The Animal Rights Debate

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Chapter 2
The Animal Rights Debate

According to the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (2003), a right is a "power or privilege to which one is justly entitled." In The Animal Rights Crusade: The Growth of a Moral Protest (1992), the sociologists James M. Jasper and Dorothy Nelkin define a right as "a moral trump card that cannot be disputed." The phrase "human rights" came into usage during the late 1700s to refer to generally recognized privileges (or freedoms) that every person should enjoy.


The United Nations has the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1998,, which states, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." The declaration specifies dozens of particular human rights, including the right to be free from slavery, torture, and cruel or degrading treatment. Other rights involve equal protection under the law, fair and public trials, freedom of movement, marriage and raising families, ownership of property, worship and religion, peaceful assembly, expression of opinions, access to public services, social security, working conditions, rest and leisure, education, culture, and standard of living.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Although the United States' founding fathers considered these rights to be inherent, they did note that people form governments to "secure these rights." Thus, while rights have a moral basis, they are upheld through the law.

Since the 1970s a debate has arisen about whether animals have moral rights that should be recognized and protected by human society. This is largely a philosophical question, but the answer has many practical consequences. For example, if animals have a right to life, then it is wrong to kill them. If animals have a right to liberty, then it is wrong to hold them in captivity. If animals have a right to pursue happiness and enjoy security, then it is wrong to interfere in their natural lives.

Societies and governments make decisions about who should be granted rights and how those rights should be secured. In general, an individual's legal right to life and liberty ends if that person infringes on someone else's right to life and liberty. In some states a person who kills another person can be executed by the government. At the very least, the government can restrict the killer's liberty. People debate the moral issues involved in such affairs, but the legal issues are generally spelled out clearly in U.S. law.

Sometimes it is not considered morally or legally wrong for one person to kill anotherfor example, in the case of self-defense or in defense of others. The same holds true for a person killing an animal. There is general moral and legal agreement that killing an attacking tiger or rabid dog is reasonable and right behavior. In human society the moral and legal arguments that protect a person acting in self-defense begin to melt away as the threat level descends. Killing an unarmed burglar or trespasser may or may not be perceived as justified under the law. Killing a loud, annoying neighbor crosses over the line.

This line is set much lower when it comes to killing animals. People can sometimes kill animals that burgle or trespass, make too much noise, or become a nuisance, without moral or legal condemnation. The same holds true for animals that taste good, have attractive skin or pelts, or are useful laboratory subjects. Why is it acceptable to kill an animal for these reasons, but not a human?

People answer this question in different ways depending on their belief systems and moral and social influences, including religion, philosophy, and education. The following are some of the most common reasons people give for denying animals rights:

  • Animals do not have souls.
  • God gave humans dominion over the animals.
  • Humans are intellectually superior to animals.
  • Animals do not reason, think, or feel pain like humans do.
  • Animals are a natural resource to be used as humans see fit.
  • Animals kill each other.

Animal Rights Activists and Welfarists

Some people believe it is not acceptable to use animals for any human purpose at all. They believe that animals have moral rights to life, liberty, and other privileges that should be upheld by society and the rule of law. These are hardcore believers in animal rights, the fundamentalists of the animal rights movement. When they speak out, write, march, or otherwise publicize their beliefs, they are called animal rights activists. An activist is someone who takes direct and vigorous action to further a cause (especially a controversial cause).

Other people believe that some animals have (or should have) some moral and/or legal rights under certain circumstances. They may rescue abandoned pets, lobby for legislation against animal abuse, feed pigeons in the park, or do any number of other things on behalf of animals. These people are broadly categorized as animal welfarists. Their adherence to the idea of animal rights generally depends on the circumstances. For example, a welfarist might defend the rights of pet dogs and cats but eat chicken for dinner.

This is unacceptable to animal rights fundamentalists. They argue that all animals (not just the lovable or attractive ones) have rights that apply all the time (not just when it is convenient). Such fundamentalists face opposition from a variety of sources. Some of this opposition is driven by moral and philosophical differences of opinion. Some is also driven by economics.

