Words convey more than concepts; they stir up our feelings and direct our thoughts. Racial and religious epithets have started riots, and calling the police officer who pulls your speeding car over "Sir" is a smart way for you to start the conversation.
Animal rights activists know how important words can be. The Northern California-based organization In Defense of Animals and its founder, Elliot Katz, advocate substituting "companion animal" for "pet" and "animal guardian" for "pet owner" in local ordinances and everyday parlance. The idea is "to elicit responsible treatment of companion animals and end abuse, neglect and abandonment of pets."
Well, OK, it's never right to abuse or neglect animals, but U.S. law already contains vigorously enforced animal welfare statutes that require animals to be fed, sheltered and treated as more than just property. It is legal to toss an old coat in a dumpster, but it is not legal to toss an old dog into one.
So if we already distinguish animals from property, why do we need word changes in public ordinances? Probably because many animal rights activists want more. They want to persuade us that animals deserve nearly equal rights with people. "Rights-holders," of course, couldn't be "enslaved" as pets, nor could they be used in scientific research.
I'm a researcher and director of research advocacy at the Oregon Health and Science University, where humane, federally regulated animal research is conducted. I don't believe that animals should be treated as the ethical coequals of people. One way to understand the issue is to carry the underlying logic to its extreme: Would you extend to the surviving family of a rabbit the right to sue the fox that killed it? Should a monkey have the right to sue, or have a lawsuit brought on its behalf against a research lab ?
Just as Katz's group and others care what words describe pets, I care what words are used to describe animal rights activists. Some, I believe, deserve to be called "terrorists."
In 2001, when I interviewed for a position at a Florida university, I was publicly and privately harassed, followed, threatened and accused of lying about the fact that my own research didn't use animals. A police officer had to be assigned to protect me. Later, the FBI found my name and address among the papers of a man who was arrested for trespassing at the Oregon Health and Science University, a man whose website described how to make firebombs. I can assure you that I felt terrorized.
Much worse has happened to others. Four of my colleagues have received letters "armed" with razors set to cut the hands of anyone who opened them. In August, scientists at UC Santa Cruz and their families survived firebombings, and UCLA researchers have been similarly attacked.
Extremists have even posted pictures of scientists' children on their incendiary websites in order to get the scientists to stop animal research. In some cases, they've succeeded.
Of course, the leaders of a few animal rights organizations decry violence and criminal acts, and even the movement's more shadowy groups often claim that they act on the first principle of protecting human and animal life. But the law increasingly sees the movement's extreme actions for what they are.
When 10 activists were convicted of arsons committed from 1995 to 2001 throughout the West (responsibility for the actions was claimed by the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front), U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken applied "terrorism enhancements" that increased sentences for the defendants.
In November 2006, the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was signed into law by President Bush, creating tough penalties for damaging property, making threats and conspiring against zoos, research labs and similar enterprises.
Many on both sides of the issue took note of the use of the "T-word" in the name of the act. The science journal Nature bristled. "Calling someone a terrorist is a value judgment," it said in an unsigned editorial. While some "knuckleheaded actions could easily have accidentally hurt someone, [the] ethos was to damage property, never to hurt or kill."
Which brings us back to words. Is "knuckleheaded" really the right description for those who place bombs at researchers' residences or under their cars? Is it the right word for targeting children to press their parents to give up animal research?
The terrorist tag is sticking. Just as laws in West Hollywood, San Jose, San Francisco and other cities now term pets "companion animals," federal law is increasingly viewing those who use violence or intimidate by threat of violence as terrorists.
The extremists in the movement will not and should not be able to shed this label unless they rethink their tactics and strategies.
P. Michael Conn is coauthor, with James V. Parker, of "The Animal Research War." He is a senior scientist at the Oregon Health and Science University's Oregon National Primate Center and a professor in the university's School of Medicine.