Why Should Animals Have Rights?

Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. Many of us bought our beloved “pets” at pet shops, had guinea pigs, or kept beautiful birds in cages. We wore wool and silk, ate burgers at McDonald’s, and went fishing. Never did we consider the impact of these actions on the animals involved.

People often ask, should animals have rights? The answer, quite simply, is “Yes!” Animals deserve to live their lives free from suffering and exploitation. Jeremy Bentham, social reformer and founder of the Utilitarian school of moral philosophy, identified the vital characteristic to establish the rights of beings. “The question,” wrote Bentham, “is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Unlike the capacity for language or to perform higher mathematics, the capacity for suffering is universal. All animals suffer in the same way and to the same degree as humans do. All animals feel pain, pleasure, fear, frustration, loneliness, and maternal love.

Whenever we engage in an activity that exploits or causes animals to suffer – eating them, putting them in prison-like zoos, wearing their fur or hides or buying items that are tested on animals – it is unethical and immoral. What you would not do to a human, it is wrong to do to an animal. Human society permits such horrendous things to be done to animals. Think of the steel jaw leg hold trap and anal electrocutions of fur-bearing animals. Think of pigs living their lives in gestation crates, unable to turn around or touch their offspring. Think of male calves ripped from their mothers, fed an anemic diet, and chained to an igloo in the bitter cold to be slaughtered for veal. Think of fish with sharp metal hooks in their mouths, pulled from the water to die of suffocation. Think of elephants in a circus being hit and jabbed behind the ears or knees and other sensitive areas with a “bull hook,” a wooden rod with a sharp steel hook at one end. Think of the miserable existence of a dairy cow, artificially inseminated again and again on what the dairy industry calls a “rape rack” in order to provide milk for humans while her own unweaned offspring are taken from her. Think also of the factory farmed chickens packed so tightly in cages that they go crazy and would peck at each other had their sensitive beaks not been cut off with a sharp blade, leaving many unable to eat or drink. The list goes on and on.

Supporters of animal rights believe that animals have an inherent worth, a value separate from their usefulness to humans. We believe that every creature with the will to live has the right to live free from pain and suffering imposed by humans. Animal rights is not just a philosophy, it is a social movement that challenges society’s traditional view that nonhuman animals exist solely for the use and benefit of humans. As PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk has said, “When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness, and fear, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. Each one values his or her life and fights the knife.”

Only prejudice, tradition, and an unwillingness to give up what we’re used to, allows us to deny others the rights that we demand for ourselves. Whether it’s based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or species, prejudice is morally unacceptable. If you wouldn’t eat a dog, why eat a pig, a cow, or a fish? Those animals share the same capacity to feel pain as any other, and it’s reprehensible for us to think of one animal as a companion and another as dinner.