What Are Animal Rights & Why Should Animals Have Rights?

Goldfish in a bowl
Photo by Ahmed Zayan on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 9½ minutes

Around the world, the fight for human rights continues – for equality, justice and freedom. Alongside this important movement, compassionate people are working to ensure that non-human animals are not left behind. For centuries, animals have been exploited, abused, deliberately harmed and killed by people because they have been seen as different and inferior. So, while the rights that humans need and deserve are different from those that animals need and deserve, there is much in common between the two movements. Both seek justice and fairness for beings who have traditionally been treated – and are still being treated – appallingly.

What Are Animal Rights?

If human animals have rights, then why not non-human animals? After all, we are all just creatures living on this same planet, and sharing many biological, psychological and emotional traits. We’re not the same as a dog or a bird, and they are not the same as each other, but if we are worthy of dignity, autonomy and respect, then what reason could there be for denying the same to non-human animals?

Some people argue from a position of ignorance, or perhaps deliberate misunderstanding, and say but cows don’t need to vote! as if this is what is meant when we talk about the rights of animals. What we are saying is that animals deserve not just better treatment, but to be given dignity, have their interests recognised and respected, and – crucially – not to be exploited for human gain.

Why Are Animals’ Rights Important?

We may as well ask why human rights are important! Because animals are sentient beings here on this planet with us, not for us. Because who would we be if we abused those weaker than ourselves just because we could, or treated others with kindness only if we thought them attractive or intelligent?

For animals, having rights is everything. With rights, they would not be trapped, beaten, caged, artificially inseminated, mutilated, drugged, traded, transported, harmed and killed just because someone else profits by it. By granting animals rights, the sum of suffering in the world would reduce dramatically.

How Are Animal Rights Violated?

In thousands of ways. When we breed animals so we can take their babies and eat them; when we deliberately impregnate them so we can take their babies’ milk; when we force them into a circus ring or into a cage at a zoo; when we breed and sell them as ‘pets’ for profit; when we force them to race; when we beat them to make them do what we want; when we rub chemicals into their eyes in laboratories; when we shoot or hunt them for fun; when we trap them for fur; when we pluck out their feathers to fill duvets or jackets; when we put them in a tank or cage in our living rooms so we can watch them instead of the television for a few minutes.

Our relationship with animals is based entirely on their subjugation and our dominance. And this unequal relationship stems from the historical ideology that might is right, that it is acceptable for the stronger to bully and abuse the weaker simply because they can.

The Difference Between Animal Welfare And Animal Rights?

Often, the difference between these two has been described as the difference between giving animals bigger cages and abolishing cages altogether. Animal welfare asks that we reduce suffering while still exploiting, harming, governing every aspect of their lives, and ultimately killing them.

If you believe it is not OK for one being to exploit and subjugate another, then you believe in animal rights.

Do Animals Need Rights?

They do, just as human animals do. Without rights that are enshrined in law, there is nothing to stop up being harmed and exploited.

Animals can suffer, like us, they have personalities and preferences like us, and they do not wish to be harmed, like us. Their rights should not be based on a human perception of their intelligence or worth. Our own prejudices should not matter when it comes to the rights of animals, just as they should not matter when it comes to ensuring that the rights of marginalized people are conferred and upheld.

Arguments In Favor Of Animal Rights

Simply, it is the right thing to do. Animals are not ours to harm and abuse just because we can. They are not our playthings, but sentient beings in their own right.

But there is a wider impact of conferring rights on animals, one that benefits people, too. Human rights would be enhanced because the same forces that give rise to racism, sexism, and hatred of – or prejudice toward – marginalized groups also give rise to the systematic exploitation of animals. This prejudiced worldview stems from the notion of a biological hierarchy with European straight white males at the top, and below them, women, people of colour, those from the LGBTQ+ community, people with a disability, and animals. Conferring rights on animals helps demolish this hierarchy, dismantles this old, destructive way of categorizing and ranking individuals, and helps achieve justice for all.

Arguments Against Animal Rights

Those who profit from harming or exploiting animals are unsurprisingly the most resistant to a change in the status quo. Instead of being honest about their own vested interests, they put forward other arguments.

