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What do we Mean by Animal Rights?
When people talk about animals having rights, they generally mean that animals deserve consideration of what is in their own best interests, and not just to be thought of as useful to humans. Campaigners for animal rights believe that all animals deserve such consideration, regardless of whether the animals are endangered or not, whether they are considered attractive or not and whether or not they can be used by humans for food, work or clothing.
Historically, views about animal rights have varied based on people’s understanding of the way that animals feel pain as well as religious and ethical views about the correct relationship between animals and humans. Nowadays, it is understood that animals can experience pain and suffering. Animal rights campaigners work towards preventing this in different ways.
It is very easy to confuse the many animal rights, anti-hunting and anti-vivisection campaigns with issues of conservation and endangered species. This confusion is understandable, but it is important to be able to separate the main issues involved:
Animal rights - this covers preventing animals from being harmed due to mistreatment by humans. This may include issues such as the use of animals for hunting or vivisection, or even the ways that animals are farmed for food.
Conservation - this covers the protection of endangered species, wildlife, habitats and natural resources. For more information on this topic, see our factsheet on Conservation.
Using Animals for Vivisection
Vivisection is probably the most controversial of all the animal rights issues. 'Vivisection' literally means the cutting apart of live animals, though the term, in its broad sense means any experimentation on live animals. Most experiments don't involve any cutting, but many of them cause the animals pain and distress.
Experimenting on animals first began as a way for surgeons to practise operations without carrying these out on humans. In the United Kingdom, any experiment involving vivisection must be licensed by the Home Secretary. Many of the experiments test new medicines which could be beneficial to humans, but many animals are killed in the process. Animal testing has been branded as unreliable by anti-vivisectionists, along with some doctors and researchers, as animals can react to chemicals and conditions in very different ways to humans. For example, the drug Thalidomide, which caused numerous human birth defects and thousands of foetal deaths worldwide in the 1950s and 1960s, had successfully passed animal testing.
Animals are also used to test new cosmetic ingredients, posing the question of whether we should put animals in harm’s way simply so that we can look good.
Some of the most controversial animal experiments are tests like the Draize eye test, in which a substance is dripped into the open eye of an animal (usually a rabbit) and any reactions are observed. The LD100 test (Lethal Dose 100%) uses 60 to 100 animals, and determines how much of a chemical or medicine the animals need to ingest before they all die. The LD50 test is similar, except that the dose needed to kill half of the animals is determined. This then assists in deciding a safe dosage level for humans.
Using Animals for Food
Humans have hunted animals to eat as food since prehistoric times and, in some cultures, hunting wild animals is still the way that meat becomes part of people’s diet. When people hunt animals for food, the animals have generally lived in the wild prior to being killed (with the exception of game raised for sport) and the kill is usually fast.
However, much of the meat that humans eat nowadays is farmed, not hunted. There are different ways that animals can be farmed, including on an industrial scale, to maximise meat production and profits. Many animals rights campaigners would argue that it is wrong for humans to eat any animals, since it is possible for people to survive on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Others take issue with the way that the animals are farmed, trying to draw attention to the cruelty of some industrialised farming practices.
Chickens raised for egg laying are often kept in tiny enclosures with barely any space at all to walk or move around. These are known as ‘battery’ chickens due to the way that the cages are joined together in a unit like an artillery battery. These hens will often live their entire lives in cages, never seeing daylight. When chicks are born on farms, only the female, egg laying hens are ‘useful’ and so worth keeping. Male chickens provide neither eggs nor meat. After hatching, when is it possible to tell the sex of the chicks, all the males are usually killed. Some are gassed and used as feed for pet reptiles, others are fed into a grinding machine and turned into animal feed pellets. 50 billion chickens are slaughtered for food every year, and this does not include the males killed straight away.
Other animals, such as pigs, are also sometimes kept in very small cages. Female pigs used for breeding are kept in small ‘gestation crates’ and are impregnated via artificial insemination. Once the piglets are born, the females are moved to ‘farrowing crates’, cages just big enough to lie down and feed their young. After 10 days, the piglets are taken away for raising into meat and the females are impregnated again. Around 1.5 billion pigs are slaughtered for meat every year. Doctor Donal Broom, a Cambridge University professor and a former scientific adviser to the Council of Europe, stated that pigs show intelligence that is greater than that of dogs and maybe even equalling that of a human “three year old child”. Pigs in cages display signs of boredom and depression; they are normally sociable animals that form friendships and strong family bonds.
