|Introduction to Animal Rights|
As animal advocates, we at Voices for Animals of Western Pennsylvania are often approached by others who do not understand why we direct our energies fighting for the rights of ducks, cats, pigs, fish, and other non-human animals when they believe we should be focusing our efforts on helping the homeless or people exploited in sweatshops. "It's not that I don't care about animals," they say, "I think its terrible the way some people treat animals. It's just that there are so many human problems to deal with and they should come first." Billions of animals are exploited, tortured, and killed in this country alone every year-the vast majority of that suffering taking place in institutionalized industries such as animal agriculture (well over 10 billion individuals killed for meat, milk, eggs, and seafood production in the US alone), animal research, the fashion industry, the pet industry, and the entertainment industry. Yet people feel it is a waste of time to work to help animals because they think there are much worthier causes. In the end, they believe, human life matters more.
Animals don't have feelings
Anyone who has ever shared their life and/or home with an animal companion knows how untrue this statement is. Animals are sentient beings who are just as capable of experiencing pain and suffering as you or I. They are conscious of the world around them and their own existence, in that they seek to avoid pain and maximize comfort and pleasure. They have their own individual realities and interests. Their lives have profound value to them which is separate from how useful or purposeful they are to humans. Their lives and the quality of their lives matters to them, and this is the central similarity between humans and other-than-humans which should obligate us to grant them equal consideration of their interests. As philosopher Peter Singer has stated, "In suffering, animals are our equals."
Many others will allow for the fact that animals do experience basic suffering, but that they do not possess well-developed, complex emotions like humans do. This has also been found to be false. Observations of both domestic and wild animals over the years have found that animals experience many emotions which were once thought to be uniquely human such as affection, depression, loneliness, anger, terror, happiness, excitement, jealousy, worry, disappointment, compassion, and grief. People who believe that animals don't have feelings may have never had the privilege of having a personal relationship with other-than-human animal personally or interacted closely with one, or they don't want to believe otherwise because they would then be forced to change their beliefs and behavior towards them.
Animals are not intelligent enough to matter
This is an argument which is also false while being morally irrelevant. Animals show countless abilities and forms of intelligence that allow them to survive and even thrive in native and sometimes even inhospitable environments. Furthermore, with every passing year, dozens of studies are concluded that show evidence of the great mental capacities of other animals. For instance, otters use rocks to crack open shellfish and then hold on to the rocks under their armpits when they dive for food. Ravens can solve difficult puzzles such as untangling a knotted string to free up a treat. Pigs can learn how to open doors and have a strong sense of direction that allows them to find their way home over long distances. Chickens use over 30 types of vocalizations to communicate a wealth of information to each other, including separate alarm calls depending on whether a predator is traveling by land or sea, and also realize that when an object is no longer in sight it still exists, which is beyond the capacity of small children. Research shows that parrots are capable of mastering complex intellectual concepts that most human children don't master until the age of five. One particular African grey parrot, Alex, can name more than 80 objects, understands the concepts of "same" and "different," "absence," "quantity," and "size", and can speak in meaningful sentences.
Second, there are millions of humans who are mentally incapacitated or have undeveloped brains, such as people who are severely brain damaged and infants. Yet we accord these individuals the same rights as other humans. If the presence of intellect is truly a necessary trait on which an individual's moral worth is based, then to follow this logic it would be acceptable to use human infants as living test tubes or to farm them for meat consumption, an idea mostly everyone would find morally repugnant. This shows the moral irrelevance of intelligence when according others compassion and justice.
There are many things humans can do that animals can't. For instance, animals cannot perform complex mathematics, write books, or build skyscrapers. This proves that humans are a superior species.
This argument sets out to find characteristics and skills which are human-specific then points to these traits to suggest that animals are inferior to humans because they don't possess these traits. The problem with this theory is that these are arbitrary distinctions. The characteristics are value-neutral. Who determines which characteristics are superior to others? Other animals have many abilities and skills that humans do not. Bats are able to echolocate their food and humans can't. Does this make bats a superior species? Are birds superior to humans because they have the ability to fly unaided? Dogs can jump six feet from a sitting position. Does this mean humans are inferior to dogs? Fishes can recognize changes in ionic pressure. Are fish superior to humans? Difference and ability do not demand categorizing individuals into those who matter more than others.
Animals do not have souls
The concept of a soul is a spiritual one and it can not be proven that either animals or humans have or do not have souls. In the past, women and slaves were said not to have souls either to justify their inferior status to white men; we do the same with animals. Nowhere in the Christian Bible does it say that animals don't have souls. However, let's suppose we knew without a doubt that animals don't have souls and humans do. This would actually strengthen the argument for animal rights rather than weaken it. After all, if they didn't have souls their life on Earth would be the only life they have. Shouldn't we then make sure they have a good quality of life in their only existence?
Caring About Both Humans and Animals: Compassion Is Not Mutually Exclusive
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere"- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Returning to the question of who we should care more about, animals or humans, the answer is we should care about them both equally. We are not born with a limited amount of compassion that is to be doled out in a miserly fashion. Just as it is possible to care both about your friends and family and starving children in other countries, it is also possible to care about both humans and animals and work to help them. Compassion is not a finite resource.
The animal rights movement and the human rights movement are not at odds with each other, they are part of the same movement. The system that keeps humans oppressed is the same system that oppresses animals. It is the system that values money and property over life and depends on creating an emotional distance between ourselves, other individuals, and nature, therefore allowing for exploitive relationships. By eradicating oppression in all its forms, we speed the way to the creation of a compassionate society where we are all valued as unique individuals important in our own right. But as long as there exists some group in society who is exploited, we are all candidates for exploitation. No one is free as long as others are oppressed. Or as Leo Tolstoy stated, "As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields."
Ten Things You Can Do To Support Justice for Animals:
Animal Liberation by Peter Singer
The Case for Animal Rights by Tom Regan
Empty Cages by Tom Regan
Animal Equality by Joan Dunayer
Speciesism by Joan Dunayer
Eternal Treblinka by Charles Patterson
Dominion by Matthew Scully
When Elephants Weep by Jeffrey Masson
Animal Rights-Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation by David Nibert
The Dreaded Comparison by Marjorie Spiegel
You can also learn more by visiting links to other resources.