His Fine Feathered Friends, And Ours

For as long as I can remember, I've felt a sense of kinship and empathy toward animals. By our measure of intelligence, they may come up short. But animals have their own wonderful endowments. They are different from us, but in a good way. They deserve not only our appreciation, but also our respect.

As a boy, I read about animals and drew pictures of them. I could never get enough of watching animals, particularly the wild ones in the woods behind my Aunt Harriet's house in Connecticut. The family dogs were, well, family. My girl Brandy—half Labrador, half golden retriever—would chase a tennis ball until my arm gave out, or until dinner was called.

I didn't need anyone to tell me that harming animals was wrong. Even more than a natural feeling of fellowship with animals, I felt a visceral disgust for cruelty. By my second year at Yale, in 1985, I was reading a good bit about the plight of animals. Then, on Labor Day weekend, matters came together during a trip to Pennsylvania. What I had been feeling, and thinking, suddenly found focus in one awful firsthand sight.

To raise money for the local fire department in Schuylkill County, thousands of people gathered for a slaughter. It had been a tradition for years—a big family event complete with beer and hot-dog vendors. They called it a pigeon shoot, though that hardly begins to describe the spectacle. To a cheering, laughing crowd, gunners took their places. There were dozens of crates, and ropes were used to pull off the lids one at a time. As each lid was removed, two or three pigeons would flutter upward, and then just as quickly fall from the sky in a burst of gunfire. Children, called "trapper boys," would scramble out and stomp on the wounded birds, or twist their heads off—with more cheering from their proud parents and the other spectators.

My first thought was that there must be a better way to raise money for the fire department. My second thought was that the cause of animals was very much about people. Here was a gathering centered on gratuitous cruelty, and the crowd couldn't get enough. The adults were appalling enough. But to see these kids conscripted in the crushing and killing was beyond belief. I was watching not just a massacre, but also a kind of indoctrination. Doubtless some of the children felt a fondness for animals similar to what I'd felt as a boy, and apparently the point of this ritual was to root out their sense of compassion, so that they could grow up to be as hard-hearted as their parents.

From that moment, it was no longer enough for me to love animals or read about their plight. They needed help. They couldn't fend for themselves. Humanity held all the power in the relationship. I returned to campus and started an animal- advocacy group. When I graduated, I devoted myself to the task full time.

There have been many battles in the years since. Fur-bearing animals, as well as wandering dogs and other unintended victims, suffer horribly in steel-jawed leg-hold traps. Dogs and cats crowd our animal shelters in desperate need of loving homes, while unscrupulous breeders flood pet stores with dogs from backyard puppy mills. Dogfighting and cockfighting are startlingly common, as we saw this summer in the case of Michael Vick.

No battle was ever easily won. But along the way, something remarkable has happened. In recent years, our cause has moved from the margins to the mainstream. Yes, many of our adversaries still have money and influence, and resist even the most modest reforms. But we have something better—the power of conscience and the votes of the majority. There is a sense that the winds of change are blowing in our direction, and more briskly than ever. Since 1990, I've been part of 20 successful ballot-initiative campaigns to end the abuse of animals. We have championed hundreds of new reforms at the state and federal level. There aren't many issues these days on which both parties can agree, but compassion for animals is a universal value.

We're even seeing the first stirrings of reform in the abusive treatment of the 10 billion animals a year on factory farms. Voters and lawmakers in Arizona, Florida and Oregon have outlawed confining farm animals in crates so small that they cannot turn around, and Californians will have the chance to do the same in the November 2008 elections. The ballot initiative has the potential to relieve the suffering of 20 million animals in California raised for food.

In principle, most everyone agrees it's wrong to mistreat animals. In practice, correcting the wrong is much harder. We need laws that reflect our principles and our best instincts. We need corporations to end their ruthless practices and show a greater concern for animals. It's important as well that people not only care for their pets but also make humane choices in the marketplace and support animal-protection reforms.

For my part, over the years I have rejoiced in the gains for animal welfare, but I've taken a few losses—indeed, pigeon shoots still occur in Pennsylvania. But the trajectory is unmistakable: by ever-larger majorities, the good heart of America is showing itself. Most people are unwilling to accept cruelty anymore. Animal protection has always been a noble cause. Now it's a winning cause, too.