They might say: Animals are not intelligent, which of course is not true, but even if we were to confer rights based on intelligence, would we accept that babies should not have rights? They might say: You can’t have rights without responsibilities. Again, this makes no sense unless we accept that children and those with serious mental impairments do not have rights; and what about our own responsibilities to other sentient beings? Or they might say: God put animals here for our use. This belief stems from a certain reading of the Bible, one that many compassionate Christians do not support.

There are also people who argue that giving rights to animals would diminish human rights and undermine our ‘special’ role in the world. Our view is – as above – that it would only enhance it.

The Consequences Of Animal Rights

For so long, we have treated animals like property, not like beings, and much of our way of life is predicated on us doing whatever we want to them. While we are incrementally moving towards a few rights for some animals, it’s wonderful to imagine what the world would be like if animals were afforded full legal rights.

If that was the case, we wouldn’t eat them, breed them for milk or confine them for eggs. Factory farming would end, slaughterhouses would close and we would all be vegan. Without consuming animal fats and protein, some or our biggest killers – heart disease, diabetes and hypertension – would be dramatically reduced. With reduced sickness, there would be a boost to the economy.

Because we wouldn’t be wasting precious antibiotics trying to keep sick animals alive inside factory farms, we would limit the dangers of antibiotic resistance. And since three quarters of emerging infectious diseases come from animals, we would drastically reduce the risk of pandemics, too.

Without factory farming, our impact on the Earth would be much gentler. We’d reduce deforestation, pollution and climate change. With everyone vegan, we could feed many more people using less land, and that means people would not go hungry and nature would benefit, too. With 68 percent of animal populations having been wiped out in the past 50 years, a massive reduction in land use would redress that shocking annihilation.

No profit could be made from the lives and bodies of animals, so we would not wear their skins or keep them as ‘pets’. This is not to say we would have to throw away our old leather jacket or turn out our dogs to fend for themselves. Nothing can protect the cows whose skin that coat once was, and we have a duty of care to the animals already here, but we would not skin more cows or breed more dogs.

Circuses would showcase the very best human talent, as many already do, but there would be no tigers forced through hoops or other animals made to dance. Zoos would initially close to the public because animals are not put here for our entertainment. That industry would no longer breed, sell on and kill animals at their own convenience, and eventually, they would close altogether. Any claims they have as conservation bodies would be rendered obsolete because there would be a lot more land available for wildlife, and wild populations could flourish again.

We would not spend our time at horse or dog races. We would not attend rodeos or bullfights. We would not see animals in films or adverts, dressed up and exploited, their ‘cuteness’ or ‘strength’ being used to sell products and make rich people richer.

And instead of causing horrific suffering to animals in laboratories – testing chemicals, cosmetics, and drugs on them, as well as infecting them with human diseases – we would use cutting-edge, modern, scientifically excellent techniques that are quicker, more efficient and more effective.

Our whole attitude and way of life would change and it would benefit us in so many ways. Nature would thrive. People would thrive. The world would be kinder, more compassionate and safer.

Do Animals Have Legal Rights?

There are welfare laws that protect some animals in some circumstances against certain treatment but these are not universal, and are often not enforced. But do animals have meaningful legal rights? Not yet, but thanks to groups like The Non Human Rights Project, that is changing. They are securing court hearings in support of the legal personhood and right to bodily liberty of chimpanzees and elephants, the organization’s first clients.

In 2020, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt issued a decision in the case of Happy, an elephant held in isolation in a one-acre exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. She wrote that the Court “agrees [with the NhRP] that Happy is more than just a legal thing, or property. She is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty … the arguments advanced by the NhRP are extremely persuasive for transferring Happy from her solitary, lonely one-acre exhibit at the Bronx Zoo to an elephant sanctuary.”

There is much work to do, but it is a fight that, when successful, will liberate us all.

Conclusion

Most people understand that our lives are as important to us as animals’ lives are to them. And yet we exist in a society that treats them as things, not beings, as something not someone. To achieve justice for all, we must unpick the hierarchy that keeps different groups of people and animals ‘in their place’. Conferring rights on animals is vital to them and long overdue, but the benefits for people would be momentous, too.


For those wishing to know more about the history of animal rights and the campaigns to confer meaningful rights on animals, we recommend reading:

  • Animal Liberation, Peter Singer
  • The Case for Animal Rights, Tom Regan
  • The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol J Adams
  • Animals Matter, Marc Bekoff
  • Animals as Persons, Gary L Francione
  • Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters, Aph Ko and Syl Ko

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