An Interview with Gary Francione

Gary Francione is certainly amongst the most talked-about individuals in the current animal rights movement.

In the 1980s, before having a falling out with PETA, he and Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco were involved in the organization’s most notable cases, such as their uncovering of the atrocious head-injury tests conducted on baboons at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical faculty.

He was a tireless and influential lawyer, with various prestigious qualifications, who helped to make PETA’s issues more accepted.

In 1990, Francione and Anna E. Charlton set up the Rutgers Animal Rights Law Clinic at Rutgers School of Law, the first of its kind in the world, which allowed students to gain credits for working on real legal cases concerning animals.

By the early 1990s, Francione had become worried that the animal rights movement – of which PETA was a part of – was going down the wrong path.

This led to him departing from PETA and the organized movement. In 1996, his book Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement was released.

It contained his critique and vision of the movement, stating that it was similar to the welfare movement of the nineteenth century, and had failed to progress away from animals being viewed as property.

He also criticized those who opted for violence as a means of solving the problem of animal exploitation. His book caused a huge stir among the animal rights community, with many labeling him as “too extreme,” “divisive,” “absolutist,” and “fundamentalist.”

Nevertheless, Francione continued to develop a theory of animal rights that has since been universally acknowledged as the most original and consistent one to date.

Francione’s philosophy is known as the “abolitionist approach” and he contends that it is wrong to use animals for human gain.

He does not advocate for the reform or regulation of animal use, arguing that it does not effectively protect animal interests due to the fact that animals are regarded as property.

He has openly challenged a number of activities, such as humane farming, vegetarianism, Proposition 2 in California, the Humane Society of the United States, the boycott of the NFL for permitting Michael Vick to play, and even PETA’s adverts concerning fur and meat.

Consequently, Francione has turned down most of the activities proposed by the big animal protection organizations.

He even claims that Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals has had a detrimental effect on animal rights and has examined Peter Singer’s utilitarian theory with suspicion.

Despite the fact that Singer has denied animals moral rights and has supported the idea of being a “conscientious omnivore,” he is still generally held to be the founder of animal rights.

Francione is viewed as a revolutionary by most animal protectionists and is thus disliked by humane-meat producers, PETA activists, vegan anarchists, and other animal rights activists.

In addition, some animal activists who prefer violent tactics have a particular obsession with the work of Francione.

In the last three years, his work has gained massive popularity with a large crowd of younger individuals – many of whom were non-vegetarians when they first encountered Francione.

The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?, a book authored by Francione and published by Columbia University Press, has been translated into several languages.

Currently, he holds the title of Distinguished Professor of Law and the Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Scholar of Law and Philosophy at Rutgers.

In this interview, he explains his view of an abolitionist and why he believes that abolition is the only way to end animal exploitation.

— Words by Deb Olin Unferth


The practice of exploiting living creatures to benefit financially has been normalized. This has become an institutionalized form of gain.

Many animal activists recommend that people adopt vegetarianism, yet you think this is not the best way to end animal mistreatment. Could you explain why?

In the opinion of Gary Francione, there is no morally justifiable difference between meat and other animal products, such as milk or cheese.

He believes that animals used in the dairy industry often experience just as much, if not more, suffering than their meat counterparts and they all end up in the same slaughterhouse regardless.

The meat and dairy industries are linked together, and he sees more suffering in a glass of milk than in a pound of steak. He does not condone either.

He does not consider vegetarianism to be a consistent moral stance, as one cannot claim it is wrong to eat meat from a spotted cow but not wrong to eat meat from a non-spotted cow.

Francione also argues that there is no health-related need for animal products and that animal agriculture causes ecological harm.

He believes that the best justification for killing billions of animals each year is that they taste good, which he does not find to be a moral justification.

BLVR: Many animal rights activists endorse farms that provide humane care for animals that are intended for human consumption.

However, it seems you disagree with these types of farms, and even with campaigns that aim to improve animal well-being on industrial farms, for instance, Proposition 2 in California, which disallows some kinds of battery cages for chickens.

