AR Philosophy > Debating AR

Animal Rights and Animal Welfare
Harold D. Guither, University of Illinois
Janice Swanson, Kansas State University


The animal rights movement has emerged from old ideas but with new philosophical perspectives that emphasize moral and ethical standards for how humans should relate to and treat animals. Although similar attempts to revolutionize societal values concerning animal use have occurred in the past, conditions were not ripe for the movement to be taken seriously. One philosopher describes the current movement as "a major revolution in social concern with animal welfare and the l status of animals."

The major conflicts of values concerning animal use have arisen from a society that has changed dramatically during the 20th century. With the loss of an agrarian ethic, increased industrialization, and a society concentrated in an urban environment, people do not interact with animals in the same way or for the same purpose as in previous generations.

Production efficiency and technology have allowed consumers to be more distant from food production and other animal products. At the same time, pets have become a more important dimension of our life-styles. Under these conditions, a diversity of attitudes, philosophies and ethics regarding animal use have developed.

Traditional values of animal care and use are being questioned by society. Animal advocacy and the promotion of a new animal ethic pose challenges to individuals who work directly with animals in any phase of business, profession, or leisure activity. These conflicts will affect how society dictates the use and care of animals in the future. And regardless of the problems in determining the status of animals in western society, the movement to recognize and protect animals will continue to grow. For owners, users and consumers of animal products and services, these new values may indeed defy conventional ways of doing business, and challenge contemporary life styles. Issues related to the environment, food safety, diet and health have also attracted animal activists to join with groups sharing these concerns.

Animal welfare is based on principles of humane care and use. Welfare positions are founded on the basic premise that animals can and will be used to benefit humans, and the responsibility of use carries certain obligations to the animals. Generally, animal use obligations include appropriate husbandry; provision of essential food, water and shelter; health care and maintenance; alleviation of pain and suffering; and other needs.

Obligations to animals under a welfare ethic continue to evolve with society's expectations and scientific understanding of animals. However, definitions of animal welfare obligations vary. In the traditional sense, humane treatment is the primary concern, with little or no consideration of the ultimate use. But recent shifts in attitudes have challenged the traditional definition. The ultimate use of the animal is now also a concern.

Some assert that there are essential (biomedical research) and nonessential uses of animals (entertainment). These animal welfare advocates will ardently support animal use practices that are perceived to produce widespread benefits to society, thus justifying required use of animals, but reject support for nonessential use.

Animal rights includes some fundamental differences from animal welfare. Animal rights, in its purest form (animal liberation) is not concerned with humane care and use of the animal. Rather, it focuses on whether humans have the right to view and use animals as resources and what rights animals are entitled to as living, feeling beings.

These rights are determined regardless of human benefits from animal use. Use is not a consideration. However, most animal rights supporters are more pragmatic in their approach to instituting change by working to abolish cruel or abusive situations to eliminate animal suffering. Support for animal use can be found where mutual benefits are perceived for both animal and human, such as pet keeping. However, a segment of rights advocates believe that nonhuman animals are not to be used for any purpose by humans -- that animals are "not ours to eat, wear, or experiment on."

Implementing this philosophy would mean eliminating all uses of animals for food, clothing, leisure, or research purposes. In effect, this implies the adoption of vegetarian diets; the elimination of wool, leather, or fur for clothing or ornamental purposes; and the abolition of animals used for leisure activities, such as in hunting, horse and dog racing, zoos, circuses, or aquariums.

Animal rights in the political context can mean almost anything from a campaign to achieve the liberation of all animals, including pets, to much more limited goals pursued through horse-trading and compromise in the policy making process.

Reformist or Abolitionist? Animal activists may be identified as reformists or abolitionists. The reformists usually include those who believe in the views of philosophers but want to work within the system to improve the conditions under which animals are treated.

The abolitionists work to eliminate all uses of animals that they see as causing pain and suffering. Efforts to destroy the fur apparel industry, stop veal production, stop laboratory animal research and product testing, promote vegetarian diets, and ban hunting, are a few goals of abolitionists.

Current Situation and Forces of Change

The animal protection movement has evolved into three types of organizations: (1) local humane societies and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals; (2) national and state organizations with a range of objectives and differing degrees of reformist and abolitionist goals, and; (3) grassroots activist organizations encouraged by the leading animal rights and animal welfare groups. Groups 2 and 3 are most involved in influencing public policies affecting animal care and treatment.
Most attempts to make national policy have occurred since World War II. The following legislation identifies successful efforts of animal welfare advocates to influence policy:

The Federal Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, with amendments in 1978, required federally-inspected meat plants to comply with humane slaughter conditions.

The Animal Welfare Act of 1966, with amendments in 1976, regulated transportation, sale and handling of dogs, cats and certain other animals used for research, and prohibited animal fighting ventures.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits killing, capturing and harassing of any marine mammal without a permit.

