Although animals earn the admiration of humans everywhere, not everyone considers them to be equal members of society. This is perhaps unsurprising considering that many societies still do not guarantee equal protection of individuals with different religious backgrounds, skin colors or genders, let alone different species that perceive the world fundamentally differently from humans.
In some ways, the fact that animals do not have the same rights as humans makes sense; after all, animals have no concept of, say, political issues, so giving them the right to vote, for instance, would likely not end well. Even so, animals are still autonomous beings with their own interests, wants, and feelings. Shouldn’t they enjoy some of the same rights we rely on to live a comfortable life?
The progress we’ve made
The good news is that numerous countries over the past several years have overseen cases and pursued policies that grant animals more rights akin to those of humans. For instance, back in 2013, the Indian government prohibited its citizens from capturing and keeping cetaceans such as dolphins and orcas in captivity, arguing that these creatures “should be seen as ‘non-human persons’” that have “‘their own specific rights.’”
Similarly, an Argentinian judge ruled in favor of an orangutan named Sandra at the Buenos Aires National Park, referring to her as “a ‘nonhuman person’” and allowing her to reside in a sanctuary in Florida. In October of last year, a U.S. District Court declared that a herd of hippopotami who escaped a compound in Colombia qualified as “‘interested persons,’” thereby legally protecting them from extermination by the Colombian government. In 2019, the U.S. passed a bipartisan bill that officially declared animal cruelty and torture a federal crime. Finland even developed an entire Declaration of Rights specifically dedicated to cetaceans back in 2010.
The progression of animal rights that has taken place across the world has been genuinely impressive, and these achievements are absolutely worth celebrating. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go before animal rights even come close to those of humans.
The progress we haven’t made
One of the most blatant examples of this disparity can be seen in the global meat industry. Factory farms all over the world are notorious for the inhumane ways in which they treat their animals. Oftentimes, animals are kept in oppressively cramped spaces, stressing them out and preventing them from performing essential tasks. These conditions can lead to animals harming each other or spreading disease, and factory farmers’ efforts to lessen the complications of this form of confinement entail brutal acts of mutilation, such as the debeaking of chickens and the dehorning of cows.
Animal rights fall short of human rights in various other ways. While zoos are not inherently unethical and they have legitimate uses, such as the conservation of endangered species, they can prove incredibly destructive to animals’ well-being when handled poorly. Many for-profit zoos do not give their animals enough space to roam around and behave naturally, causing stress in a similar manner to factory farms. Additionally, for-profit zoo animals are often forced to breed and produce children on a regular basis, and since many zookeepers want to take advantage of these baby animals for photo opportunities and to attract customers, they often separate the babies from their mothers right after birth.
And then there’s the issue of sport and trophy hunting, activities that outright encourage participants to brutally murder innocent wildlife. In the early years of human history, hunting was a necessity for our species to stay alive, but now many hunters are content to kill these animals merely for the pleasure of doing so. Arguably, even hunting for food has no place in modern society, as the average individual has plenty of ways they can obtain food without resorting to the murder of animals. But it’s especially harrowing that so many individuals see the lives of animals as part of a game rather than something to be respected.
As humans, we aren’t immune to the kinds of rights abuses that animals routinely experience, but we have at least set clear standards regarding what is acceptable. Most agree that placing humans who do not commit violent crimes in captivity is wrong, yet animals are held captive all the time regardless of their individual actions. Taking away human babies from their parents is rightfully considered a crime, yet similar restrictions do not apply to the separation of baby animals from their parents in for-profit zoos. Killing another human being is widely considered among the worst acts that one can commit, yet killing animals is seen by many as simply a way to unwind. The cultural and moral taboos that deter humans from infringing on the rights of their own kind are nowhere near as strong when applied to animals, and as long as that remains the case, animals will continue to get the short end of the stick.
Should animals share rights with humans?
Some would argue, however, that since animals think in a fundamentally different way to humans, they should not be given rights akin to ours. According to this view, animals cannot be considered moral beings like humans are, as they do not share our perceptions of right and wrong, and rights only have meaning to those who understand morality. Some even believe that animals do not experience pain in the same way as humans.
Such reasoning ultimately comes off as arbitrary and, quite frankly, callous. Whether or not animals understand the rights they are given is irrelevant, as the lack of these rights can and does affect them in a material way regardless. Arguing whether or not animals’ perceptions of pain are akin to ours is a similarly fruitless endeavor. Even if the specifics of animal pain differ from those of human pain, the fact that they experience pain at all is demonstrable, and that alone makes their well-being worth considering from both a moral and legal standpoint.
This is not to say there aren’t legitimate debates to be had regarding how animal rights should be applied compared to human rights. For instance, as mentioned earlier, humans suffer no repercussions for hunting animals whereas they do upon killing another human. But as we all know, animals hunt other animals all the time, and we generally accept that as a natural part of their existence. Should animals also be legally barred from killing other animals? Should the current laws regarding humans’ hunting of animals stand as they are? Questions like these make it remarkably difficult to come up with a perfectly just and fair set of legal protections for both animals and humans, and the debates surrounding these questions will likely go on forever.
But even though it would not be feasible to give animals all of the legal rights that humans have, treating them at the very least as conscious entities worthy of legal protection is still essential. So many people strive for a society in which everyone is treated fairly under the law, and for such a society to truly be fair, “everyone” has to include animals as well. Fortunately, governments everywhere are slowly but surely beginning to recognize this, as animal rights activists have achieved notable legal victories in recent years. If the battle for animal rights continues in its current trajectory, then there could be a future where the world as a whole finally treats animals with the dignity and respect they deserve.
How do you think animal rights should ideally be approached? Do you believe that animals deserve the same rights as humans, or do you think animals are too fundamentally different from humans to warrant such a goal? Let us know in the comments below!