What is meant by animal rights?
Every conscious being has interests that should be respected. No being who is conscious of being alive should be devalued to thinghood, dominated, used as a resource or a commodity. The crux of the idea known as animal rights is a movement to extend moral consideration to all conscious beings.
Nobody should have to demonstrate a specific level of intelligence to be accorded moral consideration. No one should have to be judged beautiful to be accorded moral consideration. No being should have to be useful to humanity or capable of accepting "duties" in order to be extended moral consideration. Indeed, what other animals need from us is being free from duties to us.
How is this different from animal welfare?
Traditionally, charities have worked on reducing the suffering of other animals that occurs when they are thought of as lesser beings who can and should be controlled.
There will always be suffering as long as any group is defined as available to be dominated and controlled. The nonhuman rights advocate does not dismiss people's concerns about suffering. Those concerns are valid. But the concept of animal rights involved working at the root cause of the problem.
Regulating the methods of exploitation is unlikely to significantly improve the status of nonhuman animals. Indeed, by passing laws to regulate the way in which individuals are exploited, we harden into law the concept that humans have the right to use other conscious individuals as tools for research, as entertainment, as food, as so on.
So the rights advocate asks that we relinquish the idea that other animals can be bought, sold, and treated as things. This is not the same thing as asking for better treatment; the rights advocate demands something infinitely more valuable — freedom.
Is this practical?
Yes. In an important way, the idea of animal rights is more practical than seeking welfare reforms.
Monitoring the welfare of owned animals is, in the overwhelming number of situations, simply not possible. As corporations and government-sponsored uses continue to proliferate, the situation spins ever further out of control, with uses in which welfare just seems to be a quaint idea, not at all connected with reality. Think of cloning, or birds engineered so they cannot support their own body weight, over sheep that suffocate under the pressure of their wool in the weather; "animal welfare" for such individuals rings hollow.
On the other hand, a view of other animals that respects their interests is something within the reach of each consumer.
When we stop eating and drinking products derived from other animals, when we stop going to circuses, decline to breed or buy dogs and cats, we are carrying out this idea and that is entirely within our power, in a way that regulating nonhuman welfare in a corporate setting can never be.
So rights advocates ask openly for what they really want. One at a time, as more and more people decide to do the same, respect for all conscious animals — regardless of how they happen to be classified or named — will be achievable.