The Health Research Extension Act of 1985, an amendment to the Public Health Service Act, established animal research standards, including animal care committees, and required research plans for the reduction of animal use, alternatives to animals, or the reduction of pain and discomfort to animals used in research.

The 1985 farm bill set precedent for including animal welfare issues in omnibus farm legislation and required the Secretary of Agriculture to set standards governing the humane care, treatment, and transportation of animals by dealers, research facilities, and exhibitors. These standards were to describe minimum requirements for handling, housing, feeding, watering, sanitation, ventilation, shelter from extremes of weather and temperature, adequate veterinary care, separation by species, exercise of dogs, and an adequate enriched environment to promote psychological well-being for nonhuman primates.

Each research facility must establish at least one committee of not fewer than three members to assess animal care and practices, and reflect in animal care practices society's concerns regarding animal welfare. It must also provide training for its scientists, animal technicians, and other personnel involved with animal care and treatment. The National Agricultural Library was mandated to establish an information service on employee training and animal experimentation to reduce animal pain and stress.

The 1990 Farm Bill provided that a dealer may not obtain any live dog or cat from a source other than a city, county or state pound; a private entity under contract with a local agency, a registered research facility or an individual who bred and raised the animals. Any animal sold by a dealer must have valid certification.

The Animal Facilities Protection Act of 1992 was supported by animal users and the animal industry to stem increased incidents of vandalism, theft, and threats to research workers. After several years of effort, Congress passed a bill that made destruction of animal research or production facilities a federal offense if damage exceeded $10,000. 

Animal Welfare and Animal Rights Issues

The issues encompassing animal welfare and animal rights cover animals used for food, in research, and for pleasure and leisure activities. Animal rights and animal welfare organizations often focus their attention on a few specific issues such as fur animal production, housing and feeding veal calves, use of animals in research, egg production from hens in cages, or pet overpopulation. The issues that will most likely come up in future legislative debates include the following: Humane management practices. To what extent should government dictate management practices under which food and research animals are produced and cared for? For example, legislation has been proposed to establish management practices for veal production. In Europe, certain management practices and space requirements have been written into law. For example, in Sweden no more than three laying hens can be kept in one cage and dairy cows must be kept on pasture at least one month each year. In the United Kingdom, the Farm Animal Welfare Council has recommended a stocking rate for broiler chickens not exceeding 34 kilograms per square meter during the growing period. 
    Humane treatment criteria. Under what criteria will humane treatment of animals be measured if humane treatment is the objective of government rules and regulations dealing with animal care? 
Genetically altered animal species. Should public funds be used to develop genetically altered animal species and under what conditions should their introduction and reproduction be permitted? 
    Damage control. Should poisoning, trapping, or shooting of animals be permitted to protect domestic livestock and crops? 
    Hunting and trapping. Under what conditions should hunting be permitted on public lands and interference of hunters be allowed? Should the steel leg hold trap be made illegal nationwide? 
    Endangered species. Should an economic impact assessment be required when restrictions on the use of public and private lands are considered because a species of animal or bird is threatened or endangered? 
    Animals in research. Under what conditions and for what purposes should animals be used in research? Animal research is now subject to regulation and control. Some groups advocate prohibition of all animal research. 

Policy Alternatives and Consequences

Control and Regulation of Management Practices

    Individual producers now have almost complete freedom to choose those management and production practices that they believe will give most efficient production and lowest cost per unit produced. Policy choices include the following: Let producers decide what they believe are the best management and production practices. The traditional criteria by which livestock and poultry well-being has been measured in the past -- growth patterns, weight gains and appearance -- are being questioned.
    Such standards may not be acceptable to the animal rights advocates. 
    Establish boards or commissions, as the European Union and some individual European countries have done, to establish acceptable "humane" practices for producing livestock and poultry. Educate producers and encourage compliance with these recommended practices. Questions are not only emanating from the animal advocacy community, but have been developing within the scientific community as well. However, the intention of each community for the development and use of animal welfare information is different. The commission would reconcile these different views to the benefit of all societal segments. 
    Establish rules and regulations through the public hearing process and enforce compliance through law enforcement officials and levy fines for noncompliance. 
    Require labeling of animal, dairy and poultry products to indicate the type of production practices used. 
    The development of "acceptable humane practices" could result in 1) the development of more rigid systems of production that would be viewed as more humane, and more easily enforced, or 2) the development of systems that could provide optimal animal production and enhanced animal welfare under a variety of production conditions. If humane standards were established and enforced by government rules and regulation, the outcome could bring higher production and marketing costs, lower returns and reduced incentives for investment in the animal industry. Considerable disagreement as to what practices are really humane could result.
    Agribusiness firms have an important stake in policy decisions that affect management and production practices. If new facilities were required, the production and marketing of the new facilities and equipment would benefit agribusiness. However, if regulations and restrictions reduce production, those involved in processing and marketing these products would suffer reduced business.