Can you explain why you are against initiatives like these? Is it not preferable to have some degree of humane treatment if animals are going to be used?

GF: It is commonly thought that by making the conditions for animals more bearable, we are somehow making the act of treating them as resources morally acceptable.

However, this does not address the fundamental issue at hand – the fact that animals are being used in the first place. It is always better to do less harm than more, so if you are going to murder someone, it is better not to torture them as well.

But this approach of making the conditions of the concentration camps more bearable still neglects the overall moral legitimacy of the situation.

To me, the issue is that animals are being used, not how they are being used.

My opinion is against animal welfare efforts for two reasons. To start, if it is ethically wrong to use animals, then we need to be unambiguous and support not using them.

Just like with rape and child molestation, which are both widespread, we do not have initiatives for “humane” versions of either. We must have the same outlook on animal exploitation.

Second, the protections offered by animal welfare reform are not substantial for animals.

Because they are considered property and economic assets, the level of protection given to animals is usually limited to what is most advantageous economically.

In other words, we will only protect them insofar as it benefits us financially.

When looking at the timeline of animal welfare reform, it follows a similar pattern.

The Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, for instance, was a result of the realization that large animals not stunned prior to slaughter could cause harm to employees and harm the carcass.

The push to gas chickens is based on the cheaper cost than the current techniques of slaughter, and the goal to remove gestation crates is to make room for more efficient production methods.

BLVR: How does an animal abolitionist differ from an animal welfarist?

An individual who is an advocate of animal welfare asserts that the treatment of animals should be regulated in order to make it more “humane.”

Certain welfarists consider that reform in this area will ultimately lead, step by step, to the end of animal utilization or to a notable decrease in its use.

I refer to those welfarists as “new welfarists” as they state that welfare reform is a means to an objective (abolition or a reduction in the use of animals) rather than a goal in itself.

The concept of an abolitionist is one who sees that the use of animals cannot be justified, no matter how “humane” it may be.

They will not endorse campaigns that attempt to make one form of animal exploitation seem more morally acceptable than another, such as comparing fur to wool or leather.

A vegan lifestyle, that is the total abstinence from animal products of any kind, is regarded as the moral baseline by them.

To them, the only way to shift the paradigm is to educate people to stop thinking of animals as objects to eat, wear, or otherwise use as resources, and so they believe that creative and nonviolent vegan education is the best form of activism.


BLVR: What are the existing rights of animals, and how would you suggest modifying them?

GF: Animals are considered property and laws are in place to protect them from any unnecessary harm in specific industries, but this is only based on economic value.

Animals do not have any moral value or respect-based rights because their interests are disregarded when it is beneficial to humans economically.

Presently, it is futile to concentrate on the law, as it will remain inactive to guard animals as long as we regard them as objects without ethical worth.

To bring about transformation, we must first change our social and moral perceptions of animals before the law can take any action.

Does the significance of nonhuman life compare to that of human life?

GF: It is uncertain what is being inquired here. Are the lives of each human being considered identical?

The response is certainly not, as we make distinction between humans based on certain criteria, some of which cannot be viewed as ethical.

No matter their individual traits, we are of the belief that no human should be enslaved to another human. We also think that no human should be regarded as a resource for other humans.

We cannot give a valid reason to deny this protection to sentient nonhumans. In addition, we cannot justify our use and killing of sentient nonhumans for our own purposes.

Peter Singer and other animal rights advocates argue that animals do not possess any value for their lives, as they are not self-aware. I strongly disagree with this point of view and find it to be strange.

The ethical implications of this idea are complex and cannot be answered in one simple statement.

I would suggest reading the books Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation and Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?, which explore this topic in more depth.

Is it considered inappropriate to own pets? BLVR

GF: It is not ethical to deliberately create domesticated animals for human use. We should not be breeding cats and dogs to be our companions.

