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The difference between animal rights and welfare

By Veronica Lommler
On February 5, 2013

We’ve all seen the commercials with Sarah McLachlan advocating animal rights and pushing to end the abuse of animals. But what exactly do animal rights entail?

Commercials like these would have you believe that animal rights look out for the well-being and quality of life for an animal. However, animal rights and animal welfare are far from being the same.

Currently, the law protects the welfare of animals — ensuring that they are humanely treated and that those who abuse them are punished by the law. From your sweet little puppy to the herds of cattle which will one day become dinner, all animals are property, devoid of the same moral rights and protections humans are afforded. Some advocacy groups, however, are fighting to change the system.

Groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have been working for years to give animals the right to their own lives. Ideally, increasing the protections that animals receive under the law would create an extremely beneficial situation. Dogs, cats, horses and other animals could receive protection from pain and suffering, allowing for increased penalties, fines and jail time for their abusers, potentially deterring more humans from hurting animals. And when you see those sweet little faces on the television screen, how can you even begin to say “no” to animal rights? They’re living beings — they have personalities, the ability to feel both happiness and pain and the inability to speak for or help themselves. The needs of an animal would no longer be second to but rather the same as that of a human.

However, along with the great benefits of protection for Fido and Mittens comes the issue of using animals for medical advancement, clothing, food and even as service animals. Welfare laws today ensure the humane treatment of animals used in laboratories, for food and as service animals. Corporations are punished for the inhumane slaughter of cattle, poultry and other foodstuff animals, though we’re still using these animals for meat.

Giving all animals rights would take these laws a step further, preventing any sort of human use of animals. Extensive animal rights could put up walls, blocking medical advancements which could save lives, prevent the killing of food animals for meat and even stop the use of animals which provide great services to the disabled, as well as law enforcement officials who search for drugs and missing persons and help protect the community. No longer would humans be permitted to use or “exploit” animals in any capacity, whether it be to their ultimate detriment as a laboratory or food animal, or a mutually beneficial relationship between a service animal and its owner.

So the question becomes, how can we increase the level of protection and rights afforded to animals while at the same time continuing to benefit from them? Many people opposing animal rights want to be able to use animals for our benefit and understand how drastically different today’s society would be without animal use in laboratories, at farms and even at home. While some may be willing to give more rights to domestic pets, many activist groups argue that it’s not enough and will never be satisfied with more rights for only certain species. And they make an interesting point — do we as humans have the right to decide which species “deserve” more rights and protections than others?

That’s a question that I don’t have an answer for. What I do know is that without the sacrifice of animals, we wouldn’t know nearly as much about diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s, and we wouldn’t be able to treat people with new and advanced medications. Without the use of animals, even more missing persons would go unfound and the disabled wouldn’t have the same mobility and companionship.

I love animals and appreciate all that is possible because of them, and although they ought to be afforded more protections, I am reluctant to limit our ability to work with and benefit from them.

Deciding where to draw the line, or if a line should be drawn, may be an insurmountable task. Until the degree of our obligation to protect the rights of animals is determined, all we can do is continue to look out for and protect the welfare of animals, and maybe pitch in the next time those little ones show their faces on the television screen.


Veronica Lommler is a graduate student studying biology.
 

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