Many animals (alive or dead) have financial value to humans. Livestock farmers, ranchers, pharmaceutical companies, zookeepers, circus trainers, jockeys, and breeders are among the many people who have a financial interest in the animal trade. If humans were to stop using animals, these people would be out of work. Many others would be deprived of their favorite sport and leisure activities. Given such economic arguments and the moral and philosophical arguments noted previously, those opposed to the idea of animal rights feel as strongly about the topic as those who support it.


Early Arguments for Animal Rights

Most historians note that the modern animal rights movement began during the 1970s. However, the roots of the movement date back much further, to a handful of philosophers and thinkers. Celsus was a second-century Greek writer who argued against the Jewish/Christian belief that humans are morally superior to animals. Celsus points out that animals might actually be more favored by God because they do not have to sow seeds or plow fields to live, whereas people do. He does not believe that humans must be superior to animals because they are able to capture and eat animals. He notes that humans have to use weapons, traps, and hunting dogs to capture animals, whereas animals are naturally equipped with the tools they need to capture humans.

Over time, other writers and thinkers questioned society's attitudes toward animals. Their arguments were usually based on philosophical or ethical ideals. The Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci refused to eat meat. At one point, he wrote in his notebook, "The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men."

Legal protection was extended to some animals during the 1800s in the form of antiabuse laws. These laws were often passed based on the theory that animal abuse was bad for society in generalthey did not protect animals for the animals' sake but for humanity's sake. In 1894 the humanitarian Henry S. Salt wrote Animals' Rights, Considered in Relation to Social Progress, in which he asks, "Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes."

Modern Animal Rights Movement

Despite periodic calls throughout history for greater sensitivity toward animals, it was not until the 1970s that the question of their rights became a major social issue. In 1970 the British psychologist Richard Ryder coined the word "speciesism" to describe prejudice and discrimination practiced by humans against animals. Ryder's ideas received little publicity, but they were embraced by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. In 1975 Singer published the influential book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, which describes in vivid detail the ways in which animals are subjected to pain and suffering on farms, in slaughterhouses, and in laboratory experiments. Singer publicizes the notion of speciesism and calls for an end to it. He argues that speciesism is similar to racism and sexism, in that they all deny moral and legal rights to one group in favor of another.

Henry Spira formed Animal Rights International after attending one of Singer's lectures. Spira was a social reformer who had worked in the civil rights and women's liberation movements. Barnaby J. Feder notes in Spira's obituary (New York Times, September 15, 1998) that Spira turned his attention to the animal rights movement after he "began to wonder why we cuddle some animals and put a fork in others." Spira was instrumental in bringing various animal groups together to work for common causes. Many people credit him with pressuring cosmetics companies to seek alternatives to animal testing for their products during the late 1980s.

By 1980 the animal rights movement had become prominent enough to attract the attention of critics. In Interests and Rights: The Case against Animals (1980), the philosopher Raymond G. Frey of Bowling Green State University argues that animals do not have moral rights. He insists that animal lives do not have the same moral value as human lives because animals cannot and do not undergo the same emotional and intellectual experiences as humans.

In 1979 the organization Attorneys for Animal Rights was founded by the lawyer Joyce Tischler. The group held the first national conference on animal rights law in 1980. The next year it successfully sued the U.S. Navy and prevented the killing of five thousand burros at a weapons-testing center in California. In 1984 the group adopted a new name: the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF). One of ALDF's goals is to end the belief that animals are merely property. The group's anticruelty division also works with state prosecutors and law enforcement agencies to draft felony anticruelty laws and stiffen penalties for violations. The American Prosecutors Research Institute indicates in Animal Cruelty Prosecution: Opportunities for Early Response to Crime and Interpersonal Violence (July 2006, that in 2006 forty-one states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands had felony animal abuse provisions.

The British philosopher Mary Midgley joined the debate when she published Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1978) and Animals and Why They Matter (1983). Midgley argues that Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) was the catalyst for ending the moral separation that humans felt toward animals because it proved that humans were in fact animals. Midgley compares speciesism to other social problems, such as racism, sexism, and age discrimination.

It was during the 1970s and 1980s that some animal rights advocates began using high-profile tactics, such as sit-ins at buildings and protest marches on the streets, to attract public attention to their cause. These are examples of civil disobedience (refusing in a nonviolent way to obey government regulations or social standards). A radical element of the movement went even further by breaking into laboratories and fur farms to release animals and damaging buildings and equipment. Some people who used these methods referred to themselves as part of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). ALF followers became known as the "domestic terrorists" of the animal movement.

Many in the scientific community were disturbed by this new wave of moral and social opposition to the use of animals in research. In 1981 the Foundation for Biomedical Research was founded to defend such usage and promote greater understanding of its medical and scientific benefits among the general public. The foundation began tracking and reporting on the activities of criminal animal activists who broke into laboratories to release animals and/or destroy property.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was founded in 1980 and quickly came to prominence. One of the group's cofounders infiltrated a research laboratory and obtained photographs of the primates being held there. The incident attracted national media attention and greatly helped Spira's efforts to reduce animal use in cosmetic testing. Animal issues also became important to a larger number of Americans in the 1980s.

In 1981 the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (2007, was founded by two veterinarians who were concerned that animals "were routinely being used and abused by society, sometimes for the most trivial of reasons." The association's goal is to educate the public and people within the veterinary profession about these practices and to change social policy toward animals. Furthermore, its philosophy echoes that of many other animal rights groups in that it believes "all nonhuman animals have value and interests independent of the values and interests of other animals, including human beings."

In 1983 Tom Regan, a professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University, published The Case for Animal Rights. Regan argues that animal pain and suffering are consequences of a bigger problem: the idea that animals are a resource for people. Regan presents detailed philosophical arguments outlining why he believes animals have moral rights as "subjects-of-a-life." Regan states that acknowledging the rights of animals requires people to cease using them for any purpose, not just those associated with pain and suffering.

Frey responded to the growing pro-vegetarian movement in 1983 with his book Rights, Killing, and Suffering: Moral Vegetarianism and Applied Ethics. The idea of moral vegetarianism (adhering to a vegetarian diet for moral reasons, rather than for physical reasons) dates back centuries. It was advocated by the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi in the early 1930s as a moral duty of humans toward animals and gained new life during the animal movement of the 1970s. Frey, however, argues that a widespread adherence to a vegetarian lifestyle would result in the collapse of animal agriculture and other animal-based industries and massive social disruption.

In 1984 the philosopher Ernest Partridge attacked Singer's speciesism philosophy and Regan's animal rights view in the article "Three Wrong Leads in a Search for an Environmental Ethic: Tom Regan on Animal Rights, Inherent Values, and Deep Ecology" (Ethics and Animals ). Partridge maintains that both Singer and Regan miss a crucial point about the nature of rights: that rights have no biological basis, only a moral basis. In other words, it does not matter how humans and animals are alike or dissimilar in biology. What really matters is that no animals exhibit the capacities of "personhood," such as rationality and self-consciousness. Partridge contends that lack of personhood effectively disqualifies animals from being rights holders.

Carl Cohen, a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, also attacked Singer's and Regan's views in his article "The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research" (New England Journal of Medicine, October 2, 1986). Cohen acknowledges that speciesism exists, but denies that it is similar to racism or sexism. He argues that racism and sexism are unacceptable because there is no moral difference between races or between sexes. However, he writes that there is a moral difference between humans and animals that denies rights to animals and allows animals to be used by humans.

Animals as Property

In 1988 researchers at Harvard University obtained a patent for the OncoMousea mouse that had been genetically engineered to be susceptible to cancer. This was the first patent ever issued for an animal. Animal rights groups, led by the ALDF, challenged the issuance of the patent in court, but the case was dismissed because the court found that the ALDF had no legal standing in the matter. Since that time, several other animals have been patented, including pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle. Regan states in the Case for Animal Rights that patents can be issued for "nonnaturally occurring nonhuman multicellular living organisms, including animals" as long as they are given "a new form, quality, properties or combination not present in the original article existing in nature."

In 1995 Gary L. Francione published Animals, Property, and the Law, in which he argues that there is an enormous contradiction between public sentiment and legal treatment when it comes to animals. Francione notes that most of the public agrees that animals should be treated humanely and not subjected to unnecessary suffering, but he claims that the legal system does not uphold these moral principles because it regards animals as property.

Francione compares the situation to that which existed in slave states before the Civil War (186165). Although there were laws that supposedly protected slaves from the abuse of slave owners, they were seldom enforced. Slaves, like animals, were considered property, and the law protects the right of people to own and use property as they see fit. Property rights date back to English common law. According to Francione, the law has always relied on the assumption that property owners will treat their property appropriately to protect its economic value. Under this reasoning, the courts of the nineteenth century refused to recognize that a badly beaten slave was "abused," as defined by the law.

Francione believes that this same logic gives legal support to common practices in which animals are mistreatedfor example, in the farming industry or in laboratory testing. He explains that humans are granted "respect-based" rights by the law and that animals are only considered in terms of their utility and economic value. Francione points out that animals are treated by the legal system as "means to ends and never as ends in themselves." In other words, existing animal laws protect animals because animals have value to people, not because animals have inherent value as living beings.


At the base of the animal rights debate is philosophy. Philosophical discussions involve abstract ideas and theories about questions of ethics and morality. These can be difficult subjects to comprehend and apply to real-life situations, but philosophy is important because it explains people's motivations and why people feel the way they do about a particular issue. Philosophical arguments are commonly used to either justify or condemn certain actions toward animals.

Not all people involved in the "animal movement" believe in animal rights. Many are motivated to work for animal causes for other reasons. Historically, the most common motivator has been concern for animal welfare, or welfarism.


Welfarism is defined as the beliefs associated with the social system known as the welfare state. The term welfare state was first used during the 1940s to refer to a society in which the government has the primary responsibility for the individual and social welfare of its citizens. When applied to animals, welfarism assumes that humans have the primary responsibility for the welfare of animals. Welfarists acknowledge that society uses animals for various purposes. Their goal is to reduce the amount of pain and suffering that animals endure. Welfarism centers on compassionate and humane care and treatment.

The best-known welfarist organization in the United States is the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), which was founded in 1866. Its mission is "to provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States" (2007, The ASPCA defines itself not as an animal rights organization but as an animal welfare or animal protection organization. Its main programs include sheltering and providing medical and behavioral care to stray animals; placing stray and unwanted animals in adoptive homes; raising funds to care for animals affected by natural and human disasters, such as the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005; tracking and investigating cruelty cases through its Humane Law Enforcement Division, which works in conjunction with the New York Police Department; and offering affordable spay/neuter and vaccination services to low-income pet owners, as well as public services such as education on humane issues. Even though the ASPCA does advocate for stronger anticruelty laws, it does not actively promote issues such as vegetarianism or banning the use of animals in medical research.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) was founded in 1954. It is an animal organization that fits into the welfarist category, but its agenda is more sweeping than that of the ASPCA, encompassing protection of wild and marine animals as well as companion animals. Although it defines itself as an animal protection organization, critics charge that the HSUS quietly supports an animal rights agenda because it is openly against the use of animals in research, inhumane farming practices, and the fur industry.

Animal welfarists believe that humans have a responsibility to ensure the well-being of animals and reduce their suffering. This responsibility is upheld by society in the form of anticruelty laws. However, these laws do not prevent farm animals from being slaughtered for food or laboratory animals from being experimented on, usually without anesthetic to numb their pain. In these situations, welfarists work for humane slaughtering methods and prevention of "unnecessary" or excessive suffering during experimentation.


Utilitarianism is a philosophy popularized by English social reformer Jeremy Bentham in his book Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). The basic premise of utilitarianism is that right actions are those that maximize utility. Bentham defines utility as either the presence of positive consequences"benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness"or the absence of negative consequences"mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness." In other words, right actions are those that maximize the best consequences or minimize the worst consequences. An important aspect of utilitarianism is that the interests of all parties involved in a particular situation must be considered. Likewise, the consequences to all parties involved must be taken into account. This is a difficult enough task when only humans are involved; it becomes much more complicated when animals are taken into consideration.

Singer uses a form of utilitarian logic in Animal Liberation. He argues that the suffering endured by animals on farms and during slaughtering far outweighs the pleasure and nutrition that the meat gives to humans. Likewise, he contends that laboratory animals suffer so much that this outweighs their usefulness to humans as test subjects. Singer concludes that the moral consequences of these practices (and other practices in which animals suffer) are so severe that they must be abolished. As a result, advocates of Singer's theory are often called liberationists or abolitionists. Even though his book is frequently called the bible of the animal rights movement, Singer does not specifically call for animal rights in the book. He has stated, however, that he believes that the term is politically useful for drawing attention to animal suffering.

