The great bunny debate

Some years ago, a hunting and fishing friend of mine from West Virginia was asked to debate an animal-rights activist on television.

Some years ago, a hunting and fishing friend of mine from West Virginia was asked to debate an animal-rights activist on television.

He knew that the woman who was asked to appear with him that evening might disagree with him, but it wasn’t until they met, before the cameras began rolling, that he realized she considered him little better than a blood-thirsty murderer.

It was incongruous, he told me later, because she looked normal enough and even brought her 2-year-old daughter, but when they shook hands he realized the woman was a bit of a fanatic.

Any doubts about where she was coming from vanished as the show began. She opened condemning the mistreatment of farm animals and pets by uncaring owners, something that he, their host and virtually everyone watching could agree on, but then moved on. She attacked hunting and fishing as cruel and wondered how he would feel if people were allowed to hunt and kill us for sport or even for food.

When he suggested that it was impossible to equate human beings with animals or fish, she disagreed, arguing that they are, like us, “sentient creatures” who love life, feel pain and have as much right as we do to live their lives in safety without fear of being tortured, killed, experimented on or even eaten by their fellow creatures.

My friend at first didn’t quite know how to deal with the woman. He wasn’t about to debate the relative IQs and cognitive capabilities of lawyers and trout and resented being lumped in with people who beat their dogs and mistreat their farm animals, but then it came to him.

Much of West Virginia is pretty mountainous, which is why they call it the Mountain State. The road to the television station at which they were appearing was typical and could prove dangerous in bad weather or when you rounded a curve and confronted a deer, turkey or rabbit in the road.

He looked at the woman and asked her a simple and straightforward question:

“If while driving up here with your daughter you had rounded a curve and saw a family of rabbits in the road ahead and knew you couldn’t stop in time to avoid running them over, would you have swerved to miss them, even if it meant that you might lose control of your car, plummet down the mountain and risk your life and the life of your daughter in the process?”

The woman looked at him and thought about the question. She clearly didn’t know how to answer it, but finally she looked into the camera, shrugged and said, “I hope I’ll never have to face that decision.”

My friend “won” the debate, but the woman who couldn’t choose between her own daughter and a bunch of rabbits is part of a movement of like-minded zealots dedicated to doing whatever they can to stop what they see as the mistreatment of their moral and perhaps intellectual equals. They harass hunters and fishermen, lobby for laws to close public lands to “consumptive recreation,” burn down medical research facilities, throw paint on women wearing fur and self-righteously declare themselves more humane and caring than those who actually eat the flesh of our fellow creatures.

There are many extremist animal-rights organizations out there, but two of the major ones are the Humane Society of the United States, an advocacy group that shouldn’t be confused with the local Humane Societies that run your neighborhood animal shelter, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. Both groups raise a lot of money from little old ladies that think they use it to provide homes to mistreated dogs and cats when most of it is used for other purposes, and both enjoy the support of well-known Hollywood screwballs who lobby Congress on their behalf.

Within the past few weeks, PETA and other extremist groups have lost court cases in the Ohio Supreme Court and in federal courts in New Jersey and Northern Virginia and, as a result, will have a harder time harassing medical researchers and legitimate business owners. At the same time, the Humane Society of the United States is being investigated for raising millions of dollars to rescue domestic animals left homeless by Hurricane Katrina and diverting it to other purposes.

Court decisions like these are welcome news, but until the people contributing money to these groups realize they are being taken for a ride, they’ll continue to harass, threaten and intimidate those who don’t see the world the way they do.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (