Most people would agree that a dog has more sentience than a kitchen table. However, under the eyes of most contemporary legal systems, the two are essentially indistinguishable. While the words “animal rights” can be polarizing, at its core the movement is about gaining legal and public respect for the other species we share this planet with.

Not to be confused with welfare, which entrenches the concept that animals ought to be used for human purposes, the issue at the core of animal rights boils down to the difference between being a who and a what; a someone and a something. Are animals resources for human benefit? Or are they sensitive beings who have emotions and preferences and awareness of themselves? The animal rights movement strives to create a more equitable world in which animals are treated with more kindness, understanding and respect.

Do Animals Have Rights?

The question of whether animals have rights is complex. On the one hand, in most countries around the world, there are no laws protecting the rights of animals, or laws that acknowledge the existence of these rights. Therefore it cannot be said that animals have legally recognized or protected rights.

However another way of looking at the existence of animal rights is to suggest that animals have inherent value, which is independent of their value to humans.

In today’s world, there is widespread agreement that human beings possess inherent value, even though this value may not always be applied equally, which is the result of racism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression. Generally speaking, however, inherent value is what renders a being worthy of moral consideration. The inherent value of human beings is calculated according to cognitive and emotional qualities such as our possession of self-awareness, the ability to make conscious decisions and act upon personal preferences, and the fact that we are actively invested in the quality of our own lives. Together, these qualities render us as “subjects of a life” – meaning we possess an active inner world along with an awareness of the external. This awareness renders us particularly vulnerable to harm; since it matters to us when we are harmed. Thanks to the qualities of our consciousness, human beings possess naturally-occurring rights that are legally enshrined in many countries, with the underlying understanding that it is wrong to harm someone who is aware and therefore suffers because of the harm caused.

In Western thought, it was long believed that animals weren’t sufficiently aware to notice if they were harmed, that harm simply wouldn’t matter to them. Understandings have changed in recent decades. A wealth of established scientific discoveries and anecdotal evidence indicating that certain species are also subjects of a life — meaning they possess the qualities of consciousness human rights protect — show that other species have inherent value and therefore also possess naturally-occurring rights. In this factoring, it is not up to humans to bestow rights onto animals, but simply to recognize and respect these existing rights, through moral and legal frameworks.

When legal animal rights are discussed, it is not suggested that any other-than-human animal be given all the same rights as human beings, such as the right to an education or to vote in elections. Instead, the rights referred to tend to be the basic rights of freedom from confinement, freedom from bodily injury, and freedom to pursue their lives as they wish.

Why are Animal Rights Important?

Animals are increasingly understood as suffering from psychological, emotional, and physical pain. For example, orcas can suffer from depression and boredom in aquariums, leading to the use of antidepressant drugs. Animals in zoos frequently display stereotypic behaviors, which signify underlying psychological distress and are unseen in wild populations. The more that is learned about the myriad ways our behavior, lifestyles and attitudes negatively impact animals, the greater our moral obligation towards them becomes.

Besides the fact that animals can suffer, the sheer scale of animal exploitation is another reason animal rights are urgently needed. It is estimated that roughly 200 million animals are killed for human consumption every day, with wealthy nations such as Australia, the United States and Europe leading the way with the highest consumption of meat per capita. The U.S. is also responsible for the rise of industrial animal agriculture, in which animals are forced to endure lifetimes of heartbreaking abuse.

What are the Goals of the Animal Rights Movement?

The ultimate goal of the animal rights movement is to place animals “beyond use” of human beings, putting an end to exploitative industries and practices including laboratory testing, whaling, and puppy mills.

There are many approaches to achieving these goals. Grassroots advocacy, involving public demonstrations, as well as documentaries and other educational tools have long been deployed as methods of raising public awareness of the suffering endured by animals at human hands, as well as familiarizing the public with the concept of animal rights.

Innovative legal approaches have been explored as well. The Nonhuman Rights Project advocates for nonhuman personhood, which is a way to circumvent the legal definition of animals as being property, which denies them legal standing. A nonhuman person, however, may be represented in court via a guardian ad litem in order to fight for justice on their behalf.

Another tactic for achieving the goals of the animal rights movement is to advocate for veganism, which is a lifestyle that eliminates consumption of any product derived from animals – including milk, eggs, and insect-derived products like honey. Vegans also avoid clothing derived from animals such as leather, fur and silk. Through widespread adoption of vegan values, the demand for animal products can be reduced, enabling a clearer path to acceptance of animal rights both in popular opinion as well as the reduction in financial incentives to exploit animals.

When Did the Animal Rights Movement Begin?

In some form or another, the concept of animal rights has been around for thousands of years. In Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, the concept of ahiṃsā, meaning non-violence, is a central principle. Jainism stresses non-cruelty towards animals, prohibiting adherents from working at a zoo, cutting trees, or using any fabrics, including silk, which are produced through harming other living beings.

Within Europe and North America, there were many precursors of the modern-day animal rights movement. The first animal cruelty legislation was passed in 1635, which prohibited tearing wool off of living sheep. In 1822, Richard Martin, known as “Humanity Dick”, passed Martin’s Act aimed at preventing cruelty towards cattle. Martin went on to be one of the founding members of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the world’s first animal welfare charity, in 1824.

The first explicit reference to the concept of animal rights came from Henry Stephens Salt, who’s book Animals’ Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress rallied against the idea of prejudice against animals. Salt’s urging of a recognition for “the common bond of humanity that unites all living beings into one universal brotherhood” echoed ancient religious traditions such as Jainism.

Who Started the Animal Rights Movement?

The animal rights movement was not begun by any one person, though there were certain seminal figures. Although women comprise themajority of animal rights activists and are less likely to support animal exploitation than men, the majority of the credit for starting the animal rights movement is, unfortunately, given to white men. Richard Ryder is among the well-known figures in modern times, having coined the term speciesism in 1970 to describe human chauvinism towards other species. In 1975, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation was highly influential and lauded, yet he credited some of his views to the comparatively little-known author Ruth Harrison, whose 1964 book Animal Machines documented conditions on factory farms.

What Laws Protect Animal Rights?

Because the legal rights of animals are generally not recognized, federal and state laws in the United States pertain to welfare instead of rights. These laws regard animals as property and deal with “unnecessary” harm to animals, thereby allowing for a great deal of suffering which is deemed “necessary” or justifiable.

Existing laws routinely fail to provide animals with adequate protection. In many cases, the underlying motivation for animal cruelty legislation is exclusively human interest. U.S. federal laws regarding animal protection include the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), enacted in 1966 out of concern for cats and dogs used in laboratory research, though its contemporary mandate includes a wider realm of animal exploitation issues including animals in entertainment and captive breeding. However the AWA excludes hunting, fishing and trapping, slaughter of animals, retail pet stores, and others from its jurisdiction. The AWA is far from being an anti-cruelty law; for example, it regulates – meaning, does not render illegal – the practise of vivisection, which is surgery conducted on a living animal during research. In laboratories, the AWA does not protect animals from harm during the course of research, nor does it prohibit their use. Incredibly, the definition of “animals” in the AWA excludes mice, birds, rats and agricultural animals – who are the most heavily exploited animals across the country, within laboratories and industrial agriculture operations.

Other federal laws pertaining to animals include the Endangered Species Act, which maintains a list of species around the world who are threatened or endangered and outlines procedures as well as penalties for their inappropriate use. The Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act bans intentional cruelty onto animals, though it excludes animals in agriculture including slaughter, as well as hunting, fishing, trapping, medical research, pest control and other abuses.

Facts About Animal Rights

  1. In the U.S., every circus that uses animals has been cited by the Animal Welfare Act for violations.
  2. The California Orca Protection Act prohibits keeping orcas captive throughout the state. In Canada, a nationwide ban on cetacean captivity was also passed.
  3. Joaquin Phoenix used his speech at the Oscars to talk about animal rights.

Animal Rights Barriers to Success

Financial incentives form a significant barrier to animal rights, since it is through their consideration as property that animals’ exploitation is enabled. Animal business is big business. In the United States alone, the pet industry topped $221.1 billion in 2015; the live animal trade accounted for $3.5 billion in 2016; in 2020, animal agriculture is forecasted to bring in $185.8 billion in cash receipts. Companies may go to great lengths to protect profits, and have lobbied successfully for legislation such as ag-gag laws which conceal the unsavory conditions within their facilities in order to continue operating unencumbered by negative public perception or stricter anti-cruelty regulation.

Dependence on animal products is another barrier to the success of the movement. Animal products can be found throughout modern Western societies and in places people may least expect. For example, parts of pigs are found in everyday objects such as concrete, paint, soap, collagen injections, and even bullets.

Cultural beliefs about animals form yet another barrier to the success of the movement. For example, patriarchal conceptions of manhood assert that in order to be a strong, virile man, one must eat large quantities of meat, especially red meat such as steak. Sport hunting and fishing, and other similar “conquest”-type activities, lie at the heart of hegemonic manhood identities that are at odds with animal rights.