Many philosophers reject the notion that utilitarianism can be applied to human-animal situations because, historically, animals have not been considered to have interests at all, or their interests have not been considered equal to human interests. In 1992 the philosopher Peter Carruthers wrote The Animals Issue: Moral Theory in Practice, in which he argues that utilitarianism is not an acceptable moral theory for examining animal issues because it equates animal lives and suffering with human lives and suffering, an idea Carruthers calls "intuitively abhorrent" and a violation of "common-sense beliefs." In Interests and Rights, Frey also discounts the utilitarian theory as a model of morality for dealing with animals, saying that animals do not have interests because they do not experience wants, desires, expectations, or remembrances.


Contractarianism is another philosophy that is used to examine morality. According to this theory, society establishes right actions (or moral norms) through an arrangement in which individuals (called agents) voluntarily agree to abide by certain rules of morality. Following these rules is beneficial to both individuals and society in general. Although there are many different models of contractarianism, the most common are based on the writings of Immanuel Kant and the contemporary philosopher John Rawls. Kant believes that the moral code arising out of contractarianism reflects what rational agents would choose under ideal circumstances. Rawls expands this view by saying that the right actions are those that rational agents would choose if they were unaware of their own personal ambitions or prejudices.

When contractarianism is used to discuss human society, the rational agents are assumed to have direct duties. In other words, the rational agents know they are bound by a moral contract and are responsible for acting accordingly. The rational agents also have direct rights under the contract and have duties to those that lack the rationality to enter into the contract, such as babies, small children, and the mentally challenged.

Some philosophers use the contractarian model to explain the moral relationship between humans and animals. In Animals Issue, Carruthers argues that contractarianism is the best moral model for describing the human-animal relationship, but he concludes that animals do not have moral standing under the contract because they do not qualify as rational agents. He notes that humans have only indirect duties toward animals, one of which is to treat them humanely out of respect for the feelings of the rational agents (other humans) that care about them. Carruthers does, however, extend direct rights to human beings who are not rational agents (such as babies), noting that this is necessary to maintain social stability.

In the contractarian model, humans are moral agents, meaning that they make decisions and take actions based on morality. Many philosophers believe that animals are amoralneither moral nor immoral. For example, a lion that kills a baby zebra to feed her cubs is acting out of instinct. The action is neither morally good nor morally bad. Some opponents of animal rights argue that because animals do not make decisions based on morality, they are not part of the moral contract and do not have moral rights. The philosopher Tibor R. Machan is an outspoken critic of the notion of animal rights. In Putting Humans First: Why We Are Nature's Favorite (2004), he argues that animals cannot have rights because they are not capable of making moral decisions.

In practice, the moral code of contractarianism seems to provide some protections for selected species of animals. For example, in American society there is widespread moral repugnance to the idea of eating dogs and cats or killing animals with sentimental or patriotic significance (such as bald eagles). These views might be argued to be rooted in their moral and philosophical impact on humans and could therefore be extensions of the contractarian model.

Rights View

The rights view is defined and defended by Regan in the Case for Animal Rights and in many subsequent books. He maintains that all beings who are "subjects-of-a-life with an experiential welfare" have inherent value that qualifies them to be treated with respect and gives them a right to that treatment. In other words, living beings with conscious awareness and self-identity deserve moral rights. Regan does not define exactly which animals fall into this category, but higher species, such as vertebrates (animals with a spinal cord), fit his criteria.

This philosophy is fundamentally different from welfarism and utilitarianism. The rights view holds that animals have moral rights to certain privileges and freedoms, just as humans do. It does not mean that animals have exactly the same rights as humans. Most animal rights advocates believe that animals at least have the right to life and the right to freedom from bodily interference.

The philosopher best known for criticizing the animal rights view is Carl Cohen. In 2001 Cohen and Regan coauthored The Animal Rights Debate, which presents a point-counterpoint examination of the issue. Cohen sums up his argument against animal rights: "Animals cannot be the bearers of rights, because the concept of rights is essentially human ; it is rooted in the human moral world and has force and applicability only within that world." He admits that animals are sentient (conscious of sensory impressions), feel pain, and can experience suffering, but insists that sharing these traits with humans does not make animals morally equal to humans.

