What Kind of Animal are You?

Well, if you’re reading this, you’re probably a human animal! And I’m guessing you’re interested in animal welfare, or you wouldn’t be visiting my pages. What I really want to look at here is where you lie on the Animal Welfare/Animal Rights scale. Do you know?

Why Does It Matter?

If you’ve ever been involved in discussions about animal welfare, be they virtual or in reality, you’re bound to have noticed the odd heated argument between individuals who you might expect to be on the same page. Maybe you’ve been involved in one yourself? Heated or otherwise, the variety of viewpoints expressed can usually be brought down to one thing – where individuals’ animal welfare philosophies lie on the continuum between pure Animal Welfare and pure Animal Rights.

Contrary to expectation, being involved in animal welfare does not mean we all have the same viewpoints about animals – certainly we all have a concern for the non-human animals we share this planet with. But actually, the solutions we, as individuals and/or organisations, come up with are guided by our disparate philosophies. And there’s a huge range of viewpoints fitting along different points on the continuum – so it’s hardly surprising there’s a lot of disagreement.

Confusion comes from thinking we’re approaching the problems from the same angle when, in fact, we often are not.

Knowing where you and others stand, and understanding these differing viewpoints, can make life as an animal advocate a lot simpler, saving everyone time and energy. Is it worth entering into a reasoned debate? Or is agreeing to disagree the way to go. Here’s a starting point to understanding the issues – and enabling productive discussion.

Animal Welfare and Animal Rights

Note that other animal philosophies include Animal Ethics, Conservation and Deep Ecology. And, obviously, some people aren’t concerned about animal welfare at all. I’m going to KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and stick to Welfare and Rights.

What most people concerned about animal welfare do agree on are what’s known as The Five Freedoms:

  • Freedom from Hunger and Thirst – ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
  • Freedom from Discomfort – providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  • Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease – prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  • Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour – providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  • Freedom from Fear and Distress – ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

Animal Welfare

A position concerned with the well-being of animals without conceding that animals have rights. Welfarists believe it is alright to use animals for human benefit as long as humane safeguards are used to ensure protection from unnecessary or undue suffering. Unlike animal rightists, they accept the humane use of animals in experiments and the slaughtering of animals as food for humans.

From Bekoff, Marc (2007), Animals Matter, Boston: Shambala Publications

Animal Rights

The position that animals have certain moral and legal rights, including the right not to be harmed. Rightists believe that it is wrong to cause animals any pain and suffering, and that animals should not be eaten, used for clothing, held captive in zoos, subjected to painful experiments or used in most or any research.

From Bekoff, Marc (2007), Animals Matter, Boston: Shambala Publications

Before I go any further, I may as well come out and say I have animal rights leanings myself. The term is often misunderstood and I, personally, see animal rights the way Marc Gold described the notion in 1995:

“The term animal rights is nothing more than a useful kind of shorthand for a movement based on the recognition that non-human animals live purposeful emotional lives and are as capable of suffering as humans … kindness and tolerance for those different and weaker than ourselves are amongst the highest possible human aspirations.”

But let’s not let that get in the way of what I’m trying to say here!

Bottom Line

Animal welfarites believe it’s okay to use animals for human benefit; animal rightists don’t. Both would object to unnecessary or undue suffering – but they may interpret that differently.

Black & White?

No, it’s not that black & white. When are things ever that simple?

While some people are clearly at the welfare end of the spectrum, and others at the rights end, most people lie somewhere in between. And our leanings towards one end or the other may be different depending on the animal, the situation and many other complications.

Complications arise when we start looking at different animals (humans, farm, companion, wild, etc); the different ways animals are used for human benefit; the perspectives of different cultures, religions and social groupings; the effects of upbringing; experiences of different animals from a young age – including direct, second hand and virtual … the list goes on.

Just touching on a few of the issues – have a think about these examples:

Animals as Products

  • Is it okay to for humans to eat cows and sheep? How about dogs and cats? How about lions? Ostriches? Humans?
  • What diets would be acceptable to you? High meat intake? Is Meatless Monday a good idea? Is a dairy diet okay (note vegetarianism relies on the meat industry)? How about vegan?
  • Is it okay to wear fur? Mink? Fox? Cat? How about leather? Suede? Is crocodile skin an acceptable fashion material? Human skin? How about ivory? What if it’s second hand? Fake? (Note: people seeing second hand or fake animal skin clothing may be encouraged to buy the real thing first hand.)
  • How do you feel about human organ trafficking? What if it was the only way to get an organ in time for a dying loved one?

