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The term animal rights refers to any action or belief regarding non-human creatures that a person or society sees as proper, moral or legal. People often use the term in reference to the movement toward protecting all living things from human exploitation and abuse. This movement supports the idea that all animals are to be treated humanely and spared from pain, suffering or murder. These ideas gained popularity starting in the 19th century, and modern groups such as PETA keep them in the contemporary spotlight. The ideals behind the movement are the source of periodic conflicts but have support in many well-known celebrities.
The main idea behind animal rights is that, although people and creatures are not equal, non-human beings should be treated in much the same way individuals are. Under this lens, no one should do anything to an animal that causes it pain, suffering or premature death, such as medical experimentation, hunting or imprisonment in circuses or zoos. People also should not consider them as property or infringe on their habitats. Supporters generally discourage their use as a food source, although not all activists are vegetarians.
People within the movement also believe that, because animals cannot speak for themselves, it is up to responsible people to speak on their behalf. These advocates consider themselves to be representatives for all creatures. Many believe they have an obligation to go where animals are suffering and expose instances of mistreatment.
Comparison to Animal Welfare
Although animal rights and animal welfare are related ideas, they are not interchangeable. Animal welfare activists are concerned only that a person treats an animal in a humane way. They typically do not object to animals as property, and they often do not have a problem with animal consumption as long as the animal doesn’t suffer during production and slaughter. This is a major point of contention, because animal rights supporters typically say that no humane way to kill an animal exists.
Animal rights as a movement dates back to the 19th century, largely due to the work of Arthur Schopenhauer and Henry Salt, who created awareness toward living beings through some of the first books on animal issues. These publications formally gave creatures a prominent place in the moral system for the first time.
The support of animal causes gained momentum in the 1970s, when people coined most of the modern terms related to the movement. Oxford psychologist Richard Ryder introduced the word “speciesism,” which is the assignment of different values to beings based on their species. Ryder wrote extensively on speciesism and considered it to be as serious as racism.
In 1975, Peter Singer wrote what people now consider the basic reference book for activists. The text, Animal Liberation, found use as a course book for Singer’s bioethics course at Princeton University. Other books those in the movement consider to be essential include James Rachel’s Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism and Tom Reagan’s The Case for Animal Rights.
Individuals and groups that work as animal advocates often protest areas such as the fur and wool industry, aquariums, zoos, medical and cosmetic companies and pet owners. Some also target companies that threaten animal environments through industrial pollution, deforestation or residential development. They sometimes picket or boycott these groups, and the events sometimes get heated enough that physical confrontation occurs.
Economics plays a key role in these conflicts, as products or services that make use of animals create thousands of jobs. People who work in animal-related industries such as meat packing assert that people always should come first and that it is unfair to place an animal over basic human rights. Their philosophy says that, by eliminating the jobs, activists make it harder for the workers to pay for basic necessities such as shelter.
Lack of adequate substitutions is also an area of contention. People against the movement argue that living beings sometimes are the only source for a given material or way to accomplish a task. In poor regions, for example, people might not have access to clean drinking water and powdered infant formula, so when a mother is unable to breastfeed, using an alternative such as goat’s milk might be necessary for a person to survive.
Many local, state and national groups work for animals. Probably the most well-known and influential is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). This international organization is the largest in the world. It seeks to promote just treatment of living beings through legislation, investigations of cruelty allegations, protest campaigns, research, public events and other techniques such as celebrity spokesmanship.
Celebrities who have backed animal rights include Paul McCartney, Ellen DeGeneres, Betty White, Bernadette Peters, Alicia Keys and Whoopi Goldberg. These and additional famous individuals often contribute to the cause financially. Some support living creatures through video or print campaigns, or by taking part in protests or events.