Cohen writes that some people confuse rights with obligations and assume that because humans have obligations to animals, it means that animals have rights. This assumption is called symmetrical reciprocity, and he believes it is based on false logic. The difference, Cohen explains, is that an obligation is what "we ought to do," whereas a right is "what others can justly demand that we do."

Cohen states that humans are moral agents who are restrained by moral principles from treating animals inhumanely. This means that humans should not inflict "gratuitous" pain and suffering on animals. However, it does not mean that humans must stop every activity that could or does harm animals in some way. Medical research on animals is an example. He believes that scientists have moral obligations to humanity to use animals in their experiments if that is the best way for them to achieve their goals. According to Cohen, "our duties to human subjects are of a different moral order from our duties to the rodents we use."

Cohen's overall conclusionthat rights do not apply to animals because rights are essentially humanis a point commonly made by those who oppose the animal rights movement. Many of them find it ludicrous to even debate the issue. Adrian R. Morrison is a scientist engaged in animal research and a vocal critic of the animal rights movement. In "Understanding the Effect of Animal-Rights Activism on Biomedical Research" (January 27, 2002,, he notes that few philosophers besides Cohen and almost no scientists bother to dispute in detail the philosophy behind the animal rights view. Morrison suggests that most scientists and philosophers "think the subject to be too far from reality to be worth the trouble."


Assuming that animals have rights would have massive consequences to society. If animals have moral rights to life and freedom from bodily interference, then they cannot be purposely killed, harmed, or kept in captivity by humans. Billions of domesticated animals would be spared from slaughter and would have to be released from cages and pens.

PETA (2007, states that it "believes that animals have rights and deserve to have their best interests taken into consideration, regardless of whether they are useful to humans. Like you, they are capable of suffering and have an interest in leading their own lives; therefore, they are not ours to usefor food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation, or any other reason." Implementation of this belief would mean the elimination of all commercial animal operationslivestock and fur farms, animal research facilities, circuses, zoos, animal parks and aquariums, game ranches, hunting lodges, animal breeding facilities, pet stores, dog and horse racetracks, and so on. All the people working in these businesses would be put out of work. The economic consequences would be enormous. Animal rights advocates point out that dismantling the slave trade after the Civil War was costly as well, but it was done anyway because it was the right thing to do.

Besides an economic cost, there would be a scientific cost. Medical and scientific research has relied on animal test subjects for centuries. Some research and development would have to stop until alternatives could be found. Students in schools and universities would have to learn anatomy and biology without dissecting animals. Doctors, surgeons, and veterinarians in training would have to practice on something besides animals. Cloning, twinning, and other genetic manipulation of animals would have to stop. Eliminating the use of animals would disrupt the entire scientific community. Animal rights activists believe the move is overdue because it would force scientists to think about their research in new ways. Many school districts have already implemented alternatives to animal dissection, including computer models that accurately mimic animal bodies.

There are also implications to private individuals in terms of dining, fashion, sport, recreation, and leisure. None of these activities could include personal use of animals. Hunting, fishing, eating meat, wearing leather, and keeping pets would come to a stop. The activity that would affect the most Americans would be the elimination of meat and animal products (milk, eggs, cheese, and so on) from their diet. According to a Time /CNN poll (July 15, 2002,, 4% of the respondents consider themselves vegetarians. Of those, 5% were vegans (people who eat no animal products). In other words, less than 1% of those surveyed avoided all animal products in their diet. Most animal rights advocates and liberationists are vegetarians or vegans. They believe that a vegetarian diet would not only help animals but also would be healthier for humans and better for the environment.

Opponents of animal rights are always eager to point out that keeping pets would be forbidden if animals had rights. Ingrid Newkirk, a PETA cofounder, has been quoted as saying that pets are a symbol of the human manipulation of animals, and the notion of pets should be phased out. This idea is controversial even within the animal rights community because it is so radical. Many people involved in both the animal rights and animal welfare movements refer to pets as "companion animals" and to owners as "animal guardians" or "animal caretakers." These terms are intended to downplay the ownership element between humans and animals.

