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Negotiating Animal Rights
Dr Kate Rawls
October 2004

'I don't think you'd have to kill too many [researchers]. I think for five lives, ten lives, fifteen human lives, we could save a million, two million, non-human lives.'

The North American animal rights activist who said this, Jerry Vlasak, was banned from entering the UK in September 2004. Vlasak later claimed that he'd not intended to encourage anyone to translate his words into action. Others have been less reserved though. A minority within the animal rights movement have both endorsed and employed violent tactics. The details make depressing reading, and have obscured the real debate about how we humans treat our fellow animals.

Dr Kate Rawles is a freelance philosopher and a senior lecturer in the School of Sport and Outdoor Studies at St Martin's College, Ambleside. She previously lectured in philosophy at Lancaster University, specialising in environmental ethics, sustainable development and animal welfare. Here she lays out the issues of animal rights for us all to see.

Violence obscures the real issues

Employees of the UK-based product development company, Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), were regularly subjected to intimidation, abusive phone calls and even arson attacks, until an injunction prevented activists from approaching employees' homes. Now, suppliers of HLS are targeted instead. Workers at a guinea pig farm have been labelled paedophiles in leaflets produced by activists and have found bombs under their cars. One woman describes being woken at three in the morning, when in the house alone, by rocks smashing through her windows. Similar tactics have been used against HLS shareholders. The UK government has responded with injunctions, ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders) and pledges to bring in new legislation that will protect researchers and others from extreme activists.

It is hard to deny that this intimidation is having the desired effect. At Oxford, plans to build an �18 million animal research laboratory have been on hold since July 2004, when a key building contractor, Montpellier, pulled out. Their shareholders had received letters advising them to sell if they wanted to avoid reprisals from animal rights activists. A cement company had already withdrawn for the same reasons. At Cambridge, the proposed primate research facility has also been cancelled, after threats from animal rights protestors. Meanwhile, Huntingdon Life Sciences bears huge costs in protecting its staff and insuring its premises. What's more, it has transferred its shares to the US market, which doesn't reveal addresses of shareholders.

These militant animal rights 'successes' come at a high cost though. The people whose lives are terrorized with vandalism, car bombs and death threats are often only tenuously linked to animal research. Those who condone this violence argue that it is unfortunately necessary as a means to a worthwhile end (that is, putting a stop to animal research). The animal rights movement opposes using animals as a means to an end, but in targeting human animals as a way of stopping animal experimentation, this is precisely what they are doing themselves � they are using the human animal as a means to an end. Hence terrorizing humans for a worthwhile end undermines their own argument. This profound inconsistency, coupled with compassion and anger felt on behalf of those targeted, makes it all too easy to dismiss the whole animal rights movement, especially within the current terrorist-sensitive climate.

But rejecting the idea of animal rights out of hand is a mistake. A thoughtful debate badly needs to be opened up here, not closed down. The animal rights movement (most members of which are passionately opposed to violence) has serious things to say. It confronts us with an important critique on a range of human practices that involve the use of animals, raising genuinely difficult ethical concerns. And it challenges us, if we are open to it, to rethink our world view; to reassess how we see ourselves as humans in the bigger scheme of things

What constitutes decent treatment?

First, it is worth noting that we don't need the language of rights to argue that having bought non-human animals into human social and economic systems, we should treat them decently. More or less all parties in the debate over the use of animals in medical and scientific research in fact agree that sentient animals (those capable of experiencing pain and pleasure) are owed such treatment.

What different parties in the debate mean by 'decent treatment', and to what extent this is translated into practice, is another matter. From within the research industry, decent treatment typically means keeping animal pain and distress to a minimum; keeping careful guard against unnecessary experiments, such as those that duplicate research findings; and using non-sentient animals when possible.

From the farther end of the animal rights spectrum, the issue is not just that we sometimes inflict pain and suffering on the animals we use, but that we use them at all. From their perspective, treating sentient animals simply as a means to human ends, like any other item of laboratory equipment, is unacceptable no matter how carefully they are treated.

The whole institution of animal-dependent research is held to be profoundly unjust, and a parallel is sometimes drawn with slavery. It's argued that as with slavery, the ethically appropriate action isn't simply to tidy up the institution by reducing suffering; the only ethically sound course of action is to abolish the practice altogether. From this perspective the decent treatment of animals means that they shouldn't be used as means to our ends at all.

