Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare - And Never, Ever Get the Two Confused

One of the biggest misunderstandings I come across in my daily travels is with the definitions of animal welfare and animal rights. I'm going to share with you an easy explanation that was given to me over twenty years ago and has stuck with me ever since.

Animal welfare advocates are concerned about the physical and psychological well-being of animals whether they are used for food, profit or pets. They want to ensure that animals are treated in a humane, compassionate manner.

Animal rights advocates would like to see the rights of animals elevated to the same status as humans. They do not believe that animals should be used for food or profit and would like to see the liberation of domesticated species. They often do not believe in the keeping of animals as pets.

Best Friends Animal Society is an example of an animal welfare organization.
PETA is an example of an animal rights organization.

There are many other groups and organizations that may or may not clearly state their intent and/or agenda.  There are also varying levels of extremism within the groups.

I am an animal welfare advocate.  I believe that all animals, including livestock and those raised for other profit-driven industries, should be treated compassionately and we should continually strive to improve their living conditions. This is one of the signs of a progressive society.

Many journalists do not know the difference and will lump all animal groups under one umbrella. This makes it increasingly difficult to present a fair and reasonable argument for anti-cruelty laws - especially when farming and hunting lobby groups can portray that you are leading them down the slippery slope to vegetarianism (no meat) and vegan ism (no meat, dairy or any animal products). It is always a good idea to make a phone call or write a polite letter to the editor if you see the term misused in the media.

I urge you to read any literature soliciting donations that comes to your mailbox carefully. Read between the lines, check the mission statements of the organizations and make sure that you are sending your hard-earned money to a group that matches your beliefs.

Whatever you believe , do it with passion - you are the voice of the animals we love.

The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.

- Mohandas Gandhi


  1. What do you think about a middle position? My personal belief is that our notions of what constitutes compassionate, humane treatment is changing rapidly. I definitely don't fall into the "animal rights" camp as you identify it above, yet some of my ideas about welfare look like what we would call "rights" for human beings.

    For example, I gave my diabetic cat insulin for over a year. A friend of mine euthanized hers at diagnosis. I don't necessarily judge her for doing so; I think she believed she was doing the humane thing and sparing the cat discomfort he would not understand. I used a more "human-rights-like" calculus to make my decision.

    Both of us were still working well within a "welfare" paradigm.

  2. I'd like to see the Humane Society of the United States (aka: HSUS) lumped with PETA in this article.

    They're like twins separated at birth - they're still the same, but slightly different. PETA is very vocal and radical while the HSUS, by comparison, seems very tame. Both want the same thing. Don't believe me, ask the President of the HSUS which humane farms he endorses. He can't answer you because he doesn't endorse any, despite the fact that many have met his standard for having a humane farm.

  3. Oddly, you are referred to as an animal"advocate"! I really don't think it is such a great idea for those concerned with the welfare of animals to deny that they have basic rights...we need to come together, rather than be more divisive...or at least claim all the language....let the battles stay inside the movement rather than disparage each other "out there" if you know what I mean...jmo

  4. The easiest way for people who don't care about the rights of animals--basic rights--is to claim that we nuts want to elevate the animals to the level of people, when that is usually not the case! Doesn't a dog have the right to shelter in freezing weather, and to not be chained 24/7? That is a right, but no one is saying a dog deserves what a human deserves....people tend to get all upset when anyone claims their rights--how dare they...

  5. I'd disagree about putting HSUS in the same category as PETA. I hear over and over that Wayne wants to see the end of domesticated animals altogether, and that he is against farming, ranching and hunting. Perhaps that is what he really believes but the work that he has been doing doesn't indicate that. I've found many links to humane farming groups and humane farms by clicking through from HSUS. The factory farmers and puppy mill owners publicly demonize him because he has the money and influence to publicize the worst of factory farming. I will agree that his site tends to be more in favor of veganism than I'd like, but not completely out in left field. I'm a small farmer whose been fighting factory farming for some time, and he is one of our defenders. The big corporations like Monsanto and Tyson don't want to just abuse animals with their farming methods, they also do everything in their power to put small farmers out of business, they regularly pay huge fines for labor and EPA violations rather than clean up their messes. The bottom line is that HSUS has done more to expose the horrors of factory farming than anybody else, so I'm firmly on his side. That said, though, I only donate money to shelters and small organizations. Wayne's got lots of wealthy backers and doesn't need my money even though he regularly asks for it. And PETA? They could actually send some of their protesters down a processing line, for all I care. Aside from how they make the rest of us look, they are one of the biggest opposers of NoKill, a volunteer movement working through spay/neuter, creative fostering, anything else that can reasonably be done to stop the killing of healthy dogs and cats in shelters. And I would put NoKill firmly in the animal welfare side of the equation. I don't really know why PETA is against it, but I've seen plenty of evidence they are, and in fact do photo-ops at their sites and then put the animals down once the cameras are gone.

  6. What I think is most confusing about the differences is that welfare advocates are often No-kill when it comes pets, but are pro-compassionate farming. While rights activists are often "pro-euthanasia" for pets, while anti-farming.

    I consider myself an animal welfare advocate. I realize that animals have evolved (either through natural or artificial selection) to have different purposes. Its a pets nature to live with people, a farm animals purpose to be raised for food, and a wild animals nature to be wild. For me this means no more mass killings of pets, compassionate and respectful treatment of farm animals and no wild pets!

  7. I don't think the definitions are quite so clear cut. For example, I get emails from a group that very strongly says they are animal welfare, yet they vehemently opposed the puppymill legislation that was just passed in MO. If animal welfare advocates are concerned about the physical and psychological well-being of animals and want to ensure that animals are treated in a humane, compassionate manner, why would they oppose legislation that would have cracked down on a very inhumane business? I've noticed that "some" animal welfare advocates seem to be opposed to anything that they feel infringes on "their" rights in any way, regardless of whether animals are being inhumanely treated.

    I also do not believe that all animal rights advocates believe that the rights of animals should be elevated to the same status as humans. Some do, some don't. It is not so cut and dry.

    Also, PETA should not be allowed to call themselves animal rights advocates when they, themselves, kill more animals than just about any shelter in the country. They are fringe wingnuts, nothing more.

    Also, I agree that people should read literature etc. carefully so that they know how their donations are being used. However, many of these organizations lie. I used to donate to HSUS and PETA until I read Nathan Winograd's book, Redemption. I had no idea that they were fighting against everything I believe in and you would not find this information on their websites or within their literature. I'm just thankful Winograd has the courage to call these orgs out for what they really are.

  8. Interesting topic of debate.

    It would have been more interesting had you been more accurate in your definition of the side you happen to not agree with. Your description of the animal welfare perspective was accurate. Your description of animal rights was...pretty inaccurate actually. An informed discussion begins with honest terms being presented. I was sad to see that this was not to be the case here.

  9. Kathy, I like your definitions of animal welfare and animal rights. They align with my understanding as well, and I find the definitions to be clear. Some will subscribe to one definition or the other, some to both, and some to neither. The concepts boil down to care standards on the one side and legal status on the other---does that make some sense?

    I'm less than impressed by anyone who feels they need cloak their identity in an online discussion as a general rule. Would you take more care in framing your arguments if you claimed your words openly? For most reasonable people, I hope the response would be "yes."

  10. I still don't understand why there has to be such a distinction between the two groups. Research has shown that dogs understand humans more then any other creature on earth, other then other humans, because they evolved with us for 40,000 years (or so). For instance, only a puppy/dog and another human knows what it means when a human points at something. Even chimpanzees do not know this from birth, nor do cats.
    Given the above, I am confused as to how animal rights people can justify the massive killing of healthy shelter pets, but not be okay with farm animals being killed? Could it be that animal rights people would be okay with killing farm animals only if 100% of the farms were compassionate? Then I can understand the logic.
    Alternatively, why do animal welfare people seem apathetic to farm animals being killed if done humanely - particularly considering that the anatomy of a farm animal's brain shows that they do experience the same emotions and pain as us human animals do (that part of their brain is most similar to humans, but they do not have the same intelligence)? Even though they are not man's best friend (as dogs literally are), don't they deserve to be spared the negative emotions and pain due to their circumstances? It seems hypocritical of us to only care about one type of animal's death, and at the same time, it is narcissistic to only care about the death of one type of animal (our pets) just because they are closest to us humans. I guess this is the nature of all only care about your own kind. And old habits die traditions.
    Anyways, these are just some thoughts I have recently developed over the last couple years. I was eating meat until 2 years ago. My compassion for my pets expanded to all forms of life I guess. I think this is a natural progression, so why don't others feel the same I wonder.

  11. I would like to suggest Amy Hatkoff's book "The Inner World of Farm Animals". She writes about all the research that points to farm animals being every bit as intelligent, sentient, and otherwise "human" as companion animals such as dogs and cats. Amy is coming to Heartland Farm Sanctuary in March 2011 to discuss her book. Please call me at 608-219-1172 for more information if interested.

  12. To one of the many 'Anonymous' re: that Animal Welfare group that opposed Prop B in Missouri - more than likely they opposed it because the current State and Federal laws already in place in MO were actually STRONGER in many ways than Prop B. Perhaps they objected to the language defining a 'pet' as ANY domestic animal living in or near the home of the owner - which can easily be turned against agricultural animals in the future.

    I think these definitions are right on the money.