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Tame the dialogue on animal rights

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During a recent trip to the supermarket, my eye was drawn to a fluorescent yellow sticker that someone had stuck to a chicken. "Caution!" it read, "This package contains the decomposing corpse of a small tortured animal."

How was I to react? Perhaps grateful that someone had finally explained to me what that lean juicy stuff labeled "chicken" actually is. Or perhaps with such an overwhelming sense of shame at my intentions that I would put it back on the shelf.

Instead, I rolled my eyes, dropped it into the cart, and moved on.

The episode might be amusing if it didn't reflect the sad state of the animal welfare debate in America. We barely discuss the treatment of animals in agriculture, medical research, and chemical testing, preferring to imagine that our commendable attitude toward domestic pets reflects a broader compassion toward all creatures.

Rarely is public opinion so polarized that, while a minority accuse their compatriots of the worst kind of moral outrages, the majority barely pause to hear the complaint. The tactics of the animal-rights lobby only perpetuate this polarization.

The nation's largest annual conference on animal rights took place in Washington last weekend. Its participants should be congratulated for their one major success: Over the past 20 years, they have alerted the public to the issue of animal welfare.

Most consumers have become so familiar with the alleged abuses that it now reads like humdrum: at least 8 billion chickens raised every year in conditions that often drive them to cannibalism from frustration, scores of animals used to test new shades of lipstick or mascara each year, lower standards of care in the US than in any other industrialized country.

Animal-rights activists have achieved this awareness largely through shock strategies such as sticking labels to chicken, or setting up street stalls to display graphic photos of animals. The hope is that our conscience won't be able to hide from the "truth."

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