The 'five freedoms' benchmark

The 'five freedoms' provides a powerful way of moderating between those who are for and those who are against the use of animals for human ends. Back in the 1960s the highly respected, UK government appointed, Brambell Committee argued that the decent treatment of sentient animals should mean ensuring they have good welfare. Good welfare, they said, is achieved by ensuring that animals have the five freedoms: freedom from hunger, thirst, fear, suffering and freedom to perform behaviour in their natural repertoires. The latter refers to the range of behaviours that animals perform if unrestricted, like grooming, grazing, roaming, flying, nesting, spending time with other animals of the same species, digging, burrowing and so on.

This all sounds straightforward enough. But in fact, given the way we currently keep and use animals, translating the five freedoms into practice is extremely challenging. This is especially true of the freedom to perform behaviour in their natural repertoires. For example, intensive farming (from which the majority of European meat and dairy produce still comes) is premised on the restriction of natural behaviour, so that food the animals eat is turned into food for humans with maximum efficiency � without 'wasting' any of it by allowing animals to move around.

Interestingly, the use of animals in research falls short perhaps most consistently with regard to this freedom as well. While the UK research industry is, in the main, conscientious about limiting suffering with the use of anaesthesia, the majority of research animals are kept in barren cage environments, in isolation from other animals of their own kind.

Rights protect the five freedoms

It is still true, in general, that humans routinely inflict pain and suffering on animals, across a whole range of different contexts. Including those in which there is a genuine commitment to 'decent treatment'

This is where the concept of rights comes into its own. The term 'rights' is used in a variety of ways, but the core idea is that a right is like a protective fence around an individual. To say that an individual has a right is to say that there are certain things that may not be done to that individual, regardless of the benefits that might result from doing so. Rights protect those things that are fundamental for the animal (human or otherwise) to lead a life of basic quality. Thus, human rights are typically held to include education, for example, as well as the rights to life and freedom from persecution of various kinds. Animal rights would protect those things established as fundamental to good animal welfare � the five freedoms.

Combine the idea of animal rights with that of the five freedoms, and we have a powerful interpretation of what the decent treatment of animals, in any context, should actually involve. Assuming that we are going to carry on using animals, then those animals should enjoy freedom from hunger, thirst, fear and suffering, and freedom to perform behaviour in their natural repertoires.

Objections to animal rights

There are vociferous opponents of extending rights to animals. A common argument against the notion is that rights go with responsibilities. In other words, a person can't be given rights unless they can be held responsible for respecting the rights of others. Animals cannot be held responsible; therefore animals cannot have rights. But rights are not withdrawn from humans who, for whatever reason, have a restricted capacity for responsibility (for example, human babies are granted rights). So why should they be withheld from non-human animals for the same reason?

The capacity for responsibility should, in any case, be irrelevant. Given that rights are granted to protect fundamental quality of life, the prerequisite for having them is, surely, the capacity to have a quality of life. This has to do with the capacity to experience pain and pleasure or, put more broadly, to experience life as fulfilled or frustrated, as going well or as going badly. This is a capacity that humans and many other animals share, and it can be present whether or not a creature has the capacity to take responsibility for their behaviour.

A different sort of objection to the notion of animal rights is that granting them will have far-reaching practical implications. This is undoubtedly true. A fundamental feature of rights is that they are not to be traded off against benefits. If animals receive rights to the five freedoms, then pointing to the benefits of research or agriculture will not do as a way of arguing, for example, that pain or behavioural restrictions are justified.

The practicalities

Current UK legislation, however, permits experiments that cause significant pain, providing the pain cannot be avoided and providing that this 'cost' to the animals is outweighed by the likely benefits to humans or other animals. Of course, many procedures routinely performed under the umbrella of scientific research, taking blood for example, involve very little pain.

But it's simply not the case that UK legislation protects animals from practices that do inflict pain or distress and there is nothing to protect animals from laboratory housing systems that impose behavioural restrictions.

Some research and some systems raise welfare issues which are very significant indeed because they clearly cause pain and suffering to the animals concerned. Granting animals rights would mean that in these cases research should not continue. And it would activate a range of constraints on the kinds of research that could be carried out in the future.

That difficult practical implications would follow doesn't, however, show that the animal rights argument is flawed. This is especially so considering that the parallel human rights argument is precisely what underlies our position with regard to humans and scientific research. In many cases, the best animal for research into human diseases is a human. But we're all clear that this doesn't justify using people in experiments that cause significant pain, that involve certain kinds of risks, or that severely curtail their ability to lead a quality existence. And we adhere to this, no matter how difficult the practical challenges of designing research that doesn't use human subjects or how much potentially life-saving information is forgone as a result.