From Wikipedia: Organ trade is the trade involving inner human organs (heart, liver, kidneys, etc.) for organ transplantation. There is a worldwide shortage of organs available for transplantation, yet commercial trade in human organs was a while ago illegal in all countries except Iran.

Animal Experimentation & Research

  • Is it okay to experiment on animals? How about if the Five Freedoms are upheld?
  • How do you feel about vivisection?

Vivisection: the action of cutting into or dissecting a living body; the practice of subjecting living animals to cutting operations, especially in order to advance physiological and pathological knowledge

  • Is it okay to experiment for cosmetics? For pharmaceuticals?
  • What if the experiments might mean finding the cure for allergies? Or cancer? Or for something someone you know suffers from?
  • Is it okay to experiment on companion animals? Strays from the pound? Rats? How about simians? Or farm animals? Wild animals? Would it be okay for your own companion animal to be involved in invasive experiments?
  • Is it okay to experiment on human animals? How about yourself? Or your kids? Or a particular social group – prisoners? Paedophiles?
  • How about research? Can it be non-invasive? Is research in zoos okay? In the wild? In the lab?
  • Is it okay to breed animals to experiment on them? Is it okay to kill them when the research is over?

Animals as Entertainment

  • What do you think about animal circuses? Is it possible to for wild animals to express normal behaviour in a circus environment? Do you think it matters?
  • How about zoos? Petting farms?
  • Blood sports – are they okay? Fox hunting? Badger baiting? Dog fighting (illegal in Ireland)? Deer hunting? Grouse shooting? All, or some, or none?
  • Horse racing? Greyhound racing? Mouse racing?
  • The media is full of human animals entertaining us. That’s okay isn’t it? They’re consenting! But how about war coverage? Deaths publicised? Rape? Peoples’ grief? Movies like Seven?
  • What entertains you? What maybe shouldn’t?

Animals as Pets

  • Is it okay to have pets? What animals do you think are appropriate as pets? Cats? Dogs? Reptiles? Foxes? Lions? Humans? Is human slavery okay?
  • Is it okay to breed companion animals? How about where known genetic problems are likely? Is it okay to have puppies killed that don’t fit the breed standard? What if homes can’t be found?
  • Is it okay to breed in Ireland when 10 dogs are killed every day in Irish pounds? Are purebred dogs more important than those dogs? How much does a pedigree matter? What does it represent?
  • Should pounds kill animals if they can’t find homes for them within five days? How about a month? A year? Ever? What if they’re aggressive? Or ill? Or old?
  • Should rescues take in animals? Or leave them to fend for themselves? Would you adopt or buy?
  • How about feral cats? Should they be killed? Trapped Neutered and Returned (TNR)?

I doubt you answered all those questions consistently. Or did you? Perhaps you’re very clear where you stand at one or other end of the scale. But very few people are. I’ve already described myself as having animal rights leanings – but, at the time of writing, I’m vegetarian, not vegan. That simply doesn’t fit with my viewpoint that all animals, humans and non-human, have equal rights on this earth.

Right or Wrong?

Note that neither Animal Welfare nor Animal Rights is necessarily inherently Right. Both they and other animal philosophies are precisely that – philosophies, arising from our individual ethical and moral viewpoints. If someone who is strictly at the Animal Welfare end of the spectrum is discussing the issues with someone strictly Animal Rights, they will undoubtedly agree on many points – but they will just as undoubtedly disagree on as many others. Either way, it’s always worth knowing where everyone stands. Sometimes it’s worth agreeing to disagree. And it’s always worth acknowledging our differences calmly! Tempers, tantrums and screaming matches are not going to help the animals at the end of the day. And helping the animals is what we all want.

Through the years I’ve been involved and observed a number of discussions where I’ve been confused by the viewpoints expressed. Looking at them from this perspective – questioning the philosophy that’s being articulated – I can understand better. Which hopefully means I can put my arguments forward better!


You may be none the wiser about exactly where you stand on the welfare/rights continuum – maybe you’re animal rights when it comes to experimentation, but animal welfare with regards to the meat industry. At this point you, hopefully, have an understanding of the complexity of our philosophies and can better see where seemingly contradictory viewpoints come from. This is a good start!

Animal welfare can be a simple or complex issue, depending on where you stand. It’s nearly always an emotive one. Many discussions could be more constructive if participants were more aware of the potential differences (and inconsistencies!) in their philosophies. Let’s stop arguing! Let’s listen to each other, understand we have differing viewpoints – and let’s focus on making a constructive difference for the animals!

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Posted in Animal Welfare Issues, Must Reads.