What Are Animal Rights?
To cultivate an effective movement for animal rights, a movement that gains wide interest and support, it’s essential for Friends of Animals to show the concept’s powerful relevance to social justice and to ecological activism. Lee Hall explores the connections….
Animal-rights activists are famous for talking a lot about what we don’t want. But what do we want? What kind of rights, exactly, does an animal-rights activist have in mind?
Let’s start by thinking about why we use the term “rights” at all. As you probably know, our law treats everything and everyone on Earth as a person or as a piece of property. Not only are water and seeds and trees and beaches for sale, but conscious animals too are classified as property, available to be owned by legal “persons” (including businesses).
Only those legal persons have rights -- socially created shields which oblige us to respect other people’s interests.
Which brings us back to animal-rights activists. People who are serious about nonhuman rights wish to discontinue the system that makes human interests the top priority, and then controls all other beings for human uses and conveniences.
The animal-rights idea has been around a long time. Henry Salt, author of Animals' Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress (1892), asserted that the human habit of raising other animals in order to consume them is to inflict unnecessary harm on sentient beings. Salt, as well as Anna Kingsford (who graduated from medical school in Paris in 1880, unique in doing so without having experimented on a single animal) , influenced Gandhi to decide it’s a moral duty “not to live upon fellow-animals.”
Quite simply, it’s long been obvious that we’re not the only ones born with interests. Ensuring respect for the interests of other animals and their communities, however, might not be so simple. So far, rights have been established in courts -- and never for other animals.
Courts have changed their perspectives on who gets rights. But as rights theory is based on fairness -- which, to judges, means treating similar cases in similar ways -- animals such as gibbons, chimpanzees or orang-utans , who are perceived as most like current living persons, will probably get through the court’s door first, and it will take longer to have many other animals acknowledged.
To see a court extend rights to any animals is a step in the right direction. Admittedly, we might be focusing on a certain group (such as primates) at a time. But that would help the case for wolves and more groups later.
You might be thinking that legal rights for wolves to live in their own ways is a fantasy in our current world. After all, not even all human groups are getting the benefit of the right to do that. You’re right. This work takes patience. As Gandhi said, people who work for a deep kind of social justice need to be prepared to live without seeing the fruits of our work. But, speaking of fruits, one way we can change our communities in our lifetimes is to live non-violently, including a commitment to avoid the products of animal use and pick up a slice of melon or Cashew Cream Lasagne instead.
Non-violence is endorsed in a rich variety of ancient texts; it’s inscribed on Jain temples of India with its Sanskrit name, ahimsa. Today it can also be found in the principles of vegan living. As a diet, veganism means the avoidance of dairy products, flesh, eggs and honey. As a social movement, it entails the courage and sheer optimism to cultivate a society that renounces domination and systematic killing. Both simple and challenging, this idea is the core of animal-rights theory. It’s the forthright claim that all feeling beings, human or not, should be allowed to live on their own terms, not the terms set down by those who seek to control and exploit others.
By avoiding animal agribusiness, vegans erode the custom of animal breeding -- a custom that, at the same time, uses habitat needed by animals who could live free. Vegans really do put animal-rights theory into practice, right here and now!
Plea From Planet Earth
Yes, the idea of changing our lives, our holiday traditions, and then the views of society seems a lot to carry on our shoulders. But if we humans claim to be moral beings, the first matter on our agenda should be that Golden Rule we all learn as children: treating others as we would hope to be treated.
Imagine a visit from some extraterrestrial tribe of beings who arrive on Earth. What if they acted to us as we act to others on this planet? Imagine if they, being more capable and advanced than ourselves (after all, that’s how they got that cool spaceship), but not having any way of hearing or understanding our words or cries, proceeded to debate whether to consume us, experiment on us, or wrap us up and carry us home to use as playthings. Not only would their decision to enlist us in fulfilling their interests in food, research and entertainment be a horrific nightmare, but even doing it for our own good -- the "stewardship" role -- would be frightening, because we prefer to decide what’s good for ourselves. How would we feel about our fearsome visitors? No doubt we’d try to tell them, “Please, let us alone. Don't split up our families to try to introduce us into your more advanced culture; don't talk about how well you should care for us before using us up. Don't try to mimic our natural habitat so that we can live and reproduce when you display us. Don't do it even if you know we are going to blow ourselves up or go extinct under the melting ice caps. Just go in peace.”
Could we ourselves heed that plea?
The first step to achieving change is conceiving it. Our movement, at its best, inspires society to respect other animals, to want them to remain capable of living and moving freely in the habitats to which they’ve naturally adapted, rather than be alienated from those habitats.
Fairness challenges us, then, to intervene in the cycle of breeding animals, and to stop sending domesticated cats, tropical birds, school-raised ducklings and other displaced animals into the world to fend for themselves in a biocommunity that’s often ill-equipped to sustain or cope with them. To leave birds in their forests rather than remove them and cage them as decorative or talkative pets, to let chimpanzees live in their natural territories rather than expect them to have babies in zoos and language labs, to let bats and wolves and jaguars migrate without impediments, to respect turkeys’ natural lives rather than consider their slaughtered bodies essential to our holiday buffets; to leave fish in their waters, swimming free.
Once we see that "animal rights" means committing to an ethic that respects animals on their terms, we see the theory of animal rights applies to the free-living communities. Freedom, along with life itself, is at the core of what rights are meant to defend.
