It seems to me that there a few reasons that animal rights groups get a bad reputation, even among those who might be expected to be sympathetic to the cause of better treatment for animals.
First, animal rights groups, like activist groups of all stripes, have a tendency to use rhetoric that is imprecise at best and inflammatory at worst. “Meat is murder!” and “Animal Liberation” are slogans that lack nuance.
This creates the impression that AR-ists value animal life equally with human life. While this may be true among a tiny minority, it certainly doesn’t represent the mainstream AR view. Certainly no organization I’m familiar with, even those that advocate legal rights for animals, has suggested that killing an animal is or ought to be treated as just as serious a crime as killing a human being.
This becomes even clearer when one turns to the “theoreticians” of the AR movement. In fact, given the charges often made against the AR position, one wonders if the critics have ever bothered to read the works of the primary thinkers associated with AR. Peter Singer, for one, doesn’t categorically reject all human use of animals, nor does he regard animal life as morally equivalent to human life (though there are borderline cases, such as an adult gorilla vs. a newborn human infant, where, on utilitarian grounds, he seems to draw an equivalence).
Tom Regan, who takes a more rights-based approach, categorically denies that an animal life is morally equivalent to a human life, and even goes so far as to say that a virtually unlimited number of animals could be sacrificed to save a single human life.
Part of the confusion no doubt comes from the term “speciesism” which seems to imply that any moral distinction between humans and animals is akin to unjustified prejudices like racism and sexism. This was probably an ill-chosen term since what most people who use this term want to say is that animal suffering that is equivalent to human suffering shouldn’t be disregarded simply because it’s animal suffering. In other words, animals aren’t equivalent to humans, but some kinds of animal suffering are equivalent to some kinds of human suffering, and so deserve to be taken into account in any moral calculus.
It’s not surprising that the AR movement, like so many other movements to social change, are more concerned about effectiveness than philosophical clarity and fine distinctions, but this is a case where I think a lack of clarity has hurt their cause. To the extent that the rhetoric of AR seems to connote a moral equivalence between animals and humans it will fail to win over the majority of people.
It’s noteworthy that a book like former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully‘s Dominion received favorable, if not entirely uncritical coverage in major conservative publications like National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the American Conservative. Political conservatives are rarely seen as sympathetic to AR. And yet Scully’s language of stewardship, mercy and compassion for animals tapped into a moral tradition that is much more amenable to the mainstream of Western political and religious thought. This doesn’t mean that everyone will agree with the AR agenda, but AR-ists shouldn’t give critics such an easy target by allowing themselves to be caricatured as holding the simplistic view that “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”
A second, and more discreditable, reason that AR-ists are often dismissed as extremist wackos is that groups regarded as extremists like the Animal Liberation Front and Earth First! are taken (often disingenuously one suspects) to be representative of the broader animal rights and environmental movements.
I say this is discreditable because virtually every social movement of any significance inevitably attracts extremists, some of whom resort to violence. But this by itself hardly shows that the concerns of the broader movement are illegitimate, though opponents often try to use the actions of the extremists to discredit them. Few would seriously argue that John Brown, the Black Panthers, Eric Rudolph, or violent anti-war and anti-globalization protesters somehow show that the causes they were associated with were or are mistaken. So why should the existence of the ALF show that AR concerns are ipso facto unimportant? Those causes have to be debated on thier merits. Of course, representatives of those broader movements should disassociate themselves from and condemn those extremists who try to use violence to bring about social change*, and to the extent that they fail to do that they may justly bring public suspicion upon themselves.
*Leaving aside the interesting question whether violence as a tool for social change is ever justified when other means have been exhausted.