problem?

Michael Mountain: As you know, I was one of the founders of Best Friends; that goes back about 30 years, and we've been involved in animal protection work before that as well. So yes, it goes back a long time, and we were pretty successful, at Best Friends Animal Society, in the whole companion animal area. Over the last 25 to 30 years, the number of homeless pets being killed in shelters dropped from about 17 million to about 3 million. So that's pretty good, and since homeless pets are but one small sliver of the whole animal protection world, I imagined that some of our success in that might be translated into those other areas. I found over these next three years, as I stepped out of Friends, that in fact no, while things in the companion animal area are getting better, they're actually getting much worse, year by year, for all the other animals, and the kinds of approaches we've taken just didn't work. That the whole situation was qualitatively different, and this wasn't in any way for a lack of effort on the part of animal protection groups. As you know, because you write about it, we're now looking at situation so bad that it's going into mass extinction.

So that's when Lori and I started talking about it, and she was pretty much coming from the same place. We started seriously asking, What is going on here? What is underlying all this? Like I said, it's not for lack of work and energy and effort on people's parts, but whatever you do, it all seems to get worse. And that's what led us then to look back into some of this more philosophical/psychological work that had been done, and when we learned about people like Ernest Becker and when we landed on this -- this wasn't something we dreamt up ourselves; this is actually a whole field of psychology that's been brewing for many years, but has never really been applied to our relationship with the nonhuman animal world. And the more you look at it, the more it just kind of jumps right out at you, that wow, this is what the problem is.

How we deal with that, then, is a whole other question, but that's where we start with this.

Lori Marino: As a psychologist, I'm extremely interested in the psychological basis for how we deal with and view other animals, so Becker's theory -- and as Terror Management Theory has been shown to be a very robust theory in some 400 different psychology studies -- it really attracted our attention.

You say that the situation for almost all animals is getting measurably worse. But just anecdotally, it does seem like there's a growing consciousness about animal abuse issues -- about factory farms, for example. Or, Lori, you appeared in "Blackfish," which led to a lot of real backlash against SeaWorld. Is it just that the awareness isn't translating to action?

LM: Well, what we tried to do with this paper is look at the big picture. So while there are individual successes along the road -- you know, here and there -- in terms of the overall picture, it's still getting worse. I mean, "Blackfish" has been enormously successful, but we still have yet to get a single orca out of captivity, and it's going to be a tooth-and-nail fight all the way. As far as the farm animals, there are more animals in the factory farms, in concentrated facilities, than ever before, globally. So actually that form of exploitation is going up. Also, the use of animals in biomedical research and vivisection is going up globally, and also the use of wild animals in entertainment is going up. Despite the consciousness here in this country, it's sort of like Whack-a-Mole: for every consciousness effort that goes on, 10 really awful aquaria pop up in Asia, for instance. And so we are really fighting a one-step-forward, two-steps-back kind of a situation. And as you know, as far as the mass extinctions, they are what they are, and they're continuing, and we're going to lose, probably, most of the mammals in a century.

So going back to this argument that you make in the paper, pretty much what you land on is that the difference between us and nonhuman animals comes down to our fear of death. Could you explain how that works?

MM: Certainly, all animals have a fear of death when it's right upon them: when the mountain lion is bearing down upon the little rabbit, that's a moment of terror. But as far as we know, we are the only animals that live with this kind of lifelong anxiety about what our fate is going to be. We think way, way forward into the future, and the whole premise of Terror Management Theory is that this drives much of our culture -- our religions, obviously, in fact the whole of civilization. That's what many psychologists and philosophers have written about it: that this is the single, driving motivation of civilization as we know it. And the key part of it is that we feel the need to tell ourselves -- because when we see the other animals we see that they are essentially fleshly creatures that die and get eaten up by worms and that's not the way we want to be, that is very frightening to us, albeit on a subconscious level -- that "I'm not like that. I am not an animal." And we very much focus on this as being the kind of signature cry, as we call it, of all humankind: "I am not an animal."

We go out of our way, then, to prove the differences between ourselves and the other animals that we're superior to, that we can take dominion over, that we can distance ourselves psychologically -- so we have all sorts of things that we can tell ourselves, like, for example, that we go on to an afterlife, and they don't --

LM: We have a soul, and they don't.

MM: Exactly. And, primarily -- and this is the most dangerous part of it of all, from their point of view and indeed from ours -- that they exist primarily for our benefit. So we don't think of them as individuals, we think of them as commodities and resources. It's like when you mentioned "Blackfish," and the idea that you can take one of these amazing, powerful killer whales, put them in a little tank to amuse and entertain us -- that is just a prime way in which we demonstrate to ourselves that we're superior.