That doesn’t mean we ignore abandoned rabbits or feral cats or dogs in need of homes. Caring for domesticated animals is, of course, the right thing to do. Animal-rights theory challenges us to question the cycle of making animals dependent and then coming to their rescue. Yet it is not a pass to ignore the welfare of dependent animals who are already born. Caregiving work should not be devalued; that’s why we support the people who make time and space in their lives for animals whose very lives depend on it. We are all members of humanity; as a collective, we’ve long allowed ourselves the right to own all the others, and we each hold our share of the collective responsibility to care for the animals who therefore need looking after.
So the ethic of care applies to cats and dogs; and animal rights means preventing the destruction of communities of wolves, whales, bats, jaguars, bees….
This is why the strongest case for animal rights cannot be separate from environmental advocacy.
In turn, animal- rights theory presents environmentalists with their strongest case. After all, imagine a society that takes animal rights seriously. That would mean Mobil, Shell, and BP -- the Nature Conservancy as well, as they have profited from drilling for natural gas in the habitat of endangered speckled grouse -- would have to take into account the interests of animals, essentially treating the land as belonging to the animals who live on it. Animal rights would change humanity’s way of doing business.
Too often, people say it’s a case of either the environment or animal rights, and that has been a source of tension between environmentalists and animal-rights advocates. But both concerns matter, and both movements will come into their strength when they are allied.
Tom Regan's Case for Animal Rights urges: “With regard to wild animals, the general policy recommended by the rights view is: let them be!” These three little words go right to the core of the theory, and they free the spirit of activism.
Regan’s three little words also highlight the need for a positively framed right for free-living beings to exist. If the rights proponent focuses simply on removing animals from the property category, there’s a danger of missing the positive need for free animals to procreate and experience their lives. We could stop bringing other animals into being for our purposes but ignore the loss of communities who enter the world for their own; and animal rights is a hollow idea if animals don’t survive to benefit from the concept. This means we’ll need to control our own numbers and learn to respect the environment not just for our health or aesthetic satisfaction, but because it’s home to other living beings.
Evolution of Friends of Animals
One of my co-workers in the movement, Peter Wallerstein of Friends of Animals’ Marine Animal Rescue group, is an expert at rescuing coast-dwelling animals who get caught in anglers’ gear. The idea is to free animals from dangers humans have caused (of course, Peter doesn’t eat any fish!), and quickly return them to their normal lives.
Occasionally, one of the stranded seal pups Peter reaches during the course of this work turns out to be suffering from a natural peril: A stingray's barb in a seal pup’s face might, like a splinter, work itself out, but it can also can kill a pup, by boring up through the roof of the mouth and moving out through the eye or up into the head. Peter will remove a barb. Brief as it is, this is control over the animal, but only so the animal might flourish.
Peter has dedicated a lifetime to caring, yet believes rescues should be as temporary as possible. In most cases, for Peter, they are; although some beings are so debilitated they need long-term care.
Some other animals -- monkeys, birds and various animals kept in human settings and then discarded by their owners, for example, such as the ones who now live at Primarily Primates -- need the ethic of care, and they need it for life. Primarily Primates offers animals private space, and publicly challenges humanity’s feeling of entitlement to use other animals.
So the evolution of Friends of Animals now means collaboration between the rescue and rehabilitation community and animal-rights advocates, to change the root causes put animals in peril or in dependent positions .
Animal-rights advocates can and do care for the animals caught in our current system while, at the same time, cultivating a new cultural reality, so that other animals, and whole communities of animals, won’t be pressed into positions of need.
We know we’re asking questions that challenge many, many generations of our cultural patterns. In light of the tremendous responsibility we’ve accepted, what kind of rights should we ask for?
Seen in its strongest and best light, the animal-rights proposal does not present a list of demands, but seeks to cultivate an attitude of respect. A willingness to live gently on the land and walk respectfully along the ocean without seeing either as a store of resources for us. A desire to allow natural plants to flourish for bees, to grow our crops with an appreciation for the animals who move beneath and over them. We need to learn, as much as possible, to let other animals be.
What might they want from us, other than that?
To respect the lives of seals means respecting the lives of fish and other animals in their waters. Respecting the lives of primates would necessarily mean respecting tree frogs in the forests that need us to put down our logging machinery. What other members of Earth’s biocommunity need from us is a robust movement to defend what natural places remain.
The activists at WildEarth Guardians tell us some 98 percent of the waters and lands of the western United States is under the yoke of the animal agribusiness; they are working to reclaim it, for prairie dogs, Chiricahua leopard frogs, and other vulnerable groups of animals. We can see that a new emphasis on animal autonomy would strengthen environmentalism, because the ecology will be critical to this animal-rights movement. It will be important to value plants, the health of oceans, and the integrity of the landscape, as part of the vital interests animals are deemed to have.
There will be difficult questions; doubtless you’ve thought of a few as you read this. Once we agree in principle what animal rights should be and then implement it, cultivating a society that can outgrow its drive to kill and conquer, we then decide the most peaceful approach in specific situations. Some will involve conflicts we might have caused or aggravated between living communities, given our outsized population and the ways we have already changed the face of the planet. The key will be mindfulness, so as to steadfastly avoid reinstating the primacy of humans over the other animal communities.
Animal-rights theory presents the most serious challenge to those who deforest the land, commodify life, and pollute the earth, water, and atmosphere. As such, it’s not only a key to our becoming full moral actors on the ecological stage, but also needed for keeping that stage from falling apart. Never has it been more important for animal-rights advocates to know just what we’re asking for, and be heard.
- Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway, “ Nature Conservancy Gas Drilling Placed Endangered Birds at Risk” – The Washington Post; (reprinted by The Seattle Times on 6 May 2003).
- Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (1983), at 361 (emphasis in the original).