I've been taking an informal poll.
I'm asking everyone I know, "Do you support animal rights?"
Everyone wavers a bit at first - unsure of where I'm going.
They want to know, "What do you mean?"
I respond with, "You know, animal rights."
"Well, yes," they all say.
Too many of us do not know the difference between animal rights and animal welfare. My surveyed friends, all wool-wearing, meat-eating, leather-sporting, zoo-going, pet-owning animal lovers, thought I was talking about animal welfare. The difference between rights and welfare may seem frivolously semantic, but I assure you, it is not. The difference is so important because organizations like Farm Sanctuary (FS), Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are counting on a majority of their contributors and supporters to be ignorant of that difference. FS and HSUS do not want you to know what "animals rights" really means.
Those who believe that animals can contribute to human welfare (by providing food, fiber, work, companionship, entertainment, or by serving for biomedical research or education) believe that humans have moral obligations to protect the welfare or provide for the well-being of animals.
Animal rights philosophy is diametrically opposed to the concept of animal welfare. The animal rights philosophy is opposed to any use of animals, holding that animals should have the same "rights" as humans.
Despite the public's rejection of animal rights as determined by evaluating its own use of animals, animal rights philosophy is a dominant factor in popular culture. This disconnect is caused in part because many people, like the friends I surveyed, don't understand the true beliefs and goals of the animal rights movement.
The animal rights philosophy is radical, abolitionist, emotional, and uninformed.
The philosophy argues that there is no morally relevant difference between humans and other animals. In the words of Ingrid Newkirk, founder of PETA, "There is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy." Michael Fox, of HSUS has said, "The life of an ant and the life of my child should be accorded equal respect." (Okay, I'm feeling sorry for this man's poor kid.)
Proponents of animal rights reject all animal use, all traditional relationships with animals, no matter how humane. They support laws and regulations which prohibit the the use of animals as in the raising of livestock for food and clothing, petting zoos, hunting, life saving medical research, circuses, pet-ownership, rodeos, and even in disability assistance like the use of seeing-eye dogs.
When the interests of humans and animals come in conflict, animal rights advocates put animals first. PETA founder, Newkirk said, "Even if animal research produced a cure for AIDS, we'd be against it." (It bears noting here that advances in human medicine arrived at through animal research usually carry an equivalent benefit to veterinary medicine. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and other animal welfare groups monitor conditions in laboratories and support legislation for humane conditions, but do not call for an end to laboratory research on animals.)
Animal rights supporters believe that violence, misinformation, and publicity stunts are valid uses of funding donated to their tax-exempt organizations for the purpose of helping animals. Arson, vandalism, and assault are common tactics used by underground animal rights groups to further the cause. Groups such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), which have been classified as terrorist by the FBI, routinely use criminal activities.
Animal welfare philosophy is moderate, revisionist, reasoned, and informed.
Because we recognize that some animals are capable of having interests or suffering, we have evolved culturally to respect those interests. Those who love, respect, use and raise animals believe that humans can and should interact with animals in a variety of ways, but that the interaction should include provisions for the proper care for all animals involved.
Animal welfare, as defined by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) describes animal welfare as a human responsibility that encompasses all aspects of animal well-being, including proper housing, management, disease prevention and treatment, responsible care, humane handling, and, when necessary, humane euthanasia. Animal welfare also means that animals experience no unnecessary suffering in providing for human needs.
Animal welfare groups use scientific evidence (see my sidebar links on animal welfare aspects of foie gras production) in which to base animal care and handling guidelines.
Animal welfare makes sense for animal raisers. Farm animals are raised in an environment that reduces stress and recognizes the science-based behavioral, physiological, and psychological needs of each species. An animal held in an environment that creates undue stress will not thrive, reducing productivity for the farmer. Farmers know that cared-for livestock animals produce more and better products. The same is true for biomedical work, disability services, and animal entertainment.
A Shared Earth
The animal welfare philosophy recognizes the interdependence of life between animals, humans, and our shared environment. Its belief in stewardship of species and individual animals embraces a human connection to the Earth through interaction with animals.
The animal rights philosophy separates the destiny of humans from the destiny of animals while the movement shows it cares nothing for the Earth. Barbara Biel, animal rights activist, said, "The animal rights movement is not concerned about species extinction. An elephant is no more or less important than a cow, just as a dolphin is no more important than a tuna...In fact, many animal rights advocates would argue that it is better for the chimpanzee to become extinct than to be exploited continually in laboratories, zoos, and circuses."
The rest of us don't strive to save endangered species, wilderness preserves, or coral reefs because they have rights. Rather, we place value in these rare systems because our own moral laws teach us to protect our environment.
Animal welfare supporters work to enrich and celebrate human/animal interactions in an atmosphere of concern for animal well-being; animal rights proponents work for the day when human life will be impoverished because we can no longer enjoy the company of non-human animals.
For more information, read:
Animal Rights versus Animal Welfare
Animal Rights, Animal Welfare: Which Is It?