Adrian Morrison, DVM, PhD. is professor emeritus of Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. In his new book An Odyssey With Animals he explores the touchy balance between animal rights and animal welfare. In the original post below he discusses the various shades of gray in this debate.
Throughout history, humanity has associated with animals in ways that have benefited human beings. Animals have been hunted for food and clothing, accepted at our hearths for companionship, and brought into our fields to produce and provide food. Only during the latter two-thirds of the last century could most people – in the developed, wealthy West — begin to imagine living without animals as part of our daily lives. We were completely dependent on them. As the twentieth century progressed, though, technological advances rendered animals’ visible presence in our lives unnecessary. We can eat a steak without coming close to a living cow, or wear a wool sweater without having to shear any sheep. But now, according to some, we have no need, indeed no right, to interfere in animals’ lives, even to the extent of abandoning their use in life-saving medical research. This belief motivates the animal rights/liberation movement, which follows the thinking of a small group of vocal philosophers.
But what does the term “animal rights” mean in a practical way to most in our society? All of us do use the word “rights” quite commonly: the right to decent, humane treatment when animals are in our charge. This is our obligation as humane human beings. Indeed, this duty is embodied in law, and we can be prosecuted and punished if we ignore it as lawyer/ethicist Jerry Tannenbaum from the University of California-Davis pointed out to me years ago when I was focused on the depredations of the “animal rights movement” against biomedical researchers and blinded to the obvious. Thus, the ongoing debate – and recent violence in some California universities for example – is about a more radical (and unworkable view) of rights. To clarify things in my own mind, I have come up with a ranking of views/behavior from the extreme to the reasonable as I see it.
First, there are those within the animal rights and welfare movement who believe that human life is worth no more than that of other animals. Some of these people damage property, threaten the lives of those who use animals, and even attempt to commit assault or murder in their effort to save animals. This subsection of the animal rights movement has been classified by the FBI as “one of today’s most serious domestic terrorism threats.” They are extremists in the truest sense.
Others in the movement, such as those who condemn the fur industry, engage in stunts like parading naked with signs. Though extreme, these tactics do not, to my mind, constitute extremism—just activism. Unfortunately, there are others who damage stores, throw paint on fur coats, and release mink from farms to die in the wild. They would obviously fit into the first category: extremists.
Then there are those who gather in peaceful (and lawful) protest, or who contribute money to organizations engaged in some of the activities just described, often because they have been fooled by false claims of animal abuse or graphic photographs that have been doctored or taken out of context. Of course, overlaps among these groups are possible, if not likely. I would consider these members of the movement—those who object to animal use but who do not employ extreme measures themselves—to be animal rights and welfare activists (as opposed to extremists).
Then, there are those who use animals but are also involved in efforts to improve the treatment of them. These individuals comprise what I consider to be the animal welfare movement—whether they engage actively through contributions to local humane societies or other good works or simply share the beliefs of those who do. Certainly, I am a member of this group. We think animals have certain claims on us humans when they are under our control, including the right to decent care. Put another way, we believe that, as humans, we have a moral responsibility to treat animals as well as is practically possible.
This position is distinct from the aims of the animal rights/liberation movement, and here I think it is important again, to acknowledge the difference between “animal rights” as envisioned by the movement and “animal welfare.” Those who belong to the animal rights/liberation group believe in severely limiting the way humans use animals, encouraging our removal from the animal world in many ways. Those who belong to the animal welfare group wish to improve animal health and welfare in a number of different contexts.
There are those I place in an extreme animal welfare camp that I consider less than reasonable, though: they object to the idea that many species are “renewable resources” that humans may justifiably use—hunting them for food or fur is one example. They aim to change drastically the way we use animals. On the other hand, I think that animals are a renewable resource and that ensuring animals’ welfare while they are alive, and providing a humane death for a legitimate purpose, is our only charge.
Finally, it is my perception that over the years there has been a noticeable shift toward use of an umbrella term, animal protectionism. I do not favor this designation because, though a noble-sounding banner, it could easily cloak an extremist fringe.
Now, you can decide where you fit in this spectrum.