Animal Welfare or Animal Rights?

Just like religion and politics, having concern for animals can run the whole spectrum of opinion and ideas. From the humane rancher who believes his “stock” should be raised belly high in grass rather than penned up knee high in dung, to the vegan and groups that advocate that there should be little to no contact between animals and humans-that they should both be given the space to live out their lives unmolested by the other. Most animal shelters, including WAIF, are somewhere in the middle of that continuum.

There is a difference between welfare and rights. An article by Beth Coughlin (“Animal Welfare vs. Animal Rights: Understanding the Difference”) says “if someone says there is no difference, they are on the Animal Rights side of the debate.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association defines animal welfare as “The ethical responsibility of ensuring animal well being.” Animal rights, on the other hand takes it further and hold diverse ideas such as “objecting to any form of companion animal in principle and any planned breeding of companion animals in practice” (Coughlin).

I agree there is a difference. I once had the honor of being invited to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, along with thirty-one other members of different faith groups to develop a Proclamation for Compassion Toward Animals (signed in Washington, DC in 2007). There were representatives from Jainism, Buddhism, Evangelical Protestant, Catholic, Islam, Hinduism, and several more. There were vegans, vegetarians, and meat eaters in this group (found out that even at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, about half of their employees and volunteers are meat eaters too). All of us were there because of one common concern, animals. The process we went through was sometimes difficult as we tried to get through individual belief systems, individual world views regarding animals, to get to the basic goals of the proclamation. This is where differences between welfare and rights were able to be bridged for a moment in time.

This bridge was possible because both animal welfare organizations and animal rights organizations have the shared goal of ending animal cruelty. Regardless of whether it is right for humans to use, interact, or have companionship with animals, humans who care at all, want to minimize pain, and suffering regardless if humans were responsible for that pain and suffering or not.

Early on in my work in animal welfare, I observed what I believe to be a truism about animal lovers. Every animal lover believes they know better than the next animal lover how to treat animals. Perhaps someday the field will develop best practices to the point that the ongoing debates and arguments will subside. In the meantime, it is important to acknowledge that bridges can be built between diverse groups, even for a moment, to the benefit of the animals.

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