In fact, all parties agree that the extent to which we use animals in research must at least be reduced. The UK government has recently announced plans for a new centre that will investigate and develop alternatives to animal research. This is good news. But the entire UK funding for developing alternatives to animal research of �660,000 per year (recently doubled by the Office for Science and Technology) is minute compared to that invested in the UK animal research industry itself, which currently uses 1.9 million animals. (9.8 million animals are used across the EU).

The dilemma in a nutshell

We are left with the reality that much research continues that is genuinely troubling from an ethical perspective, and that raises really tough questions about ways in which humans discriminate between members of their own species and those of others.

None of this is to deny that much animal research is of profound benefit to humans and often to other animals too. Though not all of it. It's important for all sides in this debate to distinguish between genuinely useful research and that which is badly designed or unnecessary. Under this category might go research that is designed to test drugs which have already been developed by market competitors; research that repeats work that has already been done; and research that is designed to test products deemed unnecessary to human health and welfare.

But this leaves unresolved the toughest of tough ethical questions that has emerged above. Are humans entitled to perform research on non-human animals in cases where the research would not be permitted if it were to employ human subjects in the same way? To put it another way, where we wouldn't use ourselves, are we entitled to use other sentient animals as research equipment?

Humans at the centre of the world

However this is finally answered, it's clear that the animal rights debate raises a profound set of questions about our relationship with the non-human world. We may laugh now at the outrageously human-centred attitudes of the past, wonderfully highlighted by Keith Thomas in Man and the Natural World.

'Every animal was thus intended to serve some human purpose, if not practical, then moral or aesthetic. Savage beasts were necessary instruments of God's wrath; they fostered human courage and provided useful training for war. Horse-flies, guessed the Virginian gentleman William Byrd in 1728, had been created so 'that men should exercise their wits and industry to guard themselves against them'. While the lobster served several purposes in one: it provided men with food, for they could eat its flesh; with exercise, for they had first to crack its legs and claws; and with an object of contemplation, for they could behold its wonderful suit of armour. As for cattle and sheep, Henry More in 1653 was convinced that they had only been given life in the first place so as to keep their meat fresh 'till we shall have need to eat them.''

In fact, our attitudes today are not so far removed from the walking fridge view of sheep. They are often still firmly rooted in the assumption that humans are easily the most important creature on Earth and that sentient animals are legitimately available to us as resources for agriculture, entertainment, research, companionship, and so on. Whether or not these assumptions are legitimate is the crux of the ethical debate.

Whichever way the issue is resolved, the uncomfortable truth is that meanwhile, some or all of the five freedoms are being violated by many of the ways in which we humans currently keep and use non-human animals. Taking the notion of animal rights seriously would be a powerful way of ensuring that human practices become more humane.

Find out more

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Animal Liberation Front
Animal rights discussion forum with news on the key issues and also some disturbing video footage and images.

Compassion in World Farming
Their key aim is to abolish factory farming and stop the suffering of farm animals. The website has lots of information, a publications list and ideas about how to get involved.

Foundation for Bio-Medical Research
US organisation that defends the use of laboratory animals. The site contains material about the benefits of animal research, separate sections for children, students and teachers, information about the animal rights movement, and a summary of current news stories.

Government Action to Reduce Anti-Social Behaviour
Government site that looks at the introduction of ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders).

The Guardian � Animal Rights�
The Guardian online report on animal rights, covering a wide range of issues.

Huntingdon Life Sciences�
This page offers information on some of the ethical issues raised with the use of animals in scientific research.

National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS)
Some interesting and disturbing articles and images on this website about unscientific and futile animal experiments carried out in the UK.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
Campaigning organisation fighting animal abuse worldwide. The site has lots of information on how to get involved in campaigns and on cruelty-free living.

Pigs in the Poky � Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
An excellent article that looks at the devastating effects of factory farming, the emergence of animal welfare with the Brambell Committee report and then offers advice on how to take action.

Research Defence Society (RDS)
News and information from this membership-based group that argues for the benefits of using animals in research.

Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA)
Well established charity that aims to stop animal suffering. The website has lots of information on where to buy cruelty-free food, plus articles on work being done to protect farm and research animals.

The Way of the Vegan
Compelling arguments on the many advantages of becoming a vegan.

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