These animals are in a delicate state, relying solely on us for all their needs; thus, their lives are not natural, as they are unable to be part of the human or animal world.

The fact is that most people don’t treat their companion animals very well, making the entire concept of domestication morally questionable.

Although plenty of animals are in need of homes, we have a responsibility to take care of them. In our house, we have five rescued dogs who are all vegan and healthy.

During one period, we had as many as seven.

BLVR: Could you provide an illustration of our “moral schizophrenia,” or the confusing and illusory beliefs we have about animals?

It is clear that Michael Vick has been roundly criticized for his enjoyment of watching dogs fight in a pit.

However, the rest of us take part in something similar, turning to the barbecue pit to roast the bodies of animals that have been subjected to the same, if not worse, torture as Vick’s dogs.

This is a prime example of moral schizophrenia, as we show kindness and love to some animals, but not to those that are similar to our nonhuman family members. Such an attitude is indicative of moral schizophrenia.

BLVR: You are regularly seen with dogs–particularly interesting is the small, long-haired, soft white pup; who is that one?

I can’t disclose to Katie, our border collie, with whom I’m regularly pictured, that you find Mollie, one of our two adopted Maltese, to be “especially intriguing”.

We got her from a shelter that euthanizes animals; she had been sent back twice as she couldn’t be taught not to soil the house. We have had her for eight years and there hasn’t been a single accident.

I must also mention that Katie came from the same type of shelter and was abandoned by her previous owner due to supposed aggression towards men.

Katie is the gentlest, most unaggressive canine I have ever encountered.

She is constantly with me and is a cherished companion of mine.

BLVR: You have mentioned that veganism is a straightforward lifestyle. Could you explain why you have this opinion when a lot of other people find it challenging?

GF: I adopted a vegan lifestyle almost three decades ago. Back then, there were not as many processed vegan foods as what you can find nowadays.

If you want to eat the highly processed American junk-food diet but in its vegan version, you can do so quite easily, no matter where you live. Mock meats, soy cheese, and nondairy ice cream are some of the options available.

On the other hand, if you prefer a whole-food diet, you can’t find an easier one to follow than a vegan one. I usually include around 80 percent raw food in my diet, while the other 20 percent is cooked.

I enjoy delicious dishes that don’t take a long time to make and at the same time are both nutritious and filling.

Many animal advocates often discuss the hardship of living a vegan lifestyle, making it about their own struggles rather than the animals’ suffering.

This could be a factor as to why veganism is seen as a “sacrifice” and why some animal rights activists are not even vegan or are “flexible vegans” which means they don’t practice veganism at all or not consistently.

I personally take a strict stance on issues like rape, pedophilia and racism and the same goes for my veganism. To me, it is a matter of fundamental justice and a reflection of my moral and spiritual commitment to nonviolence.

Throughout my life, I have had first-hand experience in various slaughterhouses, dairy farms, egg farms (conventional, cage-free, and organic) and other institutions that exploit animals.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, that I want to consume is worth the torture that is inflicted on the animals in the most “humane” of these establishments.


BLVR: I would like to get some background information on your history and to learn more regarding the evolution of your ideologies.

You were an early member of PETA and had a strong bond with Ingrid Newkirk. What made you join the organization?

In 1982, I was a vegetarian and was employed as a clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in Washington. I had no knowledge of what veganism was, and while I was there I would often pick up stray dogs and call the Humane Society to come get them.

One day they sent Ingrid Newkirk, who then suggested that I consider becoming a vegetarian.

When I mentioned to her that I already had been since 1978, she told me about a new organization founded by her and her friend Alex Pacheco called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

She wanted to introduce me to Alex and so we had dinner at my apartment that coming Friday.

When Ingrid arrived, she wasted no time in getting up and opening the fridge, exclaiming in surprise, “What is this cow pus doing in here?”

It took me a moment to realize she was referring to the milk. I responded that there was nothing wrong with drinking milk since no cows were killed in the process.

