WHAT ANIMAL RIGHTS IS . . .
AND WHAT IT ISN'T
by Ardeth Baxter
The immediate question that claims our attention is this--if men have rights, have animals their rights also? (social reformer, pacifist and vegetarian Henry S. Salt: Animals' Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress, 1892)
Is it true that by granting nonhuman animals "rights" dogs will be allowed to vote or drive cars or own houses or even run for President? Do you consider yourself an animal lover, but you're afraid that if animal rights "extremists" get their way, someday you'll find yourself in line behind a gorilla at the ATM? Are you convinced that animal advocates are people haters who want to take away human rights? Where does the myth end and the truth begin? In this new column, I will attempt to answer these questions and many more about a complex and controversial area.
First of all, is there a difference between animal welfare and animal rights? Many people think so. The common view is that "welfarists" allow the use of animals for human benefit as long as humane guidelines are followed, while "rightists" want to grant animals protection from all human use. The “rightists” often compare animal exploitation with human slavery (read more about this in The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery by Marjorie Spiegel and Alice Walker). Yet other animal advocates insist there is no qualitative difference between animal welfare and animal rights. The spectrum of groups that promote animal advocacy is broad--from the Humane Society of the United States to In Defense of Animals to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to the Animal Liberation Front--but they share the same basic tenet: Humans must treat nonhuman animals with more respect and compassion.
Charles Darwin famously commented that the differences between humans and other animals are differences of degree, not kind. AR (animal rights) advocates agree with him, maintaining that other animals deserve to live according to their own natures, free from harm, abuse, and exploitation by humans; that is, they should not be used for food, clothing, entertainment or experimentation. But because they have the right to equal consideration of their interests and capacities, it does not follow that they have the same rights as humans. On the other hand, just because humans are the most intelligent animals does not mean that they can do what they want with other animals who are not as smart, but may possess other abilities and senses superior to ours.
The above ideas derive from the concept of speciesism, defined by philosopher Peter Singer in his seminal book Animal Liberation as " . . . a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species". In other words, homo sapiens consider themselves superior to their co-species and act accordingly-often very cruelly. Singer, as well as Tom Regan, who wrote The Case for Animal Rights, are the principal theoreticians of speciesism and the animal rights movement. Just where should the line be drawn for granting rights? At mammals? What about birds? Frogs? Lobsters? Mosquitoes? This is a controversial area and it's up to the individual to decide. Animal protection attorney Stephen Wise attempts to determine the legal rights of various species based on their intelligence in his books Rattling the Cage and Drawing the Line. In contrast, Gary Francione, a law professor and author of Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? believes animals should be granted legal rights based on sentience (their ability to sense or feel, particularly pain), not intelligence. He argues that all sentient beings, human or nonhuman, have one basic right: not to be treated as the property of others. Two of the hot issues in the current rights debate are the campaign to establish legal personhood for the great apes and the legal distinction between pet "owner" and pet "guardian".
What would the world be like if the "rightists" got their way? AR advocates say that if we all became vegans and controlled the pet population, we could take better care of the remaining domesticated animals. If we ended the production and consumption of animal products, it would result in an improvement in human health and a reduction in environmental damage. And if we eliminated customs, traditions and jobs dependent on the exploitation of animals, workers could be re-trained in animal-friendly jobs, resulting in a more humane society.
But for the present, the challenge of being at the top of the food chain is that whether we're debating the ethics of animal circuses, fur farms, rodeos, hunting, trapping, factory farming, medical research, cockfighting, dog fighting, dog or horse racing, etc., we must continually examine how we treat other animals. Rights issues cut to the core of our world view. Are we the caretakers--or just the exploiters--of this fragile planet and its millions of species? After all, other animals (and plants) must depend on us for their survival or extinction.
No matter where you place yourself on the advocacy spectrum, you can take action as an individual to improve the lot of those who cannot speak for themselves. Animal rescuer Jim Willis, a prolific writer on animal issues and a self-described animal advocacy "fence sitter," advised readers in a recent article: "You need to write the letter and mail it; make the donation; go to the shelter; adopt the animal; take in the stray; don't drive by the stray dog; foster for the Rescue; educate your family member, or co-worker, or neighbor; participate in the advocacy campaign." Also consider becoming vegan (read Erik Marcus' Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating for more on that), shopping for cruelty-free products and investing your money with conscience. By doing these things, you'll play a vital role in creating a positive change of attitude towards all animals--a change that is long overdue, in my opinion. And remember that just as violence towards nonhuman animals often translates into violence towards humans, compassion for nonhuman animals is likely to lead to a general increase of compassion among humans.
I hope this gives the reader an adequate if brief overview of animal rights. In future articles I'll explore specific animal rights issues.
A wealth of information about animal rights is available on the Internet. Some of the best web sites are:
Doris Day Animal League
Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals/Citizens for Responsible Animal Behavior Studies
In Defense of Animals
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
The Chimpanzee Collaboratory
United Animal Nations
Ardeth Baxter is a writer and animal rights advocate. For more of her writing, visit: Associated Content
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