Cows are another animal farmed extensively for meat and for dairy products. As with pigs, cows are forcibly impregnated again and again to make sure that they keep producing milk. The young calves are taken away from their mothers to be raised for meat (or as future dairy cows) and the cycle continues until slaughter. 300 million cows were slaughtered for food in 2016 and there are approximately 250 million cows kept for milk production around the world.
In the west, people are often horrified to learn about the fact that people in places such as China, raise and kill dogs for food. However, in India (and elsewhere) Hindu people believe the cow to be a sacred animal and they live a vegetarian lifestyle. Seal culling or 'sealing' is a commercial practice in many countries including Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Finland and Russia. Seals are killed for oils in their fat or blubber, their meat and for their fur - to be worn as clothing. Seal oil is considered a beneficial health supplement, a rich source of Omega 3 oils. They are killed sustainably and traditionally for their meat in rural Inuit communities, but the mass killings or cullings that occur on many coasts account for the death of hundreds of thousands of seals every year. This could be up to 900,000 a year according to the EU.
In September 2009 the EU called for a ban on the trade of all seal products in the European Union. This embargo was challenged by Canada as damaging to their economy and discriminatory. Although seals are hunted from the wild and not farmed, people were against the methods used to kill them. The US, Mexico, Russia and Taiwan also ban imported seal products. On 22 May 2014 the World Trade Organisation upheld the EU's ban on the importation and marketing of seal products.
Views on which animals are acceptable to kill for use as food and clothing, if any, are often based on the culture that people are familiar with.
Killing Animals for Sport
There are still a great many people around the world who enjoy killing animals for sport and for the collection of trophies such as animal heads, which are mounted for wall display. Big game hunting is the term for hunting large animals and some people travel the world in order to kill exotic species. It is possible to book hunting holidays, especially for people hoping to hunt and kill ‘The Big Five’ (lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros) in Africa.
In the UK, there are now three times as many foxes as there were forty years ago. The Hunting Act of 2004 states, "A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog, unless hunting is exempt.", effectively banning hunting foxes with dogs. This decline in fox hunting may have resulted in the rapid increase of the fox population. Some people say that there is a need to control the number of foxes in Britain and reduce their numbers and many people think that the typical fox hunt, where hunters ride on horses together with packs of hounds, is an effective means of control. Others say that foxes are not a pest and that if a fox does become troublesome there are alternative and more humane methods of killing it. The alternatives to hunting are shooting, gassing and poisoning - none of which can be guaranteed to succeed in killing the fox without prolonged suffering. After their 2015 election victory, the Conservative Party considered offering a free vote to again legalise traditional fox hunting with dogs, though this was later overturned as it was unpopular with voters. In 2020, foxes are still being hunted as trail and drag hunting is still permitted. Whilst the hounds used for drag hunting are trained specifically not to attack or kill their quarry (often a human runner dragging a cloth soaked in artificial scent behind them to create a scent trail), trail hunting, where a trail of animal scent is laid in an area where wild animals are likely to be present, is more controversial and often ends with a fox being killed by hounds.
Other types of hunting include shooting game animals such as pheasants and deer for their meat. Whilst many game birds are raised especially to be released for hunting, deer are sometimes hunted to prevent them becoming too numerous and destroying vegetation. It is argued by some people that a certain amount of hunting has to happen to help conserve other species.
Poaching is the term used for any hunting of animals that is done illegally. This includes hunting by anyone who doesn’t have a licence, or people who are hunting protected and endangered species. In the UK, poaching is defined as killing or taking a bird, mammal or fish without legal right or consent from the landowner, a law dating back to the 1800s in England and Wales. Elsewhere in the world, the poaching of endangered animals is leading some species, such as the snow leopard and pangolin towards extinction. The demand for traditional ‘medicines’ and lucky charms as well as rare pelts (animal furs) and unusual pets often drives this market, rather than the desire for meat to eat (although the Madagascan lemur has been packed for food in times of recent political upheaval).
Some animal rights activists would argue that different types of hunting are worse than others, such as when they threaten the extinction of a whole species, or when the hunt is for sport rather than for food. Others would argue against any hunting at all is unacceptable and that it is not up to people to decide which animals should be hunted and which humans are allowed to hunt them.
Using Animals in war and for Labour
Humans have used animals such the donkey, horse, camel and mule for transport for thousands of years. Animals have also been used to help pull farm machinery and to carry soldiers into war. There is still a mounted police force on horseback, while modern cavalry units still ride horses for ceremonial duties in the UK today and animals, known as ‘beasts of burden’ are still used to help people carry out many types of work. Some animal rights campaigners would support the use of animals for working purposes, as long as they were being well treated and cared for. Others would argue that using animals for any purpose is wrong, as they have no say in the matter.