However, this was 1982 and the level of knowledge was not as advanced as it is now. Ingrid then retorted, “What do you think happens to them? Do you think they die of old age? How can someone so intelligent be so naive?”

After that, she poured out my milk and threw all my ice cream in the garbage. This was the odd way in which our friendship began.

The following day Anna and I were presented with a recently issued book from Britain about vegan ethics. We read it and decided to become vegan without delay.

(I would like to add that years later, I encountered the author of the book in London and I informed him of how his work had an effect on me.

To my surprise, he told me he was no longer vegan. Fascinating!)

Following the conclusion of my clerkship with Justice O’Connor, Anna and I threw ourselves into PETA, and I provided legal aid for them without charging a fee.

What was the process of forming your thoughts on the concept of abolition?

At the close of the 1980s, I became aware that the movement was moving in three paths that concerned me. Primarily, the majority of the groups, including the ones that labeled themselves “animal rights” groups, had begun to endorse the same old welfare reforms.

During my time at Penn, I had the chance to be a colleague of Professor W. A. J. Watson, a prominent authority on slave law.

Watson had concluded that slave law had not done much to improve the condition of slaves under race-based slavery in the United States.

Similarly, it appeared to me that animal welfare laws and regulations had been similarly ineffective; in fact, they were counterproductive because they gave people a false sense of justification for exploiting animals.

The focus of PETA and other groups was increasingly on manipulating the media with the use of sex and sexism to “sell” the animal cause.

This, however, does not make logical or moral sense. As long as sexism is utilized to commodify women, animals will also remain commodified.

The problem really lies in the commodification of any being with the capacity to feel. It is not right to commodify one set of individuals for the benefit of another.

A minority of people were advocating for the use of violence, which I found troubling as I was devoted to ahimsa, or nonviolence, as a moral question.

Additionally, I felt that attacking institutional users, who were simply responding to customer demand, was illogical.

I decided to reject welfare regulation, sexism, and violence. In order to alter the way of thinking, it was essential to concentrate on regular people and educate them via creative, nonviolent, vegan education on why it is unethical to exploit animals.

This is how the abolitionist approach came to be. The accurate word to use would be “developed” instead of “born,” as these ideas were crafted over a few years.

Eventually, by 1993, the abolitionist approach was crystallized in my mind.

Did your stance on animal rights lead to a disconnect with PETA and similar organizations?

My breakup with PETA happened in 1994 when I discovered that they had euthanized animals at their “no kill” shelter, Aspen Hill.

Ingrid and Peter Singer had the opinion that as long as it happened without pain, killing an animal would not cause harm to the animal – I strongly disagreed and made this clear, resulting in the end of our relationship.

In 1996, I wrote Rain Without Thunder, a book which argued that the animal rights movement was unlikely to be successful due to its tendency to focus solely on welfare reform.

This opinion of mine was met with outrage from the “animal people” and I received some death threats, as well as other unpleasant communications.

Furthermore, the larger groups in the movement chose to no longer support my work and I was no longer invited to speak at animal rights conferences.

Despite this, I kept speaking at universities and community events, but my connection to the “movement” was severed. I found this strange, as I couldn’t understand how something that was consistently going backwards could be regarded as a “movement.”

Nevertheless, I persevered with my work, without any mentors or road maps.

BLVR asked what the experience was like.

GF: On the one hand, it was heartbreaking for me to be ostracized for just speaking my opinion and dissing the welfarist and violent practices.

On the other hand, it was a liberating experience that led to further growth in my beliefs. The movement had become more and more cult-like, with no chance to voice any different opinions without criticism.

Being away from it all made me happy, and gave me the opportunity to hone my views.

The Internet has revolutionized how people advocate for animals. It has enabled individuals to connect and form their own communities, no longer reliant on the formal structure of large organizations.

This has led to the emergence of a lively grassroots movement taking place outside of the conventional channels.

People are engaging in a variety of effective, nonviolent vegan activism. I’m very hopeful for what the future holds.

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