AT Christmas time, animal rights lobbies in Britain claimed responsibility for fire-bombings of department stores in London, Birmingham, and other cities. There were no injuries, but the incidents resulted in millions of dollars in damages. A group calling itself the Animal Liberation Front said these attacks were part of its ``ongoing war against the fur trade'' and merchants who sell goods made of animal pelts.
In Sweden, under a new barnyard bill of rights, cattle, pigs, and chickens are protected from factory-farm methods that had allowed animals to be penned in crowded conditions and given hormones and antibiotics. Children's book author Astrid Lindgren (who created the character ``Pippi Longstocking'') lead the successful charge in Stockholm for animal welfare.
The Spanish Animal Rights Association and several European parliamentarians last month spurred a continent-wide petition drive to halt cruelty to animals. Their aim is to prod governments to ban bullfighting in Spain and France and fox-hunting in Britain, France, and Ireland.
During last summer's Olympics in Seoul, dog-meat restaurants were moved out of tourists' sight and government publications stressed that canines were prized pets in South Korea, not menu items.
In the United States, the use and abuse of animals has become a theological controversy as well as a political, social, and moral one.
A Washington Post piece by Colman McCarthy refers to the commonly displayed nativity scene that depicts the baby Jesus in a manger among lambs and oxen. McCarthy points out that a long-raised, but seldom answered, question is: ``If it were God's plan for Christ to be born among animals, why have most Christian theologians denied the value and rights of animals?''
McCarthy quotes one churchman, however, who does provide a theology for the animal rights movement. He is the Rev. Andrew Linzey, a Church of England priest who holds that humans and animals coexist in ``God's common creation.'' The cleric, the author of a book, ``Christianity and the Rights of Animals,'' stresses that these creatures do not belong to the meat or fur industry or scientific experimenters - but to a divine creator.
The Rev. James M. Wall, editor of the Christian Century, recently served on a National Academy of Sciences panel on the use of animals in research. Mr. Wall writes that the resulting NAS report concluded that animals have ``inherent value'' although it endorsed their use in research in a humane manner.
Wall editorializes that since animals do not have a voice of their own, humans must speak for them and be ``careful stewards'' of their welfare.
Americans continue to be ambivalent about animal rights. A poll commissioned by the American Medical Association found that 77 percent of adults surveyed nationwide say that the use of animals in medical research is necessary. The AMA emphasizes, however, that it advocates only responsible animal research.
Wall points out that there is an important distinction between animal welfare and animal rights groups.
``Persons who seek to improve the welfare of animals used in research push for standards that will minimize infliction of pain, improve living conditions, and reduce the number of animals used,'' he explains.
``Advocates of animal rights share these concerns,'' he says, ``but they begin from a different philosophical premise. They insist that the term `rights' should apply to animals as well as to humans, and that in using animals for research the scientific community is violating the rights of others.''
Society, at this point, may be ready to accept the welfare mode. There is strong sentiment to mandate humane treatment of animals.
But we are still a far cry from giving animals the rights and dignity we theoretically afford humans. Perhaps when people do a better job of respecting one another, they will then learn to extend that outreach to other species.
A Thursday column