What are animal rights and what laws protect animal rights?
Billions of animals are used worldwide by humans for food, scientific experimentation, sport, entertainment, and to create products like clothing, glue, makeup, and skincare. Yet each one of these billions represents an animal who is consciously aware, feels pain and suffering, and experiences emotions.
The animal rights movement and the philosophy of animal rights acknowledge an animal’s inherent right to self-determination and a life free of human exploitation. The animal rights movement asserts that humans have a legal and moral obligation to respect and safeguard an animal’s right to live their lives as they wish, in a way that is appropriate for that animal.
What are animal rights?
Although there is no single cohesive global animal rights movement, and organizations and individuals advocating for animal rights may take different approaches, there are certain core principles that drive campaigners for animal rights. At the very heart of the animal rights movement is the belief that animals have their own intrinsic value that has nothing to do with how useful humans think they are. Thus, using animals in any way that causes harm — whether physical or psychological — is immoral and violates their rights.
Advocates for animal rights seek to provide a moral and legal framework for human-animal interactions based on mutual respect rather than commodification and exploitation. Some goals of the animal rights movement include laws establishing the personhood of animals, forbidding the use of animals in harmful and lethal scientific experiments, and no longer holding animals captive in circuses for entertainment. Another goal of the animal rights movement is advocating for veganism — a lifestyle that avoids the consumption and use of animals and animal products.
Do animals deserve rights?
Animals deserve rights not only because they can suffer and feel, but also because they can experience valid, rich lives independent of their use by humans. Even if their appearance, physiology, and behavior are vastly different from humans’, they still merit rights that grant them the freedom to live fulfilling, autonomous lives.
The concept that animals deserve consideration as autonomous beings can be found in many areas of non-European thought and philosophy. Buddhism teaches a principle of nonviolence that includes animals, and the Buddha disapproved of butchering animals and wearing animal skins. Hinduism and Jainism also embrace a doctrine of nonviolence toward other living beings. Jainism, in particular, avoids practices that are cruel to animals, including zookeeping and using textiles like silk that are produced by harming animals.
The idea that animals experience not only pain but also profound emotions that might be called sentience has been a contentious one in European thought. The philosopher and experimenter Descartes believed that animals were essentially machines with no capacity for feeling, and this idea became entrenched in European philosophy and scientific thought. As a case in point, a 2018 survey of perceptions of animal sentience in the sheep industry found that Brazilian respondents were more likely to acknowledge sentience and suffering in sheep than respondents from France.
However, many have challenged this type of thinking over the centuries, and there is a vast body of scientific knowledge establishing animal sentience and consciousness in many species commonly exploited by humans. In 2012, an international group of prominent neuroscientists convened to produce the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. This consensus statement weighed the available evidence of animal consciousness and concluded that humans are not unique in their neurological capacity for conscious awareness. They further concluded that animals with very different nervous systems, like birds and octopuses, also possessed the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.
An important underlying theme in this statement was that animal consciousness cannot be dismissed simply because the animal looks or behaves differently than humans. In 2015, the European Food Safety Authority commissioned a scientific report focusing on farmed animals that came to a similar conclusion.
The rise of global capitalism, including the propagation of industrial agriculture from the Global North to the Global South, has presented further challenges to implementing animal rights. With the development of concentrated feeding operations that hold billions of animals in inhumane conditions, animal exploitation in food systems has become deeply intertwined with corporate profit and control. And although only 6% of global farmed animals are in the United States and Europe, animal rights movements in those areas of the world receive most of the funding (nearly four-fifths of the total money given to advocacy groups).
In spite of these challenges, recognition that animals deserve rights is growing. Movements all over the world have led to significant changes in the status and protection of animals. In 2021, Mexico became the first country in North America to ban cosmetic testing on animals, and in 2014 the city of Palitana in Gujarat, India banned animal slaughter, fishing, and animal farming and became one of the first fully vegetarian cities in the world.
Do animals have rights?
Animals lack personhood status in most areas of the world, which means that they have little to no legal standing. Animals are widely considered to be the property of humans, and this significantly diminishes legal protections that can be implemented on their behalf. While many countries and states have instituted laws granting animals protections against cruelty and neglect, there are still vast populations of animals that lack any protection whatsoever. Furthermore, most laws have problematic gaps in who and what they cover, and enforcement is frequently lax.
More fundamentally, exploitation of animals is entrenched in economic and political systems worldwide, and major shifts in attitudes toward animals are needed. In addition to stringent legal protections, recognizing animal sentience and self-determination can lay the groundwork for animals to be granted rights. Several countries have already made significant steps forward — in 2021 Spain passed a law broadly acknowledging animal sentience for both wild and domestic animals. Spain joins France, New Zealand, Tanzania, the EU, and the UK as countries that legally recognize animal sentience.
There are many ways that humans commonly use and harm animals, and these would have to be addressed for animals to be granted meaningful rights.
Animals may not be used for food
Raising and slaughtering animals for food violates their rights by depriving animals of their lives and freedoms. In industrial agriculture systems, farmed animals are confined in small, unnatural spaces and subjected to painful and distressing bodily harms like dehorning and debeaking that are considered routine management practices. Worldwide, over 70 billion land animals are killed for food each year, in addition to 97 million tons of fish. In an animal rights framework, people would no longer slaughter and eat animals, though there are currently few laws in existence that forbid using animals for food.
Animals may not be hunted
Wild animals may be hunted for sport or sustenance, but depriving them of their lives for the benefit of humans violates their fundamental right to exist without harmful interference. Sport hunting, which is solely for human entertainment and often hinges on the acquisition of animal body parts as trophies, has been the focus of several animal rights campaigns over the past decade and is illegal in some countries.
