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Do animals have rights?

During this Christmas, I came to read a newspaper article that caught my attention: in Spain, my country of origin, pets are no longer going to be personal custodies as of December 2017. This means that in case of a divorce, agreements can be reached to share the custody and the costs of pets between the couple. Just like children.

Up until today, the question concerning to which extent should animals be treated as human beings has been still diverse in opinions. Under the European Commission, animals are considered as “sentient beings” but some countries in Europe (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Portugal and now Spain) however, have gone one step further by changing national laws and recognizing animals as living beings to improve their welfare.

Yet animal welfare associations may cheer in those mentioned countries, new controversies concerning animal treatment have risen: which animals are pet animals, and which ones are not? We could make a big list of pet animals right now, from dogs to fish, from snakes to pigs. But aren’t pigs also a kind of animal kept for farming purposes? (at least in my country we do eat a lot of pork meat). So how to determine the difference?  Some associations like the Great Ape Project (GAP) emphasize the similarity of some animals to humans (i.e. in this case, great apes), and therefore aim to grant them additional rights and protection over other types of animals. Parallel to these approaches, some argue that this lift of animals rights makes it more difficult to establish moral boundaries when defining what distinguishes human beings from animals.

As a result, animal welfare has become an increasingly visible matter of public debate and, to some extent, marketing strategy: some firms might use the issue to differentiate their products or services claiming they are more “morally responsible.” Nevertheless, animal welfare regulations may be accompanied by an increase of costs for enterprises or an increase in the prices for the consumer participating in any activity related with animals.

To the present day, the European Union has been following five aspects of animal welfare under human control. This set of animal welfare standards are called “The Five Freedoms”, and they include: freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury and diseases, freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from fear and distress. As it was said before, some countries have gone one step further regarding animal welfare regulations, but these standards have been approved by several international organisations in the European Union along with the U.S and the U.K. We have been seeking to improve animals’ welfare, but what about animals’ rights?

It is important to be aware that animal welfare and animal rights are not equivalent. Animal welfare is defined as “a human responsibility that encompasses all aspects of animal well being” (i.e. proper housing, management, disease prevention and treatment, etc.). Proponents of this trend believe that if humans interact with animals for entertainment, sports or industry, the interaction should be regulated in order to maintain the well-being of the animals. Animal rights defenders, however, follow a philosophical view that affirms that, intrinsically, animals have equal or very similar rights as humans. For this reason, proponents of this view are against the use of animals in entertainment activities, sports or any kind of industry, including medical research and selective breeding of pets.

We could affirm that hardly anyone thinks that all animals (name flies, snails, termites, head lice) should have rights; the question is where to draw the line. Some affirm that only higher animals (those that are conscious, can remember and can plan and act in regarding the future) should have the same rights as humans. Others declare that animals and humans should not share the same rights. Against this point of view, animal right defenders claim that any discrimination towards animal’s rights is a form of speciesism, which involves the assignment of different values, rights or special consideration to individuals just on the basis of their species.

In either case, by accepting that animals are sentient beings we have to accept that their welfare is internal to them. And accepting that animals have rights means accepting that human beings should not exploit, kill or treat non-human animal as objects. In the end, this would restrict us humans, and hence animals’ rights proposals have been roughly criticised: main arguments claim that the research medical industry would face a real challenge if animal’s right to live was incorporated in our laws and put into practice. The issue can be controversial: even if scientific research can be done on the animal’s conscience, the question of animal welfare is frequently subject to our own perception. How do we know what “type” of animal welfare is best?

Anyhow, as human beings we should be aware of our need to behave morally. We know that some things are morally wrong and therefore should not be done, regardless of whether the victim has rights or not. For this reason, the argument that animals should be treated properly could be approached from the perspective that humans should behave in a morally responsible way rather than measuring the animal’s rights specifically in respect to us.

All in all, as societies change, laws must as well be changed. New issues of all kinds may emerge consequently but we should be ready to deal with them in order to find the most satisfying solutions and improve the well-being of our society.


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