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What are Animal Rights?

Diana Bocco
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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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.

Guiding Principles

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.

Famous Activists

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.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Diana Bocco
By Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco, a versatile writer with a distinct voice, creates compelling long-form and short-form content for various businesses. With a data-focused approach and a talent for sharing engaging stories, Diana’s written work gets noticed and drives results.
Discussion Comments
By anon992545 — On Sep 15, 2015

The human race is so pompous and arrogant. The fact that they can be so delusional to believe they are greater and more important than other animals is foolishness. All animals bleed, cry, and die; therefore we are all inherently equal.

Humans are not greater in any way, shape, or form, and to think that other animals were “created” to be used by humans is truly pathetic. Some humans ask: “Why put animals up on a pedestal?” but what those fools do not realize is that they are standing on a pedestal made of bones and arrogance, and if they were to step down from it, the world would become a better place for all animals who share this earth. We are all equal, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a conceited fool.

By trubullyvr — On Nov 14, 2013

I have to address anon 160319.

Hitler's greatest pastime as a child was to shoot rats with a BB gun!

By anon321364 — On Feb 22, 2013

I don't care for animal rights activists, especially when they can get so hypocritical it gets ridiculous. But they do have their place in society, to keep us keepers and caretakers of animals "on our toes" so to speak, so that we make sure we are taking care of our animals as best as is possible.

By anon306590 — On Nov 30, 2012

The people who hurt dogs are actually hurting themselves.

By anon268279 — On May 13, 2012

I'm writing a essay on animal rights and would a slaughterhouse be still considered as animal rights? People do need to eat.

By anon258689 — On Apr 03, 2012

Animals are animals. We don't necessarily have to put them on a pedestal as if they were human. Animals are exploitable and that's their purpose: to support human life. They are friends and moreover, the closest living things to us.

I have some cats, dogs, chickens and so on, but I don't treat them as pets, because I don't treat them emotionally and intimately.

I have the dogs guard my garden from burglars, the cats eradicate the rats and chickens become my meat sources. So, the most important thing is taking care of the animal by all means in appropriate ways (never try to abuse them) for our own benefits.

By anon255772 — On Mar 19, 2012

I think animals have rights and that people should respect them. Many people want to live. Well, so do animals. They feel pain like we do and they cry like we do. Why harm animals if they don't harm us?

I am a girl who's in an American school. It is an IB school and we have this exhibition. I am doing a project about animal rights and if any one of you have different perspectives, please post. I will make sure to cite your work and thank you!

By anon167069 — On Apr 11, 2011

Animals are not always happy in zoo lives. It honestly depends on what the requirements for that animal to live happily are versus what the zoo can afford to give them.

For example sea life, such as killer whales, dolphins and other aquatic animals are much better off in the wild simply because of the space they receive there versus what is provided for them. The fact that they live in a pool versus living in an ocean causes stress and thus can make them unhappy and live shorter lives.

By anon160319 — On Mar 15, 2011

You know Hitler was against animal abuse? Yet he murdered so many human beings.

By anon157853 — On Mar 04, 2011

If there are animal rights then why don't the slaughter houses of America follow them? Why do they get the "special treatment" that makes them not have to follow these laws?

By anon154183 — On Feb 20, 2011

animals are equal to humans. they feel the exact pain that we feel when we are hurt. if we cannot protect them, we should neither destroy them.

By anon145750 — On Jan 24, 2011

i think the animal rights movement is very good. i understand that an animal's life is not as important as a human life but they deserve respect love and care just like us humans.

By anon141966 — On Jan 11, 2011

It may be true that animals are helping with medical studies and the safety of things on humans. But is it really right to cause an animal unbearable pain and suffering so that we get something that maybe we could get some other way? I am a partial vegetarian. I will eat some meats depending on where the meat comes from.

I don't eat store bought red meats or poultry because those come from factory farms. However I do eat seafood, and a hunted animal because the animals have a chance to live a normal life without any pain or suffering.

By anon114176 — On Sep 27, 2010

I'm going to the social studies fair on should animals have rights and i think they should. they can't fight back and they can't speak for themselves so i want to help them by speaking for them, Why can't we try to make and animal translator so what they are thinking of will come out of the collar instead of a bark?

By anon101781 — On Aug 05, 2010

Yes, I Absolutely agree that animals should have rights. Anyway, we should treat animals as beings because they are sentient beings. They feel pain and suffering.

In Buddhism, Buddha respects all kind of living things in the world, but people always break this rule. I really love pets, but I don't like some bad insect or animal such as a mouse. I want to kill all mice. Cambodian, Yi Saru

By anon101039 — On Aug 01, 2010

i like eating meat. but i love animals.

By anon90585 — On Jun 16, 2010

-Back to Zoos. I would agree that they are a good thing because habitats are being lost and endangering animals such as pandas. Besides, how can a zoo be a danger to animals? As far as I know animals are happy in their new zoo lives.

By anon82252 — On May 05, 2010

In some cases zoos are a good thing, because many animals are losing their habitats and some can never go back to them. Or if there are a few left of a species, you know people would hunt them regardless if they get in trouble, just to say they did it.

By anon80358 — On Apr 27, 2010

i think that they should shut down zoos and stuff like that because it is really mean to animals.

By anon79229 — On Apr 21, 2010

That may be true, but a better way to get protein is by eggs. I still think it's better to be a vegetarian (no meat at all), but it is this person's decision.

By anon74401 — On Apr 01, 2010

I been vegetarian my entire life and i have never had protein deficiency. all proteins found in animal are also found in many plants such as the dozens of lentils species, beans, chickpea, regular peas, soy bean and many other. As for being "healthy" i am 5' 10" weighing 165 pounds.

By anon66263 — On Feb 18, 2010

Eating only poultry is, if anything, a step backward. Birds raised for food are treated even more cruelly than many mammals. Inadequate protein intake is a myth.

By anon53258 — On Nov 19, 2009

As mentioned in the article, it is common for activists to become vegetarians. I happen to partly fall in that category.

Since I do not get enough protein within my diet without beef, pork etc., I have switched to being a poultrarian: a person who eats chicken, turkey, etc. only. I must tell you that it is important to be healthy while supporting a cause!

Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco, a versatile writer with a distinct voice, creates compelling long-form and short-form content for various...
Learn more
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