Legally, most animals are considered property. In fact, the word cattle was derived from a Latin word meaning "property." This raises difficulties for pet owners who wish to ensure that their pets will be properly cared for in the event the owners die or become incapacitated. In "What Is a Pet Trust" (October 2006,, the attorney Rachel Hirschfeld notes that pets cannot inherit money through wills, because pets are legally considered to be property. Pet owners can designate a caretaker in their wills and leave money to that person intended for pet care, but the arrangement is not legally enforceable by the courts. Hirschfeld recommends another option, called a trust, to pet owners. A trust is a legally enforceable arrangement that allows a person to leave money to another person (called a trustee) for management of certain assets, such as property. Pet trusts have become extremely popular as a means for pet owners to ensure that their pets will be cared for after the owners' death. According to the ASPCA, thirty states and the District of Columbia had laws in place specifically allowing for pet trusts as of 2006. (See Table 2.1.)

Cynthia Hubert, in "What If Your Pet Outlives You? A New Endeavor at the UC Davis Veterinary School Ensures That It Will Be Loved for a Lifetime" (Sacramento Bee, November 18, 2006), reports that between 12% and 27% of American pet owners have made provisions for their pets in their estate planning.

In 2000 Tennessee became the first state in the country to allow owners to sue for loss of love and affection if a pet is wrongfully killed. The ALDF helped the legislature draft the bill that was passed. It allows damages of up to $4,000 for the death of a pet, assuming certain conditions are metfor example, if the person causing the death was negligent. Although many lawsuits are filed around the country seeking recovery of emotional distress damages for loss or injury of a companion animal, most are thrown out because of the legal precedent that animals are property.

State laws regarding pet trusts, 2006
StateCode sectionDate of enactment
Source: Adapted from "Pet Trusts: State Laws," in Planned Giving, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 2006, (accessed December 29,2006). Copyright © 2007 The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA®). Reprinted with permission of the ASPCA. All rights reserved.
AlaskaAlaska Stat. § 13.12.9071996
ArizonaA.R.S. § 14-29071995
ArkansasS.B. 3362005
CaliforniaCal Prob Code § 152121991
ColoradoC.R.S. 15-11-9011995
District of Columbia§ 19-1304.082003
Florida2002 Fl. ALS 82, Fla. Stat. § 737.1162002
HawaiiH.B. 14532005
Illinois760 I.L.C.S. 5/15/.22005
IndianaH.B. 11532005
IowaIowa Code § 633.21052000
KansasKSA § 58a-4082003
MaineMe. Rev. Stat. Ann. Tit. 18-B, 4081995
MichiganMCLS § 700.27222000
MissouriMo. Ann. Stat. § 456.4-4082004
MontanaMont. Code Anno., § 72-2-10171993
NebraskaNeb. Rev. Stat. § 30-38342005
NevadaNev. Rev. Stat. Ann § 163.00752001
New HampshireN.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 564-B:4-4082004
New JerseyN.J. Stat. § 3B:11-382001
New MexicoN.M. Stat. Ann. § 45-2-9071995
New YorkNY CLS EPTL § 7-8.11996
North CarolinaN.C. Gen. Stat. § 36A-1471995
OregonORS § 128.3082001
South CarolinaS.B. 422; H.B. 34872005
TennesseeTenn. Code Ann. § 35-15-4082004
TexasSB 11572005
UtahUtah Code Ann. § 75-2-10011998
WashingtonWash. Rev. Code § 11.118.005-.1102001
WisconsinWis. Stat. § 701.111969
WyomingW.S. 1977 § 4-10-4092003

Still, lawyers report many more cases involving animal law today than in the past. Some state bar associations have formed animal law sections to deal with the increase. Carolyn B. Matlack, in "Sentient Property: Unleashing Legal Respect for Our Companion Animals" (Animal Law Section, Summer 2003), describes the spectrum of animal law cases the Washington State Bar Association's animal law section handles: "Legal disputes over pets arise in actions involving dissolution of property or custody agreements, nuisance actions, assistance animal privileges, cruelty allegations, landlord-tenant contracts, police or dog warden brutality, airline negligence, veterinary malpractice and in the area of wills, trusts and estates."

Matlack suggests that companion animals receive a new property classification under the law: sentient property (feeling property). She argues that courts could determine the best interests of sentient property based on the testimony of experts, as is done for young children and the mentally disabled.

