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Archive for November, 2012

The BBC programme Inside Out recently carried an item on animal rights.

Presented by the well-known poet, writer and animal rights advocate Benjamin Zephaniah, it examined why some individuals in the ‘animal rights’ movement were prepared to go to extreme lengths in support of their beliefs. I was asked to take part, having once been a supporter of animal rights – a concept that I now believe to be both flawed and false.

But what exactly is meant by ‘animal rights’ and how does it differ from animal welfare? Indeed, does it matter, when so many people around the world sadly couldn’t care less about either? While animal welfare appears fairly obvious and straightforward – in reality, it’s not – ‘animal rights’ takes the concept of protection to an altogether different level.

The term ‘animal rights’ came into common use in the early 1970s, at the same time numerous groups dedicated to protecting animals from a variety of uses or abuses were growing in strength. Author and academic Peter Singer had written Animal Liberation, arguing that as we should not discriminate on the basis of a difference in race or gender, we should extend that view to include animals. More books on similar themes were to follow and for some the idea of being an ‘animal rightist’ was much punchier than simply a supporter of animal welfare; the image of a beagle-cradling activist being far more attractive than that of a little old lady doting on her cats.

The media has used the term ‘animal rights’ ever since, often not understanding its true meaning. Anyone arguing or campaigning for better treatment of animals is now an animal rightist. Yet to give animals rights begs the question “Exactly what rights and to what species?”  Humans have given fellow humans ‘rights’ and, without going into the obvious exceptions, these are linked with responsibilities – something that cannot be expected of animals. Yet every day we see how complicated the concept of human rights can be, with some rights conflicting with others…and that’s just for one species. To give  ‘rights’ to animals – and by the very nature of avoiding discrimination that must mean every animal – would require a monumental change in the way we all live in this country. Some of those changes I would welcome, but to demand this of certain countries around the world that have absolutely no concept of animal suffering is to reach for the stars. And I’m not talking here of some far-flung corner of the earth. Just look, for example, at what goes on in the ‘civilised’ EU country of Spain – a drunken mob torturing and goading a bull by setting fire to its horns and all under the guise of a form of entertainment that has “special cultural status”!

Worthy of cultural status?

At one level, ‘animal rights’ is simply a confused version of animal welfare; at the other extreme it has been detrimental to improving the lot of animals. One does not have to be an ‘animal rightist’ to be sickened by the brutal scenes of a 60 year old arthritic elephant being beaten by a cowardly circus worker or to be angered by the fact that such animals are still held in totally unnatural surroundings for the sole purpose of performing inane tricks. Many of those who say they support animal rights will not be vegetarian, let alone vegan, showing once again that the term does not correctly apply to most people or indeed most groups campaigning for animals. If, as many will say, they simply mean that animals should not be caused unnecessary suffering, well, that is animal welfare.

An animal rights agenda can lead to problems at a number of levels. The vast majority of the work of the RSPCA is rightly in the welfare field and is fully supported by the public, politicians and the media because the welfare benefits are usually obvious. Importantly, such work conforms to the rules governing charities, which state that all charitable activity, including animal welfare, must benefit humans. Difficulties start to arise when an animal rights agenda is followed and this so often comes down to a naïve “just don’t do it” demand.

One distinct difference between animal welfare and animal rights is the latter’s quest for ‘milestones’ rather than a gradual improvement in welfare standards. In some ways the stance adopted is more about how the activist feels, rather than what actually happens to the animals concerned. Another trait is that every issue must be reduced down to a ‘for or against’ level, with no consideration of any middle ground or a willingness to see merit in an opposing view. Demonising the opposition rather than constructive debate is often preferred, sometimes leading to violence. The attempt to curb bovine TB by culling badgers becomes totally wrong in such thinking. The need to provide a realistic alternative strategy and the fact that diseased badgers themselves are currently suffering seems secondary to ‘winning’. David McDowell, a former acting chief veterinary adviser to the RSPCA said he feared that such a controversial approach was jeopardising the charity’s ability to work with farmers on animal welfare issues and giving the impression that the RSPCA is an “extremist organisation”.

Straddling an animal rights and animal welfare position, as well as being unprincipled, leads to awkward situations. The RSPCA is a partner in the Deer Initiative, a body that supports and encourages deer management groups, which inevitably means healthy deer being shot to prevent over-population and preserving flora. So culling healthy animals is fine for conservation reasons, but culling animals to curb disease is not? RSPCA vice president Brian May is revealed as having allowed deer shooting on his Dorset estate, but has now ended the practice. Fair enough, that’s his choice, but in true animal rights style, he reduces the whole argument down to that simplistic ‘for or against’ situation, condemning those who do kill deer as barbaric and blaming the Countryside Alliance for trying to blacken his name. Never mind that the organisation for whom he is vice president states, “There is strong scientific evidence that deer culling is humane and effective in certain circumstances.” and that he himself along with other animal groups have argued in favour of shooting when opposing hunting. Confused? Yes, I think he is.

Another indication that the RSPCA and its ruling council are more concerned about ‘animal rights’ than animal welfare concerns hunting with dogs. The prosecution of hunts via the ridiculous Hunting Act and its technical offences becomes worthy of vast amounts of the RSPCA money, even in the clear knowledge that other means of control that are non-selective and capable of wounding are now filling the vacuum. But in the world of animal rights the Hunting Act is another one of those ‘milestones’, regardless of its effect on wildlife, and once reached there must be no going back.

If everyone opposed to cruelty to wild animals could step back from their animal rights position, stop grandstanding in the media and consider all the consequences of their campaign, they would see that a simplistic ban on hunting with dogs – a typical animal rights move – has done very little good and a great deal of harm. Instead, they would campaign for, rather than argue against, a broader law based on evidence that properly addresses actions that genuinely cause unnecessary suffering, no matter what the circumstances. But this is an animal welfare measure and it does not sit easily with the uncompromising philosophy of animal rights.

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