The Real Problem With Pokémon And Animal Rights

A new Pokémon game is out and PETA, being who and what they are, have launched an inept parody campaign against it. In this case, it’s particularly grating, as the Pokémon series they’re talking about raises some legitimately troubling issues about the way culture handles those of us with staunch views about animal rights.

In the first Pokémon: Black And White (the new game is a sequel), one of the villains is a kid who, raised among abused pokémon, launches a campaign to end the captivity of the creatures and the practice of forcing them to participate in glorified dogfights. The mantra of his organization is “Pokémon liberation,” a pretty clear reference to the most famous modern text on animal rights. The player character, by contrast, spends the game convincing this character that “slavery is OK if we’re not bad masters.” Moreover, the movement gets hijacked by a self-interested subordinate, who reveals the idea of Pokémon liberation was a stalking horse for a plot to take over the world from the get-go.

In short, the animal rights movement is a sham; anyone who legitimately believes the way we treat animals is immoral is a dupe for powerful, nefarious interests. You can see why that might be troubling.

There’s a danger in taking this too seriously; Pokémon is a sorta brainless kids game (that I unconditionally loved at age 12). But at the same time, it’s part and parcel of a broader culture that makes the use and abuse of animals normative at a very young age. Thoroughgoing animal welfare supporters are a distinct minority in the United States; using veganism/vegetarianism rates as a proxy for a more broadly animal-friendly lifestyle, only about seven percent of the American population qualify. As a consequence, concern about animal welfare isn’t exactly well represented in American public life; quite the opposite. Politicians sneer at concern for animals; spectacles like dogfighting and cockfighting are sadly common despite being criminalized. Even some things that may seem like advancements, like the cancellation of horseracing drama Luck after the death of three stunt-horses, remind us of the underlying brutality in the extant, legal horseracing industry.


The pervasiveness of the use and abuse of animals for human pleasure creates a particularly tough environment for parents who want to raise their kids with similar values. Kids aren’t critical consumers; they’re apt to treat accept inhumane spectacles like dogracing or mass consumption of factory-farmed meat as normal. These elements of American culture are unproblematic for most and hence quite pervasive once you start looking for them. Teaching children to abhor these forms of animal cruelty is fraught in all the ways familiar to parents who want to instill pride in difference in the face of normalizing pressures.

So it’s grating when a popular kids title goes out of its way to marginalize animal welfare advocates. Is it the end of the world? Hardly. But Pokémon’s casually violent message isn’t something that should be dismissed as a consequence of a PETA stunt; it should be treated as indicative of the broader cultural difficulties that parents face in an animal-using world.