Even wild animals are categorized by ownership. Private landowners assume power of ownership over wild animals on their land. As long as the animals are not protected by specific legislation, property owners may kill them as they please. Wild animals inhabiting government lands are considered public property and are treated as such. The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (December 29, 2006, is "to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people."

Public and private landowners exhibit implied animal ownership when they grant hunters permission to hunt on lands under their control. If these animals are assumed to have moral rights, then they can no longer be considered property.

Many animal welfarists are uneasy with the animal rights movement. They worry that it draws attention away from goals that are more easily obtainable for animals in the near future. They also worry that the radical statements and actions of some animal rights activists will turn the public against the entire animal movement. Radical animal rights activists have been known to demonstrate in the nude, splash paint on people wearing fur coats, and destroy and vandalize property. Many have spent time in prison for their actions.

Although welfarists and liberationists/abolitionists sometimes work together to achieve change, there is a philosophical gulf between them. This was made clear by the animal rights advocate Joan Dunayer in Speciesism (2004). Dunayer supports the idea that humans and animals should have "absolute moral equality." She accuses animal rights groups of compromising their beliefs by campaigning for welfarist reforms in animal treatment, rather than complete liberation. Dunayer compares the plight of animals to that of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, arguing that the prisoners would have begged their supporters on the outside to work for liberation rather than more humane living conditions or kinder slaughtering techniques.

Abolitionists ask welfarists to give up meat and leather; close down all circuses, zoos, animal parks, aquariums, and racetracks; and stop laboratories from using animals. Most welfarists are not willing to go so far, preferring to focus on finding practical solutions to problems such as pet overpopulation and cruelty to domestic animals.

At the other end of the spectrum is the radical element of the animal movement. This element does not debate philosophy but takes direct actionsometimes illegallyto free animals from farms and laboratories. The ALF is not really a group, as it has no leadership structure, but is instead a set of guidelines. The ALF (January 2007, states that "the short-term aim is to save as many animals as possible and directly disrupt the practice of animal abuse. [The] long term aim is to end all animal suffering by forcing animal abuse companies out of business." The ALF also states that any vegans or vegetarians who carry out actions according to ALF guidelines can regard themselves as part of the ALF. These actions include liberating animals from "places of abuse" and inflicting "economic damage" on the people involved. ALF followers are urged to take precautions to prevent harming humans and animals. The ALF receives funding from the ALF Supporters Group, which is made up of people who believe in the ALF guidelines but do not want to be involved in criminal activities.


In May 2003 the Gallup Organization conducted a poll to determine Americans' opinions regarding animal rights issues. The results are based on telephone interviews with 1,005 adults aged eighteen and up.

As shown in Figure 2.1, 25% of those asked believed that animals deserve the same rights as people. A large majority (72%) said that animals deserve some protection but can still be used to benefit people. Only a tiny percentage (3%) felt that animals do not need much protection from harm and exploitation. The Gallup reporter David W. Moore notes that support for animal rights was much higher among women (33%) than among men (17%).

The respondents were also asked whether they supported or opposed four specific proposals concerning the treatment of animals. (See Figure 2.2.) More than 60% favored passing strict laws regarding the treatment of farm animals. Nearly 40% favored a ban on all product testing performed on laboratory animals. Around one-third favored a similar ban on medical research testing. Support was far lower (22%) for a total ban on hunting.

Moore notes that examination of these results by gender, age, and political affiliation reveals far more support for these proposals among women than among men. Support was also significantly higher from Democrats and Independents than from Republicans. No significant differences were found between age groups.

Degrees of adherence to the animal rights philosophy varied. Some of the people who said they supported animal rights did not want to eliminate all the practices in which animals are killed or harmed. (See Figure 2.3.) More than half of those who supported animal rights were opposed to banning hunting. About 43% of them did not want to ban medical research on laboratory animals. Roughly 39% did not want to ban product testing on animals, and more than 20% of them opposed passing strict laws concerning the treatment of farm animals.

These answers are somewhat puzzling. Moore suggests that the people indicating support for animal rights had pets in mind when they answered that question. Later, when asked about the specific proposals (hunting, research, product testing, and farm animals), these same people may have envisioned different animals. It is also possible that people do not have a clear idea of the concept of animal rights or what the philosophy means in practice.