LM: And I think the idea that we don't want to be animals, even though we are, has led to this kind of collective psychological driver to separate ourselves from the rest of nature, from the other animals, and again, as Michael said, to see ourselves as not only superior, but qualitatively different from the other animals. And that leads to all kinds of things, like objectification, commoditization, exploitation and so forth.

And you'd argue that these rationalizations aren't legitimate. Are there any distinctions between humans and nonhuman animals that are legitimate?

LM: You know, every species is unique, because they all have their own species-specific characteristics. But there's really absolutely nothing to tell us that we're qualitatively different from the other animals. We may be able to build rocket ships and produce music, but all of this time we've not found a single trait that we have that isn't found in some degree in the other animals. And if you look at our brains, in particular, our brains are very typical primate brains. They just happen to be large. But again, you can explain our brain according to the same principles you would use to explain the brains of any other animals. So it's not like explaining who we are requires some sort of special theory or some appeal to something other than just basic evolutionary principles. So no, I don't think there's any evidence that we are anything other than apes. 

And there's some evidence that we didn't always view ourselves this way. That was tens of thousands of years ago, but at some point we decided to take on this patina of being something that we're not, which is some kind of superior or spiritual type of being. And the science just doesn't bear that out. The science is very clear on this.

MM: In fact, it all goes back to your previous question, and what we were talking about: the fact that actually, and kind of ironically, one particular difference between us and the other animals is the extent of our anxiety over our mortality. That may be the one thing that is different about us.

LM: Well, the thing is we're very smart, we're very self-aware, and that self-awareness comes as a blessing and a curse, because it has allowed us to understand that each of us individually, on a personal level, is going to go the way of the other animals and is going to die someday. And that awareness has had a huge impact upon human psychology and on human nature.

Have you given any thought yet to how this theory can be applied to your work, and how it might be used to improve the way humans treat other animals?

LM: The six million dollar question!

MM: Yes, and it's sort of like, as we say at the end of the paper, this doesn't lend itself to some easy solution. It's not like we figured out, here's how we bring an end to war and poverty and abuse of other animals. We're not there. But what it certainly does for people in the animal protection world is it, I think, helps us all understand some of what we're up against. You know, this is not just about politics or economics or whatever. This is very puzzling. I know people in the worlds of wildlife and anti-vivisection and factory farming and so on, who wonder, why does everything just keep getting worse? So at least it kind of helps to understand what's going on. And at a much broader level, if we're going to find a way out of some of the mess we're in, with extinction and climate change and all these areas, it's like anything else: understanding what it is about ourselves that's causing this is kind of a first step in making a change.

So that's really the point we're at so far, but we don't have the magic potion of putting all of this right. At least not yet. Maybe in our next paper. [Laughs]

LM: Just as Becker identified a way to explain a lot of what happens among humans, and why we treat each other miserably and we're so in-group and out-group and so on, what we're doing is trying to explain why we treat the other animals miserably using the same framework.

MM: You're much better off understanding what's going on and how you can relate to it. In our own cases, much of our work isn't just sitting around trying to figure these things out. Lori is very involved with marine mammal protection, for example, and farm animal protection, and that's what we actually spend much of our time with. Knowing what we know through the work we've done in putting this paper together gives us a much easier view of what's going on. You're not in mystery all the time about it; you can have a certain level of equanimity about it.

LM: We both are just doing everything we can anyway, but with perhaps a little bit more insight into why we're not moving things as fast as we should be.

MM: One thing, incidentally, that we have talked about, is that it's a reasonable hypothesis that we're looking at this the other way around. So creating a better relationship with our fellow animals would actually help to ease our own anxieties about who and what we are. In the paper we have a quote from Albert Einstein, who talks about the need to "widen our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." And when you do this, then you don't feel like the kind of isolated individual that many of us feel as humans. And you understand that we're part of a much greater cycle of life and so on. And that, I think, eases a lot of the anxieties that people have. We don't have the evidence for this yet, but we just suggest at the end of the paper that there's actually a lot more study and work that can be done to do this.

So it starts not with necessarily just trying to explore our own minds that much more, but actually just take the conscious, bold decision to treat the other animals -- and the whole Earth -- with some degree of dignity and respect. And that's going to make us feel a lot easier and a lot better, too.

LM: Yeah, because you know, by separating ourselves from the rest of nature, and putting our species on a pedestal, we've also become the loneliest species in the world. And that's not a good thing.

By Lindsay Abrams

MORE FROM Lindsay Abrams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Animal Abuse Blackfish Factory Farms Mass Extinction Sixth Extinction Wildlife