This overview provides a summary of the evolution of the animal rights movement with particular focus on the property status of animals in the U.S.
Forty years ago, the national rights debate was discussed in racial terms. Not long after, it expanded to include notions of sex and gender. Today, arguably, its scope spans even further - past the bounds of humankind. In 1975, Peter Singer brought to light the new animal protectionist cause in “Animal Liberation.” Commonly associated with animal rights, the book actually represents a utilitarian approach - one that denies the rights of any species and instead lobbies for equal consideration. Nonetheless, the book’s arrival marked the awakening of the animal rights cause on the national political scene. Over 25 years later, the issues raised in the book continue to stir controversy. Animal rights, though perhaps not among the issues at the forefront of domestic policy concerns, is now a legitimate topic for discussion; one that stirs strong opinions on both sides.
Moreover, Singer’s book does more than simply mark the beginning of an era, it highlights a changing picture of animals and their place in a human world. In its denial of rights, it helps to define them. Certainly, societal concern for animals is nothing new. Before the United States had abolished slavery, Great Britain was home to the world’s first animal protectionist organization - the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, established in 1824. Its American counterpart, commonly known as the ASPCA, was founded just a few years later. Such groups, in addition to more well-known organizations like the Humane Society and World Wildlife Fund, advocate a sort of traditional welfare theory for animal protection. These organizations represent what has come to be known as the animal welfarist position. Welfarists seek to prevent the unnecessary suffering of animals, but at base believe that humans can and should continue to exploit other animals. This view is represented in the many state anti-cruelty statutes across the country and in federal laws such as the Animal Welfare Act and Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.
Rights advocates, on the other hand, seek to do something more for animals, perhaps much more by some estimates. To these people, animals are not another natural resource to be used and exploited by humanity. Rather, they, like humans, have certain inalienable entitlements that serve as a check on the freedom of every other living being. Animals have the right not to be slaughtered for minimal human benefit, a right not to endure suffering for small medical advances. In this country today, a strong case can be made that there are no true animal rights laws in effect. One might argue, however, that the Endangered Species Act as originally enacted in 1973 was a rights law, however. Indeed, so strict was the law in its initial form that the construction of a massive dam was stopped by the United States Supreme Court because its completion would destroy the habitat of a single species - the snail darter.
Other countries, however, do have some sort of animal rights legislation. New Zealand, for example, made national news several years ago when it enacted legislation granting certain fundamental rights to members of the Great Apes - humanity’s closest genetic relatives. More recently, the German parliament recently added animal rights language into the nation’s constitution, a provision acknowledging the country’s respect for the basic rights of all living creatures.
Rights advocates might be thought of as falling into two groups - the philosophers and the activists. The activists, people like Tom Regan, advocate ending animal experimentation for medical and educational research, a ban on the use of animals for entertainment (such as in circuses), and the abolition of factory farming. Such activists seek strong new legislation that afford real protection to animals. They seek to give animals standing in court so that the endangered species can, in effect, protect themselves from humans. Such activists also seek to change the balance between animals and people by removing nonhumans’ property classification. If animals were legally liberated from their master, a unique individual under the law, things would have to change.
The philosophers, like Mary Midgley, on the other hand, attempt to first change the way we as humans perceive animals. Waging a war of words and ideals, such rights advocates ask whether a dog is more like a toaster or a child - a thing or a person - and whether your dog is really your dog. Language and phrasing, then, are important. A doe is not an “it.” She is a deer, after all, and a female deer at that. Such a distinction between the activist and the philosopher is, of course, imperfect. Many rights advocates are some combination of both. Moreover, as when comparing welfarism with rights theory, skeptics don’t see a meaningful distinction, as the end result is the same - advocating real rights for nonhumans.
To skeptics of animal rights, however, the line between such new rights proposals and traditional welfare theory, or classes of rights proponents, are distinctions without a difference. Either way, animal advocates seek to extend greater protections to animals, protections that might come at the expense of humans. Indeed, such skeptics oppose increased animal protections not because of their dislike or distaste for the animal kingdom, but rather because they fear new animal protections inevitably mean harm to people. Medicine is where it is today because of animal experimentation. Animals in circuses, aquariums, and zoos provide endless joy to millions of children and adults alike. Moreover, meat is a staple of the American diet and leather is both a fashionable and functional material for apparel. Animals are also an important part of the American economy - thousands, perhaps millions of jobs are the line if animal rights make significant headway. Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally to rights opponents, animals are different than people. Whether one views it from a religious, evolutionary, or self-aggrandized perspective, humans are better than animals.
In the end, the point is not to determine who is right in the rights debate. As with so many other political, social, and ethical issues, it is too simplistic to label one side correct and the other wrong. Rather, the point is to spread awareness that animal rights is an issue, a serious issue worthy of public discourse. Already, change is underway across America and abroad. Several countries now recognize, at least on paper, some form of animal rights. Several American communities have begun rethinking the legal labels they attach to animals and pet owners. The wisdom and limits of such change will become important points for debate. As such, information on the issues is critical.