New policies that would increase costs and reduce supplies of animal, dairy or poultry products could raise food costs for consumers. However, some consumers will pay more for a product that has been produced under what they believe is more humane conditions. In Europe, many stores feature "free-range" eggs from hens allowed to run out in open lots. Prices reflect the higher costs as in the case of organic foods in the United States.

New policies that bring about new regulations also add up to more bureaucracy, more civil servants to implement the policies, and more costs to taxpayers. The alternatives are not just more or less regulation, but what values the public believe are important enough to pay the cost of such policies. 

Genetically engineered livestock and poultry

Policy choices include the following: Prohibit all research with animals to develop new genetically engineered strains. 
    Permit research on genetically engineered strains but allow no patenting of genetically developed strains. 
    Permit both private industry and publicly funded genetic research and permit patents for successfully developed new strains. 
    Genetically engineered strains of livestock and poultry could mean increased efficiency and profits for some producers. However, if patent restrictions limit a producer's rights to reproduce and sell these new strains or types of animals, the economic benefits may accrue mostly to the developers and patent holders.
    Biotechnology could open new markets and opportunities for the agribusiness community. New animal strains, growth hormones, or other products that enhance production would be quickly adopted by producers. The agribusiness firms and dealers marketing these products would see expanded growth and business volume.

One concern of environmental groups is the effect of new genetically engineered plant or animal products upon the purity and diversity of the total ecosystem. 

Control of predatory wild animals

Predator control has become a policy issue in part because efforts to poison predatory animals have also resulted in poisoning of non-targeted animals. Policy alternatives include the following: Give farmers and ranchers complete freedom to use poison baits and other means to control predators and protect their livestock. 
    Restrict use of poison baits that will be harmful to other animals and birds. 
    Prohibit use of all poison baits and other predator control measures. 
    Develop baits that more specifically control the target predators without harming the non-targeted animals and birds. 
    Restrictions on damage control practices such as poisoning of predatory animals could mean greater losses for livestock producers and could discourage production in some parts of the country. Sheep producers in the west have been adversely affected by limits on poisoning of coyotes. However, further research is underway to find more targeted ways to control predatory animals, avoid harm to non-targeted creatures, and reduce predator control costs for producers.
    Environmental concerns have resulted in limits on the poisoning of predatory animals. The predators could become threatened if too many were killed. Poison intended for the predators has caused losses of other valuable wildlife species that were not predators on domestic livestock.

Rules and regulations under the Endangered Species Act have affected the lumber industry more than animal production up to this time. However, future determinations could affect those who graze animals on public lands where endangered species are found. Private land owners could also be affected if restrictions are placed upon how their land is used for farming purposes. 

Hunting and Trapping

Although a long standing tradition in rural America, hunting and trapping are viewed as cruel and inhumane by many concerned with animal welfare and animal rights. However, the sale of hunting rights has become a significant source of ancillary income for some farmers. Policy alternatives include the following: Prohibit all hunting and trapping except among those who must depend upon these activities for food and economic survival. 
    Prohibit hunting and trapping on public lands, but permit these activities on private land. 
    Let states make their own policies regarding hunting and trapping. 
    Let states set policies for hunting, but prohibit use of the leg hold steel trap or other devices that are considered cruel and unnecessary. 
    Public policies dealing with hunting and trapping could adversely affect those rural residents who have had relatively free choice in the hunting and trapping activities. Animal advocates generally oppose hunting and trapping. Conservation groups support controlled hunting to maintain adequate wildlife populations that can survive and reproduce. Restrictions on hunting and trapping that affect threatened or endangered species would be supported by environmental groups. 
    Research with Food and Laboratory Animals
    Current policies require oversight on research plans and implementation. It allows research approved by a committee or board to insure humane treatment to the greatest extent possible and the minimum number of animals needed to conduct the project while still producing valid results. This is the current policy under the Animal Welfare Act. The policy choices include the following: Allow unrestricted the use of food and laboratory animals for research purposes. 
    Prohibit all biomedical, product testing and farm animal research. 
    Restrictions on use of animals in research or product testing could raise costs or restrict availability of new drugs or household products. Those who suffer from diseases or other ailments have very special concerns about restrictions that could affect their future health and well-being. 


Animal rights and animal welfare issues are not likely to be the highest priority issues during the 1995 farm bill debate. However, animal activists will continue to pursue their goals and join with other groups that share common environmental, health and food safety concerns. Farmers, agribusiness, consumers and their organizations need to be a part of this dialogue as part of the political process. 


    Finsen, Lawrence and Susan Finsen. The Animal Rights Movement in America. New York, Twayne Publishers, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1994.
    Jasper, James M. and Dorothy Nelkin. The Animal Rights Crusade. The Growth of a Moral Protest. New York: The Free Press (a division of Macmillan). 1992.
    Marquardt , Kathleen, Herbert M. Levine, and Mark LaRochelle. Animal Scam. The Beastly Abuse of Human Rights. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway. 1993