Zink: Save the cuties

If you happen to be reading this article over a piece of dining hall tilapia, then hold up: You may be about to sink your teeth into a kitten, sort of.

According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, fish are badly in need of an image makeover. Hence they are no longer to be called “fish,” but rather, “sea kittens.” The PETA Web site now boasts a “Save the Sea Kittens” petition, along with an adorably illustrated storybook telling the tales of a number of bright young sea kittens whose lives are ruined by fishing.

Reactions to the “sea kitten” initiative on the blogosphere have — as one might expect — ranged from the obvious to the asinine. One commenter on the blog “The Oyster’s Garter” daringly mixes both elements: “Plants have feelings too, should plants be next? Why don’t we just stop eating altogether! Sheesh PETA has sunk to a new level of dumbness!”

Harmony Wayner, an 11-year old from a commercial fishing family, offers a more reasoned analysis. “They say that [sea kittens are] intelligent, but they’re not really,” Harmony told an NPR interviewer. “They have tiny, tiny, little brains. Very miniature.”

Harmony is quite right; sea kittens do have miniature brains. In fact, a cursory glance at Wikipedia tells us that sea kittens generally have brain-to-body ratios that are one-fifteenth those of mammals such as “land kittens.” Why, then, does PETA make such a big fuss about their well-being?

We find our answer in Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation,” a seminal book within the animal rights movement and one that is frequently quoted by PETA. According to Singer, it is not the ability to reason that makes a creature worthy of having rights, but the ability to suffer. He further posits that the sufferings of all animals — people included — must be considered equally. Any contention to the contrary is evidence of speciesism, an offense that Singer considers to be tantamount to racism or gender discrimination.

Let’s provide, if we can, an example of this sort of moral philosophy. There’s an old thought experiment in ethics that goes like this: Say you’re standing next to a railroad switch, and you see a train coming. You notice that if the train continues on its path, it will hit five people who are standing on the track. But if you flip the switch, the train will be rerouted onto another track, where it will only kill one person. What is the proper course of action? This scenario poses all manner of interesting moral — not to mention legal — questions, none of which I will attempt to address.

Instead, I will modify the problem. Once again, the train is headed toward a group of five people, only this time, if you flip the switch, the train will instead hit a barrel containing 100 sea kittens, causing them gruesome, painful deaths. Assuming none of the humans are PETA activists, what do you do?

If you’re like most people, you’re probably thinking of sacrificing the sea kittens, however adorable, in order to save the five humans. It’s a no-brainer, right?

Wrong, you dirty speciesist. According to PETA’s moral philosophy, because all species possess an equal capacity to suffer, their suffering should be considered equally. “When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness and fear,” PETA president Ingrid Newkirk is quoted as saying on the organization’s Web site, “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”

Lest you imagine I am putting words in PETA’s cavernous collective mouth, consider its stance on lifesaving animal research, as summarized on its Web site: “PETA supports charities that do not support animal testing and disapproves of charities — such as the March of Dimes, the American Cancer Society and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, all of which PETA also campaigns against — that fund cruel animal experiments because they drain money away from relevant and effective projects that could help save lives.”

This position statement goes on to make a bold claim: “Meaningful scientific conclusions,” it says, “cannot be drawn about one species by studying another.” (Sorry, biologists, your centuries-long sham has ended.) And even if it turns out that animal research might lead to a cure to a disease such as AIDS, Ingrid Newkirk remains steadfastly opposed. “Would you be opposed to experiments on your daughter,” she asked a New Yorker reporter, “if you knew it would save fifty million people?”

Yes, I might answer, if my daughter were a chipmunk. But then again, not everyone is as speciesist as I am. For instance, the largest charitable donation of 2008 came from Leona Helmsley, who bequeathed her $5.2 billion fortune to “support the care and welfare of dogs.” PETA, which will almost certainly receive some of the funds, hailed the move.

No doubt Helmsley’s support will free up money for PETA’s other important initiatives, including their giant Sea Kitten Empathy Quilt, or their “too hot for TV” commercials depicting scantily-clad women cavorting with various vegetables. Nevertheless, I wish there were some way to convince PETA to use their windfall to, for instance, provide for the survival and basic needs of the millions of human beings displaced in Darfur.

Perhaps the problem is that the people who inhabit the region just aren’t cute enough for PETA. What if we call them Darfish? How about Afrikittens?

Michael Zink is a senior in Saybrook College.


  • hilarious

    a joy to read

  • y09er

    hilarious. PETA's done some good things, but the idea "sea kittens" is absurd. keep the funny stuff coming.

  • Anonymous

    This is the best satire you've written in a while. Good job.

  • sea kitten lover

    give peta a break and don't lump all of vegetarianism in with their vocabulary choices.

    also, absatining from meat & recognizing that all animals have the campacity to suffer is hardly some zero-sum game where the train kills the people instead of fish. that entire metaphor was retarded.

    at least vegetarians make anough of a moral commitment to discuss how namaing and labeling of food impacts their consumption. all eaters would benefit from this level of conscientiousness.


    Awesome article. Zink is back in the saddle, yo.

  • Yale 08

    Now that the dust has settled and the hype has diminished, let's be honest -- the poem was disappointing. It was a huge honor that this opportunity was extended to Dr. Alexander, no question, but this opportunity could have in and of itself been honored better.

    Also, what does Dr. Alexander mean she "resisted simplicity?" Almost two weeks and several re-readings later, I have yet to find any substantive imagery in "Praise Song for the Day" -- what imagery is there borderlines on the purely literal.

  • Gnarles T Bones

    If PETA had gone with "seapuppies", I would have been on board. Cats suck.

  • Joe Kerr

    I see no dilemma. There's always another train.

  • What?

    The NAACP as "the most important civil rights organization in the country"?

    That reminds me of when I first had to look up the word "infamous" (it had been applied to Hitler; and, NO, I am not comparing the NAACP to the Nazi party, merely pointing out that "degree of notoriety" does not necessarily equate to "good").

    My question is real: if she's so good (which I would argue is not the case), then why is she not sought by other (or, so you will understand my meaning, "universally") well-regarded institutions?

  • hiero ii

    this is probably zink's best work to date.

  • zonicbonic

    I come from Singapore and I am completing my undergrad studies at Columbia University – Political Science. Sorry for your disappointment but to be honest, one would naturally experience some form of “academic suppression” when studying “Singapore government” in Singapore. It is kind of a “duh” thing right? However, reading the post that your TA had replied to your article, it seems that you silenced yourself despite him/her reassuring you that you would not be penalized if you were to write the Singapore government in a bad light.

    With regards to your “Abu Ghraib incident” I want to inform you that this has happened to be several times in Columbia; a professor asking us if we know of a particular subject and no one raises their hand and answers because its very obvious. One such incident was when my art humanities professor asked the class what is the portrait. Clearly everyone knew it is the Mona Lisa but no one answered because it was so obvious and stupid to even reply to that.

    Lastly, your premise seems to fall upon your experience in one class – Singapore government – what about your experiences in other classes? Did you face anything similar? It is rather unfair to make a generalizing statement that there isn’t any academic freedom in Singapore based on one class. I am sure you spoke to your Singaporean friends about how you felt? What was their response?