Does saving an animal's life make you a good Samaritan or a terrorist?


Let’s do a thought experiment. You’re walking down the street on a sweltering summer’s day and you pass a car in which a dog is trapped. The animal is visibly suffering in the heat, panting, and collapsing; it seems close to death. You know you can easily free the dog by forcing open a door or smashing the window. Do you do it? Even if you don’t know who owns the car, or the dog? I’d venture that a good many of you value the dog’s life over the sanctity of an intact window. It’s arguably a moral obligation to save the suffering animal. A new law in Tennessee, which makes it legal to break into a car to save an animal, agrees.

The legislation — an extension of the state’s Good Samaritan laws — is straightforwardly sensible and commendable. It’s thus of note that it stands at radical odds with the legal status quo when it comes to valuing animal life over property. Damage private property to save one animal, you’re a good Samaritan. Damage private property to save hundreds or thousands of animals, then you’re a terrorist.

When I first learned of the new Tennessee law, the first of its nature in the country, my thoughts wandered swiftly to Kevin Olliff and Tyler Lang. Lang and Olliff are two California animal rights activists, facing charges under the dangerously overreaching Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). The men pleaded guilty in federal court to vandalizing an Illinois mink farm in 2013, releasing 2,000 minks into the wild. Their act was not a highly efficient one, to be sure: many of the minks were later killed by traffic, and most were recaptured. Some remain free. But Olliff and Lang are not being punished for tactical failures — it is property damage (reportedly of up to $200,000). It takes no logical acrobatics to see that the moral calculus of freeing the minks is different only in scale to freeing a dying animal by breaking a car window. In both cases, the animals face a torturous death.

Lang and Olliff are currently awaiting sentencing. Based on previous examples of animal rights activists convicted under AETA, they can expect lengthy prison terms. While the average sentencing for a violent offense is around seven years, Marius Mason is serving a 22-year sentence for arson and property damage aimed toward targets in the fur industry and genetically modified crop research. No one was hurt.

The categorization of vandalism as terrorism in these cases is steeped in ideology — like most every application of the “terror” label. In 2001, the FBI classified the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) as domestic terror threats. In 2006, Congress passed AETA, targeting a wide range of political activity in the name of animal rights as “terror” activity. In the years since ELF and ALF’s early 90’s formation, no single human or animal has been killed or injured through their actions. It makes sense to speak of “terrorism” here, only insofar as the actors had political aims. Such an argument would only pass muster if all crimes committed with political intent were deemed terror activity. Patently, they are not.

Before national security narratives spun radical Islam into the font of ur-terrorism, eco and animal rights terror were a primary focus of FBI fear mongering. In 2005, the FBI asserted that environmental “extremist” actions were  among the “most serious domestic terrorism threats.” The era was dubbed the Greenscare, and — as Olliff and Lang’s terror charges highlight — the draconian targeting of such activism has not ended.

The new Tennessee law, while only a fleeting news item, is interesting insofar as we can use it to tease out the legal system’s larger moral failings. That little law stipulates that private property can be legally damaged by civilians to save an animal’s life (if it can be shown to be in imminent mortal danger) — similar Good Samaritan laws with regards to saving human life exist in a number of states. Of course, the new legislation is no precedent setting shift that will justify property damage in the service of animal welfare. For this to be the case, US justice would have to recognize that which has been brought to light again and again: the inhumane treatment of animals at fur farms, factory farms and animal testing labs. Instead, state houses have passed so-called “ag-gag” laws, criminalizing the collecting of images and video from factory farms for whistle-blowing purposes.

Tennessee’s Good Samaritan law extension is the anomaly; in most every other case, property takes precedent, and especially in the case of major industry. We have here something like the ethical thought experiment put forward by philosopher Peter Singer, similar to the one in my introduction.  He asks that you imagine walking home and you see a small child drowning in a shallow pond. You can save the child, but will ruin your shoes in the process. Most people wouldn’t think twice before saving the child. Now, what if the drowning child was very far away, in a foreign country perhaps, but it would be equally within your ability — with no more personal cost — to save that child’s life. The obligation to do so is surely the same. Singer notes, “we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us.”

Of course there are lived, felt, and systematically upheld differences between seeing a drowning child near you, or a dog in an overheated car while you walk past, as opposed to planning to save tortured monkeys in cosmetics testing labs, or starving children a continent away. There’s a somatically marked difference when suffering is directly in front of you. Vast apparatuses of power work to alienate us from broader systems of suffering and cruelty in which we all play a part under capital. Singer doesn’t reject this, but simply asserts that we fail to live up to the moral obligations we purport to have, when we say without question that we would save the nearby drowning child, if we can’t extrapolate beyond immediate experience.

The thought experiment works on the assumption that each child’s life should be valued the same. The real world fails this premise miserably. Equally, while there are many political and practical reasons why a law would be passed to permit property damage to save a dog dying in a car, but not thousands of animals in cruel captivity, any application of consistent ethics would justify both. As if the scales of justice were able to find such balance.

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