Horses have carried soldiers into battle since ancient times. As prey animals, their quick responses and speed when afraid mean that they were well suited for use by soldiers. The oldest known manual for training horses to pull a chariot for use in battles dates back to c. 1350 B.C. By the end of World War II, horses tended to be used less in battle, but they were still used for transportation of troops and supplies. There is a statue called The Animals In War Memorial in Hyde Park, London commemorating the millions of animals that have been killed over the years in battles.
Dogs are also used in war and in work. Their ability to sniff out a scent make them useful for detecting people and explosives, or for delivering messages. Sniffer dogs are used to this day by the police, by the army and in search and rescue missions.
Some of the creatures that humans have used in times of war may not be so obvious. During WWI and WWII, carrier pigeons were commonly used to send messages back to base. Pigeons have a ‘homing’ instinct and will fly many miles to return to their roost. This meant they could be trained to bring messages back from behind enemy lines. It was dangerous work, and led to many pigeons being shot down in case they were carrying secret information.
Using Animals for Entertainment
Circuses, in one form or another, have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. They have been steadily declining in numbers and popularity since the beginning of World War II, although there are still a number of small circuses to be found in Britain.
Nowadays, manycircuses do not feature animals in their performances but it used to be very common. Elephants, lions, zebras and camels would move all around the country in small cages transported on the back of trucks, perform for the crowds and then move on again. Animal rights campaigners have been protesting about this practice for decades and, in May 2019, the government introduced The Wild Animals in Circuses Bill to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses in the UK.
Animals in the circus are made to perform unnatural tricks for entertainment and are kept in conditions very different to their natural habitats. It can be said that many circus owners and workers care for and love their animals very much, but the question still remains if it is 'right' to use and keep animals in this way for human entertainment.
A very interesting case came up in 2014 about Sandra, an orangutan who had been kept in a zoo in Argentina for 20 years. Sandra was shy and often hid from the public. A landmark case was settled in a Buenos Aires court granting her some of the legal rights that we have as humans. The singular case hung on whether the animal was a "thing" or a "person". Here is an excerpt from a BBC article;
Lawyers for Argentina's Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights (Afada) said Sandra was "a person" in the philosophical, not biological, sense.
She was, they argued, in a situation of illegal deprivation of freedom as a "non-human person.”
Another issue for animal rights campaigners is whether animals such as dogs and horses should be raced for human entertainment. People enjoy watching and gambling on races between animals. Horse racing with jumps is especially contentious as many horses die or break their legs during such races each year. It is very difficult to fix the leg of a racing horse, especially in a way that will allow it to be useful in racing any more, so horses which do break their legs are often shot. Arguments have also been made against the use of whips and other devices for forcing horses to speed up during races. Some people argue that with certain changes, animal racing could be made more humane, others argue that humans have no right to use animals for their own entertainment at all.
Using Animals as Pets
Although people in Britain are reputed to be 'a nation of animal lovers' there are those who can also be extremely cruel to their pets. The RSPCA and other animal welfare organisations are called upon to deal with thousands upon thousands of direct cases of cruelty each year. Pets turned loose when the family goes away on holiday, unwanted puppies or kittens placed in sacks and left on roadsides or in ponds and rivers, animals starved or beaten for no reason - all these form part of a sad list of cases. Other owners may be unintentionally cruel via kindness, feeding their pets with inappropriate types or quantities of food, leading to painful or fatal health consequences for the animals.
Humans have domesticated animals to keep as companions over the years but, in doing so, numerous problematic issues have arisen. Aside from direct cruelty, there are the effects that demands for certain breeds and characteristics have had on animals such as dogs. Some breeds, such as the pug, have been bred to have ‘cute’ flat faces with big bulging eyes. As a result of years of such breeding, many purebred pugs now struggle to breathe and others have eye problems as their eyeballs protrude too far from their heads. There is also the issue of overpopulation, with millions of perfectly healthy animals put to sleep each year due to having no-one to home them, whilst breeders continue to produce more and more animals to meet demand for the ‘right’ kid of pet.
As well as domesticated animals, people enjoy keeping a wide range of wild animals in their homes, from birds and lizards to snakes and fish. Some would argue that these animals are well loved and cared for, whereas animal rights campaigners may disagree, suggesting that creatures deserve a right to live in their natural habitat rather than in a cage, and that keeping pets at all continues cruelty to other animals, since so many are killed making pet food.
Photo: Jenni Konrad