Animal habitats must be protected
Protection of animal habitats is another key point in granting rights to animals, as this acknowledges that animals have the right to their natural and preferred surroundings. Human activities have increasingly encroached on wild animal habitats, leading to conflicts with people and negative outcomes for animal populations. An animal rights framework ensures that animals have access to appropriate natural habitats and are not constrained or kept in captivity by humans. While there are laws that protect wild habitats in existence, they often prioritize human uses and gains first over the needs of the animals.
Animals may not be bred
Animals are bred for human use in a variety of contexts. Farmed animals have been genetically manipulated to express characteristics that increase profit for the agriculture industry. Selective breeding for abnormally fast growth and large muscles in chickens and turkeys has resulted in profound physical effects on these birds — they suffer from cardiovascular diseases, painful pressure sores, and some become too heavy for their legs to support and are unable to access food or water.
Humans breed companion animals to exhibit traits that are considered attractive but create significant suffering for the animals, as in the case of Pugs and Persian cats, who experience lifelong breathing problems due to shortened facial bones. Wild animals are held captive and bred to be used in zoos, shows, and circuses for human entertainment. These uses compromise the rights of animals, though there are currently few laws forbidding these harmful practices.
What laws protect animal rights?
Laws to protect animals are often not comprehensive enough to fully guarantee animal rights, and existing laws may be poorly enforced. However, many countries worldwide have enacted some form of animal protection legislation. Here are a few examples of laws enacted around the world to protect animals, though these laws fall short of granting animals rights.
In Kenya, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1962 applies to all vertebrate animals, and outlaws rodeos and animal fights. Kenya has also drafted the Animal Welfare and Protection Bill that expands protections to all animals, not just vertebrates.
India’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act recognizes that animals can suffer both physically and mentally, and applies to all animals, though some harmful practices are exempted.
Nearly every state in Mexico has some form of animal welfare laws in addition to federal legislation that grants animals certain protections. Many of these laws imply recognition of animal sentience.
In Venezuela, Law No. 39,338 enacts protections for companion animals, notably dogs, and outlaws abuse and neglect.
In Brazil, Law No 14.064/2020, established a prison sentence of 2 (two) to 5 (five) years for the crime of mistreatment of dogs or cats.
The Wildlife Protection Act in India forbids harming wild animals and taking their body parts as trophies.
In the US, the Shark Conservation Act bans the removal of shark fins, known as shark finning.
Brazil’s Environmental Crimes Law prohibits the abuse of wild animals.
Kenya’s Wildlife Conservation and Management Act of 2013 outlaws recreational and trophy hunting.
Tanzania’s Animal Welfare Act contains specific provisions to protect animals during slaughter and transport, and requires consideration of their behavioral needs.
Austria has banned the tethering of cows in the dairy industry and mandated phasing out farrowing crates by 2033. Country laws have also forbidden foie gras production and fur farming.
In Brazil, the Humane Slaughter Regulation covers mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibious but fish are excluded.
As a group, farmed animals tend to be some of the most poorly protected animals under the law, and many countries fail to provide specific provisions directed at farmed animal rights.
Why are animal rights important?
Animal rights would save billions of animals from suffering — if animals were given rights, humans would no longer be able to use and abuse them.
Animals do not exist for humans, but have their own lives and interests they wish to protect.
Animal rights intersect with human rights — for example, industrial agriculture and factory farming harm both animals and people when they are exported to ecosystems in the Global South.
Thinking of animals as less worthy of moral consideration than humans is an arbitrary distinction rooted in human exceptionalism.
What’s the difference between animal welfare and animal rights?
Animal welfare does not question the underlying notion that humans can use animals for their own purposes, but rather tries to stop some of the worst abuses and ensure that animals are treated humanely. For example, an animal welfare approach may seek to ban farrowing crates for pigs or address overcrowding in chicken sheds by mandating that fewer chickens be stocked. Animal welfare’s goal is for animals to have positive physical and behavioral experiences, but not to free them from the current systems of exploitation.
In contrast, the ultimate goal of animal rights is to change the attitudes and systems that lead to animal exploitation. For instance, one strategy of the animal rights movement may be to convince consumers to stop purchasing animal products and adopt vegan diets. Another strategy may be to advocate for animal-free cosmetic testing methods and the removal of all animals from harmful scientific experiments.
Animal welfare and animal rights advocates can have goals in common, like enacting legal bans on battery cages for chickens – these two approaches are not mutually excludent. Sinergia Animal promotes welfare campaigns, for example, as one immediate step to reduce suffering of animals who otherwise would suffer from the cruelest practices in factory farms. Nonetheless, our final goal is to achieve a world in which no animal is exploited for human consumption..
Animal rights: Facts and statistics
Brazil first enacted animal protection legislation that recognized some aspects of animal sentience as early as 1934.
Over 20 cities in Argentina, including Buenos Aires, have banned the use of animals in circuses.
Also in Argentina, a 2016 landmark court decision granted legal rights to an orangutan named Sandra being kept in a zoo.
In 2022, Ecuador’s High Court recognized that wild animals possess legal rights in the case of a woolly monkey taken from the wild.
Switzerland was the first country to legally recognize the dignity of animals and forbid suffering due to humiliation and anxiety.
The animal rights movement recognizes the intrinsic value of individual animals and does not support the use of animals for human purposes in any way — including in the production of food, clothing, and entertainment. Animal rights advocates seek to grant autonomy to animals to be able to live their lives as they see fit, without harmful human interference.
Many countries and states have implemented laws protecting animals against acts of cruelty, but these laws are highly variable and often not based on animal rights concepts. Though there have been some significant strides forward in legal acknowledgment of animal rights, there is still much to be accomplished before animals are universally granted respect and autonomy.